Process stories

The phrase 'process stories' isn't exactly common, so I should make sure that you and I both agree that it refers to stories, usually journalism, which follow something's process. How it happened. It's not, for example, meant to mean something where you are supposed to digest, consider, process the story.

Except that's what I want us to do today. And I want us to do it twice.

The first is a quick one, it's something that you've seen a lot, but recently there was that thing about someone in the British cabinet leaking information concerning the government's decisions over whether to use Huawei or – no, stop. It doesn't matter what the decision was.

It does, of course, but I'm concerned with the furore over the leak.

Nobody cared about the subject of the leak, or at least nobody talked about it. Everyone talked about how scandalous it was that a Cabinet minister would leak something.

The story was about the process, about who leaked it and how it happened. And that's the thing with a process story, it somehow manages to become the issue. It completely hides the actual issue over Huawei or whatever it is this time, and instead we're directed to be shocked at there having been a leak.

That's the power of storytelling, and it's not a nice power.

Then we've also just had this business of Sir Kim Darroch. I'd not heard of him before, neither you nor I will hear of him again, but for a brief time, the story was that this UK ambassador had been unprofessional and rude to America.

Darroch, to give him some credit here, moved the story on and caused more trouble than you'd have imagined he could, by precisely timing his resignation. It must be nice to be able to afford to resign your job, but whoever in the hell he is, he does know his politics.

Up to then, though, the process story was calling him unprofessional, he was effectively threatened on television by the man likely to be our next prime minister.

The process story was telling us that he'd written a memo about the US government that wasn't flattering. He called them inept, he called them all sorts of things.

But this means that the memo was leaked. This time, somehow, the process story was not about how there could've ever have been a leak and how scandalously shocking that this extremely commonplace thing apparently is. This time, the process story was about how an ambassador could possibly write such a memo.

That's precision spin, there. Because if the journalism concerned had actually been about the process, the question would've been about how someone could do this –– and we know the answer. It's his job.

Ambassadors represent their country overseas, and they report back to their country what they find. If there's a job description for ambassador, I don't even know what else it would contain.

Yet instead of just telling us this for anyone who doesn't already find it bleedin' obvious, though, the story asked the question about how he could it. It asked the question and it asked the question, and it went over and over the same ground, and it gave a rotating panel of politicians opportunities to look great decrying this man.

They literally called him unprofessional for doing his job, for literally being professional.

And we're expected to swallow it.

We've come to a stage in politics where politicians believe that if they tell us a story, we'll buy it, whatever it is.

Right now in the UK we're having a parade of televised debates about who will be the next prime minister and it's all, every second of it, offensive bollocks. We don't get a say, not in the slightest. We can make up our minds over who we don't want, but it does not matter what we think, not in the slightest.

But still we're getting these debates and we're being told this story that the topic is important – which it is – so the process is important. Which it isn't.

These debates are stylised television entertainment, they are Britain's Got Talent without any sign whatsoever of talent.

We have all these problems and instead of even the simplest examination – why would this ambassador do this thing? because it's his job, the end – we're just getting process stories.

I don't understand how process stories start, I don't understand how they fasten on to particular elements of a story and not others. But I do understand that they are always meant to occupy us with things that do not matter, for fear of us being occupied with things that do.

You're not fooled by this and I would hope that I'm not either, but we're probably wrong. This stuff works or it wouldn't keep happening. We need to stop it working.

I don't know how we'd do it, but the process of stopping this insulting nonsense is a story I'd like to read.


I have a shelf, actually a couple of shelves, where I keep items I’ve worked on. A friend, Emma Boniwell, mentioned that she has one too – we both just worked on the same magazine – but she has a name for this type of shelf.

And for the life of me I can neither remember quite what it is, or ask her. The former is because I’m rubbish, and the latter is because I’ve already asked her to remind me and I forgot again.

I think she calls hers a boasting shelf or maybe a bragging one. There’s definitely a very high degree of self-deprecation and even self-criticism in her term for it, but that’s one place where she’s wrong. There is something special about making things. There is something both special and reassuring about a growing number of things you’ve made.

It’s not bragging, it’s not as if you show anyone else, but it is a bit of pride and that’s damn right.

And I know this, I believe this, because of my own shelf.

When something is going badly and you alternate between wishing you’d never started it and being certain you’ll never finish anything, I think it’s reassuring to see a shelf full of what you’ve done before.

Also daunting. Right this second, I realise that it’s also daunting. Thanks very much.

Perhaps that’s why, completely unconsciously, I slowly moved my own bragging shelf to behind my Mac.

So the books and whatever are within reach for the odd time I need to refer to them, but otherwise they’re out of sight.

Or they were until this week when my Mac died.

It’s currently being repaired, but for several days now I’ve been having to work on my iPad and my iPhone, and they’re not blocking my view of anything.

My bragging shelf has reappeared. And now I’m torn over what to do when my Mac returns. There is a bit of me, a huge bit, that likes seeing a dozen books, countless magazine and newspaper issues, DVDs and Doctor Who CDs.

I like that and I am proud of them, yes. Most of them.

But there is also a bit of me that likes the notion of them always being there yet only appearing from time to time.

It shouldn't be a thing

There are so many things that shouldn't be a thing and usually it's a very bad thing that these things are things, or something. Just last week, for instance, I wrote to you to praise how ITV comedy head Saskia Schuster banned all-male writing teams and of course the idea that she or anyone should even have to think to do that, is a bad thing.

I still and entirely believe that given the situation, given how I as a viewer am being denied all the voices in the land, that it's a good thing she did this.

Something's happened, though. Since I wrote that to you, I've now seen Schuster speak. She was the guest speaker at this year's Writers' Guild AGM on Monday and she was interviewed by the outgoing –– in every great sense –– Chair, Gail Renard.

And Schuster said she hated how everybody called what she's done, a ban.

I squirmed a little in my seat and thought a lot about my shoelaces.

Other than a difference over that word, though, what she said about her decision was everything I liked about it. This was also only one part of a wide-ranging interview and I came away so impressed that I wished I wrote comedy.

Maybe I do. People do seem to laugh at my writing whether I want them to or not. I'll think about it.

Or I will when I'm done thinking about this other thing. This thing that is in all ways a good thing, not just something good done to address something bad.

Well, there is bad in it. At that AGM, Gail stood down as Chair and Olivia Hetreed stepped down as President. These two are both the sort of person that if you got them working with or for you, you would never let them go. But the Guild is a union, it has legal rules, and by chance both of them reached the end of their terms on Monday.

I'm not kidding here: them being required to step down is nothing short of a blow.

But Gail has been replaced by Lisa Holdsworth and it is nothing short of miraculous that we've got her. This is the right person at the right time.

The Guild has two deputy chairs and up to Monday, I shared that title with Lisa. I already knew her from her writing, I'd already worked with her at events, I was frankly daunted to be paired with her. I know there's nobody better to be Chair – and I suspect there's nobody nicer. She's not reading this, is she? You won't tell her, will you?

I was re-elected as Deputy Chair for another year and in Lisa's place, Tim Stimpson from The Archers was also elected to this post.

And finally, I've got to the thing.

Lisa Holdsworth, Chair of the Writers' Guild, is based in Leeds. Tim and I are both based in Birmingham.

The Writers' Guild has always, from the very start sixty years ago, been a national union. But right now, three of its officers are based outside London and that is a very good thing.

I realise as I write this that I have no idea where our new President, Sandi Toksvig lives. And that's peculiar, because she and I have a history. Oh, yes. Sandi and I, we've shared some laughs, we've shared some times, we must go back at least, oh, forty seconds.

I could ask her at the next Writers' Guild meeting, I suppose, but somehow I'm hesitant. "Hello, Sandi, really glad you're the new President, now, exactly where do you live?"

You're having a laugh

This week ITV head of comedy Saskia Schuster announced that she would no longer commission comedy shows that have only men on their writing team. She announced this and what she said was reported only nearly accurately. If you look at the inevitable criticisms she's had since saying this, you tend to find that they are really criticisms of what people said she said.

The truth is that if you are the new Galton and Simpson, don't worry about it. You're not going to have to become Galton and Simpson and Somebody Else.

Whereas, if you're producing a comedy that has a team of writers and every single one of them is male, well, what in the world are you thinking anyway? Comedy can be safe and predictable if you want, but it can also be challenging and difficult and brilliant. You're not going to get a lot of challenging different views out of a group of writers who are all male or all from one area, all of one age, all of one anything.

It is wrong that a broadcaster should impose any requirement beyond whether the script is good or not, but it's a wrong I agree with because it's needed. I am thinking of women writers, I am thinking of writers, but I'm also being selfish as a viewer.

We aren't getting enough women's voices in comedy, actually I don't think we're getting enough different voices of any kind, and it's absolutely no coincidence whatsoever that comedy is feeling stale. That one quietly sublime sitcom like Mum can stand out like a trumpet because so much else is just flat and samey.

If this is what it takes to get better comedy, good on ITV's Schuster for doing it.

Years and years ago, I used to go to television press events and while I've not said it before, I'll admit now that I didn't like the ITV ones. There were plenty of BBC people I didn't like, plenty of ITV ones I did and certainly the shows were as good at each event, but the ITV sessions themselves felt uncomfortable to me. I was a bit of an outsider, just popping in to the odd event when most of the attendees were long-time regulars, but still, it felt like a boys' club and I was excluded.

I've not worked in a writing team where we were all in the same room together or all on precisely the same project, but I was minded of this experience when Schuster described why she was doing this. “Too often the writing room is not sensitively run,” she said at the Diverse Festival. “It can be aggressive and slightly bullying.”

Mind you, I've also been in computer press events where it felt like port and cigars would be passed around any minute. And that the only reason the women wouldn't be expected to go to another room was that there were no women present. I'd say that you can't believe the smugness of technology men who know they're right, but I suspect you can.

Anyway. We've had decades where shows have not included women and if it takes ITV to say oi, cop on to yourself, well done Schuster.

Saskia Schuster is speaking at the Writers' Guild AGM on Monday, where I'm standing as deputy chair. Wait. There's something funny about standing as a chair. I'll think about that. But as well as looking forward to hearing her, I also think it's right that she's there. I'd think that anyway because of her job, but this announcement and her forming the Comedy 50:50 initiative last year makes it more so.

The Writers' Guild is behind the campaign Equality Writes and over the last year, we've seen many moves like Schuster's which have the same aims. We've still a long way to go, but it's going in the right direction.

If you think this is a good time to be a woman writer, I hope you're right. If you think this is a good time for better comedy, I'm with you all the way.

Licence to do what you like

There’s a local BBC news programme where I am certain the reporters are bored. You know, and they know, about how news should answer the questions How, What, Where, When and Why. On this show, though, they play a game and nearly always leave one of those out.

They ruined the fun recently, mind, by ending a three-minute package with a request for viewers to email in if they knew who the story was about. They had two facts to fill three minutes and they didn’t know one of them, but they admitted it. Ruined the game.

Sometimes it’s a bit more serious. I remember emailing or tweeting or something, when a reporter on that same show did a piece and failed to ask the most completely essential and obvious question. It was a yes or no question and I was terribly interested because depending on the answer, this story was now either about fraud or negligence.

I never found out which because I got a deeply snotty reply telling me that people aren’t interested.

But then there is the bigger and less funny case of BBC Breakfast. After the Remain march in London where organisers say a million people turned up, the BBC’s national news show deliberately got it wrong. You can dispute that a million were there and actually, so you should. Question everything. But BBC Breakfast’s Louise Minchin chose to say that there were tens of thousands instead.

That’s a national BBC journalist choosing to make a factual error.

I’ve worked for BBC News and I’ve been on Breakfast yet the result is that when she or anyone else on that show tells me the time is ten past eight, I look at my watch to check.

The reason I bring this up with you today, though, is that there is an online campaign to protest against the BBC by not watching it on some certain day. And the protest has nothing to do with anything the BBC has done, it’s about the over-75s not getting a free TV licence – because of the government.

You know that if you get free medication for any reason, it’s not because your pharmacist is in a good mood. It’s because the cost is paid by government funds. That was the case with the licence fee. Successive governments wanted to give the elderly certain benefits, so they did. It’s hard to remember a time when any government did anything that benefitted anybody outside in the Cabinet, but apparently it happened.

I don’t remember governments making a fuss about this, about scoring votes by doing it, so perhaps it’s only fair that the current one isn’t mentioning that it’s stopped doing it.

Except it’s fantastic, dramatically. One group takes away money from an organisation and manages to get everyone protesting against the organisation.

I’ve been thinking that if this weren’t governments and corporations, if it were individual characters, that you could make it up, but you wouldn’t. I was thinking that it would be too unbelievable, that doing something to another person, getting that person blamed for it, and then later using all of this to do some more damage to this poor sod, would feel contrived.

But it’s schoolyard stuff, this is the bully whistling innocence while the timid victim is too afraid to tell anyone. Unfortunately, it’s also BBC News not reporting the story.

And the rest

You have to think about money and I mean that in a practical way. If you're someone who just wants to be a writer and you think a lot about the vast fortunes that authors get, you're not going to write anything and you might as well fill the time with dreaming.

Whereas if you are a writer and you don't think about money at all, you're not going to stay a writer with a roof over your head for long.

I attended a workshop last night by Ken Preston about writing short romance novels – don't get me started on romance, I think it can be the most exciting and fraught of drama – and one very experienced writer there asked if it were crass to ask about the money.

Ken told her, and I know she knew anyway, that of course it isn't, of course you've got to know about the cash. He was particularly good, I thought, at then taking us through the money for particular projects and exactly how to navigate it all and what you get.

He couldn't have been clearer or more use and during the session I wrote the start of a new story which tickles me. Everything's good.

Only, on the way back, I was thinking about rubbish writers are with money – and for the first time, I thought that maybe we should be.

Just a little. Be a little bit rubbish with money.

I'm not saying you should go buy a £12,000 Mac Pro to write two poems a year on. And I'm definitely not saying, definitely never saying, that you should work for free.

Yet if your sole interest is money, pick another job.

I am a full-time freelance writer and I have become good with money because this is my business and I have to be.

But that story I started last night is unlikely to sell. On a strict pennies per word rate, the projects Ken Preston told us about are not financially worth it. Do what he says and you can make it better, you can make it a good extra income, but the effort-to-immediate return isn't there.

You need an income, you can't survive on air, but you also need to want to write. You need to need to write. I think I've said this before to anyone who'll stop long enough to listen, but if your aim in writing is all about the end, all about the publication and the money, you're going to have a dreadful time slogging through the actual typing.

Whereas if you're in this for the writing itself, well, you're still going to have a dreadful time slogging through the typing, but it will be the kind of dreadful that you can't resist, that you like, that is rewarding.

The writing itself has got to be rewarding or you'll go mad. Or, since you're a writer, let's say madder.

I mean all this and I am concerned when I've been in the pub with writers who don't care about the writing. But I think I also sound as if it's impossible to make money in this business so you might as well treat it as an enjoyable hobby.


This isn't a hobby for me. Actually, I have no hobbies, in or out of writing. Everything I've ever been interested in has become part of the writing and if there have been times when it's gone extraordinarily badly, it's going well now.

So if this minute, right this second, I'm trying to hold on to you for longer because I'm a bit daunted by what I've got to go write for the rest of the day, I'm also looking forward to trying.

And I hope that tonight I will be able to just go to bed at a normal time instead of fainting onto the mattress. Writing is everything, and the rest.

It was easier with paper

Back when we did everything on paper, I know that there was a risk that a page could be lost or accidentally destroyed, but usually you just had to be a bit organised. Starting a new document was easy, too, as it was just picking the next blank page. Finding an existing one could be hard, but only because everything looked the same: everything was on A4, everything in the same handwriting or typescript.

Contrast that with yesterday morning when I needed to find something I wrote last year.

On the Mac I’m using, I’ve just counted seven word processors – no, wait, you can write in Adobe InDesign; you wouldn’t and shouldn’t but you can and I have – call it eight word processors.

And then three, no tell another lie, four apps that are used for keeping notes. That’s twelve places to find something and yes, Macs are supposed to be able to let you quickly find anything in any app, but that only seems to work when you’re demonstrating it. Knowing a key word from what I was looking for did not find it.

To be fair, when I came across it by accident later, I found that I’d misremembered that key word and said word is actually nowhere in the document, but come on.

I think I quite miss the days between now and paper. The patch where you did write on computers – no, wait, I write a lot on an iPad, let’s add another dozen writing apps and I’ve just realised I forgot both Final Draft and Highland 2 – anyway.

I miss that brief period where whatever you wrote, you turned to the same word processor. My memory’s faulty here because that word processor changed. But at least it changed every couple of years, not every minute as I pick one best suited to whatever I’m writing.

WordStar may have been the first, though I’m sure I’ve also seen that in a museum and I refuse to believe my own age. Then there was definitely WordPerfect because I wrote computer manuals for a firm and they – yes! They used WordStar until one Monday morning when that was replaced by WordPerfect. I remember finding WordPerfect so easy to use that I shrugged and carried on with the day’s work.

Then I liked it enough that I would leave that job and spend the rest of the day carrying on at home with the evening’s writing.

Around that time I must’ve started writing for technology magazines because I remember the day the WordPerfect Corporation sent me a pallet-full of software. WordPerfect for every conceivable type of computer available at the time.

And then that computer manual firm switched overnight to Microsoft Word and I got my first grey hair.

What I can’t recall is when automatically turning to Word to write anything, and then looking up manuals and online help to recover what Word lost, turned into the grab-bag, free-for-all, use-anything that we have today.

I know it was probably around 2010 because Microsoft famously believed it could kill the iPad by refusing to put Word on it. When people had to look for alternative word processors for their iPads, they found them. And having found them, they started using them on Macs and PCs too. I’m quite serious: you can chart the fall of Word from its 99% marketshare, or whatever it was, to today when it can only dream of ubiquity the way we dream of it not crashing.

Word is now on the iPad and actually it’s very good, but we’ve long since left home.

Just as we used to pick our blank paper stock carefully – okay, we wanted 80 to 120gsm stock but the office stationery cupboard only had lighter photocopying paper and we were cheap – so picking software matters. Maybe it’s less like the paper and more like the pen: it genuinely used to be a thing that writers were asked what pen or pencil they used. It genuinely used to be a thing where you could muse about 2B or not 2B and anybody would know what you meant.

It matters how these things feel. I can’t explain why writing in Word feels like treacle and writing in Drafts, a Mac and iOS app, feels fast. I can no more explain why I relish Drafts on my iPad and iPhone than I can comprehend how I only mostly like it on my Mac.

Like every other one of the however many writing tools I turn to, Drafts does various things that are helpful and that none of the rest do. For instance, I write to you via my website and that means posting the text in a WordPress site, then getting a short link to it, mentioning it on Facebook and Twitter. With Drafts, I write here on my Mac, then turn to it on my iPhone and the text is there, waiting for me to press a button that does all the posting and social media stuff.

That button probably saves me ten minutes each Friday morning and that’s ten minutes more that we get to spend chatting. It’s practically relaxed now. Can I get you a coffee?

Drafts has its benefits like that. All writing apps have their different benefits. But what’s crucial to me is that they also all have their feel.

And I have yet to find just the one writing tool that feels right to me for everything. I’ve yet to find one where I am solely focused on what I’m writing, not the tool I’m using to do it.

I have just this instant remembered yet another writing tool I have on all my devices and it’s one that I did write everything, absolutely everything in for at least six months last year. I wrote most of a book in it and I forgot it.

Right, that’s it, I give up. I must have blank paper somewhere, where are my pens?

It’s not on my mind at all, no

Most of the time, I get nightmares. I’m not saying all of them are ferocious, though they can be, but it’s pretty much every time I go to bed, that’s what I get. Oddly, the only break I have is when things are going especially badly. In that case, sleep is like escaping for a while. But if things are anywhere from okay to brilliant, cue the nightmares.

Fine. I don’t tend to remember them much, I don’t very often lurch awake pressing my chest, and sometimes they are fascinating. Well, to me. Such as the time when I had some really scary one, woke up sweating in the middle of the night, went to the loo, came back to bed and slipped straight into another nightmare –– which was the Making Of the first one.

It was the same things that had frightened me in the first nightmare, but now with a film crew and, I suddenly remember, on-screen graphics.

Okay. So last night, right, I’m having a nightmare and I know it’s got something to do with the Post Office, but I’m getting things sorted or franked or whatever it is, when I stop.

Right there in this nightmare, I stop and it’s as if I turn to camera. Because completely unrelated to anything in the dream, I say the words “It’s about me”.

And what I mean is that the answer to a drama project I’m struggling with is that really it’s about me.

It isn’t.

I don’t know why I said that and as it was in a dream, I can’t ask me, either.

But if I know now, talking to you, that the project isn’t at all about me, in the nightmare I was so convincing that I woke myself up. And I made a note of this. It seemed that crucial, that precious a solution.

Ultimately, everything you do is about yourself in some way. That’s certainly true with writing. You can’t help it. I’m minded of Fortunes of War, a 1980s BBC masterpiece, which was dramatised by Alan Plater from the novels by Olivia Manning. All the way through, it was Manning’s voice and yet it was also Alan’s.

And actually, maybe I can take that and my dream as a model. I’m not usually this unsettled about a project: I’m usually quite a practical writer and if it takes effort to get some things written, it’s now a process I’m used to. This one is hard and it’s also long and it’s a bit of a sacred trust.

So on the one hand I’ve got to get it right, but on the other, it’s up to me whether I get it at all. Intellectually, I knew I was vacillating over it all, but apparently it’s really got into me.

I’ll be happier when I figure it out, but it’s exciting to be facing something where I think I’ll be a better writer at the other end.

Going postal

The book I was away researching last week involves reading a lot of letters. Hundreds of them. When she knew what I was going to be working on, writer Charlie Jordan suggested that I write one too.

Specifically, she suggested that I write a letter to my wife, Angela. Hand write and post it. In so many dozens of ways, that would fit the spirit of the book.

If it had merely been a good idea, I would've wished I'd thought of it. Instead, for all these other reasons, it was a perfect one – and so perfect that I ought to have thought of it.

When I'd get back to the hotel after a day in the archive, I would write some more and over the week, I ended up with a few pages. Let's not be coy here, it was a love letter.

And do you know what else it was?

It was a week ago.

I posted it first class last Friday and here we are, seven days later. Here's you, here's me, Angela is over there, and the letter is nowhere to be found.

I believe the phrase you're thinking of now is “you had one job…”

I've told Angela, I've told Charlie. I've told Royal Mail too and they said that, well, first class doesn't mean next day, you know. And also that I might be able to claim compensation.

There is a little bit of me that's curious about this. If, and it of course appears to be a rather sizeable if, I were to successfully claim for compensation, I don't know what that could be.

The cost of the stamp doesn't feel like it would cover it. Nor the envelope, the paper, not even the rather long time I spent writing it.

I try to think of what a first love letter in a decade is worth. And the only measure I can think of is preventative. I'll have to do this again, I'll have to handwrite another letter.

I won't have to post it, mind.

I’m not here

I’m not here because since Monday evening, I’ve been away researching a book.

I can’t tell you what it is – ask me in a year, quite possibly two – and, for different reasons, I don’t think I can tell you what the week has been like. Not really, not adequately.

I can tell you that I stayed offline for it and can see that, across various accounts, I have fewer than 200 emails waiting for me. No idea if anyone’s @ed me on Twitter or tagged me anywhere. I suppose I’ll find that out in a minute when I post this, but as I write, I have one more eight-hour session of research.

That eight hours is not my choice, I would be at it 24 hours with naps if I could.

But if it goes as well as it possibly can, I still won’t be halfway through the research when I have to stop. I thought devoting a week to it would be enough for this stage, I also thought that a week on any one subject would be bliss. Instead of darting about everywhere and juggling everything, I could really concentrate.

I did exactly that and it was blissy – not blissful but with bliss-like moments. Overall I’m too conscious of how much more I’ve got to do and trying to figure out how to do it.

Plus, I think I can tell you this, I can’t see the story yet. I’ve a mass of information and an even bigger mass – about two times the size – that I can’t get to on this trip. But I can’t see a line through it yet, I can’t see how to tell this story.

Right now, for speed, I am documenting everything into a database, reduced to reading as little as I can in the moment but photographing it all. When I’m back in my own world, I’ll methodically go through what I’ve got and sort out chronology, examine it all, see what I’ve got.

And then hopefully I’ll see the story.

But somehow that clear and easy frustration over not being able to get to all the material, plus that intangible sense of not getting the grip on the story I expected, and the way this week has been a bubble, it’s all combined.

I understand why I’m not here, how I’m away from my office and away from online, but right now I don’t think I’m all there, either.