“I said explain it to me, not talk science”

You’ve seen this. You’re reading a book or watching a film and some character says something that jars. It sounds more like the author talking than the character. It feels imposed somehow, like an idea has been added in through product placement.

Sometimes it actually is product placement. There was a sitcom recently where a character needed to find out something and announced that he’d Bing it. No, he wouldn’t. He’d Google it like everyone else, but Microsoft was paying for the promotion of their search service.

Often it actually is the author or the screenwriter, such as when there’s a political point to be made and it’s theirs instead of the characters.

That’s a tougher one: I don’t think writers always notice when they do it.

And then you have issues like Abi Morgan’s Suffragette. I think she did a marvellous job of conveying society and in particular men’s rejection of women’s rights. Yet it’s a case where the protagonists are the suffragettes and the antagonist is an entire society that is giant and also so clearly, entirely, totally wrong.

Drama works best, I believe, when it’s about two people arguing and they’re both right. Morgan had to find a way to embody male society and for dramatic purposes also to not make it as clear-cut a case of men wrong, women right as it actually was. The more I think of what she had to pull off in that script, the more impressed I am that she did it yet it’s still a case of the writer’s politics impressing on every character in some way.

The Bing case just saw me jerk my head and lament the state of advertising on television today. The Suffragette one was a case of my thinking about it after seeing the film.

Whereas “I said explain it to me, not talk science” is a line that stops me watching.

Quite literally: that line stopped me watching.

I relish time travel stories and there’s an intriguing film called Deja Vu by Bill Marsilii and Terry Rossio but I can’t get through it. Because of that line. In fairness, it isn’t quite as bad as the more common “Talk English, Doc!” that you regularly get.

But the intention is the identical and so is the effect. It’s just that those two things are not the same.

The intention is to make an explanation sound scientifically plausible while simultaneously making it accessible to non-scientists. The intention is to have us identify with the hero, who is always the one saying this, and so humanise the situation.

The effect is to say that the audience is stupid and the hero is more so. Without one single exception, whenever you hear a line like this, it is interrupting a scientific explanation that a five-year-old would’ve understood anyway. This is because the writer has no interest in science and so picked up the first fact he or she found in Physics for Dummies and assumes you don’t know it.

invariably, the science is nothing so having the hero interrupt is actually making that hero look thicker than multiple planks laid together. You can argue that it’s making an adversarial relationship with the scientists and drama feeds on argument, but instead it’s telling me that the scientists are rubbish and that they are the hero’s enemy.

Every character comes out of this badly and perhaps that’s ultimately the problem: I cease to believe any of them. i’ve said it before, if I don’t believe the characters, I don’t give a damn what happens to them. And this particular case, i’l never know because I stopped Deja Vu right there.

Here’s the trailer. If you see the film or if you have already seen it, tell me whether it gets any better. I’m on @WGallagher. Thanks.

Women and Mentoring

This isn’t about women, it’s not about men and it’s only a bit about mentoring. Clearly I just like a good title. Listen, I don’t care whether someone is a man or a woman, if they’re a writer then I think there comes a point when they want guidance or mentoring. Or if I’m wrong, then I’ve just had a weird run of coincidence from writers who have the same weakness I think we all do.

So this week I turned down a man who wanted to hire me to mentor him. I have done mentoring on specific types of work or for specific types of writers and he didn’t fit either so I turned him down because I wasn’t the right person for him.

I did suggest things he could look into, though, and there was one particular point of his that I thought I could help with. He wanted to know whether he was approaching writing stories correctly, if he were doing the right thing. I told him who cares? If you end up with a good piece, it doesn’t matter if you write it in crayon on every second Tuesday of the year.

Half a beat later, a woman writer joked that what she wants most is someone to look over her work every quarter of an hour and tell her whether it’s going well or not.

You know she wasn’t joking. I know she wasn’t joking. She knew she wasn’t joking. So I told her in all seriousness that this would be a Very, Very Bad Idea.

She thought I was joking.

It happened again this week with another couple of writers so it’s been on my mind but I think these first two reveal a remarkably similar issue. They both want someone else to tell them if they’re right. That means, then, that they both think there is a right way to do something.

There’s something else, too, and I’m struggling to describe this. Let me try this way and you can tell me if I’m making sense. I think both of these writers unconsciously think that writing comes out in a straight line. That you get the first paragraph right and then you write the second. That you can show the first page, say, to someone, and they’ll give you a pass/fail.

But writing is a mess. No, more than that, writing is a fight. I don’t want to sound all male about it and I don’t equate writing to violence nor expect all writing to be conflict. Yet it is always a scrap. How’s that? It’s scrappy. You’re pulling this idea over there and nudging or shoving or easing it into another shape. You’re kneading the words and you’re fashioning one single loaf out of countless ingredients.

Possibly you’re making a really rubbish analogy and stretching it out in the hope that somewhere along the line it will make sense. Fail.

I won’t read your first paragraph because there’s no point until you’ve finished the whole piece. Then if I read, say, your script, then I do know from page one whether it’s working or not. That’s not some brilliance on my part, it’s because it is very quickly obvious when something is a fail. The only writer who can’t see it is the writer who wrote it.

But good or bad, instantly obvious or not, it needs the whole thing there or all anyone can tell you is if you type well.

That man I turned down, by the way, wrote a very good email. He’s a writer. I’ve read pieces by that woman and she writes with verve and life and vigour. She’s a writer.

They just both have to get on with writing. So do I. So do you.

Bookshelf with script books

Reading scripture

My overcrowded office shelves include one bookcase full of screenplay books and another couple of shelves of A4-printed ones. I used to collect them because I used to read them. A lot. I would read a script and make a note of whether I liked it: just a simple note to come back to reread this one some time or to avoid that writer forever. I remember that I read over a thousand before I stopped bothering to make those notes but of course I carried on reading.

Only, what used to be a habitual purchase has become a rare one because there are dramatically fewer scripts and screenplays published any more. That’s entirely because so very many more are released online. Not only is that cheaper and easier than buying bookcases full of the things, it also has unmatched advantage that the scripts look the way they should.

Books always alter them. At best it’s in order to cram more words on the page and therefore have fewer pages. At worst it’s not the script, it’s a transcript. Admittedly that one is a problem online too: there are people who will write down every word said in a film and call it the script. I can’t knock anyone being dedicated to words but some will do it as an unbroken stream of dialogue without any regard to even which character is saying which sentence. Madness.

Yet you learn to avoid those and you learn where there are real scripts. Only, maybe because it’s now easy and maybe because there are so many available to choose from, I realised that I stopped reading scripts.

Not entirely. I can think of 300 or 400 TV episodes I’ve read. And it’s always faster to read a screenplay than to see a film so when I was curious about Aaron Sorkin’s Steve Jobs movie but not quite curious enough to see it, I read that. Then for instance I liked the sound of (500) Days of Summer by Scott Neustadter and Michael H Weber so I read that.

Curiously, I later enjoyed the film (500) Days of Summer more than most people I know who didn’t read the script. And I enjoyed Sorkin’s Steve Jobs screenplay more than the film when it finally turned up on Netflix the other day.

Still, overall, the trend was against me reading scripts – though I ran to get the screenplay to Arrival by Eric Heisserer as soon as I left the cinema – and as someone who counts himself as a scriptwriter, this isn’t brilliant.

So when Hayley McKenzie’s Script Angel firm ran a guest blog recommending we read one script a day, I was ready to hear that suggestion.

I read that blog on 22 December and from 23 December, I’ve read a script every day. The blog is right. I’m thinking in script form again. But I’m also just enjoying it. Because I’ve made it a daily task – it is actually there on my OmniFocus app To Do list every day – then I tell myself it’s work and for the short time it takes me to read a script, I seem to allow myself to be fully into it. Concentrating and yet also relaxing.

Today’s was Give Me a Ring Sometime, the pilot to Cheers by Glen and Les Charles. I tell you, television pilots are surely the hardest scripts to write and I knew that Cheers had one of the absolute best. I’ve seen that pilot episode many times but I haven’t read it before. And just like its spinoff Frasier, arguably the finest pilot script there is, seeing it on the page makes you appreciate it more.

It also makes you appreciate editing. I know Frasier was cut down to fit its ridiculously short on-air time and I’ve always seen that the pilot script was actually improved by the cutting. Now I know that Cheers, such a familiar piece of television to me, was also cut down. One entire character dropped completely and I think rightly.

Excuse me while I go watch the episode to see if there’s any sign of her. Yep. Once you know this woman had a significant role you can’t miss her. But that entire role is gone and I’m off pondering how her absence alters the tone, the pace, the humour. I’m also pondering how that actor felt, but that’s less because I’m a writer, more because I’m human.

Anyway, I’ll be back reading scripts tomorrow. If you’re into film scripts, by the way, bookmark the Daily Script and Simply Scripts. Neither is the best-designed site and in the latter you have to hunt to avoid unproduced scripts by fans.

If you’re into TV, you can get many scripts on both of those sites but by far the best resource is one called just TV Writing. I adore that one.

No strings attached

There’s a line in the new Star Wars film about something or other being at the end of a piece of string. I’m not being vague because I’ve already forgotten what it was, I’m trying to avoid spoiling a single thing. Mind you, the string line isn’t a single thing: they say it twice like it’s a bit cleverer than it actually is.

If I were going to review Star Wars: The Last Jedi then I’d be talking about what the characters say. For instance, it’s got a lot of wisecracks that need you to be in love with the characters or to be living in the 1970s on a diet of bad US television to enjoy. But since this isn’t a review, let me say that the film is a fun ride and immeasurably better than The Force Awakens.

I just keep coming back to that line about string.

As much as I did enjoy the film, it feels a mess and I think it lacks a piece of string pulling us through. It’s event after event and that isn’t enough for me.

I am certain that I’m saying something you already know because I’m certain I already knew it too. Yet seeing its absence is making me think and talk about it anew.

I was recently asked something like ‘what do you admire in art’ and I replied about writing where the piece sets out to do something and does it. I replied talking about the end of a piece where you have been taken somewhere you didn’t expect and didn’t predict yet in that final moment know is where the writer was always taking you. When that’s done right, the sheer perfection of it genuinely makes me cry.

Whether a story is explosive action or seductive calm, it should be constantly surprising but every single beat must also be taking you to where the writer intended. If you’ve got a great gag and it doesn’t move you in that direction, kill it. Each moment has to be the very best it can be – and it also has to be invisibly or visibly moving you to where the story is going.

Bugger. I’m thinking about this because of that line about string and I’ve now realised that it’s a rubbish analogy. I thought it was about being pulled through to somewhere or maybe that the string is a guideline of some kind.

But actually the best analogy I can think of is one I’ve thought of before so often that I may have bored you with it in a pub.

Stories are like pieces of wood that you rub your hand over. When you go in one direction, following the story for the first time, you’re rubbing your hand against the grain. So it’s bumpy, there are shards that cut into you, there are tiny slivers of wood that get into your skin.

And then when you rub the other way, from the end of the story backwards, you’re rubbing with the grain and now the wood feels perfectly smooth.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi is bumpy both ways. It’s got great moments and actually I think the ending works best of it all, but the film lacks something huge. I think it lacks this sense of a storyteller pulling you through.

Fighting for the Corrs

I’ve been planning out a workshop I’m due to run in February about software for writers. Easy, I thought: Scrivener, OmniOutliner, Evernote, Drafts – oh. Slight problem. Most of the people coming are PC users so that’s Drafts and OmniOutliner out. And they’ve just had a workshop specifically about Scrivener.

I’ve got about six weeks to come up with this workshop and I’ve already changed it a dozen times in my head but right now what I’m thinking is this. I’ll take these people through the typical stages of writing anything, from first scratches of an idea, through research if any, through false starts if many, and on to the rest. Writing, editing, revising, rewriting and what you need to do when getting that text to publishers or editors or whatever.

And along the way, I’ll show them how there are types of software that can help. So for instance, toward the start I’ll cover mind mapping tools that help some people capture chaotic ideas. I’ll find them a couple of Windows mind mapping tools but I don’t see any problem with demonstrating the idea using a Mac and iPad one that I genuinely use often. (That’s called MindNode and I just this week wrote a review of the latest version for AppleInsider.)

I think this will work and I think it could even be very good, which is nice for me and unlikely to be nice for you as you’re not invited. Sorry about that. But in noodling through this all week, I’ve realised that I will definitely also include ways of capturing those fleeting ideas you know have potential but you can’t use them in whatever you’re writing now.

You’ve got your own system for doing this and I bet you forget things just as much as I do. But in my case I’m going to use the fact that apps work well in combination. So, for instance, there’s a great iPhone and iPad tool called Drafts. It’s a bare-bone app for writing in but what it does that’s so good is that it is ready immediately. Tap the app, start writing: no having to choose New Document or pick a template, just open and write.

When you put the phone down and immediately think of something else, pick it up again and start writing again. Drafts gives you a blank new page every time, right away.

But it also lets you take action on things and the one thing I do is this. When I’ve written something in the dead of night that I foolishly think will be both useful and coherent tomorrow, I tap a button in Drafts that I’ve called Story Ideas. Then before my head has fallen back onto the pillow, Drafts has taken that new text and appended it to the end of a very, very, very long Evernote entry where I collect all of these things.

The point is to be fast at writing them down before they’re gone and the point is to then always know exactly where to go to read these ideas again.

That’s where I fall down: I never remember to look at the Story Ideas note.

Or I didn’t.

I looked this morning, while pondering whether to tell you all this stuff about a workshop you can’t go to, and I am astonished at how many notes and thoughts there are in this Evernote pile. Since 05:50 on 3/11/2013 – Drafts dates each entry – I’ve got 12,842 words of ideas.

I can’t say that they’re good. For instance, I’ve just found from 09:28 on 19/6/2014 the words: “Write about a tree”.

But then there’s this from 18:45:27 on 5/7/14: “Steve hates time travel. He had a bad experience when he was a kid and an old man.” I think that led to a short story two years later. Certainly it was part of the thinking so I like that.

Or I like this more than I should. At 01:53:41 (why are some times to the millisecond and others aren’t?) on 25/9/14 I just wrote: “You don’t know whether you fancy her or want to be her.” And now look at this script extract from two months ago:

INT. LONDON RESTAURANT BAR – EVENING
The group is waiting in a bar. There are large TV screens tuned to sports and news channels.

Susan Hare is in an evening dress and, God, she looks superb. You’re not sure if you fancy her or want to be her. You are sure that this is someone rich, talented and leading a charmed life. You’d be wrong, but you’d be sure.

That’s from a script called Vows which has been doing remarkably well for me this year. Without looking in my Story Ideas notes, without remembering that I’d had this thought before, writing it down in Drafts and sending to Evernote lodged it in my head enough to come out three years later when I needed it.

So somewhere around 2020, then, I expect to be writing a script or an article about how words change and events get forgotten. I expect to be writing a story in which some student in the future pays little attention to a lecture on the Troubles in Northern Ireland and thinks it’s about music from the era.

Thank you for letting me find a place to use one of the more silly ideas I’ve got recorded in this thing.

No better time

This is going to sound so optimistic that you’ll think I’m auditioning to write for Hallmark Cards. But I mean it.

I mean this: right now is the best time there has ever been to be a writer.

Okay, just to get Hallmark off my back, I will also say that this is the worst time it has ever been to be a paid writer. Getting money for this is tough. But while I can’t and won’t discount the problems, the opportunities are astonishing.

I was doing a writing masterclass session at Birmingham City University this week where we discussed a couple of students’ work in detail. One of them was a short radio play and I’m blathering on about it when I realise that actually what this writer needs isn’t me.

She needs to make that play.

And she can.

Now, I’ve been in Birmingham City University’s radio studios and they are impressive: I presume she can book space there. And there’s a School of Acting around the place so I imagine casting isn’t going to be a great problem.

But as handy as all that is, the truth is that she’s got a phone. I don’t know what phone and I don’t know what recording apps she may have, but for pennies she can turn that phone into a recording studio.

She can even edit the audio on the phone and I’ll never get used to that. I don’t mean that as in I’ll never cope with doing it on phones, I mean that I edit audio a great deal and it is forever a delight what you can do now. I learned on giant BBC local radio desks and I was taught to edit with razor blades and chinagraph pencils. And, actually, I think sometimes you learn better from doing it physically, from doing edits where you can’t undo them with a tap or a click.

But then that’s really what I think about writing now. You have always been able to write but now you can see and hear how that writing works. Immediately. Pretty much.

I had lots to say to this student about her script and I loved that she and the whole room had lots to tell me that I’d missed in it. But ultimately I mean it: write something, make it, and you’ll learn what works and doesn’t work for you.

I don’t quite know how this goes for novelists but for scriptwriters, this is the best time there ever was. If only we could lick the money problem.

A Desire for More Cows

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

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

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

So I’m not a writer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whereas I can feel for her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perspective

A friend was telling me of someone he knew whose young daughter in America was grabbed between the legs by a young boy in their school. And – I’m afraid you know this is coming – that the boy said it was okay to do this because it’s what the President-elect does.

This is not the first such event and I’m ill that it won’t be the last, but I don’t think we’re ever going to get inured to it. We’re never going to become so used to it happening that it doesn’t feel sickening. I’d like to do more than shake and vomit but most of me doesn’t know what.

There is a part of me that I’m hiding away from that has an idea, though. It is a writing idea, since I am a writer, and while I’m trying not to think about it because it falls into this area of 2016dom, there’s more. I’ve been trying not to think about it because it is too hard.

Follow. Ever since I heard the story of this boy, I’ve been wondering what I would do if he were my son.

I don’t have children. I do have characters. So the next step in this chain I’ve avoided is to wonder what I would do if he were one of my characters.

I want to say I’d delete him and start again.

But he’s a human being and a character of mine who did this would have to be a human character. I mean human as in a full person, not a cipher or someone in the story for plot exposition, someone there to be the easy target of the foul, numb bile I’ve got.

And that’s where it’s hard.

That’s where I fail as a writer.

No, strike that: this is one area where I fail. If it were the only one, I’d take that and be happy. Well, reasonably happy. Well, miserable.

As a writer, I need to be able to write a character like this and make him real. I could do a fair job of convincing you I’d pulled it off by having a character do certain things, say certain things, but it would be a front. Ultimately you wouldn’t be convinced. I need to have him say and do things, yes, but the inner workings have to be right before the movement and the dialogue is both real and worth it.

I have to understand the character from the inside. Which means I actually have to find a way to like him. No, truly: we all think we’re right, that boy thinks he’s right, and we all find ways to justify what we do. Everyone else is a bad driver but it’s fine if I drink because I can handle it.

I have always, always had difficulty with the fact that I piddle about with text while in the real world women are being raped. So far I’ve managed to hide back inside that text but that’s just harder and harder now.

Even now, even here, even saying this to you, I’m conscious that this is a form of piddling about with text. I’m effectively saying that to become a better writer, I need to get inside these abhorrent characters. Like it matters to the world whether my writing improves. It matters to me, it matters so much, this talking with you matters so much, yet there must be something we could actually, actively do to counter 2016dom.

Except of course there is. I think there is. And it’s piddling about with text. Understanding abhorrent characters is a writing goal but understanding abhorrent people is maybe the only way we can change things for real.

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.

Don’t answer

I’ve been talking my mouth off about writing all week. There is something funny about talking about writing and there’s something not at all funny about a writer not getting to write much. But in the course of yapping away, I rediscovered something so persnickety and detailed, an opinion of mine so exclusive to writing that normal people would think I’m barmy to care and writers would again recognise me as barmy but also as one of their own.

Naturally, then, I’ve got to tell you. For once, it won’t take long, either, as it’s so precise and so vehement as to be less an expression of opinion and more a banging my hand on the table for emphasis.

Do not ever write anything where your character answers a question.

Not.

Ever.

Let me give you the example that keeps popping into my head. Here’s Burt asking Susan a question. (I have no idea who Burt and Susan are.)

BURT: What were you doing in aisle 9 of Asda this morning?
SUSAN: Buying bacon.

Susan answers the question and in just two words I’m bored with her, that dialogue is dead air and it achieves nothing beyond the obvious. Now, if you had to have Burt ask this question, it would be because you needed your audience to know this fact that Susan had been at Asda in aisle 9 this morning. But you never need them to know that same fact twice.

The sole thing that “buying bacon” does is tell us that yes, she was in Asda’s aisle 9 this morning and presumably that’s where the bacon is stored. Unless we deeply care about bacon, this is worthless dialogue. Whereas this isn’t:

BURT: What were you doing in Aisle 9 of Asda this morning?
SUSAN: Were you following me?

Look what that just did. In both examples, Susan is actually saying yes, she was there. So that’s your plot exposition done. She isn’t wasting air with a pointless detail about bacon and pointless is always boring. If that were all, I’d at least be happier than when she just said “buying bacon”.

But it isn’t all. Without the rest of the scene we can’t tell what attitude she’s got – is she afraid? is she annoyed? is she flirting? is she a vegetarian who’s just been caught out? – but we do know that she has got some attitude. She’s on her feet, she’s pushing back, this may be very mild conflict but it is conflict. She’s pushing back and Burt is now on the defensive; she may have just changed the power in this conversation.

That’s drama. And I’l tell you this: you now want to know what Burt is going to say next. When it was about bacon, I doubt you were excited waiting to see if he’d enquire about smoked or unsmoked, back or streaky. Maybe you and I would both gasp if we learned she’d bought turkey bacon – there’s such a thing as turkey bacon? – but neither of us would be giving a very great deal of a damn.

You can think of situations where actually “buying bacon” is the right response, it’s the response that would bring up the end-of-episode drums of EastEnders. So when I say never do it, you know that I mean never do it but okay, if you must.

It’s as I’ve said to you before: there are no rules in writing, but if you break them…