Bestowing titles

I am struggling to think of a title for our natter today. Which is possibly ironic, as it’s titles that are on my mind. There are times when I think I am really good at them, then many more times like today when I realise I’m not. And occasionally there are other times when I get a title I like so much that I head off into a script or an article or even a book just so I can use it.

That’s definitely how I ended up sending out a script that was definitely something to do with Time, definitely also something to do with accidents or medicine or something. Look, it was years ago, okay? But I did write a script called – oh, right, yes, it was definitely about time and consequences, because I had the title “Causality”.

And consequently had a producer rejecting it with the kind note that I might like to check out BBC1 on Saturday evenings when there is a hospital TV series of that name. And consequently I had to send him a polite, possibly timid, note right back saying oh, no, there isn’t.

Flash forward more years than I am going to admit, and I can tell you where I was standing when I thought of the title for a play I’ve just finished. It was last year – I could look up the date but you’re in a hurry – and I was running a day-long workshop on writing for business. It was for the Federation of Entertainment Unions and I had something like 25 people, all professional, full-time creative freelancers across writing, acting, journalism and music. And we were working on how you write a blurb to describe your current project.

They all had their heads down writing for ten minutes, I was taking this moment to think that as much as I relish the FEU work, what I love is that I’ll do that one day and the next I’ll be on a script. And then I sank a bit as I thought about this particular script which, for about half a dozen reasons, was ridiculously complicated. So much so that I was half spending my time embedded in research and half spending my time pretending I needed more research because otherwise I’d have to actually write.

Sod it, I thought. These people are all struggling to write a description of their current project, this is mine, I’m going to write a description. There can’t have been more than three minutes left on the exercise so I couldn’t overthink it, I just wrote a description –– and a title.

It is not that the title was random. I can’t tell you what it is yet but even if I could, it wouldn’t blow you away with its brilliance, you’d just see that it was the right title for this. But that was the thing: it was the right title and that apparently thoughtless decision in that room has stayed. About a year on, that is still the title of the play.

And it would be. Because it is the right title. What’s more, what’s so very much more, is that having made that call and decided on that title, it was as if all the Tetris blocks that were making this story hard to tell had now lined up. They snapped into place. Writing it was a bit damn harder than that sounds, but having plucked the title out of the mass and the mess of details, I had the entire route from the start to the end of the play.

That’s not happened to me before. A good title has sold a piece, I know that. A good title has given me the launch I needed for an article.

But this is the first time that the right title has enabled the entire play.

Bet you it has to change.

The one take away from lockdown

I didn’t used to care about weekends and now I regularly work through them as if they were weekdays, but I look forward to writing to you on a Friday.

And I’ve realised that the lockdown has increased how much I rely on regular things. Such as one particular habit, routline, schedule – no, tradition, that’s the word I was looking for. We have grown a tradition during lockdown.

Every Friday evening now, I order a takeaway. The plan was to do it to help out, if only in a small way, local restaurants. The plan was to buy from a different one each week and in that little way, try to contribute.

Unfortunately, the very first one we tried was a curry house we’d not heard of before – and it was so good that we’ve ordered every Friday since.

So much for spreading the joy. But this meal has become a highlight and it will be especially so tonight.

Because tonight is the premiere of a much-awaited musical, streaming on Disney+. In the middle of all this, it is still art that gives people something to look forward to, something to enjoy, something to take them away from the lockdown.

There is the small problem that my wife Angela believes this musical is going to be Hamilton and I know it’s going to be Frozen II.

But we’ll work it out.

Times and Spaces

I have a ridiculously good memory for places. I can boast about this to you because it is of no earthly value. Well, recently it helped me remember where a specific shot was in some video footage that I needed, so that’s nice. But for you, useless. I can’t direct you to a place, I can just know what it looked like.

It’s how I can close my eyes and take a walk around BBC Television Centre, or BBC Pebble Mill, or BBC Woodlands. Now I think of it, nearly every BBC building I’ve ever worked in has been demolished.

Well.

Okay, an equally useless example for you, but one that made me happy. The other night, I was watching a 1973 episode of Columbo called A Stitch in Crime by Shirl Hendryx. And I recognised a place. More than a place, I recognised a specific camera shot of the place. Recognised it and knew where I knew it from.

Columbo
Six Million Dollar Man

On the top, Columbo in 1973. On the bottom, a still from the title sequence of 1976’s The Six Million Dollar Man. Tell me you’re not impressed. Don’t tell me that this is pointless and useless, tell me you’re not impressed.

But this ability to precisely recall shots and angles and places is frustrating me this week. I do this quite often, but for many reasons I have this week been trying to remember exactly where there is not a coffee shop in Birmingham New Street Station. Not a coffee shop.

I could make a crack about how the place is now wall to wall coffee establishments, and of course just like you I could make a comment about long it has been since any of us have been out for coffee.

But the thing with this particular precise and impossible memory is that the coffee shop I’m thinking of used to be there. It was there before New Street was so radically transformed that the very bones of its geography seem different. I can see every step of what was its nearest entrance, I can see the shop – it was a freestanding stall with seats, really – and I can actually see a lot more.

I can see the specific seat and table I sat at. I can see the man I sat with and even the case by his left foot.

But while I do regularly try, I can’t map that precise memory onto where it would have been in the new Birmingham New Street.

And I really do try. Because for all the BBC places, all the magazines and all the websites, and the fact that at the time I was doing Doctor Who radio dramas and my first book was an inch away from coming out, a conversation I had there in 2012 is the most important one in my writing career.

It was a horrible time, actually. While I’ve been a full time freelance writer since the mid-1990s, from about 1999 to 2012, I’d been increasingly working for different parts of the BBC. It was always different parts, different departments across BBC News, the Corporation in general and BBC Worldwide, the commercial side of the BBC. Even within these, there would be variation. So I wrote a lot for Radio Times magazine, but I separately wrote a lot for the Radio Times website.

And in one of the BBC’s many times when it has to be seen to be saving money, I lost that freelance Radio Times website work but you couldn’t tell because they put me on staff instead. Only for one, two, four days a week at different times, but officially I was staff for that site. And still freelancing for the Radio Times magazine, BBC News, all of that.

In my head, I was still a freelancer. So when I tell you that I’ve spent thirty years doing this, I am not lying, but my accountant would wiggle his hand a little about the patch from 1999 to 2012. And unfortunately, even as my head tells me I was freelance, my head apparently forgot.

I forgot to be always looking for the next gig. I forgot that freelance work, no matter what way they choose to spell the word freelance, is always going to vanish.

So in 2012 when the BBC had another time that it had to be seen to save money and for once actually did, I lost all that Radio Times work completely. All of it. In one go. The BBC News work had dribbled away, too, and I hadn’t minded because at RT I was usually doing the equivalent of eight days work a week.

I think it was May 2012, I’m pleased to say that I’m no longer sure what month it was. But I lost it all very quickly and it was frightening.

Cue the conversation.

I wish I could remember how I found Writing West Midlands, I cannot pin down the route from living in Birmingham and finding them. Not in this way, not for this. I was aware of them from the Birmingham Literature Festival that they run. But in some way, I made contact, not even really sure why I was asking and what I was asking.

Jonathan Davidson of Writing West Midlands told me. He told me at that coffee stall in New Street Station extremely early one morning in 2012. Sized me up, asked me questions, made some suggestions, made some recommendations. The one I remember most distinctly was that he decided I’d be good at going into schools. “I’d like that,” I lied. Visiting a school seemed up there with weekly fitness classes at my dentist, but I wasn’t going to admit that.

I’ve just checked. Since that conversation, I’ve done 70 sessions in schools across the UK. I blame him.

That’s one of the many concrete suggestions he had, but I remember all of this because it was the start of rebuilding my confidence as a writer. I mean, I’m a writer, we don’t know from confidence, but I also hadn’t realised just how stripped back mine had become because of losing the BBC work. I thought I was low, I think now that I was much lower.

So usually I remember this because of how much better things are for me now as a writer. It’s still not a wine and roses kind of job, but I’m writing full time even during the lockdown and – I think – I’m writing the best I ever have.

The reasons that I’m particularly thinking of this today, though, are, well, many. Last night I finished writing a play that Jonathan has been encouraging me to do for more than a year. And also last night a friend told me he’d just had a meeting with him and that something in the meeting had reminded Jonathan of his one with mine all those years ago.

And I’m thinking of it because Jonathan Davidson will always get you writing, forever help you out with practical advice, and never mention that he writes too.

Well, bollocks to that. The man has a new book coming out and he’s promoting it with some deeply absorbing blog posts on his website. Here’s the site, here’s the new book. Go step inside the head of a man I owe.

Sentence stricture

I have a thought that I want to try on you. It’s like I haven’t finished thinking it and I need some help to get to the end. But it’s to do with writing, so obviously I thought of you.

A friend was telling me this week that her great problem with writing, with actually getting the stuff written, is that she worries over each sentence. She worries at each sentence too, working it, kneading it, changing it and probably quite often leaving it to go away from the desk and do something easier.

She sees nothing wrong with that. Clearly she doesn’t like it or she wouldn’t have mentioned it as the reason her book is taking a long time. And I didn’t see anything wrong with it either, not when it came up. Every word in a story or a script has to earn its place there. That’s what I think, it’s what she thinks, so it’s just unfortunate that each sentence is practically impossible to crank out free of, well, agony, really.

Except this is my thought. Maybe there isn’t anything practically impossible about writing perfect sentences, there is instead a cold, hard, 100% impossibility.

Follow. If you agree with my other friend and I that it’s important each sentence, each word, fits in perfectly and does a job for the whole story, then I want to know what you think about every sentence that follows it.

You’re in the middle of the book, you’re writing a sentence, and it has the weight of all the previous sentences on its shoulders – and equally the weight of every sentence that will follow it.

Since you can’t know yet what any of those sentences are, I don’t think you can possibly know the full load your current sentence has to bear. I don’t think it’s possible that you can craft a perfect sentence that does work with everything before it and will work with everything that ever comes after.

So I offer that perfecting any one sentence by itself, when it first comes up, isn’t even a Sisyphean task, it is completely impossible.

I felt pretty good at all of this, I felt I’d come up with something deep and profound. My pal reckoned I was just telling her to pull her finger out and write more.

I’m saying nothing.

The worst criticism I ever received

I run a writers’ buddying programme for a group and sometimes get paired up with a writer myself. I love this, it’s always interesting and just occasionally you hear some war stories.

Or you tell them.

I was relaxed away in a buddying chat this week when something we talked about reminded me of the absolute worst criticism I have ever had from any writers or about anything I’ve written.

It’s got to be five years ago now and I’m going to change the names to protect the fact that I didn’t register all of them at the time, I’ve forgotten some since, and I’ve completely blanked on the main one.

You’re starting to understand why people criticise me.

But they do all the time, or rather they do my writing and, sure, sometimes it’s painful. Usually it’s neither here nor there and overall it’s great because it’s useful.

The reason I want to tell you about this one is that I mean it was the worst in more than one sense. Yes, no question, everyone in this group I met loathed my writing. “Are you published?” was the first thing I was asked when I arrived and their eye-widened surprise at the answer was the first clue I wasn’t going to enjoy this day-long event.

Except I hadn’t thought I would. I’d thought I might be savaged and – yes, I remember now, the line I was told beforehand was that this group will tear the skin off your arms, they are that vicious with their criticism. I’d spent years in BBC News, this sounded like home to me.

But I’ll tell you now. There were some nasty people in BBC News, just as there are everywhere, but when you got criticised, you’d earned it. The aim was not to destroy, it was to make a better piece of writing.

So for me, vicious criticism can equal valuable lesson.

The reason this was the worst criticism I’ve ever had, though, is that as well as the moderate vehemence it was delivered in, it was utter rubbish.

Stop that. You’re very nice but you have got to be thinking now that I was wrong, that I must really mean that the criticism given strongly was overwhelming and I’m saying it’s rubbish only as some male defence mechanism.

You’ve got to be thinking that, got to, so I’ve got to give you an example. I was told that I should change my novel to magical realism – specifically because the person who told me this happens to like magical realism.

“I like chocolate,” I told her, “but, you know, thanks.”

Someone else, I think it was someone else, had the sole useful comment in the session. My character apparently could not do what my plot required, not in the room she did it in. She would have to go to this other room and do some other thing first.

“Thank you very much,” I said. “I’ll fix that right now.”

I had the writing on my iPad and I changed that scene there in front of them. So I got something valuable and I put it into the book immediately. On-the-spot editing, improving my writing even as I was being told how to improve it. I turned the iPad around to show them and enthused about how much I was grateful and look, you’ve changed the book.

And yet it still took fifteen fucking minutes for them to shut up about how I must make this change. I wafted the iPad around from time to time. I think I read my own book to pass the time.

They also had some rule that the writer wasn’t allowed to defend or explain their writing until it had been thoroughly discussed by everyone else. So I had another zoned-out few minutes as they decided how I should proceed with one particular character in the opening chapter that they were reading. How I should develop her for the rest of the book.

“You mean the one we come to realise died on the second page?” I asked them. The sole thing I can still see from that day is the shock on all their faces.

No skin was removed my arms during this very long session, but I did occasionally lose the will to live. Again, though, you’re nice, so as good as you’re being to me listening to all of this, you are aware that there are at least two sides to everything and that this group would tell a very different story.

They did. They phoned me up the next day.

And told me that I’d misunderstood, it wasn’t that I’d been invited to join the group, it was that they had been auditioning me.

I laughed.

Plus they knew it would be a big disappointment, but they’d decided to go with someone else. Good luck with your writing, William.

It didn’t quite end there. I can’t remember now how long afterwards it was, but some weeks or months later, they contacted me again and said I could have another go. Of course I didn’t and of course I never will, but unfortunately in another sense, it did end there.

The real reason this was the worst ever criticism is that I’ve never written one single word more of that story. I’d say it’s a bit melodramatic of me to blame the group for that, except that I’ve also never read a single word of that story

Right now I can’t remember which piece it was and I certainly can’t find it. Maybe if I could and maybe if I read it now I might agree with this group’s dislike.

But criticism that I thought was worthless was still enough to puncture me. I went in eager to be eviscerated if it meant improving my writing yet a group that didn’t do that and which had no value for me still managed to stall a book forever.

I blame me but, still, this is really why it was the worst.

Reading enough into it

Last night I reread an Aaron Sorkin script for his comedy series Sports Night and it was the 220th screenplay I’ve read this year. I’ve been reading at least one script every day since late December 2017 and so “The Local Weather” was also my 1,469th in this run. And yet it wasn’t until during this one that I remembered.

I remembered what it was like the first time I read a script. I don’t mean when I read The Time Tunnel: The Last Patrol on December 23, 2017. I mean back in the day, back whenever it was. While I’ve not been so regular about it before, I’ve read scripts all my life but there must’ve been a first one.

I definitely can’t even remember what it was or even begin to guess. I mean I’ve just turned to my shelves and I’ve a couple of hundred books of TV, film, radio and theatre scripts. But there must’ve been a first and somehow, reading this one – more likely re-re-reading it – the sensation came back.

And that sensation is excitement.

You forget things so easily. But to have a show that made you laugh, that reached inside you, that changed you, and then to see its script. No actors, no music, just the bare words on the page and it is a thrill. From that writer’s mind to yours, a direct connection. A sense of enormous effort behind each casual line, before it even got to the screen.

Drama is collaboration and I’ll never think it is or should be anything else, but you can’t see drama direction without there being a script. (Well, maybe when it’s very bad.) You can’t see an actor’s performance without there being a script. Possibly only music can have two lives, existing in its own right as well as being part of the final mix.

I suddenly remember giving a friend a spare copy of the published Frasier scripts I’d got –– I’d bought one and then Channel 4’s press office sent over a copy to the newsroom –– and I can still see her face. They’re scripts, she said. I don’t know how to read scripts.

You see her point of course: all that formatting, all those page conventions like INT and EXT, it’s something you need to get used to. But I must’ve given her that book around the year 2000 and by then I was already so familiar with the form that it took me a beat to comprehend what she meant.

I must ask her if she’s ever read it.

UPDATE: I did. I sent her a message and –– she is such a good writer –– she sent a line straight back that instantly made you picture her shuffling her feet uncomfortably. “A bit,” she said. She read it a bit.

I was going to say that I can’t understand why that delights and tickles me so much but of course I can: she wrote the reply well. What I can’t understand is quite why scripts thrill me so much.

But we don’t need to understand or comprehend or label a thrill. I’m just going to get some tea, head out into our garden and – depending on how you count – enjoy reading script number 211 aka 1,470. It’s going to be the stage play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and I can’t wait.

A Wendy Napkins Mystery

I really do have a character named Wendy Napkins and she really does get embroiled in Mystery. So far just four script pages of Mystery, but still. There’s Adventure, too: I’m not messing around here.

Don’t ask me when I wrote those four pages but I reread them yesterday and – truly surprising for me – I like them. I like her. There’s a reason she gets called this, it makes sense, but never mind that, she appears to be in the kind of detective story where you have to have an unbelievable name.

She isn’t really. I think I initially planned this as a pastiche and then came to like PC Wendy Naplinsky and her part-time hours working at a nursery too much. I’m not sure. I know that having read the four pages, I want to take her on into a full mystery and that it will tread a line between parody and seriousness so thin as to be invisible.

I want serious mystery but small scale. Who stole the crayons? Is that blood on little Nevada’s father? I’m already ramping it up. Let’s stick to The Case of the Missing Crisps. I think I can do it, I think it can sustain a series if I write the script well enough, but I’ve also been quite startlingly reminded of how collaborative drama has to be. And that’s making me wonder.

I’ve always known drama needs many people and I have usually always believed it to be a great thing. Writer, actors, director and producer working together at the top of their game and with the utmost of their effort, it’s fantastic.

I did once have a director whose sole vision, as much as I could tell, was to have the actors speak faster in order to bring the curtain down before his last bus.

But apart from him, whether it’s in anything of mine or just anything I know about, I have been agog at how it’s really the combination of these people that makes a drama fly.

And then there’s this. The reason I reread my old Wendy Napkins scene is that I watched an Aurora Teagarden Mystery on Netflix. I say Netflix: if you know your television at all well, then ten seconds in you knew it might be airing on Netflix but it was made for America’s cloying Hallmark Channel.

I’m not here to knock it. This is definitely not my kind of drama but it’s a long-running series of TV movies, it’s based on a longer-running series of novels. And it did make me want to see the resolution of the mystery.

What I keep thinking about, though, is the acting. There were some actors in it that I’ve seen before, some I rate, and others I hadn’t heard of but apparently all have great long track records.

It’s not that any of them were awful, it was that every single one of them – to my mind, to my taste – was bad in precisely the same way. And to precisely the same degree.

Every one of the large cast did wide-eyed acting. They’d have this giant pupil in a massive white eye reaction to everything. From “You mean he wasn’t the last person to see her alive?” to “You want milk with your coffee?”

To be fair, coffee should be black. And to be fairer, those are not real lines from the show. But they could have been: that was the standard of dialogue and that was the style of delivery.

It was funny. Perhaps most so when a character would go wide-eyed at themselves as they casually throw in helpful lines such as “well, I could ask my colleagues in the CIA which I haven’t mentioned I work for.” But then it was also fun watching an actor in this company visibly chewing over the impossible moral dilemma about milk or no milk.

It was funny but it’s about invisible lines again. This could have been pastiche but it was too serious. This could have been the cast and crew being a bit meta about the tropes of cloying cosy mysteries. But if the cast and crew were in on it, you got the sense that they didn’t think the audience was. They all acted as if they knew this wasn’t very good, but the tone of the show was that it was pandering to a very specific audience who they assumed would love it.

Tone. That’s the word. I heard once that ahead of every Doctor Who episode there is a tone meeting. All department heads from writing to, I don’t know, visual effects, meet to discuss the script and decide on its overall tone. To decide whether they were all going to make this one be the silly episode or the scary one and to what degree.

Tone is that important and it must be so with the Aurora Teagarden TV movies because their tone is unwaveringly precise from the barely noticeable teaser to the aw-shucks epilogue.

I may not want that Teagarden tone for my Wendy Napkins, but I do know I want a tone and I think I know what it must be.

What I don’t know is how in the world to write that tone into the script such that every actor performs precisely the way I want. I’m not at all sure I would want to make actors perform precisely as I saw my characters.

But if I don’t get that into the script, still it seems that someone can impose it enough to seem less Teagarden and more Stepford.

Bugger, though. I only made up that title “The Case of the Missing Crisps” for you and now I’ve got to write the script. Got to.

Occam’s writing course

I want to say that I was in a Twitter discussion this week, except I wasn’t. I was an observer, wanting to contribute, wanting to ask, wanting to be in there. And I could have been, one of the people who was deep in it messaged me, but I could not vocalise what I was thinking.

Some days later, I’m with you and perhaps you could please picture me lying on your couch. Because, as so often before, I want to see if my telling you what I think will help me think it.

Apparently, by the way, this is called the Rubber Duck process. I do not know why. I also don’t know how widespread that term is: I heard it from a programmer on her podcast. But whyever it’s called what it’s called, the idea is that the action of your explaining something to someone else helps you understand it better yourself.

So. The big headline part of this Twitter discussion, the part I fell across first for some reason, was an idea that male writers should not be allowed to teach female writers.

I teach many, many female writers and I don’t think about their gender, I only think about their writing. That’s not completely correct: I have noticed in schools that it’s true how girls mature faster than boys so their writing is more interesting. But it is the writing I’m interested in.

Sudden flashback to a particular school where I’d just asked a question. I can see this little girl – I am appalling with ages, mostly because I don’t care – suggesting that the answer to something was “because we’re children”.

“Not to be rude, but what do I care how old you all are?” I asked her.

“Okay,” she offered, “is it because I’m a girl?”

I wish I could remember what I’d been asking them. But I do remember, as clearly as if she were in front of me now, that my response to that was to give her a funny look –– and make the question the harder.

Anyway. Sorry. How long until your next patient?

Of course I don’t think men shouldn’t be allowed to teach women, but this was one of those statements where without knowing any of the context, you still know the context. Actually, I still don’t know what sparked it off exactly, or even who most of the people involved are, but I know what you already know too.

Some male writer had been teaching a session and put down a female writer. You also know that it wasn’t to do with her writing, you know too that he did it unpleasantly, that he made it personal.

Maybe the question is not whether men should be allowed to teach women. Maybe it should be that since you already know all of this, since it’s common enough that you can picture the entire exchange, then maybe men should not be allowed to teach women.

It’s the unsurprising nature of this discussion and the event that sparked it. It’s the fact that I do not actually know the event that sparked it, nor the people, yet I know the event and I can see the man.

Something that was offered during the discussion was that there is an argument that women write differently to men, that the structures of drama that we’re all familiar with are quite male. I’ve separately heard the same thing said about different cultures, about how all our writing is shaped by all the writing that went before us wherever we are.

I don’t know. I shift about a bit on the couch as I say that to you because, to me, the individual and what she or he writes is more interesting than whether they use a three-act structure or not.

And as I was reading all of this, I was also listening to music. Francisca Valenzuela in my AirPods. She’s an American-born singer/songwriter who lives in Chile and writes and sings in Chilean. I have little idea what her lyrics mean, but this person who is not my gender or age, who sings in a language I do not understand, is born in one culture that’s different to mine and now lives in yet another culture that’s different to mine, I connect with her. Because she makes me connect with her.

If there’s a man who thinks he can’t learn writing from Valenzuela, he is insane.

Maybe that’s the key here. It’s not that men as half of the species are all bad at teaching, it’s that some –– okay, a mortifying number –– are just insane.

But insane people turn out to be very good at puncturing writers.

I think our time is up. See you next week.

The importance of being Brian

Here’s a thing. I never use your name. We natter away here and I never use your name. You don’t use mine, either, and that’s right. We know each other so unless, I don’t know, you spot me across a room, you’re not all that likely to say “Hello, William Gallagher”. Unless I’m introducing you to someone, I don’t use your name because I know it and what I want is to get straight to asking how you are.

This is how it is, this is how it always is for everyone, unless they’re in a drama.

In film or TV or radio or theatre, we are being introduced to characters who we’re going to know for only quite a short time. I have no problem being told their name, so long as I don’t notice how it’s done. When Lt. Columbo introduces himself to people over and over again, that’s fine, because he’s a police officer, he’s got to tell them, it’s so right and normal that it doesn’t register with me.

But when The X-Files returned and Mulder and Scully referred to each by name eleventy-billion times in the first episode, I noticed. When the makers of Airwolf decided that their hero’s name of Stringfellow Hawke was stupid and somehow concluded that everyone suddenly calling him String instead was much more macho heroic, I noticed. Because in a one-hour show, they called him it either two or three times per minute.

If you notice you’re being told a name, you’re out of the story and I know no greater sin, failing or crime in drama.

And this is on my mind now because of ITV’s drama serial Quiz, about the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? coughing fraud case. It was a remarkable piece of work, pulling off dramatic moments I cannot imagine being capable of. And yet I stopped watching after the first episode because, to me, it was unbearably bad at introducing characters.

I’ve a friend who is an enormously more successful writer than I am and she entirely deserves that because she is also enormously better than I will ever be. And yet when she kissed the air and described the writing of Quiz as perfection, I couldn’t help myself. I asked her about Adrian.

Adrian is the key example for me in Quiz, but actually my stopped-me-watching problem was almost every character’s introduction. This writer pal doesn’t disagree with me, she just doesn’t care. Introducing characters is murder and sometimes, as she well points out, you just have to get on with it.

But in Quiz, each introduction was so poor that with one of them, I wondered if it were a joke.

Adrian was just the worst. Diana Ingram is walking into her house with her husband Charles a step behind her and she says that Adrian is here. He responds something like this:

CHARLES: Adrian? Your brother?

Maybe we’re supposed to think that this is an important character, since we’ve been told his name twice. And we must learn that he’s her brother, this is clearly key.

What I actually thought first was ouch. Then second, I thought this is really crap writing, and then third I realised I was out of the story.

While I was out, I realised that the intention was clearly to establish the name Adrian, the relationship, brother, and also because of how it was delivered and the reactions of all the characters, it was telling me that this man is at the house a lot and Charles doesn’t like it. I think it fails at even that much because you don’t check if someone is somebody’s brother if he’s pissed you off by coming over nightly for a year.

I want to underline that I do not and will never say that I could have written Quiz better than James Graham. But as a viewer, I’m out of the story – and while the show did get me back in after a few moments, it would shove me out again every time a new character was this badly introduced.

If you agree with my writer friend that sometimes you just have to get it done, even if it clunks this badly, let me tell you this. I wrote every word of this today convinced that the character’s name was Brian. That character was introduced to me with hammer-blow subtlety, and it didn’t work.

If you’re watching a show and all you can think of is that there are better ways to convey that information, the show has let you down.

And there were. Here’s one way that the line could’ve gone that would be better.

CHARLES:

Yep. Charles could’ve said nothing. We’d have got the character’s name from Diana, and we’d have figured out he was a brother by how the next scene goes, how the three characters act. I suppose we might mistakenly think this was a ménage a trois, but we’d soon figure it out.

I was going to suggest some other alternatives, such as Charles saying “oh, well, let’s get the whole family around and have a party,” but the silence and figuring-it-out combo works for me. I’m a dialogue fanatic, and I think the best line here would be no line.

Funny that I should be so certain that the character’s name was Brian, though.

I feel silly singling out one solitary line from Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues, but of her torrent of tremendous writing, one single piece of dialogue that sticks with me is “Where’s Brian?”

If I remember correctly, it’s said by a woman during sex. What I adore is that these two words can be taken in several different ways, and they still convey the same one key dramatic point.

I don’t think we know who Brian is, so he could, for example, be the couple’s child. She could, perhaps, be wondering whether he’s close enough by that he’s going to come in and see them during sex. Equally, Brian could be an adult man and she could be recalling how good he is in bed.

Either way, what “Where’s Brian?” is really telling us is that she’s distracted, it’s telling us that the sex is dreadful.

That’s using dialogue to convey the plot point about the sex, but more interestingly the frustration of the character. You could argue that the character could be clearer, but I don’t think you can make a case that she should be. The scene would not be improved by her instead saying “Where’s Brian, my previous lover from last month who is significantly better at sex than this man here has turned out to be?”

It’s easily 20 years since I saw and also read The Vagina Monologues, yet I correctly remember the frustration of the character. It’s a couple of weeks since I gave up watching Quiz, and despite writing to you about this specifically because of one character, I got that character’s name wrong.

This does say something about me. But I think it also says something about that script.

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.