What to do when your mind is blank

by Suw on April 17, 2024

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

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

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

Struggling with the futility of being a writer

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

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

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

Hauling myself out of the hole

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

Ask for help

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

Go for a walk

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

Break out pen and paper

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

Accept imperfection

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

Tap into your stubbornness

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

Allow yourself to be distracted

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

Go snuggle a pet

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

Change your font

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

Change your environment

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


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

Have a sing

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

Let a draft sit overnight

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


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


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

Hi there,

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

Read this: Why bestseller lists aren’t all that

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

Instead, she says, you should worry more about:

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

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

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

Read this, two: How important is author promo? 

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

She goes on to say:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read this, three: The state of UK TV 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read this, four: The power of curation

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

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

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

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

Obligatory cat picture

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

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

All the best,


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You should probably say it to yourself more often.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Not all ideas are created equal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Panicking about money leads to bad decisions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What has all this got to do with writing?

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

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

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

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

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

PS Not unrelated news about Grist and author webinars

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

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

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

Hi there,

Catch up with Dr Dean Burnett

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

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

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

Watch now!

Opportunity: BBC Writers’ Studio: EastEnders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Event: The London Festival of Writing

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

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

Watching: Coyote vs Acme might be lost forever

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grist & author webinars

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

Obligatory cat picture

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

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

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

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

All the best,



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How do we find a window to climb through?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, what can we do?

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

Think hard about your medium

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

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

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

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

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

Look for funding from unusual places

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

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

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

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

Reclaim your agency

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

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

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

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And how I’m adapting our project plan to account for changes in TV commissioning.

Saturday saw the Big Comedy Conference take place in London with a slew of industry professionals taking the stage to share their accumulated knowledge and experience. I went last year for the first time, so this second go round made for an interesting comparison.

The atmosphere was much less chirpy, for one, and the financial challenges of putting on an event of this size in the current economic climate were made obvious by the single stream of speakers with no break-out rooms and the more modest catering. I don’t blame the organisers for that at all – time are tough and they have to cut their pattern to their cloth – but the event felt smaller and less optimistic.

I can understand that loss of optimism too, though. Comedy is in decline in the UK. Last November, Ofcom released a report in which it “explicitly labelled scripted comedy to be ‘at risk’ as a genre” for the sixth year in a row. One of the speakers confirmed that spending on comedy has been cut, with the number of comedies being commissioned dropping by half.

Last year, we were told that the way to get your comedy made is to find a producer whose work you love and approach them. You can’t approach broadcasters directly – most of the commissioners on stage said they were either part of very small team or working solo and they don’t accept unsolicited scripts.

So how do you get the attention of a producer? Twice, we’ve been advised to record a table read and send them over a link. That does make sense – it’s easier and quicker to click a link and listen for a few minutes than it is to read a script.

But that doesn’t seem to be how things actually work. I spoke to someone who had tried sending the recording of her table read to the very same producer who’d given that advice . Yet she still met a brick wall of “We don’t accept unsolicited scripts”.

There was further conflicting advice about agents. This year, we were told to get an agent, whereas last year we were told that agents aren’t necessary and you’ll only get one once you’re established anyway.

It’s Catch 22. Commissioners say that they only accept submissions from production companies. Production companies don’t take unsolicited submissions, preferring work to come via agents. Unlike literary agents, TV agents don’t take unsolicited submissions either. The whole industry is Kafkaesque.

I chatted to one very well established writer and even he can’t get stuff made, despite decades of experience and all the contacts you could possibly want within the industry.

So what does this mean for Fieldwork?

The original plan was to write a short film script, then look for some funding to get it made. Which isn’t a bad plan, but I’m not sure that it’s still the best plan. I am not a film producer and nor do I particularly want to become one, so I’d have to find a producer to work with. I’m not going to rule that out, but perhaps it’s not the best place to start.

I’ve signed up for Dave Cohen’s Build a Sitcom course, so by the summer I will have a half-hour sitcom pilot script written, which I will then cut down to a 10 minute short film. Having a sitcom pilot will give me some more options: I’ll be able to submit it to the BBC’s open call in the autumn (I’ve missed this year’s BAFTA Rocliffe comedy competition deadline), on the off chance. But with hardly any comedy being made now, that off chance is tiny.

What became clear to me on Saturday is that there really aren’t many opportunities for comedy writers at the moment. One’s chances might be improved if one became a writer-performer, but as much as I love doing improv, I’m not about to start trying to develop a career as a stand-up comedian (despite having done it before) in order to write. Honestly, that’s like becoming a worm farmer in order to go fishing.

Where I do see an opportunity – and I can thank Julian Simpson’s Lovecraft Investigations and Tom Craine and Henry Parker’s ReincarNathan for demonstrating this to me – is in audio. Whether that’s BBC Radio or a podcast doesn’t really matter, although one requires me to get commissioned and the other I can do myself (ish).

The podcast route seems the most feasible in terms of getting this story out in to the world (and, perhaps, catching a commissioner’s eye). Being less expensive, it also seems like something with the potential for a bit of crowdfunding to cover the costs.

I know a lot more about the TV industry and the process of getting a sitcom out into the world now than I did two years ago when Thorunn, Pen and I started talking about this project. So it makes sense to adjust our plan in the light of all that new information. An adaptation for audio could potentially be an intermediate step ahead of making the short film, or it could become our final destination, and either of those outcomes would be fine for us.

Having been fretting about the idea of making a short film for a while now, I feel much more excited about developing a podcast. It feels much more doable and much less stressful. The lesson here is that creative projects like this take time to develop, and as they do, the wider commercial landscape changes. We have to stay abreast of those changes and adapt our plan to fit reality.

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Plus new profit-sharing publisher, why the names in Dune are actually great, Amazon sued over counterfeit books, and more!

Hi there,

Lots and lots of interesting stuff to share with you this week, so it’s a bit of an epic newsletter. But there is a cute photo of Copurrnicus at the end to reward you for your hard work, so let’s dive in.

Event: Dr Dean Burnett in conversation

I’ll be chatting to Dr Dean Burnett, neuroscientist, podcaster, comedian and author of the international bestsellers The Idiot Brain and The Happy Brain, at 19:00 GMT on Tuesday 19 March. We’ll be talking about why he decided to give up his career as a lecturer at the University of Cardiff to become an author, how he researches his books and what he thinks of writer’s block. The webinar is free and on Zoom, so if you’d like to join us, grab your ticket now!

Opportunity: BAFTA Rocliffe comedy competition open

The BAFTA Rocliffe New Writing Competition for comedy, including sitcom, sketches, feature films and shorts, is open to submissions until 21 March 2024. They will take both live action and animation formats. Unfortunately, it costs a whopping £58 to enter.

Stop, look, listen: We Can Be Weirdos – E43 Be Funny or Die

I’m halfway through Joel Morris’s fantastic new book about comedy, Be Funny or Die, which I cannot recommend highly enough (full review coming when I’ve finished it!). So I jumped straight on this episode of Dan Schreiber’s podcast, We Can Be Weirdos, in which he talks to Joel about the book, whether ghosts exist and the way we try to do a little magic every time we say “Good luck”. It’s a lovely listen!

Read this: New publisher promises profit-share

Authors Equity founders Don Weisberg, Madeline McIntosh and Nina von Moltke.

Authors Equity is a new publishing company that will profit-share with authors, paying out on a monthly basis, instead of via a traditional advance. Founded by three publishing industry veterans, Don Weisberg, Madeline McIntosh and Nina von Moltke, and funded by authors like James Clear, Louise Penny and Tim Ferriss, Authors Equity “promises to give authors more control and participation in the production of books, and create a collaborative model for publishing books that is currently lacking in the industry”.

The devil’s in the details of course, because how will they define ‘profit’?   There are different way to calculate profit and some would be more advantageous to authors than others. Hollywood does quite a lot of profit-sharing — that’s what ‘points’ are, a percentage point of the net profit — and has become adept at creative bookkeeping to reduce the amount of money actually paid out.

Neither of the articles mention this rather massive elephant in the room, instead focusing on the loss of an advance. From the NYT:

Some in the industry expressed skepticism about the approach, noting that many writers can’t afford to wait and hope that a book will succeed.

“It’s putting the risk more on the author than the publisher,” said Robert Gottlieb, a literary agent and chairman at Trident Media Group, which represents more than 2,000 authors. “Most authors need the advance, and if that’s taken out of the equation, the risk is enormous.”

That might seem like a major hurdle for a lot of authors, but let’s face it, most advances are so low that authors are already forced to work a main job to pay their bills. Losing a few grand up front will make no functional difference to authors in that situation.

I can imagine that a profit-share might appeal to two types of authors: Those already successful authors/celebrities who know that they are going to sell well, and those two-job authors for whom developing a portfolio of a steady income streams is more attractive than a paltry advance. It won’t be any good for authors dreaming of a lottery win advance, or those who are getting a decent sized advance but aren’t earning out. But perhaps it doesn’t have to be for everyone to still be a useful addition to the publishing landscape.

Tip-top tip: Be thoughtful about your SFF names

I loved this piece from Lincoln Michel about how good the names are in Dune. I’m not some big Dune aficionado, but I kinda like that the protagonist is called Paul Atreides. It’s an easy name to read and pronounce, whether out loud or mentally.

One thing I cannot abide in science fiction and fantasy are deliberately obtuse names that are hard to parse. As Michel says:

You probably won’t effectively evoke a far future if everyone is named Jim Johnson, Allie Smith, and Tom Miller. OTOH, it’s simply annoying to read a book where everyone is named Fl’imabib DoXlolak, Sththk Ta Lo, and Tlijadjlll’d’d’d’d’a Gonkdaborg.

I can’t count the number of books I’ve read that have tried to create a sense of the alien by ramming a bunch of consonants and random punctuation symbols together. That jerks me out of the story so completely that instead of creating a sense of the alien it’s just straight alienating.

One author who was really good at creating naming schemas was Anne McCaffrey in her Pern books. She created a whole tradition for how her characters would get their names by mixing syllables from parents’ names, plus a second tradition that dragon riders’ names would be shortened. The names of her characters make sense within their own world, and are a part of the world building without ending up looking or sounding ridiculous.

Michel shares some great thoughts about naming alien terminologies and creating alien jargon as well, so the piece is well worth reading.

Read this, two: Amazon sued over counterfeit books

Bestselling self-published author David Goggins is suing Amazon over its unwillingness to remove counterfeit versions of his book, Can’t Hurt Me: Master Your Mind and Defy the Odds.

Amazon allowed the sale of counterfeit versions of his self-published book on its platform, leading to negative reviews and lost revenue […].

[I]nauthentic versions began appearing on Amazon in June 2019 which included poor print quality, missing pages, and wrong dimensions, according to the complaint.

Amazon only took action after Goggins complained to his millions of Instagram followers, which Goggins says proves that they could have done something earlier but simply chose not to. It’ll be interesting to see how this case shakes out. Honestly, the only way Amazon is ever going to clean up its act is if it’s forced to by the courts.

Thread of the week: Philip Ralph on the closure of Doctors

The BBC has axed Doctors, a British daytime soap that has been running for 24 years, and Philip Ralph has an excellent thread on why this is a disaster for the actors, crew and screenwriters especially.

Doctors was a training ground, a series on which screenwriters could cut their teeth and learn their trade. It also provided consistent work for a lot of people. And it’s not being replaced by another long-running show, but probably by game shows and other thin daytime TV gruel, so there are hundreds of people who are now going to be out of work.

And, to be clear, Doctors was still incredibly popular. The BBC said it was axed because it was expensive, but that’s not a good enough reason, given how huge the knock-on effects will be. As Ralph says:

The soaps are collapsing. Mid scale drama is contracting. This leaves just the high profile writers and creatives succeeding, and everyone else scrabbling around for scraps, hoping to somehow ‘win the lottery’ and get onto an existing show or even more miraculous in the current climate – get their own original series idea commissioned. There’s no ‘career ladder’ left. There’s incredible good fortune – or there’s nothing. And that’s no way to build and grow a sustainable industry.

Over and over again we’re seeing industries ditch their entry level positions, which is what Doctors was for a lot of people, in favour of short term gain. But they are going to regret that in five to ten years, when they realise that they’ve no promotable talent coming through. Where are the screenwriters of the future going to get experience and learn how the industry works?

Read this, three: UK screenwriters get 10 per cent rise

It’s not often that you see writers getting a pay rise, so it’s lovely to see this news from the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain:

Writers commissioned by the BBC and BBC Studios will receive a significant increase on minimum fees and compensation for the commercial exploitation of their work across a number of new platforms, following the renegotiation of the BBC Script Agreement for Television and Online.

[…] the minimum rate for a 60-minute teleplay increase from £12,780 to £14,040. Series minimum rates will rise to £12,900 per 60 minutes, dramatisations to £9,360 per 60 minutes and adaptations to £5,760 per 60 minutes.

Even sketch writers will see a 4 per cent increase in their per minute minimum rate, which will go up to £123.

Of course, trying to actually get a job writing for the BBC is a bit like trying to win the lottery by typing a lot.

Obligatory cat photo

Getting my ironing board and 2m of fabric out must send some sort of only-heard-by-cats batsignal, because Copurrnicus invariably appears within seconds to make himself comfy. That he makes ironing impossible is of no relevance to him at all, because all he wants is to pretend he’s camping.

Of course, the time I bought him a Tiny Tent so that he could indulge in a bit of glamping any time he fancied, he completely spurned it. Because cat.

(If you’re wondering what the fabric is for, I’m replacing the lining and pockets on a beloved coat, so it’s already really slippery and a nightmare to work with, without Copurrnicus making it harder!)

Right, that’s it for this week. Thanks for reading to the end, if you made it this far!

All the best,


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The paradox of originality

by Suw on March 6, 2024

Grist: Creating characters with personality

In the next Grist conversation, which will be at 19:00 GMT on Monday 11 March, we’ll talk about how to construct characters with real personalities by using frameworks such as The Big Five personality traits to Myers Briggs and even astrology (!!). Find out more, and take out a free trial to grab the webinar link if you’re not already a paid subscriber

Webinar: Dr Dean Burnett in conversation

Join us at 19:00 GMT on Tuesday 19 March for a conversation with neuroscientist-turned-author Dr Dean Burnett, whose books, including  The Idiot Brain and The Happy Brain, have become international bestsellers. We’ll talk about his stint as a stand-up comic, how he researches and structures his books, and we’ll get a neuroscientist’s view of writer’s block and how to overcome it. Find out more and book yourself a free ticket via Ticket Tailor

Trying to be original ensures you are not.

I’m once again drawing inspiration for today’s newsletter from Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre by Keith Johnstone. I was particularly struck by his section on originality which was just a few pages after, and is intimately related to, the issue of second-guessing one’s thoughts that I discussed in my last newsletter.

We’re constantly bombarded with messages emphasising the need for originality in our creative work. We’re told that we need to produce something new and fresh, something that people haven’t seen before. If we’re not new, fresh, and original, then we must be derivative, formulaic and staid, which is worse than bad, it’s boring.

Johnstone says:

Many students block their imaginations because they’re afraid of being unoriginal. They believe they know exactly what originality is, just as critics are always sure they can recognise things that are avant-garde.

This fear of being unoriginal is a very solid foundation upon which to build a mighty edifice of writer’s block. The thing is, what do we even mean by ‘unoriginal’?

A couple of years ago, I submitted an early version of Tag, my middle-aged woman becomes an action hero story, to a script development agency. Now, I don’t know about you, but I can’t name any magic realist TV series that feature an overtly menopausal woman wielding a sword in defence of the Earth. In fact, I can’t pin down any action adventure shows that even mention menopause. Yet I was told “the concept does not feel as fresh and original as we would hope for”.

I never was sure what they were trying to say with that comment, because every woman I’ve mentioned Tag to has been eager to read it. Middle-aged women who like this kind of stuff are not catered to, and they know it. If you loved Buffy when you were in your 20s, you’re in your late 40s or 50s now, but whilst Indiana Jones was allowed to age, Buffy remains forever a high schooler who’s never given the opportunity to grow up.

But not only is the concept of originality slippery, it’s not even true that people crave it. We still love romcoms, despite knowing that the two leads will get together at the end. We still love action adventure even though we know that the hero will win through. We know that crime TV shows will end up with the perpetrator getting their comeuppance, one way or another, but we still watch them.

The majority of fiction, particularly mass market fiction in any format, sticks fairly closely to a formula, and a lot of it is extremely obvious as soon as you step back and look at it critically. But that’s not a bad thing. Johnstone again:

The improvisor has to realise that the more obvious he is, the more original he appears. I constantly point out how much the audience like someone who is direct, and how they always laugh with pleasure at a really ‘obvious’ idea. Ordinary people asked to improvise will search for some original idea because they want to be thought clever.

Trying to be clever never works out well in the end. We can spot people who are trying to be clever from a mile away, and we don’t like it. Instead, what we relate to is authenticity. We want people (real or fictional) to show us who they are, to reveal their true selves bit by bit, slowly, over the course of a book or a series or a film.

We don’t care that we know the two leads will fall in love by the end of the film, we enjoy the romcom because we want to see how they do it. We know that the heroine will prevail in her action adventure, but we’re curious about how she pulls it off, and who betrays or helps her along the way. And knowing that the crime will be solved doesn’t take anything away from the experience of watching it happen.

Essential to our enjoyment is a sense of genuineness to the characters, our belief that they are behaving and talking in a way that only they could. Being true to themselves, they behave in the way that is most obvious to them.

No two people are exactly alike, and the more obvious an improvisor is, the more himself he appears. If he wants to impress us with his originality, then he’ll search out ideas that are actually commoner and less interesting. […]

An artist who is inspired is being obvious. He’s not making any decisions, he’s not weighing one idea against another. He’s accepting his first thoughts. How else could Dostoyevsky have dictated one novel in the morning and one in the afternoon for three weeks in order to fulfil his contracts?

It’s at this point that the temptation to add some sort of refinements to the meaning of ‘unoriginal’ or ‘obvious’ arises. The desire to try to explain myself in such a way as to not contradict vast amounts of received wisdom about creativity and novelty.

But really, where success lies is in the craft. No one actually cares that they’ve seen a story told before, they care that the story they are being told now is well crafted and captivating, that the characters are realistic and authentic, that something in the tale speaks to them. After all, if originality were the most important thing about a project, we wouldn’t keep remaking Shakespeare.

Last weekend, my husband and I watched Anyone But You, which is so unashamed of being a Much Ado About Nothing remake that it actually litters the film with word-for-word quotes in the sets and scenery. OK, so it wasn’t My Own Private Idaho (Henry IV Parts I and II) or West Side Story (Romeo and Juliet), or Warm Bodies (Romeo and Juliet with zombies), but it was still good and I still enjoyed it. I knew where it was going, but it was fun to see how it got there.

So if you’re scared your work isn’t original, if you find yourself feeling blocked because you think your work isn’t fresh or new, just set that worry aside and focus entirely on your craft. What will bring your work to life are beautifully drawn characters with meaningful and believable relationships who are yearning for something that’s hard to get. Be authentic. Write as only you can.

I’ll give the last word to Johnstone, who sums it up brilliantly:

Striving after originality takes you far away from your true self, and makes your work mediocre.

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Women's Prize for Non-Fiction long list books and judges.

Women’s Prize for Non-Fiction longlist books and judges.

Plus Women’s Prize for Non-Fiction longlist, fake biographies on Amazon, Hugo/Worldcon furore.

Hi there,

It’s yet another grey day here, after yet more rain and with more rain to come. The water meadows are full again and the river’s towpath is still flooded. Yet there are hints of spring everywhere I look – daffodils and croci flowering, the bluebells coming up, and buds on the trees. Spring starts officially in a couple of days, and hopefully it will start in spirit soon, too, when the rain eventually gives up!

Grist: Creating characters with personality

The next Grist conversation, about how to create characters with distinct personalities, will happen at 19:00 GMT on Monday 11 March on Zoom. It’s open to subscribers and anyone who wants to take out a seven day free trial. If you’d like to come along but aren’t in a position to subscribe, drop me a line by replying to this email and I’ll send you the Zoom link when it’s up.

I’m looking forward to this conversation! I’m working on new characters now for Fieldwork, and particularly need to come up with people who have some sort of fundamental character clash. That doesn’t mean that I want people who are constantly arguing, but more that the way one person thinks has to be almost alien to the other.

We’ll be talking a bit about things like the Big Five Personality Traits, what makes a character seem ‘real’, and other frameworks you can use to create characters. We’ll also talk about how to make your villains villainous – something I personally really struggle with!

Opportunity: All3Media New Writers’ Collective

The Edinburgh TV Festival’s ALL3Media New Writers Collective 2024 scriptwriting competition is open for submissions until Thursday 21 March. They’re looking for scripts from unrepresented and uncredited TV writers, and winners will attend an “intensive residential writers’ retreat” to develop their ideas and script. Entries cost £24.

The rules say nothing about not being able to resubmit a script that’s been previously rejected, so I’m tempted to send them the reworked version of Tag, because it has significantly changed since last year. Nothing to lose but £24!

Tip-top tip: A radical empathy writing exercise

Author and teacher Rachel Kadish shares the “most important writing exercise” she’s ever assigned and the impact it has had on some of her students. Without giving the game away too much, she asks her students to put themselves in the heads of characters with unpleasant views and find way to encourage the reader to feel empathy.

I find it quite hard to write truly obnoxious characters, so I’m going to add this to the list of pre-writing exercises I do, as a way to try to get under the skin of my antagonists and not only make them worse people, but humanise them as well.

Industry insider: Why don’t agents reply in order?

Loved this Twitter thread from agent Julie Crisp about how she works through her submissions, and why she doesn’t get to them in the order in which they were submitted.

I noticed on #querytracker some confusion as to why I’ve been ‘skipping’ submissions. As in that someone in November may have heard back from me and someone in September hasn’t. So for total clarity, thought I’d give you an insight into how I work through my submissions…

Women’s Prize for Non-Fiction 2024 longlist

The first ever Women’s Prize for Non-Fiction longlist of 16 finalists has been announced. The books who’ve made it on to the longlist cover topics as diverse as capitalism, artificial intelligence, Renaissance history and motherhood, according to The Guardian. The winner will receive £30,000, which for some of them will be more than they got for an advance, I bet.

The longlist is:

Read this: Fake biographies of dead people on Amazon

LLM-generated books popped up pretty much as soon as ChatGPT was released to the public, because scammers can’t resist the lure of a fast buck. So it should surprise no one that Amazon is now awash with error-ridden biographies of people who’ve just died, including several for Joseph Lelyveld, a former executive editor of The New York Times:

At least half a dozen biographies were published on Amazon in the days immediately following [Joseph] Lelyveld’s death. Several of them were available for purchase on the very day he died. The books, he said, described his brother as a chain smoker, someone who honed his skills in Cairo and reported from Vietnam — none of which is true.

“They want to make a buck on your grief,” said [his brother] Michael Lelyveld.

Ghoulishly, some of these books are credited to authors whose names are themselves stolen from other dead people.

Whilst we’re on the subject of so-called AI, Nature reports that generative computing isn’t just causing problems for grieving relatives, it’s causing an ecological and environmental crisis. Legislative efforts to curb these excesses would be unlikely to help enough, even if they made it all the way into law.

Read this, two: Hugo/Worldcon situation gets sticky

Four weeks ago, I mentioned that irregularities in the Hugo Award voting had called their integrity into question. Despite demands for answers from authors and fans alike, explanations were thin on the ground until a member of the Hugo admin team, Diane Lacey, released a tranche of emails which showed that the irregularities were down to Western administrators censoring the award nominations list in an attempt to “follow” Chinese laws.

Chris Barkley and Jason Sanford have done sterling work investigating the situation, and Jay Blanc has put together a comprehensive timeline of events going back to 2009. It has to be said that the problems with Worldcon and the Hugos aren’t just ones of racist idiocy. There also seem to be problems around legal structure and taxation, as well as potential Chinese sanctions violations.

Author Xiran Jay Zhao said on Bluesky that Congress, specifically the House Select Committee for Strategic Competition Between the US and Communist Party of China is investigating the situation. A government representative apparently said that they found the situation “deeply troubling” and “worthy of additional scrutiny”. Cue warnings that anyone involved should lawyer up immediately.

The problem is that Worldcon is not run professionally: Every year a new team of volunteers in a new host city takes over. And no matter how well things are handed over (and I actually doubt that they are), it’s not possible to develop the required depth of understanding of event organisation under those circumstances.

It took me eight years of organising Ada Lovelace Day to feel like I had my playbook sorted. And it took so long because we, too, were peripatetic, hosted by a different venue every year. That meant that every year I had to form new relationships with new venue staff, learn how they do things and adapt my own processes to fit.

When you have an event organised by a new team in a new venue in a new city, and maybe even a new country, every year, you simply don’t get the continuity you need for those essential lessons to be learnt. And it’s worse when your team is drawn primarily from the fan and author community, rather than from a pool of experienced event organisers.

Organising an event well is a difficult job. Ada Lovelace Day was regularly pulling in around 400-500 attendees, depending on venue, prior to the pandemic. In 2019, Worldcon was held in Dublin and hosted 6,525 people. That’s a lot of organising to be done.

This year’s Worldcon will be held in Glasgow. One member of the team, Kat Jones, was complicit in last year’s fiasco and has resigned. It’s not yet clear how the rest of the organising committee is going to respond to this, but my concern is that absolutely nothing will be learnt and that the issues with Worldcon won’t be fixed. And that should concern all of SFF fandom.

Sparrow, a calico cat, sitting on a green staircase looking very suspicious indeed. Obligatory cat picture

This is a very suspicious Sparrow, who was deeply concerned at the number of strange people in her house on Sunday. She visited us twice, very briefly, just to let us know that she wanted her house back, thanks.

That’s it for this week!

All the best,


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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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Word Count 68: Fern Academy essay prize, C4 New Writers’ Scheme, writing tip from David Milch

February 13, 2024

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 […]

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Maybe it’s not us who are broken. Maybe it’s the system.

February 7, 2024

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 […]

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Word Count 67: Fellowship opportunity, ghostwriting conference, Grist, we see/we hear

January 30, 2024

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 […]

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When do you get the opportunity to really observe people?

January 24, 2024

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 […]

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Word Count 66: Two submissions, a Fieldwork update, BBC Comedy Collective and Cheshire Novel Prize

January 16, 2024

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 […]

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