Speaking and not speaking

Earlier this week I was working on a friend’s book: part proofreading, part commenting, part editing. It was a joy because the book is just so very, very good. But it’s also a joy because it’s her first one and yet it’s got none of the stilted caution of a new writer. It’s got none of the hesitancy.

It does have some of the padding, but you can fix that.

What this writer has is the benefit of knowing her subject extremely well and having run workshops on it. At her best, this isn’t text on a page, it’s her talking to you, working with you, just as I presume she does in workshops.

Actually it’s a business non-fiction title and I first met her because she was advising me on aspects of my work. So sometimes I’ll be reading a section and I can see her as she was a couple of years ago, sitting opposite me across a coffee shop table and telling me these same things.

When you and I are done talking today, I’m off to have a coffee with her again and to enthuse about her book.

But there is something else I’ll do. There’s something else I’ve realised. This skill of writing like you’re talking is superb but it also has to be a con. You must look like you’re doing it, you must look like this is all flowing naturally and conversationally, when really it isn’t.

Really it needs to be structured. It can’t actually be like speech because when we talk to someone, our sentences run on for hours. Those sentences make complete sense but when they’re written down, they lose that and become long or confusing.

I’m telling you what I think you already know and I’m telling myself what I think I’ve long realised but working on this book brought it back to me very strongly. This writer has more verve and skill than I did in my first writings and I hope I’ll convey that to her. Because the next step of moving from conversational to only apparently conversational is going to take a lot of work.

She can do it or I wouldn’t be saying this to you before going to meet her.

Plus I’ve already told her the truth by text. “You know how people give you criticism in shit sandwiches?” I texted her. “This book is two slices of excellent with a filling of superb.”

I utterly relished doing this work and I am so looking forward to talking to her about it. I’m just also conscious that I’ve made about seven hundred comments on the manuscript. I think I’ll talk a lot before I show her that bit.

408 Not Out

I’ve said this to you before but if you don’t remember, it’s fine: just ask anyone I’ve ever passed on the street because I’ve told them this too. The sole way I have of guessing whether my work is any good is if I’m asked back to do it again.

And I think this might be very male of me but usually I also track the details, the minutiae of what I’m doing. Except for one thing: word counts.

I’m rubbish at this bit, I cannot now remember how I worked this out but I am certain that I’ve had over four million words published. I’m less certain but pretty sure that I’m on the way to five million. Half a billion words published.

Good or bad, that’s a career.

Only, there is a number that I know for absolute, documented fact because I absolutely document it every time it happens. It’s now five years since I was made redundant from Radio Times (I’ve been freelance since 1996 but RT put me on staff for a couple of days a week) and shortly after that, I was asked to speak at a festival. Five years, 1996, two days, these aren’t the numbers I track.

Instead, for some reason – and who knows why – I made a note of that festival and I gave it a number. I mean, I was delighted to be asked and I had a great time, but I don’t know why I gave it the number 1. I mean, Steph Vidal-Hall of PowWow LitFest interviewed me and even in the middle of answering questions I was admiring how deftly she was steering me the way she wanted, but I didn’t expect there to be a number 2.

There was.

From that first public speaking gig, I’ve talked at a lot of festivals, I’ve run very many workshops, I’ve been in schools, universities and prisons. Radio. Television, a bit.

So there was a number 2, there was a number 3 and last week there was number 408.

That’s an average of one and a half speaking gigs per week since I left Radio Times.

I was thinking that I’d tell you something useful I’d learned over those 408. I’m not sure I can say anything you don’t already know, though, so my mind’s gone on to how I’ve now mentioned Radio Times to you three times.

It is true that leaving RT was a blow.

It was worse than it sounds, too, because I didn’t just lose whatever it was, two or three days of staff work, I also lost all my freelancing with them. (Almost all: I still write the odd radio review them, even now. I was asked back once to work on a Radio Times book: that was a blast.)

I think at the time I left I was doing three different things, being on staff for the RT website, freelancing for the magazine and, er, something else. Maybe freelancing for the site. I don’t know. But it was typically the equivalent of eight days work per week, so Radio Times was a big deal.

Plus it’s Radio Times and I have adored that magazine all my life. Seriously, everyone should get chance to dip into their archives: I have had such bliss researching television history in those.

You’re aware that there are only seven days in a week, you’ve spotted that, so you can also see that there was no time for any other work than RT. Somehow that wasn’t true, I wrote my first book while I was still there.

It’s just that since I left, I’ve written or co-written another 17 books. Now I can’t figure out how I fitted RT in.

And yet you know this to be true: clearly I think about Radio Times, clearly I miss it, clearly leaving was such a big deal that it is part of me.

Not so much.

I feel bad saying this now because working on RT did mean the world to me, working with those people was tremendous, but it’s all on my mind now for another reason entirely.

It’s that when I left I popped the date into my calendar and for some reason marked it to repeat annually.

This date popped up on my screen the other day. I batted the notification away and carried on writing the script I was working on, but it obviously went into my head.

So I had wanted to give you some life lesson about presenting 408 times. Then I wanted to give you some kind of life lesson about how gigantic, shocking, startling, disappointing change can be fantastic.

But instead I’m just going to say you shouldn’t be so daft as to put reminders in your calendar for events that happened a lifetime ago.

Talk a lot, don’t I?

When did writers have to yap so much? Whenever it was for me, there was then also some moment when I discovered that I enjoy talking with groups so much that it’s worth the close-to-vomiting pre-show nerves I get. Mind you, I say that and when we’re done today I’m off to work with probably 75 to 100 people and right now, right this moment, I’m not nervous.


There we go. Stomach took a nose dive. Bodies are funny things.

Minds are worse. I can’t judge whether I’m any good at the things I do but I can count. Success for me is being asked back. The answer to nerves is to tell myself I’ve done this before and it seemed to go okay.

I want to talk to you about this now because I’ve just passed my 200th presentation since records began back in October 2012. And because I’ve got four more today: I’m preparing for those by thinking about this stuff and I’m distracting myself from the job by talking with you. Kettle’s on, by the way.

Right after last week’s Self Distract chat, I went on to do five workshops and then a mentoring session earlier this week which all brings me to a total so far of 203 presentations, talks, workshops or the like. Plenty of those were radio or television where I’ve no way of guessing how many folk I was really talking to but as best as I can judge it, I’ve been face to face with a total of 6,528 people.

Approximately. Told you I count. And for completeness I should say that these figures do not include events I produced but didn’t speak at. Over the same period of nearly three years, I’ve produced six events.

I am supremely conscious that this is nothing compared to, for instance, any teacher I’ve worked with in that time. Any of them. I work with Writing West Midlands which produces 300 events a year. I am feeble. I’m also conscious that no matter how many people you are going to talk with, the odds are that you won’t meet precisely the same 6,528 so my telling you about them all is useless. Though watch out for that one in the hat. Trouble.

Yet I have learned things from these people, from these events. Some things I’ve learned are precise nuggets that I’ll always carry with me, some are directly useful things that I will be trying to do from now on.

1) Of the 203 events so far, I’d say 35 were great successes, 147 were pretty good, 19 were okay and 2 were total stinkers where I died. If the day ever comes that I am blasé about speaking to groups then – no, actually, that isn’t going to happen. Chiefly because of the two deaths. One of them was entirely my fault: I was just totally crap and deserved to have a bad night. The other wasn’t entirely me, I had worked as hard for it as any of the rest but somehow the material just did not come together in time and I was awful. If you’re counting, it was event #3 that was the worst. Two hundred gigs ago and I can still see every minute of it.

2) People are on your side. Everyone wants you to be good: of course they do, they’ve turned up hoping to enjoy themselves, they are hoping you’ll be great. You can lose that in seconds but when you first stand up there, the room is on your side.

3) You can and must plan like mad but you’ll rarely follow your plan. In every one of the 35 best events I’ve done, there has come a moment when I know in my stomach that I can’t fill the rest of the time. That I’m out of material, somehow, and the finishing line is a long way off. I say that to you and I can feel the sickening lurch and the compulsion to fight my face falling. I don’t want this to ever happen again but, seriously, each time it has, the event has ended up going brilliantly. If I could explain why, maybe I wouldn’t fear this moment so much.

4) Everybody is more interesting than you. I hold this to always be self-evident despite being aware that I’m going on a bit at you today. Seriously, though: everybody is more interesting. The more you can get them to talk instead of you, the more fun everybody has. Depending on the group and the subject, I’ve had some success announcing early on that there will be a Question and Argument session at the end. I’ve threatened people with a Q&A saying that if nobody interrupts me with a question or a comment during the session then we will have the Q&A but it will be me asking them the questions.

You do then have to follow through with questions but that means you’re looking for them through the whole session and it keeps you on your toes.

5) Hard and soft items. This is a thing I learned from radio that I’m using now: vary what you’re doing, vary it in topic and length. A hard item is something that is prepared and can’t be changed, like a video you play. A soft item is a thing you can shorten or lengthen as you need so a Q&A or an interview.

6) On your feet. Even if you were talking to me in a room, there would come a point when I wasn’t taking it in any more. Get me to think or act or do or something, just for a minute. Shake me up. I once had a thing where it was after lunch on a hot day, the third day of a residential thing, and all I knew was that this was going badly. So I gathered up everyone from various groups and marched us all outside where I had no single clue what I was going to do but I found something and it worked. We went back in to work afterwards with renewed energy. Well, the group did, I needed whisky.

7) Shut up.

I should do number 7 now. Thanks for letting me talk this through. I know I’m not an expert in this but very unexpectedly my career has broadened out to include what for me is a lot of talking. I’m astonished how very, very much I like it – and I’m appalled how nervous I still get before every one. It’s talking but it’s like live writing, you know? Everything I know or think I know about writing gets used here. It’s like the way I see video and audio editing as being writing: there is just something the same about it, you use the same muscles.

And I like using those muscles. I really, really do.

The spoken word

I’m a writer. It’s possible that I’ve mentioned this before. But something over two years ago – I actually cannot remember the date – I returned permanently to Birmingham and something under two years ago, I talked on stage.

For that one I was being interviewed at PowWow LitFest by Steph Vidal-Hall in September 2012. I’ve been interviewed quite a bit since then and I’ve also been the interviewer many times. Produced a few events. Run a lot of workshops. Presented a great deal. Book talks. Author talks.

Being a writer, I wrote all this down. I have a list in Evernote. It’s got LitFest as number 1.

Tomorrow is September 2014 and I’m in Burton upon Trent to run a Young Writers’ Group session for Writing West Midlands – and that is number 100.

After the first 9, I started counting how many people heard me. That’s sometimes necessarily approximate and I’ve no way at all of even guessing the answer when I’ve been on radio or television. Or when I’ve done teleseminars for other companies. That’s quite eerie, speaking into the void. So this can’t be accurate at all, but I’ve at least spoken to 1,754 people.

Funny thing, though: I still think of this as writing. It’s the same job of communicating an idea. (Or hopefully lots of ideas: you’re spending money here, I’ve got to give you good value.) I go about it the same way in obviously planning and structuring but less obviously in reaching into myself as deeply as I can to find something new and something that might be worth your listening to.

So it’s writing, which I’ve done all my life, and by tomorrow I’ll have spoken 100 times to something like 1,754 people and still it’s scarier than writing to you like this. You’re nice.

Actually, I think the 1,754 people were nice too.

But that only helps from the moment I begin speaking. From that instant and throughout the talk, most certainly afterwards nattering with people, everything is great. Usually.

Up to that instant, not so much.

I’ve only vomited once with nerves and that was before this 100 started. During the 100 I’ve come close only two times so that’s pretty good: near-retching 2% of the time.

Funnily enough, I’ve been wretched 2% of the time.

Clearly I’m not saying I’m fantastic the rest of the time but those two stand out as bad. I should say that these two weren’t same as the two near-vomit ones and actually I’m being a little unfair. One of them, number 80 (Royal Television Society mini-summit at BBC Nottingham, 17 people on 26 June 2014) I was merely rubbish.

But for the other, number 3 (Mee Club spoken word cabaret, before records of exact dates and audiences began), I stank.

It wasn’t for a lack of effort. I just hadn’t got the material right, despite a lot of work and a lot of time. The material only came together that afternoon and I didn’t physically have enough hours left to get it right.

Cat Weatherill ran that evening and let me atone very shortly afterwards with number 5 (Tell Me on a Sunday, also before counting began). I was much, much better then.

So I have Cat to thank for that opportunity to redeem myself. I have Steph to thank for making me sound great on stage that very first time, I have 1,754 people to thank for at the very least pretending to listen very well.

But I’m a writer, okay? I just talk about it a lot.