Fit and finish

I’m not a planner. Well, I am with projects and I’ll plan writing so that I don’t miss deadlines. Also, when required to, I can outline a story or script. Plus, there have been times when I have had to plan a story just to get it clear in my head or knock it out fast enough for a producer. And I’ve planned hundreds of events, I’m a planner there even if I doubt any of those talks or workshops or sessions has ever stuck very closely to the plan.

But apart from all events and certain stories and every commission and most projects, I’m not a planner.

I prefer to just start writing and see where it takes me. Now, if you do this, if you are stupid enough to do this, you are obligated to know that you’ll be writing rubbish. You have to know that you will – and I have – written a hundred thousand words of which you then throw away ninety thousand.

I think that’s a bargain. You get ten thousand words you’re happy with and all it costs is ninety thousand you’re not. I’ll take those odds and I have, many times.

But I feel as if I’ve talked a lot with you about fairly bleak things lately and I want instead to tell you something about all this that makes me happy. Very happy.

This will take a sec.

Often – maybe always – you’re reaching the end of a script, a story or even an article and you know you need something. I think you know what I mean and I’m certain that I can’t define it any better than this. There is just something more you need. A moment, a character, a thought. Even a plot point. It’s something that, if you get it right, is the final part that turns a piece from a string of words into a story.

And the thing I so adore is that sometimes – just sometimes – you realise you’ve already got it.

Something you wrote earlier in the piece was clearly there solely so that you could call it back, so you could pick it up, so you could build on it, so it could create some kind of harmonic. You didn’t do it deliberately and you haven’t been working to make it fit the end but it’s so right that it is as if you did and you always knew it was the finish.

It’s crucial to me both that it can perfectly do this thing for the end but also that I set it up so thoroughly and completely unconsciously.

As I say, it only happens sometimes but it is inexpressibly wonderful when it does. I feel clever, I feel daft, I feel satisfied.

And the reason I’m telling you now is that I’ve had the biggest, greatest, most unexpected one of these.

I shouldn’t say it, really, since I haven’t yet written the end that so gave me this feeling. But I will. Because I can’t fail to tell you everything and because I have a collection of short stories coming out and I was looking at a tiny moment in one of the tales.

It’s really small. It is completely unimportant and it only keeps its place in the story because it’s what this particular character would say at that particular time.

I’ve easily re-read this part a hundred times during the preparation of the manuscript, quite likely more.

And yet this time when I read it, I knew.

He says this thing because it is also part of another story.

There wasn’t going to be another story, there are already ten in the set and they are long done but now there has to be another one. It is complete, or it will be, and it is of itself, you will not have to have read the first take.

But if you have, I think this incredibly small moment will make the book complete.

You will not be able to guess which story came first and you will not know that I didn’t do it deliberately. Plus I didn’t know this but the book would not have been complete with this tale which I am compelled to write, which demands to be in the collection.

‘Course, it could turn out rubbish and I could end up dropping it from the book.

I don’t plan these things.

Not the most right I’ve ever been

I’ve been in a lot of discussions lately about how we all, but especially writers, talk very loudly about anything you could possibly call a success and stay silent about everything else. It’s not as if everyone else is rooting for you to fail, but it is that the curated good news boast has consequences. There is the ever-present risk of being boring, which is not to be ignored, but also most of us are not succeeding most of the time.

So when you’re exposed to constant hurrahs and your own writing isn’t going anywhere, you get split between pleased for whoever it is and, well, not pleased for yourself. Then five minutes later, the successful person suddenly isn’t successful at the moment and they go through the same range of feelings as you just did.

I know this, I knew this, but I did not appreciate how much it can affect people. I knew how it affected me but we all think something is just us and we don’t appreciate the scale of it. We especially don’t appreciate how amplified all this is on social media, or at least I didn’t.

A conclusion that every one of these recent discussions has come up with is that we should talk about our failures as well as our successes. How we should be more honest.

I’m going to be more honest with you. It appears that I can’t quite make it all the way to total, bare honesty, so instead of flat-out admitting I was wrong and that something has failed, I’ve had to first try setting the scene like this. Don’t think of me as a complete failure, think of me as a hero for revealing those failings.

If you would like to stop reading now, I would appreciate it if you took away with you the belief that I am a mensch.

If you’re not coming back and you also promise never to check, you could take away the belief that I am roguishly handsome, too.

My name is William and I haven’t written scripts for thirty minutes every day this year.

That was my big drive for 2019 and it follows last year’s push to read more scripts. Curiously enough, now that script reading vow is over, I’ve accidentally carried that one on and actually have read a script every day anyway. If I do it again today, after we’ve talked here, then my total for the year will be 133 scripts read.

But only 26 days of scriptwriting every day.

I could make excuses and I don’t really see any way either of us can stop me. So there was a kind of holiday day or three, which was complicated. There were some days when I was working to midnight and then up for the next thing at 4am, which was exhausting. And there was a friend dying, which was shit.

Right now I’m five days behind on this vow. There’s a bit of me that thinks I can make up that time in the sense of doing, say, an hour a day for a while. And there’s a bit of me that thinks I can make up that time in the sense of just pretending to you that I’ve done it.

But I think the thing to do here and probably every time either of us fail to do something, is to forget the past, forget thinking about what we haven’t done, and instead go do something now.

Not reading scripts at all, no

I still can’t really tell you her name. Thank you for the thoughts and comments about last week where I told you of a friend who’s died. I was touched, I kept pressing my hand to my chest as I read. And now we’ve just got to get through her funeral.

In the meantime, since you’ve been so nice, I’m going to regret what happens next. I’m going to tell you something insufferable. I have to tell you now while it’s still true and I promise that I’m going to be as annoyed at me as you are, but maybe that’ll spur me on.

It’s not the same thing but I am reminded of a tweet recently where Inc. magazine claimed that “the world’s most successful people start their day at 4am” – and JK Rowling replied with simply “Oh, piss off”.

Previously… I have belaboured here how I read 600-odd scripts last year. (For the record, it was 624 by New Year’s Eve.) I said that I didn’t know what to do this year, but presumably after all that reading, it should be writing.

This is what I decided. I would write scripts for half an hour every day in 2019, regardless of what else I was doing. Even if the day’s job was actually scriptwriting, I would do half an hour of a different script Every Single Day.

And this is the insufferable part that could fail at any moment. I have done. I know it’s only 25 January as I write to you, but I’ve done it 24 times so far. Once I think it was the first thing I did in a morning, before I started on various commissions. Once for certain it was 1am the next morning, after I’d finished a thing.

This did mean I finished my script for Bad Choices, an evening of plays at The Door in the Birmingham Rep next month by Cucumber Writers, and I’m going to be directing that night too. So that was useful, that was necessary, and because it had a deadline, it was also obvious that I would have to do it and this made the half-hour-a-day easier than it might’ve been.

Other than that, I dramatised one of my own short stories for no reason at all. Except that having turned a 2,000-word story into a 15-minute script, I discovered two new characters. Well, at least one of them is mentioned in the story but he’s now actually talking in the script along with another new one. I like them both so much that I may go back to add them to the prose story.

And you know how when you’re thinking of something, you see it everywhere. I’ve been thinking about scriptwriting and there was a discussion on Facebook about the best books on the subject. I’m not convinced there are any, really, as ones that tell you how to write tend to actually be telling you how that author writes. Since you’ve never heard of the author, they don’t appear to have written very well or at least not very successfully.

Yet there are books that I definitely like which are somehow on the periphery. They’re not how-to books but they are ones that help.

Such as the one I surprised myself by throwing in to that Facebook discussion. I recommended the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion by Terry J. Erdmann and Paula M. Block.

It is one of the very, very many books about the making of one of the very, very many Star Trek series. But it has a couple of thousand words about every single episode of the seven-year show and about eighty percent of that is about the writing. Most of it is very informative about the thinking behind a television series: the writers go into detail, for instance, about why a certain character was created and what the aim was.

Then there are many times when the writers are proud of their show and they tell you so – but at least as often, there are points when they are brutal. Yes, this character was brought in to do this but it didn’t work because we didn’t do this or we did do that. “What were we thinking?” they say of one episode.

It’s a fascinating read. It’s not an easy read because there is just so much and it’s a very hefty book to be carrying around to read between meetings. But it is very good.

Except for one thing.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is on Netflix so you could read about any episode and then go watch it. Except it’s a lot faster to read the scripts.

Yes. I skipped the first season because I remember the writing getting better from the second. But in this year of no longer reading a script per day, I have accidentally now read 81 of them.

Told you. Insufferable. Although I’ll say it now as I did last year, there are days when hiding away from the world in a good script or ten is very appealing.

What you leave behind

More than anything, I want to talk to you about a friend who’s just died. I want to do it and I need to do it and I’m not going to, not this week. Not when I believe there are friends and I know there are colleagues of hers who haven’t heard yet.

It’s not as if I expect them to be reading this but if the possibility is tiny, still the risk is too great and it is magnified by the fact that she took her own life. I type that and yet again I’m thinking no, I’m wrong, it’s a mistake, she can’t have done.

And then I am looking at you right now but I’m also seeing her the last time we had a coffee, the last time I worked with her.

It’s just so difficult to think of anything else. I started the week at the Writers’ Guild Awards and, oh, there can surely never have been a more happy event – at least since last year’s one. A joyous, bouncing, happy room. I wasn’t up for any awards yet there were some results I actually cheered as loudly as if they had been for me.

Funny, you try to go far away from the topic that’s on your mind and sometimes you’re just heading toward the same thing in a different way.

For I told you I wasn’t up for any awards. That did make for a relaxing night, but sitting there, surround by a couple of hundred of the finest writers in the world, it made me feel that I wasn’t doing enough.

And my friend is never going to finish writing the book we talked about.

We don’t get long here and if we’re fortunate enough to know what we want to do, we need to go do it now.

I was wrong

Last year, I made a big deal of the fact that I read 640 or so scripts. I generously offered you ten lessons that I’d learned and, while I didn’t say this at the time, it was difficult enough to come up with ten that I figured I had found them all. I had learned all there was to learn.

Give me this: when I’m wrong, I’m thorough about it.

For now that I don’t have this resolution, now that 2018 is over and I am no longer reading a script a day, I’ve relaxed and only read some 41 more of them so far this month. And number 38 went against at least many of my ten lessons.

I won’t tell you what the script was because I want to work on the series some day. But I will tell you this: the reason I read numbers 39, 40 and 41 right after it was because 38 had put me into a foul mood and I wanted to clear my head.

Didn’t work. Let me tell you as an aside, to make up for not naming this script and to hopefully be of some use instead of just grumbling at you, that number 39 was an episode of I’m Alan Partridge (book). Then 40 and 41 were a two-part Star Trek: Deep Space Nine story. (The Search part 1 and part 2.)

All three are good. Still didn’t help. I went to bed annoyed and I’m ratty again today.

Chiefly because this script is for a show I saw early last year and had enjoyed on screen. On the page, it was irritating. I’ve said that actors, directors and producers can make a poor script seem okay but they will never make it great. That was one of my ten lessons and yet now there’s this. Maybe the show made from this script wasn’t exactly fantastic, but it was very, very good.

Good enough that I was excited when a friend sent me the script.

On the page, all I can see is how hard the cast had to work to make this dialogue sound natural. When I remembered how the actors delivered a line, I could see how they got there but otherwise it just wasn’t on the page. Good dialogue doesn’t make sense and isn’t grammatically correct yet there’s a way to write it so that when you read it on the page, you hear how it should be spoken and you believe it. You believe this is what a real person would say.

In this script, there was none of this. Dialogue was just a mash of words that you had to unpick.

All of the ideas that I’d so liked in the finished show are right here in the script yet somehow they’re carelessly half-hidden.

I think this is what has left me in a bad mood. This felt careless. It really isn’t, it really cannot be, yet that’s how it reads. I think what I’m struggling to reach is a thought that this script was written by someone who doesn’t care about scriptwriting. I’m certain they care about television drama and I will always agree with them that a script is just a blueprint for a show.

I’m guessing now, but a typical television series script will only be actually read by perhaps a hundred people. Maybe two hundred at the absolute outside. What’s more, every one of those readers is a professional who has worked on drama before. This script had all the information each one of them needed to do their jobs. And the end result worked very well on screen so the only sane conclusion is that I’m an idiot.

Only, this is writing. By a writer. You may well not like what I write but it isn’t casually thrown off, it isn’t careless. I’ll never know if I’m any good but I do know that there is a certain standard that I can’t slip below. If I write crap, it isn’t the writing that’s so bad, it isn’t the technique or the skill or the care.

I think the conclusion you’re helping me reach is that the writer of this script is not a good writer – and yet he does make a good television drama.

I didn’t think that was possible. I’ve said it isn’t possible. And even now, right this moment, right here talking to you, I still believe that it isn’t conceivably possible. But seemingly it is.

I don’t especially mind being wrong. What I mind is that I’d say this script was bad and yet the show was good.

This kept me awake.

Thanks for being my therapist today, I owe you. Now, I’m off to read another script and to write one too.

Thinking and not thinking

I have no idea who I am today. Could I be you for a bit? We could swap. I’d get your brains, your style, your general good looks and you’d get… give me a minute.

Um.

It’s too late to say you’d get my ability to be quick-witted, isn’t it?

At least tell me that you’re as confused over what day it is as I am. Give me that. I look forward to talking with you but twice now I’ve actually had to ask Siri what day it is today. She has told me but I picture her backing away as she does so.

It’s not as if I’m still on holiday. It’s more that I’ve just reached the point where I’ve stopped resisting relaxation and have begun to enjoy it, to need it, and I’ve reached the point where I can’t do it. There is actually a part of me that likes how tomorrow is a weekend. I don’t usually notice those very much, but this time I’ll try to relax as we take down the Christmas decorations that we put up about half an hour ago.

The way we’ve rigged the decorations this year, we’ll start by saying aloud “Hey, Siri, turn the Christmas lights off” and that will seem so final.

Are you ready for the year? Right now it feels like a mountain.

Somehow also a familiar mountain and I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not. Maybe we could swap mountains. What if we have different shaped mountains? What if yours is so big that when you took on mine instead, it would feel to you like a chance to everest?

Yeah, quick-witted is gone.

I have already agreed to direct a show. And I’ve written a twenty-minute theatre script that right now looks technically impossible to produce. And I followed through my un-resolution where I stopped reading a script every day, except for one I had to do for work and the now dozen others that I accidentally fell into.

It’s only January 3 and there is so much to do, so much to look forward to, but I’d really like you and I to just have a hot chocolate together and postpone our efforts for a little while. What do you say?

Script pages

My 10 lessons from reading 620 scripts

Late in December 2017 I read a piece by Lorenzo Colonna on Hayley McKenzie’s Script Angel site that suggested reading one script a day. And I thought yep, good idea. I would read a script every day for a year. Now it’s 28 December 2018 and when you and are done today, I’m going to go read my 621st.

I am surprised that it turned out to be so many but I was more surprised by how many people have asked why I was doing it. Just to keep this surprise line going a little further, I obviously wasn’t even mildly startled that I learned some things from these scripts. But I was and am shocked at how they changed through the year. Or rather, how I did.

I kept a list so that I didn’t repeat any – and with the idea that a growing list would keep me at it. And now I can look at any entry and tell you where I was, what I was doing or going through, and how I felt. Plus I can tell you about almost any script: there are a couple where I nearly did read them again because I’d forgotten about ’em.

Sometimes, I’ll fully admit, they were a chore. They were a job to be done in the last moments of the day. Other times they were a joy and the first thing I did before breakfast. You could’ve guessed at that, especially as I went so far over the one-per-day idea. What I didn’t guess is that sometimes they were an escape. Occasionally, on some supremely bad days, they were even a refuge.

And then there would be times, so many times, when I’d read something that was extraordinary and I’d know that I will never write that well.

Doesn’t mean I’m not going to try.

While I do that, while I crack knuckles, let me please tell you the ten things I believe I learned from reading these scripts.

10. It’s got to be there on the page
I’ve seen actors lift a piece, most especially including one of my two staged shorts this year, but there’s a limit. Very talented actors and directors can make a poor script seem okay, but it will never be good on its feet if it isn’t at all on the page.

9. Just because it’s on the page, it might not make it to screen
Conversely, I have seen the opposite happen. I’m sorry, I can’t remember which one it was now, but I read a sitcom script that I really enjoyed and then watched the aired episode. Jokes that had worked on the page simply didn’t on screen. Characters I liked as I read, I then didn’t as I watched, And somehow it all felt amateur.

I couldn’t leave you hanging. I’ve just searched. It was a US comedy called Happy Endings. I must be in the minority because it ran for a couple of seasons.

Still, I’m minded of Coupling. Once for BBC News Online I watched the pilot of the US remake of that show and then immediately watched the pilot of the original. There was some joke in the UK version that made me laugh aloud and was in the US one, in exactly the same point in the episode, and I hadn’t even realised it was a joke at all.

8. When writing and production work, there’s nothing like it
All this reading and I know even more so than I did before that cast and direction is crucial. Dammit.

There’s a scene in a Homicide: Life on the Street script that is so bare bones, so on-the-nose with people saying what they mean, that at least part of it could’ve been in a soap. Yet there on the page, you got why soap isn’t drama. This wasn’t simplistic or simplified, it was raw. You felt for these characters.

And then I watched the episode and felt it even deeper. No theatrics, no special effects, just pain transmitted into us from a superbly real character played perfectly.

Do give it a read. Homicide: Life on the Street: Every Mother’s Son. Teleplay by Eugene Lee, story by Tom Fontana & James Yoshimura. It was directed by Ken Fink and while that description I just gave you could apply to many characters in the episode, I’m thinking of the character Mary Nawls, played by Gay Thomas Wilson.

7. The first ten pages rule is bollocks
Some writers bleat on about how unfair it is that certain studios or production companies only read the first ten pages of your script. I’ve always known this is a fallacy: the argument is that the script gets really good after page 49. But if you are genuinely capable of making a script good after 50 pages but you can’t see it’s crap up to then, you’re not genuinely capable of writing.

Without exception, without one single exception, I have known from the opening page, the opening lines, whether a script was going to be good or not.

Now, that doesn’t mean I’ll like it, that I’ll enjoy it, but it means I know it works and is well done.

There is also the fact for the most part I chose the scripts I was going to read so you’d imagine I’d like them. It’s not as if I were picking at random or accepting anything sent to me. But then scripts were sent to me: during 2018 I was a judge on three separate awards panels and they were all about writing. I think maybe sixty of the scripts I read were nominees and I didn’t know anything about them in advance.

Didn’t make a difference. There were scripts I liked a lot but which abruptly shot themselves in the foot by the ending. There were others I slogged through because it was my job. But in each case, I knew whether there was going to be anything to like or admire or enjoy in each script and I knew right away.

6. Nobody gives a damn about writers and nor should they
Scripts about writers are death. If your lead character is struggling with writers’ block, well, boo fucking hoo.

5. Don’t be a smartarse
Alan Plater once told me that my stage directions made him laugh aloud – but that I should get that strength into dialogue instead. Then, when I did, he called it a great leap forward for writerkind. I did re-read one of my earliest scripts and it was dreadful for a thousand reasons, but one of them was that my stage directions were smartarse.

Again, I can’t remember which scripts I read this year that were like that and this time I won’t search because it feels cruel. But there was one that particularly sticks out. A location was described as being “the kind of house I’ll live in if this goes to four seasons”.

It was just a gag and it did the job of conveying the richness of the location but it jarred. Made me feel that the writer was more interested in the business than in the story.

4. You can lose anything, you can remove anything
I have always known this: the pilot to the sitcom Cheers is an extraordinary piece of work. I’ve seen it many times over the years but hadn’t read the script until now. I’d seen it so often that I would’ve been able to tell you in detail why it’s so good and I know I could even have quoted one of the jokes.

So it was somewhat surprising to find that the script has an extra character in it. When you’ve read the script and all her scenes, then you can actually see her in the finished episode. But every scene she was featured in and every line she said or was said to her is gone.

I’m sorry for the actor but it was the right choice. I’m sure it was only done because the episode was running long but it works better without her.


3. Script books are dead and possibly should be
I have a couple of hundred books with scripts and screenplays in but I stopped buying them years ago. In this 2018 reading, I did raid very many of those books and there are scripts that I would never have been able to get otherwise. But the internet has killed off the script book and that’s a good thing.


Scripts in books are always reformatted to get as much text on the page as possible and while format shouldn’t matter, it does. When you’re reading a script in the layout it was written, you get the pace right in your head.

Also, published scripts are almost always cleaned up. Mistakes are removed and often scenes cut from the final show are cut from the script too. Getting to read the script as it was when it was handed to the actors is infinitely better and we can thank the internet for that.

For television scripts, I recommend Lee Thomson’s TV Writing site, which is my favourite, plus The Script Savant and Script Slug

For films there’s Simply Scripts.

Otherwise for radio and theatre you’re stuck with searching for individual titles. Actually, for theatre I would and did still go to books.

2. Save us from transcripts
On the other hand, you won’t believe how vehemently I despise something else the internet has done. It has given a platform for people who slavishly copy down every word of a broadcast show or film. They then post these online and some of these bastards claim that their transcript is the script.

Forget seeing the writing as handed to the actors, these transcripts are literally every word uttered on screen – and nothing else. Not even who said it. Certainly not where they were. These transcripts are an unreadable mess and I would burn them.

One thing. I did come across the reverse. I found a script to an episode of UFO and the site hosting it called that a transcript. What they meant was that they had a paper copy of the original script and had typed it up. That was fine. Although, wow, UFO’s pilot episode is of its time. Roaringly sexist, 1970s to its hilt, you can’t believe adults said some of these words.

This might help: if you’re searching for a script online, make sure you specify PDF in your search. I don’t know why, but transcribers don’t appear to have grasped PDF yet so the odds are that any result you get back is a true script.

And the last, perhaps most important thing I learned from reading hundreds of scripts:

1. It’s a damn sight easier to read a script than to write one.
This year I’ve read 620 and written only three. Well, there’s a fourth that I’ve written but it turned out half the length it needs to be. And I’m writing another one now but it won’t be ready for the end of the year. I would like to point out that two of the three I wrote have been staged. And the third got me some promising conversations with TV companies.

I would like to now say that I’ll write a script per day in 2019 but I have this feeling that might not work out. There were already days in 2018 that were so tight for time that I read ten-minute Danger Mouse scripts just to keep the tally going. (They’re very good, though.)

I would also like to say for sure whether I’m going to carry on reading a script a day. It has become a habit but it is also a lot of work. And I did notice that my other reading fell off a cliff. Maybe I should read a novel a day. What do you think?

Lagrange Plus

I appear to be adding traditions as I get older, but fortunately, the latest one is not going to stick. I vowed that this year I will finish working on the Friday before Christmas. Specifically that I will switch my Mac off at 16:00 and refuse, utterly refuse to switch it back on until at least 16:05.

It won’t happen. I don’t know when I’ll finish because I am forty times busier than this time last year though, consequently, also one hundred percent happier.

There is a point, usually around midnight on New Year’s Eve, when I sink. Plummet, really. I don’t know how long it lasts because I go to bed to hide from it, but it’s frighteningly, disabling, paralysingly strong. It’s a bald and unarguable feeling that I’ve wasted the last year and a fear that I’ll waste the next one too.

I will get it again this New Year’s Eve but just for once, maybe just for now, I think it’ll be okay.

For this week I found myself telling someone how I have never written better than I am writing now. You can question just how well that actually is, but the trend is upwards in my mind.

And then recently I was in a conversation about how poor my secondary school was. It was suggested that I’d have got further and done more if it hadn’t been so bad. I’m embarrassed to tell you this but without thinking, without pause, I found myself saying “Better than this?”

I can rationalise that as being less about my thinking I’m doing great and instead knowing that the projects I get to work on are tremendous. I will not say that I’m lucky to be doing what I do because it ain’t luck, it’s deliberate and ceaseless effort, but I’ll eat your ear off about how fortunate I am to work on these things with these people.

Still, I sounded like I was boasting and I am cringing at you here because I also sounded high-pitched.

Just between you and me, that was the only bit I really didn’t like. I may practice saying it with more gravitas. Actually, I might: if I can, I’d like to make that attitude be more of a habit.

Whereas I haven’t been so intentionally looking to make traditions yet I’ve now got two that I look forward to at this time of year. Two that I crave each Christmas.

One is old, as old as traditions are supposed to be, and I can’t even remember how many decades it’s been now. Through coincidence, chance, habit and possibly a little bit of effort, I tend to get between ninety minutes and two hours alone early on Christmas Eve. It’s exactly the point where it no longer matters whether you’ve finished all your work because there is nobody to deliver it to, nobody who’s waiting for it. Not right now, not right then.

I’ve called this a Lagrange Point before. That’s an astronomy term and in my slightly buckled metaphorical version, it’s a moment of stillness caused by all the forces around you equalling each other out. They’re still there, they are still as powerful and demanding, but they equal each other out and I float.

Previously I’ve chosen to spend this time catching up on a film I’ve wanted to see but that’s probably over now. I’m probably going to read, perhaps listen to something. Just not watch a film or at least I don’t think so. Because that’s now the newer of my two Christmas Eve traditions.

I’ll wait to midnight. I’ll be with family for most of the evening, I’ll do Christmas Eve-y things and then as close to midnight as I can make it, I will be in our living room and I’ll re-watch the film Arrival.

There are people who say you should go to midnight mass, that you should experience some religion at this time and to them I say yep, that’s exactly what I’m doing.

The film is about many things but most specifically language and time, subjects that obsess me beyond reasonable measure. I have a collection of time short stories that is currently due to come out next year (it may slip to 2020) and I was writing them when I first saw the film. I’m not going to say that Arrival made me want to rip them all up, but only because that would look quite bad as the quote on the back of my book.

This Arrival Lagrange Point started because the film got a limited re-release at Christmas in 2016 and the only screening I could get to was a late night Christmas Eve one. That was the fourth time I’d seen the film that year. It was the third time in the cinema and of course I bought it on iTunes, of course I watched it on our TV set.

Then last Christmas, I watched it again at home at midnight on Christmas Eve 2017. Since then and throughout this year I have avoided it, I have resisted it and I have waited for it.

Midnight, Christmas Eve, 2018. Arrival. Damn right.

Own goal

So anyway, I was just after saying last week that there is never a time when sex in films or TV works. I mean, when it keeps you in the story, when it is the story, and there’s not even a pixel in your head noticing that the woman has been lit softly and that camera angles on the man make him look taller.

Hayley McKenzie of Script Angel raised a hand. While I think it’s fair to say she agreed with me about when sex scenes are poor, she had a perfect counter argument. As eloquent as she always is, it all boiled down to the word ‘Outlander’. It’s the title of a series dramatised by Ronald D Moore, based on Diana Gabaldon’s novels, and documented in delicious detail by blogger Maureen Younger.

Up to that point I’d been thinking that, well, we just have different opinions and then here was that word. And now it’s nope, she’s right and I’m wrong.

I’ve only seen one episode of that show but it was exquisite and there was sex that, just as Hayley says, was very much everything I insisted it never is. Half a dozen things were going on with characters beyond what was happening with their skin and whatever the opposite of gratuitous is, that’s what it was.

I have no idea either why I forgot that or why I haven’t yet seen a second episode.

Anyway, I love having my mind changed, it is exhilarating to be persuaded of an alternative point of view – and especially these days when we all seem locked into our perspectives on the world.

I’m obviously thinking of politics but this week I was also talking with someone and she made me realise that we’re riddled with perspectives and biases about everything. And that if they’re how we navigate the world, you know that oftentimes they are limiting us.

We just can’t always see how. And this one time, I think I can.

What this friend said was that I’d reminded her that she owns her writing. What I’d actually said was that writing is not a democratic process and that whoever told her she had to leave a particular line in a piece was talking bollocks.

It’s the norm or at least the fashion in writing that you show your work to people you respect and take their criticism. But around seven hundred years ago, I had someone tell me that one of my pieces should be redone as magical realism because she likes magical realism. “I like chocolate,” I replied.

Then I got locked into an exchange once with someone who berated me, destroyed my work and went into gigantic detail about how precisely I should fix it if it were to have any chance of not shaming myself and the entire literary world.

I’ve had harsh criticism before but this one was eye-opening. I didn’t do a single thing she told me but I studied the advice – no, that’s not strong enough a word. Instructions? Demands? I really thought about them and realised that she was telling me to write the story the way she would have done.

That fascinates me. It’s one thing to not like how I do something, but to have total certainty that her way was the only way is arresting. And perhaps as is always the case with someone who is totally certain about anything, she was wrong. I am totally certain about that. For I told you it was an exchange: she’d sent me her first chapters of a novel. She’d had deserved success with a very good non-fiction book but now she was writing fiction.

She visibly did not want any criticism, she clearly wouldn’t take any from a lesser being, but I had no problem with that because her fiction was unreadable.

I’ve just remembered this moment that we fell out really badly and it wasn’t to do with writing. It’ll come to me in a minute what it was about, but what leaps back at me instantly is the utter relief: I remember thinking thank Christ, I don’t have to find something nice to say about her writing any more.

I can think of a hundred times that my writing has been improved and actually improved beyond measure by criticism. So it’s not as if I’m against the principle, I think you just have to be damn careful who you work with – an ultimately you have to know that it’s your writing, not theirs.

The goal is to own your writing, not to write like each one of your critics.

Sex session plan

Last Monday night as the Bad Sex Award winner was being announced, I was running the last of six fortnightly writing groups. The group is coming back next year for another run but without me: they’ve got novelist Helen Cross instead. Now, immediately I’m thinking that I envy them and also that I need to leave the group at a good point, ready for her to do whatever it is she will do with them.

Instead, we talked and wrote about sex. This had been suggested weeks before and initially I’d not been interested.

Yet by the end of the run, I did realise both that there is something interesting here and also that if we examined it in just the right way, writing about sex could get this particular group to address something I had already thought their writing needed.

For sex writing is never about sex. It’s always about the characters. But then that’s the case with absolutely everything and sex is no different.

Except that sex is a way to maybe the fastest way to dive very deeply into a character. We always say our characters have to want something and they do so because otherwise they’d just sit at home and there’d be no story. Not everybody wants sex, but for those who do, when they do, it is more than a little interest, it is a driving compulsion that the characters probably don’t even understand.

Compulsion is fantastic because it can be desperate. And desperate characters don’t have time or energy to hide.

We all hide. We hide all the time. You are not the same person when you’re with a partner at home and then when you’re with your family. Or at work. Or in the pub, at a conference, in a club. We hide so much and we fit in so many places that it’s hard for us to know who we really are. So equally, it’s hard for us to know our characters and who they really can be.

Put them in a situation where they may have sex and you see everything stripped away, not just their clothes. Put them in a situation where they are having sex and you reveal their base nature: whether they’re dominant or submissive, whether they’re combative or – I can’t think of the word. Collegiate? Whether they work with their sex partners or whether they’re all for themselves.

And then lastly, put them in a situation where they have had sex and you can have a quiet aftermath that is as explosive with regret as the scene was with flesh. That compulsive drive for sex is incredibly powerful and incredibly motivating but once you’ve had it, it’s completely gone and you are left wondering what the hell all that was about.

That’s when sanity and calmness can return. Which means that’s when regret starts. And regret is a wonderful thing in drama.

Whether I’m writing prose fiction or scripts, I think of it as drama. But this is one case where the differences between those two types of writing are acute.

I offer that sex in prose fiction can be, should be, must be powerful. A friend sent me a manuscript of a novel of hers and she was a little embarrassed because it was a fantasy action tale with sex in it. I told her that the story was a rousing adventure –– and an arousing one, too.

Words have a power to arouse and excite and challenge. Whereas I offer that sex in films and on TV does not. It doesn’t matter what the story is, when a character is naked, you are thrown out of the story thinking how the actor looks. Whether he or she has a flat stomach or if there’s been some CGI and a stunt person involved.

I abhor anything that takes me out of a story so I have no interest in sex in TV or films. But I can have in prose fiction because there the words are digging in deeper. They are revealing characters to me. Through what connects with me, those words are also revealing myself to me. And they can be revealing the author too.

You don’t have to have sex in any story, but if you do, make it matter. Above all else, this is the one type of scene where you’ve got to have more going on than just the physical activity. If you haven’t, then it could be the strongest language you know but it won’t matter.

The group and I discussed lots of this and then I set them a task. Of course it was to write a sex scene but we conjured up a setting and I set them some rules. It had to be consensual sex, it had to be between a couple and they had to write it in the first person. Pick one character and write it from their perspective.

I don’t usually get so specific and prescriptive and I also don’t usually belabour this stuff with you.

The reason I want to tell you that detail is the same reason I wanted them to do it. After the group had written all of this and we’d talked about how we found the job, we did the next part. Yes. You’ve got it: write the same story again but from the other person’s point of view.

This exercise can actually work for anything in any story. If you’re stuck with a story, if you’re finding a character isn’t working, reverse it all and tell the tale from that other character’s point of view.

I’m not saying you’ll keep that version. I am saying that exploring the other character makes that character better – even if you then throw that other version away.

Since I seem to be lecturing you now instead of our usual nattering, let’s have another writing rule. See what you think of this.

I suggest that it’s probably best to write sex in the first person. A narrator is too easy an option for any story anyway, but here their detachment keeps us out of the tale. A narrator can say you touch me on my arm and I appear to like it. But only I can say that one touch stops me better than a blow. Only I can say that a single touch of your hand has me struggle to breathe.

Next, sex scenes make you think about the audience. If your reader is going to be a prurient teenager then throw in knob jokes and be done with it. If the reader is someone who actually does have some extreme sex life, you have to be accurate about it or they’ll stop reading. And if someone is uncomfortable with sex in reality, you can help them and you can play with them in fiction.

We always resist making our readers uncomfortable and it’s partly politeness, it’s partly because we don’t want to be uncomfortable ourselves.

Let it go. Be uncomfortable, be uneasy. If it doesn’t work out, throw it away. But write sex in order to explore how you write characters and how deeply you can go into yourself.

Writing is not like anything else. The more you go inside yourself, the more your writing will connect with other people.

Now, I’m supposed to be planning a writing workshop for children. Stop that. You’re being wicked.