January 2024

Plus great advice from Matthew Dow Smith, a fun thread from Alex Paterson, Hugos eligibility furore and hopefully the last update on Grabbity’s poorly eyes.

Hi there,

The next Grist webinar will take place on Thursday 8 February at 19:00 GMT, and we’ll be taking a look at Plan Continuation Bias and how you can use that, and other cognitive biases, to help your characters make a jolly old mess of whatever it is they are trying to do. Stay tuned for the Zoom link, which will be sent out to paid subscribers soon!

Opportunity: RLF Fellowship

The Royal Literary Fund is looking for professional writers “with at least two (sole-authored) books published, or professionally produced theatre works performed, or radio/TV scripts broadcast” to work with university students across the UK. Fellows will be available for students two days a week, with an extra half day for admin, prep etc, for 30 weeks, and will be paid £16,000 per year.

The aim of the Fellowships is to “foster good writing practice among students through one-to-one coaching” and develop “student writing skills/academic literacy (rather than on creative self-expression as with the conventional writer’s residency)”.

Read this: The Gathering of the Ghosts

The New York Times has a fascinating piece about a ghostwriting conference that was held in NYC earlier in the month. Ghostwriting is booming, although when describing the state of the industry, ghostwriting agent Madeleine Morel said, “I’ll paraphrase Dickens: It’s the best of times and the worst of times. It’s the best of times because there’s never been so much work out there. It’s the worst of times because it’s become so competitive.”

I have to admit, last year I did think about trying to get into ghostwriting, but it seems like a challenging industry to break into. If you’ve experience with ghostwriting, leave a comment and let us know how you got into it!

Tip-top tip: Be proud

Love this little bit of advice from Matthew Dow Smith on Bluesky and Instagram:

Never put down your own work. Is it perfect? Probably not. It rarely is. But you did something that very few people can do, and you should be proud of that. And you actually made a thing. That is always something to brag about.

Tweet of the week fortnight

Illustrator Alex Paterson is reading Little House on the Prairie with his daughter and decided to illustrate some of the more, uh, interesting incidents described in the book.

On the perennial matter of “we see” and “we hear”

I’m in a few screenwriting Facebook groups, which are almost all completely useless being mostly unproduced writers telling other unproduced writers how to write. One of the things that comes up again and again is whether the phrases “we see” and “we hear” are Against The Rules, or whether, in fact, no one actually cares.

The latest instalment in this long-running drama comes from Reddit, where user Prince Jellyfish decided to take a look at a bunch of award-nominated scripts to see how many of them used “we see” or “we hear”. It probably won’t surprise you to hear that 53 of them did, in fact, use these verboten phrases. Only one did not, and that one was written largely in French.

It seems that, in reality, no one does care.

Cue a lot of unproduced writers telling each other that actually these screenwriters have Broken In, ergo can do what they want and therefore Don’t Count, which is an argument that makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.

Prince Jellyfish also linked to a post by Manfred Lopez Grem, who runs through a list of ways that “we see” can be used to great effect, and who also points out that “Nearly Every Single Screenplay that is up for awards consideration in 2022 / 2023… uses ‘we see.’”

Case closed, you’d think, but this argument is like ones about how to cook steak or whether bicycle helmets work – it’ll never, ever end.

Read this: The Hugos’ eligibility furore

Last year, the science fiction convention WorldCon and the associated Hugo awards were held in Chengdu, China. But a week or so ago, voting totals for the Hugos were released, revealing some strange exclusions. The Guardian’s Amy Hawkins writes:

Recently released documents showed that several works or authors – some with links to China – had been excluded from the ballot despite receiving enough nominations to be included on their respective shortlists. The excluded nominees include Kuang and Xiran, authors who were born in China but are now based in the west.

Concerns have been raised that the authors were targeted for political reasons, connected to the fact that the ruling Chinese Communist party exerts a tight control on all cultural events that take place inside its borders.

No satisfactory explanations have been forthcoming from Dave McCarty, head of the 2023 Hugo awards jury, as to exactly why these and other works were excluded.

However, the next Worldcon will be held in Glasgow in August, and both it and the Hugos are being organised by a different groups of people, who released a reassuring Bluesky thread about their plans for making sure that this year’s Hugos are administered transparently.

Stop, look, listen: The Rest Is Entertainment

I generally shy away from celebrity-led podcasts, but Marina Hyde and Richard Osman’s new podcast, The Rest Is Entertainment, is a really great listen. From how game shows manage their prize money budget to the phone hacking scandal, as well as insights into Richard’s book writing progress, they cover a lot of topics using their years of industry experience to provide insights into why TV, publishing and entertainment works the way it does.

Obligatory cat picture

Grabbity has always loved swiping at post-it notes, but it’s game that requires very fast reflexes.

Hopefully this will be the final Grabbity eye update for a while! After the last newsletter, and a few days after we stopped the steroid drops, Grabbity’s left eye started weeping badly and she was holding it shut, so back to the vet we went. It turned out that she had another corneal ulcer, in a totally different place! It was really quite large, but already showing signs of healing, so we got some antibiotic ointment and went back last Friday to find that it had completely healed. Just a few more days of ointment, then we stop treatment again and hope that this is the end of it all.

Poor Grabbity! It’s been seven months of me faffing with her eyes every day and although she gets treats every time I don’t think that has made up for the discomfort. She has chonked up a little bit too, so I’m going to have to put her on a bit of a diet soon. Maybe after a break, though, so that she can enjoy a little bit of normality first!

Right, that’s it for this week!

All the best,


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And I don’t mean through binoculars.

Like a lot of self-employed people, I work primarily from home. I became self-employed in 1998, so that’s a long time working on my own. Like a lot of writers, I’m quite a self-contained person. I’m used to living in my head and I enjoy my own company. And although a lot of people might think I’m an extrovert, I’m really quite introverted and I recharge my batteries during quiet, alone time.

The problem with this is that it doesn’t give me much opportunity to observe people doing people-y things, and that reduces the amount of externally-generated inspiration for new characters that I get. Sure, I have a wealth of experience of people – I mean, I haven’t spent the last 26 years living in a cave on a remote mountainside – so I can certainly conjure characters from my own imagination, but drawing from real life adds detail to the pictures my mind can draw.

Towards the end of last year, I started taking improv lessons with the aim of loosening up the slightly rusty nuts and bolts in my brain. It’s been a huge amount of fun and I am definitely beginning to feel more creative and more at ease with my instincts. But it’s also given me an opportunity to watch how other people do improv and how they approach creating a scene. And that has been unexpectedly fascinating!

We all have our quirks, our default ways of thinking. I know that in improv I always go for a conversational approach, whereas others default to disagreement, surrealism, or strange accents. I struggle to mime, because I’m really self-conscious about it, whereas others take to it like a duck to water (you can imagine the mime of that yourself). Some people let their improv partners lead, others have a clear idea of what they think the scene should become and work hard to make sure that they achieve that vision.

All of these quirks act as useful jumping off points for character development. Note that I’m not basing new characters on individual people, but when I see multiple people taking a similar approach, I ask myself, “If this were your first experience of a character’s attitude, how else might you expect them to behave?” It’s a process of taking a particular action or moment and then extrapolating it out.

When I think back to other groups I’ve been a part of, such as the ballroom dance lessons my husband and I took back in Sheboygan, WI, I didn’t get quite the same opportunity to watch how other participants responded to those around them. As you might expect, we all gathered in the hall, changed into our dance shoes, then did what we were told. There was very little opportunity to get to know people, and certainly no opportunity to watch how they might behave in multiple different scenarios over the course of one evening.

I know a lot of folk talk about people-watching in cafes, but I’m not convinced that you get much in the way of depth there, not unless you have extremely sharp ears and the tables are close together. To learn more about people’s characters, you need to be able to engage and actively observe over a period of weeks or months. And that active observation is important – if you’re always focused on throwing pots or drawing or singing, then you’re not free to watch and absorb.

Improv is great for giving you that time because, at least in our group, about half the lesson is sitting and watching other people perform. I suspect that any activity that includes a percentage of unfocused time, such walking clubs, book clubs or local theatre groups, will provide you with a chance to step back and start to build your own mental chap book of behaviours, idiosyncrasies and foibles that you can work into your characters.

So maybe, if you want to up your character game this year, your first step should be to find yourself a club to join or lessons to take?

Next Grist webinar – Plan Continuation Bias

The next Grist webinar will take place on Thursday 8 February at 19:00 GMT, and we’ll be taking a look at Plan Continuation Bias and how you can use that, and other cognitive biases, to help your characters make a jolly old mess of whatever it is they are trying to do. Stay tuned for the Zoom link, which will be sent out to paid Substack subscribers next week!

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Plus yet another article about how broken publishing is, a tip from Cavan Scott, a selection of the finest links, and an update about Grabbity’s eyes.

Hi there,

Happy New Year! We might well be halfway through January already, but 2024 still has that new year smell. I hope that yours is just bursting with creativity and joy!

Suw’s News: Two submissions and it’s not even February yet!

I usually give myself two weeks off over the festive season, but this year I had two submissions due on 8 January which meant I spent most of my second week writing. I can only describe it as a delightful taste of what it might be like to write full time! Honestly, it was lovely.

I got the first 10k words of Tag (the novel) written and revised and submitted to the Discoveries 2024 prize, and the pilot episode of Tag (the script) revised in the light of the changes to the novel and submitted to Thousand Films. The novelisation process has been fascinating. Novels allow you to get into the head of your characters much more deeply than you can in a script, so I’ve been able to look at their motivation and the way they think, and that has helped me to solve a few niggles in the script that previously seemed intractable.

I also had the joy of working with John Rickards again on the novelisation. John edited Queen of the May, and has always just instinctively understood what it is that I’m trying to do. He’s lovely to work with, and if you are looking for an editor, then he’s absolutely the person I’d recommend.

I can’t wait to crack on with the rest of the Tag novelisation process, except I’m going to have to wait because…

Suw’s news, two: Fieldwork update

All other creative writing is officially suspended until Fieldwork is done and submitted to my colleagues as my final deliverable for the I-COMET project. (Well, apart from that research paper draft that we’ve collectively been utterly failing to write, but we’ll just not mention that.) To that end, I’ve made a plan and will let you know how it goes!

Opportunities: BBC Comedy Collective and Cheshire Novel Prize

If you are a scripted comedy writer, producer or director who already has at least one previous credit in any genre, on any platform, then you can apply for the BBC’s Comedy Collective scheme. Ten winners “will receive up to £10k worth of paid shadowing on a BBC Comedy production, along with an allocated production mentor, plus a £5k development grant to put towards new material or to further support the individuals development.”

The deadline is Wednesday 31 January, and there’s more info on how to apply on the BBC website.

If you’re a novelist, then the Cheshire Novel Prize, a “worldwide writing competition for un-agented authors of adult fiction, memoir and fictional memoir”, is now open for submissions. The deadline for entries is 1 May 2024, so you have more than enough time to whip the beginning of your novel into shape.

Each entry costs £29 and you will receive “a page of feedback as to why [your entry was] not long-listed or shortlisted”, which is actually quite a bargain given the cost of a professional development editor. Sponsored places are available, so do not let the cost put you off. Entrants will need to submit the first 5,000 words of their novel, plus a one-page synopsis.

I’ve already got that ready for Tag, now I’m wondering if I could whip something up for Fieldwork too!

Read this: Publishing’s broken, part eleventy billion

Airmail has a fascinating, if depressing, piece about how some young debut authors are getting six-figure book advances, but “nearly all of them are losing money”. Although these huge advances, paired with a New York literary scene that is “buzzier than ever”, seem positive on the surface – they do, after all, seem to indicate huge confidence in new authors and a revived excitement about books – outside of that world the news is less positive. Instead, a tiny minority of books are getting all the sales, opening up a gulf between hype and sales. And that gulf is bad news:

one editor at a legacy publishing house says it feels “like an unsustainable bubble that is going to pop when I see these deals for mid-to-high six figures, or even low seven figures. I know that book is not going to earn out or make money. Any company—it doesn’t matter how big they are—can only take so many of those hits before something goes wrong.”

Are huge advances, then, more a sign of desperation than confidence?

Quick links

The most-rejected books of all time. Topping the list is Dick Wimmer’s Irish Wine which totted up a huge 162 rejections. Honestly, if you haven’t toped 150 rejections, you’re really not trying.

Meta AI chief puts foot in mouth. Meta AI chief scientist, Yann LeCun, suggested that because most authors don’t earn much money, they should just give their books away for free. So Meta AI can steal them, I suppose.

Four things you should know if you’re writing for teens. Samantha Cameron provides some insights into teen psychology for YA authors. Top of the list is that “teens are easily bored”, which reminded me of what author Shelley Parker-Chan said on Bluesky recently:

as a writer I sometimes break out in a cold sweat thinking about my kid and her fellow fifth graders critiquing The Hunger Games as having “kinda a slow start”


Tip-top tip: Start with one page

Cavan Scott extolls the virtues of starting small when something feels too big. Even if you only write a page, or a paragraph or a line, Scott says:

even the slightest motion can generate momentum. Yes, you may have to go back and edit what you’ve written, but it’s on paper or the screen. It’s started, and once you’ve started, it’s so much easier to keep going.

That look is Grabbity’s “Why is the tinsel out of reach? I want to eat it” look.

Obligatory cat picture


I took Grabbity back to the vet last week to have her eyes checked over again. The good news is that the corneal ulcers have gone and her eyes are starting to heal, so we’re going for a month without any steroidal eyedrops to see what happens. If the ulcers stay away, then we are firmly on the road to recovery. The giant craters and the white deposits, which might be calcium, may never go away completely, but we’re both relieved that nightly eyedrops are no longer a thing.


Finally, I’ll crack on with organising the next author webinar and the next Grist sessions, but do bear with me as I finish my year end accounts. I would much rather be writing, but the tax man getteth grumpy if you submit a 500 word synopsis instead of your accounts.

See you in a couple of weeks!

All the best,



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What’s in store for Fieldwork in 2024?

by Suw on January 12, 2024

In which I make a plan for the next year and publicly commit to a deadline. Eek.

In May last year, I broke down the process of writing Fieldwork into four stages:

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

I’ve largely completed Stage 1. Last year, I did ten interviews and picked up a few anecdotes via our online form. I’d have liked to have done more interviews, but I got some really great stuff out of the conversations I did have, so I feel content with that. (Unless you’re an ecologist who would like to talk to me, in which case please get in touch!).

This year is therefore going to be devoted to Stages 2 and 3 and, in a somewhat unprecedented move, I’m planning the first chunk of the year month by month. That plan was in large part prompted by advice from comedian Dave Cohen, who said in a recent newsletter:

If I’m entering that BBC Writersroom competition in Q4 I’ll want a good third draft or so by the end of Q3. Have had some kind of professional feedback and be working on rewrites after that. In which case I’ll want to have completed the first draft by the end of Q2. That gives me Q1 to thoroughly work on the idea, Q2 to write it.

To help me keep to my schedule, I’ve signed up to Dave’s From Zero to First Draft in 8 Weeks course, which starts on 19 April and walks participants through the development and writing of a pilot half-hour sitcom or comedy drama. Although the aim for this project was to produce a script for a 10-15 minute short film, I’m not going to look a gift half-hour script in the mouth!

Working with someone as experienced as Dave will also help me to produce the best work I can, the first step of which is to produce something terrible. I’ll be happy to do that, though, because I’ll know that Dave will pull me up on anything that’s not good enough and make me work harder.

I’m pretty bad at writing without deadlines, so having both the BBC Writersroom open call deadline on the horizon and having to prep/write stuff on a weekly basis from April to June will be a huge help. To support that process, I’ve had a think about what my timetable will have to be:

  • January: Read through existing transcripts; do some more background reading and research on comedy.
  • February: Continue reading; begin character work; write two vignettes to test out how those characters respond to plot.
  • March: Continue character work; write two more vignettes.
  • April: Begin Dave’s course; work on basics of the idea; develop themes and hone basics.
  • May: Develop characters further; outline plot ideas; outline script.
  • June: Write pilot; incorporate feedback; refine pilot.
  • July: Write short film based on pilot; refine pilot; submit both to colleagues as final deliverable on iCOMET project. Discuss ways to take project forward.
  • August to December: Continue refining pilot; submit to BBC Writers room; continue to explore funding opportunities and open script calls. Assess opportunities to turn into radio play or podcast.

I’m also going to commit to writing at least one post here a month to update you all on my progress.

In addition to all of that, or in support of it perhaps, I have amassed a fairly large reading list that I’d like to get through, including:

And along with all that, I’m continuing my improv lessons, which have turned out to be ridiculous amounts of fun. I can feel them already loosing up the nuts and bolts in my brain and helping me to develop my comedic instincts. Before Christmas I had an absolute cracker of a scene about having never been to visit Santa Claus in his grotto, so I’m starting to believe that I might actually be quite good at it. Wednesday evenings have definitely become the highlight of my week!

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What can you do less of in 2024?

by Suw on January 10, 2024

Sometimes we should resolve not to add more to our lives, but to make space by taking things away.

I am not a fan of New Year’s resolutions. I used to make them, but I rarely kept them. The New Year, falling as it does in the middle of winter, season of damp grey days and not enough sunlight, is not a good time for me to be trying to do something new. It can be a struggle just to get through the day in one piece without adding the extra weight of a resolution to my shoulders.

So I was rather pleased to see a couple of articles doing the rounds this year that question the validity of two aspects to New Year’s resolutions that I find most difficult to deal with: Adding more to our plate and perfectionism.

Tim Harford in the Financial Times tackles the premise that our resolutions usually add new activities to our lives when we should really take a moment to asses what our lives are already full of and search for something we can take away. He discusses “subtraction neglect”, where we will generally try to solve a problem by adding something rather than removing it. We’ll try to improve a recipe by adding ingredients or fix a wonky Lego bridge by adding a block rather than taking anything away.

But the devil is always in the details and Harford has found it hard to know what to take away from his life:

as I pondered my weekly commitments and the list of things I was hoping to achieve over the next three months, I struggled. What could I subtract? I wanted to do all of it.

Even asking Leidy Klotz, author of Subtract: The Untapped Science of Less, for advice didn’t help.

Klotz suggested an experiment, which he calls a “reverse pilot”. Unlike a regular pilot, in which you temporarily try something new, a reverse pilot calls for temporary subtraction. Just stop doing something for a bit, wrote Klotz, and see what happens. “Sometimes there is no way to know for sure what the outcome will be from removing something.”

Fair enough. Although I still couldn’t work out what to subtract from my life. Exercise less? Nope. See less of the children? They might want that, but it hardly felt like a noble plan. Less culture, less music, see friends less often?

Harford jokingly concludes that perhaps he should just work less, which I actually do think is a good answer. We have a lot of evidence that four day weeks – that is, proper four day weeks not pretend ones where you have to cram a full week’s work into less time – are highly beneficial, increasing productivity, reducing burnout and improving wellbeing. So actually, reducing work is a legitimate answer, even though Harford can’t quite bring himself to admit that.

But something else to consider reducing is perfectionism.

I will admit, I am a bit of a perfectionist. I want to put my very best work out into the world, whether that’s a newsletter or a book or Ada Lovelace Day Live. I will sweat the details. But actually, maybe, some of those details don’t matter?

Not every task is created equal and there are some areas where things do not have to be perfect, they just have to be good enough. Indeed, most things can just be good enough. That’s Sophie McBain’s argument in The Guardian and, as a recovering perfectionist, it’s one that I need to take to heart.

Psychologist Barry Schwartz suggests that there are two responses when faced with endless choice:

“Satisficers” are happy to pick a good enough option and are unlikely to spend their free time reading hundreds of product reviews, but “maximisers” feel compelled to make the best possible choice. This means the more choices they are offered, the worse off they are: an expansion of possibilities makes decision-making harder and regret the more likely outcome.

McBain points out that we talk about so much of our lives in maximiser terms, and perhaps we should rein that in and allow ourselves to be content with good enough.

How much energy do we waste on trying to close that gap between good enough and perfect? How much additional time does that take? What if we just admitted to ourselves, as Oliver Burkeman says, “we’ve already failed, totally and irredeemably.” Wouldn’t that give us so much more freedom to be good enough and to do other things with the time and energy we waste on trying to be perfect?

Burkeman goes on to say:

Behind our more strenuous attempts at personal change, there’s almost always the desire for a feeling of control. We want to lever ourselves into a position of dominance over our lives, so that we might finally feel secure and in charge, and no longer so vulnerable to events. But whichever way you look at it, this kind of control is an illusion.

New Year’s resolutions are the epitome of this. Every year, we try to assert more control over our lives so that we can feel better about them. Instead, we should let that go, accept that much of what we want to achieve is actually outside of our control, and look at finding ways to enjoy the process instead.

This is especially true of creative work where we are so often hostages to fortune. We could write the best book in the world, but if the time isn’t right then it won’t be published. Equally, if we’re lucky enough to hit the zeitgeist, then a book that’s just good enough can do real numbers. Neither outcome is within our control.

So this year, before we try to come up with some New Year’s resolutions, before we start outlining all our goals, perhaps we should have a think about what we could do less of instead. How can we practice being a satisficer? Where can we let go of our perfectionism? How do we identify which activities aren’t helping us and do less of them, in favour of doing thing that help us achieve what’s important to us and make us happier?

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