‘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.