Prose and cons

Writing’s writing, right? Most days I’m doing pretty rudimentary journalism and last month, as you may have gathered because I haven’t shut up about it yet, I wrote some near-endless number of scripts. April is the prose month, and I was quite uneasy about it.

You’ve spotted the past tense, you know I’m feelng better but I know tomorrow I’ll be back to uneasy, so for this brief interlude, what’s made me happier is that I wrote some straight prose tonight. I can only imagine your excitement.

Isn’t it interesting, though, how writing can be so different? I lie that when I think of an idea I automatically know whether it’s radio, theatre or novel: the truth is that I make it be radio. Maybe film. Theatre is scary, especially the night after seeing Chekhov, and prose daunts me. There are just too many words. Years ago, when I began in magazines, I was on a computer title where the typical article length was 5,000 words and after a few months of that, I could not conceive how anyone could need more than that to cover any topic. Later I joined the BBC and wrote untold thousands of pages of Ceefax, I think typically 70 words per page, and after a few months of that, I couldn’t imagine how anyone would need more.

Even today, if you look at a typical BBC News Online story, the whole tale is in the top four pars and everything below it is strictly speaking unnecessary. NOL and Ceefax copy is now written simultaneously; when I was last there the content production system gave the journalist a box for the top paragraphs and another for the rest; both were then sent live on NOL, only the top box went live on Ceefax. And very often what’s in that second box adds nothing to the story; even more often it’s a straight lift from the last piece on the same topic.

So I naturally write concisely.

I know I’m taking an age to say I write concisely.

Maybe I mean I can.

You’ll just have to trust me.

But here I am, a deluded concise writer, and one of my great passions is prose. I think of the novels that have reached within me and I want to do that; I want to do it to other people but I also want to do it to me, to dig out something, learn something, have a blast in fiction. Can’t write long, yet I revel in novels. So what’s a boy to do?


I wrote an epistolic novel. I can’t remember the length now but it was several hundred short pieces, primarily emails but also faxes, scripts, captions, Radio Times billings, even NOL and Ceefax pages at one point. Anything that I could write concisely and yet load with as much as you have to when you’re writing Ceefax.

Whatever else you might call it, it was a novel. That novel got me an agent, got me a really high-powered meeting at a very big publisher, did not get published. You’re thinking it all fell down there and, well, it did, but it fell with enough of a splash that I would be as insane to not try again as I probably was to try in the first place. Consequently, I’ve been writing another novel. Only, I can’t pull off the same cheat again.

So I’ve been writing proper, longform prose. Every trick I know about pacing a script, about structuring a magazine article, it’s all simultaneously worthless and brilliantly useful. I’m simultaneously lost and, er, I suppose found. That sounds far too brightsiding, ignore me.

What I will say is that when you’re writing prose fiction, it is a very, very bad idea to read Paul Auster. Or Carrie Fisher. Margery Allingham. Tommy Hardy. Alan Plater. (You thought he was a playwright? You’ve got to try his novel Misterioso some day. I may have read that ten times now.)

Any suggestions for rubbish novelists I could try while I’m working?


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