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.

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.

What Writers Need

I was asked this in an interview yesterday: what what do writers need or perhaps what do you need to be a writer.

Since it’s just you and me here, I’ll tell you that I don’t think I answered it very well. But 24 hours later, I’ve got it.

Writers need commissions.

It would’ve been smartarse of me to say that if only I’d been smart enough to think of it when asked, but it’s not as facetious as it sounds.

Okay, there’s the straight cash aspect. The only way I get to write better is to write more and the only way I can get the time to do that is when it’s paying enough that I don’t have to go do something else.

Only, the reason I want to think about this here with you is that I’ve long known one thing about it yet I’m just now forming a second and somewhat contradictory thought.

The thing I’ve long known is that commissions change you. I know that the saying is deadlines focus the mind and that is most absolutely true, but it’s at the other end where things first change. It’s the point when you’re commissioned.

The process of writing doesn’t change when you’re being paid but it feels as if it does, it feels as big a difference as if someone had gone back into your past and altered your timeline. Everything is now real. All of the thinking you do about writing, all of the opinions, everything. I was thinking that it’s like having someone say okay, then, prove it. Prove you can do this, if you’re hard enough.

But it’s worse than that. You’ve already convinced them you can or they wouldn’t be paying you anything. So really it’s someone expecting you to write well. Someone presuming you will. Someone unthinkingly assuming that this is your job. Because it is.

A lot of writing gets paid without a contract upfront but whenever you’re writing because you’ve been hired and you’ll be invoicing later, it becomes real in this way.

You’ll still hide from the job like only writers can and you’ll still find it hard to do, but playtime is over and you are part of something where you have to pull your weight.

So I’ve long known that a commission or anything where your writing is going to be paid for right away is essential for many reasons. Helping to keep a roof over your head is one, turning this from a hobby in the worst sense of that into a job in the best sense of that. The focus of reality can’t be beaten.

But it can also be a problem.

Today, for instance, I’ve got – bugger, let me count on my fingers for a sec. Right, if I bring in one client that I don’t really have to think about much for another few days, then today I’ve got eleven projects on. I reckon I’ve got to do some serious work on about seven of them right now and I can do some more over the weekend.

That’s all very nice: it’s a tiny bit daunting but I hadn’t counted until I wanted to tell you. And I’m a freelance writer, it is a relief to realise that I’ve got a lot of paying work on. Some of these eleven are big, none of them pay gigantically and I doubt I’ll see cash from many of them before May. But still, it’s work and you know that there are times when I’ve got nothing. At all.

Only, it’s obvious that when you’re busy with paid work you end up with no time to write things that aren’t going to pay now and that may well never contribute to your mortgage. When you are not busy with paid work, though, it’s even harder to do that kind of writing. Every moment you’re thinking about it, you’re feeling guilty for not looking for work.

I’ve always thought that this is how it works: you can’t write on these other projects, this other ideas, when you’re having trouble getting money in. But now I also think that when you do have paid writing work, it is far, far easier to go do that than these other things.

I can’t keep vaguely referring to other things. Let me give you the example that’s quite clearly pressing on my mind. I have accidentally written a book of short stories. For no reason other than it was in me and I had to get it out. I say accidentally because it’s only in the last six months when I realised that the best stories I’d written over twenty years had a common theme. It’s only in the last six months that I’ve consciously been rewriting those stories and writing more. All for me, all because at one point I was shaking as a particular tale came out of me.

Not only is no one waiting for any of this, not only will I never invoice anyone for anything to do with it, but nobody buys short story collections anyway. If you were setting out to write short stories for money, stop now.

Except you can say that about all writing. If you get money for writing, great. If you got into writing for the riches and the fame, I’ll give you a tip next time I see you working in McDonald’s.

I wasn’t kidding about having to get these stories out of me though. Now I’ve somehow got it written, I will work it like I do any other job and look for places to get it published, look for some way to get it out to people. I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever written and my agent thinks yeah, whatever, short stories, soooooo exciting, please rush me a copy.

It’s easy when you are a paid freelance writer to say that every writer should aim to get commissioned. What’s harder, for me, is the realisation that as much as I need the reality of a contract, I’ve got to find time and space to write for myself.

So let’s decide this right now: today I don’t have eleven projects on, I’ve got twelve. God knows how I’m going to fit in time for working on these stories and actually I’ve no idea what I can do with them today, but I’m going to find out.

You do the same. We’ll help each other.

Starting block

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading and writing

I can remember my sister trying to teach me to read. I can see her, I can see the room, I can feel my anxiousness to get away, I can hear my mom saying okay, well, maybe that’s enough for today. I was slow to start and while I’m fuzzy now on the details of how it went at school, I know I was in a remedial reading class for a least a while. I know that because I can equally clearly see the room and the teacher.

Again, I’m shaky on details but I think it was that several of us who were below average reading ability were regularly taken off out of classes and into some other room to read. I’m sure of it, actually, because the thing I can see, the moment I can completely visualise is when the teacher thought I was pretending to read.

Whatever it was, however it happened, there was just one moment when suddenly I could read very well. I’m not certain I even realised it: I picture her asking me to read something aloud and instead of struggling as I presumably did up to then, I read it flawlessly. I read that flawlessly, I read the next piece she shoved under my nose and the next. I read and read and never went back to that remedial class again.

I don’t often tell people that but chiefly because I don’t often remember it. Reading is just part of everything I do, it’s part of everything I am. Only, I wanted to tell you this today because something happened this week. It’s something that I am having difficulty processing, I am struggling to get it into my skull. But then equally, I can’t seem to get it out of my head either.

I’m a best-selling author.

Seriously.

You’ve got to let me qualify that, you’ve got to let me try to whittle it down a bit. I’m a best-selling author of a non-fiction book, actually solely an ebook, and I’m a best-selling author only in its very, very specific niche. I’ll tell you: the book is called <a href=”http://amzn.to/1OdOCJx”>MacNN Pointers: Get More from Your Apple Software</a> and I co-wrote it with Charles Martin. We are best-selling authors of this collection of tutorials on how to use the software that comes with your iPhone, iPad, Mac and so on. We co-wrote it, I edited it and the book was proposed by Mike Wuerthele. He’s managing editor of MacNN.com, Chas is editor.

Within a few hours, certainly no more than a day of it being available, the book went to number 1 in its category on Apple’s iBooks Store in both the US and the UK. On Kindle, it was number 2 in the US and nowhere near as high in the UK – but high enough that Amazon listed it has a Hot Seller. Then at some point it became number 10 on Amazon for books in its category. That’s books, not ebooks. Number 10 in its category across both ebooks and physical books.

That speed isn’t just exciting, for me, it’s directly responsible for the best-selling status. For publishing has changed and not just in the fact that there are now ebooks. It’s changed in how I believe it used to be that the book that sold the most number of copies was the best-selling number 1. I don’t know that was the case but it sounds pretty reasonable. Today that is a factor but so is the speed of sales: something selling a dozen copies a minute will chart higher than something selling a dozen a week, even if the former only lasts for one minute.

So the fact that, for whatever reason, the book was immediately popular, that’s what took it into this status. I can tell you we’ve sold a couple of hundred copies so it’s not like we’re shirking.

I’m not thinking of numbers though. I’m certainly not thinking of the money: this is not something that will change my week let alone my life. I’m thinking instead of how this is like the time a proof copy of my first-ever book arrived. I held that book in my hand and I realised no one can ever take it away from me. Good or bad, I’d created that book and long after my death if any other writer wants to cover the same ground, their proposal will have to explain how my book can be bettered.

In much the same way, then, you can argue that best-seller status doesn’t mean what it used to, you can very well argue that it’s a bit different being a best-selling author in a non-fiction technology category than it is being a novelist on the New York Times charts. But you can’t take it away. No one can. I actually am a best-selling author.

I’m a little red-faced with excitement yet also pale: a slow-starting reader, a remedial-class reader, what one pixel changed in my life or my head that turned me into a writer? I am unemployable in any other job: I think a lot about what would’ve happened if I’d not found this in me.

I’m also uncomfortable being proud of this. I’m only telling you, right? And any publisher I ever pitch to, naturally. I’m modest but I’m not stupid.

No, sorry, modesty is wrong. I am British, that is how I feel about it, but I’m also proud and so I should be. I didn’t particularly aim to be a best-selling author, the lifetime ambition has been just to write and keep writing, but now it’s here I am and I should be proud.

I got to this the long way around, I got to it through stubborn persistence. So yes, I’ve been pig-headed for a long time and maybe now I can spend a minute or two being big-headed instead.

Passing on experience

That’s passing it on as in hopefully giving it to someone. Not as in no, thanks, I’ll pass on that. Though it’s up to you whether you receive or give experience and we’ve all failed to take advice before post-rationalising that we learned more from making mistakes anyway.

Listen, four times this month the same thing has come up: four times people have called me very, very old. Okay, the words they used were euphemisms like “thanks for helping out a new writer” and each time it was meant as a compliment. But I didn’t need my world-class ability to disassemble and reverse engineer praise into criticism to see that what they all really meant was that I’m the old writer.

Clearly.

I don’t want to think about that: I haven’t done anything yet and an approaching Really Serious Birthday is just magnifying my regular terror that time is ticking by. When I’m in this mood then stopping to eat is annoying, relaxing is betrayal and going to bed at night is defeat.

But of course I’m going to help someone. If I know something they need, and they tell me, of course I’m going to help. I’m experienced enough to know, though, that what I do in this way and what I argue Birmingham and West Midlands writers do more than most, is not usual. Writing is an isolating job and it is to the media industry’s advantage to keep that true so what’s more usual is that we believe we’re in competition with each other.

Are we hell.

Yes.

Okay, let me try that again. Are we bollocks.

I’ve been in situations where another writer was pitching for the same work as I was and that is the purest, most undeniable competition there is yet I deny it. It was poet Jean Atkin last year and we were both after a terribly interesting gig working with libraries but she walked in and even I thought yes, I’d hire her over me. I do think she’s a more powerful writer than I am, but it wasn’t a question of quality per se: we could both have done the job but we’d each have done it differently. And one of us would be more suited to the job than the other. That time it was her and if she hadn’t been picked, I’d have been disappointed in the whole process.

That’s the closest example I can think of to writers being in direct competition. Otherwise, it’s me pitching X and you pitching Y and the commissioners going bankrupt after choosing Z.

Otherwise, I do my thing and you do yours. I can learn from you but I can’t ever write like you and you can’t ever write like me. (You could have a go: say bollocks a few times, write ‘not so much’, mention OmniFocus and collapse into a stutter at the sight of dark chocolate. You got me.)

This is going to sound like I work for Hallmark Cards. (Wait, there’s another one: write ‘this is going to sound a bit Hallmark Card-like’ and be sure to say it in an English accent. You could play me in a movie now.) But honestly, I do believe that a rising tide raises all boats. If you have a great idea and something I do somehow helps that get made or produced or just progressed then that is in all ways brilliant. Of course it is: it’s a great idea and it’s yours, it’s you. I want to see what you do with it, I want to see or hear or read the final result. Hurry up.

There’s a thing in writing: inescapably, you reveal yourself through what you write. Even when it’s with fiction and different characters, even if it’s in a news story or an email. You can’t fake this: you are there on the page and astonishingly easy to see. If you can just put any idea of competition behind you, if you can please forget this idea of new writers and (especially) old writers then your writing and my writing and everyone’s writing becomes visibly the better for it.

You know the Yiddish word mensch, meaning someone who does a good thing. You also know that writing is a job, amongst all the many other things it is and that writers claim it to be, it is an industry. Helping new writers, refusing to accept that we’re old writers, supporting each other and working better: I think that makes writers and non-writers, men and women, all of us into a businessmensch.

Shelve your ideas

So some preposterous number of years ago, I interviewed Alan Plater at his then home, a spectacular flat in London. I was very young and rather nervous but wowed by how massive this place was and, especially, how full of bookshelves he and his wife Shirley Rubinstein had it. I wanted the flat, I wanted the bookshelves.

I particularly wanted the bookshelves. I’m not sure I could’ve vocalised this then, I suspect I just drooled, but it seemed a pretty perfect kind of place to live in.

Did I mention the size?

I came away thinking that London flats are superb and that bookshelves are fantastic. I was right about one of those things. While Alan and Shirley’s flat was glorious, it was actually two flats. They were knocked together into one long one and in fact few people in London live like that.

Shirley and Alan became close friends of mine after this but I never went back to that flat. They moved to a gorgeous house – and this time the knocking through and building on turned it into an even more gorgeous house with more levels and rooms and crinkly corners than can truly be appreciated in one sitting. Oh, and book shelves. Lots and lots of bookshelves.

I’ve just realised: when I watch Grand Designs or lesser property shows, my lip does curl just a little at those houses that have no bookshelves. Not fit for purpose, if you ask me.

But I like that I never went back to that flat. It makes that place and that moment a specific little bubble. I’ve never been one for lusting after houses and cars – possibly I have a bit for some Apple gear but give me a break here – but those shelves, that bubble, I wanted it. It felt inextricably bound up in what I wanted my career to be. I did lust after being a writer, even as I thought that was something other people did. Not me. Couldn’t be me.

Turns out, it could.

And all of this came back to me this week as I did a mentoring session over Skype. (I do mentoring for The Blank Screen and Other Stories now. It’s a thing.) During the natter, there was an oooh. Look at the shelves behind William.

I turned around, winced at how I’d forgotten to tidy up, but there they were.

Floor to ceiling bookshelves. Crammed.

Nowhere near as organised as Shirley and Alan’s, but bookshelves aplenty and akimbo.

I haven’t thought about this much in recent years but I’m thinking about it today. Because I look at those shelves of mine and I want them. Just as I wanted Alan and Shirley’s, all that time ago.

And I’ve got them.

A couple of them have copies of my books.

How in the world did that happen?