Childhood’s start

I’ve been waiting all week to tell you something but instead a completely different, pretty much entirely forgotten memory has come back. I’d vow to you that it was entirely forgotten, except that obviously I’ve remembered it.

It’s about a friend I had in school. I won’t name him, chiefly because I cannot quite grasp his name across all these years – but we fell out. I’m not sure when it was now. Fourth year of school? Fifth? No idea. Plus I’ve no clue what happened, though I suspect that’s not just because the chasm of time involved. I’ve a sense that didn’t know then, either. I remember it hurt. It was one of those where your friend is suddenly someone else’s friend instead, you know the thing.

But as I close my eyes, really squeeze them tight shut and try to remember his name or even just picture him, what I’m seeing instead is a Doctor Who book. For some reason, and who knows why, the closest thing I’ve got to a concrete memory is of his reading a Who book called Horror of Fang Rock by Terrance Dicks.

I hope he was a Doctor Who fan, that it wasn’t just the book he’d happened to pick up out of the school library. Because he should’ve stuck with me, kid. For this week I’m the one who got to make an obituary speech about Terrance Dicks at the Writers’ Guild Awards.

More than 200 of the UK’s finest writers watched me speak – and so did Terrance Dicks’s family. I’m not sure which made me more nervous, but his family being in the room, these writers, the sheer honour of talking at those awards and the unimaginable privilege of being the one to deliver this writer’s obituary, I was shaking before I started.

I’m relieved to tell you it went fine. Actually, solely since it’s you, I’ll tell you that it could not have gone one pixel better.

But if it was all the thinking about my own reading of Dicks’s novels back in the day that brought this old school friend to mind, this has coincidentally been a bit of a week for nostalgia all round. And not all of it good.

I’ve been watching Alan Plater’s 1990s episodes of Dalziel and Pascoe, remembering the stories he told me about its production, and getting weirdly sentimental about the days when mobile phones were bricks and there were still Dillons bookstores.

I’ve been reading one of Isaac Asimov’s books, The End of Eternity. When I was a schoolboy, I thought it and he were marvellous. It didn’t take much growing up for me to spot that Asimov writes like a schoolboy, but still the ideas in that book are tremendous. Unfortunately, this week I learned that Asimov used to go around snapping at the elastic on women’s bras. And reportedly rather than shaking some woman’s hand once, he shook her breast instead.

Cheers, Isaac. Made me queasy. I read your autobiography, I want to un-read it now.

Fortunately, though, there was one more thing this week. Something much nicer.

This week I can tell you of a 1970s legend whose reputation will never be tainted. He might have a world-size ego, but this time he earned it, he deserves to think this highly of himself.

At the Writers’ Guild Awards this Monday, I met and shook paws with Hartley Hare.

He presented the Best Children’s Television Award with his friends Nigel Plaskitt and Gail Renard. (Danger Mouse won, by the way. I punched the air when I found that out, I was so pleased.)

Anyway, follow me for a second. You know that at an awards show, there is a winner and there are runners-up. The presenter says who has been nominated before they read out the winner’s name, and they also say a little something about each show.

There was nothing different about how it was done at these awards, but it was in every way different for me because I wrote the descriptions of the children’s shows. I wrote the descriptions that Hartley Hare read out.

I have written dialogue for Hartley Hare. And I got to be the one to pay tribute to Terrance Dicks.

Take that, you Horror-of-Fang-Rock-schoolfriend-somebody thingy thing.

Skip

I’m not sure now whether it’s my age or just the age that we live in. But really often, I’ll start watching something and there will be an advert first, with a countdown. We never used to have countdowns or progress bars, but now we do and typically it says something like “your video will play in 10 seconds, 9, 8…”

And I’m exasperated at having to wait six more seconds.

I mean, I know I’m busy, but now five seconds, four, come on.

Some ads have to be played to the end –– and actually, if you’re on YouTube, for instance, the YouTuber only gets paid if the whole ad is seen –– but others do have that skip feature.

“You can skip in four, 3, for god’s sake how long is 2, 1…”

Back when we had terrestrial TV but DVRs had come in so that you could pause live television and then fast-wind through the ads, I thought advertisers missed a trick. Someone, surely, should’ve done an ad that only made sense when seen played at 20 times normal speed.

But today’s advertisers have caught on. They know you’re going to skip, so they front-load the first six or ten seconds of the ad with the best bit they can.

The first ten seconds of an advert are now like a pilot episode of a series. They come in fast, establish the characters, make their point and hope that you want to stick around for the next episode or, in this case, the next twenty seconds.

And just as with TV pilots, you’re now seeing a range of approaches. There’s the big, splashy, look-at-me flashy advert. But over time, we’ve started to get ones that are more slow, subtle, and gently seductive ones. And the ones that will stop me tapping on Skip tend to be ones with characters talking.

Both TV drama and adverts need to get your attention and then they want to persuade you to do something. With drama, it’s to keep watching and please come back for episode 2. With adverts, it’s stop watching videos and go buy something.

Adverts are meant to be a punch to your attention and drama wants to move in with you. But in both cases, I think there’s friction between grabbing your eyes and then keeping your brain.

And – this could well just be me – I think in both cases the makers get one shot. I could be wrong, and I may be unfair. Especially as at the moment I appear to be being hounded by ads for SquareSpace and I’ve been through the stages of shrugging, harrumphing and on into thinking I might look into them the next time I do a website.

But usually, if I’ve skipped an ad the first time I see it, I skip it every time.

And it’s exactly as hard to get me to come back for the second episode of a show. I understand, for instance, that Luther is a good series, but it lost me on episode 1. Maybe you remember the show better than I do, but I recall there being an impossible crime and if was ever even solved, the real conclusion was that the person who did it is an incredible criminal mastermind of evil.

But I’m sitting there thinking even I could’ve done that exact same crime and been back home in time for lunch. That meant the criminal mastermind of evil wasn’t much cop and the lead police detective character was no cop.

I’d have kept watching if that had been deliberate, but I was supposed to admire both characters and so I simply never watched another minute.

Grief. That was ten years ago. I just looked it up to see how many episodes I haven’t watched – 19 out of the 20, as it happens – and the first one aired in May 2010.

Who could’ve imagined even a decade ago that today episodes would also end with “Next episode begins in 10, 9, 8…”?

As I write this to you, the next Self Distract is in 606,300 seconds. 606,299. 606,298… You could kill a few seconds by joining my new mailing list or perhaps by buying one of my books or Doctor Who radio dramas. I’d be fine with either.

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.

But.

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.

Until.

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.

But.

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.

But.

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.

Anyway.

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:

No.

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.