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.


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?

New book out today: Filling the Blank Screen

Filling-the-Blank-Screen_600x900Last year, The Blank Screen book captured every single thing I knew about being a productive yet still creative writer. How to beat distractions. Get started. Cope with the day job, cope with deadlines, cope with other people – and cope with yourself too. There’s also an astonishingly popular bit in it about kettles. Tea-making aside, I am deeply proud of how useful the book has proved to people. Actually, hang on, how about this quote?

“Love this book, it is clever and witty and genuinely grapples with making an extra hour (or two) in the day. Inspiring and liberating. A real Can-Do manual. No creative should be without it.”

That was an out-of-the-blue email from Barbara Machin, creator of BBC’s Waking the Dead. Made my day, didn’t it? So did getting tweets at 5am from people saying they had finally finished their novels because of what I’d told them. Okay, being up and working and able to tweet right back at them that second was part of the fun.

But that’s the thing. People. The Blank Screen book became a workshop that I have now done all over the country. I’ve done versions for individuals – that’s intense but fantastic: ask me about that – and I’ve spoken at literary festivals, in universities, I’ve worked with new and amateur writers, I’ve worked with long-time professionals. Next week I’m in Newcastle and it is to spend a day with writers but also with journalists, musicians and actors. People who have to create, whose passion is in creating new work but who are having to do more of that and do it alongside so many other jobs that their creativity is under pressure. The work they live to do is being squeezed to one side like the credits on a TV show while they are having to run businesses or get day jobs.

I know that what I’ve got for them will help with everything they’re doing. That’s a great feeling, to actually know that this works. But what’s greater, for me personally, is that I do not know what they’ve got for me. I just know that they will have something.

It’s more or less exactly a year since The Blank Screen first came out and now I’ve learnt so much from so many people that I’m ecstatic to tell you today sees the official publication of a new book: Filling the Blank Screen. One hundred chapters of advice, tips, recommendations and daft anecdotes from a year of making more people more productive.

This new book is actually a distillation of more than a thousand articles on The Blank Screen news site and of more than a quarter of a million words written on there since November 2013. One hundred of the best, the most-talked about and the most-read pieces have been continued, developed, updated and given a nice scrub to make this new ebook. If you and I have talked at a workshop, I have stolen your brilliant idea and it’s in chapter 3.

Filling the Blank Screen is due to be released in paperback on 12 September and the ebook is out today.

The aim of this new book is not to replace The Blank Screen, I still know that will be useful to you and I hope also entertain. But Filling the Blank Screen is a burst of bite-sized pieces you can grab on the run and which tell you what to do to get things done. Read one piece a day and in a hundred days you’ll have had a good time and I’ll have the reputation for writing long books.

Everybody wins and it costs you only £2.99.

Quick aside? Since it’s you? Filling the Blank Screen is not the book I was planning to write this year. It really did come out of the unexpected success of the workshops and the news site. It felt like it was the book itself that wanted to be written. Which is startling and great, obviously, and I’m dancing here, but still it is not the book I was planning to write. Which means I am deep into the planned book and that’s what I should be working on right now. If only there were a couple of books out with great and tested advice about getting writing finished and beating distractions and putting the kettle on this minute.

It is a treat that I get to tell you these things. Thanks.

Is that it? Is Kindle dead?

Naturally you know that anything you ever read that includes a question mark in the title is obligated to answer it with the word ‘no’. But this time, I think it’s ‘no’ bordering on ‘maybe’. I’m just not sure what I think about it.

Here’s the thing. Author Lee Child was on BBC’s Newsnight this week about the spat between Amazon and the publisher Hachette. Child isn’t with that publisher and he has been vocal about supporting Amazon in general, but he was on Newsnight to tell Amazon off. That’s not what interests me most, though. I’ve appended the full interview way down there below but during it, he said this:

“Amazon is fantastically ambitious, they want to change the world, they want to dominate and the Kindle simply hasn’t. It hasn’t worked as well as Amazon wanted it to work. It’s become – you know, America’s market is about two years ahead of the British market and the verdict is in, in America. And to put it in the vernacular, Kindle is ‘so 2012’. People tried it out back then. Some people liked it, some people didn’t, most people were completely indifferent and it has settled into a good, solid niche which is fine from a business point of view but not good enough for Amazon.”

You can argue that authors, especially ones with long and successful track records in hardback and paperback, might want to think that Kindle is a niche. I think we’ve all expected and/or feared that ebooks will one day replace all books and there’s certainly been a massacre of high street bookstores.

But Lee Child is an international hit and he does huge business in America: though he’s a British writer, he sets his Jack Reacher thrillers in the States and very, very convincingly so. I tend to give him some credence, then, especially as there was also news this week of how shops are not necessarily being beaten by online sales as much as expected.

Over the past 20 years, e-commerce sales have grown to about 6% of total retail sales (excluding gasoline and food services) and about 11% of Forrester’s top 30 product categories.

But though the e-commerce growth rate is attractive, it has slowed from about 30% per year in the early 2000s to less than half that rate today. If the trend continues, e-commerce sales will increase from 11% of Forrester’s top 30 categories to about 18% by 2030—higher in some (such as music) and lower in others (such as food). While 18% is a significant number, it does not exactly spell the end of physical stores.

E-Commerce is Not Eating Retail – Darrell Rigby, Harvard Business Review (14 August 2014)

The full piece then goes on to talk about how the lines blur anyway:

Imagine that a customer goes to a Macy’s store, learns that the product is out of stock, and uses her smartphone to order the product from another Macy’s outlet, which ships it to her home the same day. Is that an e-commerce sale or a physical one?

You can extrapolate too much from any one or two sources but it’s not unreasonable, I think, to wonder if all of this has happened before and all of this will happen again. Theatre was destroyed by radio and radio was destroyed by television but all three are strong again today. Maybe over time things will even out and Child is right that Kindle will be just one format instead of the dominant one.

The trouble is, I don’t like Kindle.

The original hardware Kindles irritated me with how the screens would flash black every six pages or so, I never got used to that distraction. Plus the typography, the very look of the words on the page niggled me. The hardware is better now and, moreover, you can get Kindle software on just about everything I use: iPhone, Mac and especially iPad.

I buy quite a lot of Kindle books to read on my iPad.

But I’m afraid I do it reluctantly. Kindle books are ugly. I mean, they are just ugly. I say this as someone who has some of his books out on Kindle and I definitely say it as someone who uses Kindle to get many books that aren’t available anywhere else. But it’s not the greatest reading experience. I’ve just been reading a book that has a lot of photographs in it; the way the book is formatted you’ll sometimes get a caption on the next page so I was often skipping back and forth to read caption, see photo or vice versa. Every time I would do it, the entire book would reformat and put the text in a different place. What was a half page at the end of a chapter was now a full page at the end of a chapter.

If a book is available on both Kindle and Apple’s iBooks, this reading experience business is enough that I will buy the iBook. Even though typically that’s a little bit more expensive.

Reading an iBook is a genuine pleasure, though. I’ve looked to see if I can show you a comparative screenshot, grab the same page from a Kindle ebook and an Apple iBook and there’s not really one that conveys this difference to you. That does tell me that the difference is slight. But it’s real and it’s enough that it matters to me.

Plus, I have some skin in the game. The most popular edition of my The Blank Screen book is definitely the Kindle one – though you’d be surprised, the paperback is pretty close – but I think the most gorgeous version is the one on iBooks. I’m just astonished how good that looks.

And then you get things that cannot be done on Kindle and in fact cannot be done in paperback either. Writer David Sparks has a range of books he calls the MacSparky Field Guides that are a mixture of text, graphics, video and audio, all working together. It’s not a gimmicky use of technology, it’s exploiting the tech to get us something good. His latest is a guide to making presentations and it is just beautiful.

Not just beautiful, it’s a very good read. (And listen. And watch.) But it’s definitely also beautiful.

Books like his and, yes, mine, are so good as ebooks that I would actually be sorry if paperbacks rose up and took over the world again. I just want them both. I want them all. I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

Lee Child’s new book is out later this month on Kindle and in hardback here in the UK and early next month there in the USA.

My own The Blank Screen is on Kindle and paperback via Amazon UK and Amazon US plus that gorgeous version on iBooks for iPad and Mac everywhere.

David Sparks’s MacSparky Field Guide: Presentations is exclusively on iBooks here. Even if you’re not going to make a presentation, a look at the free sample just to see how well he’s done the book.

Lastly, here’s that full Lee Child interview on Newsnight with Kirsty Wark: