What Writers Need

I was asked this in an interview yesterday: what what do writers need or perhaps what do you need to be a writer.

Since it’s just you and me here, I’ll tell you that I don’t think I answered it very well. But 24 hours later, I’ve got it.

Writers need commissions.

It would’ve been smartarse of me to say that if only I’d been smart enough to think of it when asked, but it’s not as facetious as it sounds.

Okay, there’s the straight cash aspect. The only way I get to write better is to write more and the only way I can get the time to do that is when it’s paying enough that I don’t have to go do something else.

Only, the reason I want to think about this here with you is that I’ve long known one thing about it yet I’m just now forming a second and somewhat contradictory thought.

The thing I’ve long known is that commissions change you. I know that the saying is deadlines focus the mind and that is most absolutely true, but it’s at the other end where things first change. It’s the point when you’re commissioned.

The process of writing doesn’t change when you’re being paid but it feels as if it does, it feels as big a difference as if someone had gone back into your past and altered your timeline. Everything is now real. All of the thinking you do about writing, all of the opinions, everything. I was thinking that it’s like having someone say okay, then, prove it. Prove you can do this, if you’re hard enough.

But it’s worse than that. You’ve already convinced them you can or they wouldn’t be paying you anything. So really it’s someone expecting you to write well. Someone presuming you will. Someone unthinkingly assuming that this is your job. Because it is.

A lot of writing gets paid without a contract upfront but whenever you’re writing because you’ve been hired and you’ll be invoicing later, it becomes real in this way.

You’ll still hide from the job like only writers can and you’ll still find it hard to do, but playtime is over and you are part of something where you have to pull your weight.

So I’ve long known that a commission or anything where your writing is going to be paid for right away is essential for many reasons. Helping to keep a roof over your head is one, turning this from a hobby in the worst sense of that into a job in the best sense of that. The focus of reality can’t be beaten.

But it can also be a problem.

Today, for instance, I’ve got – bugger, let me count on my fingers for a sec. Right, if I bring in one client that I don’t really have to think about much for another few days, then today I’ve got eleven projects on. I reckon I’ve got to do some serious work on about seven of them right now and I can do some more over the weekend.

That’s all very nice: it’s a tiny bit daunting but I hadn’t counted until I wanted to tell you. And I’m a freelance writer, it is a relief to realise that I’ve got a lot of paying work on. Some of these eleven are big, none of them pay gigantically and I doubt I’ll see cash from many of them before May. But still, it’s work and you know that there are times when I’ve got nothing. At all.

Only, it’s obvious that when you’re busy with paid work you end up with no time to write things that aren’t going to pay now and that may well never contribute to your mortgage. When you are not busy with paid work, though, it’s even harder to do that kind of writing. Every moment you’re thinking about it, you’re feeling guilty for not looking for work.

I’ve always thought that this is how it works: you can’t write on these other projects, this other ideas, when you’re having trouble getting money in. But now I also think that when you do have paid writing work, it is far, far easier to go do that than these other things.

I can’t keep vaguely referring to other things. Let me give you the example that’s quite clearly pressing on my mind. I have accidentally written a book of short stories. For no reason other than it was in me and I had to get it out. I say accidentally because it’s only in the last six months when I realised that the best stories I’d written over twenty years had a common theme. It’s only in the last six months that I’ve consciously been rewriting those stories and writing more. All for me, all because at one point I was shaking as a particular tale came out of me.

Not only is no one waiting for any of this, not only will I never invoice anyone for anything to do with it, but nobody buys short story collections anyway. If you were setting out to write short stories for money, stop now.

Except you can say that about all writing. If you get money for writing, great. If you got into writing for the riches and the fame, I’ll give you a tip next time I see you working in McDonald’s.

I wasn’t kidding about having to get these stories out of me though. Now I’ve somehow got it written, I will work it like I do any other job and look for places to get it published, look for some way to get it out to people. I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever written and my agent thinks yeah, whatever, short stories, soooooo exciting, please rush me a copy.

It’s easy when you are a paid freelance writer to say that every writer should aim to get commissioned. What’s harder, for me, is the realisation that as much as I need the reality of a contract, I’ve got to find time and space to write for myself.

So let’s decide this right now: today I don’t have eleven projects on, I’ve got twelve. God knows how I’m going to fit in time for working on these stories and actually I’ve no idea what I can do with them today, but I’m going to find out.

You do the same. We’ll help each other.

You couldn’t make it up

Long ago when I worked at BBC Radio WM in Pebble Mill, the sports department had a shelf of highlights on. Large spools of reel to reel tape with the recordings of famous local sporting events.

Only, I can picture that shelf now and I can remember being in that newsroom, looking at the reels and thinking well, er, no. These are not recordings of sports events.

They were recordings of radio presenters commentating on these events instead.

I’m not knocking the commentators, I’m in no way knocking the reasons for keeping the archive. It’s just that although it’s a slight difference, the tapes were regarded as the events themselves, not as the radio station’s commentary.

There’s something in that disconnection that I’ve been reminded of by all the writing about Donald Trump and Brexit. I keep hearing the phrase “you couldn’t make it up” and actually, yeah, you could. I think by now your audience would be a bit bored. They’d want some new characters, they’d be thinking we’ve got antagonists up our armpits, we need someone to be the hero. Anyone. Please.

I think the thing is that you wouldn’t make it up this badly. No matter whether you were commentating on events or especially if you are the poor sod who’s going to make a TV drama about all this one day, your very medium imposes certain things.

Commentators expect to be able to draw on previous statistics. TV drama writers inescapably want light and shade, they want pacing, they want to build to a conclusion.

None of that is available to us. It’s all dark, it’s all unrelenting and statistics are now alternative facts.

Hopefully this is just me but I can’t dramatise what’s going on. It makes me want to go write something else, to write about something or to create something that I can fashion, that I can explore, that I can convey something through.

We have the most visibly, publicly, proudly illiterate people in power that we may ever have had. Yet they are defying writers to comprehend them, they are controlling the disarray we’re in.

Maybe it will ultimately be good. Maybe this will shake us out of habits and patterns that we are used to, maybe it will make us – okay, me – writer better and deeper.

I don’t know about me and what I can do. But I do see journalism trying to fight back and I do see the writers of Saturday Night Live being on their best form in two decades because of it.

Maybe what I’ve been doing is trying to use writing to help me understand. Maybe I’ve been focused on the commentator’s tapes and really what I should do is go to the event.

Timeless appeal

Of all the current TV shows about time travel, the last one I imagined would be in trouble is Timeless. But apparently while it’s doing fine in streaming video, iTunes, downloads, catch up and every other way you can watch television now, it’s struggling to find viewers who tune in to NBC on Monday nights.

I can’t watch NBC, I’m in the UK. It’s airing here on E4 but even if it got record-breaking ratings everywhere else in the world, NBC would at the very most say that’s nice before they cancelled it. What counts for them and therefore for the show is eyeballs on NBC. So if you’re in the States and especially if you happen to be one of the households that the Nielsen ratings counts, do take a look at it.

It’s just good. I’ve been a professional TV critic and that’s all I can usefully say. I’ve also been obsessed with time all my writing life and Timeless is the time travel show that isn’t about time travel. I’m not interested in time machines, I’m obsessed with regret and with experiencing events from different angles. Timeless has plenty of regret but it’s also a deep-dive into an adventure series which specifically avoids Doctor Who-style timey-wimey stories.

In this show created by Shawn Ryan and Eric Kripke, our three heroes continue their pursuit of a baddie. Calling them the heroes is reasonable: they are the protagonists and while we’re seeing widening gulfs in whether they’re good or not, they are doing what they do with the best of intentions. Calling their antagonist the baddie is more of a stretch, though, as unusually this fella has good reason for what he does.

So there he is doing something foul yet there’s a part of you that can’t help but at least understand why, maybe even agree.

I’m compelled by that but I’m also just relishing how each week is broadly similar in shape but totally different in tone and location. There was an episode set during the Alamo which really felt like movie. Ian Fleming pops up in a Bond-like adventure fighting the Nazis. The good guys got stranded in the 1700s. The good guys kill people and they don’t exactly shrug about it afterwards.

I also relish how since the show is set in different historical periods, the research is excellent and there’s always something true yet completely unexpected. I heard that some history classes are using the show for that and I don’t know if it’s true, especially so soon into its run, but I can understand it.

Only, as a time obsessive, the thing that feels fresh and fun to me is that the show goes into history and messes it up. It has been such a rule of time travel stories that you do not do this: Back to the Future centres on putting right something that got changed. Even Doctor Who, right back in the William Hartnell days, maintained that “You can’t rewrite history… Not one line!”

So here’s Timeless where – sorry, spoiler – the baddie has gone back to the day the Hindenburg exploded and he saves it. You know from the start that he’s going to do something bad but, grief, hats off to Timeless: the bad thing he does is save it. And then we learn why that’s such a bad thing: it’s fascinating.

It’s also fascinating back in the present day of the show as people who died on the Hindenburg now didn’t so there are ramifications and repercussions. Throughout the series, the baddie and eventually the goodies kill people and it’s necessary, you can see it, you kind of root for them, but there are repercussions.

Well, there are and there aren’t. There’s not yet been a repercussion where the goodies’ time machine wasn’t ever invented, for instance.

What this willingness of the show to let history change gives me is the impact on the characters. They’re not required to be some model citizens protecting the fabric of the spacetime continuum, they are scared people trying everything they can to stop very, very bad things happening.

So Timeless is a show about time travel, sure, but it’s about characters who travel in time and what that is like for them. It’s action adventure, it’s not as astonishingly deep into time as 12 Monkeys is, it’s not using a TARDIS as just a way to drop the Doctor into trouble.

It’s something new and that seems especially gratifying in a season where even I think there are too many time travel dramas.

I’ve forgotten the count now but I remember learning that there would be something more than ten, possible fifteen shows about time during this year and there’s no way they’ll all survive. But the one I’d miss is Timeless.

So if you can watch NBC on Monday nights, please do. And while I’m in the UK where E4 is now screening the show, I’ve got a US iTunes account so I’m watching each week as soon as it’s available.

Love is all around

Don’t look at me like that. If you’ve lived your whole life in the UK as I have, then a blog with the subject heading “Love is all around” can only mean one thing. Clearly, I’m going to write something about world events, about how there are eye-poppingly scary things happening but we should remember that we’ve always got each other.

No.

I got nothin’.

Not on that. In the meantime, if you lived in America at all, you’ve now got a song in your head. Love Is All Around is the theme to The Mary Tyler Moore Show and this week its star died.

I could write you an obituary but people who actually knew her have done that. Instead, I want to focus on just that fact that in the UK you know her name but in the US she’s a deep-rooted part of the culture.

That does fascinate me, the way that we think of writers and actors as individuals but actually their talent and their reach is very much bound up in where they are. Mary Tyler Moore just isn’t as beloved in the UK as she is in the States. Mrs Brown might possibly not get the same reception in New York as in Britain.

Now, Brown is a character and Tyler Moore is an actor but you get it. As much as we try to move forward, as much as we try to create something new, to develop our choice of medium in new ways, we are very much bound to where we are.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show is also an example of being bound to a certain time. This is a sitcom that aired 1970 to 1977 and the word hit just doesn’t cover it. Seven years, three spin-offs and there’s a commemorative plaque at the studio where it was filmed.

It wasn’t just popular, it wasn’t just funny, it was genuinely groundbreaking and all the more so if your ground was America. When the show began, Mary Tyler Moore was best known for co-starring in The Dick Van Dyke Show. More than best known for it, it was one of those cases where the actor is so successful in a role that she’s in danger of never working again.

If you don’t know The Dick Van Dyke Show then the quick way to describe her character, Laura Petrie, is to say she was the wife. For all the character did, when the show was over, Mary Tyler Moore was permanently fixed in the audience’s mind as the wife.

So here’s The Mary Tyler Moore Show where this actor is single, a career woman and joining a television newsroom instead of being a housewife. The writers wanted more: they wanted her to be a divorcee but there was absolutely no possibility that American television would allow that. They were skittish about divorcees in general but they were not going to let anyone think Laura Petrie had divorced Dick Van Dyke.

Today that seems ridiculous chiefly because it is. But it also seems ridiculous because we’ve grown up and if our television still doesn’t treat women as it does men, it’s better. And it’s better in large part because of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, created by James L Brooks and Allan Burns.

So here’s this gigantic hit which changes and develops US television, but it didn’t travel and it has never performed well in repeats, in syndication, even in the States.

There are other examples of this: a show called Murphy Brown was a smash from 1988 to 1998 but you don’t see it around now. Amongst everything else Murphy Brown did, though, it was replete with topical references and those date it considerably.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show didn’t do that. In theory any episode stands up today as it did on first airing. Its most famous one, Chuckles Bites The Dust, has no 1970s political agenda, hasn’t anything overtly tied to 1970s events. But still, the show belongs to its time and that would be fine.

Except for how it makes it harder to really appreciate the power this show had, the impact. Writing about it from another country and decades after it ended, I think I know, I think I intellectually know what the series meant, but I can’t feel it.

Except I can in one way.

I’m saying all this about the show’s impact on television and you’re quite reasonably assuming I mean American TV but you can trace a line from this four-camera, three-wall videotaped 1970s American sitcom to the grittiest of UK dramas today. It’s a line that affected me: The Mary Tyler Moore Show is directly responsible for the fact that I’m a writer even though I can’t have seen above a dozen episodes at the very most.

For you know how it goes, wherever there shalt be a hit show, so shalt there be spin-offs. The Mary Tyler Moore Show had three and it’s peculiar what happened to them. There was The Betty White Show which you’ve never seen. There was Rhoda, which I’d say is better known in the UK than The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

And then there is Lou Grant.

Lou Grant is unique. It is the only one-hour, single-camera, film drama to come from a sitcom. Not only had it never happened before, it has never happened since.

I am a writer because of Lou Grant and how this was the first show where I recognised that drama was crafted, that it was made, rather than just being something on the TV in the corner.

But I wouldn’t have seen it and neither would anyone, really, if it weren’t for the power of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Lou Grant was a character in that sitcom and he was so popular, the series was so very popular, that the network gave the Lou Grant show an on-air commitment for 13 episodes. Do what you like, make what you like but if it’s got actor Ed Asner playing his Lou Grant character, you’re on air for 13 weeks.

Well, okay, no, the network didn’t let anyone loose and if the show had bombed they’d have cancelled it halfway through the first ad break. But they paid for 13 episodes so cancellation is a tougher financial decision for them and this helped keep Lou Grant on for its first few months while it grew an audience.

Lou Grant, like The Mary Tyler Moore Show before it, was made by a production company called MTM and yes, that was named after Mary Tyler Moore. Even if you’ve never seen her show, even if you’ve never seen Lou Grant – come round to my place, we’ll have pizza and watch – then you still know MTM’s work.

For MTM went on to make Hill Street Blues and every single television police drama owes a debt to that. It’s the iPhone of cop shows: everything before it looked a certain way, everything after it looked like Hill Street Blues.

And that would not have happened at all without The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

Her show was bound to a certain time and of course so is Mary Tyler Moore herself but both have impact that is so great that we feel it even when we don’t know where it came from. The makers of The Mary Tyler Moore Show were trying to make a good, funny sitcom, they weren’t sitting there thinking that oooh, after Hill Street we could make St Elsewhere and change hospital dramas too.

They got on with what they were doing and they did their very best. So actually, maybe yes, maybe I do have something about the world today: let’s get on with what we’re doing and do our very best.

Writers and the Sapir Whorf hypothesis

I don’t think I’ve ever quite said this to you before but I regard it as a treat and a privilege that we get to chat. And I am especially conscious of this now as Self Distract has been dead for a month because of website problems. Oh, my lights, but it’s good to be back.

Now that we’re on speaking terms again – thank you A Small Orange internet service provider for rescuing the blog from the debris – I do of course want to talk to you about writing. It’ll just take a while to get there and I think along the way we’re going to explore something that applies to everything and everyone. Certainly to you and I.

At least certainly if you spend as much time thinking about words as I do. It’s not healthy of us, it really isn’t.

But one word that I particularly like is the German one ‘heimat’. There’s a famous German television drama of the 1980s called that and I never got around to watching it. What I learned about it, though, was that strictly speaking the word heimat means home. And, more importantly, that it really means much more than that – which English doesn’t have an equivalent to.

Then there’s the quote from Cervantes which goes something like this: “Reading a translation is like looking at the back of a tapestry”. Isn’t that wonderful? Such a vivid, instantly clear, instantly obviously right way to explain that you can get the pattern but you cannot see the colour.

Only, this is a favourite quote of mine for one specific reason: Cervantes originally said it in Spanish.

So as much as I believe I understand the thought, as an English-only speaker I am perhaps only looking at the back of it, at the pattern of the meaning instead of its full colour.

It’s thinking about this kind of stuff that means I heard of what’s often called the Sapir Whorf hypothesis a long time ago. If you only recently heard of it, that’s because you’ve just seen the film Arrival. If you’ve never heard of it before right this moment, please go see Arrival. (The screenplay is by Eric Heisserer and based on a short story by Ted Chiang. For once, I urge you to see the film instead of solely reading the screenplay but right now that script is available online. It won’t be there for long: it’s online as part of awards season and will be taken down in a few weeks. If you miss it, tell me: I lunged at the screen to save a copy for myself.)

The film exaggerates or at least takes this hypothesis on further than Edward Sapir or Benjamin Lee Whorf did and apparently many people think their idea is bollocks anyway. I’m fine with a film using a bollocks idea and taking it to somewhere as gorgeous as Arrival does, but I also think the hypothesis is right because of Heimat, because of Cervantes – and actually because of radio.

Writ very short, the Sapir Whorf hypothesis is that the language we use affects how we think, how we see the world. In Arrival, this is the start for a simply beautiful story and one so delicately drawn that it made me want to rip up all my own writing and start over.

But in Arrival and in the full Sapir Whorf hypothesis, the point is very specifically about a whole language, an entire language and not just a phrase book. If you speak French then your very thought patterns are subtly different to the way you think if you are a German speaker.

I am sure that’s true but I don’t know because I solely speak English and can’t compare anything. Yet I still think there’s something key about this idea even within my one single language. For instance, I suspect that writers think differently to, I don’t know, chefs. I was talking to someone once, for instance, who visibly could not grasp whatever small-talk subject it was until we found a way to translate it and use an example from his industry. That was an odd and somewhat long hour.

I am also entirely certain that I think the way I do because of radio. Tell me if this is you, too, but I can see that I’m shaped by having worked in radio. Specifically that my sense of time is different. There’s the time passing away for all of us but there’s also the time that you plan out for a show, that you plan out like time is a physical space.

So for instance even though it’s years since I worked in BBC radio, I still think in the terms top and bottom of the hour. I think of the first half of an hour as being an easy, downhill-fast run while the second half is an uphill climb. I can rationalise that by how you’re doing a show because you have something you’re excited to say and so naturally you want to get to it quickly. The start is easy because you want to rush in. The end is tough because you’ve got to pace out the piece, you’ve got to be sure you’ve included everything. But still, sod rationalisation: I think this so deeply that the top of the hour feels fast and easy to me, the bottom of the hour feels hard.

You do this in radio, I do it still in producing events and workshops, but I also just do it all the time. Like, all the time.

I do this and then I also think in terms of hard and soft items.

A hard item, if you’ve not heard it described this way before, is one that’s already prepared and has a fixed duration. Watch The One Show, for instance, and you’ll see a mix of interviews in the studio and little films, sometimes called VTs, sometimes packages. (VT is from videotape, when these things were played in to the show off a prerecorded tape. You’re too young to remember videotape and consequently I hate you.)

These video packages are hard items and the studio guest interviews are soft ones. It’s nothing to do with whether one or the other is hard-hitting, gritty journalism or light, cheery frippery. It’s that the hard one can’t be stopped where the soft one, the interview, can be as long or as short as you like if things have changed. You can wrap up an interview when you’re running out of time where you can’t stop a film package.

Actually, of course you can. I’ve not worked in this type of television but in radio you would distressingly often have to come out of a package early because something happened or you’d mis-timed when you should’ve started playing it in. Stopping a package early while not sounding like you just fell over the fader took skill: you had to listen live and listen for the right instant, the right moment when actually the presenter only paused but it sounded like it could be the end. Then you slam that fader shut and you start talking as if that were the end.

It’s called potting. You pot a package. Language is wonderful. The reason this is potting instead of, say, slamming-fader-ing, is that before radio desks had faders, they had round little knobs. They looked like teeny upside down pots. You can still see a million of them on music studio recording desks.

I think of potting, then, the same way that we talk about taping a TV show when really we mean marking it to record on our Sky or DVR box. We talk about videoing an event when we mean digitally capturing it on our phone.

More than the terms, though, more than the words I think in, knowing what potting is and having done it, I can always hear what I can only describe as a pot point. If I’m watching the news, I know when they could pot the item and move on. Sometimes you wish they would and that’s about time too.

What we do shapes us, that’s certain. What we have to think about shapes us, I’m sure. I’m conscious that I’m now thinking about this in obsessive detail because that’s what writers do, or at least it’s what I do as a writer. But having finally got us back onto the topic of writing, I offer this: Sapir Whorf gives us an insight into characters.

Knowing this, or at least believing it, has got to help us see into the characters we create and inhabit in our fiction and our drama. See how they think and you’ll know what they’ll do, you’ll feel what they feel.

Amongst everything else about this, I believe that the practice of trying to think how other people do is a good, hopeful and maybe optimistic thing in a time when we need all of that. Whether it’s the Sapir Whorf hypothesis or just my own special kind of bollocks, I think it means that we can change how we think by doing and talking and thinking about something new.

Listen, I’ve been waiting to discuss this with you for a month. Let’s go get a tea and maybe watch Arrival. Waddya say?

The twelve-word writing lecture

You didn’t notice but I borrowed you about twenty minutes ago. I was asking your advice about a writing thing and I just went off into the most tedious and even poncy side points. As we talk, you see, I’m in a rather posh club in London waiting to deliver a couple of workshops for Equity. It’s a really nice club. I could and did go on about it. But your time is more important.

And I do want to sound you out on something. Next week I’m due to give a talk on the Life of the Writer at a university. I asked if the writer could be Alan Plater or Emily Dickinson, I did. But it has to be about me and since there is no way in the world I can stand talking about myself for three hours, I’ve got to think of something.

It’s for students on a writing degree and I didn’t study writing, not at university or ever, so I can’t charm them with tales of debating Proust in the bar. I could, but they’d see through both my points and that I only drink tea and Pepsi Max on the rocks.

They have asked me to read from my writing, so I’ll do some of that. But what I’m thinking is that because they’re students, they probably don’t yet know what it’s like writing for a living. I presume some will be mature students so they may well know all about it, but on balance, I’m probably safe to stick to that. Safe and hopefully best.

It’s where to start, though. And how to fill three hours.

I do know that I absolutely, definitely, completely do want to stop people writing three very similar words in a row for emphasis. Also that for everything else that writing is, it’s a job. If you do the professional stuff professionally, you get to do the artistic stuff artistically.

There’s also that yes, there are very definitely harder jobs than writing. But there are also easier ones.

I think I’m going to end up saying that you need to take writing seriously and to get on with it. That’s it. Twelve words. Given that our general speaking rate in English is three words per second, I’ve got two hours, fifty-nine minutes and fifty-six seconds to fill.

I’ll make sure I read from my longest book.

Competence porn

Perhaps you already know this one but the term ‘competence porn’ is new to me – and it’s given me a little bit of hope about a long-standing bugbear hobby horse of mine. Alternatively, it’s given me a little ammunition if I ever need to argue about dumbing things down for audiences.

My grumble is with clever people in television drama. You need someone smart to solve a problem, to move the plot on, to get characters out of a dull situation. But usually that clever person cannot be the hero, cannot be the lead character. Moreover, the actual lead will mildly mock them for being a geek. Mock them while being completely dependent on their idea.

What that’s supposed to do is let the audience know it’s okay that they, the viewing public, are not very smart. I don’t like that any more than you do. But I especially don’t like being patronised because apparently I, as a viewer, genuinely am smarter than the writers and more often producers or networks who decide to do this. For I can see and you can see both that it’s annoying and that what it really does is make the hero look like an ass.

But now we have this thing that is apparently called competency porn. It means we like watching characters who are good at what they do. Sherlock is the first example that comes to my mind. The Doctor in Doctor Who is another, usually.

Allegedly one reason we like Darth Vader as a villain is because of how professionally ruthless he is at the beginning of Star Wars. He’s caught the Princess, he casually kills somebody-or-other and we’re impressed. That’s more surprising when you think that nothing else he ever does in that film works out for him.

I think of the opening of Grosse Pointe Blank where we meet a hitman. He’s precise and focused as he prepares to kill someone, even while he’s also on the phone reciting bank account numbers to his assistant – he has a PA, this guy is professional and busy – and then he does this thing of aiming a rifle at someone far away. The hitman is in a corner hotel room, the target is a cyclist out on the street, and our guy takes aim through one window, then walks to another, tracking along where the cyclist will be, before shooting from the next window.

I know the hitman is John Cusack but he’s just killed someone and, bizarrely, we’re impressed. We’re on our way to liking this character.

One last example from where I heard this term competency porn. There’s a US drama called Leverage, a con/crime series very much like an American version of Hustle. As much as I like it, every episode does follow a set path and one early part is where this team of criminals – the good guys, by the way – have a briefing. Here’s producer John Rogers talking about a 2009 episode called The Fairy Godparents Job:

“Good Lord, how we agonized over spending so much time in the briefing scene in this ep. Ironically, this episode arrived just as we were collating feedback off the ‘net and found, stunningly, you people love the briefing scenes. For we writers, it was always X pages of pipe we tried to make as entertaining as possible and move past to get into the plot. For the audience, watching competent people banter and plan was a big part of the appeal. ‘Competence porn’ as we started calling it.”

There is a spectacularly and quite wonderfully dumb character in the remade Ghostbusters: I’m not saying everyone should be smart, I’m saying nobody should be dumbed down. And they don’t have to be.

Write Justified

Poster for FX TV show Justified

Usually you and I talk wherever we happen to be and if there’s a mug of tea, so much the better. Today, though, I’m in my office and so I can tell you with a single glance that there are 178 books on the shelf behind me. With a second single glance I can tell you that together they contain 1,127 scripts.

Okay, it took a little more than a glance and I’m partly telling you so that the two hours I spent counting them for a Writers’ Guild column don’t feel wasted. They weren’t really wasted but they also weren’t two hours: I ended up re-reading so many of these favourites.

You can’t be a writer without being a reader, it’s like breathing in and out. And if you’re writing a script without having ever seen one, I know already that your script is crap. Not because there’s some great rule you don’t know but because you’re plainly not interested in your medium.

But here’s the thing. I recommend all 178 books and I recommend all 1,127 scripts, even the bad ones, except I don’t. I’d have to count them all again to be sure and you wouldn’t ask me to do that, please, but I expect that perhaps only 40% of these scripts are really scripts.

The rest are at best reformatted. Real scripts look great to me: the layout, the form, it’s all as correct and pleasing as a haiku but I do see a problem for book publishers. There’s an awful lot of whitespace on the page. A TV hour could be 50-70 pages, a film is typically around 120 pages. In a book, if you stuff the formatting, you can get that lot into 30 pages and make off with all the printing money you just saved. Layout matters, it’s all done the way it is for a reason, but I’m mostly okay with that so long as the text is what was written.

For the very longest of times I thought the problem was that the text so often isn’t what was written. Actually, I still think that to an extent. Instead of the script as delivered by the writer, you might get the equivalent of what the BBC calls a Programme As Broadcast form: a verbatim transcript of the final result. Faber and Faber did this with Woody Allen films and I only found out after I’d bought the book.

Transcripts are worthless. You get fan websites where some astonishing sod has counted every word and written them all out. If you want to do that, there’s a part of me that applauds your effort and industry plus there’s a part of me that sees you’re honouring writers. But don’t pass this junk off as a script.

For real scripts are the true blueprint of a drama: they show you the scaffolding. The dialogue as written plus the stage directions plus the very style it’s all written in are to do with the setting the tone and telling the story. The actors don’t make up the words but a script is not just the words they say.

So when the internet turned up and had all these scripts on it, when I learned to spot a transcript at a million paces and thereby always recognise a real script when I see it, I stopped buying the books. Mostly. I still do. But not in the volume I did. And if you asked me, I’d recommend you do the same because the online copies are the best, most accurate representation of the job. It is the sole reason for recommending the BBC Writersroom, for instance: forget everything else they say they do, they have a genuinely excellent online script library.

Only, my newest obsession is an American TV drama called Justified. It ran for six years from 2010 and I’ve seen the pilot a couple of times yet not until recently tried the rest. But for the past week or two, I’ve been eating this show up and I’ve been reading the half-dozen scripts that you can get online. And it is fascinating because the differences between the show and what appear to be the final drafts of the script are far, far greater than I’m used to. They’re peek-inside-the-writers’-mind level of differences.

I can’t count how many scripts I’ve read because it was quicker than watching the film or the show. I read something like 150 scripts of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine before watching a second episode of it. When it’s well written, that’s fine, it works on the page tremendously and differences in the broadcast version are minor. Read The Good Wife pilot script online, for instance, and it’s a final draft that is near-as-dammit verbatim to the aired show. The only difference I particularly noticed was that one very good scene was taken out of the pilot and popped into episode two. But with Justified, the changes are huge, most especially in the pilot and I think I’m learning a lesson here from both reading the scripts and watching the show.

I think that changes in the pilot are probably only to be expected: this is such an important episode that you can imagine it being reworked and reworked and reworked all the way up to the editing room. Except some of the differences are not tweaks, they are fundamental changes to the very premise of the show.

They’re actually quite small alterations, they’re a few different lines, a couple of different scenes at most, but their impact is seismic. Let me give you the example that made me want to talk to you about this.

Justified is about US Deputy Marshall Raylan Givens who returns to his home state of Kentucky after, well, some problems. It’s based on a character in an Elmore Leonard short story and the pilot is written by the series creator Graham Yost. Here’s the script as written, though with apologies I’ve had to change the layout to get it on here. It’d help to know that Dan is Raylan’s boss.

INT. US MARSHALL’S OFFICE – SOUTHERN DISTRICT – DAY

RAYLAN (CONT’D): You want me to take some time off?

DAN: No. I want you to take a temporary reassignment.

RAYLAN: Where?

DAN: That’s up to you. There are five districts nationwide low on manpower, could use you.

RAYLAN: Is Eastern Kentucky on that list?

DAN: It is.

RAYLAN: I’ll go there.

DAN: You don’t want to think about it?

RAYLAN: That’s where I grew up. And I know the marshal, Art Mullen. He and I taught firearms at Glynco.

DAN: You still got family in Kentucky?

RAYLAN: Ex-wife in Lexington. I believe my father’s still down in Harlan.

DAN: You believe?

RAYLAN: (shrugs, then:) There’s another reason I’d like to go. I was checking out the national suspects list and I saw a name in Eastern Kentucky I recognized: Boyd Crowder. (off Dan’s look) He was a guy I knew growing up. Back when we were 19, we dug coal together.

So Raylan is going home. If that’s not a series start, I don’t know what is. Except possibly this. I’m embarrassed to say it now, but this next is a transcript. Someone has transcribed Justified and if they’ve done it really badly – each word is there but not a clue who is saying which sentence and often no evidence that it’s now a different person – then at least they saved me some typing. I’ve cleaned it up and made it clearer, added the scene heading, but otherwise, here’s the same scene as broadcast and transcribed:

INT. UNDERGROUND CARPARK – DAY

DAN: Let me put it to you this way. The weather forecast is for a shitload of shit raining down on this office from Washington. I’m gonna reassign you.
RAYLAN: Prison Transport?
DAN: No, I’m getting you out of Dodge. They need manpower in the Eastern District of Kentucky. I talked to the chief of the district, Art Mullen, says you guys taught Firearms together at Glynco.
RAYLAN: No, no, Dan. I grew up in Kentucky. I don’t wanna go back there.
DAN: Well, then we have a problem, because you don’t wanna go back to Kentucky, and you cannot, under any circumstances, stay here.

So Raylan is going home and he doesn’t want to. Now that’s a series start. Remember that this is the same writer but every part of it is different right down to how much better, in my opinion, the dialogue is. I think Yost found the right way into the story and as soon as he’d done that, the dialogue flew too.

I don’t know. The other scripts available online are final draft production ones with long lists of revisions – and actually, slightly more than I’m used to seeing. Usually there’s a half a dozen to a dozen rewrites on these things but with the Justified scripts you see them specify that a rewrite was on a particular scene. That tells me the rewrite came very, very late, that production was well underway. I don’t know why that should be on this show more than any other, but I do know that Justified is a superb piece of writing.

I’m just so thoroughly engrossed by how that change about wanting to go makes such a deep-rooted difference to every aspect of the show. From the plot to most definitely the character but also the atmosphere. And the exposition. There is some detail in that drafts script that didn’t make it to that transcript of the broadcast but the few that mattered are delivered in a later scene instead. They work better there, too, but then they would.

You think you can tell any story in any way yet somewhere along the line, there becomes just one single way to tell it well. Find that and suddenly it all works. If only it were as easy as that sounds, if only if I weren’t struggling with the same thing on a script of mine too.

Listen, go watch Justified. And when you get ahead of me – I’m on the last episode of the first season – you cannot, under any circumstances, tell me what’s coming next.

Starting block

I did such a clever thing this month. I’d be boasting about it to you, but for the small problem that I’ve realised I have to do it again and at this moment I haven’t a single clue how. Let me call it a writing thing so that maybe it’ll be of use to you too but really I’m lying down on the couch now and you’re getting out your pen, you’re asking me about my childhood.

Funny: I said that as a gag but childhood is relevant because the problem is to do with where you start something. Specifically where you start a story.

You know this. There is a reason why any story, any drama, any play starts at the specific point it does and not one pixel sooner or later. This is one reason I think prequels are murder and so rarely successful murder: they’re set before that starting moment and have to concoct a reason why.

What I did that I was so smug about for at least an hour was that I wrote a short story which in retrospect you will realise covers nearly two decades of time for the character. As you read it through, however, you see quite clearly that it actually physically takes place in probably less than half an hour.

The cleverness, and every time I write that word I’m doubting it more, was that I had this incredibly long story but I didn’t just find the right spot to start, I found the only spot where it could all be told in that short moment.

Actually, do have a read some time. You don’t need to for the point I’m trying to make but I’m unusually pleased with it. It’s called Still Life and you can read it over on the Prompted Tales website.

I haven’t been taught writing and I don’t know if there’s some university module on starting but I’m on a thing now where, dammit, the story takes place over 32 years and I have 45 minutes in which to tell it.

I’ll get there. And although I blinked a bit when I realised I was in exactly the same hole as I was before Still Life, I’m going to enjoy finding the right spot to tell this story.

Readers need a good start, writers need the right start but somewhere in the tale there is a potent, pregnant moment where it can all take place.

Okay. Okay. I think that’s right. And it’s helped, thank you. Can I see you again next week?

Seeking treatment for outlines

To this day, one of the most exciting conversations I’ve had was at a university where a woman I was having cake with said one thing that totally changed everything. She said no.

Actually, she didn’t, but I was there on some gigantically contorted excuse solely to see her and I did strike out. But I’d already given up when we were talking about something that I felt strongly about and she disagreed with. She explained why, in a single sentence. That sounds rude but it was perfectly polite, fine, reasoned, it just only took a single sentence because it was something quite simple.

She was entirely right and I was entirely wrong. Up to that minute, I’d thought one thing, from that instant on it was impossible to not think the opposite.

God, but I loved that. That was exhilarating.

So could you please explain to me why I’ve been fighting something similar for pretty much my entire writing career?

This is what I have always believed and would like to continue believing and in my heart think I am about to betray a truth. You should write unplanned. Write to see where you go. Write to explore. And yes, you’ll write bollocks but that’s just the price you pay: if you have to throw away 90,000 words, what does it matter if the 10,000 left are great?

I’ve never said I couldn’t plan in advance, that I couldn’t outline. My first book contract required a detailed outline – and later I had to go through some hoops because I found material in my research that meant changing the outline drastically – and my second publisher needed to be able to estimate how much time a copy editor was going to need.

Doctor Who audio dramas go through various stages before you get to script and they’re all plans, all versions of outlines, effectively all treatments. Treatments are so dull. The only thing worse than reading a treatment is reading what James Cameron calls a “scriptment”. He says that’s half a treatment, half a script, and I swear to you it is all unbearable.

I once read a treatment by Alan Plater that was stunningly, shockingly boring – until the last line, where he’d written something like: “So can I go write the bloody thing now?”

I’ve done post-mortem outlines before. Written the script and then reverse-engineered an outline for producers who won’t read scripts. It was never worth it and I think because my scorn shone through the whole process.

Again, I’ve said this before and yet I’m fighting it. I have heard every argument in favour of outlining that there can be and I’ve found them all unconvincing. Except one.

I can’t remember now which producer it was who said this to me but it was the first completely undeniable argument I’d heard. I was right back in that cake shop with Claire because it is simple and I cannot disagree with it.

“You can’t have a blank screen on BBC1 on Tuesday night.”

That’s all.

I am deadline-oriented. Most of my work comes pre-loaded with deadlines and my way of exploring on the page while hitting those deadlines was just to work harder and for longer hours.

But there was always the possibility of failure: there’s no question that I would fail to deliver but there was every chance that I would fail to deliver anything worthwhile.

In television, that just can’t be allowed to happen. So television writers will plan and they will outline and if you want to work in that game, that’s what you’re going to do.

I’m not in that game. I got fired off the only TV drama I’ve worked on. But I do want to be in that game and the one-hour television drama is to me what the concept album or the three-minute pop song is to some. So a while ago I decided to try doing it their way.

Just take the characters that were obsessing me at the time and write the script in this planned, organised way. Full disclosure: I was highly impressed by the treatment for episode 1 of The Good Wife.

That is a nice piece of writing and it was written for no one but a few US TV network executives. They liked it too and because of that, three months later we got the script.

Writers Robert King and Michelle King did that. I only really know their work from this one series but I am agog at how great that show is so if they can it this way, I’ll give it a go.

Only, I’ve been a bit pressed for time. My seventh non-fiction book this year came out a couple of weeks ago. (None are very long books and five of them are compilations of non-fiction articles written over the last 20 months. Though four of those five became best-sellers in the States. What did I do wrong on the fifth?) So this is how it went:

2014 Thought of an idea called Alibis. Did nothing.
2015 Thought about the idea. Did nothing except change the title to Vows.
2016 February, got on a pitching workshop run by Liv Chapman at Writing West Midlands

You had to have a project to pitch or there was no point doing that workshop. So I puddled about with the idea, renamed it Vows, wrote a few thousand words of notes in order to create a pitch of about two minutes duration.

What I learned at that pitching workshop obviously helped me with pitching the idea but, as I’ll bet money Chapman knew all along, also helped me improve the idea that I was pitching.

Still, that was February.

Some time between then and April, I ignored my plan and ignored plans and wrote some script. I’ve never looked at it since.

In June I spent a day making notes on my favourite characters in the piece. Didn’t write script.

But then I’ve been involved in a project where at one point it looked like today was going to be the start of a thing. Literally today, as I write this. As it happens, it’s delayed but about a week ago I was sure it was happening and if it did, it would be the start of work that would be overwhelming for some time and I’d not get any chance to write this script.

So on Tuesday I wrote an outline. Some 3,000 words of every idea I had bubbling and every detail I had of these characters and the utter hell they’re heading for.

It was an outline, I can’t deny it. I even wrote it in an app called OmniOutliner. (Which is very good, by the way.)

That was Tuesday. On Wednesday I opened up Scrivener on my iPad and swiped to make it three-quarters of the screen with OmniOutliner in the fourth quarter. And I wrote 21 pages of script.

I was an unbearable puddle of exhaustion afterwards: you wouldn’t want to know me. I was also weirdly dehydrated but that’s another story. But I was also a bit smug: my previous record under deadline pressure was 20 pages of script per day.

On Thursday, yesterday, I wrote 28.

These were 12-hour writing days, 5am to 5pm, but in two days I’d written 49 pages of script and actually, that’s it. Complete.

Now, I’m going to hate that script tomorrow. But today – I just reread it – I think it’s one of the best things I’ve written. Obviously a first draft, obviously much further to go, and I don’t know when I can do that now, but because I had put years of thought into the characters and because I’d put another 12-hour day into the outline, the script poured out of me like I was transcribing it off the screen.

I thought I’d confine myself by writing out the story in advance like this but along the way, some characters stood up and told me off. No, they wouldn’t do this, they’d do that. And this one had to be the one who did this other thing because of course it is going to hurt them the most. Several times during the writing I said “Sorry” aloud and did what the characters told me.

That’s the kind of psychosis that you get when writing unplanned. So maybe it isn’t the unplanning, maybe it isn’t something you get from exploring on the page. Maybe I’m just nutty all round.

My heart still stays explore, my head says okay, maybe outlines have a point. Let’s split the difference and go with my gut: whatever works for you, works for you. Whatever gets it on the page, do that.