Plot vs story

Pull up a seat. Let me just tap this app and set the wifi iKettle boiling. I wanna tell you a story.

But it’s specifically that, a story. Not a plot. If you’re in a hurry and you don’t mind missing out on the biscuits, there is a short description of the difference which gets quoted a lot by writers and which goes roughly thisaway:

The king died and then the queen died (story).
The king died and then the queen died of grief (plot)

EM Forster said that. Everybody agrees, you miss nothing but ginger nuts if you have to leave.

Except, I don’t agree.

Maybe it’s just semantics but I would take those same two sentences and I would swap the parenthetical descriptions:

The king died and then the queen died (plot)
The king died and then the queen died of grief (story)

Truly, I stand alone here, I know it. But it’s a stance that comes from a lot of years reading a lot of thrillers and writing a few too. The ones that fail, for me, are those that have kings dying, queens dying, everybody dying and it doesn’t matter, I don’t care whether they die because I just do not care at all. That’s a plot. You can make it twisty, you and be brilliantly clever and you can definitely create fantastic moments, but the plot is a sequence of events. A story is where I care. The king dying and then the queen dying is a boring school history lesson. Her dying of grief is a story because now I care. Mind you, our two lead characters have just been bumped off so there’s not a whole lot of story left.


To this day, a key failing in my writing is that I fear you will get bored so I run, run, run through story, I throw things at you and when I reckon you can’t have quite caught it yet, bang, I throw you something else. My latest Doctor Who, Scavenger, is practically real-time not because I wanted the benefits of that but because I would not pause for breath. A theatre producer I admire recently told me to slow my writing down. This week a very witty and hugely entertaining event producer told me she thought I had far too much going on in my The Blank Screen productivity course. They’re both right, I agree completely, I am just struggling to beat this compulsion. I’ll get there.

And I have got to the point where I know the truth about plots. Many years ago, I argued with Alan Plater that plot is crucial. I said that you’ve got to have things happening all the time – no change there, then – and it’s got to be great high stakes, it must be urgently vital. Plot is everything. Why else, how else would you get engrossed in a story? I’m paraphrasing here, but Alan replied with what may be the best advice I’ve had in writing. He said:


I’ve quoted him often.

Many girlfriends have quoted him back to me.

One of the most delicious things in life is when someone changes your mind. I vividly remember at college going to meet an old school friend at her university and disagreeing about something. I also remember having the most gigantic crush on her which is not in any way relevant and I don’t see why you brought it up. Anyway. Whatever this thing was, I said it and she said “But…”. At the start of her sentence, I believed one particular thing to be fully, entirely and irrevocably true. At the end of her short sentence, I knew that was bollocks and that she was fully, entirely and irrevocably right. I think of it and her often, I wonder if she even realised how much I enjoyed that moment.

Alan was equally fully, entirely and irrevocably right. It just took me years and my writing many scripts for him to change my mind.

I’m not going to claim I can tell you exactly what his opinion was: Alan died nearly four years ago now and I will always remain upset. But I can tell you what my opinion has become, and that opinion was shaped by him. My opinion goes thisaway:

Characters come first. Characters come above everything. Because if I don’t find those characters interesting, there is no plot in the world that could make me give a toss about what happens to them.

I would take one small step back from that and say that dialogue is supreme: if I don’t believe what someone is saying – if I don’t believe a real human being would say those words in that way – then I don’t believe the character and I cannot ever get interested in them.

If I knew what made a character interesting, I think I’d be initially elated and then a bit bored: finding them is part of writing and while a checklist of Things To Make Characters Real and Alive would be handy, I’m relieved that there is no such thing.

Alan was spectacularly good at slowing things down, at actually making it look as if there were no plot at all, that nothing was happening. It is a skill and a talent whose result is so quiet and low key that it somehow doesn’t get shouted about. But I said spectacular and I mean it: by the end of a plot-free Alan Plater piece, the most enormous things have happened. I long for you to read his novel Misterioso or for the BBC to finally release the not-as-good-but-still TV version of it on DVD. Because every conventional plot is simply ignored or dispensed with in Misterioso. It’s ostensibly about a woman searching for her real father. That’s the billing you’d see in Radio Times. But she finds him. She finds him really quickly. Because this isn’t a plot about tracking your father down, it is a story about a woman finding herself. Rachel at the end is not the same woman she was and I am actually tearing up a little here thinking of it.

Do you notice what I did there, though? I didn’t tell you what happens to her after finding him, I didn’t tell you what the changes are, didn’t say where this is set, didn’t say very much at all. That’s partly because this is what we remember from stories: we remember what we feel. And we never feel plot.

But I mostly described Misterioso that way because it’s how I work. When I am pitching you a story, I very, very, very quickly tell you this:

What it’s about

And then the instant I can, I get on to and I spend much longer on this:

What it’s really about

Misterioso is really about a woman who is forever changed – in a rather glorious way, incidentally, a way that makes you proud of her and actually changes something inside you too – and I know that is more important than the plot that it’s about looking for her father in London’s jazz joints.

That’s a good setting. You could spice it up by setting it during the Olympics. You could make it that her father isn’t really her father. Gasp. (He is. I’m just saying.) You could have the TARDIS arrive at a key moment. (And Rachel would make a great companion. Hell, I’d vote for her as the Doctor.) There are a hundred plot twists you could throw in to Misterioso and every single one of them would detract from the story.

Plots are easy. Stories are hard.

Plots are nothing. Stories are everything.


So you got me on to titles. 

But look, this post is called Untitled deliberately. Deliberately. I haven’t just spent six hours trying to come up with a title for a blog about titles. I have not.

It was five hours.

And 59 minutes.

Pound for pound, word for word, I have always spent far longer on titles for things than I have on things. And I was fine with that. I was fine because titles are that important and, oh, the pleasure one gets from reading a good ‘un is nothing compared to how fantastic you feel when you’ve written it. There were BBC Ceefax headline titles I was so pleased with that I remember them now, ten years or more later. That I was so pleased with that I’d tell you them now, except I’d have to show you the whole piece and I’d also have to explain all the topical references. But, still.

Six minutes ago, CD copies of Doctor Who: Scavenger arrived in the post. I wrote that two-hour drama about a year ago, it was formally released a couple of weeks back and I’ve had the download version, but here in my hand is the CD and that title, Scavenger. I am very pleased with it and I am enormously chuffed with the response it’s had, I’m beside myself with how great Big Finish made it sound.

But Scavenger was meant to be a temporary title. The script even says “Scavenger (working title)”.

I like it now and I think it works but maybe I and we just got used to it during the production. That happens: apparently nobody liked the title Star Trek: Deep Space Nine but nobody came up with a better one in time. Some people did like Scavenger, right from the start, so it’s not quite the same but I tried to find something else. The story involves all the junk and broken satellites in Earth orbit plus the story runs at a hell of a pace: it’s near-as-dammit realtime for the whole two hours. So junk plus speed, I have a draft of the script that I called Debris Encounter.

Literally nobody likes that. I did then, but now am wincing. So it’s 100% dislike for Debris Encounter.

My previous Doctor Who was called Spaceport Fear and was named by my wife, Angela Gallagher. One before that, still my favourite for how fantastic its sound design is, was going to be called The Prodigal Wirrn. The Wirrn are a famous Doctor Who monster so everybody buying the release would know what half of the title meant and they’d probably take five minutes to figure out how the rest worked and what that meant the story would become. Together director Nicholas Briggs and I renamed it Wirrn Isle. Which I like enormously.

But – have I told you all this before? I’m ringing bells here but I think about this stuff so much I lose track of what I blurt out to you and what I noodle about when people think I’m working for them. My least-favourite Doctor Who of mine has my absolute favourite title: it’s the prison drama called Doing Time. Jason Arnopp gave me that title.

I know I’m right that one gets used to titles. I remember being at a lightbox meeting at Radio Times when commissioning editor Anne Jowett was going through a list of dramas in production and for the first time I heard the title Life on Mars. There was something about that title that was just right. You get used to it, you get to say it without thinking, but in that opening moment, it was right and it was good and it got your attention. Titles are advertising and they are then encapsulating. They catch your eye but then they are summing up the entire thing.

I’ve had many projects that lurched forward with difficulty until I found the perfect title for them and then, wham, everything flies. The right title attracts the audience’s attention and makes them want to watch or listen or read, but the right title also sets the writer off on a roll.

You can have bad titles. You can have good titles that are bad for some people. Sports Night, for instance: I’d have bet money I would never notice a show called Sports Night let alone watch it. I have zero interest in sport, zero, so that title tells me unequivocally that this show is not for me. More than that, the title puts it outside my mind’s reach. I could read that somewhere and it would not register, I would not process the thought that it’s about sports, it would just be gone. You could argue that this is an efficient title, it communicates a lot to me. But as it happens, Sports Night is a treasure. It’s a comedy by Aaron Sorkin that’s done like The West Wing but in half the time and with twice the energy.

One advertising strapline for the show says: “Sports Night. It’s about sports. The same way Charlie’s Angels was about law enforcement.”

I do love that line and I do relish a great strapline. (I once watched a whole documentary about the people trying to write a strapline for the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie. I think it took six months and they came up with “Prepare to be shell-shocked”. Absolutely worth the whole time. Reminds me of The Lego Movie’s “The excitement is building.” But back to titles.)

I quoted David Lodge last week about names and his The Art of Fiction book has plenty to say about titles too, including this:

The title of a novel is part of the text – the first part of it, in fact, that we encounter – and therefore has considerable power to attract and condition the reader’s attention. The titles of the earliest English novels were invariably the names of the central characters, Moll Flanders, Tom Jones, Clarissa. Fiction was modelling itself on, and sometimes disguising itself as, biography and autobiography. Later novelists realized that titles could indicate a theme (Sense and Sensibility), suggest an intriguing mystery (The Woman in White),or promise a certain kind of setting and atmosphere (Wuthering Heights). At some point in the nineteenth century they began to hitch their stories to resonant literary quotations (Far From the Madding Crowd), a practice that persists throughout the twentieth (Where Angels Fear To Tread, A Handful of Dust, For Whom the Bell Tolls), though it is now perhaps regarded as a little corny.

There’s a wit to the best titles, I think. The sitcom Friends famously eschewed ‘proper’ titles and instead tried to name episodes the way that a viewer would, hence: “The One Where Everybody Finds Out”. Veronica Mars stole a title I have been longing to use since the first day I heard of the computer game Resident Evil: I wanted to and the show Mars did have a story called President Evil.

Veronica Mars had gorgeous episode titles like The Quick and the Wed or Hi, Infidelity that work before you know the story and even if you don’t know the series. But then it also had titles that earned attention. The second-season finale is called Not Pictured and it’s when you know why that it becomes this huge thing. That’s an earned title rather than a great pun, it’s a encapsulation of the story instead of an advertising line. I love that title.

But I do also love witty ones. I am a sucker for a great title and I wanted to bring you my favourite. I’m afraid I rejected all Shakespeare – though he did invent the numbered sequel, give him that – and I ran through all my favourite novelists, all my favourite writers of all descriptions. Found a million titles.

And I think this is the best. There was a 1970s detective series called Banacek – it was a locked-room kind of mystery, very much Jonathan Creek but years earlier and without the wit – and in one episode there a famous crucifix was stolen from a church under the most mysterious circumstances. It was stolen right in front of people who did not see it go and who could not find it afterwards.

The episode was called:

No Sign of the Cross.



Naming names

I read the starts of two friends’ novels this week.


That sounds like I chucked them aside, couldn’t be bothered to finish them. So far both friends only have the starts of their novels. Normally I wouldn’t read anything until it was complete but there were special circumstances. One was being readied for an agent who has a publisher waiting to see it – and his publisher is in for a treat, I can now tell you – and the other was at a much earlier stage but I’m working with the writer generally and we’d talked about it, I wanted to see it. If she’d had the rest of the novel, I’d be reading that now and pointing you at Amazon for it.

But while we wait for both of these books to be finished, I want to figure out something that happens to be in both of them. It’s actually in every novel: it’s about the names we give characters. It was just noticeable in these two because hers had a character I am sure is named after two famous ones and I’m dying for her to reveal I’m right. And his unfortunately had a name that might be a problem.

I can’t tell you the name but, to give you an idea of the issue, it was like a more sensible version of Cormoran Strike. Cormoran is the lead character in JK Rowling’s The Cuckoo’s Calling (a rather excellent crime novel she’s written under the name of Robert Galbraith. Don’t get me started on pseudonyms. I was once paid extra by a newspaper to make up a couple of bylines so that it didn’t look like I was the sole writer on a supplement project. One of the ones I picked was Dennis Price. That’s the ‘real’ name of the photographer character in Lou Grant, the guy usually called Animal. Nobody would get that. Except Dennis Price, an uncle of my wife Angela’s. I’ve never told him the truth.)


This guy’s novel features a character who has a much more real-world and believable name than Cormoran Strike. You read his and accept it unthinkingly whereas with Cormoran you go through the stages The Simpsons described for The Beatles’ name.

PRINCIPLE SKINNER: We need a name that’s witty at first, but that seems less funny each time you hear it.

There are reasons why Cormoran Strike is called that and I particularly like that Rowling only suggests the reasons quite far into the book. Explaining it directly, explaining it immediately would be like defending it and that would somehow be calling out that it is an author’s contrivance instead of a real character’s – a real person’s – name. My guy doesn’t need to suggest or explain, his character name is just effective and believable. But it’s close enough to Rowling’s that I had to tell him.

It’s touch-and-go. I talked about it with him and though he sees the problem, though he’s looking at changing it, I wouldn’t be overwhelmingly surprised if he decides to stick with his first choice. You’d think that a name is a name, that one is as good as another, that a swift search-and-replace in the word processor makes it easy to change a name. But if you do think that, you also won’t be surprised that I’ve read a lot of manuscripts and scripts where the writer has searched-and-replaced but you can tell. I’ll never tell you who, but one writer obviously changed the name Bill to something else, which gave rise to this at the start of a chapter:

“Dick, please.”

I’ve had to change names for legal reasons or because, like this guy with the Rowling-ish name, I’ve spotted or been told something is too close to something else. It’s so hard to get a reader into a story that you can’t afford to throw them out again and if I had a character named James Bond, it wouldn’t go by unnoticed. But changing names is wrenching and I love that I can show you this quote from David Lodge who wrote in The Art of Fiction that:

The invention of the word processor has made it easy to change the name of a character at a late stage of composition, just by touching a few keys, but I would have a strong resistance to doing that to any but the most minor character in my fiction. One may hesitate and agonize about the choice of a name, but once made, it becomes inseparable from the character, and to question it seems to throw the whole project en abime, as the deconstructionists say.

I read Lodge’s book twenty years ago but mise en abime didn’t make it into my ideolect: if it’s new to you too, it means sent into the abyss. But while I’ve got you with the page open in Lodge’s book, take a squint at this next bit:

I was made acutely aware of this in the process of writing Nice Work.

This novel concerns the relationship between the managing director of an engineering company and a young academic who is obliged to “shadow” him… it is generally a… straightforwardly realistic novel and in naming the characters I was looking for names that would seem “natural” enough to mask their symbolic appropriateness. I named the man Vic Wilcox to suggest, beneath the ordinariness and Englishness of the name, a rather aggressive, even coarse masculinity (by association with victor, will and cock), and I soon settled on Penrose for the surname of my heroine for its contrasting connotations of literature and beauty (pen and rose). I hesitated for some time, however, about the choice of her first name, vacillating between Rachel, Rebecca and Roberta, and I remember that this held up progress on Chapter Two considerably, because I couldn’t imaginatively inhabit this character until her name was fixed.

Eventually I discovered in a dictionary of names that Robin or Robyn is sometimes used as a familiar form of Roberta. An androgynous name seemed highly appropriate to my feminist and assertive heroine, and immediately suggested a new twist to the plot: Wilcox would be expecting a male Robin to turn up at his factory.

Wirrn IsleI’ve had the same concerns and the same delays but I’ve never delved so finely. I think I tend toward the more natural names and avoid connotations and allegories and deeper meanings – though listeners to my Doctor Who: Wirrn Isle didn’t like my character names Toasty and Iron, absolutely perfect though they were – but I also find it hard to change names. Even between projects. I must’ve written a good dozen scripts before I started getting anywhere, I could well believe I’d done twenty if you wanted to insist, and a very early one featured a woman called Susan Hare. I liked that name so much that in the next script, stuck for a new name, I borrowed it. And did so again a few years later. And at least once more.

As it happens, poor Susan has never been in a script that got made or I’d have to stop doing this. But it tickled me one day to realise that, with some effort, you could actually link every one of these scripts and have every one of those scripts be about the same woman. Not perfectly, I’m relieved to say her character was different in each, but chronologically. The child Susan Hare could have become that teenage Susan Hare who could have just about become that adult Susan Hare. It got so I spent a ferociously long time thinking about what would make that child turn out that way. I started sketching out other scripts that might fill in the gaps. If I ever do The Susan Hare Chronicles, that’s where it started.

More often, I am vividly clear on the character but I imagine I’m not fussed about the name. I know changing it later will be a wrench, I know that I get very connected with the names, but at the point of creation, I have extremely often just looked up at the bookshelves next to me and combined a couple of different author names. Consequently I’ve had characters named Beiderbecke a bit. Also some Woodwards and Bernsteins. Just between us – please don’t tell anyone else – I am quite a bit chuffed that this looking-up-at-bookshelves now means I often risking naming characters Gallagher.

There’s never a connection between me or those other authors and the characters, I’m never trying to name someone after someone. That Wirrn Isle also featured a woman named Veronica Buchman and she was named after the fictional characters Veronica Mars and Mad About You’s Jamie Buchman. (I do love the name Veronica Mars with its mix of old-fashioned forename and unusual surname. Until a character in that TV show pointed out that Veronica Mars drives a Saturn car and lives in a town called Neptune, I hadn’t even connected Mars with the planet. “Move Uranus,” she tells that character. “Mercury’s rising.”)

I do have an Izzy somewhere, in something, I’ve gone blank now, and she was named after a BBC Radio producer just because I liked her name. I liked her too, but I really liked her name. Otherwise, I can only think of one single time I’ve named a character after someone: there is a Jyoti Cutler in my latest Doctor Who, Scavenger, and she is named after Jyoti Patel. She’s the script editor who took a chance and commissioned me to write for Crossroads. I doubt she even remembers me, but I am grateful and I liked her a lot. But I also just really liked her name or I wouldn’t have used it.

I mean, much as I like you, I’m not going to use your name in a script or a book. Your name is yours: it means you to me. I loathe these contests where the winner gets a character named after them, usually in a crime novel, usually a character who gets murdered early on. Couldn’t do it.

Because names are that important to me. You may have gathered that.

Just don’t get me started on titles.



The Gravity of the situation in Doctor Who: Scavenger

Just by the way, apparently this is the 300th Self Distract blog. Let us raise a mug of tea.

Clink. Good to be with you.

Doctor Who Scavenger coverNow, here’s the thing. My latest Doctor Who radio drama came out last Friday and it’s doing rather well. I’m so pleased with how Doctor Who: Scavenger sounds and, if you don’t mind my saying so, I think it really perfectly caps off the latest trilogy of adventures for the Sixth Doctor (Colin Baker) and Flip (Lisa Greenwood). But if I phoned up Big Finish today and pitched exactly that same idea, they would reject it.

Of course they would: we’ve just done it.

But I mean if there were no Scavenger, if I’d done something else for this month’s release and I now pitched Scavenger, I doubt that it would have a chance. Because between my writing this and it being produced last year, the film Gravity came out. You may have heard of that one. It’s not the same story but both it and my Who are set mostly in Earth orbit where space junk – dead satellites, broken bits of equipment, accidental litter – is the threat. Gravity has this great tension because the junk is orbiting so you know it’s coming back around soon. In my Doctor Who, there’s certainly plenty of that but my space junk isn’t accidentally whipping around the planet, it’s hunting you.

There really is an astonishing, frightening amount of junk in LEO (Low Earth Orbit). NASA and others track everything above a certain tiny size and it’s an astonishing number. For Doctor Who, I just wondered whether amongst 12,000 bits of broken human technology, there might be one working alien bit.

I learnt all this about space junk a couple of years ago and my first thought was that we finally manage to get into space and we drop litter there. I can’t tell you the idea that started me off on this Doctor Who because it’s there in the story, it is an action set-piece and I think Big Finish and director Nicholas Briggs have pulled it off deliciously well. But alongside realising what the Doctor would do with space junk, I was also drawn to this litter idea. That’s what makes it Doctor Who to me: not that it’s got alien technology, not that it has the TARDIS in low Earth orbit, but that it’s about something we have done. What happens in Scavenger is our fault.

Only, you will go pale when you find out what we’ve really done and how much we’ve really done it. There’s a thing called the Kessler Syndrome that I refer to in Scavenger. (Just as an aside, I could not use Kessler as a name of a main character: I wanted to, nobody would’ve wanted to stop me and there are plenty of other real-world references but to me, Kessler will always be Sturmbannführer Kessler from the wonderful BBC drama Secret Army and its eponymous sequel.)

Anyway, the real-life Kessler syndrome just says that at some point, right, we will have so much space junk that we won’t be able to launch anything new. We won’t be able to get a spacecraft into orbit because there will be all this stuff smashing into it. As you may now know from Gravity or as you may well already have known, the tiniest speck of junk is an enormous problem because of the speed it reaches in orbit. A golfball-sized bit of a dead satellite would effortlessly put a hole through a rocket. So if we reach this Kessler point, we will have finally learnt how to leave the planet Earth – and we won’t be able to. Millions of years of yearning for the stars, and we will have shut ourselves off from them forever because we don’t pick up our trash.

There’s just one more thing.

We’ve already reached the Kessler point.

It’s not true everywhere, in every part of orbit, and there are people arguing that we’re not there yet anyway. They agree we’re close, which is scary enough. But there is a strong argument that we have already reached this point in certain orbits.

That’s when I went pale. I’d been having such a good time up to then: researching away, learning little nuggets like the International Space Station’s pizza box. (The ISS can’t stay in one orbit because periodically it would get smashed up by space junk. So it moves. Not very far, but it moves sometimes to get out of the way. And the block of space it can shuffle about in is quite narrow in one direction, broad in another. It’s a block of space in the shape of a pizza box. I love little unexpected details like that. You’re always telling stories about people more than you ever are about technical details, yet the reality the correct detail adds is gorgeous. Doctor Who script editor Alan Barnes said to me about a completely different part of Scavenger that I had done the research, I shouldn’t be afraid “to show people your library card”.)

Now, Donald J. Kessler thought of this syndrome in 1978, when it seemed like some far-off possibility. Given that it’s thirty-six years since he said that, you’d reckon it was a fair bet that there would be at least a couple of dramas involving the issue. But for them to happen in the same few months, what are the odds?

Unexpectedly high.

This isn’t something that you can figure out with a ready reckoner, there are no statistics you can analyse for drama, it just seems that ideas have their time. Robert Heinlein says in one of my favourite books, The Door Into Summer, that: “When railroading time comes you can railroad—but not before.”

I have got to tidy up my office. I just had a search through my shelves for a book I know has an anecdote you’d like, but it ain’t there. Did you borrow it? And are you the one who’s still got my Veronica Mars season 1 DVDs? I must like you a lot. But, anyway, the paraphrased anecdote goes thisaway. Two writers got a meeting at Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and pitched a story to the producers who said they loved it so much that they were airing it tomorrow night. I actually think that was a good thing: maybe they should’ve checked their TV Guide, but they’d come up with an identical story so that meant they’d got the series right. That’s harder than it sounds so I’d have taken this as a good thing and I’d have invited them back to pitch other ideas. That’s exactly what the producers did and that’s exactly why.

Okay, same anecdote but this time not paraphrased and about me instead of Star Trek writers whose names I can’t find in this book I really fancied re-reading. I just hope you’re enjoying it. I was asked once to pitch a Doctor Who story at short notice and I had a very good evening coming up with something I loved. That same editor, Alan Barnes, sounded ashen in his email the next day: I’d proposed something that was near-as-dammit the same as the story that was being recorded in studio that day. (We figured out something else and it became Doctor Who: Spaceport Fear.)

Three weeks ago I thought of something I burn to write. Jotted down the key points, found a whacky title, emailed it in – and got back a reply within seconds saying something like “we love this idea so much that we sent it back in time thirteen years and made it then”. I still burn to write it, but the bones of the story were the same as an old Big Finish tale. And my wacky title was only about a syllable different from the one they’d used then.

You’re dealing with finite possibilities even in Doctor Who. The TARDIS can go anywhere and it can go anywhen, you can have high comedy or bitter personal tragedy. Yet still you’re using the Doctor and a companion or three and you’re putting them in a setting. You get a hopefully great idea and you start building constraints for yourself just in order to tell the story instead of having some random cacophony. So as disappointed as I was with that latest wacky idea being already done, I’m not surprised.

It happens and it’s normal, you just wouldn’t aim to do something that had already been done. So I wouldn’t aim today to write a story that in any way touched on the same issues or had the same setting as Gravity. I’m so pleased with how well Doctor Who: Scavenger turned out that I am beyond relieved that it happened this way around, that we made it before knowing about Gravity.

Still, I know where my next Doctor Who will be set and you bet your life I’m scouring through IMDb’s Films In Production section.

I still wish I’d written Veronica Mars

You know the deal here: Veronica Mars, stupendous television drama, cancelled young, now revived as a movie via Kickstarter. One year ago, I wrote of the joy that news gave me. Joy. I'm not kidding and I certain-sure am not exaggerating. I tried to explain to you just why I wish I'd written Veronica Mars the TV show and how profoundly thrilling it was for me to once again know there would be more. That I hadn't seen every scrap of this show, that there would be more to watch. And I concluded:

Next year, I’ll be in that cinema watching a new story. Isn’t it simply joyous that a drama can get you like this? That the promise of a drama can be the best news I’ve had all week? I am ridiculously happy and excited and for ‘ridiculous’, just read ‘very’ or ‘tremendously’ or ‘damn right’.

You shouldn’t ever come back to old ideas, you shouldn’t revive something if it’s died. Unless it’s Veronica Mars. You never know, but I’ll lay odds that next year I’ll be wishing I’d written this movie.

I Wish I'd Written Veronica Mars – Self Distact 15 , 2013

It's one year on. Well, one day short of one year.

And I have just come out of the cinema.

I will not spoil this movie for you, I will not.


I wish I'd written Veronica Mars – the series and the move.

Software nostalgia ain’t what it used to be

Nobody calls me Software Boy. Chiefly because it’s a fair while since I was a boy. But it is true that I am software-dependent and I regret that you can’t know me above a minute without hearing the words ‘OmniFocus’ or ‘Evernote’. They’re probably the two things I would rescue from my office in a fire. And the things that I would pine for would be Pages, Adobe Photoshop, Mail, iTunes*, maybe InDesign and Numbers.

*I know I’m in the minority loving iTunes but I’ve got both a US and a UK account so I’m already having a very good time with iTunes Radio. So there.

If this software still came in boxes, I would expect each to have my clawed fingernails on if you tried to take them away from me. (And just as an aside, how in the hell did we go from always getting boxed CD software to never getting it like that? When was the day that happened? I cannot remember the last time I got software in a shop or even from Amazon.)


It turns out that I am a fickle software lover. There are all these things that run my life and which I want to run my life, which I relish running my life. Did I mention OmniFocus? But the other day I found a backup CD of applications. From 2002. It was like a time capsule for the days when I was organised enough to do this kind of thing. (I backup all my data, all the stuff I actually create, I back that up good, but I don’t touch applications. Not when you can just download them from the developer again. Most of the time.) I even split the applications into ones like system utility thingies, a set I called ‘Nice’ for some reason – and then one called ‘Mandatory’.

I was young. Okay, I was younger.

I’m sure the idea of the Mandatory folder was that whenever I would move to a new Mac – these were all Mac applications, I’ve got PC ones somewhere but no compulsion to look for them – I would have to install all of these in order to do my work. Lately I’ve often heard people say that when they go to a Mac that doesn’t have TextExpander installed, it feels wrong. I now have TextExpander and the last time I went to someone else’s Mac that didn’t have it, it felt wrong. I get that now. And apparently I got it then.

But these were mandatory? Microsoft Outlook was mandatory? Surely, surely that was the contractual kind of mandatory. I don’t believe I’ve ever actually liked Outlook. Especially not the Mac versions of it. I think I’ve still got it somewhere: I have Microsoft Office, though I use it less and less, so there must be Outlook but if I’ve installed it, I ain’t opened it.

Also Desktop Printer Utility. I don’t even know what it is now. Virex. Anti-virus on a Mac in 2002 and I called it Mandatory? I’m shaking my head. The folly of youth-ish.

I got a bit wistful at the OED though. The complete Oxford English Dictionary. Back when I was on computer magazines, there was a thing called blagging where you’d boast about what great thing you’d got for free from a technology company. Trips to Vegas, the latest laptop, whatever. My biggest blag was the Oxford English Dictionary on CD-ROM and I treasured that so much that it is still on the shelf above this Mac. But it doesn’t work. Within a year or two of my getting it, computers moved on so significantly that the old OED software simply won’t run. And now you can’t buy it on CD, you can’t really buy it at all, you can only subscribe and the cost is a bit above my pay grade.

This backup of Mandatory software also include many writing tools, naturally, and the main ones were Final Draft 4.1 – I now have Final Draft 8 and I’m not sure it’s really four times better – and Corel WordPerfect 3.5 for Mac. That’s another victim of computers moving on, you can’t run it, but if I were still using it in 2002 then I must’ve been hanging on in there and using some trickery.  Anyway.

The real reason I’m telling you this, the thing I want to talk to you about most is software called Now Up-to-Date and Contact. It had an awkward name but it was a truly powerful calendar and address book. When I opened that CD and saw them, I think I yearned. I know I thought that I would be using them today if I could.

NUDC worked so well that every time I’ve tried an address book or calendar application since, I’ve been unconsciously judging it against this pair. I clearly remember pressing PC Direct magazine, where I was features editor, to cover the launch of the Windows version of Now Up-to-Date and Contact. Nobody really expected much from a small US developer with little Windows experience but I knew their Mac one was fantastic and I got to cover it. But was terribly disappointed: the Windows one was initially far inferior. Features I thought were the life and soul of this software just weren’t there. I even remember asking the developers about it and they said I must be a power user. For some reason I liked that. Why did I like that? I know I didn’t like writing the coverage because I couldn’t recommend that version of this software. I don’t think PC Direct ever went back to it; I know I didn’t. But I presume the Windows one improved over the next few years because certainly the Mac one did.

I particularly remember how great it was at notifying you of when events were coming up. Just a smart and clever alarm system. And the regular calendar view could mix To Dos with events so you’d look at the month and it would be full, utterly full of different-coloured tasks and events. Bursting busy. Loved it. And missed it terribly when, again, computers moved on and NUDC didn’t keep up.


After I’d raised a mug of tea to the memory of NUDC, I heard an episode of the MacPowerUsers podcast that mentioned something called BusyCal.

I downloaded the trial and it is Now Up-to-Date and Contact reborn.

I think it is NUDC. Feels the same. Looks the same. In truth Now Software was bought by someone in the 1990s and the original developers went off to do other things. But by around 2007, they were back making calendar and address books and every single thing that was great about NUDC is right here in the new BusyCal. Consequently, BusyCal is a highly-recommended application and I don’t know why I bothered with the trial version, I don’t know why I didn’t just buy it right away.

I think I know now.

Listen, this is entirely personal and I’m only thinking about how much one can change one’s mind. If you want a Mac calendar and address book, I have exactly no hesitation recommending BusyCal. But it isn’t right for me.

Because it mixes To Do entries with events and you can fill up your month with brightly-coloured lines of tasks and appointments. Hate it. I’ve wanted it back for fifteen years and now I’ve got it, I switched it off within fifteen minutes. Then I came back to my Mac and found an alarm notification waiting. It is exactly how I remember with NUDC yet something about it made me switch those off too. Here’s this very strong, very powerful software and I have steadily switched off the strong and the powerful bits of it until there’s nothing left.

I’m not buying the full version at the end of the trial. I’m going to continue with Mac OS X’s ordinary Calendar and The Omni Group’s very not ordinary OmniFocus plus a bit of Evernote. But, listen, nothing will ever take any of those away from me. No. Noooooo.

Rest Stop on The Blogging Tour

Possibly you know this: there is a thing going around called the Blogging Tour wherein one writer answers certain questions and then tags three other writers to do the same. I think the official logic – and I wish I knew who had started this so I could ask – is that this brings new readers to our blogs. I’ll answer the questions below and I do want to say hello, we have biscuits and tea here, pull up a chair. But I really want to exploit this gorgeous excuse to find out what my three tagged writers are up to and, in case you’ve not found them before, urge you to go find them now.

Each of the three will be posting their Blogging Tour entries next Monday, 10 March, but that’s no reason to wait. Go have a look at them all now. And in alphabetical order by first name, they are and they describe themselves as:

annaAnna Lawrence Pietroni

Anna Lawrence Pietroni started writing her first novel when she was training to be a prison governor. She now lectures in Creative Writing at Birmingham City University and is currently writer in residence at the University of Gloucestershire. Ruby’s Spoon was published by Chatto & Windus in 2010. Her blog is on Five by 3 here.

jasonJason Arnopp

Jason Arnopp is a British author and scriptwriter.  He wrote the 2011 Lionsgate US feature film Stormhouse, and BBC audiobooks Doctor Who: The Gemini Contagion and The Sarah Jane Adventures: Deadly Download.  More recently, he has written the terrifying Kindle books Beast In The Basement and A Sincere Warning About The Entity In Your Home.  He lives in Brighton with far too many movies on VHS. You can find him at INT. JASON ARNOPP’S MIND – DAY/NIGHT

kenKen Armstrong

Ken Armstrong’s first produced play was called ‘Hamlet in Ireland. He was fourteen at the time. It was enviably useless. Since then, he was had about eight produced theatre plays and about another eight produced radio plays. He has also written numerous (more than eight) short stories, done bits on radio and film here-and-there, and won some prizes, though mostly he tends to come second in things. He blogs weekly at

jeffAnd there’s one more. I said you had to be asked to do this by a blogging writer and that lot above is who I immediately ran to. But I was asked in my turn and that was by author and poet Jeff Phelps. He describes himself thisaway: Jeff Phelps was second prize winner of the Stand open poetry competition in 2000.  His novels, Painter Man and Box of Tricks, are published by the award winning Tindal Street Press. And you can read more in his own response to The Blogging Tour on his blog.

Seriously? You’re still here? Unless you are ferociously organised and disciplined, you haven’t yet clicked through to read any of these fine folk’s words. Off you trot.

I’ll just talk to myself for a bit. It’s easier, anyway. My answers to the Blogging Tour questions are going to be a mix of bluffing and lies as I pretend I know the answer and I’d rather you didn’t see that.

You’re going to make me do some work here, aren’t you?

The questions and the kind-of answers:

1) What am I working on?

The moment you and I are done here, I’m back to doing some copywriting for a Birmingham PR firm. I so enjoy this: copywriting uses all the skills for conciseness and getting huge amounts of information into short spaces that I learnt from BBC Ceefax and it uses everything I’ve got from Doctor Who to make it fun.

That work’s come up suddenly and I’ve had to push other bits aside to get it done so officially I am also in the midst of a complicated theatre project. Or at least, if I can get it going, it will be complicated. And to make up for how I can’t say a word about it now, you know for certain that I will say many, many, many words about it later.

I’m also editing Catherine Schell’s autobiography while exploring whether it’s time for a second edition of my The Blank Screen: Productivity for Creative Writers book (UK edition, US edition). The reason for pondering this is that I’ve now done many workshops on the same topic and I’ve learnt a lot of little extras. They’re all tending to go on The Blank Screen website which has just crossed its 200th post since I began it back in December. I’ve a new Doctor Who coming out very shortly – Doctor Who: Scavenger – and love doing those so much that I’m thinking pretty constantly of further stories to pitch. So far this year it’s been all pitching: there are several BBC Radio 4 projects on the go which I’ll know about in the next few months.

Then I’m working with that Jeff Phelps fella on a poetry project and we’re also both on Writing West Midlands’ Room 204 scheme for a few more weeks. That’s a year-long scheme for writers in the region and it’s been ignition for me. Hard to quantify it but everything I was working on this time last year is now greatly further ahead and I’ve added entire new jobs like The Blank Screen workshop and doing a lot in schools and universities.

There’s a complicated thing going on with a novel of mine but while that’s with Paul the Agent Guy, I’m looking at another one. You look back and it’s surprising how many novels you’ve ended up writing in between everything else but I rather like being in the middle of one and this particular idea is exciting me. They all do.

Um. The certainty that I’ve forgotten things. If I haven’t mentioned a thing that you and I are working on, it’s entirely because it’s still secret. Not that I’ve forgotten.

To be truthful, I’m a bit lost at the moment in the mass of things going on. Creatively, it’s very thrilling, but my head hurts. I turned to mind mapping before a particular meeting last week and it worked so well that I’ve since been steadily working up a map of everything I’m doing.


2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I’d like to cop out of this one as I don’t think my work sits in any one genre. Certainly everything I write turns into a thriller or a romcom, occasionally and unsuccessfully both, but I’m all over the shop with fiction and non-fiction. Which I like very much.

That was easy.

3) Why do I write what I do?

Bugger. Harder. The Hallmark-Card-sized answer is that I write to find out. With non-fiction that is specific and easily described: I want to find out things and rush them back to you like a puppy with a stick. In drama, it’s harder. I’m trying to find out more about us.

Sorry: that’s all I’ve got. I’m going to be thinking about this a great deal. Mind if I pop back some times and say more?

And lastly:

4) How does my writing process work?

Phew. I can do this one. I write from 5am weekdays and I’m trying to spend the first hour on a drama or fiction project that is not connected to the current workload. So if I’m supposed to be spending the day doing Radio 4 proposals then I will but first I’ll do an hour on something completely different. Only check emails at the top of the hour. I’ve scheduled out times when I make pitching calls, times when I work over my OmniFocus To Do list. Otherwise, it’s writing.

Or it used to be. And it still is a lot with non-fiction. With drama, I try to work like that and it often goes okay but sometimes I have to get the hell out of Dodge. Have to step away from the desk. Have to leave the office. And other times I really need to shuddup and sit here writing.


You see why I said you should go read the other folks?

Thanks to Jeff for asking me to do this, for putting me through it but also getting me chance to point you at fine people.

You don’t say

I think you know this. I think I knew it, too. But it’s only when I was asked that I vocalised it and really realised how much I mean it: scripts are stories told using only what your characters do not say.

Do not say.

What I was actually asked was “Why do you write?” and this came up because novelist Lindsay Stanberry-Flynn invited me to write a guest post on this subject on her blog. You can read the whole answer here – and I loved being asked, you must see the great set of writers she got to contribute – but the short version is that I haven’t a clue. Never one to shirk, I wrote her twelve drafts of that post and each one got more honest about my cluelessness and therefore also got shorter. She wasn’t expecting a short blog post. She’s read us here, she knows how we go on. So I confessed at the top and then reached deep inside to find some padding. I feel there’s a joke to be had there about my girth but I can’t think of it and you’re far too nice to try.

The thing with reaching deeper in order to pad further, though, is that often you get to something important. And that’s what happened to me with this point: I think I found why I like scripts so much. And that’s what I want to tell you.

I’ve always been a dialogue man: maybe it’s my radio background, maybe it’s just that dialogue has been a thing with all my favourite writers from Alan Plater to Aaron Sorkin and even some who don’t begin with A. I want to say Jane Austen, despite the A, but I think it’s her descriptions that kill me.

Anyway. BBC Ceefax helped too: I learnt to convey a news story in a space so short and constrained that twitter seems easy. It’s the same with characters speaking to each other: lines can be loaded, saturated with plot and emotion and other detail but they have to be natural and they have to be quite short.

I think I’ve mentioned a Russell T Davies line to you before but I’m going to do it again. Or I would if I could find the exact quote. Davies is best known now for Doctor Who and was best known just before it for Queer as Folk. But he started on children’s TV and went through soaps before going on to one-hour dramas. And at some point he said that last move was very hard until he realised something. I’m paraphrasing but what he said roughly was that in soaps, every character says exactly what they’re thinking and in drama, they don’t even know what they’re thinking.

This fits me perfectly as I’ve no idea either.

But I also think that when you have two characters who aren’t telling each other what they think and aren’t even sure what they think, it’s a very potent, pregnant moment. It doesn’t sound like either of them are very relaxed. And whatever is going on, you know it’s important to them. Their inability to talk is infinitely more dramatic than a soap slanging match.

You just have to conjure the characters who are at this point, you just have to conjure the situation that matters to them so much, and then you just have to convey it all to us without them actually saying any of it.

Writing is hard and writing is the best job in the world because you put down all these words and the real writing is in what you don’t say.

Writing is not a lottery

Word Success menu

I’ve only been thinking about this for two months. Around Christmas time, someone said to me that one has as much chance of writing success as one has of winning the lottery.

My considered, instant, knee-jerk reaction was to say bollocks.

Two months on, having genuinely thought about this a lot, I want to revise that statement and say very bollocks.

He just meant that it was hard to be successful in this and there’s no denying that. But I think comparing it to a lottery is not just wrong, it is ultimately damaging. The wrongness is very easy to point out so let’s do that first. If your numbers regrettably don’t come up on the lottery this Saturday, you don’t get to take those numbers back and rewrite them. You can and people do play the same numbers in the next prize draw so perhaps you could compare that to sending the same manuscript around to many publishers. But, right or wrong, nobody at National Lottery headquarters emails you say that they loved what you did with 3, 7 and 9 but maybe 12, 17 and 43 need a little more work.

Wait, how many numbers do you have to pick in the UK National Lottery? I used to know this stuff: I worked the Wednesday late shift at BBC Ceefax where I’d have to put up the numbers on screen as they were announced. And every Wednesday, the same woman would phone the newsroom to complain that I was too slow – or once that I was too fast. I can’t believe I’ve forgotten. Hang on. I’ll just check.

God in heaven. I am out of touch. There’s now a bewildering (to me, anyway) number of different lotteries and I tell you, looking at the website for it, I can’t work out anything. I’m going to say seven. Okay? Let’s say that you have to pick seven numbers in a lottery draw.

You don’t get to sit there thinking that the seventh number isn’t quite enough, that really you need to add an eighth. Or maybe the other way around, that your third and fourth numbers are a bit of flabby padding, you’d be better taking those out and shortening the piece And that would be because you don’t make anything. You’re not creating anything, you’re just picking. I don’t see any interest or value in the lottery beyond the chance of winning and I don’t really see any chance of winning.

Whereas, when I write something good, it tends to fly. When I don’t, it doesn’t. My writing career has depended primarily on thinking of the opportunity and then writing to fill it. Most of the time, it doesn’t work. And certainly there are rejections that appear random, there are some rejections that actually are random. But the rest of the time, it works. I keep writing, I keep working, I keep writing.

Unlike any lottery or any gambling, the effort I put in to something usually has a direct bearing and a direct consequence on whether it is successful. If you’re a better writer than I am, and there are few people who aren’t, then you might argue that my abilities are more in getting the work to people than in writing anything decent. You could be right. But it’s still writing and it is still directly, palpably tied to my effort. There is no effort you can put into the lottery that will increase or decrease your chances of any one prize draw coming up great for you. (You could enter multiple times and I suppose you could say that there is effort in finding and committing that much cash but on the one hand I would wince at the thought of you wasting money. And on the other, with the odds we’re talking about, i don’t believe there is a statistically significant difference between you buying one or fifty goes at this thing.)

We all have bad times. Yesterday I saw a project that is deeply important to me evaporate in front of my eyes. That was a hard one. Today I was rejected from something else and I’m struggling to remember what it was. Even trivial rejections can add up, though: get enough in a row and you do start questioning your luck.

But that is why I think this comparison between writing and the lottery is actually damaging.

Once you start seeing this as luck, I think you’re screwed. Sorry. I thought a stronger word but this is a family show.

People want to think that writing success is luck because when you get it, luck is easy. When you don’t get it, you’re just unlucky, it’s no reflection on your talent or lack of talent. People get told that successful writers are lucky. I’m going to say to you again that it makes me mad how JK Rowling’s years of huge effort, skill and talent are always reduced to the same two sentences: she was a single-parent mother, she’s now a millionaire. The bit in between was not a swift dollop of luck, it was years of hard work done well. Whatever money she has, she earned it.

People also like to think that writing is luck because it’s easier to see success as a binary thing: it is or it isn’t, you are a success or you’re not. It’s like the relationship ladder: are you dating? is it serious? when’s the date? are you expecting? when’s the divorce? The writing success ladder goes: that’s nice, you play with writing, you’ll be good! can’t you get a proper job? aren’t you published yet? when’s the novel coming out? when’s the film of the novel coming out? I could write a novel! I’m going to try writing when I retire!

Both of those ladders are how other people react to us but they are cutting because we also think the same way: we wonder why we’re not dating yet, we wonder if we can’t write. We wonder that an awful lot. Well, some of us don’t: some of us are certain that we can’t.

But if you do actively think you can write or if you simply do continue to progress and survive in writing as a career, it’s like you have a choice between calling yourself lucky or calling yourself a success. All English and writerly modesty aside, if I did call myself a success here, while talking to you about this, it would feel galling. It would feel like I was trying to compare myself to Rowling. I don’t, not in terms of her talent or her money, but I love what I do, I love that I get to do it, I wouldn’t swap with her or anyone else. So I’d call that success. There’s little reason to expect someone to have heard of me but when they have, that can mean we get to meet and natter. Similarly, if I make money, I get to eat tonight. These are two important things to me. 

But when you reduce it all to success or not success, made it or not made it, lucky or not lucky, you’re creating a wee binary barrier and convincing yourself that only luck will get you across it.

It is not true that writing a great book means you will get rich or that you will get published. It is not true that everyone has a novel inside them. It’s not even close to true that everyone can write.

But the way you find out if you can is to write. And if writing well isn’t guaranteed to get you success, it’s at least something that you can improve at and learn from and grow with. There’s no improvement, learning or growth from picking seven lottery numbers. There’s actually nothing, you get nothing from picking seven lottery numbers. The lottery is all about the ending while writing is about the journey too.

Now, if you told me writing is stupid, I could well agree with you there.

Right of Centre

I gave up trying to understand this years ago. Soon I hope to give up trying to excuse it. But for whatever reason it may be, when a piece of work is right – is just somehow right – it makes me cry.

Now, my definition of right is unquestionably going to be different to yours but you know when something is right, too, even if you’re cooler than I am and only rarely blub. I think it’s when I can recognise that an artist has tried to reach something new, that they have succeeded and that I have been brought along by them. Very often it can be at the end of a piece, it’ll be at the point when the artist’s journey is done. It’s happened to me with novels, films, with finely-made one-hour television episodes. There are certain Emily Dickinson and Christina Rossetti lines that I can’t say for sobbing. Actually sobbing.

It has happened just once with a place. New York City. My favourite place in the world. Can’t tell you why, can’t point to a feature or a fact, I just know that I stepped out onto those streets one night and I felt taller. I felt taller with a tear in my eye.

I need you to understand that this isn’t an hourly occurence and that I don’t ever cry because something is sad. It’s rare and powerful, it is vastly more raw and dambusting than just a mawkish weepie on a Sunday afternoon. Something opens me up and reaches in to get a good grasp. Usually it’s unexpected, statistically it’s most often music. The entire Suzanne Vega album Songs in Red and Gray, for instance. I can’t hear that as a set of tracks, it is one piece to me and it all works.

I bring this up because I went to a concert this week and it began with the words “From New York City… Suzanne Vega”. Nobody can tell me why I got a shiver from that, but I did and it was glorious.

But while I’m telling you that she was great and that while I felt only a shiver and slightly damp eyelids, I want to tell you of a time when all this was very bad for me.

It’s pretty bad now, admitting it to you.

But once. Just once. It wasn’t only a tear from something being right. There was just once also a sense of sadness. Maybe it was just the combination of right and sad, but it felt more. It felt like howl-with-rage misery.

And it was over a Suzanne Vega song.

Tired of Sleeping, from her 1990 album, Days of Open Hand.

It’s not like that’s a comedy record but I also wouldn’t have said that it was the darkest 3’47” of the night. Except that it was for me. I cannot convey to you how that song smashed away inside me, I certainly cannot explain why. But everything I’ve confessed about when things are right, I got that with this. Everything I’ve denied about it ever happening when things are sad, I got all that too.

Over and over, actually.

It was so bad, it hurt so very badly, that I asked my wife Angela Gallagher for help. I may be imagining this but I think she held my hand while she listened to the track. She liked it, she recognised how strong it was, but, frankly, it didn’t throw a brick through her skull as it had me.

And do you know what? From that moment on, I have been able to listen to Tired of Sleeping without being upset anywhere near as deeply.

So let this be a lesson. If something is right and something is powerful, I’m keeping it to myself.

UPDATE: There are many versions of Tired of Sleeping now but this is the skull-smashing one. The link is to a fan’s YouTube video and right this moment I’m playing it while writing to you – and so not bothering to watch whatever visuals the fella has added. No offence to him, but I’d recommend that you do the same. Here’s Tired of Sleeping