October 2023

Plus Black Women’s Non-Fiction Manuscript Prize, what it takes to become an agent, the light at the end of the frog, and an update on Grabbity’s eyes.

Hi there,

I’m back at my desk after a week off to recover from Ada Lovelace Day, and my brain’s not quite working yet. I could have done with another week or two, but time and tide wait for no one.

Suw’s news: So much writing to catch up on

Whilst Ada Lovelace Day might have been dominating my To Do list over the last few months, my brain was still throwing up ideas for new Word Count posts, so I’m going to have to have a little sit down very soon and just plan everything out. But I have lots of treats in store for you over the next few months, including the serialisations of my two novelettes, Argleton and Queen of the May.

Meantime, I have to finish the edits on E1 of Tag, and then novelise it ready to submit to the  Discoveries writer development program, which has a deadline of 8 January 2024. I’m quite excited about this process – a large part of the reason that I’ve been working on all six episodes is that I think I stand a greater chance of this story seeing the light of day as a novel than as a TV series.

I also need to get back on track with Fieldwork, which means finish polishing up the transcripts for a couple of research interviews I did a while back and get the consent forms signed. I’ll print out all transcripts and annotate them, pulling out themes and ideas that I find funny or inspiring. Then it’ll be on to character development and writing some vignettes to try to get a handle on who these people are and how they behave.

Plus I need to write some more posts for the Fieldwork sub-newsletter – if you’re not signed up to that already, just head to your account settings and make sure you’ve elected to receive Fieldwork emails.

Read this: The Story Loom

I found this post from Simon K Jones about how he plans his stories, which he publishes serially on his newsletter, really fascinating. Writing a serial means that you need to have some level of planning, otherwise you can end up taking your readers down dead ends. But too much planning can take the fun out of writing, so Simon has landed on a halfway house that he calls the Story Loom which brings strands of story together at key turning points but still leaves enough flexibility to be spontaneous whilst writing.

Give it a read. Simon has diagrams and everything.

Stop, look, listen: The Lovecraft Investigations

I spent most of my week off drafting a sewing pattern, a time-consuming process which requires some attention, but not too much. That meant that I had a lot of time to listen to The Lovecraft Investigations on BBC Sounds, an HP Lovecraft-inspired audio drama from Julian Simpson that’s part of his Pleasant Green universe (much of which you can hear here).

I have to admit that I’ve not previously been all that into audio dramas. Podcasts, yes. I’ll listen to those til my ears fall off. Maybe that’s why I like The Lovecraft Investigations so much – they’re written as if they were a true crime podcast, although they are far better produced than most podcasts. The writing is fantastic, as are the performances, but what elevates this series is the sound design. It’s immersive without being overwhelming and it helps to really guide your understanding of what’s going on in a scene, rather than getting in the way.

It’s worth comparing to The Dark Is Rising from last winter, which I found underwhelming. I said at the time:

[U]ltimately, I was a bit disappointed. The adaptation felt a bit overwrought at times and the soundscape could be overwhelming.

[…] The problem with the adaptation was that, in order to stop it being dominated by narration, they had to put some of the action descriptions into the main character’s internal monologue. The result is lots of slightly odd interjections and a halting nature to some of the dialogue. And when you compare this functional dialogue, if you will, to the speech Susan Cooper actually wrote, it stands out a mile.

I have to admit, The Lovecraft Investigations had made me want to learn about writing for radio now.

Opportunity: Black Women’s Non-Fiction Manuscript Prize

Cassava Republic Press has just announced its Black Women’s Non-Fiction Manuscript Prize, with a prize of $20,000 and a publishing contract with Cassava Republic Press up for grabs. The prize is open to “Black women writers who bridge the gap between ‘creativity’ and ‘theory’ with [non-fiction] work that is both rigorous and beautiful, creative and thoughtful.”

To apply, submit sample chapters and a pitch letter, by 23:59 GMT on 31 March 2024.

Read this, two: What does it take to become an agent?

As authors, we all want an agent, but what does the life of an agent look like? Leigh Stein asked herself whether she wanted to pivot her career to become a literary agent and, in doing so, gave the rest of us a really important glimpse into agents’ lives.

Bear in mind whilst reading all the reports of writers’ advances going down, because as writers earn less so do agents.

Tip-top tip: Light at the end of the frog

Congratulations to this year’s Hugo Award winner: Ursula Vernon, writing as T Kingfisher, for Nettle & Bone.

Unable to attend in person, Vernon’s speech was read by Arley Song at the Chengdu Worldcon in China, but to be honest, it needs to be read by everyone. It’s not long, and you should click through right now and learn something about beetles and frogs that you will never forget.

Obligatory cat picture

Grabbity and I went back to the vet for another check-up last week, but the news wasn’t great. The corneal ulcer on her left eye has come back, possibly because the Maxitrol eyedrops we were using had become unavailable so there was a three week gap in her treatment. We’re now on some other drops which she absolutely hates.

This doesn’t seem to be a condition that’s going to clear up quickly, and at the moment it’s looking like we’ll be spending £30 a month on eyedrops for the foreseeable future. Thank goodness for pet insurance. I have to say, ManyPets have been amazing, sometimes paying out the same day. (If you need pet insurance, then use my referral link and we’ll both get a gift card.)

Thankfully, Grabbity seems fine in herself. If she’s in pain, she’s hiding it well – she doesn’t fuss with her eyes, they aren’t weeping, and they don’t seem to be causing her any problems. But they do look like the surface of the moon, and I can’t imagine that they can be such a mess and not at least uncomfortable. But she’s stoic, and we will continue treatment for as long as needed.

That’s it for this week. Now that ALD is over, I might go back to shorter emails on a weekly schedule. Let me know what you’d prefer via the poll on Substack!

All the best,


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Celebrate the wins

by Suw on October 18, 2023

There’s less than a week to go until my conversation with the award-winning author and screenwriter, Lauren Beukes, so now would be a great time to get your FREE tickets

Lauren and I will be chatting about her new novel, Bridge and the experience of seeing The Shining Girls adapted for tv (if you’ve not seen it, Jamie Bell is positively terrifying in it!). We’re also going to be talking about how she uses her journalism skills to research her stories, how she finds people to interview and how to do those interviews ethically. Plus what it’s like to be a writer with ADHD, working with development editors, and her recent move to the UK. See you next Monday, 23 Oct, at 19:00 BST!

Allow yourself to bask in your success, and rest, before your next endeavour.

This week’s newsletter has been prompted by last week’s Ada Lovelace Day, the annual celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology and engineering which I founded in 2009 and have organised every year since. This year was the first since 2019 that I’ve organised an in-person event, which happened last Tuesday at the Royal Institution.

I had, in all honesty, forgotten how enjoyable it is to run an in-person event, how gratifying it is to watch people enjoying themselves so much, and how satisfying it is to see just how much delight a great event can bring both speaker and audience.

This isn’t to toot my own horn (though tbh, I probably should toot it more often!), but more to set the stage for one of my failings and my new attempt to tackle it: You see, I tend not to celebrate my successes. I finish a project up then immediately start preparing for whatever comes next.

That’s partly down to having been working as a freelance since the late 90s – the uncertainty of freelance life means that celebration feels like tempting fate. If I celebrate this success, will I get any future work?

Stupid, I know. Superstitious, even.

Worse, freelance life can be very feast-or-famine. Success doesn’t last long because there’s always uncertainty about what’s coming next. Yeah, sure, this month’s bills got paid, but what about next month’s? That ever-present worry can really take the fun out of a celebration.

But surely, this precarity means we should celebrate more? That’s my conclusion, anyway, so last Saturday my husband and I went out to dinner and toasted my success. I took a moment to really feel it, to take it in and internalise it. A lot of work goes into ALD every year and this year was no different. It’s important for me to recognise that and to mark not just the success but the completion.

During the worst of the pandemic, (which is definitely not over), the years seemed to blur into one. All the normal markers of time’s passing vanished for a while and the uncertainty thrown up by finances badly damaged by companies reducing their sponsorship spend meant that I threw myself into each new project as it came up, rarely pausing for breath. So that’s another thing that I’m taking pains to do – take some time off to recuperate and recharge.

And it’s the same with my writing. No matter how small the win, whether it’s a submission to a competition or prize, or just finishing a new draft, these successes are going to be celebrated. And I’ll take time for a little self-care afterwards. One can’t just keep ploughing on creatively without acknowledging our milestones, without taking the time to mark those moments of progress. Or without taking a moment to regroup, recharge and reset.

Life is a series of ups and downs. Celebrating the ups and resting after intense periods of work means we’re emotionally more capable of weathering the downs and better prepared for our next tranche of work. We can’t just throw our all into the now, we need to prepare for the next, and for whatever comes after that.

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Plus congrats to Dr Lucy Rogers, behind the scenes of Ghosts, and build your confidence.

Hi there,

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, which means that I’m writing this last weekend, in a quiet moment, a bubble inside the panic. The run up to big events is always stressful and every year I ask why I do this to myself, and yet every year I seem to do it again.

Webinar: Lauren Beukes in conversation

I’m going to be chatting with the award-winning author of Zoo City, The Shining Girls and this year’s Bridge, Lauren Beukes, about how she uses her journalism skills to research her novels, the ethics of research, and how to reach out to and set up interviews. She’ll also be talking about how her diagnosis of ADHD changed her life, the impact that moving to the UK had on her writing, her experience of seeing The Shining Girls adapted for TV, writers block, plus a lot more!

Join us online at 19:00 BST on Monday 23 October. Tickets are free.

WAIW?: What can writers learn from football? 

Last week’s Why Aren’t I Writing? was an exploration of the meaning of ‘practice’ for writers. Many might think that practice, in the way that footballers and musicians mean it, for writers is writing, but I disagree. You don’t start learning to play footie by diving straight into a match and you don’t start learning clarinet by playing a symphony. You do exercises first. But what does that look like for writers?

Putting that post together provided me with a surprising bit of inspiration, not just in terms of my own practice, but how I can help other writers rewaken their observational skills. So keep your eyes out for an email soon (ie after Ada Lovelace Day!) introducing a new program for premium subscribers.

Read this: US author incomes dip below poverty level

Author income surveys never make for inspiring reading, highlighting as they do how little writers bring in from practicing their craft, but this new survey from the Authors Guild in the US is particularly depressing. They found that “median book and writing-related income for authors in 2022 was below the poverty level”. Ouch.

The survey, which drew responses from 5,699 published authors, found that in 2022, their median gross pre-tax income from their books was $2,000. When combined with other writing-related income, the total annual median income was $5,000.

This is why I so often talk about how I’m trying to find a way to support my writing habit, given it seems unlikely that writing will ever support me.

Read this, two: On the other hand…

Publishing often feels like a lottery and like all lotteries it runs on the unfettered hope that we might one day get lucky. I’m as guilty of this as the next person, but it’s still delightful to see that Dr Lucy Rogers has sold Up: A Scientist’s Guide to the Magic Above Us to Transworld for six figures. Well done Lucy!

What I’m watching: Ghosts, the final season

Ghosts (UK) is drawing to a close and I’m enjoying the final season with a mix of delight and bittersweetness. S5E1 was honestly some of the funniest comedy I’ve seen for a while and I shall be gutted when the final episode airs at Christmas.

Writer Julia Raeside got to visit the set whilst Ghosts cast and crew were filming and has written pieces for The Times (£) and her own Substack, so if you’d like a few behind the scenes insights and photos, those are the links to click.

Tip-top tip: Build your confidence

Short tweet thread from LJ Ross about the importance of developing your own self-confidence. Confidence may feel like something you either have or don’t, but it’s not, it’s something you can work on and develop. And as Ross says, if you want to be a writer you’re doing to need to find ways to nurture your confidence.

Obligatory cat picture

Copurrnicus comes to cuddle me at my desk nearly every morning now, sometimes more than once. He likes to tuck himself in between me and my keyboard, or, as he did last week, drape himself over my arms, which can make it somewhat challenging to write!

That’s it for this week. Keep an eye out for a special email once ALD is over about my new offering for paying subscribers, and maybe consider becoming one yourself!

All the best,


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Before we crack on with today’s newsletter, just a quick reminder that I’ll be chatting with award-winning author and screenwriter Lauren Beukes about writing, how she uses her journalistic skills to help her research her books, the impact that moving to the UK had on her writing, plus much, much more! 

Join us at 19:00 BST on Monday 23 October for this free webinar


What does it mean for writers to ‘practice’? What, exactly, is it that we’re practicing?

Wrexham AFC Women’s star striker Rosie Hughes celebrating after scoring yet another goal.

I have to confess that I’ve often felt slightly jealous of athletes and musicians. Whenever I see the amateur footie players at our local rec, or watch the team training on Welcome to Wrexham, I feel a little pang of envy as I watch them dodging around cones to improve their agility or practice taking shots on goal.

I feel the same way about the practice that musician do. I’ve always had a love for scales and arpeggios, even when I was learning to play myself. There’s something satisfying about nailing a Mixolydian or a Dorian scale, particularly at speed.

Athletics and music aren’t the only fields where training is clearly defined, of course, but they are such beautiful examples. No one expects Paul Mullin to sit about on his arse all week only to head off to the Cae Ras stadium on a Saturday afternoon and score three goals to put Wrexham AFC on top. No one seriously believes that Lady Gaga doesn’t do voice training and warm-ups to keep her vocal cords from blowing out in the middle of a gig.

Professionals train.

Yet so many writers seem to think that writing is just and only that: Writing. How often have you seen someone tell a blocked writer to just get on with it? “Start writing and it will flow” is not uncommon advice given to people who feel stuck, but I think it’s extremely bad advice. No one tells an underperforming football player or musician to “just play”. So why is “just write” so often seen as the be all and end all of writing advice?

No, I think we writers need to develop our own training regimes, ones that do not involve writing.

But what about morning pages? What about short stories?

If you’ve ever read, or even heard about, The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, you’ll have heard about ‘morning pages’, aka the practice of writing three pages of any old crap first thing in the morning. The idea is to loosen up your creative wheels, get them nicely oiled for the creative day ahead. Other people recommend writing short stories, particularly flash fiction, as a way to practice writing.

I think the problem with morning pages and short stories is not that they are a bad thing for writers to do, indeed, they can be incredibly valuable. But that they put the cart before the horse, and they don’t encourage the practice of the very basic skills upon which good writers build their craft.

Morning pages and short stories are a form of writing. And, to go back to my football analogy, you don’t train by only playing games. You have to work at the fundamentals before playing football itself can become a useful part of training. That means ball control, agility, speed, strength and endurance. And that means time spent in the gym, running, doing exercises on the field, working with your team mates, your coach, your physio. You have to get a lot of skills and physicality in place before you can benefit from playing practice games, whether they are five-a-side or full team friendlies.

Jumping straight into morning pages is like jumping straight into a five-a-side match before you’ve even learnt to kick the ball.

So what training should writers do?

If we want to be the writing equivalent of Paul Mullin or Wrexham AFC Women’s incredibly talented striker, Rosie Hughes, then we need to put in all the hard graft that they do before they even touch a ball. Here are some of the things I think are important for writers to practice regularly:

1. Observe

A huge amount of writing is description, but how can we describe things if we don’t properly look at them?

Writers who don’t observe in detail are bound to write in clichés. If you want to write powerful and compelling descriptions you have to pay attention to everything around you.

Walking through the park the other day, I found myself looking at a huge copper beech and trying to describe it in terms that didn’t include phrases like “spreading its arms” or “shading the ground like an umbrella”, because frankly I think we’ve all heard those before. Coming up with something a bit more inventive may take time and thought, but that’s literally our job.

2. Feel

It’s not enough to just say how someone looks, we need to talk about how they feel. If your character’s brows furrow in concentration, how does that physically feel? Do it now: furrow your brows. There’s a sensation of tension in the forehead, a slight squinting of the eyes, and a tightness around the nose. How does that work as part of your description?

Physical and emotional feelings are tightly intertwined, although we too often focus on just the emotion rather than the physicality. Instead of describing someone as disappointed or implying disappointment by saying that their shoulders slumped, think about how this feels, about strain in the back of the neck as the head falls forward, or the crushing feeling in the abdomen as the torso collapses down.

Thinking about how we physically feel helps us to describe people’s emotions in ways that are more visceral and immediate, and that will help us connect with our readers more effectively.

3. Listen

Dialogue isn’t just people transferring information to one another, nor is fictional dialogue a simple transcription of what people would ‘really say’. Dialogue lives in a strange liminal space between reality and unreality, so when you listen to people talking you have to listen between the lines to work out what they are really saying.

Deep listening takes focus and concentration, but we’re not always in a position to be able to do that. I work from home, so I rarely get to see people talking to one another where I’m not also involved in the conversation. Going to a busy cafe and eavesdropping could fix that problem, as would watching fly on the wall documentaries.

4. Read/watch intentionally

Over the last few years, the way that I read has changed. I’m much more intentional when I read now, paying attention to how other writers describe things, how their turns of phrase change meaning or set the atmosphere.

At the moment, I’m reading a lot of light, fluffy novels such as romcoms, and although I can devour these books rapidly, they are teaching me a lot about describing sensations. I didn’t expect to learn that from a typical beach read, but it has been fascinating (and emphasises that we shouldn’t just a book by its genre).

I’m also spending as much time as I can watching and rewatching the first five minutes of TV shows to see just how much information a good writer can cram in, and what happens when that doesn’t happen.

For an example of this, take a look at my analysis of the first five minutes of Sex Education. See just how much info Laurie Nunn communicated about characters, goals, themes, relationships and opposing forces in such short span of time. It’s an absolute masterclass.

5. Read books, watch webinars, take courses, listen to podcasts… sceptically

There’s so much expertise out there about the craft of writing that you could immerse yourself in it 24/7 if you wanted to, and you’d likely never run out. But it’s not all good stuff, so you are going to want to be picky. Take what you need, take what makes sense and leave the rest. Don’t get caught up in someone else’s assumptions for how writing works.

6. Take notes

Note taking is essential. You’re not doing any of these things to pass them time, you’re doing them to learn, to improve your skills, and set solid foundations for future work.

Repetition is also important. When you find something that resonates with you, that you find useful, go back to it several times, reread it, redo it, rethink it.

The whole point of doing any of these exercises is to internalise good practice and train your subconscious to be thinking about all this stuff in the background as you go about your writing. Creativity isn’t entirely a conscious process – you can consciously choose which words to write, but you can’t consciously choose which words spring to mind in the first place (otherwise the thesaurus wouldn’t exist). Engaging in this kind of training will help your subconscious to become more imaginative and original, and that will express itself in more fluid and more inventive writing.

Now for another confession: I do not currently do all these things. I do some of them, but I don’t do them enough. Both this newsletter and Word Count act, to some extent, as a more haphazard training program in that I do read, watch and listen to a lot of stuff about writing from which I draw what I feel are important lessons. And I do think that my writing has improved because I’m here, doing this stuff.

But I want to do more structured training and do it on a much more regular basis. I also want to do it with you, if you’re a premium subscriber. Once Ada Lovelace Day is out of the way, I’m going to come up with some ways that we can, together, work through a training program that will help us improve our skills so that we can all be more like Paul Mullin or Rosie Hughes.

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