What does science have to tell us about writer’s block?

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Plus Fieldwork progress, character creation, and a sleepy Copurrnicus.

Hi there,

It was a long weekend here in the UK, which was much needed. It’s been really drab and rainy for a long time, and so dismal I’ve even had my SAD lamp on to lift the mood a bit. In May. I’m hoping that the sunnier forecast for the next week is correct.

Last week I also discovered a lot of Substack posts stuck in my Gmail spam folder. So if you’re reading this on the web or in the app and your settings are such that you should be getting the emails as well, please take a look and see whether you’re actually receiving them. If they are stuck in spam, please mark them as Not Spam, to increase the chances you’ll both see them in future and Gmail stops marking them as spam for other people. Thank you!!

Suw’s news: Fieldwork progress

A hawfinch, a bird I’d never heard of before last week.

I’m now in Week 4 of Dave Cohen’s Build A Script sitcom course and I’m having the time of my life. I always knew that having a program to follow would help me make progress on my script in a timely fashion, but I didn’t realise that it would be this much fun.

It’s also been a fabulous way to bring my non-writing collaborators into the process. We’ve had some great conversations about the various ecological research projects that the characters could be working on, unsexy research areas, and ridiculous moth names. Dingy skipper, anyone?

I had a delightful moment when I realised that one character could be working on hawfinch conservation, largely because I learnt about them whilst practicing my Welsh watching Trefi Gwyllt Iolo (Iolo’s Wild Towns, expires 29 June) on S4C. There are only about 500-1,000 breeding pairs in the UK, but lots of them have decided that one garden in North Wales is the best place to be. Smart birds. I’d love to spend my time hanging about in a garden in North Wales.

If you want more of a Fieldwork update, plus a review of Joel Morris’s new book about comedy, Be Funny Or Die, take a look at the latest Fieldwork post.

Grist: Creating characters with personality

The last Grist video call was about how to construct characters with real personalities using frameworks such as the The Big Five personality traits. Because only a couple of people came, I decided to turn the conversation into a post for my premium subscribers.

I did send the preview post to everyone, but I never quite know if that’s what you want. If you’re a free subscriber, is it annoying to get previews for a paywalled post? Or do you like knowing when premium posts go out and what they are about, even if you can’t read them?

Please let me know via this poll so that I can get the balance right!

2024 Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist announced

The 2024 Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist “features six brilliant, thought-provoking and spellbinding novels that between them capture an enormous breadth of the human experience”. The shortlisted books, in alphabetical order by author surname, is:

What should you ask your newsletter readers in a survey?

If you’re writing your own newsletter, then Dan Oshinsky’s advice for what to ask in a reader survey might well come in handy. Oshinsky was Director of Newsletters at The New Yorker, and now runs a newsletter consultancy, Inbox Collective, so knows what he’s talking about. He suggests that a reader survey should always start with three types of question:

  • Something numeric
  • Something about the value of your newsletter
  • Something open-ended

And then goes on to suggest other key questions you could ask in your next (or first!) reader survey. It’s great advice and well worth a look.

Do people buy books, or is claiming they don’t just clickbait?

Last month, self-published author Elle Griffin, published a post with the provocative headline No one buys books in which she suggested, based on documentation and transcripts from the 2022 Penguin vs DOJ case, that traditional publishing is unfairly weighted in favour of big authors and celebrities, and that most books “make no money at all and typically sell less than 1,000 copies”.

Her conclusions were that a lot of books don’t make money, publishers get most of their income from the backlist, “A ‘Netflix of Books’ would put publishing houses out of business”, and that publishing is essentially dead. The future features, according to Griffin, self-publishing and Substack replacing traditional publishers.

With 620 comments and 373 shares at the time of writing, she’s clearly hit a nerve. And she is right on some things — celebrity and major authors do earn the most, backlists are important, Amazon is a big threat to the industry.

But, as with many things, it’s all just a bit more complicated than that. The headline, in particular, is disingenuous nonsense. People do buy books. Lots of books, as Brooke Warner pointed out, in the USA “book publishing is a $30 billion-dollar industry that published over 3.5 million titles last year”.

Warner also adds some missed context:

The reason that 2022 trial focused so much on high-level “unicorn” authors getting $250K+ advances, which are qualified as the Big Five’s “anticipated bestsellers,” was because it was an antitrust case, meaning the DOJ was trying to prove that authors would suffer (ie, lose income) if Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster were to merge.

And:

When a publisher pays a million dollars for a book, it’s not typically for North American rights. They anticipate earning money on foreign rights and other subsidiary rights. Publishers make money all sorts of ways, and the profits work to pay off the author advances and earn publishers money. We’re talking about things like book-to-film rights; audiobook rights; translation rights; merchandising. Book publishing is lucrative beyond its most famous product: the book.

I recommend Warner’s post if you want a different viewpoint from someone who understands both the traditional and independent arms of the industry. Other relevant posts include:

And, for a giggle:

Remember, in publishing as everything else, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence and Griffin does not actually have the receipts.

Obligatory cat picture

Copurrnicus, curled up on the sofa and sound asleep.

That’s it for this newsletter! See you in a fortnight!

All the best,

Suw

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Resisting the lure of research

by Suw on May 1, 2024

And learning how to transition from research to pre-writing to writing.

Yesterday, I published an update on my new sitcom, Fieldwork, where I compared the writing process for my unnamed and now trunked pandemic disaster novel (which I’ll just call Pandemic for now) and the process I’m going through with Fieldwork. Both stories are based on real science, but for Pandemic I just didn’t know how to stop doing the reading and start doing the writing so I got stuck doing research for far longer than I should have. As I said in that post:

I spent two years reading everything I could about the Spanish Flu, bird flu, vaccine development and manufacturing, PPE and all that. And I was just coming up to the finishing line when Covid hit, making pretty much everything I’d written obsolete. Had I started writing in 2015 instead, and researched what I needed as I went a long, I’d have likely finished it long before the pandemic made it impossible to publish.

My problem back then was that disaster lit was a new genre for me, and I was unsure whether it was really ‘for me’. It was easier to keep researching than to start the challenging task of writing and finding out the hard way whether I was any good at that kind of fiction. Worse, at that point I didn’t have a framework for doing ‘pre-writing’ — the world building, plot and character development work that needs to be in place before you start actually writing.

What’s interesting looking back is that I didn’t know I was blocked when I was blocked. I just thought I was being thorough and learning everything I could in order to give me good, solid foundations. But I didn’t use most of that research. Nothing about the use of eggs during vaccine manufacturing or the predicted shortage of eggs during mass vaccine production made it into the novel because my timeline didn’t include vaccine development. None of the reading I did on zoonosis, bird flu in poorly managed commercial flocks in China, the 2005 H5N1 outbreak at China’s Lake Qinghai, or how flu mutates was worth the paper it was printed out on when it came to writing.

They only reason that my extensive reading around the 1918 Spanish Flu outbreak was useful was that I discovered that my husband’s grandfather, James Kirkpatrick, had been a driver for the doctors at Camp Grant when the Spanish Flu arrived. The outbreak was so bad that the camp commander, Colonel Charles Hagadorn, shot himself. That gave us some insight into what James must have been through, but it was of no use for the novel.

All that work felt essential at the time, but it was just me putting off the act of starting to write. In large part, that was because I didn’t have any sort of pre-writing framework. I was seeking an inspirational jumping-off point that would push me straight into the beginning of my first draft but, not finding it, I just carried on reading.

Fieldwork has been very different. The research window was limited to four months and I transitioned fairly seamlessly, if you ignore the break to do Ada Lovelace Day, into pre-writing. Soon, I’ll start properly writing. It will be about a year from starting work to handing in a draft, the fastest I’ve done anything, except a novella.

I have now developed a practical, useful framework for these three phases of writing:

Stage 1: Research

Not every book needs research, but if you are writing something that’s based on reality then you probably do need to do a bit of reading. Crime writers need to understand forensics, for example, and historical fiction writers need to know about their chosen period. But before you start, determine the minimum viable amount of research required before you can start pre-writing. Then halve it.

With Pandemic, my research period was long and open-ended. I didn’t really know what I was looking for, so I kept going in the hope that I’d recognise the important information when I saw it. I did not. Instead, all that reading just piled up and up and up, clogging my brain with useless cruft.

With Fieldwork, I knew that I was looking for just two things: Funny anecdotes about fieldwork fails, and two or three research projects to give to my characters. I’d initially hoped to do a couple of dozen interviews, but in the end I did ten and that was plenty.

So plan your research before you start and put a hard deadline on it. You really don’t need to know everything up front and if you need to fill in the holes during pre-writing or writing, you can do that.

Stage 2: Pre-writing

Pre-writing is all that thinking you do before you start writing your story: World building, character development, relationship explorations, plotting, test dialogue, etc.

Some writers like to skip all this stuff and dive in at the deep end, but I think even the most avid of pantsters could benefit from a bit of pre-writing, which absolutely does not have to include outlining. And hardcore planners could probably do well to add more variety to their pre-writing in order to keep it fresh and interesting.

Your pre-writing should draw from your research (otherwise, why did you do it?) and prepare you for writing. For me, the key parts of pre-writing are:

  • Character development: Who are these people? What kind of personalities do they have? How do they react in different situations?
  • Relationship development: How do these characters respond to one another? Do they like each other? Hate each other? How do they react to each other when they are put under stress? How might their relationship change over the course of the story?
  • Context: Where do these people find themselves, geographically speaking, when the story starts? Where are they when it ends? What is their situation, and how does it affect them? How does it change?
  • Test dialogue: How do these people speak? How do they talk to one another when they first meet? How do they sound different on the page when they are speaking?
  • World building: What are the rules of the world? Does it have different physics? Magic? Social rules? Legal rules? Plants, animals, ecosystems? Do not get sucked into this bit just because it’s fun. Keep it to the barest of minimums.
  • Plotting: Just the major plot points in the right order. Not too detailed because that way madness lies.  And boredom.

Everyone’s pre-writing needs are different and, as with research, you don’t want to overdo it. You need to get to a point where you feel that writing is possible, but not wait so long that you lose enthusiasm or allow starting writing to feel intimidating.

Stage 3: Writing

There have been more pixels spilt on the art of writing than I care to imagine and I have nothing new to say about it. You’ve all got the books.

But writing isn’t just writing. There will be times when you have to hop back and do a bit of research. Remember those holes I said you could fill? You’ll get to a point where you need a bit of info, and I recommend Cory Doctorow’s tactic of putting ‘TK’ where that bit of info should go and carrying on writing. You then have a research session later where look up all those facts and fill in those gaps, having preserved your earlier writing momentum.

(I actually use TKTK, which doesn’t naturally occur in the English language, because TK does exist in a few words like catkin and wicketkeeper.)

Equally, you might have to go back and do a bit more pre-writing. I’ll be doing this with Tag when I pick that back up, because I didn’t do it properly first time round and I have realised that some of my characterisation is a bit muddy. I’ll also do it with Pandemic if I ever go back to that, because I didn’t do any pre-writing for that novel at all, I just leapt straight into the writing and it shows.

 

So much of writing is actually figuring out what works for you. If ever there was a mantra for writing advice, it’s “Take what you need and leave the rest”. So if any of the above helps, let me know. And if you have any additional advice for other readers, please leave a comment.

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Plus Joel Morris’s new book about comedy, Be Funny Or Die.

Dave Cohen’s Build a Sitcom correspondence course started a couple of weeks ago and I am so glad that I signed up for it.

One of the problems with writing anything based on real life is managing the transitions from research to pre-writing to writing. Back in 2015, I had a ‘high concept’ (ie very simple) idea for a book about a global pandemic, exacerbated by government corruption and ineptitude, that would result in an unimaginable death toll. It would be narrated by a young journalist, disgraced and ejected from the London media world after breaking a controversial political story, who finds herself back in South Wales and desperately trying to resuscitate her career. An eco-friendly housing development would hold the key to her long-term survival.

Unfortunately for me, I spent two years reading everything I could about the Spanish Flu, bird flu, vaccine development and manufacturing, PPE and all that. I didn’t start writing until 2017, so I was just coming up to the finishing line when Covid hit, making pretty much everything I’d written obsolete. Had I started writing in 2015 instead and researched what I needed as I went a long, I’d have likely finished it long before the pandemic made it the world’s least publishable manuscript.

My problem back then was that disaster lit was a new genre for me and I was unsure if I had the chops. It was easier to keep researching than to start the challenging task of writing and finding out the hard way whether I was any good at that kind of fiction. Worse, I didn’t have a framework for doing ‘pre-writing’ — the world building, plot and character development work that needs to be in place before you start actually writing the story.

I finished the novel in April 2021, but after a brief and halfhearted attempt at sending it round the agents, some of whom gave me the fastest rejections ever seen in the literary world, I put it to one side and moved on.

I did, however, learn my lesson, which is not to spend too much time doing research. Rather than wasting two years trying to learn everything I could about why pandemics happen, where these diseases come from and how we (used to) prepare for them, I should have just done a bare minimum of research to get my imagination going and then filled in the details as I went along.

In comparison, Fieldwork shot off the starting blocks like Usain Bolt, once we got ethics clearance. I started organising the background research last May and had finished it by the end of August, when I switched focus to get Ada Lovelace Day sorted.

And since picking Fieldwork back up in January, I’ve been focused on learning about comedy and pre-writing: going back over the interview transcripts to pick out the interesting bits of science, reading books, writing random chunks of dialogue, and working on characters and relationships.

I’m now two weeks into Dave’s course and rapidly heading through the preparatory work towards the actual writing bit. Week 1 focused on explaining the basic idea, Week 2 on fleshing that out a bit and answering questions about the ‘sit’ (situation), the relationship between the two main characters, and some plot ideas. Next week is a deeper dive into character, then story, then we get into the actual script writing.

I can’t recommend Dave’s course highly enough. It’s really great fun to be getting into the nitty gritty of the sitcom, and Dave’s feedback is perceptive and invaluable. Plus, it’s given me both a great framework within which to work and a deadline, both of which hugely improve the likelihood that I’ll have a first draft done by mid-June.

Book review: Be Funny Or Die

I was so excited to get a copy of Joel Morris’s guide to comedy, Be Funny Or Die: How Comedy Works and Why It Matters in March. I’ve read a lot of books about comedy recently and Joel’s book is not just brilliant, it’s unlike anything else out there.

Where your bog standard book about comedy provides advice on how to write a joke or the structure of a sitcom, Joel tackles the very nature and purpose of laughter and comedic behaviour. Drawing from the work of experts like Prof Sophie Scott (who gave a hilarious talk about laughter at one of the earliest Ada Lovelace Day Live events, back in 2013) and Prof G Neil Martin amongst many, many others, Joel looks at the social purpose of laughter, how it bonds or divides us, and how it make us feel safe even when, perhaps, we aren’t.

My key takeaway from the book was that you can’t write comedy if you don’t know what a joke is for, and you can’t write good comedy if you don’t understand how jokes can go bad, when they’re used to inflame and divide rather than sooth and unite.

This philosophical approach allows the reader to think about comedy at a subatomic level, placing it into the context of human social interactions and connections. Understanding how we use laughter as social glue to indicate that we’re not a threat, or that we aren’t in a threatening situation, (or that we recognise a threat but are frantically pretending everything is just fine, thank you kindly, hahaha), allows us to better manipulate our comedy narratives and stick them together in exactly the right places.

But Joel doesn’t stop with the subatomic fundamentals, he also zooms out to the atomic, to a new Rule of Three.

You might have heard of the Rule of Three already, the idea that we inherently like groups of three things, because that’s “the smallest number that humans perceive as a set”. That might be three examples, three repetitions, or the comedic triad of Set-up, Anticipation and Punchline. That latter rule is often invoked to explain what makes a joke funny, but Joel provides lots of examples that break that rule by using only two of those three — in these cases, set-up and punchline — including:

Clowns’ divorce: custardy battle.  — Simon Munnery

I’m not addicted to cocaine. I just like the way it smells. — Richard Pryor

Instead, he suggests, we should look at comedy the same way we look at music, as a matter of “pattern and rhythm”. We all know that comedy is rhythm, or timing, but it isn’t just timing. We are pattern-seeking creatures, constantly looking for patterns to match and constantly surprised when the pattern we think we’ve found turns out to be something else.

These are the atoms of comedy, the new Rule of Three: Construct, Confirm and Confound. (There’s also Confuse, but we don’t want that, that’s like dark matter and makes a joke implode in an unpleasant way.)

  • Construct: Create the pattern.
  • Confirm: Repeat the pattern.
  • Confound: Break the pattern.

Now we have the atoms, we can create molecules, more commonly called ‘jokes’. Joel explains that there are many ways you can link together your Three Cs, and quite often you don’t even need all three of them to get a laugh. Sometimes, Construct and Confirm will do the job or, as in the two examples above, Construct and Confound.

Be Funny Or Die doesn’t go into the synthesis of compounds — which in this now rather tortured analogy would be sitcoms, comedic novels, comedy films etc. But once you understand the building blocks of comedy, all the other books about those things become a lot more useful.

If you’re just starting out as a comedy writer, or you’re just curious about what makes something funny and why we’re hardwired to laugh and make others laugh, then start with Be Funny Or Die. It’ll make everything else make sense. If you’re a seasoned pro, then it’ll give you a new appreciation for the importance of comedy in human society and a deeper understanding of what it is that you’re doing for a job.

Now, I don’t rate books, but if I did, Be Funny Or Die would be like the solar system 1SWASP J093010.78+533859.5 — it’s got five stars.

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Plus inside the Met’s book conservation lab, lots of AI news, and another rejection is balanced out by starting my Script in Eight Weeks course.

Hi there,

Suw’s News: Another rejection and a course started

The rejection emails from Discoveries 2024 arrived in inboxes, including mine, late last week. Whilst rejection is never a surprise, and no longer a disappointment, it is an irritation. I am rather fed up of the ‘competititionification’ of writing, not least because although a lot of competitions are free, many are paid and the fees soon mount up. And you get basically nothing from it – even the competitions that promise feedback haven’t provided me with anything actionable.

Last year, I set myself the goal of 100 rejections, but in the end I submitted fewer than a dozen times – though I did have a 100% rejection rate, which is something to be proud of, I suppose. This year, my goal isn’t to submit a lot, it’s to write and produce my Fieldwork sitcom podcast. The only submissions I’ll be making will be to open calls or competitions specifically for comedy. Everything else is on the back burner.

On the subject of Fieldwork, Dave Cohen’s Build A Script sitcom course has started, and my weeks of pre-writing are paying off. I finished up Friday’s homework in an hour and a half, with an extra twenty minutes of polishing this morning, and it all flowed fairly easily. I’ve managed to work for an average of 5 hours 45 minutes per week on Fieldwork this year, so if I keep that up and continue my pre-writing exercises as I go along I think this will all come together nicely.

Opportunity: Write Start Competition

Whilst I’m eschewing competitions this year, that doesn’t mean you should! Write Start is an American competition for novelists costing $35 and with a submission deadline of 31 May. All you need to do is submit 20 pages from a completed manuscript and you might win a meeting with an agent.

Read this: How a font tweak saves paper

I absolutely loved this story about how designers at HarperCollins have spent the last three years experimenting with fonts, layout and ink in order to reduce book page counts whilst maintaining readability. “[S]o far, these subtle, imperceptible tweaks have saved 245.6 million pages, equivalent to 5,618 trees.” And looking at the sample, the eco-friendly font is easier to read for me than their standard, so that’s a win all round!

Stop, look, listen: Origin Story

Origin Story, from Ian Dunt and Dorian Lynskey, is one of my favourite podcasts that’s not about writing but is essential listening for writers. If you want to quick explainers for not just political concepts but also broader cultural phenomena, then you can’t do better.

I recently listened to and loved their episodes on the origins of zombies and their role in fiction and the secular side of the apocalypse, in which I learnt that Mary Shelley did not just write the first science fiction book with Frankenstein, but one of the first pieces of apocalypse fiction with The Last Man.

Read this, two: Inside the book conservation lab at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Another delightful read, this one from the New York Times who sends Molly Young to take a peek behind the scenes in the Met’s book conservation lab (gift links but paywall possible).

“For people who love books, entering the lab is like getting hit with Cupid’s arrow,” [Mindell] Dubansky said. “People walk through this door with a dazed expression on their face, wanting to dedicate their entire lives to making sure the books are OK.”

It me. It definitely me.

Read these: More ‘AI’ news, none of it good

Vox does a deep dive into Amazon’s problem with shite AI-generated books and the problems caused by human grifters out to scam people who are desperate to be authors:

Keyword scrapers that exist for the sole purpose of finding such search terms delivered the phrase “Kara Swisher book” to the so-called biographer, who used a combination of AI and crimes-against-humanity-level cheap ghostwriters to generate a series of books they could plausibly title and sell using her name.

Astrolabe covers the stooshie caused by SFF publisher Angry Robot deciding to use AI to sort submissions during their open window.

Controversy arose, however, when the fine print for the open submission period revealed Angry Robot would be using an AI-driven application called Storywise to help sort submissions and deliver them to appropriate editorial staff. Despite recognizing the potential blowback resulting from the use of an AI tool, and preemptively developing an extensive FAQ explaining its use, Angry Robot met with a lot of Angry Writers. Five hours later they announced they would no longer be using Storywise and would revert to a more traditional email inbox-process.

Not everyone was convinced by Angry Robot’s climbdown, and author Lili Saintcrow pointed out their inconsistencies in a BlueSky thread.

The Bookseller reports that HarperCollins and ElevenLabsAI are using AI voices to create audiobooks for foreign titles, which has voice artists worried. Although HarperCollins are starting with niche titles that wouldn’t otherwise warrant an audiobook, the obvious concern is that once AI has been accepted by the listener, it will be used to replace voice actors. Except, obviously, the celebrities who can pull an audience of their own.

This is an opportunity to expand the library of audiobooks available, and that’s great from accessibility and market growth points of view, but I do understand voice actors’ worries. Big corporations don’t have a very good track record of drawing boundaries that protect us humans.

Public Citizen raises concerns about dangerous AI-generated apps and books on foraging for mushrooms which misidentify toxic, even deadly, mushrooms. Mushrooms are notoriously difficult to identify accurately and it’s very easy to make a mistake, as author Nicholas Evans did in 2008 when he and some family went foraging and accidentally picked, cooked and ate some deadly webcap mushrooms. Evans and three other family members nearly died, and three of them lost kidneys.

Mushroom identification requires real expertise and shouldn’t be left to AI. There’s a reason that we don’t eat mushrooms called things like Eastern Destroying Angel, Death Cap, Poison Pie or The Sickener, (although lots of mushrooms with pretty names are also toxic).

Tweet of the fortnight: Fantasy maps

The best map ever published at the front of a fantasy book has been located by Twitter user @Thinkingabtbooks in the opening pages of Kyle James’ Hierophantasy.

Obligatory cat picture

The only way to win an argument with a cat is not to argue. I’d suggest a nice game of chess, but Grabbity would only knock the pieces over and sit on the board.

That’s it for now! See you next time!

Suw

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What to do when your mind is blank

by Suw on April 17, 2024

This week’s newsletter brought to you by the letter S, for stubbornness.

Sometimes, I find that my head is just… empty. I need to write something, but there’s not a single idea to be had. Not a light on in the house. I could skip a week, I suppose. People do. But if I skip one week for no good reason, then I’ll skip another and another and that would be the end of this newsletter.

On days like that, every idea feels thin and reedy. Nothing has enough substance for me to grasp. It’s not just that my mind is foggy, it feels like the whole world is foggy and no amount of squinting will bring it into focus. It’s not that I’m particularly tired. I’ve just done a whole morning of work for Ada Lovelace Day, quite happily. So what’s going on?

Struggling with the futility of being a writer

Sometimes, I walk into a bookshop and feel deep in my bones the utter futility of being a writer. With millions of books in the world already, who needs mine? With the doors to the creative industry closed, what chance do I have?

This week alone, I’ve seen someone asking for non-fiction writers to write a 70k word book for the insulting pittance of £1,250 (that’s 1.8p per word, by the way). I’ve seen someone talking about how a TV commissioner loves their idea and wants to see a finished script, but that they don’t have the skills so would someone please help? I’ve seen countless GoFundMe pleas from established and beloved creators who can’t afford the medical bills, or to live.

And then I wonder, what the everliving fuck is the point? Honestly, why am I doing this?

Hauling myself out of the hole

The process of clambering out of that pit of despondency is basically a process of trial and error. It starts by reminding myself why I write: because I love the process, because it’s a fundamental part of my personality, because I’m happier when I’m writing. Then I have to dig about for a few more practical steps to take to get me back on track. I’ll usually try a few of these tactics until I hit on something that works in the moment:

Ask for help

Whether it’s your partner or a friend, or the world at large via social media, ask for ideas for your newsletter or for writing prompts or just moral support. Who knows, someone might come up with something helpful or make you feel good enough to break the malaise.

Go for a walk

A Stanford University study found that “creative output increased by an average of 60 percent when walking”, so get up and get walking. It doesn’t matter if you pop out for a spin around your local park, walk on a treadmill in front of a blank wall, or just wander round your house — the act of walking is what counts.

Break out pen and paper

Your brain works differently when you’re holding a pen and writing by hand, compared to typing on a keyboard. Pen and paper’s best for expansive thinking, for catching hold of, organising and developing ideas. Typing’s best for transcribing your thoughts, once you know what they are.

Accept imperfection

I am a perfectionist, so I do struggle to write things that I am not sure are good enough. But 23 years of blogging has taught me that my idea of what’s good rarely gels with what other people think is good. I can’t count the number of times that a post I’ve just dashed off and thought was pretty mediocre has caught light, whilst the posts I’ve laboured over have sunk without trace. You cannot judge the quality of your own work and, frankly, you shouldn’t even try.

Tap into your stubbornness

It is always easier to give up than to keep going, but sometimes the only way forward is through, no matter how hard it feels. Drag those words out of your brain, one by one, and if you keep going for long enough eventually you’ll have your newsletter, post, story or book.

Allow yourself to be distracted

This one’s slightly counterintuitive, but I find that when I’m struggling, I get more writing done if I allow myself to check social media in between paragraphs. Or sentences. Or words. I don’t let myself dwell for long in the aim of the firehose, but I do let myself just look at BlueSky (the Twitter replacement favoured by a lot of writers) briefly every now and again. It’s as if it resets something in my mind, just clears out a tiny blockage to let the next sentence flow.

Go snuggle a pet

I have two cats and there’s honestly nothing better when I feel stressed than going and sticking my face in a furry belly. If one of them’s in the right mood, that is. If not, it’s a surefire way to end up in A&E. But petting cats, and other animals, is proven to lower blood pressure and stress, so I reckon they probably improve feelings of creativity too.

Change your font

Our brains love novelty, so pick a fun and preferably slightly hard-to-read font to write in, instead of whatever your software usually defaults to. We remember more of what we read when it’s presented in a more challenging font, and novel stimuli cause the release of dopamine, which your brain likes. So use a ridiculous font to add a little disfluency to your writing and it should help.

Change your environment

Just as a fancy font will make your novelty-seeking brain happy, so will a change of scenery. Pop along to a coffee shop or just relocate to your sofa, it doesn’t matter as long as it’s a spot you don’t usually write in.

Self-bribery

I’m not averse to a little self-bribery. A little chocolate, perhaps, or some other treat. Place it within your line of sight and pick a reasonable milestone to hit before you take a bite.

Have a sing

Go on. Just for three minutes. Pick a real belter.

Let a draft sit overnight

I try to never let my newsletter wait until the day it’s due, unless I’m already very clear on what I’m going to be writing. So when I’ve finished writing this draft, which will be very soon, I’ll put it into Substack and then leave it overnight. Putting some distance, and some sleep, between me and a rough draft always makes editing it easier.

 

In the end, this post has taken me 1 hour 30 minutes to write, including a quick walk around the park. And despite having felt utterly frustrated before I started, I now feel really quite happy, even invigorated. Which is another thing to remember: It really does feel good to have finished writing something.

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Plus the state of UK TV, the power of curation and an early morning Grabbity.

Hi there,

The rain has finally stopped, the sun is trying to come out, the pigeons are ‘courting’ on the flat roof above my desk, freaking Copurrnicus right out with their noise, and I am feeling loquacious! So this issues sees fewer links and more analysis, which I hope you’ll find interesting! Plus, a photo of an early morning Grabbity for those of you who reach the end.

Read this: Why bestseller lists aren’t all that

Agent Kate McKean argues that authors really shouldn’t care about whether their books gets on to the New York Times bestseller list, largely because, “If it happens that is AMAZING and a BIG DEAL but also not the golden ticket you think it will be.”

Instead, she says, you should worry more about:

Selling through that print run so your publisher has to go back to press for more books (i.e. a reprint). If they have to order a reprint before your book even comes out, because stores have called dibs on all their existing stock, EVEN BETTER. What’s going to make a publisher look at your next proposal or manuscript with heart eyes? Reprints and low returns. Stores ordering more of your book(s) because people keep buying them, long after your “launch week” marketing extravaganza. How do you sell your next book? Sell your current one.

By the way, I only recently learnt that the little daggers next to some books in the NYT list means that they think the numbers have been in some way fudged:

Institutional, special interest, group or bulk purchases, if and when they are included, are at the discretion of The New York Times Best-Seller List Desk editors based on standards for inclusion that encompass proprietary vetting and audit protocols, corroborative reporting and other statistical determinations. When included, such bulk purchases appear with a dagger (†).

Read this, two: How important is author promo? 

In the post above, McKean suggests that as an author, you must keep your “book in conversations by doing what you can do online—writing, posting, videoing, whatever you can do that makes sense for your market—whether it’s about your book or not.”

She goes on to say:

This is work only you can do in support of your career, so you can keep publishing books. The publisher cannot build your platform or following or fanbase of readers who automatically buy your next book as soon as you post a pre-order link. Readers are not looking at publishers for news of those pre-order links. They are looking at you. You do not hear about new books from publishers. You hear about them from friends and articles and random posts that get shared in your feeds and from the bio at the end of that great article you just read and oh look they have a new book coming out.

However, author Melissa Caruso suggests on Bluesky that we should not focus on making any given book a success, but should take a step back and make sure our careers are a success (my bold).

Here’s the thing. There’s not much that you, the author, can do personally to move the needle in the short term on sales for a specific book. That’s really up to your publisher, who has far more resources than you do.

Once you accept this, it’s actually kind of nice?

It’s very easy to put WAY too much effort, time, and/or money into book promo, but the truth is that all the things debuts feel like they should be doing—social media, preorder campaigns, events, you name it—will make very little difference for most people and are only worth doing if you enjoy them.

It’s important to remember that there is no empirical way to understand what makes a given book a success, or not a success. There are so many factors that combine to propel a title to the top of the bestseller list or sink it without trace that it’s impossible to predict which books will sell well and which won’t.

Some factors are always going to be important, such as author name recognition and track record or the amount of marketing spend devoted to a book. But they aren’t guarantees of success, even if they help it along. Other factors are completely unpredictable and uncontrollable, such as whether a similar book comes out at the same time, general zeitgeist, and virality.

So I think the key point from Caruso’s thread is to do what you enjoy. If you like being on BookTok, or writing newsletters, or doing outreach to indie bookshops, or organising author events, then go for it. It can’t hurt and it might help.

But don’t sacrifice your next book, or your health or happiness, on the altar of promo.

Read this, three: The state of UK TV 

It’s really nice to have your career decisions exonerated by a report, even if that report makes for less than happy reading otherwise. Televisual.com summarises a report from Ampere Analysis on current TV commissioning trends, and it doesn’t make for fun reading.

The report shows an 18% decline last year in the UK’s market for scripted TV commissions as major UK broadcasters cut spend and most global SVODs trimmed investment in international content.

So trying to get a TV script commissioned, especially as an early career writer, is essentially futile. Worse, trying to get a sitcom made is now just an act of self-flaggellation.

Comedy fell out of favour, enduring a 27% drop. It was the most heavily impacted of all scripted genres in 2023 with an overall decline of 41% among UK commissioners.

There is something to be said for being countercyclical, so perhaps still worth working on comedy, but maybe not in TV. I’m focusing on writing a sitcom podcast as well as working on a version of the script for submission to the BBC’s autumn open call, just in case.

Perhaps the ‘easiest’, if anything in the creative world can ever be said to be easy, is get your book published first.

In another risk-mitigation move, the BBC increased its investment in IP with an existing following. Roughly a fifth of BBC scripted commissions last year were book adaptations.

I decided a while back to stop working on the scripts for Tag and start novelising it. That project’s shelved for now as I focus on Fieldwork, mind, but as a CGI heavy urban fantasy, it’ll be a much easier sell as a book rather than a TV show. I always knew that, but this news confirmed that novelisation is the right choice.

However, if you’re writing in the Kids, Family or Crime genres you stand more of a chance.

Children & Family grabbed the most orders of the BBC’s scripted commissions, up by 23% year-on-year. Crime and thriller titles were up 16%.

Getting into TV through the front door is basically impossible now, so it’s really a matter of working out whether you can slip in unnoticed through a side window.

Read this, four: The power of curation

Lovely piece from Russell Nohelty about the important of curation in media, saying that:

[the problem for] every media company struggling right now is they have become terrible curators for their audience

This is true not just for large media organisations, but also for us newsletter writers too, whether we are curating links, as I do here, or our thoughts, as I do over on Why Aren’t I Writing?.

This gives me the opportunity to ask you what you’d like to see more/less of? This issue has been particularly wordy, but how do you like the usual mix of topics and number of links? Please do leave a comment if there’s something you particularly like and would like more of!

Obligatory cat picture

Grabbity does love to come and pin me to the bed just at about the time my alarm goes off, so I frequently wake up to this view. She’s very keen that I stay in the prone position so that she can nap in comfort, after a very tiring night of yelling at us from the bottom of the stairs.

Right, that’s it for now! See you again in a couple of weeks, or maybe in the comments!

All the best,

Suw

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You should probably say it to yourself more often.

Some friends and I have an entire Slack channel devoted to celebrating the times we say ‘No’.  We’ve made ourselves little loyalty cards and if we tick all 10 boxes then we get to buy ourselves an ice-cream. I’m currently stuck on nine, because these days no one really asks me to do stuff. I am tempted, however, to award a tenth tick for saying a fairly big ‘No’… to myself.

‘No’ is an interesting word. It’s a simple word, two letters, one syllable, but there is a lot more to it than mere negation. For many – women, freelancers, solopreneurs and creatives, amongst others – it’s a word freighted with fear.

Women, especially, are socially conditioned to never say ‘No’. If someone asks us to take on a task that we don’t have the time or inclination to do, we still feel obliged to say yes, because we fear the social ramifications of refusal. We’ve been taught that saying ‘No’ makes us a bad person, the opposite of the kind, caring, acquiescent, obedient, dutiful, compliant — ‘feminine’ — person we should be.

For freelancers, solopreneurs and creatives, the fear of saying ‘No’ even once is the fear that we’ll never be asked to do anything ever again. Saying ‘No’ to a red-flagged client becomes impossible when you need the money, or when you fear that you won’t get another client to replace them. So you end up working with people that your better judgement tells you to avoid.

The worst is, of course, the request from a friend or colleague who has done you a past favour, someone you feel you owe. Saying no to these requests leaves us riddled with guilt. They did something for us, so we should do something for them, and we should make whatever sacrifice is necessary to repay our debt.

There are many strategies for saying ‘No’ scattered across the web. And I find it very interesting that the people who talk about this the most are all women, including my friends. Together, in our Slack channel, we egg each other on, supporting each other to stick to our ‘No’-shaped guns. We help each other find that right form of words, make suggestions for how we can soften the ‘No’, or even find ways to circumvent the need to say ‘No’ entirely: ‘Can you find someone else to suggest?’

Battling against our socialisation, against the expectations that we be biddable, against the urge to self-flagellate every time we put our own needs first, saying ‘No’ becomes a gargantuan task, even when it’s obviously the right response.

But recently I’ve realised that my biggest challenge, and the most important challenge, is saying ‘No’ to myself.

There are two kinds of situation where I’ve learnt that I need to say ’No’ to myself more often:

  1. When I have ideas
  2. When I am panicking about money

1. Not all ideas are created equal

I have never understood people who ask the question, ‘Where do you get your ideas?’. Ideas are really not a problem for me. I have a long, long list of ideas for books and stories to write. I have endless ideas for new businesses. I can’t even count the ideas for crafting projects that my stupid brain produces. I have ideas coming out of my ears. Sit me in a quiet spot for ten minutes and I’ll have a dozen ideas for things I could do, if only I had the time.

But every idea enacted comes with an opportunity cost: If I do Idea A, I don’t have time for Idea B. How do I know which idea to follow? How do I say ‘No’ to an idea?

In his famous 2012 commencement speech to students at University of the Arts – Philadelphia, Neil Gaiman talked about fixing his gaze on the mountain of his ambition:

Something that worked for me was imagining that where I wanted to be – an author, primarily of fiction, making good books, making good comics and supporting myself through my words – was a mountain. A distant mountain. My goal.

And I knew that as long as I kept walking towards the mountain I would be all right. And when I truly was not sure what to do, I could stop, and think about whether it was taking me towards or away from the mountain. I said no to editorial jobs on magazines, proper jobs that would have paid proper money because I knew that, attractive though they were, for me they would have been walking away from the mountain. And if those job offers had come along earlier I might have taken them, because they still would have been closer to the mountain than I was at the time.

Just a year later, addressing students at The University of Western Australia, Tim Minchin said:

You don’t have to have a dream. Americans on talent shows always talk about their dreams. Fine if you have something you’ve always wanted to do, dreamed of, like in your heart, go for it. After all it’s something to do with your time, chasing a dream. And if it’s a big enough one it’ll take you most of your life to achieve so by the time you get to it and are staring into the abyss of the meaninglessness of your achievement you’ll be almost dead, so it won’t matter.

I never really had one of these dreams and so I advocate passionate dedication to the pursuit of short-term goals. Be micro-ambitious. Put your head down and work with pride on whatever is in front of you. You never know where you might end up. Just be aware the next worthy pursuit will probably appear in your periphery, which is why you should be careful of long-term dreams. If you focus too far in front of you you won’t see the shiny thing out the corner of your eye.

These two pieces of advice might seem contradictory, but they are not. They are the same advice, but for different states of mind, and I’ve done both at different stages of my life. For both, the key thing is discernment.

In my case, I did a Minchin first. I’d look at what opportunities were directly in front of me and I’d be micro-ambitious: Which idea that’s right here, right now, looks most interesting? My discernment was all about following ideas that I felt I could work on with pride.

That modus operandi slowly changed into a Gaiman. After years of micro-ambitions, my mountain came clearly into view. So now my discernment is based on picking ideas that will get me closer to that mountain.

And I want to add in a bit of advice from my husband, Kevin Anderson, who recommends always looking at the step after the step you’re about to take. What will your next job or project or idea set you up to do afterwards? Always look ahead.

So now any idea, regardless of what it is or what it’s for, has to pass muster on these three questions:

  1. Can I do it with pride?
  2. Does it take me closer to my mountain?
  3. Does it set me up to do something even better in future?

I say ‘No’ to any idea that can’t do all three of those things for me, because life is short and opportunity cost is a real thing and I need to be focused on doing the my best work.

2. Panicking about money leads to bad decisions

Last week, I was panicking about money. I don’t know why.

Actually, I do know why: We had a call with a financial planner and I felt like a complete, no-holds-barred failure because I don’t earn much and have never earnt much and don’t have a pension or much in the way of savings and am, financially, a basketcase. I am a financial failure compared to my peers and, worse, compared to where I want to be and feel I ought to be. Writing about it for The Ladybird Purse helped a bit, but I still struggle when the topic of money comes up.

Anyway, last week I nearly made a bad decision, and it’s only thanks to the four people who told me not to that I didn’t.

I was tempted to join an expensive online sales course because I’m only 50 per cent of the way to my yearly income target, and I’m scared because I can’t see where the rest of my income is going to come from. Ada Lovelace Day isn’t financially stable and I was (still am, a bit) worried that it won’t meet its revenue goals for the year.

Then I saw an ad for an online course that teaches sales tactics for B2B companies on LinkedIn, and I have to admit, the free videos and webinars and testimonials seemed quite compelling. But the cost was nigh on £3k, and that’s a lot of money for me right now.

I have an Advisory Council for Ada Lovelace Day to help make sure I don’t make stupid decisions, so I outlined what I knew of this course and asked for advice. Three of my advisors plus my husband told me not to do it. The panic made it hard to take their advice, but when four people tell me I’m wrong, I must be wrong, so I downgraded my response to ‘Think about it a bit more deeply’.

Now, having had a long weekend, I feel a bit less stressed and it’s much easier to tell myself that all important ‘No’. This course is not a good use of my money.

Indeed, this is another good rule of thumb: Always say ‘No’ when you’re feeling panicked.

What has all this got to do with writing?

A large part of writing, or not writing, is knowing that you’re working on the right story at the right time. Any doubts can lead to a loss of confidence or interest in your current project.

So if you find yourself wondering why you don’t feel motivated to write, perhaps ask yourself some questions:

  • Are you writing something you can be proud of?
  • Are you writing something that takes you closer to your mountain?
  • Are you writing something upon which you can build in the future?
  • Are you panicking about your writing?

If you can’t answer with three ‘Yes’s and a ‘No’, then perhaps it’s time to take a step back, rethink your project, and ask yourself whether this is something you should continue with.

It’s OK if the answer to that final question is ‘No’. That gives you the opportunity to find a better project to say ‘Yes’ to.


PS Not unrelated news about Grist and author webinars

Last month, I organised both a Grist conversation and an author webinar with Dr Dean Burnett. I really enjoyed doing both, and I get a lot out of them, but they take a lot of time and they’re causing me quite a bit of stress. So, rather sadly, I’ve decided to say ‘No’ to both, and to not to do any more webinars for a bit. Grist will become a monthly newsletter, and I’ll do another author webinar when I really can’t resist the urge any more.

Right, now I have 10 ‘No’s, I’m off to buy myself an ice-cream.

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Plus the London Festival of Writing, Coyote vs Acme, and Copurrnicus being Copurrnicus.

Hi there,

Catch up with Dr Dean Burnett

If you missed last week’s webinar with bestselling author Dr Dean Burnett, you can now catch up with the recording at your leisure!

Dean and I kicked off our conversation with the story of Blue Monday — not the New Order song, but the confected PR nonsense that claims one particular Monday in January is the ‘most depressing of the year’. Dean, already a keen blogger and stand-up comedian, debunked it and soon found himself writing a regular blog for The Guardian.

We then moved on to talk about how Dean came to write his first book, international bestseller The Idiot Brain and then his second book, The Happy Brain, how he does his research and how he made the decision to go full-time as a writer. We also talked about our childhood assumptions that other people wrote books, not us, and how that’s affected our writing careers, as well as Dean’s experience of doing stand-up comedy, the weirdness of having his book optioned by Whoopi Goldberg, and a bit about what he thinks writer’s block might be.

Watch now!

Opportunity: BBC Writers’ Studio: EastEnders

BBC Studios Drama Productions have launched a new scheme for anyone who wants to write for EastEnders.

BBC Studios TalentWorks Writers’ Studio: EastEnders is an open script call for those who are looking to take the next step in their writing career and join the ranks of the EastEnders writing team. The initiative intends to find writers with some experience, who are actively keen to pursue a career in continuing drama. The open call process will shortlist 8 writers who’ll each write one paid trial script with the full support of the in-house development editor. Of the 8 shortlisted writers, up to 5 commissioning slots will be available on the main show.

Applicants must have an existing broadcast credit, or an agent, or various other credits/experience in order to apply, and the deadline is 22 April.

The BBC also runs The Writers’ Studio: Casualty, and a similar scheme for cosy crime.

Tip-top tip: Gary Gibson on building a sustainable writing career

Sci fi writer Gary Gibson has written about the things he’s learnt as a “formerly traditionally-published author” about building a sustainable career as a writer.

Gary, who hasn’t been under contract with a major publisher since 2015, talks about the conflict that sometimes arises between what readers want and what writers want, risk-taking and experimentation, marketing and BookBub, promotion and much more.

It’s a useful post with valuable advice not just for independent authors, but for anyone interested in a writing career.

Event: The London Festival of Writing

Jericho Writers’ annual writing festival will be running over the weekend of 29-30 June, at the Leonardo Royal Tower Bridge Hotel in London. Tickets aren’t cheap, at £420 for the whole weekend, including lunch and Saturday night dinner, but excluding accommodation.

The weekend consists of seven workshop slots with three to choose from in each session, and they cover topics such as character, first chapters, working with small publishers, dealing with your midpoint plot, genre, how to write query letters and a lot more.

Watching: Coyote vs Acme might be lost forever

There’s been another wave of fury about the loss of Coyote vs Acme, the completely finished Warner Bros. Discovery movie that massive arsehole David Zaslav canned for no good reason. It was reported last month that Warner Bros. Discovery said that:

in an earnings filing it wrote off $115 million in content due to abandoning films in the third quarter of 2023 as part of a “strategic realignment plan associated with the Warner Bros. Pictures Animation group.”

Actor Will Forte, who played Wile E. Coyote, got to see the finished film and called it “incredible. Super funny throughout, visually stunning, sweet, sincere, and emotionally resonant in a very earned way.”

The film tested really well, and Amazon offered $40-$45 million for it, but that wasn’t enough for enormous wanker Zaslav, who wanted $75-$80 million for it. So, it seems Coyote vs Acme will by now have been deleted. All we have left of it has been compiled by All Things Lost into this 38 minute video:

As someone points out in the comments, “You can’t burn down your own business for insurance money. You shouldn’t be able to destroy your fully filmed, expensive project, for free money either.”

Whilst the buck stops with contemptible scumbag Zaslav, the underlying cause is perverse incentives in the tax regime. Now that despicable shitweasel Zaslav has normalised the deletion of finished films, regardless of quality or prospects, we can expect this to happen more and more often.

The only question now is whether creatives will start to shy away from, or even boycott, film studios who have shown themselves willing to destroy movies for the tax breaks.

Read this: Recently on Why Aren’t I Writing?

It’s been a while since I gave you a round-up of my newsletters over on Why Aren’t I Writing?, so for those of you who aren’t subscribed over there, here’s a bit of reading for the long weekend:

Grist & author webinars

This month, I organised both a Grist conversation and an author webinar with Dr Dean Burnett. I really enjoyed doing both, and I get a lot out of them, but they take a lot of time and they’re causing me quite a bit of stress. So, rather sadly, I’ve decided not to do any more webinars for a bit. Grist will become a monthly newsletter, and I’ll do another author webinar when I really can’t resist the urge any more.

Obligatory cat picture

Copurrnicus, a tabby and white cat, stands on top of an antique cabinet, and stretches out a paw to try to reach a hanging decoration in the shape of a flower. After the first Christmas of the pandemic, my husband and I decided to leave up the fairy lights and to then decorate the lounge seasonally. Sadly, we had to leave all the themed lights back in the US, but we are slowly rebuilding our collection of decorations here.

Copurrnicus pretty much ignored the hearts we put up for Dydd Santes Dwynwen, which is also the anniversary of our engagement, and which we left up until our wedding anniversary in February. But he has taken rather a shine to our spring decorations, which at the moment consist of eggs and paper flowers.

Grabbity doesn’t care, because none of the decorations are made of tinsel.

Right, that’s it for this time! See you again in two weeks, or on Notes or Bluesky.

All the best,

Suw

 

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How do we find a window to climb through?

I spent Saturday at the Big Comedy Conference, finding out about the parlous state of TV comedy and rethinking my Fieldwork short film/sitcom project in the process. What was clear from the folks on stage is that budgets are shrinking and fashions are changing which means less comedy is being commissioned. There are only two sitcoms on air that are filmed in front of a studio audience – Not Going Out and Mrs Brown’s Boys. Sketch shows have died a death, replaced by cheaper comedy panel shows.

(There’s a similar contraction happening in drama as well. The streamers have realised that, to borrow a phrase from journalism, they have swapped cable/satellite pounds for digital pennies and that the maths just doesn’t math. The BBC has closed Doctors, its incredibly popular but unfortunately expensive daytime drama, as they search for savings in the face of increasing costs and a frozen TV licence fee. Most people don’t care that Doctors has gone, but it was an incredibly important training ground for new TV writers and the loss of that route into the industry is going to have a knock-on effect in the years to come.)

I also had several conversations with some lovely but frustrated writers, both new writers trying and failing to break into the industry and established writers who are still struggling to get commissioned. One of the people was chatting to was Joel Morris whose new book, Be Funny or Die, I just finished reading on Thursday and cannot recommend highly enough.

Joel suggested perhaps our default approach to TV and book publishing should be to assume that all doors are closed. And that set me to thinking: What changes if we assume that Joel is correct? (And I think he is correct.) Instead of knocking at the door to be let in, what if we look for a window to clamber through instead? What would that mean?

This is where I need to say that we must think of ourselves as individuals within a unique context, which is a long-winded way of saying that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Everyone’s mileage will vary. But…

Assuming the doors are shut means that we need to let go of the lottery thinking that is so prevalent amongst writers. Competitions, open calls, and competitive course applications are, statistically, not going to get us anywhere. Hundreds, if not thousands, of other people are applying for a tiny number of places, and the chances of any of us winning are tiny. Whilst it’s true that someone has to win, staking our future career on it is only going to lead to disappointment.

And when it comes to screenwriting, the majority of competitions seem designed more to part desperate writers from their cash than provide them with opportunity. You could spend a lot of money entering competitions and end up getting absolutely nowhere. Some competitions offer feedback as an inducement, and perhaps they do provide good advice (though I’ve yet to experience that myself), but it’s nothing you couldn’t get from a good script editor or story development editor.

So, what can we do?

I think the key thing here is to take back control. Instead of just sending our work out there into the void and hoping the Gods of TV and Publishing will bestow success upon us, we need to think about what actions we can take ourselves. Exactly what those actions will be will differ from person to person, depending on personality, preferences, experience and capability. But I think there are two generalisable pieces of advice:

Think hard about your medium

Sitcoms and comedy in general is under pressure, rookie writers very rarely get commissioned, and writers rooms largely don’t exist in the UK, meaning there’s no opportunity to get an entry level writing job. So do you really need to make writing for TV the first step on your creative journey? It sounds like a fabulous career, but if experienced and well-connected writers are struggling to make it work, then newbies are up against a brick wall.

Could you find another medium for your work? If you like performing, perhaps do a bit of stand up and develop a community of fans – you might be able to parlay that into a writing gig somewhere. It’s a long shot, but you’ll get a lot of interesting experiences out of it!

If you’re more of an introvert, how about developing your script into a podcast? Podcasts are flexible, relatively cheap to put together, and lots of fun to do (and listen to). That’s my plan for Fieldwork.

For Tag, my urban fantasy, I’m switching to the novel format. Writing it as a six part TV series has been extremely helpful in that I find it easier to manage the rewriting process for scripts than for prose, but it requires way too much CGI to ever get made in the UK and it’s too British to ever appeal to an American producer. It’ll be a much easier sell if it’s a novel.

There are options on social media as well, but before you throw yourself into TikTok, ask yourself if you’re really going to be developing your skills and audience, or if yoou’re doing it for the sake of doing it and developing the platform’s audience.

Look for funding from unusual places

Fieldwork is part of the International Collaboration on Mycorrhizal Ecological Traits, organised by the University of York, University of Edinburgh, Dartmouth College and Ada Lovelace Day, and is funded by the National Environmental Research Council. Some degree of luck was involved here, in that Covid destroyed our original plans and we ended up with some money left over, so Fieldwork became our main public communications and outreach deliverable. But because this is a piece of science communications work, there are a number of other grants and funding sources that we can apply for to take it to the next stage.

Not everyone will be able to look for sci-comms grants to fund their writing, but it is worth thinking about how you can find an unusual niche to occupy where you could increase your chances of finding funding.

For example, Arts Council England’s Develop Your Creative Practice grant program releases data on the number of applicants and how many are successful. From the data for Round 17, we can see that there was only one application in the Libraries discipline and it was funded. There were three Museums applications and one was funded. Literature received 290 applications, Music 340 and Theatre 298. Clearly, there are opportunities along the lesser trafficked paths. If you don’t naturally fall into a useful niche, is there someone you can collaborate with?

Grants are usually a nightmare to apply for, but it’s interesting to see that the overall success rate was 21 per cent, which is a far, far higher success rate than any script or writing competition you’ll ever enter. DYCP doesn’t fund the process of writing, but it does strongly encourage participants to pay themselves for their time and it might well be possible to parlay this into some significant career development work.

Reclaim your agency

The biggest benefit of approaching the creative industries as if the doors are closed is, for me at least, a lessening of stress. I feel better about my writing when I feel that I have some agency and can have some influence over the outcome.

Relying on script/writing competitions and open calls was getting me down, because I knew that my work is in a genre that just isn’t ever going to be popular with the judges. And, despite recommendations from panelists at the Big Comedy Conference, I will not be getting a job as a runner for a TV production company in the hope that they notice my brilliant writing, nor will I be spending hours researching producers who will ultimately reject my work sight unseen because it turns out they don’t take unsolicited submissions.

I’d rather look at what I can achieve now, with the resources I’ve got to hand, than expend more time and energy on playing the creative industry lottery.

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Fieldwork: Lessons from the Big Comedy Conference

March 18, 2024

And how I’m adapting our project plan to account for changes in TV commissioning. Saturday saw the Big Comedy Conference take place in London with a slew of industry professionals taking the stage to share their accumulated knowledge and experience. I went last year for the first time, so this second go round made for an […]

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Word Count 70: Dean Burnett webinar, BAFTA Rocliffe comedy script comp, podcast with comedy author Joel Morris

March 12, 2024

Plus new profit-sharing publisher, why the names in Dune are actually great, Amazon sued over counterfeit books, and more! Hi there, Lots and lots of interesting stuff to share with you this week, so it’s a bit of an epic newsletter. But there is a cute photo of Copurrnicus at the end to reward you […]

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The paradox of originality

March 6, 2024

Grist: Creating characters with personality In the next Grist conversation, which will be at 19:00 GMT on Monday 11 March, we’ll talk about how to construct characters with real personalities by using frameworks such as The Big Five personality traits to Myers Briggs and even astrology (!!). Find out more, and take out a free […]

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Word Count 69: Script competition, next Grist convo, radical empathy writing exercise

February 27, 2024

Plus Women’s Prize for Non-Fiction longlist, fake biographies on Amazon, Hugo/Worldcon furore. Hi there, It’s yet another grey day here, after yet more rain and with more rain to come. The water meadows are full again and the river’s towpath is still flooded. Yet there are hints of spring everywhere I look – daffodils and […]

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Tell that watcher at the gates of your mind to eff off

February 21, 2024

Creativity is about radical acceptance of your first ideas and resisting the urge to second-guess yourself. I’ve been reading Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre by Keith Johnstone recently. First published in 1979, it shows its age not just in some of the language, which wouldn’t be acceptable now, but also in some very dated concepts. […]

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