February 2023

Hi there,

Welcome to the first Word Count on Substack!

This week has been more of the usual: editing Tag, polishing off the ethics submission for Fieldwork, and going through Substack’s copious settings. I have a big meeting about Ada Lovelace Day this afternoon, so I’m hoping that by next week’s newsletter I’ll have some clarity about whether I’ve managed to save the Day or whether I’ll be desperately searching for a job. Keep your fingers crossed.

Read these: Older debut authors finally getting a look in

I’ve always been frustrated at the assumption that new writers are always young writers and that so many competitions and awards focus on writers under 30 or 40. Writing, possibly more than any other career, is one you can begin at any age.

So I was delighted to see that the Edinburgh-based literary agency, Jenny Brown Associates, is launching a prize for debut writers over 50. The agency’s website says:

The prize will include a place at a writer’s retreat and mentorship, and for the runner-up, one-to-one mentorship. We will be announcing full details of how to submit in April, and accepting submissions 1–31 May 2023.

Older female writers were also the focus of a piece in The Guardian, where Amelia Hill argued that ‘older, unpublished writers are now at a premium – with radical, edgy women aged into their 80s particularly sought-after’.

Well, I’m not quite that old yet, but it is heartening to see older women’s stories gaining currency, particularly because, as Jenny Brown Associates’ Lisa Highton says, ‘The vast majority of books are bought by women aged 45 and above. They’re a hugely important demographic and increasingly, want to see themselves represented in books.’

As I say about Tag, women who were in their 20s when Buffy first came out are now in their late-40s or 50s, and whilst we’ve aged, Buffy hasn’t. We want to see protagonists like us in all genres, not just crime, book club lit, or historical fiction.

Stop, look, listen: In Writing with Hattie Crisell, S5E44 – Raven Smith

This is a lovely interview with Vogue columnist Raven Smith, who is ‘known for his witty takes on pop culture, modern life and masculinity’. But in amongst all the career chat, Smith reveals an interesting approach to dealing with the fear of the blank page that I mentioned in my first post on Why Aren’t I Writing?.

Instead of doing battle with his first paragraph, Smith uses dictation to get his initial thoughts down so that when he comes to writing, he starts with something to edit. You can’t rewrite words you haven’t written, so this is a good approach for anyone who really struggles with getting going.

Event: Big Comedy Conference

I’m excited to have a ticket for the Big Comedy Conference in London on 22 April. Fieldwork will be a comedy drama and whilst I know I’m good at drama, I haven’t felt very comedic recently. I used to do stand-up comedy, way back when that was the new rock ’n roll, but terrible stage fright incapacitated me for days before a gig. I’m hoping that this conference will entice those comedic tendencies back into the front of my mind from whatever dark crevice they’ve been lurking in.

Read this, two: Newsletter lessons

If you write a newsletter (or newsletters – mine seem to have bred!), then this list of 35 things that veteran newsletter writer CJ Chivers has learnt over the last 35 years will be useful. There are a lot of really good lessons there, so this is one to bookmark and refer back to regularly.

WAIW?: The year I Jedi mind tricked myself into creativity

My writer’s block was so bad in 2016 that I decided to spend the next year doing literally anything else instead. Sometimes, you have to play the long game.

Obligatory cat picture

Never, ever start an argument with Grabbity.

That’s it for this week!

All the best,


Grabbity, a tabby cat, sits on a bookshelf, on a book called 'How to Win Every Argument'.

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It’s the end of 2016, and I’m living in Sheboygan, WI. I’ve spent about two years researching my novel about a global pandemic (oops), but I cannot write. I’ve read all about the transmission of diseases from animals to humans, bird flu, how vaccines are made, the Spanish Flu, cytokine storms and more. I have a huge stack of index cards with scene ideas on, but when it comes to sitting down and actually writing, nothing comes out. Words form in my mind but evaporate before they get to my fingers. 

I am in a deep funk. 

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All of my creativity has left me. I don’t even want to read about pandemics anymore, and my high-concept airport book of a novel feels like an impossible thing to write. I’m scared of getting the science wrong and looking like an idiot. I’m scared of focusing too much on the science and ending up with flat, soulless characters. I’m scared that it’s going to be too depressing and that I won’t find hope amongst the sea of bodies. I’m scared that I’ll never finish it. 

(I was not scared that I’d get gazumped by a real pandemic and have an unsellable doorstop on my hands. I should have been.)

I’d been living in Sheboygan for 18 months and was really enjoying it. We had a lovely house with lots of space – it was the biggest, nicest house I have ever lived in – and we were going out and making friends. My business was doing well and I’d just paid off the last of the massive debt I’d accrued when a previous business went under. I had the most financial stability and the highest disposable income that I’d ever had.

Every duck was aligned. I should have been feeling extraordinarily creative. Instead, I was creatively dead. The world had gone to hell in a handbasket and I was feeling, to quote myself from back then, ‘demoralised and unhappy’. 

Then, at some point in December 2016, I realised that I had only two choices: Give up or Jedi mind trick myself into a better mood. 

So, on 29 December, I launched Creative 2017 – my plan to spend ten minutes every day doing something fun. Ten minutes felt like a doable commitment. I could (almost) always find ten minutes, no matter what my day turned into. 

January was spent playing around with a brush calligraphy set that my husband had bought me in Singapore in 2015. I was terrible at it, spending days doing lines, squiggles, dots and little triangles. But such repetitive work rapidly put me into a state of flow, fully immersed in what I was doing. On Day 18, I wrote: 

I think one of the things that is so delightful about this project is that there’s no pressure at all. I’m not doing this for a reason. I don’t have an end goal. I’m just doing it because it’s there, because I find it enjoyable. It’s been ages since I’ve been creative for the sake of it, without thinking about whether there’s something to hang on the wall at the end of it, or whether the end result is going to be good enough to give as a gift. 

By the end of January, I had learnt a valuable lesson: 

Well, firstly, that there’s a lot of joy in doing something for the sake of it, without having a goal or any pressure. I’ve also learnt that you can improve rapidly with just a small amount of time devoted every day. I’m actually surprised with how much my basic skills have developed since Day 1. It’s really rather satisfying!

February was crochet month, during which I learnt a new stitch every day. March was cat month and I sketched our cats either from life or a photo. I loved that month. I’d like to do that month again. 

In April, I worked on world-building and planning for my novel. May was a month of general blogging, which was a way to handle a bout of travel that precluded regular crafting. That might sound like I slightly betrayed my premise, but it was a sign that the Jedi mind trick was starting to work:

As I said at the beginning of April, I started this project to try to get my brain back into a more creative mode, and it has worked amazingly well. I used that month to work on my book, a non-bloggable project, and I’m happy to report that I am continuing to find time to work on that almost every day. And I’m still incredibly excited by it, more so than any writing project I’ve ever worked on.

June was round hand calligraphy, July and August were both embroidery with some crochet. Then Ada Lovelace Day came knocking at my door and the blog posts and the work on my novel fell away as I got busy with that. But the lapse wasn’t permanent. Rather, the whole plan had worked. My final post, on 6 December 2016, explains: 

There was always an ulterior motive, though, to this whole project, and that was to try to get my authorial juices flowing. In that, the year has been a spectacular success. I started work on my current project in earnest a couple of weeks ago, and am really enjoying myself.

Over the year, I had done three important things: 

  1. I created the habit of giving myself time every day to do something creative.

  2. I associated that time with fun and joy.

  3. I nourished my creative mind until it was ready to write. 

Sometimes, with all the best will in the world, we’re not writing because there are other things we need to do first. And I don’t mean the world-building or the research, I mean feeding our creative selves with flow and bliss and delight. Reminding ourselves that we deserve to take time just for us, for our projects, for our enjoyment. And once we’ve refreshed ourselves the creativity arrives, not without work or effort but after we’ve put in the right work and effort. If it takes a Jedi mind trick and a year to do that, well, so be it. Whatever works, works. 

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Hi there,

I sent my second submission of the year off yesterday, to the Edinburgh TV Festival’s script comp (see below). But I’m going to need to step up the pace if I want to reach my target of 100 rejections this year!

Event: TONIGHT! ‘Why productivity is personal’ webinar

I’ve seen a lot of good things said about Written: How to Keep Writing and Build a Habit That Lasts by Bec Evans and Chris Smith, although I’ve not read it yet.  It’s a book after my own heart, focused on how we can clamber over the barriers that stop us writing, whether that is a lack of time, focus or confidence.

Tonight, co-author Bec Evans is giving a free one-hour webinar at 18:00 GMT, so if you want learn how to develop a healthy writing habit, sign up now!

Opportunity: TOMORROW! Edinburgh TV Festival’s scriptwriting competition closes

The Edinburgh TV Festival’s New Writers Collective 2023 is closing to submissions tomorrow, Wednesday 22 February, so if you want to submit your script, get a wiggle on!

Ten winners will get the opportunity to develop their scripts at an ‘intensive residential retreat with professional guidance from The TV Foundation and from experienced executives and creatives from across the All3Media Group’ as well as getting access to ‘professional networking opportunities’. Entries cost £20.

Event: Will Storr masterclass, 22 March

I’m such a huge fan of Will Storr’s book, The Science of Storytelling. It’s one of the most insightful, most useful books on writing that I’ve ever read, and I’ve read quite a few. So I didn’t even have to think about it when I saw that he’s giving a three-hour masterclass on 22 March, I just booked.

Tickets are £39 for the first 50 people to book, £50 thereafter.

I’ve read The Science of Storytelling twice now and I’m eager for this seminar. I want to internalise as much of Storr’s work as I possibly can so that my subconscious can draw from it in the background as I write. Yes, it really is that good!

WAIW? Let’s take out some head trash

Over on Why Aren’t I Writing?, I wrote about why it’s so important to take out your ‘head trash’ – those negative stories and beliefs we tell ourselves are true, but which aren’t. Clearing out your head trash doesn’t just make you happier, it frees you up to focus on the things that are really important to you, like writing. Take a look!

Embroidered cat.Obligatory cat picture

In 1885, Elizabeth Wardle, owner of the Leek School of Art Embroidery, decided that the UK needed a full-size replica of the Bayeux Tapestry (which is actually embroidery). She and 37 other women set to work and their work is now on display at Reading Museum.

I popped in to see it on Saturday and discovered this adorable cat embroidered in the border (as well as some other gems).

That’s it for this week!

All the best,


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Let’s take out some head trash

by Suw on February 15, 2023

Stock Image Woman has yeeted her head trash so far into deep space she needs a telescope to see it. Well done her.

The most important stories in all of the world are the stories we tell ourselves and, particularly, the ones we tell ourselves about who we are and what we’re capable of. Although some people’s inner monologue is full of affirmations of how awesome they are and how they deserve success, most of us are a bit less positive.

It’s not that it’s just easier to dwell on the negatives, it’s that we’re hardwired to feel loss more deeply than we feel gain. ‘Loss aversion is the tendency to prefer avoiding losses to acquiring equivalent gains’ says Wikipedia. ‘Some studies have suggested that losses are twice as powerful, psychologically, as gains.’

We also pay more attention to losses and to situations that could cause loss. Indeed, ’loss attention may be more robust than loss aversion’.

Although the discussion of loss aversion and loss attention seem to focus predominantly on the loss of physical objects or money, we humans don’t much like any sort of loss, whether that’s loss of status, loss of time, loss of skill, loss of our good name. It all hurts. And we kick ourselves for it.

A lifetime, however long or short, of experiencing all these different types of loss means that it’s only too easy to develop a defective understanding of the world and our place in it. We take our losses as indicative of inherent failings, rather than treat them as a transitory experience.

There’s a gendered aspect to this. Girls take failure harder than boys and are more likely to ‘blame academic failure on a lack of talent’ than boys, according to a large study published last year.

In 71 of the 72 countries studied, even when performance was equal, girls were more inclined to attribute their failures to a lack of talent than boys, who were likelier to blame external factors. The sole exception was Saudi Arabia.

Contrary to what one may expect, the differences were most pronounced in wealthy nations.

And in my experience, the biases that exist in girls’ minds also exist in women’s minds.

We take loss hard and we believe failure is an indictment of our talents, and then we craft that into narratives that we carry with us every day, and which affect how we respond to other people and to situations, often with negative effects on the outcomes of our interactions and experiences.

In his book, Start Finishing, Charlie Gilkey uses the term ‘head trash’ to describe these ‘self-limiting stories’ which are ‘based on our own personal experiences, histories and contexts’.

‘Head trash’ has been one of the most useful phrases I’ve picked up in a long time. Naming something gives us power over it and being able to say to myself or my husband, ‘OK, I’m going to take out some head trash now’ has allowed me to articulate and, more importantly, discard some of these false narratives.

In psychology, and in particular sports psychology, head trash is called ‘negative self-talk’ and if you do a quick google you will find dozens and dozens of articles about how to combat it. There are articles and scholarly papers about everything from reframing to affirmations to using cognitive behavioural therapy to try to deal with negative self-talk. And sometimes a robust approach is needed. Gilkey suggests a three-part approach to stubborn head trash:

  1. Be aware of ‘self-defeating beliefs and patterns’.
  2. Have the courage to challenge and mitigate those beliefs.
  3. Take responsibility for the change.

But still, sometimes, all that’s needed is to say the thing aloud. Says Gilkey:

Head trash always looks absurd when you state it directly because you see it for what it is. It’s the adult version of the monster under the bed; its power over us rests upon it remaining in the darkness.

I find the term ‘head trash’ better than ‘negative self-talk’ because it’s so much less formal, less medicalised, and that makes it much more approachable. More than that, ‘negative self-talk’ feels rather like it’s blaming me for not being kinder to myself, whereas ‘head trash’ focuses on the nature of the mistaken beliefs that I carry around.

It’s easy, when I’m walking in the park with my husband, to say ‘Can I throw out some head trash? I’ve been stressing about the fact that my newsletter subscriber numbers have dipped and I’m scared that means that no one wants to hear what I have to say.’

As soon as I say that out loud, its ridiculousness becomes immediately apparent, not just to my husband but also to me. Starting any newsletter is a marathon, not a sprint, and lulls in sign-ups are to be expected. They say nothing at all about the quality of my writing and they say less than nothing about me as a person.

As soon as I’ve said it, its power over me vanishes.

Whether our head trash is self-deprecating (‘I’m a terrible writer’) or catastrophising (‘No one will ever read my newsletter’), naming it allows you to get rid of it. Taking out the head trash has become an almost daily occurrence in our household and we’re getting so good at it that it takes hardly any time. We identify what’s worrying us, we articulate it, we explain why it’s head trash, and then we throw it out and move on.

Like dealing with life admin, which I talked about in an earlier post, dealing with head trash frees up space in your mind for more creative work. But more than that, we internalise so many negative stories about writing that there is a whole subset of specialist head trash that we need to deal with in order to be effective and happy writers.

So learn to recognise your head trash, find a way to articulate it (even if it’s just talking aloud to yourself), and bin it. You don’t need that rubbish in your life.

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Hi there,

This week, I’ve made some progress on my TV series and written another post for my other newsletter. Coincidentally, it seems like newsletters are turning into the most reliable way for authors to keep in touch with their audiences now, because social media is a dumpster fire (we kinda knew that already). Plus there’s a new prize for women’s non-fiction, a competition for playwrights and, indeed, an entire thread of opportunities!

Suw’s News: More Tag progress

I’ve made a bit of progress on Tag over the last seven days. I finished editing Episode 3 and got it up to length, having added in the much needed B and C stories. I’ve also worked out a better process for slotting in the new scenes which involves writing the episode outline, scene by scene, on a piece of paper and sticking Post-It notes everywhere. It seems so obvious in retrospect, but it’s much easier than trying to work from directly the episode grid that’s on my wall.

Now I’m on to Ep 4, which is a whole other level of terrible. It’s half the length it needs to be and, although I’ve planned out where and how I’m adding in the B and C stories, I think it’s still going to be much too short because there’s not enough A story for the full hour. At this stage, I think I’ll just do the best I can and deal with its shortness later. If I can nail some income soon, I might hire someone to do a story edit to help me smooth out the lumps.

WAIW? You don’t have to be ‘in the mood’ to write

Writing when you don’t want to can be miserable. When I was a music journalist 20+ years ago, one of my regular gigs was to turn press releases into short news items and it was one of the most boring jobs I’ve ever had.

But equally, waiting until you’re ‘in the mood’ creates unnecessary barriers and delays that can hamper your writing career, especially if you’re on deadline or if ‘the mood’ never arrives. In last week’s Why Aren’t I Writing?, I tackled the pernicious and very wrong idea that you need to be in the mood to write.

Read this: Author newsletters are where it’s at

This newsletter from Simon Owens has a couple of really interesting sections.

Firstly, newsletters are becoming more important for authors as social media channels become less and less functional and as Amazon pushes authors towards having to invest large sums of money in ads on its own platform in order to reach readers who would previously have found them through organic search.

Newsletters take a while to build, though if you use platforms like Substack or Beehive rather than mailing list tools like Mailchimp or Mailerlite, then you can build that audience much faster. Owens suggests that publishers are now more interested in authors’ newsletter subscriber base than social media numbers, which makes sense given how few views the average tweet gets (see below for more on that).

Secondly, the hype around TikTok, and BookTok in particular, is all starting to come undone as successful TikTok users push their community over to newsletters and/or YouTube as soon as engagement on TikTok goes down. TikTok might work for some people as a way to rapidly create an audience, but it’s no good for monetisation.

If you want to promote your book via a newsletter, Substack has a long post (with lots of comments) on how various authors have done just that. Worth a read if you want some ideas!

Writing women: New non-fiction Women’s Prize Trust

The new Women’s Prize for Non-Fiction is currently seeking sponsors and aims to “amplify female voices, whilst celebrating books that inform, entertain, challenge, disrupt, and offer solace and connection.”

Research has shown that women’s non-fiction writers get fewer reviews, are less likely to be shortlisted or to win book prizes, get a lower advance and are less likely to end up in ‘best of’ lists. There are also just fewer non-fiction books published by women (£). A new prize is much needed to draw attention to the amazing non-fiction written by women.

The Charlotte Aitken Trust has pledged £30,000 of prize money for the winner, for the next three years. The Women’s Prize Trust is planning to launch in time to present a winner in 2024, so if you write non-fiction, keep an eye on their Twitter feed or Facebook page.

Opportunity: Playwrights wanted

Rebound Productions are searching for original 10-15 minute plays featuring two or three characters for their spring showcase, and are particularly keen to hear from people of colour and women. Deadline is 28 February. There are no T&Cs on their site, so do your due diligence if you get through!

Tweet of the week: Writing opportunities for 2023

The Asian Writer has put together a thread list of prizes, competitions and development schemes in the UK. There’s all sorts there, including opportunities for unpublished women, people from underrepresented communities, short story writers, writers from the North, poets, Asian women, essay writers and a lot more.

Read this with a stiff drink in your hand: The enshittification of social media

Chuck Wendig has a long post cataloguing the state of social media, for authors in particular. It does not make for happy reading. Where it used to be possible to develop a decent audience on social media platforms like Twitter and, to some extent, sell books there, it’s become a lot harder in recent years.

To be fair, social media has never been the silver sales bullet that publishers wanted it to be, but you could at least reach your audience. But the main platforms’ algorithms now de-emphasise posts with links in, which is a bit of a pain if you’re trying to get people to go somewhere else to buy a book or, indeed, subscribe to a newsletter.

If you’re not depressed enough after Chuck’s post, try Cory Doctorow on for size. Always sharp and to the point, Cory explains the ‘enshittification’ of the internet and social media, and particular why the majority of your followers will never see your posts. He says:

“I have ~500k followers on Twitter and my threads used to routinely get hundreds of thousands or even millions of reads. Today, it’s hundreds, perhaps thousands.”

I have just over 7,000 followers (a number which has been steadily declining over recent months) and I’m lucky if a tweet gets 100-200 views and if a link gets 2 or 3 clicks.

What’s the answer? I don’t have proven solutions, but I do have two ideas.

1. If you want to to see someone succeed, you have to become an active promoter of their work – don’t just like a tweet, quote tweet it and say why you like it, because Twitter’s algorithm probably won’t show it to anyone otherwise. Reshare posts on Facebook and LinkedIn, etc., and tag people you think might like them. Comment. Engage. Tell the algorithms that This Stuff Is The Good Stuff.

2. Subscribe to people’s newsletters. For now at least, newsletters give us creators a direct line to you. You’ve chosen to receive this newsletter and most of the time it actually will turn up in your inbox, unlike social media posts which frequently aren’t displayed to the very people who have literally asked to see them (looking at you especially, Facebook). But more than that, have a think about someone you know who might like your favourite newsletters and suggest that they take a look.

Word of mouth is powerful and, very soon, it might be all we have left.

Obligatory cat picture

Grabbity hiding under a Maasai blanket that Kevin bought in Kenya when he was doing some work over there back in 2011.

That’s it for this week!

All the best,


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Stock Image Woman knows that she can write whenever she damn well pleases.

Sitting at my desk yesterday afternoon, I found myself staring at my computer screen, mulling over whether to write or not. I didn’t really feel like it, but nothing on my To Do list was on fire and I’ve promised myself that I’ll make the most of this work lull to get my six-part TV series scripts finished.

I had the opportunity to write.

I didn’t feel like writing.

There was nothing else more important to do.

I wrote.

And, of course, as soon as I put my fingertips on the keyboard I became completely absorbed and ending up having a very productive hour in which I solved a fairly large issue with the episode I’m currently working on.

There is no mood

I can’t count the number of times I’ve complained to my online friends that I’m ‘Just not feeling it today’ and then gone on to get loads of words written. If I’m honest with myself, it’s because ‘I’m not in the mood’ is nothing more than an excuse. It’s a convenient way to let myself off the hook, even though I know I don’t actually need to be in any particular frame of mind to write, I just need to sit myself down and get on with it.

Indeed, the idea that writing well depends on ‘being in the mood’ is a pernicious writing fallacy which stops people being consistently and persistently creative. It plays into the extremely wrong idea that writing, and particularly creative writing, is a gift bestowed by the gods only on the most special of people at the most special of times. It rarifies the act of writing, turns it from an everyday activity into something anomalous, something exceptional. Only those blessed by the presence of a Muse can gather together those ethereal threads of inspiration and weave them into poetry or prose.

Slaps forehead with back of hand and swoons.

Well, bollocks to that.

If you want to write, I promise that you do not have to waste time waiting for Calliope or her sisters to show up. You have it in you to write whenever and wherever the hell you like.

Why do you think you need to be in the mood?

If you feel like you have to be in the mood to write, but you’d like to get rid of that unnecessary restriction, the first thing you need to do is ask yourself why. I don’t believe that laziness exists – there’s always something else going on. Have a dig and ask yourself what is preventing you from writing.

Perhaps you don’t feel very confident and worry that putting words on the screen will prove to yourself how bad you are. Whilst you’re probably much better than you think you are, it doesn’t really matter because we are all learning with every single word we write. Writing is a process. So is editing. Embrace it.

Maybe you don’t have much time, so you feel that you’ll just get frustrated if you start, get into your writing, and then have to stop before you want to. Every book was written one word at a time, so if you only have time to write one word, that’s still one word less to write later. Use even the shortest scraps of time to write and celebrate the fact that you have to leave your writing whilst you still feel excited and have more to say. It’ll be much easier to pick it up next time.

Or possibly you just don’t know what comes next. This is almost always down to a lack of preparation, so instead of writing words, spend the time working on your outline, background research, characters or world-building. There’s always something constructive to do that will move your project along. After all, writing isn’t just typing.

There are many other reasons you might not be feeling in the mood, but once you’ve identified what’s really going on, you can acknowledge the problem, solve it or set it to one side, and then sit down and write.

All words are equal

I’ve heard people say that if they don’t ‘feel it’ they produce lower quality work. Now, it’s true that writing is sometimes a breeze and sometimes like pulling teeth, but how it feels as you write has nothing to do with how it reads back later. What I write on hard days reads no differently to what I write on easy days.

But if you want to prove to yourself that there’s no difference, here’s an exercise:

1. For a week, write at least 50 words a day on a single project. It doesn’t matter whether it’s something you’re already working on or something you’re doing just for this exercise, as long as each day’s work follows on from the last.

2. In a separate document, make a note of what you wrote and how you felt at the time. Was it easy? Hard? Painful? Excruciating? If you happen to have an easy week, keep going until you have a couple of days where it’s hard, and if it’s all hard, keep going until you have an easy day.

3. Give your work to a trusted friend and ask them to make a note every time they notice the quality of the writing change. What reads well? What doesn’t? If you don’t have a trusted friend, set the work aside for a few weeks and re-read it yourself.

4. Compare notes. The chances of your friend’s notes matching up with your self-reported experience of writing are next to nil.

How we feel as we write is influenced by a whole host of factors that have nothing to do with our creativity. Are we tired? Rushed? Excited? Just had an argument? Hungry? Thirsty? Just had a pleasant surprise? All of those things influence our mood, but they don’t influence how our creativity functions so they aren’t reflected in our writing.

There’s always editing

If, after doing this, you still believe that you produce better work when you’re ‘in the mood’, remember that there are no words that can’t be edited, except those you haven’t written. Writing when you’re not in the mood is a skill you can practice. The more you practice it, the easier it will become. And the easier it becomes, the less you have to frogmarch yourself to your desk and sternly force yourself to write.

Soon, you’ll be writing whenever and wherever you like and getting a lot more done.

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Hi there,

We’re back to gloriously sunny but really quite nippy weather again, so I’m getting chewed out by Copurrnicus who really wants to go outside but there’s frost on the ground and he doesn’t like it. Grabbity’s chewing me out because she doesn’t like the food that’s down. And my subconscious is chewing me out because I had a slow start to the day.  Stupid subconscious.

WAIW?: Fear of the blank page, clearing your mind and productivity

Last week, I spent quite a bit of time working on my new Substack newsletter, Why Aren’t I Writing?, in which I’m exploring all the things that get in our way and stop us writing. I’ve now got three posts up:

If you like the look of any of those, please do pop over and have a read. And, of course, sign up and share the links if you like!

Tip-top tip: How to write a novel synopsis

One of the worst things about preparing a novel submission pack is writing the synopsis. It feels like an impossible task. I’ve got a 120,000 word story and I’ve got to cram the essence of it into 500 words? How?

Jericho Writers have put together possibly the best guide to writing a good synopsis that I’ve ever seen. As well as explaining what a synopsis is and what it’s for, they also provide clear advice on how to create what is one of the most important documents you’ll ever write. Plus they share two important tricks to make writing your synopsis easier.

Before I submit my novel again, I’m going to redo my synopsis using this guide and I’m sure it’s going to be a lot better.

Read this: Is a good book all about the vibes?

Responding to a tweet by Cristina Rivera Garza, Kate McKean asks if a good book is all about the ‘vibes’, wherein vibes are the atmospheric whole which is greater than the sum of the plot, character and writing craft parts.

I recently started reading Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen after listening to Francesca Steel interview Garner, who’s now 88, and realising I’d never read any of his work. Within a few pages, I was strongly reminded of Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series, not just because of the similar plot – children being thrust into a magical battle between good and evil – but because the atmosphere is so similar.

The reason that I go back to The Dark Is Rising again and again and again is the atmosphere. It’s not just the quality of the prose or the characterisation or dialogue that draws me in, but something a bit deeper. Garner and and Cooper were born just over seven months apart and both clearly tapped into cultural and mythological veins that were very of a time. Landscape and geography are also fundamental to their work, and yet, even that isn’t enough to describe why they are so compelling and beloved.

Honestly, the only thing I can put it down to is the vibes.

Stop, look, listen: Not Too Busy To Write, S6E3 – Catherine Newman

Sometimes I recommend a podcast episode because it contains a nugget of wisdom that elucidates an interesting aspect of the writing craft or business, but this week I’m recommending S6E3 of Not too Busy to Write, because Penny Wincer’s interview with Catherine Newman is simply a joy to listen to. It’s hilarious, it’s thought-provoking and it’s poignant.

If you listen carefully there are some wise nuggets in there about accepting the authorial voice you’ve got; the difference between freelancing, which is writing because you’ve been hired to, and writing a novel, which is writing that no one asked you to do; plus using sticker charts for motivation. But mostly it’s just a wonderful conversation that has brightened my day considerably!

Christopher Nolan’s plot map for Inception

Plot map for InceptionDoing the rounds on social media has been Christopher Nolan’s hand-drawn plot map for Inception, originally featured in The Nolan Variations: The Movies, Mysteries, and Marvels of Christopher Nolan by Tom Shone.

I love visual representations of film plots like this. It’s so simple and clean, and yet Inception is just so mindboggling.

If you’re wondering what a ‘kick’ is, according to the Inception fan wiki:

One method used to awaken from a dream within a dream is called a “kick”, which is the sensation of falling, hitting water, or a sharp jolt that can startle the sleeper awake.

I’m going to rewatch Inception with this plot map to hand, just to try to wrap my head around the film’s structure a little better.

Obligatory cat picture

Grabbity and Copurrnicus playing with a fishing rod.Grabbity and Copurrnicus love those fishing rod type toys, but Copurrnicus has an awful habit of chewing through the cords. Thankfully he doesn’t eat it, (I keep a very close eye on what he’s doing), because linear foreign bodies can be fatal. But it does mean we end up with a lot of fishing rod and not much toy.

So the other day I bought a collapsible fishing rod on eBay, wound the spool with a thin cord I had laying about, and it has been an absolute hit. I don’t bother putting any kind of toy on the end, because that makes it too easy for Copurrnicus to grab hold and chew through. Though if he does, I can just throw that bit away and unspool some more. Genius!

That’s it for this week. Don’t forget to check out Why Aren’t I Writing? and subscribe if you want more writing tips to arrive directly in your inbox!

All the best,


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With several creative projects on the go, plus a mortally wounded business to rescue, I am currently finding it a little challenging to get moving of a morning. I’m so used to my To Do list being on fire – with too many tasks that should have been done yesterday or, preferably, last month – that this current lull brought on by the end of Ada Lovelace Day is proving difficult to navigate.

So I’m going back to basics and looking at ways I can create some clarity and structure that will help me make the most of my time.

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Refining my To-Do list

To-Do lists are possibly the oldest productivity tool we have and many words have been spilt about exactly how best to maintain them. There are countless apps and websites to manage them, a lot of which let you set an incredible level of detail for each task such as allotting it to a project, adding a deadline, and defining multiple statuses that each task might progress through.

The dirty truth is that it doesn’t really matter which app you use or whether you prefer to rely on pen and paper, so long as you actually keep your list up to date and refer to it regularly. Equally, amongst all To-Do list tips, there’s only one that’s genuinely essential:

Each to do item must be a single, well-defined task that can be executed without requiring further clarification.

So ‘Write report’ is not a task, but ‘Draft report structure in bullet points’ is. Quite often, if you’re looking at your To-Do list and feeling overwhelmed by it all and unsure where to start, it’s because you have written down a list of projects, not a list of tasks.

Luckily, the fix is relatively easy: rewrite your list and make sure that each item is a single action that you have clearly defined and could begin without needing to think further about what it means.

My recent switch in focus has meant that I have had to throw out my To Do lists from last year because they were mostly ALD-related tasks that no longer need to be done. I have a single To-Do list for each creative project, and they look very, very different to my business list (fewer flames for one thing). It’s really quite discombobulating. But my lists are doing their job and that’s what counts.

Urgent vs Important

Rare is the person whose To-Do list isn’t, to all intents and purposes, infinite. As soon as you finish one thing, something else pops up to take its place. Equally true is that not all of the tasks on your list are actually worth doing. But how can you tell what you should focus on and what you should ditch (or get someone else to do)?

Once you’ve written your To-Do list, you can use the Urgent vs Important Matrix, or Eisenhower Matrix, to prioritise it. List your tasks in a two-by-two grid, classifying each task by whether it’s urgent or not urgent, important or not important.

Your main priority should generally be those tasks that fall into the urgent and important quadrant in the top left. Tasks that are not urgent but are important are next in line, or should be scheduled so that they don’t become urgent. Tasks that are urgent but not important need a bit of interrogation: Why are they on your To-Do list and what would you gain by doing them? Can you delegate them or not do them? Anything in the not urgent and not important quadrant just needs striking off your list completely.

You might not be surprised to read that I find this process much harder when I’m sorting through my creative To-Do list than my business list. For decades being creative was something I did when I had time, not during my work day. But now that I’m prioritising a creative life and, indeed, getting paid for it, I’m having to upend a whole lot of routines and mindsets that no longer serve me well. The biggest change is that it’s now OK for me to write my script or research short films or read writing advice books during the day, because that’s my job now. Crikey!

The Pomodoro Technique

On days when it’s really hard to get started, the Pomodoro Technique is perfect. Named after a tomato-shaped kitchen timer – pomodoro means tomato in Italian – it is possibly the simplest way to force yourself to get on with your work:

  • Decide what you’re going to do.

  • Set a timer for 25 minutes.

  • Start.

  • Stop when the timer goes off, and take a 3-5 minute break.

If I am really struggling with focus, I set the timer for 15 minutes – even I can focus for 15 minutes and quite often once I’ve got started I find it much easier to keep going.

The official technique, which was developed by Francesco Cirillo in the 80s, includes more details around counting pomodoros, which is what each bout of productivity is called, into sets of four, recording each completion with a tick, and taking longer breaks after sets. But ultimately, it’s really about just putting a timer on and not allowing yourself any distractions until you hear that alarm go off.


For challenging days, I buddywork with friends on Slack. We have a channel for it, and I’ll state my goals for the next half hour and then check back in at the allotted time to report on my progress. Holding myself accountable like this is very effective when I’ve got particularly tedious or gnarly tasks on my list that I really don’t want to do – telling someone what I’m going to do creates a commitment strong enough to push me through the difficult task. And my friends will nag me if I get distracted!

Time tracking

One thing that’s easier than losing time to social media, chatting, or making cups of tea is not recognising when you’ve lost time to social media, chatting, or making cups of tea. And worse, if you’ve had the wrong kind of busy day, full of unanticipated or involved tasks, it can be easy to feel as if you haven’t done anything.

The best way to tackle both of these problems is to track your time so that you know exactly how much time you spent doing what. There are quite a few time trackers available, although I use Toggl’s free plan. Using it to track work on particular projects or type of task gives me a clear idea at the end of the day of just how I’ve used my time.

I don’t get too specific with my tasks, so “Admin”, “Email”, or “Newsletter” are sensible categories, but “Sending an email to Scrooge McDuck” is too specific. I am scrupulously honest with myself and turn the tracker off when I check Facebook or go get a glass of water. That way, I know exactly how I’m doing. I aim for five hours of productive work each day, and I always know when I’ve reached that target.

Once you’re in the habit of tracking your time, you’ll gain a useful insight into how your days unfold. Are you taking a longer lunch than you should? Or losing time when you’re switching tasks? Or spending more time on social media than you imagined? A time tracker will help reveal these gaps in your day so that you can make adjustments, such as maybe moving your lunch earlier so that you get a clearer run in the afternoon, or giving yourself a defined break mid-afternoon so that you can regain a little clarity for the last part of the day.

Why Aren’t I Writing? is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.

(This post is based on one I wrote for the Finding Ada Network, thus forming a bonus tip for you: Reduce, reuse, recycle! A wise marketing guru once told me to use every piece of content three times – you put the effort in to create it, so make sure you get the most out of it.)

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January was a month of some hardcore adulting. I did a host of things that I’d been putting off: Getting a dental appointment to check that the root canal and synthetic bone graft that I had done in Mexico at the end of December 2021 had healed properly and that the ache in my jaw was indeed, as I suspected, just tension. Renewing my driver’s licence photocard and booking a lesson to get me driving again after a 25 year gap. Getting an appointment with an optician. Seeing my physio.

I might sound like a hypochondriac, but this list of worries and ailments has accumulated over the last few years. It’s all stuff I’ve put off because either I was scared (driving), or because I was in the wrong country (physio), or because last year’s transatlantic move got in the way (everything else). But it’s also all stuff that has lived rent-free in my head for all that time, taking up space and taking focus away from other, more important things.

I once read that the point at which you overcome procrastination is the point at which the pain of not doing something becomes worse than the pain of doing it. The stress of not getting these health issues checked out has been eroding my energy levels for months. I’d wake in the middle of the night worrying about them, despite knowing intellectually that they were likely all benign and solvable problems.

The knock-on effect of that was not just disrupted sleep. It took up time I could have spent doing more constructive things and it literally wasted my energy. Thinking burns calories – the brain takes up about 20 percent of your daily energy usage – so every thing I worried about was draining my batteries. More to the point, absolutely none of these chores were as big of a deal as I had built them up to be and most were sorted quickly and painlessly. All of that worry was for nothing.

Now, I know this sounds like a very longwinded way of saying ‘Clear your head’, but we’re not talking here about clearing your head the way that you might half-arsedly clear a table. You’re not putting things on the kitchen countertop and ignoring them, you actually have to do the washing up.

I’ve had this sporadic dull ache in my jaw for three years and, despite several X-rays and a CT scan, I’d still managed to build it up in my head into something it wasn’t. Stress will do that. Getting it looked at again wasn’t so much about a medical diagnosis, but more about getting the worry out of my head, hopefully permanently this time.

Clearing your head means being honest with yourself about the things that are worrying you, (even if those things seem small or silly or irrational), gathering the strength to address them, and then putting them behind you. It’s about recognising the pain of not doing something and then getting it done, sooner rather than later.

Obviously some stressors are not easily dealt with. If you’re short of money, for example, or stuck in an awful situation, you can’t just fix that with a bit of willpower and a spare half hour. But you can start taking steps: See a debt counsellor, make a plan, or even just outline the issue. Actively addressing a problem can help you feel more in control, and that helps clear your head.

Clearing your head is important because it literally makes room in you brain for other, more creative thoughts. It really is that simple.

I have so many ideas when I’m lying in bed or walking into town or in the shower. Ideas don’t generally come when I sit down to write, they need time and space to incubate before then. But they won’t get the opportunity to sprout and grow if my brain is constantly ruminating about my achy jaw or getting the cats’ yearly vaccinations booked.

Life admin sucks, no doubt about it. But keeping on top of it and clearing those worries out of your head is essential if you want to have a consistently creative life.

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