Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Contains emotional intense scenes

On the Mac in my office, there's a half-written review of my 2008. I made some notes on my iPhone too. But here, sitting in front of my PowerBook, I realise one thing: I have too many computers.

And I'll delete all of it because I also realise that there really is only one thing to say: Angela's breast cancer has been treated and, so far as you can ever get anything like an all-clear, the treatment has done its job.

So, see you in 2009?

Okay, well. This time last year I wrote a huge amount about quite a little; it was all success, success and three times success but primarily so that I could then slap you with the news of Angela's diagnosis. I like a punchline. When I thought about the year ahead, rather than just day-to-day and appointment-to-appointment, it was to mentally write the whole of 2008 off. But it's been a stubborn bugger of a year and a great deal of it seems to have been rather successful again, almost as if it's in spite of me.

Well, I say that and I don't believe it: this year I have obviously looked after Angela before anything else yet still I've had three stage play productions, worked on two new magazines, become a finalist in one contest. Plus the annual dance around BBC Radio 4 just seemed to be more fun this time. I won a spot on an invitation-only BBC Writers' Room course.  I did a Doctor Who blog that became the most popular read on the RadioTimes.com website. I shot short films for Radio Times, worked on commercial DVDs, I've had an overwhelming worldwide reaction to a casual aside I made that I might give up doing the UK DVD Review podcast.

And it's all come from pitching every day. Every working day for the year.

It might not have been much: I counted meetings, phone calls, emails, script submissions, contest entries, all sorts of things as being the pitch for the day but I did it. Well, I have one more to do but I suspect I'll manage.

If I'm to be 100% honest, I should tell you that I have also managed to lose a lot of work this year: quite a bit of Radio Times magazine work went away - all for quite fine reasons, all very amicable and fine, but still I do miss some of it. But then you compare the loss of On This Day to the time I had to hold Angela upright in the chair at the GP surgery. How she had a bad allergic reaction to one of the chemotherapy drugs and because I raised the alarm, the entire medical staff ran to her with a crash-cart. You can live without On This Day.

Still, it's been tremendous having readers complain to RT. One woman from Sussex, I think, phoned the reader services department to say she'd seen I wasn't writing the feature and wanted to ask if I were okay.

I used to think that work was everything and, well, I still do. But we're writers, we can handle contradictions: I simultaneously think that people are everything. I said I pitched every day; sometimes I'd forget that was what I was doing. The people on Doctor Who Adventures magazine, for instance, are just so nice I amble over to see them when I can and probably I ought to be bringing ideas, I ought to have had a Pitch In Mind. Often enough I have, I suppose, but usually it's an amble. Similarly with Radio 4, I think: there are producers in R4 whose work is fantastic and I just enjoy talking with them. Radio's a funny world: I did have a proper pitch meeting with a radio producer and it looks like I will get the work I was after, but the best bit was nattering about radio in general. For a couple of hours.

Which is what I'll end up doing with you if I don't shut up. I did just write you a few hundred more words about all the great things that have happened with my work this year, but let me skip: in so many ways, and for so many obvious reasons, I'm ready to move on from 2008.

But some years won't let you go easily. Like 1983. Follow: I went to the Longleat Doctor Who thing in 1983 and this week I learn from a DVD feature about it that there were 70,000 people over the two days of the event. If you don't know about this event, Who writer Paul Cornell described it only mildly-jokingly as Doctor Who's Woodstock.

Now of those 35,000 each day, I'm on the 25th Anniversary DVD of Doctor Who: The Five Doctors. Imagine my jaw flapping about as I watched this DVD a few days ago. Have a look:

I have rarely had so much hair. Or a duffel coat.

Normally, I've got to tell you, I don't like photographs from that long ago. I'm not keen on one taken 20 minutes back. But seeing myself at Longleat like that, so unexpectedly, I don't know: I'm just sure that the me back then would be pleased at the me I am now.

Though if we could've just had a natter, I'd have told me to tell me to hurry up. And to get Angela's breast examined earlier.

That's the reason I'm glad to be done with 2008. But I'm also looking forward to 2009 for all the work that's ahead of me - and because I'm going back to New York City in May.

Have a good new year,

PS I figured out Blogger's location-aware bits. And how to make it lie.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Location aware

I'm in a cottage that would suit Wuthering Heights - well, bar the wireless broadband, the Sky Freesat and a kitchen to dine for - but otherwise, Bronte territory. Well, I say her territory, it's actually the Lake District.

Okay, I'm in a place called Stone Cottage but whirling around outside is a storm the like of which Cathy would feel at home. The view out of the window is the same as the view inside: the night is so dark the windows are like mirrors. And they got that dark around 4pm this afternoon.

It's only December 15 but since I'm on a holiday that has been planned all year, that is something Angela has been looking forward to all year, and since it's been a chemotherapy-laden year, I'm now so relaxed that I feel 2008 is over. It helps that I just did an end-of-year edition of UK DVD Review.

For which I've got to thank all the listeners who came on: I've thanked them personally but they're so good on the show, they should be shouted about here. Have a listen to them all in the best edition I've done all year.

What's great for me is that while you only hear a minute or two of each person, I got to have a great blather with them all. In each case I could've played out twice as much as I did, it was difficult to slice in and out to keep the show flying.

In one such conversation, Richard Smith brought up the topic of how I apparently sound as if I'm talking just to you, not to some large group. I think that's the greatest compliment I can remember: it's how I believe radio should be done, it's how I think it's best and why radio is so great, and it's of course what I always aim for.

Can't bear the zoo format where a presenter has a posse and we're blessed to be listening in. Even when there is a pair of presenters, it's rarely good for me. In the eighties there was suddenly a fashion for TV shows to be fronted by two hosts who, basically, told each other what was going on. I could never watch that without thinking the other fella should've paid more attention in rehearsals.

Anyway, I slugged this entry Location Aware. Do you know the term? Obviously you understand it but it happens to be what iPhone applications are called when they do something that requires them to know where you are. The great Vicinity, for instance, uses GPS to check where you are and then offers you lists of the nearest banks, restaurants, hotels, endless other things.

And now Blogger is location aware. Hang on, I have to press a button.

Oh. I pressed it. Has anything happened? I'm in Patterdale, Cumbria, and you may or may not see a map of this. I'm not excited yet.

This relaxing lark is so complicated.


Friday, December 05, 2008

"Mounting to dangerous heights and travelling into the vast inane"

That's a quote and a half of full cream milk, isn't it? You'd put it on a sweatshirt if it didn't need XXL to get all the words on. That may not remain a problem for me for as long as I'd hope.

And there's a way to find the words "vast inane" a little insulting. There's a way to find "dangerous heights" a little cocky. But right now, as I'm working on end of year stuff and so getting all reflective, it's hard not to think of 2008 as having seen some serious career climbing progression. Normally, I would be shrugging at you about now: my own mother does not maintain a chart of my progress, why would I imagine you'd be interested? It'd be nice if she did. Anyway.

Part of it does involve getting into the finals of the Red Planet contest. And there won't be news on that until next year so there's plenty of exciting pratfall potential in any boasting I might do about getting this far. That's one thing.

And there's that quote, "mounting to dangerous heights and travelling into the vast inane", which is an old favourite and which you are a wee bit intrigued about. I like the unintended sense of it that achievement is ridiculous, that perhaps we choose what we call achievement and that this, the choosing, is part of our great inanity.

It doesn't actually mean any of that. Talk about reading things into something.

The quote is really from Pao Phu Tao by Ko Hung - I can hear you go "Ah!" - and it is believed to be the earliest reference to helicopters, to rotary flight. It was written sometime in the fourth century AD and t'was but a short step from there to Airwolf.

My Red Planet submission is called Wasps and it's set, primarily, in the air with said helicopters and the police people who fly a lot of them. And I didn't realise it until the day I got the email about being in the finals that my very first script, the first screenplay I completed, was also about helicopters. In fact, if Wasps ever went to series, the things that have to happen in episode 2 happened in The Strawberry Thief some years ago.

I need you to know that no piece I've written in between these two has featured helicopters at all. I'm not, well, strange about them. I have flown them, but rotor time is so expensive I can't claim the lessons I had amounted to much at all. Still, watching the whole world tilt under your feet, and knowing it's your cack-handed use of the controls, that's the most exciting way I've ever had to make myself feel sick. And there was metaphor even in lesson 1: my instructor told me I was a natural at hovering.

Anyway. Red Planet means a huge amount to me because it's precisely, I mean to the nickel, about the type of writing I want to do. I've said it before, if the prize also included a bacon sandwich and an iPhone, I'd be convinced the whole thing was invented for me.

So to get some affirmation, even just this amount, that I can do the thing I want to do, is of course a dangerous height. To have it over a piece whose roots go back that far and which effectively charts my progression as a writer more than my mother does, that's got to have a little bit of a deliciously vast inane.

Funny thing: Wasps is the most commercial thing I've ever written, but it's simultaneously the least. I mean I hope it's high drama but I think it's more low cunning, and if I have better characters and dialogue than any helicopter TV show since Whirlybirds, that's not a bleedin' difficult thing to do. But just putting a helicopter in is expensive. Doing the things I need them to do, priceless.

And the week my best action thriller script ever got this little spot of recognition happened to be the week I wrote my most acutely personal, non-commercial, bitterly felt stage writing. I wrote a piece that was frightening. Not the subject matter or how I was doing it, really, but having this piece inside me and having to get it out, having to. But simultaneously being honestly scared of it. The phone would ring and I'd grab it, glad to escape the writing. And then if the call went on too long, I was frightened that I'd lose the moment and be unable to carry on writing.

I was honestly feeling pale from the writing. And it's funny that I should keep using the word "honestly" because I think that was the thing. It's the most honest, truthful, unpleasantly raw piece I've done. All writing is a peek into someone's soul, or at least into their view of the world, and it's a good thing if the reader catches you bleeding. What I didn't really feel until this piece was that you can do this, I can seemingly do this, I can make a piece so raw it is painful and yet it's fiction. An utter lie.

How can truthful writing be all lies? Ask me last month and I couldn't have told you. Ask me now and I still can't, but I can write it.

So this is why I'm unexpectedly seeing 2008 as a year of dangerous heights. I fully accept that as heights go, it's not that dangerous, that it's less mountaineering and more an exercise step class, but I'm hoping that means 2009 will entail more climbing.

I'd mentally written 2008 off, right back in 2007: I knew the year would be taken up with Angela's chemotherapy. And it's bizarrely great to tell you that now, this moment, she's in the kitchen sorting out a delivery of fish. I loathe fish, I especially hate cooking the stuff, touching it, smelling it, but I did it often enough during the year. What I mean is that she's well enough to stand, that she's doing what she wants to do instead of at times being unable to move. And though there's a way to go, when I think of what some of the chemo drugs could've done, it makes dangerous heights and vast inanes feel smaller. (A single example: one drug she had to take has been known, commonly, to remove all feeling from your finger tips for a decade.)

So. I'm surprised that 2008 went as well for my writing as it has - previously on 2008: Red Planet you know about, this personal honest writing lark too, but also two produced stage plays and one big fat not, also getting new journalism work including on Doctor Who Adventures magazine, which may be my favourite thing of the year.

Now 2009 feels wide open, unbound, unconstrained. If Red Planet would like to hire me on January 1 that would be okay. And, hey, I have the story for episode 2 ready to go.


Thursday, December 04, 2008

Now entering Damascus: Please Drive Carefully

You like ebooks, you're an eejit. You think novels on dinky screens are great, you're mad. And now, as of midafternoon today, I am amazed and a little apologetic to say I stand beside you.

I've been reading Pride & Prejudice on my iPhone.

Look, it's not like I haven't had a go before. The idea of thousands of books where you had one before is simultaneously great and awful: I rather love having thousands of books. And no ebook reader has ever made me forget what a bleedin' tedious phrase "ebook reader" is. Just let me have the damn book, okay?

And Amazon's Kindle. Whose fault is that? I hear the screen is good, but it takes an age to turn a page and I read really, really and I'm going to say it a third time because at my reading speed this sentence is nowhere near long enough, really fast. Seriously: I never speed read, I do no trickery, I just happen to read at 600 words per minute. Back in the day, I used to type at 120wpm. You can imagine how handy this is in my game.

But this just means I am not even all that happy with turning real pages in real books; until I'm into it, that's another interruption, another distraction. With the Kindle, apparently you touch a corner of page and it gets around to it in its own time.

But then, the Kindle may be the ugliest device I've ever seen. You cannot, cannot hold even the display models I have and not put them right back on the shelf, thanks, goodbye, is that the time really?

Mind you, is 1970s crap the new black? I watch those TV ads for the DS Lite and I'm embarrassed: the graphics are right up there with BBC Micro, Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum ones at best. Celebrities play with these pieces of plastic and try not to look ashamed. Go ahead, look ashamed: there are some feelings one has to be true to and playing with plastic that Mattell would've rejected in 1944 is one of them.


I read a lot on my iPhone. I mean, a lot. An awful lot. At the least I read several hundred news stories a day via the news reader Manifesto. (Link opens up the App Store in iTunes.) And as dispiriting as it is to to see 1,780 or more unread artlcles sometimes, it's a bit more dispiriting to read 0. I get itchy. I'm on a train, I've read everything I have to read and there's either not enough battery power left in my iPhone to watch a movie or there are plenty enough people looking like they'd take the phone off my hands, no questions answered, I get itchy.

And Stanza is free from the App Store.

In the space of an afternoon, I'm converted. You don't expect me to say it's better than reading a book, but I didn't expect to be saying that it's good. I was lost in Pride & Prejudice the story, it was invisible to me that I was holding an iPhone and tapping for the next page. No scrolling, just a light tap and you move on. And it moves so fast that it doesn't delay me and my freakish reading speed.

This reminds me of when online bookstores were just coming along. The big argument was that they could never replace real bookshops and as we've seen the answer is that nope, they didn't. They didn't need to, either: you could now have a really good time browsing the world for books online, you could have a really good time in a bricks-and-mortar bookshop too. It became two lots of really good, and I like really good.

I expect you're partial to a bit of really good, too.

So there you go. This morning, never! This evening, ooh, what would Jane Austen say about this then?

Fortunately, we know the answer. From Austen's own private correspondence we can hear the woman herself speaking across all these years to ask about battery life on the iPhone and doesn't the Kindle look so very 16th Century?


Monday, December 01, 2008

The Simpsons get an Apple Store

What do you mean, I've had my head down writing, everybody's already seen this? It is spreading like bejaysis, but only because it's very good: Springfield Mall gets an Apple Store.