April 2024

What to do when your mind is blank

by Suw on April 17, 2024

This week’s newsletter brought to you by the letter S, for stubbornness.

Sometimes, I find that my head is just… empty. I need to write something, but there’s not a single idea to be had. Not a light on in the house. I could skip a week, I suppose. People do. But if I skip one week for no good reason, then I’ll skip another and another and that would be the end of this newsletter.

On days like that, every idea feels thin and reedy. Nothing has enough substance for me to grasp. It’s not just that my mind is foggy, it feels like the whole world is foggy and no amount of squinting will bring it into focus. It’s not that I’m particularly tired. I’ve just done a whole morning of work for Ada Lovelace Day, quite happily. So what’s going on?

Struggling with the futility of being a writer

Sometimes, I walk into a bookshop and feel deep in my bones the utter futility of being a writer. With millions of books in the world already, who needs mine? With the doors to the creative industry closed, what chance do I have?

This week alone, I’ve seen someone asking for non-fiction writers to write a 70k word book for the insulting pittance of £1,250 (that’s 1.8p per word, by the way). I’ve seen someone talking about how a TV commissioner loves their idea and wants to see a finished script, but that they don’t have the skills so would someone please help? I’ve seen countless GoFundMe pleas from established and beloved creators who can’t afford the medical bills, or to live.

And then I wonder, what the everliving fuck is the point? Honestly, why am I doing this?

Hauling myself out of the hole

The process of clambering out of that pit of despondency is basically a process of trial and error. It starts by reminding myself why I write: because I love the process, because it’s a fundamental part of my personality, because I’m happier when I’m writing. Then I have to dig about for a few more practical steps to take to get me back on track. I’ll usually try a few of these tactics until I hit on something that works in the moment:

Ask for help

Whether it’s your partner or a friend, or the world at large via social media, ask for ideas for your newsletter or for writing prompts or just moral support. Who knows, someone might come up with something helpful or make you feel good enough to break the malaise.

Go for a walk

A Stanford University study found that “creative output increased by an average of 60 percent when walking”, so get up and get walking. It doesn’t matter if you pop out for a spin around your local park, walk on a treadmill in front of a blank wall, or just wander round your house — the act of walking is what counts.

Break out pen and paper

Your brain works differently when you’re holding a pen and writing by hand, compared to typing on a keyboard. Pen and paper’s best for expansive thinking, for catching hold of, organising and developing ideas. Typing’s best for transcribing your thoughts, once you know what they are.

Accept imperfection

I am a perfectionist, so I do struggle to write things that I am not sure are good enough. But 23 years of blogging has taught me that my idea of what’s good rarely gels with what other people think is good. I can’t count the number of times that a post I’ve just dashed off and thought was pretty mediocre has caught light, whilst the posts I’ve laboured over have sunk without trace. You cannot judge the quality of your own work and, frankly, you shouldn’t even try.

Tap into your stubbornness

It is always easier to give up than to keep going, but sometimes the only way forward is through, no matter how hard it feels. Drag those words out of your brain, one by one, and if you keep going for long enough eventually you’ll have your newsletter, post, story or book.

Allow yourself to be distracted

This one’s slightly counterintuitive, but I find that when I’m struggling, I get more writing done if I allow myself to check social media in between paragraphs. Or sentences. Or words. I don’t let myself dwell for long in the aim of the firehose, but I do let myself just look at BlueSky (the Twitter replacement favoured by a lot of writers) briefly every now and again. It’s as if it resets something in my mind, just clears out a tiny blockage to let the next sentence flow.

Go snuggle a pet

I have two cats and there’s honestly nothing better when I feel stressed than going and sticking my face in a furry belly. If one of them’s in the right mood, that is. If not, it’s a surefire way to end up in A&E. But petting cats, and other animals, is proven to lower blood pressure and stress, so I reckon they probably improve feelings of creativity too.

Change your font

Our brains love novelty, so pick a fun and preferably slightly hard-to-read font to write in, instead of whatever your software usually defaults to. We remember more of what we read when it’s presented in a more challenging font, and novel stimuli cause the release of dopamine, which your brain likes. So use a ridiculous font to add a little disfluency to your writing and it should help.

Change your environment

Just as a fancy font will make your novelty-seeking brain happy, so will a change of scenery. Pop along to a coffee shop or just relocate to your sofa, it doesn’t matter as long as it’s a spot you don’t usually write in.

Self-bribery

I’m not averse to a little self-bribery. A little chocolate, perhaps, or some other treat. Place it within your line of sight and pick a reasonable milestone to hit before you take a bite.

Have a sing

Go on. Just for three minutes. Pick a real belter.

Let a draft sit overnight

I try to never let my newsletter wait until the day it’s due, unless I’m already very clear on what I’m going to be writing. So when I’ve finished writing this draft, which will be very soon, I’ll put it into Substack and then leave it overnight. Putting some distance, and some sleep, between me and a rough draft always makes editing it easier.

 

In the end, this post has taken me 1 hour 30 minutes to write, including a quick walk around the park. And despite having felt utterly frustrated before I started, I now feel really quite happy, even invigorated. Which is another thing to remember: It really does feel good to have finished writing something.

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Plus the state of UK TV, the power of curation and an early morning Grabbity.

Hi there,

The rain has finally stopped, the sun is trying to come out, the pigeons are ‘courting’ on the flat roof above my desk, freaking Copurrnicus right out with their noise, and I am feeling loquacious! So this issues sees fewer links and more analysis, which I hope you’ll find interesting! Plus, a photo of an early morning Grabbity for those of you who reach the end.

Read this: Why bestseller lists aren’t all that

Agent Kate McKean argues that authors really shouldn’t care about whether their books gets on to the New York Times bestseller list, largely because, “If it happens that is AMAZING and a BIG DEAL but also not the golden ticket you think it will be.”

Instead, she says, you should worry more about:

Selling through that print run so your publisher has to go back to press for more books (i.e. a reprint). If they have to order a reprint before your book even comes out, because stores have called dibs on all their existing stock, EVEN BETTER. What’s going to make a publisher look at your next proposal or manuscript with heart eyes? Reprints and low returns. Stores ordering more of your book(s) because people keep buying them, long after your “launch week” marketing extravaganza. How do you sell your next book? Sell your current one.

By the way, I only recently learnt that the little daggers next to some books in the NYT list means that they think the numbers have been in some way fudged:

Institutional, special interest, group or bulk purchases, if and when they are included, are at the discretion of The New York Times Best-Seller List Desk editors based on standards for inclusion that encompass proprietary vetting and audit protocols, corroborative reporting and other statistical determinations. When included, such bulk purchases appear with a dagger (†).

Read this, two: How important is author promo? 

In the post above, McKean suggests that as an author, you must keep your “book in conversations by doing what you can do online—writing, posting, videoing, whatever you can do that makes sense for your market—whether it’s about your book or not.”

She goes on to say:

This is work only you can do in support of your career, so you can keep publishing books. The publisher cannot build your platform or following or fanbase of readers who automatically buy your next book as soon as you post a pre-order link. Readers are not looking at publishers for news of those pre-order links. They are looking at you. You do not hear about new books from publishers. You hear about them from friends and articles and random posts that get shared in your feeds and from the bio at the end of that great article you just read and oh look they have a new book coming out.

However, author Melissa Caruso suggests on Bluesky that we should not focus on making any given book a success, but should take a step back and make sure our careers are a success (my bold).

Here’s the thing. There’s not much that you, the author, can do personally to move the needle in the short term on sales for a specific book. That’s really up to your publisher, who has far more resources than you do.

Once you accept this, it’s actually kind of nice?

It’s very easy to put WAY too much effort, time, and/or money into book promo, but the truth is that all the things debuts feel like they should be doing—social media, preorder campaigns, events, you name it—will make very little difference for most people and are only worth doing if you enjoy them.

It’s important to remember that there is no empirical way to understand what makes a given book a success, or not a success. There are so many factors that combine to propel a title to the top of the bestseller list or sink it without trace that it’s impossible to predict which books will sell well and which won’t.

Some factors are always going to be important, such as author name recognition and track record or the amount of marketing spend devoted to a book. But they aren’t guarantees of success, even if they help it along. Other factors are completely unpredictable and uncontrollable, such as whether a similar book comes out at the same time, general zeitgeist, and virality.

So I think the key point from Caruso’s thread is to do what you enjoy. If you like being on BookTok, or writing newsletters, or doing outreach to indie bookshops, or organising author events, then go for it. It can’t hurt and it might help.

But don’t sacrifice your next book, or your health or happiness, on the altar of promo.

Read this, three: The state of UK TV 

It’s really nice to have your career decisions exonerated by a report, even if that report makes for less than happy reading otherwise. Televisual.com summarises a report from Ampere Analysis on current TV commissioning trends, and it doesn’t make for fun reading.

The report shows an 18% decline last year in the UK’s market for scripted TV commissions as major UK broadcasters cut spend and most global SVODs trimmed investment in international content.

So trying to get a TV script commissioned, especially as an early career writer, is essentially futile. Worse, trying to get a sitcom made is now just an act of self-flaggellation.

Comedy fell out of favour, enduring a 27% drop. It was the most heavily impacted of all scripted genres in 2023 with an overall decline of 41% among UK commissioners.

There is something to be said for being countercyclical, so perhaps still worth working on comedy, but maybe not in TV. I’m focusing on writing a sitcom podcast as well as working on a version of the script for submission to the BBC’s autumn open call, just in case.

Perhaps the ‘easiest’, if anything in the creative world can ever be said to be easy, is get your book published first.

In another risk-mitigation move, the BBC increased its investment in IP with an existing following. Roughly a fifth of BBC scripted commissions last year were book adaptations.

I decided a while back to stop working on the scripts for Tag and start novelising it. That project’s shelved for now as I focus on Fieldwork, mind, but as a CGI heavy urban fantasy, it’ll be a much easier sell as a book rather than a TV show. I always knew that, but this news confirmed that novelisation is the right choice.

However, if you’re writing in the Kids, Family or Crime genres you stand more of a chance.

Children & Family grabbed the most orders of the BBC’s scripted commissions, up by 23% year-on-year. Crime and thriller titles were up 16%.

Getting into TV through the front door is basically impossible now, so it’s really a matter of working out whether you can slip in unnoticed through a side window.

Read this, four: The power of curation

Lovely piece from Russell Nohelty about the important of curation in media, saying that:

[the problem for] every media company struggling right now is they have become terrible curators for their audience

This is true not just for large media organisations, but also for us newsletter writers too, whether we are curating links, as I do here, or our thoughts, as I do over on Why Aren’t I Writing?.

This gives me the opportunity to ask you what you’d like to see more/less of? This issue has been particularly wordy, but how do you like the usual mix of topics and number of links? Please do leave a comment if there’s something you particularly like and would like more of!

Obligatory cat picture

Grabbity does love to come and pin me to the bed just at about the time my alarm goes off, so I frequently wake up to this view. She’s very keen that I stay in the prone position so that she can nap in comfort, after a very tiring night of yelling at us from the bottom of the stairs.

Right, that’s it for now! See you again in a couple of weeks, or maybe in the comments!

All the best,

Suw

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You should probably say it to yourself more often.

Some friends and I have an entire Slack channel devoted to celebrating the times we say ‘No’.  We’ve made ourselves little loyalty cards and if we tick all 10 boxes then we get to buy ourselves an ice-cream. I’m currently stuck on nine, because these days no one really asks me to do stuff. I am tempted, however, to award a tenth tick for saying a fairly big ‘No’… to myself.

‘No’ is an interesting word. It’s a simple word, two letters, one syllable, but there is a lot more to it than mere negation. For many – women, freelancers, solopreneurs and creatives, amongst others – it’s a word freighted with fear.

Women, especially, are socially conditioned to never say ‘No’. If someone asks us to take on a task that we don’t have the time or inclination to do, we still feel obliged to say yes, because we fear the social ramifications of refusal. We’ve been taught that saying ‘No’ makes us a bad person, the opposite of the kind, caring, acquiescent, obedient, dutiful, compliant — ‘feminine’ — person we should be.

For freelancers, solopreneurs and creatives, the fear of saying ‘No’ even once is the fear that we’ll never be asked to do anything ever again. Saying ‘No’ to a red-flagged client becomes impossible when you need the money, or when you fear that you won’t get another client to replace them. So you end up working with people that your better judgement tells you to avoid.

The worst is, of course, the request from a friend or colleague who has done you a past favour, someone you feel you owe. Saying no to these requests leaves us riddled with guilt. They did something for us, so we should do something for them, and we should make whatever sacrifice is necessary to repay our debt.

There are many strategies for saying ‘No’ scattered across the web. And I find it very interesting that the people who talk about this the most are all women, including my friends. Together, in our Slack channel, we egg each other on, supporting each other to stick to our ‘No’-shaped guns. We help each other find that right form of words, make suggestions for how we can soften the ‘No’, or even find ways to circumvent the need to say ‘No’ entirely: ‘Can you find someone else to suggest?’

Battling against our socialisation, against the expectations that we be biddable, against the urge to self-flagellate every time we put our own needs first, saying ‘No’ becomes a gargantuan task, even when it’s obviously the right response.

But recently I’ve realised that my biggest challenge, and the most important challenge, is saying ‘No’ to myself.

There are two kinds of situation where I’ve learnt that I need to say ’No’ to myself more often:

  1. When I have ideas
  2. When I am panicking about money

1. Not all ideas are created equal

I have never understood people who ask the question, ‘Where do you get your ideas?’. Ideas are really not a problem for me. I have a long, long list of ideas for books and stories to write. I have endless ideas for new businesses. I can’t even count the ideas for crafting projects that my stupid brain produces. I have ideas coming out of my ears. Sit me in a quiet spot for ten minutes and I’ll have a dozen ideas for things I could do, if only I had the time.

But every idea enacted comes with an opportunity cost: If I do Idea A, I don’t have time for Idea B. How do I know which idea to follow? How do I say ‘No’ to an idea?

In his famous 2012 commencement speech to students at University of the Arts – Philadelphia, Neil Gaiman talked about fixing his gaze on the mountain of his ambition:

Something that worked for me was imagining that where I wanted to be – an author, primarily of fiction, making good books, making good comics and supporting myself through my words – was a mountain. A distant mountain. My goal.

And I knew that as long as I kept walking towards the mountain I would be all right. And when I truly was not sure what to do, I could stop, and think about whether it was taking me towards or away from the mountain. I said no to editorial jobs on magazines, proper jobs that would have paid proper money because I knew that, attractive though they were, for me they would have been walking away from the mountain. And if those job offers had come along earlier I might have taken them, because they still would have been closer to the mountain than I was at the time.

Just a year later, addressing students at The University of Western Australia, Tim Minchin said:

You don’t have to have a dream. Americans on talent shows always talk about their dreams. Fine if you have something you’ve always wanted to do, dreamed of, like in your heart, go for it. After all it’s something to do with your time, chasing a dream. And if it’s a big enough one it’ll take you most of your life to achieve so by the time you get to it and are staring into the abyss of the meaninglessness of your achievement you’ll be almost dead, so it won’t matter.

I never really had one of these dreams and so I advocate passionate dedication to the pursuit of short-term goals. Be micro-ambitious. Put your head down and work with pride on whatever is in front of you. You never know where you might end up. Just be aware the next worthy pursuit will probably appear in your periphery, which is why you should be careful of long-term dreams. If you focus too far in front of you you won’t see the shiny thing out the corner of your eye.

These two pieces of advice might seem contradictory, but they are not. They are the same advice, but for different states of mind, and I’ve done both at different stages of my life. For both, the key thing is discernment.

In my case, I did a Minchin first. I’d look at what opportunities were directly in front of me and I’d be micro-ambitious: Which idea that’s right here, right now, looks most interesting? My discernment was all about following ideas that I felt I could work on with pride.

That modus operandi slowly changed into a Gaiman. After years of micro-ambitions, my mountain came clearly into view. So now my discernment is based on picking ideas that will get me closer to that mountain.

And I want to add in a bit of advice from my husband, Kevin Anderson, who recommends always looking at the step after the step you’re about to take. What will your next job or project or idea set you up to do afterwards? Always look ahead.

So now any idea, regardless of what it is or what it’s for, has to pass muster on these three questions:

  1. Can I do it with pride?
  2. Does it take me closer to my mountain?
  3. Does it set me up to do something even better in future?

I say ‘No’ to any idea that can’t do all three of those things for me, because life is short and opportunity cost is a real thing and I need to be focused on doing the my best work.

2. Panicking about money leads to bad decisions

Last week, I was panicking about money. I don’t know why.

Actually, I do know why: We had a call with a financial planner and I felt like a complete, no-holds-barred failure because I don’t earn much and have never earnt much and don’t have a pension or much in the way of savings and am, financially, a basketcase. I am a financial failure compared to my peers and, worse, compared to where I want to be and feel I ought to be. Writing about it for The Ladybird Purse helped a bit, but I still struggle when the topic of money comes up.

Anyway, last week I nearly made a bad decision, and it’s only thanks to the four people who told me not to that I didn’t.

I was tempted to join an expensive online sales course because I’m only 50 per cent of the way to my yearly income target, and I’m scared because I can’t see where the rest of my income is going to come from. Ada Lovelace Day isn’t financially stable and I was (still am, a bit) worried that it won’t meet its revenue goals for the year.

Then I saw an ad for an online course that teaches sales tactics for B2B companies on LinkedIn, and I have to admit, the free videos and webinars and testimonials seemed quite compelling. But the cost was nigh on £3k, and that’s a lot of money for me right now.

I have an Advisory Council for Ada Lovelace Day to help make sure I don’t make stupid decisions, so I outlined what I knew of this course and asked for advice. Three of my advisors plus my husband told me not to do it. The panic made it hard to take their advice, but when four people tell me I’m wrong, I must be wrong, so I downgraded my response to ‘Think about it a bit more deeply’.

Now, having had a long weekend, I feel a bit less stressed and it’s much easier to tell myself that all important ‘No’. This course is not a good use of my money.

Indeed, this is another good rule of thumb: Always say ‘No’ when you’re feeling panicked.

What has all this got to do with writing?

A large part of writing, or not writing, is knowing that you’re working on the right story at the right time. Any doubts can lead to a loss of confidence or interest in your current project.

So if you find yourself wondering why you don’t feel motivated to write, perhaps ask yourself some questions:

  • Are you writing something you can be proud of?
  • Are you writing something that takes you closer to your mountain?
  • Are you writing something upon which you can build in the future?
  • Are you panicking about your writing?

If you can’t answer with three ‘Yes’s and a ‘No’, then perhaps it’s time to take a step back, rethink your project, and ask yourself whether this is something you should continue with.

It’s OK if the answer to that final question is ‘No’. That gives you the opportunity to find a better project to say ‘Yes’ to.


PS Not unrelated news about Grist and author webinars

Last 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 to say ‘No’ to both, and to 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.

Right, now I have 10 ‘No’s, I’m off to buy myself an ice-cream.

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