Writing fast and slow

Here’s an example of writing too quickly: this week I was made Deputy Chair of the national Writers’ Guild of Great Britain. The End.

I mean, that’s factual and it’s entirely accurate, but it doesn’t do anything else. You can guess how I feel about this happening but that’s more because you’re you and you get these things, it’s not that I’ve conveyed it at all in the writing.

Actually, I’m not sure I’ve grasped it all in order to convey it in the slightest, but the fact that this is taking a time to settle in my head is one thing that’s made me want to talk to you about something else. The other prompt is that I’ve just had a report on a script of mine and it’s more praising than the best reviews I’ve ever got for things that have been made.

I can tell you the report was so good because it’s also a rejection. I nearly didn’t read it: once you read the first ‘but’ in the email, you know you’re out. On the rare times I get any more detail I will file it away to read later and then never do, but this time it was more.

Specifically, I’d written the script at lightspeed and it failed so I knew the whole idea was rubbish, my writing just didn’t cut it. I was going to scrap that and write something else.

For some reason I read on and, cor, you should read this stuff. I now think it’s my best work in ages. Okay, my best rejected work, but still.

So let you and I both take a telling from this: read the feedback.

But.

Feeling good about this does put the idea back on the top of pile but it doesn’t take away the fact that I wrote it at ludicrous speed.

And that’s what I’ve been thinking about on multiple long train journeys all week.

I think I write at my best when I am writing at speed – and that this isn’t good enough.

I’ve seen this before, most especially with articles and books where if it comes easily, it reads the best. When it’s a slog, you can feel that as a reader and the life is gone from it.

When there’s time on an article that’s gone wrong like this, I will walk away, come back and try a second blast-draft to see where I get. Invariably it’s better but invariably I also hold back because I’m afraid of getting it wrong again. So we get a third go and it becomes okay. It’s only ever very good when it flowed easily the first time.

I did think about this sample script for a fortnight and it’s an idea I’ve had plus written short stories around for at least three years but the total time from writing FADE IN: to about 15 pages later is measured in hours. Single-figure hours.

Which is all very nice for me. Except I can make a good article this way and I believe I can write a fair book, but there’s a limit with scripts. I think at my best I am able to make a script be very, very good – but not great. But lacking.

And that’s the problem. It needs work – this script, all scripts – and the more I work at a piece, the worse it gets.

I’m going to have to pull my finger out, aren’t I?

Travelling Desperately, again

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

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

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

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

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

Title card from the TV drama Misterioso

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

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

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

Deeply unhappy, I vowed to return.

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

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

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

Endings and finishes

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

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

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

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

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

Bully for me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s about {squiggle}

Apart from the framed cover of my first book, I’ve only ever chosen two pictures for our walls. The first was five years ago and a little related to that book: it was a single blown-up page of script from Alan Plater’s Fortunes of War dramatisation. People see that, read the page, have no clue why the text makes me sob.

From now on, they’ll be able to look to their left and see this as well.

The main symbol for Time as written in Heptapod from the film Arrival

I like that one is typewriter text and the other is also text but in a graphical form. I like that both speak to me about language. I like very much that this new one is the symbol for Time as seen in the film Arrival.

I like less that there were actually three different symbols for Time in the movie. But this is the main one, this is the one the characters pointed to when they called Time. And in a weird way, this is the one that reads like Time to me. It’s not like I think I can read the Heptapod language it comes from, but I read this symbol and I read it as Time.

I don’t know why this matters to me so much but I don’t need to: it just matters and oh, my lights, it matters enormously.

I’m minded of how as a man it’s considered weak to weep at poetry. I offer that it’s not a weakness in me or any man, any woman, it is a power in the text. To be able to write like that, to reach people like that, to affect people like this, it’s power.

Whether it’s in English or Heptapod.

A Desire for More Cows

Previously on Self Distract… After a month’s enforced absence from you, I ran back last week with a babble about the film Arrival, the idea of the Sapir Whorf Hypothesis, and right at the last moment squeezed in how I believe that putting yourself in other people’s shoes helps you write better characters. Or write characters better.

This is just you and me talking, isn’t it? You must’ve told some people, though, because I had a lot of response to all this. Most of it stopped just short of using a phrase to describe someone joins metal together under a hot flame. (“Well, duh.”)

I think all of the response said that whatever your route into thinking about other people, other characters, whatever term you want to give it, you are not a writer if you can’t put yourself in other people’s situations.

So I’m not a writer.

That was a hard thing to say to you. It was a harsh thing to say about me, since it’s all I want to do and I’m effectively unemployable in any other capacity. (Look at my hands. Have these hands ever done anything but type?)

I can’t always see other people’s perspective, though. I can do certain things. I can see certain other points of view. For instance, take the countless number of times that I’ve been in a pub with male friend who’s annoyed. He’s doing that thing of recounting something his female partner did and concludes with: “I mean, explain that. It makes no sense, does it?” And I am required by the script, by politeness, pretty much by civilisation’s very rules, to nod encouragingly.

I can’t actually make myself say I agree because usually I completely understand his partner’s point of view.

In fairness, it’s usually a comparatively trivial issue as if it were bigger, they wouldn’t still be together. Maybe I can just do the comparatively trivial, maybe I am limited in just how much I can understand of other people’s perspectives, of their way of thinking.

For take this as another instant. Recently a friend told me she was heading home one night when a man walked by and called her a slut.

Get inside that man’s head. I am a man, both he and I started off as babies and as little boys, but he went down a line I cannot conceive. Well, I know the same as you do that he got off on saying that. I know that in every sense of the word that he’s a wanker and we both know that he’d have said that to any woman he passed. And possibly did say it to every woman he passed.

You, I and this friend of ours – you’d like her, I must introduce you – also know completely and thoroughly that there was nothing about her that incited or encouraged this stranger.

Yet here’s this smart, vibrant, exciting woman and still when she got home she looked at herself in the mirror and thought about what she was wearing. Some shite of a man affects her enough that she looks in the mirror. I can completely understand her – wait, that’s a bit grandiose, a bit too much, I mean that I believe I can completely understand. I know that I can put myself in her place, I know that I would’ve looked at that mirror too.

I can only hope that I’d do what she did next: she says that she went out the next day wearing pretty much exactly the same thing. She wasn’t saying bollocks to this type of men, but actually she was.

I get that and I’m as proud of her as I am embarrassed by the man. What I can’t get is him. I mean, I’ve said to you that he got off on this and you know he did, but that seems to me like all I can do is label him. I can see what he did and if this were a story I were writing, I could plug him into various situations.

Whereas I can feel for her.

That seems to me to be a huge difference. It seems to me that feeling for her is not a writing exercise, not an attempt to draw a character, it is an involuntary human connection. I do definitely see that I need to make that connection, to have that feeling and empathy instead of a collection of labels if I’m to be a better writer.

And I’m afraid if I’m not just to write about characters who make me feel things, if I am instead to be better able to create characters that make you feel things instead, I have to be braver. For I know that one reason I can’t get inside the head of that man is that I am afraid to.

You have to agree with your characters, even temporarily, even just to an extent. Your characters and that man all think they are right so for them to work, for you to really see them and to see the world as they do, you have to decide that they are right and examine them from there.

I’m never going to call someone a slut but my characters might. And if they do, you have to believe it’s them doing it and not my authorial voice deciding they will because I’ve labelled them as the tosser of the piece. You have to believe these characters are real.

I get very tired of writers being asked where they got their inspiration from as that suggests everything we write is based on something real and so anyone could’ve written it if they just happened to have that same experience. I get very tired of people concluding facts about writers because of what their characters are like. I get deeply annoyed when someone quotes a writer saying something foul when actually it was one of the writer’s characters and the entire book is setup to prove that bastard wrong.

Not everything is based on anything. Not everything is how the writer really feels. But I realise that everything has to be something the writer has felt or made themselves feel. Made themselves examine and explore. No matter how distasteful.

I”m working on it. For neatness and symmetry and structure and all the things that I unconsciously think of when writing to you, I should end now by saying that it’s true, I’m not a writer. I’m not sure I’m brave enough, though. So let me try saying it this way: I’m not a writer yet.

Write Justified

Poster for FX TV show Justified

Usually you and I talk wherever we happen to be and if there’s a mug of tea, so much the better. Today, though, I’m in my office and so I can tell you with a single glance that there are 178 books on the shelf behind me. With a second single glance I can tell you that together they contain 1,127 scripts.

Okay, it took a little more than a glance and I’m partly telling you so that the two hours I spent counting them for a Writers’ Guild column don’t feel wasted. They weren’t really wasted but they also weren’t two hours: I ended up re-reading so many of these favourites.

You can’t be a writer without being a reader, it’s like breathing in and out. And if you’re writing a script without having ever seen one, I know already that your script is crap. Not because there’s some great rule you don’t know but because you’re plainly not interested in your medium.

But here’s the thing. I recommend all 178 books and I recommend all 1,127 scripts, even the bad ones, except I don’t. I’d have to count them all again to be sure and you wouldn’t ask me to do that, please, but I expect that perhaps only 40% of these scripts are really scripts.

The rest are at best reformatted. Real scripts look great to me: the layout, the form, it’s all as correct and pleasing as a haiku but I do see a problem for book publishers. There’s an awful lot of whitespace on the page. A TV hour could be 50-70 pages, a film is typically around 120 pages. In a book, if you stuff the formatting, you can get that lot into 30 pages and make off with all the printing money you just saved. Layout matters, it’s all done the way it is for a reason, but I’m mostly okay with that so long as the text is what was written.

For the very longest of times I thought the problem was that the text so often isn’t what was written. Actually, I still think that to an extent. Instead of the script as delivered by the writer, you might get the equivalent of what the BBC calls a Programme As Broadcast form: a verbatim transcript of the final result. Faber and Faber did this with Woody Allen films and I only found out after I’d bought the book.

Transcripts are worthless. You get fan websites where some astonishing sod has counted every word and written them all out. If you want to do that, there’s a part of me that applauds your effort and industry plus there’s a part of me that sees you’re honouring writers. But don’t pass this junk off as a script.

For real scripts are the true blueprint of a drama: they show you the scaffolding. The dialogue as written plus the stage directions plus the very style it’s all written in are to do with the setting the tone and telling the story. The actors don’t make up the words but a script is not just the words they say.

So when the internet turned up and had all these scripts on it, when I learned to spot a transcript at a million paces and thereby always recognise a real script when I see it, I stopped buying the books. Mostly. I still do. But not in the volume I did. And if you asked me, I’d recommend you do the same because the online copies are the best, most accurate representation of the job. It is the sole reason for recommending the BBC Writersroom, for instance: forget everything else they say they do, they have a genuinely excellent online script library.

Only, my newest obsession is an American TV drama called Justified. It ran for six years from 2010 and I’ve seen the pilot a couple of times yet not until recently tried the rest. But for the past week or two, I’ve been eating this show up and I’ve been reading the half-dozen scripts that you can get online. And it is fascinating because the differences between the show and what appear to be the final drafts of the script are far, far greater than I’m used to. They’re peek-inside-the-writers’-mind level of differences.

I can’t count how many scripts I’ve read because it was quicker than watching the film or the show. I read something like 150 scripts of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine before watching a second episode of it. When it’s well written, that’s fine, it works on the page tremendously and differences in the broadcast version are minor. Read The Good Wife pilot script online, for instance, and it’s a final draft that is near-as-dammit verbatim to the aired show. The only difference I particularly noticed was that one very good scene was taken out of the pilot and popped into episode two. But with Justified, the changes are huge, most especially in the pilot and I think I’m learning a lesson here from both reading the scripts and watching the show.

I think that changes in the pilot are probably only to be expected: this is such an important episode that you can imagine it being reworked and reworked and reworked all the way up to the editing room. Except some of the differences are not tweaks, they are fundamental changes to the very premise of the show.

They’re actually quite small alterations, they’re a few different lines, a couple of different scenes at most, but their impact is seismic. Let me give you the example that made me want to talk to you about this.

Justified is about US Deputy Marshall Raylan Givens who returns to his home state of Kentucky after, well, some problems. It’s based on a character in an Elmore Leonard short story and the pilot is written by the series creator Graham Yost. Here’s the script as written, though with apologies I’ve had to change the layout to get it on here. It’d help to know that Dan is Raylan’s boss.

INT. US MARSHALL’S OFFICE – SOUTHERN DISTRICT – DAY

RAYLAN (CONT’D): You want me to take some time off?

DAN: No. I want you to take a temporary reassignment.

RAYLAN: Where?

DAN: That’s up to you. There are five districts nationwide low on manpower, could use you.

RAYLAN: Is Eastern Kentucky on that list?

DAN: It is.

RAYLAN: I’ll go there.

DAN: You don’t want to think about it?

RAYLAN: That’s where I grew up. And I know the marshal, Art Mullen. He and I taught firearms at Glynco.

DAN: You still got family in Kentucky?

RAYLAN: Ex-wife in Lexington. I believe my father’s still down in Harlan.

DAN: You believe?

RAYLAN: (shrugs, then:) There’s another reason I’d like to go. I was checking out the national suspects list and I saw a name in Eastern Kentucky I recognized: Boyd Crowder. (off Dan’s look) He was a guy I knew growing up. Back when we were 19, we dug coal together.

So Raylan is going home. If that’s not a series start, I don’t know what is. Except possibly this. I’m embarrassed to say it now, but this next is a transcript. Someone has transcribed Justified and if they’ve done it really badly – each word is there but not a clue who is saying which sentence and often no evidence that it’s now a different person – then at least they saved me some typing. I’ve cleaned it up and made it clearer, added the scene heading, but otherwise, here’s the same scene as broadcast and transcribed:

INT. UNDERGROUND CARPARK – DAY

DAN: Let me put it to you this way. The weather forecast is for a shitload of shit raining down on this office from Washington. I’m gonna reassign you.
RAYLAN: Prison Transport?
DAN: No, I’m getting you out of Dodge. They need manpower in the Eastern District of Kentucky. I talked to the chief of the district, Art Mullen, says you guys taught Firearms together at Glynco.
RAYLAN: No, no, Dan. I grew up in Kentucky. I don’t wanna go back there.
DAN: Well, then we have a problem, because you don’t wanna go back to Kentucky, and you cannot, under any circumstances, stay here.

So Raylan is going home and he doesn’t want to. Now that’s a series start. Remember that this is the same writer but every part of it is different right down to how much better, in my opinion, the dialogue is. I think Yost found the right way into the story and as soon as he’d done that, the dialogue flew too.

I don’t know. The other scripts available online are final draft production ones with long lists of revisions – and actually, slightly more than I’m used to seeing. Usually there’s a half a dozen to a dozen rewrites on these things but with the Justified scripts you see them specify that a rewrite was on a particular scene. That tells me the rewrite came very, very late, that production was well underway. I don’t know why that should be on this show more than any other, but I do know that Justified is a superb piece of writing.

I’m just so thoroughly engrossed by how that change about wanting to go makes such a deep-rooted difference to every aspect of the show. From the plot to most definitely the character but also the atmosphere. And the exposition. There is some detail in that drafts script that didn’t make it to that transcript of the broadcast but the few that mattered are delivered in a later scene instead. They work better there, too, but then they would.

You think you can tell any story in any way yet somewhere along the line, there becomes just one single way to tell it well. Find that and suddenly it all works. If only it were as easy as that sounds, if only if I weren’t struggling with the same thing on a script of mine too.

Listen, go watch Justified. And when you get ahead of me – I’m on the last episode of the first season – you cannot, under any circumstances, tell me what’s coming next.