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.

To have and of not

It’s just you and me here so I’m going to confess something and you are not going to tell, okay? I used to have a profoundly deep crush on Darcey Bussell. Then during an episode of Strictly Come Dancing, she told some dancer that they “should of” done something.

I didn’t hear what they should’ve done because I was twitching too much. I don’t remember the dancer or the dance or even when this was. Yet that phrase switched my crush off like a light switch.

And yet this month when the Doctor said it in Doctor Who, well, I still twitched. But I didn’t switch off, I didn’t think much more than a pixel less of actor Jodie Whittaker and a fathom less of writer Chris Chibnall.

Maybe I’ve become inured to it. Maybe I accept that we’re on our inevitable way to having this nonsensical pair of words become a legitimate part of the language.

Or maybe I’m just not letting it switch off Doctor Who for me. It’s possible that I’m maturing, though I see no other evidence of this.

Also, it has been on my mind for six days straight and I needed you to help get it out.

But you have done and I thank you.

Just don’t tell Darcey. You pinky-promised.

Simply the best, ish, sort of, a bit

There is something wrong with us. All of us. Even you. Don’t look at me like that. The internet has enabled people to mistype vitriol over what they don’t like and while you’re not like that, there is something of the opposite in you: if you like something, I think you can be loudly enthusiastic about it.

That’s surely no bad thing, except there is something in all of us that makes it easy to go too far. You can see it the most clearly with haters who will declare something on television to be the Worst. Episode. Ever.

There are people who stopped watching certain shows and regularly and proudly remind the world of this fact. The world could give a damn.

The world doesn’t give much of one when we like something either but I, for instance, cannot stop myself running up to you like an excited puppy when I see or read or hear something I think is wonderful.

I just think that there is a tendency for people who like things to need to further. It’s not enough that they enjoyed it, it has to be the Best Thing Ever. And there is a problem with that. It can affect the very thing you like.

I’m thinking of what happened after the original Star Trek series was cancelled in the 1960s. There was a lot to like about that show, there was enough to dislike, but really it was a lively action/adventure one-hour television drama. It engendered fans, though, and perhaps was the first example of really passionate and large-scale fandom, for most of whom it wasn’t enough to just enjoy the show.

I’m all for engagement and apparently there are scientists who went into their careers specifically because of Star Trek and I can’t comprehend how wonderful that is.

But the short version is that fans regarded Trek as important and by the time the first film based on the show was made, this attitude had infested the crew. Star Trek: The Motion Picture is pompous. Self-important. Boring. It’s also visually exquisite at times but there’s only so long you can stare at a painting.

Trek may be vulnerable to being pompous, though. I just read the screenplays for the first six of the movies and the worst of them, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, has a note on the title page. It’s a little lecture about the cosmos and how “the incredible beauty of this latest Star Trek voyage” is based in scientific reality. There should be an afterword explaining what the dialogue is based in.

Still, watch the last episode of the original TV show and then the first movie. I think the incredible difference is down to years of fans talking up the importance of Trek and its makers coming to believe them.

That’s one thing, but here’s another. The film flopped but it was so earthshakingly expensive that Paramount gambled on earning back some of the money by getting their TV division to make a sequel for six bucks.

They did and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is cheaper. (Based on the official budgets, this was made for a third of the price of the first one. ) Grab a Trek fan, ask him or her, and there’s a fair chance they’ll still say Star Trek II is the best of the films. There is definitely a vocal contingent that would say Best Film Ever.

Compared to the first movie, it is very good. It has life and action and smaller-scale yet higher stakes. And it has Ricardo Montalban.

But it’s a cartoon. The makers swung far the other way, doing everything to make a crowd-pleaser instead of an important statement about the future of humanity. And because it was a such a success, every Star Trek film until the 2009 JJ Abrams-led ones has had a certain similar tone. A bit flat. A bit empty.

I know I’m reducing the creative contribution of hundreds and maybe thousands of people down to generalities but, still, fans talked up Trek into a pompous misfire and then the course-correction resulted in a whole series of films that are popcorn.

I like popcorn. I’m just never going to say to you that it or anything else is the greatest thing ever.

Although I admit this all popped into my head because I’ve also just read Rose, the new Doctor Who novel by Russell T Davies and it is tremendous. Just the Best Thing Ever.

Pirates aloud

Well, this is new. Someone on YouTube is advertising an audio version of a book of mine which is an interesting move since there isn’t one.

Actually, I say this is new but I am aware that Doctor Who radio dramas get pirated so it must’ve happened to me before but I’ve never seen it happen. I’ve definitely never seen it while in the bath.

I’m not sure I should’ve mentioned that last but it is just you and me here plus you’ve got a kind face. I was having a long soak with my large iPad propped up on a chair across the bathroom. It was playing various YouTube videos I wanted to catch up on and I’m stopping right here, I’m not telling you what I watched, you’re going too far now.

But the purpose of the soak was to hide away from a tough week and explicitly to not think about various projects I’m on.

And the result of the soak was that of course I had an idea about one of them.

A bath plug tugged and two big towels sanding me down later, I did a search online for a fact to do this idea – and the only result that came back was me. My book. In this unauthorised, unheard-of audio version from someone I suppose I shouldn’t name but who, let’s be clear here, isn’t me.

Thanks to editor Mike Wuerthele, I’ve learned that you can file complaints to YouTube about just this sort of thing and I did so in the required great detail before my hair dried.

It’s just that I should be angry, and I am. I should be determined to stop this – and you had better believe that I am. Yet alongside that, I keep coming back to wondering why it was this particular book.

If you promise to not search YouTube for the illegal audio version, I’ll tell you that it’s Getting Productive with Omni Software: Exploiting OmniFocus, OmniOutliner and OmniPlan.

I think that’s pretty niche. This software is world-class and the first two, especially, have transformed my working life. (OmniFocus is the To Do app I live in and OmniOutliner is how I’ve planned about 400 of my last speaking gigs. Also some books. OmniPlan is project management software which I’ve used for some complex projects but really they were only complex to me, you’d have done them in your sleep.) Read my book or just go buy the software.

It’s niche but I like that book and it seems to be in demand more and more. Earlier this month I got to speak about it over Skype, presenting to the members of the Chicago Apple User Group. Early evening their time, after midnight mine, and whilst I was in an oven of a hotel room in London ahead of delivering an all-day workshop for the Federation of Entertainment Unions.

I told you about the bath: that night I had five showers solely to cool down and only got dressed again because it would’ve been a bit offputting to the Chicago people if I’d sat there in towels.

That was a really good night: hearing twenty or so people laughing back at me across the Atlantic, it was buzzing. Plus I’ve had since some lovely comments about the book, too.

All of which means that one of those projects of mine that’s been so pressing me down has somewhat floated up higher. I’m doing a new edition of the book and it will be out as an ebook and this time a paperback later in the year. I don’t know when because I want to wait for a particular new version of OmniOutliner to be released and all I know is that it’s soon.

But I wonder if I should do an audio version.

UPDATE: YouTube has accepted my copyright claim and removed the video.

Time for something new

I want to make a case that there is nothing new and also that everything is new. Follow.

This is on my mind chiefly because I was in a Facebook discussion last night where writer Iain Grant said that he and co-writer Heide Goody were looking at a time travel idea for a novel. (If you don’t know their work, take a gander at their website.) He wanted to know if it had been done before.

I knew a few examples that were close and others had more that were similar, some had ones I’d not heard of but are apparently pretty much the same.

Now, one of my more annoying but uncontrollable habits is that if you tell me an idea, I might well wince and say no, it was done in Upstairs, Downstairs or The A-Team. This is specifically the reason I can’t get through Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom: as good as it is, he has stories and characters that he’s used so often. There is a part of me that wants to see how The Newsroom handles a particular storyline that was beat for beat the same in Sports Night and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, but chiefly because I’m fascinated by how it was romantic in the former but creepy in the latter.

Wait, I suddenly remember having a little row with a script editor who argued that just because I’d seen something done often, that didn’t mean my audience had. That didn’t sway me. I couldn’t write the scene the way he wanted.

Yet in that discussion last night, you could sense Iain beginning to think that nope, he and Heidi should skip it and I really don’t want him to. Nor does anyone else in the chat. And I think it’s for this reason.

Yes, at least parts of the idea have been done before, but it hasn’t been done by Iain Grant and Heide Goody. Until they’ve done it, you can’t know that it would be written better than the previous versions but you can know that it would be different.

I’m not sure why that’s enough to make me urge them to write it and yet not enough to let me do the same. For me, if I know that an idea has been done before then, so far, I’ve been incapable of doing it. This could be why I never ask on Facebook whether something’s been done before.

Only, there is another reason for this being on my mind today. Earlier yesterday I was on a train reading an unpublished novel that I wrote. Funnily enough, it was about time. Unfunnily enough, it was appallingly bad. So bad that I truly gaped when a search on my Mac happened to turn it up: I had written 70,000 words in 1994 and erased it from my mind immediately afterwards. I’m not sure why I didn’t erase it from my Mac. I might. There’s still time.

A day on and it’s already evaporating from my mind but I did remember how struck I was by one core idea that ran through the second half of the book. Because while the details are different and the relationship is different, it’s otherwise the same idea as in Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife. There’s even a part of it that is the same idea as River Song and the Doctor’s out-of-sequence relationship in Doctor Who.

The Time Traveler’s Wife was published nine years after my novel wasn’t. River Song first appeared in Doctor Who in 2008, fourteen years after my novel didn’t.

There’s something appealing to me about this timey-wimey issue, that two separate time discussions are leading me to how there were at least two great ideas within the novel I wrote. It’s less appealing to me how ferociously bad my writing was in 1994.

I often get pupils in writing workshops asking if they can do something slightly different to what I’ve asked and the answer I’ve grown is always this: yes, if you do it brilliantly.

Maybe that’s the bit I should be focusing on: work at being brilliant instead of working at whether this catalogue in my mind recognises an idea from somewhere else.

I mean, at one point in that novel I wrote the words “a myriad of”. I was young, but I’ll understand if you never talk to me again.

Check your references

I don’t know what in the world it is with us writers, but we have a weakness for references. There’s a character called Veronica in one of my Doctor Who stories and I did name her after Veronica Mars. I don’t think there’s any possible way you could know that, so there couldn’t be any possible way that you’d be taken out of the story for a moment as you recognised it.

But then I have another where I needed a name for a spaceship that collected junk from Earth orbit. Names are hard: I’ve spent about 20 hours this week working solely on finding a name for a particular project. Names are bastards. But anyway, in this Doctor Who, I wanted to suggest that there had been a series of these spaceships: in one early draft I really needed another ship to come save the day so I had to set up that there were several. That third ship vanished for good somewhere in a later draft and I mean for good in every sense. But I was still left with the main ship being called Salvage 2. And I did have the Doctor or someone ask what happened to Salvage 1.

Real answer? Salvage 1 was the name of a 1970s TV show that had a pretty good pilot film about building a rocket, going to the moon, salvaging all the junk that’s up there, bringing it back and selling it.

There is no possible chance that you know that show. Nobody knows that show. Except at least one person did. I read about it in a very nice review of that story and actually I liked that this reviewer and I shared such an obscure and yet fond memory.

I can’t remember the reviewer’s name, sorry. But the fact remains that even if he or she were entirely engrossed in my story, at that one moment he or she was propelled right out of it. Recognising, remembering, gone, out of it, vanished, over.

It is so very, very hard to get anyone into your story that choosing to throw them out again is insane. Yet I did it. I’m proud of that Doctor Who story but I’m not proud of having done that.

And this all comes up because on Monday I went to see Star Trek Beyond and Ghostbusters back to back. Don’t ask me why. Also don’t ask me how: I do not know how I fitted that in. You could ask me when, I could answer that. It was Star Trek late Monday afternoon, Ghostbusters late Monday evening.

Both of them have references. What I want to figure out is why I was entertained by the Ghostbusters ones and a tiny bit irritated by those in Star Trek. I do also want to tell you that I enjoyed both films and that they’re much better than their predecessors. Star Trek Beyond has flaws you see even as you’re watching it where Star Trek Into Darkness had so many of them that you didn’t have time to catch them all until you were walking out of the cinema wondering about refunds. And while people do seem divided over the Ghostbusters remake, it made me laugh aloud. I feel it’s a touch long for what it is but I shook with laughter and the original didn’t manage that for me.

All of Ghostbusters’ references are to that original film and actually, grief, there are so many. It’s only now, talking to you, that I realise it was a right torrent of references. For instance, I was tickled by the group trying to write adverts to post up around the city and beginning to suggest “If there’s something strange in the neighbourhood…” before getting interrupted. Similarly, there is a “Who’re you gonna call –” that also gets interrupted by something very similar to what you’re expecting the next word to be.

Then there are also lots of cameos from the original cast, some with dialogue from that first film. Plus the original film has that unexpectedly famous exchange about real wrath of God type stuff, human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together… The new one has an exchange about the phrase letting the cat out of the bag. It shouldn’t be that close but it comes at the same point in the story, it comes at a length, it works.

I think it works, though, because it’s done well. And by that I mean if you don’t know the original, you also don’t stop to notice that there is anything. It works on its own. Maybe my Salvage 2 stuff did too; I’d like to think so. The Ghostbusters cameos stretch that: a taxi driver gets far more screen time in a little scene than he would if he weren’t Dan Ackroyd from the first film, for instance. You’d feel there was something off with that even if you didn’t recognise him.

Maybe there is also an element that this is the first Ghostbusters remake. If they do the same in a second – and there will surely be a second, this is a very good movie and it’s performed well at the box office – then that’ll be harder to like.

It was certainly beyond hard to like in the second Star Trek film, Into Darkness. That film’s key emotional moments were entire remakes of previous Star Trek things and for God’s sake they weren’t that brilliant the first time. When you sit there in the cinema, all out of Malteasers, and you’re pointing at the screen saying “Cue Spock” and mouthing his dialogue ahead of him, it’s a little bit fair to say you’re well out of that story.

Star Trek Beyond has none of that. But it does have many references and jokes that rankled. Early on, for example, Captain Kirk is voicing over his log and conveying that the Enterprise’s five-year mission has been a bit dull so far, really, and he says something like “this is starting to feel a bit episodic”. It is a reference to how there have been more than 700 episodes of Star Trek on television and that would be fine except no human being has ever or will ever describe anything in their lives as episodic. Maybe epileptic sufferers. Maybe.

It is a gag that is only a gag. It is a gag that even if you don’t get it, it is still saying hello, I’m a gag.

I called this Self Distract “Check your references” and I meant it in the sense that the writer will have thought about getting the reference right, I meant it in the sense that as an audience we can see and look into these. But really I mean that writers, including me, should check this habit in the sense of stopping it.

Full circle

You’re supposed to know when you’ve come full circle, you’re supposed to notice it happening.

And most of the time, I have. I can look very easily at how I was a Doctor Who fan as a child and now I write Doctor Who radio dramas. Actually, there’s a famous Doctor Who story from Tom Baker’s years called Full Circle and now I’ve worked alongside its writer, Andrew Smith.

Then there was Lou Grant, the television drama that is responsible for my becoming a writer. I watched it in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the very names on the credits becoming as familiar to me as I understand football players are to sports fans. I haven’t completed that circle by now writing understatedly brilliant television drama, but once in a while those names on the credits are now names in my email inbox.

I can vividly see myself buying the new issue of Radio Times one week in 1996 when it announced it was going online with what would become radiotimes.com. I can vividly feel how I felt I’d missed a boat there, that I should’ve been involved somehow, that I wanted to be involved somehow. Shortly afterwards, I started working for them and Radio Times magazine plus radiotimes.com became probably my biggest single and consistent freelance writing gig throughout the 2000s.

Same thing with BBC Ceefax. I wrote for the teletext service on the Paramount Comedy Channel and was very glad to get to do it but really it was BBC Ceefax I was aiming for. Actually, I remember pranking my mother with a news story that looked like it was on Ceefax but I’d written up on a BBC Micro. (This was in the days of BBC Micros, it was before the day that pranking became a word. I was a rebel.) Not very many years later, I was leaving messages for my wife Angela Gallagher hidden in pages of the real Ceefax.


You knew there was a but.

Easily the biggest, most marked, most rattle-me-to-my-core full circle happened this week and I did not know until it was too late.

I ran a trio of writing workshops at Newman University. (My sister went there when it was Newman College. I thought that was the circle for the day.) It was at Newman and it was for the University but it was with school children. The university was recruiting, really. There was an open day, there was a tour and then three of us local writers each ran three of these workshop sessions.

There was an extra fun to this in that the school groups were divided into three and they each stayed in their room all morning, it was we writers who had to race around the campus. There was an extra eeek to this in that I’d run into a room that had just had a workshop run by storyteller Cat Weatherill or poet Alan Kurly McGeachie. Follow that, William.

I think I did. I know I had a good time, I hope the schoolkids did. At the end, when everyone was gathered in a lecture hall, I had a quick count and I reckon there were 100 kids. I think they were mainly from three or four schools and I hadn’t actually heard of any of those.


When it was all done and half the pupils had headed out on their guided tours of the campus, I was standing near some staff planning the next day.

And I saw the name of my school on the page.

My old school, the one I nearly named here but have spent so long decrying that a decent Google search and a bit of elbow grease could even build you up a picture of me libelling that place, allegedly.

Let me tell you quickly. I had fights at my school, not just fistfights with the other pupils but a political one with a member of staff whose oncoming nervous breakdown somehow made him want to have me kicked out. I had a careers lesson in which the teacher did not just laugh at my saying I wanted to write, he got the entire class to laugh with him. I should own up to having been a poor student, but this was a bad school and all I got from it were the kind of bruises that did help in journalism but let’s not give them any credit. And I also got a bucketful of embarrassing memories of just how much and just how many of my year I fancied, but fortunately that’s not the point here.

The point is that I’ve now visited a lot of schools as a writer and I have never come so close to my own one. They were going to be in Newman University the next day and I wasn’t. That was so close that I felt jolted.

So it was really more of a kick to hear “No, that’s today’s list”.

I turned to the students left and asked if any were from this school that again I just began typing the name of, you’ve got to stop me. But there were none. As I understand it, only a very few came from this place, it wasn’t one of the main schools who were there.


Without question, without doubt and unfortunately without knowing it, this week I taught some kids from my own school.

I’ve come full circle. I’m rather excited by this, I am certainly more than a little freaked. Maybe if I’d known it would happen, if I’d known it was happening, that would’ve been easier. But knowing I have done it and not being able to know which kids had been from there, it’s on that borderline between tantalising and disturbing. I’ll admit, since it’s just you and me here, that it did also make me feel old. It did also make me feel a bit strange. I’m wondering if this makes me square or loopy.


You’re supposed to know when you’ve come full circle, you’re supposed to notice it happening.



Plot vs story

Pull up a seat. Let me just tap this app and set the wifi iKettle boiling. I wanna tell you a story.

But it’s specifically that, a story. Not a plot. If you’re in a hurry and you don’t mind missing out on the biscuits, there is a short description of the difference which gets quoted a lot by writers and which goes roughly thisaway:

The king died and then the queen died (story).
The king died and then the queen died of grief (plot)

EM Forster said that. Everybody agrees, you miss nothing but ginger nuts if you have to leave.

Except, I don’t agree.

Maybe it’s just semantics but I would take those same two sentences and I would swap the parenthetical descriptions:

The king died and then the queen died (plot)
The king died and then the queen died of grief (story)

Truly, I stand alone here, I know it. But it’s a stance that comes from a lot of years reading a lot of thrillers and writing a few too. The ones that fail, for me, are those that have kings dying, queens dying, everybody dying and it doesn’t matter, I don’t care whether they die because I just do not care at all. That’s a plot. You can make it twisty, you and be brilliantly clever and you can definitely create fantastic moments, but the plot is a sequence of events. A story is where I care. The king dying and then the queen dying is a boring school history lesson. Her dying of grief is a story because now I care. Mind you, our two lead characters have just been bumped off so there’s not a whole lot of story left.


To this day, a key failing in my writing is that I fear you will get bored so I run, run, run through story, I throw things at you and when I reckon you can’t have quite caught it yet, bang, I throw you something else. My latest Doctor Who, Scavenger, is practically real-time not because I wanted the benefits of that but because I would not pause for breath. A theatre producer I admire recently told me to slow my writing down. This week a very witty and hugely entertaining event producer told me she thought I had far too much going on in my The Blank Screen productivity course. They’re both right, I agree completely, I am just struggling to beat this compulsion. I’ll get there.

And I have got to the point where I know the truth about plots. Many years ago, I argued with Alan Plater that plot is crucial. I said that you’ve got to have things happening all the time – no change there, then – and it’s got to be great high stakes, it must be urgently vital. Plot is everything. Why else, how else would you get engrossed in a story? I’m paraphrasing here, but Alan replied with what may be the best advice I’ve had in writing. He said:


I’ve quoted him often.

Many girlfriends have quoted him back to me.

One of the most delicious things in life is when someone changes your mind. I vividly remember at college going to meet an old school friend at her university and disagreeing about something. I also remember having the most gigantic crush on her which is not in any way relevant and I don’t see why you brought it up. Anyway. Whatever this thing was, I said it and she said “But…”. At the start of her sentence, I believed one particular thing to be fully, entirely and irrevocably true. At the end of her short sentence, I knew that was bollocks and that she was fully, entirely and irrevocably right. I think of it and her often, I wonder if she even realised how much I enjoyed that moment.

Alan was equally fully, entirely and irrevocably right. It just took me years and my writing many scripts for him to change my mind.

I’m not going to claim I can tell you exactly what his opinion was: Alan died nearly four years ago now and I will always remain upset. But I can tell you what my opinion has become, and that opinion was shaped by him. My opinion goes thisaway:

Characters come first. Characters come above everything. Because if I don’t find those characters interesting, there is no plot in the world that could make me give a toss about what happens to them.

I would take one small step back from that and say that dialogue is supreme: if I don’t believe what someone is saying – if I don’t believe a real human being would say those words in that way – then I don’t believe the character and I cannot ever get interested in them.

If I knew what made a character interesting, I think I’d be initially elated and then a bit bored: finding them is part of writing and while a checklist of Things To Make Characters Real and Alive would be handy, I’m relieved that there is no such thing.

Alan was spectacularly good at slowing things down, at actually making it look as if there were no plot at all, that nothing was happening. It is a skill and a talent whose result is so quiet and low key that it somehow doesn’t get shouted about. But I said spectacular and I mean it: by the end of a plot-free Alan Plater piece, the most enormous things have happened. I long for you to read his novel Misterioso or for the BBC to finally release the not-as-good-but-still TV version of it on DVD. Because every conventional plot is simply ignored or dispensed with in Misterioso. It’s ostensibly about a woman searching for her real father. That’s the billing you’d see in Radio Times. But she finds him. She finds him really quickly. Because this isn’t a plot about tracking your father down, it is a story about a woman finding herself. Rachel at the end is not the same woman she was and I am actually tearing up a little here thinking of it.

Do you notice what I did there, though? I didn’t tell you what happens to her after finding him, I didn’t tell you what the changes are, didn’t say where this is set, didn’t say very much at all. That’s partly because this is what we remember from stories: we remember what we feel. And we never feel plot.

But I mostly described Misterioso that way because it’s how I work. When I am pitching you a story, I very, very, very quickly tell you this:

What it’s about

And then the instant I can, I get on to and I spend much longer on this:

What it’s really about

Misterioso is really about a woman who is forever changed – in a rather glorious way, incidentally, a way that makes you proud of her and actually changes something inside you too – and I know that is more important than the plot that it’s about looking for her father in London’s jazz joints.

That’s a good setting. You could spice it up by setting it during the Olympics. You could make it that her father isn’t really her father. Gasp. (He is. I’m just saying.) You could have the TARDIS arrive at a key moment. (And Rachel would make a great companion. Hell, I’d vote for her as the Doctor.) There are a hundred plot twists you could throw in to Misterioso and every single one of them would detract from the story.

Plots are easy. Stories are hard.

Plots are nothing. Stories are everything.


So you got me on to titles. 

But look, this post is called Untitled deliberately. Deliberately. I haven’t just spent six hours trying to come up with a title for a blog about titles. I have not.

It was five hours.

And 59 minutes.

Pound for pound, word for word, I have always spent far longer on titles for things than I have on things. And I was fine with that. I was fine because titles are that important and, oh, the pleasure one gets from reading a good ‘un is nothing compared to how fantastic you feel when you’ve written it. There were BBC Ceefax headline titles I was so pleased with that I remember them now, ten years or more later. That I was so pleased with that I’d tell you them now, except I’d have to show you the whole piece and I’d also have to explain all the topical references. But, still.

Six minutes ago, CD copies of Doctor Who: Scavenger arrived in the post. I wrote that two-hour drama about a year ago, it was formally released a couple of weeks back and I’ve had the download version, but here in my hand is the CD and that title, Scavenger. I am very pleased with it and I am enormously chuffed with the response it’s had, I’m beside myself with how great Big Finish made it sound.

But Scavenger was meant to be a temporary title. The script even says “Scavenger (working title)”.

I like it now and I think it works but maybe I and we just got used to it during the production. That happens: apparently nobody liked the title Star Trek: Deep Space Nine but nobody came up with a better one in time. Some people did like Scavenger, right from the start, so it’s not quite the same but I tried to find something else. The story involves all the junk and broken satellites in Earth orbit plus the story runs at a hell of a pace: it’s near-as-dammit realtime for the whole two hours. So junk plus speed, I have a draft of the script that I called Debris Encounter.

Literally nobody likes that. I did then, but now am wincing. So it’s 100% dislike for Debris Encounter.

My previous Doctor Who was called Spaceport Fear and was named by my wife, Angela Gallagher. One before that, still my favourite for how fantastic its sound design is, was going to be called The Prodigal Wirrn. The Wirrn are a famous Doctor Who monster so everybody buying the release would know what half of the title meant and they’d probably take five minutes to figure out how the rest worked and what that meant the story would become. Together director Nicholas Briggs and I renamed it Wirrn Isle. Which I like enormously.

But – have I told you all this before? I’m ringing bells here but I think about this stuff so much I lose track of what I blurt out to you and what I noodle about when people think I’m working for them. My least-favourite Doctor Who of mine has my absolute favourite title: it’s the prison drama called Doing Time. Jason Arnopp gave me that title.

I know I’m right that one gets used to titles. I remember being at a lightbox meeting at Radio Times when commissioning editor Anne Jowett was going through a list of dramas in production and for the first time I heard the title Life on Mars. There was something about that title that was just right. You get used to it, you get to say it without thinking, but in that opening moment, it was right and it was good and it got your attention. Titles are advertising and they are then encapsulating. They catch your eye but then they are summing up the entire thing.

I’ve had many projects that lurched forward with difficulty until I found the perfect title for them and then, wham, everything flies. The right title attracts the audience’s attention and makes them want to watch or listen or read, but the right title also sets the writer off on a roll.

You can have bad titles. You can have good titles that are bad for some people. Sports Night, for instance: I’d have bet money I would never notice a show called Sports Night let alone watch it. I have zero interest in sport, zero, so that title tells me unequivocally that this show is not for me. More than that, the title puts it outside my mind’s reach. I could read that somewhere and it would not register, I would not process the thought that it’s about sports, it would just be gone. You could argue that this is an efficient title, it communicates a lot to me. But as it happens, Sports Night is a treasure. It’s a comedy by Aaron Sorkin that’s done like The West Wing but in half the time and with twice the energy.

One advertising strapline for the show says: “Sports Night. It’s about sports. The same way Charlie’s Angels was about law enforcement.”

I do love that line and I do relish a great strapline. (I once watched a whole documentary about the people trying to write a strapline for the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie. I think it took six months and they came up with “Prepare to be shell-shocked”. Absolutely worth the whole time. Reminds me of The Lego Movie’s “The excitement is building.” But back to titles.)

I quoted David Lodge last week about names and his The Art of Fiction book has plenty to say about titles too, including this:

The title of a novel is part of the text – the first part of it, in fact, that we encounter – and therefore has considerable power to attract and condition the reader’s attention. The titles of the earliest English novels were invariably the names of the central characters, Moll Flanders, Tom Jones, Clarissa. Fiction was modelling itself on, and sometimes disguising itself as, biography and autobiography. Later novelists realized that titles could indicate a theme (Sense and Sensibility), suggest an intriguing mystery (The Woman in White),or promise a certain kind of setting and atmosphere (Wuthering Heights). At some point in the nineteenth century they began to hitch their stories to resonant literary quotations (Far From the Madding Crowd), a practice that persists throughout the twentieth (Where Angels Fear To Tread, A Handful of Dust, For Whom the Bell Tolls), though it is now perhaps regarded as a little corny.

There’s a wit to the best titles, I think. The sitcom Friends famously eschewed ‘proper’ titles and instead tried to name episodes the way that a viewer would, hence: “The One Where Everybody Finds Out”. Veronica Mars stole a title I have been longing to use since the first day I heard of the computer game Resident Evil: I wanted to and the show Mars did have a story called President Evil.

Veronica Mars had gorgeous episode titles like The Quick and the Wed or Hi, Infidelity that work before you know the story and even if you don’t know the series. But then it also had titles that earned attention. The second-season finale is called Not Pictured and it’s when you know why that it becomes this huge thing. That’s an earned title rather than a great pun, it’s a encapsulation of the story instead of an advertising line. I love that title.

But I do also love witty ones. I am a sucker for a great title and I wanted to bring you my favourite. I’m afraid I rejected all Shakespeare – though he did invent the numbered sequel, give him that – and I ran through all my favourite novelists, all my favourite writers of all descriptions. Found a million titles.

And I think this is the best. There was a 1970s detective series called Banacek – it was a locked-room kind of mystery, very much Jonathan Creek but years earlier and without the wit – and in one episode there a famous crucifix was stolen from a church under the most mysterious circumstances. It was stolen right in front of people who did not see it go and who could not find it afterwards.

The episode was called:

No Sign of the Cross.



Naming names

I read the starts of two friends’ novels this week.


That sounds like I chucked them aside, couldn’t be bothered to finish them. So far both friends only have the starts of their novels. Normally I wouldn’t read anything until it was complete but there were special circumstances. One was being readied for an agent who has a publisher waiting to see it – and his publisher is in for a treat, I can now tell you – and the other was at a much earlier stage but I’m working with the writer generally and we’d talked about it, I wanted to see it. If she’d had the rest of the novel, I’d be reading that now and pointing you at Amazon for it.

But while we wait for both of these books to be finished, I want to figure out something that happens to be in both of them. It’s actually in every novel: it’s about the names we give characters. It was just noticeable in these two because hers had a character I am sure is named after two famous ones and I’m dying for her to reveal I’m right. And his unfortunately had a name that might be a problem.

I can’t tell you the name but, to give you an idea of the issue, it was like a more sensible version of Cormoran Strike. Cormoran is the lead character in JK Rowling’s The Cuckoo’s Calling (a rather excellent crime novel she’s written under the name of Robert Galbraith. Don’t get me started on pseudonyms. I was once paid extra by a newspaper to make up a couple of bylines so that it didn’t look like I was the sole writer on a supplement project. One of the ones I picked was Dennis Price. That’s the ‘real’ name of the photographer character in Lou Grant, the guy usually called Animal. Nobody would get that. Except Dennis Price, an uncle of my wife Angela’s. I’ve never told him the truth.)


This guy’s novel features a character who has a much more real-world and believable name than Cormoran Strike. You read his and accept it unthinkingly whereas with Cormoran you go through the stages The Simpsons described for The Beatles’ name.

PRINCIPLE SKINNER: We need a name that’s witty at first, but that seems less funny each time you hear it.

There are reasons why Cormoran Strike is called that and I particularly like that Rowling only suggests the reasons quite far into the book. Explaining it directly, explaining it immediately would be like defending it and that would somehow be calling out that it is an author’s contrivance instead of a real character’s – a real person’s – name. My guy doesn’t need to suggest or explain, his character name is just effective and believable. But it’s close enough to Rowling’s that I had to tell him.

It’s touch-and-go. I talked about it with him and though he sees the problem, though he’s looking at changing it, I wouldn’t be overwhelmingly surprised if he decides to stick with his first choice. You’d think that a name is a name, that one is as good as another, that a swift search-and-replace in the word processor makes it easy to change a name. But if you do think that, you also won’t be surprised that I’ve read a lot of manuscripts and scripts where the writer has searched-and-replaced but you can tell. I’ll never tell you who, but one writer obviously changed the name Bill to something else, which gave rise to this at the start of a chapter:

“Dick, please.”

I’ve had to change names for legal reasons or because, like this guy with the Rowling-ish name, I’ve spotted or been told something is too close to something else. It’s so hard to get a reader into a story that you can’t afford to throw them out again and if I had a character named James Bond, it wouldn’t go by unnoticed. But changing names is wrenching and I love that I can show you this quote from David Lodge who wrote in The Art of Fiction that:

The invention of the word processor has made it easy to change the name of a character at a late stage of composition, just by touching a few keys, but I would have a strong resistance to doing that to any but the most minor character in my fiction. One may hesitate and agonize about the choice of a name, but once made, it becomes inseparable from the character, and to question it seems to throw the whole project en abime, as the deconstructionists say.

I read Lodge’s book twenty years ago but mise en abime didn’t make it into my ideolect: if it’s new to you too, it means sent into the abyss. But while I’ve got you with the page open in Lodge’s book, take a squint at this next bit:

I was made acutely aware of this in the process of writing Nice Work.

This novel concerns the relationship between the managing director of an engineering company and a young academic who is obliged to “shadow” him… it is generally a… straightforwardly realistic novel and in naming the characters I was looking for names that would seem “natural” enough to mask their symbolic appropriateness. I named the man Vic Wilcox to suggest, beneath the ordinariness and Englishness of the name, a rather aggressive, even coarse masculinity (by association with victor, will and cock), and I soon settled on Penrose for the surname of my heroine for its contrasting connotations of literature and beauty (pen and rose). I hesitated for some time, however, about the choice of her first name, vacillating between Rachel, Rebecca and Roberta, and I remember that this held up progress on Chapter Two considerably, because I couldn’t imaginatively inhabit this character until her name was fixed.

Eventually I discovered in a dictionary of names that Robin or Robyn is sometimes used as a familiar form of Roberta. An androgynous name seemed highly appropriate to my feminist and assertive heroine, and immediately suggested a new twist to the plot: Wilcox would be expecting a male Robin to turn up at his factory.

Wirrn IsleI’ve had the same concerns and the same delays but I’ve never delved so finely. I think I tend toward the more natural names and avoid connotations and allegories and deeper meanings – though listeners to my Doctor Who: Wirrn Isle didn’t like my character names Toasty and Iron, absolutely perfect though they were – but I also find it hard to change names. Even between projects. I must’ve written a good dozen scripts before I started getting anywhere, I could well believe I’d done twenty if you wanted to insist, and a very early one featured a woman called Susan Hare. I liked that name so much that in the next script, stuck for a new name, I borrowed it. And did so again a few years later. And at least once more.

As it happens, poor Susan has never been in a script that got made or I’d have to stop doing this. But it tickled me one day to realise that, with some effort, you could actually link every one of these scripts and have every one of those scripts be about the same woman. Not perfectly, I’m relieved to say her character was different in each, but chronologically. The child Susan Hare could have become that teenage Susan Hare who could have just about become that adult Susan Hare. It got so I spent a ferociously long time thinking about what would make that child turn out that way. I started sketching out other scripts that might fill in the gaps. If I ever do The Susan Hare Chronicles, that’s where it started.

More often, I am vividly clear on the character but I imagine I’m not fussed about the name. I know changing it later will be a wrench, I know that I get very connected with the names, but at the point of creation, I have extremely often just looked up at the bookshelves next to me and combined a couple of different author names. Consequently I’ve had characters named Beiderbecke a bit. Also some Woodwards and Bernsteins. Just between us – please don’t tell anyone else – I am quite a bit chuffed that this looking-up-at-bookshelves now means I often risking naming characters Gallagher.

There’s never a connection between me or those other authors and the characters, I’m never trying to name someone after someone. That Wirrn Isle also featured a woman named Veronica Buchman and she was named after the fictional characters Veronica Mars and Mad About You’s Jamie Buchman. (I do love the name Veronica Mars with its mix of old-fashioned forename and unusual surname. Until a character in that TV show pointed out that Veronica Mars drives a Saturn car and lives in a town called Neptune, I hadn’t even connected Mars with the planet. “Move Uranus,” she tells that character. “Mercury’s rising.”)

I do have an Izzy somewhere, in something, I’ve gone blank now, and she was named after a BBC Radio producer just because I liked her name. I liked her too, but I really liked her name. Otherwise, I can only think of one single time I’ve named a character after someone: there is a Jyoti Cutler in my latest Doctor Who, Scavenger, and she is named after Jyoti Patel. She’s the script editor who took a chance and commissioned me to write for Crossroads. I doubt she even remembers me, but I am grateful and I liked her a lot. But I also just really liked her name or I wouldn’t have used it.

I mean, much as I like you, I’m not going to use your name in a script or a book. Your name is yours: it means you to me. I loathe these contests where the winner gets a character named after them, usually in a crime novel, usually a character who gets murdered early on. Couldn’t do it.

Because names are that important to me. You may have gathered that.

Just don’t get me started on titles.