A Wendy Napkins Mystery

I really do have a character named Wendy Napkins and she really does get embroiled in Mystery. So far just four script pages of Mystery, but still. There’s Adventure, too: I’m not messing around here.

Don’t ask me when I wrote those four pages but I reread them yesterday and – truly surprising for me – I like them. I like her. There’s a reason she gets called this, it makes sense, but never mind that, she appears to be in the kind of detective story where you have to have an unbelievable name.

She isn’t really. I think I initially planned this as a pastiche and then came to like PC Wendy Naplinsky and her part-time hours working at a nursery too much. I’m not sure. I know that having read the four pages, I want to take her on into a full mystery and that it will tread a line between parody and seriousness so thin as to be invisible.

I want serious mystery but small scale. Who stole the crayons? Is that blood on little Nevada’s father? I’m already ramping it up. Let’s stick to The Case of the Missing Crisps. I think I can do it, I think it can sustain a series if I write the script well enough, but I’ve also been quite startlingly reminded of how collaborative drama has to be. And that’s making me wonder.

I’ve always known drama needs many people and I have usually always believed it to be a great thing. Writer, actors, director and producer working together at the top of their game and with the utmost of their effort, it’s fantastic.

I did once have a director whose sole vision, as much as I could tell, was to have the actors speak faster in order to bring the curtain down before his last bus.

But apart from him, whether it’s in anything of mine or just anything I know about, I have been agog at how it’s really the combination of these people that makes a drama fly.

And then there’s this. The reason I reread my old Wendy Napkins scene is that I watched an Aurora Teagarden Mystery on Netflix. I say Netflix: if you know your television at all well, then ten seconds in you knew it might be airing on Netflix but it was made for America’s cloying Hallmark Channel.

I’m not here to knock it. This is definitely not my kind of drama but it’s a long-running series of TV movies, it’s based on a longer-running series of novels. And it did make me want to see the resolution of the mystery.

What I keep thinking about, though, is the acting. There were some actors in it that I’ve seen before, some I rate, and others I hadn’t heard of but apparently all have great long track records.

It’s not that any of them were awful, it was that every single one of them – to my mind, to my taste – was bad in precisely the same way. And to precisely the same degree.

Every one of the large cast did wide-eyed acting. They’d have this giant pupil in a massive white eye reaction to everything. From “You mean he wasn’t the last person to see her alive?” to “You want milk with your coffee?”

To be fair, coffee should be black. And to be fairer, those are not real lines from the show. But they could have been: that was the standard of dialogue and that was the style of delivery.

It was funny. Perhaps most so when a character would go wide-eyed at themselves as they casually throw in helpful lines such as “well, I could ask my colleagues in the CIA which I haven’t mentioned I work for.” But then it was also fun watching an actor in this company visibly chewing over the impossible moral dilemma about milk or no milk.

It was funny but it’s about invisible lines again. This could have been pastiche but it was too serious. This could have been the cast and crew being a bit meta about the tropes of cloying cosy mysteries. But if the cast and crew were in on it, you got the sense that they didn’t think the audience was. They all acted as if they knew this wasn’t very good, but the tone of the show was that it was pandering to a very specific audience who they assumed would love it.

Tone. That’s the word. I heard once that ahead of every Doctor Who episode there is a tone meeting. All department heads from writing to, I don’t know, visual effects, meet to discuss the script and decide on its overall tone. To decide whether they were all going to make this one be the silly episode or the scary one and to what degree.

Tone is that important and it must be so with the Aurora Teagarden TV movies because their tone is unwaveringly precise from the barely noticeable teaser to the aw-shucks epilogue.

I may not want that Teagarden tone for my Wendy Napkins, but I do know I want a tone and I think I know what it must be.

What I don’t know is how in the world to write that tone into the script such that every actor performs precisely the way I want. I’m not at all sure I would want to make actors perform precisely as I saw my characters.

But if I don’t get that into the script, still it seems that someone can impose it enough to seem less Teagarden and more Stepford.

Bugger, though. I only made up that title “The Case of the Missing Crisps” for you and now I’ve got to write the script. Got to.

Motivation

Clearly, I am the first ever writer to act on stage. I hear rumours of some other person called William who’s done it, but no, it was me. And as such, I have advice that I can now bestow for all writerkind to learn from.

Don’t ignore flashing red lights.

I really did act last night, and it was the first time I’d performed someone else’s script, but I was also producing. And I wrote another of the pieces for the evening, which I performed. Get me. Part of the production job, though, was recording the night.

So I had two locked-off cameras shooting video and audio from left and right of the stage. I had one lapel mic which we used to audio record parts that had a solo performer on stage. And I had two separate audio recorders positioned on the set.

I set all this going just before we opened the doors and I can see me now, asking an actor whether “that red flashing light” is distracting. I’d never seen this particular audio recorder flash red quite so much, but in my defence, it did look like it was flashing in time to the music.

Since I usually use it for interviews and so once it’s running, I’m not looking at it, I figured I’d just not noticed the red flashing before.

And I can see me now, finding something in my gear bag to cover up the red lights.

For this particular audio recorder, you press Record once to, I don’t know, arm it. Then you press Record again to set it actually recording.

And it turns out that until you press it that second time, the whole unit flashes as many red lights at you as it can.

Consequently, while the other cameras and all the other recorders captured about 90 minutes of show, that last audio recorder has about 15 seconds of me swearing.

But I swore very well. I emoted. I conveyed with clarity the depth of my feelings at that moment.

I wasn’t acting.

I’m not certain that I was acting when I performed my own piece. It’s a one-man short play, and the thing of it is that you’re not supposed to quite realise when I go from introducing the piece to actually doing it. You’re not supposed to know that every word from when I get on stage to when I leave is actually the story.

While it’s effective and, most importantly, right for this particular story, it also means that for a lot of the time, I am presenting as if I were doing a workshop. That is a performance, and the fiction of this story requires me to get quite upset, but it’s closer to what I do all the time.

Plus, it was my script, so of course I know it. I’ve acted in my own pieces before – hardly often, but generally very successfully.

What was different for me last night was that I performed someone else’s script.

And that is weird.

For the first time in my life, I have actually said the words “what’s my motivation?” during rehearsals. So much of what we write, or maybe just of what I write, is instinctual, and it’s when you have to see it from another direction that you become conscious of it.

It was all there in script, I just had to find it and in that digging, I was examining all the things about character that I usually just do unconsciously while writing.

Previously I’d have told you that I understand how actors do what they do, I mean I can comprehend the process even if I can’t do it. But now I can tell you that I don’t have a clue why they do it.

But it was pretty great getting to do a curtain call alongside proper actors.

No better time

This is going to sound so optimistic that you’ll think I’m auditioning to write for Hallmark Cards. But I mean it.

I mean this: right now is the best time there has ever been to be a writer.

Okay, just to get Hallmark off my back, I will also say that this is the worst time it has ever been to be a paid writer. Getting money for this is tough. But while I can’t and won’t discount the problems, the opportunities are astonishing.

I was doing a writing masterclass session at Birmingham City University this week where we discussed a couple of students’ work in detail. One of them was a short radio play and I’m blathering on about it when I realise that actually what this writer needs isn’t me.

She needs to make that play.

And she can.

Now, I’ve been in Birmingham City University’s radio studios and they are impressive: I presume she can book space there. And there’s a School of Acting around the place so I imagine casting isn’t going to be a great problem.

But as handy as all that is, the truth is that she’s got a phone. I don’t know what phone and I don’t know what recording apps she may have, but for pennies she can turn that phone into a recording studio.

She can even edit the audio on the phone and I’ll never get used to that. I don’t mean that as in I’ll never cope with doing it on phones, I mean that I edit audio a great deal and it is forever a delight what you can do now. I learned on giant BBC local radio desks and I was taught to edit with razor blades and chinagraph pencils. And, actually, I think sometimes you learn better from doing it physically, from doing edits where you can’t undo them with a tap or a click.

But then that’s really what I think about writing now. You have always been able to write but now you can see and hear how that writing works. Immediately. Pretty much.

I had lots to say to this student about her script and I loved that she and the whole room had lots to tell me that I’d missed in it. But ultimately I mean it: write something, make it, and you’ll learn what works and doesn’t work for you.

I don’t quite know how this goes for novelists but for scriptwriters, this is the best time there ever was. If only we could lick the money problem.

nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands

3330__hannah_and_her_sisters_(1986)movie_

That film poster was on my bedroom wall throughout the time I was a student. Where my friends and housemates had thrash metal posters, I had Hannah and Her Sisters but it was for a very sensible reason: it was my favourite film. Today I don’t have one. Not just one. It seems a weird notion to have only one. But back then – er, when in the hell would it have been? I’m lost – I believed the best film ever made was Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters.

Now, I don’t mean I believed that in some combative, argumentative way: I didn’t evangelise the film, I wasn’t shocked if you said you preferred Howard the Duck. It was just for me, just fact, just Hannah.

Yet this week it never entered my head when asked what 15 films have most stayed with me.

Well, clearly it did enter my head or I wouldn’t be talking to you about it. But I was tagged in this Facebook meme – if you haven’t been tagged yet, hello, you are now – and I rattled off this lot in a thrice:

Grosse Pointe Blank
Trainspotting
Bourne films 1-3
Boyfriends and Girlfriends
Mission: Impossible 1
The Cider House Rules
Three Colours Blue
Leon (aka The Professional)
Heaven Can Wait
The Shawshank Redemption
Capricorn One
Deathtrap
The Sting
Amelie
The Empire Strikes Back

Okay. The list is true enough, though Empire was a push to get it to 15, but nothing that I’d especially be wanting to tell you about. You know what happened next, though. Other people wrote their 15 and I kept seeing ones that I should surely have had. I think the biggest shock for me was that I’d missed off Twelve Angry Men. (Not ten days ago, I watched the Tony Hancock version on YouTube. It’s the one where he says “Magna Carter – did she die in vain?”.)

Nobody picked Hannah. So I have no idea why I finally remembered, but it was a memory with a punch. A flood. Can you have a flood of punches? Central Park in the autumn. The most gorgeous New York City bookshop – now long gone, I’m afraid, even before I managed to get to it, which just makes seeing it more precious. Woody Allen’s character is a producer on a TV show that is really Saturday Night Live and has a corner office with windows looking out across the city. Carrie Fisher looking amazing. Barbara Hershey melting my heart. The music. Oh, but the music. I have the soundtrack album on vinyl somewhere and haven’t played it in a decade but the very opening notes of this trailer are bliss to me.

At the time of release and the time of having that poster on my wall, I didn’t like Michael Caine in this film. There’s something just off, to me, something just a little forced. Now I think he’s okay but I’m not sure whether it’s because I’ve mellowed or because these days it’s Woody Allen who makes me uncomfortable.

Nonetheless, the film sticks with me and I can see how it has influenced my writing. (My version of the Wirrn in Doctor Who is clearly a homage.) Its poetry sticks with me too. I mean that literally, there is “the poem on page 112”. Actually, quick aside, it’s also because of Woody Allen that I came to adore Emily Dickinson’s poetry: he has a collection of short prose called Without Feathers and I learnt that this was a reference to Dickinson’s line “Hope is the thing with feathers”.

That one line buckles me.

But here’s the e e cummings poem on page 112, with that beautiful music, with the bookshop, with rundown New York still looking great, with Barbara Hershey and, okay, with Michael Caine and some subtitles.

Woody Allen regularly does that trick of dividing up the frame into slices by apparent chance of doorways and walls and shelves. It’s very intimate, somehow, it takes you into the characters when they’re isolated or here where Eliot is yearning for Lee.

I’m aware that I don’t appreciate film directors enough. It’s a kind of solidarity-based revenge for all the times directors ignore writers. And maybe you shouldn’t notice directors, maybe if you notice them then they have taken you out of the story. But there was one scene where I was so alert to the writing, the directing, the acting and the cinematography that I can still remember the pressure on my chest from the first time I saw it. It sounds tricksy: Hannah and her sisters are at a restaurant table and the camera must be on a circular dolly track very close by because it just orbits them.

All three women – Barbara Hershey, Mia Farrow and Dianne Wiest – are talking. Naturally all have different issues and pressures, naturally they are all going to collide here. But the orbiting camera shows us one woman’s face in closeup and is then blocked by the back of another woman’s head. Then another face is revealed, another is hidden, over and over. And the effect is mesmerising. It’s these women hiding the truth and somehow losing that for moments, regaining composure for a moment, losing it again. You feel it building and building and yes, it’s all there on the page, it’s all in the script, but the combination of talents from writer through actor to cinematographer and director makes this infinitely stronger than any one of those could have done.

And thanks to YouTube, here it is.

And with half the film sliced up into clips there, I think I’m going to go watch it properly.

After all, it is my favourite film.