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…

The one writing tip I learned from Alan Plater

I won’t stretch out the suspense: I learned from him that it’s your characters that matter more than anything and especially more than plot.

I’d like to just pause for a moment and explain that I may be being a bit previous saying that he taught it to me or even that I’ve actually learned it. I think I learned it, I certainly deeply believe in characters over plot, I know that it’s what I aim for and I hope that it’s what I do.

Also, it’s not like the man formally lectured. Nor is saying that I learned one writing tip terribly accurate as I don’t think a writer can watch any of Alan’s novels or 300-odd television, radio, film and stage tales without learning somewhat more than one thing.

But I have a striking visual memory of a moment sitting at the dinner table with Alan opposite and his wife, my friend, Shirley Rubinstein to my right. I remember being a bit young and I remember enthusing about some fantastically complicated plot I was writing. What I can’t remember is a single damn thing about that plot, not one syllable of it or even the title. Unfortunately I also can’t remember everything Alan said.

I just see him saying “No”.

He didn’t just say that, though I don’t imagine he said a great deal more, but I remember that moment and my clearest recall of the entire time was that I didn’t agree. It wasn’t that we argued, it wasn’t that I thought I’d show him, it was a tiny and passing moment more like the comment not registering with me.

It registered later. I don’t know when, I wish I could imagine how, but at some point it deeply registered. I can now neither imagine not believing in characters first nor conceive how I ever thought anything else. One of my absolute favourite things is to have my mind changed by someone: I have one opinion then they say something, they persuade me of something and from then on I hold completely the opposite opinion. It doesn’t happen very often but it’s great when it does, except there is usually very specifically one moment when it happens. Thought one thing, bam, think the other.

This one took years. I wish it had been a light switch kind of moment, primarily of course because I’d have written better, sooner, if it had. But also maybe I’d have been able to ask him to elaborate and I’d be able to tell you his position.

Alan died in 2010 and I was writing this way long before then but not stopping to examine it. I’ve stopped to examine it now because I was recently asked about a piece of his in an interview. He wrote a famous Z Cars episode called A Quiet Night and right from when he pitched the idea, it was set: this would be the episode in which nothing happens. He said that, he called it A Quiet Night, and to this day even people who saw it will tell you that nothing happens.

Part of it is that you do just enjoy spending time with these characters and that was something Alan always pulled off so well that you don’t realise how hard it is.

I can’t give you his opinion but I can give you mine. Characters matter more than plot because if you don’t care about the characters, who gives a damn what happens in the plot? Myself, I take one more step: I think dialogue is supreme. If I don’t believe that a character is saying these words, that instead it sounds like the writer conveying some plot, then I don’t believe in the characters and therefore I don’t care about them and therefore who gives a damn what happens in the plot?

The surprising thing to me is that my plots do still tend to be a bit, well, thorough, but they’re never plotted per se, they’re never planned. I get these characters and I see what happens to them. It’s as if by looking after the characters, the plot looks after itself.

The delicious thing to me is that I believe it’s the same with Alan. I detest claiming to know what someone would say if they were still here but I think he’d deny this because I think he used to claim that he didn’t do plots. With the greatest of respect and fondness, he lied.

I think I say this in my book about his show The Beiderbecke Affair but the man was trained as an architect and underneath all the business of nothing happening, gigantic things are happening and his scripts are structured superbly. A Quiet Night officially has nothing happening and despite Z Cars being a police series there is no crime in this episode, nobody is arrested, there will be no trial. Yet a man dies and it is someone’s fault. It is an enormous punch and stays with me years after I read the script. (The episode itself has been lost but the Z Cars script was published.)

That man who dies is a guest character and while the impact hits one of the regulars, it is because Alan made us care about this man we’ve not seen before and, well, clearly won’t see again. A Quiet Night was in 1963 and Alan was doing exactly the same thing with characters in the 2000s. I remember him asking me to read a Lewis script of his called And the Moonbeams Kiss the Sea. Actually he wondered what I thought of the plot and whether it worked. I am half proud and half not that I did see a plot problem and that a suggested fix of mine became something great in the final draft. I didn’t think of the great bit but I could see its root in what I’d said and that was a pretty good feeling.

Except there was this draft script and even there, on the page, with no idea who would be cast in a guest role, I told Alan that I fancied his leading character. That’s making you care. Lewis is a crime series and in this as in every episode ever made, there is a death and, admit it, you’re not that fussed about murder victims in these shows. But you were about this one.

I don’t remember the plot now, though I’m sure it was involving and interesting, but I vividly remember how I saw that character on the page and then how she was portrayed on screen. Because in retrospect it is only character that matters – because in whatever the opposite of retrospect is, when you’re writing right at the start, it is only character that matters.

Three asterisks and the truth

I read a draft script the other day that included a scene where the lead character – I’m going to call her Susan Hare because she’s one of mine and I like the name – is startled.

SUSAN: What the f***!

That isn’t me being coy. That is what the script said. An F followed by three asterisks.

Just as an aside, when I worked on Radio Times magazine I remember hearing about the very rare times they included any swearing. It was always in a quote, obviously never in an RT journalist’s writing style, and it was usually wryly amusing but it was also always the first letter followed by asterisks or some combination of other symbols. And every time, readers would complain.

It’s just that sometimes they complained the there weren’t the correct number of asterisks or whatever. If you’re bothered by swearing, you’re bothered by swearing and I can’t do anything about that. But if you’re bothered enough by it to count the asterisks, disagree with the number and then complain to the BBC, there is something I can do. I can give you that look and then forget you.

Not that I swear all that much myself. No reason, I’m just PG-rated. But I’ve often had friends suddenly stop mid-sentence and apologise to me. What for? For swearing. Invariably, I hadn’t even noticed. Not because I wasn’t listening, but because it hadn’t bothered me enough to even be aware that bother was a possibility.

Besides, I’ve used Windows. I’ve heard worse, I’ve said worse.

What has really bothered me as I’ve spent a lot of hours on trains this week, is that idea of a scriptwriter typing an F and three asterisks. I don’t know the writer so I can’t ask but I’ve circled and circled around whether it was because they expected the actor to pronounce the asterisks as asterisks – which does seem unlikely – or whether they were afraid of upsetting anyone.

To which the only possible response is oh, for fuck’s sake.

You don’t have to have swearing in anything. You do have to have it if your characters would swear. There is that famous scene from The Wire where every single line, almost every single word, is fuck. It starts off without you being aware of it because that is what these characters would say. Then there’s just so many that you are very much aware that this is a cable show rather than network TV. Then you think about how it’s playing with the boundaries of television and giving us a slice of life.

But then unfortunately you just want them to please stop now, we got the joke an hour ago.

Maybe it’s because the scene has some detective work going on that takes about three minutes, or roughly three minutes longer than any real-life detective would take. Or fictional. Sherlock Holmes would’ve figured it out in a picosecond and be even now deducing the entire causal reality of the universe. Veronica Mars would’ve seen it and already left to do something about it. Though, true, the detectives in Luther would still be there five episodes later, scratching their heads.

Anyway.

Those three asterisks tell me a lot. It’s like the way asterisks are used to mean multiply in computers: three asterisks makes me think of multiplied multiplications, of powers of multiplications. Of geometric progressions of multiplication.

And this is where you get to after all that adding up aka all that riding around on trains pondering. The writer of this script that said f*** does not expect to ever be a real writer. In his or her bones, he or she is playing. This writer sees the film and television world as this thing which is easy but also where producers and actors have practically religious power. You, the humble poor writer – well, we are all poor, that’s true enough – present your script to the masters and mistresses of taste and power and art and more.

You daren’t offend them, no. You daren’t risk saying fuck when you are bowing before them. And I love that in this font that word looks more like bowling. Ten-pin bowling with the gods of drama, I’d be up for that.

I think I’m right and I think you agree but there is that bit I threw in about this writer thinking writing is easy. That gave you pause. I got to that because of this abdication of whether to asterisk or not: that tells me the writer thinks these decisions are made by others. Since what your characters say is beyond fundamental to every pixel of a story, they’re wrong. Since it is beyond difficult to do well but they don’t think they have to do it, they therefore must think scriptwriting is easy.

There’s no reason you should think it’s hard unless you’re actually doing it. Then you need to think it’s hard because you need to know you’ll be putting your back into this job for a long time.

Whatever writing you do, it is an odd kind of job and there are enough people wanting to do it – wanting to be writers without necessarily actually writing, thank you – that a little industry grows up around it. So for instance there are books and courses that belabour how you must format your script right on the page. Do it wrong and you’re out, they say.

Actually, do the formatting and the layout wrong and you have failed at the utter easiest part of the job. You’ve also telegraphed that you simply don’t read scripts or you would know what they look like. If you haven’t read a script, I don’t want to read yours because you just ain’t worth the time yet.

You can always and often tell all this, you can tell a writer is amateur and won’t be worth reading yet from one glance at the page.

But you can now also tell it from three asterisks.

All that from the word “f***”.

Hide the card

There’s this thing I don’t have a word or a phrase for and I’d like to have, so I’m going to talk it over with you and see where we get. Also, it relates in part to a TV series that is presumably coming to the UK soon, so, you know, hang on in here, work with me on this.

I believe that writers can sense a good idea, somehow smell it. Taste it. So far, so obvious: we all recognise when something has potential. But we taste the full strength of that idea and – this is the key bit – we know just how great and effective and powerful it will be when we’ve worked out how to tell it to you.

I need an example. Try this. I’m working on a theatre project and after a very intense meeting about all sorts of things to it, I mentioned the ending. I don’t have the script, I haven’t written an outline. As it happens, I can recite to you the opening scenes but after that we have about ninety minutes of I-have-no-idea until we reach the last moments and specifically the last line.

Given who I was working with, I was happy to tell them everything and I needed to in order to get the job done, but I wouldn’t tell them that line. Alan Plater once wrote about a TV idea that he “knows the A and the Z and has a rough idea of B to about K”. I’ve got A, B and Z. So there I am, sitting in a pub, having discussed a project that I’ve worked on for at least 17 months and there is no chance you’ll see before 2016, and I will not tell the ending because I know it sounds weak without the beginning and middle.

Yet.

I struggled to say that I even had an ending because I literally struggled to say, to speak. I got choked up thinking of it. And I do every time. I can remember where I was the moment I first thought of it – I was on a bus going by the Birmingham Rep – and I choked.

I know I’ll get you.

I just have no idea how.

So assuming that I’m right, what is the right phrase for… tasting the idea, smelling the idea, sensing it? The ability to feel the full force of something that has no force until I’ve written everything that takes you on that specific trip from here to there.

I do know that it is tied in to what you reveal and when. (There’s that Suzanne Vega line from Pornographer’s Dream: “What she reveals / and what she conceals / is the key to our pleasure”)

There is a right moment for a story to bring you a particular key fact. Up until then it has to have other great ideas, it has to lead you down other lines that are equally good, equally interesting, but which you can pull away as you reveal the real… something.

The biggest TV drama surprise I can think of was a moment in Battlestar Galactica that I will not spoil even now. But if you saw the show, yes, I mean that one, that moment. And when it was airing, the creator Ronald D Moore used to do a podcast audio commentary: ten or more years on, I can remember him describing this scene as we watched. And he used the term “hide the card”. He kept repeating it – “hide the card, hide the card” – like it was a conjuring trick.

I suppose it was, I suppose all this is, but it feels cheapening to call it that.

What he specifically meant was that in this particular scene, we were set up to expect many, many things and it fulfilled them all. It seemed to tell us everything, if it had just done what we believed it was doing it would’ve been strong and effective but he didn’t reveal his hand until the last moment. I actually jumped out of my seat.

It was a shocking moment and the shock came as much from how brilliantly set up and misdirected we were as it is from what actually happened in that moment.

That’s the thing I think writers have. We know what that moment is going to feel like even when we haven’t set it up yet. Our job then is to set it up properly. Our difficulty is getting you to the point we sensed.

It is fracking hard. (I have got to watch that show again.)

And I think you can get it very easily, very badly wrong. This is why this is on my mind today, this is where the new TV show comes in.

It’s a comedy called A to Z – no connection with Alan’s comment – which is the first time I have ever tuned in to anything because of the cast. It’s a romcom, and I like romcoms a lot, this time starring Cristin Milioti. Also Andrew Lofland but I’d not heard of him. Milioti was remarkable in the final season of How I Met Your Mother which broke every storytelling sense I’ve got in how after eight years of never showing us the Mother of the title, made her the star of the ninth year. I think the writing of that was bold and supremely well done, I thought Milioti played the part terrifically, I was sorry it was the final season.

So her back in a new romcom, I gave it a go.

It’s not great. It’s also cancelled. It made A to about M. I’d have said that to you anyway, just as a gag, but it’s pretty much literally true too: each episode was named after a letter of the alphabet. The pilot was called “A is for Acquaintances”, for instance. Each week, a narrator would explain that “this television programme is the comprehensive account of their relationship… from A to Z.” She explains this a lot.

Quick setup. A stands for Andrew, who works at an online dating agency. Z is Zelda, which is the name you would only ever give a character if you really, really had to have her begin with that letter. No other reason possible.

We have no idea who the narrator is. Think of How I Met Your Mother’s narration by Old Ted, except that we don’t know who is speaking. I saw five episodes, I think, and we never knew, despite getting quite a lot of narration. I assumed that the narrator was just a device and a lazy one at that.

Is it hiding the card that actually yes, the narrator is a real character and we just haven’t been told yet?

No.

A draft script for the pilot episode of A to Z by Ben Queen is now online at Lee Thomson’s brilliant TV Scripts site and you can read it right now.

If you do, then the first line you read will be:

Our NARRATOR is female, in her 50s. Think Diane Keaton (or someone equally cool if that person exists)

Twenty-six pages later, Andrew has a folder of material about the online dating agency – here called Crush, changed in production to Wallflower – and:

He opens the file. Inside are press clippings about ‘Crush’ from its origins. We maybe see a glimpse of its founder JULIET MADDOX (who will turn out to be our NARRATOR).

Twenty-six pages. And over those twenty-six pages, our NARRATOR has twenty-nine speeches.

If you’re thinking that’s fine, it let us dangle before telling us, look at that direction again.

We maybe see a glimpse of its founder JULIET MADDOX (who will turn out to be our NARRATOR).

Nearly thirty pages and very nearly thirty speeches in, viewers do not learn who the narrator is. In the episode as aired, there is a file folder, he is carrying it, it does have newspaper clippings (about an online site? seriously?) but he doesn’t open it, it isn’t referred to, the whole exchange of dialogue about it is cut. The sole way to know that it’s about the narrator and who that will be is to read the script. I actually said aloud “Oh, okay” when I read that.

You need to hide the card, sure. But you have to have the card in play. Or you won’t get the audience to that great point you’ve smelled and tasted and sensed from the start. Maybe because they won’t stick with you that long, maybe because your show is cancelled before you get around to it.