Word Count

Hi there,

The theme for this week’s newsletter was inspired by a mashup of the title of Robert Shearman’s We All Hear Stories in the Dark, an amazing three volume set of 101 short stories that you navigate by answering a question at the end of each story, and something that Tom Hiddleston’s character, Will Ransome, says in The Essex Serpent: “Sometimes, the middle of the night lies to us.”

As I said in Issue 1, hitting 50 last year unleashed a wave of regret that I’d not worked harder at my writing. All that time I’d wasted fretting about writing instead of actually writing. The six years I’d wasted working on a novel about a sodding pandemic, something no agent or publisher wants to see right now. (Despite the TV adaptation of Station Eleven doing well. I also read that there’s another pandemic-related TV show coming up, but I ragequit the article before I got as far as the name.)

I was feeling frustrated with myself, but also a bit scared that I didn’t have any more ideas in me, let alone an idea that could be considered good. I thought that my writing hadn’t gone anywhere because I was neither imaginative and nor good.

But, sometimes, the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are lies.

Fast forward to January 2022, when I first got an inkling that a transatlantic move might be on the cards. Knowing that the contents of an American house won’t fit into a British flat, I started sorting out the boxes of stuff that were lurking in the basement. The great joy of American houses is that they are huge and, in the midwest at least, basements are common. The great horror of American houses is the amount of shit you can hide away in them.

As I was sorting, I came across a stash of old notebooks which I decided to scan them before throwing out. I was surprised by just how many of them contained the beginnings of a new story that I’d forgotten ever writing. A couple were ideas books, each page containing two paragraphs of set-up for a world I could explore (though a disturbing number of them ended with the words “…or something like that”).

I also found print-outs from stuff I’d written in my 20s. Lots of them. Stuff I’d totally forgotten about. And then there was the stuff on my hard drive from my 30s and 40s that never made it onto paper. Lots of that, too.

I even discovered a finished short story that I wrote in 2015, and then did nothing with. I read it last week. It’s not bad. Needs a little work, but not a huge amount.

So it turns out that the story I’d been telling myself, that I’ve spent too much time not writing, really isn’t true. It wasn’t just the middle of the night that was lying to me, it was pretty much all day, every day. I have been writing. I have been having ideas. Some of them still have legs. Some of them you might even get the chance to read at some point.

If there’s a lesson in this, it’s that I need to stop listening to my insecurities and start looking at the hard(copy) evidence in front of my eyes.

Watch this: The Invention of Career

Back in 2015, I was asked to talk about my career for the annual Campbell Lecture at the University of Southampton. My career is, it has to be said, a bit of a mess. I didn’t really feel like it should stand as any kind of blueprint for any young woman in STEM, although it could do well as a dire warning.

Instead, I decided to talk about that mess, about the stories we hear about other people’s careers, the stories we tell about our own, the stories we tell ourselves and how that all affects how we think of what is possible. I’ve given that talk a few times now, updating it each time, but only have a recording of that first presentation seven years ago which you can watch on YouTube.

It’s ironic that, as writers, we don’t scrutinise the stories we’re telling our collective selves or how we’re telling them. We’ll hear career glosses that will almost certainly involve some sanitised tales of failure, but we rarely dig beneath the surface. We’ll end up comparing our (OK, my) disaster-strewn lives with the highly polished profile of a famous author and feel that our failure is a sign of an inherent lack of capability, rather than consider that their overnight success might have taken 20 years, that their failures and disappointments stung just as much as ours do.

(Here I must note that there’s some evidence of a gender difference in how we perceive failure: Girls see it as a damning indictment of their capabilities whilst boys have a healthier attitude and see it as a temporary setback. I’ve no doubt we carry these attitudes into adulthood. Cf above.)

And, as someone who knows that it’s possible to develop deceptive narratives about our own lives, it’s annoying that I still find myself doing it. For the record, this is not the first time that going through old notebooks has exploded a negative narrative I’d created for myself, though that one’s a story for another time.

Stop, look and listen: Write-Off with Francesca Steele – Episode 2, Andy Weir

This episode from 2021 really chimed with me, not least because it includes a frank discussion of failure and the (wrong) assumptions self-doubt encourages us to make. Andy Weir, bestselling author of The Martian, talks about the two not-so-good novels he wrote before he self-published The Martian, and how even after it became an e-book bestseller, he “didn’t think to find an agent because earlier attempts had left him feeling like he wasn’t good enough”.

The stories we tell ourselves are often lies.

Obligatory cat picture

This week’s picture of the late Sir Izacat Mewton, Professor of Mewtonian Physics at the Small Feline Collider, and Grabbity’s brother. He sadly departed this mortal coil a couple of years ago, but lives on forever in our iPhones. What a handsome fellow he was!

That’s it for this week!

I do hope that you’re finding these newsletters interesting, and if you are, please forward any of them on to friends or colleagues who might also enjoy them. We’re heading towards 100 subscribers, and I would love to hit that number over the next fortnight!

All the best,

Suw

Sign up to the Word Count newsletter to get emails
just like this one delivered direct to your inbox!

 

.

{ Comments on this entry are closed }

Hi there,

Welcome to Word Count! Last week you voted overwhelmingly in favour of the name change, so from now on you’ll be seeing Word Count in your inbox, rather than Suw’s Writing Newsletter.

Suw’s news: OMG! They picked my script!

You might remember that a few weeks ago I submitted the first three pages of my TV script to the Scriptnotes podcast’s Three Page Challenge for screenwriters John August and Craig Mazin to critique. Welp, they picked my script, along with a couple of others.

Before I listened, I had a think about what they might say. My guesses were that there’s too much description in the first scene, that it’s too slow to get to the point, and that maybe there’s a bit of genre confusion going on as it starts off in a war zone but doesn’t stay there very long.

You can listen to the whole thing on the Scriptnotes episode page – my bit runs from 35:15 to 49:41 – and read those first three pages.

I do have to say that Craig and John’s critique was extremely useful. The script has been read by many people and has had several rounds of revisions, but there’s always room for improvement. Craig and John’s critique picked up on a lot of things that no one else had mentioned, so gives me the chance to think it all through from a very different perspective.

The first thing to say is that they spotted some mistakes that I should have seen before I sent it in. To my great chagrin, they spotted two typos. I could honestly die of embarrassment because I know they’re hot on typos and these days there’s no excuse. But two slipped through anyway. I should have copied and pasted the whole thing into Word or Google Docs and just looked at it in a different context and with a different font and spellchecker.

I’ll also admit that I did not Americanise the script at all because of the whole intercontinental house move thing, so a few of the issues they spotted are down to British vs American English. I don’t even know what ‘pedestrian precinct’ is in American, but the greater point is that it’s irrelevant to the story so I should have just deleted it.

Now, were my predictions right? Not in the slightest! There are three sections to the sample: The first set in the trenches of World War 1; in the second a character wakes up; the third is a character reveal.

Rather than the first section being too dense, they felt that it was missing some critical information. That’s actually an easy fix, as it ditching some of the more WWI-specific jargon. They also pointed out that there’s some stuff that just happens, and as a reader we need to know why. Again, an easy fix.

My second guess was that they’d think it was too slow, but again, I was completely wrong. They liked how much happened in the first three pages, though I could do a lot better on how I introduce my characters.

They also pointed out something that I should have seen, and that I think I’ve known all along, which is that the second section is unnecessary fluff and I should just ditch it. It doesn’t achieve anything for any characters, nor does move the plot forward. Looking at it now, I don’t know why I kept it when I had my doubts about it all along. I need to listen more to my gut.

The third section is tolerable, but needs a bit more thought and detail. The reveal is not the most original, so maybe that needs just simplifying and, again, I should focus more on character.

And as for the genre confusion? They didn’t mention that the way I thought they might, but it did pop up in the logline discussion. I’ll let you listen to the episode to hear the full glory of John and Craig’s surprise when they read the logline.

Finally, the takeaway for me is that, yes, this needs work, but it has some promise. And although they could never have known it, that’s exactly what I needed to hear after the BBC and Wildseed rejections.

So, I have my marching orders: Fix this script, write my show bible, fix the hot mess that is episode 3, and then polish the other episodes whilst generalising this feedback to the rest of the series.

Huge thanks to John and Craig for reading and critiquing my work!

And if you are a screenwriter, you should absolutely subscribe to Scriptnotes and submit to the Three Page Challenge!

Tip-top tip: James Oswald on finishing first drafts

This week marks the beginning of an occasional series of guest contributors who’ll be sharing their writing craft tips with us. Kicking everything off is James Oswald, author of the Detective Inspector McLean crime series, epic fantasy series The Ballad of Sir Benfro and and the Constance Fairchild undercover cop series. In his spare time, James raises pedigree Highland Cattle and New Zealand Romney Sheep on his farm in North East Fife.

The thing I always tell new writers is ‘your first draft doesn’t have to be good, it just has to be done.’

What does that really mean, though? I’m not much of a plotter. I like to have an opening scene, my characters and then I work out what’s happening while I write. For me, it’s important to get to the end of the first draft, as that’s me telling myself the story. There’s little point in trying to edit until I’ve got that nailed down, or at least loosely tacked. My first drafts can be hopelessly rough, full of contradictions and changes of direction. I’ve changed names and even genders of characters halfway through, but I never go back and correct the earlier work until I’ve reached the end.

There’s a well known military saying that no plan ever survives first contact with the enemy. The same can be said of writing your first draft, even if you plot meticulously. Writing is yet another stage of planning, and you will be ambushed as you go along by great ideas of how things can be done differently. Characters you thought would be pivotal instead wander off, or die. Other characters hog the limelight, demand all the attention, and drive the story far better than you intended. This is the magic of writing, and why I love doing it.

It is, however, a messy process. No matter how well you’ve planned, or if you’ve not planned at all, your first draft will not be the book your readers see. It’s allowed to be dirty, incomplete, rubbish. If you think it’s perfect and ready to go, then you’re not yet ready to be a published author. But until you’ve finished it, any attempt to make it better is doomed to failure.

So write that first draft – vomit draft is what I call it – start to finish. Guddle around in what you’ve done and find the best bits. Only then can the real work of polishing and honing begin.

Writing women: What’s a strong female character?

We hear the phrase “strong female character” a lot these days, but what do we really mean by “strong”. It doesn’t mean that the character herself is strong – she does not have to be physically, mentally or emotionally strong in herself to be a “strong character”.

We’re talking about “strong” in terms of her characterisation, meaning that she is nuanced and three dimensional with strengths and weaknesses. She needs to have agency and make her own decisions, even if they’re really bad ones or her choices are limited by her situation. She needs to be interesting, to capture our attention, to make us want to cheer her on or hope she gets her comeuppance if she’s a villain.

StudioBinder’s Chris Heckmann has an in-depth article looking at 10 strong female characters and what makes them so compelling. Although he focuses on movies, everything Heckmann says, especially his five aspects of characterisation, is relevant to novels as well.

Getting to know you: Getting to know all about you

I know that some of you used to subscribe to my old newsletter, whilst others of you only recently found this newsletter via Twitter. I’m curious to know if you’ve read any of my short stories or novellas, so here’s a quick survey. Click on ‘Begin’ to open this email in your browser, and then check the box for each story that you’ve read, or choose the last option if you’ve not read any. (You don’t need to click the button again when you’ve finished – your answers will register automatically. I hope.)

  1. Argleton
  2. Queen of the May
  3. The Lacemaker
  4. I haven’t read any

Obligatory cat photo

Copurrnicus in the snow

This week’s photo is one from the not too ancient archives. Although Shaker Heights, OH, is far further south than the UK, its continental climate means it snows much more often.

Copurrnicus always wants to go outside, but that was verboten thanks to the coyotes, racoons, skunks and other dangers that lurked in our neighbourhood. Still, snow provided an irresistible opportunity to see just how much he really, really wanted to explore.

Bizarrely, Copurrnicus’s response became door dependent. The back door was treated with extreme suspicion, but the front door became his favourite dash zone, regardless of the weather. Despite my assumption that he wouldn’t like the -15C cold, he got very comfortable going outside. So here he is after one particularly generous snow storm.

That’s it for this week! It’s been a bit of a bumper issue, so congratulations if you got this far. I hope you enjoyed it – please tell your friends if you did.

All the best,

Suw

Sign up to the Word Count newsletter to get emails
just like this one delivered direct to your inbox!

 

.

{ Comments on this entry are closed }

Hi there,

Welcome to the meta issue of my newsletter. I’m not talking about Facebook’s recent (terrible) rebranding, but a newsletter about newsletters, which is what this is.

I am really enjoying writing these newsletters. It reminds me of the olden days of blogging – it feels warm and personal and pleasantly anachronistic. Like blogging, you can of course ‘comment’ by hitting that big ol’ reply button. And please do. I’d be particularly interested to know which bits of my newsletter you’ve most enjoyed and whether weekly is a good rhythm for you.

What I’m watching: The Empowered Author’s Everything You Need To Know About Author Newsletters webinar

A couple of months ago, I watched Sam Missingham and Katie Sadler’s fabulous webinar on author newsletters (£) and immediately wanted to restart my own. I had to wait a bit to get going because of the whole moving countries thing I was in the middle of, but it was a proper moment of inspiration.

The hour-long webinar goes over all the basics, such as why it’s a good idea to build your own mailing list (rather than rely solely on social media), landing pages, newsletter platforms, automations and more. But what really stood out was their discussion about content. This was something I had really struggled with in my original newsletter, and it’s why it petered out after just 20 emails.

I particularly like the advice to create a content framework. I have a list of nine headings, and every time I stumble on a bit of content I think, “Where could that fit?” Soon enough I have a whole newsletter mapped out. And, having primed myself with these headings, I’m seeing and thinking of more and more things that I really want to tell you about, so writing the newsletter each week is a dream.

If you’re a bit strapped for cash and don’t want to become a full Empowered Author member, then they’ve also got a couple of blog posts on building your author email list and examples of great author newsletters to get you started. If you are on Facebook, you should definitely join their group – it’s not just a friendly place to talk about book marketing, you will also get the benefit of Sam and Katie’s many years of experience in the publishing industry.

Stop, look, and listen: London Writer’s Salon #009 – Polina Marinova Pompliano

The London Writer’s Salon podcast recently released an interview with Polina Marinova Pompliano, who quit her job as an editor at Fortune Magazine and now earns her living writing a weekly newsletter, The Profile. She talks about why she started The Profile, how she deals with criticism and feedback, the challenges she’s encountered and how she’s turned her newsletter into a business that brings in more than she earnt as an editor. It’s a fascinating listen!

Read This: Newsletter Ninja, How to Become an Author Mailing List Expert by Tammi L Labrecque

I’m just inhaling everything I can about newsletters at the moment. How to Become an Author Mailing List Expert by Tammi L Labrecque was recommended to me in the Empowered Author Facebook group – thank you Em Koch! – and whilst it’s a slimline ebook, it has helped me think more deeply about newsletters.

One of the things that I hadn’t really thought about, certainly as a newsletter recipient, is the importance of readers’ interactions with each email. Obviously, the simple act of opening the email is essential, although Apple’s recent Mail Privacy Protection features has effectively killed the open rate metric. TL;DR, when enabled, MPP pre-fetches emails before the user opens them, including the image pixels used to measure open rates, artificially inflating those open rates.

What I hadn’t realised was the importance of link clicks and replies. Both clicks and replies say to email services like Gmail, “This email is high quality!” and that improves deliverability, ie, the email actually getting put into your inbox and not your spam folder (or your promotions tab if you use Gmail).

It had honestly never occurred to me, as a newsletter reader, that clicking a link could be so beneficial, so I’m going to be clicking a lot more from now on!

Finally, Tammi recommends that newsletter owners ask their subscribers to whitelist their email address, which will help ensure this ends up in your inbox. Campaign Monitor have a comprehensive guide to whitelisting, so please do take a look and whitelist anyone whose newsletter you enjoy!

Suw’s News: Newsletter name change

Not much writing news this week, due to various other things taking my attention (see below), but I have been thinking about the name of this newsletter. I have to admit, ‘Suw’s Writing Newsletter’ is not the snappiest title I’ve ever come up with, so I’m considering changing it to ‘Word Count’. What do you think? Click the thumbs up if you like it! (Clicking will open a new window.)

Obligatory cat photo

Grabbity showing her belly

Last Wednesday, Grabbity (right) and Copurrnicus drove for six hours to Dulles Airport in Washington, DC.

Well, technically my husband Kevin drove, but there was so much commentary from Copurrnicus that I feel he was, in spirit, actually the one behind the wheel.

They flew to London Wednesday night, landing first thing Thursday morning, and I picked them up from the Heathrow Animal Reception Centre that afternoon. They’ve settled in incredibly quickly. It never ceases to amaze me how adaptable cats are, and how fast they figure out where the treats are.

Furthermore, I think I can very scientifically now confirm that cats do not suffer from jetlag. The first morning they were up with the larks at 5:30am, a time when, had they still been on US Eastern time, they would have been fast asleep.

It is a delight to have the family reunited. It’s been a long, long five weeks.

All the best,

Suw

Sign up to the Word Count newsletter to get emails
just like this one delivered direct to your inbox!

 

.

{ Comments on this entry are closed }

Hi there,

I honestly didn’t mean to write another themed newsletter, but the universe threw a bunch of stuff at me about perseverance this week, so who am I to argue? In a similar vein, I didn’t mean to make this newsletter weekly, but I had stuff to say, so here we are!

Suw’s news: Getting back on that damn horse

I talked last week about my fantasy TV script which got rejected by the BBC Studios Screenwriter’s Academy. It also got rejected by Wildseed Studios last year and soon it’ll have the opportunity to get rejected by Coverfly’s Writers Lab UK & Ireland and Scriptnotes’ Three Page Challenge!

It’s always hard to know how many rejections are enough to nail down the lid on the coffin of a project. For novels, one can easily rack up fifty rejections, but the fifty first agent will love it. With scripts, I really don’t know at what point you set it aside, because there just aren’t fifty places to send it. And, of course, there’s opportunity cost. Whilst I’m working on this project, I’m not working on another one that might have better luck. That said, I do know that two submissions isn’t enough, so here we go with two more.

Scriptnotes is an awesome podcast that I’ve been listening to intensively for the last couple of months. They occasionally do a Three Page Challenge, where they ask listeners to send in the first three pages (natch) of a screenplay or teleplay and pick a few to critique on their podcast.

Strangely, submitting my script to this is more terrifying than submitting it to the BBC, because there’s a very small chance that they might actually talk about it on their podcast and the idea of that makes me want to hide in the cupboard under the stairs. The best case scenario is that I get some good, actionable feedback, but the most likely scenario is that I’m not even featured. There’s nothing to lose, so off it goes.

Coverfly’s Writers Lab UK & Ireland is a slightly different kettle of fish. It’s a “six-month script development programme for features/pilots by women screenwriters 40+ in the UK & Ireland”, so there’s a bit more at stake. There are twelve places available, the course is virtual, and there’s a small stipend for participants.

I didn’t have the time or wherewithal to do a major overall of the script, so I have just submitted what I’ve got and will hope for the best. Coverfly charge $35 for the honour, which is about £28. I feel a bit icky about paying to enter a competition, not least because it feels like money straight down the shitter. Still, what’s the worst that can happen?

Deadline is 30 May, so if you’re interested, get cracking.

Read this: George Miller on perseverance

Joe Utichi’s interview with filmmaker George Miller is a fascinating read. Miller’s new film, Three Thousand Years of Longing, is the story of “a scholar on a trip to a speaking engagement in Istanbul inadvertently summons a Djinn who details his long journey through fantasy and history as he endeavors to tempt this scholar — who claims she wants for nothing — to make her three wishes.”

It sounds awesome. But it could have easily been called Over Twenty Years Of Trying To Get This Made.

Much of the interview is about how it can take time for projects to come together, and how ideas can linger for years, decades even, before the circumstances are right. Three Thousand Years is based on an AS Byatt short story from 1994, but it’s a project Miller had to work on between other projects.

“That [short story] was the starting-off point, and then during the making of the other films, it was always around, and we kept working on it. Kept coming back to it,” he says.

So is a project really ever dead? Or is it just biding its time? We’re encouraged to conceptualise writing – both novels and for screen – as a continuous process from writing to publication/production and thence to release. But frequently that’s just not how it works. Maybe we should stop trying to shoehorn our creative lives into that unrealistic template. And by “we”, I obviously mean me.

Stop, look, and listen: Scriptnotes Episode 548

John August and Aline Brosh McKenna talk to writing team Dan Gregor and Doug Mand about making movies for streaming services, and how the rise of streamers has changed what kind of stories get turned into movies. Ostensibly. Actually they, too, are talking about perseverance, about how sometimes the time just isn’t right for a particular story to be told and you have to wait until the mood changes. Aline in particular talks about how she drags stories around like a “dead horse” until she gets the opportunity to make them.

The fashion for stories waxes and wanes. Sometimes it’s musicals on the rise, sometimes musicals are the last thing anyone wants. Sometimes it’s disaster movies, sometimes people don’t want to hear about another bloody global pandemic. (Not now, monkeypox.) The trick is to submit the right story at the right time and sometimes, perhaps, to just be patient.

Writing women (and girls): Give girls STEM hobbies

We know that children’s understanding of gender stereotypes starts young and that by age 4, they are already internalising the idea that some things are “for boys” and others are “for girls”. But we don’t just need to teach children that such stereotypes are wrong, we also need to teach their parents that girls can be and are interested in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).

A quick and easy way to help is to give your young female characters an interest in something STEM-y. Maybe she likes collecting fossils, building things out of Meccano, playing with her chemistry set, or making a robot.

It feels like a trivial detail to include: “Molly came downstairs to see her daughter’s Meccano set spread out over the lounge carpet, her daughter engrossed in building a tall, slender tower.” But these aren’t little throwaway lines. Every time someone comes across a statement like this, especially in fiction that isn’t otherwise about STEM, it reinforces the idea that girls can indeed enjoy such things. And if parents come to believe that it’s normal for their daughters to enjoy STEM, they’ll be less likely to steer their daughters away from it, whether consciously or subconsciously.

Obligatory cat photo

Grabbity showing her bellyWho am I kidding? This is the best bit of the newsletter!

Welcome to guest cat, Cassie, who’s looking a bit cross because I stopped petting her in order to take a photo and that is, of course, not allowed.

Cassie is 16 years old, lives with my Mum, and has lost all her fangs bar one. She is an extremely talkative cat and I have frequently had a chat with her down the phone over the last eight years, so it has been really nice to see her in person.

That’s it for this week! But to wrap up, here’s an inspiring tweet from Nathalie Antonia that just re-emphasises my point above:

To my writer friends. Just keep going. I was rejected over 48 times before I got my 49th rejection.

Somewhere, there’s a 50th rejection out there, just waiting for you. Go get it, tiger!

All the best,

Suw

PS Thankfully, monkeypox is extremely unlikely to become a pandemic.

Sign up to the Word Count newsletter to get emails
just like this one delivered direct to your inbox!

 

.

{ Comments on this entry are closed }

Sign up to the Word Count newsletter to get emails
just like this one delivered direct to your inbox!

 

.

{ Comments on this entry are closed }