Why Aren’t I Writing?

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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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A little bit of housekeeping before we get cracking on this week’s post: I’m taking a break over Christmas, so my next newsletter will arrive in your inbox on 10 January. 

If you find yourself at a loose end over Christmas, why not take a look at some of my fiction or essays over at Word Count? You can read my short story, The Lacemaker, or my novella The Gates of Balawat, which are both available in full and for free. And my first self-published novella, Argleton, is currently about halfway through, although there are free ebook downloads for all three if you prefer!

I hope that whatever your plans are, you have a restful and enjoyable festive period! 


You have to define your own relationship with hard work and success if you want to be a happy writer.

Hard work leads to success.

I’ve seen this myth doing the rounds in recent weeks and I wanted to examine it in a bit more detail, because there isn’t a direct correlation between the two and it can be incredibly demotivating if you feel that you’re working really very hard, but not seeing the kind of success you were hoping for.

But before I get into the meat of this post, it might be helpful to spend a moment asking what we mean by ‘hard work’ and ‘success’. Perhaps ‘hard work’ is easier to define, particularly if we are thinking in ‘sweat of the brow’ terms. Hard work is spending time, energy and potentially money on doing something to the best of one’s ability and actively working to improve one skills through study, training and practice.

Defining ‘success’ is tricker because it’s much more personal. Success for writers is most often thought of in objective terms, such as the ability to earn a living, getting traditionally published, winning an award or becoming a best-seller. For many people, I suspect that success is most of those things – at the very least, we want to get published (or self-publish) and earn a nice, comfortable living from our writing. In my opinion, that level of ambition is healthy.

Other people define success more subjectively, focusing more on how they feel about their work and how other people relate to it. Maybe they are writing to make themselves happy and don’t care about money or other people’s opinions. Or maybe they are writing for a small audience that they aren’t interested in growing, or their writing is an exercise is self-reflection and self-knowledge, or even a form of therapy, and success is based on how their feelings about themselves evolve.

But in both the British and American traditions, and no doubt others with which I am less familiar, we have a very long-standing folk tale that says hard work leads to success. Put the hours in and you’ll be (objectively) successful. It sounds sensible. For some, it’s incontrovertible. But it’s a truthy lie. Life has never been this simple and there isn’t a linear relationship between ‘hard work’ and ‘success’.

We can point to many examples of people who worked hard and ended up successful, but when we do, we’re suffering from survivorship bias: we’re ignoring the vast number cases where people either work hard and fail or don’t work hard but end up successful anyway. We only focus on the positive case studies because those are the ones that confirm our expectations and make us feel better about our chances.

However, there are factors that affect success, both positive and negative, which are largely outside of our control. Some things make success easier, though before anyone gets on their high horse in the comments, I’m not saying that people who’ve enjoyed these things never work hard, just that when they do, their hard work is more likely to lead to objective success. These things can include:

  • Family capital. There’s evidence that girls born into families with one or more parent in STEM are more likely to go into STEM themselves, despite it being male-dominated. The same is true with publishing. Those born into families where one or more family members are already published authors have the advantage of seeing how the sausage is made from an early age, learning its ins and outs, and being able to lean on parental networks.
  • Wealth. Those born into, who marry into, or who work their way into wealth have the financial security and resources to invest in their writing career.
  • Fame. If you secure fame in another field, then publishers will fall over themselves to publish your work because familiar names sell well regardless of the quality of the writing.
  • Established expertise. If you’re an authority on something and want to write a book about it, that’s going to be an easier sell to both audience and publishers than if you’re coming at it cold.

Some things that make success harder:

  • Structural prejudice. Sad to say, but sexism, racism, homophobia and other prejudices still exist in the world and affect not just people’s chances of finding an agent and getting published, but their ability to actually write in the first place. Women, for example, still do the vast majority of caring work, whether for children or elders, which affects their ability to find time to write. People of colour have to work twice as hard to prove themselves due to structural racism. And so on.
  • Disability and chronic illness. People with disabilities or chronic illness don’t necessarily have the same levels of energy that people without disabilities have, and managing their conditions can involve devoting a lot of time to treatment and medical appointments that would otherwise be open for writing.
  • Socioeconomic challenges. If you’re working two or three jobs to make ends meet, how are you going to find time to write? Financial instability especially makes it hard to write, not just because of the time taken up by low-paying jobs but because precarity focuses the mind on survival, not on stories.

I’m not going for exhaustive lists here, but rather I’m trying to illustrate that there are many things that can affect how much time and effort any given person can realistically devote to the ‘hard work’ that is assumed to lead to success. People facing systemic barriers have to work much much harder to reach the same level of success.

You’ll see missing from those lists any notion of ‘talent’, because talent alone won’t make you successful and nor will a lack of talent prevent success. We all know talented writers who haven’t made it, and we’ve all read successful books the quality of which points towards a total lack of talent. Talent’s not a predictor of success, just as hard work isn’t. Sure it helps, but it’s not a guarantee.

Love the process and work towards your own goals

With objective success impossible to guarantee, perhaps we should focus on subjective success. How can we come to a point of feeling satisfied with our progress?

Love the process.

I personally believe that the only surefire route to subjective success is to love what you do. Love writing. Love rewriting. Love editing. Love sending your stuff out to agents or self-publishing or putting your book away in a drawer unread by other eyes. Whatever you choose to do with your writing is a legitimate choice, and if you are doing what you want to do, then you’re successful on your own terms.

And your own terms are what counts. We are on this Earth for a short time and we should spend as much time as possible doing things that bring us joy. If writing brings you joy, if you’d write regardless, then you’re on your way to subjective success.

Find ways to support your writing habit.

Writing hardly ever pays well, with the vast majority of writers who reply to surveys in the US and UK earning a pittance, and certainly not enough to retire on. We all hope we’ll be the exception that proves the rule, that we’ll win the writing lottery, but all we can do is hope. We cannot rely on that dream coming true. So structure your life so that you can write and write happily.

Understand your own goals. 

Knowing what you really want, and how you can work towards it, is crucial. If you accept that objective success is a lottery, then that frees you up to think about what makes you happy and you can focus on that instead. If the publishing contract or self-publishing success and some money comes along, then great, but what would make that irrelevant to your wellbeing?

Accept reality.

All this involves making peace with unpredictability and with the idea that the kind of objective success you want may not ever arrive. This is, in my opinion and experience, the hardest thing to do. It’s so very easy to visualise the kind of writing life that we want, that we are striving towards. But if we pin our hopes on that happening, then we are borrowing trouble.

This doesn’t mean we stop trying or abandon ambition, but that we situate our effort and ambition in a realistic context and don’t make our happiness or self-worth contingent on things that are outside of our control. Do not make yourself a hostage to fortune.

Forgive yourself.

All of the above is difficult, and made more so by people who have tied their self-worth to superstitious ideas about hard work and success and who want to impose that view point on others in order to support their own self-image. And it’s certainly made no easier by companies whose entire raison d’être is to sell you the creative dream of financial independence and 1,000 True Fans. Substack, Ko-fi, Patreon, Kickstarter, Indiegogo and the rest. None of these platforms can guarantee any form of success, although their marketing wants you to believe otherwise.

Give yourself some leeway, cut yourself some slack, and forgive yourself if things don’t work out the way you want them to.

It’s the journey, not the destination

I write because I have to. I’m driven to. I’m a happier person when I’m writing. I will write whether I’m objectively successful or not, because simply finishing a piece of writing brings me joy. Bonus points if someone reads it and likes it. But if I don’t get these ideas and stories out of my head, if I don’t write, I feel attenuated, like I’m only half the person I ought to be.

To be my full, real self, I have to write.

Accepting that objective success is outside of my control is extremely hard and to be honest it has taken me years, but doing so (or at least, moving towards that goal) has allowed me to think about how I fit writing into my life and what I need to do to to continue. That plan is still a work in progress, but I feel like letting go of the desperate yearning for financial success through writing alone means I’m more likely to earn a living via other kinds of work that will allow me to write more consistently.

Perhaps one day I will win the writing lottery and earn a comfortable living from it, but I’m not putting all my eggs in that basket. Instead, I’m focused on crafting a life that both earns me the money I need to live and gives me the time and headspace I need to write. It’s not easy, but I’m getting there.

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Three books to kickstart your writing

by Suw on November 29, 2023

Develop your craft faster with some good advice about structure, story and character.

Years ago – nay, indeed, lifetimes ago – I worked in an admin role at a popular music school that taught guitar, bass guitar, drums, keyboards and vocals to predominantly young men (though there were more women taking the vocals courses). I remember being challenged on this whole idea of teaching popular music, as opposed to orchestral, on the basis that anyone can buy a guitar and just learn to play along with their favourite tunes until they’ve absorbed all the basics. Lessons are, I was told, completely unnecessary and possibly even damaging to young musical talent.

That is, of course, utter hogwash. I started learning bass guitar by noodling around on my own and listening to songs, but I rapidly realised that lessons would help. This wasn’t because I’d developed some great philosophical position on the concept of having a teacher, but because life is too fucking short to piss about trying to reinvent the Mixolydian mode when someone else has not only done it, but can teach it to you in a matter of minutes. Why spend months, years or decades figuring it all from first principles when you can learn it off someone else in a fraction of the time? It’s not like there’s some sort of extra authenticity to working out basic music theory for yourself.

I recently saw a Note asking how best to get started with writing, and I saw the same sort of attitudes creeping into the replies. And, indeed, this post began as a response to that Note, because “Just write” is bad advice, and it’s advice that can do actual harm, as I wrote back in January.

But the impact of ‘Just write!’ on the nascent author’s confidence can be devastating. There’s nothing worse than feeling that you ought to be doing something, something that you want to do, and then someone tells you that your failure is all your fault and only your fault. It’s a double helping of shame and humiliation – emotions that you probably already feel in spades without additional help.

Yes, you can dive in at the deep end and learn plot and character as you go along, but that is very much the hard way of doing things when there are so many amazing books on writing that can help writers at all levels develop their instincts. Early career writers especially need the help – whilst you do have your own instincts, the more work you do to hone and refine them, the better they will serve you going forward. There is no need to work everything out from scratch and it won’t actually make you a better writer, it will just slow you down.

When I’m reading a book about writing, what I’m looking for are ideas that help my subconscious chew over whatever writing issues I’m having at the time (and writing is 100%  having issues!). I don’t follow any advice slavishly, instead I take what I need and leave the rest. And that is the best way to approach any book about writing – read it, internalise the useful bits, let the rest go.

These three books are ones that I have either gone back to time and again, or that I have found really change the way that I think. You might find them useful too.

Actions and Goals by Marshall Dotson

I have no idea who Marshall Dotson is as he doesn’t seem to exist outside of his website, but The Story Structure Secret: Actions and Goals is one of the single most useful writing books I have ever read. Dotson looks at story structure through the eyes of characters – they all have goals and they take actions to meet those goals in the face of opposing forces. Those goals change from act to act, so does the nature of the opposing force.

Dotson discusses his six act structure in relation mostly to movies, but his theories work for novels too. And short stories, if you consider a short story to have very, very short acts, or just one act. But what I like the most about Dotson’s theory is that it’s so easily applicable, whether you’re plotting a new story, stuck in the mid-story marathon, or trying to fix a story that went wrong somewhere along the line. At every point in the writing process, you can ask yourself questions such as “What is my character’s goal?”,  “What actions is she taking to reach her goal?”, “What are the opposing forces preventing her from reaching her goals?” and you can start to see how your story should fit together.

The Science of Storytelling by Will Storr

The Science of Storytelling blew my mind. Seriously. There’s so many insights into how storytelling works at a psychological level and why we humans need stories in our lives, it made me think about story in a whole different way. I personally don’t get on with Storr’s five act structure (like I said, take what works for you, leave the rest), but there’s so much else in there that it’s well worth the price of admission. For example, Storr’s idea that every character has a “Theory of control”, a flawed model of how the world works that they try to apply to everything that that then results in them getting stuff wrong has been really useful for character development work. And if you can do one of his webinars, then you’re in for a treat because they are fascinating.

Create a Character by Holly Lisle

The Create a Character Clinic is actually a book with worksheets that will help you to work out who your characters really are. There are a million and one ways to create characters and maybe for some people their characters just spring fully formed from their imaginations, but the rest of us have to work at it. And when you’re at the beginning of your writing journey, you need all the help you can get. I like Lisle’s process for developing character because it’s compact and succinct and helps me to uncover the core fundamentals of my character’s personalities. It’s an easily repeatable process that I can dip into as and when I need.

So the next time someone tells you that all you need to do is sit and write, remind yourself that plenty of musicians have taken lessons, from Taylor Swift to Simon Le Bon, from Paul McCartney to Miles Davis. Plenty of authors have too, they just perhaps talk about it less often.

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