In the words of Jonathan Larson, creator of the musical ‘Rent’: how do you measure a year in a life?

Over the past few years, I’ve tried a number of ways of summing things up – from the books I’ve read, to the number of things I’ve had published, to galleries of pictures. This makes the blog post useful for me to look back on, but it also can give the impression that my life can be parcelled neatly into sections, and perhaps even that I plan it out to be like that, ahead of time.

Not true.

This year, perhaps even more than last year, life has been unpredictable. At least, it’s felt that way for me, in ways that have proved both positive and negative. This has been true of my personal life – but also my professional life as well.

I’ve been pretty lucky this year. Thanks to a combination of grants, prizes, and – let’s be honest – not being able to go anywhere to spend any money for a large chunk of the year, I’ve been able to spend a big part of 2021 writing.

That might sound like a strange thing for a writer to say – surely a lot of time is spent writing every year? But very few writers make their whole living from the actual words on the page, and normally I do a lot of workshops and events as well.

How to Make a Living as a Writer: 2020 edition

How to Make Money from Your Novel

This year, however, the focus has been on the words – from working on a collection of short stories, to editing my poetry collection for submission, to drafting a second novel. (Which I managed to get sent off to my agent just before I finished for Christmas. Hurrah!)

So, to round up this year of actually writing:

A Few Good Things:

Gladstone’s Library

At the end of 2019, I was lucky enough to be awarded a Writer in Residence position at Gladstone’s Library, to be taken up in 2020. Obviously, this couldn’t happen as planned last year. So, in September this year, I drove to Flintshire, and stayed for a whole month in the UK’s only residential library. Day after day, I got to sit in my own little nook at my own little desk in the most beautiful library, surrounded by books and the hush of people’s thoughts.

It was during this month that I wrote the second draft of the novel. Second drafts are always hard. At least, I always think so. With the first draft, although you have the difficulty of starting from a blank page, there’s also no pressure. You’re not trying to produce something good – only to produce something. A mess of words which you can worry about shaping sometime later on.

The problem with the second draft is, this is that sometime later on, and now there’s pressure to mould something out of the mess, knowing all the time that if you can’t mould anything out of it, then all that drafting time will have been wasted.

At Gladstone’s Library, though, the process didn’t feel like a chore. Perhaps because of the atmosphere, which tingled with work and creativity. Or perhaps because it’s so much easier to work when someone else is doing all the cooking and cleaning for you. Whatever the reason, the month-long residency was a huge success, and I managed to come out of it with a complete second draft of the novel.

Which brings me onto…

Heinrich Böll Cottage

Another postponed residency from 2020, Heinrich Böll Cottage is a very different set-up to Gladstone’s Library. A self-catering cottage with a view of the sea, on Achill Island in County Mayo, it felt like the best kind of solo retreat, where I could spend my mornings editing the manuscript, my afternoons walking along some of the beautiful beaches the island has to offer, and my evenings reading by the fire.

This was also an incredibly soothing time. Something about being by the sea, and being able to explore in a way that felt both incredibly free, but also very Covid-safe in terms of my own independence. And, as at Gladstone’s Library, I felt like I accomplished way more than I would have done in the same time at home.

Although, speaking of accomplishments…

Funding

This year, I was lucky enough to win a Northern Writers’ Award!

The Northern Writers’ Awards are a series of annual awards, run by New Writing North, with the aim of supporting writers in the north of England at various stages in their careers. I’ve been applying for the awards for years (why not? They’re free to enter, which is a huge plus!) and this year, I was finally successful.

I was awarded a Northern Debut Award for Poetry. This not only consisted of a monetary grant, to support my writing time, but also a series of mentoring sessions with an established poet. So, towards the end of the year, I had my first session, working with the wonderful Malika Booker: two hours of intense interrogation of my poetry, by the end of which my brain felt like it had run a mental marathon. It was the most incredible experience for helping me to see my poems in a new light, and I can’t wait to continue the sessions into 2022!

And, continuing the funding theme, I was also awarded an Authors’ Foundation Grant this year, from the Society of Authors. This has paid for time for me to complete the manuscript of my novel, to get it ready to send to my agent. It’s been an invaluable help, and so great to know that I have some secure money in my account, even when everything remains so rocky.

Kendal Poetry Festival

And speaking of wonderfully intense experiences: in spring this year, Kendal Poetry Festival ran their first online festival – over 9 days instead of the usual long weekend, with so many events we soon lost count.

And my role in all of this? Guerrilla Poetry.

I first created Festival Survival Kits for Kendal Poetry Festival back in 2018, out of a project I’d previously run independently. Since then, the project has gone from strength to strength, and this year, the Survival Kits were bigger and better than ever!

Workshops:

This year, I also started to run an online workshop series. This has been a huge success – partly because it’s led to meeting some wonderful writers, who’ve come along to take part, and written the most incredible pieces.

I’m planning to carry on with these into 2022, and the next one is on Saturday 15th January – still with spaces if you’d like to come along:


Publications & Prizes:

Defying all my original expectations, 2021 actually managed to be a fairly decent year for publications and prizes as well.

After its delay due to Covid last year, My Name is Monster finally came out in paperback at the beginning of this year! It has a stunning blue and coral cover, and it’s been great, these last few months, actually getting to see it out and about in shops.

(Available from bookshop.org here.)

I also won the Palette Poetry Prize this year, with a poem called ‘The Gallery of America’ – about which judge Jericho Brown said: ‘This poem is amazing in its ability to speak to and through itself given its own history. But there is much more than just syntactic technique going on in these lines of definite desperation.’

You can read the poem, along with an interview about it, here.

In other poetry news, this year saw me win the Prole Laureate Poetry Competition, and have poems shortlisted for the Aesthetica Poetry Prize, and commended in the Verve Poetry Prize, the Magma Editors’ Prize, and the Cafe Writers Open Poetry Competition.

In fiction news, I had a story shortlisted for the Desperate Literature Prize, within which I won the Georgia Writers’ House Prize – leading to a residency in Tblisi, to be undertaken sometime in the coming year. I’ve also had stories shortlisted for the Bath Flash Fiction Prize, longlisted for the Exeter Story Prize and the BBC National Short Story Award, and in the top 5% for the Bridport Prize.

I’m planning on doing my annual analytical post of all my acceptances and rejections sometime in the coming month, but for now, not a bad year for prizes all in all!

And, last but not least, My Name is Monster was also featured this year by the Boozy Book Club: an online book club & event series, which mails out the books along with a box of themed goodies. Here’s the Monster box – and I think you’ll agree it looks pretty spectacular.


What else?

As I said at the start of the post, things rarely fit into nice easy little boxes, and this year has seen a few extra things, which deserve an honourable mention. Perhaps the most notable of these was my appearance on Rosie Jones’ Trip Hazard: a comedy travel show in which comedian Rosie Jones explores various parts of the UK in the company of a celebrity guest. This was filmed in 2020, but aired earlier this year, including yours truly, talking to Rosie Jones & Scarlet Moffatt in Dove Cottage, and getting them to write poetry on the edge of Grasmere.

In other performance-related news, I wrote the lyrics to a song for the Three Inch Fools’ touring production of Robin Hood: ‘Branching Out’. The brief for the song was ‘folky feminist power ballad’. Here it is, sung by Maid Marian – aka Emily Newsome:


So what next?

The start of a year always feels like such a daunting and exciting time to me. Daunting because literally anything could happen. Exciting because literally anything could happen.

So far my plans for 2022 involve a lot of editing. I finished 2021 with three manuscripts at various stages of completeness: a poetry collection, a novel, and a collection of short stories. Of these, I’m in a waiting game with the novel and short stories (waiting for editorial feedback so I can move onto the next draft) – so I’m planning to start the year by working some more on the poetry collection. I have a big deadline for this in the spring, so hopefully after that, I might even be able to move over to writing something new – but that’s several months away yet.

And what else, apart from the writing?

I have a couple of trips planned in Scotland (Covid-permitting), as well as a few residencies due to happen later this year (again, Covid-permitting). I have one or two book events lined up – and other than that, I’m going to eagerly await what the year might bring.

And in the meantime, I’m going to edit, I’m going to write, and I’m going to read. And I can’t wait to get stuck back into all three.


2021: The Year in Pictures


Happy New Year, and here’s hoping 2022 brings you everything you’re looking for!

‘Some years just rattle over from one to the next, with very little sense of change or progression between them. Then again, some years are like fireworks, bursting into a glorious array of sound and light, leaving you dazed and slightly dizzy in their wake.’

These were the opening sentences of my annual round-up at the end of last year, and I was clearly describing 2019 as the latter. What’s also clear is that 2020 has been, in many ways, the former.

I’ve already written quite a lot about the financial and motivational difficulties of 2020, and about the feeling of stagnation this year. So instead, I want this post to be a celebration of what I have achieved. After all, it hasn’t all been sitting on the sofa & coughing, and part of my reason for writing this blog post is to remind myself of that.

So. Here goes.

A Few Good Things:

ANTARCTICA:

I might not have travelled very far over the past nine months, but before lockdown hit, I was barely at home. And one of these trips was the trip I’ve wanted to do more than any other ever since I was about 12, and the item that’s been at the top of every bucket list I’ve ever created. This year, in March, I went to Antarctica.

The trip was everything I hoped it would be and more, from whales to dolphins to penguins (and more penguins) to seals to skuas to shags (not that kind!) to albatross to icebergs to glaciers to historic whaling stations to snow.

Every account of Antarctica that I’ve read talks about how it’s like another world, how it feels like a totally different experience to anywhere else, and I couldn’t agree more. Things that struck me were the total lack of green (it felt like such a shock landing on South Georgia a few days later, where green was in such lush abundance), the silence, the lack of lights, and the absence of aeroplane trails across the sky (something that’s become all too familiar since then, with Covid-19 lockdowns and cancelled flights). It was an unforgettable trip, and one that’s actually whetted my appetite for polar travel more than satiated it.

HAWTHORNDEN RESIDENCY:

Also before lockdown, in January, I went on a writing residency at Hawthornden Castle in Scotland. Of the four residencies I had lined up for this year, Hawthornden is the only one I managed to attend (of the others, two have been postponed, and one is awaiting a decision).

Hawthornden is a medieval castle, where you’re fed and given accommodation for a month, and allowed to spend the entire time working on your own writing. I used the month to work on my poetry collection, and to start planning a novel (which I then put on hold during lockdown, but never mind). It was a wonderful month, and felt like an incredible luxury to have all that time to dedicate to my writing. (More about the residency here.)

BELLA:

As well as writing poetry and fiction, this year I’ve also worked on Bella: an immersive digital performance trail around Penrith.

An Eden Arts projct, Bella is a response to the restrictions on live events caused by Covid-19. When the Winter Droving festival couldn’t happen this year, Eden Arts started to look for other ways to keep the festival spirit alive during 2020. One of the solutions was Bella.

Following the trail is fairly simple. There’s a downloadable map, and you simply scan the QR codes on the bright pink signs in the various locations around Penrith. These each take you to a video, as you follow a vlogger, Bella, on the ‘Winter Droving Heritage Trail’. But is it all as simple as it seems? Or is there something else going on? To find out, you’ll need to solve the clues…

actor looking anxious, while a camera films

Publications:

While the paperback publication of My Name is Monster (originally due June 2020) may have been postponed to January 2021, both the German and Italian language editions went ahead, meaning that Mein Name ist Monster and Il mio nome è Mostro are now out in the world. The books were translated by Eva Kemper and Carla Maggiori, and published by S. Fischer Verlage and Liberilibri respectively.

And, as if that wasn’t enough, this year, My Name is Monster was also shortlisted for the Kitschies Golden Tentacle Award – an award for debut science fiction novels, run by Blackwells.

I’ve also had a few poems published this year, including ‘My Mother Visits Neodesha‘ in the online poetry journal bath magg, and ‘Ease‘ as part of Write Where We Are Now: an online collection of poems about the pandemic, created by Carol Ann Duffy and the Manchester Writing School at Manchester Metropolitan University.

Later on in the year, I also had a poem, ‘Mouth Game‘, commended in the Troubadour International Poetry Prize.


What else?

This year, I was also asked to be part of the BBC’s Contains Strong Language Poetry Festival, which was broadcast from Cumbria, amid a whole host of ever-changing lockdown restrictions. For the festival, I wrote a commissioned poem inspired by Ruskin’s View in Kirkby Lonsdale. This poem was then used by Queen Elizabeth School (also in Kirkby Lonsdale) on National Poetry Day, as inspiration for students to write their own poems about lockdown – an exercise which turned into a school-wide poetry competition, which I ended up judging. Such a lovely experience to see a poem go on and have a life and a continuation after the writing of it, and to see the wonderful and heart-felt poems that the students went on to produce.

Despite the impossibility of delivering in-person school workshops this year, I have still worked on a couple of schools-based projects. The first is Fellfoot Fables – a Heritage Lottery Funded project, run by the North Pennines AONB Partnership as part of their Fellfoot Forward Scheme – which we ran right back in the first lockdown. The project encouraged children in the Fellfoot area to write about where they lived, and about their experiences of being at home during lockdown – and allowed many of the children to work towards Arts Award Discover as well.

More recently, I’ve been working on a postponed project with Prism Arts, exploring the life and work of Kurt Schwitters. Through a combination of pre-recorded videos, worksheets and video calls, I’ve worked with Yr5 pupils at Distington School, as well as participants from Prism Arts’ Studio Theatre West, towards writing poems about place and belonging, in response to Kurt Schwitters’ own poetic style.

This is also the project that occasioned what I think may have been my peak 2020 moment: filming for a virtual school workshop, and debating whether we needed to social distance from a puppet. Obviously puppets can’t catch Covid, but the puppet was playing a human, and we had to set a good example for the children…

This year I’ve also expanded on my mentoring, and in June, following the heightened conversations around how the publishing industry represents writers of colour (and particularly black writers), and in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, I offered mentoring to two emerging black writers: one poet, and one novelist. These sessions are still ongoing, and it’s been an absolute privilege to read and discuss the work.

And speaking of reading: during a large portion of this year, I’ve found reading much harder than usual, with concentration levels very low, and the urge to pick up my phone and doom-scroll unhealthy and overwhelming. So, when I finally felt like I’d regained my reading mojo, I set myself the challenge of reading 31 novellas during October. I actually finished book number 31 on 1st November, but I’m still counting it. And it was such a great list of books! (NB: affiliate link) I’m planning to write a full blog post about this at some point, about what the experience taught me, so watch this space in the new year.

I also, eventually, managed to write quite a bit, too. In place of my residency at Heinrich Boll Cottage in Ireland, I set myself the challenge of a 14-day virtual residency. And since then, I’ve joined Northern Writers’ Studio’s excellent Friday morning write-in sessions, which force me to spend an hour every Friday morning, doing nothing but focusing on writing, and are such a joyous way to round off the week.

Bookshelf filled with books

A couple of personal things:

Despite the year it’s been, I’ve also had some wonderful personal momens in 2020 – the biggest one being that my Grandma turned 100! Obviously, we weren’t able to have a full-on party for her, but I was delighted that I got to see her on her birthday, before the lockdown restrictions kicked in again. Thinking about the changes that have occurred during the century that she’s been alive still always knocks me back a moment.

I also went to Venice earlier this year, again in the pre-lockdown window back in February, where my oldest friend and I celebrated our 30th birthdays together, with a gondola ride, wandering the beautiful old back streets, and eating an awful lot of food. And, speaking of turning 30, I (almost) completed my 32 before 30 list, as well. I haven’t made another one yet for 40 – but maybe something to think about post-pandemic?


So what next?

Honestly, at this stage, 2021 feels like anything could happen. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have plans. For starters, My Name is Monster is coming out in paperback in January, so I’m planning an online book launch and quiz for that (come along for free, for the chance to win books)!

I’m also launching a programme of online workshops, as well as The Write Chat: an online event series, where I’ll be talking to a writer or writers each month, exploring an aspect of the craft of writing – everything from character to setting to building tension, to a general discussion of what it takes to write a book. Guests already confirmed for these sessions include Rashmi Sirdeshpande, Helen Mort, M W Craven, Yvonne Battle-Felton and Molly Aitken.

There are a couple of other things in the pipeline, too, including a guerrilla poetry project with Kendal Poetry Festival, and a couple of events with other online festivals. I’m also supposed to be attending a residency at Gladstone’s Library in the spring, after it was postponed from 2020, but I guess we’ll just have to wait and see how the pandemic situation develops.

And beyond that? Well, I have plans for writing, of course. In fact, while 2020 has been lower than anticipated on the level of word count, it’s been huge in terms of ideas.


2020: the year in pictures


Happy New Year – and all the best for you and your writing in 2021!

For the past two years, I’ve written about how writers make a living. Or, more specifically, how I’ve managed to keep the wolf from the door during that specific year. This year, I think a lot of us have felt that the wolf has been prowling more keenly than usual. Or more accurately, that a whole pack of wolves has been prowling – one of which has been coronavirus itself, baring its teeth and howling at the sanitised door handles.

Extended wolf metaphor aside, we’ve all experienced difficulties of some kinds this year, in whatever form they’ve presented themselves. It’s only natural that those challenges are reflected in the year’s earnings.

So what has 2020 looked like for me?

As you can see, I earned next to nothing during 6 months of 2020. That’s half the year.

Some of this was a planned period of little-to-no income: I was on a residency at Hawthornden in January, and away in South America and Antarctica during the bulk of February and March. I knew in advance that I’d have barely any income during these months, and I planned my finances accordingly. That’s normally one of the joys of being freelance: that ability to measure out the working year in fits and starts if necessary, rather than spreading the work (and income) evenly across all months.

Of course, what I didn’t account for was everything else 2020 would throw at us. Like a sensible freelancer, I had work lined up for when I returned from my trip – and plenty of it. In fact, I had so much work lined up that I’d made a start on some of the planning bits three months early, before I left. Mistake, as it happens, since a fair bit of what I planned for ended up getting cancelled because of Covid.

In fact, most of my work from this year has ended up being cancelled, or at the very least postponed to 2021, or even 2022 in a couple of cases.

Luckily, there were a few months (like June, where I received two bits of Covid support) that helped me to counteract some of the leaner times.

So where did my income come from this year?

This year, I’ve listed 4 categories:

  1. Funding: money from grants. Specifically, this year, it’s been Covid-19 support grants, both from the government and from the Arts Council.
  2. Facilitation: both workshop facilitation and facilitation of creative projects. I’ve put these into one category because often project money will include funding for both the delivery and administration side, lumped together.
  3. Writing: commissions, royalties, ALCS money.
  4. Events: panel events and readings (in person and online), radio and television appearances.

Unsurprisingly, I haven’t earned that much from events this year. This is partly because fewer events have been taking place this year, but some of it is also to do with where this year has fallen in terms of my own publication. My Name is Monster came out last year, which resulted in my doing a lot of events and appearing at quite a few festivals. The original plan was for the paperback to come out this summer, but because of Covid, it’s been postponed to January 2021. Without a book coming out this year (on top of Covid cancellations), it makes sense that I haven’t been doing all too many events.

The same goes for facilitation. A lot of the venues and organisations where I would normally run workshops haven’t been operating in the same way this year, either because of furloughed staff or lack of visitors – or, in the case of schools, open but (understandably) not to outside visitors.

This isn’t universal, of course, as a few organisations I’ve been working with have found ways of creating workshops that don’t need me to physically travel to a school or community group – either through online forums like Zoom, or by creating video workshops that can be accessed independently. These have been few and far between, but they are happening, which is not only a huge help to freelance artists like me, but means that we can still be providing different and enriching experiences in schools – someething which feels extra important after the challenging year so many children (and teachers) have had.

So what about writing? For someone who describes herself as a writer, 11% might not sound like that much to have made from the actual writing bit of the job. But actually, I’m pretty happy with that. That’s because this year, unlike the past two years, I haven’t received an advance. (An advance on a book is usually split into 3 or 4 chunks, which are paid when various milestones are reached – usually: signing the contract with the publisher; submitting the finished manuscript; hardback publication; and, sometimes, paperback publication.) My Name is Monster is already out in the world, so I’ve already received my advance for that, and I’m still working on the next book, so no contracts signed for that yet. This is what I expected from this year, so I’m ok with that.

Which just leaves grant money.

I won’t lie, this year, grant money has been invaluable. I’m sure I’m not the only writer / artist / freelancer who has felt this, and my heart goes out to those freelancers who haven’t been eligible for the government support. It’s the government support that has allowed me to keep working. Because yes, I have been working. It’s just that most of it hasn’t involved getting paid.

What has work looked like in 2020?

As you can see from the graphs above, there has been some paid work. There have been a couple of commissions, and some digital workshops and facilitation work. There’s been the occasional media appearance. And, of course, there’s been my own writing. (I wrote a blog post about writing in the time of coronavirus, and all the extra challenges that brings, earlier in the year.)

But there’s also been all that other work. The sort that does pay. The sort that takes up time and creative energy, but without the financial reward. This is the sort of work that has felt more abundant this year.

Things like applying for opportunities (which I’ve felt I’ve had to do so much more of this year). Things like answering emails – a lot of which have been about renegotiating work, or about the potential for work that may or may not happen. Things like re-planning existing work in light of a pandemic. I think a lot of people underestimate just how much administration it takes to be a writer – and this year, admin has felt heavier than ever.

Perhaps it’s Parkinson’s Law: the idea that the work always expands to fill the time available to complete it. Perhaps it’s just that, in the absence of a lot of paid work, I’ve realised just how much unpaid work I usually do. But I suspect that this year has produced its own special brand of administration, which has weighed more heavily on the working week. Thank goodness for the grants that have, effectively, paid for me to do some of that unpaid admin this year.

So what happens now?

It’s all very well looking at the year gone by, but a freelancer (writer or otherwise) always needs to be looking towards the future. There always has to be some kind of plan.

The problem is that those Covid support grants (72% of my income in 2020) won’t be around in 2021 – or at least, are looking like they’ll be at a highly reduced rate. And it doesn’t look as though society will be getting ‘back to normal’ any time soon.

I won’t lie, this scares me. It scares me on behalf of myself, but even more so, it scares me on behalf of my industry. I’m talking about the book industry and about the arts industry. After all, they’re pretty connected.

What happens when that support disappears, and we’re all left on massively reduced incomes?

Quite a few organisations are finding ways of working digitally, or are instigating the slow return of in-person events and workshops (though of course, these present their own access issues, and aren’t feasible for everybody). I am seeing an upturn in the amount of work available compared to, say, in the summer. I’m also seeing more bits of work start to drip into my inbox, which is reassuring. It isn’t up to pre-Covid levels, but it’s a start.

I’ve already talked a bit about my strategy for when it comes to submitting applications in 2021. I was mainly talking about this in reference to creative burnout, but it goes for finances as well. The main strategy? Focus on the existing work, and on the things I don’t have to spend days applying for. Prioritise the certainties. Reduce the unpaid administration as much as possible, to buy myself that time to write.

I’m going to say this again, because it’s somthing that hasn’t happened enough during the administrative frenzy of 2020:

Use the existing paid work to buy myself time to write.

And with any luck, I’ll have an income graph that looks slightly different at the end of 2021.