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.

Motivation

Clearly, I am the first ever writer to act on stage. I hear rumours of some other person called William who’s done it, but no, it was me. And as such, I have advice that I can now bestow for all writerkind to learn from.

Don’t ignore flashing red lights.

I really did act last night, and it was the first time I’d performed someone else’s script, but I was also producing. And I wrote another of the pieces for the evening, which I performed. Get me. Part of the production job, though, was recording the night.

So I had two locked-off cameras shooting video and audio from left and right of the stage. I had one lapel mic which we used to audio record parts that had a solo performer on stage. And I had two separate audio recorders positioned on the set.

I set all this going just before we opened the doors and I can see me now, asking an actor whether “that red flashing light” is distracting. I’d never seen this particular audio recorder flash red quite so much, but in my defence, it did look like it was flashing in time to the music.

Since I usually use it for interviews and so once it’s running, I’m not looking at it, I figured I’d just not noticed the red flashing before.

And I can see me now, finding something in my gear bag to cover up the red lights.

For this particular audio recorder, you press Record once to, I don’t know, arm it. Then you press Record again to set it actually recording.

And it turns out that until you press it that second time, the whole unit flashes as many red lights at you as it can.

Consequently, while the other cameras and all the other recorders captured about 90 minutes of show, that last audio recorder has about 15 seconds of me swearing.

But I swore very well. I emoted. I conveyed with clarity the depth of my feelings at that moment.

I wasn’t acting.

I’m not certain that I was acting when I performed my own piece. It’s a one-man short play, and the thing of it is that you’re not supposed to quite realise when I go from introducing the piece to actually doing it. You’re not supposed to know that every word from when I get on stage to when I leave is actually the story.

While it’s effective and, most importantly, right for this particular story, it also means that for a lot of the time, I am presenting as if I were doing a workshop. That is a performance, and the fiction of this story requires me to get quite upset, but it’s closer to what I do all the time.

Plus, it was my script, so of course I know it. I’ve acted in my own pieces before – hardly often, but generally very successfully.

What was different for me last night was that I performed someone else’s script.

And that is weird.

For the first time in my life, I have actually said the words “what’s my motivation?” during rehearsals. So much of what we write, or maybe just of what I write, is instinctual, and it’s when you have to see it from another direction that you become conscious of it.

It was all there in script, I just had to find it and in that digging, I was examining all the things about character that I usually just do unconsciously while writing.

Previously I’d have told you that I understand how actors do what they do, I mean I can comprehend the process even if I can’t do it. But now I can tell you that I don’t have a clue why they do it.

But it was pretty great getting to do a curtain call alongside proper actors.

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.

Talkback

Last night I was asked to give a talk about dialogue. The poor fools. They thought they’d get me for an hour or something, but instead I got them. Barricaded the room and settled in for at least a month’s discussion about this.

I’m quite keen on dialogue.

Toward the end of the session’s official, planned, reported running time, though, one man there asked a question that ultimately became the answer. Not just to his point, but actually to just about everything I love about dialogue in scripts and prose fiction.

He asked whether what I was really saying was that character comes first. That without the characters, the dialogue won’t ever be any good.

I know that this is what I have always believed, I know it. But – possibly ironically given the topic of the talk – it was someone saying it that made it work. That made it real and concrete.

For all the things I could enthuse at about dialogue, as I pulled down this barricade stuff and let them out as free human beings once more, it does come to this. What a character wants, what a character does, who a character is, that is what makes dialogue powerful.

We had an example last night, for instance – wait, I’m making an example of an example, I’m not sure that’s even allowed. Anyway. We had an example of one character who is advising another not to take a particular job.

If that first character is a good friend looking out for his or her pal’s best interests, the dialogue will be one thing. If this first character wants the job and is trying to get rid of some competition, it will be something else.

The words will be remarkably similar, but the dialogue will be totally different.

I would like to say that I went last night to bubble over at people about this wonderful topic. You could say that I grandly went to dispense wisdom.

But you can’t and I won’t deny that I learned something.

Script pages

My 10 lessons from reading 620 scripts

Late in December 2017 I read a piece by Lorenzo Colonna on Hayley McKenzie’s Script Angel site that suggested reading one script a day. And I thought yep, good idea. I would read a script every day for a year. Now it’s 28 December 2018 and when you and are done today, I’m going to go read my 621st.

I am surprised that it turned out to be so many but I was more surprised by how many people have asked why I was doing it. Just to keep this surprise line going a little further, I obviously wasn’t even mildly startled that I learned some things from these scripts. But I was and am shocked at how they changed through the year. Or rather, how I did.

I kept a list so that I didn’t repeat any – and with the idea that a growing list would keep me at it. And now I can look at any entry and tell you where I was, what I was doing or going through, and how I felt. Plus I can tell you about almost any script: there are a couple where I nearly did read them again because I’d forgotten about ’em.

Sometimes, I’ll fully admit, they were a chore. They were a job to be done in the last moments of the day. Other times they were a joy and the first thing I did before breakfast. You could’ve guessed at that, especially as I went so far over the one-per-day idea. What I didn’t guess is that sometimes they were an escape. Occasionally, on some supremely bad days, they were even a refuge.

And then there would be times, so many times, when I’d read something that was extraordinary and I’d know that I will never write that well.

Doesn’t mean I’m not going to try.

While I do that, while I crack knuckles, let me please tell you the ten things I believe I learned from reading these scripts.

10. It’s got to be there on the page
I’ve seen actors lift a piece, most especially including one of my two staged shorts this year, but there’s a limit. Very talented actors and directors can make a poor script seem okay, but it will never be good on its feet if it isn’t at all on the page.

9. Just because it’s on the page, it might not make it to screen
Conversely, I have seen the opposite happen. I’m sorry, I can’t remember which one it was now, but I read a sitcom script that I really enjoyed and then watched the aired episode. Jokes that had worked on the page simply didn’t on screen. Characters I liked as I read, I then didn’t as I watched, And somehow it all felt amateur.

I couldn’t leave you hanging. I’ve just searched. It was a US comedy called Happy Endings. I must be in the minority because it ran for a couple of seasons.

Still, I’m minded of Coupling. Once for BBC News Online I watched the pilot of the US remake of that show and then immediately watched the pilot of the original. There was some joke in the UK version that made me laugh aloud and was in the US one, in exactly the same point in the episode, and I hadn’t even realised it was a joke at all.

8. When writing and production work, there’s nothing like it
All this reading and I know even more so than I did before that cast and direction is crucial. Dammit.

There’s a scene in a Homicide: Life on the Street script that is so bare bones, so on-the-nose with people saying what they mean, that at least part of it could’ve been in a soap. Yet there on the page, you got why soap isn’t drama. This wasn’t simplistic or simplified, it was raw. You felt for these characters.

And then I watched the episode and felt it even deeper. No theatrics, no special effects, just pain transmitted into us from a superbly real character played perfectly.

Do give it a read. Homicide: Life on the Street: Every Mother’s Son. Teleplay by Eugene Lee, story by Tom Fontana & James Yoshimura. It was directed by Ken Fink and while that description I just gave you could apply to many characters in the episode, I’m thinking of the character Mary Nawls, played by Gay Thomas Wilson.

7. The first ten pages rule is bollocks
Some writers bleat on about how unfair it is that certain studios or production companies only read the first ten pages of your script. I’ve always known this is a fallacy: the argument is that the script gets really good after page 49. But if you are genuinely capable of making a script good after 50 pages but you can’t see it’s crap up to then, you’re not genuinely capable of writing.

Without exception, without one single exception, I have known from the opening page, the opening lines, whether a script was going to be good or not.

Now, that doesn’t mean I’ll like it, that I’ll enjoy it, but it means I know it works and is well done.

There is also the fact for the most part I chose the scripts I was going to read so you’d imagine I’d like them. It’s not as if I were picking at random or accepting anything sent to me. But then scripts were sent to me: during 2018 I was a judge on three separate awards panels and they were all about writing. I think maybe sixty of the scripts I read were nominees and I didn’t know anything about them in advance.

Didn’t make a difference. There were scripts I liked a lot but which abruptly shot themselves in the foot by the ending. There were others I slogged through because it was my job. But in each case, I knew whether there was going to be anything to like or admire or enjoy in each script and I knew right away.

6. Nobody gives a damn about writers and nor should they
Scripts about writers are death. If your lead character is struggling with writers’ block, well, boo fucking hoo.

5. Don’t be a smartarse
Alan Plater once told me that my stage directions made him laugh aloud – but that I should get that strength into dialogue instead. Then, when I did, he called it a great leap forward for writerkind. I did re-read one of my earliest scripts and it was dreadful for a thousand reasons, but one of them was that my stage directions were smartarse.

Again, I can’t remember which scripts I read this year that were like that and this time I won’t search because it feels cruel. But there was one that particularly sticks out. A location was described as being “the kind of house I’ll live in if this goes to four seasons”.

It was just a gag and it did the job of conveying the richness of the location but it jarred. Made me feel that the writer was more interested in the business than in the story.

4. You can lose anything, you can remove anything
I have always known this: the pilot to the sitcom Cheers is an extraordinary piece of work. I’ve seen it many times over the years but hadn’t read the script until now. I’d seen it so often that I would’ve been able to tell you in detail why it’s so good and I know I could even have quoted one of the jokes.

So it was somewhat surprising to find that the script has an extra character in it. When you’ve read the script and all her scenes, then you can actually see her in the finished episode. But every scene she was featured in and every line she said or was said to her is gone.

I’m sorry for the actor but it was the right choice. I’m sure it was only done because the episode was running long but it works better without her.


3. Script books are dead and possibly should be
I have a couple of hundred books with scripts and screenplays in but I stopped buying them years ago. In this 2018 reading, I did raid very many of those books and there are scripts that I would never have been able to get otherwise. But the internet has killed off the script book and that’s a good thing.


Scripts in books are always reformatted to get as much text on the page as possible and while format shouldn’t matter, it does. When you’re reading a script in the layout it was written, you get the pace right in your head.

Also, published scripts are almost always cleaned up. Mistakes are removed and often scenes cut from the final show are cut from the script too. Getting to read the script as it was when it was handed to the actors is infinitely better and we can thank the internet for that.

For television scripts, I recommend Lee Thomson’s TV Writing site, which is my favourite, plus The Script Savant and Script Slug

For films there’s Simply Scripts.

Otherwise for radio and theatre you’re stuck with searching for individual titles. Actually, for theatre I would and did still go to books.

2. Save us from transcripts
On the other hand, you won’t believe how vehemently I despise something else the internet has done. It has given a platform for people who slavishly copy down every word of a broadcast show or film. They then post these online and some of these bastards claim that their transcript is the script.

Forget seeing the writing as handed to the actors, these transcripts are literally every word uttered on screen – and nothing else. Not even who said it. Certainly not where they were. These transcripts are an unreadable mess and I would burn them.

One thing. I did come across the reverse. I found a script to an episode of UFO and the site hosting it called that a transcript. What they meant was that they had a paper copy of the original script and had typed it up. That was fine. Although, wow, UFO’s pilot episode is of its time. Roaringly sexist, 1970s to its hilt, you can’t believe adults said some of these words.

This might help: if you’re searching for a script online, make sure you specify PDF in your search. I don’t know why, but transcribers don’t appear to have grasped PDF yet so the odds are that any result you get back is a true script.

And the last, perhaps most important thing I learned from reading hundreds of scripts:

1. It’s a damn sight easier to read a script than to write one.
This year I’ve read 620 and written only three. Well, there’s a fourth that I’ve written but it turned out half the length it needs to be. And I’m writing another one now but it won’t be ready for the end of the year. I would like to point out that two of the three I wrote have been staged. And the third got me some promising conversations with TV companies.

I would like to now say that I’ll write a script per day in 2019 but I have this feeling that might not work out. There were already days in 2018 that were so tight for time that I read ten-minute Danger Mouse scripts just to keep the tally going. (They’re very good, though.)

I would also like to say for sure whether I’m going to carry on reading a script a day. It has become a habit but it is also a lot of work. And I did notice that my other reading fell off a cliff. Maybe I should read a novel a day. What do you think?

Something comes from Something

Previously on Self Distract… I am just after saying to you that nothing comes from nothing. If you don’t do anything then nothing happens and if you don’t show up, you don’t matter. You can call this many things ranging from harsh to obvious but it is also specific and practical. Yet there’s a vague and impractical companion argument which goes thisaway:

If you do anything, something happens.

Now, I may need to underline the vagueness there as I think – possibly I’m fooling myself but give me this – that it looks vague in a kind of all-encompassing way. That it’s vague but actually deep.

The vagueness I’m striving for, though, isn’t even that good and doesn’t even make that much sense.

So yes, if I say that when you write nothing, bugger-all happens, it follows that when you write something, at least perhaps something-all will happen. I’m still sounding as I mean you write X and X is a success. You show up at Y, that very well known networking party, and You are a success.

But what I really mean is this. If you do things, if you write things, if you help other people out, it’s like you stir up something in the air.

If you have no work on, if everything has been rejected and you slump into a paralysis, that’s where you stay. But if you manage to start something new, if you phone someone new or just do anything, then routinely other things start to come in, start to come along. This week, for instance, I took a punt and spent a day pursuing a piece of work I’d really like to do and that evening I got offered a completely unrelated commission.

Only, we’re in territory here that makes me uncomfortable. Saying that if you’re nice and if you keep busy, happiness will follow feels like astrology.

Quick story? I don’t mean to do this quite so automatically but if someone asks what star sign I am, I find I tell them that I am New Romantic. It used to be funny.

Then a friend told me she’s gay and it was clearly a difficult thing for her to say. She wasn’t out yet and I wanted her to know that I was conscious of the trust she was showing me, that I recognise the enormity of coming out but mostly that she needn’t be nervous, that she needn’t think it would change our friendship, that in the best meaning of the phrase, it didn’t matter. So she told me she’s lesbian and I replied that I’m Sagittarius.

We’re no longer such close friends because she’s convinced I’m into astrology.

Anyway.

If you do something and if you help other people, good things happen. I don’t do these somethings and I don’t this helping people in order to cause a karmic domino effect, I do somethings because I can’t resist and I help writers if I can because it’s brilliant to see people achieving what they strive for. And if even one pixel of that is in any way down to you, how can that be anything but fantastic?

This is another time when I’m telling you this because I’m trying to understand it. Talking to you always helps me focus, even if, okay, stop that, it may not seem like I’m terribly coherent. You always seem so nice and then you go giving me that look.

I don’t believe in fate, I don’t believe in karmic dominos, but I do believe that it’s better to do something and that it is always best to go to things. And when you do, I think that phrase about something stirring in the air is right.

Besides, the alternative is to just sit there, stewing in a paralysis, and I’m a freelance writer, I’ve done enough of that for a lifetime.

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.

Ditchwater dull

I don’t know what I want to say. If you don’t mind, I’d like to noodle around a couple of points that have become a thing this week. There’s a connection, I don’t know what it is.

Yesterday I was in a Performing Arts school talking about journalism and at one point we got into a discussion about the dull things journalists have to do. A teacher made the suggestion that the amount of reading you have to do is, well, not dull, but a chore.

I worked it out in front of them: I probably read a couple of hundred headlines a day, maybe a hundred starts or standfirsts to the ones that intrigue me, then maybe just sixty full articles. But I couldn’t tell you which of that is for work and which is for pleasure as they overlap: these are topics I work in but they’re topics I’m interested in.

Then one 11-year-old said that it was the amount of writing. I’ve only this moment, typing that to you, realised that the first dull suggestion was reading and the second one was writing. I suspect I may have found what my point is: these people I spoke to don’t want to be journalists.

Only, there’s one more thing knocking around my head. As well as me, there were two BBC television news people talking to these kids. I’d say I’ve rarely felt so outclassed but actually there are times when I’m that outclassed daily. Really, though, these two had presence and you were just immediately drawn to them.

One told me about having worked in schools and universities plus then seeing how those pupils and students behave when they get jobs in television. She said that it was common to find them refusing to fetch props, get coffees or even to shadow someone doing the job they apparently want so much.

Maybe this really is my point: they don’t want to be what they think they want to be.

Few if any of the 120 or so pupils I saw yesterday will ever choose to become writers. That they’ve seen something about it all and can make that choice knowing gigantically more than I did when I was their age, that’s fantastic. That the school does many of these days giving their pupils access to all manner of careers is perfect. I wish I’d gone to this school or that my school had been anything like it.

But of those people in any school, any education establishment, who want to become writers and journalists, I am suspecting now that many of them actually want to be what they think the job is.

The television newcomers want to direct Panorama in their first week, that kind of thing. Some or maybe many would-be journalists and writers want to be journalists and writers who don’t write or read.

This could all be obvious, you’re nodding at me now, and I think I’m being slow. But these thoughts about yesterday are clicking together with one I’ve seen before. When I meet a new writer and they say something about wanting to be the next JK Rowling with all her millions, I know they never will be. I haven’t even seen a word of their writing and I know they haven’t got it. They don’t get what she did. What she does.

If someone wants to write because they’ll enjoy being a published writer, they won’t make it. I feel I’ve lurched off into some kind of patronising diatribe now and I’m pretty sure that’s not what I was trying to figure out with you here.

You have to see the necessity and the pleasure of the dull things. Maybe that’s it. Yet I’m so deep into this and I so love what I do that I am struggling to name a dull bit.

Well, the fact that I’m full of cold again and must now go deal with spreadsheets, that’s getting there.

Voice breaking

I’m never going to claim that I’m a good writer but I have been writing for a long time and there is something I’ve seen. Actually, I see it quite often and in fact this time I saw it seven weeks ago. To the day. I’ve waited this long to talk to you about it so that there’s no chance the person involved can figure out it’s got anything to do with them.

Clearly, I’m chicken.

But also while they are the one who prompted the thought this time, they’re far from the first and this is hardly a new issue. It’s the voice. The writers’ voice.

I think now that if you’re new to writing, you ignore voice because you just don’t get what it is. And that if you’re not new to it, if you have found your writers’ voice, you ignore it because you can’t write any other way and, besides, it’s not something that takes any thought.

What’s new to me is this: I think now that voice is the divider between a writer who is good or experienced, and one who is not. And even more specifically and precisely, I now think you can see the division because the inexperienced writer puts voice in quote marks.

That’s what I saw on Twitter on Friday 29 September. A writer I vaguely know made a sarcastic comment about ‘voice’ and reading it, I knew she didn’t know what it is.

Voice is the undefinable something that makes my writing different to yours.

It’s how I walked into my kitchen while Fi Glover was on the radio and I recognised her immediately because I’d just read one of her books.

It is the choice of words, yes. It is the patterns and the rhythms, yes. It’s just somehow more than that. Which is fitting because voice is not something you can define very well and it’s not something you can learn.

I mean, even if you didn’t happen to know what voice was until a minute ago, you get it now yet that’s not the same thing as having your own voice in your own writing. You can be taught what the term means, you can’t be taught how to do it.

You only get there through writing more and more. It’s not as if you get your voice when you’ve passed a thousand or a million words, either. It happens eventually or it doesn’t.

Which is in truth why I was so keen to talk to you about this and why I felt I had to wait seven weeks. To the day. Because the real reason this one tweet stood out to me was that a day or two before, this same writer happened to come up in conversation and I had been saying that there is something missing in her work.

I was in a car driving a colleague who thinks she’s taking a long time to write her novel and who is worrying about it as we all do. I’ve read an early draft of her piece and I was trying to convey why I like it and in fact like it so much more than she does. I like it because it has life and verve, because there is something more behind the choice of words and the choice of rhythm and pace. I think her novel is alive.

Maybe it’s because I was driving, but for some reason it wasn’t until I read the tweet that I made the connection. My car colleague’s unfinished novel has voice. And this tweeter’s published ones don’t.

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.