June 2023

When your brain is too full

by Suw on June 28, 2023

Thoughts start dribbling out of your nose and are lost forever, which is why you should always carry a handkerchief.

OK, I’m going to fess up. My brain is too full.

I was chronically underemployed when I started this newsletter at the end of January. Ada Lovelace Day, which had been my full-time job since 2015, was almost certainly over (although I was in very slow talks to save it). I was waiting for my short film project, Fieldwork, to kick off, and was considering what the hell to do next.

Despite the financial insecurity, I rather enjoyed focusing on my writing a bit more. I worked on Tag – my TV series, did lots of reading about comedy, republished old novelettes on my other newsletter, wrote long posts for both my newsletters, set up a third, and generally relished the fact that my hair wasn’t on fire. My bank account was about to be, and not in a good way, but the money I got for Fieldwork was keeping disaster at bay.

Five months later, Ada Lovelace Day has been saved, October’s in-person event needs to be organised in super-quick time, I’m working with a company to produce a short film about ALD, liaising with my main event partners on content, event planning and publicity, and still searching for more sponsors as well as letting everyone know that it’s back and re-upping our social media presence.

Background research for Fieldwork is underway, which is huge amounts of fun but also quite time consuming. Tag is undergoing a major rewrite. I’m desperately trying to get a bit fitter after naffing up both my hips shovelling snow 18 months ago. And I now have four newsletters (what the hell was I thinking?).

Which is all to say that my brain is full. And the era of being able to spend a whole day working out what I want to say here is over, at least until November.

I’m also starting to feel uncomfortable about how this newsletter has become so much more introspective than I had originally intended. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing in that I don’t feel like I’ve said anything I wish I hadn’t, but I’m starting to feel as if I’m trawling for anxiety to share which has hints of dishonesty about it.

We all get stuck with our writing and it’s often valuable to hear from other people that they struggle with the same things that you do. If even one person feels better or less alone because they’ve read something I’ve written, then I’m happy. But I’ve recently begun to worry that my writing here has veered towards the narcissistic and opportunistic, and I don’t think that’s good for either me as a writer or you as a reader.

Substack Notes actually hasn’t helped here either. A lot of people are talking about their writing challenges from first person experience – again, I want to stress that’s not a bad thing and I’m not criticising it – and I feel rather like I’m drowning in a sea of rumination. I don’t think that’s healthy for me.

These feelings are also clogging my brain, which makes writing even more difficult. This is not supposed to be hard work for me, it’s supposed to be fun!

So I’m going to propose that I go back to the original vision for this newsletter, which is to look at the research behind things like impostor syndrome, confidence, and other things that I think feed into writer’s block. That won’t mean that I never write these sort of more self-reflective newsletters once in a while, especially if I’m dealing with something specific myself, but I want to turn my main focus outwards if I can.

But, before I make this decision, I’d like your opinion. I mean, I’m writing this at least in part for you and I would genuinely like to know what you think. So, to that end, here’s a poll:

(See Substack for poll)

Please also leave a comment if you have any particular thoughts on this that you’d like to share.

Ultimately, I want to craft a newsletter that’s creatively sustainable and interesting for both me to write and you to read. That might take a bit of tweaking along the way, but I’d rather do a few course corrections than push on with something that’s not making me completely happy.

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Plus Alex North webinar available for catch-up, visualising plots, Blackadder lost pilot, why it’s hard to hear dialogue, group dynamics and more!

Hi there,

A couple of weeks ago, when I decided to move to a fortnightly schedule, I didn’t think it would be difficult to just write less. But did I really miss writing this newsletter last week, it turns out that I’ve gathered enough news and interesting links to fill two. It seems the challenge is going to be keeping this email below 1,000 characters when it could easily be double that!

Suw’s news: Ada Lovelace Day returns!

The reason that I’m writing a bit less often is that Ada Lovelace Day, the annual global celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths, has been saved, thanks to the Royal InstitutionStylistDigital ScienceRedgate and dxw! I’d been in talks for months to see whether it might be possible to, ahem, save the day, so I’m delighted that we’ve managed it. But it does mean I’m going to be a lot busier now than I have been for a while.

I’ve also started a new Substack (yes, I know, another one) and have moved the entire Ada Lovelace Day mailing list over here in the hope that with Notes and Chat, we might be able to create a nice little community. Please do join us if you’re into cool stories of women in STEM, fascinating videos from our past events, plus book and podcast recommendations.

Suw’s news, two: Do you know where your keys are?

A month into the background research for Fieldwork, and I’ve had some fabulous conversations with ecologists around the world. The results have been a lot more slapstick than I’d anticipated, which is both interesting and slightly scary because I don’t really think in a slapstick kind of way, so it’s giving me a tiny bit of The Fear for actually writing this short. But I must not get ahead of myself, because I’m not even at the story planning point yet. It will all come in time.

Suw’s news, three: Alex North webinar available for catch-up

If you wanted to see the conversation I had with Alex North on 8 June, it’s now available for paid subscribers. We had a great chat, talking about the ups and downs of Alex’s career, his writing process, why he began to write under his pseudonym (you might know him better as Steve Mosby), and much more.

Event: The Clarke Awards

The Arthur C Clarke Award, which recognises the best science fiction novel first published in the United Kingdom during the previous year, announced their six book shortlist for this year’s award on the Science Museum’s blog.

The winner will be revealed at the award ceremony on Wednesday 16 August at a location TBC, so put that in your diary!

Tip-top tip: Visualising your plot threads

I loved this post from author Simon K Jones about how to visualise a book’s plot. It’s something I’ve thought about before and then gave up on because, as Simon also found, there isn’t really any software that makes it easy. I’ve tried mind maps, timelines and OmniGraffle in the past, but always gave up fairly rapidly because it was such a massive palaver and often hard or impossible to edit.

Simon’s solution is based on an XKCD comic:

The key thing here was in how they decided to map the stories. Time is on the horizontal, and than ‘relative geography’ is on the vertical. This depicts how characters come into contact with each other through the course of the story. Annotations then highlight key plot moments.

I tried using various digital art tools to recreate XKCD’s approach, all of which were a massive faff.

Then I remembered the existence of pencils, and had a go at using them on a slim, tablet-like device called paper. And it worked!

What I’m watching: Blackadder: The Lost Pilot

Blackadder is such a beloved classic, you’d think that it had been thoroughly documented and analysed by now, but it seems that there’s some degree of fuzziness over its origins, not to mention a pilot episode that’s never been broadcast. All that is going to be put to rights by a new documentary, according to a great interview on Comedy.co.uk.

Blackadder: The Lost Pilot sees Sir Tony Robinson on a quest to discover the truth behind the Blackadder origin story. Tony’s journey takes him back in time to find out where Blackadder really began, and to uncover the story of the never-before-broadcast Blackadder pilot episode.

It’s a personal story for Tony – Baldrick has defined his career and playing the character transformed his life. But Tony didn’t play Baldrick in the pilot. And there’s so much about Blackadder‘s beginnings he doesn’t know. Along the way he speaks to comedy greats including the series creator and writer Richard Curtis and co-writer Ben Elton. The climax of the programme is a special screening of the never-before-broadcast pilot.

You can watch the special this Sunday 25 June at 00:20 or 21:00 on UKTV Gold.

Read this: Why is it so hard to hear dialogue?

This fascinating piece on The Atlantic about why so many people are watching TV with subtitles on these days was a real eye-opener, and made me really hacked off with the streamers (as if I wasn’t already).

Specifically, it has everything to do with LKFS, which stands for “Loudness, K-weighted, relative to full scale” and which, for the sake of simplicity, is a unit for measuring loudness. Traditionally it’s been anchored to the dialogue. For years, going back to the golden age of broadcast television and into the pay-cable era, audio engineers had to deliver sound levels within an industry-standard LKFS, or their work would get kicked back to them. That all changed when streaming companies seized control of the industry, a period of time that rather neatly matches Game of Thrones’ run on HBO. According to Blank, Game of Thrones sounded fantastic for years, and she’s got the Emmys to prove it. Then, in 2018, just prior to the show’s final season, AT&T bought HBO’s parent company and overlaid its own uniform loudness spec, which was flatter and simpler to scale across a large library of content. But it was also, crucially, un-anchored to the dialogue.

“So instead of this algorithm analyzing the loudness of the dialogue coming out of people’s mouths,” Blank explained to me, “it analyzes the whole show as loudness. So if you have a loud music cue, that’s gonna be your loud point. And then, when the dialogue comes, you can’t hear it.”

Honestly, this is just another bit of proof that streamers are predominantly tech companies, not TV companies, and they do what makes sense to techies, ignoring or ignorant of all of the TV/film industry expertise that would make their shows technically better. (And let’s not get started on how bloody dark so much TV is these days!)

Stop, look, listen: Scriptnotes, E599 – Group Dynamics

I really enjoyed this episode of Scriptnotes on group dynamics, not least because I need to think about group dynamics for Tag. Craig Mazin points out that we really love seeing teams assembled and learning how to work well together, with each person bringing their own talents to the table. As usual, relationships are key and in group films that tends to mean that there’s one relationship that takes centre stage, but everyone in the team still gets to shine in their own way. It’s well worth a listen!

Obligatory cat picture

I’ve been administering Grabbity’s eye ointment thrice daily, as instructed, but it’s nigh on impossible to tell if it’s working. She certainly seems a bit brighter in herself, but we’ll find out on 3 July when she has her next appointment with the specialist.

Here she is, sitting on the little chest of draws on my desk, with Copurrnicus having a snuffle to see if she’s still her. He’s been sniffing her a lot, so I think the eye drops must make her face smell weird to him. I’m sure they taste disgusting for her, so she’s been getting lots and lots of treats.

That’s it for now! See you again in a fortnight!

All the best,


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A woman riding a buffalo.

This ecologist lost her car keys and had to take an alternative form of transport to the field site. The handlebars later proved useful for carrying samples back to camp.

Are you sure? Absolutely sure? Because I know I don’t have them.

I’m just over a month into the background research for Fieldwork and have already carried out half a dozen interviews with ecologists in a wide variety of disciplines. We’ve talked about everything, from the challenges of surveying plants in highland bogs, to working out which exact tree the bats are roosting in, to the problem of water in your waders.

Already, I’m seeing a few common themes: Keys getting lost/left behind and wellies getting stuck/lost in soggy ground being two that have come up more than once. Ecologists also have to be good at jury-rigging equipment, either because what they need hasn’t been invented yet or because the commercially available equipment is too expensive. There’s a lot of ingenuity involved, but also a lot of learning that battery packs can lie when they say they’re full, as can GPS when it says that the track is passable.

If I had to sum up my conversations, it would be with the phrase ‘easier said than done’. You may happily promise to sample 100 locations, but actually doing so can be a challenge. And, equally, sometimes a more modest dozen locations might not be enough for you to find your target species at all, even if you know it has to be there somewhere.

I’m also struck by just how slapstick a lot of fieldwork fails are, particularly the whole getting stuck in bogs/mud/quicksand bit. I can’t help wondering how future archaeologists are going to interpret a lone pair of wellies, perfectly preserved in the peat.

A lot of the comedies I love the most – Sex Education, Ted Lasso, The Good Place, Schitt’s Creek – are predominantly character driven, so it’s going to be an interesting challenge to work out how to combine that with authentically slapstick ecology.

I’m still looking for ecologists to interview, so if you’d like to chat to me you can either email me to set up a time, or pick a time via Calendly. These conversations have rapidly turned into my favourite time of the week, so if you’d like to have a relaxed, informal chat about your experiences in the field, please get in touch!

(Or, if you’d prefer, you can complete as much or as little of our survey as you please.)

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You wouldn’t force her to work out the Mixolydian from first principles, so don’t expect yourself to work out everything about writing from first principles either.

We’re all always learning more about our craft and we should celebrate that as growth, not chastise ourselves for failing. 

Some writers seem to instinctively know how to structure their novel or TV script, never paying much attention to acts or turning points as they lay down their first draft and, later, revise their final draft. The rest of us need to work a bit harder, but we shouldn’t beat ourselves up about that. Every writer starts their journey from a different place, has different skills and different strengths, and needs to learn different lessons to reach their full potential.

The lesson I need to learn is, apparently, about structure.

I have been struggling with my writing recently, as those of you who read my post about patience will remember. To recap, I’m working on a set of scripts for a six part urban fantasy TV series called Tag. Thankfully it’s spec work, so there’s no deadline and I can take as long as I like on it, although I would like to finish it all by September 2023, two years after I started. But a couple of months ago I hired a script editor to look over the pilot script and at about that point, the gears in my brain ground to a halt.

It’s not that the report my editor sent was bad. It was, on the contrary, very very good. It said very nice things. I share this lightly edited quote this not for the sake of my ego, (OK, maybe a little bit), but for the context that this is not about me getting bad notes and going off in a huff.

Tag is a very creative and interesting magical realist concept [which is] very intriguing and [has] quite an original conceit. The blending in of Welsh influences and the deep sense of history you provide ties the whole thing together and gives it all depth and credibility plus a little-explored cultural aspect.


The rest of the report is similarly positive, but my editor did identify some issues that need to be fixed, specifically that my protagonist is too passive and several characters’ motivations are unclear. I totally agreed with that diagnosis so we had a call to discuss, which was also very useful and positive. I came away feeling like this was a problem I could solve, and that the scripts will be much improved due to this extra work.

And then my brain shut down. It absolutely refused to come up with any solutions to these problems at all. It was like someone had pulled the creative plug.

I took some time to mull everything over. I annotated my script editor’s notes. I did some webinars and watched some videos. I tried to re-plot my episodes. I did some diagrams to illustrate chains of causality. Worked on character and motivation. And about a month ago, when I wrote that post about patience, I felt things shift a little… but the logjam hasn’t completely freed up.

I always used to say that if you can’t make a decision, it’s because you don’t have enough information to allow that decision to be made. Decision making rarely feels like a logical process to me, but rather something that our subconscious does on its own, with our conscious simply finding palatable justifications after the fact. If I’m not writing, it is because my subconscious doesn’t have enough information to make the plot and character decisions that it needs to make.

So I started looking for information about how to structure a TV series, as opposed to a novel/film. I wasn’t entirely sure that these two things were the same, but then, I wasn’t entirely sure they weren’t, either. I’m writing a serial, a story which evolves over several episodes and comes to a conclusion at the end, as opposed to a ‘monster of the week’ episodic drama. Think Loki (serial) rather than Bones (episodic).

I wanted to know how it should be structured. Do you take the usual three act structure and just stretch it out into six? If so, do you have Act 1 as Episode 1, then extend Act 2 into four episodes, and the finale is Act 3? Or do you do it more evenly, with each act split over two episodes? Or would that mean that you’d end up with a bit of flabbiness every other episode? Does each episode have its own three act structure? Or five act structure?

I’ve read loads about structure. I can give you chapter and verse about the theory. I’d even managed to give my pilot a nice little five act structure without thinking about it at all. It’s not like I’m a total structure newbie. I’ve internalised enough of what I’ve learnt to be able to write it without thinking too hard about it.

But for some reason, these thoughts about structure became the biggest spanner I could possibly have stuck into my creative gears. I might be overthinking things, but if I am, I can’t stop. I can’t circumvent this block. I have to grind away at it until I work out how to fix it.

In my search for more information, I stumbled across the Six Act Structure, which is a new one on me:

Six act structure is an innovative structural technique that takes the focus off of ambiguous narrator oriented concepts and places it where it belongs: on the actions and goals of the character.

Most successful modern stories are structured on a universal pattern of six actions undertaken by their characters. This sequence of six actions, or acts, is the hidden foundation of modern story structure. By focusing on these actions, you can easily and accurately identify act divisions within your stories, eliminate sagging middles and create narratives that unfold with logic and momentum.

I bought the book, which is by someone called Marshall Dotson who appears to exist online only in relationship to this and one other book which might be a spoof (I haven’t read it). He doesn’t appear to have any writing credits to his name and I couldn’t find out anything else about him. But if he’s not a writer, he’s clearly a reader and a watcher – that’s evident in the analyses he includes in his book, The Story Structure Secret: Actions and Goals.

Still, mysterious author aside, I’m about halfway through and I can feel little lightbulbs going off in my brain. Useful little lightbulbs. Dotson is answering questions that other books on screenwriting don’t even ask. And he’s answering questions that pertain specifically to the weaknesses in my script.

Awesome! I might have the tools I need to crack this nut!

And that’s when the self-flagellation set in. If I rely on the structure set out by this person who appears to have no writing credits at all, what does that say about my skills as a writer? How could I have gotten my structure so badly wrong that fixing it has stumped me for months? Am I really just a talentless hack with delusions of grandeur?

Then I remembered what I used to say to people who said that guitar lessons were pointless and stripped all the creativity out of making music: Sure, you can spend years working out your scales from first principles, the diatonic, chromatic, major, minor, and the rest. You can work out the seven modes, Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian and Locrian. You can make lists of different chords and which works well with what… but… why would you? All that’s been done. Learn it. Use it. Build on it. Stand on the shoulders of giants instead of building your own scaffolding.

As with music so with writing. Why expect yourself to work everything out from first principles when other people have done the heavy lifting? Learn it all. Internalise it all. Use what works for you, discard what doesn’t. Working to a pre-defined structure doesn’t make your work formulaic; only bad writing can do that. And don’t judge the source of knowledge, judge the knowledge itself. It doesn’t matter who Dotson is, it matters that what he says makes sense and is useful.

It does and it is. And, more importantly, I will emerge from this a much better writer with a wider array of tools at my disposal. I will have learnt something useful and that is to be celebrated.

Alex North webinar; Ada Lovelace Day saved!

Thanks to those of you who joined us for the Alex North webinar last week. The recording worked (I always worry!) and I’ll get it up as soon as I have a moment.

Moments are slightly scarce for a bit, though, because yesterday I could finally announce that I have managed to save Ada Lovelace Day, the global celebration of women’s achievements in science, technology, engineering and maths that has been my full time job for the last eight years. I’m still short of sponsors for it, so lots of work to do to on the financial stability front, but I at least have some clarity on the rest of the year.

Hopefully as things settle down I’ll be able to go back to a weekly schedule here, but please bear with me over the summer as I work out the shape of my new working life.

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Plus Hollywood’s death spiral, the DGA deal, and Grabbity’s poorly again.

Hi there,

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 and I’ll be alternating it with Why Aren’t I Writing?.

Alex North webinar, 19:00 BST, this Thursday! 

Don’t forget that bestselling crime writer Alex North is joining me at 19:00 BST this 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.

If you want to join us, bookmark this link! The waiting room will open ahead of our 19:00 BST start time, so feel free to log in before the top of the hour if you wish.

Stop, look, listen: Draft Zero, E100 – Scenes through swords

Draft Zero’s Stuart Willis talks to philosopher swordsperson Damon Young about how they have applied the lessons they’ve learnt from historical European martial arts (HEMA) to screenwriting. It might sound a bit niche if you don’t write about people hitting each other – or in my case, aliens – with swords, but I promise you that it’s a fascinating listen.

I particularly liked the idea of sword fighting techniques as an analogy for how characters relate to one another emotionally, for example, how people behave defensively or offensively and how that affects the dynamics of their interaction. Whether you like sword fighting or not, this really is a great listen (and if you’d rather read, they have a full transcript too).

Stop, look, listen again: Sitcom Geeks, E219 – Fashioning Your Future, And Planning For Ours

I have to admit, listening to this podcast episode was the first time I have ever thought about planning my writing year. James Cary and Dave Cohen’s conversation about how they plan their writing calendar has really made me think that I need to carve out a little quiet time to do the same.

Cohen suggests that the three things you should always be doing are:

  1. Writing to become a better writer
  2. Writing to submit
  3. Networking

Cary says we should all spend time:

  1. Reading widely
  2. Listening. Properly. Not just to podcasts.
  3. Having heroes outside of your niche.

Excellent advice. And so is their broader point about planning your year: Knowing when the open call deadlines are and making sure you’re ready for them, and knowing when key events are so you can get tickets and prepare any pitches you might need to share.

Strike news: Hollywood’s death spiral and the DGA deal

Absolutely fascinating piece by Matt Stoller delving into Hollywood business history and highlighting all the bad decisions, both by studios and regulatory bodies/the US government, that resulted in us reaching a place where eight studio execs made a combined salary of $773 million in 2021, whilst writers often have to get second jobs just to make ends meet.

Stoller also looks at how the US compares to the UK, where the industry is far less unionised but much more creative (though British writers also struggle to make ends meet).

This was a soft break-up of the industry along vertical lines, and it made the U.K a great place to do business. As the CEO of the firm that makes American Idol, The X Factor, and Britain’s Got Talent said, “There is no other country where you have these terms of trade. In the UK, it’s brilliant!” In 2010, independents held 50% of the market, beating in-house network programming. Exports of British content exploded.

Meanwhile, the Directors Guild of America has reached a tentative deal with the AMPTP, with DGA president Lesli Linka Glatter saying in a statement that the DGA had made “unprecedented gains” on wages, residuals, generative computing (yes, I’m still refusing to call it ‘artificial intelligence’), working hours, safety and more.

The Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) strike vote concluded last night, and we await the results with bated breath.

It will be interesting to see how this all affects the WGA strike, not least because the AMPTP don’t yet seem inclined to go back to the negotiating table.

Obligatory cat picture

Well, it’s been quite the week. Poor Grabbity is suffering from corneal ulcers in both of her eyes, along with what might be either lipid or calcium deposits that are making her eyes cloudy. The vet has ordered in some specialist eyedrops, so I’m waiting for those and for the corneal ulcers to clear up before we can work out what the white patches are.

I’m now extremely glad that I bought a pet stroller – basically a double-decker cat carrier on wheels – because we’re going to need to go to the vet fairly regularly until this is all sorted out. Poor lass. She’s hating the gel I’m currently having to put in her eyes, so I’m having to burrito her twice a day. I am not flavour of the month, that’s for sure.

This photo from a couple of weeks ago doesn’t show the problem, because it’s hidden up under her eyelids, but I think you’ll agree that Grabbity has magnificent peepers. Here’s hoping that we can clear this problem up completely over the next few weeks.

See you in a fortnight!


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