You have to love ideas enough to be willing to hate them

The best work you ever do will be so much trouble, so much effort, that by the end you will hate the sight of it all. But they are important enough to you throughout and you love them so much at the start, that you must be willing to hate them if that’s what it takes to get them on.

I’m not clear. I can feel it. Let me try an example, see if this is any more comprehensible. I once pitched to write a book about The Beiderbecke Affair in part because I love that show. (UK edition, US edition)

I also felt that Alan Plater’s drama series warranted the attention plus I knew there was enough material to do, I had all the professional reasons you can think of covered. But also I loved it and Alan was important to me, that’s why I picked up the phone to the British Film Institute.

Nonetheless, I knew that by the time I’d finished the book, I would’ve seen the show so often and I would’ve said the word Beiderbecke so much and I would’ve thought about it so incessantly that I would be weeping to get away from it.

Still, I knew the book was worth that. And if I came out the other end hating The Beiderbecke Affair, that was a small price to pay for hopefully getting the work to other people, introducing other people to the Beiderbecke world.

As it happens, it didn’t happen, I didn’t hate it once. I got a bit panicky, I got a bit worried about the deadline, but I never hated it.

Actually, there was one night right in the middle of it all when I was away researching Beiderbecke scripts at the Hull History Archive and I needed something to watch. I had a pizza, I had a tiny hotel room, it was so hot and I was so tired that I was nude, actually, nude and freshly showered, stretched out on a towel on my bed and deeply needing something to watch. I had certainly read several hundred pages of Beiderbecke scripts that day and I know I had photographed a thousand. (I had no scanner but I made an arrangement with the archivists that I could photograph the pages to effectively make copies of the script to study later.)

I was cross-eyed and knackered. Too hungry and too hot to just sleep, too weary to read, too bone-tired to think. There was no TV and all I had on my iPad was The Beiderbecke Affair episode 5.

And I loved it. Was disappointed that I hadn’t got episode 6 on there.

But I was willing to hate The Beiderbecke Affair if necessary. And if your work, if your project, doesn’t come with that risk, find a better project, okay?


Practically an ad for FileMaker Pro

It’s a video with jaunty editing, a kind of indie-pop-folk-happy soundtrack and lots of folk looking very happy with their computers. The only thing that stops this being an actual ad is that they ain’t paying me and I’m not trying to sell you anything.

Take a look at it, though, would you? This is aimed at small business owners and its a promo for FileMaker Pro, a database service. I used to run my Radio Times On This Day research through FileMaker Pro, I wrote The Beiderbecke Affair book using it, I like FileMaker Pro a lot.

And you can find more details about FileMaker on its official site.

Use the Force – and edit later

One of my books was peer-reviewed by an academic who criticised the first draft with the comment that the first third was plainly rushed. The last two thirds, he or she said, were clearly far more considered and therefore vastly superior.

You know where this is going, don’t you? I’d spent five months writing the first third and one week doing the rest.

That wasn’t through some disinterest in the ending, it was more that I found it hard to start. Not in the sense of putting my backside down on the chair, rather that I had to find the right point and the right tone to start the book or the whole thing wouldn’t work. It was very important to me and I wanted to get this one right, more than ever.

But pondering turned into paralysis and though I was writing away all the time, I was really rewriting. I have no idea how many goes I had at the opening chapters. I just know that the deadline got frighteningly close and that suddenly I was having to write at speed and at 2am.

PressPageThumb03Stuff it, I’m going to tell you. The book was my first, BFI TV Classics: The Beiderbecke Affair (UK edition, US edition). It was important to me because everything is, of course, but also it was my first book. Plus it was about The Beiderbecke Affair, the 1980s drama serial by Alan Plater that either you don’t know at all or you are already humming the theme. It’s astonished me how many people have written to say they loved that show and also that they really believed they were the only ones. It was a show that felt like your own. It was that personal. I think it was Alan’s best work and that’s saying something because he wrote 300 or more scripts for television, stage, film and radio.

He was also a friend. He died in 2010 and not many months after that, I phoned up the British Film Institute to propose this. Someone should do a bio of Alan but I can’t, that would turn a friend into a journalism subject. But I could do Beiderbecke. I could really do Beiderbecke. It’s personal to me just as it is with so many.

Here’s how personal it got. I have roller blinds on my office window but I’ve never got them to work. They’re just hanging up there at the top, half stuck in knots. And it’s a big window. So at 2am, the lights on in my office, the dark night outside, that big window is a mirror. Even under deadline pressure, I was getting really, really, really intense about a particular point to do with the show. And I promise you I saw Alan Plater reflected in the window. He was leaning back in his chair, lighting up a cigarette, and saying that it’s only a TV show, William.

I didn’t have time to rewrite the last two thirds much. But I also didn’t need to.

Even when I went to the second draft – and I must say that anonymous academic had a lot of really good points that I stole, as well as some that I just ignored – I didn’t have to change the back of the book.

Sometimes, you just have to press on and, sometimes, that works. I’ve discovered that my top writing speed is twenty pages of script or 10,000 words a day and that I can keep that up for about eight days in a row. Whenever I’ve had to do that, it’s been with the full realisation that I’m going to have to change a lot later. Edit, improve, fix, rewrite. It’s true. But even in those times, it is remarkable – to me – how much doesn’t have to be fiddled with.

Stop analysing, just do it.

And then analyse later. I’m not advocating being careless about your work, but I am saying it’s easier to change something than it is to make those first marks on the page.