February 2024

The watcher at the gates of your mind is just dying to rip your creative face off.

Creativity is about radical acceptance of your first ideas and resisting the urge to second-guess yourself.

I’ve been reading Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre by Keith Johnstone recently. First published in 1979, it shows its age not just in some of the language, which wouldn’t be acceptable now, but also in some very dated concepts. However, it was overall an interesting read and provided me with some really useful insights.

One of the things that struck me was Johnstone’s thoughts on self-censorship, although he doesn’t call it that.

I remember, years ago, having a conversation about how to approach solving a plot problem. The advice given was to toss out the first idea you have, because that will be the most obvious one. Toss out the second as well, because that will still be too obvious. Continue to toss out ideas until you find one that’s not obvious, something that’s surprising. The reasoning was that novelty and surprise are good; obvious is predictable and predictable is bad.

I found that advice, which somehow wormed its way inside my head for a good long while, very restrictive. It encourages the writer to second-guess themselves and to judge their thoughts as they are having them. If you’re a perfectionist, prone to self-criticism or lack confidence, it can make writing much harder than it needs to be.

Johnstone touches on this in his chapter on spontaneity:

[Friedrich] Schiller wrote of a ‘watcher at the gates of the mind’, who examines ideas too closely. He said that in the case of the creative mind ‘the intellect has withdrawn its watcher from the gates, and the ideas rush in pell-mell, and only then does it review and inspect the multitude.’ He said that uncreative people ‘are ashamed of the momentary passing madness which is found in all real creators . . . regarded in isolation, an idea may be quite insignificant, and venturesome in the extreme, but it may acquire importance from an idea that follows it; perhaps in collation with other ideas which seem equally absurd, it may be capable of furnishing a very serviceable link.’

My teachers had the opposite theory. They wanted me to reject and discriminate, believing that the best artist was the one who made the most elegant choices. They analysed poems to show how difficult ‘real’ writing was, and they taught that I should always know where the writing was taking me, and that I should search for better and better ideas. They spoke as if an image like ‘the multitudinous seas incarnadine’ could have been worked out like the clue to a crossword puzzle. Their idea of the ‘correct choice was the one anyone would have made if he had thought long enough.

I now feel that imagining should be as effortless as perceiving.

Improv, as I have learnt over the last four months, is about not judging your ideas as you have them. It’s about not striving for the original or the novel or the surprising, not trying to produce better and better ideas.

It’s about accepting your partner’s offer (ie the idea they share through their dialogue and action) and your own initial response. It’s about letting the words flow through you without your intellectual self getting in the way. If you have to judge each idea as you think of it, discarding the ‘bad’ ones and coming up with new ones, you will be visibly slower to respond, which will sap the energy out of a scene and bore the audience to tears. It will also make you feel inadequate and crap.

Instead, improv is about asking the watcher at the gates of your mind to just go away and do something else for a bit so you can get on with being creative.

Indeed, the people who do strive to be clever, who are scared of being judged (or who judge themselves, as the group really isn’t at all judgemental), who have hired reinforcements for those watchers at the gates of their minds, are also the ones whose attempts to be original, novel and surprising backfire. Creativity, and especially comedy, comes from the mundane, from saying the obvious, the thing that everyone’s thinking.

Schiller was right; Johnstone’s teachers and whoever it was that gave me that advice all those years ago was wrong.

In improv, improvement comes from observation and practice, from letting your barriers down and giving up on trying to be smart or funny or original. Let your subconscious do the work and see how it speaks to others without your interference.

Writing is the same. If you let yourself write your first draft without judgement, you’ll find it easier to finish.

The way to write better first drafts is not to let the doggy watcher at the gates of your mind rip your creative face off, it’s to hone your instincts. You do that through writing lots, reading good books on writing craft, reading widely, planning, plotting. character development work, world building, practicing your dialogue and all those other pre-writing tasks that can sometimes seem pointless. They’re not, of course, even if you ultimately don’t use any of your pre-writing material – the very act of working on them implanted ideas in your subconscious, which it then noodled over whilst you weren’t paying attention and all that pops out when you write.

The second draft is when discrimination comes in, when you can assess whether your first ideas were good enough, or whether they need honing or replacing completely. But rewriting is also another opportunity to sharpen up those instincts even more – noticing what doesn’t work and why, working out plot kinks or inconsistent characters, all that stuff that rewrites require. That all goes into your subconscious and stays there, ready to help you out with your next first draft.

At no point does second-guessing, judging, castigating or criticising yourself help. Imagining should be as effortless as perceiving, and it can only become effortless if we shed our self-judgement.

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Plus a serial plagiarist, developing agency, generating husbands, final chapter of Argleton now online, and Grace.

Hi there,

Lots to share with you this week, including a couple of great opportunities and some even better writing advice, so let’s get on with it!

Opportunity: The Fern Academy Prize

Penguin imprint Fern Press has joined forces with How To Academy and Tortoise Media to launch the Fern Academy Prize, “a new annual non-fiction essay prize for those working at the frontier of creativity and thought”.

The prize is designed to find and nurture emerging non-fiction talent and will be awarded to an essay of literary merit with an international and multicultural interest. The prize encourages essays that shine a light on the universal human experience – on a micro or macro scale – and which speak clearly to the times we live in. The prize is open to unagented and unpublished writers from around the world, writing in the English language.

Submissions open on 2 April and the winner will receive a cash prize of £3,000, be published by Tortoise Media, receive representation by RCW literary agent Laurence Laluyaux, and much more.

Opportunity: Channel 4 New Writers Scheme

Channel 4’s New Writers Scheme is looking for unagented screenwriters interested in writing TV drama to take part in a six month training program. The scheme is being organised around 3 regional hubs – Bristol, Glasgow and Leeds – although I can’t find any info as to catchment areas.

Applications will close on Friday 1 March, and if you’re selected you have to be able to travel to your regional hub for in-person training.

C4 is “particularly keen to hear from Deaf and/or disabled people, ethnically diverse people and people from lower socioeconomic groups”. They are looking for dramas that fit into the following categories:

  • The Way We Live Now
  • Young-Skewing
  • Lower Tariff

I think the latter one means ‘commercial’ and ‘cheap to make’!

Tip-top tip: 20 mins of dialogue a day

Mason Currey has a great blog post about David Milch, writer on NYPD Blue and Deadwood, and his creative processes. It’s well worth reading the whole post, if only for the description of how Milch would dictate his scripts whilst lying on the floor!

However, that bit isn’t my tip-top tip, as fun as I think writing with a room full of people would be. No, the bit I’ve taken to heart is this quote from Milch’s memoir:

For the next five days, find a time each day, preferably the same time, and sit down and write not less than twenty minutes and not more than fifty minutes. Five-zero. Don’t think about it, don’t set it up on the computer, don’t think about what you’re going to write before you do it. No exceptions. This means you. Two voices, one and two. No names. No description. No description. That means no description. Voice one and voice two. The setting—don’t say what the setting is. No description. Write for not less than twenty minutes with those two voices. Just follow, just hear what they say. Not more than fifty minutes. Put it in an envelope, seal the envelope, and shut up. Don’t talk about it. Don’t think about what it means. Don’t think about who they are.

The next day, preferably at the same time, sit down and do it again. They may be the same voices, they may be different voices, don’t worry about it. Whatever comes out is fine. Don’t think about it. Just do it.

I did that four times last week, and it was glorious. Seriously.

I did slightly do it ‘wrong’, in that I had two characters and a scenario for Fieldwork that I wanted to play with, but still, I ended up with over 20 pages of dialogue.

I can’t wait to do it again!

Read this: The Serial Lit Mag Plagiarist

Literary magazines are being plagued by a serial copy-and-paste plagiarist who uses the name John Kucera. Yet most don’t seem to have the tools (or perhaps the interest) in taking basic steps to detect this kind of blatant plagiarism. And despite having been found out and confronted, Kucera doesn’t care:

While it is unlikely that we will ever know the full extent of Kucera’s plagiarism, what makes this case bizarre is that it doesn’t appear to have stopped.

One journal reporter that they received another submission AFTER they had already confronted him about his earlier plagiarisms.

Stop, look, listen: Scriptnotes, E627 – Unbelievably Agentic

I enjoyed this conversation between John August and Aline Brosh McKenna about characters’ agency, in which they discuss, “What are the traps and pitfalls of going after what you want? How do you get people to engage with your protagonist, especially when the protagonist is yourself?”

Character agency has been one of the key challenges in the rewrite of Tag that I’ve been tackling. I hadn’t realised how event driven the plot was – stuff happens, then more stuff happens, then yet more stuff happens. But in order for it to be satisfying there has to be a chain of cause and effect, and the cause has to be a character’s decision to do something. That’s agency.

If your characters aren’t ‘agentic’, if they aren’t driving the story through their decisions and mistakes, give this a listen!

Read this, two: Generating husbands

I loved this post from Holly Gramazio about how she created a webtoy to generate husbands for her new book The Husbands which is, you guessed it, about husbands. You can play with The Husband Generator yourself, but I thought that Holly’s comments about how to generate appealing husbands was fascinating:

the hardest thing about the Husband Generator was coming up with characteristics that felt concrete and fun but also appealing. Adding pets was a godsend, because you can be specific about, say, the breed of dog, or add a cute randomly-generated name, and all of a sudden there’s an idea of who this guy might be. I went through and added a bunch of adjectives about appearance, too, which I didn’t originally have much on; tastes differ, of course, and “symmetrical and willowy” or “dimply and bearded”, say, will work for some, not for others. But at least they’re a potential thing to go “hmmm, maybe?” to.

Lots of jobs, especially concrete jobs where you can imagine what it might be like for someone to do that work; fewer jobs that are “he works in an office doing office stuff” or “he works in a shop doing shop stuff” because they’re so general and widespread that there’s nothing to latch onto.

That’s a quite masterclass in the need for specificity when drawing up a character. It’s no good to have them just working in a shop, you have to have details.

But it’s also a masterclass in marketing. Because now I want to read The Husbands, which I probably wouldn’t even have known existed before.

Argleton: Final chapter up online

Last week saw the last chapter of Argleton go out to everyone who’s subscribe to receive my fiction sub-newsletter. If you like magic realism or urban fantasy and you missed the emails, you can start at the beginning online or download the ebook directly.

I’ll prepare Queen of the May for publication in a few weeks, so if you’re enjoying my fiction, there’s more to come!

Obligatory cat picture

This week we are featuring the marvellous Grace, whose is owned by my friend Louise, who told me this about Grace:

Grace Murray-Hopper started out life in another home, but was poorly and was surrendered to Holly’s Merry Moggies. We adopted her along with another gorgeous girl, Ada Lovelace. Grace is a one year old British Short Hair. She is statuesque in both physical size and personality. Her favourite things are food & treats. She loves face rubs & whilst she isn’t a lap cat she snuggles up to legs most nights. Grace is also very amenable and will happily be walked outside on a cat lead. She is very happy in her new home and we adore her!

Holly Brockwell, who runs Holly’s Merry Moggies, specialises in nurturing ill cats back to health and taking on disabled cats who might otherwise be put to sleep. One of her more famous cats is Smol Paul, who features on her Patreon page. If you have a pound or two spare, please consider helping to save the cats no one else wants.

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

All the best,

Suw

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How do we survive in an industry that that has commoditised us?

Back at the beginning of 2020, in the Before Times, I finally took the decision to prioritise my writing. My husband had just started studying part time for a master’s degree and I decided that it was high time I finished off a novel that I’d started in 2014. I thought of it as a high concept ‘airport’ novel, the kind of book you’d find in WHSmith at Heathrow.

Unfortunately for me, it was about a terrible pandemic that kicks off in South Wales, is covered up by the government in the early stages thus destroying any hope of mitigation, and which ultimately wipes out 80 per cent of the population. Our plucky heroine uncovers government misdeeds and helps move the community to a local ‘ecotown’ where they can live safely, despite the loss of critical infrastructure. People die. People survive. People fall in love. The end.

Honestly, my timing couldn’t have been worse. If I’d kept up my initial momentum, I could have finished it by 2018, and perhaps might have found a home for it before it became radioactive. Finishing it, as I did in April 2021, was more an act of supreme bloodymindedness than an investment in my future writing career.

But even as I was lamenting my awful timing, I was starting to wonder if I really had left it too late to pivot my career towards writing. And those thoughts have only grown louder as the creative industries become increasingly inimical toward making any sort of a living from writing.

The publishing and TV/film industries have become so dysfunctional that it’s hard to see how the majority of writers will ever earn a respectable wage. Rebecca Jennings has a great article on Vox about the way in which creators of every stripe are expected to do their own marketing and even to have created a big following before they can snag a publishing or record deal.

for people who hope to publish a bestseller or release a hit record, it’s “building a platform” so that execs can use your existing audience to justify the costs of signing a new artist.

Author surveys show writers in the UK and US are earning less than ever, with the median income in the US below poverty level. As Jennings says:

Corporate consolidation and streaming services have depleted artists’ traditional sources of revenue and decimated cultural industries. While Big Tech sites like Spotify claim they’re “democratizing” culture, they instead demand artists engage in double the labor to make a fraction of what they would have made under the old model. That labor amounts to constant self-promotion in the form of cheap trend-following, ever-changing posting strategies, and the nagging feeling that what you are really doing with your time is marketing, not art. Under the tyranny of algorithmic media distribution, artists, authors — anyone whose work concerns itself with what it means to be human — now have to be entrepreneurs, too.

And not everyone wants to do that. I’ve been running my own business since 1998, and I don’t want to have to bring that sensibility to my writing. I don’t like doing ‘promo’ and trying to ‘build a platform’ – I just want to share my writing with people whom I hope will enjoy it. I don’t want to get to a point where I’m spending more time doing marketing than writing. And yet, this is what is in store.

It used to be that success brought fame. Now you need to be famous in order to even get a shot at success. Substack was supposed to be a way out of that double bind, but it isn’t. In her blog post, The creator economy can’t rely on Patreon, Joan Westenberg points out that Patreon and Substack are just flogging Kevin Kelly’s 1,000 True Fans theory from 2008. Westenberg says:

the numbers don’t add up. Data from Patreon and Substack suggests the average conversion rate from follower to paying fan is about 5%. This means a creator would need a total fanbase of 20,000 followers to yield 1,000 paying supporters. And building a core fanbase of 20,000 engaged followers is extremely difficult in today’s crowded creative landscape.

As shown by the sheer volume of ‘how to succeed on Substack’ posts that I see promoted on Notes, we’re all grappling with the same problem. We want to create. We want to be able to develop a liveable income from our work. But the maths just doesn’t math.

In a crowded market, the supply of content creators hoping to profit from their work directly outstrips demand. The number of YouTube channels, podcasts, Substack newsletters, and other independently produced media has exploded. The signal-to-noise ratio is utterly unhinged. Talented creators struggle to stand out and attract an audience, let alone convince fans to pay up regularly.

The creative industries, like so many others, have individualised risk and privatised profits. So even though the creative industries sector contributed £109 billion to the UK economy in 2021 – that’s 5.6 percent of the entire economy – actual creatives go largely underpaid. We have become commodities. Until we are famous, we are entirely fungible. No one likes to think that about themselves, but this is what the industry has done to us.

What do to?

I can only talk about my own decision-making process, so I’d love to hear more from you in the comments about how you’re approaching this, because I think a conversation would be really helpful for lots of people.

I spent much of last spring and early summer thinking that Substack was actually going to be the answer to my prayers, that it might provide me with a stable income, particularly after Notes launched. But growth slowed, and even stalled at times, after the initial Notes bump and I now do not expect to see anything other than very gradual growth. I don’t believe it will provide any sort of useful income in the foreseeable future. That means that I need to recontextualise Substack and find a new place for it in my mental landscape of things that I do.

I enjoy writing my newsletters, and I will continue to write them in the hope that others enjoy reading them. However, they will not figure in my financial plans, whether short-term or long-term. Any income they generate is gravy, it’s not the roast.

Furthermore, despite having only just launched Grist a few months ago, I’m rethinking that as well. The next session is tomorrow but I only have one person signed up, so I have to consider whether it should become a monthly essay instead of an online conversation.

Much of my focus is now on conserving energy so that I have enough to spend on writing and actual paying work. This is about developing a sustainable way to live which pays the bills and leaves me enough space to be creative. I don’t want to have to sacrifice my precious writing time at the altar of building a platform, even if that makes me less attractive to publishers.

Developing a stable income has been top of my list for a while now, and in order to do that, perhaps I have to let go of the dream of having an independent income via Substack and focus on developing my business instead. Maybe I need to make peace with the idea that my writing will always be my 5-9.

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