Time contracts

Okay, now, as soon as I actually type the words ‘time contracts’ I realise that, yes, I am currently negotiating a contract to do with a Time project. But what’s on my mind is how time itself contracts – as opposed to expands.

Take any one thing I’ve done this week. Publisher meeting, writing for AppleInsider, running an evening writing group named after a pub that doesn’t exist, constantly writing on trains, working for and with the Writers’ Guild, bits with Cucumber Writers, discussing the difference between fire eating and fire breathing with a performer on a day-long workshop I ran, and writing a fake online poetry workshop called How to Poet as a test for another project.

Any one of those sounds good and I relished every pixel – but not enough. There was no time to enjoy it enough

For it’s been one of those cases where you are deep into something and then absolutely have to wrench yourself out in order to then be exactly as deeply into the next one.

See me in any of these events or actually doing any of these things and you are seeing me at my happiest. It’s just the bits in between.

Typing on trains because it was the only time to get something finished. Relying on the brilliant thing that I regularly remote-control my Mac from anywhere – and then discovering that this week it decided not to work. Technology. It’s alchemy and such unfair alchemy too.

I’m not going to say that we should a moment to enjoy things when we’re busy. I’m not going to Ferris Bueller this.

And, yes, true, I am thinking it’s great to be busy and that is all very nice for me. But what’s on my mind is what you’ve had too: a week that simultaneously seems like a month and an hour.

And you’ve also had this: you’ve let things slip between the cracks. I need to go write some apologetic emails.

Unfortunately, I’ve first got to go on a speed awareness course. But I didn’t tell you that.

Sidekick phenomena

I’ve been working with two writers recently and something came up with both of them. One has a character in her script who was meant to be a small part but is steadily becoming more important with each draft. And the other has just swapped two characters around in her novel.

They’re both right, I think they’ve found what their pieces needed, but I’m so interested in how changing a role can be liberating.

I like to imagine that all characters are created equal: that, sure, we’re only seeing someone when they’re delivering a parcel but actually they have a whole life too.

But they aren’t.

This is too crude a sketch of what’s happened but the novelist, for instance, is finding that she can do more with a character now that he’s not the romantic lead. She can do more with him and it’s like he can do more too: he’s got licence to be more lively, to actually be more interesting.

And equally, the other character is now more constrained.

It was ever thus. I think stories are more nuanced now, I think drama is richer, but the lead carries responsibilities because he or she is carrying the whole story.

Previously leading characters, the heroes of pieces, had to be stand-up heroes with square jaws – whether they were men or women – and to always do the right thing. No question, this is where the notion that actors prefer playing the baddie comes from because who wouldn’t?

We don’t need pure heroism any more and we don’t need perfect heroes.

But still, when the story is about you, then you are the story and like it or not, there’s going to be a beginning, a middle and an end. Whatever you do is ultimately driving the story forward and that’s why we still have this constraint on the major characters.

The minor ones can go cause havoc if they like, they ultimately don’t influence the story very much.

They can have fun, the writer can have fun, the audience or readers can have all this too, so everybody wins and it costs us nothing.

Except there are people who don’t see this difference. Audiences often don’t and I see no reason they should: I see much more reason that they should be enjoying the tale instead of analysing the character structure.

So when the audience talks a lot about how brilliant a certain side character is and how they deserve their own show, I just think the current show did a good job.

It’s when commissioners think it too that I’m more concerned. My go-to example for this will probably always be Ballykissangel. It was a hugely successful BBC drama with probably dozen lovable characters but really just two central ones. Who then left.

The show ended when they left, except it didn’t. I don’t remember how much longer it went on afterwards but really it was over because these other characters couldn’t carry it. They weren’t leads, they were sidekicks and it showed.

Minor characters are minor characters, they will never be major ones and I am a writing god for deigning to explain this to you when naturally you’d never have thought it without me.

Except I can see you there, thinking about characters like Frasier Crane, Lou Grant and Sergeant Lewis.

These three were supporting characters of various importance in their original shows – Cheers, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Inspector Morse – who went on to have their own gigantically successful series.

Only, I offer that they didn’t.

I suggest that what really happened is that the character name went on to a new show and that’s pretty much all.

For the Frasier who headlined 11 seasons of his own sitcom is not the same Frasier who propped up the bar at Cheers. Sergeant Lewis is a new and richer character in his own show, even if I still can’t remember the character’s first name and I even met the actor once.

It’s not that these characters were so good as minor ones that they deserved their own shows. It is definitely the case that they were popular enough that studios knew people who at least give them a chance.

What’s really the case is that the writers conned us brilliantly. They managed the change, they managed substituting a leading character for a minor one and we bought it.

I think the actors were key: I don’t understand acting but I see that it takes certain talent and skills to shoulder a whole show instead of solely being the comic turn every other week.

I’ve always thought that this was a kind of applied writing, that the writers knew they needed to make minor characters into major ones and so set about doing it. But talking with these two writers this week, I think there’s also an element of characters moving where they want to. I mean the characters want to move, not that the writer necessarily plans it.

I also like to think that the writer is in control but there are times when it feels like we’re just scribbling down what our characters tell us.

Bad writing habits

Apart from my typing, with I swear is very good, a thing I like about my writing is something I also dislike – but I doubt I’ll ever stop.

Here it is. In the script I’m writing at the moment, I have a tiny moment when a drunk woman by Birmingham’s Broad Street nightclubs walks through our hero like he’s a glass door. It’s pretty good, I think: late night outside busy clubs so lots of dark and light plus she’s very drunk so you accept she doesn’t see him and you get that she doesn’t care.

This is my character’s most vulnerable point in the story so the symbolism of him finding himself accidentally in a ferociously busy place where he’s invisible and unwanted is, I believe, nicely striking.

Only, the drunk woman bothered me.

She does exactly what I need but the moment I say that to you, I realise she was a device rather than a character. Ultimately everyone in a script is a construct but you want them all to have life.

So actually I suddenly feel a tiny better about what I did. No, I like what I did, I just feel better that it’s something I keep doing.

Let me explain slightly quicker.

There’s a scene shortly afterwards where we’re back in Broad Street but it’s early the next morning. I think – no, I know – I am channelling the final scene in Before Sunrise where the film touches on locations we’ve seen, just now empty and in daylight instead dark and alive with that film’s Celine and Jesse.

Richard Linklater and Kim Krizan’s script for that scene says:

“…a series of shots of many of the locations CELINE and JESSE inhabited the night before. In the early-morning light those places are now somehow different. Even though there is little human presence at this time of the morning, the transformation has begun.”

In my case, my guy Richard has come under even more pressure overnight but it’s familiar pressure, it’s the kind of problem that he’s good at, so in an odd way he begins to climb back up.

New day, new world, I’m not saying this is the most original part of my script. I need it, I want it, I’ve made it this way but the uncontrollable itch is in this scene:

EXT. BIRMINGHAM – MORNING

Establishing. The outside of the Really Cheap B&B. Hagley Road. Broad Street’s cheap hotel. Jury’s Inn. The same DRUNK WOMAN asleep inside a curry house, face against the window.

That’s it. She’s back. Doesn’t do anything, doesn’t appear again and even in this moment Richard doesn’t notice her – but isn’t that right? Doesn’t that feel right to you?

I like the mirroring. I especially like that I got it organically, that I didn’t think What Will Mirror Last Night’s Scene.

I also just find it really, truly satisfying when moments connect together. When things aren’t just a good idea thrown in but they become part of the weave.

The trouble is that I cannot stop doing this. If something happens in a script of mine or if you meet a character, it is almost totally rock-solid certain that you’re going to see them again or it’s going to have an impact again.

I was asked about my bad writing habits the other day and this is one. I can definitely see that it’s because I also produce things: I want to make maximum use of every character, every extra, every location. And I do see that this is also actually quite limited of me.

But the satisfaction when this particular script knew I needed something and tapped me on the shoulder to remind me that I had this drunk character I could come back to, that is and was gold.

The Silence of Silents

Previously on Self Distract… I’m a writer and I talk too much but still I wanted to persuade you that shutting up is a good thing. I believe you looked at me like that. But what was on my mind was how effective silence is in drama and Heide Goody pointed out that there were these entire wordless feature films that I’d forgotten.

She mentioned Buster Keaton and his silent movies are amazing.

Yet even as I was nodding in agreement and even as I was thinking she’s dead right and I should’ve thought of the silents before, I was also thinking about this.

There are silent films that didn’t need to be silent.

I mean movies and TV that deliberately chose to be silent for effect rather than because they simply didn’t have microphones.

I’m trying to remember the name of a television drama, some kind of military thing, where it went silent for one episode for no reason. Well, no drama reason. No story reason. I imagine it was several years into the run and the production team were bored.

Instead of characters speaking to one another, you had them pointing and gesturing like they were in a clothes catalogue. In every other episode the characters were played at least as if they intended to look believable but here they were amdram and if any had a moustache, you expected toiling.

Was it called Commando? Something like that. I can’t find it and I’m not one hundred percent unhappy about that.

Whereas I have found and will watch again one episode of The Prisoner.

It’s perhaps my favourite episode, Many Happy Returns by Anthony Skene, and for all sorts of reasons but one is that nobody speaks for about the first 20 minutes – and it is superb.

The silence is so well done that you don’t realise it’s silent. It’s so much a part of the story – Number 6 (Patrick McGoohan) wakes up to find the Village is deserted – that it’s natural. He doesn’t speak because there’s nobody to speak to.

That’s so obvious that you don’t think about it at all, you don’t think about how unusual this is for television drama. And then when you do hear speech it is a huge jolt.

That’s using silence for drama.

Do you know, I just looked up who wrote it and found that the script has been published. What’s more, I’ve got the book it’s published in. Right, that’s going to be my 421st script read of the year.

That book is The Prisoner: The Original Scripts – Volume 1 and Many Happy Returns is on Blu ray shiny disc.

Anytime you’re ready, I’ll sparkle

Angela says it was in the Lake District. Neither of us can remember the year. But I have a vivid, visual memory of standing in a secondhand bookshop with my hands shaking.

For there on a shelf that I could so easily have missed was Talking to a Stranger by John Hopkins. This is one of Britain’s most significant television dramas and here were the published scripts. I had no idea there was a book and for all I knew of the show, I hadn’t seen it.

It’s a series of four plays, also known as the Hopkins’ Quartet, and it’s the story of one weekend with a family. You can read or presumably watch any of the four and they are separate, they stand on their own, and they are exceptional.

But as well as my hands shaking when I found this, I also remember something else. This memory isn’t visual, it’s not as specific, it’s really more of a feeling. Yet it has the same punch to me because it was the moment in reading the fourth script that I understood.

Each play is set on this same weekend and is told from a different character’s perspective.

These days that’s known as the Rashomon format. There’s this film I’ve still never seen called Rashomon which tells the same story over and over from different views.

There are also a couple of rather joyous episodes of Leverage which do it. Most notably, there’s one written by John Rogers where all five of the regulars take turns to tell their version of the same crime. The episode is even called The Rashomon Job.

I relish that episode for its wit and chutzpah but its greatest moments are all when it shows us how each character sees the other four.

It’s funny, clever and satisfying but it is also a construct. You know the plot came first or at least it wasn’t initially about the characters, it was about the form.

Whereas this moment, this memory I have is how I felt reading the last Talking to a Stranger script and realising. Suddenly seeing why these four plays are being told this way. Seeing that the entire quartet was always building to the same thing. Realising whose story this really is. No trick, no gimmick, just the way this story had to be told.

I was telling someone about this today and found myself saying that this moment changed me.

It definitely contributed to my obsession with time in drama but I swear I was a different man after I read this.

I’ve had people change my mind – I do enjoy that – and I’ve had experiences that shaped how I see the world. But here were words on a page, words first broadcast when I was one year old, that affected who I am.

You’ll notice I said broadcast. I was going to say written but actually that’s part of why these plays are famous. For all their modern pace and the vivid characters, the production of Talking to a Stranger belongs to another time.

The four plays are different lengths, for instance. No fitting it to two hours with ad breaks. And while Hopkins famously wrote Z Cars episodes over weekends going from no idea to filmable script before Monday morning, he didn’t do that here. Instead, he was late.

I mean, really, really late.

I want to say that he delivered the scripts to the BBC a year after he was due to. That may be an exaggeration. What I’m sure of is that it was long enough that they were into the next year.

And apparently the BBC barely chased him. What I’ve heard is that they may have rung him up and asked how it’s going, old chap, but that was it.

I twitch at the idea of missing a deadline by months. I un-twitch at the notion of the scripts then being complete. No emails back and forth asking for a tenth rewrite to pass the time.

I’m also frightened to watch Talking with a Stranger.

Very many years ago, I did see the first play and it was everything it was supposed to be, it was everything the script was. Also it had a teenage Judi Dench. I don’t know why that surprises me: she must’ve been a teenager once, but there you go.

I’m telling you all this now because late one night this week, I found Talking to a Stranger on the BBC iPlayer. Some big rights issues must been settled recently because suddenly there is a huge amount of truly superb drama on there but I never imagined this would be.

I think I stared at the listing for a full minute, processing this.

I definitely decided not to watch right then. It was gone midnight, I’d done a 16-hour writing day, I want to be fully conscious to enjoy this.

And I am wondering what it will do to me. It might be easier to just go see the new Mission: Impossible film instead.

Maybe nothing is any good

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I think I can make that argument.

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

Yet Hammy is one of my favourite plays.

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

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

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

Something comes from Something

Previously on Self Distract… I am just after saying to you that nothing comes from nothing. If you don’t do anything then nothing happens and if you don’t show up, you don’t matter. You can call this many things ranging from harsh to obvious but it is also specific and practical. Yet there’s a vague and impractical companion argument which goes thisaway:

If you do anything, something happens.

Now, I may need to underline the vagueness there as I think – possibly I’m fooling myself but give me this – that it looks vague in a kind of all-encompassing way. That it’s vague but actually deep.

The vagueness I’m striving for, though, isn’t even that good and doesn’t even make that much sense.

So yes, if I say that when you write nothing, bugger-all happens, it follows that when you write something, at least perhaps something-all will happen. I’m still sounding as I mean you write X and X is a success. You show up at Y, that very well known networking party, and You are a success.

But what I really mean is this. If you do things, if you write things, if you help other people out, it’s like you stir up something in the air.

If you have no work on, if everything has been rejected and you slump into a paralysis, that’s where you stay. But if you manage to start something new, if you phone someone new or just do anything, then routinely other things start to come in, start to come along. This week, for instance, I took a punt and spent a day pursuing a piece of work I’d really like to do and that evening I got offered a completely unrelated commission.

Only, we’re in territory here that makes me uncomfortable. Saying that if you’re nice and if you keep busy, happiness will follow feels like astrology.

Quick story? I don’t mean to do this quite so automatically but if someone asks what star sign I am, I find I tell them that I am New Romantic. It used to be funny.

Then a friend told me she’s gay and it was clearly a difficult thing for her to say. She wasn’t out yet and I wanted her to know that I was conscious of the trust she was showing me, that I recognise the enormity of coming out but mostly that she needn’t be nervous, that she needn’t think it would change our friendship, that in the best meaning of the phrase, it didn’t matter. So she told me she’s lesbian and I replied that I’m Sagittarius.

We’re no longer such close friends because she’s convinced I’m into astrology.

Anyway.

If you do something and if you help other people, good things happen. I don’t do these somethings and I don’t this helping people in order to cause a karmic domino effect, I do somethings because I can’t resist and I help writers if I can because it’s brilliant to see people achieving what they strive for. And if even one pixel of that is in any way down to you, how can that be anything but fantastic?

This is another time when I’m telling you this because I’m trying to understand it. Talking to you always helps me focus, even if, okay, stop that, it may not seem like I’m terribly coherent. You always seem so nice and then you go giving me that look.

I don’t believe in fate, I don’t believe in karmic dominos, but I do believe that it’s better to do something and that it is always best to go to things. And when you do, I think that phrase about something stirring in the air is right.

Besides, the alternative is to just sit there, stewing in a paralysis, and I’m a freelance writer, I’ve done enough of that for a lifetime.

Nothing comes from nothing

Compare and contrast, would you? Earlier this year I worked at a media careers fair where certain schools had pulled out and refused to allow their students to attend. It wasn’t any complaint against the fair, it was something to do with the cost of getting them there and the staff time it was going to take up. Whatever. The key thing is that a handful of those students came anyway.

I don’t know if they lied to their teachers, I don’t know if they pulled a sickie, I just know that effectively they said screw the school, we need this. And they did something about what they needed.

No question: you know they’ll go far and you would hire them on the spot.

Then last night I was talking with some university writing students and they were great: I mean, they were funny and cheery and they’d come some distance to attend a Royal Television Society event. But they also told me about a problem they’d had which is that they’d been assigned to write substantial projects in groups and some of the other writers didn’t always show up.

Now, they were adamant that some of those writers had really good reasons to be absent but these were their friends they were talking about and they were nice about them.

I’m not.

You don’t show up, you don’t matter.

I’ve always believed that the show comes first. All that’s changed as I’ve got older is that I’m more careful which show I pick. Once you’ve agreed to do it, though, you’re doing it. That seems so obvious to me when in my case I’m being paid but these absent students have spent a lot of money to study at university so if money were the only factor, you’d expect them to be making the most of their investment.

Apparently the university knows as well as you do that some writers are going to let their colleagues down and actually that’s part of the teachable moment. And as one of the two I talked with described what she’d had to do, I did realise that she’d just learned a little about becoming a producer.

That’s great for her but it happened because she showed up.

I have no idea whether her writing is any good or not. But you do know that it’s better than the writing these absent writers failed to do.

My first broadcast writing

I may be overstating this. The first time you could ever have heard something I wrote be broadcast was 14 March 1987 on BBC2. It was in an episode of a show called Micro Live which was part of the BBC’s Computer Literacy Project. I am not credited, but as it was live I can also know precisely where I was on that day from 18:25-18:55 or so. BBC Television Centre, which I wouldn’t come to think of as home until just shy of a decade later.

Micro Live that week featured the then-new idea of desktop publishing and at the time I was working for a firm that made one of these DTP systems. You’ve never heard of it. I’ve just sat here for twenty minutes trying to remember it. The world was not shaken by this firm, let’s leave it there.

Whereas it was shaken, according to Micro Live, by Apple. It’s weird now to see that episode and how it would’ve been the first time I’d ever come across a Mac. If one could only realise how integral to your work a box in the corner could become.

As for the other box in the corner, the television, well, I think I’ve left you waiting long enough. I can quote to you my entire contribution to that episode because it is just about exactly half a sentence long. Presenter Ian McNaught-Davis was supposed to say that Apple was the first computer company in publishing and no, excuse me, it wasn’t.

Everything he was going to say about what Apple actually did was true but it was far from accurate to say they were the first.

So now if you should manage to track down an obscure TV show from 31 years ago, you would be able to see and hear McNaught-Davis instead begin his speech with the words: “Of course there were computers in publishing before, but…”

What are the odds that you’d ever be able to check this? Remarkably high, as it happens, because it only requires you to click a couple of times.

For this week the BBC released every episode of Micro Live and all the other shows in the Computer Literacy project online. Every minute of it. Here’s my episode.

Excuse me while I remember being very young and rather nervous but adamant that the script be accurate. Not everything changes, then.

Against the grain

I want to offer an idea and see what you think. It’s mostly this: writing is like carpentry.

You’re already thinking about solid, robust construction and I imagine the word veneer isn’t far away from your mind. It would be great if you also thought about craft and skill and talent and art.

I want to think about the reader, though.

When you’re reading something, I offer that it’s like running your hand over a piece of food and specifically that it is like doing so against the grain.

Maybe it’s a little bumpy but certainly you catch your skin on the burrs and cuts and imperfections.

Then when you’ve finished reading, I think good writing should be like running your hand back across the wood and this time in the direction of the grain.

This time everything perfectly smooth.

No surprises and no cuts on the way back. As many cuts and scrapes and pains on the way forward.

It’s only a thought. And as well as suggesting that writing should be surprising until the reader looks back and sees how it makes sense, I’m also offering that writing needs to be that crafted and to look as if it isn’t at all.