A 17th Century Guide to Beauty in Virginia

Come,
in the owl-time, in the shy fox-hour, coyotes

still courting the moon, the silver creek
of the Milky Way glinting

above the Rappahannock River
in a fist of flung shillings –

come, dip your face
to the dew, each drop its own

loose change, waiting
to be slipped into the charity box of dawn.

Spend them liberally, soaking your cheeks
in the tears of your not-yet-country –

till, with a great stirring of snuff-dark breath
the sightless eyes of the household

blink awake, and the sun begins again
its daily scouring of the soil beneath tobacco leaves.

All day the plants will stake their hard
aromas to your brow, your unwashed palms.

All day you will catch your tongue
lamenting, reimbursing their murmuring aubade.

*

‘A 17th Century Guide to Beauty in Virginia’ was a finalist in the 2019 PBS/Mslexia Women’s Poetry Competition.

A post about anxiety, cultivating creativity, and online resources for writers.

Three weeks ago, after passing through three major international airports in my attempt to get home from the Falkland Islands, I went into two-week self-isolation. Except that it doesn’t feel like three weeks ago. It feels like two days – and also about seventeen years. I don’t know whether anyone else has experienced this, but for me, time seems to be in limbo. The days just roll over one another, and it would be far too easy to spend them all staring into space, or at a screen, or at the birds in the garden. (NB: I have definitely done all of these things since lockdown began.)

Let’s start by saying that this wasn’t the post I was expecting to write for today. The one I’d scheduled was an update on how travelling for multiple consecutive weeks was affecting my writing process.

Obviously, I’m not currently travelling. I got about halfway through my epic trip (Argentina, Uruguay, Antarctica, South Georgia, the Falkland Islands, and Australia), before coming home. In fact, I was en route to Melbourne when Australia closed its borders, and I had to spend a frantic hour at Dubai airport, trying to persuade the Emirates airline staff to put me on a flight back to Manchester instead. (Luckily, they did – and when the lovely woman at the desk handed me the ticket, I actually burst into tears. But that’s another story.)

Aeroplane wing over the Falkland Islands

So now what?

Right now I should have been in the middle of a 3-week writing residency at the KSP Writers’ Centre, in Perth. Part of me wanted to host my own in-isolation residency at home. After all – I don’t have to go anywhere, and isn’t that one of the joys of a writing residency? But I’ve also been finding it difficult to focus over the past few weeks. Which begs the question:

Should I be using this lockdown time to write?

I’ve seen countless posts about this on twitter. People saying that the lockdown represents ‘ideal writing conditions’. People saying how much writing they’ve managed to accomplish now they’re not having to go to work. People commenting how they’re finding it impossible to write right now. People despairing that suddenly stories hold no interest for them any more, as how can fiction compete with our current reality? People clinging to stories and poems as lifelines.

In short: there is no right answer.

There was an excellent Anne Enright quotation doing the rounds on twitter a while ago, from an article in the Guardian:

‘Honestly, there is a lot to be said for tooling about all day, looking up recipes and not making them, not bothering to paint the living room and failing to write a novel. In the middle of the messy non-event called your mid-afternoon, you might get something – a thought to jot down, a good paragraph, a piece of gossip to text a pal. Boredom is a productive state so long as you don’t let it go sour on you. Try not to confuse the urge to get something done with the idea that you are useless. Try not to confuse the urge to contact someone with the thought that you are unloved. Do the thing or don’t do it. Either is fine.’

So let’s talk about solitude.

As writers, we often crave solitude. That time away from work colleagues or family or friends, where we can just be on our own, inside our own head, to write. Some of us travel hundreds of miles to go on residencies, just to get some of this solitude. Some of us usually find it in a public park, or in the middle of a crowded café.

Because solitude isn’t necessarily the same as being alone.

As Anne Enright says: ‘Boredom is a productive state so long as you don’t let it go sour on you.’ And solitude is a kind of boredom. It’s a state of mind that writers can spend years learning to cultivate. It isn’t just sitting on your own at a desk, with nothing else you’re supposed to be doing. It’s a way of shutting off the critical part of your brain, to make room for the creative bit. It’s sitting with the door open and waiting for the ideas and thoughts and words to arrive. It’s an active and a passive state at the same time. Solitude, the way a writer needs solitude, is a way of being alone with the universe.

And it’s difficult to make room for creativity, when your head is full of external anxious thoughts.

Notebook and laptop on a kitchen table from above, with coffee, breakfast and a candle

Let’s talk about anxiety.

I mean anxiety with both a capital and a lower case ‘a’. Because these times are tough. All the clichés that have arisen over the past few weeks are true: this isn’t normal; these are difficult times; the world is upside down; it’s too big to process; we just have to get through this day by day.

There are times, sitting at my kitchen table with my notebook open and a pen in my hand, that I could almost imagine there’s nothing untoward happening outside my own four walls. There are days when I’m bored – in both the positive, creative, Anne Enright sense of the word, and in the listless, sour sense of it. And yes, I cultivate both of these. Because if I didn’t, I couldn’t cope.

At the time of writing this, the UK death toll has almost reached 10,000. And that’s just the figures for hospitals – it doesn’t include all those people who’ve died at home or in care homes. Hospital staff and other key workers are going without adequate PPE. There are thousands of people who won’t get proper funerals. Who are dying alone, their loved ones having to say goodbye over skype. There are nurses sitting with dying patients, holding their hands, to stop them from dying alone.

When I think about all of this, I freeze up. It’s too much for my brain to handle. Possible, reading this, you’ll see this as me turning a blind eye. As choosing to live in my own (honestly quite beautiful) bubble, of sunny Cumbrian walks, and baking banana bread, and reading books. And yes, of course I choose that. When choosing between a meadow and the abyss, who on earth would elect to fall?

That doesn’t mean I don’t care. But I know what anxiety feels like (big and small ‘a’). I recognise those heart palpitations. The sweats. The sick feeling. The vertigo from looking over the cliff-edge inside your brain. Even writing this post has got me feeling all of that, feeling dangerously close to the edge. And if I let myself get stuck in those thought-cycles, I’ll be no use to anyone.

So I steer myself away. I try to read, when I can focus on it. On better days, I try to write. I bake. I make soup. I get in shopping for my parents. And, sometimes, I try to avoid looking at the news.

Freshly baked carrot cake muffins on a cooling rack

So how is my writing going with all of this?

Of my first three weeks in isolation, I spent the first one writing absolutely nothing. I figured that was fair enough. I’d just come back from a massive round-the-world (or half-way-round-the-world-and-then-suddenly-home) trip. I was still jet-lagged, not to mention just generally tired. I needed time to adjust to what I keep seeing referred to as ‘the new normal’. And, to top it all, I had an exhausting cough that may or may not have been coronavirus. I gave myself the week off.

During week two, I also wrote very little – though I did find a way to ease myself back into creativity: Tania Hershman’s Arvon Short Story Challenge. The challenge consisted of five daily prompts, each designed to help you into writing a short story. What worked for me was that the prompts themselves only took about 20 minutes each, so I could do them without feeling like there was great pressure to spend hours in a state of focus, or to write something meaningful. It was like doing physiotherapy exercises after an injury, working a muscle back into life.

I did write a short story from the exercises. It took me two weeks, rather than one, but that doesn’t matter. The point is, the exercises opened a door.

That doesn’t mean that everything’s back to normal. There’s still that difficulty in focusing, and I’m still tired a lot of the time. (I don’t know if this is a hangover from the maybe-coronavirus cough, or just a reflection on my constant state of low-level anxiety.) But I’m managing to think about writing, and to write little bits. I’ve made a promise to myself that, during the weekdays of what would have been my Perth residency, I’m going to write something every day. It doesn’t have to be a lot. One day last week, I wrote 200 words, and I’m counting that as a success. The important thing for me right now isn’t volume – it’s keeping the engine running.

I’m currently working at between half and two thirds of my usual capacity – less for the creative stuff, but more for the practical and administrative side of things, which tends to require less head-space. Also, apart from writing this post, I took a full two-day weekend this week, and honestly it’s made a world of difference. I hardly ever do this, and this weekend has made me realise that I ought to do it more often. After all, writing is work, and it isn’t good for us to work 24/7.

So all in all, I’m doing surprisingly ok. Blips here and there of course, but getting through each day as it comes, and managing to think creatively, which is what I hold onto.

Notebook, pen, laptop and coffee mug on a kitchen table

A few online resources:

Stay safe & well – and happy writing, or not-writing, or whatever you choose to do with these lockdown days.

Kitchen table, with notebooks, pens, coffee and a vase of flowers. In the background, theatre seats and the bottom of a set of wall-mounted bookshelves.

An Unstoppable Force Meets an Immovable Object

At the roof of the Rockies is the watershed
of America, the great divide,

where you can stand astride
the continental split, can gob your spit

(each gene-coded cell of it) one hawk to east
then west – then watch as each

begins its slow
globular journey towards opposing waters:

Pacific – deep, entrenched
and quarrelling fire; Atlantic –

dogged wrecker of ships, beating grey
determination on its coasts.

This is how a body can be pulled
in two directions:

my mother, newborn and uprooted
to a hospital crib,

her parents’ marriage
gone to tectonic drift

and both her grandmothers warm
colliding fronts from either side.

They say this mountain was a man
once, who wished to go on forever

and was granted. A strong
desire phrased badly –

though I too have wished
to be landscape in a foreign age,

to be cribbed in whole forests of life,
to be more than enough,

to undergo
the conflicting tug

of oceans, take heart
from their fierce competitive love.

*

‘An Unstoppable Force Meets an Immovable Object’ was longlisted for the 2019 University of Canberra Vice Chancellor’s Poetry Competition, and was first published in the competition anthology, Silence.

I arrive at the castle one afternoon at the beginning of January. It’s only a couple of weeks after the shortest day, and the sun is already low behind the trees when I pull up at the unmarked double gate. There’s nothing to indicate that I’m in the right place – only a keypad, and a road winding away between the trees. I punch in the numbers I’ve been given in the email, and the gates swing slowly open.

Curling own the wooded driveway, it’s easy to think of yourself as descending not just into a valley, but into a story. Light flickers on the carpet of leaves to either side of the road, and the first signpost you reach is a small wooden notice, with one arrow pointing uphill towards the library, the other pointing down towards the castle.

When the road rounds its final bend, the castle comes into view: the red stone of the medieval keep looking warm and soft in the late afternoon light. Behind it, the valley drops away into a sway of dark green pines.

This is where I will spend the next month, in a room with a view of the turret, working on my poetry.

Mistake number one: I overpacked on warm jumpers, and underpacked on lighter clothing. Given that I was going to a medieval Scottish castle in the middle of winter, I expected it to be cold. I had visions of myself wrapped in a blanket, huddling over my desk and hugging a hot water bottle. Yeah. No. The castle has heating.

That isn’t to say that it never got cold – it did. It is still a medieval castle, after all. And it was still January. But when the heating kicked in to the full, it also got pretty warm – and I realised very quickly that I should have packed more layers.

I also should have packed fewer books.

In a way, it was good to catch up on my reading, and start making headway through my ever-growing to-be-read pile. But this also meant I couldn’t take full advantage of Hawthornden’s eclectic and highly extensive library.

Most former Fellows have donated at least one book. Then there are all the previous winner of the Hawthornden Prize, not to mention books that have just been bought by the castle, often at Edinburgh Book Festival events the Hawthornden Trust has sponsored. The result is three separate libraries, and numerous bookcases, stuffed with books.

How many libraries?

That’s right. Three.

The main library is actually in a purpose-built modern building a short walk up the bank from the castle itself. This consists of three main rooms (plus a warren of non-library private rooms, that I never quite summoned up the courage to go nosing around), and mostly contains books by former Fellows, and books that have been bought to keep the library in stock. There are fewer classics, and many more contemporary books, which reflects this.

The second library is in what gets called the Studio (it took me a while to figure out these were the same place), and is just beyond the Drawing Room in the main castle. This was by far my favourite place to work, because of the big table for spreading out my work, and because of the stunning views down the valley. The only downside was that, because it has huge windows on three sides, it got fairly cold in there, so that was one place I was grateful for those thick woolly jumpers.

We didn’t actually discover the third library till about a week into the residency. It was across the courtyard from the main part of the castle, through a heavy studded door in the medieval keep. Because it was in the oldest part of the building, and because it was the middle of January, it was quite dark and chilly, so I don’t think any of us really sat in there. It definitely felt as though, if there were ghosts in the castle, the Keep Library was where they would hang out.

And the other rooms?

At times, being at Hawthornden felt so much like being in Agatha Christie adaptation, that I almost expected to hear a scream as someone discovered a mysteriously placed body. The Drawing Room was particularly good for this – partly because just calling it the Drawing Room was enough to summon up the image of Miss Marple, but also because we all gathered here before and after dinner every evening, to unlock the mysteries of each day’s silence.

Luckily, were just had the aesthetic of a Sunday afternoon murder mystery, and nobody actually went on a stealthy killing spree.

The bedrooms at Hawthornden are all names after famous writers (I was in Bronte), and are quite varied in terms of size and furnishing. They all have a desk, a chair and a bed. Mine was quite cosy, and felt like a fancier version of an old student room. A few of them were much bigger (the ones on the first floor even had double beds), and felt more like guest bedrooms – which is presumably what they used to be.

And what about the bathrooms, I hear you ask? Like most things in the castle, the plumbing is a mixture of old and modern. There were two bathrooms and a separate toilet on my floor, and another shower room on the floor below. One of the baths had taps from 1929, and was probably the deepest bath I’ve ever bathed in. Soaking in the bubbles, looking through the window at the turret, thinking about my novel, is probably the best way to spend an afternoon.

Let’s not forget the food.

One of the things I loved about the residency was the balance between structure and freedom. In many ways, my days were entirely my own, to do whatever I wanted – to read, to write, to edit, to wander the beautiful castle grounds. But the days were also punctuated by meals, which stopped me from lapsing into a totally nocturnal, structureless zombie, and ensured my days were as productive as they could possibly be. After all, it’s so much easier to work on a full stomach.

8am-9.30am: Breakfast

12-ish: Lunch (delivered to the rooms)

6.30pm: Drinks and gathering in the Drawing Room

7pm: Dinner

The food itself was delicious. I definitely put on weight at Hawthornden.

I had porridge for breakfast practically every morning (eaten from an old pewter bowl), and there was also toast, cereal and fruit if I’d wanted extra.

Lunch was delivered to the rooms every day in a Fortnum & Mason basket, left outside the door so as not to disturb the writing. It was soup, a choice of sandwiches (selected at breakfast), a choice of fruit, or carrot sticks with humus, and sometimes a Babybel. And, as if that wasn’t enough, there was always a plate of biscuits by the kettle, and a basket of fruit downstairs if we got peckish during the afternoons. (I think it would be impossible to go hungry at Hawthornden.)

Monday to Saturday, dinner was two courses (main & pudding), and was cooked by Ruth, the castle chef. Every single meal was so delicious, that I quickly had to make a rule for myself not to have second helpings. (Another writer had a similar rule, but hers was not to have thirds.)

On Sundays, it was a three-course dinner, served in the main dining room. Since it was January, we also had a Burns Night supper in there, complete with haggis and traditional speeches. As it happened, none of our group had dietary requirements, but I know that the castle does cater for different diets (vegetarian / vegan / gluten free etc).

What about the silence?

The other way that the days are divided is by the boundary between sound and silence.

One of the things that is best known about the Hawthornden residency is its rule of silence during the day. From the end of breakfast at 9.30am, till just before dinner, at 6.30pm, ‘silence must be maintained throughout the Castle’. This is to ‘preserve the atmosphere of “peace in decent ease” which William Drummond enjoyed at Hawthornden’.

Before I arrived at the castle, I was pretty nervous about this. I’m so used to living on my own, and talking to myself while I work, or bursting into song from time to time, that I worried I’d forget myself and break the rules.

And what if I wanted to make myself a cup of tea, or I needed the loo during the day? Would my fellow writers all be irritated by the noise of the toilet flushing, or the kettle boiling, or just my footsteps in the corridor?

As it turned out, I needn’t have worried. While it’s true there were no long conversations during the day, we still all said hi if we passed each other on the way to make a cup of tea, and there was no weirdness about moving around the corridors and creaking the floorboards. It seemed to be the spirit of silence that counted, rather than actual silence.

The best bits:

Time to write: For me, the best bit of any residency is the time to focus on my writing. It’s being able to leave behind all the admin for a month – to set my out-of-office and know that nobody is expecting me to reply till the residency is over. At Hawthornden, this was even more pronounced, because there’s no WiFi at the castle, and even phone signal is patchy at best (though there are spots where you can get the odd bar – mostly in the Studio library, and sitting on the first floor toilet).

But it’s also all the extra time that appears in the day, when you don’t have to think about cooking, or washing up, or cleaning, or even doing laundry. The only thing you have to do is write.

Time to read, or walk in the woods: As well as doing the actual writing, it’s important to nourish the creative bit of the brain. Otherwise it’s like trying to draw water from an empty well. Luckily, Hawthornden was perfect for this. Not only did it give me time to catch up on my reading, but it’s also in the middle of beautiful woodland.

There are two walks in the castle grounds.

The Lady Walk is essentially a clifftop walk, from the castle to a set of carved stone steps, leading down to Wallis’s Cave, which is carved in the shape of a cross. It’s horrendously muddy, and quite high up in some places, so isn’t for the faint-hearted, or for bad weather days.

The Circle Walk takes about 25 minutes, and is, as its name suggests, a circle around the castle, which offers great views of the cliffs that the castle stands on, and can be extended to walk a bit further downstream along the river.

Inspiration: Let’s be honest: staying in a medieval castle, on the edge of a cliff, in the middle of a forest in Scotland – bumping into deer while out in the grounds, lying in the bath and listening to the peregrine falcons, and falling asleep listening to the wind whistling around the turret – it would be difficult not to be inspired. And that’s even without the Pictish caves underneath the castle, or the view along the valley, or the occasional bus trip into Edinburgh city centre.

Other writers: As if staying in a fairytale medieval castle wasn’t enough, I was also surrounded by other creative people. There’s something about being in a building, sitting in your room and working, knowing that everyone around you is sitting in their rooms and working, too. It creates a spirit of endeavour.

In the evenings, this was followed by some fascinating discussions (punctured, of course, with some general chats about TV series, or anecdotes about our days). There were so many days at Hawthornden where my mind felt like it was working overtime, and I was making connections left, right and centre. Which is probably why the residency felt so productive.

Ok then – what did I achieve?

It’s often difficult to tell the impact of a residency till long after it’s finished. The mind is still busy turning everything over, processing all the thoughts you had there, and filtering them away for future use. I certainly had more ideas for things during that month than I had time to actually write about – many of which I might never get time to write about. In terms of ideas and inspiration, the achievements of the residency could keep coming long into the future. (Or it could not. Who knows?)

But in terms of physical output, I worked on both poetry and fiction at Hawthornden.

Poetry: I wrote some new poems, and edited some older ones. Some of these edits were the odd tweak here and there, but some were massive overhauls – the sort of thing where I need a concentrated period of very focused time to actually work my head around everything that’s in the poem. On a larger scale, I also edited (and re-edited, and re-edited) my collection – something I definitely couldn’t have achieved in the same period of time at home, with emails begging to be answered, and the dishes piling up on the kitchen counter.

Fiction: And, because I needed some space in between edits of my poetry collection, I spent the middle two weeks of the residency planning, and starting to write, my second novel. I’m only about 8500 words in at the moment, so it’s still a long way off yet. But I wrote enough to get my feet under the table, which is what I wanted.

I also took time to read, during the residency, without feeling guilty that I ought to be doing something else. For once, January’s books were a nice balance of prose and poetry:

  • The Secret Commonwealth, by Philip Pullman
  • The Hoopoe’s Eye, by Mark Carson
  • Festive Spirits, by Kate Atkinson
  • Voyage of the Sable Venus, by Robin Coste Lewis
  • White Papers, by Martha Collins
  • Diary of a Somebody, by Brian Bilston
  • Sisters, by Jennifer Copley
  • The Wonder, by Emma Donoghue
  • Sal, by Mick Kitson
  • The Craft, ed. Rishi Dastidar

Any downsides?

Any residency has downsides. One of the downsides of Hawthornden was the amount of weight I put on due to how delicious all the food was. (Though the couple of glasses of wine with dinner each evening probably didn’t help. And admittedly, this was pretty much entirely my own fault.)

But in all seriousness – the Hawthornden Castle writers’ residency is quite an intensive experience. You’re staying in a castle with four other writers for a month, seeing each other every evening and most mornings, depending on what time you all make it down to breakfast. You’re all also working quite intensively during the days, so it could be easy for things to get fraught if you let them.

Luckily, we all got along very well, and were all quite amenable. We did have some pretty intense, and occasionally heated, discussions, but we always took great care to come out of them still friends, and to leave any intensity within a particular conversation, rather than letting it carry forward into our relationships with each other.

But I can imagine that, if there was somebody in the group who you didn’t get on with, or if there was a big personality clash, it could make it a very difficult month. I think it’s important to go into the residency being aware of this – and for everyone to make the effort to get along, and to respect each other’s views and personalities. And I’m so glad that this was the case for my group!

Would I go back?

Absolutely! Unfortunately, you have to wait five years before being allowed to apply again, so I won’t be heading back any time in the near future. But I’ll absolutely be recommending it to other writers!

 

How to apply:

For the Hawthornden residency, you have to apply the old-fashioned way. There’s no online application, or public email address, so you have to write a letter to the director, requesting an application form:

Hawthornden Castle
The International Retreat for Writers
Lasswade
Midlothian
EH18 1EG

The application form, once you receive it, also has to be submitted in hard copy, along with two professional references. The application deadline is in June each year, for residencies in the following calendar year.

Also read: A Few Thoughts On: Writing Residencies

One of my big poetry achievements this year has been to finally have a poem published in Mslexia – something I’ve been trying to do for around a decade. And, as it happened, I ended up with poems in two consecutive isues! Funny how these things work out.

Here’s my poem, ‘Feathers’, which was submitted for the open callout on the theme of ‘journeys’.

Feathers

I don’t know what I’m trying to say
exactly – only that today, commuting the hangdog
length of the river path, I spied
for the first time this season

a flight of silver breaking from the broad
shoulders of the water:

the metal undercarriage
of an office chair, unheeding
of predators, basking in the knowledge of itself,
its wheels uplifted to the weak sun,
a cursive uncurling towards the sky.

I swear I heard it calling reassurance to its young
on the brambled bank, a sudden circular song.
I swear I heard their ruffled hope reply.

*

‘Feathers’ was first published in Mslexia, Issue 83: Sept/Oct/Nov 2019

First things first: this isn’t just a post about social media. I’ve been to enough author events on ‘building your profile as a writer’, which basically consist of some variation on ‘this is how you send a tweet’. And sure, twitter can be useful – but it isn’t the be-all-and-end-all.

Secondly, everything in this post is optional. That’s the joy of being your own boss: you get to decide what’s going to work for you. If you’re super introverted and never want to talk to another human being, well, it’s going to be harder for you, but pick what plays to your strengths. Very few publishers contractually oblige their authors to use social media, for example. After all, you can always tell when someone is only tweeting because they have to, and we all know that it doesn’t work.

(Sorry – I promised this post wasn’t going to be all about social media, didn’t I?)

Anyway, the point is: there’s no single ‘correct’ way to be a writer. Every writer is different – both in their writing and as a person. And so every writer will be able to build their profile in the way that suits them best.

Ok. Caveats aside: one thing you want probably want as a writer is for people to read your work. For this to happen, people have to know about you and your work. In other words, you have to build up a profile – and here are a few ways you can do that:

Write:

Writing will always come first. Sure, we can all talk about writing till we’re blue in the face, and still never actually write a word. After all, while I’m writing this blog post, I’m not working on my second novel, am I? (Shh – don’t tell my agent.)

There’s no point building an audience if there’s nothing for them to read.

The Writer’s Apprenticeship 1: Learning to Write

So write, and get your writing out there – but only when it’s ready. If you send out work before it’s ready, you might as well not send out anything at all. If it’s less than your absolute best, then it isn’t ready. From my own experience: when you first think a piece of work is ready, it rarely is. Stick it in a drawer for a while. Give yourself some distance before coming back to edit it. Show it to trusted readers – a writing group maybe, or a friend who’s also a writer, or at least a good reader of your work. Edit it. Edit it again.

Then, when you’re certain it’s as ready as it can possibly be – then, send it out. Submit work to magazines and journals. Enter competitions. Query editors and / or agents, if you like. Build up your writer’s CV. Start to get your name known – just make sure it’s known for the right reasons!

The Writer’s Apprenticeship 2: Learning the Industry Ropes

But it isn’t just about wordcounts. What you write is also important. It’s part of your identity as a writer. Some people say you should only write what you know. Others say you should write whatever you want to write, or you should write whatever is hardest for you. What do I think? I think you should write about what obsesses you. Whatever it is that keeps nagging at your brain, that won’t leave you alone. There might be more than one thing. It might change over time. In fact, it probably will. But whatever it is that won’t leave you alone – that’s a thing to write about.

This doesn’t mean you’ll only ever write about one thing. If what obsesses you is, for example, ‘marriage’, or ‘travel’, or ‘desire’, there are a million different ways to write about each of those. But whatever obsesses you, whatever you write about, is part of your brand as a writer.

Build Your Brand:

I know, that’s a horrible, corporate-sounding word. But it’s useful for us to think about.

Often, when we think about branding in corporate terms, we think about a company’s logo. And for car manufacturers and tech companies etc, this is important – after all, most of us could name a lot of the world’s best-known companies from their logos.

But branding is about so much more than just having a single recognisable image. Companies with strong branding won’t just have a consistent logo. They’ll use a consistent font or fonts, which will be the same across packaging and printed publicity and websites. They’ll always write the date in the same format. When they talk about a product, they’ll always spell it and capitalise it and refer to it in the same way. They’ll use consistent colours or colour schemes.

Think about hotel chains, or chain coffee shops, or banks. There’s a decor that’s consistent across each of their branches, so that if you’re in an unfamiliar city or even a different country, if someone dropped you in, say, a Starbucks, you’d know that was where you were.

But still, branding is about more than that. It’s an ethos. It overlaps with company policy: how does this company treat its customers; what do they do in response to complaints; how do they treat their staff; what’s their environmental policy?

So how does this apply to you as a writer?

There are a number of ways you can build your own brand. As with companies, some of these are small, aesthetic choices, and some are larger decisions about your professional ethos. All of them should help you to appear more professional.

  • Choose an image. This isn’t exactly a logo, but when people ask for an author photo, don’t use a different picture every time. Personally, I have two photos that I regularly send out when an organisation wants an author photo: a headshot, and a full-body shot. In both of them, I have the same hairstyle, so I’m recognisably the same person. These are also the images I use across all of my professional social media, too. (The flipside to this is that you need to remember to update your author photo if/when your appearance changes drastically, so that your author photo is still recognisably you. For instance, if you chop all your hair off, or get a massive face tattoo, or just get older.)
  • Pre-prepare different versions of your bio. As with author photos, organisations are going to start asking for your bio. Each organisation will have its own stipulations for this – particularly in relation to length. Most will want it to be in the third person, and professional-sounding (occasionally you may get asked for a ‘fun’ or ‘informal’ bio, or one in the first person, but this is quite rare). Of course, what you say in your bio might well vary depending on what it’s for – for instance, I focus on different things depending on whether the bio is fiction- or poetry-related – and it’s definitely going to change as you gain more experience and add more achievements. But it’s worth writing a few different versions of your bio all the same: let’s say, a long version, a medium version, and a short version. This way, when someone asks you for one, you at least have something you can use and modify, which fits who you are as a writer.
  • Choose a font & style. Whenever I write, I use the same font and page layout. I do this because I know the style I’ve chosen looks professional, and it saves me from having to constantly make decisions about aesthetic style. Instead, like a newspaper or a magazine, I have a house style. It makes my life easier, and it makes my work look more professional. It’s recognisably mine – which is useful if I’m sorting through a bunch of post-workshop pages and am looking for my own. This style, like my biographies and my author photos, are part of my writing brand. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, the style is: Garamond; font size 12; justified; title in size 14 (left-aligned for a poem, centred & underlined for prose); standard margins; poetry 1.15 line spacing; prose 2 point line spacing; prose paragraphs indented; header right-hand-aligned, containing name, title & page number. Obviously that isn’t the only option – it’s just my personal preference. As long as your work looks professional (no weird fonts, and definitely no Comic Sans), then that’s what’s important.
  • Choose an outfit style, if you like. If you want to take this aesthetic choice thing further, choose the sort of outfit you’d want to wear to an author event. Then create a number of variations thereon, always in the same style. This has 3 advantages: it becomes part of your ‘look’ as a writer; it makes you recognisable to readers; it saves you from getting anxious about what to wear every time you do an event. I know someone who always wears the same (quite plain) outfit for readings, but with a different vibrant scarf each time, to add variety. You don’t necessarily have to go that far, but it can be useful to have a ‘look’ – at least for professional purposes. If you turn up to one event in a cocktail dress and killer heels, and to the next in a hoodie, jeans & UGG boots, you’re giving off a different impression each time. And I know, this sounds shallow. I know, we shouldn’t judge people on appearances. But we do make aesthetic connections – and if you want to stick in people’s minds, then sending mixed stylistic signals might not make that any easier.
  • Know your own obsessions. This one is less about style, and more about content. You know what we said earlier, about having your obsessions as a writer, and writing about them? Try making a list of them. Write them down. Then, once you’ve identified them, find out more. Get involved with other people who have similar obsessions – not necessarily writers. For example, if your obsession is travel, speak to adventurers and gap year students; speak to pilots and people who work on ships; follow expeditions on twitter. This will help you in your writing – it’s always good to get a more in-depth knowledge of whatever obsessions you’re writing about. But it will also help you to connect with readers who aren’t writers, who aren’t in the book world. You’re building your brand, and building a potential audience at the same time.
  • What’s your ethos? What do you believe? Not necessarily your private beliefs, but your public ones. The ones you’d be happy to talk about in an interview, or a blog post, or on social media. What do you stand for? As a member of society, but particularly as a writer. I can think of writers, and individuals within the publishing industry, who stand strongly for: transparency of wages in publishing; fair payment of writers; the promotion of working class writers; the accessability of nature writing; the non-violent treatment of women in thrillers & crime fiction. For each of those issues, there’s a single name that comes to mind for me, of writers for whom this is part of their brand. This isn’t a false thing. It isn’t a case of saying ‘what can I stand for that will fit with my brand’ – like a company that uses meat pastured on deforested rainforest, but preaching about saving the environment. It’s about knowing what you stand for anyway, and doing it consciously. For example, I believe that the writing community needs to support one another, and that helping other writers is a good thing to do, because by helping other writers, I’m helping the institution of writing as a whole. It isn’t some twee thing to make me sound nice; I believe it with all my soul – that we, as writers, are colleagues, not competitors. So, I put this into practice by sharing my own experiences, and by sharing opportunities I come across with other writers – sometimes individually, often on twitter. This is part of who I am as a writer. If you like, it’s part of my brand.

Talk To Other Writers:

We all know that social media is a great way to connect with people, but there are the more old-fashioned ways as well. Such as, you know, in person.

One of your greatest resources as a writer (other than books, and maybe coffee) is other writers. You’d expect engineers to talk to other engineers, for accountants to meet with other accountants, for teachers to talk about how to deal with a challenging pupil with other teachers. So why do some of us think that writers should be stuck in a garret somewhere, eating crusty bread and not speaking to other writers?

Other writers can be great first readers of your work. They can be people to share experiences with over wine, and people to help you with your professional problems. I have writer friends who I send my first drafts to, who’ll tell me honestly what is and isn’t working. I have writers I share reading lists with, who give me book recommendations that are always reliably excellent. I have writers who I message when I’ve got a deadline looming that I don’t know how to meet, or when I’m struggling with a plot point, or when I can’t work out what to put as expenses on my tax return. I have writers who’ll celebrate good news with me, and who’ll comiserate with me when something doesn’t go so well. I have writers who’ll spend the day at my kitchen table with me, both of us just working on our own writing, because it makes a nice change from being on our own.

In short: other writers are my colleagues, and I couldn’t do without them.

So how do you meet other writers?

  • Writing groups: Joining a writing group is a great way to meet other writers – particularly if it’s the right sort of group for you. Try to find a group of people at a similar experience- or commitment-level to yourself, who have a similar creative ethos. If a writing group really isn’t working out for you – if you find it’s having a negative effect on your writing – then feel free to leave it. A good writing group should challenge you, but it shouldn’t leave you weeping in the gutter because nobody understands your work. (The flip side of this is: if you try numerous writing groups, and not a single person at any of them understands your work, then maybe this is the time to think about what the common denominator might be…)
  • Writing courses: There are hundreds of different options for writing courses, from university-level courses, to week-long residential courses such as Arvon and Ty Newydd, to online courses such as those run by The Poetry School, to locally run evening classes, to one-off workshops and masterclasses at festivals, or run by arts organisations or local libraries. These can be a great way of meeting fellow writers (feel free to try the post-workshop announcement of ‘I’m going to the pub afterwards if anyone fancies joining me?’) – not to mention improving your writing at the same time. And the best bit? If you’re registered self-employed as a writer, then this is technically professional development, so you can claim it as expenses on your tax return. (At least, you can claim the course fee. Not so sure about those post-workshop drinks at the pub.)
  • Book events: Attending book events can be an inspiring way of hearing from professional writers, and getting to know a bit about whoever’s giving the event and their work. But the chances are, you’re not the only writer in the audience, either. If you feel up to it, get chatting to some of the other audience members. Talk about what you think of the speaker, or what you thought of the event. Whether or not that person turns out to be a writer, they’re probably at least interested in the same sorts of books as you. And if you attend a literary festival, then there are even more opportunities for these kinds of conversations. (Pub!)
  • Networking events: If you don’t like the idea of just going up to someone and starting a conversation out of nowhere (I’m terrible at it, unless it involves some sort of ultra-British complaint about the weather), then maybe you could try a networking event, where the conversation isn’t out of nowhere, because it’s expected. Sometimes, writing organisations (such as the Society of Authors and Mslexia) will run events that specifically allow writers to network with one another. Often, these events will also feature talks by professional writers, which will of course be incredibly useful as well – but don’t skimp on the networking bit. And the good bit about networking as a writer? You basically just get to have lovely conversations about books, usually with other introverts.
  • Social media.

Yes, OK – Use Social Media:

I suppose I can’t go through a whole post about creating a profile as a writer, and not talk about social media. The problem, I think, is that too many people see social media as the be-all-and-end-all of creating a profile as a writer, and as far as I’m concerned, it isn’t. It’s just a way of implementing all the things we’ve already talked about.

For instance: building your brand as a writer? You can do that through social media – through the profile picture you set, through what you choose to talk about, who you follow, what topics you engage with, what you retweet, the language you use, how you conduct yourself.

Networking with other writers? Social media can be great for that – particularly if you’re not in the position of being able to regularly access physical get-togethers with other writers.

Engaging with your obsessions? Following non-writers who are interested in the things that obsess you? Twitter!

Talking about books? Hearing about books? Finding out about opportunities that might be available for you as a writer? Social media is good for that, too!

The important thing to remember about social media is that it isn’t necessary. If it works for you, then great. If it doesn’t, then that’s fine too; you just need to find your alternative.

You also don’t need to be on all social media platforms. You don’t need a professional Snapchat, Tumblr, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Soundcloud, YouTube, Vimeo, Bebo (does that even still exist?), whatever. You don’t need to blog and vlog and post your word count every hour to Instastories. Do what works for you.

Oh, and one last thing…

Debunking The Myth:

I once read a blog post about building up your profile as a writer, which was essentially a long list of things you needed to do before you wrote your novel, or whatever. These included things like: creating a successful book review blog; gaining a lot of followers on twitter; getting articles into lots of journals; post short stories to your blog, preferably so that one of them goes viral; get a lot of followers on GoodReads; build up a social media profile so that you have an audience waiting for you when the time comes; get your professional headshot taken; practise your autograph; invent delicious calorie-free chocolate.

Ok, I made the last one up. But you do see posts like this doing the rounds. And while all of these things are fine to do once you’ve written the book (and if you do succeed with that last one, be sure to drop me a line), they’re all secondary to the actual writing. The most important thing is to just write the book.

I’ll say that one more time, for effect: JUST. WRITE. THE. BOOK.

But when the writing is done, or well underway? Well, then it doesn’t hurt to spread your wings a little.

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Good luck! And happy writing.

 

If you want a sell-out event at a literary festival, call it something like ‘How To Get Published’. I’ve been to numerous of these types of talk and panel discussion over the years, and they’re always well attended.

In my experience, there are four main types of people who attend these events:

  1. Those who’ve spent years honing their craft and writing their manuscript, who want to start querying to agents, but find the publishing industry a bit tricky to understand, and want to get to grips with how it all works.
  2. Those who don’t have anything publishable at the moment, but also want to understand the industry they’re aiming to be a part of, and also to meet other writers / network with industry professionals.
  3. Those who are starting out (or have started fairly recently) and want to get a sense of what’s involved in seeing this whole writing thing through.
  4. And, inevitably, those who just want a quick fix to make them a published writer.

If you’re the fourth kind of person, then sorry, but the road to publication is long and hard, and there are so many steps before you even get that far. If you’re one of the first three, then you’re probably already aware of this, and will therefore probably get a lot more out of this kind of event.

But I’ve also been to events where an audience member has asked ‘how do you get a book published’ and the panellist has, slightly sniffily, said that you need to write the book first – as if everyone who might be interested in how to get published is Person 4, not Person 1-3. Sure, Person 4 exists (and I’m sure we’ve all met one or two of them in our time), but they’re not the only type of unpublished writer out there.

Thankfully, not all panel events are like this. The other week, I went to a refreshingly honest event at the Bronte Festival of Women’s Writing, with hugely useful advice and experience sharing from all sectors of the book industry – from writers all the way through to booksellers. If you can find events like this, they’re a great way of learning how the industry operates.

Because let’s be honest, the publishing industry can be incredibly confusing.

Like any industry, publishing comes toting its own bag of jargon: advance, acquisitions, UKCW, ARCs, earning out… And even if you sit down with some sort of bilingual publishing/standard English dictionary, the process can still seem somewhat mysterious. After all, what does an editor actually do? How does a commissioning editor differ from an editorial assistant, or a proofreader, for that matter? How does it all work?

There’s no quick answer to all of this. Partly because, like any industry, publishing has far too many layers to unpick in a single blog post, and partly because every publishing house operates slightly differently.

Usually, it operates a bit like a flow chart: the author writes the book (or pitches it if you’re writing non-fiction), and then submits to agents; once accepted by the agent (‘representation’), the writer will usually work with the agent on the manuscript, before the agent then tries to sell the rights to publishers; once a publisher has agreed to publish the book (‘acquisitions’), the writer then works directly with the editor at the publishing house towards a final version of the book, which is then published.

Of course, there are many more steps within that – and even these steps are subject to variation. For instance, some publishing houses don’t require you to have an agent, and if you’re writing non-fiction, you’ll often pitch the book to agencies and publishers before you’ve finished writing it. There is no single path to getting published.

I repeat: THERE IS NO SINGLE PATH TO GETTING PUBLISHED.

So if there is no single path through the publishing process, how do you go about figuring out what any of those paths look like, and how do you know which one might be right for you?

the writing desk

Author Events:

I’ve already mentioned this, but it’s worth mentioning again. A lot of literary festivals will have events specifically geared towards people who are looking to publish a book. Often this will take the form of a panel discussion, featuring a writer or two, and a couple of people who work in publishing (maybe an editor and an agent). They tend to being with each person describing something about their role in the publishing process, and then open up to a Q&A. Of course, there are other formats, too, but this one is fairly common.

These events can be incredibly useful for helping writers to get a grip on how the whole thing works, but also for making the whole thing seem more human. After all, although from afar the publishing industry might seem like a great big faceless machine, it’s really all about individual people, who all have individual tastes.

They’re also a good way of networking with other writers who are probably in a similar position to you, and at a similar stage of their development as writers. After all, you’re all trying to figure out how it works together, right?

However: while these events can be incredibly useful, be aware that they come in all shapes and sizes – and at all kinds of cost. The biggest, most expensive event isn’t always the best. In fact, it’s often the smaller, more personal event that can be the most useful for something like this.

Also beware of blanket statements. As I said, there’s no single path through the publishing industry, so what is true for one person (even if they’re a commissioning editor at a massive publishing house) might not be true for another. I’m obviously not saying to ignore professional advice, because if you’re going to do that, then there’s no point going to these things in the first place – but just take things with a pinch of salt. Ask yourself if it rings true to your own experience. For instance, I’ve heard of events where writers have been told things like ‘nobody’s publishing young adult fiction any more’ and ‘you can’t be a writer if you live somewhere rural’. If there’s anything like this which strikes you as untrue, don’t be afraid to get a second opinion.

Google:

And where to get that second opinion? If the in-person events don’t help, or if you’ve got points that need clarifying, then don’t be afraid to google it.

I know that sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how often I speak to people who don’t understand how the publishing industry works, and have never even thought of using the internet to help them find out. Granted, it isn’t the be-all-and-end-all, and like anything online, you have to take it with a pinch of salt. But it’s a free way of getting your head around how it all works – ideally with a glass of wine or two.

And if you’re not sure where to start with your googling, here are a few online resources to set you off on your search:

WAY:

I’ve already mentioned Writers & Artists above, but as well as having a plethora of online resources, they also publish the annual Writers & Artists Yearbook. This is a hugely useful resource for anyone who’s on the brink of looking at publication, with listings of agents and publishers, what sort of thing they’re look for, and details on how to submit to them.

If you’ve done all your writing bits, and your editing bits, etc etc, and you’re looking at securing an agent, or publication through a house that accepts unsolicited submissions, then sit down with a copy of the Writers & Artists Yearbook. I’d also recommend using it in conjunction with agencies’ own websites, and combining book research with online research. (If you don’t want to buy a copy of the Writers’ & Artists Yearbook, then check your local library to see if they have it in stock.)

Acknowledgements:

If you’re looking for representation or publication, then try making a pile of books that have something in common with yours. Are there books written in a similar style and genre, which you think would complement your own? Books that deal with similar themes? Books aimed at a similar audience?

Agencies and publishing imprints tend to have specialities. So, if there’s a book that you think might sit well alongside your own, do some digging on it. See who it’s published by. See who the writers’ agent is. (This is something you can google, or just look in the acknowledgements at the back of the book. If an agent is any good, the writer should have thanked them there.)

I’m not saying that this agent will therefore definitely want to represent your book as well. For a start off, most agents probably won’t want writers on their list who are too similar, as they’ll end up in competition with one another. But it’s a good guess that your book might well be their sort of thing. It’s a place to start.

Mentoring Programmes:

I’ve already said that there’s no single path towards getting published. One alternative to traditional methods (or working alongside traditional methods) can be mentoring.

Mentoring programmes for writers seem to be on the rise, which can only be a good thing. They vary massively in terms of what they offer – from a promise of publication at the end of them, to financial assistance, to developmental support, to editorial guidane. They also have varying criteria for applicants.

I’ve benefited from a couple of mentoring programmes over my career so far. One of these (through the Wordsworth Trust) helped me get my first poetry pamphlet ready to submit to publishers. The second (WriteNow, run by Penguin Random House) helped me to write my first novel, and to get an agent.

From Idea to Book: My Journey to Publication

When you’re trying to get your foot through the publishing door, it can be helpful to have somebody pulling it open from the other side.

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Next week: The Writer’s Apprenticeship 3: Building a Profile