Bad writing habits

Apart from my typing, with I swear is very good, a thing I like about my writing is something I also dislike – but I doubt I’ll ever stop.

Here it is. In the script I’m writing at the moment, I have a tiny moment when a drunk woman by Birmingham’s Broad Street nightclubs walks through our hero like he’s a glass door. It’s pretty good, I think: late night outside busy clubs so lots of dark and light plus she’s very drunk so you accept she doesn’t see him and you get that she doesn’t care.

This is my character’s most vulnerable point in the story so the symbolism of him finding himself accidentally in a ferociously busy place where he’s invisible and unwanted is, I believe, nicely striking.

Only, the drunk woman bothered me.

She does exactly what I need but the moment I say that to you, I realise she was a device rather than a character. Ultimately everyone in a script is a construct but you want them all to have life.

So actually I suddenly feel a tiny better about what I did. No, I like what I did, I just feel better that it’s something I keep doing.

Let me explain slightly quicker.

There’s a scene shortly afterwards where we’re back in Broad Street but it’s early the next morning. I think – no, I know – I am channelling the final scene in Before Sunrise where the film touches on locations we’ve seen, just now empty and in daylight instead dark and alive with that film’s Celine and Jesse.

Richard Linklater and Kim Krizan’s script for that scene says:

“…a series of shots of many of the locations CELINE and JESSE inhabited the night before. In the early-morning light those places are now somehow different. Even though there is little human presence at this time of the morning, the transformation has begun.”

In my case, my guy Richard has come under even more pressure overnight but it’s familiar pressure, it’s the kind of problem that he’s good at, so in an odd way he begins to climb back up.

New day, new world, I’m not saying this is the most original part of my script. I need it, I want it, I’ve made it this way but the uncontrollable itch is in this scene:

EXT. BIRMINGHAM – MORNING

Establishing. The outside of the Really Cheap B&B. Hagley Road. Broad Street’s cheap hotel. Jury’s Inn. The same DRUNK WOMAN asleep inside a curry house, face against the window.

That’s it. She’s back. Doesn’t do anything, doesn’t appear again and even in this moment Richard doesn’t notice her – but isn’t that right? Doesn’t that feel right to you?

I like the mirroring. I especially like that I got it organically, that I didn’t think What Will Mirror Last Night’s Scene.

I also just find it really, truly satisfying when moments connect together. When things aren’t just a good idea thrown in but they become part of the weave.

The trouble is that I cannot stop doing this. If something happens in a script of mine or if you meet a character, it is almost totally rock-solid certain that you’re going to see them again or it’s going to have an impact again.

I was asked about my bad writing habits the other day and this is one. I can definitely see that it’s because I also produce things: I want to make maximum use of every character, every extra, every location. And I do see that this is also actually quite limited of me.

But the satisfaction when this particular script knew I needed something and tapped me on the shoulder to remind me that I had this drunk character I could come back to, that is and was gold.

Maybe nothing is any good

I’m serious: maybe no writing or drama or art is actually any good. Maybe it’s just that some of it is more shiny, some of it is somehow more reflective and it catches the eye for a brief while.

The one book I simply will never dare re-read, for example, is Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. Because I read it when I was exactly at the right point in my teens to find it a tumultuous bellow of a book and some of the bruises it gave me have yet to disappear. Now that I’ve read it once and moreover am somewhat older than I was, though, I fear that it may be feel blunted if I read it again. I want to keep these bruises.

Not long ago I did re-read Isaac Asimov’s The End of Eternity and, god in heaven, he’s a schoolboy. Yet so was I when I first read it and perhaps consequently I did not notice characters, attitudes, situations and writing that now makes me wonder if the book is a joke. All I saw back then was the plot which, to be fair, still seems replete with deeply imaginative ideas.

So I definitely had to be a schoolboy in order to think Asimov is good. I think I might have to be a teenager to truly appreciate Plath again. In which case, I and who I am, how old I am, perhaps even where I am, makes the difference to me between a book being good or bad. Your mileage will vary but the same factors apply: I don’t think you can enjoy a Young Adult novel as much as if you were a Young Adult, for instance.

This week, a colleague told me that she doesn’t like Doctor Who. She wanted me, I think, to make a pitch for why I think it’s good but instead I just told her that it isn’t compulsory.

I gave her this example. Mindful of how there’s just been some football tournament thing, I said to her that she or anyone might well be able to tell me that this game or that is good. You can argue about the beauty of the beautiful game, you can tell me how you’ve held your breath in moments of action that are greater than any theatre could ever hope to achieve.

And so what? I’ll never know because I’ll never watch because it’s football.

I have a few mantras in life. One is that it’s better to be crew than passenger. Another is that the show comes first. But the third is my unstoppable certainty that everything, absolutely everything is interesting. Except football.

Yet if you do that telling me it’s a pinnacle of drama, I might want to take you out to the theatre a bit more but it won’t occur to me to doubt you.

So that means that the quality of football doesn’t matter. It can be wonderful or it can be dreadful, it’s all still rubbish to me.

If you’re thinking that says more about me than it does football, I completely agree and I think that’s actually the point.

For if the quality or not of a sport has no bearing on whether I’ll like it, so surely the reverse is true. Things I do think are good really just happen to be things I like.

As writers and creators, maybe we shouldn’t bother striving to be good, then. We should just write things that include things people like. A bit with a dog, for instance.

Except, as a writer, I long to say to you that all of this is utter bollocks. I yearn to say definitively that if you do good work it will reach people. Whether or not they happen to be the right age or in the right demographic, good work will reach them.

And I think I can make that argument.

That mention of a bit with a dog – I realise only after having typed it – is a quote from the 1999 film Shakespeare in Love. And thinking of Shakey makes me think of this. That fella wrote Hamlet four hundred years ago and I’ll bet it was a hit with the teenagers of the day but it has lasted.It can’t connect with anything I do. It doesn’t depend on my being a Danish prince. Nothing Shakespeare could’ve put in as a crowd pleaser can work with me four centuries later.

Yet Hammy is one of my favourite plays.

Then the same should be true with Jane Austen. She wrote 200 years ago in a society I can’t imagine, in a world I cannot recognise. But her writing in the 18th and 19th Centuries has made me laugh aloud here in the 21st.

She’s also made me wince at her sometimes deft cruelty in describing characters such that one sentence brings them to vivid life.

That’s what I think works and lasts and connects. The ability of truly fine writers to see beyond the present-day trappings and dive so deeply into people that they also dive into us.

Women and Mentoring

This isn’t about women, it’s not about men and it’s only a bit about mentoring. Clearly I just like a good title. Listen, I don’t care whether someone is a man or a woman, if they’re a writer then I think there comes a point when they want guidance or mentoring. Or if I’m wrong, then I’ve just had a weird run of coincidence from writers who have the same weakness I think we all do.

So this week I turned down a man who wanted to hire me to mentor him. I have done mentoring on specific types of work or for specific types of writers and he didn’t fit either so I turned him down because I wasn’t the right person for him.

I did suggest things he could look into, though, and there was one particular point of his that I thought I could help with. He wanted to know whether he was approaching writing stories correctly, if he were doing the right thing. I told him who cares? If you end up with a good piece, it doesn’t matter if you write it in crayon on every second Tuesday of the year.

Half a beat later, a woman writer joked that what she wants most is someone to look over her work every quarter of an hour and tell her whether it’s going well or not.

You know she wasn’t joking. I know she wasn’t joking. She knew she wasn’t joking. So I told her in all seriousness that this would be a Very, Very Bad Idea.

She thought I was joking.

It happened again this week with another couple of writers so it’s been on my mind but I think these first two reveal a remarkably similar issue. They both want someone else to tell them if they’re right. That means, then, that they both think there is a right way to do something.

There’s something else, too, and I’m struggling to describe this. Let me try this way and you can tell me if I’m making sense. I think both of these writers unconsciously think that writing comes out in a straight line. That you get the first paragraph right and then you write the second. That you can show the first page, say, to someone, and they’ll give you a pass/fail.

But writing is a mess. No, more than that, writing is a fight. I don’t want to sound all male about it and I don’t equate writing to violence nor expect all writing to be conflict. Yet it is always a scrap. How’s that? It’s scrappy. You’re pulling this idea over there and nudging or shoving or easing it into another shape. You’re kneading the words and you’re fashioning one single loaf out of countless ingredients.

Possibly you’re making a really rubbish analogy and stretching it out in the hope that somewhere along the line it will make sense. Fail.

I won’t read your first paragraph because there’s no point until you’ve finished the whole piece. Then if I read, say, your script, then I do know from page one whether it’s working or not. That’s not some brilliance on my part, it’s because it is very quickly obvious when something is a fail. The only writer who can’t see it is the writer who wrote it.

But good or bad, instantly obvious or not, it needs the whole thing there or all anyone can tell you is if you type well.

That man I turned down, by the way, wrote a very good email. He’s a writer. I’ve read pieces by that woman and she writes with verve and life and vigour. She’s a writer.

They just both have to get on with writing. So do I. So do you.

I need a word for this

There’s got to be a word, or at least there really should be one and I would like it now, please. As ever with words, the reason we have them is so that we can describe something. So without the word yet available, this is going to be tricky to explain to you.

But you know I’m going to try.

There is this thing that very bad writers do and they do it most obviously on pretty bad television drama. Don’t ever get me wrong on this: the one-hour TV drama is my three-minute pop song, I am obsessed and adoring of the form. But when it’s crap, it’s very crap.

And one way you can tell instantaneously that something is going to be crap is this thing I can’t find a word for.

Usually it’s in a long-running series that tends to have a Story of the Week. This features some guest character we’ve never seen before, will never see again and in all honesty couldn’t really care less whether we see now either. But there they are. It’s always a story that doesn’t impact on the regulars but the writer kinda sorta thinks it would be better if it did, and isn’t allowed to.

They’re the writer who thinks it’s madness that they can’t make the hero be a drug addict. The truth is that you can, just that they can’t. Because they’re looking at this one episode and don’t see that if the hero is a drug addict this week but wasn’t last week or next, this is not searing deep drama, it’s a Just Say No advert.

These are also the writers who base their ideas on previous television dramas instead of on anything they’ve actually experienced. So they write searing deep drama about having an alcoholic guest character but they have not one single clue how foul and wretched a situation like that really is. They’ll have a regular character suddenly have a drunk brother and it’ll be really funny until, gasp, it’s really serious and then, shock-plus, everything is sorted out because the brother just cares so very deeply about his family. Give me a hug. Pass the tissue.

I’d say something like kill me now but I’m not an idiot.

Kill the writer.

Even this is not quite the thing I want a word for. I’m after a word to describe a specific thing – but it’s not a specific thing. It’s a prop or a device or a recurring something.

It’s when you see a guest character who always carries a pot plant. Or they’re a grown woman who can’t be in a scene without her teddy bear. Maybe they make ship models and for some unfathomable reason need to bring them everywhere.

That’s the thing I want the word for. The pot plant/teddy bear/ship model/thing. Could be a verbal tick instead. Could be that they happen to be obsessed with spanners and, oh, wouldn’t you know it, the only way for them to rescue the puppy dog at the end of the episode is by adapting their beloved favourite spanner into a rudimentary pulley system.

Watch for this thing. Watch the actor trying to make it all believable.

And then agree with me that there already is a word for this thing.

It’s No.