The one take away from lockdown

I didn’t used to care about weekends and now I regularly work through them as if they were weekdays, but I look forward to writing to you on a Friday.

And I’ve realised that the lockdown has increased how much I rely on regular things. Such as one particular habit, routline, schedule – no, tradition, that’s the word I was looking for. We have grown a tradition during lockdown.

Every Friday evening now, I order a takeaway. The plan was to do it to help out, if only in a small way, local restaurants. The plan was to buy from a different one each week and in that little way, try to contribute.

Unfortunately, the very first one we tried was a curry house we’d not heard of before – and it was so good that we’ve ordered every Friday since.

So much for spreading the joy. But this meal has become a highlight and it will be especially so tonight.

Because tonight is the premiere of a much-awaited musical, streaming on Disney+. In the middle of all this, it is still art that gives people something to look forward to, something to enjoy, something to take them away from the lockdown.

There is the small problem that my wife Angela believes this musical is going to be Hamilton and I know it’s going to be Frozen II.

But we’ll work it out.

Times and Spaces

I have a ridiculously good memory for places. I can boast about this to you because it is of no earthly value. Well, recently it helped me remember where a specific shot was in some video footage that I needed, so that’s nice. But for you, useless. I can’t direct you to a place, I can just know what it looked like.

It’s how I can close my eyes and take a walk around BBC Television Centre, or BBC Pebble Mill, or BBC Woodlands. Now I think of it, nearly every BBC building I’ve ever worked in has been demolished.

Well.

Okay, an equally useless example for you, but one that made me happy. The other night, I was watching a 1973 episode of Columbo called A Stitch in Crime by Shirl Hendryx. And I recognised a place. More than a place, I recognised a specific camera shot of the place. Recognised it and knew where I knew it from.

Columbo
Six Million Dollar Man

On the top, Columbo in 1973. On the bottom, a still from the title sequence of 1976’s The Six Million Dollar Man. Tell me you’re not impressed. Don’t tell me that this is pointless and useless, tell me you’re not impressed.

But this ability to precisely recall shots and angles and places is frustrating me this week. I do this quite often, but for many reasons I have this week been trying to remember exactly where there is not a coffee shop in Birmingham New Street Station. Not a coffee shop.

I could make a crack about how the place is now wall to wall coffee establishments, and of course just like you I could make a comment about long it has been since any of us have been out for coffee.

But the thing with this particular precise and impossible memory is that the coffee shop I’m thinking of used to be there. It was there before New Street was so radically transformed that the very bones of its geography seem different. I can see every step of what was its nearest entrance, I can see the shop – it was a freestanding stall with seats, really – and I can actually see a lot more.

I can see the specific seat and table I sat at. I can see the man I sat with and even the case by his left foot.

But while I do regularly try, I can’t map that precise memory onto where it would have been in the new Birmingham New Street.

And I really do try. Because for all the BBC places, all the magazines and all the websites, and the fact that at the time I was doing Doctor Who radio dramas and my first book was an inch away from coming out, a conversation I had there in 2012 is the most important one in my writing career.

It was a horrible time, actually. While I’ve been a full time freelance writer since the mid-1990s, from about 1999 to 2012, I’d been increasingly working for different parts of the BBC. It was always different parts, different departments across BBC News, the Corporation in general and BBC Worldwide, the commercial side of the BBC. Even within these, there would be variation. So I wrote a lot for Radio Times magazine, but I separately wrote a lot for the Radio Times website.

And in one of the BBC’s many times when it has to be seen to be saving money, I lost that freelance Radio Times website work but you couldn’t tell because they put me on staff instead. Only for one, two, four days a week at different times, but officially I was staff for that site. And still freelancing for the Radio Times magazine, BBC News, all of that.

In my head, I was still a freelancer. So when I tell you that I’ve spent thirty years doing this, I am not lying, but my accountant would wiggle his hand a little about the patch from 1999 to 2012. And unfortunately, even as my head tells me I was freelance, my head apparently forgot.

I forgot to be always looking for the next gig. I forgot that freelance work, no matter what way they choose to spell the word freelance, is always going to vanish.

So in 2012 when the BBC had another time that it had to be seen to save money and for once actually did, I lost all that Radio Times work completely. All of it. In one go. The BBC News work had dribbled away, too, and I hadn’t minded because at RT I was usually doing the equivalent of eight days work a week.

I think it was May 2012, I’m pleased to say that I’m no longer sure what month it was. But I lost it all very quickly and it was frightening.

Cue the conversation.

I wish I could remember how I found Writing West Midlands, I cannot pin down the route from living in Birmingham and finding them. Not in this way, not for this. I was aware of them from the Birmingham Literature Festival that they run. But in some way, I made contact, not even really sure why I was asking and what I was asking.

Jonathan Davidson of Writing West Midlands told me. He told me at that coffee stall in New Street Station extremely early one morning in 2012. Sized me up, asked me questions, made some suggestions, made some recommendations. The one I remember most distinctly was that he decided I’d be good at going into schools. “I’d like that,” I lied. Visiting a school seemed up there with weekly fitness classes at my dentist, but I wasn’t going to admit that.

I’ve just checked. Since that conversation, I’ve done 70 sessions in schools across the UK. I blame him.

That’s one of the many concrete suggestions he had, but I remember all of this because it was the start of rebuilding my confidence as a writer. I mean, I’m a writer, we don’t know from confidence, but I also hadn’t realised just how stripped back mine had become because of losing the BBC work. I thought I was low, I think now that I was much lower.

So usually I remember this because of how much better things are for me now as a writer. It’s still not a wine and roses kind of job, but I’m writing full time even during the lockdown and – I think – I’m writing the best I ever have.

The reasons that I’m particularly thinking of this today, though, are, well, many. Last night I finished writing a play that Jonathan has been encouraging me to do for more than a year. And also last night a friend told me he’d just had a meeting with him and that something in the meeting had reminded Jonathan of his one with mine all those years ago.

And I’m thinking of it because Jonathan Davidson will always get you writing, forever help you out with practical advice, and never mention that he writes too.

Well, bollocks to that. The man has a new book coming out and he’s promoting it with some deeply absorbing blog posts on his website. Here’s the site, here’s the new book. Go step inside the head of a man I owe.

Sentence stricture

I have a thought that I want to try on you. It’s like I haven’t finished thinking it and I need some help to get to the end. But it’s to do with writing, so obviously I thought of you.

A friend was telling me this week that her great problem with writing, with actually getting the stuff written, is that she worries over each sentence. She worries at each sentence too, working it, kneading it, changing it and probably quite often leaving it to go away from the desk and do something easier.

She sees nothing wrong with that. Clearly she doesn’t like it or she wouldn’t have mentioned it as the reason her book is taking a long time. And I didn’t see anything wrong with it either, not when it came up. Every word in a story or a script has to earn its place there. That’s what I think, it’s what she thinks, so it’s just unfortunate that each sentence is practically impossible to crank out free of, well, agony, really.

Except this is my thought. Maybe there isn’t anything practically impossible about writing perfect sentences, there is instead a cold, hard, 100% impossibility.

Follow. If you agree with my other friend and I that it’s important each sentence, each word, fits in perfectly and does a job for the whole story, then I want to know what you think about every sentence that follows it.

You’re in the middle of the book, you’re writing a sentence, and it has the weight of all the previous sentences on its shoulders – and equally the weight of every sentence that will follow it.

Since you can’t know yet what any of those sentences are, I don’t think you can possibly know the full load your current sentence has to bear. I don’t think it’s possible that you can craft a perfect sentence that does work with everything before it and will work with everything that ever comes after.

So I offer that perfecting any one sentence by itself, when it first comes up, isn’t even a Sisyphean task, it is completely impossible.

I felt pretty good at all of this, I felt I’d come up with something deep and profound. My pal reckoned I was just telling her to pull her finger out and write more.

I’m saying nothing.

The worst criticism I ever received

I run a writers’ buddying programme for a group and sometimes get paired up with a writer myself. I love this, it’s always interesting and just occasionally you hear some war stories.

Or you tell them.

I was relaxed away in a buddying chat this week when something we talked about reminded me of the absolute worst criticism I have ever had from any writers or about anything I’ve written.

It’s got to be five years ago now and I’m going to change the names to protect the fact that I didn’t register all of them at the time, I’ve forgotten some since, and I’ve completely blanked on the main one.

You’re starting to understand why people criticise me.

But they do all the time, or rather they do my writing and, sure, sometimes it’s painful. Usually it’s neither here nor there and overall it’s great because it’s useful.

The reason I want to tell you about this one is that I mean it was the worst in more than one sense. Yes, no question, everyone in this group I met loathed my writing. “Are you published?” was the first thing I was asked when I arrived and their eye-widened surprise at the answer was the first clue I wasn’t going to enjoy this day-long event.

Except I hadn’t thought I would. I’d thought I might be savaged and – yes, I remember now, the line I was told beforehand was that this group will tear the skin off your arms, they are that vicious with their criticism. I’d spent years in BBC News, this sounded like home to me.

But I’ll tell you now. There were some nasty people in BBC News, just as there are everywhere, but when you got criticised, you’d earned it. The aim was not to destroy, it was to make a better piece of writing.

So for me, vicious criticism can equal valuable lesson.

The reason this was the worst criticism I’ve ever had, though, is that as well as the moderate vehemence it was delivered in, it was utter rubbish.

Stop that. You’re very nice but you have got to be thinking now that I was wrong, that I must really mean that the criticism given strongly was overwhelming and I’m saying it’s rubbish only as some male defence mechanism.

You’ve got to be thinking that, got to, so I’ve got to give you an example. I was told that I should change my novel to magical realism – specifically because the person who told me this happens to like magical realism.

“I like chocolate,” I told her, “but, you know, thanks.”

Someone else, I think it was someone else, had the sole useful comment in the session. My character apparently could not do what my plot required, not in the room she did it in. She would have to go to this other room and do some other thing first.

“Thank you very much,” I said. “I’ll fix that right now.”

I had the writing on my iPad and I changed that scene there in front of them. So I got something valuable and I put it into the book immediately. On-the-spot editing, improving my writing even as I was being told how to improve it. I turned the iPad around to show them and enthused about how much I was grateful and look, you’ve changed the book.

And yet it still took fifteen fucking minutes for them to shut up about how I must make this change. I wafted the iPad around from time to time. I think I read my own book to pass the time.

They also had some rule that the writer wasn’t allowed to defend or explain their writing until it had been thoroughly discussed by everyone else. So I had another zoned-out few minutes as they decided how I should proceed with one particular character in the opening chapter that they were reading. How I should develop her for the rest of the book.

“You mean the one we come to realise died on the second page?” I asked them. The sole thing I can still see from that day is the shock on all their faces.

No skin was removed my arms during this very long session, but I did occasionally lose the will to live. Again, though, you’re nice, so as good as you’re being to me listening to all of this, you are aware that there are at least two sides to everything and that this group would tell a very different story.

They did. They phoned me up the next day.

And told me that I’d misunderstood, it wasn’t that I’d been invited to join the group, it was that they had been auditioning me.

I laughed.

Plus they knew it would be a big disappointment, but they’d decided to go with someone else. Good luck with your writing, William.

It didn’t quite end there. I can’t remember now how long afterwards it was, but some weeks or months later, they contacted me again and said I could have another go. Of course I didn’t and of course I never will, but unfortunately in another sense, it did end there.

The real reason this was the worst ever criticism is that I’ve never written one single word more of that story. I’d say it’s a bit melodramatic of me to blame the group for that, except that I’ve also never read a single word of that story

Right now I can’t remember which piece it was and I certainly can’t find it. Maybe if I could and maybe if I read it now I might agree with this group’s dislike.

But criticism that I thought was worthless was still enough to puncture me. I went in eager to be eviscerated if it meant improving my writing yet a group that didn’t do that and which had no value for me still managed to stall a book forever.

I blame me but, still, this is really why it was the worst.

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.