Learning a lesson from writing 50 scripts

I think it’s 50. Today is the one year anniversary of my 58keys series on YouTube and it has 57 videos, of which I’m pretty sure the majority were scripted. Call it 50.

While we’re calling it, and as I want to build up some suspense over what this one great lesson is that I believe I’ve learned in the last year, let me call some more numbers. I’ve produced 57 episodes for a total of 13 hours, 1 minute and 54 seconds of video. Some 27,613 people have watched for a total of 2,236 hours and I have 781 subscribers.

Yes, if you look at the first episode and compare it to the most recent ones, you can tell which is better. It’s not as radical an improvement as I’d expected, mind. But I’m choosing to believe that this is because the early ones were fine, not that the later ones aren’t.

There were also something like 7 pilot versions. We will not speak of that again.

Oh, except that there was a lesson I learned from the pilots, which isn’t the Big Overall Writing Lesson I want to tell you about, but I think was still pretty big. I spent ages, like two minutes out of the ten, in the pilots of 58keys explaining who I am and why I believed I could make a useful series for writers who use Macs, iPhones and iPads.

The lesson I learned from that part was that nobody cares and nor should they. If I talk utter rubbish, then having a track record doesn’t make it right. Concentrate on saying something useful, that’s the job, that was the little big lesson from the pilots.

Whereas the Big Overall Writing Lesson from a year and something like 50 scripts is this.

Get on with it.

Writing half ideas, having stories you never finish, planning to write some day, you know the thing, there’s no point to it. I found a scrap of video I’d shot around ten years ago when I first had the idea to do a series. It’s not great. It’s not bad either. What it is, is a decade old.

Similarly, I like the title sequence in 58keys but I shot that whole thing around August 2019 and didn’t start the series for another five months.

Have an idea, then make it happen. Write the idea now, this minute, and if it’s rubbish, write something else.

Mind you, if it’s brilliant, save it and then still write something else.

Incidentally, the fastest I’ve ever done an episode of 58keys –– I mean from idea to edited video uploading to YouTube –– is 90 minutes. The slowest is four days. And so I did also learn this: if you want to write it, you can find the time.

Tender is the Night Manager

So by chance, this week I’ve been reading the scripts to The Night Manager, David Farr’s dramatisation of John Le Carré’s thriller. And I’ve been watching Normal People, Sally Rooney and Alice Birch’s dramatisation of Romney’s novel about a teenage romance.

I’m late to both of these, I know, but what strikes me most is that they’re pretty much equally tense. If anything, Normal People has me stressed out more and yet close to nothing happens.

In the first episode of that, we meet a schoolgirl and a schoolboy, and by the end they are secretly a couple. In the first episode of The Night Manager, there is murder, there are explosions, there is a really frightening villain.

I am deeply enjoying The Night Manager but I’m going to call it for Normal People as Most Tense of The Two.

And in this second, as I write to you, I remember something Alan Plater said about TV drama. He preferred it to be about people being, rather than something happening to people. Drama about people living, rather than drama about there’s-a-serial-killer-coming.

Mind you, I also think Normal People is more tense because it’s a romance. There’s an element of romance in the start of The Night Manager but, despite all that script’s other strengths, it feels like the pretty standard thing of a quick love affair before she gets murdered and he wants revenge. I am being so unfair to this show, but.

I used to think that my true definition of drama was two people arguing in a room and they’re both right. I still think that’s a peak, but maybe the true pinnacle is two people standing in a room and they both want each other yet the risk of saying it is so great.

It always is. I don’t know why this never stops being so tense when every romance has the same moment. Comedy romance turns on the first encounter, that’s so crucial that it’s even got a name, but drama has more than the meet-cute. It’s got the moment when one person tells the other.

There is no circumstance, no combination of desires or rejections, that can possibly mean anything, anything at all can stay remotely the same after that moment. If the other person is equally interested, that’s one thing and it’s great. But if they’re not, it’s over. You cannot go back to the friends you were one sentence ago. There will hopefully come a time when it’s not as painful for either of you any more, but until then you cannot have one sentence that isn’t awkward.

Listen, I was going to announce to you this week that I am becoming evil. I had decided it is the only way. In the US, there are people backing sedition and in the UK we have Brexit destroying the fishing industry while the government’s Jacob Rees-Mogg claims fish are happy now because they’re British. Clearly, self-interest to the point of blindness is what gets you anywhere in the world today.

Except now we’ve talked, I want to go write some romances. I’ll put evil on hold for a bit. Thanks.

Speaking of writing

It’s been pointed out to me –– gently but absolutely correctly –– that one can spend so much time talking about writing and trying new writing software that you don’t actually write.

I felt caught out.

Also slightly guilty. But not so guilty that I stopped everything and did some serious writing. Instead, I’ve compromised and asked a whole series of other people to talk about writing instead.

Every day next week, December 22-25, 2020, there is an in-depth interview with a different writer on my YouTube series, 58keys. Normally that show is specifically for writers who use Macs, iPhones and iPads, since YouTube adores a niche and I’m quite fond of one too, but this time it’s for everyone. Well, for every writer.

The Writers’ Guild’s Martin Sketchley, for instance, does talk about his writing, but he’s got much more to tell you about his new service for Writers. His “Think. Feel. Write.” helps us develop as people as much as writers. Plus he’s an absolute expert on Scrivener.

Speaking of software, Ken Case from the Omni Group agreed to talk about his firm’s major writing app, OmniOutliner. Today is the first day in months I haven’t opened OmniOutliner, but only because it’s early. I know for certain that later today I will be planning out two complicated articles in it, for instance.

Actually, that might be the moment in next week’s more than two hours of interviews that tickled me the most. Ken confessed that he’d prepared for the interview by making some notes in OmniOutliner –– and I had to confess right back that so had I. We both had this app on our screens throughout. Love that software.

Then on another day, I want you to meet Debbie McAndrew. To me she will always be this superb theatre writer: never flashy, never over the top, always true and moving and funny. I relish her writing but she is also an actor and in our chat she brings up fascinating details about being on Coronation Street during one of the show’s golden ages for writing.

There is just something about combining things that interests me. Debbie has this enviably useful twin perspective on her writing, reaching deep into herself as a writer yet knowing so very well what will help an actor bring that work to audiences. Ken Case is a software developer who makes this tool for writers and Martin Sketchley has this split career of writing and helping other writers through his service and through being West Midlands regional representative of the Writers’ Guild.

Only, if I think doing these five interviews means I’ve really appreciated my interest in multiple perspectives, multiple different writing muscles, I must’ve known I was into this from the start because of who else I interviewed.

April Smith splits her time between television and novels. That would be enough to make me interested, but then within novels she can be doing crime thrillers or deeply absorbing historical fiction. And in, to me, the ultimate in developing and applying a writer’s skill, in television she’s both a writer and a producer.

You’ve just seen her latest work: April was a consulting producer on the tremendous Mrs America. And you’ve long heard of the first show she produced, that little thing called Cagney and Lacey.

To me, though, she’s one of the writers of Lou Grant. It may never stop startling me that I get to talk with one of the writers whose work is responsible for my wanting to be a writer. If you’d like now to blame her, she’s on Tuesday.

In fact, let me tell you what I haven’t told anyone else yet. All five of the episodes are on my 58keys YouTube site daily from Monday to Friday next week –– that’s Monday to Christmas Day, it’s unbelievable that we’re at Christmas Day already –– and the schedule runs thisaway:

Monday: Ken Case
Tuesday: April Smith
Wednesday: Martin Sketchley
Thursday Christmas Eve: Debbie McAndrew

Every episode goes live at 07:00 GMT and will obviously stick around for you to dig into later. All five will then also go in my first-ever 58keys playlist, too.

Wait, hang on, that’s four. Ken, April, Martin and Debbie. There are definitely five interviews, I know there are, I was there, I saw them happen. Now I’m wondering which writer I can possibly have got to come out to play on Christmas Day.

It’s definitely a writer who has that very special feature of being available.

Come to think of it, I’m sure that’s how I get most of my work.

More lessons from reading scripts

I read at least one script every day and, yes, I do it to learn from them. Really I do it because I enjoy it gigantically, but there is an element of education there. And so as we near the end of the year, I’d like to offer you my top five scripts –– and what I’ve learned from them.

Let me be as clear as I can given that this is a bit muddy. These are my top five favourite scripts of 2020, but they aren’t of 2020. They range across decades and I just happen to have read them this year.

Speaking of this year, I didn’t do any script reading for awards judging panels. Chiefly because there were no awards. I’m surprised to say that’s knocked about 100 off the typical number I read in a year.

Also, it means that the scripts I read were entirely selected by me. It was what was available times what I fancied. No plan, no direction, just interest and hopefully then enjoyment.

I wanted to do some maths here and break down the totals but I’ve got stuck on a detail. So instead let me tell you that it is gold when you hit on a whole series of TV, radio or film scripts and completely fascinating when you can read how a show developed over several years.

But it can also be disappointing. I found a collection of James Bond movie scripts and thought that was me set for a week or two’s reading. I only made it through the whole of Dr No by promising myself chocolate at the end and I gave up a few pages into a couple of others. I don’t remember which because I didn’t finish them, so they don’t count.

Whereas I do remember that The Simpsons episode called You Only Move Twice was very good. And the Only Fools and Horses episode called Diamonds are For Heather, well, it had a great title. (If you click the link for that Only Fools scripts, be careful: the site has all the show’s scripts but it is riddled with popups and links that misdirect you into adverts. Exasperating.)

In all then, I have so far read 523 scripts this year. Which means the following top five marks 0.956% of them. Told you I tried to do some maths. Here’s the one statistic I can be confident of: all five are TV scripts. I’ve apparently read around 30 film scripts, 50 radio ones and 30 stage ones, but by chance it’s five TV scripts that cut the deepest into me.

Here’s my top five in reverse order for no reason other than to try to build some tension.

5. Mrs America: Gloria by Dahvi Waller
I am singling out this one script from the whole of the Mrs America series, but solely because it’s the only script from that show that you can get. The series is about the efforts in the 1970s to pass America’s Equal Rights Amendment, the ERA, and the efforts to stop it, too.

I just relished the show for its tension and how well it explored the arguments for and against. It was also deeply uncomfortable in its depictions of 1970s male attitudes.

But it also made me think a lot about creating likeable, admirable characters –– who you completely disagree with. It made me think about people with opposing views to yours can be great people. So Mrs America is ostensibly about the 1970s, but it felt very modern, too.

4. My So-Called Life: Father Figures by Winnie Holzman
I re-read all the MSCL scripts you can find online because a friend, Genevieve Hassan, interviewed one of its stars, AJ Langer, on her Celebrity Catch-Up podcast.

If you don’t know My So-Called Life, I profoundly envy you having it still to watch. It’s the story of American teenagers in the 1990s and I’ve just made it sound somewhere between Beverley Hills 90210 and even more boring. But I promise you this: you’ll have a time.

As a script, I think what I learned or at least am still trying to learn is how quietly you can shout. On the one hand, this is a low-key series with no great twists, but on the other hand every moment is compelling and makes you feel small surprises as giant shocks because you get what they mean to these characters.

3. Motherland by Holly Walsh, Sharon Horgan, Graham Linehan and Helen Linehan
Specifically the pilot episode, though again mostly because that’s the only script you can get. I relished the series as a whole and it’s the one show I’m looking forward to seeing in this Christmas’s TV lineup.

Motherland is about being a working parent, I think that’s about all you need to know and I think that is just the smallest sliver of what it’s really about.

A producer I like mentioned to me that she’d found the series weaker than the pilot. At the time, I hadn’t even known there was a pilot so I’d come to it a bit backwards. Somehow that’s meant I can’t assess the differences because to me the pilot was a treat of an extra episode after the rest.

There is one thing I have definitely learned that I want to hold back from you for a second because I learned it too from the scripts that follow. But specifically and only from Motherland, I think I learned about writing crushing pressures on characters and how those pressures can be both forcefully real and very funny.

2. Fleabag by Phoebe Waller-Bridge
It seems like eleventy-billion years ago now, but last Christmas I was given the book of these scripts. So it was the first I read this year and it was the first complete series I got to read. Do go get the book. But you can also read two episodes online via the tremendous TV Writing website.

This had that thing I’m holding off saying, but it’s also a two-series-long adaptation of Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag stage show and it’s the conversion that I think I learned from the most. Don’t get me even slightly wrong, I know I learned from all of it and this is a series of scripts that upset me as much as they made me laugh.

But it’s also a series of scripts that do not include one key moment from the stage show. So I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why that didn’t transfer, what difference it means to the characters. A year on, a COVID year on, I’m still thinking about it.

1. In My Skin by Kayleigh Llewellyn
Scripts for the whole five-episode series are available online. It’s about a teenage schoolgirl in Wales.

And let me stop there. For this is what I learned from In My Skin, Motherland, Fleabag and I now realise actually also from My So-Called Life and Mrs America.

I am not, never have been and never can be a teenage schoolgirl in Wales but the right script can make me feel as if I am. All of these scripts took me places I don’t know and into characters I cannot be, and they made me feel.

I wish to God I was as good a writer as any of those in this rundown. Don’t count me out yet, though, I’m working on it.

Count on it

I’ve been asked to do a talk on plotting next week –– you know, around the time we may finally know the who’s the leader of the free world and who’s Trump — and you also know, I hope, that it’s not going to be me who does the talking. I have to tell this group something, I suppose, but really they’re going to talk, I’m going to listen, and we’ll probably discuss, well, I don’t know the name for it. See what you think of this, please, and tell me if you can think of a word to describe it all.

Last time I did anything like this, I wrote out what I called the Ten Rules of Plotting. Of course they’re not rules, of course there were Twelve of them. But I thought it was a useful kind of –– guide? list? brochure? — or something. Chiefly because I thought it included some things — nuggets? pearls? a third thing? — that could help you avoid the kind of plot choices that make your audience switch to Netflix or your reader turn to looking up the US electoral college count. Again.

It also had –– suggestions? tips? advice? –– on how to make your plot last longer, which is immensely useful for scriptwriters becoming novelists.

And then there is this.

The quickest way to create a plot, I believe, is to think of a character and then ask yourself what the worst thing that can happen to them is.

There is more, as in you really shouldn’t take your first thought. Especially since that first thought is probably that they die. Look for what’s worse and especially what is the worst thing for them, not just for anyone, specifically for them. My usual quick example is when your character is a surgeon and I offer that the worst thing that can happen for her is that she catches her hand in a car door.

That’s career-pausing, could be career-killing, but I think it’s more than that because in my mind this character is an egotist and she’s just had everything that she thinks makes her special deleted from her.

I love putting characters into situations they cannot live with –– and then seeing how they live with it.

To my mind, that’s really character and that’s what’s really interesting and the car door is just a prop. Plots are a prop for characters. But you can find plots by testing your characters.

Which is all well and good, except I have never been more politically aware and we are at a time when it feels as if politics moves on by choosing what the worst thing to happen is.

I love putting characters into situations. I’ve had enough of this happening to us all in real life. And I do know a word for that.

Writing by numbers

I know I stole this thought from somewhere, but for the longest time I’ve felt I sit right on the edge between arts and technology. That’s nice for me. And actually, yes, it is. I get to write scripts and drama, I get to use tools that help and excite me, I also get to write about those. Typically where these two spheres meet, I get to have a very good time. But not always.

This week, I got an email on my iPhone from a company championing music technology over the arts. Not with the arts, not for, but above it. Use their music system and you will know –– this was the selling point, you would actually know –– that your song is going to be a hit. Or not. And if it isn’t, you therefore know to throw it away and do something else until you get it right.

I think this is obviously wrong all round. I’m minded of David Cameron, who apparently once told British filmmakers that they should only make successful films. I remember going a little pale. I don’t know anything about, say, the UK’s legal agreements with the EU, but I’d ask before I decided I knew best and broke them.

At the time, it was a sobering and slightly scary thought that someone running the country could be that, well, let’s cut to it, stupid. Now it would be a bit of a surprise if they weren’t.

There was a little more, though. Cameron specifically referenced The King’s Speech, the tremendous film written by David Seidler. This is a film that was a worldwide success, absolutely, and a deserved one. However, it was also a historical movie about a rich man most of the world hasn’t heard of, working his way up to making one speech. Of all the people needed to make that film happen, you can be certain that every one of them did so because the script was great, not because they really thought it was going to be a blockbuster success. “Hold off on that Batman project, we’ve got this now.”

If Cameron thought at all – and he appeared to spend more than a chance second on it so again how stupid was he? – then what he thought was that it was possible to know what would be a success. You know what films have been a hit before, make films like that. I truly, truly cannot fathom a mind that would think that, then point to The King’s Speech, and say ta-daa, that was a hit because all obscure historical movies with no action always have been.

This is all crossing my mind as I’m in my kitchen, reading this email from a firm that wants me to write about how musicians can emulate previous hits and never have to create anything new at all. That’s a firm who knows what listeners want. And why musicians write.

I am far from being against mixing technology with music. If I were a musician, you bet I’d be hands on with Logic Pro to master my album. And just now, just before you and I started nattering, I was listening to Francisca Valenzuela’s fantastically powerful Flotando. I was listening over AirPods and it was as if the room were full of this wonderful, enveloping Chilean music.

I offer, though, that while I listened over technology, and it was a free track of hers on iTunes ten years ago that got me to try her music, there’s nothing else. Nothing in my listening history should trigger any algorithm to think oh, yes, let’s play him Chilean pop music he won’t understand and is by an artist who has never charted in his country.

Any sane algorithm, any informed analysis of my musical tastes would do the opposite, it would skip Francisca Valenzuela entirely. And I would therefore be missing out on a decade of music I relish, plus right now a song that –– it’s true –– I don’t understand, but which fills my chest as much as my ears.

Then there is this. This isn’t the music technology’s fault, they couldn’t know that I’d be reading their email on an iPhone. They might have guessed, mind, since the iPhone is –– literally –– the best-selling product of any kind in the world, ever. And if you don’t have an iPhone, you have an Android phone.

So take a look.

Apple vs Samsung count image

That’s a court image from a legal case between Apple and Samsung, but it’s broadly illustrative. What I’d suggest is that it would be much the same if you changed it from just these two companies and into a larger chart with every phone from every firm.

It’s night and day.

Nothing looked like an iPhone before the iPhone. Everything looked like the iPhone afterwards.

The phone in your pocket, the phone you use a hundred times a day and now feels part of your life –– whether it’s iPhone or Android –– is the way it is, is the use it is, because of that 2007 iPhone launch and its success.

In 2007, though, and also 2008, 2009… Apple was mocked for the iPhone. They were mocked for every part that was different to previous phones, such as how they don’t have physical keyboards. Literally laughed at. Everyone was focused on what had been a success in mobile phones and everything Apple did that was different, was therefore wrong.

I’m suddenly minded of something totally different. I remember a series of columns in Radio Times where the writer, a key figure on that magazine, regularly moaned how every TV drama was exactly the same. She had a point, she made good points, then she blew it. Because one week there was a drama that was different and she criticised it for not being the same.

Not every new idea is going to work. Not every new idea is good. This week the short-form video service Quibi shut down and I don’t miss it in the slightest, I didn’t like what they did, but they tried something new and they didn’t try it based on what everyone watched yesterday.

I love technology but I also have exactly no interest in technology. What I love is what it enables. You and I get to talk like this because of technology. I deeply love that having now made fifty YouTube videos, I can see how much tighter my scriptwriting is. I profoundly love hearing someone laugh and knowing it was because of how precisely I positioned a shot in the video, I mean how I put it at the one moment, the one frame, where it would be funny.

No question, whatever my comic timing is, it’s informed by everything I’ve watched and read and heard before.

But I am never trying to be like anything I’ve seen before. I think the real problem this music technology firm has is just that it’s completely wrong. The aim of a musician, of a writer, of an artist, is not to produce something that makes cash. We want that, we need that to survive, but if your sole purpose is to make cash, there are a lot easier ways than writing.

I write to find something new. Everything you create, you do to find something new. Now if only we could get Hollywood to work the same way.

The same but different

The streaming service Britbox just added a shovelful of more British TV dramas to its service and one of them is Cracker by Jimmy McGovern. I saw that when it originally aired on September 27, 1993 and now I saw it again on Wednesday. That’s 26 years, 10 months and 30 days, but throughout that time I have remembered and admired one scene in precise detail.

Admire is a funny word. Feels a bit clinical. As if I were saying I could appreciate its technical merits, or something, but otherwise it left me cold. No. Cracker is a crime series with the ability to make me frightened for the victims in it. No high body count, no meaningless deaths – at least not in the sense of just being done for a plot twist; plenty of times the deaths are as meaningless as ones in real life.

And actually I do feel as if I’m going to reduce the show by focusing on what I want to talk to you about. It is the smallest moment in an exceptionally well written, commanding, engrossing, provoking drama.

The lead character, Fitz (Robbie Coltrane), sees a news report on the TV. That’s it.

Swap this show for any other police series, even ones I like, and there is a fair to total chance that this scene would play out in exactly the same way. The hero catches a news bulletin just as it happens to mention what he, she or we need to know for the drama. There’ll be a helpful photograph, some exposition that would never really be said that way by any journalist, and the hero would then unerringly know the precise moment to switch off the TV.

In the first episode of Cracker, The Mad Woman in the Attic Part 1, McGovern does have a news bulletin like this. It has a photograph of a woman who’s been murdered, it has a news presenter presenting news. What it doesn’t have, what Fitz doesn’t have, is the remote control for the TV set.

So we see him noticing the photo on the TV news, then scrabbling to find the remote to turn the sound up, and finally crossing to the set to find the controls there. And he succeeds, he gets to turn up the volume, but he’s too late.

He’s too late to find out anything and it is perfect. I’ve remembered that moment for three decades.

It’s perfect in part because we already know she’s been killed, we know a huge amount. We don’t yet know what his connection is, but there is no information that news bulletin could possibly give us that we either didn’t already have or couldn’t see from his frantic searching.

It’s also perfect because it’s new. That may sound strange to say when it is 9,830 days old, but it was new then and it is new now. A very familiar situation is completely reversed and providing the same information in a totally new way.

In a somewhat smaller way, I’m minded of when I worked on the Radio Times website. Back then there were sub editors, subs who checked facts, smoothed out grammar issues and really a dozen or more different things that meant articles were as good as they possibly could be.

Except sometimes I’d find a sentence I’d really carefully fashioned would come out as a cliché. I did ask, I did protest, but I was told that it was necessary because people like clichés. You can tell me that until the cows come home in freezer bags, I told them, it isn’t true.

Look what I did there with the freezer bags. I’m not saying it was great writing or even noticeable, but you understood it as completely as if it were the original cliché, and it wasn’t. It was the same thing but different and maybe this is just me, but that’s worth the world.

No, wait, it can’t just be me because you’re nodding and, besides, there is even a term for it. When you write a sentence that is a cliché or, more commonly is just a familiar phrase, you can recast the sentence. Audition different words and hire them if they’re right for the job. I’ll never turn to a thesaurus, but I will spend as long as it takes to find a different way of saying something.

I just realised this week that maybe it comes from that Cracker scene. Seeing how you can deliver the same information in even a slightly different way, it’s stuck with me.

Reading enough into it

Last night I reread an Aaron Sorkin script for his comedy series Sports Night and it was the 220th screenplay I’ve read this year. I’ve been reading at least one script every day since late December 2017 and so “The Local Weather” was also my 1,469th in this run. And yet it wasn’t until during this one that I remembered.

I remembered what it was like the first time I read a script. I don’t mean when I read The Time Tunnel: The Last Patrol on December 23, 2017. I mean back in the day, back whenever it was. While I’ve not been so regular about it before, I’ve read scripts all my life but there must’ve been a first one.

I definitely can’t even remember what it was or even begin to guess. I mean I’ve just turned to my shelves and I’ve a couple of hundred books of TV, film, radio and theatre scripts. But there must’ve been a first and somehow, reading this one – more likely re-re-reading it – the sensation came back.

And that sensation is excitement.

You forget things so easily. But to have a show that made you laugh, that reached inside you, that changed you, and then to see its script. No actors, no music, just the bare words on the page and it is a thrill. From that writer’s mind to yours, a direct connection. A sense of enormous effort behind each casual line, before it even got to the screen.

Drama is collaboration and I’ll never think it is or should be anything else, but you can’t see drama direction without there being a script. (Well, maybe when it’s very bad.) You can’t see an actor’s performance without there being a script. Possibly only music can have two lives, existing in its own right as well as being part of the final mix.

I suddenly remember giving a friend a spare copy of the published Frasier scripts I’d got –– I’d bought one and then Channel 4’s press office sent over a copy to the newsroom –– and I can still see her face. They’re scripts, she said. I don’t know how to read scripts.

You see her point of course: all that formatting, all those page conventions like INT and EXT, it’s something you need to get used to. But I must’ve given her that book around the year 2000 and by then I was already so familiar with the form that it took me a beat to comprehend what she meant.

I must ask her if she’s ever read it.

UPDATE: I did. I sent her a message and –– she is such a good writer –– she sent a line straight back that instantly made you picture her shuffling her feet uncomfortably. “A bit,” she said. She read it a bit.

I was going to say that I can’t understand why that delights and tickles me so much but of course I can: she wrote the reply well. What I can’t understand is quite why scripts thrill me so much.

But we don’t need to understand or comprehend or label a thrill. I’m just going to get some tea, head out into our garden and – depending on how you count – enjoy reading script number 211 aka 1,470. It’s going to be the stage play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and I can’t wait.

Faster and slower

Lizzy didn’t like Mr Darcy at first, but then she did. Scrooge was this right old git, but then he slept on it and bought a turkey. There was a bit of war, but then also a bit of peace.

There you go, you’ve just read three books and doubtlessly got the full value out of them. Mind you, I realise as I say this to you that while I know many people who haven’t read Pride and Prejudice, I don’t know anyone who has only read it once. Such a great book.

Here you go: Lizzy didn’t like Mr Darcy at first, but then she did. You’re welcome.

I’m saying this to you because I’m grumbling. There’s this thing in podcasts which some people love so much that I just read a piece where someone was longing for film and television to do exactly the same thing.

Speed up.

Now, you can think of films that dragged a bit, naming no names Sean-Bean’s-death-scene-in-Lord-of-the-Rings, but that’s not what’s going on. It’s not that anyone wants films to get on with it, it’s that some want the footage to run faster, and reportedly many play their podcasts at 1.5 or twice normal speed.

Many podcast apps have a button for this. Some will analyse the podcast episode and also remove silences so that it runs a bit shorter.

I like to get on with things, but if you’re listening to a podcast or one day watching a film that you genuinely believe is improved by running at twice normal speed, I have a different button for you.

It’s the stop button.

Ditch that show and go listen to something better made.

For just as the spaces between words in a book are crucial, so the minuscule silences in speech are, too. I’ve produced a lot of podcasts and there was one where for some reason the recordings had a teeny delay so that it sounded as if my co-host was forever aghast at the stupid thing I’d just said. I did edit that to cut those out, but I left many of them in because quite often he was.

There is a reason scripts have the phrase “beat pause”. There is a rhythm and a pace that is every single bit as much a part of the whole story as the words.

The argument for speeding up what you’re listening to is that you get the information faster and you can enjoy more podcasts or whatever in the same amount of time.

I think the latter point is spurious. You’re not enjoying the podcast, you’ve already decided not to experience it the way it was built and produced.

And I think the first point about getting the information faster is idiotic. Since you’re ignoring the form as it was created and you’re believing that the worth is in the words spoken, read the damn transcript.

There was an acclaimed audio series recently that was on a topic I was deeply interested in, but the presenter’s delivery was so slow that it was as if she were insulting us. It was as if she were talking to a child and it was unbearable even before the show also became repetitive.

I did have a 1.5 button on that app. I did have a twice-normal-speed button.

But instead I used another control entirely. I tapped on Unsubscribe.

Accented characters

I’ve a friend who insists, really strongly insists, that he has no accent whatsoever. He’s American. I just look at him. But then this week, I was asked if I had deliberately changed my own accent.

I’m from Birmingham in the UK and if it’s fair to say we have a particular accent, then it’s very unfair how that accent gets maligned. When a Cockney tells you that your accent makes you sound stupid, truly the only thing you can say is “goodbye”.

As it happens, I don’t speak in a particularly Birmingham accent, but I am deeply uncomfortable at the idea I might have deliberately done that. I vow to you that I haven’t, but the very idea cuts deep into me and in part, I think because it connects to a key failing I think I have in my writing.

Let me triple underline that I have not and would not deliberately change my accent. I’m told that at times a sudden stab of Brummie will come out of me in some particular word. Good. If I cannot change my accent to avoid Brummie, I suppose I can’t in all conscience choose to change it so that I am more Birmingham, but I am proud of where I come from and where I live now, and enough so that I want you to know. If you get that from me actually telling you, fine. If you get it from a sudden Brummie word, all the better.

I used to tell people that my accent is what it is because I grew up watching Bob Hope films. But as I said to the person who asked me about it this week, I’m no longer comfortable saying that because of how Hope treated his writers.

He used to make them all stand at the bottom of some stairs while he was at the top. He would write their cheques and throw them down to them.

Maybe I could just amend my accent explanation, maybe I could just be more precisely accurate. I grew up watching the Road movies that Bob Hope and Bing Crosby were in. Seven movies from 1940 to 1960-something, so long before I was born, but films like Road to Singapore, Road to Rio.

My favourite is Road to Morocco, and probably because it contains one of my favourite lines from any film. It’s a quite tortuous line that Hope and Crosby manage to sing on their journey and it goes: “Like Webster’s International Dictionary, we’re Morocco-bound.”

Now you’re looking at me.

I wonder if my clearly British but otherwise not apparently very precise accent is less my exposure to American films, and more because of this writing failure.

I could tell you the history of Birmingham. I have been a kind of tour guide for the place, I’ve dragged friends from the US and Canada around it. With friend and writer Yasmin Ali, I’ve put a visitor from Myanmar through every possible site in the city. I remember when I eventually left him and Yasmin, I actually sank to the street, my legs were evaporated.

When an interviewee recently described Manchester as Britain’s second city, I switched off the audio recorder and gave him a talking to.

When a college friend insisted that actually Nottingham should be the second city, I explained “Bollocks”.

Yet apart from right now, here, talking with you, I don’t think you ever see Birmingham in my writing. It’s certainly not from any particular decision, and I do have a current script that’s set here in the city, but my writing is definitely not riddled with my home town.

And I do think that’s a failing.

Alan Plater’s work, for instance, was so often not just set in the North East, but positively imbued with the place. You can think of so many more, too. Places, usually home towns, that seep into a writer’s work and, I think, give it something I lack.

I have set more writing in the TARDIS than I have in Birmingham.

And this is all on my mind again because the friend who asked about my accent did so at a book event. There’s a new book called “Spake: Dialect and Voices from the West Midlands“, published by the great Nine Arches Press. It’s a collection of prose and poetry and essays about and using the dialects –

– sudden flashback to school. I’m in a technology lesson and the teacher is talking about computer languages and dialects. Then he finally writes that word on the board and the whole class goes “Oh, I see” because it had kept sounding like he was saying “Daleks”.

The book is funny and insightful and it’s a collection of writing from writers whose work I relish and some of whom, I know and relish as people too.

Each piece is about myriad other topics as well, but they all touch on location and they are all deeply steeped in the different regional accents and dialects of the West Midlands. I think sometimes it’s piled on a bit for effect, but the effect is brilliant.

The more precisely defined that a region is in these pieces, the more specific and particular the words and the grammar and the sounds of the writing, the more universal it all is. You may not know what a particular word means, but still it gives the writing life and verve.

You can’t make this stuff up, I can’t fake an accent I don’t have, and I suspect my writing will always lack this core, but that doesn’t mean I have to be okay about it.