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.