May 2023

As I thought it might, my current period of underemployment is drawing to a close and I am soon about to be very, very busy indeed. So this newsletter is going to move to a fortnightly schedule, alternating every other week with Word Count.

Meanwhile, don’t forget that bestselling crime writer Alex North is joining me at 19:00 BST on Thursday 8 June to talk about the craft of writing, his rollercoaster career, and what happens when he gets the wobbles halfway through writing a book. The webinar’s open to all subscribers, with the recording and transcript available afterwards to paid members.

Creativity is the eternal quest to close the gap between imagination and execution.

Back in 2010, radio host Ira Glass did an interview with Current TV, a short-lived American TV channel, about the process of putting together human-interest stories for the radio program he hosts, This American Life, along with some advice for early career radio producers. The interview is still available on YouTube in four parts – one, two, three, four.

At some point, years after the interview was broadcast, Part Three caught light online. Suddenly, folks were taking the audio from the interview and illustrating it. It was all over social media. I have watched it many times in the intervening years, because Glass speaks to something absolutely fundamental about the creative process. It’s worth watching the full video, but here’s a cut down version:

We all have a vision for how we want our creative endeavours to turn out. We work towards that vision, often for years. And yet our output falls far short of what we intended.

This is what you might call ‘The Taste Gap’.

Glass’s talk hits home so hard not because he’s saying anything we don’t already know, (we pretty much all know that we aren’t as good as we want to be), but because he normalises it – we all have this problem; he suffered particularly badly – and gives us an answer – plough through, keep going and keep learning.

What Glass is talking about, really, is the Four Stages of Competence and getting stuck between Stages Two/Three and Four. From Wikipedia, the Four Stages of Competence can be described as:

Stage 1: Unconscious incompetence

The individual does not understand or know how to do something and does not necessarily recognize the deficit. They may deny the usefulness of the skill. The individual must recognize their own incompetence, and the value of the new skill, before moving on to the next stage. The length of time an individual spends in this stage depends on the strength of the stimulus to learn.

Stage 2: Conscious incompetence

Though the individual does not understand or know how to do something, they recognize the deficit, as well as the value of a new skill in addressing the deficit. The making of mistakes can be integral to the learning process at this stage.

Stage 3: Conscious competence

The individual understands or knows how to do something. It may be broken down into steps, and there is heavy conscious involvement in executing the new skill. However, demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires concentration, and if it is broken, they lapse into incompetence.

Stage 4: Unconscious competence

The individual has had so much practice with a skill that it has become “second nature” and can be performed easily. As a result, the skill can be performed while executing another task. The individual may be able to teach it to others, depending upon how and when it was learned.

Going through Stage 1, Unconscious Incompetence, is relatively painless, because you aren’t aware of your incompetence and therefore can’t judge yourself for it (see also Dunning-Kruger). But as soon as you start to become aware of how much you still have to learn and how far short of ideal your actual output falls, you enter the excruciating pain of Stage 2. Even as your skills improve, as you begin to enter Stage 3, you’re still not as good as you want to be and every new thing you learn just emphasises your shortcomings.

Congratulations, you have entered The Taste Gap.

You are aware that your imagination is better than your execution, and you probably beat yourself up every time you finish something because all you can focus on is how it isn’t as good as you hoped it would be. You’re eager to make it to the final stage of Unconscious Competence, where everything comes easily because your skills are just that sharp, but you also know that you have to battle your way through Conscious Competence first, where it’s all hard work and sweat.

For radio journalists, or for short story writers or others who create at the smaller scale, Glass’s advice to finish a piece every week or every month and hone your craft through repetition and incremental improvement is good. But a single novel might take three or five or seven or over a dozen years to write. You can’t win on volume.

Instead, you have to learn everything you can about the craft of writing from others who’ve written more. Whether that’s taking creative writing courses, or reading books about writing, or joining a critique group, or hiring in a professional story editor, the most efficient way to develop your skills is to seek expert help. And you have to hope that next time round, which might be years away, you will still remember the stuff you learnt this time round.

You also have to be kind to yourself. If we had the stats to see such things, I think we’d find that people in Stage 3 have produced many, many great works.

At a gig in Caerdydd in 1993, musician Neil Finn said, “Perseverance will win through where talent falls short”. He was making a self-deprecating joke, but he was also (knowingly or not) talking about ploughing through Stages 2 and 3, when you might feel like a talentless hack, but what you’re actually doing is the hard work of learning. There is gold in them there hills, it’s just difficult to extract.

Indeed, I would suggest that few authors even get near to stage four, not because they aren’t capable, but because they don’t have the time to devote to internalising all of the skills needed. Storytelling is complex. There’s a huge amount to learn about plot, pacing, character, relationships, structure, dialogue, description, action, prose, and everything else that goes into a great novel, but most authors are earning on average £7,000 per year and have to have another job to make ends meet.

Where does the time come from to study all those skills and write? Given a choice, most early-career authors write and try to pick the rest up as they go along.

Key to the whole endeavour, I think, is self-awareness, determination, and self-compassion. Be aware of where you can improve, constantly strive for mastery, keep at it, but don’t self-flagellate. And remember:

In the eyes of those who anxiously seek perfection, a work is never truly completed—a word that for them has no sense—but abandoned; and this abandonment, of the book to the fire or to the public, whether due to weariness or to a need to deliver it for publication, is a sort of accident, comparable to the letting-go of an idea that has become so tiring or annoying that one has lost all interest in it. – Paul Valéry, 1933 (translated by Rosalie Maggio)

And to paraphrase Alan Schneider, the only perfect book is the one you haven’t written.

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Plus a post on self-promotion, and Cassie & Polly make an appearance.

Hi there,

Last week was a short week, thanks to an extra-long weekend in north Wales! So this week’s newsletter will also be slightly shorter than usual.

It’s also my 50th newsletter, which feels like a nice milestone to mark!

Tip-top tip: Two ways to kickstart your plot

Having been mulling over the upcoming rewrite of Tag for, er, six weeks now, this post from author Cavan Scott is promising to become useful. In it, he shares a great tip from Stark Holborn about getting unstuck when you find yourself unsure of where your story should go next, and then adds his own advice along with copious examples of how it works.

I added my own tip in the comments. To create more agency in my script, I’ve been planning it out in terms of causality: “Because of this, that happened”. My characters were too passive – being acted on by the plot rather than driving it through their own decisions and actions. So to fix that, I’ve started writing out their episode arcs in terms of chains of action and reaction.

Stop, look, listen: Wosson Cornwall

I’ve been getting more interested in radio drama and comedy since listening to Julian Simpson’s Who Killed Aldrich Kemp?, which I did after reading this post from him about sound design (£) which I found utterly fascinating.

So when I saw that Twitter friend James Henry was script editor and part of the writing team for a new radio comedy show coming up, I had to give it a listen.

Wosson Cornwall is an entirely Cornish sketch comedy show starring Dawn French and Edward Rowe and filmed in front of an audience at the Acorn Theatre in Penzance. And it’s hilarious. I laughed so hard at one point that I scared the cat.

Read this: You Don’t Have to Get an A+ in Writing

Reassuring words from agent and author Kate McKean on the fact that you really don’t have to produce the perfect manuscript.

Firstly, perfection doesn’t exist, so you can let that go right off the bat, because as Oliver Burkeman says, you’ve already failed at producing perfection. Secondly, even if you could write a perfect manuscript, It would not guarantee publishing success, because publishing is much more complicated than that. So rather than try to second guess the market, just write what’s in your heart.

Don’t try to get an A+ in writing for the market. Get an A+ in writing the book you want to write.

Suw’s News: Self-promotion and Alex North webinar

Obligatory cat picture

I was looking for something else in Flickr the other day and found this adorable photo from 2006 of Castor and Pollux aka Cassie (in front) and Polly (at the back), my parents’ cats.

Although they look like sisters, they were in fact cousins born three weeks apart. Sadly, both of them lost their mothers young – Polly at a younger age than Cassie. This made Polly a little bit odd at times, as cats who are separated too young from their mothers struggle to learn how to cat.

Polly sadly died of cancer about six years ago, but Cassie is now 17 and still lives with my Mum.

That’s it for this week!

All the best,


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A statue of a winged herald blowing a trumpetWe all hate doing it. We all worry that others will hate us for doing it. But no one else is going to blow our trumpets for us.

If there’s one type of writing that everyone I know hates, often with a white-hot intensity that could melt iron, it’s anything that even remotely whiffs of self-promotion.

In an ideal world, none of us would have to do self-promotion. We’d go off to our offices or our sheds or our studios, we’d be creative in whatever way we see fit, we’d put our work out into the world, and those people who like it would find it and reward us for the sweat on our brow and the callouses on our hands. We’d never have to tell a soul about our work, because a friend would find out about it by accident and they’d tell their friends, who’d tell their friends, and before we knew it, we’d have a legion of super-fans just waiting for us to release our newest creation for their enjoyment.

Of course, it doesn’t work like that. It’s never worked like that. It’s not even possible for it to work like that.

The reality is that someone, somewhere, has to promote your work. In one model of the world, that work is done by your publisher, record label, gallery or whatever. They pay you for doing the work and then they become responsible for making sure that the public finds out about it, because that is how they make their money. They hire experts in marketing, advertising, and PR so that they can get your work in front of an audience, some of whom will go on to buy your book, record or painting, etc.

In another model of the world, where you are essentially working as a small business, you as the creator are responsible for getting word out about everything that you do. You have to do all the marketing, advertising and PR. And often, in this model of the world, you are not an expert marketer, you do not have the money to buy ads or the contacts to persuade newspapers to feature your work. You just do your best with what you’ve got.

That first model has been slowly breaking down over at least the last decade, so even if you do have a publisher with a marketing department, you as the author are still expected to do quite a bit of your own marketing. The small-business creator and the traditionally-supported creator are now both having to reach out to their communities to say, “Hey, I’ve done a thing. Would you like to look at it?”.

Add to that the fact that previous drivers of traffic – social media sites like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter – have been throttling the ability to reach large audiences, and you have a large community of people who are all finding it hard to reach new fans:

[There has been] a massive drop for small publishers. Is it any wonder that smaller local news outlets have seen traffic crater? Imagine getting 1,000 daily page views from Facebook and seeing that drop to 20 over the years. That would be gutting.

Whether you’re the New York Times or an independent author, the impact of this loss of traffic from the major social media sites is not just frustrating, it has a huge impact on the effectiveness of your promotional campaigns. So you need to do more promotion to reach the same number of people. And in the middle of a low wage* crisis, when fewer people have money to spend, you need to reach yet more people to get the same level of business. Which means even more promotion.

In turn, that means posting more often on social media and, yes, perhaps some people will see more of those posts than they like. Whilst that is just how it is now, there will sadly always be a vocal minority getting antsy about it.

They shame us for talking about our work, denigrate us for working hard to build an audience, throw shade on us for posting a link to our book or newsletter or event. And all of that leads to just one outcome: Writer’s self-promotional block.

We feel inferior, we feel ashamed, we feel mortified, we feel scared. We tie ourselves up in knots trying to self-promote without self-promoting. We drop hints, we mention in passing. We hope someone else will tell the world we’re fab, but we feel disappointed when they don’t (when the truth is, they either don’t know what we’re doing or they think we don’t need the help).

Writer’s self-promotional block is a microcosm of other blocks: It’s caused by a fear of public humiliation. We fear that others will judge us and think we are a bad person because they, wrongly, believe that the cream always rises and that all you have to be is good.

There are plenty of those people out there – people who think that they achieved success because of their greatness, not because of any privilege they were born with, luck they accrued during life, or help that others gave them.

“Ah,” they say, “If you just talk to people in a genuine and authentic way, if you just put the hours in being consistently brilliant, then people will gravitate towards you like bees to blossom. If you have to self-promote, you’re clearly not as brilliant as me.”

It’s no wonder we have such trouble bringing ourselves to self-promote, when we’re told that doing so is evidence of our rank inferiority.

But word-of-mouth is unreliable and overhyped. A tiny number of people get lucky; the rest of us just have to work hard and be persistent. Which means that we have to walk towards the fear. We have to talk about our work and invite people to engage with it. We have to take up space and we have to stare down those who would belittle us for doing so.

There are, of course, elephants in the room, and we all know one. There is a minority of people who we feel maybe overdo it, who we feel are perhaps too self-focused, too self-aggrandising. But you know what? The chances are, the person who’s annoying you by talking to much about their stuff is actually in a scarcity trap. They aren’t earning enough money and the only thing they know to do is ramp up the ask instead of increasing the give.

For them, we should have empathy, not judgement. Because any of us can get stuck in a scarcity trap, and we all need help to get out.

So instead of judging ourselves or others for self-promoting, let’s all take a moment to make peace with the process. Self-promotion is unavoidable, so let’s look for ways to make it less painful for ourselves. Share your creativity with joy and excitement. Think about what you’re giving your community instead of always being on the ask. Look for ways to help others, whether that’s by liking or resharing or commenting – everything helps.

We’re all in the same boat, but there are, at least, plenty of oars to go round.


* We are not in a cost of living crisis, we’re in a too many people aren’t paid enough money crisis.

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Alex North, my first webinar subject guest.

Plus loads of TV scripts to download, author Madeleine Dore talks about her writing career, and Grabbity does something silly.

Hi there,

I am extremely excited to launch my new webinar series, in which I’ll chat with a variety of writers about the craft of writing, their processes, and how they deal with those moments when the writing isn’t going so smoothly. The live webinar will be free to subscribers of both Word Count and Why Aren’t I Writing?, with the recording and transcript available only to paid member of either newsletter.

I will be creating another section for webinars on both Substacks, so if you’re subscribed to both, you’ll be able to control where you get webinar-related emails by checking your settings and turning off extraneous notifications.

Save the date: Crime writer Alex North in conversation, Thurs 8 June

I am delighted to announce that I’ll be chatting to the award-winning crime writer Alex North (above) on Thursday 8 June at 19:00 BST, and you’re all invited! Alex and I are going to be talking about the craft of writing, his rollercoaster career, and what happens when he gets the wobbles halfway through writing a book.

Alex’s first novel, The Whisper Man, was a Sunday Times, New York Times and international bestseller, a Richard and Judy pick, and is currently being adapted for film. It was followed by The Shadow Friend (The Shadows in the US). His most recent thriller is The Half Burnt House (The Angel Maker). Alex is the pseudonym for an award-winning crime novelist, and he lives in Leeds with his wife and son.

The live webinar will be open to everyone; the recording and transcript will be available for members only. So save the date and if you’re reading this on the Substack site and you’re not already subscribed to Word Count or Why Aren’t I Writing?, sign up now to make sure you don’t miss out on reminders!

Read this: How to survive promotion

Alex Marwood, author of best-selling psychological thriller The Wicked Girls, as well as The Killer Next Door and The Darkest Secret, has a hilarious piece in The Strand Magazine about her experiences doing book promotion that’s a must-read.

There’s a general consensus among writers that the promotional process is less about selling books than it is about reminding one not to get conceited. To be fair, you have to have a pretty robust ego to write more than one book, so promotion probably is some sort of karmic vengeance for all the times we’ve neglected our families’ trouble in favour of the imaginary dramas of our imaginary friends.

Read this, two: The tsunami of LLM-generated shit continues

You might remember a few months ago that SFF magazine Clarkesworld had to close to new submissions because of a flood of computer-generated spam (£). Magazine owner Neil Clarke did find a way to stem the flow, but it appears that just two months later his mitigations efforts failed, and they’ve had to ban 500 in the first 18 days of May.

This graph represents the number of “authors” we’ve had to ban. With very rare exceptions, those are people sending us machine-generated works in violation of our guidelines. All of them are aware of our policy and the consequences should they be caught. It’s right there on the submission form and they check a box acknowledging it.

Our normal workload is about 1100 legitimate submissions each month. The above numbers are in addition to that.

This is such a difficult problem to solve. There’s no reliable tech solution, setting up a fee system would exclude economically marginalised writers, and the human labour required to sort through all the spam is not just cost prohibitive, it would also be incredibly tedious for the humans. Right now, I can’t see an easy answer.

Tip-top tips: TV scripts to download and study

One of the biggest boons of this internet age for the early career TV writer is that it’s now easy to get hold of scripts for TV shows that actually made it on to your screen. Script Reader Pro has gathered together 50 of what they consider to be the best TV scripts across the genres of drama, comedy, action/adventure, thriller and horror. Some of these scripts are classics such as ER, others are much newer, including Stranger Things. All can be can be downloaded for free.

Whilst Script Read Pro leans hard into American TV, if you’re more interested in British TV and radio, then the BBC script library is invaluable. You can download scripts for shows such as Shetland, Detectorists and Keeping Faith/Un Bore Mercher, which is available in both English and Welsh.

It’s always fascinating to read other people’s scripts, especially when you’ve seen the TV show so can compare and contrast. Often, the scripts will include scenes that ended up on the cutting room floor or were rewritten during filming, and there’s a lot to be learnt from asking why that might have happened.

Stop, look, listen: London Writer’s Salon, E059 – Madeleine Dore

I enjoyed this episode of the London Writer’s Salon with Madeleine Dore, author of I Didn’t Do The Thing Today who talked about “rethinking writing routines and ruts and embracing imperfection in the creative process”.

I felt there were a lot of parallels between my experiences and those Madeleine was talking about, especially regarding being an enthusiastic writer as a teen and then that just stopping in my 20s. It’s so easy for us to lose our creative way in our 20s – by that age, we’ve absorbed a lot of very negative stereotypes about the nature of making a living creatively and how impossible it is, but we’ve not yet discovered our own voice or our own levels of determination. (And for some of us, that determination takes a while to make itself known.)

I also related very strongly to the section about how passion projects can take over to an uncomfortable degree, yet it takes external pressure for us to take our foot off the pedal and give ourselves time to reflect and rethink.

Give the episode a listen, and let me know in the comments if it struck any chords for you.

Suw’s News: Patience and Fieldwork plans

In case you missed them:

Obligatory cat picture

Still croaky, but at least she’s come out from under the bed.

We had a little bit of a stressful weekend, cat-wise. On Friday morning, Grabbity went out into the garden to scoff a load of grass, then came back inside to throw it all up again, as is her wont. Unfortunately, either the grass was sharp or she ate something else that was, because she started coughing up bloody sputum. So, off to the vet we went. (My back and shoulders have still not forgiven me – a 25 minute walk carrying a 6kg cat does not a happy Suw make.)

I was worried that she’d got a grass seed or something stuck, but the vet said she’d just scratched her throat. She was given an antiemetic and then I lugged her home again. (I really need to get one of these.)

She neither ate nor drank on Friday, and I was ready to schlep her right back to the vet again on Saturday until she ventured out and had a little pâté. She spent the weekend hidden under the bed, keeping her very croaky miaow to herself. Thankfully, at 5am on Monday morning, she indicated that she was feeling herself again by miaowing very loudly and jumping up and down on my head. It’s good to have her back on top form!

That’s it for this week. Don’t forget to put a note in your diary for my conversation with Alex on Thursday 8 June at 19:00 BST, and keep an eye out for the zoom link!

All the best,


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Fieldwork: A look at what’s to come

by Suw on May 17, 2023

Who knows where these creative seeds will land.

It’s always good to have a plan so that you can point at it and laugh when reality has other ideas.

I thought I’d go through the rough project plan for Fieldwork so that you can see what’s involved and the sort of things I’m going to write about.

To some extent, this newsletter is as much about me working out how all the pieces of the jigsaw fit together in my own head as it is about updating you on my progress. It’s also about documenting the process and my learning, so that I can come back to check my notes and maybe even see how far I’ve progressed.

I expect to be working on these four aspects of the project, probably simultaneously:

  1. Background research
  2. Comedy research
  3. Script development
  4. Funding for production

Part 1: Background research

I want Fieldwork to be based on reality – particularly real science and real fieldwork experiences. Scientists in TV comedy and drama often end up as caricatures: tweedy, obsessive and lacking in social skills. I know a lot of scientists and none of them are like that. And I have to ask, how are we going to encourage children to take science seriously if we’re portraying scientists so poorly?

The science itself in TV is generally ignored, trivialised or misrepresented, probably because it sci-comms is hard and there are fewer TV writers with experience in sci-comms or science than we need. Thus, it gets reduced to scribbles on a white board in the background which, even if full of in-jokes for physicists (looking at you, Big Bang Theory), doesn’t do much to explain how science actually happens or why it’s important.

So I’m going to be talking to as many ecologists as I can and asking them questions about their work. I want to know what they are studying and why, where they go when they’re doing fieldwork, where they stay and what it’s like, and in particular I want to know about #fieldworkfails, those times when things didn’t go to plan. I’ve already heard about keys getting locked in cars during a thunderstorm, close encounters with bears, and the importance of choosing your tent location carefully. If you’d like to add to that list, find out how here!

Ecology is a good choice in terms of explaining how science happens and why it’s important. Many ecologists are working with species or habitats where the basics are easy to explain, and they’re doing it because they want to better manage that species or habitat, because their work will help us to grow more and better food with fewer chemical inputs, or because they want to understand the impact of climate change.

The way that a lot of ecology fieldwork is done makes it great for comedy: You’re out at a field station or camping somewhere and away from day-to-day life. Plus you’re doing things that can easily go sideways and you don’t have much time or many resources to fix the things that do go wrong. It’s just begging to become a sitcom.

This all sounds very much like I planned it this way, but Fieldwork is a part of an existing project that I’ve been working on with Prof Thorunn Helgason, Dr Pen Holland and Prof Bala Chaudhary since 2019, the International Collaboration on Mycorrhizal Ecological Traits. Our original plan was to run a workshop for about 20 international ecologists at the University of York in order to develop a design for an easy-to-build mycorrhizal spore trap, and for me to do some basic training around mentoring, which was my contribution to the project (not being an ecologist, ’n all). Unfortunately for us, our workshop was due to start the week after the first Covid travel bans came into force. Oops. We had to cancel with just a few days notice.

So Fieldwork is, in essence, our way of finishing off this project with a flourish. And I feel very lucky that the subject is ecology and not, say, nuclear physics.

Part 2: Comedy research

Back when it was “the new Rock ’n Roll”, I performed at open mic stand-up gigs, some of which actually went very well, even though the performance aspect of it terrified me. I’ve written novellas, a full-length novel, a feature film script and a six-part TV series, have trained as a TV script editor, and have a wealth of journalistic experience having written for The Guardian, Forbes, Melody Maker and a bunch of other newspapers and magazines.

What I’m doing now is building on what I already know about writing by adding the specifics of comedy. Although there are similarities between genres, there are also some aspects that are really very different, so rather than dive in and wonder why it’s not working, I’m investing my time in learning as much as I can about the form. Specifically, I’m reading everything I can about:

  1. Sitcom structure
  2. Plot
  3. Character

I find this all absolutely fascinating. I’ve always loved deconstructing everything I’ve watched or read (and thankfully have a husband who enjoys these conversations too), so I’m in my element.

(Just a heads up: My writing and comedy craft posts will very likely be paid posts, and they’ll sit in the Essays subsection of Word Count. All my project update posts will be free, and they’ll sit in the Fieldwork subsection.)

Part 3: Script development

This is the hard bit. But also the fun bit. And the painful bit.

I’ll be writing a script that’s between 10 and 15 minutes long, so that’s between 10 and 15 pages, as usually a page of script equals about a minute of screen time. Within those pages, I need to set the scene and have perhaps two cycles of the main character trying to fix a problem but accidentally making it worse before the final resolution. And I need to cram in as many jokes as possible.



Once I’ve got a draft that’s as good as I can make it, I’ll work with a comedy script editor to hone it further before organising a table read to see how the jokes land when actual actors say them out loud. What works on the page doesn’t always work when spoken, so there will likely be rewrites at this stage.

Part 4: Funding for production

The funding we have doesn’t cover actually filming the script, so whilst all of the above is going on, I need to find a way to pay for filming. This might involve applying for grants or running a crowdfunding campaign, as well as developing the paid tier here on Substack so that I can put more of my time into Fieldwork itself.

To do all that, I’ll have to learn about film production and budgeting. I have been involved in a short film production before (and somewhere on the internet you can see me ‘acting’ in one, and no, I’m not going to link to it), but things have changed a lot since then. Much more can be done much more cheaply these days, but I have an abiding belief that people should be paid for their time, so that’s going to be the cornerstone of my fundraising. I don’t believe in asking people to work for free or “for exposure”, especially not during a financial crush, so raising enough money to pay crew and actors is a hill I am willing to die on.

The future

This project won’t stop once the short has been filmed. My plan then is to develop a script for the pilot of a half-hour ongoing sitcom and see what I can do to get it in front of producers. Because I really believe that this is a great concept and that it’s a show that could be hugely entertaining and successful.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, and this is mine. I hope you will join me to see what kind of countryside we pass through. Just make sure you pitch your tent inside the electric fence, in case of moose.

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Patience is its own reward

by Suw on May 17, 2023

When to trust your subconscious to work through a problem on its own.

The first rule of Writer’s Block Club is you don’t talk about writer’s block… Wait, no, that’s stupid.

The first rule of Writer’s Block Club is that you always need to interrogate your block to find out what kind of block it is, so that you can take the appropriate steps to dismantle it. OK, so that’s not as snappy, but it has the advantage of truth. You can’t start to move past your blocks if you don’t know what they are and why they are there. (I know I keep promising future posts, but honestly, I’ll do a deep dive on this when I’ve enough brain to figure it all out.)

The block I’ve been dealing with over the last few weeks has a very specific origin. I’m working on an urban fantasy six-part TV series script, based on the screenplay for a movie I wrote 20 years ago. I started converting it from a 90 minute script to a 6 x 60 minute format in September 2021 and, by early this year, it felt like the end was in sight.

Then I hired a script editor to give me an assessment of the pilot.

I hired a script editor because I want these scripts to be the very best they can be. Generally in the TV industry it’s suggested you write just a pilot and a treatment, which outlines how the rest of the series would go if it got picked up. You don’t generally write the whole series. But I’m new to TV writing, so I wanted to write everything, soup-to-nuts, for three reasons:

  1. I wanted to know that I could actually do it. Writing 6 x 60 minute scripts is quite a bit of work, it’s something like 84,000 words all told, and I wanted to know that I had it in me to finish it.
  2. I wanted to learn the ropes. I don’t think you learn much from writing a few drafts of a pilot. You have to think about all the set-ups and pay-offs, the character development, the relationships, the plot, etc., for the whole series. If you’re brave, you think about that for several series.
  3. I want to novelise it. If I’m honest, I think this stands more chance as a novel than as a TV series, just because it requires quite a lot of SFX and no one’s going to blow that amount of money on a newbie scriptwriter.

My script editor, Dan McGrath, is great. He gave me a solid report, which was very encouraging, and then spent over two hours on a call with me going through all the major characters and plot points, and where they need to be strengthened. His feedback was invaluable, and he really opened my eyes to my weaknesses as a writer and how to fix them. I cannot stress enough how important this whole exercise has been, and how that single conversation will have positive repercussions through my entire writing life.


There’s always a but.

Knowing where and why you need to fix your script and actually fixing it are two completely different things, and the nature of the changes I need to make really stymied me. I just did not know where to start. So for the last five weeks, I have been feeling quite stuck. But I do at least know the what and the why of it:

  • What: I don’t know how to make the changes I need to make.
  • Why: Because these changes are fundamental and require me to completely rethink everything.

And that’s where the patience comes in. Because rethinking takes time and might not involve actually writing.

I knew that I had to just wait for as long as it takes for my subconscious to sort through the pieces of this new jigsaw, the one I thought I had nearly finished but which, in fact, was just put together wrong. It’s not that I’ve done nothing over the last five weeks. I’ve done a little mulling. I have jotted a few things down. But mostly, yes, I have just held my horses and kicked my heels.

It is tempting to think that I have wasted this time, but that’s not true. This waiting, this patience, is 100 per cent necessary. If I’d just dived in and started tinkering with the script straight away, it’s very likely that I’ve have made it worse, because I would have been writing for the sake of writing, not because I was ready to make the needed changes.

But on Monday night, I started to feel a shift in my mental logjam. It hasn’t cleared. I’m not yet ready to sit down and write, but I am starting to get a feel for the shape of the changes to come. The thoughts I’ve been having about characters, about structure and causality, about character relationships – particularly who trusts who and why, and how that changes over the course of the story – are slowly, very slowly, coalescing into a clearer picture of what I need to do next.

I’m not going to push myself to get writing again soon. Instead, I’m going to continue being patient. I’ll jot some more ideas down on paper. Draw some diagrams. Mull things over when I walk into town. Continue to let it all stew. Because at some point, and I think at some point soon, I’ll have found all the edges to the jigsaw and I’ll be able to start filling in the middle. At that point, I’ll be able to sit down and write.

So if you’re in a similar situation – you have a clear understanding of what your block is and why it’s there – perhaps what you need is a little patience. Let your subconscious shoulder the load, let it mull and stew and cogitate, and when it’s ready to get back to work, you’ll know it.

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Plus Sitcom Geeks look back on the Big Comedy Conference, how to sell a book on Substack, showrunner John Rodgers on the WGA strike, king cheetahs, and more!

Hi there,

There’s much to share in this week’s newsletter, so let’s just get on with it!

Opportunity: WFTV Kay Mellor Screenwriters’ Lab 2023

Women in Film & TV (UK) is launching the Kay Mellor Screenwriters’ Lab, a fully funded mentoring and development program for 13 currently un-agented and un-produced female screenwriters. Successful applicants will get to spend five days working on their original scripts, with the aim that by the end of the program, they’ll be ready to find an agent or pitch their project to an independent production company.

The programme will consist of craft writing masterclasses, tutor-led workshops and independent writing time. In addition, across the week there will be evening sessions with special guests from the industry, including Happy Valley creator and writer, Sally Wainwright OBE.

The residential workshop will run from Monday 2 October to Saturday 7 October 2023. Applications close at 17:00 BST on Wednesday 24 May.

Opportunity: Free comedy mentoring

Comedian, writer and presenter Sadia Azmat (right) is offering to mentor six people “who are looking for support in writing and/or stand-up comedy”. Each mentee will be offered a monthly hour-long session for up to six months.

To apply, “simply send a short statement about who you are, what your comedy goals are and why you think you’d benefit from these free sessions with Sadia to by 1st June.”

Competition: Virago Press launches Furies short story comp

Virago Press, the feminist book publisher, is launching the Furies short story competition as part of their 50th birthday celebrations. Submissions must be “an original, feminist short story inspired by a synonym for ‘virago’,” and the competition is open to writers from underrepresented backgrounds.

The competition has some pretty specific terms and conditions, so read carefully before you start writing. In particular:

“The story must not be inspired by a synonym for ‘virago’ or any other word which has already been used as inspiration for a story by a contributor to the existing edition of FURIES. These are: siren, virago, churail, termagant, wench, hussy, vituperator, harridan, warrior, she-devil, muckraker, spitfire, fury, tygress and dragon.”

Which, according to my computer’s built-in dictionary, leaves you with shrew, vixen, fishwife, witch, hellcat, tartar, martinet, hag, gorgon, ogress, harpy, nag, trout, battleaxe, old bag, old bat, cow, bitch, targe, scold and Xanthippe.

The deadline is 11.59pm BST on Saturday, 1 July 2023.

Stop, look, listen: Sitcom Geeks, E218 – Conference Calling

If you didn’t get along to the Big Comedy Conference last month, then you can get a taste of what you missed with the Sitcom Geeks podcast. In this latest episode, James Cary and Dave Cohen talk about the first two sessions from the conference which featured commissioners and producers talking about the commissioning process.

Sadly, the Sitcom Geeks podcast will be ending with episode 222 on 6 July, due to both James and Dave getting too busy to continue. I’ve only just discovered the podcast, so I guess I’ll just have to work backwards through the archives.

Read this: How to sell a book on Substack

Substack has written a guide on how to sell a book on Substack, including how to promote via preorders and book launches, and using tactics such as using custom buttons, telling your paid subscribers first, providing behind-the-scenes content, and offering discounts. They also look at how to do ongoing promotion by adding your books to your Substack and using custom banners, and growing your audience at the same time as your sales.

The section that will eventually be of most interest to me is the section on how to pitch one’s newsletter to agents and publishers. Several Substack writers have landed book deals because their newsletter had developed a huge audience with a high open rate. I’m doing well on open rate, but just need another, oh, 59,700 subscribers.

Stop, look, listen: The Writers Panel – Strike Talk with John Rogers

Screenwriter Ben Blacker talks to WGA Board Member and showrunner John Rogers about why writers are on strike plus “what’s at stake, how negotiations broke down, and how long this might last”.

John also makes the really good point that writers aren’t asking for anything outrageous. They’re not being greedy. Fifty per cent of writers are working for the union minimum, and that includes showrunners who’ve been in the business for 20 years. Writers’ pay has dropped real terms, so what they’re asking is just for the last decade’s worth of decline in pay to be reversed.

Meanwhile, as John says, “The companies are averaging between $28 and $30 billion in profit – not revenue, profit – a year. And that’s during COVID when they were afraid they were going to bottom out.” The studios and streams can absolutely afford to pay authors a living wage.

Anyway, give the episode a listen, it’s a great insight into what’s going on and why.

Tweet of the week

From writer, director and producer Justine Bateman:

AI is being used to replace human expression for the sake of greed. The #WGA fight can become a template for other industries. I’ve heard of paralegals being replaced with ChatGPT at a legit law firm, & medical grad student being replaced by ChatGPT for medical research. 1/

Read the rest of the thread.

Suw’s News: What is “easy”?, Substack Notes, and Bluesky

  • When the easiest route becomes the hardest. Sometimes, writing my Why Aren’t I Writing? newsletter turns out to be a much bigger challenge than I have time for, and last week was a prime example. So I wrote about how sometimes, looking for the ‘easiest’ option turns out to be an exercises in making life harder. (Though to be fair to me, it turned out that I was incubating a cold, so no wonder my brain was feeling foggy!)
  • Is the Notes honeymoon over? I wrote an essay for paid subscribers – with graphs! – about my experience of the Substack Notes subscriber bump, and of trying to work out which social media platform is the best for getting word out to potential subscribers.
  • I’m on Bluesky! I know that Bluesky is still invite-only as they try to control their growth, and it’s still an incredibly basic experience, but if you’re there, say hello! (Please note: I don’t have any invite codes.)

Obligatory cat picture

Back in August 2018, just a few months after we first moved to Shaker Heights, my husband and I visited Cleveland Zoo for the first time. It was a stonking hot day, and this sleepy cheetah could only be captured at full zoom. Having raised its head to squint at us, it promptly went back to sleep. Can’t say I blamed it.

Whilst I was just looking up a few cheetah facts, though, I discovered the existence of the rare king cheetah, which has a mutation that results in darker spots and three distinctive stripes down the back. I’d suggest that these were go-faster stripes, but it’s not like the cheetah needs any help with speed.

Anyway, it turns out that the king cheetah has a mutation in the same gene that’s responsible for the variation in coat pattern in domestic tabby cats, specifically the mackerel tabby (eg Copurrnicus) and the blotchy or classic tabby (eg Grabbity). In the case of cheetahs, the mackerel version is the normal spotty cheetah, and the blotchy version is the rare king cheetah.

Two cats cuddle on a bed

You can see the difference between blotchy Grabbity (left) and mackerel Copurrnicus (right) quite clearly. It’s hard to tell from this photo, but Grabbity does have three poorly defined stripes along parts of her spine. Thanks, transmembrane aminopeptidase mutation!

Right, that’s more cat photos than I think any of us bargained for this week!

Ciao bella,


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Today’s post is brought to you by the battle of trying to come up with today’s post.

If there’s one form of writer’s block that trips me up consistently and frequently, it’s the mistake of trying to find the easiest thing to write instead of working out what the right thing to write is. This is particularly problematic when blogging, writing newsletters, or pitching articles, but it sometimes pops up with my fiction writing too. I end up wasting so much time trying to come up with the simplest, easiest idea that I honestly could have just waded in to a more complex idea and still had it finished sooner.

Whilst the obvious cause of this kind of block is time scarcity, as per my previous posts, there’s also quite a bit of performance pressure that I’m putting myself under:

  • I want to write a post that’s insightful and that gives you some sort of “Ah-ha!” moment, so that you come away feeling that your time has been well-spent.
  • I want a subject that’s meaty enough that I can give you a nice long post to sink your teeth into.
  • I want to be able to write the post swiftly and easily (yes, even the long ones).
  • I want to feel perhaps just a little bit clever at having come up with this perfect idea.
  • And I want to know that all the above is going to be true as soon as I have the idea.

Except, sometimes, my brain just doesn’t play ball. On those occasions, I end up scrolling through my list of subjects to tackle and discounting them one by one because they are too complicated, or they need too much research, or they don’t speak to me at this particular point in time, or they feel just wrong somehow.

And then I slip into a frame of mind that starts to feel a bit like panic. By this point, I’ve already wasted an hour and I’m starting to feel desperate. If I’d committed to a more complex idea an hour ago, I’d be done by now. Then, when I do commit, the writing part feels like pulling teeth. I’ll do ten minutes, get distracted by another task, do that, then go back to where I was and find I’ve lost the thread.

And on, and on.

And then I get to about this point in the article and get stuck. I’m looking for a conclusion, some way to tie all this up with a nice little bow so that you can all say, “Well, that was clever!”

And the truth is, sometimes, that just doesn’t happen. Sometimes, you find an opening, but you can’t find the closer. You manage, despite the tornado of crap in your head, to get started, but you cannot finish.

And you know what? That’s OK. Sometimes there isn’t a neat little way to tie things off. Sometimes you have to take the thin gruel that the universe gives you and just live with it. It’s OK to not perform at 100 per cent all the time. It’s OK to have off days. You are not perfect, I am not perfect, and perhaps instead of striving to be perfect we can sit together for a moment in our imperfection, make peace with it, let it be what it is, and then move on and write something different on another day.

There is no bow. There’s just the best we can do in the moment.

Today, this is my best. And it is enough.

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Plus the importance of the WGA’s AI demands, Fieldwork, The Lacemaker, and opportunity costs.

Hi there,

Happy 1st Birthday to Word Count! It’s about a year since I started this newsletter, and I’m slightly surprised that I’ve stuck to my weekly schedule. I have to be honest, I thought that my initial enthusiasm would wear off a bit, but I am still really enjoying myself, so it looks like this cadence is here to stay!

Lots of thoughts this week on the writer’s strike, and why we should all pay attention to it even if we’re not Writers Guild of America (WGA) members, or even if we’re not writers. Talking of which…

Why is the WGA strike important to those of us outside the US?

The WGA strike is the single most consequential union action that has been taken within the creative industries in recent years, with repercussions for all creative people in all countries, not just American TV and film. The US-based entertainment industry has global reach, and what Netflix, Amazon, Apple, Disney, Discovery-Warner, NBC Universal, Paramount and Sony do in America they will do everywhere else. The cowpaths they pave will be trodden by everyone else, inside and outside the film and TV industries.

Nowhere is this more true than in the area of AI, where the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP, ie the studios listed above) has simply refused to negotiate. Generative computing such as Midjourney or ChatGPT poses a genuine threat to writers and artists now, and that threat only going to become more severe as the technology becomes more sophisticated.

The WGA’s requests on AI are incredibly reasonable (The MBA is the Minimum Basic Agreement, ie the contract under which most WGA writers work.):

“Regulate use of artificial intelligence on MBA-covered projects: AI can’t write or rewrite literary material; can’t be used as source material; and MBA-covered material can’t be used to train AI.”

The WGA says that the AMPTP “Rejected our proposal. Countered by offering annual meetings to discuss advancements in technology.”

Meetings. Right. That’ll work.

The WGA cannot afford to lose on this point. Indeed, I think it’s more important than their requests regarding pay and residuals (ie, what TV writers get paid for repeats), because whilst low pay makes a writing career difficult, allowing studios to use computer generated content could eventually make writers obsolete. And giving in on this point would give a green light to every other creative industry to do the same – games, books, journalism, every company that relies on words and images likely has their eye on the results of this strike.

How the WGA strike affects writers in other countries

Given how interconnected the international TV and film industries are, and how normal Zoom writers’ rooms are these days, it should be no surprise to hear that international writers unions are standing up in very clear support of the WGA’s current strike action.

The Writers’ Guild of Great Britain (WGGB), the Australian Writers’ Guild (AWG) and the Writers’ Guild of Canada (WGC) have all said that their members should refuse to write on US shows whilst the strike continues. The WGGB also advises non-members to refrain from scab writing, because they will be refused membership in future:

“The Guild [WGA] does not have the authority to discipline non-members for strikebreaking or scab writing. However, the Guild [WGA] can and will bar that writer from future Guild membership.”

It’s absolutely essential that non-WGA writers don’t cross the (real or virtual) picket lines. All writers will benefit from a favourable end to this strike, so we all have to support those who are taking a hit to their income to stand up for everyone else’s rights. It doesn’t matter where you are in your career, this strike will have echoes that we’ll all hear.

The WGA’s AI stand-off is just the first of many

Generative computing (I really hate the term ‘AI’) is posing a risk not just to writers’ jobs. CNN’s coverage of the strike includes this piece about the impact that LLMs (Large Language Models) in particular will have on other industries.

“Goldman Sachs economists estimate that as many as 300 million full-job jobs globally could be automated in some way by the newest wave of AI. White-collar workers, including those in administrative and legal roles, are expected to be the most affected. And the impact may hit sooner than some think: IBM’s CEO recently suggested AI could eliminate the need for thousands of jobs at his company alone in the next five years.”

The article suggests that as well as copywriters and journalists, “digital artists, musicians, engineers, real estate professionals and customer service workers will all feel the impact of generative AI.”

If you’re in any of these industries, maybe now’s the time to join a union.

Other strike reads

There’s been so much good stuff written about the strike in the week since it started, but here are a few articles that have stood out for me:

Suw’s news: Fieldwork launches! Plus The Lacemaker and WAIW?

We finally have ethical approval to begin the research which will underpin Fieldwork, the short comedy film project that I’m working on with Dr Pen Holland and Prof Thorunn Helgason. You probably saw the introductory post pop into your email last week, and you can expect more updates this week as we start our search for participants.

I cannot tell you how excited I am by this. I’ve been quietly laying the groundwork for this project since November last year, after we came up with the idea last June. I absolutely love interviewing people, so I shall be delighted when the first participants pick an interview slot in my diary.

Meanwhile, I’ve had some lovely comments elsewhere about last week’s short story, The Lacemaker. It’s genuinely wonderful when someone says that something one has written has resonated with them, so thank you to those of you who reached out. If you enjoyed it, please do pop over to the Substack website and give it a little heart or leave a comment. It can be quite hard to persuade people to take a punt on an unknown author and every little bit of encouragement helps!

And finally, last week’s post over on Why Aren’t I Writing? was about opportunity costs – the things we lose when we choose not to write. Reframing our choice about whether to write or watch TV in terms of what we lose, and what Future Us would be grateful to Present Us for having done, can help us to find the motivation to sit down and write.

Obligatory cat picture

I can’t resist a silver tabby. This is a random cat that I met whilst out and about on 8 June 2014, just 22 days before I left the UK to move to Sheboygan, WI. My husband had been there since early February, and Grabbity and Sir Izacat Mewton made the trip late May, whilst I couch surfed and waited for my visa to come through.

I can’t quite believe that that was nine years ago, or that I’ve now been back in the UK for more than a year. How does time pass so quickly?!

All the best,


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The opportunity cost of not writing

by Suw on May 3, 2023

If in doubt, always take the strange-looking baked goods.

What are we sacrificing when we decide to do something else instead of write?

When we talk about “opportunity” in relation to writing, it’s often in the context of all the opportunities that exist for writers now. It’s so much easier to find literary agents to submit to these days, and so much easier to submit. There are competitions for every kind of writing imaginable, and it’s easier than ever to self-publish or make your own short film. And if that doesn’t float your boat, you can serialise via a newsletter or develop your own narrative podcast.

The opportunities are truly endless.

And yet, it’s still so easy to fall into the rhythm of not writing, of promising yourself that you will start next week, which rapidly becomes next month, next year. Before you know it, there’s more life behind you than in front and you’re regretting not getting your act together years, if not decades, ago. (And yet again, by “you” I obviously mean “me”.)

Although this creative lethargy may have many root causes, they are all exacerbated by the fact that we never talk about the opportunity cost of not writing. That means we never put our choice to not write into a broader context that could completely change our perspective and, perhaps, help us tackle our writer’s block head-on.

When two conflicting opportunities come along, we have to choose between them: Do we pursue this opportunity or that? Our choice is brought into focus as we consider which one is likely to benefit us the most. We weigh up the pros and cons, we think about our long term goals (whether rational or instinctual), we think about our emotional needs and how much we would enjoy or not enjoy each option. Then we make a choice.

Perhaps without knowing it, we have weighed up opportunity costs: What will we lose out on if we choose Option A over Option B?

We humans are keenly attuned to loss, much more so than gain. If someone gives us a coffee mug, we’re all, “Cool. Another mug. Whatevs.” But if someone wants to take that mug away, suddenly it is our mug, we like that mug, we don’t want to give our mug up. Even if we have a cupboard full of the damn things.

When we weigh up opportunities, we think hard about what we will lose out on, because our brains are focused on minimising loss.

But when we have to choose between two things that are not explicit opportunities, such as writing and watching TV, we don’t give it all that much thought, because neither option has any emotional weight. It doesn’t feel like it matters, which makes it easier to go with the option that gives us a bigger short-term reward.

This is a mistake. This is how 20 years can pass in the blink of an eye, leaving you wondering how much writing you can cram in to the rest of your too-short life and kicking yourself for not starting sooner.

Regrets exist to teach us about what we need to do better in future. But the very best regrets are the ones we avoid because we thought harder about how Future Us would respond to the decisions made by Present Us. And part of that thinking harder process is to be more honest and more intentional about the small decisions we make and to examine closely the opportunity costs inherent in each one.

So let’s say that your choice this evening is to watch TV or spend some time writing. Watching TV is easy. Writing is hard. But what will Future You be most grateful for? I doubt Future You will even remember a specific evening on the couch, but if you spend half an hour writing and you make progress on your current project, Future You will have less work to do, fewer lessons to learn, and be closer to the finishing line.

Put another way, the opportunity cost of choosing to watch TV instead of writing is high: Because you watched TV, you couldn’t spend time writing, which pushes back the day that your work will be ready to submit to an agent, magazine or production company, etc, thus pushing back the moment you’ll start earning money from that work. It also pushes back the point at which you reach a higher level of professional competence, because that only comes through writing lots and learning from the experience.

The future is neither assured nor infinite. Viewing our behaviour now through the lens of opportunity costs – what we’re giving up every time we make a decision not to write – can help us find the focus we need to sit down and get on with it.

So the next time you’re vacillating and wondering whether you feel up to writing, ask yourself, “What would Future Me be most grateful for?” I bet the answer is, “Investing time in my writing”.

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Introducing Fieldwork

May 2, 2023

Everything you need to know about Suw’s latest creative project. If you’ve ever been on a science field trip, you’ll know that, in amongst the experiments and data gathering, things can go hilariously wrong. The longer you spend in the field, the more likely you are to have had animals carry off your equipment, experienced […]

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Word Count 46: UK bookshops flourishing along with self-published authors, Sitcom Geeks on what a plot is not

May 2, 2023

Plus London Screenwriters Festival 2024, and a new short story on the way. Hi there, We just had another long weekend here in the UK, one that was very much needed. Thankfully, we get another one next weekend and then yet another one at the end of May. I do like four-day weeks and as […]

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