He said, She said, It growled

Maybe it’s fashion, maybe it’s just right, but at the moment the general consensus is that in good writing, people say things. Say or said. Not enunciated, pontificated, bellowed, whimpered. Just said.

As a scriptwriter, I like that because I think the bellowing and the pontificating and all that should be in the dialogue itself. Let the character speak that way, don’t point at their lines and tell me how I should hear it.

But when pressed on this point in workshops or wherever, I cannot help myself. I always – I’m irritated at me even writing this – I always say that you’re only allowed to use “he said, she said, it growled”.

Now, for one thing, I loathe that I say all that because as you know, there are no rules in writing. Although if you break them…

I also loathe it because it’s a joke based on something so few people can know that it’s impossible to really call it a joke.

You have to know the Target novelisations of Doctor Who.

The thing is, even if there aren’t really that many of us who do, if you’re one of us, you know those books extraordinarily well.

The most prolific writer of the range, Terrance Dicks, died this week and it came as a huge jolt to me. He was 84, I’ve never met him, and yet my head jerked back when I read the news.

And then this happened. Since he wrote something like 60 of these novelisations of old Doctor Who stories, naturally a lot of the covers were being shown on Twitter and Facebook and the rest.

It didn’t happen with all of them, but there are certain covers of his books where I would see the image on screen but I would feel the book in my hand. The weight, the heft, the shape, the texture. I’d feel the book and I’d even feel just an echo of the excitement.

Truly, this little book range had electricity in it. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, you never knew which Doctor Who story was going to be novelised and you didn’t know when. I remember so clearly being on holiday with my family and phoning a friend to ask if a new one was out and, if so, what it was.

It was Death to the Daleks, by Terrence Dicks. Published 20 July 1978.Cover of Death to the Daleks

That’s the thing with Doctor Who, if you can remember even a scintilla about anything to do with it, you can find the full details online. So I didn’t remember the date, didn’t even remember the year, but I remember the sunshine and the phone call and the book when I got home.

I also remember thinking that Doctor Who books, at the time, and in so many cases, were the scripts to the TV show with he said, she said, it growled added in. And that was unfair. It wasn’t always unreasonable –– there’s a ten-part, roughly five-hour Doctor Who story called The War Games whose novelisation is a pamphlet –– but it was unfair.

I know this because since Dicks died, I’ve re-read three of his Doctor Who novels. They’re not exactly long, they’re not exactly hard reading, but I started from nostalgia and I carried on because I was enjoying them.

This would be a good point to say, as so very many other people can and have, that it was these Doctor Who novels that made me a writer. It wasn’t. I’m a writer because of Lou Grant. But there’s no question that they helped.

There’s also no question that they belong to a long ago era. Target Doctor Who books were published when there was no possible way to see a Doctor Who story that aired last week, let alone across the show’s 50-odd years. They were Doctor Who for us, and there is an innocence to that whose loss is hanging a little heavier this week since Terrence Dicks died.

Muse bouche

I’ve got to tell you this today because next week I will ridicule myself for it. Next week I will be telling you that I wrote a script that was dreadful – but today, I’m going to tell you that this script is the best thing I’ve ever written.

We can analyse this predictable forthcoming about-face in some detail at any time or in any psychiatrist’s office of your choosing, but let me instead focus on the one thing that is undeniably good about this script.

It’s done.

Most of the time I’m a rather practical, even pragmatic, writer, in that if I have an idea then I also know that I will finish it. There aren’t a lot of opening scenes or chapters here. I’ll abandon, certainly, but usually the thing I like as much about getting an idea is seeing it through to the end. That applies as much to events as it does writing, but invariably it’s applied to everything I write.

Except I need a word that’s somewhere between invariably and variably.

Because every now and again, there is something that I think is good, that I think I may even be able to do well, but I keep not doing it.

Recently I’ve been talking with a writer who keeps not writing her book, and the discussion becomes one about the business of writing as much as the art. She needs to be in the right place, so to speak, to write this novel, and I absolutely see that – but not if it means it never gets done.

I didn’t believe in the muse and if I now wonder about it, I don’t think muses are on our side.

But there are people who are. I hope that in talking with me, this friend will write more of her novel, not least because I want to read it.

And in talking with people in a particular writer development programme I’ve been on – Room 204 from Writing West Midlands – I’ve written more of this script. So much more that yesterday on a train, I finished it.

I can see me there, stopped at Northampton again, looking at the screen and thinking, really? It’s called Sequences Shortened and the idea came from another friend, radio presenter and poet Charlie Jordan, who mentioned something about her work to me around 2017. It happens to be something I used to do too, back when I was working for the BBC, and it is the tiniest thing, yet it started something that finished yesterday.

You can’t wait for the muse. I don’t know what in the world you can wait for, I just know that on occasion, there are projects that take a long time. Projects that are sweet stones in your stomach, pressing away at you, somehow keeping you in them and yet away from the keyboard.

Writing that scares you, really. And for all that this is a job, I make my living entirely through writing, there have to be things you write that scare you.

I think this one has worked out. If only there wasn’t a book that I was afraid to finish too.

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.

Speaking and not speaking

Earlier this week I was working on a friend’s book: part proofreading, part commenting, part editing. It was a joy because the book is just so very, very good. But it’s also a joy because it’s her first one and yet it’s got none of the stilted caution of a new writer. It’s got none of the hesitancy.

It does have some of the padding, but you can fix that.

What this writer has is the benefit of knowing her subject extremely well and having run workshops on it. At her best, this isn’t text on a page, it’s her talking to you, working with you, just as I presume she does in workshops.

Actually it’s a business non-fiction title and I first met her because she was advising me on aspects of my work. So sometimes I’ll be reading a section and I can see her as she was a couple of years ago, sitting opposite me across a coffee shop table and telling me these same things.

When you and I are done talking today, I’m off to have a coffee with her again and to enthuse about her book.

But there is something else I’ll do. There’s something else I’ve realised. This skill of writing like you’re talking is superb but it also has to be a con. You must look like you’re doing it, you must look like this is all flowing naturally and conversationally, when really it isn’t.

Really it needs to be structured. It can’t actually be like speech because when we talk to someone, our sentences run on for hours. Those sentences make complete sense but when they’re written down, they lose that and become long or confusing.

I’m telling you what I think you already know and I’m telling myself what I think I’ve long realised but working on this book brought it back to me very strongly. This writer has more verve and skill than I did in my first writings and I hope I’ll convey that to her. Because the next step of moving from conversational to only apparently conversational is going to take a lot of work.

She can do it or I wouldn’t be saying this to you before going to meet her.

Plus I’ve already told her the truth by text. “You know how people give you criticism in shit sandwiches?” I texted her. “This book is two slices of excellent with a filling of superb.”

I utterly relished doing this work and I am so looking forward to talking to her about it. I’m just also conscious that I’ve made about seven hundred comments on the manuscript. I think I’ll talk a lot before I show her that bit.

Three iPhones

Appy days are here again

Okay, I’m not sure where I’m going with this but bear with me for a sec.

So far this morning I’ve pitched for some work and got rejected. I read a Modern Family script. Experimented again with microwaving poached eggs. Checked all my appointments for the day, got train tickets, got bus tickets. Advised my sister-in-law about her smartphone. Read the news. Checked the weather for London where I’m going now.

On the train I’ll re-read all the documents for a meeting, I’ll write some notes. I need to do some banking bits so I’ll fit that in somewhere. I really need to write at least some of a theatre programme. I want to write part of a play.

And on my way home tonight I want to outline a non-fiction book but I’ll be knackered and I expect I’ll watch an episode or two of Frasier instead.

Here’s the thing, though. I expect I’ll take meeting notes on my iPad but everything else, I got from my phone.

That’s including the poached egg recipe which I’ve saved in an iPhone cookery app called Paprika. It doesn’t just include buying the train and bus tickets, it includes waving the phone at barriers and inspectors. I forgot to say that I figured out which bus to take by using Citymapper.

I like that I forgot. I am startled by how much our phones can do and how they are tightly knitted into our lives.

But what I like most is that I forgot I’d used my phone for that route planning and that I didn’t really notice I was using my phone for any of this until I stopped to think about you. Yes, I’m writing to you on my phone.

That we can have one teeny device that will do all these things is stunning. But the fact that we can do it, that I can think of you and immediately be talking with you, that I can need a ticket and get one, that’s wonderful.

Usually it’s nature that people tell me I am failing to appreciate. Just today, I’m choosing to appreciate our phones.

Except it’s 09:30 and my bloody battery is dying.

Tom’s Midnight Garden title card from BBC 1974

Time No Longer

Okay, I think this is pretty rare. Not only can I tell you to the year when I decided I wanted to be a writer, but I can tell you to the minute when I got obsessed with the thing that has affected all of my writing ever since. And there’s an irony to that because what I’m obsessed with is time.

The year would’ve been 1978 when ITV started airing Lou Grant. That was this groundbreaking drama about newspapers and I suppose it is responsible for my becoming a journalist but I know it’s the reason I’m a writer. To this day I am still striving to write as well as that show. To do what it did and as well as it did it.

But in its five-year run, I can only think of maybe a single episode that had anything even distantly to do with time and that’s been my obsession since even before that show. I’m working on a collection of short stories on the theme of time right now and part of me thinks it’s the best thing I’ve ever written while another part of me hopes this means I’ll finally be done with it.

For time is just riddled through everything I write. I mean, yes, Doctor Who radio dramas, it’d be odd if those didn’t touch on the subject.

But I can see it in plays I write. I got fired off the TV soap Crossroads once, have I mentioned that? In retrospect I can see that one of my gags in the show was about time. (That wasn’t why I was fired. I was ditched because I was rubbish.) One of my rather more successful pieces of writing and actually one of my favourite short stories of mine is Time Gentlemen Please and each time I’ve performed it, someone in the audience has been convinced I’m as ill as the character. Perhaps I am.

Even regular conversations turn to this damn topic. Last Saturday I had a workshop that we all paused while we talked about the Grandfather Paradox. (You might not know the name but you definitely know the idea: it’s the thing that says you can’t go back in time and kill your grandfather because then you wouldn’t be born and so wouldn’t go back in time to kill him.)

Two days before that I was at an art and poetry event. After the main readings, the artist Sue Challis showed me a painting of hers and poet Nadia Kingsley stood by it giving me personal performance of a poem inspired by that painting. They made me cry. Because to my mind, both poem and painting are about time.

And this is on my mind now, other than because it always is, because I just today learned that this year is the 60th anniversary of Phillipa Pearce’s book, Tom’s Midnight Garden.

That book about time is as dear to me as an old friend. But it’s the BBC dramatisation that ignited a lifelong friendship and this lifelong compulsion.

At 17:15 on Monday 7 January, 1974, BBC1 aired a dramatisation by John Tully and produced by Dorothea Brooking. (Quick story? A friend mentioned in an email that she had some of Brooking’s archive and I wrote back instantaneously saying just DOROTHEA BROOKING? We were working on a project together and stuff that, I wanted to see Brooking’s archive.)Tom’s Midnight Garden billing in Radio Times 1974

You can watch a lot of this version of Tom’s Midnight Garden on YouTube, though unfortunately not all of it. There’s no commercial release. And if Tom’s Midnight Garden were ever to come out on shiny disc or streaming on demand, my 1974 version wouldn’t be it. Because there was a better one in 1989. And my one was a remake of a 1968 one. I’ve never been able to see that and I don’t even know if it still exists, but if you wanted quality you’d release 1989 and if you wanted history, you’d release 1968.

I’m not even going to disagree with that: I think the 1974 version is perfunctory, it’s squeezed down into too few episodes and it is particularly cheaply done.

But it’s mine.

I don’t know that every writer has one strong obsession or actually that they necessarily recognise it in themselves if they do. But surely it’s got to be rare for one to be able to pinpoint to the very minute when it started.

I’m only relieved it didn’t also get me into gardening.

Going nowhere slow

Last Saturday I didn’t drive my mom to Brean. It’s near Weston-super-Mare and we didn’t go but we’ve been before. It’s where my family often went on holiday and we’ve talked about going back for a look. We had a good go, too. She brought a deckchair, I bought Arthur C Clarke’s novel Rendezvous with Rama.

Not just the novel but the specific edition, the specific paperback, the actual book I’d bought from Allen Stores, Brean, when I was a kid. Every time I’ve picked that book up off my shelves in the years since, I’ve remembered stepping out of that shop near the beach, holding this novel that would become so familiar. The now familiar sense of wonder that this science fiction novel gave me then; the now familiar sense of wonder as a writer at how Clarke was limited in his schoolboy prose.

Allen Stores has a similar split in my head. I can see it from an my adult self’s outsider perspective but I can feel it as a child. I have an image of a very small, very precise L-shaped section of the way out of the store, the slight touch of sand on the paving stones, the little sticks with plastic windmills, the warmth in every sense.

Grief. Just saying this to you, just reaching back into that time, I remember this. There was a spot near the beach where the top edges of a hollow in the sand were circled by bushes or something. This circle had grown over into a canopy so that the hollow was like a cave. A perfect den for a boy. Perfect enough that I ran back to it one summer.

Ran back to it, ran into it and found other boys there.

A group of them, younger than me, startled into statues by my booming into my private, secret, hidden den. I went into that den the boy I’d been the previous summer but it was like pressing through a membrane, I popped into the inside, I saw the boys, I saw they were younger than me, and saw that this meant I was older. I aged in that moment.

I didn’t stop, didn’t pause, didn’t slow down. Straight in one side of the bushes like last year’s boy, through the membrane and out the other side like this year’s older one. I grew up in that space, in that moment, and I don’t know what happened next. Maybe that was the summer I went on to the shop and read books.

Allen Stores is not there any more and neither are we. Because in all the years of growing up since then, I don’t seem to have grasped the idea of traffic. We drove from Birmingham toward Brean and after about five hours, we drove back again. The only possible Dear Diary entries are that we stopped at two service stations for a break and then lunch.

The thing is, I had a really good time driving nowhere. And I have done before.

I’ve been flashing back to childhood; let me flashback to sometime more recent. And to somewhere closer. Nottingham.

I’m hazy again about details so I can’t remember for certain whether Angela and I were yet going out or not. It was definitely very early on if we were. And I was very definitely trying to impress her, though that continues to this day. Again, not a clue what we were doing but I think we were going to some show in Nottingham, maybe a meal. Something that I somehow thought she would like and that through extension she’d like me.

Maybe I’d remember what it was if we’d ever got there.

It wasn’t traffic this time, it was navigation. I was driving and then I was driving and driving and driving. We spent the entire evening driving from Birmingham to Nottingham or really to around and around and around Nottingham. I have no idea why it was such a confusing route to me, except that I guess that’s a lie.

For we might be driving, Angela and I, my mom and I, but what’s really happening is that we’re talking. I’m listening. There’s a line in a Jason Bourne film, of all things, where a character mentions that listening to someone talk while you’re driving is relaxing. It’s more than that for me. It’s a cocoon. Clearly it doesn’t matter to me whether we get where we’re going or I’d have got out a map of Nottingham, I’d have insisted we set out earlier to beat the Brean traffic.

I’m tempted to say that it’s like having a spotlight on your passenger, except that feels too harsh, too glaring, too interrogating. Maybe it’s that your passenger has a stage. We don’t get long conversations any more. I have a lot of coffee meetings and deeply enjoy facing someone as we talk but there is something different about in a car. Side by side, both facing forward. Both accepting the fact that this is going to be a long journey so we might as well relax into it.

When I’m on my own I need BBC Radio 4 or I need Apple Music, only occasionally do I need silence. When someone’s with me, someone special, I need them.

I’ve no idea how my passenger feels. My mom says she had a good time. And Angela didn’t complain plus, reader, I married her. So hopefully it’s a shared thing and not just something important to me.

But there is a lesson to be learned here, clearly.

Never get a lift from a writer.

Shelve your ideas

So some preposterous number of years ago, I interviewed Alan Plater at his then home, a spectacular flat in London. I was very young and rather nervous but wowed by how massive this place was and, especially, how full of bookshelves he and his wife Shirley Rubinstein had it. I wanted the flat, I wanted the bookshelves.

I particularly wanted the bookshelves. I’m not sure I could’ve vocalised this then, I suspect I just drooled, but it seemed a pretty perfect kind of place to live in.

Did I mention the size?

I came away thinking that London flats are superb and that bookshelves are fantastic. I was right about one of those things. While Alan and Shirley’s flat was glorious, it was actually two flats. They were knocked together into one long one and in fact few people in London live like that.

Shirley and Alan became close friends of mine after this but I never went back to that flat. They moved to a gorgeous house – and this time the knocking through and building on turned it into an even more gorgeous house with more levels and rooms and crinkly corners than can truly be appreciated in one sitting. Oh, and book shelves. Lots and lots of bookshelves.

I’ve just realised: when I watch Grand Designs or lesser property shows, my lip does curl just a little at those houses that have no bookshelves. Not fit for purpose, if you ask me.

But I like that I never went back to that flat. It makes that place and that moment a specific little bubble. I’ve never been one for lusting after houses and cars – possibly I have a bit for some Apple gear but give me a break here – but those shelves, that bubble, I wanted it. It felt inextricably bound up in what I wanted my career to be. I did lust after being a writer, even as I thought that was something other people did. Not me. Couldn’t be me.

Turns out, it could.

And all of this came back to me this week as I did a mentoring session over Skype. (I do mentoring for The Blank Screen and Other Stories now. It’s a thing.) During the natter, there was an oooh. Look at the shelves behind William.

I turned around, winced at how I’d forgotten to tidy up, but there they were.

Floor to ceiling bookshelves. Crammed.

Nowhere near as organised as Shirley and Alan’s, but bookshelves aplenty and akimbo.

I haven’t thought about this much in recent years but I’m thinking about it today. Because I look at those shelves of mine and I want them. Just as I wanted Alan and Shirley’s, all that time ago.

And I’ve got them.

A couple of them have copies of my books.

How in the world did that happen?

Is that it? Is Kindle dead?

Naturally you know that anything you ever read that includes a question mark in the title is obligated to answer it with the word ‘no’. But this time, I think it’s ‘no’ bordering on ‘maybe’. I’m just not sure what I think about it.

Here’s the thing. Author Lee Child was on BBC’s Newsnight this week about the spat between Amazon and the publisher Hachette. Child isn’t with that publisher and he has been vocal about supporting Amazon in general, but he was on Newsnight to tell Amazon off. That’s not what interests me most, though. I’ve appended the full interview way down there below but during it, he said this:

“Amazon is fantastically ambitious, they want to change the world, they want to dominate and the Kindle simply hasn’t. It hasn’t worked as well as Amazon wanted it to work. It’s become – you know, America’s market is about two years ahead of the British market and the verdict is in, in America. And to put it in the vernacular, Kindle is ‘so 2012’. People tried it out back then. Some people liked it, some people didn’t, most people were completely indifferent and it has settled into a good, solid niche which is fine from a business point of view but not good enough for Amazon.”

You can argue that authors, especially ones with long and successful track records in hardback and paperback, might want to think that Kindle is a niche. I think we’ve all expected and/or feared that ebooks will one day replace all books and there’s certainly been a massacre of high street bookstores.

But Lee Child is an international hit and he does huge business in America: though he’s a British writer, he sets his Jack Reacher thrillers in the States and very, very convincingly so. I tend to give him some credence, then, especially as there was also news this week of how shops are not necessarily being beaten by online sales as much as expected.

Over the past 20 years, e-commerce sales have grown to about 6% of total retail sales (excluding gasoline and food services) and about 11% of Forrester’s top 30 product categories.

But though the e-commerce growth rate is attractive, it has slowed from about 30% per year in the early 2000s to less than half that rate today. If the trend continues, e-commerce sales will increase from 11% of Forrester’s top 30 categories to about 18% by 2030—higher in some (such as music) and lower in others (such as food). While 18% is a significant number, it does not exactly spell the end of physical stores.

E-Commerce is Not Eating Retail – Darrell Rigby, Harvard Business Review (14 August 2014)

The full piece then goes on to talk about how the lines blur anyway:

Imagine that a customer goes to a Macy’s store, learns that the product is out of stock, and uses her smartphone to order the product from another Macy’s outlet, which ships it to her home the same day. Is that an e-commerce sale or a physical one?

You can extrapolate too much from any one or two sources but it’s not unreasonable, I think, to wonder if all of this has happened before and all of this will happen again. Theatre was destroyed by radio and radio was destroyed by television but all three are strong again today. Maybe over time things will even out and Child is right that Kindle will be just one format instead of the dominant one.

The trouble is, I don’t like Kindle.

The original hardware Kindles irritated me with how the screens would flash black every six pages or so, I never got used to that distraction. Plus the typography, the very look of the words on the page niggled me. The hardware is better now and, moreover, you can get Kindle software on just about everything I use: iPhone, Mac and especially iPad.

I buy quite a lot of Kindle books to read on my iPad.

But I’m afraid I do it reluctantly. Kindle books are ugly. I mean, they are just ugly. I say this as someone who has some of his books out on Kindle and I definitely say it as someone who uses Kindle to get many books that aren’t available anywhere else. But it’s not the greatest reading experience. I’ve just been reading a book that has a lot of photographs in it; the way the book is formatted you’ll sometimes get a caption on the next page so I was often skipping back and forth to read caption, see photo or vice versa. Every time I would do it, the entire book would reformat and put the text in a different place. What was a half page at the end of a chapter was now a full page at the end of a chapter.

If a book is available on both Kindle and Apple’s iBooks, this reading experience business is enough that I will buy the iBook. Even though typically that’s a little bit more expensive.

Reading an iBook is a genuine pleasure, though. I’ve looked to see if I can show you a comparative screenshot, grab the same page from a Kindle ebook and an Apple iBook and there’s not really one that conveys this difference to you. That does tell me that the difference is slight. But it’s real and it’s enough that it matters to me.

Plus, I have some skin in the game. The most popular edition of my The Blank Screen book is definitely the Kindle one – though you’d be surprised, the paperback is pretty close – but I think the most gorgeous version is the one on iBooks. I’m just astonished how good that looks.

And then you get things that cannot be done on Kindle and in fact cannot be done in paperback either. Writer David Sparks has a range of books he calls the MacSparky Field Guides that are a mixture of text, graphics, video and audio, all working together. It’s not a gimmicky use of technology, it’s exploiting the tech to get us something good. His latest is a guide to making presentations and it is just beautiful.

Not just beautiful, it’s a very good read. (And listen. And watch.) But it’s definitely also beautiful.

Books like his and, yes, mine, are so good as ebooks that I would actually be sorry if paperbacks rose up and took over the world again. I just want them both. I want them all. I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

Lee Child’s new book is out later this month on Kindle and in hardback here in the UK and early next month there in the USA.

My own The Blank Screen is on Kindle and paperback via Amazon UK and Amazon US plus that gorgeous version on iBooks for iPad and Mac everywhere.

David Sparks’s MacSparky Field Guide: Presentations is exclusively on iBooks here. Even if you’re not going to make a presentation, a look at the free sample just to see how well he’s done the book.

Lastly, here’s that full Lee Child interview on Newsnight with Kirsty Wark:

Fortune and glory, kid

I’ve only been thinking about this for two weeks. There was a book event at the Library of Birmingham and I was listening to the speakers, half wondering if I could steal how funny and charming they were, when a guy asks a question.

Actually, no, it was more that he stated a fact but added a question mark. He said to these authors: “But the point, the aim of it all is to write a bestseller, isn’t it?”

There are two answers to this and they are both no.

You can have the very short ‘no’ or you can have the longer, more considered, let’s have some tea, kind of no which you already know is what’s happening here. He stated this fact and every part of me thought no. It was that immediate, that certain, and it has not taken me two weeks to think about it. Because I haven’t finished thinking about it yet. I’m hoping that talking it over with you will sort out my head.

I think all that I’ve been churning over comes down to a split between people who write and people who don’t. There are two types of people in this world and they both intend to write novels. I suspect that when you don’t write and therefore don’t know what heavy spade work it is, you only ever hear about writers when they are interviewed. Writers are interviewed almost exclusively only at the point when they have a new book out. This would be because perhaps the only thing more boring than watching video of a writer typing is watching a video of the much longer periods where they aren’t.

But still, the result is that we see writers when they have something new out and inescapably, then, it looks pretty easy to have something new out. They were only on the telly the other day with the last thing, weren’t they?

Then because news wants facts and because there isn’t a gigantic amount you can ask a writer about their new work that won’t spoil their new work, we get the topic of money. This is especially true when the writer has earned some amazing amount.


It’s easy and they make a lot of money.

Maybe it’s natural, then, to think that the point of writing is to make money.

Now, certainly, I write for a living and I like to eat occasionally, I prefer sleeping indoors. And actually I have very often been described as a commercial writer because I like thrillers and Doctor Who and magazines. But I used the word ‘like’ there. I could’ve said “because I write thrillers and Doctor Who” but I said ‘like’. I am a commercial writer but it is because that is where my tastes lie, it is not because I have a spreadsheet saying these are more lucrative jobs than publishing five lines of poetry every ten years.

I do make a living and writers can still make a lot of money, even today, but the answer is still no.

If you go into writing to make your fortune, it is conceivable that it will work, but it is bloody unlikely. So unlikely that doing this for that reason is simply stupid.

Plus, it’s a funny thing, writing: your secret intent has a way of becoming very apparent to the audience. If you’re doing it for glory, we can tell. I interviewed Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight the other week and he was talking about how he as all these film and TV projects that mean a lot to him but there are also these many others where he’s been the writer for hire. But, he said, whatever it is, you have to do it as if it is the most important thing to you.

That’s not a definable thing. You can’t have a formula that says 10% more effort equals 10 times the success of a piece. Yet hack work stands out very clearly.

So you have to write what matters to you and you have to hope that it works out enough that you can survive.

Maybe the real barrier between writers and non-writers is that the nons can’t comprehend that anyone would be so stupid as to do this. They’re right. There’s no question but that writing is a stupid thing to do.

Yet I’m okay with being stupid. I’m used to it in everything else, I might as well enjoy it here. And it’s not as if I seem to have any choice in the matter, but I am glad that I am over here on this stupid side. Because it pains me, it actually causes me pain, when I hear someone being surprised that, say, JK Rowling has written another book. The genuine incomprehension you hear sometimes, the idea that she’s daft when she’s done all those Harry Potter books and made her fortune.

She is daft. We all are. Of course she keeps writing. How could you not?