It’s bigger than it seems on the outside

Look, I’d want to talk with you about this anyway, simply because it makes me so happy. You’ve seen the video on YouTube and television news of a young child who explodes with excitement that: “The new Doctor Who is a girl!”

The only difference between me and that child is that I said “Doctor”, not “Doctor Who”. And “woman”, not “girl”.

The thing is, I hadn’t realised just how very much I wanted the next Doctor to be a woman until BBC aired that utterly gorgeous one-minute video revealing Jodie Whittaker. And thinking about it a lot since then, I realise that the really key single reason for how much I wanted it was that it was now or never.

Of course it matters that we get a superb actor, as we have with Jodie Whittaker, and of course that should be all that matters. But it isn’t all that matters and I also realised that I would’ve been disappointed with any man. Apparently there are people who are disappointed that it was any woman, but there’s no accounting for folk.

Only, yes, I am a feminist and I do think it is ferociously wrong how few women are in drama – but I’ve always felt that more about the writing than the acting. Yes, no question: I write strong roles for women in my scripts both because it’s right and because so few people do that you are guaranteed to get truly brilliant actors.

Doctor Who, the series, has been just plain wrong in the ridiculously tiny number of women writers it’s had. I do think the show is amongst the very hardest to write so naturally I think the pot of people who can do it will be smaller than for other shows, but there’s no conceivable reason that the proportion of women in that could be as teeny as it has been.

I have not thought it wrong that the Doctor hasn’t been a woman before.

Follow. Alongside the praise the show has got for doing this, it has also got criticism for not doing it before – and that’s the bit I disagree with.

I think people tend to consciously or unconsciously see the Doctor as being a role in the same way that James Bond, Miss Marple, Hamlet and others are. It’s a role that many or even any actor can take on.

No.

This isn’t about the quality of the actor and it isn’t even really about their gender, it’s about the character. The Doctor is not 14 different actors – don’t ask why Whittaker is called the 13th – who happen to be playing the same role. The Doctor is one character.

Think about soaps and the way they will re-cast a role and pretend nothing’s happened. Michelle coming back to EastEnders decades after she left. I’m struggling for another example but there was one in Corrie where a young man has been played by three or four young men. It’s that kind of thing. You are supposed to accept the new face and believe that it’s the same character.

It is the same with the Doctor, except that no new actor tries to completely mimic their predecessor. And then, worryingly, they change into clothes that they’re going to wear for the next several years.

But Peter Capaldi’s Doctor is the same character who used to wear that long scarf. He is the same character who first tried to stop Ian and Barbara from entering what looked like a police box in the 1960s. Actually, Peter Capaldi referred to this in a sweet chat with young fans that I can’t find on YouTube again. He spoke of his predecessors and said with total sincerity that if you look in his own face, you can see the Doctor’s previous selves.

And then in Jodie Whittaker’s announcement press release she said that one thing about taking on the role is that: “It means remembering everyone I used to be”.

So the Doctor is the Doctor is the Doctor. That doesn’t explain why she wasn’t a woman before. But go back to that soaps analogy. Coronation Street’s Ken Barlow is getting on a bit, if they wanted his character to continue they could perhaps recast the part. They would recast it as a man again because it’s the same character, but imagine that they didn’t. Imagine they cast a woman.

A woman taking over Ken Barlow’s role could be done – I don’t think it’s an acting problem at all – but it would have to be done with the most enormous storyline. Barlow would be transgender, it would run for months or more, it would be a gigantic deal within the storyline of the series.

In comparison, all that’s going to happen in Doctor Who is that Peter Capaldi will glow and out of the flame will step Jodie Whittaker. That’s it. On with the show, on with the character.

I think that’s fantastic. The Doctor is a woman, so what? Star Wars: The Force Awakens made me squeeze my cinema seat’s arm rest constantly because it has a lead woman who isn’t allowed to lead for one minute without a male character telling us it’s fine. The film expects us to be amazed alongside the male characters that this Rey is a pilot, for instance. It’s insulting to women, it’s insulting to everyone. I take it personally: it was insulting to me.

Doctor Who won’t do that, you can be sure, and Doctor Who can go straight into new stories without fuss because actually it has spent around five years setting this up.

I think it’s about five years. I’m trying to remember what there was in the fiftieth anniversary special around four years ago but there was something. I definitely remember another Steven Moffat episode where some random Time Lord regenerated into a woman. And of course for a couple of years we’ve had Michelle Gomez as Missy, a truly glorious incarnation of the Master. Funny and likeable and frightening.

Without her, then, and without the small touches through the last few years and, okay, without some pretty heavy-handed hinting in the last series, the change of gender has been made an organic part of the series.

If all of this had not been done, if the show had just decided on a whim to cast a woman, well, I’d probably still be pleased but then it would’ve felt like a gimmick. The show has been accused of doing this because it’s politically the right moment, because the BBC is under pressure about diversity, and if it were just a single casting decision, maybe that would’ve been true or at least partly true.

Instead, this has been worked on for perhaps five years. It has been created in the writing for perhaps half a decade.

That effort, that continued writing effort and talent, seems to me to be being ignored and it seems to me to be worthy of huge praise.

It was now or never and I am ecstatic that it was now. I don’t fully understand why I’m exactly this excited because I don’t know how the Doctor being a woman is going to change the show since this is literally the same character it always was. Each new actor brings something else and the tone of the show changes each time yet somehow this one being a woman makes the show tingle with new energy.

One more thing, just since it’s you. I was trying to explain to a guy why I was so pleased and I ended up focusing on a little half-smile, half-grin that Whittaker gives just after she’s been revealed. It’s when the Doctor sees her TARDIS and somehow it just promises adventure to me.

That’s true, but what I’ll tell you that I didn’t tell the guy is that I also got a ridiculous amount of pleasure writing the words “her TARDIS”.

What Writers Need

I was asked this in an interview yesterday: what what do writers need or perhaps what do you need to be a writer.

Since it’s just you and me here, I’ll tell you that I don’t think I answered it very well. But 24 hours later, I’ve got it.

Writers need commissions.

It would’ve been smartarse of me to say that if only I’d been smart enough to think of it when asked, but it’s not as facetious as it sounds.

Okay, there’s the straight cash aspect. The only way I get to write better is to write more and the only way I can get the time to do that is when it’s paying enough that I don’t have to go do something else.

Only, the reason I want to think about this here with you is that I’ve long known one thing about it yet I’m just now forming a second and somewhat contradictory thought.

The thing I’ve long known is that commissions change you. I know that the saying is deadlines focus the mind and that is most absolutely true, but it’s at the other end where things first change. It’s the point when you’re commissioned.

The process of writing doesn’t change when you’re being paid but it feels as if it does, it feels as big a difference as if someone had gone back into your past and altered your timeline. Everything is now real. All of the thinking you do about writing, all of the opinions, everything. I was thinking that it’s like having someone say okay, then, prove it. Prove you can do this, if you’re hard enough.

But it’s worse than that. You’ve already convinced them you can or they wouldn’t be paying you anything. So really it’s someone expecting you to write well. Someone presuming you will. Someone unthinkingly assuming that this is your job. Because it is.

A lot of writing gets paid without a contract upfront but whenever you’re writing because you’ve been hired and you’ll be invoicing later, it becomes real in this way.

You’ll still hide from the job like only writers can and you’ll still find it hard to do, but playtime is over and you are part of something where you have to pull your weight.

So I’ve long known that a commission or anything where your writing is going to be paid for right away is essential for many reasons. Helping to keep a roof over your head is one, turning this from a hobby in the worst sense of that into a job in the best sense of that. The focus of reality can’t be beaten.

But it can also be a problem.

Today, for instance, I’ve got – bugger, let me count on my fingers for a sec. Right, if I bring in one client that I don’t really have to think about much for another few days, then today I’ve got eleven projects on. I reckon I’ve got to do some serious work on about seven of them right now and I can do some more over the weekend.

That’s all very nice: it’s a tiny bit daunting but I hadn’t counted until I wanted to tell you. And I’m a freelance writer, it is a relief to realise that I’ve got a lot of paying work on. Some of these eleven are big, none of them pay gigantically and I doubt I’ll see cash from many of them before May. But still, it’s work and you know that there are times when I’ve got nothing. At all.

Only, it’s obvious that when you’re busy with paid work you end up with no time to write things that aren’t going to pay now and that may well never contribute to your mortgage. When you are not busy with paid work, though, it’s even harder to do that kind of writing. Every moment you’re thinking about it, you’re feeling guilty for not looking for work.

I’ve always thought that this is how it works: you can’t write on these other projects, this other ideas, when you’re having trouble getting money in. But now I also think that when you do have paid writing work, it is far, far easier to go do that than these other things.

I can’t keep vaguely referring to other things. Let me give you the example that’s quite clearly pressing on my mind. I have accidentally written a book of short stories. For no reason other than it was in me and I had to get it out. I say accidentally because it’s only in the last six months when I realised that the best stories I’d written over twenty years had a common theme. It’s only in the last six months that I’ve consciously been rewriting those stories and writing more. All for me, all because at one point I was shaking as a particular tale came out of me.

Not only is no one waiting for any of this, not only will I never invoice anyone for anything to do with it, but nobody buys short story collections anyway. If you were setting out to write short stories for money, stop now.

Except you can say that about all writing. If you get money for writing, great. If you got into writing for the riches and the fame, I’ll give you a tip next time I see you working in McDonald’s.

I wasn’t kidding about having to get these stories out of me though. Now I’ve somehow got it written, I will work it like I do any other job and look for places to get it published, look for some way to get it out to people. I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever written and my agent thinks yeah, whatever, short stories, soooooo exciting, please rush me a copy.

It’s easy when you are a paid freelance writer to say that every writer should aim to get commissioned. What’s harder, for me, is the realisation that as much as I need the reality of a contract, I’ve got to find time and space to write for myself.

So let’s decide this right now: today I don’t have eleven projects on, I’ve got twelve. God knows how I’m going to fit in time for working on these stories and actually I’ve no idea what I can do with them today, but I’m going to find out.

You do the same. We’ll help each other.

Writers and the Sapir Whorf hypothesis

I don’t think I’ve ever quite said this to you before but I regard it as a treat and a privilege that we get to chat. And I am especially conscious of this now as Self Distract has been dead for a month because of website problems. Oh, my lights, but it’s good to be back.

Now that we’re on speaking terms again – thank you A Small Orange internet service provider for rescuing the blog from the debris – I do of course want to talk to you about writing. It’ll just take a while to get there and I think along the way we’re going to explore something that applies to everything and everyone. Certainly to you and I.

At least certainly if you spend as much time thinking about words as I do. It’s not healthy of us, it really isn’t.

But one word that I particularly like is the German one ‘heimat’. There’s a famous German television drama of the 1980s called that and I never got around to watching it. What I learned about it, though, was that strictly speaking the word heimat means home. And, more importantly, that it really means much more than that – which English doesn’t have an equivalent to.

Then there’s the quote from Cervantes which goes something like this: “Reading a translation is like looking at the back of a tapestry”. Isn’t that wonderful? Such a vivid, instantly clear, instantly obviously right way to explain that you can get the pattern but you cannot see the colour.

Only, this is a favourite quote of mine for one specific reason: Cervantes originally said it in Spanish.

So as much as I believe I understand the thought, as an English-only speaker I am perhaps only looking at the back of it, at the pattern of the meaning instead of its full colour.

It’s thinking about this kind of stuff that means I heard of what’s often called the Sapir Whorf hypothesis a long time ago. If you only recently heard of it, that’s because you’ve just seen the film Arrival. If you’ve never heard of it before right this moment, please go see Arrival. (The screenplay is by Eric Heisserer and based on a short story by Ted Chiang. For once, I urge you to see the film instead of solely reading the screenplay but right now that script is available online. It won’t be there for long: it’s online as part of awards season and will be taken down in a few weeks. If you miss it, tell me: I lunged at the screen to save a copy for myself.)

The film exaggerates or at least takes this hypothesis on further than Edward Sapir or Benjamin Lee Whorf did and apparently many people think their idea is bollocks anyway. I’m fine with a film using a bollocks idea and taking it to somewhere as gorgeous as Arrival does, but I also think the hypothesis is right because of Heimat, because of Cervantes – and actually because of radio.

Writ very short, the Sapir Whorf hypothesis is that the language we use affects how we think, how we see the world. In Arrival, this is the start for a simply beautiful story and one so delicately drawn that it made me want to rip up all my own writing and start over.

But in Arrival and in the full Sapir Whorf hypothesis, the point is very specifically about a whole language, an entire language and not just a phrase book. If you speak French then your very thought patterns are subtly different to the way you think if you are a German speaker.

I am sure that’s true but I don’t know because I solely speak English and can’t compare anything. Yet I still think there’s something key about this idea even within my one single language. For instance, I suspect that writers think differently to, I don’t know, chefs. I was talking to someone once, for instance, who visibly could not grasp whatever small-talk subject it was until we found a way to translate it and use an example from his industry. That was an odd and somewhat long hour.

I am also entirely certain that I think the way I do because of radio. Tell me if this is you, too, but I can see that I’m shaped by having worked in radio. Specifically that my sense of time is different. There’s the time passing away for all of us but there’s also the time that you plan out for a show, that you plan out like time is a physical space.

So for instance even though it’s years since I worked in BBC radio, I still think in the terms top and bottom of the hour. I think of the first half of an hour as being an easy, downhill-fast run while the second half is an uphill climb. I can rationalise that by how you’re doing a show because you have something you’re excited to say and so naturally you want to get to it quickly. The start is easy because you want to rush in. The end is tough because you’ve got to pace out the piece, you’ve got to be sure you’ve included everything. But still, sod rationalisation: I think this so deeply that the top of the hour feels fast and easy to me, the bottom of the hour feels hard.

You do this in radio, I do it still in producing events and workshops, but I also just do it all the time. Like, all the time.

I do this and then I also think in terms of hard and soft items.

A hard item, if you’ve not heard it described this way before, is one that’s already prepared and has a fixed duration. Watch The One Show, for instance, and you’ll see a mix of interviews in the studio and little films, sometimes called VTs, sometimes packages. (VT is from videotape, when these things were played in to the show off a prerecorded tape. You’re too young to remember videotape and consequently I hate you.)

These video packages are hard items and the studio guest interviews are soft ones. It’s nothing to do with whether one or the other is hard-hitting, gritty journalism or light, cheery frippery. It’s that the hard one can’t be stopped where the soft one, the interview, can be as long or as short as you like if things have changed. You can wrap up an interview when you’re running out of time where you can’t stop a film package.

Actually, of course you can. I’ve not worked in this type of television but in radio you would distressingly often have to come out of a package early because something happened or you’d mis-timed when you should’ve started playing it in. Stopping a package early while not sounding like you just fell over the fader took skill: you had to listen live and listen for the right instant, the right moment when actually the presenter only paused but it sounded like it could be the end. Then you slam that fader shut and you start talking as if that were the end.

It’s called potting. You pot a package. Language is wonderful. The reason this is potting instead of, say, slamming-fader-ing, is that before radio desks had faders, they had round little knobs. They looked like teeny upside down pots. You can still see a million of them on music studio recording desks.

I think of potting, then, the same way that we talk about taping a TV show when really we mean marking it to record on our Sky or DVR box. We talk about videoing an event when we mean digitally capturing it on our phone.

More than the terms, though, more than the words I think in, knowing what potting is and having done it, I can always hear what I can only describe as a pot point. If I’m watching the news, I know when they could pot the item and move on. Sometimes you wish they would and that’s about time too.

What we do shapes us, that’s certain. What we have to think about shapes us, I’m sure. I’m conscious that I’m now thinking about this in obsessive detail because that’s what writers do, or at least it’s what I do as a writer. But having finally got us back onto the topic of writing, I offer this: Sapir Whorf gives us an insight into characters.

Knowing this, or at least believing it, has got to help us see into the characters we create and inhabit in our fiction and our drama. See how they think and you’ll know what they’ll do, you’ll feel what they feel.

Amongst everything else about this, I believe that the practice of trying to think how other people do is a good, hopeful and maybe optimistic thing in a time when we need all of that. Whether it’s the Sapir Whorf hypothesis or just my own special kind of bollocks, I think it means that we can change how we think by doing and talking and thinking about something new.

Listen, I’ve been waiting to discuss this with you for a month. Let’s go get a tea and maybe watch Arrival. Waddya say?

Competence porn

Perhaps you already know this one but the term ‘competence porn’ is new to me – and it’s given me a little bit of hope about a long-standing bugbear hobby horse of mine. Alternatively, it’s given me a little ammunition if I ever need to argue about dumbing things down for audiences.

My grumble is with clever people in television drama. You need someone smart to solve a problem, to move the plot on, to get characters out of a dull situation. But usually that clever person cannot be the hero, cannot be the lead character. Moreover, the actual lead will mildly mock them for being a geek. Mock them while being completely dependent on their idea.

What that’s supposed to do is let the audience know it’s okay that they, the viewing public, are not very smart. I don’t like that any more than you do. But I especially don’t like being patronised because apparently I, as a viewer, genuinely am smarter than the writers and more often producers or networks who decide to do this. For I can see and you can see both that it’s annoying and that what it really does is make the hero look like an ass.

But now we have this thing that is apparently called competency porn. It means we like watching characters who are good at what they do. Sherlock is the first example that comes to my mind. The Doctor in Doctor Who is another, usually.

Allegedly one reason we like Darth Vader as a villain is because of how professionally ruthless he is at the beginning of Star Wars. He’s caught the Princess, he casually kills somebody-or-other and we’re impressed. That’s more surprising when you think that nothing else he ever does in that film works out for him.

I think of the opening of Grosse Pointe Blank where we meet a hitman. He’s precise and focused as he prepares to kill someone, even while he’s also on the phone reciting bank account numbers to his assistant – he has a PA, this guy is professional and busy – and then he does this thing of aiming a rifle at someone far away. The hitman is in a corner hotel room, the target is a cyclist out on the street, and our guy takes aim through one window, then walks to another, tracking along where the cyclist will be, before shooting from the next window.

I know the hitman is John Cusack but he’s just killed someone and, bizarrely, we’re impressed. We’re on our way to liking this character.

One last example from where I heard this term competency porn. There’s a US drama called Leverage, a con/crime series very much like an American version of Hustle. As much as I like it, every episode does follow a set path and one early part is where this team of criminals – the good guys, by the way – have a briefing. Here’s producer John Rogers talking about a 2009 episode called The Fairy Godparents Job:

“Good Lord, how we agonized over spending so much time in the briefing scene in this ep. Ironically, this episode arrived just as we were collating feedback off the ‘net and found, stunningly, you people love the briefing scenes. For we writers, it was always X pages of pipe we tried to make as entertaining as possible and move past to get into the plot. For the audience, watching competent people banter and plan was a big part of the appeal. ‘Competence porn’ as we started calling it.”

There is a spectacularly and quite wonderfully dumb character in the remade Ghostbusters: I’m not saying everyone should be smart, I’m saying nobody should be dumbed down. And they don’t have to be.

Seeking treatment for outlines

To this day, one of the most exciting conversations I’ve had was at a university where a woman I was having cake with said one thing that totally changed everything. She said no.

Actually, she didn’t, but I was there on some gigantically contorted excuse solely to see her and I did strike out. But I’d already given up when we were talking about something that I felt strongly about and she disagreed with. She explained why, in a single sentence. That sounds rude but it was perfectly polite, fine, reasoned, it just only took a single sentence because it was something quite simple.

She was entirely right and I was entirely wrong. Up to that minute, I’d thought one thing, from that instant on it was impossible to not think the opposite.

God, but I loved that. That was exhilarating.

So could you please explain to me why I’ve been fighting something similar for pretty much my entire writing career?

This is what I have always believed and would like to continue believing and in my heart think I am about to betray a truth. You should write unplanned. Write to see where you go. Write to explore. And yes, you’ll write bollocks but that’s just the price you pay: if you have to throw away 90,000 words, what does it matter if the 10,000 left are great?

I’ve never said I couldn’t plan in advance, that I couldn’t outline. My first book contract required a detailed outline – and later I had to go through some hoops because I found material in my research that meant changing the outline drastically – and my second publisher needed to be able to estimate how much time a copy editor was going to need.

Doctor Who audio dramas go through various stages before you get to script and they’re all plans, all versions of outlines, effectively all treatments. Treatments are so dull. The only thing worse than reading a treatment is reading what James Cameron calls a “scriptment”. He says that’s half a treatment, half a script, and I swear to you it is all unbearable.

I once read a treatment by Alan Plater that was stunningly, shockingly boring – until the last line, where he’d written something like: “So can I go write the bloody thing now?”

I’ve done post-mortem outlines before. Written the script and then reverse-engineered an outline for producers who won’t read scripts. It was never worth it and I think because my scorn shone through the whole process.

Again, I’ve said this before and yet I’m fighting it. I have heard every argument in favour of outlining that there can be and I’ve found them all unconvincing. Except one.

I can’t remember now which producer it was who said this to me but it was the first completely undeniable argument I’d heard. I was right back in that cake shop with Claire because it is simple and I cannot disagree with it.

“You can’t have a blank screen on BBC1 on Tuesday night.”

That’s all.

I am deadline-oriented. Most of my work comes pre-loaded with deadlines and my way of exploring on the page while hitting those deadlines was just to work harder and for longer hours.

But there was always the possibility of failure: there’s no question that I would fail to deliver but there was every chance that I would fail to deliver anything worthwhile.

In television, that just can’t be allowed to happen. So television writers will plan and they will outline and if you want to work in that game, that’s what you’re going to do.

I’m not in that game. I got fired off the only TV drama I’ve worked on. But I do want to be in that game and the one-hour television drama is to me what the concept album or the three-minute pop song is to some. So a while ago I decided to try doing it their way.

Just take the characters that were obsessing me at the time and write the script in this planned, organised way. Full disclosure: I was highly impressed by the treatment for episode 1 of The Good Wife.

That is a nice piece of writing and it was written for no one but a few US TV network executives. They liked it too and because of that, three months later we got the script.

Writers Robert King and Michelle King did that. I only really know their work from this one series but I am agog at how great that show is so if they can it this way, I’ll give it a go.

Only, I’ve been a bit pressed for time. My seventh non-fiction book this year came out a couple of weeks ago. (None are very long books and five of them are compilations of non-fiction articles written over the last 20 months. Though four of those five became best-sellers in the States. What did I do wrong on the fifth?) So this is how it went:

2014 Thought of an idea called Alibis. Did nothing.
2015 Thought about the idea. Did nothing except change the title to Vows.
2016 February, got on a pitching workshop run by Liv Chapman at Writing West Midlands

You had to have a project to pitch or there was no point doing that workshop. So I puddled about with the idea, renamed it Vows, wrote a few thousand words of notes in order to create a pitch of about two minutes duration.

What I learned at that pitching workshop obviously helped me with pitching the idea but, as I’ll bet money Chapman knew all along, also helped me improve the idea that I was pitching.

Still, that was February.

Some time between then and April, I ignored my plan and ignored plans and wrote some script. I’ve never looked at it since.

In June I spent a day making notes on my favourite characters in the piece. Didn’t write script.

But then I’ve been involved in a project where at one point it looked like today was going to be the start of a thing. Literally today, as I write this. As it happens, it’s delayed but about a week ago I was sure it was happening and if it did, it would be the start of work that would be overwhelming for some time and I’d not get any chance to write this script.

So on Tuesday I wrote an outline. Some 3,000 words of every idea I had bubbling and every detail I had of these characters and the utter hell they’re heading for.

It was an outline, I can’t deny it. I even wrote it in an app called OmniOutliner. (Which is very good, by the way.)

That was Tuesday. On Wednesday I opened up Scrivener on my iPad and swiped to make it three-quarters of the screen with OmniOutliner in the fourth quarter. And I wrote 21 pages of script.

I was an unbearable puddle of exhaustion afterwards: you wouldn’t want to know me. I was also weirdly dehydrated but that’s another story. But I was also a bit smug: my previous record under deadline pressure was 20 pages of script per day.

On Thursday, yesterday, I wrote 28.

These were 12-hour writing days, 5am to 5pm, but in two days I’d written 49 pages of script and actually, that’s it. Complete.

Now, I’m going to hate that script tomorrow. But today – I just reread it – I think it’s one of the best things I’ve written. Obviously a first draft, obviously much further to go, and I don’t know when I can do that now, but because I had put years of thought into the characters and because I’d put another 12-hour day into the outline, the script poured out of me like I was transcribing it off the screen.

I thought I’d confine myself by writing out the story in advance like this but along the way, some characters stood up and told me off. No, they wouldn’t do this, they’d do that. And this one had to be the one who did this other thing because of course it is going to hurt them the most. Several times during the writing I said “Sorry” aloud and did what the characters told me.

That’s the kind of psychosis that you get when writing unplanned. So maybe it isn’t the unplanning, maybe it isn’t something you get from exploring on the page. Maybe I’m just nutty all round.

My heart still stays explore, my head says okay, maybe outlines have a point. Let’s split the difference and go with my gut: whatever works for you, works for you. Whatever gets it on the page, do that.

Adjust your settings

I was trying to get some work on a TV show once and I can’t even remember what it could possibly have been, but I do recall the producer. She said to me that the single most important thing in television drama is the setting. Now, I’m sitting there in her office thinking bollocks, character is immeasurably more important but, you know, I wanted the work, so I’m nodding away saying how interesting that thought is.

I know I didn’t get the work. And I know I still believe right down to every individual pixel of my soul that character comes top, but she had a point. She had more of a point than I appreciated at that time and I’ve been thinking about it a lot. Especially so since this week I worked with a group specifically discussing how novels benefit from where they are set.

I think I’m probably going to find a way here to conclude that a story’s setting is a kind of character itself. Just one that doesn’t talk much. Or usually, anyway: there is a famous BBC Radio 4 dramatisation of Wuthering Heights that is narrated by the house. I long to hear that.

But let’s see if we get to this setting-is-character lark and whether it works or is just my hoping to convince that producer she should’ve hired me.

Her point, if I’m understanding her correctly, is that the setting enables drama. So Albert Square in EastEnders, for instance, is naturally home to a fairly diverse group of characters. Different ages, wealth, backgrounds, jobs. Differences are what make the world interesting but they are also what makes for sparky drama: our situations put pressures on us that affect how we see things and what we do about them. Everything we’ve been taught and everything we’ve done affects who we are. So when you can find a setting that naturally puts different people together, it is potent.

My mind has just leapt from EastEnders to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and specifically why it was set up to be different to the other Trek shows. Ridiculously, Star Trek got to the point where everyone on the Enterprise was lovely and they all supported each other perfectly. No difference of opinion beyond which technobabble solution would save which entire civilisation this week. It was a conscious choice: Starfleet officers are heroes. So for Deep Space Nine, the producers had the show’s Federation be brought in to help recovery in a region rather battered by conflict.

The baddies with the noses, the Cardassians, had used local Bajoran people as slaves in their mining space station. Now they were gone and Starfleet took over the station like a UN envoy. So very consciously and actually very cleverly, this space station setting was potent. You had the heroes coming in, you had the surviving Bajorans wondering whether they were swapping one group’s slavery for another, and you had the Cardassians hovering around wanting to come back. Rather than a single group of nicey-nicey people, you had at least three distinct groups inescapably in conflict.

It was well done and it means that to me, Deep Space Nine, is the only satisfying Star Trek out of an awful lot of different versions. I could argue that this is down to the writing: I read all 170-odd scripts for this show, most of them before I’d seen the episodes, and they read like a novel, they were so interesting. Somehow I also read all 170-odd scripts for Star Trek: The Next Generation and they weren’t so good.

But then Deep Space Nine didn’t move so the problems faced this week continue next time. The Enterprise just pops off to save the day somewhere else.

So certainly the writing elevates DS9 but maybe it could because of the setting the writers created.

That’s not the same as the setting being a character, I’m struggling there. I’m not sure why I think I’m going to reach that point or why I’m focusing on it, yet I can already see that I’m regarding the place as important to the characters. If I want to tell a story about a school, the characters I have in there will inevitably be different if that school is Eton or if it’s in an inner city slum area.

Perhaps because I’m a scriptwriter, I have seen that I’ve avoided being specific about settings: this script is set in a city, that one in a village, and I’ve not bothered to say London or Little Writings on the Wry. Maybe I should have been specific. Certainly I’m going to be. For it occurs to me that the setting affects characters vastly more than I realised: if a place is comfortable, that tells me a lot about the people who stay. If it’s a foul place then it tells me a lot about the characters who go there.

Character and setting are intertwined. I want to go just a touch further and argue that settings have moods: an underground car park has a different disposition to a hayfield in the year 19summertime.

So settings have moods and feelings plus they are deeply entwined with characters. Go on, give it to me: your setting is a character. And excuse me while I go phone a producer.

Only time can tell

Late one night this week, stewing with a cold and unable to sleep for coughing, I started to watch Somewhere in Time on Netflix. Don’t look for it: the film has gone. Even though I am new to Netflix, I did know that this happens, I just didn’t know that it could happen before I finished watching something I’d started.

There’s something fitting about it disappearing like this. I have to be in exactly the right mood to watch it and that mood is a bubble that never lasts long. Maybe Netflix is the Brigadoon of online streaming video services and in another hundred years the film will reappear. For a few moments or preferably the film’s 1 hour 48 minute running time, it will be as if the movie had always been there.

It does feel a bit like that now: it was made in 1980, and you can tell, but originally it was partly a present-day film, mostly a period piece and so now it feels like two period pieces. If you don’t know the film, it’s written by Richard Matheson and stars Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour. I think summarising the film diminishes it and that maybe that’s one reason it was a flop on release: it’s a time-travel romance. The film only succeeded, only became a huge hit, after it was seen knocking around cable TV channels in the States. So really it only became a hit after people saw it.

If you do know the film, that’s not what’s on my mind. The book is. I like the movie but for the most part it is a nicer version of the story, it has an innocent sweetness that is sometimes good but often just too much. In comparison, I feel like the original novel tore at me. By chance, this week I’ve been interviewed for a TV show about my life – I was chosen because of my brilliant and apparently unique availability – and thinking about myself, seeing that film, being caught in this cold, it somehow showed me that this novel is deeply important to me.

somewhere-in-timeThe novel is also by Matheson and it’s called Bid Time Return after Shakespeare’s line in Richard II: O, call back yesterday, bid time return. Or it was called that: most editions after 1980 rename it Somewhere in Time. It’s obviously about time and for whatever reason that has become a profound obsession for me in drama and fiction. I also know that it is the first romance novel I read and while I haven’t read that many more since, I’ve noticed that everything I write is imbued with this. It used to scare me a bit: you might not spot it but I can see time and romance – and, full disclosure, thrillers – in every single thing I write.

I just don’t see romance as slushy, I see it as dangerous. That unpredictable, unreasonable, impossible lurch in your life. I’m fascinated by the power of romance, the compulsion, the roaring way it changes who you are and exposes who you can be. I’m riveted by what in the hell makes us admit to someone that we fancy them – and by what it’s like when they feel the same. That’s not slush, that’s primacord explosive.

Picture me forming this opinion when I was around 15. I suspect hormones played a part but I also think it would’ve been around then that I found the novel. I wish I could remember the details but I think I read it and at first didn’t realise how it got into me. I do vividly remember wanting to re-read it and not having a copy. At the time, there was a science fiction bookshop in Birmingham called Andromeda and they didn’t have it in stock. Nowhere did.

I remember standing at the Andromeda counter, mentioning to the owner Rog Peyton that I was so disappointed to not be able to find a copy anywhere. And I remember him saying something like “Wait there”. This was an independent bookshop where you felt much of the stock was there because it was beloved by the staff and when I say they had a special place in their hearts for Bid Time Return, they actually had a special place in the back. Rog had kept perhaps three or four copies of the book to sell only to people who were specifically searching for it.

At this point the book must’ve been quite rare and out of print, though the edition he sold me had the film’s rather beautiful period illustration on the cover so the movie was out. Maybe it’s a sign of how poorly the film fared at first, certainly it was a sign that Rog didn’t want people to casually pick up the last copies and chuck them on a shelf to never read.

I say all this to you and I can see me in that shop, I can feel that paperback in my hands. The novel is the same story about a man who falls for a photograph of a woman –– so far, not so very unusual –– but discovers that the photo was taken sixty years ago. It’s a funny thing: you know they are going to meet and you don’t care how the time travel is done, yet it has to be done in a way that carries you along. Or at least in a way that doesn’t drop you out of the story. It’s a remarkably fine line and the film is fairly good at it but the novel kills you. You are in that story and you are feverish as Richard Collier of 1971 burns to reach Elise McKenna of 1912.

Then you also have to have their first meeting and even at 15 I thought bloody hell, Richard Matheson is a smart writer. I’m willing to spoil a lot of this for you as it’s over forty years since the novel came out and about thirty-six since the movie, but I won’t spoil that scene which works well in the film and perfectly in the novel. I also won’t go to the filming location and re-enact the moment but people do. A lot.

I want to spoil or maybe just a tiny bit heighten two other moments, though, and especially as I think they’re appropriate to writing. One is very much about books and the other is very much about visuals.

The first ties to this business of getting us to agree about time travel: we know it’s coming, you don’t have to really sell us but you must somehow make it fly. Matheson does all manner of things to set us up for this in the book and his film screenplay does many of the same things but quicker. Yet arguably it all turns on one moment of deeply believable despair as Richard Collier no longer believes or can even hope that he’ll ever do it.

Matheson brings us to a moment where we did not see this coming but we should’ve done: Richard is in a hotel and trying to get back in time to that same hotel sixty years ago. He goes hunting for the hotel’s guest books and in one of these dust-caked, mouldy old ledgers, there he is. His name, signed in as a guest in 1912. Matheson plays this as clinching proof for Richard, the thing that makes him believe and so makes him succeed but I keep thinking about that signature waiting there. Throughout Richard’s life, that line was in that ledger waiting for that moment of discovery. That line would not be in that ledger if he didn’t find it.

Then visually the entire plot turns on the photograph that Richard sees of Elise. The way it’s described in the novel and the feeling that is conveyed in the movie is that it seems as if in this photograph she looking at Richard. Even at 15 and certainly now at somewhat older, I’m thinking right, sure, he just fancies her, don’t try to make it slushy. But the punch, for me, comes much later when we find out that actually, yes, she is looking at him.

There’s a brief scene where Richard walks in on the photograph being taken and the moment of the lens click is the moment Elise has seen him. She is looking at him in that photo and if he hadn’t been there, the photo would’ve been different and maybe he would never have looked at it.

I’m biased because I love the novel, I like the movie and I think about all this far too much. But these are resonant moments that – I’m right, aren’t I? – only time can tell.

Read the film’s screenplay online
Buy Somewhere in Time the movie in the UK or in the US
Buy Bid Time Return/Somewhere in Time the novel in the UK or in the US

Taking Time – the Movie

image

Here’s a nice way to look at something: I can tell you that I’ve written my first short film and that it is a gorgeous piece of work that centres on my dramatic obsession about time and its passing, time and its inexorable movement, time and regret. That’s a nice way to look at it and it is in all ways true, except it isn’t.

Taking Time is a short film produced by Ian Kennedy, directed by Gabe Crozier and starring Denny Hodge. It was written by Ian Kennedy, Andy Conway, Liz John, Mark Brendan, Nicola Jones and me, William Gallagher. I am unquestionably the smallest part of that list but it’s a big deal to me.

Sitting in that cinema on Tuesday, seeing my section of our film and especially seeing my name on the credits, that was quite a moment. I’m reminded of the first time I was in a magazine, the first time I was in a newspaper, the first time I was on television, the first time I saw actors on TV saying my words, the first time I saw a cast doing that on stage, the first time I had a book of mine in my hands. I remember the first talk I gave, the first workshop I ran, the first time I went into a school. Really vivid, all of them, and my credit on that screen is there in my head forever.

Well, I hope so. For some reason I can’t remember the first time I was on radio. That startles me: I could make a good guess: it would be on BHBN, the Birmingham Hospital Broadcasting Network – hospital radio that at the time went out to twenty hospitals in the region – and possibly followed quite soon by BBC Radio WM. But I don’t know, can’t remember.

I’ll worry about that later. For now, I am just enjoying that I have a film out. Okay, it was premiered this week and it’s next showings will be in film festivals so I can’t yet point you to a screening time. And it’s not my film, I am that tiny cog.

No.

Bollocks to that.

I’m talking to you, I’m not writing a press release, so this is how it is: it is my movie. I wrote a film. It premiered this week.

You can read more about it on the Screenwriters’ Forum website where you’ll also find out about the Forum’s new script development workshops. That’s another excellent thing that Forum chair Ian Kennedy has introduced.

That’s a thought. You’re nice so you’re thinking I’m being modest about my contribution but no, I’m a cog. And here’s an example for you of where credit should really go. I used to be the chair of the Screenwriters’ Forum and in my last meeting I think I had about six members turn up plus we ran out of apple juice.

For new chair Ian Kennedy’s latest meeting, he had a full-house cinema audience and a movie with the whole thing covered by BBC Midlands Today.

But it’s still my film, right?

Thin film

All week I’ve been looking forward to talking to you because – please wait for this and picture me savouring telling you – I’ve got a film coming out. Next Tuesday night, “Taking Time” gets its cinema premiere. I need you to know that actually my contribution is the smallest thing: this is a short film written by five writers and I think I account for about one minute of it. Still, it’s a minute. In a film.

I’m actually refusing to watch it before Tuesday because I want to walk into that cinema and enjoy it. But let me point you at details of the film because it’s also part of the launch of the Screenwriters Forum which you might be interested in. Otherwise, I’m going to tell you more about this next week instead, because something happened last night that I need to tell you. I’m not sure there’s anyone else I can talk to about this as it’s confidential. Plus you’ve already seen through the thin film that is my hard man tough guy image.

(Hang on. If the film is rubbish then I won’t mention it next week and we won’t speak of it ever again, okay?)

Anyway.

Late yesterday afternoon I ran a scriptwriting workshop in Stourbridge Library for Gavin Young. He’s a writer, performer, storyteller and at the moment also the Reader in Residence at the library who booked me for this talk. I had a blast. I hope everybody there did too, but I definitely had a blast and a half plus it came at the end of back to back workshops and deadlines. For me, it was like getting to natter with a group of fellow writing nutters. I did have to run away immediately afterwards to get back to writing deadlines, but it was the last event and it did feel like a long week was over.

It’s early evening in Stourbridge. A dark winter’s evening. Windy. Cold. And raining enough that I shouldn’t have got out my phone but when do I not get out my phone? There was an email waiting with the subject heading “A little bit of feedback for you”.

I can’t tell you very much at all as it’s to do with work I’ve been doing with school-age kids but because of who sent me it, I knew from her name and that subject what it was going to be about, I knew it was going to be from parents. I crossed my fingers as I tapped to open the message, hoping that this feedback was going to be okay.

It was.

There were just a very few short lines and if I could tell you what it was, you’d think that’s nice and I think you’d be pleased for me but you wouldn’t be gasping.

I didn’t gasp either.

But I stood in that road and I cried.

I’ve got one word for you

Bollocks.

That’s the word. It’s not personal. But before I ask you to come along for a reasonably strident ramble about something, I want to examine that word.

Bollocks. You read that and you know I’m not an academic, I’m not writing a paper, I’m just talking to you. You don’t need to know me well to recognise that I say it quite a bit too, it’s part of my ideolect. (Countries have languages, towns have dialects, people have ideolects.) I think you read the word ‘bollocks’ and you have an idea of my age as well. Maybe you can’t pin it down to the month and day but you don’t think I’m 15 and you don’t think I’m 70. It’s a broad range, I agree, but it’s there.

You might get that I’m a man. It’s hard to judge this from in here where I said the word, but it feels more like a man saying it than a woman. It feels more British than it does, I don’t know, Indonesian.

There’s a tone in the word, too. It’s not exactly serious but it isn’t playing about either. Bollocks is a firm word, said with intent, it’s not a filler word like ‘well’. Nor is it strong like ‘fuck’. You can argue with a man who says bollocks, there’s often no talking to someone who’s saying fuck.

I did have a worry that you could think I was saying bollocks to you, somehow about you, but that came more from the headline up there where I said “I’ve got one word for you”. It’s possible to interpret that as meaning I have one word to describe you. On its own, though, if you’d just come in on that word bollocks then I believe that you would unthinkingly, unconsciously but immediately have thought this is a non-academic, firm but not overly serious, debatable point being made by a British man who isn’t a teenager and isn’t a pensioner.

I believe that but I know this: you would not have got any of that if what I’d actually written was “Insert Word Later”.

I have regular arguments about dialogue, especially dialogue in drama, and the short summary is that I’m right about it being vital and anyone who thinks it isn’t, is wrong. Told you I was strident. I’m struggling to think of anything else that I am so irrevocably black and white certain sure about. Tea and dark chocolate come close, but this is more important to me.

What previously I’ve said to you before and what I have argued in countless pubs is that if I don’t believe the dialogue you give a character, I don’t believe the character. It’s common for dialogue-haters to be plot-fans but what they miss is that if I don’t care about the characters, if I’m not interested in them, the plot is just the thing I have to get through before I can go home. Characters facing grave peril, I’m in. Characters whom I don’t believe in facing the same peril, well, let them die. What do I care?

The reason this is all on my mind now, though, is partly because it is always on my mind. I am a dialogue man and it’s one of only two things I will accept I’m good at. (The other is typing. Can’t touch me for typing.) I am immeasurably pleased and relieved to say this to you because my dialogue writing is responsible both for everything I get to write and for how successful any of it has been.

Dialogue is obvious in scripts but I’m really writing dialogue to you right now. Didn’t I just say bollocks? That’s dialogue.

Emails I write are really dialogue and so are articles. I can’t do it when the house style of a magazine is more formal but the rest of the time I can because I’m always doing the same thing. I’m trying to convey something to you. Talking.

That’s what dialogue is in scripts: I’ve heard arguments that say dialogue is pretty speeches when actually no, it’s people talking.

The other reason this is all on my mind now is that I recently went to a couple of sessions of the PowWow Writers’ Group in Birmingham. I don’t think the word dialogue came up once. We certainly didn’t have this bugbear argument, I could write you an advert for how interested the group is and what they’re doing. Yet there was something.

I think it was in the way that one thing which did come up was the idea that when you’re writing, you should just get the stuff written. Get it down, then you can work on it. All true. Writing is rewriting, editing is critical.

Hours later, I joined a dot. The people I’ve most argued with about dialogue, the ones who are plot fans and believe dialogue is pretty speeches, also reckon you can do it tomorrow. Get down the story and the plot, then just before you’re finished, you can go back to do a dialogue pass. You can make the speeches prettier later, it’s a tasty extra that you can worry about just before you print the thing out and look for some pink ribbon.

Can you bollocks.

Everything you’ve just read sprang from the word bollocks at the top. I could’ve begun with Insert Word Later and then gone on to all this but it wouldn’t be the same. The bounce, the rhythm, what I wanted to say to you and when would all be different. I’ll bet money it wouldn’t have been so strident, for one thing.

So let’s say you’re writing a character who is strident. A character who is also a non-academic, firm British man who isn’t a teenager and isn’t a pensioner. At one extreme, you end up writing dialogue like “Hello, William, my old British friend who I think should have gone into academia but I’ve been saying that to you since you were a teenager back in 1989”. At another extreme, you end up writing a narrator. Shudder. Or the single worst descriptive prose novels have ever known.

Or you could just say bollocks.