Ignore people, ignore now, just keep working

I think that’s advice we can all take in our writing. When you start writing, you get asked when your novel is coming. When you’ve a novel, you’re asked when the film is coming. On and on it goes. But just keep writing. When it comes, it comes.

None of which features in the new BusinessWeek interview with Apple’s Tim Cook but all of it features in there. Apple’s been knocked a lot for a lack of innovation and all the way time it’s been working on a watch. You might not like it, you might very well not be interested in it, but you know that every other smartwatch that comes out is going to borrow from Apple’s design.

The piece interested me anyway but in a small way it reminded me of writing. The way that a Doctor Who release comes out a year after I write it so I have the weird thing of people asking me about my new one and I have to think which one they mean and what I can say. I told you it was a small way. But it’s there.

Read BusinessWeek’s full piece.

You’re still on your own

Earlier this year I wrote a piece called You’re On Your Own and It’s Necessary. I did it over on my personal blog, Self Distract, but it so belonged here that I nicked it for the book Filling the Blank Screen.

The point of it was that we naturally turn to others when we are hoping to do something new but those others naturally hold us back. It’s a sticky subject and a rocky road but we do make ourselves into the people we are and our friends tend to be ten minutes behind us while our families can be years and years behind us.

What I recommended in the piece was that you seek out people who are doing what you want to do and you ask them about it. They are naturally going to be biased: if it’s worked for them, they will be enthusiastic and if it hasn’t, they’ll be over-enthusiastic to cover that they were wrong. But still right or wrong, genuine or false, real or not, they are speaking from experience.

I keep thinking and thinking about a writer I hired once. This was a very long time ago and what specific details I can remember, I can’t tell you. But let’s say he had a very specific niche he wrote in. That’s what I hired him for and he was fine, I was happy with the piece. We chatted away during the process, though, and he told me that he’d discussed this niche with his wife and they are concluded that he needed to invest in rather a lot of specialised equipment so that he was able to write from authority. I can picture that conversation, I’ve had that conversation, and it scares me.

Here were two smart people discussing something crucial to their futures. And I don’t know, but I had the impression his wife wasn’t a writer and wasn’t in this specialised niche. So her best source of information about it was her husband.

And I thought he was wrong.

This specialised equipment was expensive and it changes a lot, he would be spending a lot of money now and then regularly spending a lot more. I wasn’t sure there was enough interest in this specialism to earn him much money writing about it. He got that article out of me but I never returned to the topic while I was on that magazine.

I just think a lot about this pair discussing and deciding their futures based on a possibly false premise. I think about it a lot. I think about it especially when having potentially similar conversations with my wife, Angela. We discuss everything and I need her, I don’t feel I know something until I’ve got her take on it.

But very many times she will be working from only what I’ve told her. What if I’m wrong?

And I am wrong, of course, I am wrong often. Such as when I started writing this to you and I had an idea that I wanted to explore certain things. It was going to be all about that previous article – it was recently picked up by another site and I’ve had head-jerkingly gorgeous comments on it – and it was going to be about more. I was thinking about how when we write for places we can be deeply embedded there yet we can also be outsiders.

I was going to explore that as a way of baring my soul a bit to you. Making myself uncomfortable about it because I’m working with about ten groups and organisations and eight of them are making me feel terribly important, terribly good. But that leaves two where I am and I feel that I am an outsider.

I was going to examine why this was affecting me when I’m a writer and I am self-employed: I really belong only and solely to my own group, my own company. I was thinking about how you go native and it can colour how you see things.

But instead I went off into this business of whether I am wrong, whether we are wrong, ultimately whether we can ever be right. That cuts closer to me than even this inclusion/exclusion topic that is so on my mind this weekend. And I know that you’re finding it a bit miserable. I can see it in you.

You’re wrong.

Yes, we can end up making our decisions based on faulty or incomplete premises. We can certainly put too much on the shoulders of our partners even as we deny them impartial or better sources of information. But isn’t that life?

And isn’t that actually rather good? Scary, sure, but also alive.

I was with someone today who was going to a music festival specifically to find out what it was like, in fact going in order to have gone. She was planning it like mad, she spoke of finding out the rules when she gets there. I’ve never been to a music festival but it seems to me that the point of it, beyond hopefully enjoying the music, is to dive in without a plan, without all that much thought, and just swim.

It reminded me of a line in Doctor Who where Christopher Eccleston, performing a Russell T Davies script, says to a new companion that:

“The thing is, Adam, time travel is like visiting Paris. You can’t just read the guidebook, you’ve got to throw yourself in. Eat the food, use the wrong verbs, get charged double and end up kissing complete strangers – or is that just me?”

It gets harder. It really gets harder. But without deliberately making bad choices, without deliberately deluding yourself, take the impossibility of predicting the future as an excuse, as a reason, to go make as many futures as you can.

When is it over?

There’s not going to be some great life-changing Hallmark-Card-like slice of advice here, I’m just wondering about something I have wondered about a lot.

I wonder when things are over.

There must be a day when something is done. This first popped into my noggin some years ago when I read a line somewhere about how Dar Williams‘s new album was coming out soon. (I think it was Many Great Companions, which is so good that when a friend asked what I liked about Dar Williams, I just bought her the album. It’s cheaper to write reviews, but I wanted her to have it. I want you to have it too, but I’m a little short today.)

I can’t remember when this was but I was surprised because up to then, her previous CD had been the new one. My own Doctor Who releases go through a similar thing.

Actually, Doctor Who, there’s a thing. I go through various processes writing those, there are the same types of deadlines to the same types of timescales and in theory I could say my involvement ends when I deliver the last draft. Well, you don’t know there won’t be more to do then. So call it when the scripts are in studio, that’s definitely the end for me. Well, sometimes I’m in studio and working on scenes. Okay, post production. Definitely no involvement there, so that Doctor Who is over and I’m looking for the next one.

Except there are liner notes to write for the CD. Quite often there are interviews to do.

So okay, when it goes on sale. But that’s when I start talking about it all, I suppose officially because that’s marketing and promotion, but really it’s because now I can FINALLY talk to you about it.

I don’t put “Tweet about Doctor Who” in my OmniFocus To Do list. It isn’t a task, it’s what I do for fun. So by the time we reach the tweeting stage, you can bet that my OmniFocus Doctor Who project is long completed. So that’s definitely it, that’s definitely over. I have ticked off everything I have to do, everything I have to deliver, I can mark the entire project as done.

That seems very satisfying.

And that’s why this is on my mind today. I did an event yesterday that has been some preposterous number of months in the making and this morning I’m doing my OmniFocus review, I’m getting to that project and I am about to grandly click on Done, when I don’t.

Because I’ve thought of some more tasks. Well, call them tasks because it would be bad if I didn’t do them. Just wrapping up stuff, there are so many people I want to thank for getting this done for me, for instance. That could go in the fun pile, that needn’t be a task To Do per se, except I’ll feel very bad if I forget someone in the rush. So I jotted down who it is. And okay, I know it’d be handiest for this person if I phoned and for that person if I texted, and so on.

Then there’s the money to do with the event. That truly is a task. That is several tasks in a row.

When that’s all done, then, that’s when this event is over.



I just need to keep the event details around because I’ve had a lot of praise for it that might help in the pitching for the new one.

So JK Rowling writes a book and then she’s a billionaire?

I have no idea whether JK Rowling is a billionaire, I really only know two things about her: she has earned a lot of money – and she earned it. That sounds like one thing but I look at her body of work, I look at the years and the effort and the joy she brought to millions of people, she earned whatever money she has.

But she does get knocked for having apparently gone so very effortlessly from being impoverished to being (is this a word?) poverished. Whatever the opposite of impoverished is. That narks me. I can be sure as onions that she did not go into writing Harry Potter with the idea that it would make her lots of money and thereby feed her kid. Did she dream of it? I hope so: it’s tremendous to achieve one’s dreams. But she wrote that, she did all that gigantic amount of work on top of keeping her family going. I imagine she wrote because she had to. Not in the financial or economic sense but in the artistic one.

I imagine it because I’m a writer too. This is how it is and this is what we do. This is what we do regardless of the results. So long as we can still eat and breathe, we write.

This is the bit where I twist all this into being some kind of life lesson. Actually, I started writing a life lesson and just went off on one about Rowling and how she should be admired more than I think she is. But what started this thought off in me today was this:

One of the most uncomfortable questions customers/clients can throw you is, “how long did it take you to make that?” It’s specific and straight forward enough that not answering or changing the subject would be noticed or come off as rude. It also entirely undermines your work down to just the actual labor part: completely removing the prep, materials, process, and finishing which probably take the most time and energy.

How Long Did that Take you to Make? – 99U

The website 99U was leading in to a story its writers had found on Fine Art Views which grabbed me even more:

Now, right or wrong, here’s what your customers will do. They’ll take the selling price (let’s pick a dollar amount out of thin air – $600) and divide it by the time the artist said it takes to make (three hours). They’ll come up with an hourly rate of $200 an hour.

You may tell people that doesn’t include the cost of acquiring your materials, or prepping, or finishing (frames, framing supplies) or the time schlepping your work to and from shows and exhibitions. It doesn’t include the time and money you spent on educating yourself, nor the time you spent and energy perfecting your craft. It probably doesn’t include the time and energy you spend on applying to shows, marketing, doing paperwork, or cleaning your studio. And if you have gallery representation, you’re actually only netting half that amount.

Nope, they won’t hear that. They may nod their head, but they’re still thinking, “$200 an hour…that’s $400,000 a year!!”

Questions You Don’t Have to Answer – Luanne Udell, Fine Art Views (27 November 2011)

I’m asked how long Doctor Who radio dramas take me, I’m asked that quite a bit. And when I answer, that’s the kind of reckoning you can see going on in the asker’s head. I expect you can see it going on in mine when I ask it about things too.

But you notice the difference in the article names. The 99U one is just the question whereas the Fine Art Views one I lopped off half. The full title of that piece is “Questions You Don’t Have to Answer: How Long Did that Take you to Make?”. But I lopped it for space, because I knew I’d be telling you it in full here, and also because I want to focus on the bit I left. You don’t have to answer the question.

Yes, you do.

No, you don’t.

If you answer it you get into that cycle and nobody’s happy. Not you who spent your life creating something, not the asker who thinks you spent twenty minutes and have no idea what a real job is like, you bastard.

If you don’t answer it, the asker goes straight to the you bastard bit.

But what Udell is saying is that you don’t have to answer it that way. You don’t have to really recognise the question, you just need to respond to it:

Now, ‘not answering’ doesn’t mean you stand in stony silence. It simply means you can start talking about your work, and engaging them, without actually tallying up all the steps it takes to make your work.

I love it. I’m having that.

How long does it take to write a Doctor Who radio drama? I’m so pleased you asked. Take a seat, let’s get the kettle on, I’ve got so much to tell you.

Weekly self-distraction: It’s your fault

This is cross-posted from my personal Self Distract blog. Each week I cover what we write and what we write with, when we get around to writing. It's sometimes about productivity but it's also about drama and the issues of writing. You can read it every Friday here. This one is also specifically about Doctor Who and you can read a collection of Self Distract Doctor Who blogs plus new journalism including a detailed interview with the Restoration Team and the history of Who in Radio Times in my book, Self Distract.

Here be spoilers. Well, there be spoilers: down there, a lot of spoilers a bit of the way down the screen. If you haven't seen the 50th anniversary special of Doctor Who, please do. Go watch it. It's very good.

All I ever want from a story is to be caught up in it to the exclusion of anything else. That's all. Analysis and whathaveyou, that can come later if it must. Just scoop me up, please. And Doctor Who: The Day of the Doctor did exactly that. Job done.

Only, I'm surprised that it did because at its core is something that goes against a thing. I was going to say it goes against a drama principle of mine, but nuts to drama principles: if it works, that's your principle right there. But we tend to have issues that colour our writing, things that we come back to because we're trying to find them in ourselves, beacuse we're trying to mine them for others or maybe just because we're good at them.

And I have one thing that is guaranteed to appeal to me, utterly certain to get me obsessed, and which you break at your peril. Yet Doctor Who broke it and worked. I don't know how. Let me tell you that right up front, if you can call this the front when I've already rambled on at you a ways. I want to explore this and see if I can figure it out because it matters to me.

Here's what it is. If you wanted to get all academic about it, drama is about obstacles. I seriously do not know why you would want to get academic if that means boiling down the richness of drama into a checklist with only one thing to check, but it's not unreasonable to say drama equals obstacles. Fine. Someone is faced with something, that is or at least that can be drama.

But for me, it's really only drama when the thing they face is their own fault. Having something done to you, that's awful. It's powerful. Having something done to you and it is entirely your own fault, though, that's wonderful. It's not that I'm especially in to my characters being punished for something and it's only a little bit that I am in to the genuine meaning of tragedy: a tale that ends badly because of something within the lead character. It's specifically the point that if this terrible thing is your own fault, you could have prevented it – and now there is absolutely not one single thing you can do to put it right. You can't undo the past. This is the real reason I am forever coming back to the issue of time in my writing: the regret, the permanent regret for things lost and things done badly. You can't rewrite history, not one line.

Except in Doctor Who. This is where the spoilers start.

The day in The Day of the Doctor is the one where the fella ended the Time War. This was a huge and so far never seen portion of Doctor Who history: immediately before we saw Christopher Eccleston's Doctor, there was this war, right. War between the Daleks and the Time Lords. And it was ended by the Doctor. We slowly came to learn that though he ended it – so far, so Doctor-heroic-like – there was something of a cost. The war was ended only by the complete and total destruction of both sides. Time Lords and Daleks, all killed. All killed by the Doctor.


The Day of the Doctor undoes this and if you'd told me that before I saw it, I'd have thought again about going to the cinema. I read an interview with Steven Moffat on DigitalSpy this week that ran in part:

It was about a year ago. I remember thinking, 'What occasion in the Doctor's life is the most important?' Well, it's the day he blew up Gallfirey. Then I tried to imagine what writing that scene would be like and I thought, 'There's kids on Gallifrey and he's going to push the button? He wouldn't!' I don't care what's at stake, he's not going to do it. So that was the story – of course he never did that, he couldn't. He's the Doctor – he's the man who doesn't do that. He's defined by the fact that he doesn't do that. Whatever the cost, he will find another way. So it had to be the story of what really happened, that he's forgotten.

I see his point and he wrote it superbly in the show, but I'm mithered. I detest beyond measure the way that a soap, for instance, will get a character into a dramatic situation and then pull back at the last moment to say it's all right, really. It wasn't him. It isn't her. They're dreaming, whatever. Go away. I'm never watching again. So having this thing in Doctor Who that we know was big and then showing us it being even bigger but then taking it away, it shouldn't have worked for me.

I think it's that bit about 'I don't care what's at stake'. For me, the drama was in how there were these stakes that required him to do this. Now, actually, I have to play this both sides because a huge amount of the drama – can you quantify drama like this? a good 43% was angst, 12% personal torture and so on – was to do with how he had no choice. But if the Doctor has no choice, that is big and huge and enormous but it isn't the same as him having a choice and making the decision anyway. If the Doctor presses the big red button, everyone dies on Gallifrey. If he doesn't press it, everyone dies on Gallifrey anyway because the Daleks are attacking very thoroughly.

There is the fact that they're attacking because presumably they're seriously hacked off at the Doctor so nearly efficiently destroying all their plans, ever, so the whole attack is his fault. I'll have that.

So with this storm of issues going on, it does all come down to the small moment, the huge yet tiny moment where he has to do this or not do it. The fact that he does speaks to me about the stakes of the story but it also completely engages me in this Doctor character. The fact that he doesn't do it, that takes most things away. It reduces the stakes, because somehow he's now got a choice, and that reduces the character for me.

Except, maybe it worked for me, worked in this one story, because Moffat could undo the destruction of Gallifrey, he could rewrite one very big line of history, yet do it in such a way that the Doctor was left with the same burden we thought he had.

Doctor Who often reunites various different Doctors and there is always the issue of why a later one doesn't remember all this from when he was the earlier guy. The Day of the Doctor makes many little nods to this and does explicitly state that the Doctors' time streams are out of sync and that neither David Tennant's Tenth Doctor nor John Hurt's Nth Doctor can possibly retain the memory of what has happened. It's plot convenience and it's what has always happened before, but this time the lack of memory means that John Hurt's Doctor and David Tennant's and up to a point Matt Smith's one all believe they destroyed Gallifrey. They carry that burden for four hundred years.

Four hundred years. That's enough carrying of blame and regret and fault even for me.

Good people doing bad things. That's what chimes with me. Making irrevocable choices. That's me. But I thought it was a rule, an inviolate rule of drama that you do not ever undo a character's bad choices, you do not give them a reprieve, you do not give them an escape. The drama is in living with the things you cannot live with. And The Day of the Doctor says bollocks, William.

Quite right too.