The twelve-word writing lecture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Depth perception

I’m not going to name someone here because I don’t want to embarrass them. But also because I think it might apply to you and I’m hoping it does to me.

It’s about how we see ourselves and how others see us. Let me give you the example that prompted me thinking about this, that prompted me to want to talk to you about it.

I ran a pair of workshops last Saturday, back to back things all day with mostly the same writers across the two. All sorts of writers, all sorts of experience, but every one of them professionals. And afterwards we got into a topic that for some reason is a recurring one in this job: the discussion over when and whether you can call yourself a writer.

I don’t know why we have this: maybe it’s an arts thing as perhaps it happens with painters too yet there’s no engineer who’s ever been in doubt what their own job title was. It’s a tough world, there probably isn’t an engineer who hasn’t doubted whether their job would continue, but they knew what it was called. When asked on a form they don’t have heartbeat’s hesitation over what to write as their occupation. Writers do.

I used to. These days I’ve come to accept that I’m unemployable in any other field.

But there was this one person on my workshop who was talking about this and about the genuine relief that she’s recently felt able to call herself a writer. There’s a deeper issue here about identity and I think also self-worth but this particular writer saying this particular thing was a jolt.

She’s not only published, she is a publisher. She has a poetry imprint, she runs events, she runs workshops. Now, to me that’s all writing: she disagrees, she calls them writing-related jobs and of course she’s right but to me it’s all the one thing. You use the same muscles in producing an event as you do writing anything: there’s a lot of actual writing, for one thing, but also you’re communicating, you’re persuading, you’re trying to inform and to do so entertainingly. You’re trying to learn, too, which is a big thing in this lark.

A year or two ago, a mutual friend asked me to meet with this same writer to tell her how to do a particular thing – and I laughed. The notion that I could tell her a single thing she’d hadn’t already done and wasn’t already doing. We did meet, we did have tea, I had a good time and fortunately there was something she hadn’t happened to have tried. Or so she said. She may have been being kind.

But the fact that it’s only recently she has felt able to call herself a writer means she didn’t think it when we met that time. There is absolutely not one single question that she wasn’t a writer then, that she isn’t now: she’s a writer and she’s a pro.

I’m glad and relieved that she now accepts it but I’ve been thinking about this workshop conversation all week. The disconnection between how she was seeing herself and how I was seeing her. I’ve been going around impressed with her and she’s not seen why.

This isn’t exactly a new thought in the world but it resonates me with me this week: if she could be so wrong about how good she is, perhaps we all are. Even you.

Maybe even me.

Learning from rejection

This isn’t about you or me, this isn’t about improving our writing because of rejections and it isn’t about taking deep breaths and getting over things. I don’t bother with the deep breaths and if I took time to get over things, I’d never get anything else done. Instead, this is about them: the people who do the rejecting and how they do it. For I got two rejections yesterday, which is ordinary and normal, but them coming within minutes of each other and being so very different stopped me short. I am disappointed about both of them and in each case they were things I actually wanted rather than being a freelancer just opening a discussion. You know how it is, I’m a freelancer so I’m in business, often enough times you pitch for something and it’s purely a financial choice. It’s for the cash, face it.

I always think you can tell when that’s the case: when a writer is doing something solely for the income and isn’t really interested, that comes through in the writing. This is one way where writing can be a bit arty-farty: if an accountant is doing a job they don’t care about, the numbers still look the same at the end. With a writer, the text is different. You can’t point to a particular word but you also can’t fail to see the tone.

In both these cases I was fully and entirely genuine, very much into both but the reason these rejections are sticking with me, the reason I want to talk to you about them today, is that I think I’ve been a bit stupid. I just said to you that you can’t miss the tone of a disinterested writer: I have always known that you can tell a lot about the person writing regardless of what they’re saying. I’ve also always known that I have no chance convincing you that I’m deeply charming and roguishly handsome even though I swear I’ve improved since we last met.

What was stupid of me was to not realise that this applies just as much to the writers of rejections. Usually a rejection comes in, you shrug or occasionally think “What was this one again?” and you move on. Sometimes it is a knife, I’m not saying it isn’t, but in the ordinary, normal everyday run of things there are lots of ordinary, normal everyday rejections.

One of these two was like that. I’m freelance but this one was for a six-month contract, it would’ve been a big deal and I honestly couldn’t decide about it in time so I applied figuring I’d think it through if they offered me the gig. Yesterday’s email from them said sorry, you haven’t got it, try us again next time. It was short but not terse, clear but not blunt. It was polite and it was professional. So am I: while I’m disappointed, I wouldn’t have looked at this rejection twice if it weren’t for the other one.

The other was about a short play. I rarely say this because I rarely think it but I adore this play of mine. It is joyous and I wrote it for two friends, I wrote it with them in mind, I pretty much wrote it at their insistence and I am inexpressibly grateful to them. Since the minute I wrote it and submitted it to a local festival they pressed me about, I have wanted to see it performed – and I’ve also wanted to do something more with it. Something bigger. I couldn’t while it was in contention for this festival so for the first time in ages it actually did annoy me that things got delayed. Give me a yes or give me a no, I’m fine either way.

I think the result was about four months late, I’m not sure. Might be less. And it was a no and I am fine with every part of that except that I do feel I’ve let these friends down. They got me to write a great script, they’re not even going to see it performed. I will. The delays mean I’ve lost a spot that I could’ve pitched it for in something else but it’ll be staged somewhere.

What fascinates me is that I read this rejection email and for the very first time ever, the subtext tells me I would’ve had a bad time if they’d said yes. The rejection email was Dickensian. Charles Dickens writing about a death in the family. Hand-wringing melodrama about the anguish the decision had caused them. The Royal Shakespeare Company would never be so crass but it was like the RSC rejecting a seven-year-old rather than just another festival saying nope, sorry, we don’t want it.

I can’t really tell you the name of the festival but you’ve never heard of it anyway. My friends say good things about it but I wouldn’t even know the name if they hadn’t told me. If I’d got in, I’d be very pleased but there is just no part of it that’s a big deal. I think I’m being unprofessional telling you this – I can’t help myself, you’ve got that face, I tell you everything – but what I learned from that rejection letter was that I’d have had a bad time working with these people.

Hey, maybe they just write a rubbish email. But speaking of that, just now, back up there where I was mentioning the six-month gig, I had an email. Forgive me, I broke off for a second to check it because it’s important and turns out to be relevant. Earlier today, I read a new draft of a piece I’m collaborating on and responded that I like this bit, don’t like that change, have removed this line, would like to add this other thing if we all agreed. The email I got back interrupting you and I said, broadly, yep, no, fine, yes and, bang, the article has been published.

Rejection is just part of the job and telling me a serialised drama about your rollercoaster of anguish and heartbreak rejecting me is insulting and patronising. When I work with you on a festival we are working together, we are working together to create something for an audience. When you try to stroke me like I’m a kitten with toothache, you have an insupportably high opinion of yourself and rudely low opinion of me.

I do not want to trivialise rejection, I’ve had the knives in the stomach, but those blades are rare and usually rejection is trivial. My friends are telling me to try again next time so excuse me, I need to go tell them no, I’m going to pass on that. I wonder how they’ll take it.

Gone from a Burton

I’ve just finished two years running a monthly writing workshop for children aged 8 to 12(ish) in Burton-on-Trent. From September, I’m replaced by writer Lindsey Bailey and as we were talking about the group the other day, I found myself suggesting what she could do with them next – and I’m glad to say I stopped myself.

“No,” I said. “It’s your ship now.”

There are things I would love to see that group do, ideas we’ve done that I would build on if I were coming back, most definitely issues we’ve not touched that I want us to. And, oh, do I want to know what these kids write next. But it is her group now: she’s running it, she’ll be planning it, she will have myriad things she wants to do with it.

By the way, I adore telling you this: for my final session the Burton gang scripted and filmed a Doctor Who regeneration scene for me turning in to Lindsey.

They did that after writing and recording a radio play. They don’t hang about in Burton. Did I mention they did this after finishing writing a book? Are you picking up on the teeny clues that I adored working with this group?

I could go on about this. I’m surprised I haven’t before, though doubtlessly things I’ve said to you here have been influenced by these sessions or how Burton has seeped into me. The sessions are only 90 minutes a month yet the time you spend thinking and planning is huge. How do teachers plan for day after day? I like storming in, causing a ruckus and getting out again.

I do want you to know that I wouldn’t have chosen to leave Burton this year. I wouldn’t have ever left. I do very much want you to know that as upset at losing the group as I was, I actually felt an awful lot better when I heard who my replacement is. And for the sake of my ego I’m quite keen for you to know that I’m leaving because I’m replacing someone somewhere else.

These sessions, properly known as Write On! Young Writers’ Groups, were created by and are run by Writing West Midlands which is a charity that commissions us writers and decides who goes where. (Do support them if you can. If you’ve got kids, exploit this organisation as much as you can: they’d like that.) I think the current total is 21 groups across the region and in each case there’s a maximum of 15 kids, all of whom have chosen to come work with professional writers one Saturday a month. I’ve now run or assisted or nosily sat in on seven of these groups. So I can tell you that the format is broadly the same, the logistics are identical, but the groups are astonishingly different.

A lot of that difference is down to the kids who’ve joined and a lot more is down to where the sessions are held: my Burton ones were in a library and that’s quite common but others are in art galleries and even an Abbey. But I believe the greatest difference is in the lead writer. We’re all there to do the same thing, we’re all there to do the best we can for these kids. You should see the online chatter between us after a Saturday session: it’s exhilarating, you race back to that Facebook group to beam about the things your group got up to.

I see this in the other groups and in the other lead writers so I must accept it about mine and about me: Burton reflected who I am. I may have discovered who I am while doing it, but that group functioned the way it did because of what I ran there.

It is time they had a different lead writer.

It’s better for the group to get a change and I think it’s equal parts thrilling and daunting for any writer who comes in to take over such a bunch. But these new lead writers are there to take over, that’s what they have to do. I know this and I believe it but I felt it anew when I was in that conversation with Lindsey and stopped myself suggesting things.

That phrase, though, “your ship now”. I must’ve got that from somewhere. I can’t remember where but I can remember how often I’ve thought it and I can well remember why.

I may not say it all that often but I think it a lot because I’m a man. I’ve been in work situations where a team has had a new man come in and, right or wrong, good or bad, he’s forced a change in the dynamic. I say right or wrong, good or bad, but it’s always been wrong and bad. Equally, I had a thing once in radio where, as it happens, I was the only man working in a small group of women. I didn’t register that until another woman joined and she made a point of it. “Don’t you feel awkward, surrounded by women?” she asked in that kind of question that isn’t a question, it’s a bullet.

I remember that from an astonishingly long time ago. I remember seeing in that instant that she was creating lines within this team and actually that she was going to succeed in getting me out of it. I remember how clearly and immediately I could see there was nothing I could do. You think of a team as a collection of people, in the best cases a group of friends, but it is a body in and of itself: it’s a single entity and it changes, evolves, stops in ways that have little to do with how the individual members are together. Maybe today I could’ve been more astute, more aware of how to game a team but it’s not my thing and I’m no good at it.

Although I was okay when a similar thing to that radio experience happened in front of me many years later. That was with a group of men where the pivotal issue was that one guy wanted this other man’s job. It was a management post and to get it, he was inserting himself into decisions, was taking charge wherever it didn’t matter if he were in charge so nobody stopped him. I saw it and I saw what he wanted, I also didn’t care as I was just freelance there, but I do then also remember the exasperation I felt when I realised I’d have to do something about one of his decisions or I’d be collateral damage.

People, eh?

I don’t want to be people, not in that sense. I also don’t want to be a man in that stereotypical pushing way, not just by being a man, not just by being male. If I push for something, it’s me, it’s not my gender.

So I admit that when I said to Lindsey no, it’s your ship, I was conscious that I’m a man and she’s a woman. I would’ve thought the exact same thing with any replacement but I was conscious of our sexes. I had felt the same thing when I started as an assistant to lead writer Maeve Clarke and it’s not about joining or replacing or being replaced by a woman, it is about how there is a type of man I don’t want to be. There is a type of man who sees it as necessary to be alpha and are we really still that bothered? Alpha Male stuff surely shouldn’t still be here when we’ve stopped being hunter-gatherers and become shopper-clickers.

Yet I’ve seen men entering teams, I’ve seen men asserting authority that they don’t have and don’t need but believe they lack. I don’t need you to believe I have authority.

Then it sounds like a joke, it should be a joke, but I’ve seen men be incapable of listening to a woman and, God in heaven, I don’t want to be that. In fairness, I’d like to tell you that I recently had to ask my wife Angela to repeat something I’d said because a woman we were with simply would not listen to me. It’s not universally a male thing.

But it’s big. Maybe it’s galactically a male thing.

So when I went to learn from Maeve, it was important to me that she knew I understood it was her show, it was her ship. Now that Lindsey has replaced me at Burton, it’s important to me that she knows I understand I’m gone and that it’s her group. I hope she’s thrilled at how she can now do anything she wants with the group; I imagine she must be as daunted as I was that this means she has to do something, she has to do everything, with her group.

She’ll be great, the kids in Burton will have the very best of times and maybe some day I can come back to visit. That will be up to her although, Lindsey, hello, I’m always available.

And in the meantime, I’ll be off running a Young Writers’ group in Rugby.

That’s my ship now.

Finishing lines


“Happiness is typing THE END after writing a short story or novel”

I was searching for some quote along those lines because I’ve heard it said a lot and reckoned someone must’ve said it cleverly. I found an entire website whose every entry begins “Happiness is…”. I’m thinking that’s a hard site to keep going and sure enough, there are signs of desperation: the next entry I saw read:

“Happiness is, snowman”

I can just feel the writer’s wide-eyed, blank face as he or she hit that comma and wonder what in the world could possibly follow that bloody, cursed, seemed-a-good-idea-when-I-started-the-site line of “happiness is”.

Perhaps comma snowman isn’t the most flawless piece of writing, but there is one thing that you have to say about the writer of it and the site he or she finished the line.

(Incidentally, I would never have gone to a site called FunHappyQuotes if I weren’t searching for something for you so I’d like to say thanks a bunch. I’d also say that I will now put its toxic saccharine style out of my mind forever, but apparently “Happiness is, remembering”. I need tea.)

Finishing is the thing. It’s the thing I want to talk to you about today, it’s the thing that matters. It’s the thing that makes the difference between a professional writer and an amateur. There are other things, like at an extreme level the ability to form coherent sentences, that’s generally handy even if mine tend to go off the rails during paragraphs where my mind is still on the insane idea that “Happiness is, a family reunion” and how I burn to delete those wrong commas in all these things.

But finish.

I don’t know if you like my writing. You’re very nice, turning up here for a read, but I do wonder if it’s really for the tea and biscuits. Nonetheless,  even the doubting writer in me has to say that I am a professional: writing full-time since the late 1980s, freelance since around 1996, literally millions of words published, yeah, yeah. If I took a commission from you to write something, you’d be taking your life in your hands over whether it would be any good, but you could bet that life I will finish and I will deliver on time.

Nobody says you have to be a professional writer. Everybody says there are jobs that are a lot harder than writing, which I agree with but just once wish these everybodies would realise that there are jobs that are a lot easier too. Writing is a funny thing in that the skill and the requirements for professionalism are the same whether or not you’re commissioned. Nobody does brain surgery for the catharsis and relaxation. Plenty of people write for those reasons and without any intention of getting published.

I think I’ve said this before but I need that intention, I need that aim. It transforms my writing if I know that there is an audience because I’m commissioned or because I hope there will be an audience. I’m looking at you right now. This is such a part of me that I don’t honestly grasp how you can write without it. Many people tell me they don’t want an audience and I have no reason to think they’re making this stuff up.

But I do have reason to wonder why they then send me their pieces. Unfinished.

When you start writing something, you don’t know if it’s any good so getting someone’s opinion seems like the sensible idea. It isn’t.

Anything you write down on paper is better than the greatest thing you haven’t yet got out of your head. But you have the whole piece in your mind. You probably don’t have every word, every corner of the piece, but you know what it’s about, you know what it’s meant to be. And I cannot see that from an opening page or a chapter from somewhere in the middle of the story.

I can tell whether you can form a sentence but we’ve already recognised that mine aren’t paragons of grammatic structure. Plus, very many writers are extraordinarily poor and random in their first drafts, it’s like the ideas are bellowing out of them and they’ll worry about punctuation later. I worry about punctuation now, I worry about spelling now – because I know the power of a comma in the right place, I know the breath and the beat pause it gives and I want that. I know that if I’ve misspelt something you might not know what I mean and you’ll probably think I’m an eejit. You’ll form an opinion of me and what I want is for you to form an opinion of the writing.

What a new writer wants is for me to reassure them and instead I form the opinion that they are new. Not because of what they write, but because they haven’t finished. Writing may be a sprint or a marathon but it is never a walk and there is the issue of whether you are capable of finishing. I can’t know that, you can’t know that, until you do. But it’s the impossibility of forming any useful opinion about the writing, that’s what I’m obsessing about today.

It’s partly because I feel guilty. I met a woman at a workshop a year or so ago and she sent me the starts of a couple of different plays. It took me months to reply to her because I had no clue what to say. I think there is a spark there but I thought that when talking to her, I only agreed to read anything because she was clever and interesting – and because she was finishing so many things. She’d planned to start a company, so she did. She’d planned to do a show, so she did. I hope that having planned to write a script, she does. But she hadn’t and I don’t know that there is anything in any way useful I could say.

There was one guy who sent me a script start where I could see it wasn’t going to work but – I feel awful here – he needed to find that out for himself. Am I a right git or what? I just knew that it was true. I didn’t tell him to carry on regardless, I tried steering him. But I knew that he’d figure it out for himself, I knew that would be infinitely better than me telling him – and I also wondered if I were right. If he could actually pull this thing off, he’d be a better writer than I am and who’s to say he isn’t?

Right now, me. I’m the one to say he isn’t because he hasn’t written it yet. I’m looking forward to seeing the finished piece.

But it has to be finished. Are you getting that this is a thing with me? And are you getting that it really is a thing? Because I’m finding it frustrating that I feel I can give you these examples and I can urge you to finish, but I can’t specifically define the reasons why it is essential. Especially since even the word ‘finish’ is a bit vague.

I’m now sure I’ve said this to you before but back in January I had a coffee with a colleague who had finished writing her novel. I congratulated her, we enthused about how great that feeling is, and then we spent an hour talking about how she was going to finish it. She meant she was editing and rewriting, she was developing it further, but we were both saying ‘finish’ so we really did have sentences that went thisaway: “Now you’ve finished, how are you going to finish?”

Listen, the thing is that crossing the finishing line of even a first draft is a separator. Think of all the people who say they’ll write a book or a script one day. You know most won’t, you know some small fraction will start. But then you know that of those who start, most won’t finish. Some small fraction will and you are now one of those. It isn’t easy to finish but that’s part of the point: finishing a draft is an accomplishment and it is a hard-earned one. So there is the psychological punch that you’ve done it, you can do this and there’s the evidence.

I just think it goes further. When you’ve finished a draft, you are in the game. Not before.

I was going to try being clever with you today. I’ve known all week that I was going to write this to you about finishing and endings. I’ve been thinking about how you do hear this line of how typing “the end” is great and yet I never do. I usually write ‘ENDS’ in caps. It’s from my journalism training. Probably an unbreakable habit now. I was also thinking of how you might know something I don’t: journalists, especially American ones, used to end their copy with “– 30 –”, the dashes and the number 30. I have not one single clue why. Do you? I’d be grateful to know, I’ve wondered for a long time.

But I was going to be clever with all this, that was my plan. I was going to burble on at you about finishing and then not finish. Yes. Good, eh? I couldn’t decide whether I’d find some way to fizzle out or whether I’d do the battery-dying gag. You know:

Listen, I’ve got to tell you something urgent. Wait, my battery is dy

You had to be there.

But I can’t do this, I cannot fail to finish. And especially not when I can end by telling you two things that make me look stupid.

The first is that while I will never again read the start of someone’s unfinished work, I am today, this morning, reading two unfinished works. One is a book that I’m editing so, come on, that’s different. The other is a book by a friend and he’s given me something like 20,000 words of the middle to read. That sounds like it’s contrary to every single thing I’ve just said and that would be because it is.

But he did give me the first 20,000 the other week. And this is not a new writer. I know he will finish because I’ve read his work for years, he’s done far more than I have, there’s just no question that he’ll finish. There is a question that this is a horror book and dear god in heaven, I am the sort who finds the Muppets scary. He knows this. But he needs a reader, he needs several readers because this is a live project with a publisher waiting.

So I only look as if I’m going against everything I say.

Except that I actually am going against one thing.

I too have a novel and it’s far from finished. But I partnered with a writing buddy earlier this year and showed it to her. It is vastly better because I did. And next month I am trying out a writing group to whom I will send the start of that same novel.

I just truly don’t know what they will be able to tell me from it. I fully expect six people to say “Happiness is, typed nicely”.



I’ve corrected something: I originally wrote that journalists used to use the term “- 33 -” but Jim Swindles has put me right. It was “- 30 -“. I knew this. I have known this since I learnt it in Lou Grant in 1977. But plainly TV drama gets into me because “33” is the title of an especially well-written episode of Battlestar Galactica. As to what it means, Jim sent me this quote from AJR, the American Journalism Review Archive:

‘Some say the mark began during a time when stories were submitted via telegraph, with “-30-” denoting “the end” in Morse code. Another theory suggests that the first telegraphed news story had thirty words. Others claim the “-30-” comes from a time when stories were written in longhand – X marked the end of a sentence, XX the end of a paragraph and XXX meant the end of a story. The Roman numerals XXX translate to 30’.