Resisting the lure of research

by Suw on May 1, 2024

And learning how to transition from research to pre-writing to writing.

Yesterday, I published an update on my new sitcom, Fieldwork, where I compared the writing process for my unnamed and now trunked pandemic disaster novel (which I’ll just call Pandemic for now) and the process I’m going through with Fieldwork. Both stories are based on real science, but for Pandemic I just didn’t know how to stop doing the reading and start doing the writing so I got stuck doing research for far longer than I should have. As I said in that post:

I spent two years reading everything I could about the Spanish Flu, bird flu, vaccine development and manufacturing, PPE and all that. And I was just coming up to the finishing line when Covid hit, making pretty much everything I’d written obsolete. Had I started writing in 2015 instead, and researched what I needed as I went a long, I’d have likely finished it long before the pandemic made it impossible to publish.

My problem back then was that disaster lit was a new genre for me, and I was unsure whether it was really ‘for me’. It was easier to keep researching than to start the challenging task of writing and finding out the hard way whether I was any good at that kind of fiction. Worse, at that point I didn’t have a framework for doing ‘pre-writing’ — the world building, plot and character development work that needs to be in place before you start actually writing.

What’s interesting looking back is that I didn’t know I was blocked when I was blocked. I just thought I was being thorough and learning everything I could in order to give me good, solid foundations. But I didn’t use most of that research. Nothing about the use of eggs during vaccine manufacturing or the predicted shortage of eggs during mass vaccine production made it into the novel because my timeline didn’t include vaccine development. None of the reading I did on zoonosis, bird flu in poorly managed commercial flocks in China, the 2005 H5N1 outbreak at China’s Lake Qinghai, or how flu mutates was worth the paper it was printed out on when it came to writing.

They only reason that my extensive reading around the 1918 Spanish Flu outbreak was useful was that I discovered that my husband’s grandfather, James Kirkpatrick, had been a driver for the doctors at Camp Grant when the Spanish Flu arrived. The outbreak was so bad that the camp commander, Colonel Charles Hagadorn, shot himself. That gave us some insight into what James must have been through, but it was of no use for the novel.

All that work felt essential at the time, but it was just me putting off the act of starting to write. In large part, that was because I didn’t have any sort of pre-writing framework. I was seeking an inspirational jumping-off point that would push me straight into the beginning of my first draft but, not finding it, I just carried on reading.

Fieldwork has been very different. The research window was limited to four months and I transitioned fairly seamlessly, if you ignore the break to do Ada Lovelace Day, into pre-writing. Soon, I’ll start properly writing. It will be about a year from starting work to handing in a draft, the fastest I’ve done anything, except a novella.

I have now developed a practical, useful framework for these three phases of writing:

Stage 1: Research

Not every book needs research, but if you are writing something that’s based on reality then you probably do need to do a bit of reading. Crime writers need to understand forensics, for example, and historical fiction writers need to know about their chosen period. But before you start, determine the minimum viable amount of research required before you can start pre-writing. Then halve it.

With Pandemic, my research period was long and open-ended. I didn’t really know what I was looking for, so I kept going in the hope that I’d recognise the important information when I saw it. I did not. Instead, all that reading just piled up and up and up, clogging my brain with useless cruft.

With Fieldwork, I knew that I was looking for just two things: Funny anecdotes about fieldwork fails, and two or three research projects to give to my characters. I’d initially hoped to do a couple of dozen interviews, but in the end I did ten and that was plenty.

So plan your research before you start and put a hard deadline on it. You really don’t need to know everything up front and if you need to fill in the holes during pre-writing or writing, you can do that.

Stage 2: Pre-writing

Pre-writing is all that thinking you do before you start writing your story: World building, character development, relationship explorations, plotting, test dialogue, etc.

Some writers like to skip all this stuff and dive in at the deep end, but I think even the most avid of pantsters could benefit from a bit of pre-writing, which absolutely does not have to include outlining. And hardcore planners could probably do well to add more variety to their pre-writing in order to keep it fresh and interesting.

Your pre-writing should draw from your research (otherwise, why did you do it?) and prepare you for writing. For me, the key parts of pre-writing are:

  • Character development: Who are these people? What kind of personalities do they have? How do they react in different situations?
  • Relationship development: How do these characters respond to one another? Do they like each other? Hate each other? How do they react to each other when they are put under stress? How might their relationship change over the course of the story?
  • Context: Where do these people find themselves, geographically speaking, when the story starts? Where are they when it ends? What is their situation, and how does it affect them? How does it change?
  • Test dialogue: How do these people speak? How do they talk to one another when they first meet? How do they sound different on the page when they are speaking?
  • World building: What are the rules of the world? Does it have different physics? Magic? Social rules? Legal rules? Plants, animals, ecosystems? Do not get sucked into this bit just because it’s fun. Keep it to the barest of minimums.
  • Plotting: Just the major plot points in the right order. Not too detailed because that way madness lies.  And boredom.

Everyone’s pre-writing needs are different and, as with research, you don’t want to overdo it. You need to get to a point where you feel that writing is possible, but not wait so long that you lose enthusiasm or allow starting writing to feel intimidating.

Stage 3: Writing

There have been more pixels spilt on the art of writing than I care to imagine and I have nothing new to say about it. You’ve all got the books.

But writing isn’t just writing. There will be times when you have to hop back and do a bit of research. Remember those holes I said you could fill? You’ll get to a point where you need a bit of info, and I recommend Cory Doctorow’s tactic of putting ‘TK’ where that bit of info should go and carrying on writing. You then have a research session later where look up all those facts and fill in those gaps, having preserved your earlier writing momentum.

(I actually use TKTK, which doesn’t naturally occur in the English language, because TK does exist in a few words like catkin and wicketkeeper.)

Equally, you might have to go back and do a bit more pre-writing. I’ll be doing this with Tag when I pick that back up, because I didn’t do it properly first time round and I have realised that some of my characterisation is a bit muddy. I’ll also do it with Pandemic if I ever go back to that, because I didn’t do any pre-writing for that novel at all, I just leapt straight into the writing and it shows.


So much of writing is actually figuring out what works for you. If ever there was a mantra for writing advice, it’s “Take what you need and leave the rest”. So if any of the above helps, let me know. And if you have any additional advice for other readers, please leave a comment.

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Plus Joel Morris’s new book about comedy, Be Funny Or Die.

Dave Cohen’s Build a Sitcom correspondence course started a couple of weeks ago and I am so glad that I signed up for it.

One of the problems with writing anything based on real life is managing the transitions from research to pre-writing to writing. Back in 2015, I had a ‘high concept’ (ie very simple) idea for a book about a global pandemic, exacerbated by government corruption and ineptitude, that would result in an unimaginable death toll. It would be narrated by a young journalist, disgraced and ejected from the London media world after breaking a controversial political story, who finds herself back in South Wales and desperately trying to resuscitate her career. An eco-friendly housing development would hold the key to her long-term survival.

Unfortunately for me, I spent two years reading everything I could about the Spanish Flu, bird flu, vaccine development and manufacturing, PPE and all that. I didn’t start writing until 2017, so I was just coming up to the finishing line when Covid hit, making pretty much everything I’d written obsolete. Had I started writing in 2015 instead and researched what I needed as I went a long, I’d have likely finished it long before the pandemic made it the world’s least publishable manuscript.

My problem back then was that disaster lit was a new genre for me and I was unsure if I had the chops. It was easier to keep researching than to start the challenging task of writing and finding out the hard way whether I was any good at that kind of fiction. Worse, I didn’t have a framework for doing ‘pre-writing’ — the world building, plot and character development work that needs to be in place before you start actually writing the story.

I finished the novel in April 2021, but after a brief and halfhearted attempt at sending it round the agents, some of whom gave me the fastest rejections ever seen in the literary world, I put it to one side and moved on.

I did, however, learn my lesson, which is not to spend too much time doing research. Rather than wasting two years trying to learn everything I could about why pandemics happen, where these diseases come from and how we (used to) prepare for them, I should have just done a bare minimum of research to get my imagination going and then filled in the details as I went along.

In comparison, Fieldwork shot off the starting blocks like Usain Bolt, once we got ethics clearance. I started organising the background research last May and had finished it by the end of August, when I switched focus to get Ada Lovelace Day sorted.

And since picking Fieldwork back up in January, I’ve been focused on learning about comedy and pre-writing: going back over the interview transcripts to pick out the interesting bits of science, reading books, writing random chunks of dialogue, and working on characters and relationships.

I’m now two weeks into Dave’s course and rapidly heading through the preparatory work towards the actual writing bit. Week 1 focused on explaining the basic idea, Week 2 on fleshing that out a bit and answering questions about the ‘sit’ (situation), the relationship between the two main characters, and some plot ideas. Next week is a deeper dive into character, then story, then we get into the actual script writing.

I can’t recommend Dave’s course highly enough. It’s really great fun to be getting into the nitty gritty of the sitcom, and Dave’s feedback is perceptive and invaluable. Plus, it’s given me both a great framework within which to work and a deadline, both of which hugely improve the likelihood that I’ll have a first draft done by mid-June.

Book review: Be Funny Or Die

I was so excited to get a copy of Joel Morris’s guide to comedy, Be Funny Or Die: How Comedy Works and Why It Matters in March. I’ve read a lot of books about comedy recently and Joel’s book is not just brilliant, it’s unlike anything else out there.

Where your bog standard book about comedy provides advice on how to write a joke or the structure of a sitcom, Joel tackles the very nature and purpose of laughter and comedic behaviour. Drawing from the work of experts like Prof Sophie Scott (who gave a hilarious talk about laughter at one of the earliest Ada Lovelace Day Live events, back in 2013) and Prof G Neil Martin amongst many, many others, Joel looks at the social purpose of laughter, how it bonds or divides us, and how it make us feel safe even when, perhaps, we aren’t.

My key takeaway from the book was that you can’t write comedy if you don’t know what a joke is for, and you can’t write good comedy if you don’t understand how jokes can go bad, when they’re used to inflame and divide rather than sooth and unite.

This philosophical approach allows the reader to think about comedy at a subatomic level, placing it into the context of human social interactions and connections. Understanding how we use laughter as social glue to indicate that we’re not a threat, or that we aren’t in a threatening situation, (or that we recognise a threat but are frantically pretending everything is just fine, thank you kindly, hahaha), allows us to better manipulate our comedy narratives and stick them together in exactly the right places.

But Joel doesn’t stop with the subatomic fundamentals, he also zooms out to the atomic, to a new Rule of Three.

You might have heard of the Rule of Three already, the idea that we inherently like groups of three things, because that’s “the smallest number that humans perceive as a set”. That might be three examples, three repetitions, or the comedic triad of Set-up, Anticipation and Punchline. That latter rule is often invoked to explain what makes a joke funny, but Joel provides lots of examples that break that rule by using only two of those three — in these cases, set-up and punchline — including:

Clowns’ divorce: custardy battle.  — Simon Munnery

I’m not addicted to cocaine. I just like the way it smells. — Richard Pryor

Instead, he suggests, we should look at comedy the same way we look at music, as a matter of “pattern and rhythm”. We all know that comedy is rhythm, or timing, but it isn’t just timing. We are pattern-seeking creatures, constantly looking for patterns to match and constantly surprised when the pattern we think we’ve found turns out to be something else.

These are the atoms of comedy, the new Rule of Three: Construct, Confirm and Confound. (There’s also Confuse, but we don’t want that, that’s like dark matter and makes a joke implode in an unpleasant way.)

  • Construct: Create the pattern.
  • Confirm: Repeat the pattern.
  • Confound: Break the pattern.

Now we have the atoms, we can create molecules, more commonly called ‘jokes’. Joel explains that there are many ways you can link together your Three Cs, and quite often you don’t even need all three of them to get a laugh. Sometimes, Construct and Confirm will do the job or, as in the two examples above, Construct and Confound.

Be Funny Or Die doesn’t go into the synthesis of compounds — which in this now rather tortured analogy would be sitcoms, comedic novels, comedy films etc. But once you understand the building blocks of comedy, all the other books about those things become a lot more useful.

If you’re just starting out as a comedy writer, or you’re just curious about what makes something funny and why we’re hardwired to laugh and make others laugh, then start with Be Funny Or Die. It’ll make everything else make sense. If you’re a seasoned pro, then it’ll give you a new appreciation for the importance of comedy in human society and a deeper understanding of what it is that you’re doing for a job.

Now, I don’t rate books, but if I did, Be Funny Or Die would be like the solar system 1SWASP J093010.78+533859.5 — it’s got five stars.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what does this mean for Fieldwork?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What’s in store for Fieldwork in 2024?

by Suw on January 12, 2024

In which I make a plan for the next year and publicly commit to a deadline. Eek.

In May last year, I broke down the process of writing Fieldwork into four stages:

  1. Background research
  2. Comedy research
  3. Script development
  4. Funding for production

I’ve largely completed Stage 1. Last year, I did ten interviews and picked up a few anecdotes via our online form. I’d have liked to have done more interviews, but I got some really great stuff out of the conversations I did have, so I feel content with that. (Unless you’re an ecologist who would like to talk to me, in which case please get in touch!).

This year is therefore going to be devoted to Stages 2 and 3 and, in a somewhat unprecedented move, I’m planning the first chunk of the year month by month. That plan was in large part prompted by advice from comedian Dave Cohen, who said in a recent newsletter:

If I’m entering that BBC Writersroom competition in Q4 I’ll want a good third draft or so by the end of Q3. Have had some kind of professional feedback and be working on rewrites after that. In which case I’ll want to have completed the first draft by the end of Q2. That gives me Q1 to thoroughly work on the idea, Q2 to write it.

To help me keep to my schedule, I’ve signed up to Dave’s From Zero to First Draft in 8 Weeks course, which starts on 19 April and walks participants through the development and writing of a pilot half-hour sitcom or comedy drama. Although the aim for this project was to produce a script for a 10-15 minute short film, I’m not going to look a gift half-hour script in the mouth!

Working with someone as experienced as Dave will also help me to produce the best work I can, the first step of which is to produce something terrible. I’ll be happy to do that, though, because I’ll know that Dave will pull me up on anything that’s not good enough and make me work harder.

I’m pretty bad at writing without deadlines, so having both the BBC Writersroom open call deadline on the horizon and having to prep/write stuff on a weekly basis from April to June will be a huge help. To support that process, I’ve had a think about what my timetable will have to be:

  • January: Read through existing transcripts; do some more background reading and research on comedy.
  • February: Continue reading; begin character work; write two vignettes to test out how those characters respond to plot.
  • March: Continue character work; write two more vignettes.
  • April: Begin Dave’s course; work on basics of the idea; develop themes and hone basics.
  • May: Develop characters further; outline plot ideas; outline script.
  • June: Write pilot; incorporate feedback; refine pilot.
  • July: Write short film based on pilot; refine pilot; submit both to colleagues as final deliverable on iCOMET project. Discuss ways to take project forward.
  • August to December: Continue refining pilot; submit to BBC Writers room; continue to explore funding opportunities and open script calls. Assess opportunities to turn into radio play or podcast.

I’m also going to commit to writing at least one post here a month to update you all on my progress.

In addition to all of that, or in support of it perhaps, I have amassed a fairly large reading list that I’d like to get through, including:

And along with all that, I’m continuing my improv lessons, which have turned out to be ridiculous amounts of fun. I can feel them already loosing up the nuts and bolts in my brain and helping me to develop my comedic instincts. Before Christmas I had an absolute cracker of a scene about having never been to visit Santa Claus in his grotto, so I’m starting to believe that I might actually be quite good at it. Wednesday evenings have definitely become the highlight of my week!

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Fieldwork: Adding improv to the mix

by Suw on November 14, 2023

What do you do to get yourself back in the game after an enforced break from a creative project?

It’s been a while since I last wrote about Fieldwork, the short film script I’m writing for the i-COMET project, largely because over the summer I was either interviewing ecologists or checking their transcriptions, which isn’t very newsworthy. Then, once mid-August arrived, I was almost wholly focused this year’s Ada Lovelace Day Live event at the Royal Institution.

But now it’s time to dive back in.

Back in May, I came up with a four part plan for how this project was going to shake out, and I’ve largely been focused on Part 1, background research. Talking to ecologists turned out to be a delightful experience, always the highlight of my week. I’m going back over the transcripts now and highlighting the sciency bits that catch my eye, or sections that feel funny to me or that seem to illustrate some aspect of character.

I have to admit, I’ve been feeling a bit apprehensive about starting the actual writing, because this whole project doesn’t fit in with my normal creative process. Usually, I start with an idea for a person who’s dealing with a particular scenario and then I explore what might happen through plot logic: if this happens, then that results; and through character: this person would do this sort of thing.

But with Fieldwork, what came first was the context: ecologists working in the field; and the genre: comedy. My brain has been noodling over this for the last several months, despite the fact that I was focused on other things, and building up quite a head of anxiety over whether I can actually write in this way. I haven’t written comedy for, er, quite a long time, so the question of whether I can still be funny has also been weighing on me.

To get over this, I’ve decided that my brain needs a bit of creative shakubuku – “a swift, spiritual kick to the head that alters your reality forever”.

So, to that end, I’ve started improv classes. There is a weekly class held not far from me and last Wednesday I went to my first one. It was huge amounts of fun, but I can also see how it has the potential to rewire my neurones a little, get me back into a mode of more spontaneous thinking, and help me re-find my funny.

Improv (though they seem to have shortened it further to ‘impro’!) is predicated on saying the first thing that comes into your head and not worrying about whether it is good or bad. Even in my first session, once I started to feel the flow, it stopped feeling stressful and started to be a lot of fun. It’s like opening a direct conduit between your subconscious and your mouth, giving your brain a huge playground to just throw stuff up and see what happens. It’s about being open to possibility and responding instinctually to what the people around you are saying and doing. And, most importantly, it’s about refusing to be self-judgemental.

That’s the perfect mindset for playing about with character ideas, plot snippets and humour, and it’s the antithesis of how writers often think.

I remember once being told to throw away the first solution that comes into your head when you hit a problem with your plot or character. Throw away the second one too. The logic is that these are the obvious solutions, and you want to dig deeper to find the surprising solution. But if you take that too much to heart, it becomes crippling as your brain refuses to come up with a first solution at all, for fear of it being crap.

Where writing is rewriting, improv is blurting out all your first thoughts without any opportunity to rethink. And that is, in my opinion, also the first step on the road to comedy.

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A woman riding a buffalo.

This ecologist lost her car keys and had to take an alternative form of transport to the field site. The handlebars later proved useful for carrying samples back to camp.

Are you sure? Absolutely sure? Because I know I don’t have them.

I’m just over a month into the background research for Fieldwork and have already carried out half a dozen interviews with ecologists in a wide variety of disciplines. We’ve talked about everything, from the challenges of surveying plants in highland bogs, to working out which exact tree the bats are roosting in, to the problem of water in your waders.

Already, I’m seeing a few common themes: Keys getting lost/left behind and wellies getting stuck/lost in soggy ground being two that have come up more than once. Ecologists also have to be good at jury-rigging equipment, either because what they need hasn’t been invented yet or because the commercially available equipment is too expensive. There’s a lot of ingenuity involved, but also a lot of learning that battery packs can lie when they say they’re full, as can GPS when it says that the track is passable.

If I had to sum up my conversations, it would be with the phrase ‘easier said than done’. You may happily promise to sample 100 locations, but actually doing so can be a challenge. And, equally, sometimes a more modest dozen locations might not be enough for you to find your target species at all, even if you know it has to be there somewhere.

I’m also struck by just how slapstick a lot of fieldwork fails are, particularly the whole getting stuck in bogs/mud/quicksand bit. I can’t help wondering how future archaeologists are going to interpret a lone pair of wellies, perfectly preserved in the peat.

A lot of the comedies I love the most – Sex Education, Ted Lasso, The Good Place, Schitt’s Creek – are predominantly character driven, so it’s going to be an interesting challenge to work out how to combine that with authentically slapstick ecology.

I’m still looking for ecologists to interview, so if you’d like to chat to me you can either email me to set up a time, or pick a time via Calendly. These conversations have rapidly turned into my favourite time of the week, so if you’d like to have a relaxed, informal chat about your experiences in the field, please get in touch!

(Or, if you’d prefer, you can complete as much or as little of our survey as you please.)

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Fieldwork: A look at what’s to come

by Suw on May 17, 2023

Who knows where these creative seeds will land.

It’s always good to have a plan so that you can point at it and laugh when reality has other ideas.

I thought I’d go through the rough project plan for Fieldwork so that you can see what’s involved and the sort of things I’m going to write about.

To some extent, this newsletter is as much about me working out how all the pieces of the jigsaw fit together in my own head as it is about updating you on my progress. It’s also about documenting the process and my learning, so that I can come back to check my notes and maybe even see how far I’ve progressed.

I expect to be working on these four aspects of the project, probably simultaneously:

  1. Background research
  2. Comedy research
  3. Script development
  4. Funding for production

Part 1: Background research

I want Fieldwork to be based on reality – particularly real science and real fieldwork experiences. Scientists in TV comedy and drama often end up as caricatures: tweedy, obsessive and lacking in social skills. I know a lot of scientists and none of them are like that. And I have to ask, how are we going to encourage children to take science seriously if we’re portraying scientists so poorly?

The science itself in TV is generally ignored, trivialised or misrepresented, probably because it sci-comms is hard and there are fewer TV writers with experience in sci-comms or science than we need. Thus, it gets reduced to scribbles on a white board in the background which, even if full of in-jokes for physicists (looking at you, Big Bang Theory), doesn’t do much to explain how science actually happens or why it’s important.

So I’m going to be talking to as many ecologists as I can and asking them questions about their work. I want to know what they are studying and why, where they go when they’re doing fieldwork, where they stay and what it’s like, and in particular I want to know about #fieldworkfails, those times when things didn’t go to plan. I’ve already heard about keys getting locked in cars during a thunderstorm, close encounters with bears, and the importance of choosing your tent location carefully. If you’d like to add to that list, find out how here!

Ecology is a good choice in terms of explaining how science happens and why it’s important. Many ecologists are working with species or habitats where the basics are easy to explain, and they’re doing it because they want to better manage that species or habitat, because their work will help us to grow more and better food with fewer chemical inputs, or because they want to understand the impact of climate change.

The way that a lot of ecology fieldwork is done makes it great for comedy: You’re out at a field station or camping somewhere and away from day-to-day life. Plus you’re doing things that can easily go sideways and you don’t have much time or many resources to fix the things that do go wrong. It’s just begging to become a sitcom.

This all sounds very much like I planned it this way, but Fieldwork is a part of an existing project that I’ve been working on with Prof Thorunn Helgason, Dr Pen Holland and Prof Bala Chaudhary since 2019, the International Collaboration on Mycorrhizal Ecological Traits. Our original plan was to run a workshop for about 20 international ecologists at the University of York in order to develop a design for an easy-to-build mycorrhizal spore trap, and for me to do some basic training around mentoring, which was my contribution to the project (not being an ecologist, ’n all). Unfortunately for us, our workshop was due to start the week after the first Covid travel bans came into force. Oops. We had to cancel with just a few days notice.

So Fieldwork is, in essence, our way of finishing off this project with a flourish. And I feel very lucky that the subject is ecology and not, say, nuclear physics.

Part 2: Comedy research

Back when it was “the new Rock ’n Roll”, I performed at open mic stand-up gigs, some of which actually went very well, even though the performance aspect of it terrified me. I’ve written novellas, a full-length novel, a feature film script and a six-part TV series, have trained as a TV script editor, and have a wealth of journalistic experience having written for The Guardian, Forbes, Melody Maker and a bunch of other newspapers and magazines.

What I’m doing now is building on what I already know about writing by adding the specifics of comedy. Although there are similarities between genres, there are also some aspects that are really very different, so rather than dive in and wonder why it’s not working, I’m investing my time in learning as much as I can about the form. Specifically, I’m reading everything I can about:

  1. Sitcom structure
  2. Plot
  3. Character

I find this all absolutely fascinating. I’ve always loved deconstructing everything I’ve watched or read (and thankfully have a husband who enjoys these conversations too), so I’m in my element.

(Just a heads up: My writing and comedy craft posts will very likely be paid posts, and they’ll sit in the Essays subsection of Word Count. All my project update posts will be free, and they’ll sit in the Fieldwork subsection.)

Part 3: Script development

This is the hard bit. But also the fun bit. And the painful bit.

I’ll be writing a script that’s between 10 and 15 minutes long, so that’s between 10 and 15 pages, as usually a page of script equals about a minute of screen time. Within those pages, I need to set the scene and have perhaps two cycles of the main character trying to fix a problem but accidentally making it worse before the final resolution. And I need to cram in as many jokes as possible.



Once I’ve got a draft that’s as good as I can make it, I’ll work with a comedy script editor to hone it further before organising a table read to see how the jokes land when actual actors say them out loud. What works on the page doesn’t always work when spoken, so there will likely be rewrites at this stage.

Part 4: Funding for production

The funding we have doesn’t cover actually filming the script, so whilst all of the above is going on, I need to find a way to pay for filming. This might involve applying for grants or running a crowdfunding campaign, as well as developing the paid tier here on Substack so that I can put more of my time into Fieldwork itself.

To do all that, I’ll have to learn about film production and budgeting. I have been involved in a short film production before (and somewhere on the internet you can see me ‘acting’ in one, and no, I’m not going to link to it), but things have changed a lot since then. Much more can be done much more cheaply these days, but I have an abiding belief that people should be paid for their time, so that’s going to be the cornerstone of my fundraising. I don’t believe in asking people to work for free or “for exposure”, especially not during a financial crush, so raising enough money to pay crew and actors is a hill I am willing to die on.

The future

This project won’t stop once the short has been filmed. My plan then is to develop a script for the pilot of a half-hour ongoing sitcom and see what I can do to get it in front of producers. Because I really believe that this is a great concept and that it’s a show that could be hugely entertaining and successful.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, and this is mine. I hope you will join me to see what kind of countryside we pass through. Just make sure you pitch your tent inside the electric fence, in case of moose.

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Introducing Fieldwork

by Suw on May 2, 2023

Everything you need to know about Suw’s latest creative project.

If you’ve ever been on a science field trip, you’ll know that, in amongst the experiments and data gathering, things can go hilariously wrong. The longer you spend in the field, the more likely you are to have had animals carry off your equipment, experienced unexpected malfunctions, or seen creatures other than your target species appearing in your camera traps.

We are collecting examples of #fieldworkfails from ecologists, particularly in the UK, and listening to their experiences of working in the field to inform the development of a comedy drama. The first output will be a short film script, but we may also use data collected as the basis for other outputs, including this newsletter.

Our aims are both to entertain and to increase awareness of ecology as a subject and as a career path. Television and film can have a powerful effect on people’s perceptions of a subject. The X-Files inspired a generation of women to become interested in science, technology, engineering and maths with what is now known as The Scully Effect. Bones encouraged women into science, as has Black Panther’s Shuri.

Can we do the same for ecology?

What will this newsletter cover?

I’m going to be chronicling the entire process of writing and making the Fieldwork short film. I’ll talk about my background research, possibly sharing some snippets from my interviewees, and exploring life in a field station.

I’ll also be sharing my journey into the world of comedy writing, delving into the complexities (or simplicities) of character, structure and joke writing. I dabbled in stand-up comedy many years ago, so this isn’t entirely new to me, and I’m very excited by the idea of re-finding my funny.

If you’re interested in comedy writing, then this newsletter is very definitely for you.

How will this newsletter work?

If you are already subscribed to Word Count, you have been automatically subscribed to Fieldwork, but if you’d rather not receive these emails, just change your settings. Equally, if you only want to receive Fieldwork emails, you can unsubscribe from the other sections in those same settings.

I won’t be publishing on a set schedule – news will arrive when it arrives, though I suspect there’ll be more news in the beginning as I get everything set up.

I’m an ecologist! Can I take part?

Yes, you can! Just drop me a line and I’ll let you know when our online survey and interview schedule is ready.

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. It is funded by the National Environmental Research Council.

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