March 2023

Knowing when to stop

by Suw on March 29, 2023

Hint: It’s sooner than you think it is.

Last week over on my other Substack, Word Count, I mentioned a podcast that I’d been listening to: London Writers’ Salon #048 with Oliver Burkeman. Burkeman, the author of Four Thousand Weeks, had a lot to say that was interesting, but there were a couple of things that stood out. Perfectionism I’ll go into in another post, but what I want to talk about today is how to know when to stop writing.

I’ve written before about The Pomodoro Technique – 25 minute sprints to get yourself going on a writing session – but I’ve never thought about when I stop. Like many, I use sprints to break the mental ice and get my creative juices going. If I’m feeling really uninspired, I will put a timer on for just five minutes and get my head down. Even if I only open the document and type one word, that counts.

It always works. Once I start, something in my mind uncorks and off I go. And I keep going, often long past the original 5 or 25 minutes. Indeed, I keep going until I run out of steam and then I put my metaphorical pencil down and wrap it up for the night.

But that might well be a mistake.

“We hear so much about the importance of getting started,” Burkeman says. “And it’s all true. But we don’t hear so much about the importance of stopping, because people tend to feel that if you’ve decided you’re going to write for half an hour, or you’re going to do 300 words, and then you find that you can actually do more, that’s got to be a good thing.”

He points to work by psychologist Robert Boyce, who “found in his studies of academic writers that what’s driving that, a lot of the time, is impatience and a fear that inspiration will never strike again, and so it has to be seized right now. You can’t afford to stop and walk away.”

Boyce’s work suggests that we should, instead, stop when we say we’re going to stop, rather than carrying on writing until we’ve exhausted our creativity. If Burkeman’s going through a rough patch with his writing, instead of riding the wave of inspiration, he stops after 45 or even 30 minutes, obliging himself to “walk away and not do any more of that kind of work”.

“And if you do that for a few days,” he says, “what I find is it becomes really exciting to get back to the work, right? You execute some sort of judo move on your motivation, because instead of staying with it until you’re played out, and then building it up into something that you fear the next day, it becomes this very tiny thing, you realise you did enjoy it in certain ways, and you gradually can’t wait to get back to it. And then you can start extending again the amount of time that you’re putting into it.”

Indeed, Boyce found that “the most successful and most prolific academic writers were the ones who made writing only a moderate part of their lives, even if they could, in principle, make it a huge part of their lives.”

It’s completely counterintuitive, but if you find yourself constantly struggling to get started, perhaps instead focus on stopping.

I’ve heard of authors finishing a writing session in the middle of a sentence so that they have something obvious to start with the next day. I tried that once, but by the next day I’d forgotten how the sentence was going to end.

Instead, I think the trick is learning to stop when you feel like you’ve had a productive session but still have words left to write, and then use that as something to look forward to. And jot some notes down if you’re worried that you’re going to forget where you were going. It’s a relay race, not a sprint, so make sure you know how today’s you is going to hand the baton over to tomorrow’s you.

{ Comments on this entry are closed }

Plus advice on structuring non-fiction, The Pembrokeshire Murders and a Grabbity burrito.

Hi there,

I’m now well into the third week of the worst cold I’ve ever had and my brain has been foggy to say the least. But let’s see if I can at least pull together a few coherent sentences for you!

Suw’s News: When not to submit

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned that Liverpool-based LA Productions had a script submission window open until 6 April. I thought hard about revising the pilot of Tag so that it would be ready for submitting, but this damned cold put paid to that.

However, I also spent some time looking up their past work and it’s all gritty drama, including Jimmy McGovern’s Moving On. If I sent them an urban fantasy that requires lots of CGI, well, I can imagine the looks on their faces. Even if I had been well enough to do the revisions, it still wouldn’t have been a good fit. Sometimes, the decision not to submit is the right decision.

Read this: Create a Character Clinic

The feedback I got from my script editor for Tag made me realise that I needed to go back and do some serious development work on at least two characters. I’d got Holly Lisle’s Create A Character Clinic ebook in a Humble Bundle a while back and, after just a quick look, decided to buy the full clinic including worksheets, as it’s only $3.99. It has been well worth the money.

Lisle guides you through a series of questions to ask your characters which slowly builds up a picture of how your character thinks and operates, what their past, present and future look like, and how they think about themselves. It gives you a well-rounded view of your characters, more so than some of the character sheets I’ve tried in the past. Lisle also advises that you keep some question in reserve so that you have something to go back to if you get stuck whilst writing, which is smart advice.

I’ve found Create a Character to be the most useful character development framework I’ve ever used and I honestly can’t recommend it enough.

Read this, two: Why do so many action heroes have names beginning with J?

John Wick, Jason Bourne, Jack Reacher, John McClane, James Bond, Jack Bauer, John James Rambo. Just why do so many action heroes have names that begin with the letter J?

Demetria Glace looked at the data for 790 movies “featuring an everyman-type lead” that have been released over the last 70 years. She found that 33 per cent of the lead male characters have names that start with a J, whereas the letter M came in second place with just seven percent of the action heroes listed. The explanatory theories are various, including that these names are just more common, that they represent the everyman (think “average Joe” or “honest John”), that auteur filmmakers are naming their heroes after themselves, or that the sound J names make is just more positive and heroic.

You’ll have to read the whole article to find out which, if any, of these theories holds water!

Read this, three: Advice on structuring non-fiction

Developmental editor Laura Portwood-Stacer has a great thread about the issues that she sees in scholarly book manuscripts, and her advice holds very true for any kind of non-fiction book. She lists ten issues that she commonly comes across, most of which are pretty easy to fix if you’re alert to the potential problem, starting with:

10. Chapters lack clear internal structure.
Fix this with section headings (3–5 is a good number) that signal how each part of the chapter contributes toward the chapter’s overall purpose/argument—and make sure each part of the chapter actually does contribute

Review: The Pembrokeshire Murders

The Pembrokeshire Murders on itvX showing that you can write great drama whilst sticking to the facts.

I binge-watched (if you can binge a three-parter) The Pembrokeshire Murders over the weekend, the 2021 true crime drama from ITV which follows a six-year investigation into three three crimes – two double murders and an attack on five children including a rape and sexual assault – that had happened between 1985 and 1996.

I enjoyed it immensely and, as with any ‘based on a true story’ series, as soon as I finished it I had to immediately look up just how accurate it is. There are some fairly astonishing twists in the story, so I was surprised to find out that it follows real life events very closely, except for some understandable obfuscation of the identities of some those involved.

It’s a pleasant relief to find a dramatisation of real events sticking to the facts, particularly when so often the liberties taken with real stories are unnecessary. I’m thinking particularly of Ammonite’s invention of a lesbian relationship for palaeontologist Mary Anning when there’s no evidence that she had any romantic relationships with anyone.

Whilst real life rarely gives us neat and tidy stories with the dramatic arcs we expect of TV, The Pembrokeshire Murders shows it’s possible to let a real story sing without making half of it up.

Tweet of the week

I feel seen.

my best writing advice is to have a secret project that no one knows about and that you also never work on

Obligatory cat picture

I’ve been hand-piecing a patchwork sheepskin rug for a friend over the last couple of months. Sunday, I had nearly finished when Grabbity decided that she needed to burrito herself inside it.

Grabbity burrito

That’s it for this week!

All the best,


{ Comments on this entry are closed }

Why do you write?

by Suw on March 22, 2023


Understanding your motivations can provide a solid foundation for writing during times of despair.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the potential impact of so-called ‘artificial intelligence’ such as ChatGPT on the literary world, in particular, the potential for AI-generated spam to drown out works by real human beings. Since then, I’ve had a number of interesting conversations with people in publishing and tech about these tools and the ways in which they can be abused.

I have to say, it has left me feeling quite depressed. It feels like the best time to have begun taking my writing career more seriously was 20 years ago, when advances were still reasonable and AI still the stuff of science fiction.

But it has also made me think about why I write.

For me, writing is an expression of a fundamental part of my personality. I know that I’m quite good at it. I know that I’m much happier when I’m writing. But most importantly of all, I know that I enjoy the entire process. I enjoy everything from having the initial idea to working up a first draft, through editing to sending it out into the world to be read. I love analysing other people’s work, whether that’s books, film or TV, and thinking about how they achieved the effect they were going for. I love thinking about character and plot and story mechanics and structure.

Really, I love the whole nine yards. There’s nothing about writing that I don’t enjoy. It doesn’t matter that sometimes it’s like pulling teeth or that I sometimes I feel tremendous self-doubt, because I will always come out of the other side just as in love with writing as I always was.

I get the impression, though, that for a lot of people the aim is not to write but to have written. Given their druthers, they’d prefer to skip to the end, to the bit where they present their book to the world whilst fanfares play and everyone tells them how fabulous they are.

This is somewhat supported by the stat from a decade ago that 81 per cent of Americans want to write a book. That’s about 200 million people who think they’ve got a book in them. A more recent study found that 15 per cent of Americans had started writing, 6 per cent got to the halfway mark and 8 per cent have finished. I suspect that a large chunk of the 85 per cent who have not started writing are people who’d very much like to have a book with their name on but aren’t so keen on the process of actually writing it.

Another class of author for whom LLMs are attractive are those who are trying to publish books at a tempo that would crush most of us. There are self-published authors on Kindle who are writing and publishing full-length novels within 49 days, from conception to publication. That is a ludicrous schedule, and yes I know Barbara Cartland wrote a book a week, but she had amanuenses to take dictation and someone to edit her (short) manuscripts before they even went off to the publisher. If you’re under the kind of pressure that these high volume writers are under, LLMs are going to look attractive, to assist at the very least.

I suppose I’ve been wondering if my stubbornness to hand craft everything I write is just idiocy. It’s true that, if given an easy way to do something and a hard way, I will always choose the hard way. Is this resistance to, even rejection of, LLMs on my part merely me taking the hard way? Or is there something more?

I don’t write to have written, I write to be read. Sure, it’s a nice feeling when you can wrap up a book or short story, but that comes from knowing that you produced the best work you could, that you expressed an idea that was uniquely yours in a way that only you can. But, for me at least, the majority of my motivation comes from the hope that my readers will enjoy it. Being read is a fundamental part of my writing process. Otherwise, what’s the point?

I feel that there’s a social contract between writer and reader, or storyteller and listener, that goes back eons. I promise to write the best story I can, and you promise to give it a fair chance. And I feel that using an LLM breaks that contract because it would not me writing anymore, it would be an algorithm. It has no heart or soul to put into its writing; it’s just a giant autocomplete.

When I read about LLMs and think about how they put writers’ livelihoods at risk, it does make me wonder why I bother. Why do I put so much time and effort into what I’m writing? Is there going to be anyone, anyone at all, who will care?

I have felt quite disheartened the last couple of weeks. But then last night I did some work on my current script and reminded myself that I do, indeed, love writing. And if I love what I do, perhaps that love will come through in my words and, somehow, reach my reader. That would be worth it, wouldn’t it?

Ultimately, I think it’s important to know why you write. What is it that really motivates you? What gets you excited when you sit down to write? Because when you hit a slough of despond, knowing why you write can help you pull yourself out of it.

Understanding your foundational why? gives you a way back to yourself, to your purpose, to your writing. And there’s no writer alive who doesn’t occasionally get lost and need to find their way home.

{ Comments on this entry are closed }

Plus how using novel fonts can kickstart creativity, introduce yourself via Substack chat, and the Ambassador’s cat.

Suw in a spacesuit

Totally irrelevant photo of me in a UK Space Agency spacesuit, taken at the UK Innovation & Tech Show in Brussels last week.

Hi there,

I didn’t get much writing done at all last week. I went to Brussels for the UK Innovation & Tech Show, where I was on a panel about women in tech. I’ve done a lot of these sorts of panel discussions and this was one of the best, not least because it mostly focused on what people can actually do to attract and retain women in tech roles.

However, whilst I was there I developed a pretty nasty cold, so I spent the end of last week in bed, either watching TV or asleep. My brain has been far too fuzzy to do any work on the script, but that’s just how it rolls sometimes.

Event: London Book Fair

The London Book Fair will be held at Olympia London from 18-20 April. Although LBF used to be purely an industry event, it’s opened up more to authors over the last decade and now has Writer’s Block, which is a section focused on author services, a Writer’s Summit on 19 April at Chelsea Old Town Hall, and the Author HQ. Ticket prices are £64 for a three day pass, and the Writer’s Summit is £199 for the day.

Stop, look, listen: London Writers’ Salon #048 – Oliver Burkeman

This episode of the London Writers’ Salon podcast was so good I think I’m going to have to listen to it a second time. Matthew Trinetti and Parul Bavishi talk to Oliver Burkeman, the author of Four Thousand Weeks, a book that looks at the limitations of human life – we have on average just 4,000 weeks of it – and asks how can we stop trying to cram everything in and make the weeks we have left count?

There was too much interesting stuff in this episode to list it all, but here’s one thing that stuck with me: If you’re prone to perfectionism, you need to recognise that you’ve already failed. We all say that perfectionism is not something to aspire to, that it’s damaging and to be avoided, but we say it with our fingers crossed behind our back.

Burkeman points out that perfectionism is “fundamentally opposed to reality” because there’s no way to actually produce anything perfect. All things that exist in reality are imperfect, so accepting that you’ve already failed to be perfect liberates you to do the work you want to do.

TV: Detectorists

I’ve been so poorly recently that I have spent a lot of time just watching TV, specifically, I binge-watched all three seasons of Detectorists, the delightfully bucolic comedy that was written, directed by and starred Mackenzie Crook. It’s a fascinating series to watch as a screenwriter, not least because it’s so rare to see a TV show where almost nothing happens.

The joy of it is in watching the relationships unfurl slowly in front of you, like billowing sails that very slowly sweep the story forwards. That, and the fact that you know more than the characters do about the treasure they are searching for, and you’re just willing them to find it.

But it also struck me that Detectorists is painfully accurate metaphor for writing. Andy (Crook) and his best friend Lance (Toby Jones), spend vast amounts of time walking the fields, hoping to discover a hoard of golden jewellery and coins that will change their lives. And, well, aren’t we all? We’re all hoping that this book will be the one that makes our fortune. And we’re not helped by the fact that sometimes, people do make amazing finds.

WAIW?: How novel fonts can make you more creative

Our brains crave novelty, and sometimes all that’s needed is a tiny change, like writing in a different font, to kickstart our writing. Indeed, commenter Sunday tried out this seemingly daft tactic and said that it “worked like a charm”!

New: Substack chat

I’ve enabled Substack’s chat functionality, which they’ve recently made available on their web interface as well as on their mobile apps. So if you want to say hello, you can reply to my inaugural thread and introduce yourself. Please do come and tell me a bit about yourself. It’d be great to get to know you.

Obligatory cat picture

Brass statuette of a cat with a raise pawThis rather angry fellow was seen at the Residence of the Ambassador of the United Kingdom in Brussels, which I went to for a reception for the UK Innovation & Tech Show. As you  might expect, the Residence is appointed beautifully, with panelling in the library that was made in around 1772 for the French Embassy in Vienna and installed by the previous owner, Baroness Becker-Remy.

I can, however, find no notes on whose cat modelled for this statue, nor why it was so spicy. I assume someone had just tried to give it a pill.


That’s it for this week. We are coming up to nearly 190 subscribers now, so please do mash that ‘Share’ button below or reshare this tweet. I’d love to reach that lovely round number of 200 before next week’s newsletter! Remember, in this era of diminishing social media audiences, your shares and support are more important than ever.

All the best,


{ Comments on this entry are closed }

The font of all knowledge

by Suw on March 15, 2023

Your brain craves novelty, so changing even tiny things can help creativity.


There were times during the writing of my pandemic novel where I got really, really bored. Not bored of the story nor of the telling of it, but bored of the act of sitting at my computer and typing out what was in my head. I wished I could just get the words out faster, without all the tedious typing and deleting and typing again.

Then I read an article about research by Daniel Oppenheimer, Connor Diemand-Yauman and Erikka Vaughan that showed that we remember more of what we read when it is presented in a more challenging font.

The authors theorized that by making the font harder to read the information would seem more difficult to learn. Based on the concept of disfluency, the students would concentrate more carefully on learning the material. Disfluency, which occurs when something feels hard to do, has been shown to lead people to process information more deeply.

At about the same time, I also learnt that the human brain is a real sucker for novelty. Anything new or unusual is catnip to our attention. Novel stimuli prompt the brain to release dopamine, which encourages you to continue doing whatever you’re doing because your brain is now expecting a reward.

A study by Dr Emrah Düzel found that:

A region in the midbrain (substantia nigra/ventral tegmental), which is responsible for regulating our motivation and reward-processing, responds better to novelty than to the familiar. This system also regulates levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain, and could aid learning. This link between memory, novelty, motivation and reward could help patients with memory problems.

That made me wonder what would happen if I added a bit of disfluency and novelty into my writing practice by using unusual and slightly hard to read fonts. Could I fool my brain into being more interested in writing than it currently was?

I set my document to Alex Brush, which is a nice swirly font, and sat down to write. Sure enough, that particular writing session went far more quickly and successfully than the previous. Soon, I was combing Google Fonts for the most flamboyant, exuberant and ornate fonts I could find. After all, it’s the novelty that’s important, not the font, so if I used Alex Brush all the time, the novelty would wear off and I’d be back to square one.

Some of the fonts that I used were Allura, Dancing Script, Great Vibes, Italianno, Parisienne, Pinyon Script, Rochester, Tangerine, and Zapfino. I picked these for two reason: Firstly, I like script fonts with ligatures and other embellishments and, secondly, they aren’t quite as easy to read as Palatino, which is Scrivener’s default font.

You could just as easily use various serif, sans serif, or display fonts, as long as you pick a font that’s both harder to read and different to the one you usually write in.

Every time I sat down to write, I picked a new font. Sometimes, when a new font wasn’t quite enough, I changed the colour too. I personally like deep, jewel colours which work well for writing because they have a lot of contrast. So when a fancy font in black didn’t tickle my midbrain, a fancy font in dark purple did the trick.

And it worked. That simple act of regularly changing font, and sometimes font colour, got me through that mid-novel marathon.

Of course, any novelty will work. A different word processing program. A different writing environment. Listening to different music. Smelling different smells. Anything that makes our midbrain perk its little ears up and say, “Oh! This is new! This is exciting!” will do.

So the next time you feel a bit bored of the act of typing, ask what you can change.

{ Comments on this entry are closed }

Plus my first rejection of the  year, Top Gun: Maverick script, going to film school in your 40s, and writing good villains.

Hi there,

Lots of things to share this week, so let’s crack on with it!

Suw’s news: Tag speedbump

I’ve had my first rejection of the year, from the All3Media New Writers Collective 2023. As I said in January, I’m aiming for 100 rejections this year, and each one I get will be met with a small celebration because every rejection means I was brave enough to submit in the first place. So yay! Go me!

You might remember that last week I was smugly talking about what great progress I was making with Tag, so in order to keep me humble my subconscious decided that it had nothing at all to say about how to fill the plot holes in Ep5. Not even a whisper. So I decided to go back to first principles and work on character instead.

But now I’ve got to pause that and go back to the pilot because there’s another opportunity to submit a script (more below) and having had a really helpful script report back from one of my editors, there are things I need to fix beforehand.

There’s a nice symmetry to this, as rejection is met by a new submission.

Opportunity: LA Productions script submission window open

Liverpool Academy (LA) Productions, which produces “cutting edge, award-winning drama featuring stellar talent including Sean Bean, Sheridan Smith, Alison Steadman [and] Tim Roth” has opened its script submission window. Writers can submit one script for television only – so no outlines, treatments or pitch decks and no radio plays, stageplays, or features. The deadline is 6 April 2023, so you have a few weeks to get your words in the right order.

Watch this: Charlie Kaufman defends value of writers

Charlie Kaufman was awarded the Laurel Award for Screenwriting Achievement at this year’s Writer’s Guild Awards, and took the opportunity to blast the way that the Hollywood machine treats writers as the people of least value.

“We writers are trained by the business,” Kaufman said. “We are trained to believe what we do is secondary to what they do. We are trained to do the bidding of people who are motivated not by curiosity but by protecting their jobs. […] They’ve tricked us into thinking we can’t do it without them. The truth is they can’t do anything of value without us.”

The most important thing here is that writers must not internalise this idea that we’re at the bottom of the heap. We have enough of our own insecurities to be dealing with, we don’t need to add artificial negativity from film execs as well!

Tweet of the week: Max Edwards on non-fiction agenting

Max Edwards, who is a literary agent for Aevitas Creative Management UK, wrote a thread about how he views agenting and the importance of selling the “promise” of a non-fiction book based on four factors:

  • The quality of the writing
  • The idea
  • The author’s insight
  • The author’s influence

It’s a fascinating thread, so give it a read!

Read this: Top Gun: Maverick script

Much to my surprise, I absolutely loved Top Gun: Maverick. I’ve seen it three times already and wrote about why it was such a huge hit back in December. You can now download the script over on ScriptSlug, which means it must be time to line up a fourth watch, so that I can compare what’s on screen to what’s on the page.

Read this, two: Going to film school in one’s 40s

I always love seeing people blossom in middle age. The world has changed so much over even just the last ten years that things are possible now that weren’t possible when I was younger. So I loved this piece by Dan McGrath about how he sold his house and went to film school in his 40s, how much richer his writing voice is after all that he’s experienced in his life, and how he feels closer to his dream of becoming a screenwriter now than ever before.

If you’re staring down the barrel of middle age, never, ever believe that you are too old to change careers and pursue your dreams!

Stop, look, listen: Scriptnotes, Ep 590 – Anti-villains

John August and Craig Mazin talk about what makes a villain villainous, and why some characters channel trauma into villainy and some into heroics. I love Scriptnotes’ craft-focused episodes, and this one has plenty to make you rethink your heroes and villains!

Mewton with curled paws.Obligatory cat picture

The late Sir Izacat Mewton puts on his most adorable face and curls his paws cutely. He was a big lad and often took up much of the sofa, generally where I was wanting to sit, but he was also one of the cuddliest, most affection cats I’ve ever owned and would be on your lap before you’d even had a chance to settle.

Right, that’s it for this week!

All the best,


{ Comments on this entry are closed }

It turns out that typing and handwriting aren’t the same. Are you choosing the right one for the job?

One of my favourite insights into the writing process is this short talk from tech journalist Clive Thompson about the cognitive difference between handwriting and typing. If you have ten minutes, take a look.

If you don’t, the tl;dr is that the brain works differently when you’re writing something by hand compared to when you’re typing, and you need to be mindful of what you’re trying to achieve when you choose whether to type or handwrite.

Handwriting is good for taking notes, for example, when you’re listening to a talk. People who take handwritten notes understand and remember more than those who type, possibly because you have to synthesise the information as you go along. People who type (this used to be me!) merely transcribe.

Handwriting “also seems to work very well for big picture thinking” says Thompson. “Whenever I’m writing a big article or a chapter in a book or even designing this presentation, I need to work on paper to sort of organise the flow of ideas and architecture.”

Typing, and particularly fast typing, is the best way to get out ideas that have already formed in your head.

“Fast typing is significant because it’s something that psychologists who study composition call ‘transcription fluency’,” says Thompson. The faster you type, the easier it is to capture the flow of your thoughts as your brain has them. Indeed, studies have shown that the faster you can type, the higher the quality of your writing.

I can type at 85 words per minute (WPM) with an accuracy of 97 percent, but if you can mange more than 24 WPM you’re probably typing fast enough. Faster is better, though, so it’s always worth learning to touch type.

One of my most common experiences of writer’s block has been down to using the wrong tools at the wrong time: Sitting with a blank document and trying to type when I ought to be sitting with a blank sheet of paper and scribbling ideas and notes on it. And it still is my most common block, but I’m faster at recognising and correcting it.

But what I’ve also learnt over the years is that there are two other positions on the scale of handwriting to typing. The first is slower than handwriting and that’s diagramming. Thompson touches on this in his talk, but I want to delve into it more deeply.

Before I can get to handwriting, in the sense of making notes or plans, I sometimes need a more abstract handwritten step. As I mentioned last week, I do not do well when linearity is imposed upon my thought processes, whether that’s by traditional notebooks, lists, bullet points or anything else that expects a rational progression from A to Z.

This means I frequently fall back on mind maps or even just jotting random notes down on a large piece of paper until some of it starts to make sense. This phase is one of expansive or divergent thinking. It’s getting down every idea that comes to mind, regardless of whether it’s any good or not, regardless of whether it fits with the others. There’s no judgement, there’s just jotting down your thoughts and letting them just be whatever they are.

Once I’ve emptied my brain out in this way, sometimes over several sessions, then I can start to write in a more structured way, which is a phase of convergent thinking. This is when I bring some level of logic and reason to bear, sifting through the ideas, discarding whatever won’t work, working out how the bits that might work are connected, and then putting them together in a sensible and useful manner.

Now, sometimes I can go from my convergent thinking phase straight to typing. That might mean that I’m sitting looking at my mind map and typing whilst my brain does all the heavy lifting. But sometimes, I have to go through a second handwritten stage, where I convert the mind maps into a more structured list or outline. And sometimes, I have to do something somewhere in between.

When I got stuck on my novel, I went through a somewhat sludgy phase where the ideas were coming too fast for handwriting, but not fast enough for typing. I had just bought myself a Remington Streamliner typewriter and it turned out that it was perfect for this mid-speed typing. Slow enough that my brain didn’t run away with itself and end up painting me into a corner, but fast enough that I didn’t get frustrated with the speed I was working.

My method was to type out a scene, scan it, upload a PDF to Google, let Google OCR it, then copy the result into Scrivener where I corrected the many, many errors. It was quite tedious, but it was what my brain needed at that point in time.

So now I have a variety of tactics for dealing with my brain when it’s running at different speeds and doing slightly different tasks:

  1. Diagrams and mind maps for slow, divergent thinking.
  2. Handwriting for slow, organised thinking.
  3. Typewriting for moderate transcription when I’m not quite sure of myself.
  4. Typing for fast transcription when my brain is fired up and ready to go.

They say a bad worker blames their tools, but a good worker knows which tools to use and when.

This is a very timely reminder for me because, just before I wrote this, I sat down with the script for Episode 5 of my TV series, read through my far-too-sparse notes, thought “Oh, fuck” and put it away again. I had thought I was ready to do Step 2 with a rapid skip forward to Step 4, but in actual fact, I need to sit down with a large sheet of blank paper and start just tossing out ideas until I properly understand how to fix this script.

And that means breaking out my lovely Blackwing Palomino Ada Lovelace pencil and a load of A3 paper. Oooh, lucky me!

{ Comments on this entry are closed }

Hi there,

You might have spotted that last week I sent you an extra email – a long read about the potential impact of AI-generated books on the publishing industry. Substack sometimes feels more like a blogging platform than a newsletter so it seems sensible to put additional material there. No doubt I’ll blog again, as and when the whim strikes me.

I’ve also decided to post The Gates of Balawat there as well. I’ll publish it in instalments over the next seven weeks, starting on Thursday. I write to be read and, now more than ever, you have to go where your readers are. Sharing my fiction on Substack will put it in front of a lot more readers than I could ever reach on my blog. Of course, if you prefer to read it as an ebook, you can download it for free right now!

Suw’s News: Tag progress and story editors

Last week I finished editing episode 4 of Tag, which had started out at half the length it needed to be and ended up at 54 pages, which will do for now. I’ve started on episode 5 and am settling into a nice rhythm with the editing.

So much of writing is, I think, finding out how you work best. The process I’ve settled on with this round of edits is to write out a list of plot points in the order they pop up in the script. This isn’t necessarily the same as a list of scenes, because sometimes one plot point, such as “William breaks into the museum” is split out over several scenes.

This list is confined to the left-hand side of the page and then, on the right, I use colour-coded tiny sticky notes to add in the new scenes that are needed to flesh out the episode. A-story additions are in blue, though there are few of these as the A-story is pretty much all there. B-story is on green sticky notes and C-story on red. Random issues with structure or character are on yellow. This allows me to see at a glance how I’m weaving the stories together, and I can move the sticky notes around until I’m happy with how it all flows. Then it’s just a matter of going through the script and writing it all out.

Now that I’m on episode 5, which is only 12 pages too short, I decided that it was time to find a story editor to look over the whole series with fresh eyes and give me some pointers. I have two whom I’m paying to look over the pilot and then I’ll work with whichever one gives the best notes. I’ve sent them both the script and I’m excited to see what they come back with!

Watch this: How professional screenwriters outline

If you’ve ever doubted that you need to find your own process rather than slavishly copy somebody else’s, this video from Behind The Curtain on YouTube demonstrates extremely well that no two screenwriters work the same way. They’ve cut together interviews with professional screenwriters, including Quentin Tarantine, Rian Johnson and Greta Gerwig, talking about how they outline their scripts and none of them do it the same way.

If you haven’t settled on your own process, there’s lots there to consider trying, but ultimately, how you write is going to be singular to you. There is no right or wrong, there’s only what works for you and what doesn’t.

WAIW?: How a notebook reinvigorated my writing life

It’s as if the universe is very keen for me to think about process this week, because my Why Aren’t I Writing? post was all about the way I take notes and how it opened up when I discovered disc-bound notebooks. It might seem trivial, but it wasn’t until I found a non-linear way of taking notes that I started to get really productive with my writing. If you’d asked me what was causing my blocks before then, I wouldn’t have been able to explain, but as soon as I found the solution I realised what had been going on. Truly, the human mind is a strange thing.

Stop, look, listen: The Cabinet of Curiosities

I read James Henry’s The Cabinet of Curiosities years ago and loved it, so was delighted when he recently turned it into a podcast. Now it’s been picked up by xigxag, a “fully integrated listen-and-read experience, at an affordable price without a subscription”. What that means is that you automatically get the ebook and the audiobook together. More importantly, their pricing model is such that prices go down the more you buy, starting at a very reasonable £7.99 and going down to £3.99 if you buy more than 20 titles in a year.

Obligatory cat picture

Please excuse the poor quality of this week’s photo – cameraphones really have come a long way in the 13 years since this photo was taken – but I’ve always loved it for the composition rather than the detail.

As you can probably guess, there was a bug on the ceiling and neither Grabbity nor Sir Izacat Mewton had any problems with clambering up whatever was most convenient in order to reach said bug, in this case, Kevin. They were just over a year old, so still growing but still able to both fit on Kevin’s shoulders. I wouldn’t want to try this with Grabbity now, not least because her balance isn’t as good as it once was!

Right, that’s it for this week.

All the best,


{ Comments on this entry are closed }

Short stories and novellas are easy marks for AI-generated literature, but how will publishing cope with an influx of AI-generated books?

The first result from Dall E with the prompt “A photorealistic image of ChatGPT looking eager and ready to help a writer working on a novel.” Don’t look too closely lest it give you nightmares.

I want to start with a small protest: What is currently termed Artificial Intelligence, or AI, isn’t anything of the sort. ChatGPT is not intelligent, it’s just verbose predictive text, trained on a huge data set and capable of producing long, cogent passages. But it’s not intelligent, it’s definitely not sentient, it has no knowledge, no error detection and thus no error correction. Instead of calling it AI, I will use the term Large Language Model, or LLM, to describe ChatGPT, Bing, Sudowrite and the rest.

Now then.

Here’s the thing.

There is not a single part of the publishing industry that is ready for the onslaught of shoddy LLM content that’s heading towards it. Charles Arthur warns that the “approaching tsunami of addictive AI-created content will overwhelm us”, but I’m not sure that even that warning is stark enough. So let me try something pithier:

LLM content has the potential to destroy large swathes of the publishing industry.

Grifters will crowd out genuine writers on Kindle. LLM content will swamp submissions to literary magazines and agents. Any system based on human review will collapse, but algorithmic systems won’t do much better. It doesn’t matter how good or bad this LLM content is, what matters is how quick it is to create and thus how much of it gets produced.

This disruption is already affecting short stories and, in concert with some other self-publishing and wider macroeconomic trends, it is very rapidly going to take over Amazon’s book marketplace. Traditional publishing, especially agents, are not going to be able to escape either, though they might believe that they are safe for now. They aren’t. And authors who are focusing now on the ethical use of LLM assistance in their writing are going to find themselves in competition with people who don’t care about ethics or even readable prose. We’re at only the beginning of a massive shitshow.

LLM spam forces Clarkesworld to close to new submissions

Let’s start with short stories.

Clarkesworld Magazine is an online science fiction and fantasy magazine which publishes short stories, interviews and articles and has won Hugo, World Fantasy, and British Fantasy Awards. It publishes pieces between 1,000 and 22,000 words long, paying 12¢ per word or between $120 and $2,640 per submission. That makes Clarkesworld an attractive venue for authors wanting to try to make a living from their work.

It also makes it an attractive target for plagiarists and LLM scammers.

On 15 February 2023, Clarkesworld’s Neil Clarke blogged about a disturbing increase in the number of “spammy submissions” that he was seeing. Clarke wrote:

[T]he number of spam submissions resulting in bans has hit 38% this month. While rejecting and banning these submissions has been simple, it’s growing at a rate that will necessitate changes. To make matters worse, the technology is only going to get better, so detection will become more challenging.

Five days later, Clarke added a note that he’d had so many spam submissions – “over 50 before noon” – that he had to close submissions completely. There’s no reason to believe that this onslaught will stop. Clarke says that he is in touch with other editors having the same problem, but no one has a solution.

Clarkesworld submissions by month up to 20 Feb 2023.

Let’s have a think about email for a moment, which has been dealing with spam for more than 30 years. In the early days of spam, the full burden of sorting spam from real email fell on the recipient. Now, email service providers act as intermediaries between spammer and recipient and they filter out a huge amount of the stuff before it reaches our inboxes. However, anyone with an email address will know that a lot of spam gets through and legitimate emails are often wrongly marked as spam.

There are currently no intermediaries between LLM spammers and magazine editors. The cost of LLM spam detection falls entirely and only on these editors. And, as with email spammers, there is no pressure on the LLM spammers to stop. Being blocked by a magazine doesn’t matter – you can easily create a new email and identity and have another go.

The LLM book boom on Kindle

It should surprise nobody that there’s now a boom in LLM-created books on Amazon, although its true extent is impossible to measure as there’s no requirement to flag LLM content in book metadata or descriptions, and quite a big incentive not to. Reuters’ Greg Bensinger writes:

Now ChatGPT appears ready to upend the staid book industry as would-be novelists and self-help gurus looking to make a quick buck are turning to the software to help create bot-made e-books and publish them through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing arm. Illustrated children’s books are a favorite for such first-time authors. On YouTube, TikTok and Reddit hundreds of tutorials have spring [sic] up, demonstrating how to make a book in just a few hours. Subjects include get-rich-quick schemes, dieting advice, software coding tips and recipes.

Bensinger quotes the Authors Guild’s Mary Rasenberger, who says, “This is something we really need to be worried about, these books will flood the market and a lot of authors are going to be out of work.” Yes. Yes they will.

Books with small amounts of text are an obvious target – they’re easy to generate on an LLM and it’s easier to keep on top of things like plot and consistency. A children’s picture book only has between 500 and 1000 words, whilst a chapter book for ages 5 to 7 will have around 5,000 to 10,000 words. With a little coaxing, an LLM is perfectly capable of producing this amount of text in a very short space of time. You can then use Dall E, MidJourney and other image creation engines to provide the images.

These books won’t be good – this LLM-written article on how to write a book in three days using LLMs shows just how bad a whole book of this stuff can be – but that doesn’t matter, as I’ll come on to later.

Once there’s a strategy for creating 10,000 word chapter books, it’s easy enough to extend that to 15,000 or 20,000 word novellas, at which point LLMs collide head-on with an existing trend.

The high volume business strategy

Neil Bakewell has published 40 novellas of between 10,000 and 25,000 words on Kindle in just 18 months. He’s been so successful he’s been offered and turned down a multi-book traditional publishing deal. He, along with his wife Jen, now teach their method for getting your first novella written and published within 21 days. They and some of their students are now regularly bringing in US$10k per month.

That is a lot of money.

Part of the Bakewells’ success comes down to the fact that they use cheap ghostwriters and editors, so they can crank out novellas extremely quickly, and they publish in very tight niches that attract voracious readers. They know what those readers want and they can give it to them rapidly.

Indeed, this rapidity is encouraged by Amazon. There is a community of Kindle Unlimited readers who inhale books and it’s in Amazon’s interest to encourage these binge readers: They put pressure on authors to produce more, which means more choice in the Kindle store and on Kindle Unlimited, which encourage people to spend more on books and to keep their subscription going. Readers want or even expect their favourite authors to publish to a regular schedule, faster, perhaps, than it’s comfortable for those authors to write.

The Verge has published an astonishing piece by Josh Dzieza that shows just how challenging it is for authors to keep pace. Dzieza talks to indie writer Jennifer Lepp, who was struggling to meet her readers’ demands:

Lepp, who writes under the pen name Leanne Leeds in the “paranormal cozy mystery” subgenre, allots herself precisely 49 days to write and self-edit a book. This pace, she said, is just on the cusp of being unsustainably slow. She once surveyed her mailing list to ask how long readers would wait between books before abandoning her for another writer. The average was four months.

Lepp’s books are not novellas. A quick look at her back catalogue on Amazon shows that she’s writing books between 200 and 400 pages. If you assume an average of 300 words per page, that’s between 60,000 and 120,000 words. Written and edited in 49 days. That speed is completely inconceivable to me.

Lepp began to use Sudowrite, which uses OpenAI’s GPT-3 LLM and is designed specifically for fiction, and found that it made her life significantly easier. But despite the fact that her beta readers found Sutowrite’s contributions as good as, perhaps even better than, her own she came to feel disconnected from her own stories. She now uses LLM content much more judiciously.

Lepp and Bakewell’s experiences illustrate how Amazon rewards a high volume self-publishing strategy, but that the publication pace that Kindle readers want can quickly become a treadmill that human writers can’t keep up with. Your choice is either hire a bunch of ghostwriters from places like Fiverr or use an LLM to generate your prose.

Amazon itself is sending market messages that encourage LLM content creation.

The ethical use of LLMs

Joanna Penn has always been quick to adopt new technologies in self-publishing. I’ve oft admired her optimism and the way that she grasps new technologies and works out how to take advantage of them before the rest of the industry even knows that they exist.

She spoke with Josh Dzieza for his piece as well, (and I really do recommend you read it in full), particularly about her work with the Alliance of Independent Authors’ Orna Ross on trying to develop ethical guidelines for the use of LLMs in writing. Indeed, both Ross and Penn include “an AI statement of usage in their books to declare which tools have been used in the process of creating the finished work”.

But as valuable as these ethical guidelines are, they won’t have any impact on bad actors. Because we’re not actually talking about the Lepps, Penns and Rosses of the world. We’re not talking about people who are using LLMs as a creative tool to support their own writing process. We’re not talking about people who think about the ethics of using LLMs to write.

We’re talking about the people who don’t care about ethics and don’t care whether the stories and books they produce and publish are any good. We’re talking about commodity writers.

The passion economy vs commoditisation

In his book The Passion Economy, Adam Davidson argues that in order to flourish small businesses, freelances and creatives need to focus on developing their business around clients and customers who share their passions and who want to pay top dollar for depth of knowledge and expertise. He warns quite starkly against allowing your products or services to become commoditised, explaining that, as a small business, you can never compete against large corporations who can produce standardised goods and services at huge scale.

The high volume self-published book business is a commodity business. Authors are fungible. Books can be shorter and quality lower. They are products designed to meet the needs of readers in sometimes quite narrow niches, and it’s adherence to the tropes and expectations of those niches that is important rather than anything specific about the books. That makes the books themselves fungible as well.

This is the antithesis of what we usually think of when we think about publishing. We tend to think of authors as people who are pouring their heart out onto the page, working for years and years on their craft, on realising their vision. People for whom being read is a dream, whether that’s via a traditional publishing deal or becoming a successful indie author. These people have a story they need to tell and the act of telling it is an expression of a fundamental part of their personalities and identities. They are part of the passion economy.

High volume writers, on the other hand, are producing books quickly and cheaply – the hallmarks of a commodity.

The coming LLM storm

LLMs are a developing technology. ChatGPT launched on 30 November 2023, less than four months ago, and already we’re seeing it having an enormous impact. Ignore the disaster of Microsoft Bing’s Sydney for a moment and focus on how good ChatGPT and Sudowrite already are. As the technology progresses, it’s going to get easier and easier to create longer and more complex passages of text. As users develop a better understanding of how to use it, we’ll see simpler strategies for using LLMs to produce novellas and even novel-length works in a fraction of the time it takes people to write without LLM assistance.

In the short term, we’ll see more literary magazines struggling to find a way to deal with LLM spam. If there’s no easy solution, they’ll be forced to restrict their author pool in some way which, as Neil Clarke says, will damage the flow of new talent into the industry. Some magazines may even close, unable to effectively filter the wheat from the LLM chaff. These magazines are already run on a shoestring. They can’t afford to either employ more readers or pay for whatever LLM detection software arises.

We’ll see Amazon flooded with LLM-generated books and the majority of them will be shit. And Amazon won’t do a damn thing about it. There’s been an issue with plagiarism, poorly repackaged public domain books and fake reviews on Amazon for years and they simply do not give the tiniest of rat’s arses about it. I wrote about fake reviews on Amazon 11 years ago (though Forbes seems to have deleted the beginning of that article), and as far as I know, nothing substantive has changed.

And that is going to make it very, very hard for indie authors to gain traction. It’s already much harder than it used to be to break through. Indie authors have to spend a lot of money on ads to promote their books, to the point where it doesn’t seem like there’s any such thing as organic success any more. Indie authors are going to struggle to compete with LLM-assisted authors and that will drive more LLM usage.

And then it’s going to reach agents. LLM-generated novels will be submitted to agents in vast numbers, in exactly the same way as Clarkesworld was flooded with short stories, crowding out human-written books.

Novels can take years to write. My first novel took me seven years. My current work in progress might take me two. Lapp proves that you can write a novel with LLM assistance in under two months. A fully LLM-generated novel might take days. And if you can write a novel in days you can submit dozens of them to dozens of agents at once. And because a lot of agents accept submissions by email, in the truly dystopian version of this reality LLM grifters will mass-submit their LLM-generated trash to agents in the hope that just one or two will bite.

It doesn’t matter that the agents will always have the ability to spot and discard terrible books. The point is that they will be overwhelmed with LLM-generated submissions. And I am not convinced that they are ready for that. Many agents still do everything manually, which results in authors being ghosted rather than getting any kind of reply because agents are too busy to respond. How are these agents going to cope when they get swamped with LLM books?

It only takes a minority of bad actors to destroy a system

As we’ve seen in other arenas, particularly politics and propaganda, it only takes a small number of bad actors to flood the zone with shite. Disruption is easy. Destruction is easy. Whether it’s intended or a side-effect doesn’t matter. What matters is that this problem is fiendishly hard to solve because discerning good from bad requires human cognition and we do not have actual artificial intelligence yet that can replicate human cognition.

So it doesn’t matter if the majority of authors, including LLM-assisted authors, behave ethically and thoughtfully. It doesn’t matter if LLM-assisted authors are producing good work that their readers love.

What matters is that a small number of bad actors can put so much pressure on an already fragile system that it breaks. Like Humpty Dumpty, once these systems break it will not be easy to put them back together again.

I’ll be interested to see what kind of solution Clarkesworld comes up with. We can guarantee Amazon won’t even see LLM-generated content as a problem so we can’t expect a solution from them. And it’s hard to see how agents might deal with even a small increase in submissions.

I wish I could conclude this essay with a nice solution, all tied up in a bow. But at this point, my only real solution is to hope that I’m completely wrong and that publishing won’t find itself washed away by an LLM tsunami.

But what if I’m not wrong?

What do we do then?

{ Comments on this entry are closed }

It’s all in the notebook

by Suw on March 1, 2023

A Tul notebook and selection of accessories

Understanding how your mind prefers to work helps you find the right tools so that you can nurture your creativity.

Writing last week’s newsletter reminded me of a transformative moment in my writing life when, in April 2017, I discovered the existence of the disc-bound notebook. My husband and I were walking around Office Depot in Sheboygan when I first saw the T?l ‘customer note-taking system’ wherein a disc with a T-shaped lip holds paper that’s been punched with a similar T-shaped slot. I bought a book and refills there and then, and eventually bought more books, discs and even a T?l hole punch.

It was genuinely revolutionary.

Now, this is going to sound utterly ridiculous, but for many years my writing was hampered by the horribly linear nature of notebooks. No, really.

As I wrote back then:

Disorganised notes make me profoundly uncomfortable, to the point of causing creative paralysis, but there’s no functional way I can experience ideas in an organised manner. This means that traditional bound notebooks will always suffer not just from a lack of organisation but also negative emotional weight that’s hard to ignore. It’s just not possible to know how many pages to leave for a particular section: leave too many and it will feel like wasted space; leave too few and thematically related passages become separated and one has to search for and flip between pages when reading back over notes.

My mind is a disorganised creature that craves order. Traditional notebooks emphasise disorder and that caused a creative block that I found difficult to get around.

This became painfully evident last year when I discovered a trove of notebooks, each one containing the beginning of a novel or short story, or notes for same. In some cases, I’d left blank pages between sections of notes, trying to anticipate how much room I’d need for each topic. But each had been abandoned unfinished, the strictures of linear writing having strangled most of my ideas shortly after birth.

But when I discovered T?l, I no longer had to think about how many blank pages to leave because I could insert a page at will. I could take the entire notebook apart and re-bind it in a totally different order, if I wanted to. And that was immensely liberating.

(I am aware that I could have achieved the same thing with a ring-binder, but for some reason my subconscious doesn’t like ring-binders, possibly because I associate them with study.)

My use of my T?l notebooks has ebbed away over the last few years as Notability on the iPad has taken its place. But it’s exactly the same experience. I can create as many new documents in Notability as I like, and I can shuffle them about however I see fit. Because Notability allows for handwritten notes, I can scribble and draw diagrams and do whatever I would normally do on paper, and it’s available not just on my iPad but on every one of my devices that is capable of running Notability.

The bottom line here is not that T?l notebooks or Notability are some kinda of global panacea for all your note taking needs, it’s that you have to understand how your brain works and then find the tools to support it. You can’t fight the currents of your brain’s own flow, you have to find a way to swim with the rip tide.

As much as I love stationery – and I really do love stationery – the most beautiful notebooks in the world can’t help me if my brain is scared of ruining them by not writing linearly in them. About a decade ago, I did a bookbinding workshop where I made a gorgeous red leather notebook. It is exquisite. I will never, ever use it, because nothing I can write will ever live up to its physical beauty. So instead, I simply admire it for the work of art it is and I take my notes and write my stories elsewhere.

The lesson here is to experiment. If beautiful notebooks are too gorgeous to use, buy a cheap, scruffy one. If linear notebooks alarm your subconscious, use a disc-bound system. If writing notes on paper doesn’t work, try jotting them down on your phone. If writing doesn’t work, try using a voice memo app.

Your brain is in charge here. Learn how it works, what it likes, what it dislikes, and tailor your tools and processes to please it, because when your brain is happy, creativity becomes so much easier.

{ Comments on this entry are closed }