I pulled my finger out

Last week’s Self Distract was like a whine tasting. I won’t delete it because it is true, it is how I felt about my poor writing then and quite often, but it also ended with a call to action that I actually did. It told me to pull my finger out and do some writing.

I did some writing. About four pages of script. Four pages in a week is not going to impress you, and nor is the fact that I still wasn’t doing it until I got prodded into it by a writing buddy.

But, still, I wrote it and it is completely true that there is nothing I like more than being in script, writing in that form, thinking in that form. It’s my favourite form of writing, I like it even when it’s hard, and still I don’t do it enough. I can explain that now, though: I’m a writer, what can you do?

Only, I can’t help thinking about how I did pull my finger out, yet I may also have stuck it in my ear. These are the strangest of days, the unhappiest of days, and yet so far I am in a position where I can choose to worry about whether or not I’m writing something. I don’t, as yet, need to be scared about my income, and I’m a freelancer, so there have been times when I have had to, when I know what that is truly like.

I’m not sure I’ve ever done this before, but I want to send you to another blog, please. While I’ve been mostly in my own head all week, Lisa Holdsworth has been actually making a difference for freelance writers. She’s Chair of the Writers’ Guild –– I’m Deputy Chair and proud to work with her –– and separately runs a blog about writing. It’s now got the most seductively enraged piece which takes you from calm to raging with her about what we need to do.

I’ve long wanted to write like Lisa, sometimes I now just want to be her, too.

Faster and slower

Lizzy didn’t like Mr Darcy at first, but then she did. Scrooge was this right old git, but then he slept on it and bought a turkey. There was a bit of war, but then also a bit of peace.

There you go, you’ve just read three books and doubtlessly got the full value out of them. Mind you, I realise as I say this to you that while I know many people who haven’t read Pride and Prejudice, I don’t know anyone who has only read it once. Such a great book.

Here you go: Lizzy didn’t like Mr Darcy at first, but then she did. You’re welcome.

I’m saying this to you because I’m grumbling. There’s this thing in podcasts which some people love so much that I just read a piece where someone was longing for film and television to do exactly the same thing.

Speed up.

Now, you can think of films that dragged a bit, naming no names Sean-Bean’s-death-scene-in-Lord-of-the-Rings, but that’s not what’s going on. It’s not that anyone wants films to get on with it, it’s that some want the footage to run faster, and reportedly many play their podcasts at 1.5 or twice normal speed.

Many podcast apps have a button for this. Some will analyse the podcast episode and also remove silences so that it runs a bit shorter.

I like to get on with things, but if you’re listening to a podcast or one day watching a film that you genuinely believe is improved by running at twice normal speed, I have a different button for you.

It’s the stop button.

Ditch that show and go listen to something better made.

For just as the spaces between words in a book are crucial, so the minuscule silences in speech are, too. I’ve produced a lot of podcasts and there was one where for some reason the recordings had a teeny delay so that it sounded as if my co-host was forever aghast at the stupid thing I’d just said. I did edit that to cut those out, but I left many of them in because quite often he was.

There is a reason scripts have the phrase “beat pause”. There is a rhythm and a pace that is every single bit as much a part of the whole story as the words.

The argument for speeding up what you’re listening to is that you get the information faster and you can enjoy more podcasts or whatever in the same amount of time.

I think the latter point is spurious. You’re not enjoying the podcast, you’ve already decided not to experience it the way it was built and produced.

And I think the first point about getting the information faster is idiotic. Since you’re ignoring the form as it was created and you’re believing that the worth is in the words spoken, read the damn transcript.

There was an acclaimed audio series recently that was on a topic I was deeply interested in, but the presenter’s delivery was so slow that it was as if she were insulting us. It was as if she were talking to a child and it was unbearable even before the show also became repetitive.

I did have a 1.5 button on that app. I did have a twice-normal-speed button.

But instead I used another control entirely. I tapped on Unsubscribe.

Accented characters

I’ve a friend who insists, really strongly insists, that he has no accent whatsoever. He’s American. I just look at him. But then this week, I was asked if I had deliberately changed my own accent.

I’m from Birmingham in the UK and if it’s fair to say we have a particular accent, then it’s very unfair how that accent gets maligned. When a Cockney tells you that your accent makes you sound stupid, truly the only thing you can say is “goodbye”.

As it happens, I don’t speak in a particularly Birmingham accent, but I am deeply uncomfortable at the idea I might have deliberately done that. I vow to you that I haven’t, but the very idea cuts deep into me and in part, I think because it connects to a key failing I think I have in my writing.

Let me triple underline that I have not and would not deliberately change my accent. I’m told that at times a sudden stab of Brummie will come out of me in some particular word. Good. If I cannot change my accent to avoid Brummie, I suppose I can’t in all conscience choose to change it so that I am more Birmingham, but I am proud of where I come from and where I live now, and enough so that I want you to know. If you get that from me actually telling you, fine. If you get it from a sudden Brummie word, all the better.

I used to tell people that my accent is what it is because I grew up watching Bob Hope films. But as I said to the person who asked me about it this week, I’m no longer comfortable saying that because of how Hope treated his writers.

He used to make them all stand at the bottom of some stairs while he was at the top. He would write their cheques and throw them down to them.

Maybe I could just amend my accent explanation, maybe I could just be more precisely accurate. I grew up watching the Road movies that Bob Hope and Bing Crosby were in. Seven movies from 1940 to 1960-something, so long before I was born, but films like Road to Singapore, Road to Rio.

My favourite is Road to Morocco, and probably because it contains one of my favourite lines from any film. It’s a quite tortuous line that Hope and Crosby manage to sing on their journey and it goes: “Like Webster’s International Dictionary, we’re Morocco-bound.”

Now you’re looking at me.

I wonder if my clearly British but otherwise not apparently very precise accent is less my exposure to American films, and more because of this writing failure.

I could tell you the history of Birmingham. I have been a kind of tour guide for the place, I’ve dragged friends from the US and Canada around it. With friend and writer Yasmin Ali, I’ve put a visitor from Myanmar through every possible site in the city. I remember when I eventually left him and Yasmin, I actually sank to the street, my legs were evaporated.

When an interviewee recently described Manchester as Britain’s second city, I switched off the audio recorder and gave him a talking to.

When a college friend insisted that actually Nottingham should be the second city, I explained “Bollocks”.

Yet apart from right now, here, talking with you, I don’t think you ever see Birmingham in my writing. It’s certainly not from any particular decision, and I do have a current script that’s set here in the city, but my writing is definitely not riddled with my home town.

And I do think that’s a failing.

Alan Plater’s work, for instance, was so often not just set in the North East, but positively imbued with the place. You can think of so many more, too. Places, usually home towns, that seep into a writer’s work and, I think, give it something I lack.

I have set more writing in the TARDIS than I have in Birmingham.

And this is all on my mind again because the friend who asked about my accent did so at a book event. There’s a new book called “Spake: Dialect and Voices from the West Midlands“, published by the great Nine Arches Press. It’s a collection of prose and poetry and essays about and using the dialects –

– sudden flashback to school. I’m in a technology lesson and the teacher is talking about computer languages and dialects. Then he finally writes that word on the board and the whole class goes “Oh, I see” because it had kept sounding like he was saying “Daleks”.

The book is funny and insightful and it’s a collection of writing from writers whose work I relish and some of whom, I know and relish as people too.

Each piece is about myriad other topics as well, but they all touch on location and they are all deeply steeped in the different regional accents and dialects of the West Midlands. I think sometimes it’s piled on a bit for effect, but the effect is brilliant.

The more precisely defined that a region is in these pieces, the more specific and particular the words and the grammar and the sounds of the writing, the more universal it all is. You may not know what a particular word means, but still it gives the writing life and verve.

You can’t make this stuff up, I can’t fake an accent I don’t have, and I suspect my writing will always lack this core, but that doesn’t mean I have to be okay about it.

Miss-market paperback

So I was with about 300 writers at this year’s Swanwick Writers’ Summer School for one day this week, meeting them, gassing with them, and running a workshop about blogging with something like 60 people. Name a writing topic, and it came up in the dozens of huge conversations we all go into. But oddly, there was also something that slipped into most of the topics, most of the discussions.

Not true. It wasn’t mentioned at all in any of the conversations I had about how remarkably, I mean remarkably, well organised this event was. I felt privileged to be part of it.

Still, wherever two, three or several hundred writers shalt be gathered, so shalt there be talk about money.

Of course there is, and if people are making a living through writing, it’s far from a surprise when they think about aiming for certain markets, for doing certain things that appeal to readers. Having the hero in the first chapter of a novel, for instance. Having a happy ending, you know the kind of thing.

Against all these reasonable points and to all of these reasonable and talented people, I say bollocks.

Now, it’s easy to say bollocks over here where it’s just you and me talking. I promise you that I said it while I was there, but I grant you that conversation had a lot more context.

So let me summarise the context for you. Sod the mass market, I argued, and screw happy endings.

I am a full-time freelance writer and at this very moment I should be writing a non-fiction piece I’ve been commissioned to do. It comes with quite a specific brief, a word count, and while it’s not been stated for this piece, the fully sensible expectation is that I will again write in this publication’s style. Or near enough, anyway.

Not only have I no problem with this, I’m enjoying writing it. We’re talking now because I’m taking a tea break on the train I’m on. I need a minute or two to get some slices of tea from the buffet. Do you take sugar?

It’s just this. I think you can go native. You can assume that an editor is not only right in the sense that he or she knows what they want, but that what they say goes for everything. I think you can assume that what the market likes is what is right.

I doubt anyone at Swanwick would believe that there are rules to writing, but they know there are things that tend to work and things that tend to fail.

And I also doubt that any writer anywhere would agree with me about ignoring the market when times are really tight. When you don’t know how you’ll get through the end of the month, it’s impossible to be arty. To write something just because you fancy doing it is just impossible, you’ve got to write things that you know will sell.

Except you never know what will.

When things are that pressured, when you are truly under the cosh and you actually do have a strong clue that something will sell – because you’ve been commissioned to do it, because you’ve sold four books in the same vein before – then do what you have to do.

But also do something that you don’t.

Spend at least a little time writing something that doesn’t work, that doesn’t follow some formatted rules and isn’t going to appeal to anyone other than you.

The worst that can happen is that it will be rubbish, but it’ll be your rubbish, maybe you’ll enjoy it, probably it’ll show you what you’re good at in writing, and definitely it will stop you becoming a typist instead of a writer.

And the best that can happen is that it works.

The trouble with rules and formats is that they are a list of what’s worked before and if there’s anyone who should be breaking new ground, it’s writers.

Change the word

It’s been Baader Meinhof Effect week. Well, it’s also been the destruction of my beloved captain’s chair, the seat I’ve been in for every book, every script, every article and too many meals. The main metal rod sheared off and sent me tumbling across my office. But while I was lying there with one leg up on my desk and the other in our kitchen, it was the Baader Meinhof Effect that I was thinking about.

The brilliant thing about this is that if you haven’t heard of it before, you will now. That’s what it is. It’s the term for how once you’ve heard of something, you suddenly keep hearing it. I guarantee that you’ll hear it again soon.

What happened is that last week I mentioned typical reactions that writers get. Now, I don’t expect anyone but writers to know or give the slightest damn what writers do or say or experience. But as people stopped me all week to say they’d had exactly those typical reactions, they also told me something that I haven’t been able to stop hearing over and over again.

Writer Jacqui Rowe started it. She told me that she kept hearing of people who dream of being writers, but what they actually dream of is anything but the writing. They dream of the book launches, they dream of celebrity parties, they dream of money.

And as soon as she said that, it seemed as if every time I checked social media, I would see another discussion about writers and our dreams or our motivations.

I get that it would make for a dull dream and a long night if you regularly fantasised about thousands of hours typing. But you’ve got to enjoy those hours because you’re going to have to do them regardless. Maybe enjoy is too simplistic a word because nobody sits here constantly beaming with happiness. But this is what I dreamed of, the writing.

It wasn’t the only thing I dreamed of. I also dreamt of seeing a book of mine in my local library. That wasn’t a long or detailed or even recurring dream because I didn’t really think it was possible. (It was. I did it in 2012, a book of mine is in the Library of Birmingham and any day now I think someone may consider being the first to borrow it.)

I want to suggest to you that this dream, the specific dream of being a writer actually writing, is a kind of pure dream. I definitely want to suggest to you that people who just dream of being a writer at a celebrity party are unlikely to manage it.

But I chiefly want to suggest all this because there is also the question of why in God’s name you, I or anyone, anywhere, ever wants to write. And there I am wondering if I just have a failure of imagination.

Baader Meinhof Effect.

Told you.

For in many of these same online discussions during the week, the same question has been asked and the responses were always what I’d call crazy-ass. Some writers said that they wrote to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony. I may have exaggerated a little there, but that was the core of it. The world needs these writers, said these writers.

And maybe it does. It needs something and what it needs, it ain’t getting it from me.

I do write to pay the mortgage, thought not as cynically as that sounds, or actually as effectively. But it is an issue and it has to be. Beyond that, though, my real reason to write is just that I’ve got to find out what happens next.

Writer is Coming

That’s it, that’s all I’ve got that’s in any way to do with Game of Thrones. Writer is coming. I thought of it and, in my head, that sounded like a good title. It might be a bit portentous, I thought, and that’s not me, that’s more poncy than I intend to be. But it’s a good title and I’ve over-thought it. Except I possibly haven’t thought about it enough because now that I’ve actually written it down, now that you’re looking at it, I have an uneasy feeling that it might be rude.

Anyway.

I was thinking of this title when I got into a conversation about writing and writers. I get into these quite a lot, really, and I don’t think you’re surprised since it’s what you and I natter about all the time. But for some reason this week I noticed how similar these chats can be. I noticed that we are quite prone to the same concerns – but unfortunately also to the same nonsense.

I’m used to this from the outside. The rubbish that is said to writers is ridiculous. Sometimes it’s also manipulative. Such as a new one I heard the other day, where a film student told me that she’d been warned that if she joined a union like the Writers’ Guild – or Equity, the Musicians’ Union, any of them – she’d find it harder to get work.

Oh, yes? A producer who says that to you is not your friend. He or she is someone angling to hire you for less than the going rate. He or she is someone who is likely to tell you next that working for free is good exposure. He or she is someone the Writers’ Guild would take on in court for you.

Then there’s the issue of copyright which I think must arise naturally a little but is surely exploited by writing courses and writing tutors trying to justify why you spent money on them. I run writing courses, I am a writing tutor, and I don’t believe you can be taught writing. I think you can be taught to write better. That’s why I do it and I am not going to pad out a short course by making up rules about how you must copyright your ideas. Or Else.

I’m not saying you’ll never be ripped off – though in nearly thirty years, it’s only happened to me once – but I am saying get a life. Maybe it’s different in the US where things are more litigious and I know the Writers’ Guild of America runs a service to help writers register scripts for this reason.

But I also know this. Whenever I’ve been sent a script or, back when I was editing magazines, I was sent an unsolicited article, and the piece has copyright threats all over the front cover, I can already tell you what the following pages are going to be like. They will be amateur.

That shouldn’t be true, there shouldn’t be any reason why it could ever be true, but it always is.

Writers also always hear the same things when they’ve been asked what they do for a living. It’s either that the person who asked then tells you that they’re thinking of writing a book but they haven’t the time because they’ve got a real job like being an accountant. One variation on that: sometimes they tell you they have this brilliant idea, it’s about twins, now you just have to write it and we can split the profits.

Or more often, they say something along the lines of good luck, you might make it one day, you keep on trying.

It doesn’t matter what you’ve done, they’ll still say that. A friend I’ve known since school asked me recently whether I’ve ever been published. “Um, just a bit,” I told her.

If I’d said anything more, if I’d listed books or scripts, I’d be the one who was being rude. I’d be simultaneously boasting and defensive, I’d be preening and trying to justify myself, and this person who doesn’t read much would point out that she’s never read anything of mine. And then I’d be off saying things like you got me, I’m lying, I’ve been a fool to myself, let’s not bother with dessert, and can we have the bill now, please?

I do think she believes that I’m playing at this. That writing is something you play with until you grow up.

Anyway, you know all this, you’ve heard all of this, I’m just trying so hard not to get to the point.

Because the point is that I realised this week that for all the nonsense that’s said to writers, we don’t half say some bollocks back, too.

Maybe the biggest one is that we have a tendency to talk about writers’ block. If there’s ever anything that says writing is not a job, it’s writers’ block.

Tell me the last time you heard an engineer complain about engineer’s block, or a plumber, or a nurse. Tell me when you’ve ever heard an artist talking about painter’s block or sculptor’s block.

We own this writers’ block phrase and we deserve all we get.

It’s not that there’s some mystical interference pattern affecting our talent and it’s definitely not that the muse has taken a holiday. You don’t have writers’ block, you’re just crap today.

Maybe you were crap yesterday too, and maybe you’ll be crap tomorrow. If it goes on long enough, possibly you should look into accountancy. But you’re just having a crappy day like everybody else in every job gets.

I really don’t think we help our case by conjuring up this notion of writers’ block. I think we damage ourselves with other people because we’re sounding like we’re special little snowflakes. But I also think we do some serious, some really serious, damage to ourselves.

If you are a writer and you believe you have writers’ block today, there are only two things that can happen and neither is good. The easier one is that you might just not write now, you might postpone it to tomorrow –– and tomorrow you’re going to have writers’ block too. This is how books don’t get written, this is how scripts don’t get finished.

And even so, I call that the easier one because it can only happen when you’ve got the time. If you’re on a deadline, you don’t have any option but to press on. I prefer that, I think it’s by far the better option, but it’s not easy.

I would remind you that there are harder jobs than writing, but I’d also like to point out that there are easier ones, too.

The trouble with deadlines is that they are imposed on you, you are responding to someone else’s deadline. And when it’s the opposite, when you have the time to just not write today, you are the one who is sole control of your deadlines. Writers have a crippling tendency to not write when we don’t have to, and dressing it up with phrases like writers’ block does not help us.

All that helps writers is writing. Getting on with it.

Writing is Going.

Hung, drawn and quota-ed

Yesterday I was speaking at the National Youth Film Academy – a really good, highly practical filmmaking course – and the topic of quotas came up. Was it right, I and colleagues from Equity and Directors UK were asked, that there should be quotas for getting more women writing film and television.

And is it fair, continued the point, for women if they are only there because of a quota?

Writing isn’t fair.

And nor should it be. Not ever, not in any possible way. Film and television and radio and books and stage and games, and anything else you can think of, do not exist for writers. You do not get to write a TV drama because it’s your turn.

Instead, everything is always for the audience. It was ever thus, it will always be thus, and there has never been one moment when it should not be thus.

So of course the idea of a quota, the idea of anything that artificially changes who gets to write things ought to be wrong and we shouldn’t need it.

But we need it.

We truly, truly need quotas.

Not because we’ve got some issue and require certain percentages of shows to be by women, certain percentages by certain ethnic minorities or certain proportions of drama to be about certain issues.

We need something because we already have certain percentages and they are wrong.

Without any quotas, without any effort, we ought to naturally have a situation where everything is achieved through merit. If you’re a good enough writer, you ought to be getting to write.

So explain to me why only 14 percent of primetime UK television is written by women.

That’s the figure right now and we know it because the Writers’ Guild counted. It counted as the start of a campaign called Equality Writes and ultimately it wants to find out exactly how well or poorly represented every facet of UK life is on television and film. The Writers’ Guild started by counting women because it was possible to get that data.

Now it’s researching further, but to be honest, I’m surprised they can face it. As well as that 14 percent for TV, the figure for film is 16 percent.

Here I am stridently saying that writing isn’t fair and shouldn’t be, but tell me that 14 and 16 percent is the result of merit. Tell me that there really is just that proportion of writers who are women. While you’re at it, tell me how exactly that figure has been approximately just as low for every year the Writers’ Guild examined.

There is no possibility, not one single pixel of a possibility, that British television and film writing is by merit.

Instead, the current system is bollocks. And I chose that word carefully.

So some quota system, really some anything system, anything that changes this is necessary. Anything that breaks the system, just give me that.

I was the last of three to speak to this point yesterday and my colleagues from Equity and Directors UK were impassioned and eloquent. Representing the Writers’ Guild but also representing myself, I couldn’t really add any more to the points raised – but I also really could not just nod in agreement.

“I want quotas or anything that changes this,” I said, “because it’s right and because I care about the writers. But also because I am just so tired of seeing film and radio and television and stage all being written by boring, middle-aged white men. And I am a boring, middle-aged white man.”

You’d think in an audience of about 200 filmmakers that one of them could’ve said I was wrong about that last part, but seemingly not.

Brean there, done that

Ah, that’s better. Last week when my website was broken and I couldn’t talk to you, I went away in a huff and instead wrote a treatment for a series I’ve been putting off. Consequently I was annoyed but also productive. So, bah.

Naturally there was something I’d wanted to discuss with you last time and of course I’ve forgotten it now. I do remember thinking that I could tell you about when I worked for a firm that absolutely required me to drive a company car. No choice. It was a Fiat Accompli.

All week I’ve been waiting to say that.

This time, though, I’d like to tell you a slightly sad story from when I was child and then how pretty much the same thing happened again this week – but was fantastic.

Do you know Brean? It’s on the coast near Weston-super-Mare and when I was a child, my family must’ve gone on holiday there three or four times. What I remember most clearly, apart from buying Arthur C Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama in the newsagent, is how the beach so abruptly changes to grassland.

Or I suppose it’s the other way around. Depends. As you head to the sea, you’re going across reasonably dense grass and some kind of bracken-like things, then you’re on the sand. There’s a divisor line between the two and your bare feet feel it in the heat of the sand.

It’s also a tiny bit hilly, though, and there was this one peculiar spot where the land rose up so that the sand formed a little hollow, like someone had dug a pit and then somehow hoisted it up to ground level. And this grass or bracken thing, these twigs and undergrowth, didn’t notice the hollow. They kept on going as if it weren’t there. So you had this recessed area in the ground and a roof of grass and twigs.

That was my den one year. I owned that place. It was secret and it was mine.

For one year, for one holiday.

I loved that spot so much that the next year when we came back, I ran to it.

I knew the hard-to-spot entrance and I ran through it.

And then I ran straight through the hollow and I ran immediately out the other side. Didn’t pause for one instant. And never went back, never looked back, could not then and still cannot now even find roughly where this place was.

Because this year my den belonged to a whole set of other boys.

I’m rubbish with ages but I remember seeing that they were younger than me. I knew there was no common ground, even as we stood on common ground, and this is the thing that made me sad. I also knew it was over.

Whatever I was the year before, I wasn’t any more and I never would be again.

Now, I need you to make some leaps here both in time and place because all of this is on my mind again because of what happened this week in a pub.

Some years ago, I devised a social event called Notworking. It’s under the aegis of the Writers’ Guild but it’s for writers, directors, producers and actors. Really anyone who works in our nutty profession. You get together in a bar for absolutely no reason. No speeches, no speakers, no topic. You cannot pitch, if necessary you can bitch.

The idea is that if you’re in this line then few of your friends and absolutely none of your family have the faintest clue what you do – or especially why you do it. But we do. We get it. Come have a drink and relax with your fellow travellers.

I set it all up and I’ve run some, others have run others, this one was a joint collaboration between several Writers’ Guild folk. Each time we tend to get around 20 people and, I’ll be honest with you, it’s usually the same faces. I like those faces.

But this time, I got there early, being the professional organiser as you do, and the bar was mostly empty but for about six people at the back. And they called out to me: “Are you looking for the Notworking evening?”

I did not recognise any of them and they didn’t know me. It was actually slightly awkward:

THEM: So what do you do?
ME: Er, I organise this event.

I think by its peak, this Notworking event had perhaps 25 people and – I’m guessing here – probably 12 or 15 had never met or even heard of me.

But they were there having a great time because, in part, of me. At one point I just looked around at all these happy people and it was wonderful.

It wasn’t the same as Brean where I wasn’t known and so therefore wasn’t welcome, it was more that I wasn’t known and wasn’t needed – because the original Notworking idea in my head has become its own reality. I could’ve walked away and nobody would’ve noticed, nothing would’ve stopped, it wouldn’t have been any quieter.

Actually, I did walk away for a moment: I walked out with someone when they were leaving. They were leaving the event but also leaving Birmingham and I’ll miss them. As we headed out, the heat of the room became the cool of the outside evening, you could feel the difference in your feet.

We said goodbye up some steps toward the Mailbox and when I turned to go back, I could see the light of the bar flickering and the sound of it coming and going on the wind.

Whoever I was when I was a child back in Brean, I’m not anymore. And I prefer this me.

Listen, this is important. I neither want to suggest that this particular event just coalesced by itself or that I was solely responsible for it. My Writers’ Guild colleagues and friends Tim Stimpson and Martin Sketchley worked on it too and we wouldn’t have been at Pennyblacks by the Mailbox without them. I’d not even heard of that place and now I like it hugely.

And I also really like having a website back. Now, next time the site goes down, we must go to Pennyblacks together and talk properly. Okay?

Maybe nothing is any good

I’m serious: maybe no writing or drama or art is actually any good. Maybe it’s just that some of it is more shiny, some of it is somehow more reflective and it catches the eye for a brief while.

The one book I simply will never dare re-read, for example, is Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. Because I read it when I was exactly at the right point in my teens to find it a tumultuous bellow of a book and some of the bruises it gave me have yet to disappear. Now that I’ve read it once and moreover am somewhat older than I was, though, I fear that it may be feel blunted if I read it again. I want to keep these bruises.

Not long ago I did re-read Isaac Asimov’s The End of Eternity and, god in heaven, he’s a schoolboy. Yet so was I when I first read it and perhaps consequently I did not notice characters, attitudes, situations and writing that now makes me wonder if the book is a joke. All I saw back then was the plot which, to be fair, still seems replete with deeply imaginative ideas.

So I definitely had to be a schoolboy in order to think Asimov is good. I think I might have to be a teenager to truly appreciate Plath again. In which case, I and who I am, how old I am, perhaps even where I am, makes the difference to me between a book being good or bad. Your mileage will vary but the same factors apply: I don’t think you can enjoy a Young Adult novel as much as if you were a Young Adult, for instance.

This week, a colleague told me that she doesn’t like Doctor Who. She wanted me, I think, to make a pitch for why I think it’s good but instead I just told her that it isn’t compulsory.

I gave her this example. Mindful of how there’s just been some football tournament thing, I said to her that she or anyone might well be able to tell me that this game or that is good. You can argue about the beauty of the beautiful game, you can tell me how you’ve held your breath in moments of action that are greater than any theatre could ever hope to achieve.

And so what? I’ll never know because I’ll never watch because it’s football.

I have a few mantras in life. One is that it’s better to be crew than passenger. Another is that the show comes first. But the third is my unstoppable certainty that everything, absolutely everything is interesting. Except football.

Yet if you do that telling me it’s a pinnacle of drama, I might want to take you out to the theatre a bit more but it won’t occur to me to doubt you.

So that means that the quality of football doesn’t matter. It can be wonderful or it can be dreadful, it’s all still rubbish to me.

If you’re thinking that says more about me than it does football, I completely agree and I think that’s actually the point.

For if the quality or not of a sport has no bearing on whether I’ll like it, so surely the reverse is true. Things I do think are good really just happen to be things I like.

As writers and creators, maybe we shouldn’t bother striving to be good, then. We should just write things that include things people like. A bit with a dog, for instance.

Except, as a writer, I long to say to you that all of this is utter bollocks. I yearn to say definitively that if you do good work it will reach people. Whether or not they happen to be the right age or in the right demographic, good work will reach them.

And I think I can make that argument.

That mention of a bit with a dog – I realise only after having typed it – is a quote from the 1999 film Shakespeare in Love. And thinking of Shakey makes me think of this. That fella wrote Hamlet four hundred years ago and I’ll bet it was a hit with the teenagers of the day but it has lasted.It can’t connect with anything I do. It doesn’t depend on my being a Danish prince. Nothing Shakespeare could’ve put in as a crowd pleaser can work with me four centuries later.

Yet Hammy is one of my favourite plays.

Then the same should be true with Jane Austen. She wrote 200 years ago in a society I can’t imagine, in a world I cannot recognise. But her writing in the 18th and 19th Centuries has made me laugh aloud here in the 21st.

She’s also made me wince at her sometimes deft cruelty in describing characters such that one sentence brings them to vivid life.

That’s what I think works and lasts and connects. The ability of truly fine writers to see beyond the present-day trappings and dive so deeply into people that they also dive into us.

The second and third best writing tools

The first best writing tool is whatever you like. Even a pen. I’m not prejudiced. But I was planning to talk to you about what has become my second best, the thing that I rely on daily to get things done. And I was going to tell you about this specifically because it’s software that just got a major, major update.

It’s OmniFocus 3 for iOS and, actually, you can read my review of it on AppleInsider if you want details. That’s to say, if you want details plus a pixel of criticism amidst a near gush of adoration. This is a To Do app that I’ve become dependent on but whether as a someone who’s used previous versions for seven years or as someone who just appreciates great design, the new OmniFocus is remarkable.

What’s great is that it helps me clear out time to write, it makes me handle everything, spin every plate, and get me the gaps I need to work in.

This new version only works on iPads and iPhones. Later this year the Mac version will get this update too. And at some point there’ll be a version on the web. But there isn’t and seemingly won’t ever be an Android or PC version so for that reason, and only that reason, OmniFocus isn’t for everybody.

Whereas it’s occurred to me that the third best writing tool is. It is for everyone. Maybe not in the form I have it, but otherwise yes, it is.

By chance, three writers separately talked to me this week about not writing. It came in different forms as one finds she struggles with writing well to deadlines, another is annoyed at herself for not having written and the third is concerned that she won’t get a particular thing written in time for her deadline.

Let me add myself to the mix: I’m a writer concerned about getting several projects finished.

So it’s all of us. Including you.

And I think we should simultaneously lighten up and buckle down. I think, too, that a very small bit of perspective helps us: for instance, the way I heard from these other writers has helped me feel better about my own worries.

For I know that they’d each think the one who is annoyed with herself is actually doing well. They’d think that the one concerned about hitting a particular deadline is admirably doing something about it. And as for the one who is struggling to write well to deadlines, I’d give an arm to write how she does.

Actually, that last one is threatening to check in with me to see that I’ve worked on a particular project. That’s actively helping me.

It’s just that even the passive recognition that we’re all different yet we’re all the same and all inching forward is a reassurance.

We can and should lighten up in the sense of not beating ourselves around the head for believing we have failed to do something.

But the real reason to relax about that is not because it’s humane, it’s because you don’t have time. Forget what you haven’t done, sod the past, get writing now.

Lighten up and buckle down. I should make a poster.

For there was a fourth person this week. Someone I enjoyed talking with but is worried that writing is a lot of work.

Yep.

There’s no getting around it. Which means my third best writing tool is my supremely battered Captain’s Chair.