Thursday, June 27, 2013

How to start writing on bad days

Maybe you have too much to do. Maybe it’s the opposite and every project you had out there has just been rejected and you feel like you’re having to start all over again. You are. So one quick way to slightly alleviate a certain type of bad day is to always have something else out with an editor or a producer. You can’t do it every time and the chance of book schedules, magazine lead times, Cannes and offers rounds means you will sometimes get that massive pile landing at the same moment. But reduce the odds by taking your breaks midway through projects rather than in between them: it’s not the greatest bandaid in the world that you’re deep into the next thing when a rejection comes, but it is the only bandaid in the world.

Starting over from nothing is similar to having too much to do: you can be overwhelmed with the certainty that actually there’s no point. You think that you cannot get everything finished and you’re certain that you can’t do another giant writing project today.

As a species, we writers are also a bit prone to depression. People who don’t have this seem to believe that it can be fixed by a tickling stick where of course you can really be paralysed by depression at any time. There isn’t a connection between depression and how happy you are yet there is a connection the other way. You can’t make depression better but you can readily make it worse. Depression on a bad day is like an anvil with a knife on it.

So maybe you’re facing this busy mountain or this empty valley, maybe you’re low and if you are depressed then you’ll be feeling it physically too, so everything screams at you that it is impossible to get through this. That it is impossible to get this work done.

The knife is that it’s true.

You may not be in the mood to hear this and you may be under such pressure that you don’t have time to hear it, but you will not magically get everything done because of what I'm going to show you here.

Sorry. I’d like to give you two aspirin and tell you to call me in the morning but you’re a writer, I can’t fool you. And the sooner that we can accept that overwhelming impossibility is impossible for a reason, the sooner we can start whelming.

So here’s the thing. You won’t get it all done but you will get it all started and the time you’re spending now in a tizzy or having to hold your chest to stop the anxiety will be much better spent starting the work. Just starting it. At the beginning, that looks pointless enough to make you sick: the walk of a thousand miles ends with a million steps. But getting started in any way is like ignition: it takes more power to start an engine than to keep it going. And once the engine is going, it wants to keep moving forward.

And what’s more, you may have these pressures and burdens because you’re a writer but you have certain advantages too. You’re a writer: you can fool yourself. I just need you to fool yourself in the same way I do.

You know how parents who also have demanding jobs – so they’ve really got two demanding jobs – can actually find the office work relaxing? There are all these issues of balancing work and life, family and career, and if you have kids you want to be with them and every ignorant bastard seems to blame you if you’re a woman who’s not at home. But in the moment, day to day, when you get to the office, it feels relaxing. That’s because you’re supposed to be there. This is exactly what you are supposed to be doing and there is no option about it for the next eight to ten hours. A gigantic amount of misery comes from constant struggles over whether you’re doing the right thing at the right time: you burn up the day churning instead of doing anything. So that clock, that salary, those office hours, they may dump incredible stresses on you but they take that one away and it’s gigantic.

It’s not as if all this is strictly true, either. If your kid had an accident you’d be out of that office meeting at lightspeed and bollocks to anyone who complains about it. But there is enough truth in it, enough reality to the timetable and the contract that it works. What you need to do is conjure up that same truth for yourself today. Especially if today is a bad day.

So if you're having a bad one today – whether with your writing or at any job holding you back from writing – just do exactly this right now:

Write down the first five things on your mind. Doesn't matter if it's a writing problem or it's fixing your boiler or a task your non-writing employer wants, just make a note.

Now spend the next hour doing the first thing you wrote down. No debate, no pondering. You wrote it, you do it. You do that and nothing else.

In an hour, put that work away mid-thought.

Spend the next hour doing only the second thing.

Rinse, repeat. But don’t look back. You can have tea. But don’t look back.

The trick of it is only that if you accept that for the next hour you are solely and exclusively doing this one particular thing, it stops you thinking about all the others. Those other things are not your job, not your concern, this is. It is a trick and it isn’t automatic or easy, and it also has the kicker that somewhere around 40 minutes in you will long to get out of this bloody thing and go on to the next or anything else. But if you make yourself work on for those last 20 minutes, it helps make this feel real. It also makes you deep-mine yourself and you can end up writing your best material in the last stretch.

Which you’d think would mean you should then carry on until you finish.


At the end of the hour, stop it and move on. Don’t look back at that last hour, don’t pat yourself on the back or criticise yourself, it’s done. Gone. And now don’t plan the next hour, don’t look ahead to the rest of the day, just take that next thing from the top of your list and now that is solely and exclusively what you are doing for sixty minutes.

The odds are that you will finish some things in each of these hours but it’s almost better when you don’t. Because it’s like novelists who end the day by writing the first line of the next chapter and so know that will get them started tomorrow morning. You probably don’t have time to walk away from all of your writing for a day, but doing this brutal cease-and-desist at the end of the hour means you’re leaving that project with energy and with it all alive in your head. And it means you’re ending the hour before you fade away. All that energy goes into the next project and then at the end of that hour, you’re out before you burn out.

I’m not saying you have to be Sellotaped to your keyboard for the hour, all writing is fueled by vices and on a bad day you need that caffeine or sugar more than ever. But bring the biscuits and the coffee to the desk and get on with it. Sod crumbs. Clean up the mess later, you’re working now.

At the end of the five hours, you will not have completed your work, you will not have met all your pressures and deadlines, you won’t have magically launched an entire new writing project.

But you will be so far ahead of where you were at the start. And typically you’ll still have time left in the day to finish some of the five.

You would imagine that the aim of all this is to get these things done but really it’s about the immense psychological benefits of being that far forward. You had these five things that were impossible, paralysing mountains and now you have these same five things but you’re energetic and alive to them all – and you have made substantial progress too.

Substantial is a relative thing. Stephen King does 2,000 words every morning. James Joyce used to say that “three sentences” was a great day. If you do all this productive concentrating and the product of each hour’s productivity is a single page per project then yes, so, and? That’s a single page you didn’t have at the start.

All of which sounds good and is good but there's a bit of you bristling at the idea of following steps and procedures and rules and orders. We're writers. We don't like any of that.

I’m a writer who doesn’t like outlines and hates writing treatments because I feel I’d rather explore the story on the page. But when I do a Doctor Who audio for Big Finish, for example, I have to do a treatment because that’s what determines whether I get to go on to write the script. Similarly, I’m not a big fan of Robert McKee’s rules but without my trying, the drama I write does tend to fall into the three acts he says it should.

Then within a story we set up certain rules for ourselves and our characters. For example, you know that audiences would feel more than a little cheated if the blind watchmaker with his seven sons – sure an’ they all have a tale to tell – gets out of trouble because he can suddenly see.

We don’t like rules, we don’t like constraints, but we use them. We make them. Writing on a bad day, writing when we don't want to but we have no choice, is just making some rules for ourselves and sticking to them.

Listen, I don't know if this will help or even interest, but I started this blog earlier in the week when I was having one such very bad day. I did exactly what I told you here and at the end of the first hour, I had a draft of all of this and moreover I went running energetically into the next hour. That one was a horrible mountain of phone calls and contracts and politics that I wanted to run away from but instead I boomed through the lot and out the other side into a deeply-needed lunch.

Man, it was a good lunch. Bacon sandwiches are loud and they never taste better than when you've earned them.

Excerpt from the forthcoming book Productivity for Creative Writers, published September 2013

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Your crimes are important to us, please hold

Hello, you recently met with the West Midlands police: do you have a few moments to answer some questions for me today, please?

I see, you have a lot of time. Okay, thank you. I need to tell you - no, it's not the same as that. No. All I need to tell you is that these customer calls are recorded and will be reviewed by senior police staff who take your concerns very seriously.

You bet they do. Yes. Well, indeed, that's very good. Now, thinking of only your most recent meeting with the police, would you say you were happy with how you were treated, unhappy with how you were treated or not sure?

I'm afraid it has to be one of the three.

Happy, unhappy, not sure.

I'll call that unhappy, is that okay? Thank you.

Now, thinking only of this most recent event, how happy, unhappy or not sure would you say you are about the time you had to wait for the police?

I'll call that unhappy too, shall I?

And how long did you have to wait?

I'm afraid I can't take comments about the, ah, 'snitch'. I'm only asking about the police. They were waiting for you, I see. I'll put that down as 'under an hour '.

Did the officers call you by name?

Did they make you feel welcome and valued?

Thinking only of the moments before they shot you, then, did the officers seem fully engaged with your needs?

They haven't provided a helicopter and an iPad mini, I see. But in terms of the transaction you were expecting - I'll just put that down as no.

On a scale of 1 to 10 where 1 is definitely not and 10 is definitely yes, how likely are you to recommend the West Midlands police force to your hostages?

Friday, June 14, 2013


This was only meant to be a joke. I write the blog to talk to you but a couple of weeks ago the Birmingham Rep reprinted one entry, then the Writers' Guild did another one and I could see numbers going up. It was nice. As ever, my mind wandered to getting us all biscuits. But then last week I dissed Star Trek Into Darkness and within the day had doubled the number of people who'd read the blog in the whole week before.

Well, I said. Next time I'll write about sex and see what happens.

And that was about as far as the thought got. I did ponder being serious and giving you advice or maybe even reaching deep down inside myself to reveal some of those desires we all have. Possibly even admit a fantasy to you. I'm not ashamed of this: there is a sexual position I'd like to try. It's nothing very kinky, it's just that maybe one day during sex, I think I'd like to be present.

But then writing that line made me think about how you'd have to search really hard to find any sex in anything I write. This could well be because I write Doctor Who audio dramas and, please, it's a family show. And there's not a huge amount of sex in Radio Times magazine.

Only, even thinking back through my script pile, sex doesn't feature much at all. I do remember a friend complaining that nothing happens in a particular script of mine – ooh, it was called Other Women: I like that title, I must use that again somewhere; oh, look, I just have – and he moaned that it was just people talking or having sex. We'd swapped scripts at that point and his had nothing happening either: just the end of the world, or the universe, or something. I remember alien tentacles. And he was right about Other Women: unless you were interested in the people, they weren't interesting and nothing happened. Similarly, I wasn't interested in his characters so let the world end, or the universe, or something.

Sex isn't interesting. Not in TV or film.

I mean it. Will they/won't they tension is remarkably powerful but once they do/did, it's all over. Certainly the tension, often the series, always the movie.

Equally, if someone takes their clothes off in a film, I don't think you're watching a character any more, I think you're noticing the actor's body. Even if only for a moment. I don't know. It could be a male thing, it could be a me thing.

But Dar Williams said something especially smart once. I haven't been able to find the quote for you so I'll have to paraphrase – and I'll also have to set it up less eloquently. She wrote a tremendously moving and deceptively simple song called When I Was a Boy. I'd quote you the whole thing because it's as intricate and powerful as a poem but the key lines for today are:
I was a kid that you would like, just a small boy on her bike
Riding topless, yeah, I never cared who saw.
My neighbor come outside to say, "Get your shirt,"
I said "No way, it's the last time I'm not breaking any law."
Notice the 'small boy on her bike'. It's not a mistake. It's another case of a writer using the wrong word and thereby making a far more powerful point. But you need to hear the whole song for that. For now, the story continues.

Some years after writing this song, Williams was performing it at a festival. I want to say Lilith Fair but I'm not sure. I want to say that it was an all- or a mostly-women event. The Lilith Fair concerts didn't exclude men from the audience, did they? I adore the music from those concerts. Anyway, whatever the festival, this particular gig was at least very much mostly women in the audience and Williams says she thought about taking her top off during that song.

But she didn't.

Because there were cameras.

And here's the thing I think was so smart, so perceptive: she said that cameras are male.

It could be ten years since she said that and I still think about it.

I can't let you out of a story. If I've actually managed to get you into a tale or even into this blog's nattering, the idea of deliberately chucking you out is abhorrent. And I think sex, shown on screen, does exactly that. I suspect that if I looked, I might – might – just possibly be able to find you a dodgy photo on the internet. I know, it's unlikely. But if I ever did manage to do it, you know that posting it here as some kind of an example would change the blog totally. You would see that image before you read a word and this would no longer be about drama or even sex, it would be about Page 3 porn and the like.

Sex increases the ratings but it changes the content and it decreases the drama.

For me, anyway.

But this fascinates me because one reason I write about people instead of the universe ending in tentacle-based peril is sex. Let me pin it down more precisely: I find immense, seismic drama in the instant before sex.

We are all this cauldron of desires and fears and for most of the day we go around hiding both from everyone. We cover ourselves in clothes and an awful lot of pretence. I hesitated over telling you that gag about my favourite sexual position being "present" because for it to work at all, I needed you to believe I could be telling you the truth right up to that word. That was difficult. But then it's supposed to be. Drama is difficult, drama is telling the truth. Not necessarily telling you something real, but telling each of us something true even as we are lying.

And so there we are, wrapped in our clothes and our culture and our neuroses and we are so practiced at it all that it would surely take dynamite to break through to the real us.

Yet there is dynamite. Thank god there's dynamite.

There's a reason I think we use the word naked. It does mean nude but it also, to me, means more than clothes being opened or shed, it means us being opened. Revealing our skin is revealing what's under that skin, what's inside us. It means revealing our desire. Our hope. Fear.

Desire is the dynamite. Wanting someone in a way that's more like your very body and soul yearning than it is your mind thinking or being at all rational. The complete need for this person. The need that makes you blush, makes you incoherent.

And if it's dynamite for opening us up, it is primacord explosive wrapped around your waist because of the risk. Admitting your desire to yourself is one thing, but admitting it to this other person is geometrically, exponentially, infinitely harder. You're laying yourself bare and all of the power of your cauldron is irrevocably put in their hands. In every physical and emotional way, you are giving yourself to them and in that instant they may reject you.

There's no going back from that: you can try saying you were kidding, but nobody's ever kidded.

It is do or die inside.

So I find romances and romcoms deliciously tense. That's silly, even preposterous of me because there surely has never been a modern romance tale that didn't end happily. But as the couple tentatively lean in for that first kiss, I feel like they're playing with live ammunition.

These are terribly male types of analogies and metaphors, aren't they? I'm not trying to be masculine writing about romcoms, I just don't know another way to convey the totality of the damage done by rejected love and desire.

Also, I've just realised why I wrote the qualifying word 'modern' back there. Wuthering Heights. Oh, my lights, the power in that novel. Emily Bronte knew all this stuff, even if she did write weird narrative structures and never thought to include tentacles.

When I watch a romance, a romcom, a drama, I am truly edge-of-seat until the first kiss. After that, I'm not fussed. Sex, nudity, cor, phroaw, whatever, do what you like. Have an orgy on screen for all I care. I'm not saying I'm either prudish or even trying to claim that I am somehow immune to body parts, but sex on film isn't explosive, it isn't story, it just isn't drama.

I started writing this to you as a gag and yet I've actually learnt something about myself: I've learnt that although I have mocked films before for cutting to rippling waves on the ocean or whatever, it turns out that I am actually quite fine with a kiss and –


Thursday, June 06, 2013

Star Trek: Don't Give Away the Goods Too Soon

There's a contrived, gratuitous underwear scene in Star Trek Into Darkness and I didn't notice. I saw the film on a giant screen and in 3D and I am male but I did not register a scene with Alice Eve as Dr Carol Marcus wearing considerably less than a Starfleet-issue uniform. I keep hearing references to it now but it was only when some review included a still from it that I remembered it was there at all.

I obviously saw it, I have zero doubt that I shook my head at the whole thing when it happened. And you can bet that one reason it all left my head instantly was that we see so many women characters wearing so little in so many films. It's just because full costumes are expensive. That's the reason. Austerity.

But the other reason that it left my head a frame later is that Carol Marcus is just not a character. There's nothing there. She ultimately provides a plot point but what's then meant to be deeply emotional is just a bit of a shrug because after most of the film is done, I still have no interest in her. I do remember having that brief kind of half squint, half blink you get when you're trying to work something out: I remember thinking 'why are they doing this?' during her introduction scene. I'll accept anything in a film, anything at all, unless it throws me out of the story and I was a little thrown.

Part of me doesn't want to tell you why because I'm reluctant to spoil a film, but that's silly of me as I'm about to wreck it. And I'm wrecking it because by the end, I wasn't thrown, I was drop-kicked out of the movie. Star Trek Into Darkness has myriad problems and they are all well reported online, but there is one writing issue that I think is a knife and I'm not seeing that mentioned anywhere.

So I'm mentioning it. Alongside mixed metaphors about drop-kicked knives.

Here's an amusing list of the film's head-scratching moments: you'll laugh more if you read it after seeing the movie, but you'll save money if you read it before.

And here's Star Trek writer David Mack exploding about the failed science in the movie. For all that I think science should always be correct in a story, I'm really against the science in this one because it makes so little sense that it damages the tale. You know that Star Trek is all about these spaceships flying around where nobody's yet got to and you know it's all about whether Captain Kirk can save the day against impossible odds and whether he can even live to fight another day though you suspect he just might. By the end of Star Trek Into Darkness, there is no need for any spaceship ever again and nobody can ever die ever again. Ever. And you will swear that the filmmakers didn't notice they'd done that.

I noticed it. I also noticed the time a lot. The 3D process makes films considerably darker and that was a problem because it made checking my watch really difficult.

I didn't initially see this writing issue that now so bothers me but that was because it came at the end. Up until then I was just getting progressively more irritated in general. I really enjoyed 2009's Star Trek and hadn't expected to: it made me a Trek convert and I came to this one very enthusiastically. But there's a bit early on that's a nice little nod to something in the old Star Trek movies and TV shows.

And then there's another nod.

And another.

Then there's a contorted speech that I could hear went down really well with the fans sitting behind me because it referenced a popular episode I do remember seeing some time. Okay.

Only, then there was another.

And if there is one reason that next time I'll wait for the reviews before seeing a Star Trek movie, it's because these references and homages built and built until whole scenes, whole sequences of scenes were remakes of famous moments from old ones. It gets so bad I was thinking "And… cue Spock…" just as he did precisely what you expect him to do. With the very dialogue you expect him to have.

It's a giant emotional scene toward the climax and it is stunningly irritating and empty because all you can think of is that you've seen this before somewhere and it was alright then. The sequence revolves around the death of a major character and death has no impact in Star Trek anyway: I'm sure a real fan could tell me when a character has died and not come back to life next week but I don't know of one. This time it is especially empty because of this pastiche sequence but also because it comes after a risible scene where Kirk abruptly and insanely interrupts an interrogation to ask Dr McCoy "What are you working on that will save my life later?"

He doesn't quite say that but it's only a pixel more subtle. I laughed and the wall of fans behind me growled. I like to think they were growling with me, not at me.

So anyway, we're into the final parts of the film and I am no longer in the story, I am also completely out of Maltesers and having a rotten time, and then they do this. They have a very exciting end sequence and it is completely destroyed because of what happened in the film's very exciting opening sequence.

Follow. When the film begins and we're on some planet or other, the USS Enterprise has been hiding under the ocean. You know in your heart that this doesn't make sense somehow but it's still very exciting as the ship rises up from the sea and flies off across the sky before heading out into space. It's very well done, it looks real, you could clap.

Only, then the end sequence is all about the USS Enterprise starting off in space and, damaged, now falling toward Earth. It's going to hit atmosphere, this spaceship is going to be flying through the sky.

Yes? And? So?

We've seen that, we know the ship can fly really realistically across the sky, it's great. But now we have to buy that this is suddenly a Calamitous Bad Thing when it was Perfectly Fine Before.

Writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman try to turn this into a devastatingly, heart-stoppingly thrilling moment by having some character or other actually say: "This bit's exciting, I know we did this earlier but now it's completely different and we're in such danger, I can't tell you, man, we could even die and everything".

There's a writing maxim that you should show rather than tell and I don't agree 100% – there's a fantastic example in Battlestar Galactica where the telling of a tale is riveting and the later showing of it it is a bit boring – but I think I agree 98%. Star Trek Into Darkness has what should have been and really could have been, actually was, a huge finish with little emotion but buckets of spectacle. Telling us that it's exciting is like trying to put a bandaid on when you really know you should've thrown away that opening sequence.

In television, if the start doesn't grab or seduce you into the story enough, you've changed channels. In films, you're there to the end and it's the end that's in your mind and heart when you leave the cinema. I don't know, maybe I would've walked out of there thinking the film had problems but was exciting. But instead I just walked out of there irritated.

The opening sequence unquestionably cost more millions of dollars than I can imagine, and I can imagine quite a bit, but the film was hurt by it. And if they'd cut it at the script stage, the cost would've been no more than wear and tear on the delete key.

I don't go to films to get writing lessons, I go to be in the story but when you're not, you take what you can. And I've taken away a writing lesson: don't give the goods away too soon.