It’s just utterly boggling my mind, all the weird concern trolling and catastrophising that people are doing about the new Labour gov’t. Not just from Tories either – most of what I’m seeing is from people I know to be left-leaning. Concerns no one had about the last Tory landslide are suddenly common currency.

Firstly, when did was start expecting a gov’t to ‘win hearts and minds’ as well as a majority? Did the Tories win hearts and minds in 2019? 2017? 2015? 2010? Did Blair in 2005 or 2001? People were excited in 1997… but hearts and minds? Really?

We elect a political party into government. We aren’t selecting a life partner, we’re getting on a political bus that’s going in roughly the right direction. Some of us hope that perhaps we can help steer it a little by being politically engaged; most just sit at the back and get on with their lives.

No one has ever expected a government to win hearts and minds before, and no one should. That’s populist bullshit that belongs in the bin. We have voted, Labour have won, now we judge them on their actions, not whether we’re in love with them or not.  They don’t have to be perfect and, indeed, how can they be perfect? Everyone’s idea of a perfect government is different, so expecting perfection or purity is unrealistic and perpetuates negative thinking. I want competent, and so far that’s what Labour has been.

Next. When did vote share suddenly become important? Because again, no one cared about vote share in any of the last 7 elections that I remember. And guess what? Vote share doesn’t matter, especially not in this election.

People vote according not just to their preferences, but the system they know they are in, and their feelings about the way things are swinging. The narrative in the final weeks of this very overtly FPTP election was that Labour were on their way to a ’supermajority’, known the UK as just a majority because the word ‘supermajority’ is meaningless propaganda.

But the propaganda worked – people felt empowered to protest vote not just against the Tories but also against Labour, having fallen for the story that both parties are the same. (That particular piece of propaganda comes largely from the far left, from what I’ve seen, but I dare you to look at Starmer’s Cabinet and his first actions in office and tell me that Labour are the same as the Tories. They are palpably not.)

In FPTP, people can protest vote knowing that it probably won’t make a difference. In fact, this knowledge is so baked in to our national voting psyche that a lot of people protest voted against Cameron in the Brexit referendum, thinking their vote didn’t matter. (Except it really did, that one bloody time.)

When people are angry, they protest vote. People are, currently, very rightly very angry. They have protest voted. Would they have voted the same way had the race been tight? Maybe not, though we’ll never know.

Furthermore: tactical voting. Because there were Tory seats where the Lib Dems had perhaps a slightly higher chance of winning than Labour, people were encouraged to vote tactically. The Lib Dems ended up gaining an additional 64 seats and now total 72, the best result for them in 100 years so it would seem that the tactical voting worked.

And we do need to talk about turn out. At 60% it was the lowest since 2001. Again, how much of that was Labour voters not bothering because they were (correctly, as it turns out) sure that a Labour win was inevitable? I certainly heard from people on the ground that Labour turnout was low, but would like to see actual evidence about that.

All of this — protest voting, tactical voting and a potentially low Labour turnout — means we can’t read anything significant into the vote share. It absolutely cannot be taken to mean that Labour doesn’t have a true mandate, or that their win is somehow fragile. They’ve got a majority of 172, and they got a majority in every nation, which is about a solid of a mandate as it gets.

This all brings me on to proportional representation. Is it a fairer system? Yes. Does this election’s vote share tell us anything about how many seats parties would have won under some form of PR? No. No, it absolutely doesn’t, because people vote understanding the system they are voting in, and they may well have voted differently under a PR system.

The fact that Reform got 4m votes says nothing about how many votes they’d get under PR, as people who voted Reform to kick the Tories in the teeth on Thursday might not take the risk if they knew their vote mattered in a PR system.

We don’t have an alternative world in which we can re-run Thursday’s election under PR in order to see what would have happened. Personally, I would like PR, but I don’t think it’s an important priority when there are so many more serious things to fix first.

I am confused, though, as to why so many people are now concerned about FPTP vs PR, when no one gave a shite after Johnson’s 80 seat majority. Why is a Labour majority so threatening, even to left-leaning people, that PR has now floated to the top of people’s minds? Genuine question, I really don’t know the answer.

Finally, for this thread at least, why are so many on the left wallowing in foreboding joy? Brené Brown defines ‘foreboding joy’ as that feeling of needing to plan for disaster when we start to feel joy. You could also call it castastrophising or imagining the worst, though some of it is certainly anti-Starmer concern trolling.

But just look at who Starmer’s appointed to his Cabinet and advisory roles. Not only is it incredibly diverse, there’s not a single Eton grad: Louise Haigh (Sheffield High School) and Anneliese Dodds (Robert Gordon’s College in Aberdeen) went to non-elite private schools that fall more in the ‘aspirational middle class’ schools bracket.

Hilary Benn is possibly the most privileged appointment, having gone to two prep schools, but then a comp and the Uni of Sussex. He has been MP for Leeds, so knows the urban North.

Angela Rayner grew up on a council estate, left school pregnant and trained in social care. Rachel Reeves, the chancellor, worked as an economist. David Lammy’s mother raised him alone and he was the first black Briton to study a master’s in law at Harvard.

Starmer is also leaning heavily on expertise: Sir Patrick Vallance, an actual scientist, is science minister. James Timpson, whose Timpson’s key cutting and cobbling business employs ex-offenders and care leavers, is prisons minister. Human rights lawyer Richard Hermer KC is attorney general.

Then let’s look at Labour’s first actions in government: They’ve scrapped the horrendous Rwanda scheme and Streeting has already arranged to go into pay talks with the junior doctors to try to avert a strike. And they haven’t even had a full working day in office yet.

Starmer’s first press conference as PM yesterday was also a breath of fresh air. Calm, self-assured, friendly and polite, Starmer spoke in clear and complete sentences, with no waffle or bluster. The media’s going to have a hard time adjusting to that, I suspect.

So maybe it’s time to set aside all that catastrophism and foreboding joy. Maybe we should give Labour a chance to get their feet under the table, after all, parliament doesn’t even return until 17 July. Let’s stop expecting either perfection or disaster and reacquaint ourselves with both compromise and participative democracy.

I think we’ve all disengaged from our politics over the last 14 years, so perhaps now would be a good time to remind ourselves how to contact our local MPs and what political engagement looks like. Perhaps we can start with a clearer understanding of Labour’s manifesto https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/articles/cml2en8xlxko and remind ourselves that https://www.writetothem.com/ exists.

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Writer’s block is not a myth

by Suw on June 12, 2024

It might be a messy, complicated thing with a variety of causes and potential solutions, but it absolutely does exist.

It’s been a busy couple of weeks since my last newsletter. I finished the first draft of Fieldwork, my half-hour sitcom pilot script, and wrote about how much prep went into it, compared to the 8 hours and 41 minutes it took to write. And there’s been a lot going on with the day job, which is all to say that when I came to write this week’s newsletter, I really wasn’t sure what to write it about.

I eventually found myself searching for “myths about writer’s block”, as I thought that might be a good topic. Imagine my surprise when Google served up several pieces asserting that writer’s block simply doesn’t exist. Some of the people making these assertions are professors. Others are writers. All of them should know better.

Some reject the whole premise outright and say that it’s just an excuse to not write. Others reject the term but recognise the concept and prefer different words to describe the same thing. Some reject the term, reject the concept, then go on to talk about something that looks suspiciously like… writer’s block. One particularly harsh take was that anyone who has writer’s block isn’t even a writer.

Yet all these “writer’s block is a myth” posts still managed to make suggestions for how people should tackle writer’s block, usually by suggesting that the afflicted should just put their heads down and write anyway. Which, to my mind, somewhat misunderstands the whole problem. (Forcing yourself to write can be a solution, but there are many others activities that can also help.)

So I’m here to say that writer’s block, as in “the inability to begin or continue writing for reasons other than a lack of basic skill or commitment”, as writing expert Mike Rose put it, exists.

I say that it exists partly because I’ve experienced it, partly because I know lots of other people have experienced it, but mostly because academics have studied it, and it’s notoriously difficult to study something that doesn’t exist. And there’s even a test for “writer’s apprehension”, which is a slightly different way to think of and describe writer’s block.

(Before you rush off and take it, though, it’s aimed at students and not at professional writers so fairly useless outside of the academic experience. Apparently my score shows a “troublesome […] lack of apprehension” and whilst I “do not fear writing or evaluation of writing”, I “may not be adequately motivated to work on [my] writing”.  Hilarious.)

Reading these posts, which I’m not going to link to because I don’t want to give them oxygen, has made me rather cross. They display not just a lack of empathy for others but also the arrogance to think that their experience is the only valid experience. Yay, well done that you don’t experience writer’s block, but many people do, whether briefly or over the long term, and it’s a really frustrating and miserable experience.

What is true is that writer’s block is an umbrella term for a number of different issues which all result in someone not writing when they really want to or have to. These various causes, as I wrote last month, fall into four categories:

  • Physiological causes: Stress, anxiety, extreme emotional states such as grief, mental or physical health issues, and exhaustion.
  • Motivational causes: Fear of criticism, performance anxiety, and lack of enjoyment.
  • Cognitive causes: Perfectionism, problems associated with over-planning or under-planning, and rigid thinking, such as forcing a story to move in a certain direction.
  • Behavioural causes: Procrastination, interruptions to writing, and being too busy to write.

And because human beings are messy, some people may find that they experience a combination of problems that fall into more than one category. And because of this, solutions may not be as simple as just pushing through and forcing oneself to write (although that can work in some cases). Some people might need to peel back the onion layers of their block’s causes and work through multiple solutions over a period of time before they reach a place of comfort and confidence in their writing abilities.

Writer’s block is a symptom with multiple physiological, motivational, cognitive or behavioural causes, not a cause itself. If I am stressed, then that causes writer’s block. It’s not that I’ve got writer’s block therefore I can’t write.

That would be like saying runny noses cause colds. There are over 200 different viruses that can cause a cold. Those viruses inflame the mucous membranes in the nose and throat, at which point our nose turns into Niagara Falls. But if we don’t have the virus, we don’t have a cold.

The direction of causality here is important. If you think some sort of nebulous undefined ‘block’ thingie is the cause of an inability to write, then of course you’re going to look at the whole idea suspiciously, because you’re not understanding causality properly. If you don’t understand lift, flight look like magic.

No one, however, is served by these high-handed dismissals of what is actually a fairly widespread and well-studied experience. Indeed, if you come across anyone who rejects the idea of writer’s block, send them my way. I have some choice words for them.


Meanwhile, what is your experience of writer’s block? Are you suffering from it now? Have you had one or more bouts of short-term block that lasted a few weeks or days? Or have you experienced a longer term block that lasted months or years? Let me know in the poll on Substack.

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Plus some more publishing industry angst and a detailed rebuttal.

Hi there,

At the end of the last newsletter, I promised to share my excess links on Substack Notes or Bluesky. Well, that was two weeks ago, and I’m afraid I got a bit busy. That’s probably a good thing, because I was so busy that I’ve not been doing my usual reading and listening and am a bit short of stories this week. This newsletter might be a bit lighter on links than usual, but as I was the right kind of busy, I hope you won’t mind.

Suw’s News: Writing has begun on Fieldwork

One of the core things I’ve learnt over my 26 years as a self-employed person is that if I don’t track my hours, I either don’t work enough or work too much. So it’s with some significant confidence that I can tell you I have spent at least 332 hours on Fieldwork before getting to the point of actually starting to write the thing.

But writing has now begun! I’m a third of the way through the first draft and I’ve two days to finish the rest of it before I send it off to Dave Cohen for feedback. Next week will be spent redrafting it for a final round of feedback before it’s technically “done”, in so far as this course with Dave is concerned. It will, obviously, not be done done.

In the following weeks, I have to rework it into a 10 minute short, which was the original plan, and a 30 minute podcast script, which is the current plan. The podcast version is going to be interesting, because I don’t think in audio, I think in pictures, so I have lots to learn about writing for radio.

Opportunity: Short story competition for USians

Four Walls whiskey is offering a total prize pool of $44,444.44 for “the best bar stories”. Five writers will win $4,000 each, with another 40 finalists getting over $600 each (by my calculations, it’ll be $611.11). The competition is only open to people over 21 who are living in the USA and the deadline is 23:59 on 14 June.

Four Walls is a new whiskey brand created by writer, actor and businessman Rob McElhenney, along with Glenn Howerton and Charlie Day, co-creators of their long-running bar-based sitcom, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. McElhenney also owns a bar in Philly, Mac’s Tavern, and Four Walls sponsors another of McElhenney’s businesses, Wrexham AFC.

There’s a whole thing here about portfolio careers that’s tickling in the back of my head, but I’ll have to write about that another day.

Tip-top tip: How to take general meetings

If you’re a screenwriter, you might get lucky enough to be invited to a general meeting to discuss… things… with a producer. But what is a general meeting, and what kinds of things get discussed?

Script consultant Philip Shelley has published a very useful guide to general meetings by producer Jamie Hewitt, with some great tips for how to prepare and what to expect.

Read these: Debuts fail to launch… or do they?

Kate Dwyer, writing for Esquire, argues that debut novels are largely failing to launch, creating a crisis for publishers. She says:

For writers, the stakes are do or die: A debut sets the bar for each of their subsequent books, so their debut advance and sales performance can follow them for the rest of their career. For editors, if a writer’s first book doesn’t perform, it’s hard to make a financial case for acquiring that writer’s second book.

Dwyer puts this largely down to the collapse in promotional opportunities for book publicists, and the need for authors to develop parasocial relationships with their readers — their readers need to feel that they know you as a person, not just as an author. But it’s become harder to do that:

the social-media landscape has changed in a way that disadvantages unknown novelists specifically, more so than first-time nonfiction writers.

Solutions appear to be hobnobbing at industry events, having the money to hire your own publicist, get lots of already or soon-to-be influential friends, and build your own community. Easy!

Industry insider Kathleen Schmidt has published a fairly detailed take-down of the Esquire piece, saying:

If this were true, hardly any debuts would be published. First, it is not a given that your book will sell like crazy if it is chosen for a major book club. The sales figures for Reese’s Book Club, Oprah’s Book Club, Reading with Jenna, and GMA’s Book Club wildly fluctuate.

She also refutes a lot more Dwyer’s points, but I particularly liked this line as a positive thing to take away from this latest paroxysm of publishing angst:

Book publishing is a long game.

Indeed it is. As with many things, overnight success often takes years.

It’s well worth reading Schmidt’s piece, even if you don’t read the Esquire one first, because in amongst the rebuttals there’s some useful advice as well.

For me, Dwyer’s piece, and all the pieces that have run along the same lines recently, are a sign of a widespread anxiety about the state of our cultural industries, in America especially.

Truth is, authors are finding it harder to make a living writing, and both success and wealth are concentrated in an ever decreasing number of hands. We’re seeing a decrease in the diversity of voices able to crack a cultural career — you need to have access to money to be able to spend the time developing your craft to a point where you’re even able to try to develop a creative career.

And in America, book bans are becoming more common in schools and libraries along with aggressive illiberal campaigns against books, schools and librarians, creating an atmosphere of fear amongst professionals, parents and children. All this against the backdrop of an election that could have a catastrophic outcome for not just the country, but the world.

We have to be incredibly careful when reading these pieces here in the UK that we don’t assume our industry and situation is exactly the same as in the US. Sure, authors are still struggling to make financial ends meet, and it’s still hard to break out, but I don’t think things are as bad as Dwyer makes out.

Read these two, too: Does the maths math? Does it matter?

We already know that the maths of being a writer is pretty dire. So many surveys, analyses and think pieces tell us that it’s nigh-on impossible to earn a comfortable living as an author.

Erik Hoel does some napkin maths and figures out that what he calls ‘cultural billionaires’, ie people who earn a comfortable living as a writer, are as about as common as actual billionaires.

Monica Byrne asks whether an author can live from their royalties, and comes to the obvious conclusion that no, it’s not.

Which isn’t to try to dissuade anyone from being a writer. Indeed, quite the opposite. I internalised the lesson that I’d never earn money from writing a long time ago, so I didn’t write, and it made me incredibly miserable. If you want to write, you should absolutely write.

This is more to say that you must, absolutely must, diversify your income stream. Writing makes me happy, but it won’t make me much money, so the next few years of my life continue to be focused on searching for a way to facilitate my writing without tanking my income.

Which I guess is a great moment to suggest that you can, if you like, upgrade to a paid membership and help me along!

Obligatory cat picture

It’s too bright. It’s just far, far too bright. Copurrnicus buries his face as he takes a well-earned nap.

That’s it for this time! By my next newsletter, the Fieldwork pilot script should be complete, which is an exciting thought!!

All the best,

Suw

 

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How Shaun of the Dead, Ted Lasso and Cabin Pressure use callbacks and repetition to create gags, move the plot forward and develop characters.

It’s been a couple of months since I’ve written about the insights I’ve gleaned from Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre by Keith Johnstone, so this week I’m taking on his rather rambling chapter on Narrative Structure which, ironically, shows very little actual narrative structure. Despite its messiness, Johnstone makes a couple of useful points, the first of which is about the importance of structure.

Johnstone suggests that one should ignore content, ie the minutiae of plot, and focus on structure instead. Story is not, he says, just a series of events, but events that are connected in a meaningful and satisfying way — in order for there to be a story, there has to be “some sort of pattern [that] has been completed”.

That leads us on to his second useful point, which is that in order to progress forwards we sometimes have to look backwards.

The improvisor has to be like a man walking backwards. He sees where he has been, but he pays no attention to the future. His story can take him anywhere, but he must still ‘balance’ it, and give it shape, by remembering incidents that have been shelved and reincorporating them. Very often an audience will applaud when earlier material is brought back into the story. […] They admire the improviser’s grasp, since he not only generates new material, but remembers and makes use of earlier events that the audience itself may have temporarily forgotten.

In comedy, you have the callback, a joke that refers back to one told earlier in the show or series. In drama, you have foreshadowing and Chekhov’s Gun, where later events refer back to earlier set-ups.

If a plot is a series of connected events that mean something, then that meaning is created, at least in part, by referring back to earlier events, dialogue or environmental cues, such as props seen in the background. Improv, in particular, sings when the improvisor calls back to an earlier line or set-up, whether their own or someone else’s. Those moments, as Johnstone identified, often get the biggest laughs because they reveal a deeper structure to the scene, one that the improvisor has created on the fly by remembering and reincorporating something said or done earlier.

Johnstone suggests that an improvisor should (his emphasis) “look back when you get stuck, instead of searching forwards. You look for things you’ve shelved, and then reinclude them.”

The same is true for writers.

I think this reincorporation can be most clearly seen in TV. A few examples I’ve been looking at recently are Shaun of the DeadTed Lasso and Cabin Pressure.

Shaun of the Dead

The reincorporation of Shaun’s walk to the corner shop isn’t just funny, it adds character, context and drives the plot forwards.

Shaun of the Dead is extremely well known for its use of repetition and callbacks to create not just comedy but also pathos. Whether it’s “You’ve got red on you”, “Leave him alone”, or the visual callbacks such as Shaun’s walk to the shop before/after the zombie apocalypse (above), Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright use repetition to first set up a gag, then develop character and empathy, and finally pay off with humour and/or pathos.

One of the most effective running jokes is “He’s not my dad”. Shaun first says this on page 18 to Noel, his cocky young colleague who’s asking why Shaun’s allowed to take personal calls and he isn’t. It’s a throwaway line that would go completely unnoticed if it weren’t repeated later.

On page 60, when Shaun says it childishly to his mum, Barbara, as he and Ed try to persuade them to flee to safety despite Philip, his stepdad, having been bitten, it’s a simple repetition gag.

By page 72, when Shaun reflexively says it to Ed in the car as they escape, it says something about Shaun’s character. He’s so invested in Philip not being his father that he can’t understand either who Philip is as a person or the true nature of their relationship.

But on its final outing, on page 76, after Philip has fully transformed into a zombie, it’s full of emotion and pathos. It’s only now, having lost him, that Shaun realises that Philip has done his best to be a good father.

It’s also still really funny, not just because of the repetition but because this time it has a double meaning:

ED nods to the slavering PHILIP. BARBARA looks on in shock.

BARBARA
Shaun, we can’t just leave your Dad.

SHAUN
He’s not my Dad!

BARBARA
Oh Shaun-

SHAUN grabs a shaken BARBARA by the shoulders. BEHIND we see ZOMBIE PHILIP lunging forward into the front seat.

SHAUN
He’s not Mum. He was but he’s not anymore-

BARBARA
I’m sure if we just-

SHAUN
That’s not even your husband. I know it looks like him but believe me, there is nothing of the man you loved in that car now. Nothing.

BEHIND we see ZOMBIE PHILIP reach forward and SWITCH THE HARD HOUSE OFF. He sits back and looks almost peaceful.

This video from Daniel Pressey summarises a lot of these examples:

Ted Lasso

The Ted Lasso pilot, with only 31 minutes to play with, has to fire off its jokes way faster and so has less room for long-period callbacks, but writers Jason Sudeikis and Bill Lawrence still manage to get one big callback in.

The set-up is on page 9 of the script:

FLIGHT ATTENDANT (O.S.)
We’ll now be dimming the cabin…

As she continues on, Beard grabs his blanket.

COACH BEARD
Better get some sleep. The jet-lag will kill us.

TED LASSO
Yeah, yeh, yeh.

Then, shortly afterwards, we get what appears to be the pay-off, a false pay-off if you like, but it’s deliberately obscured by another joke:

INT. AIRPORT – EXIT AREA – THE NEXT DAY
Ted and Beard walk with their luggage toward a bunch of drivers holding signs. Ted looks a little worse for wear.

COACH BEARD
You didn’t sleep at all?

TED LASSO
Not a wink. No, my brain  just kept cookin’. First I was thinkin’ about not sleepin’, then I was thinkin’ about thinkin’ about not sleepin’. Next thing I know they’re handin’ out warm chocolate chip cookies and the plane’s landing.

COACH BEARD
I didn’t get a chocolate chip cookie. You eat mine?

TED LASSO
That’s not part of the story.

But in the very final scene of the episode, we get the callback and the true payoff.

INT. TED’S APARTMENT – BEDROOM – MOMENTS LATER
Ted, finally in bed, pulls up the covers and turns off a bedside lamp. It’s COMPLETELY BLACK.

TED LASSO
Shoot. Now I can’t sleep.

It doesn’t seem like much of a joke written down like this, but it really is a lovely piece of writing. After all Ted’s been through in the episode he really should be knackered, and we get this line not just as a gag, but as a way to encourage us to empathise. We all know what it’s like to be tired but unable to switch off, so in this joke, we get a laugh, some character work, and a bit of empathy. It’s masterful.

Cabin Pressure

The pilot of John Finnemore’s seminal radio comedy Cabin Pressure, similarly short, manages to give us not just a great callback joke, it makes the reinclusion core to the episode’s plot and gives us some great insights into character at the same time.

Martin, the plane’s captain, is overbearing, under-qualified and clings to his own self-importance as a way to try to make up for his acute awareness of his own considerable failings. Douglas, his second in command, is better qualified to be captain but his self-serving laissez-faire attitude to almost everything makes him unsuitable for the position. We see all of this in the short argument about whether to divert the aircraft to Bristol:

DOUGLAS
Of course, Martin, if you say we divert, then divert we shall.

MARTIN
Thank you.

DOUGLAS
Unless of course we were to smell smoke in the flight deck.

MARTIN
What?

DOUGLAS
I’m just saying, if by any remote chance, we smelt smoke in the flight deck, we would of course be duty-bound to land at the nearest available airfield with immediate priority. In this case, by a happy coincidence, Fitton.

MARTIN
Yes, maybe. But I don’t smell smoke in the flight deck.

Sound effect: Lighting a match.

DOUGLAS
How about now?

MARTIN
What are you suggesting, Douglas?

DOUGLAS
We tell the Tower we smell smoke which we do. We get to land straight away. They check the aircraft. Don’t find anything. One of the life’s little mysteries, but jolly good boys for taking no chances. Everybody is happy, and there’s jam for tea.

ARTHUR
Right. That’s, you know, that’s really clever.

MARTIN
No! I’m sorry, but absolutely not.

But in very final scene (again), after we’ve learnt that there’s a cat in the unheated hold that may very well die from exposure if something isn’t done, the callback no only serves a comic purpose, it’s (again), a key plot point. Furthermore, it recapitulates Martin and Douglas’s character types and relationship whilst giving us the chance to look at them from a totally different angle — Douglas’s willingness to bend the rules turns out to be what saves Martin’s arse.

MARTIN
All right, fine. Fine! All right. It’s only a job. There’ll be other jobs.
(flips on the intercom)
France control, this is Golf-Tango-India. Request immediate diversion to nearest airfield.

FRANCE CONTROL
Roger, Golf-Tango-India. Do you have an emergency?

MARTIN
Well, uh.
(sighs)
We’ve got…

DOUGLAS
One moment, please, Tower.

MARTIN
What is it, Douglas?

DOUGLAS
Captain…
(lights a match)
I do believe I can smell smoke in the flight deck. Can you smell smoke in the flight deck, Captain?

MARTIN
Yes… Yes, I can, Douglas. Could you request an immediate diversion, please?

DOUGLAS
Certainly, Sir.

In all three cases, though more frequently in Shaun of the Dead, core parts of the narrative are created by looking back to past events, dialogue and plot points and then reincorporating them. They aren’t just a way to set up a great gag, they also provide us with a deeper insight into the characters (especially Shaun and Ted) and can form the very core of the main plot (Cabin Pressure).

So the next time you’re feeling stuck about where to take your story, look backwards. Look at the set-ups that you’ve already created and ask yourself what you can call back to. What characters have you introduced and then forgotten which you can now reactivate? How can you take a concept from the beginning and reintroduce it later on? Is there dialogue or action you can repeat in a way that’s funny or creates pathos?

Getting stuck may not mean that you need a new idea. Perhaps, instead, you need to recycle an old one; you need to find the pattern and complete it.

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Plus audiobook news, Colleen Hoover’s writer’s block, SFF book length advice, and the state of British TV.

Hi there,

I’ve got a veritable smorgasbord of links for you today, so I’m breaking away from my usual newsletter format and where I’ve got a lot of related links I’m grouping them by theme, otherwise this would be a very, very long newsletter!

Also, happy Three-Quarters-Of-A-Century Newsletter to me! Yes, this is my 75th Word Count newsletter, which also coincides with the arrival of my 300th subscriber! Thank you to all of you for being a part of my newsletter journey, and even bigger thanks to those of you who are supporting my writing with a paid subscription. I am incredibly grateful!

Arthur C Clarke Award shortlist announced

The shortlist for the 38th Arthur C Clarke Award, which celebrates the best of science fiction, was announced last week. The short list is:

Lots of good reading there!

Interview with Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman in The British Library © RLF

Neil Gaiman was interviewed by the Royal Literary Fund. Interviews with Neil are always good value, but I particularly liked this bit:

What was the proudest moment of your writing career?

The proudest moment of my writing career would be my first Hugo Award. I got it for American Gods. I was one hundred per cent certain that I wouldn’t get it -there were lots of amazing books on that shortlist. So I’m sitting there happily in the audience, not having written a speech, not even a list of thank yous, because I knew I wasn’t going to win. And then they called my name. I went up on the stage and I remember standing in front of an audience and saying, “F*** I’ve got a Hugo!”

Canongate first UK publisher to become a B Corp

B Corp certification is awarded to “companies able to demonstrate that they have a positive social and environmental impact on the world”, and British publisher Canongate has now won its B Corp status, the first UK publisher to do so. Caroline Gorham, production and systems director, said:

“Becoming a B Corp feels like a public commitment: we want to ensure our impact on our colleagues, authors, suppliers, booksellers, readers and the world at large is a positive one.”

I’d love to think that this could be the beginning of a trend, but I find myself doubtful given the poverty wages/advances most major publishers pay.

What I’m watching: The Fall Guy

If you haven’t yet gotten to the cinema to see The Fall Guy or, as we say in the UK, The Autumn Guy, hie thee to a picture house right now. I don’t often feel moved to review TV or movies, but The Fall Guy is fabulous. It’s that perfect blend of action and romcom that reminds me of Romancing The Stone. It never takes itself too seriously, yet someone somewhere (literally everyone involved) took the making of it very seriously indeed.

I love a film that takes us behind the scenes, and The Fall Guy does just that, showing us how stunts are done by a dedicated and large crew of experts who makes sure that the stunt men and women don’t hurt themselves too much. Though, as Ryan Gosling’s Colt Seavers says, it all hurts. But Gosling and Emily Blunt’s comic timing is perfect, their chemistry sizzles, and the whole thing is just perfection. You don’t need to have ever seen, or even heard of, the original TV series to enjoy this, so go see it on the big screen if you can.

And yes, I’m going to keep making that ‘autumn guy’ joke until someone laughs.

Audiobooks: The good, the bad, and the bad is also the ugly

The Guardian reports that in the UK, audiobooks are  are booming, with downloads  up 17 per cent since last year and revenue up 24 per cent to £206 million over the same period. Audiobook revenue has also doubled over the last five years, which is fabulous for authors and publishers.

But despite increases in the value of several publishing market segments, and overall growth for the industry, “major publishers have said that they are struggling with rising costs” and that there will be cuts, so the good news is tempered a little.

The Guardian also takes a look at “dramatised audiobooks” which feature dozens of, even over 150, different actors and narrators. I can’t see this become a major trend, simply because of cost. Only the most popular titles are ever going to get this treatment, so I don’t think that it asks quite the “existential question” that The Guardian claims in its headline.

Variety report that Spotify are being sued in the US over the bundling of audiobooks into its Premium Individual, Duo and Family subscription streaming plans, which will results “result in an underpayment of royalties”. Spotify recently increased its subscription prices, but Billboard calculated that because of bundling:

songwriters and publishers will earn an estimated $150 million less in U.S. mechanical royalties from premium, duo and family plans for the first 12 months that this is in effect, compared to what they would have earned if these three subscriptions were never bundled.

Ugly, indeed.

Colleen Hoover struck by writer’s block

Smash hit author Colleen Hoover hasn’t written anything for 18 months, and doesn’t know if she’ll write again. In this interview, she says that she has become a lot more famous than she ever wanted to be, and that has attracted a lot of cruelty from her detractors. That, and the pressure of needing to live up to now high expectations, seems to have damaged her confidence and she finds herself unable to develop anything beyond the idea stage.

Last week I took a look at the four types of writer’s block and a dozen potential solutions. To me, it seems like the cause of Hoover’s writer’s block is motivational: She’s suffering from a very understandable fear of criticism, performance anxiety, and lack of enjoyment. I hope she can find her way out of what sounds like a rather unpleasant place to be.

How long should an SFF book be?

This set of posts from editor Jonathan Oliver on Bluesky (sadly, not formatted as a thread) explores not just how long a science fiction or fantasy novel should be, but also the pressures within the industry that are cutting page lengths.

Honestly, shorter often is better, because it forces you to make the hard choices and only keep the stuff that really, really works.

So, I have seen various comments on what length a work of SFF ‘should’ be, and as a professional editor I wanted to add my 10p’s worth. Firstly, I very rarely see novels over 150K that don’t need trimming down a touch. That’s not to say there aren’t great epic works out there…1/

Secondly, the current economy of print, paper costs, and shipping means that physical novels published in the mainstream are trending shorter. Couple that with that the fact that the latest trending genre (romantasy) tends to go for shorter novels (70-90K). 2/

Of course, with self-publishing, you can publish at whatever length you like. But, if you’re intending to produce physical copies via POD you still have to consider the longer the work, the more it’s going to cost to print, especially at that scale. 3/

On an artistic basis, a novel should be whatever length it should be. But, the longer epic works I see generally need squeezing to refine the narrative, and SFF audiences (especially with the rise of self-pub) tend to go for shorter works in series, rather than huge fat pbks by newer authors. 4/?

I love an epic when it’s done well, but they’re really really hard to do well. I’ve had one client over the past three years who has managed to nail it. But he’s struggling to get his book out into the mainstream because publishers are less likely to take a risk on a big work by an unknown 5/

So, in conclusion – stories should be whatever shape they need to be. But, in the reality of SFF publishing (taking into account boring real world economic factors and international situations’ effect on shipping) bigger books are on the wane, and slimmer, punchier titles or on the rise. 6ish?/

The rot at the centre of British TV runs deep

There’s no good news coming out of the TV industry at the moment, which is a bit miserable for anyone hoping to break into it. Channel 4 reveals that less than 10 per cent of “film and TV workers are from working class backgrounds, the lowest in a decade. And most of them are based in London.”

The Guardian talks about the misogyny that women in TV and film face. There’s way too much from this article that’s quotable, but I’ll stick to just this one:

The number of women in senior roles fell 5% between 2019 and 2022. One in three directors are women, yet they get only a quarter of director credits. Contributions from female writers fell from 43% to 32% between 2016 and 2022. Behind these figures, women are less likely to be employed on peak-time shows, which are generally more prestigious and have larger audiences, than men.

Oh, and this one:

“There’s tremendous cultural impetus,” Aust adds, “to get women to behave like men and not present any kind of disruption – don’t have a baby, don’t have IVF, don’t go through menopause, don’t have periods.” Reynolds knows an experienced documentary-maker who hides the existence of her son for fearing of losing work. Eikhof interviewed one woman who, when suffering from morning sickness on set, hid airline sick bags in her handbag so she could vomit discreetly.

Philip Ralph spoke to the Royal Television Society about how difficult it is for early career writers to get their foot in the industry’s door.

“What’s happening now is an existential-level crisis for the industry. Like what happened to the miners in the 1980s.” This is writer Phil Ralph (Doctors, Einstein and the Bomb), following the decision to axe BBC One’s daytime mainstay Doctors. […]

With its mix of long-running storylines and stories-of-the-day, Doctors was developed to train early-career writers. They would then move on to bigger series, some eventually creating their own shows.

I’ve deliberately put this section at the end, because dear lord it’s depressing reading. This thread by Kelly, a director on Twitter, pretty much sums up how hard it is for people who aren’t in London and aren’t connected to the right people to make any headway at all.

I do worry that we are gutting the future of the creative industries, which together contributed “£126bn in gross value added to the economy and employed 2.4 million people in 2022”, because industry leaders and politicians are all so bloody short-sighted. Yes, of course it’s cheaper to axe long-running training ground TV shows and replace them with ineffective and selective competitions, but in 10 years time, who’s going to be writing your hits?

We have already reached the point at which only people who don’t need the money can really afford to work in the creative industries, and it’s only going to get worse from here on in and idiots and AI decimate the jobs market.

Obligatory cat picture

To cheer you up after all that, here is Sir Izacat Mewton and Professor Grabbity Tinycat helping me to iron way back in 2013.

That’s it for this week… or is it? I actually have a bunch more links that I didn’t include because frankly this newsletter’s long enough as it is. If you’re on Substack Notes or if you follow me on Bluesky, I’ll be sharing them there.

All the best,

Suw

 

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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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