Count on it

Maybe this is just something male. It feels a bit male. But one way I can make myself feel like I’m getting somewhere, is to count.

Actually, no, hang on, practically every novelist I know has their word count figure in their head. Maybe it’s not just me, not for everything.

But I know my absolute limit of how many words I can write a day – it’s 10,000 words or 20 pages of script, and I can keep that up for ten days straight, after which I am dead for a month. And I know too many numbers.

I know that since September 2012 when I was asked to speak at the PowWow LitFest, I’ve since done a further 667 public speaking engagements. It might only be ten minutes Skyped into a venue, or it might be a day-long residential thing, but I count them all.

And I don’t think it’s any surprise that as a freelance writer, I count my invoices. I don’t really, I don’t go over the totals and remember them, but the invoices are numbered so it’s a bit obvious what the count is.

Whereas this isn’t.

I also count the jobs I do.

That’s harder to define, really, as some of it is quite clear such as ‘writing script X’ is quite certainly a job. I just still do not know what do about counting draft 2.

And then a feature article I write is clearly one job, but a site I write for has me do a particular repeating piece of research and, frankly, I count it if I think about counting it, and most of the time, I don’t.

So this is not really a statistically useful count, and whatever you’re doing today, if you counted each separate task as a new job, you’d get bored very easily.

No, wait, that was a poor choice of words. I shouldn’t have said ‘task’ because any one job can have dozens of tasks in it. Just a sec. Okay, a rough and ready export of my OmniFocus database says I currently have 630 tasks across 55 projects to do.

So that’s not 55 jobs, but it’s also far from 630. Somewhere in the middle is what I call a job. And whatever way I have conjured up of defining that, this is approximately how I count it.

And although I see what we’re doing here as you and I getting to chat, it’s still something I set time aside for every week, so it’s a kind of job. It’s one I look forward to, but it’s a specific thing I do at a specific time of the week. We really, really should do this over a drink some time. You just never answer the phone.

But the reason for wibbling on at you about counting is that this chat right here, this natter with you, is my 1,000th job of 2019.
Counting the number of jobs I do
I did have to cheat a little. I was writing a horrible news story that was going to be the 998th and I knew if I didn’t take care, the 1,000th would come up on me before I noticed and it’d be something dull.

Oh. Or it could’ve been a script I’m writing that I have entirely forgotten to count. Bugger. This count is rubbish, isn’t it?

So I added a new job I was going to be doing yesterday evening, called that 999, and then wrote the subject of this Self Distract so that I could call it 1,000. After that, I did another news story, wrote an article and talked on a podcast, so now I’m up to, what, 1,003.

This can’t matter to anyone. But it’s still useful to me. I like that you’re the 1,000th, it makes me beam. And I also like that whatever cockeyed insane Dewey Decimal System I’m using to count all this, 2019 has hit a thousand jobs.

I constantly fear that I’m not getting enough done, that I am letting deeply precious time roar by and achieving nothing, so being able to see a thousand of anything, helps.

Plus, it turns out that in total, 2018 had 823 jobs. In total. Smug.

Grief: 2017 had 326. Then 2016 was 792.

I’m sure I was counting before then, but since 2016 I’ve been using a FileMaker Pro database I call a Job Book, and finding out those figures for you was more clicking a button and less an extremely pointless, daft exercise.

It’s still a bit of an extremely pointless, daft exercise. But if a poorly-counted number in a database can make me feel happy, I’ll take that.

I didn’t plan this

I appear to be changing, please stop me.

Previously on William Gallagher, I was opposed to planning or outlining stories and scripts. It was better to dive in, start writing, see where you got, and accept or even relish how you had to be willing to throw away a lot of writing.

Only this week, I told someone that if I write 100,000 words and 90,000 of them are rubbish, that’s a bargain. I’ve got 10,000 words I like, and all it cost me was a hell of a lot of time.

I said that in a workshop and even as I said it, since this topic has come up before, I felt my polite brain prodding me to say one thing more. Which was was this: “Of course, everybody’s different, and whatever it takes to get you to the end result is fine.”

Not only did I also say this, I have also said it before, and not one single time have I convinced anyone that I mean it. I do, but I don’t. Not for me, anyway.

Except.

About 15 years ago now, I was in Hollywood – get me – interviewing a producer for Radio Times. On the wall behind him was a breakdown, a kind of basic outline, for the episode of Battlestar Galactica that he was then working on.

And he told me the one thing, the first thing, that made me think outlines and plans have a point. He said you can’t have a blank screen on Tuesday night’s TV, or whichever day it was. Writing to see where you go is fine, but it goes wrong and you have no possible way to guarantee that it will work at all, let alone in time. Outlining, planning, story breakdowns, they get you to the goal in the most reliable way.

Curiously, though, that producer/writer was Ronald D Moore and I can’t remember now whether he told me or I just read it somewhere else, but he had done exactly this thing of just writing to see what happened. But it was under one very specific and unusual circumstance.

Battlestar ran as a two-part miniseries in something like 2003 or 2004, I forget which, and it was an enormous success. Deservedly so: that show is remarkable. But even though its ratings success was so good –– uniquely, the second part’s ratings were higher than the first because everyone was talking about how great it was –– the decision to go to series hadn’t happened yet.

It was going to, there was no doubt, but it hadn’t happened yet. So he couldn’t hire staff, he couldn’t set anything up, and there was Christmas in the way.

So over that Christmas, Moore just wrote an episode by himself, start to finish, no outlining. When the show went to series, that script became the first episode. It’s called “33” and I’m sure you can watch it on some streaming service or other, but you can also read the script right here.

It is a superb piece of work. I remember, so vividly clearly, sitting in a corner of the Radio Times office with a VHS tape – VHS? then? – starting the episode on this tiny CRT television –– CRT? no flat screen? then? –– and wondering if it could possibly be any good. The mini-series was two feature-length episodes and it was all so rich and filmic that it was easy to imagine squeezing it down into a 42-minute episode would lose a lot.

Except it didn’t. I wish I’d written “33” and I’ve rewatched it, I’ve re-read it, many times.

You can tell that in my heart, I still believe in the writing to see where it goes. And you can tell that in my brain, I accept that there are circumstances where you can’t do it.

Only, about six weeks ago now, I finally outlined a radio play script that I’ve been piddling about with since at least 2017, and I did so because writer Alex Townley nudged me into it. And four weeks ago now, I finished the whole play. I don’t mean the outline, I mean the play.

And one week ago, I was struggling with a novel that I’ve been working on for at least a year, and this time it was me who said to writer Alex Townley that maybe I should outline it.

I don’t wanna.

But it’s a story that on the one hand is bleedin’ complicated, and which on the other hand needs the most enormous, huge, gigantic finish. Which I didn’t have. I was writing all this ominous stuff with no idea what I could ever do to pay it off. Until I was piddling about with the outline and I realised what this big ending could be.

Everybody’s different, and whatever it takes to get you to the end result is fine.

Nope, I’m still not convincing.

He said, She said, It growled

Maybe it’s fashion, maybe it’s just right, but at the moment the general consensus is that in good writing, people say things. Say or said. Not enunciated, pontificated, bellowed, whimpered. Just said.

As a scriptwriter, I like that because I think the bellowing and the pontificating and all that should be in the dialogue itself. Let the character speak that way, don’t point at their lines and tell me how I should hear it.

But when pressed on this point in workshops or wherever, I cannot help myself. I always – I’m irritated at me even writing this – I always say that you’re only allowed to use “he said, she said, it growled”.

Now, for one thing, I loathe that I say all that because as you know, there are no rules in writing. Although if you break them…

I also loathe it because it’s a joke based on something so few people can know that it’s impossible to really call it a joke.

You have to know the Target novelisations of Doctor Who.

The thing is, even if there aren’t really that many of us who do, if you’re one of us, you know those books extraordinarily well.

The most prolific writer of the range, Terrance Dicks, died this week and it came as a huge jolt to me. He was 84, I’ve never met him, and yet my head jerked back when I read the news.

And then this happened. Since he wrote something like 60 of these novelisations of old Doctor Who stories, naturally a lot of the covers were being shown on Twitter and Facebook and the rest.

It didn’t happen with all of them, but there are certain covers of his books where I would see the image on screen but I would feel the book in my hand. The weight, the heft, the shape, the texture. I’d feel the book and I’d even feel just an echo of the excitement.

Truly, this little book range had electricity in it. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, you never knew which Doctor Who story was going to be novelised and you didn’t know when. I remember so clearly being on holiday with my family and phoning a friend to ask if a new one was out and, if so, what it was.

It was Death to the Daleks, by Terrence Dicks. Published 20 July 1978.Cover of Death to the Daleks

That’s the thing with Doctor Who, if you can remember even a scintilla about anything to do with it, you can find the full details online. So I didn’t remember the date, didn’t even remember the year, but I remember the sunshine and the phone call and the book when I got home.

I also remember thinking that Doctor Who books, at the time, and in so many cases, were the scripts to the TV show with he said, she said, it growled added in. And that was unfair. It wasn’t always unreasonable –– there’s a ten-part, roughly five-hour Doctor Who story called The War Games whose novelisation is a pamphlet –– but it was unfair.

I know this because since Dicks died, I’ve re-read three of his Doctor Who novels. They’re not exactly long, they’re not exactly hard reading, but I started from nostalgia and I carried on because I was enjoying them.

This would be a good point to say, as so very many other people can and have, that it was these Doctor Who novels that made me a writer. It wasn’t. I’m a writer because of Lou Grant. But there’s no question that they helped.

There’s also no question that they belong to a long ago era. Target Doctor Who books were published when there was no possible way to see a Doctor Who story that aired last week, let alone across the show’s 50-odd years. They were Doctor Who for us, and there is an innocence to that whose loss is hanging a little heavier this week since Terrence Dicks died.

Muse bouche

I’ve got to tell you this today because next week I will ridicule myself for it. Next week I will be telling you that I wrote a script that was dreadful – but today, I’m going to tell you that this script is the best thing I’ve ever written.

We can analyse this predictable forthcoming about-face in some detail at any time or in any psychiatrist’s office of your choosing, but let me instead focus on the one thing that is undeniably good about this script.

It’s done.

Most of the time I’m a rather practical, even pragmatic, writer, in that if I have an idea then I also know that I will finish it. There aren’t a lot of opening scenes or chapters here. I’ll abandon, certainly, but usually the thing I like as much about getting an idea is seeing it through to the end. That applies as much to events as it does writing, but invariably it’s applied to everything I write.

Except I need a word that’s somewhere between invariably and variably.

Because every now and again, there is something that I think is good, that I think I may even be able to do well, but I keep not doing it.

Recently I’ve been talking with a writer who keeps not writing her book, and the discussion becomes one about the business of writing as much as the art. She needs to be in the right place, so to speak, to write this novel, and I absolutely see that – but not if it means it never gets done.

I didn’t believe in the muse and if I now wonder about it, I don’t think muses are on our side.

But there are people who are. I hope that in talking with me, this friend will write more of her novel, not least because I want to read it.

And in talking with people in a particular writer development programme I’ve been on – Room 204 from Writing West Midlands – I’ve written more of this script. So much more that yesterday on a train, I finished it.

I can see me there, stopped at Northampton again, looking at the screen and thinking, really? It’s called Sequences Shortened and the idea came from another friend, radio presenter and poet Charlie Jordan, who mentioned something about her work to me around 2017. It happens to be something I used to do too, back when I was working for the BBC, and it is the tiniest thing, yet it started something that finished yesterday.

You can’t wait for the muse. I don’t know what in the world you can wait for, I just know that on occasion, there are projects that take a long time. Projects that are sweet stones in your stomach, pressing away at you, somehow keeping you in them and yet away from the keyboard.

Writing that scares you, really. And for all that this is a job, I make my living entirely through writing, there have to be things you write that scare you.

I think this one has worked out. If only there wasn’t a book that I was afraid to finish too.

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.

Wait and Wait for It

I want us to fix a problem I missed back in 2007. I was going to say that it’s a drama problem, and I still think it is, but it’s to do with an episode of the comedy How I Met Your Mother, a series I think should be legen –

hang on, no, let me get specific. I’m talking about season 3, episode 1, Wait for It, by series creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas, which first aired on 24 September 2007, and which I just watched again – after seeing the preceding 44 episodes over the past few weeks.

I bought the whole series on iTunes and then discovered that it’s also on Netflix. Anyway.

When you binge-watch something, it changes. I think overall comedies, at least the best ones, tend to blur into dramas because after a few episodes back to back, you’re not as receptive to surprise as you are when watching it weekly. How I Met Your Mother, I think, certainly works as drama, and actually after a few years into its run, that was chiefly why I continued watching.

It would still always be sporadically funny, but I was just into the characters. And watching the first few seasons again now, it is a joy to find how continually very funny it originally was.

HIMYM features some really smart writing: there are episodes where I’m totally into the story and yet the writer in me pops up to applaud something particularly well done.

I should say that it never occurred to me that the show would ever actually reveal the mother of the title. I simply unconsciously thought that it was a great title, a smart framing device for the stories with a father narrating tales to his bored kids, and not at all that it was a deliberate plan they hoped to play out over nine years.

I should’ve realised, not only because when they finally did the reveal at the end of the eighth season, they did it superbly. I should also have realised because How I Met Your Mother is one of those extraordinarily rare series, a successful romantic comedy.

And, grief, it was fantastic on romance.

There was a particular recurring motif that they played for every ounce of romance, and that was a yellow umbrella. When you heard that mentioned by a character or you just glimpsed it in the back of a scene, it was electric.

And the problem is that I now think it was set up very poorly.

Maybe I didn’t follow every episode on its first run, certainly there were things I just assumed I’d missed, but now I’ve been watching the whole run again in rapid sequence, I’ve seen one key point about the yellow umbrella that I failed to spot before.

“Kids,” begins the narrator at the start of Wait for It. “There’s more than one story of how I met your mother. You know the short version, the thing with your mom’s yellow umbrella.”

WE DO NOT.

Maybe as written that line could be meant to say that the children have previously been told about the umbrella, maybe it’s meant to be that since they are the kids of this mother and father, they know the story as family lore.

But it sounds, it plays, as if we viewers have heard about this and we haven’t. This is the first mention of something crucial to the run of the series and, trust me, it ain’t mentioned once before this 45th episode.

Now, it’s easy to criticise an episode 12 years after it was made, especially a US TV sitcom episode where they were making 20 episodes one after the other, bang, bang, bang.

And clearly there were plans for this umbrella, plans that became scenes and whole episodes that I think are both marvellous and far better than I could ever write.

But.

Given that I’ve had either a dozen years or about a week, depending on how you count, I do have a way they could’ve launched the whole yellow umbrella story without clunking into it like this.

Within this one episode, the yellow umbrella makes two appearances. Once is during that wobbly start as the kids are reminded that they know about it. The other, gorgeously effective, catch-in-your-throat great, is the penultimate scene, really the last before an unrelated tag. The narrator is talking about everything is leading inexorably to how he met the mother, and how close that was.

And during those words, we see someone holding the yellow umbrella as she walks by McLaren’s Bar, the show’s regular pub setting.

It is that proximity that gives the episode a last little spark before the end titles. I just think now that it doesn’t need the opening reference. It’s tempting to set up something you’re going to pay off, it’s even automatic, but in this case, less is more.

All week I’ve been thinking that this is a dialogue problem. That rather than the narrator telling us about the yellow umbrella at the start, he could tell us at the end. Tell us about it over that last shot of one yellow umbrella in the crowd.

But talking to you about it, replaying the episode in my head, I think I’m wrong.

It’s a yellow umbrella. It stands out. And just as you always know who is the important character in a story without being actually told, so this time you would get that the yellow umbrella was important.

I offer that you would inescapably know that it was the mother who was carrying it.

Part of the satisfaction of writing, to me anyway, is in taking an audience to a certain point. Knowing where you’re going to take them, and then getting them there. How I Met Your Mother was first class at bringing you to a point –– and then throwing you with the smallest extra instant.

This was one of those. I just think, some 4,322 days after it aired, that this one could’ve punched even better.

What do you mean, I’m currently trying to write a romance and find it damn hard? There’s a word for anyone who can pull that off and it’s the same word for writers who can create a catchphrase I’m still quoting a dozen years later.

It’s dary. Legendary.

I’m not here

I’m not here because since Monday evening, I’ve been away researching a book.

I can’t tell you what it is – ask me in a year, quite possibly two – and, for different reasons, I don’t think I can tell you what the week has been like. Not really, not adequately.

I can tell you that I stayed offline for it and can see that, across various accounts, I have fewer than 200 emails waiting for me. No idea if anyone’s @ed me on Twitter or tagged me anywhere. I suppose I’ll find that out in a minute when I post this, but as I write, I have one more eight-hour session of research.

That eight hours is not my choice, I would be at it 24 hours with naps if I could.

But if it goes as well as it possibly can, I still won’t be halfway through the research when I have to stop. I thought devoting a week to it would be enough for this stage, I also thought that a week on any one subject would be bliss. Instead of darting about everywhere and juggling everything, I could really concentrate.

I did exactly that and it was blissy – not blissful but with bliss-like moments. Overall I’m too conscious of how much more I’ve got to do and trying to figure out how to do it.

Plus, I think I can tell you this, I can’t see the story yet. I’ve a mass of information and an even bigger mass – about two times the size – that I can’t get to on this trip. But I can’t see a line through it yet, I can’t see how to tell this story.

Right now, for speed, I am documenting everything into a database, reduced to reading as little as I can in the moment but photographing it all. When I’m back in my own world, I’ll methodically go through what I’ve got and sort out chronology, examine it all, see what I’ve got.

And then hopefully I’ll see the story.

But somehow that clear and easy frustration over not being able to get to all the material, plus that intangible sense of not getting the grip on the story I expected, and the way this week has been a bubble, it’s all combined.

I understand why I’m not here, how I’m away from my office and away from online, but right now I don’t think I’m all there, either.

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.