March 2024

Plus the London Festival of Writing, Coyote vs Acme, and Copurrnicus being Copurrnicus.

Hi there,

Catch up with Dr Dean Burnett

If you missed last week’s webinar with bestselling author Dr Dean Burnett, you can now catch up with the recording at your leisure!

Dean and I kicked off our conversation with the story of Blue Monday — not the New Order song, but the confected PR nonsense that claims one particular Monday in January is the ‘most depressing of the year’. Dean, already a keen blogger and stand-up comedian, debunked it and soon found himself writing a regular blog for The Guardian.

We then moved on to talk about how Dean came to write his first book, international bestseller The Idiot Brain and then his second book, The Happy Brain, how he does his research and how he made the decision to go full-time as a writer. We also talked about our childhood assumptions that other people wrote books, not us, and how that’s affected our writing careers, as well as Dean’s experience of doing stand-up comedy, the weirdness of having his book optioned by Whoopi Goldberg, and a bit about what he thinks writer’s block might be.

Watch now!

Opportunity: BBC Writers’ Studio: EastEnders

BBC Studios Drama Productions have launched a new scheme for anyone who wants to write for EastEnders.

BBC Studios TalentWorks Writers’ Studio: EastEnders is an open script call for those who are looking to take the next step in their writing career and join the ranks of the EastEnders writing team. The initiative intends to find writers with some experience, who are actively keen to pursue a career in continuing drama. The open call process will shortlist 8 writers who’ll each write one paid trial script with the full support of the in-house development editor. Of the 8 shortlisted writers, up to 5 commissioning slots will be available on the main show.

Applicants must have an existing broadcast credit, or an agent, or various other credits/experience in order to apply, and the deadline is 22 April.

The BBC also runs The Writers’ Studio: Casualty, and a similar scheme for cosy crime.

Tip-top tip: Gary Gibson on building a sustainable writing career

Sci fi writer Gary Gibson has written about the things he’s learnt as a “formerly traditionally-published author” about building a sustainable career as a writer.

Gary, who hasn’t been under contract with a major publisher since 2015, talks about the conflict that sometimes arises between what readers want and what writers want, risk-taking and experimentation, marketing and BookBub, promotion and much more.

It’s a useful post with valuable advice not just for independent authors, but for anyone interested in a writing career.

Event: The London Festival of Writing

Jericho Writers’ annual writing festival will be running over the weekend of 29-30 June, at the Leonardo Royal Tower Bridge Hotel in London. Tickets aren’t cheap, at £420 for the whole weekend, including lunch and Saturday night dinner, but excluding accommodation.

The weekend consists of seven workshop slots with three to choose from in each session, and they cover topics such as character, first chapters, working with small publishers, dealing with your midpoint plot, genre, how to write query letters and a lot more.

Watching: Coyote vs Acme might be lost forever

There’s been another wave of fury about the loss of Coyote vs Acme, the completely finished Warner Bros. Discovery movie that massive arsehole David Zaslav canned for no good reason. It was reported last month that Warner Bros. Discovery said that:

in an earnings filing it wrote off $115 million in content due to abandoning films in the third quarter of 2023 as part of a “strategic realignment plan associated with the Warner Bros. Pictures Animation group.”

Actor Will Forte, who played Wile E. Coyote, got to see the finished film and called it “incredible. Super funny throughout, visually stunning, sweet, sincere, and emotionally resonant in a very earned way.”

The film tested really well, and Amazon offered $40-$45 million for it, but that wasn’t enough for enormous wanker Zaslav, who wanted $75-$80 million for it. So, it seems Coyote vs Acme will by now have been deleted. All we have left of it has been compiled by All Things Lost into this 38 minute video:

As someone points out in the comments, “You can’t burn down your own business for insurance money. You shouldn’t be able to destroy your fully filmed, expensive project, for free money either.”

Whilst the buck stops with contemptible scumbag Zaslav, the underlying cause is perverse incentives in the tax regime. Now that despicable shitweasel Zaslav has normalised the deletion of finished films, regardless of quality or prospects, we can expect this to happen more and more often.

The only question now is whether creatives will start to shy away from, or even boycott, film studios who have shown themselves willing to destroy movies for the tax breaks.

Read this: Recently on Why Aren’t I Writing?

It’s been a while since I gave you a round-up of my newsletters over on Why Aren’t I Writing?, so for those of you who aren’t subscribed over there, here’s a bit of reading for the long weekend:

Grist & author webinars

This month, I organised both a Grist conversation and an author webinar with Dr Dean Burnett. I really enjoyed doing both, and I get a lot out of them, but they take a lot of time and they’re causing me quite a bit of stress. So, rather sadly, I’ve decided not to do any more webinars for a bit. Grist will become a monthly newsletter, and I’ll do another author webinar when I really can’t resist the urge any more.

Obligatory cat picture

Copurrnicus, a tabby and white cat, stands on top of an antique cabinet, and stretches out a paw to try to reach a hanging decoration in the shape of a flower. After the first Christmas of the pandemic, my husband and I decided to leave up the fairy lights and to then decorate the lounge seasonally. Sadly, we had to leave all the themed lights back in the US, but we are slowly rebuilding our collection of decorations here.

Copurrnicus pretty much ignored the hearts we put up for Dydd Santes Dwynwen, which is also the anniversary of our engagement, and which we left up until our wedding anniversary in February. But he has taken rather a shine to our spring decorations, which at the moment consist of eggs and paper flowers.

Grabbity doesn’t care, because none of the decorations are made of tinsel.

Right, that’s it for this time! See you again in two weeks, or on Notes or Bluesky.

All the best,



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How do we find a window to climb through?

I spent Saturday at the Big Comedy Conference, finding out about the parlous state of TV comedy and rethinking my Fieldwork short film/sitcom project in the process. What was clear from the folks on stage is that budgets are shrinking and fashions are changing which means less comedy is being commissioned. There are only two sitcoms on air that are filmed in front of a studio audience – Not Going Out and Mrs Brown’s Boys. Sketch shows have died a death, replaced by cheaper comedy panel shows.

(There’s a similar contraction happening in drama as well. The streamers have realised that, to borrow a phrase from journalism, they have swapped cable/satellite pounds for digital pennies and that the maths just doesn’t math. The BBC has closed Doctors, its incredibly popular but unfortunately expensive daytime drama, as they search for savings in the face of increasing costs and a frozen TV licence fee. Most people don’t care that Doctors has gone, but it was an incredibly important training ground for new TV writers and the loss of that route into the industry is going to have a knock-on effect in the years to come.)

I also had several conversations with some lovely but frustrated writers, both new writers trying and failing to break into the industry and established writers who are still struggling to get commissioned. One of the people was chatting to was Joel Morris whose new book, Be Funny or Die, I just finished reading on Thursday and cannot recommend highly enough.

Joel suggested perhaps our default approach to TV and book publishing should be to assume that all doors are closed. And that set me to thinking: What changes if we assume that Joel is correct? (And I think he is correct.) Instead of knocking at the door to be let in, what if we look for a window to clamber through instead? What would that mean?

This is where I need to say that we must think of ourselves as individuals within a unique context, which is a long-winded way of saying that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Everyone’s mileage will vary. But…

Assuming the doors are shut means that we need to let go of the lottery thinking that is so prevalent amongst writers. Competitions, open calls, and competitive course applications are, statistically, not going to get us anywhere. Hundreds, if not thousands, of other people are applying for a tiny number of places, and the chances of any of us winning are tiny. Whilst it’s true that someone has to win, staking our future career on it is only going to lead to disappointment.

And when it comes to screenwriting, the majority of competitions seem designed more to part desperate writers from their cash than provide them with opportunity. You could spend a lot of money entering competitions and end up getting absolutely nowhere. Some competitions offer feedback as an inducement, and perhaps they do provide good advice (though I’ve yet to experience that myself), but it’s nothing you couldn’t get from a good script editor or story development editor.

So, what can we do?

I think the key thing here is to take back control. Instead of just sending our work out there into the void and hoping the Gods of TV and Publishing will bestow success upon us, we need to think about what actions we can take ourselves. Exactly what those actions will be will differ from person to person, depending on personality, preferences, experience and capability. But I think there are two generalisable pieces of advice:

Think hard about your medium

Sitcoms and comedy in general is under pressure, rookie writers very rarely get commissioned, and writers rooms largely don’t exist in the UK, meaning there’s no opportunity to get an entry level writing job. So do you really need to make writing for TV the first step on your creative journey? It sounds like a fabulous career, but if experienced and well-connected writers are struggling to make it work, then newbies are up against a brick wall.

Could you find another medium for your work? If you like performing, perhaps do a bit of stand up and develop a community of fans – you might be able to parlay that into a writing gig somewhere. It’s a long shot, but you’ll get a lot of interesting experiences out of it!

If you’re more of an introvert, how about developing your script into a podcast? Podcasts are flexible, relatively cheap to put together, and lots of fun to do (and listen to). That’s my plan for Fieldwork.

For Tag, my urban fantasy, I’m switching to the novel format. Writing it as a six part TV series has been extremely helpful in that I find it easier to manage the rewriting process for scripts than for prose, but it requires way too much CGI to ever get made in the UK and it’s too British to ever appeal to an American producer. It’ll be a much easier sell if it’s a novel.

There are options on social media as well, but before you throw yourself into TikTok, ask yourself if you’re really going to be developing your skills and audience, or if yoou’re doing it for the sake of doing it and developing the platform’s audience.

Look for funding from unusual places

Fieldwork is part of the International Collaboration on Mycorrhizal Ecological Traits, organised by the University of York, University of Edinburgh, Dartmouth College and Ada Lovelace Day, and is funded by the National Environmental Research Council. Some degree of luck was involved here, in that Covid destroyed our original plans and we ended up with some money left over, so Fieldwork became our main public communications and outreach deliverable. But because this is a piece of science communications work, there are a number of other grants and funding sources that we can apply for to take it to the next stage.

Not everyone will be able to look for sci-comms grants to fund their writing, but it is worth thinking about how you can find an unusual niche to occupy where you could increase your chances of finding funding.

For example, Arts Council England’s Develop Your Creative Practice grant program releases data on the number of applicants and how many are successful. From the data for Round 17, we can see that there was only one application in the Libraries discipline and it was funded. There were three Museums applications and one was funded. Literature received 290 applications, Music 340 and Theatre 298. Clearly, there are opportunities along the lesser trafficked paths. If you don’t naturally fall into a useful niche, is there someone you can collaborate with?

Grants are usually a nightmare to apply for, but it’s interesting to see that the overall success rate was 21 per cent, which is a far, far higher success rate than any script or writing competition you’ll ever enter. DYCP doesn’t fund the process of writing, but it does strongly encourage participants to pay themselves for their time and it might well be possible to parlay this into some significant career development work.

Reclaim your agency

The biggest benefit of approaching the creative industries as if the doors are closed is, for me at least, a lessening of stress. I feel better about my writing when I feel that I have some agency and can have some influence over the outcome.

Relying on script/writing competitions and open calls was getting me down, because I knew that my work is in a genre that just isn’t ever going to be popular with the judges. And, despite recommendations from panelists at the Big Comedy Conference, I will not be getting a job as a runner for a TV production company in the hope that they notice my brilliant writing, nor will I be spending hours researching producers who will ultimately reject my work sight unseen because it turns out they don’t take unsolicited submissions.

I’d rather look at what I can achieve now, with the resources I’ve got to hand, than expend more time and energy on playing the creative industry lottery.

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And how I’m adapting our project plan to account for changes in TV commissioning.

Saturday saw the Big Comedy Conference take place in London with a slew of industry professionals taking the stage to share their accumulated knowledge and experience. I went last year for the first time, so this second go round made for an interesting comparison.

The atmosphere was much less chirpy, for one, and the financial challenges of putting on an event of this size in the current economic climate were made obvious by the single stream of speakers with no break-out rooms and the more modest catering. I don’t blame the organisers for that at all – time are tough and they have to cut their pattern to their cloth – but the event felt smaller and less optimistic.

I can understand that loss of optimism too, though. Comedy is in decline in the UK. Last November, Ofcom released a report in which it “explicitly labelled scripted comedy to be ‘at risk’ as a genre” for the sixth year in a row. One of the speakers confirmed that spending on comedy has been cut, with the number of comedies being commissioned dropping by half.

Last year, we were told that the way to get your comedy made is to find a producer whose work you love and approach them. You can’t approach broadcasters directly – most of the commissioners on stage said they were either part of very small team or working solo and they don’t accept unsolicited scripts.

So how do you get the attention of a producer? Twice, we’ve been advised to record a table read and send them over a link. That does make sense – it’s easier and quicker to click a link and listen for a few minutes than it is to read a script.

But that doesn’t seem to be how things actually work. I spoke to someone who had tried sending the recording of her table read to the very same producer who’d given that advice . Yet she still met a brick wall of “We don’t accept unsolicited scripts”.

There was further conflicting advice about agents. This year, we were told to get an agent, whereas last year we were told that agents aren’t necessary and you’ll only get one once you’re established anyway.

It’s Catch 22. Commissioners say that they only accept submissions from production companies. Production companies don’t take unsolicited submissions, preferring work to come via agents. Unlike literary agents, TV agents don’t take unsolicited submissions either. The whole industry is Kafkaesque.

I chatted to one very well established writer and even he can’t get stuff made, despite decades of experience and all the contacts you could possibly want within the industry.

So what does this mean for Fieldwork?

The original plan was to write a short film script, then look for some funding to get it made. Which isn’t a bad plan, but I’m not sure that it’s still the best plan. I am not a film producer and nor do I particularly want to become one, so I’d have to find a producer to work with. I’m not going to rule that out, but perhaps it’s not the best place to start.

I’ve signed up for Dave Cohen’s Build a Sitcom course, so by the summer I will have a half-hour sitcom pilot script written, which I will then cut down to a 10 minute short film. Having a sitcom pilot will give me some more options: I’ll be able to submit it to the BBC’s open call in the autumn (I’ve missed this year’s BAFTA Rocliffe comedy competition deadline), on the off chance. But with hardly any comedy being made now, that off chance is tiny.

What became clear to me on Saturday is that there really aren’t many opportunities for comedy writers at the moment. One’s chances might be improved if one became a writer-performer, but as much as I love doing improv, I’m not about to start trying to develop a career as a stand-up comedian (despite having done it before) in order to write. Honestly, that’s like becoming a worm farmer in order to go fishing.

Where I do see an opportunity – and I can thank Julian Simpson’s Lovecraft Investigations and Tom Craine and Henry Parker’s ReincarNathan for demonstrating this to me – is in audio. Whether that’s BBC Radio or a podcast doesn’t really matter, although one requires me to get commissioned and the other I can do myself (ish).

The podcast route seems the most feasible in terms of getting this story out in to the world (and, perhaps, catching a commissioner’s eye). Being less expensive, it also seems like something with the potential for a bit of crowdfunding to cover the costs.

I know a lot more about the TV industry and the process of getting a sitcom out into the world now than I did two years ago when Thorunn, Pen and I started talking about this project. So it makes sense to adjust our plan in the light of all that new information. An adaptation for audio could potentially be an intermediate step ahead of making the short film, or it could become our final destination, and either of those outcomes would be fine for us.

Having been fretting about the idea of making a short film for a while now, I feel much more excited about developing a podcast. It feels much more doable and much less stressful. The lesson here is that creative projects like this take time to develop, and as they do, the wider commercial landscape changes. We have to stay abreast of those changes and adapt our plan to fit reality.

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Plus new profit-sharing publisher, why the names in Dune are actually great, Amazon sued over counterfeit books, and more!

Hi there,

Lots and lots of interesting stuff to share with you this week, so it’s a bit of an epic newsletter. But there is a cute photo of Copurrnicus at the end to reward you for your hard work, so let’s dive in.

Event: Dr Dean Burnett in conversation

I’ll be chatting to Dr Dean Burnett, neuroscientist, podcaster, comedian and author of the international bestsellers The Idiot Brain and The Happy Brain, at 19:00 GMT on Tuesday 19 March. We’ll be talking about why he decided to give up his career as a lecturer at the University of Cardiff to become an author, how he researches his books and what he thinks of writer’s block. The webinar is free and on Zoom, so if you’d like to join us, grab your ticket now!

Opportunity: BAFTA Rocliffe comedy competition open

The BAFTA Rocliffe New Writing Competition for comedy, including sitcom, sketches, feature films and shorts, is open to submissions until 21 March 2024. They will take both live action and animation formats. Unfortunately, it costs a whopping £58 to enter.

Stop, look, listen: We Can Be Weirdos – E43 Be Funny or Die

I’m halfway through Joel Morris’s fantastic new book about comedy, Be Funny or Die, which I cannot recommend highly enough (full review coming when I’ve finished it!). So I jumped straight on this episode of Dan Schreiber’s podcast, We Can Be Weirdos, in which he talks to Joel about the book, whether ghosts exist and the way we try to do a little magic every time we say “Good luck”. It’s a lovely listen!

Read this: New publisher promises profit-share

Authors Equity founders Don Weisberg, Madeline McIntosh and Nina von Moltke.

Authors Equity is a new publishing company that will profit-share with authors, paying out on a monthly basis, instead of via a traditional advance. Founded by three publishing industry veterans, Don Weisberg, Madeline McIntosh and Nina von Moltke, and funded by authors like James Clear, Louise Penny and Tim Ferriss, Authors Equity “promises to give authors more control and participation in the production of books, and create a collaborative model for publishing books that is currently lacking in the industry”.

The devil’s in the details of course, because how will they define ‘profit’?   There are different way to calculate profit and some would be more advantageous to authors than others. Hollywood does quite a lot of profit-sharing — that’s what ‘points’ are, a percentage point of the net profit — and has become adept at creative bookkeeping to reduce the amount of money actually paid out.

Neither of the articles mention this rather massive elephant in the room, instead focusing on the loss of an advance. From the NYT:

Some in the industry expressed skepticism about the approach, noting that many writers can’t afford to wait and hope that a book will succeed.

“It’s putting the risk more on the author than the publisher,” said Robert Gottlieb, a literary agent and chairman at Trident Media Group, which represents more than 2,000 authors. “Most authors need the advance, and if that’s taken out of the equation, the risk is enormous.”

That might seem like a major hurdle for a lot of authors, but let’s face it, most advances are so low that authors are already forced to work a main job to pay their bills. Losing a few grand up front will make no functional difference to authors in that situation.

I can imagine that a profit-share might appeal to two types of authors: Those already successful authors/celebrities who know that they are going to sell well, and those two-job authors for whom developing a portfolio of a steady income streams is more attractive than a paltry advance. It won’t be any good for authors dreaming of a lottery win advance, or those who are getting a decent sized advance but aren’t earning out. But perhaps it doesn’t have to be for everyone to still be a useful addition to the publishing landscape.

Tip-top tip: Be thoughtful about your SFF names

I loved this piece from Lincoln Michel about how good the names are in Dune. I’m not some big Dune aficionado, but I kinda like that the protagonist is called Paul Atreides. It’s an easy name to read and pronounce, whether out loud or mentally.

One thing I cannot abide in science fiction and fantasy are deliberately obtuse names that are hard to parse. As Michel says:

You probably won’t effectively evoke a far future if everyone is named Jim Johnson, Allie Smith, and Tom Miller. OTOH, it’s simply annoying to read a book where everyone is named Fl’imabib DoXlolak, Sththk Ta Lo, and Tlijadjlll’d’d’d’d’a Gonkdaborg.

I can’t count the number of books I’ve read that have tried to create a sense of the alien by ramming a bunch of consonants and random punctuation symbols together. That jerks me out of the story so completely that instead of creating a sense of the alien it’s just straight alienating.

One author who was really good at creating naming schemas was Anne McCaffrey in her Pern books. She created a whole tradition for how her characters would get their names by mixing syllables from parents’ names, plus a second tradition that dragon riders’ names would be shortened. The names of her characters make sense within their own world, and are a part of the world building without ending up looking or sounding ridiculous.

Michel shares some great thoughts about naming alien terminologies and creating alien jargon as well, so the piece is well worth reading.

Read this, two: Amazon sued over counterfeit books

Bestselling self-published author David Goggins is suing Amazon over its unwillingness to remove counterfeit versions of his book, Can’t Hurt Me: Master Your Mind and Defy the Odds.

Amazon allowed the sale of counterfeit versions of his self-published book on its platform, leading to negative reviews and lost revenue […].

[I]nauthentic versions began appearing on Amazon in June 2019 which included poor print quality, missing pages, and wrong dimensions, according to the complaint.

Amazon only took action after Goggins complained to his millions of Instagram followers, which Goggins says proves that they could have done something earlier but simply chose not to. It’ll be interesting to see how this case shakes out. Honestly, the only way Amazon is ever going to clean up its act is if it’s forced to by the courts.

Thread of the week: Philip Ralph on the closure of Doctors

The BBC has axed Doctors, a British daytime soap that has been running for 24 years, and Philip Ralph has an excellent thread on why this is a disaster for the actors, crew and screenwriters especially.

Doctors was a training ground, a series on which screenwriters could cut their teeth and learn their trade. It also provided consistent work for a lot of people. And it’s not being replaced by another long-running show, but probably by game shows and other thin daytime TV gruel, so there are hundreds of people who are now going to be out of work.

And, to be clear, Doctors was still incredibly popular. The BBC said it was axed because it was expensive, but that’s not a good enough reason, given how huge the knock-on effects will be. As Ralph says:

The soaps are collapsing. Mid scale drama is contracting. This leaves just the high profile writers and creatives succeeding, and everyone else scrabbling around for scraps, hoping to somehow ‘win the lottery’ and get onto an existing show or even more miraculous in the current climate – get their own original series idea commissioned. There’s no ‘career ladder’ left. There’s incredible good fortune – or there’s nothing. And that’s no way to build and grow a sustainable industry.

Over and over again we’re seeing industries ditch their entry level positions, which is what Doctors was for a lot of people, in favour of short term gain. But they are going to regret that in five to ten years, when they realise that they’ve no promotable talent coming through. Where are the screenwriters of the future going to get experience and learn how the industry works?

Read this, three: UK screenwriters get 10 per cent rise

It’s not often that you see writers getting a pay rise, so it’s lovely to see this news from the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain:

Writers commissioned by the BBC and BBC Studios will receive a significant increase on minimum fees and compensation for the commercial exploitation of their work across a number of new platforms, following the renegotiation of the BBC Script Agreement for Television and Online.

[…] the minimum rate for a 60-minute teleplay increase from £12,780 to £14,040. Series minimum rates will rise to £12,900 per 60 minutes, dramatisations to £9,360 per 60 minutes and adaptations to £5,760 per 60 minutes.

Even sketch writers will see a 4 per cent increase in their per minute minimum rate, which will go up to £123.

Of course, trying to actually get a job writing for the BBC is a bit like trying to win the lottery by typing a lot.

Obligatory cat photo

Getting my ironing board and 2m of fabric out must send some sort of only-heard-by-cats batsignal, because Copurrnicus invariably appears within seconds to make himself comfy. That he makes ironing impossible is of no relevance to him at all, because all he wants is to pretend he’s camping.

Of course, the time I bought him a Tiny Tent so that he could indulge in a bit of glamping any time he fancied, he completely spurned it. Because cat.

(If you’re wondering what the fabric is for, I’m replacing the lining and pockets on a beloved coat, so it’s already really slippery and a nightmare to work with, without Copurrnicus making it harder!)

Right, that’s it for this week. Thanks for reading to the end, if you made it this far!

All the best,


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The paradox of originality

by Suw on March 6, 2024

Grist: Creating characters with personality

In the next Grist conversation, which will be at 19:00 GMT on Monday 11 March, we’ll talk about how to construct characters with real personalities by using frameworks such as The Big Five personality traits to Myers Briggs and even astrology (!!). Find out more, and take out a free trial to grab the webinar link if you’re not already a paid subscriber

Webinar: Dr Dean Burnett in conversation

Join us at 19:00 GMT on Tuesday 19 March for a conversation with neuroscientist-turned-author Dr Dean Burnett, whose books, including  The Idiot Brain and The Happy Brain, have become international bestsellers. We’ll talk about his stint as a stand-up comic, how he researches and structures his books, and we’ll get a neuroscientist’s view of writer’s block and how to overcome it. Find out more and book yourself a free ticket via Ticket Tailor

Trying to be original ensures you are not.

I’m once again drawing inspiration for today’s newsletter from Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre by Keith Johnstone. I was particularly struck by his section on originality which was just a few pages after, and is intimately related to, the issue of second-guessing one’s thoughts that I discussed in my last newsletter.

We’re constantly bombarded with messages emphasising the need for originality in our creative work. We’re told that we need to produce something new and fresh, something that people haven’t seen before. If we’re not new, fresh, and original, then we must be derivative, formulaic and staid, which is worse than bad, it’s boring.

Johnstone says:

Many students block their imaginations because they’re afraid of being unoriginal. They believe they know exactly what originality is, just as critics are always sure they can recognise things that are avant-garde.

This fear of being unoriginal is a very solid foundation upon which to build a mighty edifice of writer’s block. The thing is, what do we even mean by ‘unoriginal’?

A couple of years ago, I submitted an early version of Tag, my middle-aged woman becomes an action hero story, to a script development agency. Now, I don’t know about you, but I can’t name any magic realist TV series that feature an overtly menopausal woman wielding a sword in defence of the Earth. In fact, I can’t pin down any action adventure shows that even mention menopause. Yet I was told “the concept does not feel as fresh and original as we would hope for”.

I never was sure what they were trying to say with that comment, because every woman I’ve mentioned Tag to has been eager to read it. Middle-aged women who like this kind of stuff are not catered to, and they know it. If you loved Buffy when you were in your 20s, you’re in your late 40s or 50s now, but whilst Indiana Jones was allowed to age, Buffy remains forever a high schooler who’s never given the opportunity to grow up.

But not only is the concept of originality slippery, it’s not even true that people crave it. We still love romcoms, despite knowing that the two leads will get together at the end. We still love action adventure even though we know that the hero will win through. We know that crime TV shows will end up with the perpetrator getting their comeuppance, one way or another, but we still watch them.

The majority of fiction, particularly mass market fiction in any format, sticks fairly closely to a formula, and a lot of it is extremely obvious as soon as you step back and look at it critically. But that’s not a bad thing. Johnstone again:

The improvisor has to realise that the more obvious he is, the more original he appears. I constantly point out how much the audience like someone who is direct, and how they always laugh with pleasure at a really ‘obvious’ idea. Ordinary people asked to improvise will search for some original idea because they want to be thought clever.

Trying to be clever never works out well in the end. We can spot people who are trying to be clever from a mile away, and we don’t like it. Instead, what we relate to is authenticity. We want people (real or fictional) to show us who they are, to reveal their true selves bit by bit, slowly, over the course of a book or a series or a film.

We don’t care that we know the two leads will fall in love by the end of the film, we enjoy the romcom because we want to see how they do it. We know that the heroine will prevail in her action adventure, but we’re curious about how she pulls it off, and who betrays or helps her along the way. And knowing that the crime will be solved doesn’t take anything away from the experience of watching it happen.

Essential to our enjoyment is a sense of genuineness to the characters, our belief that they are behaving and talking in a way that only they could. Being true to themselves, they behave in the way that is most obvious to them.

No two people are exactly alike, and the more obvious an improvisor is, the more himself he appears. If he wants to impress us with his originality, then he’ll search out ideas that are actually commoner and less interesting. […]

An artist who is inspired is being obvious. He’s not making any decisions, he’s not weighing one idea against another. He’s accepting his first thoughts. How else could Dostoyevsky have dictated one novel in the morning and one in the afternoon for three weeks in order to fulfil his contracts?

It’s at this point that the temptation to add some sort of refinements to the meaning of ‘unoriginal’ or ‘obvious’ arises. The desire to try to explain myself in such a way as to not contradict vast amounts of received wisdom about creativity and novelty.

But really, where success lies is in the craft. No one actually cares that they’ve seen a story told before, they care that the story they are being told now is well crafted and captivating, that the characters are realistic and authentic, that something in the tale speaks to them. After all, if originality were the most important thing about a project, we wouldn’t keep remaking Shakespeare.

Last weekend, my husband and I watched Anyone But You, which is so unashamed of being a Much Ado About Nothing remake that it actually litters the film with word-for-word quotes in the sets and scenery. OK, so it wasn’t My Own Private Idaho (Henry IV Parts I and II) or West Side Story (Romeo and Juliet), or Warm Bodies (Romeo and Juliet with zombies), but it was still good and I still enjoyed it. I knew where it was going, but it was fun to see how it got there.

So if you’re scared your work isn’t original, if you find yourself feeling blocked because you think your work isn’t fresh or new, just set that worry aside and focus entirely on your craft. What will bring your work to life are beautifully drawn characters with meaningful and believable relationships who are yearning for something that’s hard to get. Be authentic. Write as only you can.

I’ll give the last word to Johnstone, who sums it up brilliantly:

Striving after originality takes you far away from your true self, and makes your work mediocre.

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