Every year, I write a blog post about how I’ve managed to make a living as a writer that year. Following on from 2020’s support grant-heavy income, this year has been a bit more of a mix: the support grants came to an end, and many of us are still trying to figure out what work looks like in this new half-open world.
At the end of 2020, I had a strategy: focus on my existing work channels to buy myself time to write. In practice, this meant not applying for opportunities (such as commissions or project work) which took days of application-writing. It meant waiting – largely – for work to come to me.
I said this last year, and I’ll say it again here: I’m lucky. I’ve been working freelance as a writer and facilitator for almost a decade, eight years of that in the same county. So I’ve built up enough contacts and relationships with other artists and organisations, which means that work does, now, just drop into my inbox from time to time. Even this year, when everything’s been a bit topsy-turvy, I’ve had work just arrive. So much, in fact, that I’ve even had to turn some of it down.
Wait, what? I’ve turned down work? Paid work?
Yep, that’s right. If you’d told me a year ago that I’d be in this position, I’m not sure I’d have believed you. Even to me now, writing this in the annual financial slump otherwise known as January, it sounds almost unbelievable. But I still think it was the right thing to do – partly because I was so busy, and therefore had to prioritise existing commitments, but also because, this year, I’ve been lucky enough to receive two grants (a Northern Writers’ Award and a Society of Authors Authors Foundation Grant), which buy me time to work on specific projects.
But more about this later on. For now:
What has 2021 looked like for me?
As you can see from the graph, income has been very up and down this year. This isn’t much of a surprise – it generally is.
I had a few decent-sized pieces of online work in the first few months, boosted by the 4th installment of the SEISS Covid grant in April. In May and June, the income took a big dip. Normally, this would be because this is exam time, and so I’m not going into any schools to run workshops – but of course, that hasn’t been happening for the past couple of years anyway.
What I have noticed over the past couple of years, is that when we’ve been in deepest darkest lockdown, there’s been a slow but relatively steady stream of work. It’s when we’re coming out of lockdown, and when there’s uncertainty, that the work all but disappears. It’s still very thin on the ground now, 6 months after the final SEISS grant installment.
But I’m getting ahead of myself – you’ll have till next year’s blog post if you want to hear about this year’s problems.
So. May and June were a bit of a wash-out, but then July and August were successful (thanks partly to SEISS Grant 5 in August), as were October and November. In September, I was Writer in Residence at Gladstone’s Library, and so the stipend from this was my only income for that month. December is almost always a wash-out.
What does all this mean? Well, it means that I need to think ahead when I’m thinking about my finances. I can’t live month to month, because the next month might be a no-income month, and then I’d be stuffed. It means I can’t always rely on more work coming into the inbox – and it’s this which makes that decision to turn work down so scary.
So where has my income come from this year?
Last year, I listed four categories:
Funding: money from grants.
Facilitation: both workshop facilitation and facilitation of creative projects. (These go into one category, because project money will often include funding for both the delivery and administration side, lumped together.)
Writing: commissions, royalties, ALCS money, PLR money, prize money – anything that comes from the actual writing of the actual words
Events: panel events, chairing and readings (in person and online and even over the phone).
This year I’ve also reinstated a fifth category: residencies. (This was missing last year, because most residencies were closed for so much of 2020.)
As a reminder, here’s where my income came from in 2020:
As we can see, most of it came from grant-funding – unsurprising, given that we were in the thick of the pandemic, and pretty much all other income dropped away for the bulk of the year.
A small amount came from writing. Plus some from facilitation – mostly from a single project, which involved a combination of administration and remote workshop leading.
Let’s compare that to this year:
In 2021, the biggest block is still funding, but it’s a significantly smaller proportion – 44% rather than 72%. This is partly because the Covid support has now stopped, and partly because of the return of (some) other work. Most of the funding support I did receive came from the Northern Writers’ Awards, and from the Society of Authors, who gave me an Authors’ Foundation grant to work on my novel, to stand in place of the income that still hasn’t returned following the pandemic.
Facilitation is another significant chunk (28%) – largely because I started leading online workshops in 2021, which has gone some way towards returning the balance.
I also earned a significant chunk from writing last year – unusual in a year where I didn’t sell a manuscript, and so didn’t get an advance. (You can read more about how books earn money here.) The bulk of this came from just one source: winning the Palette Poetry Prize. This is why big prizes like this are so competitive – alongside being a massive confidence boost, they can also make such a huge difference to a writer’s income, and buy you a good couple of months of writing time if you’re lucky enough to win.
While I did do a couple of residencies and online events in 2021, these are still predictably low, thanks partly to Covid, and partly to my own circumstances, as it’s now two years since the novel came out. I’m keeping things crossed these aspects of my income have a chance to buck up a bit more in 2022!
So what’s next for 2022?
We’re already a good few weeks into 2022, and I’m starting to try to get a sense for how it’s all going to shape up. At this point, it’s always difficult to tell – even in a year where we’re not battling a global pandemic.
I’ll be honest, mostly, things look pretty lousy. A lot of organisations seem (understandably) unwilling to plan things at the moment. In-person-only events remain inaccessible to so many people, hybrid events require extra planning (all of which could be undone at any time by new restrictions), and there seems to be a reluctance by a lot of people to plan online-only events – led, I think, by the belief that people are fed up with them. (Personally, I don’t get this. I love not having to travel for events, and getting to sit on the sofa with the cat and a bowl of ice cream while I’m watching them. But that’s another story.)
In terms of income, this means 2022 looks pretty thin on the ground.
But all is not lost! I have a couple of sizeable things in the pipeline, which I’m keeping my fingers crossed for – but which I’m not mentioning as I’m trying not to jinx. And as always, you never know what might land in the inbox…
NB: That doesn’t mean I was submitting work before I was happy with it, or that I was editing my work any less rigorously. Only that I wasn’t letting myself be put off making the submission in the first place.
I did the same thing in 2019, and then again in 2020 – partly to keep track of my own progress, but also because it’s so easy to only talk about the good stuff. And because when you only see other people talking about the good stuff, it can be easy to get disheartened about your own writing.
So the blog post that follows is a mix. There is some good stuff (I’m lucky – it’s been a pretty good year for me in lots of ways), but there have also been a lot of rejections to trudge through. Personally, I always find these things easier when they’re made visual – so here are my rejections (and acceptances, and in-betweens) for 2021, broken down into a series of graphs:
Over the course of 2021, I submitted to 128 opportunities – more than double my submissions for 2020. Not only that, but this is the biggest number of submissions I’ve ever managed in a single year – which is perhaps surprising, given that one of my resolutions for 2021 was to apply for fewer commissions and for less project work.
So why such a hike in submission numbers? Well, looking at the breakdown of what I submitted might be an answer to that. Because of course, not all submissions are created equal.
In 2021, I submitted / applied to:
3 funding opportunities
53 submissions (e.g. to magazines / journals / anthologies)
Or, because you all know I’m a big fan of the graph to make things visual:
As you can see, job applications are particularly low – only 2% of my year’s applications. So this, at least, is in keeping with my 2021 new year’s resolution, to not apply for much in the way of project work and commissions. These applications, I reasoned, are usually the ones that take the most time – not to mention often having to design and tailor a very specific project, which is work that’s often wasted if the application is unsuccessful.
Funding is similarly low – though this was more to do with there being fewer funding opportunities I was eligible to apply for in the first place. The three I applied for this year were the Arts Council DYCP grant (unsuccessful), the Society of Authors Authors’ Foundation grant (successful!), and the Speculative Literature Fund Gulliver Travel Grant, for which I’m still on the shortlist and waiting to hear (so fingers crossed).
My residency applications are higher this year than they were in 2020, as more residencies have started to open up for applications again after being closed down for much of last year – though I’ve still been limiting my applications to residency opportunities within the UK, or with long lead-in dates which make me feel a bit more hopeful about the possibility of actually travelling to get to them.
As you can see from the graph, the bulk of my applications this year were competitions, and submissions (within which I include submissions to journals, magazines, anthologies etc).
I’ve always submitted to a lot of competitions. They can be expensive, but they’re also possible to submit to even if you only have a single available poem (unlike magazines, who often like you to submit a group of three or more at a time). The odds aren’t always good, but if you do get lucky, they can also have a pretty pay-off!
The big rise in submissions this year comes from a shift in my submitting habits. As well as poems, I’ve also started sending out short stories more frequently, as I look for a home for some of the stories from my collection. Not only that, but, while I’m still submitting to all the sorts of places I used to submit before, I’ve also started submitting to US journals, the majority of which allow simultaneous submissions – meaning, you can submit the same poem or story to more than one place at once, so you’re not waiting on an answer for 6 months before you can try somewhere else. As you can imagine, this hugely increases the scope for submissions.
Which is all very well and good, but how successful was I?
In the graph above, I’ve only included things that I’ve received a definite response for. I’m still waiting on a decision from 41 of my submissions and applications from 2021.
Out of the 87 submissions that have been answered,
9 were an outright sucess (e.g. a competition win, or a publication, or a funding grant)
63 were an outright no
10 were a no, but with some sort of longlisting – a kind of close but no cigar
5 were a partial success – a kind of close and yes some sort of cigar, but not the Cubans
Personally, I’m pretty happy with that. That no number might look pretty big, but if you add together the yes, longlist and partial sections, to get submissions which received some kind of positive response, you come out with 28% – or just over a quarter. As far as I’m concerned, a 1 in 4 success rate (or even partial success rate) isn’t bad at all.
What were my 9 outright successes?
The Desperate Literature Prize: I was shortlisted for this with a short story, but I’m counting it as a full success rather than a partial, because I also won the Georgia Writers’ House Prize within it, which will result (when Covid allows) in a week’s residency in Tbilisi.
Northern Writers Awards: Debut Poet Award: I’ve been applying for the Northern Writers’ Awards for years, so it was such a thrill to be successful this year! The Award is a package of funding, mentoring and support, and has already proved invaluable.
Society of Authors: Authors’ Foundation: funding for work in progress.
Palette Poetry Prize: You know I said I’d started submitting more to US journals and prizes? The Palette Poetry Prize is a big US competition, judged this year by Jericho Brown. You can read my winning poem here.
Joyland: Another US journal, with international reach. This one for short fiction, to be published in 2022.
Broken Sleep: Footprints: an anthology of new ecopoetry: due in 2022, and featuring one of my poems.
The Arctic Circle Residency: I said I wasn’t applying for international residencies unless they were a way away in the future, and this one isn’t till April 2023 – but still, I’m incredibly excited about it! More about this residency and everything it involves in a future blog post…
[plus a secret one, which I’m not allowed to announce just yet!]
So what are my submission and application plans for 2022?
For the most part, I’m planning to operate the same strategy as I did in 2021: focus on submissions & competitions that benefit me in some way (either through prize money or publication); don’t apply for too many commissions or too much project work, especially if they have labour-intensive applications, and if they won’t benefit my own writing; apply for opportunities (funding / residencies etc.) that give me more time for my own writing.
After so much success in 2021, I’m starting to run short on things that I can actually submit. So my main strategy is to keep writing!
Happy New Year, and I hope it’s a successful one for all of us! x
In the words of Jonathan Larson, creator of the musical ‘Rent’: how do you measure a year in a life?
Over the past few years, I’ve tried a number of ways of summing things up – from the books I’ve read, to the number of things I’ve had published, to galleries of pictures. This makes the blog post useful for me to look back on, but it also can give the impression that my life can be parcelled neatly into sections, and perhaps even that I plan it out to be like that, ahead of time.
This year, perhaps even more than last year, life has been unpredictable. At least, it’s felt that way for me, in ways that have proved both positive and negative. This has been true of my personal life – but also my professional life as well.
I’ve been pretty lucky this year. Thanks to a combination of grants, prizes, and – let’s be honest – not being able to go anywhere to spend any money for a large chunk of the year, I’ve been able to spend a big part of 2021 writing.
That might sound like a strange thing for a writer to say – surely a lot of time is spent writing every year? But very few writers make their whole living from the actual words on the page, and normally I do a lot of workshops and events as well.
This year, however, the focus has been on the words – from working on a collection of short stories, to editing my poetry collection for submission, to drafting a second novel. (Which I managed to get sent off to my agent just before I finished for Christmas. Hurrah!)
So, to round up this year of actually writing:
A Few Good Things:
At the end of 2019, I was lucky enough to be awarded a Writer in Residence position at Gladstone’s Library, to be taken up in 2020. Obviously, this couldn’t happen as planned last year. So, in September this year, I drove to Flintshire, and stayed for a whole month in the UK’s only residential library. Day after day, I got to sit in my own little nook at my own little desk in the most beautiful library, surrounded by books and the hush of people’s thoughts.
It was during this month that I wrote the second draft of the novel. Second drafts are always hard. At least, I always think so. With the first draft, although you have the difficulty of starting from a blank page, there’s also no pressure. You’re not trying to produce something good – only to produce something. A mess of words which you can worry about shaping sometime later on.
The problem with the second draft is, this is that sometime later on, and now there’s pressure to mould something out of the mess, knowing all the time that if you can’t mould anything out of it, then all that drafting time will have been wasted.
At Gladstone’s Library, though, the process didn’t feel like a chore. Perhaps because of the atmosphere, which tingled with work and creativity. Or perhaps because it’s so much easier to work when someone else is doing all the cooking and cleaning for you. Whatever the reason, the month-long residency was a huge success, and I managed to come out of it with a complete second draft of the novel.
Which brings me onto…
Heinrich Böll Cottage
Another postponed residency from 2020, Heinrich Böll Cottage is a very different set-up to Gladstone’s Library. A self-catering cottage with a view of the sea, on Achill Island in County Mayo, it felt like the best kind of solo retreat, where I could spend my mornings editing the manuscript, my afternoons walking along some of the beautiful beaches the island has to offer, and my evenings reading by the fire.
This was also an incredibly soothing time. Something about being by the sea, and being able to explore in a way that felt both incredibly free, but also very Covid-safe in terms of my own independence. And, as at Gladstone’s Library, I felt like I accomplished way more than I would have done in the same time at home.
Although, speaking of accomplishments…
This year, I was lucky enough to win a Northern Writers’ Award!
The Northern Writers’ Awards are a series of annual awards, run by New Writing North, with the aim of supporting writers in the north of England at various stages in their careers. I’ve been applying for the awards for years (why not? They’re free to enter, which is a huge plus!) and this year, I was finally successful.
I was awarded a Northern Debut Award for Poetry. This not only consisted of a monetary grant, to support my writing time, but also a series of mentoring sessions with an established poet. So, towards the end of the year, I had my first session, working with the wonderful Malika Booker: two hours of intense interrogation of my poetry, by the end of which my brain felt like it had run a mental marathon. It was the most incredible experience for helping me to see my poems in a new light, and I can’t wait to continue the sessions into 2022!
And, continuing the funding theme, I was also awarded an Authors’ Foundation Grant this year, from the Society of Authors. This has paid for time for me to complete the manuscript of my novel, to get it ready to send to my agent. It’s been an invaluable help, and so great to know that I have some secure money in my account, even when everything remains so rocky.
Kendal Poetry Festival
And speaking of wonderfully intense experiences: in spring this year, Kendal Poetry Festival ran their first online festival – over 9 days instead of the usual long weekend, with so many events we soon lost count.
And my role in all of this? Guerrilla Poetry.
I first created Festival Survival Kits for Kendal Poetry Festival back in 2018, out of a project I’d previously run independently. Since then, the project has gone from strength to strength, and this year, the Survival Kits were bigger and better than ever!
This year, I also started to run an online workshop series. This has been a huge success – partly because it’s led to meeting some wonderful writers, who’ve come along to take part, and written the most incredible pieces.
I’m planning to carry on with these into 2022, and the next one is on Saturday 15th January – still with spaces if you’d like to come along:
Defying all my original expectations, 2021 actually managed to be a fairly decent year for publications and prizes as well.
After its delay due to Covid last year, My Name is Monster finally came out in paperback at the beginning of this year! It has a stunning blue and coral cover, and it’s been great, these last few months, actually getting to see it out and about in shops.
I also won the Palette Poetry Prize this year, with a poem called ‘The Gallery of America’ – about which judge Jericho Brown said: ‘This poem is amazing in its ability to speak to and through itself given its own history. But there is much more than just syntactic technique going on in these lines of definite desperation.’
In other poetry news, this year saw me win the Prole Laureate Poetry Competition, and have poems shortlisted for the Aesthetica Poetry Prize, and commended in the Verve Poetry Prize, the Magma Editors’ Prize, and the Cafe Writers Open Poetry Competition.
In fiction news, I had a story shortlisted for the Desperate Literature Prize, within which I won the Georgia Writers’ House Prize – leading to a residency in Tblisi, to be undertaken sometime in the coming year. I’ve also had stories shortlisted for the Bath Flash Fiction Prize, longlisted for the Exeter Story Prize and the BBC National Short Story Award, and in the top 5% for the Bridport Prize.
I’m planning on doing my annual analytical post of all my acceptances and rejections sometime in the coming month, but for now, not a bad year for prizes all in all!
And, last but not least, My Name is Monster was also featured this year by the Boozy Book Club: an online book club & event series, which mails out the books along with a box of themed goodies. Here’s the Monster box – and I think you’ll agree it looks pretty spectacular.
As I said at the start of the post, things rarely fit into nice easy little boxes, and this year has seen a few extra things, which deserve an honourable mention. Perhaps the most notable of these was my appearance on Rosie Jones’ Trip Hazard: a comedy travel show in which comedian Rosie Jones explores various parts of the UK in the company of a celebrity guest. This was filmed in 2020, but aired earlier this year, including yours truly, talking to Rosie Jones & Scarlet Moffatt in Dove Cottage, and getting them to write poetry on the edge of Grasmere.
In other performance-related news, I wrote the lyrics to a song for the Three Inch Fools’ touring production of Robin Hood: ‘Branching Out’. The brief for the song was ‘folky feminist power ballad’. Here it is, sung by Maid Marian – aka Emily Newsome:
So what next?
The start of a year always feels like such a daunting and exciting time to me. Daunting because literally anything could happen. Exciting because literally anything could happen.
So far my plans for 2022 involve a lot of editing. I finished 2021 with three manuscripts at various stages of completeness: a poetry collection, a novel, and a collection of short stories. Of these, I’m in a waiting game with the novel and short stories (waiting for editorial feedback so I can move onto the next draft) – so I’m planning to start the year by working some more on the poetry collection. I have a big deadline for this in the spring, so hopefully after that, I might even be able to move over to writing something new – but that’s several months away yet.
And what else, apart from the writing?
I have a couple of trips planned in Scotland (Covid-permitting), as well as a few residencies due to happen later this year (again, Covid-permitting). I have one or two book events lined up – and other than that, I’m going to eagerly await what the year might bring.
And in the meantime, I’m going to edit, I’m going to write, and I’m going to read. And I can’t wait to get stuck back into all three.
2021: The Year in Pictures
Happy New Year, and here’s hoping 2022 brings you everything you’re looking for!
Let’s imagine you’ve written your novel. You’ve got an agent and/or publisher. The world is your oyster and you’ve got dollar signs lighting up your eyes. You know that a book is a commodity, that sales mean (at least some) money – but where does the money come from? And how else could your book make you money, beyond just flogging copies of it out of the boot of your car?
The first thing to say is that most authors are not millionaires. So before you start shopping for your luxury yacht, a touch of realism:
Fiction pays slightly better than, say, poetry, but there’s still a lot of disparity within the form, and how much your novel makes will depend on a number of factors, including but not limited to: the genre, whether it’s standalone or part of a series, your publisher, their vision for the book, who reads it and happens to promote it online, whether bookshops get behind it, whether it wins or is shortlisted for any prizes, whether it gets picked up for film or TV (more on that later), your own part in promoting it, and of course, absolute luck.
That said, with fiction, it is technically possible to make a living solely from the books you write. It just isn’t easy.
But, if you were to make a living solely or even partly from the books, where might that money come from?
Grants & Prizes
Believe it or not, it is actually possible to get money for a book before it’s published, or even before you’ve finished writing it. Highly competitive, yes, but possible.
Generally, this comes in two forms: prizes (a kind of ‘well done, you’re amazing’ for part of the book you’ve already written) and grants (a kind of ‘well done, you’re amazing, here’s some money to write / finish the book’). Different prizes and grants have different stipulations for entry. Some require you to be unpublished. Others require you to have written & published at least two full-length books. Some want you to have finished the book, but not have a publisher (often with these, the prize includes publication and/or agent representation). Some only need to see the first few thousand words.
Society of Authors: they issue grants for works in progress, though they ask for a likelihood of it being published by a UK publisher, so some sort of publication history / contract / option clause helps with this one.
A couple of years ago, I put together a twitter thread of resources for writers, which includes places you can look for things like prizes & grants – as well as for residencies.
Residencies are another way to fund the writing of your novel. They don’t all pay, but if you can get one that does, it can be a way to make your book pay even while you’re writing it.
Advance & Royalties
This is the main way most authors get paid for their work, and is the money which comes from books actually being sold in bookshops / online, and is split into two (related) sections: advances and royalties.
Royalties are perhaps easier to understand, so let’s start there.
For every book that’s sold, the author gets a cut. It isn’t usually a big cut, though the percentage you get as a writer will depend on your contract, and whether you have an agent, and whether you’re self-published or published through a traditional publisher. For a traditionally published writer, this tends to be around 10-15%, depending on the edition / number of copies sold.
Self-published writers tend to take a bigger cut, but you also have to do more of the work, and you have to become an expert in multiple areas of the publishing industry. You also don’t get to see any of the money until after copies of the book have been sold. In other words, if you’re self-published, you won’t get an advance.
An advance is one of the big differences between self-publishing and traditional publishing. It’s basically a down-payment on royalties, made to you by the publisher and agreed when you sign the contract. Advances can range from £100 into the hundreds of thousands (though that’s rare), and depend on how much the publisher thinks they can make from your book. What’s its market potential? How many copies will it sell? Will it sell abroad (more on this later)?
Usually, an advance is paid in 3 or 4 chunks: on signing the contract; on delivery of the finished manuscript; on publication (sometimes split into hardback and paperback publication). Then, any royalties the book makes go towards paying off that advance.
Let’s say you get a £5000 advance. Your book costs £10 and you earn 10% royalties – so £1 per book. For the first 5000 copies, you won’t get any extra money, because you’ve already had it in your advance. Once that advance is ‘paid off’, you’ll start seeing royalty cheques. So if your book sells 6000 copies, you’ll be due £1000 in royalties. NB: If your book only sells 4000 copies, you won’t have to pay that extra £1000 back to the publisher. The advance is yours.
Books don’t just sell in the UK. If your book is translated into another language (or if it’s picked up by an American publisher as well), then you’ll get money for that, too. How you get this money depends on your contract, and what your advance is for.
When you sign with a publisher, there are two main types of contract: UKCW (UK & Commonwealth, excluding Canada), and World.
If you have a UKCW contract, the publisher can publish & distribute your book in the UK, and in places like Australia & New Zealand, as well as certain English Language bookshops abroad. But they can’t sell the rights for it to be translated. Those rights remain with you – which is where a good agency comes in handy, as the agent (usually a dedicated foreign rights team within the agency that your own agent is part of) will try to sell those rights off individually to foreign publishers. Each time your rights are sold, you get a new advance. For example, you might get a US advance, a German advance, and a Japanese advance, which means you get a new publisher in each of those countries, and a new advance / royalty agreement.
If you have a World contract with your publisher, then the publisher handles all of this instead of the agent. There’s still a new advance each time, but it doesn’t come to you directly. Instead, it goes towards paying off that initial advance the publisher paid you. Think of it like this: the publisher has already paid you a load of money, so they need to make that back before they can pay you any more.
The plus side to this, is that you (or your agent) can demand a bigger advance from the publisher for World rights. The down side is that you only get that payment once – until, as with royalties, you ‘earn out’ (i.e. you earn enough to cover that initial publisher’s advance).
PLR / ALCS
Royalties aren’t the only way to make money from people reading your book. After all, not every book is bought. Some are borrowed.
Ever wondered about the difference between pirating a copy of a book online, or borrowing it from the library? Well, when you borrow from the library, you’re not only supporting an excellent community-focused service. You’re also paying the author – and at no cost to you. Let’s just stop and think for a moment about how great that is. You get to read a book without paying a penny for it, and the person who wrote it is still getting paid. Wow.
This money comes to the author via PLR (Public Lending Rights). PLR is administered by the British Library, with funding from the Deparment of Digital, Culture, Media & Sport. Once your book is published, you can register with them as an author, and then individually register your books. Then, once a year, you should receive a small payment, based on how many times your book has been borrowed from the library.
Another annual payment comes from ALCS (Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society).
I’ll be honest, I understand where this money comes from a lot less. The payment is for ‘secondary rights’ – so, when a school photocopies a textbook, or when libraries outside the UK (and not covered by PLR) lend copies of your book. The important thing for this post, though, is that it’s a source of income for your book. Like with PLR, you have to register your books, and then you get a nice little payment once or twice a year, depending on how much you’re owed.
You have to pay for membership of ALCS – but lifetime membership costs just £36 at the time of writing, and you can easily make that back. Or, if you’re a member of the Society of Authors (which I recommend for all writers), then you get your ALCS membership included.
Prizes don’t just happen before the book is published. They also happen afterwards. Think of things like the Booker Prize, the Women’s Prize, the Costa Awards. These are a few of the big ones, but there will also be a host of other prizes your book might be eligible for – prizes that are specific to your genre or location.
Prizes usually come with an actual prize, as the name suggests: money, which the winner (and sometimes shortlisted writers) are awarded as a congratulations on their excellent novel.
But this isn’t the only way a prize can earn you money – because prizes also affect sales.
If your book wins the Costa, it’s likely to get pushed closer to the front of the shop. It’ll be on the table near the door in Waterstones, so people see it as soon as they come in. It might be in the window, calling to people in the street. It’ll be on this bookshop e-news, or that recommended reading list. Online booksellers might push it to their front page, or further up their algorithms. If enough people buy it, it might make it onto a bestseller list, which pushes it up these algorithms even more.
More sales = more royalties, which either goes further to paying off your advance, or, once that’s done, means more money in your bank account.
If you’re a traditionally published writer, your publisher will usually submit your book to these on your behalf – though if there are regional / local / particular prizes you happen to know about, you can always mention them to your publisher and request to be submitted.
Self-published books tend not to be eligible for a lot of these prizes – though there are also prizes which are solely for self-published books. The best way to find out about these tends to be sitting down one evening with a glass of wine and google, and making a list for yourself.
So many writers have that dream: our book is picked up by a big Hollywood producer, it becomes a box office hit, and we make our millions. Extra money, for a book we’ve already written and shelved.
For every book you see adapted into a film, hundreds more haven’t made the cut. Firstly, the right person has to read your book and think it might make a good film. (This is where things like sales and prizes come in handy – the more people read your book, the bigger chance there is that one of them will be someone who makes those kinds of commissioning decisions.)
So, let’s say a producer reads and loves your book. Great! Fanastic! Well done you! Usually what happens is they’ll put in an offer for option rights, usually for a period of 18 months to 2 years. This doen’t mean they’re allowed to make the film. What it means is that, for that length of time, you’re not allowed to sell the film rights to anyone else. This then gives the production company 18-24 months to decide whether they want to make the film or not.
Films are phenomenally expensive to make. Seriously – the amount of money involved in making even a small indie film is mind-boggling. That kind of money takes time to find.
At the end of the option contract period, the production company has a choice. They can:
buy the actual film rights, which will be a deal with more money attached to it, often a percentage of the film budget (usually with a floor and ceiling amount), or sometimes a percentage of box office take
take out another option contract, giving them another 18-24 months to find the funds (with another payment for you as the author)
say thank you but no thank you, and walk away (which means you get the film rights back, and, if someone else is interested, begin the whole process again with somebody else)
It’s worth noting that even a film adaptation doesn’t guarantee the big bucks. Joanne Harris is quoted as saying she only received £5000 for the film version of Chocolat. Though it’s also worth nothing that film isn’t the only adaptation. Your book could also be adapted for TV, theatre, radio, game, comic… The options are as many as there are art forms.
As with prizes, an adaptation can also push up sales of your book, as the title becomes something people recognise. Your publisher might release a film-cover version of your book, for example, and this will push a book which has been out a few years back into bookshops.
Sometimes, a magazine will print an extract of a book. Or a radio programme might broadcast a first chapter, or an abridged version. Or a section of your book might appear in somebody else’s book (especially if you’re a poet, for example, who might be featured in an anthology, or if you write non-fiction and your work might be quoted).
Because of UK copyight law, all these things mean you would be owed money. Usually, these come in as requests to your agent and / or publisher, but it’s worth keeping an eye out yourself for opportunities as well.
Talks & Book Tours
This one is cheating slightly, because it isn’t just resting on your laurels and making money from the book you’ve already written. You actually have to do something extra for this. I promise you, though, it’s worth it.
How do readers find out about your book? Unless you’re a household name (if you are, then well done, you – and why are you reading this post?) or have a phenomenal social media following, then you need to find ways of persuading people that they want to buy your book. Some of this is out of your hands (reviews in national papers, marketing by your publisher etc), but some of it is much more small-scale, but can have a much higher impact. I’m talking, of course, about book events.
Speaking & reading at festivals and event series can be a great way of getting the message to readers that they really ought to be reading your book – which can translate to sales & royalties, or PLR payments if people borrow it from the library. But you should also be paid for the event itself, too.
I’ll be honest – I don’t know masses about this. I don’t know how it works, or at what point it becomes an option. All I know is that, during a tutorial at university once, we were told about the phenomenal possibility of a university wanting to purchase your archive.
I’m assuming you need to have more than just one or two books for this to be a possibility – I think you might need to be the sort of writer who has their works studied and read over and over.
All I know is that we had it drilled into us: DO NOT THROW AWAY YOUR DRAFTS.
I’m assuming, the more comprehensive your archive, the more a university might offer you for it. As I say, this one isn’t really my area of expertise. But that doesn’t stop me having an attic full of manuscripts in plastic boxes, just in case!
Other Related Work
This last one is vague, but I wanted to acknowledge that you never know where a book is going to take you, or what other work might arise from it. You never know who might have read it, what projects they might have which mesh with yours, what opportunities might emerge. If you have a way that people can contact you (even if it’s just a page on your website, directing them to contact your agent), then the possibilities are there.
It pays (often literally) to keep an open mind.
I hope you enjoyed this post, and found it useful! If you did, then, in the spirit of authors earning money, please do support me by buying a copy of my novel, My Name is Monster. It won’t give you any extra income advice, but it will (I hope) be a good read!
I sit at the old wooden desk in front of the picture window. In front of me, the bogland dips down to where a stream runs down along the side of the lane. At the bottom of it, visible as a bright triangle of blue, is the sea.
This is where I sit and write for two weeks in October, as the world russets and yellows towards autumn.
On the edge of the village of Dugort, on Achill Island, on Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way, is Heinrich Böll Cottage. Once belonging to Nobel Prize-winning novelist Heinrich Böll, the cottage offers fortnightly residencies to writers and artists, providing time and space for you to work.
I arrived at the cottage straight off the back of a month’s residency at Gladstone’s Library in Wales in October 2021. This wasn’t the original plan – originally I was supposed to be staying at the cottage in October 2020, but, for obvious reasons, it had to be postponed. I was a bit nervous about whether it would be too intense, attending two residencies one after another like this. After all, a residency is a wonderful opportunity to focus on the work, but that can lead to it feeling a bit like a creative workout; it needs a bit of normality around it to make the intensity work.
I needn’t have worried. The residencies had such different feels to them, that the contrast worked.
(Though, after 18 months at home, six weeks away did still feel like a lot – less in terms of creative intensity, and more in terms of missing friends. And the cat.)
So what is Heinrich Böll Cottage like?
This is a self-catered residency, but luckily, the kitchen is lovely (and has a dishwasher, which is my favourite time-saver). There’s a supermarket about 15-20 minutes’ drive away, in Achill Sound, or, in the other direction, a convenience store about 10 minutes’ drive. There are also a couple of pubs just a short drive away, which is ideal when you’ve spent the whole day writing and don’t want to cook.
The cottage has two bedrooms (a double and a twin), two studies (with desks and views down towards the sea), as well as a painting studio with plenty of natural light. There’s also an outside utility with washing machine and tumble drier – very useful when you’re on the road for six weeks.
There’s a bus that goes right past the front door, which goes into Achill Sound. But the island is so beautiful to explore that I wouldn’t want to do this residency without a car.
So how did I spend my residency?
Achill Island is stunning. I’d never visited the west of Ireland before, and now that I have, I’m already desperate to go back. Purpling peat bogs, towering mountains, golden sand, azure waters, dramatic sea cliffs, and about a million sheep. All of this meant I was determined to do plenty of exploring while I was there.
Over the course of my two weeks on the island, I developed a kind of routine: writing in the morning, then off exploring in the afternoon. Sometimes (often) I then carried on writing in the evening, or else read, or even just had a super early night. (Turns out, all that work and travel can be kind of draining.)
I say writing, but more specifically, I mean editing.
While I was at Gladstone’s Library, I wrote a second draft of the novel. During the weeks on Achill, I did the bulk of the work on the third draft. A lot of this process involved reading aloud (cue that day when I thought I had Covid because I had such a sore throat) – which was a refreshingly weird experience after spending a month working silently in a library.
I tend to edit by hand, on a big printout of the manuscript, which was perfect for avoiding distractions – especially as the cottage doesn’t have wifi (although there is limited 3G at the cottage). I didn’t quite finish the process of typing up all those edits, but once that’s done, I’m planning to take a couple of weeks’ break from the novel. After all, writing two drafts back-to-back like that (especially on back-to-back residencies) is intensive, and distance is always a good way to get perspective on a book.
What do you get / what’s expected of you in return?
Firstly, it’s worth noting that, while I was there as a writer, the residency is also open to other artists. The studio room, for example, has recently been refurbished and additional windows put in, giving it oodles of natural light and making it a perfect space for painting.
So what do you get on the residency?
The main thing is, of course, two weeks in the beautiful Heinrich Böll Cottage. Unlike other residencies I’ve done, you don’t get meals or transport paid for – which means you’re responsible for making your own way to the cottage.
What I did learn while I was there, was that I also got a small stipend to help cover costs (a total of €350 for the fortnight). This is funded by Mayo County Council and the Arts Council of Ireland. I don’t know whether this is something received by every artist in residence, or only in certain years, or certain art forms, or dependent on funding – it isn’t mentioned on the Heinrich Böll Cottage website, so I wouldn’t like to assure anyone of it, only for people to then be disappointed. For me, I planned the residency without it, and then it was a nice bonus while I was away.
What’s expected in return?
Apparently, during non-Covid times, the Association likes to link you up with a school or local arts group, to run some kind of event or workshop during your stay, as a way of giving back to the community. But while I was there, this part of the residency wasn’t happening.
The main expectation, though, is that you use the time and space to work on your artistic practice, whatever that may be. That’s it: just go to the cottage and create.
How do you apply?
The first thing to be aware of is that the Heinrich Böll residency has a long lead-in time. Admittedly, my experience of this was exacerbated by Covid, but even so, I submitted my application for the residency in July 2018. I also have it on good authority that the applications received in this current round are being considered for 2023, so any applications received in the coming year will be for 2024 consideration. As I said: long lead-in.
Personally, though, I like to plan ahead, so I’m a bit of a fan of a longer lead-in for a residency. (I find those residencies where you only find out if you’re successful a month or so before the start incredibly stressful.)
If this works for you as well, then you apply by snail mail, submitting your application (consisting of a recent sample of your work, a short CV and a letter of interest) to:
John McHugh Achill Heinrich Böll Association c/o Abha Teangai Dooagh Achill Island Co Mayo IRELAND
NB: As with Hawthornden residency, the initial application for Henrich Böll Cottage is by post, but communication thereafter is done by email – or, when it comes to arrangements such as collecting the key to the cottage, by phone.
And that’s it! I hope you’ve found this informative – whether you’re thinking of applying yourself, or just here to nosy at what I was up to for a couple of weeks. And if you do decide to apply: best of luck, and I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you!
The hush of books. The dusty tingle of being surrounded by other people’s thoughts, other people’s ideas. Ornate wooden beams soaring overhead, as the occasional turned page rustles from across the gallery. In the sacred quiet of the library, I sit at my desk and start to write.
Gladstone’s Library is the UK’s only residential library, meaning that you can book to stay in one of the bedrooms, and eat in the restaurant, Food for Thought, and work in the library while you’re here. (Clergy & members of the Society of Authors gete 20% off!) The library also offers bursaries and scholarships, and runs a writer-in-residence programme – which is how I came to spend a month here, working on the second draft of my novel.
I arrived at Gladstone’s Library on 1 September 2021, sixteen months later than originally planned. The reason, of course, being Covid and the mutiple lockdowns and restrictions. For almost eighteen months, the library was closed, and we kept having to renegotiate the dates of my residency – so that by the time I actually made it here, the library had taken on this strange mythical quality, like a mirage, always two steps further on.
And there is something magical about Gladstone’s Library. Something transformative about the Reading Rooms, about the process of climbing the narrow wooden stairs each day, to sit at my desk in the little alcove above the porch, and immerse myself in the world of my second novel.
My first residency after (more or less) 18 months of being at home:
Compared to a lot of people, I haven’t had it bad the past 18 months. I haven’t had to shield, so I have been able to leave the house for things like food shopping and, more recently, outdoor social gathering. I have a garden and my back door pretty much opens onto the fell, so there’s been plenty of opportunity to get out of the house safely. I’ve even been on a couple of holidays around the UK.
But, like most people, I’ve spent the majority of the past 18 months in my own home, in my own (sometimes failing) routine.
The past few weeks have shocked me out of that. The change of scene, the change of company, the knowledge that I only had a specific amount of time – all of this helped me be far more focused and creative than I would have been at home. Not to mention the fact that having set (or loosely set) mealtimes imposed a useful amount of routine on my days at the library.
It reminded me how much I love residencies, and how much a new environment can – for me – help and encourage the creative process.
So what did I achieve?
I started the residency with a first draft of a second novel.
Everyone approaches the drafting process differently, and for me, first drafts are a mess. I don’t write chronologically. I write scenes which I know have to happen, but with only a vague concept of how they might all fit together. I also have a tendancy to change the characters’ histories and motivations halfway through the writing process, or to decide the ending isn’t going in the direction I originally thought, or – as in this case – to totally change the narrative voice from third person past to first person present.
This means that, when I have a ‘finished first draft’, what I actually have is a jumble of scenes and linkages which may be vaguely novel-shaped, but which also may look a bit more like a rubbish heap. The second draft, then, is where the shape and feel of the book really start to emerge. Where I have to try to make it all make sense.
(This is why, often, I dread the second draft. Suddenly, unlike before, the pressure is on for the words to actually make sense.)
While I was planning for the residency, I’d been thinking of my time away as a six-week block: four weeks at Gladstone’s Library, followed by two weeks on a residency in Ireland. In those six weeks, I thought, I should be able to get the bulk of the way through the second draft of my novel.
I also thought this was a pretty tall order. Bear in mind, the first draft took me eight months to write, and it was a total mess. Still, I would give it a go. Even if I didn’t finish the second draft, I reasoned, I would have enough of it done to carry me across the finish line when I got home.
Cut to three and a half weeks later. I’m in my final week of the Gladstone’s residency, and, after twenty-six days of writing in the library, I’ve finished a second draft.
85,000 words + a heck of a lot of coffees, and somehow, the whole second draft is complete.
I’m someone who tends to write a lot of drafts (I know writers who write more, and writers who write fewer – it really depends on the writer). For me, there’ll probably still be structural changes going on into draft three, and maybe even draft four – so there’s still quite a way to go in terms of finishing the actual book. And that’s before I even send it to my agent, and way before an editor gets to see it.
But it’s a solid start – and the residency has meant that I’m much further on than I ever expected to be at this stage.
The residency consists of residential stay + meals + library use for a calendar month. The library also offers a £100 per week stipend, plus travel expenses from your UK address. In return, the Writer in Residence gives a talk (mine was part of the library’s annual festival, GladFest), leads a full day masterclass, and writes two blog posts during the course of their stay:
The library is a beautiful building, with one wing dedicated to the Reading Rooms (where the books & desks & archive collections are), a middle section of offices, and another wing dedicated to living: bedrooms, a lounge, the chapel, and the restaurant.
The Writer in Residence bedroom is a double ensuite room – mine was on the second floor, with a little window that I fell in love with at once, looking out on a tree which was filled with birds and, occasionally, squirrels.
There’s also a desk in case you prefer to work in your room – though beyond the occasional Zoom call, I didn’t use this much, preferring to work in the much more atmospheric Reading Rooms instead.
What about the food?
The Writer in Residence position is fully catered, meaning the library provides three meals a day, plus coffees in between if/when necessary.
Breakfast is continental (I maybe ate my body weight in croissants over the course of the month), with options for either lighter or more hearty meals at lunch and dinner (the steak pie is excellent). To begin with, I was worried the food might get a bit samey, eating from the same menu every night, but luckily they varied it up by adding specials, and having features such as Sunday lunctime roast dinner.
I had to limit myself on the desserts, though. Right at the start of the residency, I made a decision to only allow myself pudding on days where my total wordcount reached the next 10k word marker (so, at 10k words, 20k words, 30k words, etc) – which may have also contributed to my productivity during the month!
The best bits:
The best bit of any residency is the time to write. A chance to turn on the out-of-office and dedicate that brain space to the writing.
But there’s something extra special that happens at Gladstone’s. Whether it’s being surrounded by all the books, or the concentrated quiet of other people working, but there’s a magical focus that happens in the library, where the work just flows.
Hey there. It’s been a while. Sorry about that – but then, in some ways, it feels as though it’s been no time at all.
Either way, it feels as though time has been doing some pretty strange things over the last year and a half. Always slowing down and then speeding up, trapped between a race and a limbo. And the truth is that for a large chunk of it, at least for me, it hasn’t felt as though very much has been happening. I get up. I make coffee. I play with the neighbour’s cat. I write. I answer emails. I collapse on the sofa. I watch something or other on Netflix. I nod off. I drag myself to bed.
Like a lot of people, I’ve been struggling a lot this year with a feeling of inertia, a fatigue in the bones. Whether that’s just a result of lockdown, or the uncertainty we’ve all been living through for the past year and a half, who knows. The upshot is that everything seems to take longer, which means less going on, which has not only meant less time to post on here, but also feeling like I have less to post about.
Basically, this is just one long big excuse for my absence.
Cue this summer, when evrything changed. Or rather, when everything happened. It’s as though the days got longer and suddenly everyone came out of hibernation. Suddenly, I have news.
A Few Good Things:
I FINISHED A FIRST DRAFT!
At the beginning of this year, I started working on my second novel.
It’s been slow going. The novel which I started to work on early in 2020 proved to be a false start – partly because of Covid. (When the world turns upside down, different stories can start to matter more, and the stories which you thought drove you before can suddenly feel vaccuous and unimportant.) Luckily, I’d had another idea for a novel last March, and was finally able to start work on it in January.
A few weeks ago, I finished a first draft.
Of course, there’s still a long way to go yet. I’ve let the manuscript sit in a drawer for the past couple of weeks, giving it time to rest before I start work on draft two.
I always think the second draft is the hardest. Draft one is just about writing down your ideas. In draft two, you somehow have to make this colossal bundle of words make sense as a story.
But I don’t want to demean the process of writing that initial draft! It’s still an awful lot of words (70,000 words, to be exact), and this year in particular, that process of pulling a story out of thin air has been hard. I think it’s important to celebrate those achievements at every stage of the writing process.
So: first draft accomplished. Draft two, here I come!
The biggest win (and one I’ve been applying for for years) has been a Northern Writers’ Award.
Northern Writers’ Awards are an annual set of awards, grants and prizes, run by New Writing North. This year, I was lucky enough to win a Debut Poetry Award, to work on my first full-length collection. The award comes in the form of a financial grant, alongside mentoring, which I can’t wait to get started on.
And, speaking of poetry, my poem, ‘Snapshot of My Great Great Great Grandmother, Missouri, 1863’ won the Prole Laureate Competition, judged by Carrie Etter, who said this about the poem:
The winning poem, “Snapshot of My Great Great Great Grandmother, Missouri, 1863,” transfixed me every time I read it. I was entranced by the poem’s deft interweaving of American history, motherhood, and the country’s relationship with guns. The speaker’s consciousness is well conceived, the references to God crucial for our sense of the speaker’s consciousness in that time and place. With expertly interwoven narrative threads, a thoughtful use of line and pacing, and poignant observation, this poem deserves more applause than I alone can give. It’s a remarkable, moving poem.
At the end of June, I had a short story shortlisted for the Desperate Literature Prize. And not only that – it went on to win the Georgia Writers’ House Prize, which comes with a week at the Writers’ House in Tbilisi! Still not sure when I’ll be able to take that one up (thanks, Covid), but I was thrilled to be chosen, and am already very excited for whenever it does happen.
The story, ‘Raise, or How to Break Free of the Ground, or The Lakeland Dialect for Slippery is Slape and to Form it in the Mouth Requires an Act of Falling’, will be published in an anthology later this year.
So that’s my very successful summer! Don’t get me wrong – there are still plenty of ‘thanks but no thanks’ responses. But it’s amazing how much difference it makes when you get a couple of ‘yes pleases’.
For me, one of the markers of summer is seeing The Three Inch Fools perform. An outdoor theatre company, The Three Inch Fools tour the country every summer, with five actors performing two Shakespeare plays (this year, The Merry Wives of Windsor and Romeo and Juliet).
This year, they toured a second play: Robin Hood. This was a more meta, folky, musical take on the well-known story, and I had great fun writing the lyrics for one of the songs (music by Stephen Hyde), sung by Marion (aka Emily Newsome):
So what else have I been up to?
Alongside all this, there’s been a mix of work & play. I’ve run a number of online writing workshops (which will start up again in October), and been one of the tutors on Northern Writers’ Studio’s inaugural Summer School.
Despite saying I was going to put less energy into submissions & applications this year, I’ve also been submitting work and writing applications. Which, yes, is time consuming. The difference this year is that I’m only applying for things that I actively want to do / would benefit my practcice, rather than just because the money’s good. If I’m going to spend hours and hours on an application with limited chance of success, I at least want it to feel somehow worthy.
As for the ‘play’ side of the summer, after very little over the past year, I’ve actually been away from my own house a few times lately. This started with a trip to the Highlands in June, and continued with a self-made writing retreat (where I wrote around 12,000 words in 5 days), then finished up with 3 days walking the Pendle Witches Walk with my friend Loren (in some very witchy weather). After the year of monotony, it’s been good to remind myself that taking a break, and changing the routine, can be so hugely beneficial for creativiy.
So what’s next?
Well, in many ways, that depends on the outcomes of some of these applications. But in the shorter term, there are a few things I know are in the pipeline:
Firstly, I have a couple of residencies in the pipeline, which were postponed from last year: Gladstone’s Library in Wales, and Heinrich Boell Cottage in Ireland. I’m going to be using the time at these to work on redrafting the novel, and hopefully to be able to totally immerse myself in it.
I’m also very excited to be going back to the poetry collection, with mentoring courtesy of the Northern Writers’ Award.
And, in the autumn, I’ll be back to running the online writing workshops, starting with Writing Weather on Saturday 23 October.
‘Some years just rattle over from one to the next, with very little sense of change or progression between them. Then again, some years are like fireworks, bursting into a glorious array of sound and light, leaving you dazed and slightly dizzy in their wake.’
These were the opening sentences of my annual round-up at the end of last year, and I was clearly describing 2019 as the latter. What’s also clear is that 2020 has been, in many ways, the former.
I’ve already written quite a lot about the financial and motivational difficulties of 2020, and about the feeling of stagnation this year. So instead, I want this post to be a celebration of what I have achieved. After all, it hasn’t all been sitting on the sofa & coughing, and part of my reason for writing this blog post is to remind myself of that.
So. Here goes.
A Few Good Things:
I might not have travelled very far over the past nine months, but before lockdown hit, I was barely at home. And one of these trips was the trip I’ve wanted to do more than any other ever since I was about 12, and the item that’s been at the top of every bucket list I’ve ever created. This year, in March, I went to Antarctica.
The trip was everything I hoped it would be and more, from whales to dolphins to penguins (and more penguins) to seals to skuas to shags (not that kind!) to albatross to icebergs to glaciers to historic whaling stations to snow.
Every account of Antarctica that I’ve read talks about how it’s like another world, how it feels like a totally different experience to anywhere else, and I couldn’t agree more. Things that struck me were the total lack of green (it felt like such a shock landing on South Georgia a few days later, where green was in such lush abundance), the silence, the lack of lights, and the absence of aeroplane trails across the sky (something that’s become all too familiar since then, with Covid-19 lockdowns and cancelled flights). It was an unforgettable trip, and one that’s actually whetted my appetite for polar travel more than satiated it.
Also before lockdown, in January, I went on a writing residency at Hawthornden Castle in Scotland. Of the four residencies I had lined up for this year, Hawthornden is the only one I managed to attend (of the others, two have been postponed, and one is awaiting a decision).
Hawthornden is a medieval castle, where you’re fed and given accommodation for a month, and allowed to spend the entire time working on your own writing. I used the month to work on my poetry collection, and to start planning a novel (which I then put on hold during lockdown, but never mind). It was a wonderful month, and felt like an incredible luxury to have all that time to dedicate to my writing. (More about the residency here.)
As well as writing poetry and fiction, this year I’ve also worked on Bella: an immersive digital performance trail around Penrith.
An Eden Arts projct, Bella is a response to the restrictions on live events caused by Covid-19. When the Winter Droving festival couldn’t happen this year, Eden Arts started to look for other ways to keep the festival spirit alive during 2020. One of the solutions was Bella.
Following the trail is fairly simple. There’s a downloadable map, and you simply scan the QR codes on the bright pink signs in the various locations around Penrith. These each take you to a video, as you follow a vlogger, Bella, on the ‘Winter Droving Heritage Trail’. But is it all as simple as it seems? Or is there something else going on? To find out, you’ll need to solve the clues…
While the paperback publication of My Name is Monster (originally due June 2020) may have been postponed to January 2021, both the German and Italian language editions went ahead, meaning that Mein Name ist Monsterand Il mio nome è Mostro are now out in the world. The books were translated by Eva Kemper and Carla Maggiori, and published by S. Fischer Verlage and Liberilibri respectively.
And, as if that wasn’t enough, this year, My Name is Monster was also shortlisted for the Kitschies Golden Tentacle Award – an award for debut science fiction novels, run by Blackwells.
I’ve also had a few poems published this year, including ‘My Mother Visits Neodesha‘ in the online poetry journal bath magg, and ‘Ease‘ as part of Write Where We Are Now: an online collection of poems about the pandemic, created by Carol Ann Duffy and the Manchester Writing School at Manchester Metropolitan University.
Later on in the year, I also had a poem, ‘Mouth Game‘, commended in the Troubadour International Poetry Prize.
This year, I was also asked to be part of the BBC’s Contains Strong Language Poetry Festival, which was broadcast from Cumbria, amid a whole host of ever-changing lockdown restrictions. For the festival, I wrote a commissioned poem inspired by Ruskin’s View in Kirkby Lonsdale. This poem was then used by Queen Elizabeth School (also in Kirkby Lonsdale) on National Poetry Day, as inspiration for students to write their own poems about lockdown – an exercise which turned into a school-wide poetry competition, which I ended up judging. Such a lovely experience to see a poem go on and have a life and a continuation after the writing of it, and to see the wonderful and heart-felt poems that the students went on to produce.
Despite the impossibility of delivering in-person school workshops this year, I have still worked on a couple of schools-based projects. The first is Fellfoot Fables – a Heritage Lottery Funded project, run by the North Pennines AONB Partnership as part of their Fellfoot Forward Scheme – which we ran right back in the first lockdown. The project encouraged children in the Fellfoot area to write about where they lived, and about their experiences of being at home during lockdown – and allowed many of the children to work towards Arts Award Discover as well.
More recently, I’ve been working on a postponed project with Prism Arts, exploring the life and work of Kurt Schwitters. Through a combination of pre-recorded videos, worksheets and video calls, I’ve worked with Yr5 pupils at Distington School, as well as participants from Prism Arts’ Studio Theatre West, towards writing poems about place and belonging, in response to Kurt Schwitters’ own poetic style.
This is also the project that occasioned what I think may have been my peak 2020 moment: filming for a virtual school workshop, and debating whether we needed to social distance from a puppet. Obviously puppets can’t catch Covid, but the puppet was playing a human, and we had to set a good example for the children…
This year I’ve also expanded on my mentoring, and in June, following the heightened conversations around how the publishing industry represents writers of colour (and particularly black writers), and in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, I offered mentoring to two emerging black writers: one poet, and one novelist. These sessions are still ongoing, and it’s been an absolute privilege to read and discuss the work.
And speaking of reading: during a large portion of this year, I’ve found reading much harder than usual, with concentration levels very low, and the urge to pick up my phone and doom-scroll unhealthy and overwhelming. So, when I finally felt like I’d regained my reading mojo, I set myself the challenge of reading 31 novellas during October. I actually finished book number 31 on 1st November, but I’m still counting it. And it was such a great list of books! (NB: affiliate link) I’m planning to write a full blog post about this at some point, about what the experience taught me, so watch this space in the new year.
Despite the year it’s been, I’ve also had some wonderful personal momens in 2020 – the biggest one being that my Grandma turned 100! Obviously, we weren’t able to have a full-on party for her, but I was delighted that I got to see her on her birthday, before the lockdown restrictions kicked in again. Thinking about the changes that have occurred during the century that she’s been alive still always knocks me back a moment.
I also went to Venice earlier this year, again in the pre-lockdown window back in February, where my oldest friend and I celebrated our 30th birthdays together, with a gondola ride, wandering the beautiful old back streets, and eating an awful lot of food. And, speaking of turning 30, I (almost) completed my 32 before 30 list, as well. I haven’t made another one yet for 40 – but maybe something to think about post-pandemic?
So what next?
Honestly, at this stage, 2021 feels like anything could happen. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have plans. For starters, My Name is Monster is coming out in paperback in January, so I’m planning an online book launch and quiz for that (come along for free, for the chance to win books)!
I’m also launching a programme of online workshops, as well as The Write Chat: an online event series, where I’ll be talking to a writer or writers each month, exploring an aspect of the craft of writing – everything from character to setting to building tension, to a general discussion of what it takes to write a book. Guests already confirmed for these sessions include Rashmi Sirdeshpande, Helen Mort, M W Craven, Yvonne Battle-Felton and Molly Aitken.
There are a couple of other things in the pipeline, too, including a guerrilla poetry project with Kendal Poetry Festival, and a couple of events with other online festivals. I’m also supposed to be attending a residency at Gladstone’s Library in the spring, after it was postponed from 2020, but I guess we’ll just have to wait and see how the pandemic situation develops.
For the past two years, I’ve written about how writers make a living. Or, more specifically, how I’ve managed to keep the wolf from the door during that specific year. This year, I think a lot of us have felt that the wolf has been prowling more keenly than usual. Or more accurately, that a whole pack of wolves has been prowling – one of which has been coronavirus itself, baring its teeth and howling at the sanitised door handles.
Extended wolf metaphor aside, we’ve all experienced difficulties of some kinds this year, in whatever form they’ve presented themselves. It’s only natural that those challenges are reflected in the year’s earnings.
So what has 2020 looked like for me?
As you can see, I earned next to nothing during 6 months of 2020. That’s half the year.
Some of this was a planned period of little-to-no income: I was on a residency at Hawthornden in January, and away in South America and Antarctica during the bulk of February and March. I knew in advance that I’d have barely any income during these months, and I planned my finances accordingly. That’s normally one of the joys of being freelance: that ability to measure out the working year in fits and starts if necessary, rather than spreading the work (and income) evenly across all months.
Of course, what I didn’t account for was everything else 2020 would throw at us. Like a sensible freelancer, I had work lined up for when I returned from my trip – and plenty of it. In fact, I had so much work lined up that I’d made a start on some of the planning bits three months early, before I left. Mistake, as it happens, since a fair bit of what I planned for ended up getting cancelled because of Covid.
In fact, most of my work from this year has ended up being cancelled, or at the very least postponed to 2021, or even 2022 in a couple of cases.
Luckily, there were a few months (like June, where I received two bits of Covid support) that helped me to counteract some of the leaner times.
So where did my income come from this year?
This year, I’ve listed 4 categories:
Funding: money from grants. Specifically, this year, it’s been Covid-19 support grants, both from the government and from the Arts Council.
Facilitation: both workshop facilitation and facilitation of creative projects. I’ve put these into one category because often project money will include funding for both the delivery and administration side, lumped together.
Writing: commissions, royalties, ALCS money.
Events: panel events and readings (in person and online), radio and television appearances.
Unsurprisingly, I haven’t earned that much from events this year. This is partly because fewer events have been taking place this year, but some of it is also to do with where this year has fallen in terms of my own publication. My Name is Monster came out last year, which resulted in my doing a lot of events and appearing at quite a few festivals. The original plan was for the paperback to come out this summer, but because of Covid, it’s been postponed to January 2021. Without a book coming out this year (on top of Covid cancellations), it makes sense that I haven’t been doing all too many events.
The same goes for facilitation. A lot of the venues and organisations where I would normally run workshops haven’t been operating in the same way this year, either because of furloughed staff or lack of visitors – or, in the case of schools, open but (understandably) not to outside visitors.
This isn’t universal, of course, as a few organisations I’ve been working with have found ways of creating workshops that don’t need me to physically travel to a school or community group – either through online forums like Zoom, or by creating video workshops that can be accessed independently. These have been few and far between, but they are happening, which is not only a huge help to freelance artists like me, but means that we can still be providing different and enriching experiences in schools – someething which feels extra important after the challenging year so many children (and teachers) have had.
So what about writing? For someone who describes herself as a writer, 11% might not sound like that much to have made from the actual writing bit of the job. But actually, I’m pretty happy with that. That’s because this year, unlike the past two years, I haven’t received an advance. (An advance on a book is usually split into 3 or 4 chunks, which are paid when various milestones are reached – usually: signing the contract with the publisher; submitting the finished manuscript; hardback publication; and, sometimes, paperback publication.) My Name is Monster is already out in the world, so I’ve already received my advance for that, and I’m still working on the next book, so no contracts signed for that yet. This is what I expected from this year, so I’m ok with that.
Which just leaves grant money.
I won’t lie, this year, grant money has been invaluable. I’m sure I’m not the only writer / artist / freelancer who has felt this, and my heart goes out to those freelancers who haven’t been eligible for the government support. It’s the government support that has allowed me to keep working. Because yes, I have been working. It’s just that most of it hasn’t involved getting paid.
But there’s also been all that other work. The sort that does pay. The sort that takes up time and creative energy, but without the financial reward. This is the sort of work that has felt more abundant this year.
Perhaps it’s Parkinson’s Law: the idea that the work always expands to fill the time available to complete it. Perhaps it’s just that, in the absence of a lot of paid work, I’ve realised just how much unpaid work I usually do. But I suspect that this year has produced its own special brand of administration, which has weighed more heavily on the working week. Thank goodness for the grants that have, effectively, paid for me to do some of that unpaid admin this year.
So what happens now?
It’s all very well looking at the year gone by, but a freelancer (writer or otherwise) always needs to be looking towards the future. There always has to be some kind of plan.
The problem is that those Covid support grants (72% of my income in 2020) won’t be around in 2021 – or at least, are looking like they’ll be at a highly reduced rate. And it doesn’t look as though society will be getting ‘back to normal’ any time soon.
I won’t lie, this scares me. It scares me on behalf of myself, but even more so, it scares me on behalf of my industry. I’m talking about the book industry and about the arts industry. After all, they’re pretty connected.
What happens when that support disappears, and we’re all left on massively reduced incomes?
Quite a few organisations are finding ways of working digitally, or are instigating the slow return of in-person events and workshops (though of course, these present their own access issues, and aren’t feasible for everybody). I am seeing an upturn in the amount of work available compared to, say, in the summer. I’m also seeing more bits of work start to drip into my inbox, which is reassuring. It isn’t up to pre-Covid levels, but it’s a start.
I’ve already talked a bit about my strategy for when it comes to submitting applications in 2021. I was mainly talking about this in reference to creative burnout, but it goes for finances as well. The main strategy? Focus on the existing work, and on the things I don’t have to spend days applying for. Prioritise the certainties. Reduce the unpaid administration as much as possible, to buy myself that time to write.
I’m going to say this again, because it’s somthing that hasn’t happened enough during the administrative frenzy of 2020:
Use the existing paid work to buy myself time to write.
And with any luck, I’ll have an income graph that looks slightly different at the end of 2021.
Over the past few weeks, we’ve been seeing a lot of blog posts and twitter threads where people list their publication achievements for the year. These can be a great way of promoting yourself and your work as a writer (so often, we’re encouraged to keep things under the radar, to ‘be modest’), and also a great motivation to look back on in future, if you’re feeling low about your writing. But it’s important to recognise that, behind the success, there’s usually a whole lot of rejection as well.
Back in 2018, I aimed for 100 submissions a year. This included things like: job applications; commission pitches; applications for grants and funding; competition entries; residency applications; and submissions to journals, anthologies and magazines. I didn’t manage 100 (though that wasn’t really the point). I managed 87.
At the time, I wrote about the experience, and used it to create a proportion of rejections to acceptances. I was trying to prove a point about how much work goes into those few success stories – though what I found was that the more things I submitted, the more successes (or at least partial successes) I achieved.
In 2020, everything has felt a bit different.
For a start, I ended up submitting a lot more applications that I’d expected, as existing work was cancelled or postponed or reduced because of Covid-19. Suddenly, like almost every other freelance artist or writer in the country, I was panicking about where the work was going to come from. And like everyone else, I applied for everything that was going.
And like so many other people, I experienced an onslaught of rejections.
This was probably to be expected. After all, so many organisations and competitions and commission opportunities have been reporting record numbers of applications this year – whether that’s because people are desperate for whatever they can get, or because people who are furloughed from employment have had more time to submit applications for things they’d usually just let slide by. More applicants means a smaller probability of success.
So how did I do this year?
At the time of writing, I’ve submitted 53 things this year. As always, this has been a mix of commission and residency applications, competition entries and submissions to journals, as well as applications for funding.
Of those 53 submissions: 5 were sucessful; 3 were partially successful (either a ‘no’ that led to other things, or a commendation without a prize); 30 were outright rejections; and 15 are things I’m still waiting to hear back from.
So what does that look like proportionally?
As you can see, just over half of this year’s submissions have been rejections. 57%, to be exact. In a year when competition has been higher than ever, that doesn’t look too bad.
But that big yellow segment of unknowns is skewing the data. After all, all of those places I’m still waiting to hear back from could be rejections too. (They could all be acceptances, but proportionally, that’s highly unlikely.)
So what happens if we remove the unknown quantities? What if we only base our graph on the 38 known outcomes?
Suddenly, that grey slice of rejection starts to look a lot more overwhelming. That’s an almost 80% rejection rate. Want to put that in real terms? Imagine spending an entire working week on applications. 4 days of that will yield nothing.
(And yes, I’m aware it doesn’t work like that. I’m aware that some applications take days, while some only take an hour or so. The problem is, you never know which is the one worth spending the time on until the results come back.)
The flip side, of course, is that that’s a 20% success (or partial success) rate. Which, in the grand scheme of things, isn’t all that bad. Which has had me asking: why have I felt so down lately about my lack of success? Because I have. I didn’t notice it at first (after all, most of us dealing with things in different ways this year, and adapting to new ways of living and working). But it’s settled on me like a thick fog, and I can’t shake it. It’s a feeling that all writers get (no matter how apparently successful they are): a feeling of ‘what’s the point?’
Don’t get me wrong. I can make myself a coffee, go for a brisk walk on the fell, chat to a few of my writing buddies and remind myself that, yes, there is a point to the writing, and yes, it will all get better. But still, that feeling’s always there at the back of the brain, waiting for when you’re tired and reading the third rejection email of the week. This year, it’s been there a lot.
And looking at the acceptance / rejection pattern by month might help to explain why:
There are those 3 partial acceptances spread out throughout the year. Other than that, you can see that the trend overwhelming leans towards rejection as the year progresses. In fact, it’s been 6 months since I’ve had an outright acceptance for anything.
That’s right. 6 months.
That’s a long time to be continually told no.
So what am I saying with all of this?
Well, what I’m not saying (or what I hope I’m not saying) is that there’s no point submitting for things. I’m a great believer in if at first you don’t succeed, try again. And over the past few years, I’ve had some incredible opportunities that I wouldn’t have even come close to if I hadn’t sent off applications – from residencies to funded research trips to ultimately having a novel and a second poetry pamphlet published.
But I also think I need to take a look at how I approach submissions going forwards. This year – especially the latter half of this year – I’ve spend a huge proportion of my working time on submissions and applications. Probably up to 60%. This was fine, and my choice – but it comes at a cost to my own writing.
Since the summer, I’ve barely written anything. Not nothing, but also not much. It isn’t just the time that all these applications take up. It’s the headspace as well. For many of them (especially applications for things like commissions), you have to imagine an conceive and plan out an entire project. That’s a lot of work, and a lot of creative energy that isn’t going on my own writing.
If your application is successful, then the work pays off, because you’ve already done all that planning, which allows you to hit the ground running. If you’re not successful, then often it’s wasted energy, because so many of those commission projects are non-transferable, either because they’re site- or theme-specific.
So what am I going to do about it?
It isn’t enough to say, ‘well I’ll just write and not apply for anything then’, because unfortunately there are bills to pay, and spending more time at home means more heating and lighting and all the rest of it. And also because I still want to get my work out there, which means journals and anthologies and competitions. But, in 2021, I’m going to think more strategically about which applications I devote any energy to.
OK. So what’s my strategy for 2021?
Mostly, I’m making this up as I go along. The Covid-19 situation is changing so fast and so often, that whatever I decide now, I may have to change my mind about in a couple of months anyway.
But for now, here’s my basic battle plan for 2021:
Keep submitting to journals, anthologies & competitions. This is one area of submissions that doesn’t take up too much time (although it can be financially costly). Mostly, what I end up submitting is work that I have anyway. Poems I’ve already written. Stories just waiting in a folder. It doesn’t take up too much creative energy to submit them to a journal or a competition. And, unlike more specific commission & residency applications, when they come back with a ‘thanks but no thanks’, you can parcel them up and send them right back out again. I’ve had poems shortlisted and even win major prizes, which have been rejected by multiple places before. Keep writing. Keep sending out. Keep sending out to somewhere new.
Focus on my existing paid projects. I’m lucky in that not all of my work is stuff that I have to apply for. Well, I say lucky. Like most things in the arts world, it’s a mixture of luck, privilege and hard work. I’ve spent the past 7 years building up a network of contacts and organisations – people I’ve worked for and with before. This means that sometimes, work just drops into my inbox, either from these organisations or from others that have been recommended to contact me. For 2021, my strategy is not to underestimate the value of work I don’t have to submit an application for.
Apply for fewer commissions. This is probably an extension of the point above, but I’m giving it its own bullet point because commissions are by far the applications that take the most time and creative energy to write. They’re also often the least transferrable. This isn’t to say I won’t apply for any commissions at all in 2021. But I want to focus on the ones that allow me to explore my own practice in a way that suits me, and my creative development. In other words, I’m going to be extremely choosy about the commissions I apply for.
Focus my applications on funding that allows me to write. Grants to write are probably the holy grail of applications. After all, isn’t that the dream for so many of us? For somone to give us a big pot of money and say ‘go and write for a few months’? This means that these applications are highly competitive. But they do exist (from places like the Arts Council, the Society of Authors, and New Writing North). These are the sorts of applications I intend to focus on: ones that are designed to buy me writing time, rather than lose it.
Make my own work. I’m already planning to take things a bit more into my own hands in 2021, running a series of online workshops and in-depth talks about craft with other writers. This still requires a lot of work, but it’s work that I know is leading towards something. Work that I want to do, and which I know will happen – rather than simply throwing an application out into the universe and hoping. It feels constructive. It feels useful. And, hopefully, it’s a way of helping other writers as well.
So that’s it. It’s a strategy that’s specific to me (though if you want to take any thoughts from it, be my guest). I’m aware that not everyone is in the same position, financially or in terms of the work already coming in. And I know not everyone has been eligible for the goverment self-employment grant, which has been a godsend this past year. I know I’m lucky. I can make this choices about where to spend my energy, about which applications to take the time to submit.
The choices I can’t make are which of my applications will be accepted in the new year. All I can do is follow my strategy, write as well and as hard as I can, and keep my fingers crossed that the next 6 months yield more acceptances than the last 6 have done.
Happy writing, and best of luck with everything you apply for in the new year.
Here we are again. Back in lockdown. Back to negotiating how to translate various aspects of our lives to a digital platform. Back to thinking about how writing works in isolation.
For some of us, of course, we never really stopped the first time around – those who were actively shielding, but also those who just didn’t go anywhere unless it was completely necessary.
But for some, the past few months have been slightly different, with a few more freedoms, and hopefully some opportunity to fill up that well of inspiration a little bit, ahead of Lockdown: The Sequel – which, personally, I’m planning to spend in front of the fire with a hot chocolate & a big stack of books.
But, alongside the uncertainty of lockdown, October was also a month of celebration on a personal level for me. No, I’m not just talking about Halloween (though of course, that’s always a highlight). I’m talking about the fact that my Grandma turned 100!
It’s not every day that you get to celebrate someone you know living for a full century, so forgive me while I take a moment to share this with you. My Grandma has been my inspiration ever since I was a child, and I’ve loved getting to share the past 30 of her 100 years with her. Obviously things were a little different to how we’d have liked, because of Covid restrictions, but we still managed a wonderful day, and she still received her card from the queen!
And what about in my writing life? What’s been happening in the month pre-lockdown?
A Few Good Things:
Launch: Online Writing Workshops
Let’s be honest: the world isn’t getting back to normal any time soon. So, with that in mind, I’m planning ahead, and thinking about ways to encourage creativity into 2021.
In each workshop, we will look at some examples of wonderful writing from existing works of fiction, and follow them up by doing some writing of our own. I’ll also leave you with a take-home writing prompt, so you can keep on being inspired in your own time.
Workshop cost: £20 (For each workshop, there are 2 free places available for those who would otherwise be unable to attend. Drop me a message if you would like one of these places.) Workshops run using Zoom & capped at 14 attendees, so it won’t feel too crowded.
I’m really excited to get underway with these workshops. I’ve had a few workshops from 2020 cancelled (or ‘postponed indefinitely’), so it’ll be amazing to return to running workshops more regularly.
You know those projects that come along that you just can’t say no to? That remind you of the fun and experimentation of the job of writing? Bella is absolutely one of those projects.
Bella is an interactive digital trail in response to Penrith Winter Droving (a rural festival of masks & fire & lanterns, run annually by Eden Arts). Obviously, the Winter Droving couldn’t happen this year because of Covid-19, so Eden Arts came up with a number of alternative projects to keep the Winter Droving spirit alive. One of these projects was Bella.
I had a phone call about the project back at the start of September, and since then it’s all been a bit of a whirlwind getting it up and ready. There are 10 episodes, written by yours truly, each in the form of a short video by ‘Bella’ (played by Natalie Bowers), a vlogger following the Winter Droving Trail. If you follow the trail along with her, it takes you on a journey around Penrith, to see if you can solve the mystery along the way. There are 10 clues to find…
Fellfoot Fables: Dark Skies Project
During Lockdown Number 1, I worked with North Pennines AONB Partnership on their Fellfoot Forward Project, encouraging children & adults to get out into the landscape as much as was safe and possible, and to write about their relationship with where they live – particularly in relation to lockdown, and their experience of place during the coronavirus pandemic.
Now, in celebration of the North Pennines Stargazing Week 2020, we’ve produced this short film to help you use the North Pennines dark skies as inspiration for your writing and poetry. (NB: you don’t have to be in the Pennines to do this – you can look up at the sky from wherever you are and write a poem about it!)
The Month in Books:
October was a big month for reading, as I set myself the challenge of reading a novella or short novel a day for the entire month. That’s 31 books in 31 days. Which is a lot of reading.
I’m planning to write a whole separate blog post about this, so I won’t go into too much detail here. But if you want to check out what I read, you can see the list in this twitter thread:
Right now, I’m in Ireland. (I’m not, but let’s use our imaginations, shall we?)
It’s October 2020. Coronavirus has never hit, and life on our little globe is carrying on pretty much as expected. Which means that, right now, I’m in County Mayo. Or, more accurately, I’m making my way home from County Mayo, having just spent two weeks staying in Heinrich Böll Cottage on Achill Island. I’ve probably spent a lot of mornings walking along a blustery beach, feeling the salt air whipping against my face, and thinking about my novel. Which, given that this is an alternative 2020 where I the novel didn’t get blocked by the stresses of lockdown, I’m probably part way through a second or even third draft of. In the evenings, I’ve been curling up by the fire and reading voraciously (that part, at least, remains the same), and in this beautiful corner of Ireland, my writing has felt so alive.
Step out of this fantasy world for a moment, and it all looks rather different. In the current & difficult freelance climate, I’ve been doing a lot of admin, and submitting a lot of applications which I know in advance are going to have very long odds of me actually getting. I’ve been planning a new project (which is exciting, but also admin-heavy). I’ve had a lot of emails.
All this is great, in that it’s work, and a constant stream of work feels even more vital than usual right now. But it did put paid to my visions of myself writing, reading, and wandering along the beach on Achill Island: that perfect marrying of nature & creativity, with none of the buzzes and pings of normal life getting in the way.
So I decided to create something of a residency for myself at home. Every day that I should have been in residence at Heinrich Böll Cottage, I gave myself a writing exercise. Nothing fancy – just good old material-generating prompts. The sorts of exercises you’d do in a creative writing workshop to get the ideas flowing and push past those nagging internal voices & creative blockages. Some of them I chose from books by other writers, and a couple were exercises of my own.
Did they lead to anything? A couple did. One or two ended up accidentally combining, so I’d written one thing that spanned multiple exercises. A lot of them produced a few pages in my notebook, which I’m pretty sure will just fall by the wayside. But that’s ok. If anything, it’s sort of the point, like warming up for a race. Nobody’s going to give you a medal for stretching your calf muscles, but just try running that marathon if you haven’t.
Looking for some writing prompts to kick-start your own ideas? Click through to the following tweet, to follow the full 2-week thread of them:
So was this series of exercises as good as a residency?
Honest answer: no, absolutely not. Which is nothing to do with the quality of the exercises – as I say, I wrote some things from them which surprised me, and which resulted in me combining things that hadn’t occurred to me before. But it does have everything to do with how I had to fit them into everyday life.
I’ve already mentioned the admin and the emails – but it’s also all the other things, like laundry and housework. The things that become a bit more suspended during a residency.
It turns out that I work best in blocks. (A fortnight of solid admin. A month of writing. 3 days of spring-cleaning the house.) I like the focus that comes from only having to focus on one type of work, rather than having to constantly switch up my way of thinking. I think this is why I’ve found residencies to work so well for me. It’s an opportunity to switch on my out-of-office, and to only focus on one thing. The question now is: how do I do the same during the time of coronavirus, when switching on the out-of-office is less of an option?
I still haven’t quite figured out the answer to this, but I feel as though I’m getting there. Maybe it’s just about shifting priorities, rather than blocking out whole chunks of time. Either way, this fortnight of writing exercises felt like a good way to start.
I’m still not sure how we got here. The leaves are turning, and all the summer plants in my garden have started dying back. There’s a chill in the air when I walk up onto the fell, which itself is paling, losing some of its green summer lustre. The nights are drawing close up against the living room window.
But September, at least, has felt a bit different. Things have started moving again.
I won’t say things are back to normal, because they’re not, and there isn’t the same level of work as there was before lockdown. But there have been a few projects which have started to come together.
September: A Few Good Things
Contains Strong Language:
Contains Strong Language is the BBC’s poetry festival – this year taking place in Cumbria. Obviously, it was an unusual approach to a festival, made necessary by Covid restrictions. But there was still plenty broadcast over the festival itself, and available online afterwards.
I took part in two events during the festival: one was a panel discussion on Ruskin’s View in Kirkby Lonsdale, and on the commissioned poems that four of us had written about it; and the other was an event called ‘Passing Words’, where a whole range of poets each performed six-minute sets. Both of these were broadcast live online (a strange experience, performing to an auditorium almost entirely devoid of anyone other than the production team), and I think there are plans for the events to be made available again on the website in the coming weeks.
(On top of Contains Strong Languague, there’ve also been a couple of other media bits, too – but more on those in the future! After all, I’ve got to keep some secrets…)
A top secret project:
And speaking of things that are under wraps… This month, I’ve been taking a little bit of a break from my own writing projects, and working on something a little more collaborative. Which has included a fair few Zoom chats, and even a couple of socially-distanced-masked-up-in-person meetings, which has felt very weird after so many months of very little work with organisations, and certainly none in person.
I can’t say too much about it just yet (oh how I love a good secret!) but I can say that it involves myth and mystery and vlogging and celebrating local places and not-at-all-made-up historical facts. And I’m hoping to be able to reveal what it is over the next few weeks!
Getting away from it all:
Honestly, I think what gave me the energy to work on this new project was a change of scene. Like a lot of people, I’ve spend the past six months not going anywhere. I don’t just mean the usual been-working-too-hard-and-need-a-holiday. It’s been stranger than that. More intense. For months, I hadn’t been anywhere other than my own house and garden, the Co-op and post office (each only a mile away), and walks on the fell within a few miles of my own front door. I hadn’t even been into town to do a ‘big shop’, or into the other town to go to the dentist or get the car serviced. None of the little changes of scene that are so normal in most of our lives that we don’t even notice them.
It was partly this feeling of micro-institutionalisation that inspired my Ruskin’s View poem for Contains Strong Language. And it was also what made my trip to Scotland a few weeks ago both unnerving, and also one of the most refreshing things I could possible have done. A change of company, scenery (and stunning scenery at that), and long walks almost every day were exactly what I needed. I barely thought about writing once – though I did manage to find a few moments in the peaceful heather-filled garden to sit and read. In many ways, the trip was a creative cleanse. It left me physically shattered, but full of mental energy and ready to get back to writing.
The Month in Books:
Ever since the start of lockdown, I’ve been struggling to focus on reading. That’s continued this month, but with a strange sort of imbalance. At the start of September, I found reading incredibly difficult. I was reading the proof of Kerri ni Dochartaigh’s Thin Places, which is a phenomenally beautiful and heart-breaking and also hopeful book, but I was aware that I was reading slowly. Part of this was the desire to soak up every gorgeously crafted word on the page, but part of it was also due to something else. A worry, perhaps. That Covid-related anxiety that’s been bubbling under the surface for so many of us for the past six months or more.
Then, suddenly, I came back from my trip to Scotland, and it was as though something clicked. I started to read again – first finishing Thin Places, and then roaring through four subsequent books as though my life depended on it. Not only was I reading, but I had a hunger for other books as well. I’d stopped looking listlessly at my to-read pile, seeing it as a chore to be accomplished; suddenly, it was back to being a shelf of mysteries, each one silently begging to be uncovered.
The following list might not be the longest ‘books I’ve read over the course of an entire month’ list (and, with the possible exception of a novel in verse, there are no poetry collections on there at all), but it represents somthing else: a kind of re-birth; or, more accurately, a re-falling-in-love, and for that reason I’m proud of it.
Thin Places, by Kerri ni Dochartaigh
Run, Rebel, by Manjeet Mann
The House of Silk, by Anthony Horowitz
The Glass Hotel, by Emily St John Mandel
English Pastoral, by James Rebanks
And I can’t wait for what the next month of reading is going to bring.