Doing and not doing

Don’t laugh now, but journalists are meant to be unbiased and impartial. They’re definitely not meant to get involved and do things.

It’s different with the kinds of feature articles I usually write but if I’ve written a news story and you can tell it’s me, I’ve failed. News is news.

Except of course it isn’t and while total disconnected impartiality is the goal, you know that’s not possible. It’s not possible in part because the very act of choosing what to cover is coloured by your own opinion of what’s important.

I’ve always also believed that the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle applies to writing. That’s the quantum mechanics claim that you can’t measure something’s speed without affecting its direction and you can’t measure its direction without affecting its speed. Our act of looking at an event affects it.

It’s the old line: if you write about a terrorist attack, you are giving it the oxygen of publicity.

Nonetheless, the aim is detachment, the goal is impartiality, and I believe to this minute that this is right, that this is how it should be.

Except for three things that happened this week. One was simply that I listened to an interesting interview with a guy who has spent his entire career as a journalist covering a particular subject. The man is entertaining, he’s informative, but I came away feeling a little sorry for him. That’s all he’s ever done. Write about other people’s work.

Then I was recently asked to join Cucumber Writers, a producing writing group in the West Midlands and I’ve been talking with them this week about their future plans. But look what I did there: the first word describing this writing group was not writing, it was producing. This is a bunch of writers who have the same ambition of being produced that we all do, but they went ahead and produced themselves.

I swear they don’t see how great and rare that is. But it’s remarkable. I’ve shaken at writers who have huge dreams but won’t take small steps. And here’s this group that’s been producing new writing for five years now.

Strictly speaking, all of Cucumber Writers and this fella I heard interviewed spend their days writing. They’re observing events or human nature and communicating it to audiences through various forms of writing.

Yet it feels to me like Cucumber is actually doing something. It’s not a passive recitation of other people’s work, it is an act of creation.

Work that is created is surely work that is worth being described: I’m not going to knock the idea of coverage, of journalistic examination of a piece of work. I think about this far too much as I must’ve written 20,000 or more reviews of various things yet also my favourite films tend to be ones where I went in cold. Where I went in to the cinema having not read reviews.

I’ve also been reviewed a fair few times and that’s fascinating: you also learn how rare it is for a review to be worth reading, regardless of whether it’s a good or a bad one. The lack of meat, the lack of point in the majority of reviews is depressing. The – what’s the opposite of lack? Abundance? Thanks. The abundance of times a reviewer has said what I should’ve done with a piece is educational. Not because they’re right, but because regularly they don’t care about being wrong: they’re not examining a piece, they’re often advertising how much better they would’ve been. Yet they don’t go do anything, they just carry on advertising.

I believe that making is better than describing, though. I believe that it’s better to be crew than passenger. And in my most optimistic moments I believe that being both a writer and a journalist makes me better at both.

Mind you, the third thing that happened this week was that I read a quote saying “It’s better to walk ten thousand miles than to read ten thousand books”. And I just thought, bollocks.

Star Julianna Margolies holding a script for The Good Wife

Since records began

I’m running a workshop for children at the Bournville BookFest tomorrow and it will be my 510th public speaking gig since records began in late 2012.

I think a lot about that phrase, “since records began”. Usually it’s used to describe something incredibly serious like climate change or utterly trivial like, er, how Mars Bars have been shrinking since records began.

Was there one day when everybody thought we should be making records? Or did they start with the big stuff and add in the trivial to seem busy and keep their jobs?

I’d say that my 510 is pretty trivial, if not to me, except I can beat it with something else I appear to be counting which even I find daft. I’ve read thousands of scripts since records began but late last year I read a blog on Script Angel that recommended reading one a day. And I was persuaded.

Like most new year’s resolutions, though, I did fall off the wagon. Just not in the usual direction. If I’d stuck to reading one script per day then right now I should be on my 75th.

After we’ve spoken today, I’m going to get a mug of tea and read my 203rd.

I would like to share with you some lessons I’ve learned from 509 performances (remember, tomorrow’s is the 510th) and 202 scripts (remember, today’s is the 203rd).

But the only thing pressing on my mind is this small piece of advice. If you start watching a drama series on Netflix, finish it.

I got deeply into The Good Wife on Netflix about two years ago but for some reason stopped. Something came up. Work. I went away. I don’t know. But for some reason I didn’t rush back to the next episode and now I’m a little unclear how far through I got. I’m pretty sure I had this break in the show’s second season but it might be the third.

Either way, in my 202 scripts so far this year, 7 of them were from this show. To be specific, I’ve read the first 7 episodes of the series and each one has been superb. I’ll carry on reading – the entire first season’s scripts are online – but I really wanted to watch the filmed and broadcast version of one of them.

And I can’t.

Netflix UK has taken the whole show off.

We live in a time when we have myriad choices of dramas to watch and it feels like everything that has ever existed is available on demand or even just on a whim, but it isn’t. And you know that Netflix’s decision is to do with rights, is to do with their license to broadcast it, but nobody outside those deals can predict what will be added and when it will be taken away.

At least, nobody’s figured out how to predict it. Since records began, anyway.

Ten Page Rule

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

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

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

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

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

And actually, yep, you can.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It takes one. At most.

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

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

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

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

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

Just one more thing…

There’s good and bad in this. On the one hand, this is the 50th anniversary of the first-ever Columbo and we’re still watching, we’re still talking about it. Isn’t it astonishing that something written half a century ago still thrives? I’d kill to write something you remember for half a minute.

But because it’s the anniversary, people are also tweeting about Columbo and if you don’t happen to have seen the show, this is probably the time you’re going to give it a go.

Only, there’s Columbo and there’s Columbo.

If you pick an episode made in its original run from 1968 to 1978 then you’re fine. There are some episodes that don’t particularly work, there are many that are very good and there are a startling number that are superb.

It’s just that in 1989 the show came back and as it limped on to 2003, there was a contractual requirement that every episode be unutterable crap. Really, there’s one called Columbo Goes to College that seems to be great until a totally dreadful ending. Otherwise, no. Not a one.

Whereas that original run… I think you know the show. I don’t know if you’ve seen it. But you at least have an idea of Lt Columbo as played by Peter Falk and even if you don’t happen to know the term ‘open book mystery’, you know that every episode began with the crime being committed. Columbo was almost never a whodunnit, it was a how’s-he-going-to-catch-the-murderer.

Columbo wasn’t the first to use the open book format but it remains the most famous example and easily the best.

But what makes all this so good, what makes it all so very satisfying is the consequence of our knowing who committed the crime. The average murder mystery keeps us guessing and keeps us watching only because it manages to make us want to know whodunit. When we do, it’s over, we’re gone.

The average murder mystery has no repeat value: when you know the answer to the puzzle, so many crime and mystery shows are empty. So many detectives are walking police procedural plot exposition and so many murders are the biggest name in the cast list and nothing else.

Murder, actually, becomes nothing. Someone is killed and then the killer is caught, somehow all is right with the world. I remember Veronica Mars being very good at how it resisted that, how it conveyed the real impact of death.

Whereas with Columbo, the show has to hold us for at least an hour after we’ve seen whodunit. So you never get a case where the butler did it, you never get anything where it could be one of several suspects. Instead, you get a fantastic villain and a murder that was done for a reason.

We get to see why they’ve done it, we get to understand why they’ve killed. Sometimes we’re even on their side.

Invariably, though, at least in 1968-1978, the richness of that guest character was matched by Columbo himself. Two characters, two actors, toe to toe for a feature-length story. Columbo had tremendous performances and its scripts demanded them.

So go on, watch one. You could get the entire run on DVD, for one thing. Or if you spot an episode coming up on TV, check its title against an episode guide to see whether it’s Good Columbo 1968-1978 or Unbearably Embarrassing Columbo 1989-2003. You won’t thank me if you end up watching, god help us, 1991’s Murder Can be Hazardous to Your Health. But you will if you catch Prescription: Murder, Ransom for a Dead Man, Murder by the Book… wait, I’m just starting to list episodes now.

Oh, one more thing.

No, two. If you recognise “one more thing” then you’re either a Steve Jobs fan or you’ve seen Columbo. In every single episode of the detective show, the Lieutenant will leave a scene and then immediately come back in saying “Oh, just one more thing”. It became something you looked forward to because his one more thing was always a fantastically loaded little question and, what’s more, it was always what he had planned to ask from the start. He did this one-more-thing lark to catch people off guard and there are few more satisfying moments in the show.

But the one more thing I want to tell you is that it’s a lie that Columbo is 50 years old.

It was 20 February 1968 when a one-off TV movie called Prescription: Murder aired and it’s true that this was the first proper Columbo on television. But it was based on a stage play that had successfully toured for some time from 1962 with Thomas Mitchell as Columbo.

Only, one more one more thing. The stage play Prescription: Murder was developed from a 1960 play called Enough Rope which aired as an episode of the TV series The Chevy Mystery Show and featured Bert Freed as Columbo.

If that show still exists then it isn’t available anywhere but you can watch Columbo co-creator and co-writer William Link on how fortunate they were to eventually get Peter Falk.

So it’s 50 years since Falk first played Columbo and it’s almost 60 since the character was invented. Six decades and still going. I tell you, I’m not kidding: I’d love you to remember something I’ve written 60 seconds after you read it.

Hand-written "£10 ono"

On the money

Take a look at this, please, and spot the one ridiculous part of it:

I’ve been flown out to St Tropez by a swimwear fashion company that is desperate for me to model their Summer collection. We’ve taken test shots with me pointing at things out of frame. Some of us have taken coke, some of us have taken Pepsi. And now it’s down to the real business: I ask what they’re willing to pay me.

The fashion CEO takes out a pen and a piece of paper. She writes a figure down and slides the paper across the table to me. As I read it, my eyes widen and I try to look calm.

Sometimes you’re rotten to me. The thing you were supposed to think ridiculous is that stuff with the paper and the note about the money.

At no point in the history of any negotiation with anyone about anything has a single soul written a sum of money down on paper and slid it across any surface to anybody ever.

Yet we see it in TV and film drama around once a month.

I think the shows might have a mind to the drama’s prospects for being repeated on ITV4 for the next several decades. The Six Million Dollar Man, for instance, could now just be somebody working at the top of the BBC pay scale, at least so long as it is a man.

Or maybe the makers are thinking of international sales and how never actually saying or showing the figure in Sterling or dollars or whatever it is might be a distraction.

There is one last possibility I can think of and it’s that the writer has not had the same level of experience in fashion modelling that I have and so doesn’t have a clue what an impressive figure would be. In either sense.

I have a solution. Say the figure aloud. We’re already supposed to get that it’s a big number because of the recipient’s reaction, we’ll still get that it seems a big number to him or her in exactly the same way.

Whereas when it’s this note slid across a table, I’m out of the story. I’m seeing a constructed piece of artifice, I’m not seeing characters I’m engaged with.

Women and Mentoring

This isn’t about women, it’s not about men and it’s only a bit about mentoring. Clearly I just like a good title. Listen, I don’t care whether someone is a man or a woman, if they’re a writer then I think there comes a point when they want guidance or mentoring. Or if I’m wrong, then I’ve just had a weird run of coincidence from writers who have the same weakness I think we all do.

So this week I turned down a man who wanted to hire me to mentor him. I have done mentoring on specific types of work or for specific types of writers and he didn’t fit either so I turned him down because I wasn’t the right person for him.

I did suggest things he could look into, though, and there was one particular point of his that I thought I could help with. He wanted to know whether he was approaching writing stories correctly, if he were doing the right thing. I told him who cares? If you end up with a good piece, it doesn’t matter if you write it in crayon on every second Tuesday of the year.

Half a beat later, a woman writer joked that what she wants most is someone to look over her work every quarter of an hour and tell her whether it’s going well or not.

You know she wasn’t joking. I know she wasn’t joking. She knew she wasn’t joking. So I told her in all seriousness that this would be a Very, Very Bad Idea.

She thought I was joking.

It happened again this week with another couple of writers so it’s been on my mind but I think these first two reveal a remarkably similar issue. They both want someone else to tell them if they’re right. That means, then, that they both think there is a right way to do something.

There’s something else, too, and I’m struggling to describe this. Let me try this way and you can tell me if I’m making sense. I think both of these writers unconsciously think that writing comes out in a straight line. That you get the first paragraph right and then you write the second. That you can show the first page, say, to someone, and they’ll give you a pass/fail.

But writing is a mess. No, more than that, writing is a fight. I don’t want to sound all male about it and I don’t equate writing to violence nor expect all writing to be conflict. Yet it is always a scrap. How’s that? It’s scrappy. You’re pulling this idea over there and nudging or shoving or easing it into another shape. You’re kneading the words and you’re fashioning one single loaf out of countless ingredients.

Possibly you’re making a really rubbish analogy and stretching it out in the hope that somewhere along the line it will make sense. Fail.

I won’t read your first paragraph because there’s no point until you’ve finished the whole piece. Then if I read, say, your script, then I do know from page one whether it’s working or not. That’s not some brilliance on my part, it’s because it is very quickly obvious when something is a fail. The only writer who can’t see it is the writer who wrote it.

But good or bad, instantly obvious or not, it needs the whole thing there or all anyone can tell you is if you type well.

That man I turned down, by the way, wrote a very good email. He’s a writer. I’ve read pieces by that woman and she writes with verve and life and vigour. She’s a writer.

They just both have to get on with writing. So do I. So do you.

12 Monkeys TV series logo

Draft Dodging

I’m a dozen scripts into my read-a-script-a-day thing and, curiously enough, the 12th one I read was the pilot to 12 Monkeys by Terry Matalas and Travis Fickett. And it’s put me in mind of something about writing that I realise I’ve been at risk of forgetting.

There are of course differences between various drafts we write of scripts and then naturally there are differences between that and the final cut of the filmed version. However, when all of it works, I think these different drafts tend to concentrate and improve the same things regardless of how many monkeys are in your story.

Let me give you an example. The opening teaser sequence of the 12 Monkeys pilot script has four characters walking through post-apocalyptic streets wearing protective clothing and breathing apparatus. The opening sequence of the aired version changes that to just two characters walking through a derelict building.

You’re thinking that’s cheaper and I won’t disagree for an instant. But there’s more. It takes 4 pages of script which includes 17 dialogue speeches. On screen, it takes 1 minute and has 1 long voiceover with just a single speech at the end.

I loathe voiceovers to the extent that I would’ve argued against this one as I would any of them – but I’d have been wrong. This one works and hearing it again now after watching three seasons of this show, I find it delicious that the very opening syllables set up something that recurs and has repercussions throughout the show.

But what I really like is that they ditched 16 speeches and left us with just the last one. As it happens, that too sets up a recurring theme but it’s also intriguing by itself. A man crouches over a body so long dead that it has decayed to a skeleton and he says to it: “See you soon”.

By dropping two characters, ditching costly effects and even saving on the wardrobe costs by losing the protective clothing, there’s no question but that the teaser scene is cheaper. But it’s also better because it keeps what matters and discards everything that doesn’t.

We overwrite. And we overwrite explanations. Worse, we abdicate opinions – wait, I need to explain that one a bit better. There’s a moment in the 12 Monkeys pilot script where that man, James Cole, has to kill a colleague. He does so and it reads as quite a jolt but then we get this from another character:

RAMSE: Had to be done. No choice.

You know that is said so that we are on the side of Cole, that we know he’s a Good Guy. What it actually does is externalise something that we should be thinking and feeling ourselves: we should be making our own mind up about this character. Given that the situation as written is bleedin’ obvious, you’d have to personally know the character being killed in order to disagree with what Cole has done. So telling us that it had to be done, no choice, is actually distancing us from the characters. It’s weakening our reaction to them therefore it’s weakening them.

That whole sequence is gone, possibly because it involved a fifth character and some flame thrower fire effects, but whatever the reason, its absence is an improvement.

Here’s one that stays in the show but is also improved with a new draft.

Cole puts the gun to his [Frost’s] head.

COLE: Let’s find out.

CRACK! The back of Frost’s head blows out

That’s Cole killing someone else – this can be a violent show – but here’s how that plays in the aired episode:

Cole puts the gun to his [Frost’s] head.

CRACK! The back of Frost’s head blows out

That’s it. No dialogue. I actually don’t dislike the “Let’s find out” line because it makes sense in the context. But still it’s close to something I loathe: the 1970s US TV wisecrack.

If those ever worked, they don’t now – go count how many times they do it in Star Wars: The Last Jedi and cringe – but I think it also points to something fundamental. Less is more.

I’ve read multiple drafts of scripts and I’ve seen how the video editing suite is really where a final draft is created. When it works, when this is done right, each new draft simplifies things. Yes, it probably makes things cheaper. But it makes it clearer, it pares down, it whittles down to what matters.

I’ll keep that in mind as I continue reading scripts but I hope I’ll also keep it in mind as write them.

You can read the 12 Monkeys pilot script online. The fourth and final season airs sometime this year and the first two are now on Netflix UK. The first three are on iTunes.

Bookshelf with script books

Reading scripture

My overcrowded office shelves include one bookcase full of screenplay books and another couple of shelves of A4-printed ones. I used to collect them because I used to read them. A lot. I would read a script and make a note of whether I liked it: just a simple note to come back to reread this one some time or to avoid that writer forever. I remember that I read over a thousand before I stopped bothering to make those notes but of course I carried on reading.

Only, what used to be a habitual purchase has become a rare one because there are dramatically fewer scripts and screenplays published any more. That’s entirely because so very many more are released online. Not only is that cheaper and easier than buying bookcases full of the things, it also has unmatched advantage that the scripts look the way they should.

Books always alter them. At best it’s in order to cram more words on the page and therefore have fewer pages. At worst it’s not the script, it’s a transcript. Admittedly that one is a problem online too: there are people who will write down every word said in a film and call it the script. I can’t knock anyone being dedicated to words but some will do it as an unbroken stream of dialogue without any regard to even which character is saying which sentence. Madness.

Yet you learn to avoid those and you learn where there are real scripts. Only, maybe because it’s now easy and maybe because there are so many available to choose from, I realised that I stopped reading scripts.

Not entirely. I can think of 300 or 400 TV episodes I’ve read. And it’s always faster to read a screenplay than to see a film so when I was curious about Aaron Sorkin’s Steve Jobs movie but not quite curious enough to see it, I read that. Then for instance I liked the sound of (500) Days of Summer by Scott Neustadter and Michael H Weber so I read that.

Curiously, I later enjoyed the film (500) Days of Summer more than most people I know who didn’t read the script. And I enjoyed Sorkin’s Steve Jobs screenplay more than the film when it finally turned up on Netflix the other day.

Still, overall, the trend was against me reading scripts – though I ran to get the screenplay to Arrival by Eric Heisserer as soon as I left the cinema – and as someone who counts himself as a scriptwriter, this isn’t brilliant.

So when Hayley McKenzie’s Script Angel firm ran a guest blog recommending we read one script a day, I was ready to hear that suggestion.

I read that blog on 22 December and from 23 December, I’ve read a script every day. The blog is right. I’m thinking in script form again. But I’m also just enjoying it. Because I’ve made it a daily task – it is actually there on my OmniFocus app To Do list every day – then I tell myself it’s work and for the short time it takes me to read a script, I seem to allow myself to be fully into it. Concentrating and yet also relaxing.

Today’s was Give Me a Ring Sometime, the pilot to Cheers by Glen and Les Charles. I tell you, television pilots are surely the hardest scripts to write and I knew that Cheers had one of the absolute best. I’ve seen that pilot episode many times but I haven’t read it before. And just like its spinoff Frasier, arguably the finest pilot script there is, seeing it on the page makes you appreciate it more.

It also makes you appreciate editing. I know Frasier was cut down to fit its ridiculously short on-air time and I’ve always seen that the pilot script was actually improved by the cutting. Now I know that Cheers, such a familiar piece of television to me, was also cut down. One entire character dropped completely and I think rightly.

Excuse me while I go watch the episode to see if there’s any sign of her. Yep. Once you know this woman had a significant role you can’t miss her. But that entire role is gone and I’m off pondering how her absence alters the tone, the pace, the humour. I’m also pondering how that actor felt, but that’s less because I’m a writer, more because I’m human.

Anyway, I’ll be back reading scripts tomorrow. If you’re into film scripts, by the way, bookmark the Daily Script and Simply Scripts. Neither is the best-designed site and in the latter you have to hunt to avoid unproduced scripts by fans.

If you’re into TV, you can get many scripts on both of those sites but by far the best resource is one called just TV Writing. I adore that one.

No strings attached

There’s a line in the new Star Wars film about something or other being at the end of a piece of string. I’m not being vague because I’ve already forgotten what it was, I’m trying to avoid spoiling a single thing. Mind you, the string line isn’t a single thing: they say it twice like it’s a bit cleverer than it actually is.

If I were going to review Star Wars: The Last Jedi then I’d be talking about what the characters say. For instance, it’s got a lot of wisecracks that need you to be in love with the characters or to be living in the 1970s on a diet of bad US television to enjoy. But since this isn’t a review, let me say that the film is a fun ride and immeasurably better than The Force Awakens.

I just keep coming back to that line about string.

As much as I did enjoy the film, it feels a mess and I think it lacks a piece of string pulling us through. It’s event after event and that isn’t enough for me.

I am certain that I’m saying something you already know because I’m certain I already knew it too. Yet seeing its absence is making me think and talk about it anew.

I was recently asked something like ‘what do you admire in art’ and I replied about writing where the piece sets out to do something and does it. I replied talking about the end of a piece where you have been taken somewhere you didn’t expect and didn’t predict yet in that final moment know is where the writer was always taking you. When that’s done right, the sheer perfection of it genuinely makes me cry.

Whether a story is explosive action or seductive calm, it should be constantly surprising but every single beat must also be taking you to where the writer intended. If you’ve got a great gag and it doesn’t move you in that direction, kill it. Each moment has to be the very best it can be – and it also has to be invisibly or visibly moving you to where the story is going.

Bugger. I’m thinking about this because of that line about string and I’ve now realised that it’s a rubbish analogy. I thought it was about being pulled through to somewhere or maybe that the string is a guideline of some kind.

But actually the best analogy I can think of is one I’ve thought of before so often that I may have bored you with it in a pub.

Stories are like pieces of wood that you rub your hand over. When you go in one direction, following the story for the first time, you’re rubbing your hand against the grain. So it’s bumpy, there are shards that cut into you, there are tiny slivers of wood that get into your skin.

And then when you rub the other way, from the end of the story backwards, you’re rubbing with the grain and now the wood feels perfectly smooth.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi is bumpy both ways. It’s got great moments and actually I think the ending works best of it all, but the film lacks something huge. I think it lacks this sense of a storyteller pulling you through.

Fighting for the Corrs

I’ve been planning out a workshop I’m due to run in February about software for writers. Easy, I thought: Scrivener, OmniOutliner, Evernote, Drafts – oh. Slight problem. Most of the people coming are PC users so that’s Drafts and OmniOutliner out. And they’ve just had a workshop specifically about Scrivener.

I’ve got about six weeks to come up with this workshop and I’ve already changed it a dozen times in my head but right now what I’m thinking is this. I’ll take these people through the typical stages of writing anything, from first scratches of an idea, through research if any, through false starts if many, and on to the rest. Writing, editing, revising, rewriting and what you need to do when getting that text to publishers or editors or whatever.

And along the way, I’ll show them how there are types of software that can help. So for instance, toward the start I’ll cover mind mapping tools that help some people capture chaotic ideas. I’ll find them a couple of Windows mind mapping tools but I don’t see any problem with demonstrating the idea using a Mac and iPad one that I genuinely use often. (That’s called MindNode and I just this week wrote a review of the latest version for AppleInsider.)

I think this will work and I think it could even be very good, which is nice for me and unlikely to be nice for you as you’re not invited. Sorry about that. But in noodling through this all week, I’ve realised that I will definitely also include ways of capturing those fleeting ideas you know have potential but you can’t use them in whatever you’re writing now.

You’ve got your own system for doing this and I bet you forget things just as much as I do. But in my case I’m going to use the fact that apps work well in combination. So, for instance, there’s a great iPhone and iPad tool called Drafts. It’s a bare-bone app for writing in but what it does that’s so good is that it is ready immediately. Tap the app, start writing: no having to choose New Document or pick a template, just open and write.

When you put the phone down and immediately think of something else, pick it up again and start writing again. Drafts gives you a blank new page every time, right away.

But it also lets you take action on things and the one thing I do is this. When I’ve written something in the dead of night that I foolishly think will be both useful and coherent tomorrow, I tap a button in Drafts that I’ve called Story Ideas. Then before my head has fallen back onto the pillow, Drafts has taken that new text and appended it to the end of a very, very, very long Evernote entry where I collect all of these things.

The point is to be fast at writing them down before they’re gone and the point is to then always know exactly where to go to read these ideas again.

That’s where I fall down: I never remember to look at the Story Ideas note.

Or I didn’t.

I looked this morning, while pondering whether to tell you all this stuff about a workshop you can’t go to, and I am astonished at how many notes and thoughts there are in this Evernote pile. Since 05:50 on 3/11/2013 – Drafts dates each entry – I’ve got 12,842 words of ideas.

I can’t say that they’re good. For instance, I’ve just found from 09:28 on 19/6/2014 the words: “Write about a tree”.

But then there’s this from 18:45:27 on 5/7/14: “Steve hates time travel. He had a bad experience when he was a kid and an old man.” I think that led to a short story two years later. Certainly it was part of the thinking so I like that.

Or I like this more than I should. At 01:53:41 (why are some times to the millisecond and others aren’t?) on 25/9/14 I just wrote: “You don’t know whether you fancy her or want to be her.” And now look at this script extract from two months ago:

INT. LONDON RESTAURANT BAR – EVENING
The group is waiting in a bar. There are large TV screens tuned to sports and news channels.

Susan Hare is in an evening dress and, God, she looks superb. You’re not sure if you fancy her or want to be her. You are sure that this is someone rich, talented and leading a charmed life. You’d be wrong, but you’d be sure.

That’s from a script called Vows which has been doing remarkably well for me this year. Without looking in my Story Ideas notes, without remembering that I’d had this thought before, writing it down in Drafts and sending to Evernote lodged it in my head enough to come out three years later when I needed it.

So somewhere around 2020, then, I expect to be writing a script or an article about how words change and events get forgotten. I expect to be writing a story in which some student in the future pays little attention to a lecture on the Troubles in Northern Ireland and thinks it’s about music from the era.

Thank you for letting me find a place to use one of the more silly ideas I’ve got recorded in this thing.