Nobody knows how to make a can of Coke either

The number of individuals who know how to make a can of Coke is zero. The number of individual nations that could produce a can of Coke is zero. This famously American product is not American at all. Invention and creation is something we are all in together. Modern tool chains are so long and complex that they bind us into one people and one planet. They are not only chains of tools, they are also chains of minds: local and foreign, ancient and modern, living and dead — the result of disparate invention and intelligence distributed over time and space. Coca-Cola did not teach the world to sing, no matter what its commercials suggest, yet every can of Coke contains humanity’s choir.

What Coke Contains – Kevin Ashton, Medium (27 February 2013)

I would recommend the full piece to you regardless because it is a very interesting read. But I think there is a thought here that applies to us as writers.

Nobody knows how to make drama. The number of individuals who know how to make a TV series is zero. We all have to work together and it uses all of everything we know.

I’m serious but you’re looking at me like I’m trying to contort a metaphor. I’m not saying you’re right, but go on, go read the full feature instead. And as you go along, take a guess how many cans of Coke are made every day.

Tug of the cap to The Loop for covering this.

Ideas have their time

I’m working toward various BBC Radio proposals – you get to submit them via producers in what’s called the offers round at certain times of the year – and I’ve done this a lot. The proposals. A lot. I mean, a lot. Quite often an idea will go very far through the process before it becomes clear it isn’t going to fly.

That’s not for any bad reason, it would often enough be that the BBC released notes on what they specifically didn’t want this time around and an idea or two of mine might be exactly one of those. Even then, the usual reason BBC Radio doesn’t want a certain type of idea is that they’ve just done too many of them. But like anything else you do a lot of, you keep doing a lot of them because they work. So sooner or later, they’ll be asking for exactly that type again.


Usually when it’s been suggested that I bump an idea back to next time, whenever next time is, I’ve mentally regarded that as a rejection. I’m not being pessimistic or self-immolating about it, I think it’s factual. Because ideas go stale.

You have a finite time in which the idea is viable and exciting to you. After that, you’re at least struggling to get back the passion or you’re not even struggling, you’re just pretending.

Plus, I think that even the producer who says – and means – to bring it back next time will often not use it then for much the same reason. They’ve got their plate full of new ideas, one from last time will just seem stale.

There are exceptions. I’m involved in one right now. We’ll see how it goes but I’m into it with a passion.

But. Presume that this isn’t going to happen to you, so that you can the better enjoy it when it does. If you have an idea you want to write, write it while you still want to.

Or to put it another way, get on with it.

And you think you’re busy

Assuming you’re not actually overloaded at this very moment, take an hour or so to look at people who are. These are showrunners: American TV producers who have to run their dramas like businesses.

It is truly a phenomenal job in terms of having to be productive – and productive all the time. I remember one showrunner mentioning in an interview that the shock of the job was just how many decisions you had to make in the moments walking back from the toilet to your office.

Decisions that affect the employment of at least dozens, typically hundreds. Decisions that affect the enjoyment of millions and thereby the income, sometimes counted in the billions of dollars, that your studio or network will get.

Know your theme before you write

Sitcom comedy writing star – seriously, not only does he write superbly but he’s had a hugely popular blog for many years – Ken Levine this week answered a question about themes in one’s writing. A blog reader said how he had been recording some material for an album and was now finding it hard to discover what that music was really about. What it’s theme was.


Well, the first thing is I do is determine what the theme is before writing. The story, or in your case, album, should reflect that. Taking a finished product and sifting through it looking for gold is rather counter-productive.

This is a question I get a lot (and answer a lot). It’s an important point that needs to be repeated. Sort of like a “theme.”

When people tell me they just want to start writing and see where the story takes them, I tell them most often it leads to Death Valley.

Put in the time and effort to determine your theme first. And yes, I know – it’s HARD. The hardest part actually. But once you have it, the rest falls into place and it’s much easier to determine if you’re on track or straying. The theme is your compass.

Bottom line: what is it you want to say? And if you don’t have anything, then why are you even bothering?

Friday Questions – Ken Levine, (25 July 2014)

He makes good points and perhaps I think that most because usually I agree with him. But it’s straight answers like this that have made his blog a daily read for me. Do check out the full Friday Questions from this week but then also the whole of the blog.

Time and space

I got up at 5am this morning to write but I also came to a certain spot. Instead of my office, I am in my living room working on my MacBook Pro with its endearing keyboard fault. (There’s something wrong with the W and Q keys so every time you’ve read w or q I have actually keyed Apple-1 or Apple-2: I set a Keyboard Maestro shortcut to save me having to take the keyboard apart or take the time to bring it in for repair.)

But the reason I’m here is that here is where I started writing a short story. I’ve been commissioned to write one and as part of the job, I had an evening with a readers’ group. When I got home that night, I had an idea pounding away at me and I had to get it down, so I sat on my couch and typed a few notes. That was the intention. I ended up writing around 500 words of story, feeling it out, experimenting, testing whether the idea was really a story.

And every now and again, I come back to this couch to continue it.

It just feels right. I had this with The Blank Screen book which I wrote primarily on my iPad while working on a massive non-fiction title in my office.

Location matters more to me than I realised and I think it might mean more to you than you’ve thought. I don’t know, but I’m surprised at the depth of difference it’s made to me and if it helps me this much, in some intangible way, then I want to see if it helps you.

Follow. I don’t consider myself a journalist any more but I certainly was one for a long time and as part of that I grew the ability and the preference to write wherever I happen to be and for however long I happened to have. A sentence here. An article there.

Part of moving to drama is that I’m having to reach further inside myself and somehow what’s around me physically is getting in the way.

I still can and I still do write wherever and whenever I can. But coming to this couch to write the short story, going to the Library of Birmingham to do my regular OmniFocus reviews, it helps.

I’ve found this through accident. Can you try it deliberately? Try writing your next thing somewhere else and see if it helps you.

And then explain to me how I can claim this helps me write my short story when I’m visibly not writing it, I’m visibly talking to you instead.

Don’t spend your time, produce it

I did this thing today. Give me a pixel's worth of an excuse and I'll bend your ear off about it, but the important thing is that it was an hour and a half at the Birmingham Rep. Ninety minutes. And I have no idea how many hours it took me to produce it, but I've been talking about it since December so the odds are that I have spent a wee bit more than 90 minutes on the job.

But all the time I spent producing it is why it was produced. Is why it happened. And, fortunately, why it went well. You can't put months into every ninety minute slot in your day, but an hour that works well for you needs more than sixty minutes.

Same thing, different example. I was just asked how long a particular script had taken me to write and the honest answer is that there are two honest answers. I can truthfully tell you that it took me an hour. And I can truthfully tell you that it took me three weeks.

The lesson I'm taking away from myself and what I've ended up doing is that in both cases, I got the time ready in advance. Planned what I wanted in both cases. I got the venue and the guests for the Rep, I got a lot of contributing material for the script. The only real difference is that then when it came down to the time that this had to happen, I was alone with the script and had to get it done. And with the Rep thing, I was far from alone and all I had to do then was watch as really interesting people did their thing for me and the rest of the audience.

I have a proposal to write on Monday. When I'm done talking with you, I'm going to make sure I've got everything I need ready for it. I'm going to produce the hour it'll take me to do the work. I'm going to produce the work.

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.