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.

In our mid-twenties, panicked by the oncoming rush of time, and the arrival of the occasional grey hair in unmentionable places, myself and a couple of friends decided to make lists of things we wanted to achieve before the end of our next decade. Those much-derided ’30-before-30′ lists.

The idea, as I’m sure you’re aware, is to force yourself to make the most of those years in your late twenties. Just as everything can start to seem like it’s becoming a bit serious, and it gets easier and easier to fall into everyday patterns and get bogged down by work, it’s good to have goals to aim for. And personally, I’m a sucker for crossing things off lists. (Honestly, you should see my stuck-in-the-house-during-lockdown to do list – it’s pages and pages of all those little jobs that normally get pushed to the side.)

As with most things, I didn’t exactly stick to the rules. Instead of 30 things, I came up with 32 – though maybe this was overly ambitious, as I didn’t quite achieve all of my 32. But also, goals change. There are things I thought I wanted to do at the age of 25, which I’m no longer particularly bothered about. There are things I want now, and things I’ve already achieved, that I had no idea were even within the realms of possibility 5 years ago.

So, bearing in mind that the list system is therefore inherently flawed – how did I do?

USA Road Trip

32 Things To Do Before I’m 30:

  1. Publish a poetry pamphlet: Not only did I publish one poetry pamphlet, but I published two! Breaking the Surface, published by Flipped Eye in 2017, and then Assembly Instructions, published by Southword in 2019, as a result of winning the Munster Fool for Poetry Chapbook Competition.
  2. Write and publish a novel: Originally, this was ‘write and publish a Mills & Boon’ – something myself and another writer friend had challenged one another to attempt, over several glasses of wine. At the time, I had no concept that I might actually write and publish a literary novel. And now, I have no desire to complete the (utterly dreadful) 10,000 words of smutty story I have hidden somewhere in depths of my laptop. The goal changed slightly, so I changed the listing accordingly. My Name is Monster was published by Canongate in 2019.
  3. Travel to Antarctica: I did it! By the skin of my teeth. With the speed at which everything around Coronavirus has moved, it’s hard to imagine that just three weeks ago I was standing in the middle of a snow blizzard, surrounded by penguins. I’ve wanted to visit Antarctica ever since we did a geography project about it at school, and the trip was everything I hoped it would be and more. Every single day – almost every single moment – there was something new to wonder and marvel at.
  4. Travel to at least 5 new countries: 5 countries and more! These were: Morocco, Canada, Cambodia, Vietnam, Ireland, Iceland, Hungary, Switzerland, Argentina, Uruguay & Brazil. And, whenever borders open again, I’d love to visit a few more!
  5. Visit Lizzie in Barcelona: At the time, my friend Lizzie lived in Barcelona, and in November 2015, we were able to spend a few days soaking up all the Gaudi architecture, wandering along the beach, and eating all the churros we could manage.
  6. Visit Jessi in Portland, Oregon: Even more epic than the trip to Barcelona, the trip to Oregon turned into a 5-week extravaganza, including a 3-week road trip up the west coast of the US, from just north of LA, all the way into Canada, and finishing with a relaxing couple of weeks at Jessi’s parents’ house, enjoying the sights of Oregon and the tastes of the delicious local bakery.
  7. Drive around Iceland’s Route 1: This dream came true in June 2017. For around ten days, we drove around the island of Iceland, exploring waterfalls and glaciers, basalt columns and beachs, winding fjords and geothermal pools. It’s not for nothing that people rave about Iceland.
    Iceland
  8. Island hopping in the Pacific: This is a slightly complicated one, because I’d already done it when I made the list (on a trip to Fiji in 2010, when I was living in Melbourne), but the plan was to do it again, elsewhere. So, while I’m counting it as something I have done (because technically I have), I’d still like to do it again somewhere else in the future.
  9. Take a solo trip that lasts at least a month: I’ve done a few of these over the past few years – Cambodia & Vietnam in 2017, the USA in 2019, and the trip I’m on right now (South America, Antarctica & Australia). Granted, I haven’t been on my own the whole time on any of them, but I have been away from people I knew previously. And let’s face it, solo travel is rarely completely alone the whole time, is it? Meeting new people is part of the fun!
  10. Spend at least a week at the Edinburgh Fringe: When I made this list, I anticipated spending a week at the Fringe as an audience member. I never dreamed I’d end up taking a show up there myself! But in 2017, myself and composer Stephen Hyde finished writing a 3-woman musical, The Inevitable Quiet of the Crash, and in the August, a student production company took the show to the Fringe. I have to say, standing on the Royal Mile, flyering day after day, gives a very different perspective on the festival than just attending as an audience member.
  11. Visit Ireland: This is something I’ve managed to do not once, but twice: the first time on a brief hop over to Dublin to attend an award ceremony; the second to read at Cork Poetry Festival, and to spend a few days soaking up the city. I’m also headed over to County Mayo for a couple of weeks for a residency this autumn, and I can’t wait to explore another part of the country.
  12. Road trip the coast of California: I’ve already mentioned this one in the context of visiting Portland, OR, as what started with ‘the coast of California’ ended up expanding in both directions, to include Vegas, Arizona, Oregon, Washington & part of Canada. It was an incredible trip – and one I only wish we’d had more time for. Thank goodness for shared driving!
  13. Drive a convertible (roof down): X
  14. Take a road trip in a camper van: Ok, so it wasn’t exactly a camper van, but I’m going to count it anyway, because it pretty much fulfilled the purpose of a camper van. In Iceland, to drive around Route 1, we hired a 4×4 with a pop-up top-box tent attached to the roof rack. This meant we could create a little kitchen area on the back seat (easily accessible if we wanted to reach back and grab something to snack on), and that we had our accommodation with us wherever we went. No need to pitch a tent, either, other than just flicking the little clip on the side of the top box and then unrolling our sleeping bags. All the ease of a camper van, but with all the (much needed in Iceland) agility of a 4×4!
  15. Go on a writing retreat by the sea: In January 2018, myself and 4 other poets spent a week at a hotel in St Ives, looking out over the sea and writing poems. During the day, we’d write / walk / swim in the sea (or at least some of us would – it was a bit chilly for me), and then in the evening we’d come together to workshop what we’d written. It felt so good to be able to work on a poem, then clear my head with some brisk sea air, before going back to the poetry. Just thinking about it has got me excited for my 2 weeks by the sea in Ireland this autumn.
    St Ives - writing retreat
  16. Go to a music festival: Technically, Port Eliot Festival describes itself as a ‘free-ranging festival of ideas’ – but one of these components is music, so I’m definitely counting it. (Another component is literature, which was how I ended up there, doing an event for My Name is Monster.) Besides, one of my top events of the festival was a music event – and if you ever get a chance to experience Charlotte Church’s Late-Night Pop Dungeon, do it.
  17. Order room service: Yes! This was another last-minute crossing-off of the list. While I was in Argentina, visiting Iguazu Falls, there was a tropical thunderstorm, complete with torrential rain that would’ve been impossible to go out in even for a moment, without coming back looking like I’d jumped in the hotel pool with all my clothes on. So I stayed in, ordered burger & chips and a beer, and wrote some of my postcards, listening to the drumming of the rain on the roof.
  18. Hold a conversation in Spanish: I’m not sure I could do this any more, because we all know languages disappear if you don’t use them – but I did it at the time. In late 2015, I went on a week-long intensive Spanish course, just outside Valencia, where I learned some basic Spanish. Enough to have a conversation about my favourite animal and which way to get to the supermarket, anyway!
  19. Climb a mountain: Yes! This is one I’m hugely proud of, because I’m not the fittest of people, and I find long steep climbs a bit of a struggle. But in 2018, as part of my trip to Morocco, I decided to bite the bullet and book a trek in the Atlas mountains. When I booked, it seemed to say you could choose on arrival whether you did the easy, medium or hard versions of the walk. When I got there, it turned out there was only one option. When I checked this against the original options a few days later, it turned out to be the hard version – and it included an ascent (thankfully not starting from sea-level) of the 2700m Tamalaroute. Thankfully, the view from the top was incredible.
  20. Undertake (and complete) a multi-day walk: As it happens, I ended up completing two of these – both of which felt like an enormous achievement. One was the trek mentioned above, in the Atlas mountains: 25 miles (around 68,000 steps) over 3 days – including a lot of steep ups and downs, and even a slightly dodgy river crossing. The other was somewhere considerably warmer: Sapa, in northern Vietnam, which was another 3-day trek through the rice terraces, staying in homestays along the way. Both times I doubted my own ability to complete the trek. Both times I felt a surge of joy at the achievement.
  21. Be able to run a mile without collapsing / seizing up / giving up and walking: This is another one I’m not sure I’d be able to do right at this precise moment, so maybe I’d better get back into practice, because not so long ago, I decided to start going running. And yes, I did indeed manage to run a mile without once stopping to walk. And I know a mile is nothing to people who run marathons, but to me, who hates running, it’s huge. Determined to be able to do this again by the end of the year.
  22. Do 30 sit-ups in a row: Again, this is something that I could probably just about still do now, though I’d feel it in the morning. But I went through a phase of doing sit-ups every day, and admittedly did feel better for it. Another one to get back into in my 31st year!
  23. Take a photography course: A few years ago, I took part in a photography course at my local Community Development Centre, across two Saturdays. To be honest, I still get confused by the aperture settings and shutter speed and so on. I can work it all out if I have to, but not quickly enough for it to be useful in the situation of having to take a photograph. One thing it has given me confidence with, though, is thinking about (and experimenting with) framing. And who knows? Maybe in the future I’ll try to go back to all the manual stuff, too.
  24. Bake at least one cake: This is something that has been a huge success. From basically never baking, I’ve become someone who bakes pretty often – from cupcakes, to birthday cakes for friends, to even the occasional gingerbread biscuits at Christmas. And what’s more, I love doing it. (And eating the results, too, of course.)

    Birthday cake - 32 things to do before I'm 30
    Indominus Rex birthday cake
  25. Knit or crochet something (anything will do): This one is ongoing, as I’m in the middle of crocheting a blanket. So far, I’ve crocheted all the individual squares, but I still have to sew them all together. I guess that’s probably a task for a few months’ time, curled up by the fire on a chilly autumn night.
  26. Make an item of clothing, which is acceptable to wear in public and doesn’t fall apart: X
  27. Own (and have reason to wear) a full length ball gown: X
  28. Give cards / chocolates / flowers to a stranger / strangers on Valentines Day: A few years ago, I distributed sweets & poems to strangers on Valentines Day, as part of my Poetry Plaster Pack project. This project has morphed over the past couple of years, into the Fesitval Survival Kits at Kendal Poetry Festival, where audience members receive poetry and other goodies in a little pack, as part of the festival’s ‘guerrilla poetry’ projects.
  29. Buy a piece of original artwork: I’ve done this a few times over, from buying sketches in San Fransisco, to buying a beautiful glazed bowl at an art sale in Oregon. But buying artwork is something I’d like to do more of in the future – partly because I want my walls to look good, but also because I think it’s important to invest in art and in artists. After all, if nobody invested any money in the arts, I’d quickly be out of a job.
  30. Finish reading The Well of Loneliness: X
  31. Achieve 1000 twitter followers: Well and truly achieved! The current count is over 2000. This goal was about expanding my social media reach, for professional reasons, so that I would be able to engage more easily with readers, and to network with other writers / people working in the literary industry. I know there’s this idea that twitter is basically just a lot of people shouting into the void, but personally that’s never how I’ve experienced it – maybe because of the things I tend to tweet about, and because of the twitter circles I’m part of. But for me, it’s a place of conversation about books & literature, a place of mutual support, and of sharing of opportunities. And yes, ok, also for pictures of cats & coffee – because why not? And if you don’t follow me on twitter and fancy it, then go for it!
  32. Glamping: And last, but not least: back on our epic road trip up the west coast of the USA, we stayed a couple of nights on the outskirts of Seattle. It was an Airbnb, and the property was a yurt surrounded by fairy lights in someone’s back garden, where we woke up in the mornings to the sound of whale music from the owner’s meditative therapy practice next door.

So how did I do, in numerical terms?

28 / 32

Not bad, when you consider how much goals can change over the course of 5 years. And the ones I didn’t achieve? I’d still like to drive a convertible some day, even if it’s only a short drive around the block to try one out.

I’ve pretty much resigned myself to the fact I’ll probably never finish reading The Well of Loneliness, but then who knows? Maybe in another 5 years, I’ll pick it up and finally get to tht end of it. The same with making an item of clothing. Possibly, after I’ve finished the crocheted blanket, I can make a start on a hat or something? As for that full-length ball gown, well, I’m much less bothered about that than I was 5 years ago. To be honest, I can’t even remember why I wanted it so badly. Strange, how in just the space of 5 years, our priorities can shift so completely.

And as for the next decade? Maybe I’d better make a start on creating a ’40 before 40′ list now instead!

Novels are long. Really long. So long, that even if you’re full of ideas & enthusiasm when you start writing one, there’s almost definitely going to come a point when you’re not going to be quite as certain.

Sometimes, this is just a case of motivating yourself. After all, 70,000 words plus of writing, rewriting and rewriting again is a lot of time to keep yourself engaged. You’re bound to get frustrated with it from time to time, and it can be so easy to find a million things you’d rather be doing than writing your novel: baking; cleaning the windows; answering emails; scrubbing the toilet with a toothbrush… It’s a case of reminding yourself what you love about the novel you’re writing, and then making yourself get back to it.

But sometimes, it isn’t just about making yourself a big pot of coffee and chaining yourself to the desk. Sometimes, you can be hugely motivated to write, and yet still find yourself stuck in a particular scene. There are hundreds of reasons you might find your story isn’t really going anywhere. But there are also ways to help yourself over the hurdle of that difficult scene.

1. Go back to basics.

If I’m stuck on what’s going to happen in a scene, I often find it’s because I haven’t done enough preparatory work. Often, this boils down to me not knowing my characters well enough. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – every writer works differently. Some writers plan everything in meticulous detail, constructing a ‘beat-by-beat’ of each scene, so that they know exactly what has to happen when, and then they just have to write it. Some writers go in knowing absolutely nothing. They start with a phrase or a first line or a vague idea, and build the whole thing up through the drafting process.

Personally, I’m somewhere in the middle. I like to plan just enough so that I have a vague idea of what’s going on, but not so much that there’s nothing left to discover in the writing process. I think of it a bit like walking through a tunnel under a mountain. I don’t need to see the whole route, but nor do I want to be blundering about in the dark. As long as I can see the next few feet in front of me, and have a vague idea of where the tunnel might bring me out, then that’s fine.

The good thing about this way of working is that I’m always getting to know more about my characters, the whole time I’m writing them. The less good thing is that I don’t know everything about my characters when I start writing – which means that sometimes, I have to go back and do some of that ‘preparatory work’ part way through the drafting process.

Often if I’m stuck, it’s because I’ve lost sight of what my character wants.

Everybody has something that drives them. Most of us are driven by multiple desires at once – some short-term (I’m cold and want to get warm) and some long-term (I want to be the first woman on the moon). The chances are, you’ll already have figured out what your character’s long-term desire is, during the planning process. But in the individual scene that you’re stuck on, maybe that long-term desire isn’t what’s driving them, and they’re being driven by something much more short-term. Maybe they have two or more conflicting desires – after all, most of us do. But in almost every moment, there’s going to be a desire that comes out on top.

One of the best books I’ve ever read, for understanding character-building, is Will Storr’s The Science of Storytelling. I’d recommend it for anyone wanting to understand character and build up a character-driven narrative.

Once you know what a character wants, you can put problems in their way, and see how they go about solving those problems, in order to achieve their desire. Goal + obstacles = story.

If you want a perfect example of how desire + obstacle can create narrative, watch The Martian. Without giving too much away: Matt Damon’s character is stuck on Mars, and his goal is to survive long enough for somebody from earth to send a rescue mission. It’s a hostile environment, where the obstacles are stacked against him. Each time he crosses an obstacle, another one rears its head. Not only does this create narrative drive, it also gives the narrative a sense of tension and release, as we follow the character’s desire to live.

‘At some point, everything’s going to south on you… and you’re going to say, this is it. This is how I end. Now you can either accept that, or you can get to work. That’s all it is. You just begin. You do the math. You solve one problem – and you solve the next one – and then the next. And if you solve enough problems, you get to come home.’ – The Martian

2. Make characters interact.

It can be so easy to write long extensive scenes in which a character sits in a room, possibly looking out of a rain-blurred window, contemplating life. I get it. Let’s face it – that’s quite possibly what you, the writer, are doing a lot of during the writing process, and they do say to write about what you know…

I wrote a whole novel where (for a significant chunk of it) the protagonist believes she’s the last person left alive on earth. The temptation to have her sit down and just think highly philosophical thoughts for long swathes of text was huge. But at the end of the day, that rarely makes good narrative. And if you’re stuck, maybe it’s because nothing is actually happening in your book. I recently spoke to a friend who was having trouble with a scene she was writing for precisely this reason. Her character was simply standing by the window, raising the tension and giving the writer a chance to describe the carpet tiles in great lyrical depth.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with lyrical description. Some of my favourite writers have this lyrical gift in spades. But when you do describe something in great detail, it has to be a choice, and not just as a way of stalling because you’re not sure what’s going to happen next.

My advice to my friend? Bring another character into the scene. Force them to interact.

Of course, how they interact will depend on who the other character is, and on their relationship to character number one. And I mean that in narrative terms, not just in terms of whether they’re the character’s sister or boyfriend or a distant stranger.

Let’s say that Character A (the one previously sitting and pondering the rain) is the protagonist. What is Character B’s purpose in the story? Are they there to assist the protagonist? Or are they the antagonist? If they’re the antagonist, then maybe they’re the one providing those obstacles we talked about in the previous section. (Think of the way a villain tries to foil the hero in a superhero film.) If they’re there to assist the protagonist, maybe the two of them are overcoming an obstacle together (think Thelma & Louise).

Still stuck on how to make your characters interact? Give them a task to accomplish together. It can be as simple as cooking a meal, but the way they interact during it will reveal a lot about their characters, and about their relationship with one another.

3. Start a fire.

If that interaction still isn’t getting you anywhere, then try something more dramatic. Give your character or characters a catastrophic event to react to. The beauty of rewriting is that you can always cut this event later, if you decide it really doesn’t fit your plot. But it can be a useful tool to get you past a difficult stage in the writing process.

In her book A Novel in a Year (based on the newspaper column of the same name), Louise Doughty advises crashing an aeroplane into a hospital, then seeing how the characters respond. Obviously that’s a hugely dramatic event, involving a whole community. But if you wanted to make it smaller and more contained, then why not start a fire? (In your novel, of course – not on your desk.) It could be a big house-burning-down sort of fire, or it could be a small more easily containable fire. Either way, it’s the sort of emergency that brings character traits to the fore, and heightens relationships between them.

I always think that writing fiction is somewhere between finely tuned craft and childlike play. So don’t be afraid to play around with your characters. Put them in unusual situations. Write fan fiction of your own novel, if it helps, to see how your characters would respond in different circumstances. You can always pick and choose the bits you want to include later on.

writing in cafes - notebooks and coffee

4. Skip back a bit.

It’s a well-known truism that, if you run into problems on page 200 of your manuscript, the likelihood is that the original problem started on page 100.

I forget who originally said this, but it’s certainly proven true for me – not just in fiction, but sometimes in poetry as well, albeit on a smaller scale. Often, the bit you’re struggling on isn’t the problem. The problem is buried somewhere much earlier.

I suppose it’s a bit like catching a cold. The first time you cough or sneeze isn’t the first instant you’ve caught the cold. The illness has probably been there for a few days or hours, incubating as your immune system begins its attempts to combat it, before the symptoms show themselves. It’s the same with fiction. Something happens early on in the novel, or your character makes a wrong choice, and suddenly 100 pages later, you find you’ve reached the dead end.

The trick is working out what that choice was. Try working out what events led to the scene that you’re stuck on. Can you change one of them slightly?

Over-simplified example: a girl is walking through a forest, on the way to her grandmother’s house. She sees a wolf, and wisely avoids talking to him, because she’s always been told to avoid wolves. There’s a moment of dramatic tension where you think she’s going to break her promise to her mother, but because she’s the hero, she never does – so she continues through the wood till she arrives at the cottage. When she gets there, she has tea with her grandmother. Suddenly, you’re stuck in a scene where Red Riding Hood and her grandmother are making smalltalk about the weather and nothing is really happening very much.

You have two options.

Option 1 is to introduce a big dramatic event, such as a fire. Maybe a spark from the grate ignites the rug, and before you know it the whole cottage is in flames, forcing them out into the forest, and perhaps straight into the arms of the prowling wolf, who has followed Red Riding Hood to the cottage. Suddenly, you have a crisis, and a problem they have to solve. You have a story again.

Option 2 is to go back to a point earlier in the story, where Red Riding Hood meets the wolf. Instead of ignoring him as she’s been told to do, she tells the wolf all about where she’s headed, giving him time to reach Grandmother’s cottage ahead of her, to eat Grandmother, and assume his disguise. We change the protagonist’s actions, and by doing so also introduce a character flaw: her reckless disobedience (the flaw which, in the Roald Dahl version of the story, becomes her saving grace). Once again, we now have a story.

Writing poetry in a cafe in Grasmere

5. Skip forward.

If you’ve tried looking backwards in the story, and got nowhere, then you’re always free to go the other way, and to skip forwards. After all, there’s no rule saying you have to write your novel chronologically. It’s perfectly acceptable to write the bits where you know what’s going to happen, and then fill in the blanks later.

(Programmes like Scrivener are particularly useful for this, as they allow you to segment your writing project into scenes and chapters, then move them around if necessary.)

You might not even know what order the scenes go in just yet. That’s also fine. When I was drafting My Name is Monster, while I did have a vague notion of the direction of the story, there were definitely bits that I moved from one part of the novel to another during the writing process. At one point I had the whole manuscript printed out and arranged by scene on my living room floor, with all my furniture pushed back to the walls, so I could rearrange the order by moving the pages around from one place to another.

So if you’re stuck? Move on and write something else. You may get to a scene later on, where you realise X needs to have happened already in order for Y to happen later. Suddenly, you realise X is the missing ingredient to the scene you were stuck with all along.

Whatever happens, the important thing is to not let it get the better of you. Don’t give up – and keep writing!

There’s a lot of mystery around how a writer makes money. A couple of months ago, I had a great question from a teenager, who heard I was a writer, and wanted to know how many books I’d written. Or, to be clearer – how many books had I earned lots of money from?

Adjusting for inflation (between what counts as ‘lots of money’ to a writer versus what counts as ‘lots of money’ for most other people, and therefore not including my poetry pamphlets), I said, ‘One.’

His response? ‘How can you be a writer if you’ve only written one book?’

It’s a fair question. How can you make a living as a writer if you’ve only written one (full-length) book?

2019: How I Earned a Living (with Pie Charts):

At the beginning of 2019, I wrote a blog post about how to make a living as a writer, compartmentalising the different ways writers (including myself) can earn a living. It wasn’t an exhaustive list, as I don’t think these sorts of lists ever can be – after all, every writer is different, and we all work in different ways to find our own niches.

But it did attempt to break down the various ways that I, personally, earn my income.

I broke my income for 2018 down into sections. I made pie charts and line graphs to illustrate the proportions of these income sections, and to emphasise the inconsistency of earnings month by month. I made the whole thing as clear as I could possibly make it – but with one final caveat: just as a writer’s income is inconsistent month by month, so it’s also often inconsistent year by year.

2018 was an exceptional year for me. I sold the rights to my debut novel, and delivered on my final manuscript, which meant that not only did I receive an advance, but that two thirds of it were paid to me over 2 consecutive months. Cue a big income spike, and a large proportion in the ‘advance’ section of the income pie chart. But the flip side of that was that, as I didn’t publish a book in 2018, it was quite a slim year for readings, talks & festival appearances.

The upshot? The 2018 graphs & pie charts were only part of the picture.

So I’ve decided to break down my 2019 income in the same way – to look at the ways my income was earned in a very different year: one where I didn’t sell the rights to any new books, but my debut novel was released and I had all the attendant income that comes from talks & readings etc alongside that release.

As with 2018, I’ve broken my income down into sections. In 2018, these were:

  • earnings from commissions
  • earnings from running workshops (for young people and for adults)
  • income from competition wins
  • earnings from readings / talks etc
  • money from my advance on my novel
  • income from other arts-related work (mostly, but not limited to, arts administration roles)

One mark of how my income pattern has changed since last year has been the need to add more categories. As my career has grown, I’ve started to get different types of work – which makes sense, when you think about it. So for 2019, I’ve added the following income categories:

  • residencies
  • radio work
  • grant funding

I’ve also had to widen ‘money from advance on my novel’ to include other book sales income, as well as ALCS payments and payments for writing included in magazines & journals.

As becomes very quickly apparent, my biggest income in 2019 came from the 3rd & final part of my novel advance, and from grant funding. This makes sense: a lot of the year was taken up with working on a poetry project, which I was lucky enough to receive an Arts Council DYCP (Developing Your Creative Practice) grant to help fund.

The rest of my income, as in 2018, is made up of a combination of other bits and bobs. The ‘portfolio career’ as it’s so attractively called. One interesting factor (at least to me) is that while I did earn some income in the ‘other arts-related work’ category, it was so little as to be rounded down to 0%. For me, this is a good thing, as I deliberately tried to cut down on the paid admin work in 2019, in order to be able to focus more on the actual writing.

But what does the pie chart look like without those two anomalies: the novel advance & the Arts Council grant?

With the anomalies removed, the big changes immediately become more apparent. Let me pop the two graphs (2018 & 2019) side by side here for comparison:

The main changes from 2018-2019:

  • More categories. I’ve already mentioned this, but I’ll mention it again: with the novel coming out, other avenues of work have opened up to me. The two main ones are writing residencies and radio work (both writing & present a programme of my own, and appearing as a guest on others).
  • Increase in readings & talks. From only 2% in 2018, I earned 15% of my (adjusted) 2019 income from giving readings & talks. Again, this makes sense, with the novel coming out. You’re more likely to get readings when you’ve got a recently publish book to promote.
  • Decrease in workshops. This might seem surprising, given that you could expect publication to lead to an increase in workshop bookings. But in 2018, most of my workshops were in schools. The increase in residencies, and being away from home a lot in 2019, meant that I wasn’t around to do as many school workshops as I had done the previous year. An increase in one corner leads, quite naturally, to a descrease in another.

Income by Month:

But what about how my income was distributed across the year? I’ve already talked about how a writer’s income is rarely evenly distributed. As always, this was the case in 2019:

It’s instantly clear that April was a low month – as it was the previous year. In 2018, this was largely because of Easter. In 2019, it was because I spent a chunk of March, and all of April, away in the States, on a research trip (funded by the Arts Council Grant) and on a residency (unpaid). So, while there may not have been any income, there was also basically nothing in the way of outgoings – other than what was already paid for by the grant.

The big spike in June is because of my novel advance. The second-highest point, in January, is because this was when I received the bulk of the Arts Council Grant.

These two anomalies aside, the graph looks more like this:

As you can see, once those anomalies are removed, the first half of the year suddenly starts to look quiet erratic. February and March were pretty good months (thanks largely to a well-paid residency & commission in February, and a good-sized competition win in March), but January & April’s income was non-existent.

But in the second half of the year, after the publication of the novel in June, things settle down a bit. Sure, there’s still a bit of a summer slump, and the standard December dip – but that’s to be expected when you’re working freelance in an industry not directly connected with school holidays or Christmas.

Will things continue in a nicely predictable, secure & even way into 2020? Doubtful. From what I’ve got in the calendar so far, the first half of the year is all over the place – and it’s a bit too far away to make any predictions about the second half just yet. But as long as there’s something coming in (and hopefully a bit of a buffer in the bank account), fingers crossed the electricity will stay on, and there’ll still be food in the fridge.

Ok – so what am I saying with all of this?

I know, I know. This is just a bunch of graphs. Apart from the fact that I quite enjoy making pie charts, what’s the point of all of this?

When I made last year’s graphs, I wanted to point out how unstable a writer’s income can be, and how difficult it is to predict where the bulk of that income is going to come from. This year, my goal is something slightly different.

It can be so easy to assume, once a writer is published, and their book is on the shelves in Waterstones & in your local indie, that they’ve got everything made. A lot of people assume that a cheque comes through every month, with book royalties, and that the writer cashes this in order to cover their bills & food & coffees. I want to show that while, yes, publication has absolutely increased my income, earning a living as a writer still isn’t straightforward. There’s still a need to diversify. There are still months when you can earn almost (if not completely) nothing at all.

Does that sound a bit too doom & gloom? It isn’t meant to. But if you want some consolation, then here it is: sure, making a living as a writer can be difficult, and sure, you can have to turn your hand to lots of different things at once; but the advantage of that variety is that, once something starts to take off, you get to pick and choose, and you get to tailor your work to drop the bits you’re not so keen on, and amplify the bits you love. In other words, you get to create your own ideal job.

*

Read last year’s post:
How To Make a Living as a Writer

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

Recently, I was asked to give the keynote speech at my former school’s A-Level awards evening. For me, ‘keynote speech’ always conjures up an image of corporate conferences, sharp suits, and glass tabletops that somehow never seem to show up anybody’s fingerprints but your own.

With that in mind, I decided to do something that was the antithesis of all of that, and to talk about failure. And because I failed to write a blog post for this weekend, I thought I’d share it with you here:

Failing at Your Own Game:

I was a student at QEGS from 2011-2018. I’m now a writer. When you say you’re a writer, something quite off happens in people’s minds – and most people picture something like this:

Or maybe this:

Or even this:

Either that, or they ask if you’re the next J K Rowling, and how many millions you’ve made from your latest novel.

I assume I was asked to come and give this talk because being a published writer constitutes some kind of success. And it’s true that being a published writer does mean you get to do book signings, and occasionally get your book in a bookshop window, or get to go on a writing residency abroad. I’m currently spending a month writing in a medieval castle just outside Edinburgh.

But the reality is that most days are far less glamorous than that. Most of the time, it’s just me, sitting at my kitchen table, trying to hit a word count, and drinking far too many pots of coffee.

So even though tonight is all about celebrating success – and congratulations again to all of you on your A-levels – I don’t actually want to talk about success. Instead I’m going to talk about failure.

I want everyone to stand up.

Take a moment to look at these books. Count how many you’ve read.

Ok. Now I want you to stay standing if you’ve heard of at least one of these books.

Now stay standing if you’ve read at least one of these books (or even seen the film). Two? Three? Four? Five?

Each of these books was originally rejected for publication. So for books that at one point in their lives were considered failures, look how many of you have read at least one of them.

(Ok, sit down now)

These are some of the more famous examples of books that have been rejected, which went on to be bestsellers, and some to become classics. But these books aren’t actually very unusual. All writers get rejected, again and again. I send work off to journals and magazines. I apply for residencies, and grant funding. I submit poems and stories to competitions. The majority of these get rejected. And this isn’t because I’m a bad writer (at least I hope not!). It’s just a normal part of being a writer.

In 2018, I decided to try to apply for 100 things – a mix of residencies, grant applications, competitions, journal submissions – anything that could result either in an acceptance, or in rejection. My idea was that I could then easily find out a percentage of how many applications were successful, with the idea of creating some kind of transparency around how much rejection writers are likely face.

I didn’t quite manage 100 applied, so I failed even in that – but I did manage 87. And then at the end of the year, I made a pie chart.

By the end of the year, over 60% of those applications had been rejected. 19% – less than one in five – had had success or partial success (so, publication, or a prize win or shortlisting). At the time I put this data together, I was still waiting to hear back from 18%, but I can now tell you that only one of those was a success – the rest were all rejections. So the overwhelming majority of my applications in that year were failures.

So my question is: what’s the point? If most applications fail, then why keep doing them? If to be a writer is to be a failure, why even keep writing at all?

The most obvious reason is that not all applications are failures. Some of them (even if it’s just a few) are successful, and of course you don’t know which those are until you’ve tried, so you have to keep throwing out your net in the hope of catching a fish.

But there are other reasons too.

One is that failure is something we can learn from. If I send a poem into a magazine, most of the time it’ll come back as a rejection. But this gives me an opportunity to look at what isn’t working in the poem – to rewrite it and make it better. Each time a poem gets rejected, it’s another opportunity to improve it, and another opportunity to turn that failure into some kind of success.

But I also think it’s worth challenging what we perceive as failure, and what we perceive as success.

To look at this firstly in terms of writing: there’s a great quote from poet Caroline Bird, which is: ‘Writing a poem is impossible and once you realise this, you’re free.’ What I think she means is that, when you sit down to write a poem, you have in your head the perfect image of what this poem might be. (I know not all of you are poets – stay with me here, I promise there’s a great life lesson coming.)

You sit down to write a poem, and you imagine it’s going to be deep and thoughtful, it’s going to be moving, and lyrically beautiful, and full of original and striking imagery, that people are going to be quoting for the next 400 years – and next think you know, you’re winning the Nobel Prize for Literature.

The poem I end up writing may well have some of those qualities (although I’m yet to be nominated for a Nobel Prize), but it’s never going to be as perfect as the poem I imagined in my head. There’s another quote, by French essayist Paul Valery, which is: ‘A poem is never finished, only abandoned’. In other words, there’s always more that you can improve on.

But that’s why I keep writing. If I can never succeed in writing the perfect poem, then in a way, every time I sit down to write a poem, I’ve already failed – because it’s never going to be perfect.

This could be a really depressing way of looking at things – but instead, I find it inspirational. If so-called failure is inevitable, then we need to rethink what success looks like.

I remember the poet Don Paterson talking about the process of getting a book published: how for years and years, you can strive to have a book of poems published, because this is your ultimate goal. You eventually manage to secure a publisher. You spend years sending the manuscript back and forth to your editor. Eventually, you’ve done everything you can. You’ve seen the cover design. The publication date is set. You’ve figured out what you’re going to wear for your launch party and invited all your friends. The box of books finally arrives and they’re beautiful – slim volumes of your poems, with that enchanting new book smell and your name printed on the cover. You open the book, scan your eye over the first poem – and realise there’s a typo on line 3.

You’ve finally reached your end goal – you’ve finally achieved what you thought was success, only for it to disappoint you.

So my definition of success as a writer isn’t about publication, or book sales, or winning the Nobel Prize (although obviously all of those things are lovely if they happen to you). It’s about being able to write, and to keep on improving my craft as a poet and a novelist. To always be learning more about how to write, and to keep on putting that learning into practice.

Once I started thinking of success in these terms, every day that I get up to write becomes a success. Every time I write a sentence that I’m particularly proud of, is a success. Every finished poem is a success. The only failure is not writing, and not engaging with the process of writing.

So ok, you’re not all poets – so what does all this have to do with you? Well, for any of you who do write, this might sound all too familiar. But as I promised, we can extrapolate these lessons out to cover any aspect of life, not just writing.

When I was at QEGS, I was one of those annoying students who was good at both maths and English. What I liked about maths was that there might be multiple ways of getting there, but in the end there was a single right answer. What I liked about English was that there wasn’t.

So what does success look like to you, personally?

It might be running a multi-million-dollar start-up, and having your own private tropical island somewhere. But it could equally be really getting to know that one aspect of something you’re interested in, becoming an expert in, say, coffee production, or the way a painting is put together. There’s no right answer for your life, and no one definition of success. The best bit about your life, is that you get to define what makes it successful.

When I was asked to give this talk, I had no idea what I was going to say to you all. So I asked a load of other people what they would want to tell their 18-year-old selves – and I want to end by sharing some of their thoughts:

  1. Be curious and pursue what you enjoy. Being an expert is safe and boring, and learning is much more interesting. You don’t have to be good at something to enjoy doing it.
  2. Look after with knees, because with luck, you have a long journey to travel together.
  3. As long as you’re kind to other people, it isn’t selfish to also be kind to yourself.
  4. Don’t worry if you don’t know what you want to do with your life – you’ve got your whole lifetime to figure it out.
  5. The word ‘career’ also means ‘to travel downhill in an uncontrolled manner’. Job titles aren’t as important as you think. Lead with your heart, then let your head figure out how to get there. Remember that all those people who look as if they’ve got their lives completely sorted – they all have doubts and problems too. So resist the temptation to compare yourself to them.
  6. Enjoy the things that are enjoyable – don’t fall for the lie that there’s always a better party going on somewhere else. And if you do want a better party, by all means start your own.
  7. Whatever makes you different can end up being your superpower.
  8. Don’t let anyone tell you you’re not capable of achieving your dreams. But make sure the dreams you’re dreaming are your own and not someone else’s.
  9. There are so many ways to get where you’re going; it might be university, or it might be an apprenticeship, or saving up to travel the world, or getting at job in Morrisons. What’s important is your own individual journey.
  10. It’s never too late to change your mind.

And lastly, because I’m talking about failure, I’m going to fail to stick to just ten points, so I want to add three of my own thoughts to finish on:

  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help, particularly when it comes to crowd-sourcing your speeches.
  • Make sure you can cook at least one fancy meal, so you’ll always be able to impress people.
  • And lastly, and most importantly, keep on failing. Failing is a way to remind yourself what you enjoy about something. It isn’t the end result that’s important; enjoy the process. Learn. Develop. In the words of Samuel Beckett: ‘Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.’ And I’m going to add to Becket’s words, and say: don’t bother striving for somebody else’s definition of success; find your own definition of success, and fail at that instead.

So congratulations again on the success of your results – and here’s to the rest of your lives!

Ever fancied penning your novel in a medieval castle? Or pouring over poems in a cabin in the woods? Working on your script in a little apartment by the sea? Maybe what you’re looking for is a writing residency. But what exactly is a writing residency? And how do they work?

What is a writing residency?

First things first: not all residencies are created equal. Some offer more than others. Some last as much as a year, some only last a week or so. Some offer individual accommodation, some offer shared. Some pay, some don’t. Some even expect the writer to pay to attend, but that’s not the sort of residency I’m going to be focusing on in this post (more on those further down).

So what is a residency? Generally speaking, it’s a combination of accommodation & time to write. You get somewhere to sleep and somewhere to work. Sometimes, you also get meals, and / or a stipend, and / or travel expenses.

Sometimes, the residencies ask you to run a writing workshop, or to give a talk or something, in return. Sometimes you have absolutely no commitments other than working on your own writing.

I went on 3 residencies in 2019, and I’ve got another 4 lined up for this year. Here’s a quick run-down of what they offer(ed):

  • The Wordsworth Trust Poet in Residence, Cumbria, England: a month; a private study-bedroom in a shared house opposite Dove Cottage; payment; required to give a reading & run 4 workshops.
  • MacDowell Colony, New Hampshire, USA: 3 weeks; private bedroom in a shared house; a separate studio cabin in the woods; meals; travel expenses; no requirements other than writing.
  • Passa Porta, Brussels, Belgium: 4 weeks; private apartment in the centre of the city; travel expenses; stipend; participated in 2 translation workshops & wrote a blog post.
  • Hawthornden Castle, Scotland: 4 weeks; private room in shared medieval castle; meals; no requirements other than writing.
  • KSP Writers’ Centre, Perth, Australia: 3 weeks; private cabin; stipend; required to run a workshop, attend a literary dinner & give a library talk.
  • Gladstone’s Library, Wales: a month; private bedroom in residential library; travel expenses & stipend; meals; required to run a masterclass & give a talk.
  • Heinrich Boell Cottage, Achill Island, Ireland: 2 weeks; private cottage by the sea; no requirements other than own writing.

Residency Round-Up: The Wordsworth Trust

Residency Round-Up: MacDowell Colony

What’s so good about residencies?

Residencies give you time to write, away from the pressures of everyday life. Whenever I’m on a residency, I switch on my Out Of Office, (mostly) prepare and queue up my blog posts ready to go, and ignore my admin. (Ok, I’ll be honest – I do sometimes check my emails, just in case. But I restrict my email-checking to the occasional evening, and even then I only reply to the absolutely urgent ones. At some residencies, such as Hawthornden, there isn’t any wifi anyway.)

It’s amazing how much extra time there is in a day when you don’t have to fill half of it with answering emails and trudging through invoicing & expenses & admin. Particularly if someone else is making all your meals for you, as is the case with some residencies.

My 6 most productive weeks of 2019 were the 3 weeks of my MacDowell residency, and the first 3 weeks of my Passa Porta residency. I wrote way more than I’d normally have written during that time, and when I looked back on what I’d produced afterwards, some of it was quite different to what I think I’d have written at home. For me, these residencies pushed me qualitatively, as well as quantitively.

But residencies can also be time to read, and a chance to experiment with your craft. In contrast to MacDowell & Passa Porta, I wrote comparatively little during my Wordsworth Trust residency (though still probably more than I’d have written during the same period at home). What I did do, though, was oodles & oodles of reading – reading both poems, and books about writing poetry. I spent a lot of time thinking about the craft of poetry, and experimenting with my own style of writing – something which I’m sure contributed to my huge productivity at MacDowell a month later.

This is the sort of craft development that can easily get pushed to the side in everyday life, particularly when you’re having to write for commissions & deadlines etc, and so every poem has to be ‘good’; it can become difficult to make time to explore & experiment. Residencies can provide that time.

They can also be a way of meeting other writers – though this depends on the residency. For those residencies where there are a number of writers all there together (such as Hawthornden), it can be an excellent bonding experience, where everyone is working so intensively on their own manuscripts during the day, then coming together to eat and talk during the evenings.

For those residencies that are multi-disciplinary (such as MacDowell), it can also be a good way of meeting artists working in other forms, and of finding inspiration in conversations with non-writers.

I’ll be honest, a large part of my initial motivation to apply for residencies was the opportunity to travel. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I love to travel, and residencies can provide a cheap way of doing that. If you can get a residency that provides travel expenses & accommodation, then you’ve essentially got a free trip to wherever it is that the residency is based.

Of course, residencies aren’t meant for sightseeing; they’re meant for working. But if you’re there for a reasonable length of time, then you’re going to need the odd day off anyway (trust me: residencies can be intense, and it’s good to break the cabin fever once in a while).

Another good way of exploring an area where you’re in residence can be to extend your trip. If your residency pays travel expenses, then there’s no reason you can find your own accommodation for a few days before or after your residency, and stick around to see the sights then.

Of course, beyond the tourism, travel & change of environment can be excellent for the work as well. Stuck on a manuscript, or just getting too easily distracted at home? A change of workspace could be exactly what the doctor ordered. And honestly, it doesn’t even have to be a beautiful cabin in the woods, or a medieval castle. I’ve had some of my most productive poetic breakthroughs in Travelodges.

But let’s look at the financial side of things for a moment, too.

Some residencies pay a stipend – which is sometimes a token amount to help you buy pasta & notebooks, and is sometimes akin to an actual wage. This means that you can actually earn money by staying somewhere gorgeous and working on your manuscript. Depending on what you have in the way of expenses back home, it’s even possible to save some of this stipend money to fund even more writing time back at home. In 2019, residencies formed a not insignificant part of my income.

Even for those residences that don’t pay anything, they can still make financial sense. For example: I live alone, in an old house that’s kind of pricey to heat, which means that my bills can be huge. By planning residencies during the winter, I can go whole months without having to heat my house. I might not be being paid to attend the residency (though fingers crossed I’d eventually get an advance on the manuscript I was working on during it), but I’m also minimising my outgoings enormously.

5 Things About: Writing on the Move

What’s not so good about residencies?

Maybe by now you’re thinking it all sounds too good to be true. Obviously, nothing is perfect. For me, the positives of residencies have always outweighed any negatives. But I like to be honest on this blog, so here are some of the downsides to residencies:

When you’re in a place for a concentrated period of time, there can be a huge pressure to produce work. After all, you have this precious gift of time, and if you don’t use it to create something incredible, then doesn’t that mean that you’ve wasted it?

This negative aspect is largely self-inflicted. After all, it’s extremely rare that a residency will ask you for a quantative breakdown of what you’ve produced during your stay. Which means that the strategy for dealing with this pressure has to come from you as well. After all, you know your ways of working better than anyone. But just remember that you don’t have to write 17 novels and 53 essays during your residency. It’s just as vital to work on your practice in other ways, by thinking, by reading, and by exploring the way that you work.

Although, speaking of productivity, it is also possible for a residency to go the other way: that you’re so overwhelmed by the residency’s other requirements of you (running workshops / giving talks etc) that you end up with very little time or headspace left for actual writing.

This is largely down to the residency, to make sure that they don’t overload you. But you should also make the effort to be aware of what’s required of you before you start, and to raise any concerns you have about workload with the residency coordinator ahead of time. This obviously doesn’t mean you can be a diva about it – the occasional commitment is fine, particularly if the residency is paying you a fee or stipend on top of the accommodation. But if the commitments outweigh the writing time, or if they keep being piled on beyond what you originally agreed to, then maybe it’s time to say something.

The other issue I want to talk about is loneliness.

Writing residencies can be intense, and they can also be lonely. Even when there are multiple writers / artists on the same residency, you can end up spending a lot of time inside your own head. And when it’s just you in an apartment, writing all day and reading every evening, then that loneliness can be hugely amplified.

Think of it like this: you’ve gone to a new town or city, where you don’t know anybody. You’re willingly spending hours (if not days) at a time shut up in your room or house or apartment. You don’t speak to anyone, much, except maybe the person on the checkout in the supermarket. You may not even speak the local language.

Now imagine this for four weeks. It probably isn’t long enough to make solid friends, the way you would if you were moving to a new city for good. But it is a long time to spend away from your normal social groups.

Of course, everyone reacts to isolation differently. There’ll be some people reading this, for whom even the thought of a few days without talking to anyone sounds horrific. There’ll be some of you who think a few weeks’ isolation sounds idyllic. At the end of the day, we all know our own limits – or at least we suspect them.

Take me, for example. I think I’m a fairly independent person. I’m an only child, so we never really had a houseful growing up. I live alone. I also live rurally. I work freelance, so I don’t have colleagues who I interact with on a daily basis. I’m generally faily happy in my own company, and I like knowing that I have my own space if I need to get away from it all.

But, during part of my residency in Brussels last year, I felt very, very lonely.

I was fine for the first two weeks, after negotiating the first couple of days of settling in – difficult whenever you go anywhere new. By week 3, I was starting to miss friends & family, but was still managing to put that aside to focus on work. I’d also starting going for days and afternoons out to explore a bit more, and to force myself out of the apartment. But by week 4, I was honestly a bit of a mess. I missed conversations with people. I missed the sort of interaction that comes from knowing someone really well – or from getting to know someone through shared intense experience.

Don’t get me wrong: the residency was amazing, the staff at Passa Porta were utterly lovely, and Brussels is a stunning city. I just realised that 3 weeks is pretty much my limit for that kind of isolated residency.

Which is fine. I learned something about myself during the course of the residency. I now know that I can discount any residencies longer than 3 weeks, if there aren’t other artists or writers in residence at the same time. I discovered the limits of my loneliness.

How to survive a writing residency:

That all said: what’s my advice for anyone going on a residency?

Do your research before you go. Because residencies can be so varied in terms of what they offer, and who they cater to, it’s worth knowing exactly what you’re getting yourself in for beforehand. This means there shouldn’t be any nasty surprises when you get there, and also that you can prepare for any talks & workshops before you go, so they don’t cut too much into your precious writing time.

Go with a project in mind. Remember that pressure to produce that we were talking about earlier? This can be exacerbated if you’re the sort of writer who works on more than one project at once. If you’ve only got the one residency, what do you start with? Your novel? Your poetry collection? Your short stories? Your epic fantasy saga spanning seven volumes? Do you try to dedicate a little bit of time to each? Knowing what you want to achieve from the outset can help you avoid wasting time on indecisiveness, and allow you to hit the ground running when you arrive at the residency.

Speak to people. A good way to combat the possibility of loneliness is to actually speak to people. This is obviously easier if it’s the kind of residency where there are multiple people there at once. But even if you’re on your own, make an effort to find people to talk to. Fellow writers. That person in the cafe. Even just a brief exchange with the person behind the counter in the shop can help with the feelings of isolation.

Take breaks. Yes, you’re there to work, and it can feel a bit like every day needs to be a 12-hour writing marathon, stopping only for toilet breaks and coffee. But that isn’t a sustainable way of working, and slowly concentration will begin to wane. Take breaks to read a book, to go for a walk, to sit in a cafe and drink coffee you haven’t reheated 3 times in the microwave. It’s a way of rejuvenating your energy – and it’s amazing how many Eureka moments can come when you actually step away from the writing desk.

Get out and about. By which I mean: don’t just take breaks in the immediate vicinity of your residency, but get even further away from the writing desk from time to time. During my MacDowell residency, a group of us took a whole day off to drive to a nearby town and try our hands at an Escape Room. It was completely unrelated to anything any of us were working on, but was also the best thing we could have done, to break that feeling of cabin fever we hadn’t even realised was beginning to set in.

Don’t beat yourself up if you’re not hitting your word counts. Yes, you’ve come with a specific project in mind, and you probably have goals you want to achieve while you’re in residence. But, while I absolutely believe that half the battle is just showing up to write, I also know that it isn’t a certain thing either. Sometimes, however hard you smack your head against your notebook or stare down that blank Word document, the words just won’t come. And that’s fine, too. You can have blank spells during a residency just as much as you can at any other time. The beauty of the residency is that you still have all that free time for creativity – so you can use it to read, or to freewrite, or to go for a walk and just think through your creative project. You can still be working, even when you’re not actually writing out words.

Pack snacks – and maybe a bottle of wine or two. This is a personal one, but I’m a big one for snacking, and I find it really hard to work if I’m hungry. So if I know I’m going somewhere that might not have easy access to a grocery shop, I always find it’s a good idea to stick a bag of biscuits in my bag – just in case. Even if I don’t end up eating them, I just like to know they’re there on the offchance I might need them. Plus, they’re a great way of breaking the ice. And the wine? Again: wine is nearly always a good way of making friends!

What to watch out for:

I said at the start of this post that not all residencies are created equal. The truth is that some offer much, much more than others. It isn’t always the case that the most respected residencies offer the most – but it is often the case that the less respected (and often less conducive to creativity) can actually take the most from the writer. The best way to avoid any upleasant surprises is to always read all the information available before you apply – just so you know what’s what.

A few things I’ve come across, which aren’t always bad, but which need to be noted, are:

Shared accommodation:

It’s quite common for residencies to offer writers a private bedroom / study-bedroom in a communal house, which may have shared bathrooms and communal workspaces – though you’re generally free to work in your room if you prefer privacy.

But I have also seen some residencies that only offer shared bedrooms (shared with another resident / residents, who you won’t meet till you arrive). I’ve even heard report of a residency that expected the writers to share a bed! Personally, I don’t think asking strangers to share a bed is ever appropriate, but I suppose the shared bedrooms thing is a matter of individual preference. If it’s something you’d be fine with, then go for it. Personally, I need my own space to work in.

Application fees:

A number of residencies charge a fee for you to apply. Usually, this is to offset the cost of processing the applications. After all, an individual residency might receive hundreds of applications, and somebody needs to process all of those, to check eligibility and ultimately to make a decision. That person probably needs paying, hence the application fee. Sometimes it can also go towards funding the residencies slightly, in the same way that the prize pot for a writing competition might be funded by the entry fees. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – some highly respected residencies charge a fee to apply. It’s just something to be aware of before you decide whether apply, so that you can budget it into your decision.

Fee-paying residencies:

I mentioned this at the start of the post, and I want to talk about it here, because some residencies not only charge a fee to apply, but also charge a fee to attend. Sometimes this is nominal – just enough to cover a cleaner’s fee, or maybe put something towards electricity bills. But sometimes the cost can be as much as (or even more than) the cost of a hotel.

Again, there’s nothing wrong with paying for a room / apartment / cottage to go and write in, but I would argue that this is something different from a writing residency. I would argue that this is more like a self-guided retreat – like the kind offered by Arvon & by Gladstone’s Library. You pay your money, and in return you get to stay in a peaceful & supportive environment, and work on your manuscript.

But the thing about retreats like these is that they’re not selective. By which I mean: anyone can book and go on one, in the same way that anyone can book a room in a hotel. Again, that’s absolutely fine. There are hundreds of great reasons why these models work, and why you might want to pay to isolate yourself and focus on your manuscript – many of them th same as the ones above in this blog post.

However, if there’s a selective application process involved, and then you have to pay the full cost of the residency in order to attend, then I always wonder: why not just book into a hotel instead? Why bother with the whole hassle of writing & submitting an application, then waiting to see if you’ve been successful, when you can just book a retreat at Arvon or Gladstone’s in minutes – and know what you’re getting as well?

I’ve even seen so-called residencies that charge writers a fee to apply, and then also charge an astronomical amount for the writer to actually attend the residency. That’s like paying £20 to be in with the chance of booking an apartment on Airbnb, then having to wait 6 months to find out if you got it or not. Why would you do that?

Fortunately, there are plenty of residency opportunities that don’t try to make lots of extra money from the writer, and that aren’t commercial retreats masquerading as exclusive residency opportunities. So as long as you do your research, there should always be a residency that will suit the needs of each individual.

Ok, so where can I go?

There are residencies all over the world, and far too many to list here, even if I did know them all. I’ll start with the ones already mentioned in this post:

  • The Wordsworth Trust Poet in Residence is in Grasmere, Cumbria (UK), and has so far been running every couple of years. They announce call-outs for applications through the e-news, so it’s worth signing up to their mailing list in their website footer.
  • MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire (USA) has regular call-outs for applications.
  • Passa Porta in Brussels (Belgium) runs its own writing residencies, which can be applied for directly. For UK-based writers, they work with the National Centre for Writing in Norwich, and applications are announced through their website instead.
  • Hawthornden Castle, just outside Edinburgh (UK), has an unusual application process, in that everything is done by snail mail, and by hand. To request an application form, you have to send a physical letter to: Hawthornden Castle, The International Retreat for Writers, Lasswade, Midlothian, EH18 1EG. Completed application forms (including 2 professional references) are then due to be submitted by the end of each June, for residencies the following year.
  • The Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre is in Perth (Australia), and runs a series of residencies for writers at varying levels of experience. These are open for application on an annual basis.
  • Gladstone’s Library is a residential library in Wales (UK), which means that anyone can pay to stay there. But if you’re looking for their writer in residence programme, then this is an annual application process, based around a published book.
  • Heinrich Boell Cottage is on Achill Island in County Mayo (Ireland), and is another one that requires a physical application. The deadline each year is the end of September, for a residency the following year – however, it’s worth noting that I didn’t receive a reply on my application till October the year after I submitted it (in the July), so this system may not be completely foolproof.

But of course, there are hundreds of other places to look for residencies. Good places to start your search might be:

  • ResArtis is an online database of residencies. It allows you to search for residencies with current application opportunities, as well as to filter by artform, accommodation type, and geographical location. Be aware that this website also features residencies where the writer has to pay to attend, so be sure to read all the details before you decide whether to apply.
  • Simliar to ResArtis, the other one to check is TransArtists. This online resource also allows filtered searches, and also features fee-paying residencies alongside ones where the writer doesn’t pay.
  • Arts Council England runs two mailing lists: ArtsJobs and ArtsNews. These sometimes advertise residencies, so it’s worth signing up to them. It’s also worth signing up to the relevant equivalent mailing lists if you’re based in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, too.
  • Sign up to the mailing list of your regional writing organisation. For me, this is New Writing North, who are based in Newcastle. They also share residency opportunities, as well as lots of other useful info.
  • If you want to travel, then periodic checks of the opportunities page on the British Council website aren’t a bad idea, either, as sometimes these include residencies & travel opportunities for individual writers.
  • Another option? Sit down one evening with a couple of hours to spare, and a big glass of wine, and google variations on ‘writing residencies’ or ‘writer in residence opportunities’. Keep a list of anything that comes up, whcih you think might interest you.

If you’re applying for a residency, or you’re off to participate in one, then the best of luck! And in the meantime, here’s my favourite list of ‘residencies’ for you, from the New Yorker:

The New Yorker: Little-Known Writing Residencies

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. 2019 has been one of those years – summarised as best as I possibly can here, in a mix of words and pictures.

Publications:

Let’s start with the big one, which I’m sure everyone reading this is already well aware of, as I’ve barely shut up about it for the past 12 months: my debut novel, My Name is Monster, which was published by Canongate in June.

From the moment I first saw the proposed cover design for the book, I fell in love with it. Since then, it’s been a rollercoaster of proofreading, launches, and two (yes, two!) dedicated bookshop windows! I did a series of events in some of the amazing bookshops and libraries around Cumbria, and appeared at a bunch of festivals, including Cheltenham, Edinburgh Book Fest, Port Eliot & Borderlines.

Seeing the book in print, and even more seeing it on the shelves in bookshops, has been a phenomenal experience. It still feels strange to know that something that started off as a vague idea somewhere in the recesses of my brain, has been made into an actual physical object, that people can pick up and buy and read and take their own thoughts from. It’s like some strange form of alchemy.

My Name is Monster: available from all good bookshops!

*

In the poetry department, 2019 also saw the publication of my second pamphlet, Assembly Instructions.

Assembly Instructions was published in March by Southword, after winning the Munster Fool for Poetry Chapbook Competition. And, because Southword are based in Cork, I got to travel to Cork Poetry Festival to launch it, and to read from the book at Cork Library.

Read the opening poem from Assembly Instructions here.

Residencies:

This year, I’ve learned that residencies are like buses. You spend years applying for them, and then suddenly all the successful applications come through at once.

My first residency was for the month of February, with an organisation I know well, having run numerous schools workshops for them over the past 5 or 6 years: The Wordsworth Trust, in Grasmere.

While I did, of course, write poetry during the residency, what proved most valuable was the time to read, and the time to experiment with poetic practice. These are the things that so often get pushed to the side, in favour of admin and deadlines, so it was hugely important to have that time to focus on the poetic craft, without the pressure of having to ‘produce’ something.

Residency Round-Up: The Wordsworth Trust

I’m certain this time was instrumental in setting me up for the amount of work I produced during my second residency of the year: MacDowell.

MacDowell Colony is a multi-disciplinary residency, set across an area of woodland in New Hampshire, USA. Each resident gets their own studio, which takes the form of a little house or cabin in the woods, and gets their lunch delivered to them in a little picnic basket. Breakfast & dinner are communal meals in the big house.

Residency Round-Up: MacDowell Colony

The main thing I noticed at MacDowell was how much time there was in each day. Having someone else cooking my meals for me freed up way more time than I’d anticipated, and I had possibly the most productive 3 weeks I’ve had all year – rivalled only by my first 3 weeks at Passa Porta.

Passa Porta was my third residency of the year, in Brussels. It was a month-long stay in an apartment in the centre of Brussels, through a partnership between Passa Porta, the National Centre for Writing and the Flemish Literature Fund. It gave me the chance to finish a first (very rough) draft of my poetry collection – and, of course, to eat a lot of waffles!

Each of these 3 residencies had a very different feel, and I learned a lot about myself and about my ways of working by doing them. (I think I may write a blog post about it sometime in the new year. Watch this space!) But in the meantime, I’m just celebrating the opportunity to live and work in such beautiful places, and to meet so many interesting people.

And speaking of beautiful places…

Arts Council Funding:

At the end of 2018, I was lucky enough to be awarded a DYCP (Developing Your Creative Practice) Grant from Arts Council England.

As well as buying me time to write this year, the grant also paid for me to go to the US to research my collection. This was split between 10 days in New York, using the collections at New York Public Library, and around 10 days driving between Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky, following the historic route that my ancestors took towards Missouri, and eventually to Kansas.

The opportunity to research the collection in the actual places where so many of the poems are set was incredible. I met some hugely interesting people along the way (and had some conversations that still leave me reeling – some of which have made it into poems), and got to drive through some utterly stunning landscapes. Honestly, I think I’m still processing the trip, and working bits of it into the poems. I’ll probably still be processing it long after the collection is finished.

(Side note: if you’re considering applying for a DYCP grant, go for it! it’s a [relatively] straightforward application, and it’s proved to be invaluable for me.)

Radio:

This year, I’ve also slipped, almost accidentally, into the world of national radio. Specifically: Radio 4.

This started at the end of last year, when I was asked to write & present the Cumbria episode of Tongue & Talk: The Dialect Poets, for independent production company Made in Manchester. The programme was one in a series, exploring dialect poetry in regions across the country, and its continuing impact today. I was given the Cumbria episode, which I used to explore the intersection between dialect poetry, place and identity – particularly looking at what it means to be an ‘offcomer’ in Cumbria. The programme aired at the start of June, just before My Name is Monster was published.

Then, since My Name is Monster came out, I’ve also been on Radio 4 a couple of times to talk about that. The first was on Open Book, from the Edinburgh Book Festival in August, talking about the book in the context of millennial writers / readers. The second was just a couple of weeks ago, on Front Row, which was based around the 300th anniversary of the publication of Robinson Crusoe, and why we’re still drawn to survival stories. An interesting one to talk about the day after the general election…

And the rest:

2019 has also been not a bad year for prizes – though mostly in the ‘almost, but not quite’ category. Still, given the calibre of some of the competitions, and the high quality & quantity of entries, I’m over the moon to be shortlisted, or even longlisted! This is something I’m a firm believer in: there’s so much poetry & fiction out there, that any positive recognition of a piece of work is something to be hugely proud of, whether it wins the big first prize or not.

This year, those successes have included: being shortlisted for the Manchester Poetry Prize, the Mslexia Poetry Prize, and the Bridport Poetry Prize; coming 3rd in both the Magma Editors’ Prize and the Plough Short Poem Prize; and being longlisted for the University of Canberra Vice Chancellor’s Poetry Competition. I’ve also had individual poems published in Magma magazine, Under the Radar, and in Mslexia – which I’ve been tryingt to get a poem into for the past decade!

To add to the other poetry, this year I was commissioned by Théâtre Volière to write a series of poems exploring the history of women in and around Gretna. The poems ranged from the more well-known stories of elopements, to the women who worked at the nearby ‘Devil’s Porridge’ munitions factory during the First World War, to those who worked the land and fished in the Solway. The poems were performed at Ye Olde Mitre pub in London in March, along with music from Scottish fiddle-player Lori Watson. They were then performed again in October, at the RADA studio in London, as part of an event launching the anthology of commissioned work.

I also wrote a couple more commissioned poems for the National Trust this year, as part of their Tables Turned project: a three year participation project, which is all about bringing together community groups, young people, historians, curators and artists in projects that deepen understanding, build new partnerships and inspire creativity.

Having written a poem in response to meeting the miners and listening to them recount their experiences of working in the mines on Cumbria’s West Coast, I was then commissioned to write two more poems, inspired by the work the National Trust had done with other groups: pupils from Keswick School, and members of Glenmore art group and Glenmore creative writing group. These poems were a mix of original work, and words collaged from the work and conversation of participants. The result? Three poems, each then filmed by John Hamlett, which were played as part of the Under Northern Skies exhibition alongside artwork from the groups, at Carlisle Old Fire Station.

So what next?

2020 is already shaping up to be as busy as 2019.

I’ve already got 4 residencies lined up for next year, to continue working on my poetry collection, and to (hopefully) make a start on drafting my second novel: a month at Hawthornden Castle in Scotland; 3 weeks at the Kathrine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre in Perth, Australia; another month at Gladstone’s Library just over the border into Wales; and 2 weeks at Heinrich Boell Cottage, on Achill Island in Ireland.

To tie in with the Australia residency, I’m also planning an epic trip in the first part of next year (think multiple countries & continents!), during which I’ll turn 30! It doesn’t seem like 5 minutes ago since I was making my ’32 things before 30′ list, so it’ll be good to look back and see which ones I’ve managed to achieve.

And when I get back? There’s always Kendal Poetry Festival to look forward to (I’ll be orchestrating a guerrilla poetry project for that again in 2020), and a bunch of workshops that are already booked into my diary.

Oh, and as if that wasn’t enough – next year will not only see the release of the paperback of My Name is Monster (with a new & equally beautiful cover that I can’t wait to share!), but will also see the book published in German, as Mein Name ist Monster! World domination here we come…

In the meantime, I guess I’ll just continue working on my poetry and my fiction, and sharing the occasional blog post.

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Hope you’ve had a wonderful 2019 – and all the best for the new year. Happy writing!

If you want to be a writer, you have to learn to write. Obvious, right? Right. I mean, if you wanted to be a concert pianist you’d expect to have to learn to play the piano first.

But there’s this weird thing that happens with writing, where some people think that, because they can write words down (a shopping list? An email? A letter to a friend?) they can write a story or a poem or a play, or whatever it may be. After all, they use words every day – surely it’s just a matter of choosing the right ones?

If you’re reading this, then you’re probably already well aware that it doesn’t work like this. You have to understand the craft of your writing – to learn about narrative arc, voice, dialogue, sentence structure, point of view, figurative language, rhythm and meter, pacing, imagery…

Sure, you can write without understanding any of this, and if you’re writing solely for the pleasure of it and it isn’t about writing well, then fine. Just because we enjoy something doesn’t mean we have to monetise it – whatever capitalism has to say about it. After all, I’m a far cry from selling out a solo gig at the Royal Albert Hall, but I take huge enjoyment from singing in the shower now and again.

But if you want your writing to be good, as judged by industry expectations, then you’re going to have to learn it, just like any other craft.

So how do you learn to write?

Books at Allan Bank, Grasmere (National Trust)
Allan Bank, Grasmere (National Trust)

Read.

Before you even pick up a pen, you need to read as widely and as deeply as you can. You don’t have to be a particularly fast reader, but you have to read well. By that, I mean you have to read with a critical eye. You’re not just reading for the story any more, to find out what happens. Instead, approach each book as a training exercise.

  • How is this author creating suspense?
  • How do they make you like their protagonist?
  • If the book feels a bit slow or you lose interest at some point, why is that?
  • How could you avoid making the same mistakes?

If you don’t like to read (and, believe it or not, I have actually met people who write, who say that they hate books), then you need to question whether you really do want to be a writer. If it’s just because you like the sound of your own voice, then record yourself reading the phone book or something instead. Writers need to read, the same way that painters need to look at other paintings.

I’ve also met people who say they don’t read because it’ll influence what they write.

Good.

Let yourself be influenced by others. That doesn’t mean you have to copy their ideas or steal their characters (in fact, there are laws against that sort of thing). But if a writer has a particularly engaging way of writing dialogue, so that you can actually hear the characters coming off the page, then absolutely study their technique and let it influence yours. If you’re an aviation engineer, you need to study the concept of how an aeroplane wing works or the plane will fall out of the sky. If you’re a writer, you need to study how to string a sentence together, or construct a plot, or develop a character, or your book will never get off the ground.

writing prompt - Katie Hale

Read widely.

Reading in your own genre is great. If you write crime fiction then sure, read crime fiction. Figure out what other crime writers are doing, what they have done in the past. Where do you fit within the genre? How can you do something different?

But read other stuff as well. Let yourself be influenced by writers of all kinds. Read thrillers and romance. Read literary fiction. Read poetry and play scripts. Read classics. Read YA. Read non-fiction. Heck, read a picture book. As long as you read critically, you’re growing your craft. And the variety of your influences may just give you your distinctive voice.

As well as reading other types of fiction, and poetry, and scripts, and creative non-fiction, try reading books about writing. Study what other writers do, and study what other writers are telling you to do.

There are literally hundreds of ‘how to’ books out there. (Ok, probably there are thousands, but obviously I haven’t counted. I’m too busy reading and writing.) So how do you choose which ones are worth your time?

Honestly, it’s probably going to be trial and error. Recommendations are great, but what works for your friend might leave you high and dry, whereas something another writer has found completely useless might be like gold dust for you. We’re all different writers and, crucially, we’re all at different stages of development in our writing. So we’re all going to be looking for something different. If you want to try a few without a big price tag, see what you can get from your local library. You can then dip into a number of options, and if you find one you like, potentially buy a copy afterwards.

In the meantime, here are a few books on writing that I would recommend:

  • Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way
  • Louise Doughty’s A Novel in a Year
  • Renni Browne & Dave King’s Self-Editing for Fiction Writers
  • Will Storr’s The Science of Storytelling
  • Peter Sansom’s Writing Poems
  • Glyn Maxwell’s On Poetry

new year writing resolutions: Katie Hale

Write.

Reading is all very well, but of course you also need to write. Just as a concert pianist learns to play sonatas by practising scales, so you can learn to write by writing. You can write exercises, or you can write that epic novel that you’ve had in the back of your brain for ages. It doesn’t really matter, so long as you’re writing, and you’re working out at all times how you can improve.

Try different voices. Try different forms. Try using techniques you’ve observed in your reading – how do they work for you?

Practice makes perfect – and although I’m not entirely sure I believe in ‘the perfect novel’, at least practising can help to get you closer.

Social media addiction - Katie Hale, Cumbrian poet, writer and artist

Join a writing group.

Once you’re on the way with your writing, you’re going to realise what a solitary process it can be, if you haven’t already. I guess it’s a bit like parenting – sometimes you just need to talk to other people who are going through the same thing.

Writing groups can take any form. They can be workshopping groups, where you get together to comment on each others’ works in progress. They can be support groups, where you share opportunities and talk about the problems you may be facing. They can be physical groups (at someone’s house, in the pub, in a specially booked room somewhere), or they can be online groups. They can be mixed ability, or grouped so that everyone has similar levels of experience.

I’m in a number of writing groups, each with its own focus:

  • A poetry group that meets once a month, where we each bring in a poem to workshop as a group.
  • A group that focuses more on fiction (and scripts), which also meets once a month, and for a full day. In the mornings, we do a number of writing exercises, usually with a specific theme or focus, and in the afternoons we workshop bits of our works in progress, which we circulate about a month in advance.
  • A WhatsApp group of other debut writers, which we use as a support group for sharing experiences / successes / difficulties etc, rather than for sharing actual work.
  • I also have a number of friends who are writers, who I often share things with individually.

I’ve also been in a number of other groups over the years, as I’ve moved around geographically, and as my focuses have changed. For me, the groups that seem to work best are the ones where everyone is at a similar level – if not of experience or knowledge, then at least of commitment. As with many things, it helps if everyone is coming from a place of similar understanding.

If you’re looking for a writing group in your local area, and you’re not sure where to start, try by googling, or by asking at your local library, arts organisation or community centre. Talk to other writers in your area – particularly ones who write something similar to what you write. If you’re not sure who these might be, try asking at any local bookshops.

Still can’t find anything? Start one yourself!

script writing for theatre - Katie Hale

Look at writing courses.

This one isn’t essential. You can absolutely become a good writer without ever going on a writing course. After all, most of the hard work is done between you and the notebook, and it takes time. It isn’t something someone can teach you in a week, a month, or even a year.

That isn’t to say that writing can’t be taught. Writing is a craft, and any craft is teachable, as long as the student has the willingness, passion and skill to learn. But it takes time. You might learn to play the odd tune on the piano in a year, but you won’t yet be a concert pianist.

But, with that caveat made, there are still a number of really good reasons to explore courses as a means of improving your writing.

  • You can learn from experienced tutors.
  • They’re often a good way of meeting other writers, who’ll have similar writing interests to yourself – and whom you may also be able to learn from.
  • If you’re stuck in a rut with your writing, a course can help you to see things from a new perspective.
  • A course can give you confidence as a writer, and goodness knows we all need that from time to time.
  • Particularly with residential courses, or longer courses such as an MA, they can be a good way of forcing yourself to carve out writing time from your daily life.
  • They’re also incredibly fun!

As with writing groups, there are all kinds of different courses available, depending on the needs, experience level and budget of the writer.

  • Arvon and Ty Newydd are well-known as centres for tutored residential courses, usually over a weekend or a week.
  • Online courses such as the Poetry School.
  • One-day workshops, as well as longer evening / afternoon courses run by adult education providers.
  • One-off workshops through libraries, arts organisations, bookshops and book festivals.
  • I’ve also heard great things about Sophie Hannah’s Dream Author coaching programme for writers.

If you want to go down the university route, there are undergraduate courses (usually 3 years full-time or 6 years part-time), or Masters level courses (1-2 years full-time and 2-3 years part-time). Beyond that there are PhDs, if you’re more advanced.

These courses vary hugely in terms of cost, and of course we know that even well-established writers are rarely rolling in it, let alone writers who are just starting out. But many of them will offer bursary schemes for writers on low incomes, so they’re still worth exploring, even if your budget isn’t huge.

*

And there are my thoughts on learning to write!

Next week: The Writer’s Apprenticeship 2: Learning the Ropes of the Industry

 

Autumn is very definitely here. I’m getting used to waking up in the dark again, and to lighting the fire in the evenings. I always like autumn – I like the chance to unearth all my warm woolly jumpers and rug up against the long nights. And I like the fact that the early dark means cosying up with book to read – or to write.

That said, I haven’t actually written that much this month. I’ve drafted the odd poem, but really, October has been a month of sorting things out, in between a writing-filled September, and my residency in Brussels next month.

Sometimes, I think it can be good to take time away from the rigorous writing – partly for the sake of giving yourself some breathing space (I’ve written a bit about this here), but also because sometimes you just need to do a lot of life admin. And I’ve got a hectic six months coming up, with very little time for taking stock and getting organised within that time. Want proof of how much I’ve had to get organised this month? I’ve already started planning workshops for 2020, because this was my only opportunity. Hence easing up on the writing a bit.

The flip side of this, of course, is that I’m currently chomping at the bit, and desperate to get some more words on the paper. Bring on Brussels!

A Few Good Things:

Borderlines Festival

Borderlines is Carlisle’s book festival, and has fast become a key event in Cumbria’s literary calendar. This year, I took part in a number of ways: from performing at a poetry evening, to talking about My Name is Monster, to running a workshop & leading an open mic at the University of Cumbria.

And, like so many festivals, it was also a great way to catch up with friends and get to see some other great writers talking about and reading from their work.

Cheltenham Festival

And speaking of festivals…

Earlier this month, I was invited to Cheltenham Festival, to talk about My Name is Monster, alongside Sara Collins, whose excellent novel, The Confessions of Frannie Langton, is as gripping and tense as it is beautiful and heart-wrenching.

The festival was of course excellent (and the green room was outstanding!) but what really topped off the trip for me was the hotel. Huge shoutout to my publicist Anna for booking it – it was a beautiful Art Deco room in a stunning building. And what’s more, there was a free G&T on arrival, and complimentary sloe gin on the bedside table. I’m not ashamed to say that I deliberately woke up two hours earlier than necessary, so that I could lounge around in the fancy bath robe and drink the posh teas and write poetry in my room.

Workshops

I’ve also done a few schools workshops this month – including working with around 160 children & young people over the course of 2 days! Fortunately, all of them were lovely and keen, and wrote some absolutely jaw-dropping poetry.

The Month in Books:

This month has been a bit of a mix, books-wise. Some things that have been on my to-read list for a while. Some completely new books. And some that I’ve been dipping in and out of for months and have finally finished. And (for once) a nice mix of prose and poetry:

  • The Confessions of Frannie Langton, by Sara Collins
  • Typhoid August, by Sarah Fletcher
  • Writing Poems, by Peter Sansom
  • The Complete Middle School Study Guide: American History, by Philip Bigler
  • The Testaments, by Margaret Atwood
  • The Little Snake, by A L Kennedy
  • Joy, by Sasha Dugdale
  • Mrs Sartoris, by Elke Schmitter

The Month in Pictures:

There are a number of questions I get asked about being a writer. Inevitably, these include: Have you written anything I’ve heard of? Are you going to be the next J.K.Rowling?

And, sometimes, What do you do all day?

I can’t really answer the first two questions, but I can definitely have a crack at the last one. This question usually comes from people of a generation where working from home is still a largely recent possibility (though not always), and is often asked with a look of concern that I don’t have a ‘proper job’. It’s also quite frequently followed by: But how do you earn a living?

The other way I get asked about my daily routine is more along the lines of, How do you stay motivated? If you don’t have a boss telling you to be at your work station at a certain time, then how do you make yourself get out of bed and do the work?

These are both huge topics in their own right: what constitues the job of being a writer, and how writers can earn a living. I can’t tackle the here; they both deserve their own blog posts.

(I’ve talked a bit about motivation & celebrating success as a writer here, and about a writers’ income here.)

But for now, let’s focus on our initial question: what on earth do I do all day?

the writing desk

Morning:

I like to start the day with the most important bits of being a writer: the writing. (Actually, I like to start the day with coffee, but maybe that is the most important bit of being a writer? Then once the coffee’s made and is slowly waking up my brain, I can move onto the actual writerly bits.)

I’m sure many of us have seen that inspirational message that does the rounds on social media from time to time, about how we should fill our time with the important things first and foremost, rather than cluttering it up with the little things that don’t matter. Just in case you haven’t, I’ll paraphrase:

If you take a glass jar and fill it with ping pong balls, the jar will appear full. But then if you take a handful of beads you’ll find that you can still fit them in the jar, because they’ll filter down the gaps. Once the beads are added, the jar will appear full again. But you can still add sand to the jar, as this will trickle between the beads and fill up all the really tiny gaps. But if you’d started with the sand, and then added the beads, you’d find that you wouldn’t have enough room for all the ping pong balls. The message is this: that we should make room for the big things first – in life as well as in jars.

Ok, so I admit it’s fairly corny, but it’s also true. Make room for the important things, and all the little bits and bobs will fill up around them. But if you fill up your time with all the little things, you’ll soon find you run out of time for the important stuff.

Which is why I reserve the mornings for reading, writing and editing. Sometimes I’ll do some of each ot these in a morning, and sometimes I’ll stick to just one. It depends where I am in a project.

What’s really important is that I leave all the admin bits to the…

Afternoon:

The afternoon is sort of a free-for-all. Sometimes I’ll carry on with whatever I’ve been doing in the morning. Sometimes I’ll switch to all the other stuff that makes the one-woman writing business tick (and if you’re doing it professionally, then it is a business).

What does this include? Everything from emails (don’t we all have to do these?) to submissions to competitions and magazines, to residency or funding applications. Sometimes, I try to get outside to go for a walk or something during the afternoons, to get some fresh air and get my sedentary self moving – but I’ll be honest, this happens far less than I’d like it to.

(Residencies are another matter – when I’m lucky enough to be on a residency, I can step away from all the admin bits, which means the freedom to spend some time thinking / walking / exploring my new surroundings.)

And in the evenings?

My evenings are technically non-work time, where I can read or watch Netflix or whatever, but this rarely actually happens. Often the emails and/or the admin bits drag over, and I find myself switching off my laptop much later than I’d like. This is less than ideal for a number of reasons, but especially because it means that, when I go to bed, my brain is still whirring with everything on my to-do list, and so I don’t sleep as well. So, when I have to get up and write the next day, it isn’t from quite as good a place as I would necessarily like it to be.

One of my new year’s resolutions for 2019 was to keep my evenings work-free. Like most resolutions, I did pretty well in January. But of course, it started to slip. I guess it’s one I need to reinstate.


Caveat: like most day-in-the-life pieces, this is an idealised version of my writing day, and is often discarded in favour of an all-day workshop and / or a frantic rush to meet deadlines. But this is the template I try to fit my other days around, and sometimes – just sometimes – I manage to make it happen.

 

Imagine. Your best friend has just published their eighth novel. It’s nominated for the Man Booker Prize, which they’ve won before. They’re also an award-winning poet with two Forward Prize-winning poems, and a T S Eliot Prize-winning collection. They get flown all over the world and put up in 5* hotels so they can speak their great wisdom at international literary festivals. Their events sell out within minutes, and their signing queue stretches for a mile and a half. Every time you walk past a bookshop, their covers wink at you from the windows. They’re also the nicest person in the world, and have just been nominated as most beautiful writer of all time. They’ve just been nominated for a Nobel Prize. The village book club thinks your books are kind of interesting, but nobody writes quite like your best friend.

Don’t worry, I’m not having an emotional crisis. This best friend is fictional.

But we all know what it’s like to see other people having more success than ourselves. Even the most famous writers know what this is like. It can just be a bit difficult to remember that when you’re wallowing in the depths of your own rejections.

So how do you keep your spirits up, when it feels like everyone around you is way more successful than you are?

the writing desk - February 2018

Redefine your idea of success.

We’re so used to talking about success as the opposite of rejection. Did your poem get rejected from that magazine, or was it successful? I know – I do this as well. In all honesty, I’m going to keep doing it here.

But let’s start reshaping our idea of what ‘rejection’ means. I’ve talked a bit about this before, but rejection doesn’t have to be a negative thing. After all, with every ‘thanks but no thanks’ that comes back, you free up your poem / story / whatever to send it out to a different journal or competition. In some ways, every rejection increases your chance of acceptance somewhere else.

But rejection can also help you grow as a writer. It can sometimes take months for that rejection to come through – months in which you’ve been reading, writing, honing your craft. So when the poem comes back with a ‘no thanks’ letter, it’s a chance to take another look at it, and see whether you could improve it. After all, your poetic eye could easily be sharper than it was a couple of months ago.

Even if you look at your original submission and decide it doesn’t need another edit, it can be useful to make some sort of ritual out of receiving a rejection. For instance, I have a spreadsheet where I document all my submissions. When I get a response, I get to colour in the corresponding box in the spreadsheet. It’s a small thing, but it carries the same sense of satisfaction as crossing something off a list.

writing prompt - Katie Hale

Watch what you submit to.

Quite often we talk about submissions in terms of numbers. I know; I’ve done this as well. Last year, I aimed to submit to 100 things over the course of the year. I didn’t quite make it, but that wasn’t really the point; the point was to force myself to put my work out there, and to submit to things I might not otherwise go for. And it worked – last year was hugely successful in terms of my writing career.

But as an approach, it doesn’t work for everyone. If you find you’re getting down about the number of rejections you’re receiving, or if you’re short on time to submit to things, then absolutely narrow your focus. Submit to fewer things, but make them the ones that really fit your work. Make each submission as good as it can possibly be. Submit to things where you have a higher chance of success (so if you’ve only been writing a couple of months, maybe go for the local poetry competition rather than the National Poetry Prize).

I’m not saying you won’t still get rejections if you do this, but it might decrease the ratio slightly. After all, we’re all human. We all need a confidence boost from time to time.

And speaking of confidence boosts…

Celebrate the little things.

This is particularly important for novelists, but it also applies to other kinds of writers as well.

As a novelist, you tend not to get to submit your novel to people till pretty late on in the game. As in, you’ll usually have written a full first draft, and then edited it as much as you can, maybe have workshopped bits of it with your writing group, and then edited it some more. All this before you start querying it with agents, or sending to presses that accept unsolicited submissions, or whatever route you decide to go down.

This can take years. That’s a long time without a confidence boost. Find smaller milestones.

I recently went to the Bronte Festival of Women’s Writing in Haworth, and the excellent Claire Malcolm from New Writing North was there, talking about identifying creative milestones.

I knew what mine was. ‘To finish my second novel,’ I thought smugly.

Reader, I haven’t even started writing my second novel yet. It took me a moment before I realised what a stupidly big milestone that is. It’s like learning to read, and your first milestone being to read Ulysses. It’s too big. There are way too many other steps to get through first.

So I’ve come up with new milestones. They may change along the way, but for now they’re:

  • Start drafting. (I spend a lot of time in the planning & note-making stages of writing, so the day I actually sit down to start drafting the book is an important milestone.)
  • 10,000 words of a rough draft.
  • 20,000 words of a rough draft.
  • 30,000 words of a rough draft.
  • 40,000 words of a rough draft.
  • 50,000 words of a rough draft.
  • Finishing a rough first draft, and writing ‘THE END’ in big smug letters on the last page.
  • Completing a workable second draft.
  • Sending off the manuscript to my agent.

Instead of one big goal, these are the smaller milestones I’m going to celebrate along the way.

Writing poetry in a cafe in Grasmere

No really. Actually celebrate.

It’s all very well knowing what your personal goals are, and feeling that small sense of satisfaction when you achieve them, but why not actively celebrate them?

One technique I’ve seen a few writers sharing on twitter is the gift-to-self technique. This involves buying yourself a bunch of treats before you start writing, and wrapping them up with labels on the front, telling you when you get to open them.

For example: at 10k words you get a bar of chocolate. At 40k you might get a new pen. When you finish the first draft it could be a bottle of bubbly.

It’s up to you what these gifts are – whatever you think is going to motivate you. It doesn’t even have to be a physical gift. Maybe you’re going to go for a walk somewhere you love after you’ve reached 30k. Or you’ll booked a spa day for the day after you submit to your agent. (Or send it off for querying – whatever stage you’re at.)

I’m planning to be away for most of my milestones, at writing residencies, so I’m going to have to be a bit creative with my rewards. I might not even plan them in advance – just promise myself that I’ll physically celebrate each milestone when it comes around, in whatever way feels right for wherever I am at the time.

Share your successes.

When you celebrate, you don’t have to celebrate alone. I live on my own. I don’t have someone to announce my news to when they get home from work, and to share a glass of bubbly with. If I want to tell people, sometimes it has to be on social media. Sometimes telling someone else about something is the only way to make it feel real. Being proud of your achievements is not the same as boasting.

I repeat: being proud of your achievements is not the same as boasting.

One of my constant sayings, that sums up a lot of my creative ethos, is that as writers, we’re colleagues, not competitors. We should be proud of one another’s achievements. Congratulate other writers on their successes. Give them the opportunity to congratulate you on yours.

If you want to tweet about it, tweet about it. If you want to share it on facebook, or instagram, or snapchat, do. If you want to put it in big fancy letters on your website, go for it. By all means include it in your bio.

Even aside from wanting to celebrate (which is enough of a reason for sharing on its own), sharing your good news gets you onto the radar of other people in the writing community / book industry / arts world etc. And who knows? It may even lead to future opportunities.

writing prompt - Katie Hale

Celebrate the down times too.

For a long time, I didn’t like talking about success on social media. I thought it made me sound big-headed. ‘Oh, look at me, I’ve had a poem accepted into a magazine, aren’t I clever?’ And sure, there’s definitely a way that constantly talking about your own successes can get on people’s nerves. If all anyone ever hears from you is how well you’ve done, then soon you’re going to feel like that fictional best friend at the start of this post.

But social media (and life in general) is multi-faceted and complex. If we only talk about one thing, it gets boring. So we also use it to share opportunities for other writers, to talk about books we like, to engage with politics.

And we can use it to be honest about our rejections.

(Side note: there are ways of talking about rejection without tweeting ‘X magazine rejected my poem and now I feel bitter about it’, and essentially encouraging all your friends in a pile-on against said magazine. A good start is not to name the publication / organisation / whatever that rejected to. After all, they’ll have their reasons, and naming in this context can often sound a bit like shaming, even if that isn’t the way it’s intended.)

Talking publicly about rejection might feel counter-intuitive. After all, isn’t this just another way of announcing to the world that someone somewhere thought your work wasn’t good enough? But honestly, everyone gets rejections. The most famous writers in the world get rejections. Talking about it is just a way to share the truth about what it’s like to be a writer.

If I see a writer I admire talking about their experiences of being rejected, or struggling to meet a deadline, or finding a scene particularly difficult to write, I actually find it heartening. Not in some cruel schadenfreude way, but in the sense of solidarity. Writing can be incredibly solitary, and it can be good to be reminded that I’m not the only one finding it hard.

This beautiful tricksy obsessive mess called creativity? We’re in it together. Let’s celebrate that.

Eleven years since I left school, and September still feels like back-to-school month. I feel as though I should be out buying new pens and novelty rubbers and things. I guess I did start a new notebook this month, so maybe that counts?

After festival-season in August, September has been a month of quiet work. I quite like months like this from time to time: a chance to get back on top of the admin, and quietly work away at the writing. Not too many events. The odd workshop. A chance to think.

That said, this month hasn’t been entirely without festivals. Last week I went to the Bronte Festival of Women’s Writing in Haworth, with three other Cumbrian writers. It was a lovely festival: big enough that there was a really interesting range of speakers, but small enough that it was possible to go to everything. It also felt incredibly honest, with writers, editors, agents and booksellers sharing their experiences in a way that felt generous and encouraging.

One thing I took away from the weekend (other than a horrid cold – I guess that’s what happens when you visit the 19th century?) was to remember all the things I used to know. When you’re starting out as a writer, people will often tell you that you need to practise self-care, that you need to spend time focusing on craft and not to rush, that you need to celebrate smaller milestones along the way. But I’d forgotten a lot of that. My next milestone was ‘finish writing the second novel’. (Side-note: I haven’t even started writing the second novel yet.) That’s too much. A novel’s big; if I don’t get to celebrate success until I’ve finished the thing, then that’s a long time to wait. A person can get pretty down in that time. My decision? To set myself some markers in the interim. When I get to 10k words, for example, I’ll take a moment to be proud of that achievement. It’s about motivation. I may write a blog post about this in the future.

And speaking of successes, I haven’t been taking enough time to celebrate them lately, so here are a few that have happened over the past couple of months:

KSP residency: The Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre is in Perth. Perth Australia, that is. And I’ve been invited to be their Emerging Writer in Residency in April 2020. Going to pack my strappy tops and flip flops! (Sorry, singlets & thongs.)

Gladstone’s Library Writer in Residence: Next May, I’m heading over the border into Wales, to spend a month writing at Gladstone’s Library. This is something I’m particularly excited about – partly because I’ve looked at pictures of the library, and it looks like the dream place to sit and draft a novel. But also because I’ve heard glowing recommendations, both for the library itself, and for their scones! Expect me to be significantly larger by next summer…

University of Canberra Poetry Prize longlisting: Another one with an Australian theme – I recently learned that I’ve been longlisted for the University of Canberra Vice Chancellor’s Poetry Prize, which is announced at the end of October. Last year I managed to make the shortlist, so keeping my fingers crossed for this year. Either way, though, it’s a huge prize, so just to make the longlist is a fantastic affirmation.

Mslexia: And finally, this month I achieved a decade-long ambition, and got a poem into the most recent issue of Mslexia. It’s always lovely when a publication likes your work enough to print it, but there’s something particularly special about it when it’s a publication you’ve been aiming towards ever since you start to write poetry.

In the interest of balance, I should also say that I’ve received 17 rejections so far this year, out of 22 things I’ve heard back from. It isn’t all cause for celebration – which of course makes it doubly important to celebrate the good news when it does come along.

And, last but not least, the next couple of weeks are your last chance to vote for My Name is Monster in the Edinburgh First Book Award. It’s run on public vote, and voting only takes a moment, so please do click through and support!

The Month in Books:

It’s been a slightly slower reading month than last month. I sometimes find it works like that, at least for me: that reading, like writing, comes in waves. Perhaps that means that next month I’ll read absolutely loads? Still, if you’re only going to read four books in a month, these are a pretty good four to choose:

  • Walt Whitman Poems (Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets)
  • The Amber Spyglass, by Philip Pullman
  • The Island Child, by Molly Aitken
  • Black Car Burning, by Helen Mort

The Month in Pictures:

Following on from last week’s post aimed at teachers, this week I want to look at it from the writer’s perspective.

Going into schools is something a lot of writers do, whether to give talks or to facilitate workshops. If your writing is aimed specifically at young people, it can be a great way to connect with your readership. Even if you write predominantly for adults, working in schools can still be hugely rewarding. But if you just go in without thinking it through properly, then it won’t be any good for anyone.

Arts Award Discover, Shap Primary School

The first thing you need to ask yourself is: why do you want to go into schools?

Usually, we talk about what the workshop participants (i.e. the children / young people) are getting from the workshop. But I think it’s just as important to think about what you’re getting out of it as a writer. Because whatever reason you have for doing the workshop, this will impact what the children get out of it, too.

MONEY:

School visits can be lucrative. The Society of Authors publishes suggested rates for school visits (though be aware that these tend to be lower outside London, and a lot of arts organisations will have standard daily / half-day rates for delivery, which tend to be lower than this) – and as we know, when you’re a writer, money isn’t something to be sniffed at. So if part of the reason you’re doing a school workshop is because you need to pay your electricity bill, then that’s fair enough. After all, you need to fund your writing time somehow. But if money is the only reason for working in schools – if you don’t actually enjoy working with children, or you feel that it’s a bit of a grind having to get through the lesson – then you probably need to reconsider. After all, you can always pay your electricity bill by working in your local pub instead.

PROMOTING YOUR NEW BOOK:

This applies mostly to children’s / YA writers, because if you’re going into a primary school to promote your new erotic novel, then you need to think long and hard about your target audience. But school visits can be a valid way to promote your work. If you’re published by a traditional publisher, they may well be able to liaise with you on this (or may even organise these visits for you). If you’re self-published, you’re going to have to organise these visits yourself. Either way, remember that children tend not to bring enough money to buy books into school on a daily basis. If you want these visits to encourage sales, then you might want to liaise with teachers ahead of time, so that schools can organise for any children who want the book to ask parents and then bring the money with them. At the very least, send a follow-up letter home after the workshop, telling parents where they can buy the book.

GIVING SOMETHING BACK:

We’ve all had formative people or moments or experiences on our journeys to becoming writers. We’ve all had people who’ve inspired us. So it follows that a number of us will want to go on and inspire others on their own creative journeys. Obviously this doesn’t mean that everyone you teach will end up becoming full-time writers – but I think it’s important that that kind of creativity is given a place in schools.

BECAUSE IT HELPS YOU WRITE:

Sometimes, I get home from a school workshop and I’m dead on my feet. The last thing I want to do is to pick up a pen and write anything of my own. This makes sense – after all, I put a lot of effort and energy into leading workshops. But sometimes, I leave a school and I’m buzzing with ideas of my own. Often, children have much more ready access to their imaginations than adults do. Particularly primary school children, who still play regularly. And being surrounded by this kind of imaginative fire can be great for refreshing your own creativity.

Arts Award Discover workshops

So. What do you need to know going into a school?

  • Agree everything in advance. I talked a bit about this in last week’s post, but it’s worth saying here as well. Make sure you know before you arrive exactly what’s expected of you. How long will each session be? How many children will you be working with? How much are you being paid?
  • Set out your terms for teachers / organisers. This includes expectations such as there always being a member of school staff (teacher / TA / librarian) present during the workshop, and your window for getting paid. Setting this stuff out doesn’t have to be unpleasant or demanding – you can absolutely do it politely, and the payment info can go on your invoice – but it’s worth making sure everyone is on the same page before the day of the workshop.
  • Related to this: know your terms. It’s up to you what your terms are, but you probably want to know them before you set about planning the school visit (though of course, they may well be flexible once you start talking to the school). For instance, my general terms are:
    • Another member of staff must be present at all times during the workshop. (This is a safeguarding issue, but it also makes the workshop more productive, as there’s extra teacher support for the children.)
    • Maximum number of children in a workshop (usually around 30, ideally lower).
    • I charge travel expenses to the school: either a fixed amount or HMRC rates of 45p per mile, depending where the school is.
    • Payment should be within 30 days of invoice (unless otherwise agreed). I also make it clear on my invoice that statutory interest will be charged on overdue payments.
    • Cancellation policy: this isn’t something I usually set out explicitly, but it’s probably something I ought to do. For instance, what happens if I have to cancel, or if the school has to cancel, or if extreme weather makes the workshop impossible etc.
  • Check about photo permissions. The school may want photos of you interacting with their pupils, to use on the school website, so be aware of that going in, and if you have a particular problem with it, make sure you mention it. On the other side of the coin, if you want to take photos of the childen to use in your own publicity, make sure that the school has photo permissions for all the children involved, and check that this extends to you taking / displaying the photos as well. (If this is particularly important to you, you may want to flag it up in an email ahead of time – as some schools will have to get extra permissions in order to let you use the photos.)
  • Do you need a DBS? The general rule is that if you’re working with a group of children regularly, then you need one. But if you’re just conducting a one-off visit, where another member of staff will be present the whole time, then you don’t. The Society of Authors has some great clarification on this. Be aware that sometimes the school will ask for a DBS when you arrive, even for a one-off visit. If you have one anyway, then feel free to show it to them. If you don’t, then it’s good to know for certain that you don’t need one, and that you can direct the school to the Society of Authors, or the Department for Education guidelines.
  • And finally: enjoy it!

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If you have any more advice on going into schools as a writer, please do leave a comment below. In the meantime, check out this excellent resource from the Society of Authors.

We’re well into September, now. The new school year is underway, and with the initial rush over, some schools will be starting to think about getting writers in. And some writers & arts organisations will be starting to think about going into classrooms.

I’ve been going into schools to run writing workshops professionally for the past 6 years. I worked with schools, children and older young people on a voluntary basis for 4 years before that. I’ve seen teachers struggling under the weight of what’s expected of them. I’ve seen teachers who are hugely engaged and passionate about their job. (These two categories are, obviously, not mutually exclusive.)

I’ve run workshops that have been a joy to facilitate. I’ve had workshops where it’s been a struggle to get the children (and the teachers) to engage. I’ve run one workshop where I wanted to scream in frustration. (I may write more about these specific incidents in a future post.)

All of this has added up to a lot of thoughts on the relationship between a teacher and a visiting writer, both in the classroom, and before and after the workshop.

So I decided to write a couple of blog posts setting out some of those thoughts. Next week, I’ll give some advice about what writers ought to think about when going into schools. But for now, it’s the turn of the teachers:

Arts Award Discover workshops

Writers in Schools: A Few Notes for Teachers:

There are joys and pitfalls to teaching. Of course there are – and you certainly don’t need me to tell you that. On the one hand, that moment when a child finally gets something they’ve been struggling over? That’s the moment that can make your heart soar. But the pressure and the paperwork and the marking? I’m not surprised if that gets you down from time to time.

So here are a couple of notes on working with writers, that might make life easier for everyone:

1 – It’s supposed to be fun.

Whenever a visitor comes in, it’s exciting for the children. New faces always are. But it should be fun for you as well. This is a chance for you to learn something new as well. It’s an opportunity for you to think about writing & creativity in a way that doesn’t have to be goal-focused. It’s also a chance for you to see the children in your class engaging with work in a different way. It’s a chance for you to work more closely with some of the children, while somebody else is leading the session.

But all of this relies on you being present and engaged. Some of the best things I’ve experienced from teachers in workshops:

  • Helping the pupils to link what they’re learning about in the writing workshop with other things they’ve covered in class – particularly if something connects to a special topic. (For example, I was once running a winter-themed workshop based around Edward Thomas’s poem ‘Snow’, which the teacher helped them link to their project on World War I & remembrance day.)
  • Building a larger topic around the workshop & the themes it raises.
  • Displaying the work created in the workshop – either on the wall or creating a booklet of the work which goes in the school library.
  • Sharing the work produced at a special assembly – particularly if the rest of the school is there to hear it and / or the parents/carers are invited.
  • Sharing experience of the workshop with other teachers in the school.

And some of teachers’ most unhelpful behaviour has been:

  • Spending the workshop catching up on marking. (This is not PPA time.)
  • Talking to individual children (either about the workshop or, even more commonly, about a completely unrelated piece of work) while the visiting writer is trying to explain something to the group.
  • Leaving the classroom entirely to put up a display in the adjoining corridor.
  • Telling the writer (in front of the children) that poetry is pointless as they don’t have to write it in the exam.

Creative writing workshop in school for Beneath The Boughs poetry exhibition

2 – It should be enjoyable for the writer, too.

If a writer doesn’t enjoy working in schools, then they’re not the right person to be running the workshop. But just because a writer enjoys working in schools in general, it doesn’t mean they’re going to enjoy every single workshop. I’ve certainly had workshops that I didn’t enjoy – usually for the reasons listed in the point above.

Because 99% of the time, an unenjoyable workshop is not the fault of the children, but of the teacher. I’m aware that soudns accusatory, but the flip side is that, as a teacher, it’s almost totally within your power to make the workshop enjoyable for the writer – by making them feel welcome (talking to the writer in the staff room helps – I can’t count the number of times I’ve sat in a staff room and been completely ignored for an entire lunch hour), helping the children to get excited about the visit, and making sure the writer’s job isn’t made more difficult than necessary. (Again, see above.)

3 – Treat the writer professionally.

There’s this weird myth that writers write solely because they enjoy it, and therefore don’t need to be paid. Ok, so the first part is generally true, but the second part definitely isn’t. Writing is a job like any other, and writers (just like everyone else) have bills to pay.

When you’re booking the workshop, you should agree the fee with the writer. Often, the writer will have a standard rate for a school workshop. (This could include travel costs, or they may charge extra for these. Similarly, they may charge extra for additional requests, such as incorporating a special topic, or doing a reading in an assembly.)

Most professional writers will charge a fee for a school workshop.

I repeat: most professional writers will charge a fee for a school workshop.

There are a few exceptions – such as when an author is promoting a book that they’re planning to sell to the pupils, or when the writer’s fee is being covered by a third party, such as a library or an arts organisation. But mostly, you should expect to pay. You’re paying for the writer’s professional skill and experience, after all.

Consequently, there should be a contract between the school and the writer – or at the very least, a written agreement of what the writer will be offering, and what the school will offer in return. (If the workshop is booked through a third party, such as an arts organisation, then they will have this agreement with the writer, and your agreement will be with the arts organisation.) It should be understood what will happen if, for example, the workshop has to be cancelled – either by the school or by the writer.

Unlike most teachers and school staff, the writer is almost certain to be working freelance – so it’s doubly important that, when the writer submits their invoice, it gets paid on time. It’s all about recognising the writer as a professional, and not leaving them unable to buy groceries that month.

Arts Award Discover, Shap Primary School

4 – If you want something specific from a writer, don’t be afraid to ask.

Sometimes, it’s hard to find space for things like a writing workshop within the limits of the curriculum. Writers understand this – and although most of the time we don’t agree with it, we recognise that this directive comes from the government and not from the individual schools. We know that teachers, like most of us, never have enough time in the day.

But there are ways to incorporate a writing workshop into the regular learning day. The most obvious, perhaps, is to link it with literacy. I’ve run workshops within literacy sessions, incorporating a recap on similes / metaphors / kennings…

But I’ve also run workshops to tie in with special topics. You’re doing a class topic on the jungle? Or on Greek myths? Or on the Anglo Saxons? Or the Victorians? Or the arctic? I can run a workshop to tie in with this. (And yes, all of these are examples of topics I’ve run workshops on in the past, at the request of the teacher.)

Unless a writer is promoting a specific book (in which case, you’ll probably have a slightly different arrangement with the writer anyway), they may well be able to adjust a workshop to fit a theme. At the very least, you can ask. The worst that can happen is that the writer says it isn’t possible.

Of course, if you’re going to request something like this, make sure you do it when you’re initially booking the writer. In some circumstances, the writer may need to charge an extra fee in order to do this, as it might mean planning a whole new workshop, or working in a different way, so it’s good for them to know straight away so they can factor that into their quote to you. At the very least, you need to make sure you’ve made this request before the writer’s already gone and planned / prepared the workshop. And certainly don’t leave it till the writer rocks up on the day. (I’ve had this before. Needless to say, the teacher was greeted with a firm ‘sorry, but no.’)

5 – The children should be present in the sessions.

If you want a class to engage with a visiting writer, they have to be in the classroom (or the library, or wherever the workshop’s being held). Obvious, right? But the number of times I’ve got to a school to run a workshop, and half the class haven’t been present for a chunk of it, is staggering.

A common scenario is this: I get to a school to run a 1.5hr workshop over an afternoon. There are 30 children in the class. Once the register has been taken, about 5 minutes into the workshop, 10 of the children disappear. ‘They have IT on a Tuesday afternoon,’ says the teacher, ‘In groups.’ The 10 children are out for about half an hour. By the time they come back, the bulk of the introductory exercises are done, and we’re starting on writing our poems, leaving the 10 children struggling to catch up, and me having to rush them through the first part of the workshop in hushed voices so as not to disturb the rest of the class. Meanwhile, the next 10 children (who have just started getting into what they’re writing) are whisked away for their own half hour of IT. This happens with each of the three groups – with the result that none of them engaged with the full workshop.

I know this is common practice in schools – for different groups of children to be doing different things at the same time, and for children to be in and out of class for things like reading practice or extra maths or music lessons. I know that full-time teachers work like this all the time – and believe me, I have huge admiration for anyone who’s able to work like that.

But if you invite a writer into the classroom to run a session, they need to be able to run the whole session to the full group. As much as anything else, it just comes across as rude, and suggests the school places no value on what the visiting writer has to offer.

But it’s more than that. The workshop is an experience for the children. It isn’t like English, where there’ll be another English lesson next week. It’s a one-off. And sure, some of the children might just see it as a doss lesson – a chance to not worry about how a piece of work is going to be marked. But that playful imagination is important, and something we’re in danger of losing with the current curriculum.

And for some of the children, this could be a workshop they remember for decades to come, and which inspires them well into their adult career. I know this, because I was one of them.

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Next post: Writing in Schools: A Few Tips for Writers

Summer’s pretty much over, and the nights are drawing in.

I always find this time of year vaguely comforting. Maybe it’s something to do with getting to light the fire now and again in the evenings, or digging the warm jumpers out of the bottom of the drawer, but I often feel very content on the cusp of autumn. And often very productive, too – possibly because I still associate it with beginnings and the start of a new school year, or because it’s a time when I end up harvesting a lot of vegetables from the garden. Or maybe just because the hectic summer is over and September tends to be a slightly quieter month: one for getting back into a routine before the year rushes too quickly towards its end.

Whatever the reason, I love it.

A Few Good Things:

Edinburgh Book Festival:

Following on from the epic library / bookshop tour of My Name is Monster straight after it came out, I’m now into a more leisurely spattering of book festivals, averaging at around one a month for the rest of the year. I said ‘average’, because this month there were two.

The first was Edinburgh Book Festival: a wonderful festival, which, in its own words, ‘welcomes around 900 authors from over 60 countries in more than 800 events for adults and children each year’. This year, two of those events were mine – or at least, partially mine.

The first was a discussion of My Name is Monster, chaired by novelist Angela Meyer, and followed by a book signing. The second was a special recording of Open Book with Mariella Frostrup, which aired on Radio 4 the following Sunday, and which you can listen to here. The programme was a discussion of what young people are reading and writing – and covered both YA fiction and millennial writers & readers. With such a broad topic, I felt like we barely even scratched the surface – and I don’t think I was the only one on the panel who felt we could have gone on discussing it for hours! (And a couple of us did just that afterwards on the benches in the authors’ area. So you know, if anyone fancies commissioning me to write an opinion piece on it…)

As well as the events, the festival also runs the First Book Award, which is awarded to a debut novel whose author appears at that year’s festival, and which is decided by public vote.

Vote for My Name is Monster here!

Tidelines

August’s other festival was a much smaller affair: Tidelines Festival, in Grange-over-Sands.

A new festival this year, Tidelines is a two-day festival run by Thornleigh Hotel in Grange. I was invited to give a talk about My Name is Monster in the evening, followed by a signing. But I also spent a good chunk of the day there, listening to the other talks and soaking up the atmosphere.

Also at the festival were some of the Dove Cottage Young Poets, running an open mic and busking with typewriter poetry: poetry written quickly on request to anyone willing to make a donation. Matt Sowerby also debuted his incredible one-man poetry show, about young people in politics, climate change, and mental health, which had the entire audience utterly rapt. If you see him performing anywhere near you, go and see it!

Writing

I’ve actually got back to writing this month. After a much-needed post-book tour break, I’ve started writing poetry again. Honestly, I couldn’t not. I know it’s a cliche, but it’s true: I felt that itch to write, and I couldn’t ignore it.

Occasionally, I go through phases where I wonder what my life would be like if I weren’t writing – if I just chanelled those energies into something else instead. Blogging, for example, or travelling, or orchestrating arts projects to facilitate other people’s creativity. These are all things I do anyway, but things that I try and force to take second place in my life to writing. For a while, though, I let them come out on top. After all, you can’t write all the time.

A Few Thoughts On: The Writers’ Productivity

In doing this, I got my answer: if I stopped writing altogether, I’d only start again. Either that or be totally unsatisfied all of the time.

What is it that makes me constantly yearn to record things, to interpret them, to think my way through the world by putting pen to paper? I don’t really know – but whatever it is, it’s definitely there. And finally, this month, I gave in to it. And I wrote.

The Month in Books:

I’ve read a lot more this month than I did in July. Partly because I’ve had a lot of free evenings, which I’ve been using to curl up on the sofa and read. I’ve also been snatching those rare sunny moments to sit with a book in the garden – not to mention the train journey up to Edinburgh and back (including a packed out train where the only available seat was on the floor, but never mind).

Surprisingly (at least, to me), I’ve been reading a lot of Young Adult fiction this month. I wanted to read books by Patrice Lawrence & William Sutcliffe before appearing on Open Book with them, so that explains three of the YA novels, but I’ve also been rereading Anthony Horowitz (for pure escapism that doesn’t involve a screen) and Philip Pullman (in advance of The Secret Commonwealth coming out soon, not to mention the BBC adaptation of His Dark Materials). I love reading YA, because I love the way it can be well written and ‘literary’ without sacrificing story or character, and because of the way it doesn’t pull its punches where you might expect it to. Honestly, it isn’t something I read often enough.

  • Skeleton Key, by Anthony Horowitz
  • Never Say Die, by Anthony Horowitz
  • The Testament of Mary, by Colm Toibin
  • Primers: Volume 4, by Lewis Buxton, Amelia Loulli & Victoria Richards
  • The Gifted, the Talented and Me, by William Sutcliffe
  • Rose, Interrupted, by Patrice Lawrence
  • Dark Matter, by Michelle Paver
  • Until the Flood, by Dael Orlandersmith
  • Orangeboy, by Patrice Lawrence
  • Northern Lights, by Philip Pullman
  • The Subtle Knife, by Philip Pullman
  • Don’t Call Us Dead, by Danez Smith

The Month in Pictures:

I have some exciting news! And also a (very small, very simple) request.

Next Sunday, I’ll be in Edinburgh, reading from and talking about My Name is Monster at Edinburgh International Book Festival. And, as if this weren’t exciting enough, I’m also up for the festival’s First Book Award!

The Award is decided based on a popular vote, so what I’m asking is very simple: please vote for My Name is Monster to win the award!

It’s really straightforward – there’s an option to leave a short review, but you don’t have to. You just have to register your name & email address, and then click the big button marked ‘VOTE’. What could be simpler?

VOTE HERE

And if you’re still undecided, why not read the first page of My Name is Monster, to help you make up your mind:

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Extract from My Name is Monster:

When the world is burning, it’s easy to forget about ice.

Easy for most people, that is. I knew nothing but freeze for over a year. I lived with the ice, on the ice, inside it – locked on the island as the rest of the world grew desperate with rage and disease. As the missiles fell and cities were blasted by a thousand-degree heat, I struggled to keep warm.

Frostbite and a chill so keen it cuts right through the heart: that’s the price of survival.

Then what?

After everyone else was dead, I sat by a window for three days watching the glacier creak and break. When I took off my trousers, my skin flaked away and my legs itched. I scratched at the dead skin until I was pink and sore, then I got dressed again.

I thought about the scientists who had vanished into a crevasse twenty years earlier and were never found, how their little bodies would one day tumble out of the glacier’s mouth like babies being born, frozen solid and perfectly preserved in their brightly coloured thermals.

People used to think that ice is white, but it isn’t. There is all kinds of history inside it, waiting to be brought out.

… want to carry on reading? Click here to buy the book.

After the post-publication whirlwind of June, July has slowed down a pace – which I’m hugely grateful for. It’s quite fitting that my only blog post July blog post was about writers’ productivity, and the need to take a break. True, I have been doing the odd bit of writing, but most of that has been in-situ descriptions of Cornish beaches, or jotting down thoughts, or just playing around with forms and ideas. The sort of stuff that will probably never be anything finished, but is just a sort of practice. I think of it like practising scales for a musical instrument: not a finished piece, but necessary for honing skill.

So if I haven’t been writing anything fixed, what have I been doing? What does the writing life involve when there’s no fixed writing project?

Port Eliot Festival

Although my crazy 3 weeks of post-publication book events finished at the end of June, I’m still promoting My Name is Monster, at an average of roughly one festival a month. July’s festival was the wonderful Port Eliot, in Cornwall.

As well as my own event (talking alongside Yara Rodrigues Fowler, author of Stubborn Archivist), I got to enjoy the whole weekend of fantastic literary, music & comedy events. Not to mention the most amazing mussels & chips from a stall by the river. Highlights included: Robin Ince’s impression of Brian Cox as Alan Bennett; Antosh Wojcik’s incredibly moving poetry/drum show, How To Keep Time; fellow WriteNow mentee Elizabeth Jane-Burnett talking about The Grassling; Charlotte Church’s Late Night Pop Dungeon; and hearing Patrick Gale talk about his writing process.

And then, as if that weren’t enough, I decided to stay in Cornwall for a few extra days. The idea was to soak up the sunshine and spend some time sitting on the beach reading books. In reality, there was a violent storm the first night and it poured it down the entire next day – which meant I got soaked on my walk into town, and spent most of the day eating Cornish pasties & looking round the shops & museum instead. Neither of which were bad ways to spend the day, obviously.

The second day was a bit more what I’d had in mind: a 5-mile walk along the coast, past Polridmouth Beach (the inspiration for the beach in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca) and along the cliff-tops; followed by an afternoon on Polkerris Beach (snoozing and people-watching as much as reading, really); and a bracing dip in the sea.

Tidelines workshops: ‘the moon’

Speaking of festivals – I’m appearing at Tidelines festival in Grange-over-Sands on 17th August, and in the run-up to this, I ran poetry workshops in two local primary schools: Grange and Cartmel. Tying in the Usborne poetry competition about the moon, and with the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, these workshops were moon-themed. As always when I run workshops, I was bowled over by some of the things that the children came up with.

One of the exercises I gave them was to create similes & metaphors for their poems (we did this through games, and through imaginative play). Some of my stand-out favourites were:

  • ‘the moon cold as a frog’s skin’
  • ‘earth spinning like a lazy Susan’
  • Neil Armstrong’s footprint as ‘a maths lesson of parallel lines’

Some of the children will be reading their poems at Tidelines on the morning of the 17th – and I can’t wait to hear them again.

Actively not working

Last but not least, I’ve been actively not working. This goes back to what I was talking about in my previous post, about the need to take a break. Sometimes, the brain just needs a rest. The body, too – particularly after a period of non-stop busy-ness. And let’s be honest, the last time I actually stopped and spent long periods just sitting, and being, and doing very little, was probably sometime before Christmas.

And now?

August is still less hectic than previous months have been, but I’m shifting firmly back into productivity mode. For a start, I’ve got a whole heap of admin to get on top of. Not to mention a dangerously tall pile of books on my bedside table, waiting to be read. Then, of course, I could do with getting back into writing mode – even if it is just doing fragments / little bits of observation that never go anywhere.

And I’m appearing at two festivals in August.

The first I’ve already mentioned, which is Tidelines at Grange-over-Sands on 17th August, where I’ll be talking about My Name is Monster and doing a Q&A.

The second is Edinburgh Book Festival, where I’m doing two events:

AFTER THE APOCALYPSE: an author event, talking about My Name is Monster, on Sunday 18th August, and

OPEN BOOK WITH MARIELLA FROSTRUP: a special edition of BBC Radio 4’s Open Book, alongside Michelle Paver, William Sutcliffe & Patrice Lawrence.

You can also VOTE FOR ME for the Book Festival First Book Award!

The month in books:

As I’ve already mentioned, July has been a slow month in a number of ways – and this has included in terms of books. Only 5 of them this month: four (very) contemporary novels, alongside more of a classic from the 60s – Mary McCarthy’s The Group, which was recommended to me by Julia Armfield and which I thoroughly recommened in turn!

  • Remembered, by Yvonne Battle-Felton
  • Starve Acre, by Andrew Michael Hurley
  • Tentacle, by Rita Indiana
  • Stubborn Archivist, by Yara Rodrigues Fowler
  • The Group, by Mary McCarthy

Here’s to a more productive reading month in August.

The month in pictures:

I haven’t posted anything on here for a couple of weeks – so I thought now might be a good opportunity to talk about writers’ productivity, and the importance of taking a break.

We live in a capitalist society. It’s a society that’s largely focussed on production: on making things (physical or digital) that can have a monetary value. It’s a system that’s been coming under a lot of scrutiny recently, for environmental reasons.
But this isn’t a post about that. It’s about how it translates to creativity – although maybe the two aren’t all that disconnected.

 

 

Writing poetry in a cafe in Grasmere

WRITING: THE NEED TO BE PRODUCTIVE:

As anyone who’s written a book can tell you: you need to be productive. There are far more people with ideas for books, than there are people who’ve actually written them. Like anything, it’s about putting the work in. You need to sit down and produce the words – otherwise you’re just daydreaming, and the book will never materialise.

WHAT IS WRITERS’ BLOCK (AND HOW DO I CURE IT)?

And let’s be honest, most books contain a lot of words. Whether you treat it as a 9-5 job, or cram the writing in to any spare moment between other parts of life, the need for productivity remains.

Think of it like farming a field. If you don’t get up early to plow and sow and reap, then the field is going to remain barren. (Actually, it’s probably going to become a wild meadow, which is great in terms of the environment, but in terms of the book analogy, doesn’t really work, because it’s all jumbled up and uncurated. It’s the equivalent of those packs of fridge magnets with words on them.)

WRITING: THE NEED TO BE UNPRODUCTIVE:

But if you’re farming a field, then you need to think about all kinds of other factors – things like weather and seasons and soil quality.

(Is this metaphor breaking down yet?)

If you keep planting the same field year on year, then you’re going to diminish the soil quality. The crop will gradually leach the nutrients from the ground, and what you’ll be left with will be an inferior ground from which to grow your crop.

In agricultural terms, I guess we’d call this soil depletion. In writing terms, we’d call it creative burnout.

In other words, if you never take a break, you run the risk of draining your creative resources and exhausting those parts of your brain, till what you produce is either thin and straggly and unnourishing, or just non-existent.

BUT A CHANGE IS AS GOOD AS A REST?

Sometimes, though, we can bypass resting altogether. I write both fiction and poetry. Sometimes, when I need a break from one, I find it helpful to switch to the other.

In my slightly crumbly metaphor, this is the same as crop rotation: switching up the fields so they’re producing different crops each year, and therefore have different demands on their soil. But even with crop rotation, there’s a fallow year sooner or later. The need to take a break is written into the land.

SO WHAT DOES TAKING A BREAK LOOK LIKE?

This can be different for each writer, and different at different stages of writing. A literal holiday is, of course, a tried and tested method. Going somewhere sunny for a couple of weeks and drinking daiquiris. But there’s also something to be said for replenishing the nutrients in the soil. Taking some time to read (and read for pleasure, not just for work); to go on walks; to do research that may or may not lead to anything; to think.

For me, at the moment, taking a break looks a lot like this. A bit of reading. A bit of soaking up the sun in the garden (whenever the sporadic summer allows). And a bit (but only a little bit) of writing.

If May felt like the eye of the storm, then June has been full-on hurricane. But, unlike most busy months, it’s mostly been busy with just one thing: the novel.

On Thursday 6th June, my debut novel, My Name is Monster, was officially released. If you weren’t aware of that, then either you’re new to this blog (in which case: welcome!) or you simply haven’t been paying attention. I’ve been talking about it a lot.

Understandably, the rest of the month has been pretty solidly dominated by that. I’ve just finished a run of talks and readings in libraries and bookshops – mostly around Cumbria, but also straying as far as Lancaster, and even to ‘that London’.

(Side note: when publishers put you up in a hotel that’s right next to a heap of excellent independent bookshops, it can be a dangerous thing…)

But the month hasn’t all been novel-related.

Tongue & Talk: The Dialect Poets

This month I also made my Radio 4 debut, with an episode of Tongue & Talk: The Dialect Poets. The programme aired on 2nd June, during the Sunday afternoon poetry slot. And, for some reason I’m still not entirely sure about – maybe becaue my parents couldn’t get the house radio working properly? – we ended up parked in my driveway and listening to it in the car.

Poet and novelist Katie Hale explores the legacy of early dialect poets in her native county of Cumbria, to discover if dialect poetry is a way of expressing local identity.

Cumbria has a long history of dialect poetry, beginning with poets like Josiah Relph, Susanna Blamire and Robert Anderson, and continuing right up to the present day. Katie finds out more about some of these historic poets and their contemporary counterparts. She also speaks to Cedric Robinson – the Queen’s Guide to the Sands of Morecambe Bay – and to farmer and writer James Rebanks, trying to understand the connection between dialect, identity and the land itself. How does the place we live in shape who we are and how we choose to express ourselves?

From a ‘writing life’ point of view, this programme is a perfect example of how one project can lead to another. In 2017, I was commissioned to write a poem for National Poetry Day, in conjunction with BBC local radio. The poem had to be about a Cumbrian dialect word: ‘twining’ (moaning / complaining). As a result, the word ‘twining’ then made it into the Oxford English Dictionary, and BBC Radio Cumbria made a video of the poem.

Because the poem was part of a national project (with 12 poets around the country writing dialect-inspired poems), it was well shared and had pretty good SEO. Which meant that when the production company, Made in Manchester, were googling ‘Cumbria dialect poetry’, my name came up.

At the other end, following the programme’s broadcast on Radio 4, the Lakeleand Dialect Society (who I interviewed as part of the programme) was celebrating its 80th birthday. And so, Radio Cumbria had a few of us on to talk about the importance of dialect – and to give the Radio 4 programme a bit of an extra push. One thing leading to another, leading to another. It often surprises me how much of my career ends up working like that. (Maybe I’ll dedicate a full post to it at some point in the future.)

You can listen to the Cumbria episode of Tongue & Talk: The Dialect Poets here, till Monday 8th July.

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Under Northern Skies

Back in summer 2018, I worked with a group of former miners from Whitehaven on an oral history project, as part of Tables Turned, a three year participation project run by the National Trust and partners, which is all about bringing together community groups, young people, historians, curators and artists in projects that deepen understanding, build new partnerships and inspire creativity.

After meeting the miners and listening to them recount their experiences of working in the mines on Cumbria’s West Coast, I was commissioned by the National Trust to write a poem in response.

Earlier this year, I was commissioned to write two more poems, inspired by the work the National Trust had done with other groups: pupils from Keswick School, and members of Glenmore art group and Glenmore creative writing group. These poems were a mix of original work, and words collaged from the work and conversation of participants.

The result: three poems, each then filmed by John Hamlett, which were played as part of an exhibition alongside artwork from the groups, at Carlisle Old Fire Station.

The month in books:

This month has been a bit slower than last month in the reading department. Blame it on all that dashing about between book events! It’s also been largely fiction-based, rather than my usual attempt at balancing fiction with poetry (and a smattering of non-fiction thrown in). Still, that’s ok. I’m on a bit of a fiction bender at the moment, and I’m sure in a month or so that will flip and I’ll be devouring nothing but poetry.

  • The Last, by Hanna Jameson
  • A Roll of the Dice, by Mona Dash
  • Crudo, by Olivia Laing
  • Ghost Wall, by Sarah Moss
  • Being Haunted, by Jennifer Copley
  • Fen, by Daisy Johnson

The month in pictures:

‘When the world is burning, it’s easy to forget about ice…’

It’s here! Two and a half years after I sat down by the fire and wrote that opening sentence, not really sure whether it would ever amount to anything other than ‘that night I decided not to watch Netflix’, My Name is Monster is a real live book, for sale in regular (and irregular) bookshops.

It’s a slightly odd feeling, knowing that the book is out there in the public. It feels a little bit like going to the supermarket in your underwear – not that I’ve ever done that. It’s the knowledge that people will be reading it (hopefully) and judging it (hopefully not too harshly) and that it’s now completely beyond my control.

In a way, of course, it’s also very liberating – just as I assume it must be walking through the fruit & veg aisle in your knickers.

BUY MY NAME IS MONSTER ONLINE

What other people have said about the book:

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‘A terrific piece of writing; tough and tender and insightful. I loved it.’
– Joanne Harris, author of Chocolat

*

‘A complex, accomplished debut. The prose dazzles while the themes of feminism, power and fertility sneak in for a gut-punch. It kept me gripped from the first page, and the characters continue to live and breathe in my imagination.’
– Kirsty Logan, author of The Gracekeepers

*

‘Katie Hale has written two fascinating, flawed and compelling characters and, with only two people and an empty world, has created a novel that is gripping, insightful and unique.’
– Claire Fuller, author of Our Endless Numbered Days

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‘A riveting and disturbing novel, part twisted fairy tale and part dystopian nightmare, in which the primal human need to find meaning and love shines through the darkness of a ruined world.’
– Mick Kitson, author of Sal

Events:

Over the coming weeks, I’ve got a number of events lined up to help promote the book, both close to home around Cumbria, and further afield – specifically London and Cornwall. If you’re near any of these, it would be lovely to see you there:

  • 6 June: My Name is Monster book launch // Cakes & Ale Cafe, Carlisle, 7.30pm
  • 10 June: My Name is Monster talk & book signing // Waterstones, King Street, Lancaster, 6.30pm
  • 11 June: My Name is Monster book talk // Cumbria Library Services // Ambleside Library, Cumbria, 3pm
  • 13 June: My Name is Monster book talk // Cumbria Library Services // Roose Library, Cumbria, 2.30pm
  • 13 June: My Name is Monster book talk // Cumbria Library Services // Ulverston Library, Cumbria, 7pm
  • 18 June: My Name is Monster book talk // Sam Read Books // Emma’s Dell, Grasmere, Cumbria, 7.30pm
  • 19 June: The Feminist Book Society presents: Motherhood – the last feminist taboo // Waterstones, Tottenham Court Road, London, 6.30pm
  • 20 June: Writers’ Night: Katie Hale & Hanna Jameson // Foyles, Charing Cross Road, London, 7pm
  • 25 June: My Name is Monster book talk // Cumbria Library Services // Penrith Library, Cumbria, 2pm
  • 25 June: My Name is Monster book talk // Cumbria Library Services // The Old Courthouse, Shap, Cumbria, 7.30pm
  • 27 June: My Name is Monster talk & book signing // Waterstones, Kendal, Cumbria, 6.30pm
  • 28 June: My Name is Monster book talk // Cumbria Library Services // Dalton in Furness Library, Cumbria, 10.30am
  • 28 June: My Name is Monster book talk // Cumbria Library Services // Grange over Sands Library, Cumbria, 2.30pm
  • 27 July: My Name is Monster book event // Port Eliot Festival // Walled Garden, 11am

Or, in case you prefer things in a visual format, here’s a handy infographic of my Cumbria events (plus one in Lancaster), created by the lovely Sam Read bookshop:

Related posts:

My Name is Monster: the books that opened the door

From Idea to Book: My Journey to Publication

Almost from the moment my flight landed back from the US, I started gearing up towards the next big event of my writing year. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ve probably already clocked that that big event is the release of my debut novel, My Name is Monster, which officially comes out on Thursday 6th June. The finished copies of the book were actually waiting for me when I got home, looking beautiful and shiny through the jetlagged haze.

Since then, it’s been largely a case of getting ready for them to be released into the world. I went up to Edinburgh and signed 135 copies of the book to be sent to independent bookshops. I’ve been writing blog posts. I’ve been talking to local press about the release, and trying to work out what I’m going to say at the launch, and which section(s) of the book I’m going to read. I’ve been talking about it a lot on social media.

Between that and catching up on 6 weeks’ worth of admin, the actual writing time has been a bit thin on the ground. That’s ok. For one thing, I managed to get a lot of writing done while I was in the States, and for another, being a writer isn’t just about writing.

A few good things:

1 – Open The Door Festival

A couple of weeks ago I attended part of the excellent Open The Door festival at Glasgow Women’s Library. What initially drew me to the festival was that my friend and all-round wonderful woman Jess Orr was involved in organising it, and was going to be interviewing Ali Smith during the event on the Saturday evening. But when I looked into it a bit more deeply, and actually googled the programme for the day, I quickly realised that enjoyment of this festival was going to go way beyond personal connection.

Unlike most festivals, which have an audience sitting and listening to what a writer / speaker has to say, then applauding politely and making their way to the bar, Open The Door operated a bit more like a conference, with a choice of interactive breakout sessions, meaning that the attendees were as much a part of the discussion and development of ideas as the writers and facilitators.

This approach led to a much friendlier sort of festival, and made it much easier for interesting conversations to spring up during the breaks.

2 – Theatre by the Lake

This month, the new trailer for the Theatre by the Lake was released, with words by yours truly. This was something I was commissioned to write several months ago, so by the time it came out it had slipped off my radar slightly. So it was a lovely surprise when the finished video popped up on facebook.

 

3 – Normal Life

One thing that has really been great this month has been getting back into my normal life after so many weeks away, and particularly getting back into attending my normal writing groups.

There’s something about writing groups – the combination of regular structured creative input and the support of trusted peers – that helps feed the creative process. Going back to my regular poetry group and my regular fiction group felt as much like a homecoming as it did landing at Heathrow airport. And of course, it was great to see all those familiar faces again.

Going to America was incredible, and such a boost for my writing and for the particular project I was researching. But returning to my own writing community was equally wonderful.

The month in books:

As with the writing, the reading has been slightly less this month. And, as with the writing, that’s kind of ok. The trick, I think (I hope), is not letting the lack of reading / writing become a habit. Which, given how much I’m itching to get back to both, I don’t think it will.

It’s been prose-heavy this month – something that often happens when I’m limited for time, as reading becomes more escapism at the end of a long day, rather than a habit of immersing myself in poetry first thing in the morning.

I’ve also read four books by friends this month, which always alters the feel of a month’s reading. Two of these came from the WriteNow scheme: Emma Smith-Barton’s The Million Pieces of Neena Gill, and Nels Abbey’s Think Like a White Man. The others were The Accusation, by Zosia Wand, and salt slow, by Julia Armfield. I can heartily recommend all four of these books. Each occupies a different genre (YA fiction; satirical self-help book; thriller; and literary short stories), and each is an example of blooming good writing in that genre.

salt slow is probably the best book I’ve read so far this year (although Lanny is nudging at it from a very close, and debatable, second place), so I think it’s fair to say that May has been a hugely enjoyable month when it comes to books.

  • The Accusation, by Zosia Wand
  • Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race, by Reni Eddo-Lodge
  • The Million Pieces of Neena Gill, by Emma Smith-Barton
  • Scepticism Inc., by Bo Fowler
  • Lanny, by Max Porter
  • Anatomy of a Soldier, by Harry Parker
  • Natural Mechanical, by J O Morgan
  • Think Like a White Man, by Dr Boule Whytelaw III / Nels Abbey
  • salt slow, by Julia Armfield

The month in pictures:

Last weekend, I went to the Open the Door festival at Glasgow Women’s Library, where I heard (among other people) Ali Smith talking about the books and writers who had opened the door for her. It got me thinking about the writers that did that for me – both for poetry and for prose.

In poetry, I think this is slightly more complex, as a lot of the poets who have opened the poetry door for me have done it not just through their own writing, but also as individual people I’ve worked with. But what about fiction?

I’ve talked before about how Penguin Random House’s WriteNow scheme gave me the confidence to think of myself as a fiction writer in general – but what about the specific novel? What were the books that opened the door to My Name is Monster?

Bookcase bookshop, Carlisle

1 – Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe

Robinson Crusoe is probably one of the more obvious influences on the book, as in many ways My Name is Monster is a reversioning of Robinson Crusoe. It’s the story of a woman who believes she’s the last person left alive on earth – and then she finds a girl. The book echoes Crusoe’s solitude on the desert island, his quest for survival, and his subsequent finding (and enslaving) of Friday.

I’ve always had quite a complicated relationship with Robinson Crusoe, ever since I had to read it during my first year of university. On one hand, it’s a story that occupies such a prominent place in our culture. It’s amazing how many people know the story (or at least the basic elements of it), without having read the book itself.

It’s also amazing how many of those people think they’ve read the book, even when they actually haven’t. And understandably – on both counts. There are numerous retellings of the Crusoe survival story, from The Martian to Castaway to Bear Grylls, so it makes sense that we think we know it. But the book itself is actually pretty heavy going. There are a lot of pages before Friday even appears (and before the famous ‘footprint in the sand’ moment), largely narrating Crusoe’s religious transformations, or going into very great detail on the mechanics of building a shelter. Despite being a story so many of us think we know, it isn’t exactly a page-turner. At least, not until the pirates show up.

And of course, there’s also the problematic colonial aspect to the book: its positioning of Friday as the enslaved native who Crusoe proceeds to ‘civilise’; Crusoe’s ability to lay claim to the island solely by virtue of his having been washed up there; the problem of his naming of things.

These were all aspects of the book that drew me in, and that made me want to answer it in some way. My Name is Monster is in many ways a reversioning of Robinson Crusoe, but it’s also a response to some of its themes.

bookshelf - Katie Hale

2 – Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley

As well as being a retelling of Robinson Crusoe, My Name is Monster is also very heavily influenced by Frankenstein.

Unlike Crusoe, I’ve loved Frankenstein ever since I read it – again during my first year of university. In some ways, the themes of the two classics are quite similar: both deal with one human’s desire to create and control another, and ways of coping with enforced isolation. Both ask who has the power to name a person or a thing.

But whereas Crusoe puts Friday in a position of subservience, Frankenstein presents two individuals with a much more complex creator / created relationship. They are really equal protagonists, and the questions this allows the book to ask are much more complex – questions that have shaped the genre of science fiction ever since, such as to what extent can a created being be considered human?

The question of how much we can truly create another conscious being is one that feeds directly into My Name is Monster – as, of course, does the name ‘Monster’.

Sliding ladders in Topping's Bookshop, St Andrews
Sliding ladders in Topping’s Bookshop, St Andrews

3 – The Road, by Cormac McCarthy

Given that My Name is Monster is set in an empty world, it’s perhaps unsurprising that there’s a post-apocalyptic novel on this list. I first read The Road when I was at secondary school, and it made a huge impression on me.

What I loved about the post-apocalyptic element to the book, was that that wasn’t the story. The story was the man and the boy, and the relationship between them. The post-apocalyptic setting was just the circumstances needed to tell that relationship story. This is something that interests me: the way something huge can have happened / can be happening in the world of the book, but we remain focussed on the central characters, and on the relationship between them.

Of course, The Road is also just a beautiful written book. The prose is so precise that it feels incredibly simple. But, like most things that appear simple, it’s a demonstration of huge writing skill, and an ability to cut away all the details that don’t really matter – something that’s much harder than it sounds in something the size of a novel!

writing prompt - Katie Hale

4 – The Shepherd’s Life, by James Rebanks

The most recent book on this list, The Shepherd’s Life, is only a few years old. It’s a non-fiction book about sheep farming on the Cumbrian fells. It’s a sort of love letter to the landscape I’ve grown up in, and to its agriculture.

When I first moved back to Cumbria after university, I was feeling a bit of resentment. It wasn’t that I didn’t love Cumbria (it’s beautiful, for one thing, and there’s a sense of individuals mattering here in a way that sometimes gets lost in cities) – but it was more that I felt like I ought to have gone somewhere else; this was where I started, and being back here felt like I hadn’t moved forward at all. Like a lot of people who move home / near home, I was worried I would revert to the person I was when I last lived here, aged 18.

Reading The Shepherd’s Life helped me fall in love with Cumbria again. Rebanks’ experiences of Cumbria are very different to mine; although I grew up surrounded by farms and fields and sheep, I’m not from a farming family, so I don’t have the same inter-generational relationship with the land. But the book is so connected to the physicality of the landscape that it helped me to feel connected to Cumbria again. I felt I understood the landscape in a way I’d only ever guessed at before – and that fed into the characters’ lifestyles in My Name is Monster.

My Name is Monster by Katie Hale - proof copy

5 – Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, by Jeanette Winterson

Probably like a lot of queer people, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit opened so many doors for me, not just in terms of fiction, but in life as well. Like The Road, I read it while I was at secondary school, and it shaped my understand of who and what could belong in a novel.

But it also influenced my understanding of character – the bold details that can make a character leap off the page, till you feel as though they’re somebody you’ve met – and of the unreliable narrator: something that was compounded when I read Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal several years later.

The nods to history and fairytale and mythology in much of Winterson’s work is something that I often think about – something that also captures me in Ali Smith’s writing. I’m interested in the way in which all of this provides intertextuality, and gives the novel breadth, so that it seems to breathe beyond the confines of it’s 200-ish pages. Like in The Road, the focus remains on the character(s) at the centre of the story, but there’s so much more happening in our peripheral vision.

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My Name is Monster is due from Canongate on 6th June 2019, and is available for pre-order from all good bookshops.

‘A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.’
– Virginia Woolf

I’ve recently come home from seven weeks away from my own regular writing room (read: my kitchen table). During that time, away from my normal routine and my habitual space, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I need in order to write. What are the circumstances that help me, the magical ingredients that go into the mix for creating inspiration?

During my 7 weeks away, about 2.5 of those weeks were spent actively on the road, never in one place for more than a couple of nights. Three of those weeks were spent on a residency at MacDowell Colony, and the rest was spent researching in New York Public Library. The writing circumstances across these weeks were about as varied as I could have asked for over the course of a single trip. And most of the time, I still managed to write.

Ok, so the amount that I wrote varied drastically. As you’d expect, I wrote far more during my three week residency than I did the rest of the trip – but I’m not sure this was entirely about having a room of my own (although my little cabin in the woods was undoubtedly wonderful). I think it was more to do with having the dedicated time for writing, and (that magical ingredient) headspace.

(Let me just make a caveat here: all of the time I was away was technically ‘poetry time’. Even when I wasn’t at MacDowell, I was either at a poetry festival, or in London for a poetry event, or actively dedicating research time to my current poetry project.)

So, building on all of that, what are five things I’ve come to realise about writing on the move?

1 – Writing on the move is just like writing at home

Every writer is different. Consequently, every writer’s process is also different, which means that every writer will require something different in order to feel at their most creative – whether this is nothing more than a stub of pencil and the back of an envelope, or a chaise longue and fourteen daiquiris mixed by a six-foot albino wearing a penguin suit and stilettos. (That isn’t my rider, I promise. Maybe it should be?)

The trick, I found, was to create the same circumstances for writing while I was away that I would normally create at home. For me, this is a quiet space (with plenty of natural light if possible), a notebook and a pen. It’s also about finding a time when I know I’m not going to be interrupted by anything or by anyone.

At home, I need to consciously carve out these occasions from the rest of my life. It’s all too easy to let admin and emails swamp the entire working day, then to get to the end of the week and realise I haven’t done any writing whatsoever. In order to make sure that doesn’t happen, I have to put in the effort. I have to set aside time for the writing.

On the road, it’s no different. I just have to decide that I’m going to get up an hour earlier, so I can write with a morning coffee. Or decide not to browse Twitter for the river crossing on the car ferry, but instead to use that fifteen minutes as dedicated free writing time. Or I have to set aside an hour for a coffee break, during which I work on a poem. The dedication needed is exactly the same.

2 – Writing on the move is absolutely nothing like writing at home

When I was a student, I used to write whenever I could grab a spare moment. Now, I like to lean a bit more into a routine. Ok, so maybe ‘routine’ is the wrong word, as that can vary at a moment’s notice. But I do understand the ways of putting my day together, so that I can choose the optimum time for writing.

When I’m on the moving, all that changes. I found myself aiming to write in the evenings, between dinner and bed time. Normally, this could be quite a productive time slot for me, but what I learned is that this doesn’t work if it follows on from six hours of driving, for example. This might sound obvious, but it quickly became something to factor into my planning. Instead, I ended up stopping en route for coffee towards the start of the day, so that I could write before my brain become too befuddled by all that travelling.

Instead of writing in the privacy of my own motel room, I ended up writing more in public spaces: coffee shops during the latter part of my trip, and, during the first part of the trip, New York Public Library.

Which brings me onto…

3 – Space

Unsurprisingly, the spaces I was writing in changed while I was away. In some ways this is obvious: I couldn’t write at my kitchen table because my kitchen (and the table) was a six hour flight away. So I had to think practically about what sort of space I need in order to write.

While I was at MacDowell, this obviously wasn’t a problem. In fact, it was an idyllic situation, as every day I could walk to my dedicated little cabin in the woods and write to my heart’s content, and where the only disruption to my day was when I had to get up to go outside and see if my picnic basket had been delivered yet for lunch.

But on the road, writing space needed more consideration.

What I found was that I can write in public spaces almost as easily as I can write in private spaces, given the odd caveat – such as nobody reading over my shoulder. I’m also not great with places that play music, particularly if that music has lyrics. I find myself listening to the words or the music instead of listening to myself thinking. Some sort of table (at table-height, rather than a sofa with a coffee table). Coffee helps, but is not essential. Ideally, nobody else there that I know – there’s something about anonymity in a space that helps with writing.

And that’s pretty much it. It turns out that I’m not nearly as picky about writing space as I thought I was. And it took travelling to the other side of the world for me to learn that.

(Of course, now that I’m back at home, I do still love working at my kitchen table. One of the downsides of writing in a coffee shop or a library is that you can’t really read your words aloud to yourself without getting funny looks…)

4 – Inspiration

So far, I’ve talked a bit about the limitations of writing on the move, and how I needed to adapt my writing style to the travelling lifestyle. But of course there are positive sides to it as well. The whole reason I went to the US in the first place was one of these positive sides: to research a poetry collection in the places where parts of it are set.

But travelling can also allow for unexpected inspiration. For me, that’s one of the best aspects of travelling. I’ve written multiple poems that I know would never have existed if it weren’t for travel. Which makes sense: life filters into art, and when we travel we’re more alert to life going on around us. We’re in a place, and often a culture, that we’re not entirely used to, and this makes us pay attention. And, of course, paying attention is exactly what provides quality material for writing.

I often find myself making notes while I’m travelling, so that I have something to look back on. Sometimes this takes the form of a diary. Sometimes it’s literally just a text note on my phone, with phrases and images jotted down in a long list. It sort of doesn’t matter, as long as I have something to look back on.

I rarely write complete poems when I’m travelling – although because of the specific poetry focus of this trip, I did end up writing a few complete drafts of poems while I was away this time. But more often, the travels will filter into the poems once I’m back: my experience percolating through my brain till they drip quite naturally into whatever poem is waiting to receive them.

Either way, writing or thinking about writing while on the move is a great way to inject some variety and freshness into the work.

5 – Managing your expectations

Last, but not least, I learned to be aware of my own limitations. This is probably something I need to think about in my life at home as well, but especially on the road – it’s so easy to create a plan for everything you want to write or to work on, and forget that, when you’re away, things take longer. I mean, getting from place to place always takes longer than the satnav says it will, because it doesn’t factor in stopping, or your slightly slower opposite-side-of-the-road driving pace, or getting lost. Getting fuel takes longer. Doing laundry takes longer.

As well as taking loner, all of these things take more energy, because you’re having to think about them a bit harder. Example: I went to buy shampoo, and whereas at home I would walk into the shop, pick my regular shampoo off the shelf and pay (all in the space of about three minutes), in America, I had to first work out which shop to go to, and then look at all the different brands and prices, and then work out the tax, and all the rest of it. Everything just takes that little bit more time and energy to figure out.

All of this is good in some ways, of course, as it feeds into Point 4, and that added alertness we have when we’re out of familiar territory. But what it does mean is that I had to manage my expectations as to how much I was going to write in a day. With the exception of the MacDowell residency, where I wrote way more than I expected, I generally wrote less while I was away than I would have done at home. But that’s ok. After all, it isn’t all about quantity – and the research and additional stimulation enabled by being abroad was, without a doubt, priceless.

April is by far from being the cruellest month. Sorry, T S Eliot, but this past month has been an absolute dream for me. From the tail-end of a research week at New York Public Library, to a three-week MacDowell Fellowship in New Hampshire, to just over a week travelling around Virginia & Kentucky to research a poetry collection – it’s been one heck of a month.

I’m writing this sitting in the airport, waiting for my flight back to the UK. In other words, my flight back to reality. Or, to put it another way, my flight back to the present.

My trip to America has mostly been about the past. I came over here courtesy of a ‘Developing Your Creative Practice’ grant from Arts Council England, with the remit of conducting historical research to assist me with the writing of my first full-length poetry collection. Some of that writing has happened during the research time (both at New York Public Library, and on the road in Virginia & Kentucky), and of course some has happened during my residency at MacDowell.

I’ll probably write a whole other post about the Developing Your Creative Practice grant at some point – I think it deserves its own post. But for now, I just want to highlight a few of my favourite research moments:

A few good things:

Monticello: There are a number of different tours you can do at Monticello, the historic home of Thomas Jefferson. The main tour takes you around the house and talks a bit about Jefferson’s life and achievements. This sounded interesting enough, but it wasn’t what I was there for. Instead, I took the Hemings Family Tour, which explores the life of Jefferson’s primary slave family – including Sally Hemings, with whom he had a number of children. The tour is part small-group tour, part seminar, and encourages discussion among participants – about the historical context of slavery in Virginia and across the US, and about its legacy today. For me and for my work, it opened up new ways of thinking about slavery, and about slave ownership. If you’re going to Monticello and are interested in a more in-depth and complex exploration of the site, then I highly recommend doing this tour.

Mammoth Caves National Park: A very different site, but no less intriguing, was Mammoth Caves National Park. I went because I was interested in exploring the idea of heritage as rooted in place, and caves are a physical manifestation of that idea. They’re literally history carved out through rock. What I didn’t quite expect was for the time I spent there to be this little natural oasis in the midst of all the history and driving. The scale of it, somehow, put everything in some kind of perspective. I did the Historic Tour (which involved walking about two miles underground, and A LOT of steps). I’m still working through all the ideas I bumped up against during that part of the trip (and during the trip as a whole), but even just as an experience it was definitely one of the highlights.

Genealogy research at New York Public Library: The genealogy division at New York Public Library are fantastic. Honestly, I can’t sing their praises enough for all the assistance they provided. Not to mention that the Milstein Division is just such a beautiful space to sit and work in. Again, I’m still wading through some of my findings, but the information I came across formed the backbone of some of the work I’ve been doing during my MacDowell residency.

How will all of this research filter into the poetry? Well, some of it has already, of course – I spent three weeks at MacDowell using a lot of the research I did at New York Public Library. And as for the Virginia / Kentucky research? I think I’m going to be working that into the poetry for a long time to come!

The month in books:

For once, it’s been a good month for reading. Like a lot of people, I suppose, I don’t seem to build enough reading time into my days. But this month has been different. I guess that’s what happens when you have three weeks dedicated to nothing but creativity. You make time for the things that help fuel that creative drive.

  • Vertigo & Ghost, by Fiona Benson
  • Deaf Republic, by Ilya Kaminsky
  • A Love Story for Bewildered Girls, by Emma Morgan
  • The Quick, by Jessica Traynor
  • We Should All Be Feminists, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • The House on Marshland, by Louise Glück
  • A Poetry Handbook, by Mary Oliver
  • Mythos, by Stephen Fry
  • Pulse Points, by Jennifer Down
  • What Happens on Earth, by Alfredo Aguilar
  • For One More Day, by Mitch Albom
  • Sailing Alone Around the Room, by Billy Collins

The month in pictures:

 

I’ve been spending a lot of time over the past few weeks working on poetry as part of my MacDowell Fellowship in New Hampshire. I’ve also been spending a lot of time sitting in the beautiful James Baldwin Library at MacDowell, looking out at the gorgeous views of meadows and forest beyond.

With both of those things in mind, I thought I’d share a poem.

‘In the yellow library where in 2004 I had my first kiss’ is a poem in my second chapbook, Assembly Instructions (Southword Press, 2019). It was written following a workshop I ran a year or so ago, at my old school: QEGS in Penrith, Cumbria. I was working with the school’s creative writing club, exploring poetry and its relationship to place. The workshop took place in the school library…

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In the yellow library where in 2004 I had my first kiss

the students are writing poems. I say,
write in an animal. Include an insect –
make the poem crawl. End
with something that opens, give it space.
What colour is your poem? Blue, they say, or Green.
One says his poem contains a bird and birds
always make a poem purple.

What colour was that Friday afternoon
before the buses came? Some now-or-never
shade – when never was Monday and weekends
were an ocean –
and I remember his mouth was the pink
cavity of a conch, and the books were grey with dust
and undisturbed, though I swear behind their spines
they whispered. I swear they’re whispering now.

The boy’s tongue tasted of pennies and rich tea biscuits
and there was too much of it. Our kiss
was the colour of water.

I say, put water into your poems.
Like the sea?

Yes, I say, or a vase or tap
or gob of spit.

                        But Miss, they say,
that could be anything.

And I say, Yes. Exactly.

 

‘I guess I should be writing but I can’t think what to write about…’

Sound familiar?

Sometimes, it’s true, our brains are overflowing with ideas, and the only problem is how to get them all down on paper fast enough. But as most people will know, that isn’t always the case.

A few weeks ago, I posted 5 poetry prompts designed to generate poetic material by making language work to produce itself. Which is all very well and good if the ideas are already there, but sometimes it can just be useful to have someone to give you a nudge. So in this post, instead of suggesting an idea for a poem, I’m going to do even better than that: I’m going to suggest five.

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1 – Abstract Object

This one requires you to find an object – preferably one you find interesting in some way. It may be particularly tactile. It may be intricate and beautiful. It might be old and falling apart. It doesn’t really matter what it is, so long as it’s something you think you can use to write about. Go outside and rootle around your garden, or wander through the park till something catches your eye. If it’s raining / you don’t have a garden / it’s the weekend and the park is full of children, then find something inside your house. Pick a couple of objects, if you like, then you can decide which one to write about later.

Of course, you could just imagine the object. After all, I’m an entire internet away, and I’ll never know whether the object is actually there in front of you or not – but you’ll probably find this exercise easier if it is.

Once you have your object, spend a good few minutes exploring it. Look at the object from every angle. Think about what it feels like. Does it have a smell? Can you see the object’s history in its physical appearance at all? Does it tell a story? How do you hold it – if you hold it at all? Try to notice something about it that you wouldn’t notice at first glance. It might be useful to set yourself a timer (2 minutes? 3 minutes? 5? Whatever you feel comfortable with) and allow yourself to do nothing but focus on your object until the buzzer goes.

Now you’ve got to know your object, you can begin writing. The exercise is this:

Choose an abstract noun, and describe it as the object.

The easiest way to do this is to choose an emotion as your abstract noun. And the best way to think of the poem is in terms of metaphor. So, you might want to start your poem by saying your abstract noun is your object. E.g.

Love is a sheep skull.

Sorrow is a standard lamp.

Hatred is an acorn.

Loyalty is my grandmother’s wedding dress.

Desperation is a new biro.

Joy is a chipped plate.

Try to be as specific and physical as possible in your descriptions. Not everything will work with the abstract noun, but that’s ok – you can edit later. For now, you’re just writing. And the more physical description there is, the more rooted & grounded your poem will feel.

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2 – Praise

Our second exercise is to write an ode: a poem in praise of something.

This might sound fairly ordinary – but there’s a twist. After all, it’s easy to write a poem praising sunshine, or payday, or a person you love. (And let’s face it, those poems can also get kind of sacharine.)

Instead, write a poem praising something that’s normally looked down on. Something normally seen as inferior, or best kept out of society’s gaze. Something most people might not even notice – or if they did notice, wouldn’t give much thought to.

If you’re stuck, try writing a poem in praise of one of these:

  • the shopping trolley in the canal
  • chewing gum on pavements
  • ugly babies
  • tumble dryer lint
  • the draught
  • empty beer bottles
  • stretch marks
  • peeling wallpaper
  • rising damp

We’re doing a number of things here. We’re treading new ground, speaking about an ordinary object in an unexpected way. We’re elevating the ordinary to the realm of the extraordinary. We’re forcing ourselves to think about something in a way that surprises us as well as the reader – a bit like the first exercise, we’re getting to know something well.

This could also be a good opportunity to practise writing in a different register, or tone. You may just want to write a descriptive poem about your subject, describing it in a positive way. But you may decide to write your poem addressing the subject, which may lead to you writing in a heightened register. Think: ‘O shopping trolley’.

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3 – Excavating the Cliché

This is another prompt that involves looking at things unexpectedly. It’s an exercise I use in workshops quite a lot, because it can be done at any level or in a number of different styles. It’s easy to adapt to a way in which you feel comfortable writing, while also challenging you to think outside the box.

For the prompt to work, you need to start with a cliché. I know, I know. Normally we’re told to avoid them like the plague. They’re ‘dead language’ – which means that we’re so familiar with them, we’ve stopped truly seeing the images inherent within them.

Example: I cried a river. 

We’re all familiar with this expression. It’s overused, to the extent that now we usually just see it as over-dramatic. What we no longer see is the inherent image of the tears flowing, so many it’s like a literal river. We know that’s what it means, but we don’t see the river in our mind’s eye. Instead we just see a person crying, potentially into a glass of wine.

So for this exercise, I would excavate that image. Mine it to its full depths, and write a poem about it. You cried a river? Ok. What kind of river? Was it a brook tinkling down the mountainside? Were there cataracts, and sheep drinking from its banks? Or was it the Ganges? Was it a slow brown ooze? Was it filled with people washing and praying? Were people cremated on the river of your tears? The richer you can be with this exercise, the better.

Looking for some clichés to get you started?

  • My love is deeper than the ocean.
  • I’m free as a bird.
  • My mind is a prison.
  • There are walls around my heart.
  • The wind whispered in the trees.
  • Her face lit up.
  • You are my sunshine.
  • We hammered out our differences.
  • Breaking the ice.
  • He threw a tantrum.
  • Her face fell.
  • Time flies.
  • Old as the hills.
  • Fit as a fiddle.

Remember, the more detailed you can make your image, the better – and the further it is from being a cliché.

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4 – Use Your Senses

Ok. We know this one. If you want to write well, you have to describe things using your senses. We were probably taught this at school, when we learned to do ‘descriptive writing’. Using the senses helps to bring the reader into the world of the poem, or the story, or the memoir, or whatever it is you’re writing. It places them there. It gets their neurons firing and they imagine themselves in that place or situation. It starts to create empathy.

So if we already know all this, why am I saying it here?

Partly, I’m saying it because, even though it’s something we know we should be doing, it’s surprising how often people forget about at least two of the senses, possibly even three or four. We’re generally pretty good at describing how things look. We may also be good at describing feel, or sounds. But a lot of the time we forget about smell, and about taste.

Which is crazy, when you think about it, as there’s tonnes of research linking the olfactory senses to memory, and memory is a goldmine for poetry.

So I want you to write a poem in which you smell or taste something. It can be something pleasant, or something not so pleasant. But try to make it something specific. So not just ‘pie’, but ‘blackberry pie’ – and not just ‘blackberry pie’ but ‘the blackberry pie your sister made on the first time in her new kitchen’.

Try writing the poem in the present tense (so you’re in the moment of smelling or tasting whatever it is), but try to also link it to memory in some way. It can be a real memory or an invented one, as long as it’s something ‘past’. Something that gives the poem an expanded sense of time.

(If you’re not sure what I mean by this, try looking at Louis Macneice’s Soap Suds or Kim Addonizio’s Wine Tasting.)

And, just as with the other exercises, try to be as detailed as possible.

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5 – Things Behaving Badly…

…or at least unexpectedly.

For the last prompt, I want you to give yourself free reign. Embrace the childlike. Remember that this is a poem, not a piece of journalism, and things can behave however you want them to.

So if you want to write a poem where buildings get up and walk away, you can do. Or if you want to write a poem where planets are coins dropped by the gods, or where all the birds leave and are replaced by flapping books, then go for it.

Whatever it is that takes your fancy, try to pick just one thing. So for example, you wouldn’t write a poem in which the world was flat as an LP and every time it orbited the record player everyone had to jump the needle AND where people outsourced their souls to computers. You’d pick one of those ideas (or, more likely, your own much better idea) and focus on that. So you’re sticking within the rules of your own unexpected world.

And again, try to be detailed. Be specific, and ground your poem in physical description. Use those senses. That way, whatever bizarre thing is happening in your poem, it will still retain a sense of realness.

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And that’s it! I hope you find these prompts useful for generating material. And if you get something from these prompts, but are struggling to take your initial ideas further, then feel free to mix and match these prompts with the 5 prompts on using words to generate more words. Good luck, and happy writing!

 

March has gone by in a whirlwind. A literal whirlwind at times, as a storm blew in at the start of the month and I had to force myself to leave the house. But also, obviously, a metaphorical whirlwind. And that’s just because there’s been so much going on.

(I’m going to keep this post deliberately personal and non-political, because I feel like crying every time I watch the news at the moment, either from anger, frustration or despair.)

In many ways, for me, it’s been a month of contrasts: from the start of the month, where I had days on end of not leaving the house, of burying myself in admin work at the kitchen table and drinking and endless supply of cups of tea; to the second half of the month, where my feet have barely touched the ground, and left me hopping from home to Manchester to Cork to London to NYC! So I guess it’s hardly surprising that I look up from my desk and suddenly it’s practically April. Not that April won’t be its own brand of exciting, to, of course…

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A few good things:

The great big trip: I’ve been talking about this one for a while, but it’s finally here: the great big Poetry Trip to America! I’m currently in New York (actually, I’m currently in New Jersey because it’s much cheaper to stay just across the river rather than in Manhattan itself), where I’m researching my collection-in-progress any New York Public Library, thanks to a Developing Your Creative Practice Grant from the Arts Council. (If you haven’t applied for one yet, let this be your incentive to go for it!)

I’m nearly at the end of my week in NYC, but after that it’s up to New Hampshire (by means of an excruciatingly long Greyhound bus trip) for a three week residency at MacDowell Colony, where I’m planning to put all this research to good use by drafting plenty of poems – and keeping my fingers crossed there are a couple of OK ones among them.

And speaking of poems…

Assembly Instructions: This month, my new pamphlet, Assembly Instructions, was published by Southword Editions, as a result of its winning the Fool for Poetry Chapbook Competition. I headed over to Ireland for Cork International Poetry Festival, where the pamphlet was launched, where I read alongside Regina O’Melveny and Breda Spaight, whose Southwod pamphlets were also being launched.

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Gretna: From Ireland, I hot-footed it to London in time for the Marchland Arms season at Ye Olde Mitre: a sixteenth century pub in Holborn. There, I saw Northern: a series of three performance pieces concerned with the borderlands between England and Scotland. One of these was Gretna: a semi-dramatised version of a series of poems I’d written about Gretna Green, performed by two actors and including music from folk musician Lora Watson. It was fascinating seeing the poems being brought to life by other people, and experiencing them with the added level of such beautiful music.

School workshops: Although most of the early part of the month was taken up with pre-trip admin, I also managed to run a couple of school workshops – including one on World Book Day. I didn’t get to dress up as a book character, unfortunately (which is a shame, because I love a good excuse for fancy dress), but it was such a wonderful day, filled with some amazing poetry crated by the young people, and I came away with a bag of handmade cards and intricately folded letters which the Creative Writing Club had made to present me with on my visit.

The National Trust: I also spent a slightly soggy day being filmed reading a couple of poems for the National Trust. These were both commissions for the National Trust’s Tables Turned project, which also saw me writing a poem inspired by a workshop with a group of former miners in Whitehaven last year. Unlike the miners’ poem, however, these two new ones were both filmed outside: one in the Borrowdale valley, and the other in Carlisle overlooking the River Eden. Let’s just say I had a lot of drying out to do on the drive home.

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The month in books:

It’s perhaps unsurprising that I haven’t read as much as planned this month (do I ever? Still testing myself at the new year’s resolution…), since I’ve been spending almost every spare moment trying to catch up on all the admin I didn’t do while I was Poet in Residence at the Wordsworth Trust in February, as well as trying to get ahead with all the admin that I won’t get done while I’m away in the US in March and April. So maybe it’s natural that the books have got pushed a little to one side?

But the good thing about being away, and about being here solely for the purpose of poetry, is that now I’m able to push them back into the centre a bit more. I’ve been rocking up to Bryant Park in NYC an hour or so before the library opens each morning, purely so I can spend some time reading before I start the day’s research. (Oh all right, it’s also an excuse to get coffee and pastry – but those things just go so well with books!)

  • The Science of Storytelling, by Will Storr
  • Salt on Your Tongue, by Charlotte Runcie
  • other gods, by Regina O’Melveny
  • The Untimely Death of My Mother’s Hens, by Breda Spaight
  • Diving into the Wreck, by Adrienne Rich
  • Citizen: An American Lyric, by Claudia Rankine

The month in pictures:

 

 

It’s a thing any writer will be familiar with: the too-thin envelope in the post, containing that single slip of photocopied paper; the email that starts ‘thank you for submitting/applying/sending’ and continues shortly after with ‘unfortunately’; or just the billowing silence until time runs out and you realise that acknowledgment is never going to come.

It happens all the time. Last week, I wrote a post about the number of rejections I received in 2018 (54, in case you’re wondering), and on how this related to other outcomes for my submissions. This week, I’m less interested in the mathematics, and more interested in the psychology of it all. After all, nobody likes to feel rejected, but if it’s going to happen a lot (which, if you’re a writer, it almost certainly is), then you need to find a way of dealing with it.

Social media addiction - Katie Hale, Cumbrian poet, writer and artist

1 – Own it.

One way to cope with those pesky rejection letters is to own your own rejection. We’ve all heard stories of writers who paper their downstairs loo with rejection letters. I’ve heard that Lulu now even offers a service where they’ll print your rejection letters on toilet paper for you, so you can quite literally flush them away. Charming. Personally, I keep all of my responses from journals / magazines etc in two folders in my desk drawer: one for rejections, one for acceptances. My aim is for the acceptance folder to one day outgrow the rejection folder, but even if it doesn’t, that isn’t really the point. The main point is that the very act of filing the letter gives me (and that rejection) a sense of purpose.
NB: In a world where most rejections come in the form of emails rather than snail mail, you can either print each email out in order to file it, or create a colour-coded spreadsheet, where you can colour the squares on the table once a submission is returned to you, successful or otherwise.

Writing poetry with a cup of tea. Katie Hale, Cumbrian poet / writer etc
Poetry & a cuppa

2 – Reject ‘rejection’.

This thought is all about framing – along the lines of nobody beeing able to make you feel inferior without your consent (thanks, Eleanor Roosevelt). Basically, if you don’t think of it as ‘rejection’, then maybe it will hurt less. Think of it instead as fishing. You keep casting your line out, and you keep reeling it in. Sometimes there’s a wriggling fish hooked on the end, but most times it’s empty. That’s ok, though. This is just another opportunity for you to add fresh bait.

typewriter - Katie Hale

3 – Keep lots of irons in the fire.

And speaking of fresh bait… Always have multiple submissions that you’re waiting to hear back from. If you pin all your hopes on one submission, and it comes back as a no, then you’re going to be understandably devastated. If you’ve always got a number of things you’re waiting on, it’s not going to be such a big deal if one of them comes back as a no.

4 – And keep working.

If you’re going to sustain this level of sending out work, then it stands to reason that you need to keep creating work to send out. Which is a good thing, because really, the writing is the most important part. It’s why we do all this other stuff, like sending off poems to magazines and submitting funding applications. If you remember that the writing is key, and the rest is, essentially, all just guff, then whenever a rejection comes in, you can just pull back to the writing.

5 – Celebrate your successes.

It’s one thing owning your rejection, but the things you really want to own are your successes. So tell people. Be rightly proud of your achievements. This doesn’t mean you have to kick modesty to the curb, but don’t high your light under a bushel either. If you’ve achieved something, give yourself credit for it. And while you’re giving yourself credit, why not give yourself cake, or a bubble bath, or a new pen or something – some little treat to reward yourself. If you were a banker or a stock broker or something high-flying, you might get a bonus when you performed particularly well. Think of that coffee & walnut cake as your writerly equivalent of a 6-figure banker’s bonus.

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Good luck! And whatever your coping method: keep writing, and keep putting your work out there.

It’s that time again – the time for looking back at the year gone by and wondering where the time went. Though for once, this year doesn’t feel like it’s rushed by me in a blink and a blur. For once, I can look back and think that 1st January 2018 actually feels like a full year ago. Maybe because so much has changed since then.

I’ve talked a bit about this before, how luck can suddenly change and how validation can come at the drop of a hat, but it’s such a big thing that I want to talk about it again. Because this time last year I wasn’t quite making it as a writer. Don’t get me wrong – I was pleased about how things were going. I’d had some poetry successes in 2017, had taken a show to the Edinburgh Fringe and was several drafts deep into a novel. But it wasn’t financially sustainable. The writing itself was going well, but I was struggling to pay the bills.

And then, along came June: the month that turned it all around. Within the space of a few weeks, I’d received a grant from the Arts Council and Canongate had acquired my novel. And just like that, I could afford to put the heating on. Just like that, my dream of being a completely freelance full-time writer looked financially viable.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising how much of a difference money makes. After all, it’s what drives so many people to get out of bed in the morning, and what stops so many more people from getting to sleep at night. But I don’t think I’d realised quite how much that financial stability meant to me – not least because it means time when I can write, without worrying about how to buy groceries or fill the car with petrol or anything else so quotidien. Instead, I can worry about much more interesting things, like line breaks and plot and structure. Which is exactly the sort of thing I like to be worrying about.

Poetry:

In terms of poetry, 2018 has been a year for residentials, commissions and prizes.

I started the year with a poetry residential in St Ives, which was a week-long retreat at a hotel with four other lovely poets and lots and lots of scones. I then went on my first ever Arvon course in June, which was hugely inspirational, and where I wrote probably more poems than in either the 6 months before or since – before rounding off the year with 4 days at Kim Moore’s Poetry Carousel in Grange-over-Sands: 4 workshops with 4 different tutors, and once again buckets full of inspiration.

What was so lovely about each of these occasions was that they gave me time to focus on what the poetry I wanted to write, while also pushing me and my work in new directions. These opportunities were particularly helpful, because most of my other writing this year has been either fiction, or has been commission-driven.

Given that I completed my first ever commission in the second half of 2017, I’ve been pleasantly overwhelmed with the commissions I’ve had this year – which just goes to emphasise how quickly things turn around and take on a positive streak.

It started in January, with a poem for the Barbican Centre‘s Subject to Change project. The poem was called ‘Honey’, and was written in response to an incident that occured on Virgin Trains’ East Coast service at the start of the year. This commission was followed by one from Theatre by the Lake in Keswick, which is still ongoing, and another from the National Trust: as part of their three-year participation project, Tables Turned, I was asked to meet a group of former miners in Whitehaven, and to use their memories of working in the mines to write a creative response through poetry. The result was ‘We’re still here, with luck’, using comments made by the miners interspersed with my own words:

I’ve also been working on a commission from a theatre company, Théâtre Volière, to write a sequence of poems about the history of women in the area around Gretna Green. Théâtre Volière will then collaborate with musicisn Lori Watson to create a theatre piece, Gretna, which will be performed at Ye Olde Mitre in London next March.

And, while we’re on the subject of history, my final commission of 2018 was from BBC Radio Cumbria to mark the centenary of the end of the First World War, in response to Carlisle’s Armistice Day celebrations 100 years ago. The lovely people at Carlisle Cathedral were then good enough to let me climb the (very very very steep) stairs to the roof of the bell tower with Radio Cumbria’s Belinda Artingstoll to film it.

I also had a commission this year to work with Kendal Poetry Festival to create a ‘guerrilla poetry‘ project – except that, being me, I sort of got a bit carried away with it, and instead of creating one guerrilla poetry project, ended up creating three. These were a River of Poems, which wound alongside the Kent from the weekend before the festival, a series of pop-up performances at the Brewery Arts Centre‘s community open day at the end of August, and a whole great sack of Festival Survival Kits, which were distributed during the festival itself. All three projects featured poems by member of Brewery Poets and members of Dove Cottage Young Poets.

And while we’re on the subject of festivals, this year I achieved a long-term goal and performed at StAnza Poetry Festival. For those who don’t know, StAnza is a lovely festival that takes place every March, and I’ve been desperate to read there ever since I was doing my MLitt at St Andrews in 2012/13. This year, I not only got to do a reading, but I also got to perform at the festival launch event (at the same event as Barbara Dickson!) and to appear on a panel at the festival finale. Huge shoutout to StAnza for the opportunities and their support!

And, completing the trilogy of festivals, this year I was also invited to run a poetry workshop at Borderlines Book Festival in Carlisle. Borderlines is another festival that I hold close to my heart, as I remember being in a meeting a few years ago when they were talking about plans for the first one, and it’s been hugely exciting to watch it grow, and to keep attending events and workshops there over the years. And even more exciting to be allowed to run one of my own!

Continuing the Cumbrian theme, 2018 also saw the publication of the much-lauded (and rightly so) anthology of contemporary Cumbrian poetry, This Place I Know, published by Handstand Press – which I am very pleased to be a part of.

Kendal Poetry Festival 2018: guerrilla poetry, River of Poems

As well as publication, it’s also been an amazing year for prizes! I’m putting this down to my 2018 resolution, which was to send off 100 submissions / applications during the year. I didn’t quite make the 100 (more on this in a later post), but it did mean an unusually high number of submissions, which happily meant an unusually high number of successes. These have included winning the Buzzwords Poetry Competition, coming second in the Oxford Brookes International Poetry Competition, and being shortlisted for the University of Canberra Vice Chancellor’s International Poetry Prize. As well as individual poems, I was also delighted (and very surprised) to win the Munster Literature Centre’s Fool for Poetry Chapbook Competition. As a result, my chapbook, Assembly Instructions, will be published by Southword in Spring 2019, and will be launched at Cork International Poetry Festival. I also found out just recently that I’ve been shortlisted for the Manchester Poetry Prize, which I find out the final results of at the start of February. Fingers crossed!

And rounding off an already-pretty-round year of poetry success, I want to mention the one that marked the start of it all turning around, that took me from being end-of-the-line defeatist to writer-actually-earning-a-living-from-it: the Developing Your Creative Practice grant from Arts Council England. Funding to research and write a collection of poetry, including a research trip to New York, Virginia & Kentucky, which will take place next year. Talk about exciting opportunities!

Editing the novel

Fiction:

Last year, I drafted a novel – something that was as much of a surprise to me as it was to anyone else. As I’ve already talked about in a number of previous posts, this came about because I got a place on Penguin Random House’s WriteNow mentoring scheme. Earlier this year, my time as part of that mentoring scheme came to an end (though not before a lovely meet-up with some of my fellow WriteNow mentees at the Penguin Random House offices on The Strand in a sizzling hot day in April). There was a bit of back and forth for a few months, but over the summer I got the news: that Canongate wanted to publish my book.

As a result, My Name is Monster is coming out in June next year!

A novel about power and “the strength and the danger in a mother’s love”, My Name is Monster centres on a young woman called Monster who believes she is alone in an empty, post-apocalyptic version of Britain. Slowly, piece by piece, she begins to rebuild a life. Until, one day, she finds a girl: another survivor, feral, and ready to be taught all that Monster knows.

The proofs for the novel arrived while I was on holiday in November, and they look beautiful – there’s even some lovely shiny copper foil on the cover. But what got me most is the fact that it also smells like a book: that beautiful new-book smell that speaks of all the possibility hidden between unread pages. June is going to come around so quickly!

My Name is Monster by Katie Hale - proof copy

Other Things:

Fitting with the mix of things this year has brought, I also went back to working in an office for part of the year. For around nine months, I spent a day a week working at the Brewery Arts Centre in Kendal, doing admin in the Youth Arts department. It was so so lovely having colleagues again: people that I see and get to chat to and work with every week. That’s something I can really see myself missing next year.

I also led a series of workshops while I was there, as part of a pilot project working with young LGBTQ+ people in the Kendal area, which was really good fun. As was the young filmmakers’ class I ended up running! And no, I’m not suddenly a filmmaker. It was a self-led group of young people, and I was just there to keep them on track in a support role. The plus side is that I learned a lot about film along the way!

I’ve also run an awful lot of schools workshops this year, in both primary and secondary schools, which have been really fun – particularly the one I ran in QEGS library (which was the scene of my first kiss over a decade ago!) and the one I ran for a group of teachers from different secondary schools, where I got to push them out of their comfort zones and get them to see poetry as play. (That said, most of them didn’t actually take all that much pushing!) Alongside these, I’ve run a fair few Arts Award Discover days in schools, and was also invited to co-run a workshop at the Barbican Centre with friend & fellow-former-Barbican Young Poet Kareem Parkins-Brown.

A bit closer to home, I was a guest on Radio Cumbria’s new Arty Show a couple of months ago, which was a really fun few hours talking all things arty, listening to lots of music and interesting interviews, and eating chocolate biscuits!

Dove Cottage, home of Cumbrian poet William Wordsworth

What Next?

From the look of it so far, 2019 is shaping up to be an even busier year than 2018!

I have my poetry chapbook, Assembly Instructions, coming out in March, and then My Name is Monster coming out just  few months later in June. So there’ll be plenty to do in preparation for both of those, and then of course readings and events around them after the launches themselves.

And speaking of events – I also have Gretna: a theatre piece created in collaboration wtih Théâtre Volière and musician Lori Watson, exploring the borderlands between England and Scotland from the perspective of the women so often written out of its history. Gretna is showing in London in March, for two performances only!

Luckily, there’ll also be plenty of time among all of this for writing, as I have three residencies and a research trip lined up for next year. The first of these is a month-long residency at the Wordsworth Trust in Grasmere. I’ll then be spending another month in Brussels at the other end of the year, with Passa Porta, in conjunction with the National Centre for Writing and the Flemish Literature Fund. And in between the two, I have three weeks at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, which should provide a calm oasis of writing time in the middle of a hectic research trip to New York, Kentucky and Virginia.

So onwards into a brave new year!

The Year in Pictures: