The new normal

I’ve been working with a lot of writers lately and specifically about how to make more time for your writing. It’s not as if this is something I’ve never done before, but it is unusual how I somehow currently have three totally separate projects with completely separate groups and even in entirely different forms, that are all about this.

Maybe it’s that volume of thinking about this topic, maybe it’s because I’ve learned from these writers, or maybe it’s just age, but I have realised something. I realised it this morning, actually, as I came to talk to you.

If you want to write or to do anything, make it normal. Don’t think of it as new or different, it’s just what you do, so you’re doing it.

It takes time to make something a normal, regular part of your routine, but I would have said it takes five years and now I think it can be weeks.

Don’t let me sound as if I’m talking about making a habit of something. That’s different. What I mean is – well, actually, let’s take you and I for an example.

When Self Distract started, easily ten years ago now, it was a place for me to promote something or other. Something to do with Radio Times, where I was doing most of my writing at the time. But it changed.

It’s now you and me getting to talk. And I don’t know when you read it, but I do know exactly when I write it.

Early every Friday morning, I make us a mug of tea and we start. Like we always do. Like it’s normal. And if it’s taken years for me to see it as being as much a normal part of the week as cooking breakfast is, the last few months have seen a change to that normality.

Lately I’ve been spending so very many hours at my desk most days that to talk to you, I move to the couch in my living room. If you’d asked me about it yesterday, I’m sure I would’ve told you that I do this, but I’d have had to think about it. Whereas this morning, I had the tea, I had the couch, but I’d forgotten my iPad. It’s in my office and surely the sensible thing is just to go there and write, especially since the moment you and I finish nattering, that’s exactly where I’ve got to go.

But it felt wrong. Without my realising that it had happened, the couch had become normal and anything else had not.

I got the iPad. I made more tea.

And if all of this is on my mind today, I think that perhaps it’s because I’ve been looking for it. You know how when you hear some word for the first time, you are somehow guaranteed to keep hearing it over and over again. Not once in your life had you heard it before, now it’s practically daily.

I think that really the reason I’ve been looking at how to make something part of your normal life is that something else has changed for me and it’s probably only taken a month or two.

Twice this week, two entirely separate firms I work with had problems and I offered to produce a video for them. In fact, for one of the firms, I just did it. Wrote, produced, shot, edited and delivered a video that did this thing they needed.

At some point very recently, video production became one of my regular, normal tools. It helps that I write the scripts, and it helps that I do believe video editing uses the same mental muscles as writing, but still something has changed. I’ve edited video for two decades, easily, but never before has it been the obvious solution to a problem.

What’s changed is not that I now edit video, but rather that it is a normal part of my working week.

Once you make something normal, you just do it. And I think you end up doing so much more of it than you had thought. That’s both in terms of how you find more uses for whatever it is, but also you do somehow make more time.

I shot five videos this week and so far have delivered four of them. Whether they’re any good or not is a very different issue, but the five came on top of everything else I was doing this week, which is exactly what I was doing every week two months ago.

I know you get faster at things through practice, but I believe that you can take on something new and that you can find the extra time to do it more when it stops being this scary new thing and instead becomes normal. When your To Do list becomes Write Script, Pitch to X, Interview Y, do Food Shopping – and Shoot Video.

So come on then, it’s just you and me here, let’s figure out what new things we can take on next.

Time is a commodity, watchtime doubly so

Oh, give me strength. I have been obsessed with time as a writer for my entire life – you can see that theme in just about every fiction I write. And I’ve been panicked about time for just as long – I may even be chronophobic, I’m so constantly anxious about not having achieved anything, not being ready, not being good enough yet in this frustratingly short lifespan we have.

And now I’ve only gone and found a new time to think about.

It’s called watchtime, perhaps you know it already.

My 58keys YouTube series has six episodes, totalling 58 minutes and 31 seconds, so far. A few hundred people have watched, which is great, and reportedly they have in total watched 22 hours of it. Actually, 21 hours and 58 minutes.

Compare that to the millions of hours of watchtime other shows get and it’s rubbish. Compare it to the zero watchtime hours I had before I made the show, and it’s amazing.

And if you do what I appear to be doing now, it’s dizzying. I think about that watchtime, I check it a lot, but I also think about the individual running times of each episode, I think about when I am or am not using that time well, I’m thinking about the watchtime compared to how long any one or all of the episodes have taken to make. I’m thinking about the next two episodes which I finished last weekend and will publish in one and two weeks. I’m thinking about the social media that I wrote when I finished each episode and is currently scheduled to automatically post when the show is published. I’m thinking about when the best time for all of this is.

Watchtime, calendar time, production time, durations, time of day, day of week, time as a commodity and a tool, time it takes to edit, best times to shoot because of the lighting, best days to shoot because I’m not committed to something else but I am also not so knackered that I’m incoherent, time as a barrier – I’d like to be further ahead with episodes but that takes time I haven’t quite got yet. Plus I really need to fit in a haircut.

All of this time has a shape. I’ve got an hour of 58keys now, but that’s split across six videos. When you’re doing an actual hour, one 60-minute something, you’re thinking about the top of the hour and the bottom, you’re thinking about what works at the start, how it must end, you’re shaping the minutes. I am doing the same with these 8- to 17-minute episodes. (I worried so much about the 17-minute one being too long, but it’s by far the most popular episode so far. By far.)

Nobody watching should ever think about this, but when making it I am deeply conscious of every second. I’m not saying I’m any good at each second, I’m telling you I lie awake at night deciding to reshoot whole episodes because I can convey the information better or at least faster.

And my favourite part of all this so far is video editing. Sitting in front of Final Cut Pro X at midnight, looking at one minute of me talking, comparing that to the episode’s duration so far, and realising that with a single cutaway mid-sentence to something else, I can ditch 45 seconds of me and make the world a better place.

So now there’s real time, there’s me sitting in the dark, and there’s the duration of the video as recorded, the duration of the video as edited, and all these minutes of trims taken away from it.

In the olden days, thousands and thousands of years ago, there was when the sun came up and when the sun went down. Now there’s all this.

Look at what we do. Look at how much we try to wedge in to our days, and how much we can treat time as this product we shape and sell. And yet there isn’t a single thing we can do to make even one extra second of time.

I could grow an ulcer from how much I worry about time and it isn’t funny that the obvious solution is to take some time off.

Lagrange Plus

I appear to be adding traditions as I get older, but fortunately, the latest one is not going to stick. I vowed that this year I will finish working on the Friday before Christmas. Specifically that I will switch my Mac off at 16:00 and refuse, utterly refuse to switch it back on until at least 16:05.

It won’t happen. I don’t know when I’ll finish because I am forty times busier than this time last year though, consequently, also one hundred percent happier.

There is a point, usually around midnight on New Year’s Eve, when I sink. Plummet, really. I don’t know how long it lasts because I go to bed to hide from it, but it’s frighteningly, disabling, paralysingly strong. It’s a bald and unarguable feeling that I’ve wasted the last year and a fear that I’ll waste the next one too.

I will get it again this New Year’s Eve but just for once, maybe just for now, I think it’ll be okay.

For this week I found myself telling someone how I have never written better than I am writing now. You can question just how well that actually is, but the trend is upwards in my mind.

And then recently I was in a conversation about how poor my secondary school was. It was suggested that I’d have got further and done more if it hadn’t been so bad. I’m embarrassed to tell you this but without thinking, without pause, I found myself saying “Better than this?”

I can rationalise that as being less about my thinking I’m doing great and instead knowing that the projects I get to work on are tremendous. I will not say that I’m lucky to be doing what I do because it ain’t luck, it’s deliberate and ceaseless effort, but I’ll eat your ear off about how fortunate I am to work on these things with these people.

Still, I sounded like I was boasting and I am cringing at you here because I also sounded high-pitched.

Just between you and me, that was the only bit I really didn’t like. I may practice saying it with more gravitas. Actually, I might: if I can, I’d like to make that attitude be more of a habit.

Whereas I haven’t been so intentionally looking to make traditions yet I’ve now got two that I look forward to at this time of year. Two that I crave each Christmas.

One is old, as old as traditions are supposed to be, and I can’t even remember how many decades it’s been now. Through coincidence, chance, habit and possibly a little bit of effort, I tend to get between ninety minutes and two hours alone early on Christmas Eve. It’s exactly the point where it no longer matters whether you’ve finished all your work because there is nobody to deliver it to, nobody who’s waiting for it. Not right now, not right then.

I’ve called this a Lagrange Point before. That’s an astronomy term and in my slightly buckled metaphorical version, it’s a moment of stillness caused by all the forces around you equalling each other out. They’re still there, they are still as powerful and demanding, but they equal each other out and I float.

Previously I’ve chosen to spend this time catching up on a film I’ve wanted to see but that’s probably over now. I’m probably going to read, perhaps listen to something. Just not watch a film or at least I don’t think so. Because that’s now the newer of my two Christmas Eve traditions.

I’ll wait to midnight. I’ll be with family for most of the evening, I’ll do Christmas Eve-y things and then as close to midnight as I can make it, I will be in our living room and I’ll re-watch the film Arrival.

There are people who say you should go to midnight mass, that you should experience some religion at this time and to them I say yep, that’s exactly what I’m doing.

The film is about many things but most specifically language and time, subjects that obsess me beyond reasonable measure. I have a collection of time short stories that is currently due to come out next year (it may slip to 2020) and I was writing them when I first saw the film. I’m not going to say that Arrival made me want to rip them all up, but only because that would look quite bad as the quote on the back of my book.

This Arrival Lagrange Point started because the film got a limited re-release at Christmas in 2016 and the only screening I could get to was a late night Christmas Eve one. That was the fourth time I’d seen the film that year. It was the third time in the cinema and of course I bought it on iTunes, of course I watched it on our TV set.

Then last Christmas, I watched it again at home at midnight on Christmas Eve 2017. Since then and throughout this year I have avoided it, I have resisted it and I have waited for it.

Midnight, Christmas Eve, 2018. Arrival. Damn right.

Time contracts

Okay, now, as soon as I actually type the words ‘time contracts’ I realise that, yes, I am currently negotiating a contract to do with a Time project. But what’s on my mind is how time itself contracts – as opposed to expands.

Take any one thing I’ve done this week. Publisher meeting, writing for AppleInsider, running an evening writing group named after a pub that doesn’t exist, constantly writing on trains, working for and with the Writers’ Guild, bits with Cucumber Writers, discussing the difference between fire eating and fire breathing with a performer on a day-long workshop I ran, and writing a fake online poetry workshop called How to Poet as a test for another project.

Any one of those sounds good and I relished every pixel – but not enough. There was no time to enjoy it enough

For it’s been one of those cases where you are deep into something and then absolutely have to wrench yourself out in order to then be exactly as deeply into the next one.

See me in any of these events or actually doing any of these things and you are seeing me at my happiest. It’s just the bits in between.

Typing on trains because it was the only time to get something finished. Relying on the brilliant thing that I regularly remote-control my Mac from anywhere – and then discovering that this week it decided not to work. Technology. It’s alchemy and such unfair alchemy too.

I’m not going to say that we should a moment to enjoy things when we’re busy. I’m not going to Ferris Bueller this.

And, yes, true, I am thinking it’s great to be busy and that is all very nice for me. But what’s on my mind is what you’ve had too: a week that simultaneously seems like a month and an hour.

And you’ve also had this: you’ve let things slip between the cracks. I need to go write some apologetic emails.

Unfortunately, I’ve first got to go on a speed awareness course. But I didn’t tell you that.

Back in time

I spilt my tea over this but I reckon you’re made of harder stuff. And also that if you were liable to spill tea over it, you heard it a week ago and have already mopped up. But about a day after I wrote to you that the US television drama Timeless has been cancelled, it was un-cancelled.

Now, I could go off on how this is good news – I enjoy the show very much – or I could tug on my TV historian credentials and talk to you about just exactly how unusual this is. A network cancelling a series and then reversing that decision three days later, all in public, is borderline unique. The only thing stopping me saying that it’s actually unique is that there’s an argument that a similar thing happened with the original Star Trek.

Picture me with my hand out flat and gently rocking it.

But you know that and you gathered I like Timeless so let’s refill our tea and take a look around. I’m in the local library I used to use as a boy. I’m sitting about two metres to the left of where I once sat on the carpet, reading some book I can still cherish but have long forgotten the title or author of.

It’s just that there, right there, is the first time that I so enjoyed reading a book that when I got to the last page, I instantly, unthinkingly, completely naturally turned it back to the first page and began again.

That spot is now one of – hang on, let me look – something like a dozen PCs. I can’t be sure because some are hidden by shelving, but it’s approaching a dozen. It’s funny how easily they fit into this space. Old wood, doubtlessly the same that was here – oh, right over there where it now says Western Fiction and Books about Railways, that’s where as a teenager I picked up James Blish’s novel A Life for the Stars. I believe I got my utter certainty that it is better to be crew than passenger from that book.

I was saying. Old wood, doubtlessly the same wood as when I was here. Ancient windows that I think have been restored but if so, now restored so long ago that they need it again. One table with that raised middle creating slopes on either side that are just right for reading newspapers on.

And across one end of the room, a set of three display cabinets each with one model railway carriage in. They look beautifully precise and well built, but I had no idea why they were here when I was a boy and I’ve no clue now that I’m a man. I suppose I could ask and I supposed I could’ve asked, but I won’t and I didn’t. Keep it a mystery.

This is all sounding like I’m just trying to tie something in to the word Timeless but actually it’s the newsman in me. Having told you that Timeless was cancelled, I couldn’t allow myself to not tell you now that it had been uncancelled. Doesn’t matter if you already knew, doesn’t matter if you have no interest, I can’t let it go because that would be wrong. Incomplete.

I just don’t know if the boy I was two metres to my left and some decades to the right would’ve cared about that. I think he would.

I tend to look back with an ache of loss. Definitely to the time when I was a boy, the other day to the time when an episode of The Sweeney was on TV and I had to accept that I had been alive during those prehistoric days. Certainly also when I look back to yesterday, to ten minutes ago. I don’t what it is about time, I don’t know why the past is a constant ache.

But right here, this moment with you in this room, that sense of time is making me feel peaceful. This room helped form me and it has waited for me to come back.

Plus, earlier this week I re-read Alan Plater’s novel Misterioso for easily the twentieth time. And yes, when I reached the last page, I did turn it back to the first one. The boy would be happy.

It’s about {squiggle}

Apart from the framed cover of my first book, I’ve only ever chosen two pictures for our walls. The first was five years ago and a little related to that book: it was a single blown-up page of script from Alan Plater’s Fortunes of War dramatisation. People see that, read the page, have no clue why the text makes me sob.

From now on, they’ll be able to look to their left and see this as well.

The main symbol for Time as written in Heptapod from the film Arrival

I like that one is typewriter text and the other is also text but in a graphical form. I like that both speak to me about language. I like very much that this new one is the symbol for Time as seen in the film Arrival.

I like less that there were actually three different symbols for Time in the movie. But this is the main one, this is the one the characters pointed to when they called Time. And in a weird way, this is the one that reads like Time to me. It’s not like I think I can read the Heptapod language it comes from, but I read this symbol and I read it as Time.

I don’t know why this matters to me so much but I don’t need to: it just matters and oh, my lights, it matters enormously.

I’m minded of how as a man it’s considered weak to weep at poetry. I offer that it’s not a weakness in me or any man, any woman, it is a power in the text. To be able to write like that, to reach people like that, to affect people like this, it’s power.

Whether it’s in English or Heptapod.

Writers and the Sapir Whorf hypothesis

I don’t think I’ve ever quite said this to you before but I regard it as a treat and a privilege that we get to chat. And I am especially conscious of this now as Self Distract has been dead for a month because of website problems. Oh, my lights, but it’s good to be back.

Now that we’re on speaking terms again – thank you A Small Orange internet service provider for rescuing the blog from the debris – I do of course want to talk to you about writing. It’ll just take a while to get there and I think along the way we’re going to explore something that applies to everything and everyone. Certainly to you and I.

At least certainly if you spend as much time thinking about words as I do. It’s not healthy of us, it really isn’t.

But one word that I particularly like is the German one ‘heimat’. There’s a famous German television drama of the 1980s called that and I never got around to watching it. What I learned about it, though, was that strictly speaking the word heimat means home. And, more importantly, that it really means much more than that – which English doesn’t have an equivalent to.

Then there’s the quote from Cervantes which goes something like this: “Reading a translation is like looking at the back of a tapestry”. Isn’t that wonderful? Such a vivid, instantly clear, instantly obviously right way to explain that you can get the pattern but you cannot see the colour.

Only, this is a favourite quote of mine for one specific reason: Cervantes originally said it in Spanish.

So as much as I believe I understand the thought, as an English-only speaker I am perhaps only looking at the back of it, at the pattern of the meaning instead of its full colour.

It’s thinking about this kind of stuff that means I heard of what’s often called the Sapir Whorf hypothesis a long time ago. If you only recently heard of it, that’s because you’ve just seen the film Arrival. If you’ve never heard of it before right this moment, please go see Arrival. (The screenplay is by Eric Heisserer and based on a short story by Ted Chiang. For once, I urge you to see the film instead of solely reading the screenplay but right now that script is available online. It won’t be there for long: it’s online as part of awards season and will be taken down in a few weeks. If you miss it, tell me: I lunged at the screen to save a copy for myself.)

The film exaggerates or at least takes this hypothesis on further than Edward Sapir or Benjamin Lee Whorf did and apparently many people think their idea is bollocks anyway. I’m fine with a film using a bollocks idea and taking it to somewhere as gorgeous as Arrival does, but I also think the hypothesis is right because of Heimat, because of Cervantes – and actually because of radio.

Writ very short, the Sapir Whorf hypothesis is that the language we use affects how we think, how we see the world. In Arrival, this is the start for a simply beautiful story and one so delicately drawn that it made me want to rip up all my own writing and start over.

But in Arrival and in the full Sapir Whorf hypothesis, the point is very specifically about a whole language, an entire language and not just a phrase book. If you speak French then your very thought patterns are subtly different to the way you think if you are a German speaker.

I am sure that’s true but I don’t know because I solely speak English and can’t compare anything. Yet I still think there’s something key about this idea even within my one single language. For instance, I suspect that writers think differently to, I don’t know, chefs. I was talking to someone once, for instance, who visibly could not grasp whatever small-talk subject it was until we found a way to translate it and use an example from his industry. That was an odd and somewhat long hour.

I am also entirely certain that I think the way I do because of radio. Tell me if this is you, too, but I can see that I’m shaped by having worked in radio. Specifically that my sense of time is different. There’s the time passing away for all of us but there’s also the time that you plan out for a show, that you plan out like time is a physical space.

So for instance even though it’s years since I worked in BBC radio, I still think in the terms top and bottom of the hour. I think of the first half of an hour as being an easy, downhill-fast run while the second half is an uphill climb. I can rationalise that by how you’re doing a show because you have something you’re excited to say and so naturally you want to get to it quickly. The start is easy because you want to rush in. The end is tough because you’ve got to pace out the piece, you’ve got to be sure you’ve included everything. But still, sod rationalisation: I think this so deeply that the top of the hour feels fast and easy to me, the bottom of the hour feels hard.

You do this in radio, I do it still in producing events and workshops, but I also just do it all the time. Like, all the time.

I do this and then I also think in terms of hard and soft items.

A hard item, if you’ve not heard it described this way before, is one that’s already prepared and has a fixed duration. Watch The One Show, for instance, and you’ll see a mix of interviews in the studio and little films, sometimes called VTs, sometimes packages. (VT is from videotape, when these things were played in to the show off a prerecorded tape. You’re too young to remember videotape and consequently I hate you.)

These video packages are hard items and the studio guest interviews are soft ones. It’s nothing to do with whether one or the other is hard-hitting, gritty journalism or light, cheery frippery. It’s that the hard one can’t be stopped where the soft one, the interview, can be as long or as short as you like if things have changed. You can wrap up an interview when you’re running out of time where you can’t stop a film package.

Actually, of course you can. I’ve not worked in this type of television but in radio you would distressingly often have to come out of a package early because something happened or you’d mis-timed when you should’ve started playing it in. Stopping a package early while not sounding like you just fell over the fader took skill: you had to listen live and listen for the right instant, the right moment when actually the presenter only paused but it sounded like it could be the end. Then you slam that fader shut and you start talking as if that were the end.

It’s called potting. You pot a package. Language is wonderful. The reason this is potting instead of, say, slamming-fader-ing, is that before radio desks had faders, they had round little knobs. They looked like teeny upside down pots. You can still see a million of them on music studio recording desks.

I think of potting, then, the same way that we talk about taping a TV show when really we mean marking it to record on our Sky or DVR box. We talk about videoing an event when we mean digitally capturing it on our phone.

More than the terms, though, more than the words I think in, knowing what potting is and having done it, I can always hear what I can only describe as a pot point. If I’m watching the news, I know when they could pot the item and move on. Sometimes you wish they would and that’s about time too.

What we do shapes us, that’s certain. What we have to think about shapes us, I’m sure. I’m conscious that I’m now thinking about this in obsessive detail because that’s what writers do, or at least it’s what I do as a writer. But having finally got us back onto the topic of writing, I offer this: Sapir Whorf gives us an insight into characters.

Knowing this, or at least believing it, has got to help us see into the characters we create and inhabit in our fiction and our drama. See how they think and you’ll know what they’ll do, you’ll feel what they feel.

Amongst everything else about this, I believe that the practice of trying to think how other people do is a good, hopeful and maybe optimistic thing in a time when we need all of that. Whether it’s the Sapir Whorf hypothesis or just my own special kind of bollocks, I think it means that we can change how we think by doing and talking and thinking about something new.

Listen, I’ve been waiting to discuss this with you for a month. Let’s go get a tea and maybe watch Arrival. Waddya say?

Time for something new

I want to make a case that there is nothing new and also that everything is new. Follow.

This is on my mind chiefly because I was in a Facebook discussion last night where writer Iain Grant said that he and co-writer Heide Goody were looking at a time travel idea for a novel. (If you don’t know their work, take a gander at their website.) He wanted to know if it had been done before.

I knew a few examples that were close and others had more that were similar, some had ones I’d not heard of but are apparently pretty much the same.

Now, one of my more annoying but uncontrollable habits is that if you tell me an idea, I might well wince and say no, it was done in Upstairs, Downstairs or The A-Team. This is specifically the reason I can’t get through Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom: as good as it is, he has stories and characters that he’s used so often. There is a part of me that wants to see how The Newsroom handles a particular storyline that was beat for beat the same in Sports Night and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, but chiefly because I’m fascinated by how it was romantic in the former but creepy in the latter.

Wait, I suddenly remember having a little row with a script editor who argued that just because I’d seen something done often, that didn’t mean my audience had. That didn’t sway me. I couldn’t write the scene the way he wanted.

Yet in that discussion last night, you could sense Iain beginning to think that nope, he and Heidi should skip it and I really don’t want him to. Nor does anyone else in the chat. And I think it’s for this reason.

Yes, at least parts of the idea have been done before, but it hasn’t been done by Iain Grant and Heide Goody. Until they’ve done it, you can’t know that it would be written better than the previous versions but you can know that it would be different.

I’m not sure why that’s enough to make me urge them to write it and yet not enough to let me do the same. For me, if I know that an idea has been done before then, so far, I’ve been incapable of doing it. This could be why I never ask on Facebook whether something’s been done before.

Only, there is another reason for this being on my mind today. Earlier yesterday I was on a train reading an unpublished novel that I wrote. Funnily enough, it was about time. Unfunnily enough, it was appallingly bad. So bad that I truly gaped when a search on my Mac happened to turn it up: I had written 70,000 words in 1994 and erased it from my mind immediately afterwards. I’m not sure why I didn’t erase it from my Mac. I might. There’s still time.

A day on and it’s already evaporating from my mind but I did remember how struck I was by one core idea that ran through the second half of the book. Because while the details are different and the relationship is different, it’s otherwise the same idea as in Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife. There’s even a part of it that is the same idea as River Song and the Doctor’s out-of-sequence relationship in Doctor Who.

The Time Traveler’s Wife was published nine years after my novel wasn’t. River Song first appeared in Doctor Who in 2008, fourteen years after my novel didn’t.

There’s something appealing to me about this timey-wimey issue, that two separate time discussions are leading me to how there were at least two great ideas within the novel I wrote. It’s less appealing to me how ferociously bad my writing was in 1994.

I often get pupils in writing workshops asking if they can do something slightly different to what I’ve asked and the answer I’ve grown is always this: yes, if you do it brilliantly.

Maybe that’s the bit I should be focusing on: work at being brilliant instead of working at whether this catalogue in my mind recognises an idea from somewhere else.

I mean, at one point in that novel I wrote the words “a myriad of”. I was young, but I’ll understand if you never talk to me again.

Creativity on rails

You try so hard, so damn hard to think of new things, to write new things. And then something like this happens. Actually, this particular thing happens to me so often that I honestly find it a bit frightening.

Say I’m editing some complicated audio or video and at the end I need to run off a version to send to someone. The process is easy but it’s rather harder to come up with a name for the file. It’s got to be something clear so that your recipient knows what it is. It’s got to have something saying it’s from me so that they can always track me back down if there’s a problem.

I’ve also got one eye to the future and another on just how many of these bleedin’ files I’ve got on my preposterous number of hard drives. So the name needs to be clear to me, too: it has to be so clear that I can recognise it two years from now. It also has to be so clear that when I need to search for it, the words that will find this file are obvious.

I really think about this, I mean I really do. Maybe the most creative thing I do on a given day is come up with a short filename that does all this. Wait: I forgot to mention short. It has to be all this and pithy, too.

The problem is that I’ll come up with this masterstroke of creative thinking, I’ll type that name, hit Return and immediately get: “file already exists”.

All that honestly hard-thought creativity and I’ve done it before. Precisely the same way. Truly, it scares me: I wonder if all my creativity is down precise lines, if I can never break out of previous patterns of thinking.

And then there was this week. Most of which was good.

I read a short story of mine about time at the Birmingham Literature Festival. Then I performed a different short story of mine about time at a book launch, also in the Festival. And on Wednesday I performed yet a third time story in a recording session for Brum Radio. Lastly, very late one night, I flopped down onto our couch, I had a chocolate mini-roll with my name on it – and I didn’t eat it for two hours because I’d finally cracked another short story idea and had to write it down. My hands and arms shook as I typed, I was writing so fast.

It was also about time.

Okay, so maybe a distressing proportion of my creative thinking is spent on this one obsessive topic but I’m fine with that, that’s not the problem. Nor is how having written what turns out to be a fifth story about time, I had an idea for a sixth.

It’s a really good idea. I promise you it is. I’ll even tell you the title: it’s The Pointless Time Machine. I don’t usually write about time in the sense of time travel and science fiction, more in terms of regret and anguish, but here I’ve got a time machine – and, more importantly, the character who makes it – and this machine is pointless. I won’t tell you why, but it is.

Only, give me some credit here, I had an inkling that I may have thought of something vaguely like this idea before. Obviously not the same idea, obviously not the same pointless time machine, doubtlessly not the same character, but the thing that is pointless about it is something that I know tickled me before.

Yes.

In 2012, I wrote something approaching 2,000 words about a story quite a bit like the one I’m working on now. Weirdly for me, that was not 2,000 words of story, it was all my groping toward an idea. Making notes of the things I liked, that tickled me, trying to see what pressures I could put my characters in. And I had quite a few characters. All of them bore me now and from 2,000 words of notes, plans and pondering, I think I’ll maybe take one possible setting.

So that’s all good, that’s all fine.

But, yes.

The notes were saved under the filename The Pointless Time Machine.

Lead time

There used to be this thing called lead time: I mean, there still is but it used to be a big part of my life. If you’re writing in the Christmas double issue of Radio Times, you have to finish it weeks earlier than Christmas. When I was on monthly magazines you at least had an eye on what you’d be doing half a year ahead and with some titles that was crucial. It’s all rather faded away with the rise of online: the greater majority of things I write tend to be needed now and published now.

Only, lead time doesn’t always have to be long in order to be significant.

Yesterday morning I wrote an opinion piece for the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain’s weekly email newsletter. I believe it will be published later today. I’m not actually certain of that now because today is the Writers’ Guild’s AGM and there may well be a delay in this weekly newsletter since a lot of news is happening today.

But in theory, in the regular course of things, I write and deliver it early on a Thursday morning and it gets published on a Friday late afternoon or early evening.

I can’t show you what I wrote because it hasn’t come out yet but I can tell you that it was about Brexit and the business with Nigel Farage and Bob Geldof messing about on boats. Since this is just you and me here, let me tell you that I was pleased with it: I think I found an interesting point to make and it was a point that enabled a fair few good jokes.

But a few hours after I delivered it, the MP Jo Cox was killed and allegedly by a man who shouted words to the effect of “Britain first” either one or two times during the attack. If that’s correct, it would mean this was probably related to the EU debate and so here I am piddling about with jokes when a woman has died.

There isn’t anything in the piece that is directly wrong or arguably is even insensitive. I haven’t had a discussion with the Guild about whether we should postpone or drop it. But its tone is light and jolly and even or maybe especially because it carries a much more serious undertow, I know I wouldn’t have written it a few hours later.

Not a syllable has changed in that piece: for all I know it’s still waiting unread in the Guild’s email inbox until they need it. But a lot else has changed.

I think I talk to you about a time a lot but that’s not even a pixel in comparison to how much I fret about it. One unchanged thing like an article looking completely different depending on where in time you stand. We can’t choose our position in time but that doesn’t alter the fact that the view, the perspective from two different points is so different.

And I’m saying there are two different points but there are three. Or more: I’ve written this to you as if we’re talking now yet maybe you’re reading this because you found this it through some happenstance Google search next year. Certainly I’m having to remember the right tenses and the right terms like saying I wrote that Guild opinion piece yesterday and it’s published today when hopefully that is true from your perspective but it isn’t from mine.

For in order to get to that Writers’ Guild AGM, I will have to leave home very early. Consequently, in order to be sure of talking to you properly and not dashing a postcard off on the train, I’m really writing in advance. Overnight. It’s Thursday night now so I wrote that Guild opinion piece this morning, not yesterday morning. It will be published tomorrow afternoon, not this afternoon. From my perspective right now.

I don’t think any of that surprises or confuses you, though I got a bit free and easy with the tense clauses along the way, but I am not the man I was this morning and I am not the man I will be tomorrow. By tomorrow the initial shock of this MP’s death will be over and whatever I think of the piece I wrote for the Guild, it will be subtly different to what I think now. The real now, the Thursday night now.

Yet again, those words will not have changed one single syllable but now I’ve got three different views, three different contexts for them that mean actually yes, they are different so really they have changed. Writing is about much more than the words on the page or the screen and the text may remain fixed but the meaning, the writing, does not.

Do you see why I am obsessed with time? There are moments when this stuff paralyses me and now I’m picturing you looking at your watch and telling me that we’re out of time, perhaps we can discuss this further next week.