The watcher at the gates of your mind is just dying to rip your creative face off.

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. However, it was overall an interesting read and provided me with some really useful insights.

One of the things that struck me was Johnstone’s thoughts on self-censorship, although he doesn’t call it that.

I remember, years ago, having a conversation about how to approach solving a plot problem. The advice given was to toss out the first idea you have, because that will be the most obvious one. Toss out the second as well, because that will still be too obvious. Continue to toss out ideas until you find one that’s not obvious, something that’s surprising. The reasoning was that novelty and surprise are good; obvious is predictable and predictable is bad.

I found that advice, which somehow wormed its way inside my head for a good long while, very restrictive. It encourages the writer to second-guess themselves and to judge their thoughts as they are having them. If you’re a perfectionist, prone to self-criticism or lack confidence, it can make writing much harder than it needs to be.

Johnstone touches on this in his chapter on spontaneity:

[Friedrich] Schiller wrote of a ‘watcher at the gates of the mind’, who examines ideas too closely. He said that in the case of the creative mind ‘the intellect has withdrawn its watcher from the gates, and the ideas rush in pell-mell, and only then does it review and inspect the multitude.’ He said that uncreative people ‘are ashamed of the momentary passing madness which is found in all real creators . . . regarded in isolation, an idea may be quite insignificant, and venturesome in the extreme, but it may acquire importance from an idea that follows it; perhaps in collation with other ideas which seem equally absurd, it may be capable of furnishing a very serviceable link.’

My teachers had the opposite theory. They wanted me to reject and discriminate, believing that the best artist was the one who made the most elegant choices. They analysed poems to show how difficult ‘real’ writing was, and they taught that I should always know where the writing was taking me, and that I should search for better and better ideas. They spoke as if an image like ‘the multitudinous seas incarnadine’ could have been worked out like the clue to a crossword puzzle. Their idea of the ‘correct choice was the one anyone would have made if he had thought long enough.

I now feel that imagining should be as effortless as perceiving.

Improv, as I have learnt over the last four months, is about not judging your ideas as you have them. It’s about not striving for the original or the novel or the surprising, not trying to produce better and better ideas.

It’s about accepting your partner’s offer (ie the idea they share through their dialogue and action) and your own initial response. It’s about letting the words flow through you without your intellectual self getting in the way. If you have to judge each idea as you think of it, discarding the ‘bad’ ones and coming up with new ones, you will be visibly slower to respond, which will sap the energy out of a scene and bore the audience to tears. It will also make you feel inadequate and crap.

Instead, improv is about asking the watcher at the gates of your mind to just go away and do something else for a bit so you can get on with being creative.

Indeed, the people who do strive to be clever, who are scared of being judged (or who judge themselves, as the group really isn’t at all judgemental), who have hired reinforcements for those watchers at the gates of their minds, are also the ones whose attempts to be original, novel and surprising backfire. Creativity, and especially comedy, comes from the mundane, from saying the obvious, the thing that everyone’s thinking.

Schiller was right; Johnstone’s teachers and whoever it was that gave me that advice all those years ago was wrong.

In improv, improvement comes from observation and practice, from letting your barriers down and giving up on trying to be smart or funny or original. Let your subconscious do the work and see how it speaks to others without your interference.

Writing is the same. If you let yourself write your first draft without judgement, you’ll find it easier to finish.

The way to write better first drafts is not to let the doggy watcher at the gates of your mind rip your creative face off, it’s to hone your instincts. You do that through writing lots, reading good books on writing craft, reading widely, planning, plotting. character development work, world building, practicing your dialogue and all those other pre-writing tasks that can sometimes seem pointless. They’re not, of course, even if you ultimately don’t use any of your pre-writing material – the very act of working on them implanted ideas in your subconscious, which it then noodled over whilst you weren’t paying attention and all that pops out when you write.

The second draft is when discrimination comes in, when you can assess whether your first ideas were good enough, or whether they need honing or replacing completely. But rewriting is also another opportunity to sharpen up those instincts even more – noticing what doesn’t work and why, working out plot kinks or inconsistent characters, all that stuff that rewrites require. That all goes into your subconscious and stays there, ready to help you out with your next first draft.

At no point does second-guessing, judging, castigating or criticising yourself help. Imagining should be as effortless as perceiving, and it can only become effortless if we shed our self-judgement.

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Plus a serial plagiarist, developing agency, generating husbands, final chapter of Argleton now online, and Grace.

Hi there,

Lots to share with you this week, including a couple of great opportunities and some even better writing advice, so let’s get on with it!

Opportunity: The Fern Academy Prize

Penguin imprint Fern Press has joined forces with How To Academy and Tortoise Media to launch the Fern Academy Prize, “a new annual non-fiction essay prize for those working at the frontier of creativity and thought”.

The prize is designed to find and nurture emerging non-fiction talent and will be awarded to an essay of literary merit with an international and multicultural interest. The prize encourages essays that shine a light on the universal human experience – on a micro or macro scale – and which speak clearly to the times we live in. The prize is open to unagented and unpublished writers from around the world, writing in the English language.

Submissions open on 2 April and the winner will receive a cash prize of £3,000, be published by Tortoise Media, receive representation by RCW literary agent Laurence Laluyaux, and much more.

Opportunity: Channel 4 New Writers Scheme

Channel 4’s New Writers Scheme is looking for unagented screenwriters interested in writing TV drama to take part in a six month training program. The scheme is being organised around 3 regional hubs – Bristol, Glasgow and Leeds – although I can’t find any info as to catchment areas.

Applications will close on Friday 1 March, and if you’re selected you have to be able to travel to your regional hub for in-person training.

C4 is “particularly keen to hear from Deaf and/or disabled people, ethnically diverse people and people from lower socioeconomic groups”. They are looking for dramas that fit into the following categories:

  • The Way We Live Now
  • Young-Skewing
  • Lower Tariff

I think the latter one means ‘commercial’ and ‘cheap to make’!

Tip-top tip: 20 mins of dialogue a day

Mason Currey has a great blog post about David Milch, writer on NYPD Blue and Deadwood, and his creative processes. It’s well worth reading the whole post, if only for the description of how Milch would dictate his scripts whilst lying on the floor!

However, that bit isn’t my tip-top tip, as fun as I think writing with a room full of people would be. No, the bit I’ve taken to heart is this quote from Milch’s memoir:

For the next five days, find a time each day, preferably the same time, and sit down and write not less than twenty minutes and not more than fifty minutes. Five-zero. Don’t think about it, don’t set it up on the computer, don’t think about what you’re going to write before you do it. No exceptions. This means you. Two voices, one and two. No names. No description. No description. That means no description. Voice one and voice two. The setting—don’t say what the setting is. No description. Write for not less than twenty minutes with those two voices. Just follow, just hear what they say. Not more than fifty minutes. Put it in an envelope, seal the envelope, and shut up. Don’t talk about it. Don’t think about what it means. Don’t think about who they are.

The next day, preferably at the same time, sit down and do it again. They may be the same voices, they may be different voices, don’t worry about it. Whatever comes out is fine. Don’t think about it. Just do it.

I did that four times last week, and it was glorious. Seriously.

I did slightly do it ‘wrong’, in that I had two characters and a scenario for Fieldwork that I wanted to play with, but still, I ended up with over 20 pages of dialogue.

I can’t wait to do it again!

Read this: The Serial Lit Mag Plagiarist

Literary magazines are being plagued by a serial copy-and-paste plagiarist who uses the name John Kucera. Yet most don’t seem to have the tools (or perhaps the interest) in taking basic steps to detect this kind of blatant plagiarism. And despite having been found out and confronted, Kucera doesn’t care:

While it is unlikely that we will ever know the full extent of Kucera’s plagiarism, what makes this case bizarre is that it doesn’t appear to have stopped.

One journal reporter that they received another submission AFTER they had already confronted him about his earlier plagiarisms.

Stop, look, listen: Scriptnotes, E627 – Unbelievably Agentic

I enjoyed this conversation between John August and Aline Brosh McKenna about characters’ agency, in which they discuss, “What are the traps and pitfalls of going after what you want? How do you get people to engage with your protagonist, especially when the protagonist is yourself?”

Character agency has been one of the key challenges in the rewrite of Tag that I’ve been tackling. I hadn’t realised how event driven the plot was – stuff happens, then more stuff happens, then yet more stuff happens. But in order for it to be satisfying there has to be a chain of cause and effect, and the cause has to be a character’s decision to do something. That’s agency.

If your characters aren’t ‘agentic’, if they aren’t driving the story through their decisions and mistakes, give this a listen!

Read this, two: Generating husbands

I loved this post from Holly Gramazio about how she created a webtoy to generate husbands for her new book The Husbands which is, you guessed it, about husbands. You can play with The Husband Generator yourself, but I thought that Holly’s comments about how to generate appealing husbands was fascinating:

the hardest thing about the Husband Generator was coming up with characteristics that felt concrete and fun but also appealing. Adding pets was a godsend, because you can be specific about, say, the breed of dog, or add a cute randomly-generated name, and all of a sudden there’s an idea of who this guy might be. I went through and added a bunch of adjectives about appearance, too, which I didn’t originally have much on; tastes differ, of course, and “symmetrical and willowy” or “dimply and bearded”, say, will work for some, not for others. But at least they’re a potential thing to go “hmmm, maybe?” to.

Lots of jobs, especially concrete jobs where you can imagine what it might be like for someone to do that work; fewer jobs that are “he works in an office doing office stuff” or “he works in a shop doing shop stuff” because they’re so general and widespread that there’s nothing to latch onto.

That’s a quite masterclass in the need for specificity when drawing up a character. It’s no good to have them just working in a shop, you have to have details.

But it’s also a masterclass in marketing. Because now I want to read The Husbands, which I probably wouldn’t even have known existed before.

Argleton: Final chapter up online

Last week saw the last chapter of Argleton go out to everyone who’s subscribe to receive my fiction sub-newsletter. If you like magic realism or urban fantasy and you missed the emails, you can start at the beginning online or download the ebook directly.

I’ll prepare Queen of the May for publication in a few weeks, so if you’re enjoying my fiction, there’s more to come!

Obligatory cat picture

This week we are featuring the marvellous Grace, whose is owned by my friend Louise, who told me this about Grace:

Grace Murray-Hopper started out life in another home, but was poorly and was surrendered to Holly’s Merry Moggies. We adopted her along with another gorgeous girl, Ada Lovelace. Grace is a one year old British Short Hair. She is statuesque in both physical size and personality. Her favourite things are food & treats. She loves face rubs & whilst she isn’t a lap cat she snuggles up to legs most nights. Grace is also very amenable and will happily be walked outside on a cat lead. She is very happy in her new home and we adore her!

Holly Brockwell, who runs Holly’s Merry Moggies, specialises in nurturing ill cats back to health and taking on disabled cats who might otherwise be put to sleep. One of her more famous cats is Smol Paul, who features on her Patreon page. If you have a pound or two spare, please consider helping to save the cats no one else wants.

That’s it for now. See you again in a fortnight!

All the best,

Suw

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How do we survive in an industry that that has commoditised us?

Back at the beginning of 2020, in the Before Times, I finally took the decision to prioritise my writing. My husband had just started studying part time for a master’s degree and I decided that it was high time I finished off a novel that I’d started in 2014. I thought of it as a high concept ‘airport’ novel, the kind of book you’d find in WHSmith at Heathrow.

Unfortunately for me, it was about a terrible pandemic that kicks off in South Wales, is covered up by the government in the early stages thus destroying any hope of mitigation, and which ultimately wipes out 80 per cent of the population. Our plucky heroine uncovers government misdeeds and helps move the community to a local ‘ecotown’ where they can live safely, despite the loss of critical infrastructure. People die. People survive. People fall in love. The end.

Honestly, my timing couldn’t have been worse. If I’d kept up my initial momentum, I could have finished it by 2018, and perhaps might have found a home for it before it became radioactive. Finishing it, as I did in April 2021, was more an act of supreme bloodymindedness than an investment in my future writing career.

But even as I was lamenting my awful timing, I was starting to wonder if I really had left it too late to pivot my career towards writing. And those thoughts have only grown louder as the creative industries become increasingly inimical toward making any sort of a living from writing.

The publishing and TV/film industries have become so dysfunctional that it’s hard to see how the majority of writers will ever earn a respectable wage. Rebecca Jennings has a great article on Vox about the way in which creators of every stripe are expected to do their own marketing and even to have created a big following before they can snag a publishing or record deal.

for people who hope to publish a bestseller or release a hit record, it’s “building a platform” so that execs can use your existing audience to justify the costs of signing a new artist.

Author surveys show writers in the UK and US are earning less than ever, with the median income in the US below poverty level. As Jennings says:

Corporate consolidation and streaming services have depleted artists’ traditional sources of revenue and decimated cultural industries. While Big Tech sites like Spotify claim they’re “democratizing” culture, they instead demand artists engage in double the labor to make a fraction of what they would have made under the old model. That labor amounts to constant self-promotion in the form of cheap trend-following, ever-changing posting strategies, and the nagging feeling that what you are really doing with your time is marketing, not art. Under the tyranny of algorithmic media distribution, artists, authors — anyone whose work concerns itself with what it means to be human — now have to be entrepreneurs, too.

And not everyone wants to do that. I’ve been running my own business since 1998, and I don’t want to have to bring that sensibility to my writing. I don’t like doing ‘promo’ and trying to ‘build a platform’ – I just want to share my writing with people whom I hope will enjoy it. I don’t want to get to a point where I’m spending more time doing marketing than writing. And yet, this is what is in store.

It used to be that success brought fame. Now you need to be famous in order to even get a shot at success. Substack was supposed to be a way out of that double bind, but it isn’t. In her blog post, The creator economy can’t rely on Patreon, Joan Westenberg points out that Patreon and Substack are just flogging Kevin Kelly’s 1,000 True Fans theory from 2008. Westenberg says:

the numbers don’t add up. Data from Patreon and Substack suggests the average conversion rate from follower to paying fan is about 5%. This means a creator would need a total fanbase of 20,000 followers to yield 1,000 paying supporters. And building a core fanbase of 20,000 engaged followers is extremely difficult in today’s crowded creative landscape.

As shown by the sheer volume of ‘how to succeed on Substack’ posts that I see promoted on Notes, we’re all grappling with the same problem. We want to create. We want to be able to develop a liveable income from our work. But the maths just doesn’t math.

In a crowded market, the supply of content creators hoping to profit from their work directly outstrips demand. The number of YouTube channels, podcasts, Substack newsletters, and other independently produced media has exploded. The signal-to-noise ratio is utterly unhinged. Talented creators struggle to stand out and attract an audience, let alone convince fans to pay up regularly.

The creative industries, like so many others, have individualised risk and privatised profits. So even though the creative industries sector contributed £109 billion to the UK economy in 2021 – that’s 5.6 percent of the entire economy – actual creatives go largely underpaid. We have become commodities. Until we are famous, we are entirely fungible. No one likes to think that about themselves, but this is what the industry has done to us.

What do to?

I can only talk about my own decision-making process, so I’d love to hear more from you in the comments about how you’re approaching this, because I think a conversation would be really helpful for lots of people.

I spent much of last spring and early summer thinking that Substack was actually going to be the answer to my prayers, that it might provide me with a stable income, particularly after Notes launched. But growth slowed, and even stalled at times, after the initial Notes bump and I now do not expect to see anything other than very gradual growth. I don’t believe it will provide any sort of useful income in the foreseeable future. That means that I need to recontextualise Substack and find a new place for it in my mental landscape of things that I do.

I enjoy writing my newsletters, and I will continue to write them in the hope that others enjoy reading them. However, they will not figure in my financial plans, whether short-term or long-term. Any income they generate is gravy, it’s not the roast.

Furthermore, despite having only just launched Grist a few months ago, I’m rethinking that as well. The next session is tomorrow but I only have one person signed up, so I have to consider whether it should become a monthly essay instead of an online conversation.

Much of my focus is now on conserving energy so that I have enough to spend on writing and actual paying work. This is about developing a sustainable way to live which pays the bills and leaves me enough space to be creative. I don’t want to have to sacrifice my precious writing time at the altar of building a platform, even if that makes me less attractive to publishers.

Developing a stable income has been top of my list for a while now, and in order to do that, perhaps I have to let go of the dream of having an independent income via Substack and focus on developing my business instead. Maybe I need to make peace with the idea that my writing will always be my 5-9.

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Plus great advice from Matthew Dow Smith, a fun thread from Alex Paterson, Hugos eligibility furore and hopefully the last update on Grabbity’s poorly eyes.

Hi there,

The next Grist webinar will take place on Thursday 8 February at 19:00 GMT, and we’ll be taking a look at Plan Continuation Bias and how you can use that, and other cognitive biases, to help your characters make a jolly old mess of whatever it is they are trying to do. Stay tuned for the Zoom link, which will be sent out to paid subscribers soon!

Opportunity: RLF Fellowship

The Royal Literary Fund is looking for professional writers “with at least two (sole-authored) books published, or professionally produced theatre works performed, or radio/TV scripts broadcast” to work with university students across the UK. Fellows will be available for students two days a week, with an extra half day for admin, prep etc, for 30 weeks, and will be paid £16,000 per year.

The aim of the Fellowships is to “foster good writing practice among students through one-to-one coaching” and develop “student writing skills/academic literacy (rather than on creative self-expression as with the conventional writer’s residency)”.

Read this: The Gathering of the Ghosts

The New York Times has a fascinating piece about a ghostwriting conference that was held in NYC earlier in the month. Ghostwriting is booming, although when describing the state of the industry, ghostwriting agent Madeleine Morel said, “I’ll paraphrase Dickens: It’s the best of times and the worst of times. It’s the best of times because there’s never been so much work out there. It’s the worst of times because it’s become so competitive.”

I have to admit, last year I did think about trying to get into ghostwriting, but it seems like a challenging industry to break into. If you’ve experience with ghostwriting, leave a comment and let us know how you got into it!

Tip-top tip: Be proud

Love this little bit of advice from Matthew Dow Smith on Bluesky and Instagram:

Never put down your own work. Is it perfect? Probably not. It rarely is. But you did something that very few people can do, and you should be proud of that. And you actually made a thing. That is always something to brag about.

Tweet of the week fortnight

Illustrator Alex Paterson is reading Little House on the Prairie with his daughter and decided to illustrate some of the more, uh, interesting incidents described in the book.

On the perennial matter of “we see” and “we hear”

I’m in a few screenwriting Facebook groups, which are almost all completely useless being mostly unproduced writers telling other unproduced writers how to write. One of the things that comes up again and again is whether the phrases “we see” and “we hear” are Against The Rules, or whether, in fact, no one actually cares.

The latest instalment in this long-running drama comes from Reddit, where user Prince Jellyfish decided to take a look at a bunch of award-nominated scripts to see how many of them used “we see” or “we hear”. It probably won’t surprise you to hear that 53 of them did, in fact, use these verboten phrases. Only one did not, and that one was written largely in French.

It seems that, in reality, no one does care.

Cue a lot of unproduced writers telling each other that actually these screenwriters have Broken In, ergo can do what they want and therefore Don’t Count, which is an argument that makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.

Prince Jellyfish also linked to a post by Manfred Lopez Grem, who runs through a list of ways that “we see” can be used to great effect, and who also points out that “Nearly Every Single Screenplay that is up for awards consideration in 2022 / 2023… uses ‘we see.’”

Case closed, you’d think, but this argument is like ones about how to cook steak or whether bicycle helmets work – it’ll never, ever end.

Read this: The Hugos’ eligibility furore

Last year, the science fiction convention WorldCon and the associated Hugo awards were held in Chengdu, China. But a week or so ago, voting totals for the Hugos were released, revealing some strange exclusions. The Guardian’s Amy Hawkins writes:

Recently released documents showed that several works or authors – some with links to China – had been excluded from the ballot despite receiving enough nominations to be included on their respective shortlists. The excluded nominees include Kuang and Xiran, authors who were born in China but are now based in the west.

Concerns have been raised that the authors were targeted for political reasons, connected to the fact that the ruling Chinese Communist party exerts a tight control on all cultural events that take place inside its borders.

No satisfactory explanations have been forthcoming from Dave McCarty, head of the 2023 Hugo awards jury, as to exactly why these and other works were excluded.

However, the next Worldcon will be held in Glasgow in August, and both it and the Hugos are being organised by a different groups of people, who released a reassuring Bluesky thread about their plans for making sure that this year’s Hugos are administered transparently.

Stop, look, listen: The Rest Is Entertainment

I generally shy away from celebrity-led podcasts, but Marina Hyde and Richard Osman’s new podcast, The Rest Is Entertainment, is a really great listen. From how game shows manage their prize money budget to the phone hacking scandal, as well as insights into Richard’s book writing progress, they cover a lot of topics using their years of industry experience to provide insights into why TV, publishing and entertainment works the way it does.

Obligatory cat picture

Grabbity has always loved swiping at post-it notes, but it’s game that requires very fast reflexes.

Hopefully this will be the final Grabbity eye update for a while! After the last newsletter, and a few days after we stopped the steroid drops, Grabbity’s left eye started weeping badly and she was holding it shut, so back to the vet we went. It turned out that she had another corneal ulcer, in a totally different place! It was really quite large, but already showing signs of healing, so we got some antibiotic ointment and went back last Friday to find that it had completely healed. Just a few more days of ointment, then we stop treatment again and hope that this is the end of it all.

Poor Grabbity! It’s been seven months of me faffing with her eyes every day and although she gets treats every time I don’t think that has made up for the discomfort. She has chonked up a little bit too, so I’m going to have to put her on a bit of a diet soon. Maybe after a break, though, so that she can enjoy a little bit of normality first!

Right, that’s it for this week!

All the best,

Suw

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And I don’t mean through binoculars.

Like a lot of self-employed people, I work primarily from home. I became self-employed in 1998, so that’s a long time working on my own. Like a lot of writers, I’m quite a self-contained person. I’m used to living in my head and I enjoy my own company. And although a lot of people might think I’m an extrovert, I’m really quite introverted and I recharge my batteries during quiet, alone time.

The problem with this is that it doesn’t give me much opportunity to observe people doing people-y things, and that reduces the amount of externally-generated inspiration for new characters that I get. Sure, I have a wealth of experience of people – I mean, I haven’t spent the last 26 years living in a cave on a remote mountainside – so I can certainly conjure characters from my own imagination, but drawing from real life adds detail to the pictures my mind can draw.

Towards the end of last year, I started taking improv lessons with the aim of loosening up the slightly rusty nuts and bolts in my brain. It’s been a huge amount of fun and I am definitely beginning to feel more creative and more at ease with my instincts. But it’s also given me an opportunity to watch how other people do improv and how they approach creating a scene. And that has been unexpectedly fascinating!

We all have our quirks, our default ways of thinking. I know that in improv I always go for a conversational approach, whereas others default to disagreement, surrealism, or strange accents. I struggle to mime, because I’m really self-conscious about it, whereas others take to it like a duck to water (you can imagine the mime of that yourself). Some people let their improv partners lead, others have a clear idea of what they think the scene should become and work hard to make sure that they achieve that vision.

All of these quirks act as useful jumping off points for character development. Note that I’m not basing new characters on individual people, but when I see multiple people taking a similar approach, I ask myself, “If this were your first experience of a character’s attitude, how else might you expect them to behave?” It’s a process of taking a particular action or moment and then extrapolating it out.

When I think back to other groups I’ve been a part of, such as the ballroom dance lessons my husband and I took back in Sheboygan, WI, I didn’t get quite the same opportunity to watch how other participants responded to those around them. As you might expect, we all gathered in the hall, changed into our dance shoes, then did what we were told. There was very little opportunity to get to know people, and certainly no opportunity to watch how they might behave in multiple different scenarios over the course of one evening.

I know a lot of folk talk about people-watching in cafes, but I’m not convinced that you get much in the way of depth there, not unless you have extremely sharp ears and the tables are close together. To learn more about people’s characters, you need to be able to engage and actively observe over a period of weeks or months. And that active observation is important – if you’re always focused on throwing pots or drawing or singing, then you’re not free to watch and absorb.

Improv is great for giving you that time because, at least in our group, about half the lesson is sitting and watching other people perform. I suspect that any activity that includes a percentage of unfocused time, such walking clubs, book clubs or local theatre groups, will provide you with a chance to step back and start to build your own mental chap book of behaviours, idiosyncrasies and foibles that you can work into your characters.

So maybe, if you want to up your character game this year, your first step should be to find yourself a club to join or lessons to take?

Next Grist webinar – Plan Continuation Bias

The next Grist webinar will take place on Thursday 8 February at 19:00 GMT, and we’ll be taking a look at Plan Continuation Bias and how you can use that, and other cognitive biases, to help your characters make a jolly old mess of whatever it is they are trying to do. Stay tuned for the Zoom link, which will be sent out to paid Substack subscribers next week!

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Plus yet another article about how broken publishing is, a tip from Cavan Scott, a selection of the finest links, and an update about Grabbity’s eyes.

Hi there,

Happy New Year! We might well be halfway through January already, but 2024 still has that new year smell. I hope that yours is just bursting with creativity and joy!

Suw’s News: Two submissions and it’s not even February yet!

I usually give myself two weeks off over the festive season, but this year I had two submissions due on 8 January which meant I spent most of my second week writing. I can only describe it as a delightful taste of what it might be like to write full time! Honestly, it was lovely.

I got the first 10k words of Tag (the novel) written and revised and submitted to the Discoveries 2024 prize, and the pilot episode of Tag (the script) revised in the light of the changes to the novel and submitted to Thousand Films. The novelisation process has been fascinating. Novels allow you to get into the head of your characters much more deeply than you can in a script, so I’ve been able to look at their motivation and the way they think, and that has helped me to solve a few niggles in the script that previously seemed intractable.

I also had the joy of working with John Rickards again on the novelisation. John edited Queen of the May, and has always just instinctively understood what it is that I’m trying to do. He’s lovely to work with, and if you are looking for an editor, then he’s absolutely the person I’d recommend.

I can’t wait to crack on with the rest of the Tag novelisation process, except I’m going to have to wait because…

Suw’s news, two: Fieldwork update

All other creative writing is officially suspended until Fieldwork is done and submitted to my colleagues as my final deliverable for the I-COMET project. (Well, apart from that research paper draft that we’ve collectively been utterly failing to write, but we’ll just not mention that.) To that end, I’ve made a plan and will let you know how it goes!

Opportunities: BBC Comedy Collective and Cheshire Novel Prize

If you are a scripted comedy writer, producer or director who already has at least one previous credit in any genre, on any platform, then you can apply for the BBC’s Comedy Collective scheme. Ten winners “will receive up to £10k worth of paid shadowing on a BBC Comedy production, along with an allocated production mentor, plus a £5k development grant to put towards new material or to further support the individuals development.”

The deadline is Wednesday 31 January, and there’s more info on how to apply on the BBC website.

If you’re a novelist, then the Cheshire Novel Prize, a “worldwide writing competition for un-agented authors of adult fiction, memoir and fictional memoir”, is now open for submissions. The deadline for entries is 1 May 2024, so you have more than enough time to whip the beginning of your novel into shape.

Each entry costs £29 and you will receive “a page of feedback as to why [your entry was] not long-listed or shortlisted”, which is actually quite a bargain given the cost of a professional development editor. Sponsored places are available, so do not let the cost put you off. Entrants will need to submit the first 5,000 words of their novel, plus a one-page synopsis.

I’ve already got that ready for Tag, now I’m wondering if I could whip something up for Fieldwork too!

Read this: Publishing’s broken, part eleventy billion

Airmail has a fascinating, if depressing, piece about how some young debut authors are getting six-figure book advances, but “nearly all of them are losing money”. Although these huge advances, paired with a New York literary scene that is “buzzier than ever”, seem positive on the surface – they do, after all, seem to indicate huge confidence in new authors and a revived excitement about books – outside of that world the news is less positive. Instead, a tiny minority of books are getting all the sales, opening up a gulf between hype and sales. And that gulf is bad news:

one editor at a legacy publishing house says it feels “like an unsustainable bubble that is going to pop when I see these deals for mid-to-high six figures, or even low seven figures. I know that book is not going to earn out or make money. Any company—it doesn’t matter how big they are—can only take so many of those hits before something goes wrong.”

Are huge advances, then, more a sign of desperation than confidence?

Quick links

The most-rejected books of all time. Topping the list is Dick Wimmer’s Irish Wine which totted up a huge 162 rejections. Honestly, if you haven’t toped 150 rejections, you’re really not trying.

Meta AI chief puts foot in mouth. Meta AI chief scientist, Yann LeCun, suggested that because most authors don’t earn much money, they should just give their books away for free. So Meta AI can steal them, I suppose.

Four things you should know if you’re writing for teens. Samantha Cameron provides some insights into teen psychology for YA authors. Top of the list is that “teens are easily bored”, which reminded me of what author Shelley Parker-Chan said on Bluesky recently:

as a writer I sometimes break out in a cold sweat thinking about my kid and her fellow fifth graders critiquing The Hunger Games as having “kinda a slow start”

Eep.

Tip-top tip: Start with one page

Cavan Scott extolls the virtues of starting small when something feels too big. Even if you only write a page, or a paragraph or a line, Scott says:

even the slightest motion can generate momentum. Yes, you may have to go back and edit what you’ve written, but it’s on paper or the screen. It’s started, and once you’ve started, it’s so much easier to keep going.

That look is Grabbity’s “Why is the tinsel out of reach? I want to eat it” look.

Obligatory cat picture

 

I took Grabbity back to the vet last week to have her eyes checked over again. The good news is that the corneal ulcers have gone and her eyes are starting to heal, so we’re going for a month without any steroidal eyedrops to see what happens. If the ulcers stay away, then we are firmly on the road to recovery. The giant craters and the white deposits, which might be calcium, may never go away completely, but we’re both relieved that nightly eyedrops are no longer a thing.

 

Finally, I’ll crack on with organising the next author webinar and the next Grist sessions, but do bear with me as I finish my year end accounts. I would much rather be writing, but the tax man getteth grumpy if you submit a 500 word synopsis instead of your accounts.

See you in a couple of weeks!

All the best,

Suw

 

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What’s in store for Fieldwork in 2024?

by Suw on January 12, 2024

In which I make a plan for the next year and publicly commit to a deadline. Eek.

In May last year, I broke down the process of writing Fieldwork into four stages:

  1. Background research
  2. Comedy research
  3. Script development
  4. Funding for production

I’ve largely completed Stage 1. Last year, I did ten interviews and picked up a few anecdotes via our online form. I’d have liked to have done more interviews, but I got some really great stuff out of the conversations I did have, so I feel content with that. (Unless you’re an ecologist who would like to talk to me, in which case please get in touch!).

This year is therefore going to be devoted to Stages 2 and 3 and, in a somewhat unprecedented move, I’m planning the first chunk of the year month by month. That plan was in large part prompted by advice from comedian Dave Cohen, who said in a recent newsletter:

If I’m entering that BBC Writersroom competition in Q4 I’ll want a good third draft or so by the end of Q3. Have had some kind of professional feedback and be working on rewrites after that. In which case I’ll want to have completed the first draft by the end of Q2. That gives me Q1 to thoroughly work on the idea, Q2 to write it.

To help me keep to my schedule, I’ve signed up to Dave’s From Zero to First Draft in 8 Weeks course, which starts on 19 April and walks participants through the development and writing of a pilot half-hour sitcom or comedy drama. Although the aim for this project was to produce a script for a 10-15 minute short film, I’m not going to look a gift half-hour script in the mouth!

Working with someone as experienced as Dave will also help me to produce the best work I can, the first step of which is to produce something terrible. I’ll be happy to do that, though, because I’ll know that Dave will pull me up on anything that’s not good enough and make me work harder.

I’m pretty bad at writing without deadlines, so having both the BBC Writersroom open call deadline on the horizon and having to prep/write stuff on a weekly basis from April to June will be a huge help. To support that process, I’ve had a think about what my timetable will have to be:

  • January: Read through existing transcripts; do some more background reading and research on comedy.
  • February: Continue reading; begin character work; write two vignettes to test out how those characters respond to plot.
  • March: Continue character work; write two more vignettes.
  • April: Begin Dave’s course; work on basics of the idea; develop themes and hone basics.
  • May: Develop characters further; outline plot ideas; outline script.
  • June: Write pilot; incorporate feedback; refine pilot.
  • July: Write short film based on pilot; refine pilot; submit both to colleagues as final deliverable on iCOMET project. Discuss ways to take project forward.
  • August to December: Continue refining pilot; submit to BBC Writers room; continue to explore funding opportunities and open script calls. Assess opportunities to turn into radio play or podcast.

I’m also going to commit to writing at least one post here a month to update you all on my progress.

In addition to all of that, or in support of it perhaps, I have amassed a fairly large reading list that I’d like to get through, including:

And along with all that, I’m continuing my improv lessons, which have turned out to be ridiculous amounts of fun. I can feel them already loosing up the nuts and bolts in my brain and helping me to develop my comedic instincts. Before Christmas I had an absolute cracker of a scene about having never been to visit Santa Claus in his grotto, so I’m starting to believe that I might actually be quite good at it. Wednesday evenings have definitely become the highlight of my week!

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What can you do less of in 2024?

by Suw on January 10, 2024

Sometimes we should resolve not to add more to our lives, but to make space by taking things away.

I am not a fan of New Year’s resolutions. I used to make them, but I rarely kept them. The New Year, falling as it does in the middle of winter, season of damp grey days and not enough sunlight, is not a good time for me to be trying to do something new. It can be a struggle just to get through the day in one piece without adding the extra weight of a resolution to my shoulders.

So I was rather pleased to see a couple of articles doing the rounds this year that question the validity of two aspects to New Year’s resolutions that I find most difficult to deal with: Adding more to our plate and perfectionism.

Tim Harford in the Financial Times tackles the premise that our resolutions usually add new activities to our lives when we should really take a moment to asses what our lives are already full of and search for something we can take away. He discusses “subtraction neglect”, where we will generally try to solve a problem by adding something rather than removing it. We’ll try to improve a recipe by adding ingredients or fix a wonky Lego bridge by adding a block rather than taking anything away.

But the devil is always in the details and Harford has found it hard to know what to take away from his life:

as I pondered my weekly commitments and the list of things I was hoping to achieve over the next three months, I struggled. What could I subtract? I wanted to do all of it.

Even asking Leidy Klotz, author of Subtract: The Untapped Science of Less, for advice didn’t help.

Klotz suggested an experiment, which he calls a “reverse pilot”. Unlike a regular pilot, in which you temporarily try something new, a reverse pilot calls for temporary subtraction. Just stop doing something for a bit, wrote Klotz, and see what happens. “Sometimes there is no way to know for sure what the outcome will be from removing something.”

Fair enough. Although I still couldn’t work out what to subtract from my life. Exercise less? Nope. See less of the children? They might want that, but it hardly felt like a noble plan. Less culture, less music, see friends less often?

Harford jokingly concludes that perhaps he should just work less, which I actually do think is a good answer. We have a lot of evidence that four day weeks – that is, proper four day weeks not pretend ones where you have to cram a full week’s work into less time – are highly beneficial, increasing productivity, reducing burnout and improving wellbeing. So actually, reducing work is a legitimate answer, even though Harford can’t quite bring himself to admit that.

But something else to consider reducing is perfectionism.

I will admit, I am a bit of a perfectionist. I want to put my very best work out into the world, whether that’s a newsletter or a book or Ada Lovelace Day Live. I will sweat the details. But actually, maybe, some of those details don’t matter?

Not every task is created equal and there are some areas where things do not have to be perfect, they just have to be good enough. Indeed, most things can just be good enough. That’s Sophie McBain’s argument in The Guardian and, as a recovering perfectionist, it’s one that I need to take to heart.

Psychologist Barry Schwartz suggests that there are two responses when faced with endless choice:

“Satisficers” are happy to pick a good enough option and are unlikely to spend their free time reading hundreds of product reviews, but “maximisers” feel compelled to make the best possible choice. This means the more choices they are offered, the worse off they are: an expansion of possibilities makes decision-making harder and regret the more likely outcome.

McBain points out that we talk about so much of our lives in maximiser terms, and perhaps we should rein that in and allow ourselves to be content with good enough.

How much energy do we waste on trying to close that gap between good enough and perfect? How much additional time does that take? What if we just admitted to ourselves, as Oliver Burkeman says, “we’ve already failed, totally and irredeemably.” Wouldn’t that give us so much more freedom to be good enough and to do other things with the time and energy we waste on trying to be perfect?

Burkeman goes on to say:

Behind our more strenuous attempts at personal change, there’s almost always the desire for a feeling of control. We want to lever ourselves into a position of dominance over our lives, so that we might finally feel secure and in charge, and no longer so vulnerable to events. But whichever way you look at it, this kind of control is an illusion.

New Year’s resolutions are the epitome of this. Every year, we try to assert more control over our lives so that we can feel better about them. Instead, we should let that go, accept that much of what we want to achieve is actually outside of our control, and look at finding ways to enjoy the process instead.

This is especially true of creative work where we are so often hostages to fortune. We could write the best book in the world, but if the time isn’t right then it won’t be published. Equally, if we’re lucky enough to hit the zeitgeist, then a book that’s just good enough can do real numbers. Neither outcome is within our control.

So this year, before we try to come up with some New Year’s resolutions, before we start outlining all our goals, perhaps we should have a think about what we could do less of instead. How can we practice being a satisficer? Where can we let go of our perfectionism? How do we identify which activities aren’t helping us and do less of them, in favour of doing thing that help us achieve what’s important to us and make us happier?

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Plus an online kerfuffle illustrates why publishers and agents should do more to support debut authors, and young Grabbity under a Christmas tree.

Hi there,

The festive season is truly upon us, which means that there is a four day weekend in the offing for us Brits. I’m taking a couple of weeks off to recharge and recuperate, a break that is sorely needed. At this point in the year, I’m so tired I can barely spell my own name and we really don’t want a repeat of what happened the last time I made that mistake.

If you find yourself at a loose end over Christmas, why not take a look at some of my fiction or essays? You can read my short story, The Lacemaker, or my novella The Gates of Balawat, which are both available in full and for free. And my first self-published novella, Argleton, is currently about halfway through, although there are free ebook downloads for all three if you prefer!

Read this: Best SFF books of the year

I don’t read enough to put together my own list, so I like it when I find one that, top to toe, looks interesting to me. It doesn’t happen very often, but The New York Times’ list of the best fantasy and science fiction of the year includes one of my favourites, Nick Harkaway’s Titanium Noir. Obviously reviewer Amal El-Mohtar’s taste at least slightly overlaps with mine! Pretty much all the books mentioned sound fabulous, so I now have a much longer TBR list for 2024.

Don’t forget that if you’re searching for more good books, take a look at the Word Count Bookshop.org list, which features all the books and authors that I’ve mentioned in this newsletter over the last 10 months.

Read this, two: British indie bookshops blossoming

I loved this piece by Nell Card in The Guardian about six independent British bookshops that are doing well. We hear so much bad news out of the publishing industry that it’s delightful to hear some good news for a change.

What I find interesting is how important it is for a bookshop to find the right niche. The new ones started because the owner had a vision, and the people who took over existing shops reinvigorated their stock list based on serving a very specific community. It’s a good example of how you can thrive if you commit to the ‘passion economy’.

Tip-top tips: Lucy Werner’s book launch blueprint

If you have a book launch coming up, do yourself a favour and read Lucy Werner’s blueprint for ideas on on how to do it. Although Lucy focuses on non-fiction book launches, much of what she suggests would also be useful for fiction.

I particularly like this sage advice, which is relevant for everyone who has ever written anything:

Contrary to popular belief, the success of your book is not based just on the first six months. There is heaps of pressure from everyone to go big and hard in the run-up to your book launch.

Why do we push heavily for the first three months for the marketing department to call that box ticked and move on to the next one?

I find this way of promotion incredibly archaic and stress-inducing.

Pace yourself and go long. I still sell books today, years later, because I’m not burnt out from heavy launches.

Read this, three: Latest online kerfuffle shows how debut writers need more support from their agents and publishers

A debut author, whose book was due to come out next year, has been caught review-bombing other authors whose book launches are also slated for next year. Courtney Maum, after a brief summary of events, has written a very thoughtful piece about how debut authors are let down by the publishing industry, which entirely fails to prepare them for what’s coming.

In most professions in the world—but certainly in America—when you get a job, you are given either an initiation (sometimes called “onboarding”) and/or a code of conduct to sign. An instruction manual to your new job, if you will. […]

Job preparation is a kindness. It’s a kindness to the hire, it’s a kindness to the hire’s colleagues. […]

But when you are an author who gets a book deal, there is no instruction manual. There’s no onboarding document. There’s not a formal initiation period— there’s just a book contract and the assumption (which is a naive one) from your editor and agent that you know what to do now; that you know how to behave.

The publishing industry really does need to do better. Maum has written a book, Before and After The Book Deal, which aims to help early career authors navigate this difficult period, so the information is out there in a digestible form. There’s no reason why agents and publishers couldn’t do a better job of author prep – the could just buy every author a copy of Maum’s book.

Obligatory cat picture

Christmas Day, 2009. Grabbity and Mewton were just seven months old and experiencing their first festive season. We spent Christmas with my parents, taking the cats with us so that they could stay there whilst we hopped off to Lanzarote for a week around New Year’s. Grabbity took the best spot under the Christmas tree so that she could keep an eye on everything that was going on.

I’ll note that since this photo was taken, Grabbity has developed a bit of a passion for eating tinsel. She loves the stuff, and we have seen sparkly poo and vomit on more than one occasion. Now, we use just one or two garlands of tinsel at the very top of the tree where she can’t get at it, and she remains livid about that for the entire time the tree is up.

Honestly, if you can find a life partner who looks at you the way Grabbity looks at tinsel, you’ve got it made.

That’s it for this year! Whatever you are doing over the festive period, I hope you have a restful and enjoyable time.

See you again in 2024!

All the best,

Suw

 

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A little bit of housekeeping before we get cracking on this week’s post: I’m taking a break over Christmas, so my next newsletter will arrive in your inbox on 10 January. 

If you find yourself at a loose end over Christmas, why not take a look at some of my fiction or essays over at Word Count? You can read my short story, The Lacemaker, or my novella The Gates of Balawat, which are both available in full and for free. And my first self-published novella, Argleton, is currently about halfway through, although there are free ebook downloads for all three if you prefer!

I hope that whatever your plans are, you have a restful and enjoyable festive period! 


You have to define your own relationship with hard work and success if you want to be a happy writer.

Hard work leads to success.

I’ve seen this myth doing the rounds in recent weeks and I wanted to examine it in a bit more detail, because there isn’t a direct correlation between the two and it can be incredibly demotivating if you feel that you’re working really very hard, but not seeing the kind of success you were hoping for.

But before I get into the meat of this post, it might be helpful to spend a moment asking what we mean by ‘hard work’ and ‘success’. Perhaps ‘hard work’ is easier to define, particularly if we are thinking in ‘sweat of the brow’ terms. Hard work is spending time, energy and potentially money on doing something to the best of one’s ability and actively working to improve one skills through study, training and practice.

Defining ‘success’ is tricker because it’s much more personal. Success for writers is most often thought of in objective terms, such as the ability to earn a living, getting traditionally published, winning an award or becoming a best-seller. For many people, I suspect that success is most of those things – at the very least, we want to get published (or self-publish) and earn a nice, comfortable living from our writing. In my opinion, that level of ambition is healthy.

Other people define success more subjectively, focusing more on how they feel about their work and how other people relate to it. Maybe they are writing to make themselves happy and don’t care about money or other people’s opinions. Or maybe they are writing for a small audience that they aren’t interested in growing, or their writing is an exercise is self-reflection and self-knowledge, or even a form of therapy, and success is based on how their feelings about themselves evolve.

But in both the British and American traditions, and no doubt others with which I am less familiar, we have a very long-standing folk tale that says hard work leads to success. Put the hours in and you’ll be (objectively) successful. It sounds sensible. For some, it’s incontrovertible. But it’s a truthy lie. Life has never been this simple and there isn’t a linear relationship between ‘hard work’ and ‘success’.

We can point to many examples of people who worked hard and ended up successful, but when we do, we’re suffering from survivorship bias: we’re ignoring the vast number cases where people either work hard and fail or don’t work hard but end up successful anyway. We only focus on the positive case studies because those are the ones that confirm our expectations and make us feel better about our chances.

However, there are factors that affect success, both positive and negative, which are largely outside of our control. Some things make success easier, though before anyone gets on their high horse in the comments, I’m not saying that people who’ve enjoyed these things never work hard, just that when they do, their hard work is more likely to lead to objective success. These things can include:

  • Family capital. There’s evidence that girls born into families with one or more parent in STEM are more likely to go into STEM themselves, despite it being male-dominated. The same is true with publishing. Those born into families where one or more family members are already published authors have the advantage of seeing how the sausage is made from an early age, learning its ins and outs, and being able to lean on parental networks.
  • Wealth. Those born into, who marry into, or who work their way into wealth have the financial security and resources to invest in their writing career.
  • Fame. If you secure fame in another field, then publishers will fall over themselves to publish your work because familiar names sell well regardless of the quality of the writing.
  • Established expertise. If you’re an authority on something and want to write a book about it, that’s going to be an easier sell to both audience and publishers than if you’re coming at it cold.

Some things that make success harder:

  • Structural prejudice. Sad to say, but sexism, racism, homophobia and other prejudices still exist in the world and affect not just people’s chances of finding an agent and getting published, but their ability to actually write in the first place. Women, for example, still do the vast majority of caring work, whether for children or elders, which affects their ability to find time to write. People of colour have to work twice as hard to prove themselves due to structural racism. And so on.
  • Disability and chronic illness. People with disabilities or chronic illness don’t necessarily have the same levels of energy that people without disabilities have, and managing their conditions can involve devoting a lot of time to treatment and medical appointments that would otherwise be open for writing.
  • Socioeconomic challenges. If you’re working two or three jobs to make ends meet, how are you going to find time to write? Financial instability especially makes it hard to write, not just because of the time taken up by low-paying jobs but because precarity focuses the mind on survival, not on stories.

I’m not going for exhaustive lists here, but rather I’m trying to illustrate that there are many things that can affect how much time and effort any given person can realistically devote to the ‘hard work’ that is assumed to lead to success. People facing systemic barriers have to work much much harder to reach the same level of success.

You’ll see missing from those lists any notion of ‘talent’, because talent alone won’t make you successful and nor will a lack of talent prevent success. We all know talented writers who haven’t made it, and we’ve all read successful books the quality of which points towards a total lack of talent. Talent’s not a predictor of success, just as hard work isn’t. Sure it helps, but it’s not a guarantee.

Love the process and work towards your own goals

With objective success impossible to guarantee, perhaps we should focus on subjective success. How can we come to a point of feeling satisfied with our progress?

Love the process.

I personally believe that the only surefire route to subjective success is to love what you do. Love writing. Love rewriting. Love editing. Love sending your stuff out to agents or self-publishing or putting your book away in a drawer unread by other eyes. Whatever you choose to do with your writing is a legitimate choice, and if you are doing what you want to do, then you’re successful on your own terms.

And your own terms are what counts. We are on this Earth for a short time and we should spend as much time as possible doing things that bring us joy. If writing brings you joy, if you’d write regardless, then you’re on your way to subjective success.

Find ways to support your writing habit.

Writing hardly ever pays well, with the vast majority of writers who reply to surveys in the US and UK earning a pittance, and certainly not enough to retire on. We all hope we’ll be the exception that proves the rule, that we’ll win the writing lottery, but all we can do is hope. We cannot rely on that dream coming true. So structure your life so that you can write and write happily.

Understand your own goals. 

Knowing what you really want, and how you can work towards it, is crucial. If you accept that objective success is a lottery, then that frees you up to think about what makes you happy and you can focus on that instead. If the publishing contract or self-publishing success and some money comes along, then great, but what would make that irrelevant to your wellbeing?

Accept reality.

All this involves making peace with unpredictability and with the idea that the kind of objective success you want may not ever arrive. This is, in my opinion and experience, the hardest thing to do. It’s so very easy to visualise the kind of writing life that we want, that we are striving towards. But if we pin our hopes on that happening, then we are borrowing trouble.

This doesn’t mean we stop trying or abandon ambition, but that we situate our effort and ambition in a realistic context and don’t make our happiness or self-worth contingent on things that are outside of our control. Do not make yourself a hostage to fortune.

Forgive yourself.

All of the above is difficult, and made more so by people who have tied their self-worth to superstitious ideas about hard work and success and who want to impose that view point on others in order to support their own self-image. And it’s certainly made no easier by companies whose entire raison d’être is to sell you the creative dream of financial independence and 1,000 True Fans. Substack, Ko-fi, Patreon, Kickstarter, Indiegogo and the rest. None of these platforms can guarantee any form of success, although their marketing wants you to believe otherwise.

Give yourself some leeway, cut yourself some slack, and forgive yourself if things don’t work out the way you want them to.

It’s the journey, not the destination

I write because I have to. I’m driven to. I’m a happier person when I’m writing. I will write whether I’m objectively successful or not, because simply finishing a piece of writing brings me joy. Bonus points if someone reads it and likes it. But if I don’t get these ideas and stories out of my head, if I don’t write, I feel attenuated, like I’m only half the person I ought to be.

To be my full, real self, I have to write.

Accepting that objective success is outside of my control is extremely hard and to be honest it has taken me years, but doing so (or at least, moving towards that goal) has allowed me to think about how I fit writing into my life and what I need to do to to continue. That plan is still a work in progress, but I feel like letting go of the desperate yearning for financial success through writing alone means I’m more likely to earn a living via other kinds of work that will allow me to write more consistently.

Perhaps one day I will win the writing lottery and earn a comfortable living from it, but I’m not putting all my eggs in that basket. Instead, I’m focused on crafting a life that both earns me the money I need to live and gives me the time and headspace I need to write. It’s not easy, but I’m getting there.

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Word Count 64: Katherine May on boundaries, Julian Simpson on how to write action sequences

December 5, 2023

Plus James Capel’s end of year round-up, Word Count’s book list, and Copurrnicus watching some dolphins. Hi there, Bit of a short email this week because technically I’m on holiday. My husband had a bit of time to use up before the year end, so I’m taking a week off to lounge about, sew, and […]

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Three books to kickstart your writing

November 29, 2023

Develop your craft faster with some good advice about structure, story and character. Years ago – nay, indeed, lifetimes ago – I worked in an admin role at a popular music school that taught guitar, bass guitar, drums, keyboards and vocals to predominantly young men (though there were more women taking the vocals courses). I […]

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Word Count 63: Draft Zero’s ‘game of the scene’, Michael Marshall Smith on writing for TV

November 21, 2023

Plus resilience, Dan Sinykin’s Big Fiction, Warner Bros. Discovery’s Zaslav dicking about, and birthday boy Copurrnicus on a treadmill. Hi there, As I’m sitting here on a lovely, sunny day, gazing out of my office at the robin perched in our apple tree, I’m feeling really rather chirpy. Perhaps it’s down to having had a […]

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What does it really mean to be resilient?

November 15, 2023

The very first Grist session will be held on Monday 27 November at 19:00 GMT, and we’ll spend the hour talking about the ‘emotional wheel’ and Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi’s The Emotion Thesaurus. If you’d like to come along, upgrade to paid on Substack and you’ll get an email with the details of how to […]

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Fieldwork: Adding improv to the mix

November 14, 2023

What do you do to get yourself back in the game after an enforced break from a creative project? It’s been a while since I last wrote about Fieldwork, the short film script I’m writing for the i-COMET project, largely because over the summer I was either interviewing ecologists or checking their transcriptions, which isn’t […]

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