Two minutes back

Please stop me. If Angela asks me when dinner will be ready and it’s almost done, I will call out something like “Two minutes back”. It’s a quote. I’m quoting. While I’m cooking.

I say cooking, it’s usually more heating and stirring and microwaving, but that’s not the point. The point is that my everyday conversation is riddled with quotes that nobody knows, at least until Angela happens upon some film or TV show that I got it from.

For it all comes from TV, radio and film. Imagine if I’d read the classics when I was younger. I might’ve become a weather bore every time the wind was in the east but at least that allusion could sometimes make sense. “Two minutes back” never does. Back to what?

It’s from Sports Night. I have no measurable interest, knowledge, experience or even really awareness of sport, but this show that first aired 20 years ago is a favourite. Imagine Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing done as a half-hour comedy and set behind the scenes of a TV sports show. This should be easy to imagine because that’s exactly what this is.

Take a look at this example. It’s the opening few minutes of an episode and I guarantee that you’ll wish it were the whole thing.

 

I should say right now that you can see a lot on YouTube but the only place to get the show itself is on DVD. Well, if you’re in the US you can stream it on Netflix or buy it on iTunes.

Or come round to my place.

I do relish its moments when characters will be in a heated argument and then, because the TV show’s cameras are now live, will be smiling, happy hosts until the commercial break and wallop, right back at it. I don’t know why I relish that so much, except that it’s a heightened dramatic situation that’s also real. I’ve done that, to a vastly smaller extent, in radio, and that turn-on-a-second move from personal to professional, that mental juggling of conflicting demands on your head, it’s gorgeous.

It also forces arguments into bite-sized chunks which is fantastic because drama does that anyway and here the need to stop and start is imposed, it’s an external pressure and you can feel the frustration. You can feel how when it’s released, when they’ve gone to commercial and can speak freely, that the next part of the row burns out of them. Plus even as they’ve been professional and talking on air about some sports thing I’ll never comprehend, you know the real drama has been continuing in their heads so when they can speak freely, the argument has moved on.

That’s an amazing thing to me. It means the Sports Night scripts pummel through arguments and issues at an incredibly artificial rate yet specifically because of the context, it feels natural and uncontrived. It feels real.

This is a comedy I’m talking about and I actually hesitated calling it that because for me, it’s drama. There is a very quiet laugh track in the early episodes, the result of the producers not wanting one and the network insisting and presumably some editor accidentally leaning on the volume control to minimise it. And it is also very, very, very funny.

Yet it’s the drama that keeps me coming back to this show – and I do keep coming back. I can visibly see me putting the DVD boxset in my car boot after having had to pay a gigantic import duty to the post office and saying aloud “I hope you’re worth it”. That must’ve been around 2001 or 2002 and it was. It is.

This show about the making of a sports show runs for 45 episodes of around 22 minutes apiece. What’s that? Something like 16 and a half hours of television. I watched the first one that weekend I got the DVD – and then I watched the following 44 before Monday.

I’ve done that binge about four times since.

And I’m in the middle of another one now. It’s been years since my DVD player was even connected to my TV set but I found a way to stream any video from my Mac to my TV set so I was looking through my shiny discs for what I’d want to see. I only meant to watch one episode of Sports Night. That was Tuesday. It’s now Friday and I’ve seen 15 episodes. Again.

This is a series about the making of a show and much of it takes place during the time that fictitious sports programme is on air. It has an awful lot of commercials. And every time this show-within-a-show cuts to a commercial, a character in its gallery will announce how long they’ve got before they come back from commercial.

Ask me how long before I watch the next episode.

Star Julianna Margolies holding a script for The Good Wife

Since records began

I’m running a workshop for children at the Bournville BookFest tomorrow and it will be my 510th public speaking gig since records began in late 2012.

I think a lot about that phrase, “since records began”. Usually it’s used to describe something incredibly serious like climate change or utterly trivial like, er, how Mars Bars have been shrinking since records began.

Was there one day when everybody thought we should be making records? Or did they start with the big stuff and add in the trivial to seem busy and keep their jobs?

I’d say that my 510 is pretty trivial, if not to me, except I can beat it with something else I appear to be counting which even I find daft. I’ve read thousands of scripts since records began but late last year I read a blog on Script Angel that recommended reading one a day. And I was persuaded.

Like most new year’s resolutions, though, I did fall off the wagon. Just not in the usual direction. If I’d stuck to reading one script per day then right now I should be on my 75th.

After we’ve spoken today, I’m going to get a mug of tea and read my 203rd.

I would like to share with you some lessons I’ve learned from 509 performances (remember, tomorrow’s is the 510th) and 202 scripts (remember, today’s is the 203rd).

But the only thing pressing on my mind is this small piece of advice. If you start watching a drama series on Netflix, finish it.

I got deeply into The Good Wife on Netflix about two years ago but for some reason stopped. Something came up. Work. I went away. I don’t know. But for some reason I didn’t rush back to the next episode and now I’m a little unclear how far through I got. I’m pretty sure I had this break in the show’s second season but it might be the third.

Either way, in my 202 scripts so far this year, 7 of them were from this show. To be specific, I’ve read the first 7 episodes of the series and each one has been superb. I’ll carry on reading – the entire first season’s scripts are online – but I really wanted to watch the filmed and broadcast version of one of them.

And I can’t.

Netflix UK has taken the whole show off.

We live in a time when we have myriad choices of dramas to watch and it feels like everything that has ever existed is available on demand or even just on a whim, but it isn’t. And you know that Netflix’s decision is to do with rights, is to do with their license to broadcast it, but nobody outside those deals can predict what will be added and when it will be taken away.

At least, nobody’s figured out how to predict it. Since records began, anyway.

Ten Page Rule

This is a claim that going around the internet again and I think that if you and I get together, we can stop it. Are you game?

It’s about writing scripts and an insistence that film and TV companies will judge your screenplay on its first ten pages. More, the claim is that this is wrong, it is unfair and even that it is distorting how people write.

So far as I can tell, only the BBC “No Apostrophes Please, We’re British” Writersroom directly states that its readers will judge on the first ten pages. The BBC Writersroom has a brilliant online collection of scripts, albeit not searchable, but otherwise doesn’t matter.

Still, the claim persists and my problems are with this idea that it’s unfair to judge on the opening ten pages and it’s wrong how this is affecting the way people write.

The argument over the unfairness is always that you can’t tell if a script is good until you’ve read the whole thing.

And actually, yep, you can.

If a writer thinks they’re able to make a script brilliant from page 80 onwards but doesn’t see that the first 79 are crap, they are not able to make any of the pages brilliant at all.

Let me put it this way. I long to live in a beautiful New York apartment building called 56 Leonard and of course if I had $40m I’d spend it on the penthouse. But as utterly wonderful as that apartment is, the penthouse is on the 57th floor and it needs 56 pretty solid floors below it.

Then there’s this bit that sounds more sophisticated: that the demand for a great opening ten pages means writers have to put action and jeopardy and comedy in there. That they can never build up to things, they can never do some kind of pure writing. I’m fuzzy on that last bit.

It is true that I recently changed the opening of a script of mine before sending it to a producer. The script had begun with something mildly gentle as we followed a character going in to work. And what I changed was that I added a new scene before it.

Only, I didn’t do that to hook the producer with a teaser.

The scene I added was, if anything, quieter than the going to work one. And I’ve just checked: it was slightly less than half a page

But it focused on another character. She was always my favourite, she was always the reason for the entire story yet initially I’d held back introducing her. I think I still do, really, but having this tiny scene open on her changes how you read the rest of the script.

What I didn’t do was move up the calamitous situation she gets into or add in an explosion or something.

It did used to be that in television you needed to have something big at the start to stop people switching over. Whereas in film, the idea was that people had paid to sit there in that room and so they’d give you at least a little longer. Film could therefore be a bit more slow and seductive where TV had to be smash/bang/grab.

I think that line has blurred to the point of invisibility: films are seen more on Netflix than in their run in the cinema, for one thing. Television drama has never been better than it is now with its ability to draw you in slowly and deeply and richly.

I get annoyed at the ten pages rule for all sorts of reasons but one of them is that there is no such rule so the whole thing is bollocks. Another is that the same people who trot out a rule about TV needing to grab the audience’s attention are the ones who think it’s unfair to judge a script on the opening. A reader is no more likely to slog to the end than a viewer is to sit there for two hours hoping the ending will be good.

Drama needs something at the start to make you want to watch further. It just doesn’t have to be something big, doesn’t have to be action, doesn’t have to be suspense. It just has to be something that doesn’t stop people reading on. Character, that’s my favourite. Atmosphere, that’s a good one too.

Even in this day of being able to switch to another of the million different dramas available on demand, your audience and the producer reading your script want to like what you’ve done. They want to enjoy this. They come in on your side and you can win them over in the long run but initially your job is to not lose them.

And I’m sorry, but it doesn’t take ten pages to lose me. It doesn’t take ten pages for me to know a script is poor.

It takes one. At most.

True, you can’t tell from the first page just how much you’re going to like the script but you can tell if you’re going to dislike it.

I’ve read 180 scripts this year and every time you know right away. You know when you’re in good hands, you know when it’s going to work. You don’t know if it’s going to be to your taste or interest, but you know that the writer is good.

So if you read someone saying the first ten pages are crucial then they’re probably trying to sell you a course. If you read them saying this and also that it’s unfair, they’re rubbish.

If someone tells you that you have to have a murder on the first page, nod politely and walk away.

And maybe there is one rule I can get behind. It’s the rule I’ve just made up where if someone insists their script needs 79 pages to get going, do whatever you like but don’t offer to read it.

“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.