Productivity, Creativity and Money: An Interview with Suw Charman-Anderson

I’m a supporter of Suw Charman-Anderson’s Kickstarter project, Argleton: A story of maps, maths and motorways. The project got me thinking. Some types of creative projects are particularly sensitive to being squeezed out of our schedules, especially when we’re thinking in terms of finances. Making money — whether you’ve got a nine-to-five or you’re freelancing or you run a huge business — takes priority. Many of us still find time to work on projects like writing fiction, but it can be a struggle. But what if the model is different? What if we have ways to finance creative projects from the start? Kickstarter offers such an opportunity, so I asked Suw to share her experiences with us.

As a side note, you should back Suw’s project. I’ve read the first 2,500 words and I need to know what happens over the course of the rest of the story!

How did you handle finding time for writing fiction and similar projects before you found Kickstarter? Were you able to earn money off of your projects?

I used to find a lot of time to write creatively up until about six or seven years ago. I have several half-finished novels, a few short stories and a completed screenplay all lurking in my desk drawer. Writing was my way of escaping the mundane jobs I was doing at the time. But now I’m a freelance writer and consultant there’s a tension between the time I spend on paid work and the time I want to spend on creative writing.

When you’re at either extreme of the famine/feast freelance rollercoaster, it becomes difficult to draw a line under your working day. When you don’t have enough work on, you feel that every moment should be spent getting new clients, and when you have too much you spend all your time hitting deadlines. It’s very easy for your creative writing time to get squeezed out. That’s what happened to me, I went from being quite prolific to hardly writing at all.

I’ve never earnt any money from writing fiction, but I do write a lot of non-fiction professionally: blogs, reports, or feature articles for newspapers or magazines. It has certainly helped me learn how to just sit down and write, regardless of whether I feel like it or not. If you have a 30,000 word report due Tuesday, you just get on with it, and the same should be true of fiction.

How did you learn about Kickstarter? What did it take to get started with Kickstarter?

My introduction to Kickstarter was through Robin Sloan. I met Robin last year in California and we talked a lot about books. Then last autumn Robin launched a Kickstarter project, ‘Robin writes a book (and you get a copy)‘,and I thought, ‘Oh, I wonder if I can do that.’ I was already aware of other sites like Kickstarter – Pledgie and ChipIn — but you get a better experience and more compelling features with Kickstarter.

Robin’s project was a massive success and, as a supporter, I was delighted to get my copy of his book, Annabel Scheme. Both the project and the book itself were big inspiration.

Can you describe your current project on Kickstarter?

Argleton is a three part project combining storytelling, bookbinding and a geolocation game. For some reason, I thought that simply writing the story wasn’t quite enough of a challenge!

Supporters are offered a variety of different rewards, depending on their level of support. They range from a simple PDF, to a hand-bound copy of the book, to a hand-written and hand-bound copy. I’ve been learning bookbinding for the last few months and discovered that I love the idea of not just writing a story, but creating its physical manifestation myself as well. Having full creative control over the entire process appeals to me immensely. Actually, that’s what got me excited about writing again after my lull.

The geolocation game I can’t say too much about, except to say that supporters will be asked to upload something for me and the clues will be scattered through the book itself.

What inspired the story of Argleton?

Argleton is a real phantom town in Lancashire, UK that hit the news here last autumn. It shows up in Google Maps, even though there is no town there at all — it’s just a field. When I mentioned on Twitter that I thought it’d make the beginnings of a good story, friends said that I should write it. Once I’d started thinking about it, I couldn’t stop.

How do you keep yourself on track when working on creative project, especially one that is more open-ended?

My experience as a journalist has made me really appreciate deadlines. And having people waiting to read what I’m writing is also a healthy, if scary, pressure. I tend to procrastinate horribly if a project is truly open-ended, which might explain why my blog is so in need of some TLC! When I have a clear finishing line and friends who can keep me honest and hard working, I find it much easier to apply my nose to the grindstone.

Has Kickstarter changed how you approach managing the work that goes into a creative project?

The main way that Kickstarter changes things is that you have to do a lot of promotional work to bring in supporters. You’re not just thinking about your creative project but also about what blog posts you can write, how often you can nudge people on Twitter, what you’re going to say on Facebook. All that has taken a lot more time and energy than I was expecting. In retrospect, I should have planned my promo strategy in advance and prepared key materials, like blog badges or re-Tweetable Tweets, before I launched.

This has cut into my creative time. I’ve only just manage to get the first scene up online, for example. I had originally planned to do that a few weeks ago. Next time I’ll make sure I’m a little further down the road creatively before I put it onto Kickstarter.

On the other hand, as well as being more work than a simple writing project, this has also been more interesting and more satisfying. There’s a greater sense of vibrancy and expectation that infuses every action I take, so it’s a lot more enjoyable than just writing a story, shoving it up online and hoping someone reads it. People are waiting for it, which is both terrifying and a great motivator to do the very, very best I can.

Does the fact that you can access funding for a project like your story make it easier to work on? How does it compare to models like writing a story and then sending it out to editors?

Having real money hanging in the balance certainly makes it easier to work on Argleton, because it makes it a priority. This isn’t pin money. If the project is successful it will give me enough to buy a key bit of bookbinding kit — a ream cutter — and pay for a couple of weeks of my time to finish the story and make the books. Psychologically, that’s a big deal. It turns my creative writing from being something that I do to amuse myself into something that pays my wages.

The great thing about Kickstarter is that it supports you in the process of creation, it doesn’t just focus on the finished product. As someone who has backed other people’s projects, I can say that the kick you get out of seeing a project happen and seeing the difference your tiny contribution can make to someone’s life, it’s just a wonderful feeling. At its heart, it’s about helping someone to realise a dream, even if it’s just a small one.

Compared to the more traditional route of writing a story and then sending it out to editors (or agents), Kickstarter is much more visceral and immediate. You don’t have to wait for weeks for a rejection and then repeat the experience ad infinitum. You’re also freed from traditional constraints about what is a commercial length work and what isn’t. I suspect Argleton will turn out to be a novelette, but it doesn’t matter if it turns into a novella because I’m printing and binding it myself.

On the other hand, you do miss the expert eye an editor brings. I have an ‘editorial board’ of five friends, including my journalist husband, who read through my drafts and give me brutally honest feedback. They act as my quality control and without them I’d feel a lot more stressed and scared about producing a story worth reading. But I’d still love to get feedback from a professional editor who can bring a depth of experience and understanding that even the most well-intentioned of friends don’t usually have.

Where can people learn more about Argleton?

The project itself is here:

You can read the first 2500 words here:

And my blog about it is here:

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6 Responses to “ Productivity, Creativity and Money: An Interview with Suw Charman-Anderson ”

  1. Actually making money writing fiction: an interview with @suw (also, creativity + productivity)

  2. Suw (Suw ) says:

    RT @thursdayb: Actually making money writing fiction: an interview with @suw (also, creativity + productivity)

  3. Farouk says:

    that interview is very useful, i could extract lots of useful tips from it , thanks for sharing :)

  4. [...] If you’d like to read more about the project then the previous post here has the first scene, there’s an article I wrote for Un:Bound about it, and questions I answered for Thursday Bram over at Constructively Productive. [...]

  5. Suw says:

    I just wanted to add this addendum: Argleton is now fully funded! The project successfully closed on Wednesday at 173% funded. This was in no small part due to Kickstarter featuring the project in their first weekly newsletter, so I’m very lucky. Now the fun work begins!

  6. [...] away on holiday, Thursday Bram kindly asked me a few questions about the Argleton project, which I answered on her blog, ?Constructively Productive. [...]

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