June 2022

Hi there,

Last week, I was congratulating myself on making a swift decision to book a spot on a script editing course. This week, I am vacillating over whether to take Robert McKee’s three-day Story and one-day Comedy courses in November.

McKee’s book Story is a classic of the story analysis genre and his in-person course gets good reviews, even if he himself sounds like a bit of a reactionary curmudgeon: He enforces £10 fines if you’re caught looking at your phone and if you’re late you’re not allowed in, which makes me wonder if he’s ever actually encountered the London Underground.

The four days come in at a whopping £1,048 plus travel and food which I’d estimate at about £350. On the one hand, the course isn’t until November and I could save up. On the other, would I get £1,400 worth of learning out of it? And on the third hand, what else could I do with that money?

More pertinently for me, though: Do I want to  take part in what sounds like awful pedagogy? Do I really want to spend four days fearing public humiliation? The whole thing feels like it has a bit too much patriarchal bullshit in it for my tastes.

Writing women: How does Default Man affect your female characters?

Caroline Criado-PerezI’ve long been a fan of Caroline Criado-Perez’s insightful feminism and ability to explain in stark terms how women are so often treated as if we’re just small men. If you want to understand the challenges that women come up against every single day, you can do no better thing than sign up to her Invisible Women newsletter.

As women, we’re so used to a world designed for and aimed at Default Man that it’s easy to forget how skewed the world is. And I suspect that many men have just never realised that women aren’t treated as their own class of people. Every decision based on male data, ignoring women, is a choice made by another human being. A bad choice.

Your characters will make these bad choices, and your female characters will have to live with the consequences. There’s so much opportunity to create challenges for your characters whilst illustrating real world problems, and Criado-Perez’s newsletter provides a rich vein for you to mine, as does her excellent book, Invisible Women. If you haven’t read it, you really must.

Innovative book marketing campaign of the week*

LJ Ross

Crime author LJ Ross, who is best known for her DCI Ryan series, is giving away five “golden tickets” worth £2,000 each, in the form of vouchers to attractions and businesses in some of the Northumbrian locations featured in her novels. This is the second time Ross has run this competition, so it must work!

I love this campaign, it’s generous, clever and heartwarming. It supports local independent businesses, who’ve had a hard time of it over the last three years, and it’s a great hook for traditional and social media coverage. It seems that Ross is a keen supporter of non-profits and prizes in support of the arts, literacy and local business, and I have to admit that makes me more likely to buy one of her books.

The closing date for this competition is Thursday 30 June and you don’t need to buy a book to enter, so if you’re in that neck of the woods get to it!

* Possibly year.

Read this: The Science of Storytelling by Will Storr

One of my favourite books on story is The Science of Storytelling by Will Storr. Rather than use the lens of arcs and beats, Storr explores the psychology of stories. If we are to write captivating narratives, we need to understand why people keep on reading. And to create compelling characters, we need to know why people act the way they do. Leaning on scientific research in the areas of psychology and neuroscience, Storr provides a very readable guide to understanding our readers, our characters and, indeed, ourselves.

The Science of Storytelling is unlike any other book on writing that I’ve ever read, and it’s one that I go back to again and again. In fact, I love it so much that I scanned my hard copy and put it on my iPad so that I can mark it up with notes. Unlike many books that read well but ultimately aren’t actionable, this one has so much good information you will need to read it more than once. It’s a book worth embedding in your subconscious so that your storytelling mind can draw from its wellspring with ease.

Obligatory cat picture

Meet CokeZero, one of the cats featured on Ewan Spence’s new podcast, My Cat’s Tale. Like many cats, CokeZero loves to wrestle and her human, Kira, realised that CokeZero was probably her ring name, her real name being Kokoro which is the Japanese for ‘heart’ or ‘spirit’. Of course, she has lots of other names, such as Cake and Conk and Cork, amongst many others.

CokeZero

Not that I’d ever give a cat multiple names. Copurrnicus/Moolie/Moolie Woolie/Big Guy and Grabbity/Princes Pinknose/Princess Fluffytail/Madame Pantaloons/The Girl/Moolie Girl/Girly Whirl would both know absolutely nothing about that at all.

Ewan also talks to the human companions of Stevie the Evil Cat who thinks he’s Jason Statham, and Moet, a rescue cat who went blind as a kitten from neglect, so if you’re a cat person, give My Cat’s Tale a listen wherever you get your podcasts and follow on Twitter and Facebook.

That’s it for this week! Don’t forget, if you’re interested in any of the authors or books I’ve mentioned in my newsletters, I’ve added them to my Bookshop list where possible.

All the best,

Suw Charman-Anderson

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Hi there,

The weather is absolutely glorious as I write this, and the urge to bunk off and go sit in the park is very, very strong. But alas, it is not to be. I have far, far too much to do.

I used to think that being self-employed would empower me to spend days in the park if I wanted to, and if there’s one thing I wish I could go back and tell my younger self, it’s that freelance work is 99% graft and only 1% bunking off. More on that below.

Suw’s News

I know I said several weeks ago that I was going to get cracking with the Show Bible for my TV series, but stuff happened. Two cats and a husband arrived from America, a bed had to be acquired, sofas and wardrobes had to be bought (OK, really only one of each), and so on and so on.

But I have now finally started. What exactly is a Show Bible (or Treatment)? I have absolutely no clue and after a quick Google, and it seems no-one else does either. Every online guide I looked at said something different, so I’ve picked two that seem sensible – this one from Industrial Scripts and this one from Script Advice – and smooshed them together. We’ll see how that pans out.

Talking of Script Advice, I promised my mentor that I’d invest in my writing this year and when I saw that Yvonne Grace was running a two-weekend script editing course, I jumped at it. Normally I’d hesitate so long about an opportunity like this that I’d miss my chance, but I made the decision and booked my slot immediately.

Yvonne developed her skills as a script editor on Eastenders, and has worked for the BBC, Granada, ITV, and Carlton, working on Coronation Street, Holby City, the Crossroads reboot and much more. I am so excited about learning script editing from her!!

Stop, Look and Listen: Not Too Busy To Write – Sian Meades-Williams

This week, I listened to Penny Wincer talking to Sian Meades-Williams about freelancing and newsletters on the Not Too Busy to Write podcast. Sian runs the Freelance Writing Jobs newsletter, which collects opportunities for writers. In this episode, Penny and Sian talked about the transition people make between employment and freelancing, and how hard it can be, emotionally, to pitch to editors and put yourself out there.

There’s some really brilliant advice throughout the episode, advice I wish I’d had when I quit my job to become a freelance music journalist back in 1998. My first freelance job was writing about Blur’s gear for the Melody Maker, which you can read on my extremely old website. I spent two years trying to make a go of it, but earnt only £4k a year and then ran out of space on my credit card.

My big mistake, which is obvious in retrospect, was that I wanted to write more fiction, so I thought that if I became a freelance journalist I’d have more time to myself. But instead I spent a lot of time stressing about money, trying to get work, getting cross when magazines rejected my pitches but then published the same ideas a few months later.

Worse, I lost my confidence. I believed that no one would ever employ me and that my only option was to battle through and hope for a big break… but that break never came. What happened was my own personal financial crisis, hitting rock bottom and discovering there’s actually more shit underneath.

I still regret that decision and I think it was the gravest mistake I’ve made in my writing life.

I now understand that I was suffering from Plan Continuation Bias whilst stuck in the Scarcity Trap. Plan Continuation Bias is the idea that once we have a plan, we stick to it even though conditions have changed and it would be more sensible to do something different. Tim Harford has an amazing podcast episode on it which explains it brilliantly. The Scarcity Trap is when our cognitive functions become impaired because we are so focused on something that’s missing from our lives, such as money, that we can’t think clearly and end up making bad decisions. Hidden Brain has an episode on it that’s worth listening to.

I had no money. But I had a plan. So I had to stick to that plan. Except the plan was a bad one and so were most, if not all, of my decisions. I thought I needed to work for myself to have time to write, rather than find a decent job that paid me well so that I could be unencumbered by stress and could write in my evenings

Don’t get me wrong, freelancing can be a great life. But if you’re going to do it, it has to be because you want to do that kind of work, not because you think it will give you more time to yourself, because it’s unlikely to work out that way.

Tip-top tip: Carving out the time – writing and parenting

Diane DotsonAnd on the subject of time, this week’s guest contributor is J. Dianne Dotson, a science writer and author of the science fiction and fantasy series, The Questrison Saga. Dianne is also a mum to two children, and here she talks about finding time to write when there is just so much else to do.

In 2016, when I was writing the first draft of Heliopause, having two kids under the age of ten meant that, while they were far more independent than in their toddler years, they still needed help with things so I focused on them until they went to bed. I had grand ideas of writing while they slept, but sometimes I was so tired myself that I couldn’t do anything but call it a night. I felt like it was taking forever to finish the first draft, and I was not sure how to get things moving along.

So, I reached out to someone I knew had figured out how to parent and write: author Joanne Harris. She told me that I needed to carve out the time.

What this meant was, any time—ANY time—I had a moment, grab the document and work on it. Waiting at school pickup, after they went to bed, when I had the energy, whenever I could. So, I followed this advice and it worked. Pages added up to chapters, chapters added up to the first draft of Heliopause. I used the same tactic to finish Ephemeris, the second book in the series.

My advice to you is the same as Harris’s advice to me: Carve out the time. Have writing implements on you, always: pen and paper, phone with a note app or dictation capability, etc. Sometimes those weird moments of in-between can help you get a scene written, and that makes them feel like even more of a win!

Cassie licking her lips

Obligatory cat photo

I’m visiting my Mum again, so here’s Cassie in the middle of her morning ablutions.

That’s it for now! If you’ve enjoyed my newsletter this week, please forward it to your friends and encourage them to subscribe too.

All the best,

Suw

 

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Hi there,

The theme for this week’s newsletter was inspired by a mashup of the title of Robert Shearman’s We All Hear Stories in the Dark, an amazing three volume set of 101 short stories that you navigate by answering a question at the end of each story, and something that Tom Hiddleston’s character, Will Ransome, says in The Essex Serpent: “Sometimes, the middle of the night lies to us.”

As I said in Issue 1, hitting 50 last year unleashed a wave of regret that I’d not worked harder at my writing. All that time I’d wasted fretting about writing instead of actually writing. The six years I’d wasted working on a novel about a sodding pandemic, something no agent or publisher wants to see right now. (Despite the TV adaptation of Station Eleven doing well. I also read that there’s another pandemic-related TV show coming up, but I ragequit the article before I got as far as the name.)

I was feeling frustrated with myself, but also a bit scared that I didn’t have any more ideas in me, let alone an idea that could be considered good. I thought that my writing hadn’t gone anywhere because I was neither imaginative and nor good.

But, sometimes, the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are lies.

Fast forward to January 2022, when I first got an inkling that a transatlantic move might be on the cards. Knowing that the contents of an American house won’t fit into a British flat, I started sorting out the boxes of stuff that were lurking in the basement. The great joy of American houses is that they are huge and, in the midwest at least, basements are common. The great horror of American houses is the amount of shit you can hide away in them.

As I was sorting, I came across a stash of old notebooks which I decided to scan them before throwing out. I was surprised by just how many of them contained the beginnings of a new story that I’d forgotten ever writing. A couple were ideas books, each page containing two paragraphs of set-up for a world I could explore (though a disturbing number of them ended with the words “…or something like that”).

I also found print-outs from stuff I’d written in my 20s. Lots of them. Stuff I’d totally forgotten about. And then there was the stuff on my hard drive from my 30s and 40s that never made it onto paper. Lots of that, too.

I even discovered a finished short story that I wrote in 2015, and then did nothing with. I read it last week. It’s not bad. Needs a little work, but not a huge amount.

So it turns out that the story I’d been telling myself, that I’ve spent too much time not writing, really isn’t true. It wasn’t just the middle of the night that was lying to me, it was pretty much all day, every day. I have been writing. I have been having ideas. Some of them still have legs. Some of them you might even get the chance to read at some point.

If there’s a lesson in this, it’s that I need to stop listening to my insecurities and start looking at the hard(copy) evidence in front of my eyes.

Watch this: The Invention of Career

Back in 2015, I was asked to talk about my career for the annual Campbell Lecture at the University of Southampton. My career is, it has to be said, a bit of a mess. I didn’t really feel like it should stand as any kind of blueprint for any young woman in STEM, although it could do well as a dire warning.

Instead, I decided to talk about that mess, about the stories we hear about other people’s careers, the stories we tell about our own, the stories we tell ourselves and how that all affects how we think of what is possible. I’ve given that talk a few times now, updating it each time, but only have a recording of that first presentation seven years ago which you can watch on YouTube.

It’s ironic that, as writers, we don’t scrutinise the stories we’re telling our collective selves or how we’re telling them. We’ll hear career glosses that will almost certainly involve some sanitised tales of failure, but we rarely dig beneath the surface. We’ll end up comparing our (OK, my) disaster-strewn lives with the highly polished profile of a famous author and feel that our failure is a sign of an inherent lack of capability, rather than consider that their overnight success might have taken 20 years, that their failures and disappointments stung just as much as ours do.

(Here I must note that there’s some evidence of a gender difference in how we perceive failure: Girls see it as a damning indictment of their capabilities whilst boys have a healthier attitude and see it as a temporary setback. I’ve no doubt we carry these attitudes into adulthood. Cf above.)

And, as someone who knows that it’s possible to develop deceptive narratives about our own lives, it’s annoying that I still find myself doing it. For the record, this is not the first time that going through old notebooks has exploded a negative narrative I’d created for myself, though that one’s a story for another time.

Stop, look and listen: Write-Off with Francesca Steele – Episode 2, Andy Weir

This episode from 2021 really chimed with me, not least because it includes a frank discussion of failure and the (wrong) assumptions self-doubt encourages us to make. Andy Weir, bestselling author of The Martian, talks about the two not-so-good novels he wrote before he self-published The Martian, and how even after it became an e-book bestseller, he “didn’t think to find an agent because earlier attempts had left him feeling like he wasn’t good enough”.

The stories we tell ourselves are often lies.

Obligatory cat picture

This week’s picture of the late Sir Izacat Mewton, Professor of Mewtonian Physics at the Small Feline Collider, and Grabbity’s brother. He sadly departed this mortal coil a couple of years ago, but lives on forever in our iPhones. What a handsome fellow he was!

That’s it for this week!

I do hope that you’re finding these newsletters interesting, and if you are, please forward any of them on to friends or colleagues who might also enjoy them. We’re heading towards 100 subscribers, and I would love to hit that number over the next fortnight!

All the best,

Suw

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Hi there,

Welcome to Word Count! Last week you voted overwhelmingly in favour of the name change, so from now on you’ll be seeing Word Count in your inbox, rather than Suw’s Writing Newsletter.

Suw’s news: OMG! They picked my script!

You might remember that a few weeks ago I submitted the first three pages of my TV script to the Scriptnotes podcast’s Three Page Challenge for screenwriters John August and Craig Mazin to critique. Welp, they picked my script, along with a couple of others.

Before I listened, I had a think about what they might say. My guesses were that there’s too much description in the first scene, that it’s too slow to get to the point, and that maybe there’s a bit of genre confusion going on as it starts off in a war zone but doesn’t stay there very long.

You can listen to the whole thing on the Scriptnotes episode page – my bit runs from 35:15 to 49:41 – and read those first three pages.

I do have to say that Craig and John’s critique was extremely useful. The script has been read by many people and has had several rounds of revisions, but there’s always room for improvement. Craig and John’s critique picked up on a lot of things that no one else had mentioned, so gives me the chance to think it all through from a very different perspective.

The first thing to say is that they spotted some mistakes that I should have seen before I sent it in. To my great chagrin, they spotted two typos. I could honestly die of embarrassment because I know they’re hot on typos and these days there’s no excuse. But two slipped through anyway. I should have copied and pasted the whole thing into Word or Google Docs and just looked at it in a different context and with a different font and spellchecker.

I’ll also admit that I did not Americanise the script at all because of the whole intercontinental house move thing, so a few of the issues they spotted are down to British vs American English. I don’t even know what ‘pedestrian precinct’ is in American, but the greater point is that it’s irrelevant to the story so I should have just deleted it.

Now, were my predictions right? Not in the slightest! There are three sections to the sample: The first set in the trenches of World War 1; in the second a character wakes up; the third is a character reveal.

Rather than the first section being too dense, they felt that it was missing some critical information. That’s actually an easy fix, as it ditching some of the more WWI-specific jargon. They also pointed out that there’s some stuff that just happens, and as a reader we need to know why. Again, an easy fix.

My second guess was that they’d think it was too slow, but again, I was completely wrong. They liked how much happened in the first three pages, though I could do a lot better on how I introduce my characters.

They also pointed out something that I should have seen, and that I think I’ve known all along, which is that the second section is unnecessary fluff and I should just ditch it. It doesn’t achieve anything for any characters, nor does move the plot forward. Looking at it now, I don’t know why I kept it when I had my doubts about it all along. I need to listen more to my gut.

The third section is tolerable, but needs a bit more thought and detail. The reveal is not the most original, so maybe that needs just simplifying and, again, I should focus more on character.

And as for the genre confusion? They didn’t mention that the way I thought they might, but it did pop up in the logline discussion. I’ll let you listen to the episode to hear the full glory of John and Craig’s surprise when they read the logline.

Finally, the takeaway for me is that, yes, this needs work, but it has some promise. And although they could never have known it, that’s exactly what I needed to hear after the BBC and Wildseed rejections.

So, I have my marching orders: Fix this script, write my show bible, fix the hot mess that is episode 3, and then polish the other episodes whilst generalising this feedback to the rest of the series.

Huge thanks to John and Craig for reading and critiquing my work!

And if you are a screenwriter, you should absolutely subscribe to Scriptnotes and submit to the Three Page Challenge!

Tip-top tip: James Oswald on finishing first drafts

This week marks the beginning of an occasional series of guest contributors who’ll be sharing their writing craft tips with us. Kicking everything off is James Oswald, author of the Detective Inspector McLean crime series, epic fantasy series The Ballad of Sir Benfro and and the Constance Fairchild undercover cop series. In his spare time, James raises pedigree Highland Cattle and New Zealand Romney Sheep on his farm in North East Fife.

The thing I always tell new writers is ‘your first draft doesn’t have to be good, it just has to be done.’

What does that really mean, though? I’m not much of a plotter. I like to have an opening scene, my characters and then I work out what’s happening while I write. For me, it’s important to get to the end of the first draft, as that’s me telling myself the story. There’s little point in trying to edit until I’ve got that nailed down, or at least loosely tacked. My first drafts can be hopelessly rough, full of contradictions and changes of direction. I’ve changed names and even genders of characters halfway through, but I never go back and correct the earlier work until I’ve reached the end.

There’s a well known military saying that no plan ever survives first contact with the enemy. The same can be said of writing your first draft, even if you plot meticulously. Writing is yet another stage of planning, and you will be ambushed as you go along by great ideas of how things can be done differently. Characters you thought would be pivotal instead wander off, or die. Other characters hog the limelight, demand all the attention, and drive the story far better than you intended. This is the magic of writing, and why I love doing it.

It is, however, a messy process. No matter how well you’ve planned, or if you’ve not planned at all, your first draft will not be the book your readers see. It’s allowed to be dirty, incomplete, rubbish. If you think it’s perfect and ready to go, then you’re not yet ready to be a published author. But until you’ve finished it, any attempt to make it better is doomed to failure.

So write that first draft – vomit draft is what I call it – start to finish. Guddle around in what you’ve done and find the best bits. Only then can the real work of polishing and honing begin.

Writing women: What’s a strong female character?

We hear the phrase “strong female character” a lot these days, but what do we really mean by “strong”. It doesn’t mean that the character herself is strong – she does not have to be physically, mentally or emotionally strong in herself to be a “strong character”.

We’re talking about “strong” in terms of her characterisation, meaning that she is nuanced and three dimensional with strengths and weaknesses. She needs to have agency and make her own decisions, even if they’re really bad ones or her choices are limited by her situation. She needs to be interesting, to capture our attention, to make us want to cheer her on or hope she gets her comeuppance if she’s a villain.

StudioBinder’s Chris Heckmann has an in-depth article looking at 10 strong female characters and what makes them so compelling. Although he focuses on movies, everything Heckmann says, especially his five aspects of characterisation, is relevant to novels as well.

Getting to know you: Getting to know all about you

I know that some of you used to subscribe to my old newsletter, whilst others of you only recently found this newsletter via Twitter. I’m curious to know if you’ve read any of my short stories or novellas, so here’s a quick survey. Click on ‘Begin’ to open this email in your browser, and then check the box for each story that you’ve read, or choose the last option if you’ve not read any. (You don’t need to click the button again when you’ve finished – your answers will register automatically. I hope.)

  1. Argleton
  2. Queen of the May
  3. The Lacemaker
  4. I haven’t read any

Obligatory cat photo

Copurrnicus in the snow

This week’s photo is one from the not too ancient archives. Although Shaker Heights, OH, is far further south than the UK, its continental climate means it snows much more often.

Copurrnicus always wants to go outside, but that was verboten thanks to the coyotes, racoons, skunks and other dangers that lurked in our neighbourhood. Still, snow provided an irresistible opportunity to see just how much he really, really wanted to explore.

Bizarrely, Copurrnicus’s response became door dependent. The back door was treated with extreme suspicion, but the front door became his favourite dash zone, regardless of the weather. Despite my assumption that he wouldn’t like the -15C cold, he got very comfortable going outside. So here he is after one particularly generous snow storm.

That’s it for this week! It’s been a bit of a bumper issue, so congratulations if you got this far. I hope you enjoyed it – please tell your friends if you did.

All the best,

Suw

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