Cheap Thrills

We genuinely are in a TV golden age right now and we have been for so long that it’s hard to remember there were ever ages at all. But there was. Oh, trust me, there was. I’m suspicious now because I feel that the last un-golden age was while I was reviewing television for BBC Ceefax and BBC News Online, but there were still two things in that period that kept making me wonder why I liked TV drama so much.

Perhaps the most pervasive was that television began looking like cinema. Every series looked wonderful, utterly arrestingly gorgeous. And bugger-all use as a drama. Characters who barely qualified for the name, stories that might or might not have worked but you’d never know because the dialogue would leave you wondering over and over again how adults had stood there saying this crap aloud. But it looked great.

Maybe you feel less harsh, but I remember, for instance, one boring evening in a London hotel with a pile of ho-hum dramas to review on VHS, and then the last one of the night being Queer as Folk. It was instantly wonderful. Watch it now, watch it then, there’s no question but that this show is like being hit by joyous wall. It is alive, that’s what Queer as Folk is, and back in 1999 or 2000, there wasn’t much else that was.

You might not agree with me, you’re looking kinder about TV back then, but there’s this other thing which you’re less likely to know. Unless you got on BBC and ITV’s press list, you won’t have seen how very many times a new drama would be promoted as being “the next Play for Today”.

I was reminded of this watching clips from the Republican National Convention the other week. Just as BBC and ITV knew that Play for Today was high water mark for drama, so the GOP’s speakers all knew what was right, what was proper, what was decent and sane. They don’t do any of it, but as they stood there saying these lies, it felt worse than ever because clearly they know what the truth is. There’s no ideological stance here, no belief that you could disagree with and yet still understand, these are people who know full well what the right thing to do is, and they’re choosing not to do it.

Equally, not one single “next Play for Today” was ever remotely like Play for Today. It did get so that you just wished they’d bloody make more Play for Today, but instead, they did do something better. Eventually.

Eventually, television married the brilliance of how things could look on our ever-larger widescreen TV sets with how much more brilliant they can be when the drama is written and acted and directed well.

I think this time, right now, is the very best that television has ever been. But I know that it’s also the first time we’ve been able to check.

Think of a TV series and you can watch it, pretty much. There’s no sign of The Onedin Line or The Duchess of Duke Street on any streaming service and there so very much should be, but otherwise it appears that every show ever can, well, appear on your screen.

It also looks better than it ever did. I watched Thunderbirds the other night on BritBox simply because I wanted to hear that famous theme and yet the image quality was so vastly greater than I’d ever remembered that I was held for long enough to get into the story. Curiously, the sound wasn’t remotely as great, but before I knew it, I was rooting for Virgil to save the day.

He did. And last night at the end of an episode of Dempsey and Makepeace, Dempsey was in that classic hero position where he could’ve shot the baddie but after a few tense closeups, took the moral high ground. Compare that to the newer and infinitely better Justified where the only thing that saves a baddie from being fatally shot is not the hero’s morality but rather the producer’s deciding he’s too interesting a character to kill off.

You see the nonsense we used to put up with on television, but you also see much more. It fascinates me how you can, reasonably easily, skip around television history and see how norms and conventions and budgets and technology changed. The most striking example for me, though, is how studio-bound British TV was for such a very long time.

Any given episode of a drama would consist of maybe ten minutes shot on location, shot on film, and then the rest would be recorded in the studio. As a nation, it was as if we collectively agreed to ignore the vast difference in picture quality between the two. Then as portable, lightweight OB cameras came in, we moved to all film, all-location, and it is better.

The very last drama to be shot in this part film/mostly studio way was BBC1’s The House of Elliott, which ended in 1994. That’s also not available to stream, but you can now turn left and watch 1993’s Cracker which was made entirely on film. Or you can scoot back a little to 1987 and a series where the constraints of the studio were much more painfully obvious.

This is available on BritBox, as of last month. Star Cops. If there is a contest for the worst-named TV series of all time, Star Cops would be in with a shot at the trophy. I actually remember it getting the front cover of Radio Times and yet, despite the attention and despite it being made by ex-Doctor Who people I rated, I didn’t watch. Not something called Star Cops, I’m not.

I think it was maybe ten years later that I caught an episode and ended up buying the complete series on VHS. And now I’m watching the whole thing on BritBox.

It’s got that same dreadful title, it looks cheaper than even Crossroads ever managed, and yet it is absorbing. I’m not going to say it’s the next Play for Today, but it is fresh and interesting and well written enough that I’m watching even as I keep remembering what happens.

Truly, you could make a better or at least far better-looking Star Cops episode on your iPhone today. But you probably couldn’t match writers like Chris Boucher.

And if old studio dramas do nothing else, they demonstrate the strength that writing –– and acting –– can bring. We don’t need multi-million pound dramas, but they are superb, so long as the writing is there too.

Course language

So there I was, minding my own business in several senses of the phrase, and running a free online writing course. It was about how exactly to make time to write and it was going very well. Except, I think you see where this is going, three weeks into it, we all got handed far more time than we ever wanted.

I actually thought about cancelling this free course. It was all online, all long prepared with videos and lessons and assignments, but the lockdown was so overwhelming me that I couldn’t write and figured I was unlikely to be alone in that.

However, that stasis-like sensation, that paralysis, not only stopped me writing, it stopped me stopping the course. I was that bad for a while, but now I am in all ways relieved that I was. Because people continued doing the course, they worked through its fourth week. And in a sudden spurt of writing, I quite radically changed the final week.

I don’t know why. Week five ended up having exactly the same lessons, so to speak, as it was going to. Of course it did, this was the culmination of a whole course. But I rewrote it and somehow it became much more personal than I’d expected. You know that writing is far from being just about the words on the page, it’s more about the words underneath those, and there is something different in that new final week. Something better.

And then there was this.

There is nothing or at least extremely little that I do to relax. Everything I am interested in, pretty much, I’ve managed to make part of my job so that is fantastic when I’m working and appallingly bad when I’m not.

Except when I was in that course’s final week, when I was in writing, I felt better. Writing that, then yesterday finally finishing the first draft of an extraordinarily difficult script, and right now today writing to you, I don’t feel locked down, I don’t feel self-isolated. I’m a little hungry, since we’re sharing quite so much detail, but writing turns out to be where I go when I need to be somewhere else.

We finished that free course a couple of weeks ago and the students on it have been wonderful. I’ve got to share this one with you, I’ve got to:

This course has honestly changed my life. In five weeks, my novel has grown from 15,000 words to 60,000. If that isn’t a huge success, I don’t know what is.

I know what that is. It is bloody joyous. Thank you, Leanne.

The way that made me feel and the way that writing now makes me feel –– well, it must always have been like this but I’m feeling the haven more these days –– means I’ve got to do it again. The plan was to launch many, many paid courses later in the year, but now I’ve created an entirely new one solely for us, solely for now.

Using This Time to Write” is about exactly how to get yourself writing during all of this. I will say this forever: nobody has to write anything. But you’re a writer, you can write, and I think now you’re ready for it.

Plus, more than anything else, I now think that writing will help you. Let’s you and I get you started, going, and writing forever – even or especially after all of this is behind us.

So “Using This Time to Write” has been a bit of a mad-dash adventure, creating three nights of mostly video lessons plus lots of written details, assignments, everything. I hope you find it as much fun to do as I did to create it, and I hope you don’t find it quite as exhausting.

This course will never run again. I will also never again shoot so much video while needing a haircut. And while you can sign up for the course now as I write this, you have to do so by the end of next Monday, May the 4th. I can’t get any more people on after that date.

So do please go take a look at it and see what you think. Actually, let me show you a short video I made about it too. That’s below. With the hair.

One last thing. “Using This Time to Write” is a paid course but there’s a special lower price for previous students. That’s what it says on the site, but I want you and I to read “previous students” as “plus friends”, okay? You’re a pal, I owe you, click that special lower rate and if anyone asks, tell them I sent you.

Content, contninet, conteight…

Sometimes it feels as if we are heading toward the end of this lockdown and I am oddly unsettled by the idea of going out, running events or not having a pandemic to excuse my failing to write things. I’m also conscious, though, that ultimately it is going to be writers who define this time we’ve been through.

Usually when you say that history is written by the victors, you’re thinking about the victors. But maybe the key part is that it is written. Writers will shape this mass into something comprehensible. There will be dramas – possibly unfortunately – and there will be blame, possibly unfairly.

We’ve already got the Trump administration trying to write this as a Chinese bio weapon plot, so I’m not saying accuracy will always be a factor, I’m hoping desperate finger-pointing won’t either.

But as we move into this time when the coronavirus makes that very small change from “is” to “was”, I also know that writers are going to be forgotten. Right now the arts are keeping us all going, but when it’s done, the arts will go back to going out of business. Florida has defined the WWE wrestling shows as an essential business, but alongside being madness, that’s also not a recognition of the art of performance, it’s a recognition that someone knows someone with a wallet.

What I hope and think won’t change, what I think has been changed by the coronavirus and will stay, is that writers have discovered just how much we need each other. And writers have discovered just how much we can share. Just how much we actually can do online.

I’ve no interest in the torrent of online dramas about the coronavirus that are coming, and I’ve little interest in the online coronavirus comedies that we already have. But I think that right alongside this recognition of how we need people there is this recognition that we can do so much more than we thought.

This could be all the recognition that writers get, but I’ll take that.

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.