Bestowing titles

I am struggling to think of a title for our natter today. Which is possibly ironic, as it’s titles that are on my mind. There are times when I think I am really good at them, then many more times like today when I realise I’m not. And occasionally there are other times when I get a title I like so much that I head off into a script or an article or even a book just so I can use it.

That’s definitely how I ended up sending out a script that was definitely something to do with Time, definitely also something to do with accidents or medicine or something. Look, it was years ago, okay? But I did write a script called – oh, right, yes, it was definitely about time and consequences, because I had the title “Causality”.

And consequently had a producer rejecting it with the kind note that I might like to check out BBC1 on Saturday evenings when there is a hospital TV series of that name. And consequently I had to send him a polite, possibly timid, note right back saying oh, no, there isn’t.

Flash forward more years than I am going to admit, and I can tell you where I was standing when I thought of the title for a play I’ve just finished. It was last year – I could look up the date but you’re in a hurry – and I was running a day-long workshop on writing for business. It was for the Federation of Entertainment Unions and I had something like 25 people, all professional, full-time creative freelancers across writing, acting, journalism and music. And we were working on how you write a blurb to describe your current project.

They all had their heads down writing for ten minutes, I was taking this moment to think that as much as I relish the FEU work, what I love is that I’ll do that one day and the next I’ll be on a script. And then I sank a bit as I thought about this particular script which, for about half a dozen reasons, was ridiculously complicated. So much so that I was half spending my time embedded in research and half spending my time pretending I needed more research because otherwise I’d have to actually write.

Sod it, I thought. These people are all struggling to write a description of their current project, this is mine, I’m going to write a description. There can’t have been more than three minutes left on the exercise so I couldn’t overthink it, I just wrote a description –– and a title.

It is not that the title was random. I can’t tell you what it is yet but even if I could, it wouldn’t blow you away with its brilliance, you’d just see that it was the right title for this. But that was the thing: it was the right title and that apparently thoughtless decision in that room has stayed. About a year on, that is still the title of the play.

And it would be. Because it is the right title. What’s more, what’s so very much more, is that having made that call and decided on that title, it was as if all the Tetris blocks that were making this story hard to tell had now lined up. They snapped into place. Writing it was a bit damn harder than that sounds, but having plucked the title out of the mass and the mess of details, I had the entire route from the start to the end of the play.

That’s not happened to me before. A good title has sold a piece, I know that. A good title has given me the launch I needed for an article.

But this is the first time that the right title has enabled the entire play.

Bet you it has to change.

The worst criticism I ever received

I run a writers’ buddying programme for a group and sometimes get paired up with a writer myself. I love this, it’s always interesting and just occasionally you hear some war stories.

Or you tell them.

I was relaxed away in a buddying chat this week when something we talked about reminded me of the absolute worst criticism I have ever had from any writers or about anything I’ve written.

It’s got to be five years ago now and I’m going to change the names to protect the fact that I didn’t register all of them at the time, I’ve forgotten some since, and I’ve completely blanked on the main one.

You’re starting to understand why people criticise me.

But they do all the time, or rather they do my writing and, sure, sometimes it’s painful. Usually it’s neither here nor there and overall it’s great because it’s useful.

The reason I want to tell you about this one is that I mean it was the worst in more than one sense. Yes, no question, everyone in this group I met loathed my writing. “Are you published?” was the first thing I was asked when I arrived and their eye-widened surprise at the answer was the first clue I wasn’t going to enjoy this day-long event.

Except I hadn’t thought I would. I’d thought I might be savaged and – yes, I remember now, the line I was told beforehand was that this group will tear the skin off your arms, they are that vicious with their criticism. I’d spent years in BBC News, this sounded like home to me.

But I’ll tell you now. There were some nasty people in BBC News, just as there are everywhere, but when you got criticised, you’d earned it. The aim was not to destroy, it was to make a better piece of writing.

So for me, vicious criticism can equal valuable lesson.

The reason this was the worst criticism I’ve ever had, though, is that as well as the moderate vehemence it was delivered in, it was utter rubbish.

Stop that. You’re very nice but you have got to be thinking now that I was wrong, that I must really mean that the criticism given strongly was overwhelming and I’m saying it’s rubbish only as some male defence mechanism.

You’ve got to be thinking that, got to, so I’ve got to give you an example. I was told that I should change my novel to magical realism – specifically because the person who told me this happens to like magical realism.

“I like chocolate,” I told her, “but, you know, thanks.”

Someone else, I think it was someone else, had the sole useful comment in the session. My character apparently could not do what my plot required, not in the room she did it in. She would have to go to this other room and do some other thing first.

“Thank you very much,” I said. “I’ll fix that right now.”

I had the writing on my iPad and I changed that scene there in front of them. So I got something valuable and I put it into the book immediately. On-the-spot editing, improving my writing even as I was being told how to improve it. I turned the iPad around to show them and enthused about how much I was grateful and look, you’ve changed the book.

And yet it still took fifteen fucking minutes for them to shut up about how I must make this change. I wafted the iPad around from time to time. I think I read my own book to pass the time.

They also had some rule that the writer wasn’t allowed to defend or explain their writing until it had been thoroughly discussed by everyone else. So I had another zoned-out few minutes as they decided how I should proceed with one particular character in the opening chapter that they were reading. How I should develop her for the rest of the book.

“You mean the one we come to realise died on the second page?” I asked them. The sole thing I can still see from that day is the shock on all their faces.

No skin was removed my arms during this very long session, but I did occasionally lose the will to live. Again, though, you’re nice, so as good as you’re being to me listening to all of this, you are aware that there are at least two sides to everything and that this group would tell a very different story.

They did. They phoned me up the next day.

And told me that I’d misunderstood, it wasn’t that I’d been invited to join the group, it was that they had been auditioning me.

I laughed.

Plus they knew it would be a big disappointment, but they’d decided to go with someone else. Good luck with your writing, William.

It didn’t quite end there. I can’t remember now how long afterwards it was, but some weeks or months later, they contacted me again and said I could have another go. Of course I didn’t and of course I never will, but unfortunately in another sense, it did end there.

The real reason this was the worst ever criticism is that I’ve never written one single word more of that story. I’d say it’s a bit melodramatic of me to blame the group for that, except that I’ve also never read a single word of that story

Right now I can’t remember which piece it was and I certainly can’t find it. Maybe if I could and maybe if I read it now I might agree with this group’s dislike.

But criticism that I thought was worthless was still enough to puncture me. I went in eager to be eviscerated if it meant improving my writing yet a group that didn’t do that and which had no value for me still managed to stall a book forever.

I blame me but, still, this is really why it was the worst.

I didn’t plan this

I appear to be changing, please stop me.

Previously on William Gallagher, I was opposed to planning or outlining stories and scripts. It was better to dive in, start writing, see where you got, and accept or even relish how you had to be willing to throw away a lot of writing.

Only this week, I told someone that if I write 100,000 words and 90,000 of them are rubbish, that’s a bargain. I’ve got 10,000 words I like, and all it cost me was a hell of a lot of time.

I said that in a workshop and even as I said it, since this topic has come up before, I felt my polite brain prodding me to say one thing more. Which was was this: “Of course, everybody’s different, and whatever it takes to get you to the end result is fine.”

Not only did I also say this, I have also said it before, and not one single time have I convinced anyone that I mean it. I do, but I don’t. Not for me, anyway.

Except.

About 15 years ago now, I was in Hollywood – get me – interviewing a producer for Radio Times. On the wall behind him was a breakdown, a kind of basic outline, for the episode of Battlestar Galactica that he was then working on.

And he told me the one thing, the first thing, that made me think outlines and plans have a point. He said you can’t have a blank screen on Tuesday night’s TV, or whichever day it was. Writing to see where you go is fine, but it goes wrong and you have no possible way to guarantee that it will work at all, let alone in time. Outlining, planning, story breakdowns, they get you to the goal in the most reliable way.

Curiously, though, that producer/writer was Ronald D Moore and I can’t remember now whether he told me or I just read it somewhere else, but he had done exactly this thing of just writing to see what happened. But it was under one very specific and unusual circumstance.

Battlestar ran as a two-part miniseries in something like 2003 or 2004, I forget which, and it was an enormous success. Deservedly so: that show is remarkable. But even though its ratings success was so good –– uniquely, the second part’s ratings were higher than the first because everyone was talking about how great it was –– the decision to go to series hadn’t happened yet.

It was going to, there was no doubt, but it hadn’t happened yet. So he couldn’t hire staff, he couldn’t set anything up, and there was Christmas in the way.

So over that Christmas, Moore just wrote an episode by himself, start to finish, no outlining. When the show went to series, that script became the first episode. It’s called “33” and I’m sure you can watch it on some streaming service or other, but you can also read the script right here.

It is a superb piece of work. I remember, so vividly clearly, sitting in a corner of the Radio Times office with a VHS tape – VHS? then? – starting the episode on this tiny CRT television –– CRT? no flat screen? then? –– and wondering if it could possibly be any good. The mini-series was two feature-length episodes and it was all so rich and filmic that it was easy to imagine squeezing it down into a 42-minute episode would lose a lot.

Except it didn’t. I wish I’d written “33” and I’ve rewatched it, I’ve re-read it, many times.

You can tell that in my heart, I still believe in the writing to see where it goes. And you can tell that in my brain, I accept that there are circumstances where you can’t do it.

Only, about six weeks ago now, I finally outlined a radio play script that I’ve been piddling about with since at least 2017, and I did so because writer Alex Townley nudged me into it. And four weeks ago now, I finished the whole play. I don’t mean the outline, I mean the play.

And one week ago, I was struggling with a novel that I’ve been working on for at least a year, and this time it was me who said to writer Alex Townley that maybe I should outline it.

I don’t wanna.

But it’s a story that on the one hand is bleedin’ complicated, and which on the other hand needs the most enormous, huge, gigantic finish. Which I didn’t have. I was writing all this ominous stuff with no idea what I could ever do to pay it off. Until I was piddling about with the outline and I realised what this big ending could be.

Everybody’s different, and whatever it takes to get you to the end result is fine.

Nope, I’m still not convincing.

Misterioso

I’ve worked a lot in schools this week because Thursday was World Book Day. It’s a privilege to be asked into a school as a visiting author and always, always an exhausting delight. But this time, rather reasonably, I did seem to keep being asked what my favourite book is.

Depending on when I was asked, my answer ranged from Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce to The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath and probably all points in between. I didn’t lie to anyone, but I want to tell you the truth.

My favourite book is Misterioso by Alan Plater. It’s out of print, long out of print, and you may not think it’s the best of his immense body of work. I know you may not because he didn’t. The last time I saw Alan before he died in 2010, I mentioned this book of his and he told me that he hadn’t read it since he wrote it in 1987.

I had.

Many times.

I don’t know how many times I’ve read that book now, but it’s easily six or eight or more in those years and the last time – so far – was particularly special. I’ve got the hardback, I’ve got the paperback that followed and I’ve read them both but now I have the original typescript.

Well, no, I have a PDF of the manuscript. I photographed every page in the Hull History Centre when I was doing some research there. I photographed every page of the manuscript, all the publishers’ correspondence, two drafts of the television version that was aired and one episode of a substantially different TV script that was never filmed.

So you could say I’m quite keen on this story.

But I will tell you right now that there appears to be very little to it. In reality, well, there’s genuinely not a lot to it. When her mother is killed in a car accident, Rachel sorts out her papers and discovers that her dear old Dad is not her father. The novel starts off appearing to be a reasonably familiar tale of someone searching for their real parent.

Except in this case, she finds him and quite quickly.

It’s not about her father, it’s not about her Dad, it’s not about her mother. It’s about Rachel and how small moments become big questions and little changes of attitude become life-altering.

You can easily argue that nothing happens in the novel but by the end, Rachel’s life is transformed.

That’s it, just a little complete life transformation.

For World Book Day, though, I would like to get really specific and tell you that my favourite book is this manuscript version of Misterioso. Because as well as feeling like a special thing, having the typewritten pages my friend wrote, the manuscript also answered a question that had been annoying me since 1987.

There’s a mistake in the novel.

It’s always been there and Alan knew it was there because he fixed it for the subsequent TV version. But as ever with his work, it’s a small thing that’s simultaneously huge. In the novel, Rachel’s real father, Paul, does not know her name when they meet. And that’s despite our having learned that a mutual friend of his and Rachel’s mother used to keep him informed about how Rachel was.

It’s a slap to the reader. It’s a head-jolt and I’ve never understood it.

Until I read the manuscript.

There aren’t many alterations from the original pages but there are the odd few points where Alan rewrote and retyped something, then taped it over the first draft. Literally taped. This was 1987, this was a typewriter.

Typewritten!


And one of those alterations concerns a plot point. Alan seems to have felt that he needed to be clearer about how a character got a certain piece of information that ultimately leads Rachel to her real father. I don’t think he needed to do it, but fixing that small point early on in the book left us with this slap about a third of the way in or so.

To stand up why a character has Paul’s address, Alan creates a little two-paragraph story about how he and she had stayed in touch. He gives a reason, he makes it sensible that she would have his address. But that story, that excuse, is what then makes it impossible that Paul wouldn’t know Rachel’s name.

Alan missed it.

I read that page and the original version in the Hull History Centre and I jumped up in my seat, looking for someone to tell. Where were you?

Travelling Desperately, again

Shush, we’re in archive. It’s the Hull History Centre and six years ago I was here researching my very first book. That was – take a breath, this is a long title – BFI TV Classics: The Beiderbecke Affair, from the British Film Institute. The Beiderbecke Affair is a 1980s television drama by the late Alan Plater and this place has his papers.

It’s weird being in an archive that’s got a friend’s papers. I’d sit here reading something in the Beiderbecke collection and remember Alan or his wife Shirley Rubinstein telling me about it. But anyway, as much as I adore The Beiderbecke Affair and as important as my book was to me, there was also something else all those years ago.

I worked like fury to collate and copy every pixel of detail about the Beiderbecke Affair and then also Alan’s dramatisation of Fortunes of War because I had a canny eye to what the next book would be. That hasn’t happened yet, but give it time. Only, I did all that at extra-fast speed solely in order to leave the last two hours free.

Because there is this other Alan Plater work that is especially dear to me: Misterioso.

It’s a novel that’s out of print (but you can find it changing hands for a lot of money on eBay and Amazon) and a TV drama that has never been released commercially. It’s really just one small part of his work but I am shocked how deep it cuts into me. This is not a high-profile piece, not elaborate or overt, not famous or lauded, yet there are issues that I believe in and concerns that I share that I can easily trace back to the novel Misterioso in 1987 and the TV version in 1991.

Title card from the TV drama Misterioso

For a simple example, it’s why I’ve always loved the name Rachel. For a somewhat more complex one, it’s why I cherish the thought that, as the show describes, “it’s better to travel desperately than to arrive”. It’s why when I’ve done a lot I know that even as an atheist, I need time for my soul to catch up.

So knowing from the Hull History Centre’s catalogue that they had one entire box of papers about Misterioso, I was having that. Nobody was paying me, I wasn’t writing a book about it, but I was going to read that box for myself.

Only, the collection was still quite new then and things were still being sorted out. They told me they couldn’t find the Misterioso box.

Deeply unhappy, I vowed to return.

Yes. Six years later. I’m back and it’s still only for me, but this time I have a day and a half here entirely devoted to Misterioso. And that’s good because they’ve found the box. I call it a box, often these things are more like folders. But okay, I was ready to read one folder, then, and instead they’ve now got ten.

One more thing. The title Misterioso comes from a jazz piece which features as prominently as you might expect in an Alan Plater drama. I like jazz when I hear it live, I adore jazz anecdotes, but I’ve not been a fan and I have not collected any albums.

Only, the very last shot of Misterioso on television is of Rachel driving off down a motorway as the music plays. Yesterday as I drove down a motorway toward Hull, I lifted my Watch to my lips and said “Hey, Siri, play me Misterioso by Thelonius Monk“. And my car and my head were filled with this tune that seems so simple yet somehow means so much to me.

Endings and finishes

It’s not that I’m in a fight. But I’m disagreeing with someone and as polite as we’re being, as much as I rate the fella, we’ve come back to the same point many times this year and neither of us will budge. I can’t actually tell you the details because it’s about a book of his that isn’t out yet – and, besides, if you knew everything then you might take his side.

But I can try to present a case to you that I think applies generally to writing and drama and fiction. And by chance it also applies very directly and specifically to a piece of my own that I’ve been working on this week.

In both mine and this fella’s, the last moments are key. With mine it’s a radio play and it’s all about the penultimate sentence. With his novel, it’s about the past page.

He’s much further down the line with his piece than I am so I got to read it finished and as one of several readers he asked for opinions. I can tell you that my summary opinion was that it’s bloody good and so scary that I was reading bits through my fingers.

Only, he wanted to know a specific opinion about a specific thing. What exactly did I think the last page meant? I told him and actually felt a bit on the spot because while it was excellent and maybe a key reason I like the entire novel, what I thought about it seemed bleedin’ obvious to me. But of however many readers he’d had, apparently I was the only one who understood it.

Bully for me.

Except because of this, he plans to change the ending. To make it clearer. And that’s our fight: whether he should or not. Now, he’s going to win because it’s his book but in the middle of our emails about it, I stood up to make my point. I actually stood up even though we were emailing. I got to my feet because I am so certain that I am right. I’m never certain I’m right and yet here I am, standing up and steadfast.

His ending is a real punch to the throat, it is the kind of powerful head-jolt moment that a writer would give their last kidney for. He argues that this doesn’t matter, that it’s worthless if most people don’t get it.

I argue that there is no possible, possible way to simplify this single-point ending yet also keep its power.

So his position is that it’s better to have something every reader gets. And mine is that if you do this, then what they get is tepid water when they could’ve had moonshine-strength alcohol. He wants something for everyone, I want something brilliant. I envy this man’s writing and one of the reasons is this power that he’s willing to throw away.

Let me describe my own nearest equivalent, the thing I’m writing this week. It’s also not out yet and it’s actually so early days that the odds are it will never reach an audience or at least not in this form. Nonetheless, it’s mine so I can tell you that the penultimate line is someone saying her name.

That’s all. Just her name. It’s a point in the play when I officially reveal that someone is really someone else – and it comes about 40 minutes after the audience will have figured that out anyway. Only, I want the audience to be ahead of me here because when they finally hear the name spoken, it then tells them a second fact that they will not have got. I do like the trick of it, I do like the surprise, but it’s also important for the character and what she’s been going through.

And I’m proud of this next part: I wrote that line, I wrote the sentence that is simply her saying her name, and in that context, at that point, it made me cry at the keyboard. Honestly. Consequently that single line is the reason I must get this play made. The power in that penultimate line is my reason for writing it at all.

I just know both that audiences will have guessed the first part of it and also that given where it sits in the play, some will miss its import. Inescapably, you know the play is ending when you get to this line and I think it’s a beat that comes after you expect all of the plot and character to be done with.

Perhaps I could move it up earlier, but then it wouldn’t have the bang. I could skip it completely and just end the play a moment sooner. Accept that it’s no longer an ending, it’s just where the play finishes.

But this sentence is an end, it is the snapping of the suitcase being closed on the story. It’s also the best sentence I’ve ever written, so, you know, there’s that.

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.

Book people

This is new. As I write this to you, there’s a writing workshop going on and I’m producing it. Just over there. In that room. Now, obviously I would come out of it to talk to you – nobody else, mind, let’s be quite clear there – but I’m not in the room at all. The session is being run by <a href=”https://twitter.com/smalextownley”>Alex Townley</a> and I’m hearing laughter, I’m hearing the buzz of chatter, I’m hearing that it is going very well.

I should be feeling rubbish out here but instead I am deeply, deeply delighted. It’s like when you write a scene you think is good, you hope it’s good and then you see it working even better. A couple of years ago now I sat in the audience at the Birmingham Rep watching a discussion event on stage and actually marvelling that I’d made that happen. You can’t count the number of other people involved but I couldn’t dismiss the fact that I made it happen. Nobody in that audience had any idea I had anything to do with it and at the end, everyone on stage got applauded and I was right there applauding with them.

There is something just tremendous about creating things, I think, and when you have someone good doing part then it is tremendous that you saw what they could do and you got them. This week of the writing workshop series is about creating characters and bringing them to life on the page: no question, Alex is the one to tell them about that. Equally no question, or at least not very many questions or at least I’m not listening to you if you’re questioning, is the fact that I’m the guy to do next week’s one on dialogue.

You should probably not get me started on dialogue. It’s my thing. You’ve got your thing, I’ve got dialogue. It keeps me warm.

And the instant I say that to you, my mind splits in two directions. I want to tell you of a line of dialogue that cropped up in a TV drama recently where someone said: “I’m done with listening, do you hear me?” I don’t fully understand why I laughed at that.

But my mind also wants to address the realisation that I’m just after saying that to you about dialogue and what am I doing tonight? I said a few words at the start and I will at the end, otherwise I’m sitting here typing.

It’s not typing, though, is it? It’s writing to you. It’s a weekday evening as I write this, I’m sitting in the offices of <a href=”http://www.writingwestmidlands.org”>Writing West Midlands</a>, there’s a colleague working across the room, and next to both of us is this room where a group of writers are having a good time concocting characters. I think this is pretty good.