Ten Page Rule

This is a claim that going around the internet again and I think that if you and I get together, we can stop it. Are you game?

It’s about writing scripts and an insistence that film and TV companies will judge your screenplay on its first ten pages. More, the claim is that this is wrong, it is unfair and even that it is distorting how people write.

So far as I can tell, only the BBC “No Apostrophes Please, We’re British” Writersroom directly states that its readers will judge on the first ten pages. The BBC Writersroom has a brilliant online collection of scripts, albeit not searchable, but otherwise doesn’t matter.

Still, the claim persists and my problems are with this idea that it’s unfair to judge on the opening ten pages and it’s wrong how this is affecting the way people write.

The argument over the unfairness is always that you can’t tell if a script is good until you’ve read the whole thing.

And actually, yep, you can.

If a writer thinks they’re able to make a script brilliant from page 80 onwards but doesn’t see that the first 79 are crap, they are not able to make any of the pages brilliant at all.

Let me put it this way. I long to live in a beautiful New York apartment building called 56 Leonard and of course if I had $40m I’d spend it on the penthouse. But as utterly wonderful as that apartment is, the penthouse is on the 57th floor and it needs 56 pretty solid floors below it.

Then there’s this bit that sounds more sophisticated: that the demand for a great opening ten pages means writers have to put action and jeopardy and comedy in there. That they can never build up to things, they can never do some kind of pure writing. I’m fuzzy on that last bit.

It is true that I recently changed the opening of a script of mine before sending it to a producer. The script had begun with something mildly gentle as we followed a character going in to work. And what I changed was that I added a new scene before it.

Only, I didn’t do that to hook the producer with a teaser.

The scene I added was, if anything, quieter than the going to work one. And I’ve just checked: it was slightly less than half a page

But it focused on another character. She was always my favourite, she was always the reason for the entire story yet initially I’d held back introducing her. I think I still do, really, but having this tiny scene open on her changes how you read the rest of the script.

What I didn’t do was move up the calamitous situation she gets into or add in an explosion or something.

It did used to be that in television you needed to have something big at the start to stop people switching over. Whereas in film, the idea was that people had paid to sit there in that room and so they’d give you at least a little longer. Film could therefore be a bit more slow and seductive where TV had to be smash/bang/grab.

I think that line has blurred to the point of invisibility: films are seen more on Netflix than in their run in the cinema, for one thing. Television drama has never been better than it is now with its ability to draw you in slowly and deeply and richly.

I get annoyed at the ten pages rule for all sorts of reasons but one of them is that there is no such rule so the whole thing is bollocks. Another is that the same people who trot out a rule about TV needing to grab the audience’s attention are the ones who think it’s unfair to judge a script on the opening. A reader is no more likely to slog to the end than a viewer is to sit there for two hours hoping the ending will be good.

Drama needs something at the start to make you want to watch further. It just doesn’t have to be something big, doesn’t have to be action, doesn’t have to be suspense. It just has to be something that doesn’t stop people reading on. Character, that’s my favourite. Atmosphere, that’s a good one too.

Even in this day of being able to switch to another of the million different dramas available on demand, your audience and the producer reading your script want to like what you’ve done. They want to enjoy this. They come in on your side and you can win them over in the long run but initially your job is to not lose them.

And I’m sorry, but it doesn’t take ten pages to lose me. It doesn’t take ten pages for me to know a script is poor.

It takes one. At most.

True, you can’t tell from the first page just how much you’re going to like the script but you can tell if you’re going to dislike it.

I’ve read 180 scripts this year and every time you know right away. You know when you’re in good hands, you know when it’s going to work. You don’t know if it’s going to be to your taste or interest, but you know that the writer is good.

So if you read someone saying the first ten pages are crucial then they’re probably trying to sell you a course. If you read them saying this and also that it’s unfair, they’re rubbish.

If someone tells you that you have to have a murder on the first page, nod politely and walk away.

And maybe there is one rule I can get behind. It’s the rule I’ve just made up where if someone insists their script needs 79 pages to get going, do whatever you like but don’t offer to read it.

Change the rules

If you want something and the other person, for whatever reason, doesn’t want to give it to you, change the rules. Don’t try to fix the system from the inside: pull the argument on to your turf. Stand where you are strongest and argue from there.

It’s taken me so long to see that this is necessary and that any system’s rules are designed to protect the system and fight change. And this week 76 writers demonstrated it.

Actually, it’s 76 women writers and not only would it be irrelevant that they’re women, I’m not entirely sure I’d have noticed they were as I read their names. There are some I’ve not heard of, there are some whose writing I don’t like and there are some who I aspire to be as good as. But it’s their writing I’m interested in and gender wouldn’t cross my mind.

Except that the 76 names are signatures on a letter that made news around the world this week. These writers are protesting against the fact that UK television drama series use startlingly, ridiculously few women. Or to put it another way, it’s always the same bleedin’ men who write these shows. Or put it a third way: it’s the same type of people who write most of them.

I want to see drama from everyone and about everything. Right now the system is boringly out of whack and if I’ll be happiest when drama better reflects our country’s brilliant and vibrant culture, we can start by hiring more women. And I can point you at 76 women writers.

There are more than 76: that’s how many publicly signed the letter but there are untold more who support it yet fear putting their current work at risk by signing. I readily get that: I think I might well have been one of them if I were one of the writers doing this.

So I understand the ones who can’t sign and of course I applaud those who did.

But read their letter.

It’s strong and forceful but it’s layered, it’s funny, it’s involving. This letter is not a placard demanding what we want and how we want it now, it is engaging in every sense. If there is no mistaking its point or the strength of its argument, it is equally clear that this is a conversation. Like the very best writing, this is not a transmission of arguments from the writers to television commissioners, the text speaks in such a way that the reader is as involved as the writers.

If you forget everything else about what it’s trying to achieve, this letter is an example of smart, classy, vivid writing.

You can’t forget what it’s trying to achieve though, specifically because it won’t let you.

I imagine that there must’ve been hundreds of meetings where women writers somehow didn’t quite get the commissions their writing warrants. I imagine thousands of emails where projects somehow didn’t get to where they should.

And so rather than continue working in that system, these 76 writers yanked the argument over to where they visibly and vividly rule: these writers wrote.

I can only hope that it helps but I tell you, I wish I’d written that letter.

Reading and righting

When I was at BBC Radio WM an extremely long time ago, I worked a lot on their Sport On Saturday show. What I know about sport is that I don’t know anything about sport. But it was a good radio show, well made, I was stretched and daunted and loving it.

Only, one year the station entered Sport On Saturday for an award. I can’t remember what: probably the Sony Radio Awards as they were called then. I also can’t remember what I had to do with this but there was something. Perhaps I just fetched the tapes I was told to. Nothing more than that but something and I liked being even that tiny bit involved. I liked that the show was being entered for an award.

I do remember that it was a lot of work for everyone else. Selecting clips, getting the tapes, editing a compilation of the best bits together, it took time and work and effort.

Then one morning during all this, I was leaving BBC Pebble Mill to go to a day job writing computer manuals and walked by the WM noticeboard. Pinned to it was the letter from the awards committee saying what the rules were.

Rule number 1 or 2, something near the top, was this: no compilations.

Every pixel of work that everyone was doing to prepare this awards entry was pointless. The judging was to be of one single edition of a programme and if WM put up the compilation it was making, it would not be listened to, it would not be considered.

I’d forgotten all of that until this week when news came of what’s happening with the European Capital of Culture initiative, a programme devised by and run for the member states of the European Union.

Yesterday Dundee, Nottingham, Leeds, Milton Keynes and the partnership between Belfast and Derry twigged that they were ineligible to bid. It’s an EU project and the UK is leaving the EU. You may have missed that.

Apparently Leeds has already spent £1m on their bid. That’s over the last four years so you can’t blame them for investing in it before the Brexit vote happened. But you can blame them for investing afterwards. You can blame all the cities for continuing to invest in this.

There is a key difference between doing something stupid and actually being stupid, though. These cities continuing to invest until now is them doing something stupid. BBC Radio WM thinking it could compile a Best of Sport On Saturday for the awards because it didn’t read the rules was them doing something stupid.

Only now we’ve got the Government saying the Capital of Culture business has “come out of the blue” and we’re into a round of blustering. The EU is being unfair, we’re told. The EU has just decided this thing that’s actually always been bloody obvious and they’re throwing the UK out of the programme that the UK decided to leave.

Most unfair of all is how anyone could’ve expected the UK to realise that they were bidding for City of Culture 2023 and that year comes after 2019 when we leave. So unreasonable.

It’s the blustering that makes the difference between having made a stupid mistake and being stupid. I can kind of understand the bidding cities not realising that they were ineligible the moment we voted to Leave because there is so much else wrong with leaving, there is just so much to understand. Although if I were producing a campaign so deeply involved with the European Union and I learned we were leaving, I might have taken a moment to make the connection with Brexit.

Maybe that’s just because of what happened to me at WM. I did of course tell the station manager that I’d spotted this. He blustered like the Government is doing today. And the show entered the compilation into the award.

Writers are often told that if your audience doesn’t get what you’re saying, it’s your fault. It’s the communicator who is wrong, not the listener. I’ve always felt that there is a certain amount of bollocks in this but I accept that usually the communicator needs to communicate and if the audience isn’t listening, the writer needs to do it better. But still, there’s not a lot you can do for people who want your message, are spending money toward your message, and yet won’t read your message.

I had forgotten all of this but I do now remember becoming unpopular. I’d seen this rule in plenty of time for them to ditch the compilation and enter one whole eligible programme but instead I was disliked – and they entered the compilation.

That wasn’t making a stupid mistake, that was being stupid. And the UK Government’s blustering this week is exactly like that manager and the producers who then waited with pointlessly crossed fingers to see if they won.

No better time

This is going to sound so optimistic that you’ll think I’m auditioning to write for Hallmark Cards. But I mean it.

I mean this: right now is the best time there has ever been to be a writer.

Okay, just to get Hallmark off my back, I will also say that this is the worst time it has ever been to be a paid writer. Getting money for this is tough. But while I can’t and won’t discount the problems, the opportunities are astonishing.

I was doing a writing masterclass session at Birmingham City University this week where we discussed a couple of students’ work in detail. One of them was a short radio play and I’m blathering on about it when I realise that actually what this writer needs isn’t me.

She needs to make that play.

And she can.

Now, I’ve been in Birmingham City University’s radio studios and they are impressive: I presume she can book space there. And there’s a School of Acting around the place so I imagine casting isn’t going to be a great problem.

But as handy as all that is, the truth is that she’s got a phone. I don’t know what phone and I don’t know what recording apps she may have, but for pennies she can turn that phone into a recording studio.

She can even edit the audio on the phone and I’ll never get used to that. I don’t mean that as in I’ll never cope with doing it on phones, I mean that I edit audio a great deal and it is forever a delight what you can do now. I learned on giant BBC local radio desks and I was taught to edit with razor blades and chinagraph pencils. And, actually, I think sometimes you learn better from doing it physically, from doing edits where you can’t undo them with a tap or a click.

But then that’s really what I think about writing now. You have always been able to write but now you can see and hear how that writing works. Immediately. Pretty much.

I had lots to say to this student about her script and I loved that she and the whole room had lots to tell me that I’d missed in it. But ultimately I mean it: write something, make it, and you’ll learn what works and doesn’t work for you.

I don’t quite know how this goes for novelists but for scriptwriters, this is the best time there ever was. If only we could lick the money problem.

Flipping hecklers

It would be really good, I would feel really great, if you just read the next sentence and then looked away.

I’ve now performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Okay.

Not really. I was in the audience for maybe 15 comedy acts or so and twice I was repeatedly called on by the comedian, once I was both called on and called up. I have now stood on a Fringe stage being laughed at. Now that I think about it, I’m not sure why I felt this was good.

But while I was climbing through an unstrung tennis racket – you had to be there – and later when Tim Vine was asking if my face always looked like this, I was thinking about the workshops I do.

I run day-long things, half days, two hours, one hours, all sorts and in every case the job is showing people something so you’re getting them to do it. It is entirely audience participation, but it doesn’t feel as heightened or as clenching as it does in a comedy because it’s continuous through the day.

Also because I’m the one calling on people, not the one fearing being called. That does make it easier, you’re right.

I was thinking how it’s actually quite hard to contribute to a show if you’re used to running them. I’m really not comparing my workshops to comedy sets, neither in good or bad ways, but it is all performance. So when a comedian asks you to describe something, you want to do it, you want to provide what she needs for her act, you’re more than willing to be laughed at, but you don’t want to actually perform. You don’t want to get in the way.

It’s their show, not yours.

I’m not saying that this is a huge issue or that it’s somehow unique to me as a special little flower but it was one of the two things that kept crossing my mind every time it happened. The other was to wonder why I’d chosen the front row again.

But then I saw Ivo Graham.

He’s a standup comic who does plenty of audience interaction which this time did not include me – and did include hecklers.

I loathe hecklers. If you know someone who heckles at comedy acts, give me their work address: I’ll pop over tomorrow and drunkenly interrupt them at their job.

The best comedians can get a very big laugh out of reacting to a heckle but when they do it that well, as Graham did that night, the stupid hecklers think they’re responsible. That their half-pissed spontaneous call out is what’s funny, not the maybe hundreds of hours of work that the comedian has put in to be able to deal with them.

Ivo Graham was the only one of all the acts I saw that got heckled and it is of course unrelated to the standard of his material. He is very good and he is very funny and he was on Friday evening. There you go. The hecklers were fuelled by alcohol and I imagine Graham had to have a few after the show himself.

You get that I abhor hecklers, you get that I admired Graham’s handling of them. What I liked, though, the only thing I actually liked, was the rest of the audience. Even Graham himself commented in the middle of asking the audience questions that it was great and funny how there’d be a heckle but immediately someone else would call out a serious answer to move it all along.

That was good and that worked. The whole act worked very well, it wasn’t even soured too much by those hecklers. But I did tweet Ivo Graham afterwards to say how deftly I thought he’d handled them. He replied saying it had definitely been an eventful night, hadn’t it?

But.

This is a week ago now and I’m still thinking about it but not for the hecklers and not for how this or any comedian reacts to them. I’m thinking about it because I watched some YouTube videos of Ivo Graham.

Like all the best comics, his act on the night feels fresh and new and like he’s just chatting with you. Of course you know that it’s written and rehearsed but there’s a lightness and a bounce and it’s engagingly new. Watch the same comic on YouTube and, whoever they are, you’ll often see the same act.

Fine, but what fascinates me is when you see something that is an earlier version. The internet and how much gets recorded, how much gets kept forever and made immediately available, it means we can now often see the development of an act. See which lines stay the same, which get tweaked or added or dropped or tuned.

Comedians are like poets, I feel, with every syllable considered, every pause planned and none of that effort meant to be seen. It’s the same swan analogy that you can apply to all writers, all shows, but with much of the development being done in front of audiences.

There is one workshop I do in schools that, just between us, I’ve now done so often that it truly feels like a scripted show. Of course it’s always different, of course each school needs different things. Yet still, there are many times when I feel I’ve slipped into the script and I know when I’m going to get a laugh out of these kids.

I’m a writer so I’m obviously focused on the words but in these cases I am a performer and there is a physicality to it. A pause, a just-remembered, an oops-forgot-to-say kind of stance and gait that I will do that will always get a laugh.

And it does have audience participation. I forgot this. I have a thing, close to a rule, that if you walk into a workshop of mine then you are part of it. And one day in a school I was in mid-flow when a teacher came in to borrow a pen. All he did was come in quietly, get the pen and leave again, not once breaking stride but during that time I had got the kids to cast him as a Doctor Who monster and he had acted the part. Left growling. Did it perfectly.

So naturally the next day when I was in the same school with another class and their head teacher came in to borrow something else, I did the same thing.

And he didn’t.

Just looked at me like I was dirt.

He walked out of the room reeking with disdain.

It was a silent heckle.

And when the door shut behind him, I just jerked my head toward the ceiling – and got a huge laugh from the kids. I was funny and we bonded and it started with that heckle but, you know, it was me, not the heckler.

You couldn’t make it up

You’ve seen this over and over again: Trump does something stupid, Britain realises yet another thing it failed to consider before Brexit, and someone will say that you couldn’t make this stuff up.

Of course you could.

The End.

Only, as well as just being wrong, I think this ‘you couldn’t make it up’ lark is a kind of marker post. It’s saying that over here is reality, over there is fiction. Actually, I think it really says that reality is better or sharper or harder or just more.

Okay. Except there are going to be Brexit dramas aplenty, there are going to be Trump biopics, and the faultline between fiction and reality will be examined anew every time. Writing will be tested, writing’s ability to convey real-life drama is going to be tested.

And it will fail.

As both a journalist and a writer, I can’t do creative non-fiction: to me it’s either fiction or it’s fact. As a reader, I want the same divide: I don’t want to come away believing that Napoleon was the leading Tetris player in his gang.

And when we get dramas based on real events, I think the audience is watching for the facts – or actually for the errors. If it’s a brilliant, searing, insightful piece of drama that wonderfully conveys the human condition, there will still be complaints that this person didn’t say that or this other person never wore the other. I’m minded of people who would come away from the Harry Potter movies saying yes, great, but they skipped chapter 11’s reference to ostriches. Or something.

Anyway, the dramas that we are going to get about anything real, anything political, are going to be rigidly factual and that will just reinforce this notion that we can’t make things up.

True, we’ve had a Nigel Farage piece that was a comedy but it was really just one good trailer-length joke and nothing else. We’ve also seen real-life events translated into science fiction but pretty simplistically. We’ve more often seen dramas that are as faithful as possible to the real-life events.

And I just don’t see the point of them.

That’s not drama, it’s a Crimewatch reconstruction. Granted, plenty of what’s happening now should be examined in criminal law courts but my need for a verdict is firmly, totally centred in reality: I don’t have a thirst to see justice done only to make a drama’s happy ending.

The word dramatised, by the way, means moved. From some non-dramatic form to another. You can’t dramatise a movie, for instance, because it’s already drama. The aim is to move whatever it is to another form in order to make something new, to create something that has value and worth on its own. It is not to fill in the blanks.

Drama documentaries do this and nothing else. They are a foul idea borne of a need to have something to look at when there’s no contemporary footage. So some historian will talk to some camera in some gorgeous house saying “And of course WIlliam Shakespeare lived on Lemsip” and it will be followed by portentous music, ancient costumes and actors trying to put emotion into Shakey telling Anne Hathaway: “I doth so adoreth it greater than Night Nurse”.

You can make it up, but you won’t.

This took me a very long time to realise but I got there and it’s become a staple for me: journalism is about facts and drama is about truth. It’s not the same thing.

There’s a thing I stick to in drama writing and specifically when pitching an idea. I’ll begin with what the story is about but then as fast as I possibly, conceivably can, I’ll ditch that and move on to this: what it’s really about.

Drama is about what really matters, what really is going on. Journalism is about who, what, where, when, why and how. Dramatised versions of real-life events are just pointless bores. Drama that examines why people do what they do, that dives into people instead of diligently copying news reports we’ve already seen, that’s just tedious.

You shouldn’t make it up.

Talking and not talking

In the middle of a six-hour workshop yesterday, I stopped to explore a thought about an issue that had been coming up throughout the day. “I offer,” I said, “that it is the people who can communicate, who can write and talk, who find it the hardest to do.”

I think I’m right. I was running the workshop for the Federation of Entertainment Unions which means for members of the NUJ, Equity, the Musician’s Union and the Writers’ Guild. Something like 20 or 25 professional freelancers in London. I adore – no, I love – running FEU workshops because of these people. The only stock a freelancer has, really, is time and these people choose to spend a working day with me.

Now, whenever someone elects to spend time with me, I’m honoured. I just had a thing where someone came within a pixel of flying over from the States to see me. As much as I would’ve liked to meet her, I was immensely relieved when plans changed because I get anxious enough when someone crosses a room in my direction.

But with the FEU workshops and these freelancers, it’s a business decision. They want something the FEU says I can give them – yesterday it was about blogging – and they’re here to get it. No playing around, no messing, no idle thought about maybe one day doing a blog. I think of it as playing with live ammunition: they need something, I have to show them whether blogging does or doesn’t do it, then I have to get them what they need to start.

If I talked bollocks for the first hour, I expect all 25 to walk out. If I speak brilliantly but they realise blogging or whatever isn’t what they need, I expect all 25 to leave early and get back to their work.

And actually, maybe no more so than yesterday because this was a really impressive group. Grief. One guy has his acting career but actually he’s really focused on social issues like care homes. One journalist is a Libya correspondent. And one is the woman who made that documentary about suffragette Emily Davison which showed she didn’t choose to be trampled to death, it wasn’t a suicide plan. I got to shake hands with someone who owns the sash Davison wore in that gigantically important moment.

So this was a room full of talented people. Talented creative types, people who apply their talent and their skills all the time. People who actually I picture as being on their feet and in action even though we spent most of the day sitting down.

And yet the thing that kept coming up over and over was that each one of them finds it crippingly hard, paralysingly hard, to talk about themselves and their work. These are people who for a living talk or write or act or perform and this was a difficulty you could see pressing on their chests.

I don’t have a solution and I do have the same problem. But I didn’t quite tell you the whole quote just now. This is what I really said:

“I offer that it is the people who can communicate, who can write and talk, who find it the hardest to do. And that it’s the people who can’t, who won’t shut up about themselves.”

Please don’t point out that I’m writing a blog about one sentence of mine, one thought. This isn’t me talking about myself, it’s you and I having a chat because you’re exactly the same, aren’t yoU?

Restored to life

Confession: I backup everything I write, everything that lands on my Mac, everything. But I rarely go into the backups to restore anything. Until this week when my arm was twisted into powering up my last computer again and doing some work with it. I’m going to claim that it doesn’t matter what the work was but really, I just cannot remember – because of what I found instead.

Every five or six years I buy a new Mac and take a minute or two to bring over all my current documents. I also promise to sort out the pile of hard drives I have inside some of these Macs and outside all of them but I never do.

This week I did and it’s been like data archaeology. Let me just tell you this first: here on my old Mac Pro I found I’d got 44 feature films. They appear to have been ripped from my DVDs but I don’t remember doing that.

Then there are 279 whole episodes of TV series. Some DVD rips, some iTunes purchases, I don’t know.

And 15,768 radio or other audio tracks.

I do understand that one because I used to have my Mac Pro automatically switch itself on to record the Afternoon Drama on BBC Radio 4 every day so there’s a pile of those. It’s a pile with titles like ‘Afternoon Play -ep723.m4a’ and no other way to work out what each is but to listen.

Then, too, I’ve made a lot of radio on my Macs so there’s surely a thousand or more tracks to do with that.

One more thing. Somewhere in that Mac Pro’s folders there were also 3,336 scripts. A thousand or more movie scripts plus entire series of television ones. Oddly few radio, for some reason.

All of this is now on a drive connected to my iMac and Backblaze, my online backup service, is sweating as it uploads the lot to cloud storage to make sure it is never lost, that it is always available to me wherever I am.

And that would be where I’d stop. Look at this, I could say: I’ve found all this glorious material and that it will of course occupy me, enthral me, distract me.

Only, this digging into a massive personal archive turns out to be a delicate dig into the past. It’s delicate because at first you see a photograph and alongside it there’s the date. It’s a file on your Mac, there’s the name and there’s the the Date Modified. It’s putting a pin in a memory – but then opening that image, looking at that document, just glancing at it changes the Date Modified to today. It’s like grasping at something that crumbles in your hand.

Now, if you dig slightly to the left and down a bit there is way to show the Date Created. But I didn’t think of that until I’d go into paroxysms about the ephemeral nature of even digital memories.

And as I write this to you, I’m actually back by that old Mac Pro because I wanted to get that screen grab of its display looking whitewashed. (When did I take that whitewash photo? Apparently Sunday, 8 September 2013 at 11:12.)

But I’m looking for that date and the drives inside this Mac Pro began giving out a little scream.

They’re going to die. And I’ve already plugged in one ancient external drive that I pointlessly struggled to find the right cables for because it’s dead.

We use these machines to do our work and to do everything, but along the way we are inadvertently documenting our entire lives in sometimes minute-by-minute detail. It’s not always great detail. It’s sometimes scraping when you find an old email and the text comes along with a tsunami of upset.

It’s not great detail when you learn what open wounds you still have. But it is great detail, it is the greatest of all details, when you a To Do list from 2003 that has hopes for the future that you’ve since achieved.

I’m not saying you should dig through your old computer documents and I’m definitely not saying you should do it without a strong mug of tea beside you. But I am saying you should backup everything. I’ve said that for years and meant it in very practical terms but today I mean it in emotional ones too.

Depth perception

I’m not going to name someone here because I don’t want to embarrass them. But also because I think it might apply to you and I’m hoping it does to me.

It’s about how we see ourselves and how others see us. Let me give you the example that prompted me thinking about this, that prompted me to want to talk to you about it.

I ran a pair of workshops last Saturday, back to back things all day with mostly the same writers across the two. All sorts of writers, all sorts of experience, but every one of them professionals. And afterwards we got into a topic that for some reason is a recurring one in this job: the discussion over when and whether you can call yourself a writer.

I don’t know why we have this: maybe it’s an arts thing as perhaps it happens with painters too yet there’s no engineer who’s ever been in doubt what their own job title was. It’s a tough world, there probably isn’t an engineer who hasn’t doubted whether their job would continue, but they knew what it was called. When asked on a form they don’t have heartbeat’s hesitation over what to write as their occupation. Writers do.

I used to. These days I’ve come to accept that I’m unemployable in any other field.

But there was this one person on my workshop who was talking about this and about the genuine relief that she’s recently felt able to call herself a writer. There’s a deeper issue here about identity and I think also self-worth but this particular writer saying this particular thing was a jolt.

She’s not only published, she is a publisher. She has a poetry imprint, she runs events, she runs workshops. Now, to me that’s all writing: she disagrees, she calls them writing-related jobs and of course she’s right but to me it’s all the one thing. You use the same muscles in producing an event as you do writing anything: there’s a lot of actual writing, for one thing, but also you’re communicating, you’re persuading, you’re trying to inform and to do so entertainingly. You’re trying to learn, too, which is a big thing in this lark.

A year or two ago, a mutual friend asked me to meet with this same writer to tell her how to do a particular thing – and I laughed. The notion that I could tell her a single thing she’d hadn’t already done and wasn’t already doing. We did meet, we did have tea, I had a good time and fortunately there was something she hadn’t happened to have tried. Or so she said. She may have been being kind.

But the fact that it’s only recently she has felt able to call herself a writer means she didn’t think it when we met that time. There is absolutely not one single question that she wasn’t a writer then, that she isn’t now: she’s a writer and she’s a pro.

I’m glad and relieved that she now accepts it but I’ve been thinking about this workshop conversation all week. The disconnection between how she was seeing herself and how I was seeing her. I’ve been going around impressed with her and she’s not seen why.

This isn’t exactly a new thought in the world but it resonates me with me this week: if she could be so wrong about how good she is, perhaps we all are. Even you.

Maybe even me.

What writing gives you

One thing that writing and being a writer has given me is that I got to speak at the launch of this year’s Birmingham Literature Festival – and I got to say something that matters to me. I got to explain why the same company’s year-round programme of Young Writers’ groups gets me invigorated and just a wee bit passionate. Some of these groups are for 8-12 year olds, some for about 14-16 and with two minutes to describe what they were all like, I got to say it like this:

Just let me say that first that I feel privileged to be the one who gets to talk with you about this tonight. With 21 groups, that means there are 21 professional writers like myself running them, then there are 21 assistant writers plus everyone at Writing West Midlands. Each month we must work with something like 300 kids between us.

We all do it differently but we all want the same things and – actually – we get it.

We want young people to be able to explore writing and reading. We want them to express themselves. Sometimes we’d like them to be a little less exhausting.

Two of my Burton kids told me – about a year after we’d started – that they’d been afraid it would all be like school.

It’s not like school.

In our sessions they write underneath the tables. They write while actually running around the room. They write stage plays that we then stage. Really, we get in actors and we stage them. Forget the kids: can you imagine how exciting that is at my age?

They write film scripts – that we all then film. They write books, poetry, short stories.

They write.

No exams, no Ofstead. Writing. Creating. And talking. So much talking.

I want to give you one example. Well, actually I want to talk to you all evening but I am allowed one example. I worked with such a quiet, shy little girl once. Eight years old, very scared. Wouldn’t speak. Wouldn’t. If she ever did, you could barely hear her.

Yet a few sessions along… The last time I saw her, she was on her feet, calling across the room, horsetrading with other kids: I’ll write this bit if you write that. Imagine this: she was the shyest little child I’ve ever met – talented, I think, but shy – and I watched her say… No.

No, she said. I’m not writing that bit, I’m writing this bit.

So proud of her. And I do hope she becomes a writer. But whatever she does, writing has given her this. The Young Writers’ Groups have given her this.

Confidence, expression. Now you can give her that too. You can help the next shy little girl or shy little boy. In fact, you can help the next kid who is just like you and me: interested in writing and only needing a little encouragement to bloom.

The Young Writers’ groups are by Writing West Midlands, a charity which you can – and I do – help by becoming a Friend. This is a particularly good time to do it if you’re near the West Midlands, too, as you also get discounts for events and October’s Birmingham Literature Festival is replete with performances, readings, workshops and countless things happening.

Plus if you’re nowhere near it and can only dream from afar, bung Writing West Midlands some cash specifically to fund these Young Writers’ groups. Text WWMS15 £2 / £5 / £10 to 70070.