Episode 223 – Smoke and Mirrors with Gemma Milne

Gemma Milne‘Writing the book was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life… There’s no quick fix. Everybody finds it hard. What differentiates people who have written books from those that haven’t is the ones who wrote the books dealt with the fact that it was really hard.’

Gemma Milne has come at hype from all sides in a career spanning advertising, sales, science journalism and investment, so she’s well qualified to dissect it and help us understand what’s really going on under the attention-grabbing headlines that bombard us every day.

But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

In this frank and funny conversation she shares her frustration with the writing process and the revelation, on a flight to Austin, Texas, that transformed everything.


Gemma’s site: https://www.gemmamilne.co.uk/

Gemma on Twitter: https://twitter.com/gemmamilne

Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky

See all PI-Q webinars and replay links: https://practicalinspiration.com/pi-q

The EBBC Summer Reading List 2020: https://www.goodreads.com/review/list/34626998-alison-jones?shelf=ebbc-summer-reading-list-2020

The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/

This Summer Means Business (combined proposal challenge and writing retreat!): https://pi-q.learnworlds.com/course?courseid=this-summer-means-business

Alison Jones: I’m here today with Gemma Milne, who is a science and technology writer and podcaster with by-lines for titles such as Forbes, The Times BBC, Quartz and so on. She’s the author of Smoke and Mirrors: How hype obscures the future and how to see past it, published in April, 2020 with Little, Brown. She’s also co-host of the Science Disrupt podcast, which has interviews and discussions on the role of science and technology and society. Gemma is an expert advisor for the European Commission and Innovate UK, a scout for Backed VC and innovation jury member for SXSW, and a World Economic Forum global shaper. Welcome to the show, Gemma.

Gemma Milne: My goodness. Thank you so much for having me. I’ve now got to live up to this full introduction that you read. Thank you for that.

Alison Jones: Well, also, it’s just one of those introductions that you read, and you think, Oh, what have I been doing with my life? Really?

Gemma Milne: No, no, not at all. Not, at all. I think that’s what happens when you’re freelance. You just end up doing all these quite random things and picking up all different kinds of weird and wonderful jobs.

Alison Jones: And I was just saying to you before we came on air, it’s funny, because I’ve been listening to Smoke and Mirrors as an audio book. So I’ve had Gemma’s voice in my head, in the shower, you know, on runs and stuff, but I’ve been listening to it at 1.4. speed. Which is less than, it’s slower than I normally listen to audio books, but she talks pretty flipping fast.

Gemma Milne: Yes. I will try and not speak way too fast for anyone who’s turned this podcast up to double speed.

Alison Jones: Yeah. Anybody who listens to this podcast kind of knows not to do that, to be honest.

Gemma Milne: Yeah, you speak very fast , because I listened to this podcast loads, so it’s also kind of funny, you’re speaking asking me these questions and I’m thinking, Oh, do I need to respond because she’s interviewing someone else? But no, it’s me.

Alison Jones: ‘What am I going to say?’ And you did say that when you were recording the audio book, they were like, Gemma, slow down…

Gemma Milne: No, they had to keep getting me to pull myself back. And also weirdly I don’t know if you’ve noticed when you’ve been listening, but I actually recorded it, I didn’t realize I actually had pneumonia at the time. I was really ill and I was having to drink tons of, you know, lemon tea and whatnot, but I thought I just had a cold or whatever , but when I listen back, I can hear myself being super breathless. At the time I was just saying to them Oh, I’ve just got a cold. It’s fine. Don’t worry about it.

Alison Jones: Wow. Because I mean, it takes a lot of stamina at the best of times, but that’s incredible.

Gemma Milne: It was intense. It’s like four days in a little booth in the Hachette offices in London. I really enjoyed it other than the, you know, the coughing.

Alison Jones: Apart from coughing all the time and being constantly told to slow down, it was great. Yeah.

Gemma Milne: Well, it was also funny because in some of the chapters, like the cancer chapter, you know, every now and again, it’s got quite complex word in the name of a drug or, a complicated name of someone. Oh man, I, I mucked up so many times having to redo it over and over and over again, just to get the pronunciation of all these words, I thought, God, I’ve written this so many times, I’ve no idea how to say it.

Alison Jones: This is one of the reasons people like to read their own books though, they don’t want anybody else mangling it. At least you know when you’ve got it wrong.

Gemma Milne: Yeah, we did a lot of Googling. I’m not going to lie.

Alison Jones: Brilliant. Well, tell us,because Smoke and Mirrors , it’s a great title, and it refers back to the 19th-century magic tricks, but then everybody knew they were magic tricks. They enjoyed being fooled, but the smoke and mirrors you’re talking about now is the stuff that’s going on and we don’t know we’re being fooled. It’s all about, you know, media hype and how that kind of vision of the future particularly is sold to us. So just give us a quick, sort of 30-second overview of what the book’s about, and why you wrote it.

Gemma Milne: Well, I wrote it from a space of frustration. So various different jobs I’ve had I guess hype has played a role, so, you know, I worked in advertising. So I guess I was an architect of hype in that role; being a freelance journalist, so trying to sift through hype. And then when I’m doing my sort of advisory work with governments and whatnot, I’m trying to decide what companies are using hype to get my attention versus ones that are doing really amazing things that are worth investment.

And so it came from a space of frustration – there’s so much hype out there and nobody knows how to navigate it – but also I guess, realizing that hype is not always lying, you know, there’s a difference between fake news, misinformation, disinformation, and exaggeration. And so I wanted to try and work out what is this sort of invisible hand, the sauce that flows through particularly science and tech, this exaggeration, this media hype.

And does it, you know, is it really that detrimental or am I just kind of getting frustrated at it because I’m pernickety. And in the book I eventually come to the conclusion of, you know, hype being a tool, and it’s more how and why you use it and the intent behind using it. And, you know, I try and empower the readers to be able to use critical thinking, to spot the hype and sort of decide for themselves with a clear head, as opposed to being caught up in narratives that they’re fed.

Alison Jones: Which is brilliant, and I absolutely applaud the intention behind this. I do wonder also, you said about the place of frustration with the people who are generating the hype. I’m guessing you must have a degree of frustration with the people who are consuming it so mindlessly as well, you know, we’ve become so addicted to sort of sound bites and simple stories and simple narratives. How did you go about addressing that?

Gemma Milne: Yes, definitely. I had to have a lot of discussions with myself because I, you know, I was, I was originally coming from this, Oh, this is, you know, it’s… Because it’s easy to blame the media, it’s easy to be like, Oh, the headlines. But you know, at the end day, people retweet stuff and see the headlines when they’re chatting with their friends and invest in the companies that are spouting this.

So it’s not just the media, you know, I talk a lot about complicity and responsibility in the book. But I suppose the way I got away from frustration was, when I was navigating what it really meant to use the tool of hype, you realize that the intent of it is, is to try and fool. And sometimes that fooling is done to try and shortcut understanding or to try and help people by saving them time and so on and so forth.

But the whole point is to try and get an idea across in a very simple way and get people to believe it and accept it and agree with you. And sometimes that is done in such a way that people are not armed with the ability or the, even the realization that they should approach it in a different manner.

So, you know, I don’t want to be like, It’s not their fault. I think that everyone definitely has a responsibility, but equally I don’t think that we’ve been told that we have a responsibility or encouraged to make the most of that responsibility. So it then came back to actually people don’t feel empowered and maybe instead of being angry and frustrated at people, maybe I, Gemma Milne, in my little book, you know, try and play a role in helping empower people and helping people realize that approaching science and tech doesn’t mean having a degree in it, but rather opening your mind and allowing yourself to not know stuff and embrace complexity and fighting things hard and all that sort of stuff.

And you know, the final thing, I guess I’ll say on that is I studied maths at university and you know, every time I tell anyone that it’s either one of two responses, One, they go, Oh, me too. Isn’t that amazing? Or they go, Oh my God, I can’t do maths. I can’t believe you did a masters. You must be so clever. I don’t have the brain for maths. I was terrible at it, ‘m afraid of maths, right? These kind of narratives. And it just, it doesn’t make me feel frustrated. It makes me feel really sad. Because I love maths and maths is awesome and it’s actually, it’s closer to art than a science in some ways, and I think people really miss out on an amazing thing by being fearful.

And I think it’s the same with a lot of complex narratives that you read, is it’s a fear. It’s a feeling of being less than, a feeling of I’m not clever enough or it’s not my place as opposed to a deliberate, Oh, I don’t give a crap. I’m going to just ignore it. So maybe it went up from frustration to pity, to kind of me being like, I feel sorry for these people to then going actually let’s, you know, try and be a bit more encouraging and lead with responsibility and, what’s your role as a citizen, and all these kinds of things.

So, yeah, it was a bit of a journey, though.

Alison Jones: It’s fascinating to hear it set out like that. And also that shifting of the I’m going to say responsibility, just the roles that we play and as you say, the complicity of us as people as well, and you know, I’m holding my hands up: we do, as a population, delegate the responsibility for this stuff to “experts” – I’m doing my little quotes in the air here – and have a sense that we can’t possibly understand it because it’s too hard and are too quick to go for the top line stuff. So I’ve really enjoyed this as an education.

And I think it’s interesting, we’re right in the whole Black Lives Matter thing and the sort of sense of suddenly white people waking up to what’s been going on. And the fact that they have this responsibility to educate themselves, because that’s when things change is when the people who aren’t suffering through the oppression, you know, start noticing the oppression. And I wonder if that is a bigger sense of people going, do you know what? We have got to educate ourselves. We’ve got to understand what’s going on in the world. And even if it doesn’t apply directly to us, which of course it does because, you know, once you understand that you realize it does, but actually we’ve got to start reading below the headlines.

Gemma Milne: I think there’s been a general shift towards this hunger for nuance over the past couple of years. I mean, we’re seeing it in politics. What happens when you essentially prioritize simplified absolutist narratives. You know, “immigrants are bad all the time”. It doesn’t work because it’s very easy to find examples on both sides.

And we’re being forced to kind of pick a side and decide, you know, how we align ourselves without really leaning into this idea that sometimes fence sitting is okay and good and actually a bit more sensible. So I think that there has been this, you know, seeing the way the world is going and realizing that a lot of the stuff that’s very problematic – and I’m talking about things like Trump, for instance, for, for people on the left, and Boris Johnson – a lot of the narratives that these people have been able to lean on, have been very, very simplified and lacking in nuance. And so, I don’t know, there’s, there seems like there’s a lot of questioning as to how can we change systems in general. And you know, the minute you start asking about how you change the system, well, there’s no right or wrong answer. A lot of time it’s very complex.

So, you know, you mentioned the protests, but you know, with hype in science and tech, there’s many different facets of us realizing that systems thinking is more important now, not just from “Oh, it means you understand stuff better,” but rather so that the world functions in a way that, I guess, is closer to these so-called utopian ideals that we’re all meant to be working towards.

So yeah, I’ve definitely been seeing this, this hunger for nuance and critical thinking, but at the same time, not masses of information on how you actually do it and how you get over the fear, and how you… It’s difficult with the expert thing because of course, one of the big challenges I had in the book is how do I encourage people to critically think and have a level of scepticism?

Not cynicism, that’s a different thing, but scepticism, questioning, but at the same time, not assume that absolutely everything you’re reading is wrong because of course then you’re breeding, you know, flat earthers and anti-vaxxers and climate change deniers. And so it’s kind of a difficult balance, I suppose, as to how do you teach and encourage critical thinking in a way that is thorough.

And a lot of that for me was, okay, it goes back to how do you give empowerment to people and responsibility to people, as opposed to saying you’re right or wrong for doing this, that and the other.

Alison Jones: And as a publisher, I’m listening to you as well and thinking it’s an interesting, the role of books in this landscape, because so much of the hype is headlines as we’ve said, it’s short journalistic pieces, it’s social media stuff. And the book gives you an opportunity to just explore it in so much depth, doesn’t it?

Gemma Milne: Yes. I mean, this is one of the things I keep getting challenged on when I’m doing interviews about the book, you know, because I’ve talked a lot about system thinking and you know, sometimes I’m speaking to startups, they’re saying, well, how do I play the game of hype in order to get my investment without irresponsibly hyping, right? How do I responsibly hype? And one of my bits that I always say is: how do you make sure you explain a system as opposed to like a siloed problem solution kind of narrative, because you’re missing out a lot of the story when you do that and you’re blinkering your audience and they say, well, explaining a system is really, really hard. You don’t always have that much time and I’m kind of going, Yeah, I suppose I had 10,000 words per chapter to explain each system. So yeah, books have a really great role in terms of allowing that depth, but at the same time, books are very difficult. One of the things that I thought about a lot in the book was, well, if I’m writing about current science and tech, you know, I finished writing the book in July, it doesn’t get published till April: how much movement has science and tech had by the time it publishes never mind six months after? So, you know, is the book the right format for talking about systems? You have the length of the chapter, but at the same time you don’t have the timeliness.

So I thought a lot about format. And how do you, you know, how do you encourage people to tell these stories in different ways, without relying on what they assume is only one or two formats that are going to be the only place for it?

Alison Jones: And did you come up with any solutions on that?

Gemma Milne: I mean, yes and no. I think when you have a chapter or when you have the ability to write a long read, I don’t think there’s any excuse for not diving into a system and looking at all the different facets of it, but when it comes to shorter form, whether that’s a five minute pitch or a short article… I reflect on this thing that Michael Lewis wrote, um, you know, he’s written tons of books and he wrote this thing where he said writers write because they feel the world has fundamentally misperceived something.

And I think that you can get across that point in a short amount of time. You only have to say: You think this, but let me tell you the real story. And you can do that in a tweet. You can do that in a deck. You can do that in a short presentation. It’s about laying out what is the overarching narrative that most people believe, and then showing how you can look at it in a different way.

It’s like reframing. And I think that that doesn’t necessarily require you to take the entire system. But what it does is it showcases the flaws and the overarching narrative. And essentially the audience does the thinking themselves. You plant the seed of, not doubt, but of reframing and showing how easy it is to get caught up in a wrong narrative.

Alison Jones: And I’m guessing the fact that you have written all those chapters of 10,000 words each means that you are now equipped to do that tweet that helps somebody see things differently.

Gemma Milne: You’d think that, but I am so rubbish at short form. See the thought trying to write headlines is like the bane of my life. In some ways, I think now that I’ve written a book I’m kind of incapable of writing something short, because I’ve loved to have been able to have the space, to explain myself, you know.

Alison Jones: Like getting Tolstoy to write a haiku.

Gemma Milne: Well, I mean, you compared me to Tolstoy, not me, Alison.

Alison Jones: But you’d just like to point that out to everybody… Gemma, one of the things that really struck me about you as well, and it comes out in the interview, but you know, you talk in the book about the ridiculous range of jobs that you’ve had. I mean, you had squiggly careers before they were fashionable, didn’t you? So do you think… I mean, obviously it’s had a role in your understanding of hype from every angle. You’ve looked at hype from all sides now, but do you think there’s something about that adaptability and kind of personal flexibility and resilience that, that has been useful in writing, but also more generally in your career?

Gemma Milne: Oh, I mean, it’s been, it’s been helpful in my career. I mean, I got made redundant in 2016 and you know, there’s been a spate of redundancies for the past 10 years, but even in 2016 it still felt quite taboo, and you know, I was in my early twenties at the time and I felt like, this wasn’t part of the plan.

I’d always been sort of a high achiever, and being made redundant… and I think because I’d already had quite a few different kinds of jobs before, then it didn’t feel quite as scary as I think it would have done had I not had that adaptability. But also, you know, I, I try lots of different things and I knew that I could get good at lots of different things and there are jobs in lots of different areas, and so it felt less kind of, “Oh, you know, I’ve just been made redundant from an advertising job so therefore I must go find another job in an advertising agency.” It was kind of like, “Okay, well world’s my oyster, let’s go try something new.” So yeah, from an adaptability perspective career wise, yes, but also, I mean, I don’t know, the way of the world right now… you know, I’m 28 at the moment and I’m early in my career. And I think nowadays people are wanting more variability from those that they’re hiring, whether it’s for staff jobs or whether it’s for contractors. I mean, I’m a freelancer and, you know, they don’t want someone that’s just done one thing and stuck with it, unless of course you’re a lawyer or a doctor or something, you’ve been trained in a sort of vocational way. So in some senses it’s a way of standing out and being memorable, particularly if you don’t, you know, I don’t come from a ton of money. So I guess my form of privilege, I suppose, is having this squiggly career that counts for something because it makes me different and I suppose more qualified in some sense.

But, yeah, I suppose it’s not for everyone, but I think if I hadn’t had this random journey. I certainly couldn’t write about things in the way that I do, because the thing that I sell myself on is the fact that I have all these different ways of looking at things. And I don’t have 20 years experience or a PhD, but I can look at the financials because I’ve worked in a bank and I can look at media cause I’ve worked in media and I can look at business and marketing because I’ve worked in advertising and you know, and I’ve done door-to-door sales so I also know the regular people and all that sort of thing. So it’s… it really depends on what you’re doing, but I think if you’re not got this ton of experience and you’re a bit younger, it really helps to have that variability  for credibility’s sake, frankly, but also so that you can think just that bit more broadly.

Alison Jones: Yes. It’s just a, such a great way of looking at life. I love that. Let’s talk about the writing for a minute, Gemma, because you know, you do a lot of writing. You’re a journalist as part of the portfolio of stuff that you do, but what does it look like for you when you’re writing a book, particularly?  What do you typically enjoy? What do you find hard? What discipline do you impose upon yourself?

Gemma Milne: Well, I’ve only done one book, so I, you know n of 1 experience, although I’m now working on my next one. So I suppose I’m trying to learn off the back of it. I love the experience of trying to take tons of information from interviews, I mean, I did about 60 two-hour, one hour interviews with experts, I did all the desk research, I did tons and tons of my own voice memos. That’s how I capture my own thinking. I’m taking all of that over a couple of months. And then somehow trying to put it in an order and tell a story around it, and make a point that’s interesting, and cut out the stuff that’s not relevant. It was hard, but I loved that.

I felt like sometimes when I was doing that, I was, if I was religious, I would say it was having some kind of, you know, moment with God or whatever, but I’m not, I’m not remotely religious. So it wasn’t that, it was just feeling so immersed in something and you don’t always get that when you’re freelancing, because you’re jumping from job to job to job.

So it was so lovely to really dive deep on something. And I think that’s also part of the reason why I don’t like writing short form as much, because it feels so temporary. In terms of the hard stuff, frankly, it was the writing. I was really, really nervous about starting writing. It took me ages to pluck up the courage, to put the first word down.

And of course, I mean, that’s a standard thing, you know, the blank page, but I kept saying  to myself, God, you’ve done freelance journalism for a couple of years now, you know how to write, you know you can write, you know you have the information and you’ve got your structure, what on earth is stopping you?

But that took a really long time.  I think part of the reason for that upon reflection is, there’s this whole thing about planners and pantsers when it comes to writing, right? People who like plan everything down to a T and then they kind of fill in the gaps, the writing, whereas pantsers kind of just explore as they go and they just write and, you know. And I think with nonfiction, pantsing is, it’s an interesting  idea, though you probably will have to go back and check your references and check your assumptions after… Planning  makes more sense. And I massively planned the book. Every chapter I had it all, you know, I spent tons of time on like the corkboard mode on Scrivener, making sure I had it all perfect.

And so I think part of the thing with writing was it was also just really boring because I’d done all the thinking already. I’d already worked out what I wanted to say. And so I felt like I’d already written the book in my head, so it was like, Oh, for God’s sake, why do I have to write it? Why can’t someone’s can pluck it over my head for God’s sake. And so, yeah, I found that bit quite tough. And I think that was also why I found editing really tiresome. I did not enjoy it whatsoever. I had a really great editor, who helped me externally, she was just absolutely awesome, but, you know, it was painful.

It was like trying to extract stuff out of my head and it not being as good as what was in there, you know? So, but no, I loved it. I mean, I loved it so much that before it was, you know, I’d only finished submitting Smoke and Mirrors and after about a month or two I was researching the next one, you know.

Alison Jones: So you’re addicted. I find that hilarious. It’s like, I’ve done the book, the book is done. I know exactly what I need to say. I just don’t know what to go through the tedious business of writing it. How did you get over that?

Gemma Milne: Well, I mean, my, my deadline was the end of June and I got on a plane to South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, I think it was March 12th or something like that. And I hadn’t written a word yet. At that point I got on the plane. And it was everything’s on airplane mode. And I was like, well, I’m going to be on this plane for like quite a few hours, I don’t really have an excuse to not write anything. What happened was, actually, it was a bit of a light bulb moment,  because I didn’t have internet and have connection – and this is where the planner versus pantser thing comes in – I couldn’t check anything. So when I started writing, you know, I started with the space chapter , and I started writing and I was like, this law was put into place in… and I was like, Oh, I don’t remember the year, and I can’t Google it. Oh, I’ll just put some square brackets and I’ll fill it in later. And these square brackets basically allowed me to flow in the writing, as opposed to constantly having to be like, Oh wait, is that definitely correct? And, Oh, I don’t know if I’ve got that bit right. Which I found later on when I was doing this filling-in stuff, that was what I found so tedious, it just  stopped me every single time. And I was having to question everything and whatnot.

 I felt like a fraud. I felt like I wasn’t actually writing a book because I didn’t have… and I kept having people be like, Oh, how many words have you written so far? I was like, er, zero.

Alison Jones: ‘But I’ve done some lovely planning.’

Gemma Milne: Yeah, I’ve done great planning. I know exactly what I’m saying. I just haven’t written any of it yet, you know?

So yeah, that flight, I ended up writing, I think a whole chapter, a little bit, 7,000 words. I write quite fast, especially when I’m not, you know, when I’m just chucking it down and this sort of rubbishy first draft.  I got off the plane at the other end and I was like, Oh, that’s okay. I’ve written a chapter. There’s only nine chapters in the book. One down, eight to go, you know? And obviously it was, you know, tons of bullet points and square brackets, but it was just, getting it out of my head was the big first step. And then after that it became a lot easier.

Alison Jones: It’s so funny, isn’t it. We make the doing, the starting, the first thing, such a big deal, and then it becomes a thing. And once you’ve done it, you’re like, Oh, that wasn’t so hard.

Gemma Milne: You have such big or high expectations of yourself or at least I do. I put a lot of pressure on myself with everything in life, to be honest. And I think it is that way when you’ve overplanned, not over planned, but when you’ve planned to a T and then you try and write the first words and you’re like, Oh, wait a minute, I didn’t plan the first word, so, Oh, God I don’t know what to say now, and how am I going to get to that point, and you start seeing the flaws in your plan, but that’s okay. That’s kind of the point. Right? But, you know, I think when you’re a bit of a perfectionist, like I am, you can get a bit caught up and being like, Oh, this isn’t right, I’m going to have to change it.

And then you just keep working and working and working instead of going, okay, let’s just leave it on to the next point. You’ll come back and change it later. And I think the lack of wifi, the lack of ability to check what I was doing to, you know, look up that paper that I’d read, that I stupidly left in a tab instead of downloading, meant I just had to go on with the story, go on with the narrative, get on with putting things in order and fix it when you land in Austin, do you know what I mean?

Alison Jones: That’s brilliant. You didn’t find yourself booking flights all over the world to write the rest of it?

Gemma Milne: Well, I mean, actually, not just to write, I wasn’t deliberately booking flights to write. But I travel, well normally, obviously not at the moment, but normally I travel a lot with work.  I do a lot of public speaking  at conferences around the world. And so actually, the vast majority of the first draft was written, not in London, it was in Airbnbs that I booked with some writer friends to focus on writing, or with my mum, or it was, you know, on the way to conferences or in hotel rooms and between conferences or, you know, sometimes I, you know, I had a conference in Barcelona and I just booked an extra couple of days in an Airbnb, because I just thought I’m already there and I can just hunker down, get some tapas and get writing and then come back a couple of days later. So, you know, I am in a fortunate position. I was able to do that as a result of my job, but I found writing at home and writing in my sort of usual spots, like cafes and stuff, just really, really distracting.

And so it wasn’t until I was doing the, the proper writing, you know, taking all those bullet points and turning into prose, that I basically  just hunkered down in my flat for about two months, but. You know, that was like, cancel everything, I’m only doing this, up at six in the morning, writing all the way through to midnight, go to sleep, back up, you know?

And I mean, that was not remotely enjoyable, whereas the stuff before, where it was on flights and kind of in Airbnbs, at least that was a bit more interesting.

Alison Jones: That’s fascinating. And I do wonder how many planned out drafts there are in drawers, virtual or real, around the world, and people just not quite getting over that hurdle to start writing…

Gemma Milne: Oh man. It’s… I mean, I don’t know how fiction writers do it. I still don’t understand how people have. It’s incredible people writing an entire book without having a deadline and without having a deal. You know, that for me was, you know, knowing that this book was going to be a reality, that it was going to be published, that someone out there was going to do something with it at the end, frankly, it was a huge motivator and  a lot of the motivation was, Oh, it will be so good when I can see it in a bookshop and, you know, mine came out in the middle of lockdown. So unfortunately I’ve not been able to have a lot of those things that were motivating me. I have a lot of respect for writers that can write huge chunks of books without even knowing if it’s going to be bought.

I mean, that’s the process I’m in at the moment, I’m in proposal stage of my next book. And you know, I’ve just had a, one of my recent emails on my agent is: This is not working, we need to have a total rethink. And I’m thinking, Oh, I already wrote 15,000 words, you’re kidding me, you know?

And it’s that sort of feeling of: God, I’m doing all this for… I mean, the freelancer comes in as well: I’m doing this for nothing, I’m not getting paid, but also just this not knowing if it’s ever going to be a reality. So I think that the motivation there helped knowing that it was definitely going to happen at the end, you know?

Alison Jones: And even just really crudely having the conversation where somebody says, where’s your manuscript? And you go, Oh, I haven’t done it. I mean, that’s just, you’ve got to have that  conversation.

Gemma Milne: Of course, of course. It’s exactly that. And you know, I think when I was doing my proposal for Smoke and Mirrors, I never actually fully believed it was true. I mean, it’s sometimes just felt like it had just happened. Which is not true. I mean, I’ve worked very hard to kind of get an agent and do all that sort of stuff, but I didn’t believe it was ever going to happen until I got the deal.

And then I was like, Oh, Right. I should probably actually have a conversation about with myself about writing a book, do I actually want to do this? But it was too late by that point, so I didn’t question it. Whereas this time round it’s like, okay, you know, I’m going to work a lot harder on the proposal.

I want my proposal to be much stronger so I can get a better deal this time round. And I want to have a bit more of an idea of the direction I’m going before I have a conversation with the publisher. So, you know, I wasn’t able to think like that the first time round, because it was just this, you know, how do I motivate myself to do all this, when you keep getting told that it’s insanely hard to get a book deal. Do you know what I mean? So, yeah, it feels different this time around.

Alison Jones: Oh, that’s great. I loved, loved hearing all of that. Thank you.  I’m going to ask you for your best tip for a first time author, I know that you’ve already given us so much stuff, sorry, but if somebody’s out there going, Oh, I’m finding it really hard. Gemma… What’s the one thing that you’d say to them?

Gemma Milne: If they’re finding it hard, gosh, I mean, I think, I mean, it’s something that I found very helpful, particularly when I started freelance writing because I’m not trained writer. You know, I studied maths at uni. I’ve never done any writing courses or anything like that. And when I first started freelance writing, I found it really difficult.

And I kept telling myself, I mustn’t be a writer because this is so hard, you know, I’m not made for this. I’m not meant to do this. I’m clearly bad at this. Why am I forcing myself? You know, all that sort of stuff. And then…

Alison Jones: That’d be the fixed mindset…

Gemma Milne: Yeah, exactly. And then when I read other writers talking about writing and all of them are like, writing is so hard. It’s so painful. It’s like drawing blood from a stone. And these people who have written like 10 books and are bestsellers and all that, and they’re going, yeah, God, it’s really hard. Neil Gaiman saying, you know, I find it really hard to concentrate and you’re thinking, all right. Okay. Well maybe this is actually just part of the process of being a good writer.

And then now when I see someone say they really love writing and they don’t find it hard. I’m like, Whoa, you are an alien. So I don’t know. I think just hearing that I hope is helpful for people who think it’s hard because it’s the reality is, yeah, it’s hard. But most of the time, the good stuff in life is the hard stuff.

And, you know, I think I realized, writing the book that maybe this was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life. And maybe I haven’t actually been challenged that much until now, this has been a real challenge, at least from a work perspective. So I hope that even just hearing that, you know, it’s, it’s hard and it’s OK.

But you just have to keep going. There’s no quick fix. Everybody finds it hard. Well, what differentiates those from people who have written books and those that haven’t: the ones who wrote the books dealt with the fact that it was really hard sometimes and really, you know, ways that meant making huge sacrifices.

Other people have it easier obviously, but. The point being is that it’s your ability to fight through that and keep going and embrace the fact that your life is going to be a bit dominated by feelings of being lesser than and drawing blood from stone for some time until you get those 80,000 words or 50,000 words, or however many it is.

Alison Jones: Brilliant, so wise. No, but it is helpful because if you’re finding it hard and you’re thinking, you know, I’m clearly not doing it right, then to hear somebody the other side of it say, no, it’s just really hard. Suck it up and, you know, come out the other

Gemma Milne: side.

We’re always looking. I mean, this is actually one of my criticism of business books, because I think a lot of business books portray this idea that, Oh, there, Oh, all you need to do is this, you know, Oh, you don’t know how to do your marketing? Try this method or try this nine step plan or whoever. And of course I’m broad sweeping here. Not all business books are like that of course, good business books are not like that, but there is a lot of this kind of: what’s the back door? What’s the quick facts? What’s the thing you’re missing?

And if you’ve got that kind of mindset, which I definitely do, I’m constantly trying to work out, you know, what have I missed here? What do I not know? You procrastinate by trying to work out what the shortcut is, as opposed to just getting on with it. And then you realize, you know, after you’ve done all that Googling, God, there really is no shortcut. I just have to do that. So yeah, that’s been my experience with writing.

Alison Jones: Yes, bleak and heartening at the same time. Thank you. Talking about good business books, apart from Smoke and Mirrors, obviously, is there a business book that you’ve read that you’re particularly impressed by, that you think people listening maybe should check out?

Gemma Milne: Yes, definitely. I mean, it’s interesting. This is probably a different discussion about what would we really deem a business book, but a book that I think people in business should read…

Alison Jones: That that will do perfectly as a working definition.

Gemma Milne: …yeah, I don’t think the author would call it a business book, is Abolish Silicon Valley by Wendy Liu. She is an ex startup entrepreneur, coder, living that life of trying to create a company zero to one, all that sort of jazz.

And she became disillusioned and now works in the workers’ rights space and writes about changing the foundational elements of capitalism and all that sort of thing. But what I find amazing about this book was she showed what it was like to question, how painful it can be to question underlying things that you assume to be true.

And I think a lot of people that at least I’ve come across in various different elements of business, there’s a lot of assumptions and no questioning that’s done, and that’s not a demonizing thing. I think we don’t always have a roadmap in terms of how to rethink things. And I think particularly if you’re working in anything to do with technology, I think it’s well worth a read just to make sure that the assumptions you have about life, work and business make sense.

Alison Jones: Brilliant. And I don’t know that one. I love it when people recommend what I’ve never heard of. Thank you.

Gemma Milne: I think it came out in March or April this year. I can’t remember, but yes, it’s pretty new.

Alison Jones: Brilliant. Alright, thank you very much. Love that. And Gemma, if people want to find out more about you more about the amazing range of things that you’re doing more about Smoke and Mirrors, where should they go?

Gemma Milne: They can probably follow me on Twitter is probably the best, I’m most active there, it’s just @GemmaMilne, my name. And I also have a newsletter that I publish my writing and my ponderings and kind of link to all my work and whatnot, which is called Brain Reel. And it’s linked on my Twitter as well.

So you can go there and find them, I’ve got a website and whatnot, but just follow me on Twitter and I’ll follow you back and we can, we can chat on there.

Alison Jones: There you go. How can you resist that? Brilliant. I’ll put the Twitter link up on the Extraordinary Business Book show notes, obviously, as usual and the transcript of this conversation as well. You can listen at 0.5 speed if you need to, but Gemma it’s just so much fun talking to you. Thank you.

And congratulations again on the book. I can’t wait to see the next one. Maybe you’ll come back then?

Gemma Milne: Oh, absolutely, would love to Alison. And this has been really fun – I’m doing a lot of these podcasts and sometimes they’re quite serious, so it was nice to have a bit more of a human discussion. So thank you.

Alison Jones: You’re very welcome. Any old time.

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