Endings and finishes

It’s not that I’m in a fight. But I’m disagreeing with someone and as polite as we’re being, as much as I rate the fella, we’ve come back to the same point many times this year and neither of us will budge. I can’t actually tell you the details because it’s about a book of his that isn’t out yet – and, besides, if you knew everything then you might take his side.

But I can try to present a case to you that I think applies generally to writing and drama and fiction. And by chance it also applies very directly and specifically to a piece of my own that I’ve been working on this week.

In both mine and this fella’s, the last moments are key. With mine it’s a radio play and it’s all about the penultimate sentence. With his novel, it’s about the past page.

He’s much further down the line with his piece than I am so I got to read it finished and as one of several readers he asked for opinions. I can tell you that my summary opinion was that it’s bloody good and so scary that I was reading bits through my fingers.

Only, he wanted to know a specific opinion about a specific thing. What exactly did I think the last page meant? I told him and actually felt a bit on the spot because while it was excellent and maybe a key reason I like the entire novel, what I thought about it seemed bleedin’ obvious to me. But of however many readers he’d had, apparently I was the only one who understood it.

Bully for me.

Except because of this, he plans to change the ending. To make it clearer. And that’s our fight: whether he should or not. Now, he’s going to win because it’s his book but in the middle of our emails about it, I stood up to make my point. I actually stood up even though we were emailing. I got to my feet because I am so certain that I am right. I’m never certain I’m right and yet here I am, standing up and steadfast.

His ending is a real punch to the throat, it is the kind of powerful head-jolt moment that a writer would give their last kidney for. He argues that this doesn’t matter, that it’s worthless if most people don’t get it.

I argue that there is no possible, possible way to simplify this single-point ending yet also keep its power.

So his position is that it’s better to have something every reader gets. And mine is that if you do this, then what they get is tepid water when they could’ve had moonshine-strength alcohol. He wants something for everyone, I want something brilliant. I envy this man’s writing and one of the reasons is this power that he’s willing to throw away.

Let me describe my own nearest equivalent, the thing I’m writing this week. It’s also not out yet and it’s actually so early days that the odds are it will never reach an audience or at least not in this form. Nonetheless, it’s mine so I can tell you that the penultimate line is someone saying her name.

That’s all. Just her name. It’s a point in the play when I officially reveal that someone is really someone else – and it comes about 40 minutes after the audience will have figured that out anyway. Only, I want the audience to be ahead of me here because when they finally hear the name spoken, it then tells them a second fact that they will not have got. I do like the trick of it, I do like the surprise, but it’s also important for the character and what she’s been going through.

And I’m proud of this next part: I wrote that line, I wrote the sentence that is simply her saying her name, and in that context, at that point, it made me cry at the keyboard. Honestly. Consequently that single line is the reason I must get this play made. The power in that penultimate line is my reason for writing it at all.

I just know both that audiences will have guessed the first part of it and also that given where it sits in the play, some will miss its import. Inescapably, you know the play is ending when you get to this line and I think it’s a beat that comes after you expect all of the plot and character to be done with.

Perhaps I could move it up earlier, but then it wouldn’t have the bang. I could skip it completely and just end the play a moment sooner. Accept that it’s no longer an ending, it’s just where the play finishes.

But this sentence is an end, it is the snapping of the suitcase being closed on the story. It’s also the best sentence I’ve ever written, so, you know, there’s that.

To make a short story long

If you look at writing from a cold, commercial view then you know that short stories don’t sell. But a great short story can have an impact on its reader and I’m learning that they can have a bit of a wallop on the writer too.

For you know that Facebook has this thing now of dredging up things you said one or more years ago. Today it showed me one from 2014 that was about a short story of mine. Unfathomable that it’s two years ago. But Roz Goddard commissioned me to work with a reading group in Combrook to come up with a short story for them. Each year several writers work with several groups and the job is quite clear: find out what each group enjoys and write them a story that fits.

I think there were six writers and six groups in my year and that would mean five got it right.

For I’m afraid that I rather betrayed my group and the principles of the entire project as instead of writing a story for them, I wrote a story about them.

Well, let’s be clear for personal, creative and definitely legal reasons: it wasn’t about them per se. But it was.

They’re such a good group of people, I had a delightful evening working with them, but despite the torrent of ideas and thoughts and laughs, there was one fact that I could not get out of my head. This group was in a beautiful village – you want to move there, you do – but that village actually had two such book groups.

That’s what I called the story: The Book Groups, plural. I imagined all sorts of rivalry between them and I am slightly disturbed by how some of the real group tell me they identify with certain of my imagined characters’ actions. Maybe you don’t want to move there after all.

What happened that evening two years ago is that I read them the finished story. I remember asking for a seat near the door in case they didn’t like it. But it was a happy evening for me, a privilege to be in that group for a spell. And I’ve read the story a couple of times since.

Once was to my mother who I didn’t think was particularly listening until I reached a key moment and she jolted. “What?” she said. “Read that bit again.”

Then I got to perform the piece at the Library of Birmingham. And this is where the short story becomes a long-lasting thing for me because I’m back there tonight. Alongside the very many events in the Birmingham Literature Festival, there are a series of extra readings and performances and I’m doing a new story, Time’s Table. It’s written for this evening, it’s partly set in this evening.

But then on Sunday there is the launch of an anthology of short stories, What Haunts the Heart, at Waterstones’ in Birmingham and it contains one of mine so I’m performing there too. Time Gentlemen Please is therefore my second published short story after The Book Groups.

Two published short stories in two years. It’s not a lot and I don’t know the word count but even together they can’t add up to a significant fraction of the number of articles and books I’ve done in that time. But they’ve been a huge wallop for me.

Starting block

I did such a clever thing this month. I’d be boasting about it to you, but for the small problem that I’ve realised I have to do it again and at this moment I haven’t a single clue how. Let me call it a writing thing so that maybe it’ll be of use to you too but really I’m lying down on the couch now and you’re getting out your pen, you’re asking me about my childhood.

Funny: I said that as a gag but childhood is relevant because the problem is to do with where you start something. Specifically where you start a story.

You know this. There is a reason why any story, any drama, any play starts at the specific point it does and not one pixel sooner or later. This is one reason I think prequels are murder and so rarely successful murder: they’re set before that starting moment and have to concoct a reason why.

What I did that I was so smug about for at least an hour was that I wrote a short story which in retrospect you will realise covers nearly two decades of time for the character. As you read it through, however, you see quite clearly that it actually physically takes place in probably less than half an hour.

The cleverness, and every time I write that word I’m doubting it more, was that I had this incredibly long story but I didn’t just find the right spot to start, I found the only spot where it could all be told in that short moment.

Actually, do have a read some time. You don’t need to for the point I’m trying to make but I’m unusually pleased with it. It’s called Still Life and you can read it over on the Prompted Tales website.

I haven’t been taught writing and I don’t know if there’s some university module on starting but I’m on a thing now where, dammit, the story takes place over 32 years and I have 45 minutes in which to tell it.

I’ll get there. And although I blinked a bit when I realised I was in exactly the same hole as I was before Still Life, I’m going to enjoy finding the right spot to tell this story.

Readers need a good start, writers need the right start but somewhere in the tale there is a potent, pregnant moment where it can all take place.

Okay. Okay. I think that’s right. And it’s helped, thank you. Can I see you again next week?

Sequels and lies

The Good Wife ended on American television last Sunday and I promise not to spoil it for you if you promise not to spoil it for me. I’m exactly 127 episodes behind. That’s five years, though at the rate I’m watching now I’ll have finished by next June.

So you gather that I like this show: it’s a US legal drama and I think quite extraordinary but I won’t press you to watch because people have been pressing me to since it began in 2009. Somehow I resisted them. No reason. Possibly stubbornness. I didn’t try an episode until earlier this year and as richly absorbing and engrossing as the show is, I’m not even going to try subliminally suggesting that you join us fans, join us, join us, join us.

I’m also not going to think about a show ending changes it. I find I can’t get into early episodes of How I Met Your Mother now that I know how he met your mother, but it’s not even that, not even a finishing of the story. There is something different. I remember Ronald D Moore saying of his best-known TV series ending and on the day after it finished airing that: “Yesterday Battlestar Galactica is this TV series, today it was.”

I’m paraphrasing but the essence is right, the essence is of how for the maker of a show, the end is the same wrench we all feel when we leave a job or when a relationship ends on us. I get that as a viewer and actually I don’t get it often enough: I’m trying to think of series where I watched up to the end and wished it had continued. I’d wandered away from Battlestar and still haven’t caught up, for instance. Certainly there’s Veronica Mars.

But usually TV shows are like British politicians: they always end in failure. The most successful British politician will eventually lose an election. It’s not like the US where you have a fixed term as President, here you end in defeat. That’s so British.

I am presently wishing for the end for various current politicians but somehow I wish The Good Wife had continued until I’d caught up with it. I can’t account for that, but there is something different now. Something different between a series in progress and a series that has concluded. There is the practical side that the finale was a big deal and it has been hard to avoid finding out what happens. Only last night, there was a trailer for a last-season episode on Channel 4 and both Angela and I actually sang loudly, a kind of broken, staccato La La La as we tried to find which of us had the TV remote.

We never used to have spoilers. I think that word, in this context, must surely be one of the those ones recently added to the dictionary because nobody did or could’ve spoiled something like the answer to who shot JR. I remember seeing on TV news footage of the next episode of Dallas arriving in the UK. It was a film or possibly video canister, I can see it being wheeled across from an aircraft to Heathrow or somewhere.

Obviously I mind spoilers but I don’t mind that they exist. I like very much that drama creates an urge in people to find out more and to rush around telling people. These are made-up stories about made-up people, there is no reason we should be interested and yet we’re avidly interested. In the best television drama, you worry about the characters from week to week: I think that is ridiculous and I think that is fantastic and I think I wish I knew how to write that well.

The downside of this way that drama characters get into us us not that there are spoilers that will ruin your day and could take a shine off the next 127 episodes for me. It’s that we struggle to let characters go and that means we get sequels.

It can work. There’s Frasier, for instance: strictly speaking it’s a spin-off from Cheers but it aired afterwards so call it a sequel. Similarly, there’s Lou Grant. But I think it’s telling that Lou Grant began airing 39 years ago and it is still the only hour-long drama to spin out of a half-hour sitcom. I don’t think anyone else has even tried to do that, it’s such a hard thing, but then also it would never be allowed today.

TV networks don’t really want sequels: they would like the original show to somehow start again and be the hit it was. Forever, please. I think we’re the same: what we really want when we love a drama is to have that same experience again. To be where we were and who we were when we first got hooked by these characters.

It’s not possible so we hanker to stay with the characters in some way and that gets us sequels. I don’t know if there will be a sequel to The Good Wife – I can hardly look it up without spoiling the aforementioned 127 episodes – but I’ll bet money that it has at least been considered. Maybe piloted. A pilot script to a How I Met Your Mother sequel was commissioned and I’ve read it: the list of reasons I’m glad it wasn’t filmed begins with how the only brave creative decision in it was to give it the wrong title. It’s called How I Met Your Dad. So near and yet.

That didn’t fly and maybe we’d be better if sequels never did. We would definitely be better off if we could learn to let go. A thing is a thing, don’t try to draw it out.

But we can talk about that next week.

Writing prompts vs writing promptly

It’s probably a vestige of starting in journalism where you knew what you had to write and you knew you had to get on with it. But it has taken me so long to warm to the idea of a writing prompt that actually, I still haven’t. Not quite. I see the appeal a bit more than I did yet the notion someone can say “Write about… happy daisies” still feels a bit wet.

I can’t shake the feeling that a prompt is necessarily random and trivial. That if I were ever to write about happy daisies it should be because something in them makes me shake and I must get it out, not because a stranger glanced at a Van Gogh painting.

What’s slightly embarrassing is that I’ve used prompts, I’ve set them for people.

What’s mortifying is that people have set them for me and I’ve written some of my best material because of them.

Maeve Clarke, an author I worked for and then with at Writing West Midlands’ Young Writers scheme, once set her group of 8 to 12-year-olds this prompt: write a fairytale. I was helping out at that session and I joined in. I wrote a fairy tale. In about a quarter of an hour, having never typed a single word that could ever be construed as fairytale-like, I’d written 900 words of The Prince and the Spinning Wheel’s Angular Momentum. And you see that’s a link? I was so pleased with that wildly out-of-my-wheelhouse story that I posted it here on Self Distract.

The disadvantage of posting it, though, is that I can now see the date: November 2012. It’s two years since I had proof both that a writing prompt could spin me off into new and satisfyingly unsafe areas – and that when prompted, I can’t half write promptly. Nine hundred words in a quarter of an hour. That tale fell out of me, didn’t it?

Maybe I can’t really account for why it’s taken me two years to properly accept that writing prompts can work, but there is a reason I’m telling you all this today. Last night, I invited my family to an event in which I will be reading a story. I’ve been a writer for my entire adult life and I’ve never invited them anywhere before. To be fair, I can’t bring guests to a Doctor Who recording. And even in the past year when I’ve been doing a huge number of talks, every one of them has been either closed or far away. But now my own family is spending money to come see me. I’m not scared.

I am, but I have help. The event is Seven Minute Tales and it features six authors reading extracts from stories we’ve written to order. I’ve seen two of my fellow authors’ tales so I know my family will have a good night. Plus I burn to read mine and the fact that we have to stand there in front of a room of people and read is dwarfed by the fact that we only get to read extracts to them where I burn to read the whole thing. I know, as all of us in the event know, that seven minutes works out to about half the story if we’re lucky.

You’ll get six half-stories, six tales where you will end up wanting more. Fortunately, if you buy a ticket for the event, you also get a copy of the book collecting them all. So I suppose you don’t have to wait long to find out what happens next. But I want to tell you.

I want to read it to you. I am that pleased with my tale and it is something I would never and I think could never have written without one hell of a prompt. And without having to write it quite promptly.

This is what I call a real prompt. I was commissioned by Roz Goddard of the West Midlands Readers’ Network to create a story for a particular group. Six authors were assigned to six reading groups: the groups had to apply to the scheme and the authors were asked to pair up with them. I don’t know yet where everybody went but the authors are Yasmin Ali, Liam Brown, Charlie Hill, Catherine O’Flynn, Kate Long and I. It’s pretty good company to be in.

I got a reading group in the village of Combrook, which to my navigationally-challenged mind is near Stratford. I bet the group would say Stratford’s miles away, what am I talking about, but that’s the rough direction I pointed the car at.

The job was to meet with this reading group and have a natter about fiction. Talk about what they like in reading, talk about them and talk about their village. Then I was supposed to go away and write about 2,200 words of a new short story for them.

I tell you now, you would want to live in Combrook. And you would want to join this book group. And if you did, you would be agog and delighted at the torrent of tales they could give you about the village. There is too much to ever get into a story but then that wasn’t the brief, I wasn’t meant to document the village or recount a real tale, I was really to create fiction that this group would like.

Talking with some of my colleagues, I know we all came away with huge long lists of points and elements and facts and preferences. One author, I think, managed to get the entire list into the tale and that’s rather amazing. Another cherry-picked two or three elements and crafted a story I think is the best of the ones I’ve read.

And then there was me.

I recorded the session plus I made several thousand words of notes and I didn’t use any of them.

All this glorious material, all these delightful people, and I ignored everything.

Because.

During the email exchanges before the meeting, just sorting out when I’d go and how near Stratford they are, the group mentioned the very smallest of facts. This village of Combrook, as small as it is, actually has two reading groups.

I drove away late that night with masses, simply masses of detail and information and history and yet all the way home that one fact of the two groups kept banging at my head. You’re not supposed to actually write about your group. This project has been running for years and every author, every year, has conjured up the most astonishing range of stories and settings and tones. None of them has ever written a syllable about the group they visited.

But bang, bang, shove, the village has two groups.

It go so I decided fine, write this story about two rival reading groups and get it done, get it out of my head, then throw it away and do my job properly. Write it, forget it, and start thinking what my real story should be.

I never did. All those notes, forgotten. That audio recording of the session, never listened to. Because I have never before had a story that was more in charge of me than I was of it. I get really passionate about my Doctor Who scripts and if I can’t do one because my idea is too close to something else, it physically hurts me. (Writers will tell you that nothing is wasted, that you will always find a home for an idea if it’s good enough. But this is Doctor Who. It’s not like you can take a rejected idea and pitch it to Hollyoaks.)

But this was more than that. The banging in my head, I feel ridiculous telling you that so I’m not going to admit that my hands shook at the keyboard. You didn’t hear that, I didn’t say it.

The story came out of me very quickly, though it then took a long time to get right. Fortunately, my sense of time is as bad as my sense of navigation: I misunderstood the deadline and I think part of the shaking was to do with how I thought I had much less time to write than I had. I did have this writing prompt about the two groups and I thought I had to write it promptly.

Whereas right now I know I have to write a disclaimer. This is an easy disclaimer because it’s entirely true but it’s also an important one because I liked the Combrook group a lot. Nothing in my story really happened and, most importantly of all, there is not one single character or even facet of a character that I based on anyone in the group.

But a few days ago, I went back to Combrook and I read them the story: “The Book Groups”.

If it hadn’t gone down so well with them, I might not be telling you this so happily and I definitely wouldn’t have told my family at all. But it did and right now I am very proud of it. I’m a writer, the pride will alternate with doubt, but today I’m seizing the pride and I’m being a bit brave about it.

Because I want to invite you to the event.

You’d have to pay, I’m not that generous, and you’d have to get to Birmingham, I’m not on tour. But if you can get to the Library of Birmingham for 6pm on Wednesday 26 November this year, you will hear six stories read promptly.

Details and online booking here or on 0121-245 4455. Tickets are a fiver and are genuinely selling out fast. I half hoped I could boast to my family about it but it’d be full before they booked. No such luck.

And when it’s done, when the book is out, I’ll post The Book Groups here. That’s not scary either.