Travelling Desperately, again

Shush, we’re in archive. It’s the Hull History Centre and six years ago I was here researching my very first book. That was – take a breath, this is a long title – BFI TV Classics: The Beiderbecke Affair, from the British Film Institute. The Beiderbecke Affair is a 1980s television drama by the late Alan Plater and this place has his papers.

It’s weird being in an archive that’s got a friend’s papers. I’d sit here reading something in the Beiderbecke collection and remember Alan or his wife Shirley Rubinstein telling me about it. But anyway, as much as I adore The Beiderbecke Affair and as important as my book was to me, there was also something else all those years ago.

I worked like fury to collate and copy every pixel of detail about the Beiderbecke Affair and then also Alan’s dramatisation of Fortunes of War because I had a canny eye to what the next book would be. That hasn’t happened yet, but give it time. Only, I did all that at extra-fast speed solely in order to leave the last two hours free.

Because there is this other Alan Plater work that is especially dear to me: Misterioso.

It’s a novel that’s out of print (but you can find it changing hands for a lot of money on eBay and Amazon) and a TV drama that has never been released commercially. It’s really just one small part of his work but I am shocked how deep it cuts into me. This is not a high-profile piece, not elaborate or overt, not famous or lauded, yet there are issues that I believe in and concerns that I share that I can easily trace back to the novel Misterioso in 1987 and the TV version in 1991.

Title card from the TV drama Misterioso

For a simple example, it’s why I’ve always loved the name Rachel. For a somewhat more complex one, it’s why I cherish the thought that, as the show describes, “it’s better to travel desperately than to arrive”. It’s why when I’ve done a lot I know that even as an atheist, I need time for my soul to catch up.

So knowing from the Hull History Centre’s catalogue that they had one entire box of papers about Misterioso, I was having that. Nobody was paying me, I wasn’t writing a book about it, but I was going to read that box for myself.

Only, the collection was still quite new then and things were still being sorted out. They told me they couldn’t find the Misterioso box.

Deeply unhappy, I vowed to return.

Yes. Six years later. I’m back and it’s still only for me, but this time I have a day and a half here entirely devoted to Misterioso. And that’s good because they’ve found the box. I call it a box, often these things are more like folders. But okay, I was ready to read one folder, then, and instead they’ve now got ten.

One more thing. The title Misterioso comes from a jazz piece which features as prominently as you might expect in an Alan Plater drama. I like jazz when I hear it live, I adore jazz anecdotes, but I’ve not been a fan and I have not collected any albums.

Only, the very last shot of Misterioso on television is of Rachel driving off down a motorway as the music plays. Yesterday as I drove down a motorway toward Hull, I lifted my Watch to my lips and said “Hey, Siri, play me Misterioso by Thelonius Monk“. And my car and my head were filled with this tune that seems so simple yet somehow means so much to me.

Blink of an eye

Ten years ago, I was in a Broadcasting House studio with Steven Moffat, the cast of his comedy Joking Apart and also DVD producer Craig Robins. Craig is remarkable: he became a DVD producer, he formed a company and he bought the rights to this sitcom all out of his own pocket and all because he so loves the show.

So there’s Craig, literally invested in his project, and there’s Moffat plus actors Fiona Gillies, Robert Bathurst, Tracie Bennett, Paul Raffield and TV producer Andre Ptaszynski.

And me. At this distance I’ve not a clue why I was there: I wrote a booklet for the second season DVD and I think I must surely have been there to interview people for it. But all I remember is being a spare pair of hands: it was I who brought people up from BH reception to the studio, for instance.

I should also say that I remember having a very good time: the commentaries are funny and informative. But of course as with any recording of anything, there is a lot of hanging about. Not just for me doing nothing much, but for the commenters.

Which is why I’m telling you this now.

I can remember word for word a thing Steven Moffat said in that studio. I can’t quote him for you because while there isn’t a single syllable that I imagine he’d have a problem with, he didn’t say it to me. I wasn’t even in the room: he was in the studio and at that moment I was in the gallery so I just caught it over an open mic.

Plus, my head must surely have been focused on interviewing about Joking Apart because this was a Doctor Who comment of no use to me.

Except it’s a Doctor Who comment that has really stuck with me and which definitely did so because of what happened slightly later. Ten years ago to the month – 9 June 2007 – the Doctor Who episode Blink aired. It’s a one-hour drama that jumps out of the screen and through sheer force of vitality and energy grabs you by the neck. There’s a repeated line in the episode about how you shouldn’t blink, “don’t even blink, blink and you’re dead” and there is not one single pixel of a chance that you ever could because it’s such a compelling tale.

If you know the series, you know this episode and there’s a decent chance you think it’s at or near the best thing Doctor Who ever did. If you don’t know the series then no, sorry, you do: this is the story that introduced the Weeping Angels.

They are genuinely frightening monsters in a series that seems to have to have a new alien baddie every week. Perhaps that constant introduction of new monsters is why I’m usually disinterested in them, including when I write Doctor Who radio dramas for BBC/Big Finish. But I think I’m just automatically more interested in people than, say, tentacles.

Yet Blink is equally exquisite with its characters. Carey Mulligan stars as Sally Sparrow and she really stars in every sense: for once the guest actor outshines the Doctor. That’s no criticism of the then-Doctor, David Tennant, but rather to how he isn’t in the episode much.

I don’t know if this is still the case, but ten years ago each season of Doctor Who had to have one episode in which the Doctor doesn’t appear very much at all. It’s specifically so that the actor can be off filming a different Doctor Who episode. As I understand it, this was the sole way to get each season’s 13 episodes made in time.

Fine, only from a writing and acting perspective, this puts an enormous load on whoever is doing the Doctor-less or Doctor-lite episode. And that’s what Moffat mentioned in the studio.

He’d delivered the script to Blink and I don’t believe the episode had been filmed yet or at the very least he hadn’t seen it. So there we are, some short while before the episode airs, and I’m hearing Moffat talking about how he’d tried his best with it. The sense was that he thought it would be okay, that the show would make it well, but that it wasn’t going to be great.

That’s why the comment has stuck with me. Here’s one of the most successful and doubtlessly one of the busiest writers in British television. Here’s someone who I think has found compelling depths to the Doctor and whose writing can be magical. I don’t know how many episodes he’s written of Doctor Who, I couldn’t begin to add up those plus Joking Apart, Coupling and the rest. But by any measure, Blink is one of his finest moments.

I saw an interview recently in which he expressed mild bafflement at the praise this episode gets and I don’t know if he was being modest. Equally, when he told the Joking Apart studio that this forthcoming Blink episode wasn’t brilliant, he could’ve been just saying it.

I believed him at the time, though, and I still do. I’m just not sure why I find that lifting. I think this was a writer doing something great and not fully realising it so if someone that good writing something this delicious can’t see that, well, it’s confirmed that all writers are screaming crazy eejits and we’re in good company.

Endings and finishes

It’s not that I’m in a fight. But I’m disagreeing with someone and as polite as we’re being, as much as I rate the fella, we’ve come back to the same point many times this year and neither of us will budge. I can’t actually tell you the details because it’s about a book of his that isn’t out yet – and, besides, if you knew everything then you might take his side.

But I can try to present a case to you that I think applies generally to writing and drama and fiction. And by chance it also applies very directly and specifically to a piece of my own that I’ve been working on this week.

In both mine and this fella’s, the last moments are key. With mine it’s a radio play and it’s all about the penultimate sentence. With his novel, it’s about the past page.

He’s much further down the line with his piece than I am so I got to read it finished and as one of several readers he asked for opinions. I can tell you that my summary opinion was that it’s bloody good and so scary that I was reading bits through my fingers.

Only, he wanted to know a specific opinion about a specific thing. What exactly did I think the last page meant? I told him and actually felt a bit on the spot because while it was excellent and maybe a key reason I like the entire novel, what I thought about it seemed bleedin’ obvious to me. But of however many readers he’d had, apparently I was the only one who understood it.

Bully for me.

Except because of this, he plans to change the ending. To make it clearer. And that’s our fight: whether he should or not. Now, he’s going to win because it’s his book but in the middle of our emails about it, I stood up to make my point. I actually stood up even though we were emailing. I got to my feet because I am so certain that I am right. I’m never certain I’m right and yet here I am, standing up and steadfast.

His ending is a real punch to the throat, it is the kind of powerful head-jolt moment that a writer would give their last kidney for. He argues that this doesn’t matter, that it’s worthless if most people don’t get it.

I argue that there is no possible, possible way to simplify this single-point ending yet also keep its power.

So his position is that it’s better to have something every reader gets. And mine is that if you do this, then what they get is tepid water when they could’ve had moonshine-strength alcohol. He wants something for everyone, I want something brilliant. I envy this man’s writing and one of the reasons is this power that he’s willing to throw away.

Let me describe my own nearest equivalent, the thing I’m writing this week. It’s also not out yet and it’s actually so early days that the odds are it will never reach an audience or at least not in this form. Nonetheless, it’s mine so I can tell you that the penultimate line is someone saying her name.

That’s all. Just her name. It’s a point in the play when I officially reveal that someone is really someone else – and it comes about 40 minutes after the audience will have figured that out anyway. Only, I want the audience to be ahead of me here because when they finally hear the name spoken, it then tells them a second fact that they will not have got. I do like the trick of it, I do like the surprise, but it’s also important for the character and what she’s been going through.

And I’m proud of this next part: I wrote that line, I wrote the sentence that is simply her saying her name, and in that context, at that point, it made me cry at the keyboard. Honestly. Consequently that single line is the reason I must get this play made. The power in that penultimate line is my reason for writing it at all.

I just know both that audiences will have guessed the first part of it and also that given where it sits in the play, some will miss its import. Inescapably, you know the play is ending when you get to this line and I think it’s a beat that comes after you expect all of the plot and character to be done with.

Perhaps I could move it up earlier, but then it wouldn’t have the bang. I could skip it completely and just end the play a moment sooner. Accept that it’s no longer an ending, it’s just where the play finishes.

But this sentence is an end, it is the snapping of the suitcase being closed on the story. It’s also the best sentence I’ve ever written, so, you know, there’s that.

Back in time

I spilt my tea over this but I reckon you’re made of harder stuff. And also that if you were liable to spill tea over it, you heard it a week ago and have already mopped up. But about a day after I wrote to you that the US television drama Timeless has been cancelled, it was un-cancelled.

Now, I could go off on how this is good news – I enjoy the show very much – or I could tug on my TV historian credentials and talk to you about just exactly how unusual this is. A network cancelling a series and then reversing that decision three days later, all in public, is borderline unique. The only thing stopping me saying that it’s actually unique is that there’s an argument that a similar thing happened with the original Star Trek.

Picture me with my hand out flat and gently rocking it.

But you know that and you gathered I like Timeless so let’s refill our tea and take a look around. I’m in the local library I used to use as a boy. I’m sitting about two metres to the left of where I once sat on the carpet, reading some book I can still cherish but have long forgotten the title or author of.

It’s just that there, right there, is the first time that I so enjoyed reading a book that when I got to the last page, I instantly, unthinkingly, completely naturally turned it back to the first page and began again.

That spot is now one of – hang on, let me look – something like a dozen PCs. I can’t be sure because some are hidden by shelving, but it’s approaching a dozen. It’s funny how easily they fit into this space. Old wood, doubtlessly the same that was here – oh, right over there where it now says Western Fiction and Books about Railways, that’s where as a teenager I picked up James Blish’s novel A Life for the Stars. I believe I got my utter certainty that it is better to be crew than passenger from that book.

I was saying. Old wood, doubtlessly the same wood as when I was here. Ancient windows that I think have been restored but if so, now restored so long ago that they need it again. One table with that raised middle creating slopes on either side that are just right for reading newspapers on.

And across one end of the room, a set of three display cabinets each with one model railway carriage in. They look beautifully precise and well built, but I had no idea why they were here when I was a boy and I’ve no clue now that I’m a man. I suppose I could ask and I supposed I could’ve asked, but I won’t and I didn’t. Keep it a mystery.

This is all sounding like I’m just trying to tie something in to the word Timeless but actually it’s the newsman in me. Having told you that Timeless was cancelled, I couldn’t allow myself to not tell you now that it had been uncancelled. Doesn’t matter if you already knew, doesn’t matter if you have no interest, I can’t let it go because that would be wrong. Incomplete.

I just don’t know if the boy I was two metres to my left and some decades to the right would’ve cared about that. I think he would.

I tend to look back with an ache of loss. Definitely to the time when I was a boy, the other day to the time when an episode of The Sweeney was on TV and I had to accept that I had been alive during those prehistoric days. Certainly also when I look back to yesterday, to ten minutes ago. I don’t what it is about time, I don’t know why the past is a constant ache.

But right here, this moment with you in this room, that sense of time is making me feel peaceful. This room helped form me and it has waited for me to come back.

Plus, earlier this week I re-read Alan Plater’s novel Misterioso for easily the twentieth time. And yes, when I reached the last page, I did turn it back to the first one. The boy would be happy.

Out of Time


I’m a writer who is obsessed with time so I thought the worst thing possible was for there to be a glut of time travel TV shows. It’d be like wanting to write a zombie series a few years ago: there were just so many, you had no chance.

Unfortunately I now suspect that there is one thing worse and it’s there no longer being a glut of time travel shows. Seriously, they came and they went. It was ridiculous how many there were and startling how fast they weren’t.

The comedy Making History, for instance, did make me laugh once during its pilot but it was gone before I noticed episode 2. I don’t think it’s a bad show, but it’s one borderline puerile gag that struggled to fill that first week. So news of its season being cut to nine episodes was both unsurprising and effectively news that it was dead. It’s now dead. No second season.

No second season for Frequency, either, though that did better and you can see it on Netflix in the UK. It was based on the film of the same name which I haven’t got around to watching, and it was well made but I didn’t get around to watching more than the pilot. It tried to use time as a way into telling detective stories yet then had to create obstacles for itself or its characters across the past and present could just tip each other off over whodunit.

Then the HG Wells/Jack the Ripper series Time After Time got knifed after, I think, five episodes. I’ve only seen the various extended trailers but I read the pilot script and shrugged. It, too, was based on a film (which was based on a book) and for the greater part of the pilot script it was trying to be that film. It was a bit dull: even though I must’ve last seen the film in the 1990s, the thing was all so familiar that I was bored reading.

Until the end when in the last few moments it remembered it was supposed to be a pilot episode and so went hurriedly into Setting Up The Series. Time After Time is about Wells having actually built a time machine and the gimmick of the series was going to be that all of his books were real. I remember some chatter from the producers about how this was a subtle thing in the first few episodes, how only real fans would pick it up.

Yeah, no, a brick to the face would’ve been more subtle.

Travellers lasted its season and I enjoyed the pilot but again didn’t get around to coming back to it. That’s also on Netflix and presumably will be there for a while as it isn’t going anywhere.

Nor is Timeless though as we speak, the makers are trying to shop it around to another network. It’s unlikely to land because the show is expensive to make and if enough people were watching then it wouldn’t have been cancelled.

And yet it is the one I’ll miss. It’s the one I watched the whole run of, it’s actually the one I looked forward to and which ended on a cliffhanger which promised much for the next run.

Timeless was just a fun kind of adventure series and the way it handled the dangers of its characters altering the past was refreshing: it didn’t. The characters routinely made gigantic changes and those did affect their futures. In one episode an important real-life person from history is killed and it is a real jolt in part because it’s done as a surprise and in most because you can’t believe they had the chutzpah to do it.

I’ll also miss something that came up in the pilot script but was left out of the aired version. As broadcast, the pilot really follows Lucy Preston (played by Abigail Spencer) as a mildly naive history professor. As written, the very end of the script shows her being watched from a car outside her house – by an older, sadder, angrier Lucy Preston.

That’s what I like about this stuff. Not time machines, not tin foil visions of the future, but personal time. That older Lucy is effectively the enemy of her younger self: talk about making your protagonist and antagonist well-matched.

There were time shows that didn’t exactly fail. The Stephen King novel 11-22-63 became a mini-series so that wasn’t ever going to have a second season. It didn’t do brilliantly in the ratings, though. And if Time Travelling Bong were ever to have been a series, it stayed as a mini.

Curiously and maybe ironically, the time shows that succeeded were all ones that began further ago in time. If your time series began in this most recent 2016/17 US TV season then it’s dead. But if it were earlier, you have a chance.

So Outlander continues, for example, and while yet again I’ve only seen the pilot from two seasons back, I’m glad because it’s gorgeously written and made. We’ve got 12 Monkeys which has been cancelled but actually sort of cancelled in advance: its third season is about to premiere in the States and a final fourth one has been announced for next year.

This is Us was the subtlest of time shows being set across different years instead of having anyone traveling between them. That’s been picked up for a second run, but initial acclaim has somewhat withered away.

Then there’s one you may have heard of called Doctor Who. I don’t know the ratings but I think this current series is doing well and you can see from it that the show has made a move to be accessible to brand-new viewers.

That’s an argument you’ll hear against all of these failed time shows: that they were too complicated for audiences to understand. No. Not one of them. You could often wonder why they bothered time travelling, but you were never in a sliver of doubt about what was going on in any of these shows. Granted, 12 Monkeys pushes that to the limit, but still it does entirely make sense.

Usually if anyone is confused by time shows it’s not the audience, it’s the makers and the commissioners. I’ll take anything, absolutely anything that a show throws at me so long as it keeps me in the story. You can tell me that it’s got ridiculous plot twists but if it fooled me as I watched, I’m fine with that. Yet I can’t even watch Richard Curtis’s About Time because the very premise has such a gigantic flaw that it’s impossible for me to give a damn about the characters.

Going further back, British TV had Crime Traveller which was a good if cheesy title slapped onto a show that I decades later I still find so personally insulting that it makes me grind teeth. And not mine.

You look for reasons why dramas fail, though, and the time shows are all going to have this notion of their being confusing. Undeniably, they must surely have all suffered from being launched at the same time. Yet look at them individually and only Timeless and This is Us had that something that makes you tune in again.

They were just the good ones and you can rationalise plots and ratings and demographics and budgets and time slots in the schedule all you like, the thing is that some shows are good and some aren’t.

Even so, we’re not going to have another year of so many time shows. But fortunately for me and my obsession, there are more TV and films coming that try to use this potent theme. I’ll be watching. Hopefully I’ll be writing.

Divide by zero

I was doing a thing earlier in the week, writing about our need as humans and especially as writers to see patterns in events. To make sense out of chaos and to form a narrative is just natural.

We all do this. But at one extreme, I’ve a friend who needs me to construct a story about everything. If I give her a book, she will honestly need me to tell her that I heard about it on the radio, that I went to the shop, that I asked a shop assistant for it and then brought it back. If I don’t tell her that, she tells me each step, prompting me to agree.

At the other extreme, I’ve someone who if they need me to get something for them, will give me a script of what to ask for and where to stand when I do.

Hang on. I thought that was just two people who were a bit fixated but it’s me, isn’t it? The second one thinks I haven’t got a brain cell in my head and the first suspects that I go around stealing books.

Well.

Moving on, apart from these two, you’ve seen those TV documentaries about some year or other and you’ve been startled about things such as the fact that Star Wars and Woody Allen’s Annie Hall came out at the same time. I want to give you some example of how surprised I was at how a famous political event happening at the same time as The Muppets but I’m not political.

What I am and what I suspect you are too, is unconsciously used to seeing events sorted out into threads. It’s like history begins as a piece of A4 paper but studying history is like reading that after it’s been shredded. We see long straight lines, we don’t see the whole picture.

Maybe the whole picture is just too big, I don’t know. Certainly it takes time to understand what’s been going on: I can’t wait for the history books to cover today. Though that’s chiefly because by the time those are written, our current events will be safely behind us.

Only, just looking at this as a writer, just looking at this idea of organising events into a comprehensible timeline of cause to effect, I’m seeing something. I’m seeing a structure that a writer would have to invent if it didn’t exist. I’m seeing enough that I wonder whether we are not only prone to looking for sequences and timelines, but that we also naturally, actively create real-life drama in the same cycles and patterns that we do in art.

For there’s this business now that Brexit has metaphorically divided the nation and there’s at least a strong chance that it will cause the literal division and end of the UK. This is just fact now: Scotland may vote to leave, Ireland could even reunite – and, come on, whatever you think of the politics about it, that is surely a third-act surprise twist.

The UK is being divided and the result is that it feels some of us are being focused more on infighting. I do mean territories but I also mean individuals as lines are being drawn and crossed, political opinions are becoming concrete and angry instead of comparatively abstract. Nobody debates, we all entrench.

It’s just that we’ve seen this before.

It’s no stretch to say that divide and rule was British policy across the world and across history. It is both how the Empire was created and how schisms remained across the world after that fell.

I am thinking that what goes around comes around. I am thinking that if you show a gun in the first act, it will be fired at you in the third.

That does imply that we’re in the third and final act of the UK but, remember, we also love sequels.

It’s about {squiggle}

Apart from the framed cover of my first book, I’ve only ever chosen two pictures for our walls. The first was five years ago and a little related to that book: it was a single blown-up page of script from Alan Plater’s Fortunes of War dramatisation. People see that, read the page, have no clue why the text makes me sob.

From now on, they’ll be able to look to their left and see this as well.

The main symbol for Time as written in Heptapod from the film Arrival

I like that one is typewriter text and the other is also text but in a graphical form. I like that both speak to me about language. I like very much that this new one is the symbol for Time as seen in the film Arrival.

I like less that there were actually three different symbols for Time in the movie. But this is the main one, this is the one the characters pointed to when they called Time. And in a weird way, this is the one that reads like Time to me. It’s not like I think I can read the Heptapod language it comes from, but I read this symbol and I read it as Time.

I don’t know why this matters to me so much but I don’t need to: it just matters and oh, my lights, it matters enormously.

I’m minded of how as a man it’s considered weak to weep at poetry. I offer that it’s not a weakness in me or any man, any woman, it is a power in the text. To be able to write like that, to reach people like that, to affect people like this, it’s power.

Whether it’s in English or Heptapod.

Restored to life

Confession: I backup everything I write, everything that lands on my Mac, everything. But I rarely go into the backups to restore anything. Until this week when my arm was twisted into powering up my last computer again and doing some work with it. I’m going to claim that it doesn’t matter what the work was but really, I just cannot remember – because of what I found instead.

Every five or six years I buy a new Mac and take a minute or two to bring over all my current documents. I also promise to sort out the pile of hard drives I have inside some of these Macs and outside all of them but I never do.

This week I did and it’s been like data archaeology. Let me just tell you this first: here on my old Mac Pro I found I’d got 44 feature films. They appear to have been ripped from my DVDs but I don’t remember doing that.

Then there are 279 whole episodes of TV series. Some DVD rips, some iTunes purchases, I don’t know.

And 15,768 radio or other audio tracks.

I do understand that one because I used to have my Mac Pro automatically switch itself on to record the Afternoon Drama on BBC Radio 4 every day so there’s a pile of those. It’s a pile with titles like ‘Afternoon Play -ep723.m4a’ and no other way to work out what each is but to listen.

Then, too, I’ve made a lot of radio on my Macs so there’s surely a thousand or more tracks to do with that.

One more thing. Somewhere in that Mac Pro’s folders there were also 3,336 scripts. A thousand or more movie scripts plus entire series of television ones. Oddly few radio, for some reason.

All of this is now on a drive connected to my iMac and Backblaze, my online backup service, is sweating as it uploads the lot to cloud storage to make sure it is never lost, that it is always available to me wherever I am.

And that would be where I’d stop. Look at this, I could say: I’ve found all this glorious material and that it will of course occupy me, enthral me, distract me.

Only, this digging into a massive personal archive turns out to be a delicate dig into the past. It’s delicate because at first you see a photograph and alongside it there’s the date. It’s a file on your Mac, there’s the name and there’s the the Date Modified. It’s putting a pin in a memory – but then opening that image, looking at that document, just glancing at it changes the Date Modified to today. It’s like grasping at something that crumbles in your hand.

Now, if you dig slightly to the left and down a bit there is way to show the Date Created. But I didn’t think of that until I’d go into paroxysms about the ephemeral nature of even digital memories.

And as I write this to you, I’m actually back by that old Mac Pro because I wanted to get that screen grab of its display looking whitewashed. (When did I take that whitewash photo? Apparently Sunday, 8 September 2013 at 11:12.)

But I’m looking for that date and the drives inside this Mac Pro began giving out a little scream.

They’re going to die. And I’ve already plugged in one ancient external drive that I pointlessly struggled to find the right cables for because it’s dead.

We use these machines to do our work and to do everything, but along the way we are inadvertently documenting our entire lives in sometimes minute-by-minute detail. It’s not always great detail. It’s sometimes scraping when you find an old email and the text comes along with a tsunami of upset.

It’s not great detail when you learn what open wounds you still have. But it is great detail, it is the greatest of all details, when you a To Do list from 2003 that has hopes for the future that you’ve since achieved.

I’m not saying you should dig through your old computer documents and I’m definitely not saying you should do it without a strong mug of tea beside you. But I am saying you should backup everything. I’ve said that for years and meant it in very practical terms but today I mean it in emotional ones too.

Sticking to type

Earlier this week I needed to get a photograph of a keyboard for a colleague on a project. Easy, I said, do you want a shot of the two I carry in my bag or of the three on my desk?

Easy, they said right back, you’re scaring us now and we’re just going to be over here, phoning other writers and a few medical experts.


Look, I can make my keyboard obsession seem perfectly normal and healthy if you’ll just let me tell you two things. One is that, excuse me, plenty of writers through the years have fixated on their 2B pencils or expensive fountain pens, I’m just ahead of the technology curve.

Okay. That didn’t work. Fine. This will. I can make the keyboard stuff seem perfectly sensible by blowing it out of the water with something worse.

For by coincidence, someone else asked me two days ago what I write in. I like her so I should’ve just said “English” rather than being boring for an hour but, pretend to be shocked, I chose the boring option. For an hour I answered that I write in Microsoft Word. And Apple Pages. Scrivener. Ulysses, Final Draft. Evernote. Apple Notes. Drafts 4. OmniOutliner. DEVONthink.

I’ve weaned myself off also using Simplenote. I never quite got into Bear Notes, Typed, Vesper, BBEdit, MarsEdit or the various flavours of WordPress but there’s still time. Ooooh, also Slack.

What I don’t understand is how I use all of these apps every day and for whatever it is that I’m writing. Without thinking, I automatically know which one I’m going to work in. That’s a bit bleedin’ obvious when I’m writing scripts because that’s what Final Draft is for – except, mind you, Scrivener is good for scriptwriting and some places I write for are less fussed about formatting and more fussed that you must deliver in Word.

So, yeah, occasionally I can’t find a piece of work because I don’t remember which app I wrote it in, but that’s just normal, everyday sane first-world problems.

What I very much don’t understand, though, is how writing can physically feel so different in each of these apps, on each of my dozen current projects. In every case I’m typing on the same keyboards into the same machines, iPad, iPhone and Mac, but they feel different. Seriously. Also, when I’ve been writing in Ulysses for iPad using an external keyboard and then go to use Scrivener for Mac with a very similar external keyboard, my fingers react differently.

A pianist I know says she finds the same thing when she goes between a Church organ and a regular piano.

I can understand that for her yet can’t explain that great difference I find where there surely can’t be any. It’s as well that I’m not fussed about justifying it as I can’t. And you may have been looking at me funny for the last couple of minutes but I’ve been thinking about this stuff for years.

Which is why there is one thing that I do understand about my fussing over keyboards and about my constant search for the next thing to write in.

It’s because that’s a damn sight easier than searching for the next thing to write.

That’s what I should’ve told my what-do-you-write-in friend: I write in the tiny amounts of time between my having been able to successfully distract myself.

She was asking, incidentally, because she’s been using Word and knows there are alternatives. I showed her all the ones on the iPad I had with her and some appealed, some didn’t, but we talked about what she wanted and ended up agreeing that Word is fine for her. It’s fine enough and she knows it well so she’ll stick with that.

So apparently I can cut through the crap when it’s someone else’s writing, I can see clearly what they need and how they’re just postponing writing. I can see that just making any decision about an app or a keyboard is better for everybody.

Except me. I’ll definitely crack on with this collection of Time stories I’m writing, though I’ll just wait until the new update to OmniOutliner for iPad is out.

1) I’m wrong b) You’re right

I deeply like and relish and appreciate having my mind changed. It is exciting. It’s also fun because I’m a man so if someone, especially a woman, does this to me then you get to see them blinking. Did he really just say aloud and in public that he’s wrong and I’m right? Where’s my diary? Can I get this on video?

Only, I have a slight sticking point on one subject that I spend a foolish amount of time arguing both sides of. I don’t usually do this with you, this isn’t something I arm wrestle anyone about, but it’s something that I’ll sit here for an hour internally debating.

It’s this. In my heart, I am a writer who resists and even resents the entire notion of outlining. That’s something you have to do at school, it’s something you are required to do contractually when you’re scriptwriting, but it is wrong, it is just wrong.

There are writers who like planning out in this way and I’m not criticising those psycho nutters. It’s just that for me, outlines constrict instead of construct.

Except I chose that in-my-heart phrase carefully because my head has gone somewhere else and I don’t like it, except that I do. I swear that I remain religiously anti-outline but, hang on, let me check something, okay: the iPad I’m writing on now has near enough 300 outlines in it.

There’s only about a dozen that are stories, though. The rest are workshop plans, event notes, a lot of articles where the topic was complicated.

I’m surprised it’s only 300. Thinking about it, I did have a clear out about a year ago. So that’s 300 outlines in a year. Given that I wrote fewer than no outlines whatsoever between leaving school and starting Doctor Who, that’s surprising.

Except I’m not surprised. For its not that I’ve turned to a dark side, it’s not that I’ve fundamentally changed my views on writing and what works for me in that. You don’t need your diary yet.

It’s that a few years ago I was so enjoying the boon a To Do app called OmniFocus was making to my life that I looked to see what else that same app developer made. I liked OmniFocus so very much that I even downloaded a trial version of what’s called OmniOutliner. It’s an outlining app for God’s sake and it was also expensive. I mean, I’ll gladly spend a lot of cash on software if it helps me enough to be worth it, but I’m dabbling here, I’m only checking something out because it’s related to another app. I don’t need or want an outliner and as sure as eggs are eggs and Word will lose your work at a crucial point, I’m not paying a lot of money for an outlining app.

Before the first day of using this trial version was over, I bought the app.

And then never used it again.

But only because the morning after I’d bought OmniOutliner 3 for Mac, the company brought out OmniOutliner 4 and all recent buyers got the update for free.

I’m telling you this now because OmniOutliner 5 came out on Wednesday and it is very good. I’ve been using a pre-release version for a month or so and I’ve planned more events, I’ve sorted out things I need to do, I’ve written a dozen or more articles and pitches that at least used it a little.

But I’m also telling you this now because of one thing about one version of this software that came out. It’s called OmniOutliner Essentials and it’s only $10. (You’re best off buying it directly from the makers and they’re a US firm. I don’t know what the UK equivalent price is.) That is about a fifth of the price I paid before.

Now, it’s partly a fifth of the price because the company’s updated the app while also removing a lot of features but they weren’t ones I tended to use. Also, it’s a fifth of the price but you have to have a Mac. There’s no PC version and won’t be.

But nonetheless, this is a preposterously cheap price for something that changed my mind about outlining. It still hasn’t changed my heart but while I will continue to stride off into thousands of words of script or page just to see what happens, I doubt a day goes by that I don’t open OmniOutliner for something or other.

It’ll be that this something-or-other is complicated. Or that I know one thing I definitely want to do, to cover, to write about, and I’m really just making a note about that before I forget it. Then tomorrow I might come back and add another point that’s occurred to me. When I’ve got twenty or two hundred points like this, I’ve got an article or maybe I’ve even got a story. And away off I’ll go.

I said that I enjoy it when people blink at me. I want to make you blink now. Here I am recommending OmniOutliner Essentials to you but you will never under any circumstances catch me using it again.

For while this new version still hasn’t got my heart, it has got me mind, body and soul enough that I’ve upgraded to what’s called OmniOutliner Pro. It’s Essentials with a lot of bells on and they turn out to be bells that I like.

If you have a Mac, go get the trial of Essentials and then see if you can resist buying it, see if you can manage to not splash out that whole ten dollars. I am as certain that you’ll like it as I am that I can never explain why it’s great yet Word’s outlining feature is a whole kennel of dogs.

If you have an iPad and iPhone instead, you could buy OmniOutliner for those and have a very good time but there’s a version of Essentials coming for it at some point.

If you don’t have a Mac, iPad or iPhone, then write in your diary that I said outlining apps are all rubbish, okay?