Thursday, August 29, 2013

Booking my space in the new Library of Birmingham

For many years I used to have this gig I particularly relished. I wrote a thing called On This Day in Radio Times magazine: in with the listings for each morning in the week, I'd have a little spot to write about broadcasting history. It was filler - literally. The pages had to have a spot where regional differences in TV schedules would be listed and only some Radio Times regions had those. Everyone else got On This Day.

It was bliss.

I can't remember what I was paid now but, always the professional, I worked out how long it meant I should spend on the job each week – and then completely ignored that. Always and forever, I'd spend vastly too much time on it and sometimes I would just go off on one having a blast researching old issues of Radio Times for the fun of it.

But I used to do this in Birmingham Central Library. It was for a few years, too, so while I knew the library before then, I really do now. I can close my eyes and take a little trip through every nook and cranny.

One day around March 2007, though, I was deep into the job and was reading features published in Radio Times on this day decades before. Actually, precisely 49 years before. I was writing copy that would be published in April 2007 and I devoted the entry to a show called My Word! which was airing in April 1958. It was a quiz show, very popular in its day but not especially remembered now. Yet it gave me a shiver and I quoted the start of the feature in On This Day:
"Drop in at Birmingham Reference Library almost any Friday and you will see a thick-set, bearded man poring over dictionaries and volumes of poetry."
Flash forward fifty years, substitute Radio Times for the poetry, shed the beard and a few pounds please, and some traditions continue: Birmingham Central Library’s cherished collection of RT is pored over by me for On This Day.

In 1958, though, the man was Edward J Mason, who devised the radio show My Word!, “a cross between a quiz and a riot” which began a new series tonight on the BBC Home service.
I wrote that in RT and I blogged about it here at the time because it gave me a good shiver. A nice one.The kind of shiver when you realise what you've just done. Because as I sat there on the fourth floor of Birmingham Central Library, I registered those words and I actually looked up. I looked up from my desk over to where Edward J Mason said he was sitting.

Not only wasn't he there but nor was the seat. Or the desk. Or, in fact, the library. Because the whole library had moved in the 1970s and that's why I'm telling you about this again today. Because the whole library is moving once more.

As of next week, the new Library of Birmingham opens and as much as I will miss the old one, there is a real thrill in the city. I have a meeting on Monday night and a colleague just sent his apologies: he's going to the opening event. I am green.

When I had this shiver back in 2007, it was to do with my being part of a long tradition. The idea that, sure, my work that matters so much to me won't matter a pixel to anyone when I'm gone but maybe there'll be someone else researching in the Library of Birmingham and coming across something I'd written. It'd be a message just between the two of us and I'd like to think that if it can't be useful or interesting, at least it'll say hello.

But the shiver I get today in 2013 is anticipation.

For not only is the new Library of Birmingham finally opening, but the Birmingham Rep is being recalled to life after years tucked away in various venues. The two are bonded together now and I expect to spend a considerable amount of time in these twin, bonded buildings in the very near future.

The really near future. Really near.

Because I'm booked to present at an event there.

On October 10, 2013, I will be presenting The Blank Screen: a workshop on productivity for creative writers. It's 18:00-20:30 in Room 103, Library of Birmingham and is part of the Birmingham Literary Festival. (Have a look here for details. It's presented in association with the Writers' Guild, it's £28 or £23 concessions. Bring pen and paper, okay? Not for notes. I've written a book just to save you needing to take notes. But you're going to work.)

We have a new library. And as much as I deeply loved the old one, that was where I used to do research for other people and by chance of when it's come, the new library is when I've moved on to doing more work for myself. My own research, my own books, my own yapping with you. I'm ready for the new place.

Yet I will miss the old one and I hope that I'll continue to imagine the long history of Birmingham writers all somehow breathing anew in the space.

But Room 103, eh? I don't know the room yet. Haven't a clue about it. I don't know the building yet. But I will.

Damn right I will.


Friday, August 23, 2013

Let them die

I'm trying to remember the last time a character died in a drama and didn't come back to life. This isn't a new thing – nuts, nuts, nuts, I've got the name of the first time it happened. It's on the tip of my tongue but, Jesus Christ, I can't recall.

But anyway, I think it's happening in dramas more now. Certainly I'm loathing it more.

It's not as if I like a good bloodbath. If something is more violent than my regular benchmark movie, The Muppets Take Manhattan, then I'm not automatically drawn to it. I'm not automatically against it, I'm not recoiling in fear the way I am with even the mildest horror story, but I don't think cor, I must see that.

It's not even as if I'm against a happy ending necessarily or that there isn't a part of my head that knows Captain Kirk will always survive whatever the latest life-or-death crisis is.

But now I don't just know in my heart of hearts that Kirk will survive, I know in my fact of facts that he can't die. Cannot. Nobody can ever be killed again in Star Trek because that was all fixed in the latest film. No more dying.

Therefore no jeopardy.

The only interesting thing now for me is seeing how they cope when one of the cast doesn't want to come back for another sequel.

Writers tell other writers that they must kill their darlings: you must be willing to delete your absolute favourite bits of the book or the script if that will be better for the whole. But we don't listen any more. Or maybe it's producers who think that's a stupid idea: you've got this character who everyone loves, everyone is riveted to, why wouldn't you bring him or her back to life so we can keep on enjoying them?

Because sooner or later, we stop enjoying them and it's over. Forever. We stop enjoying them and we stop watching the show.

Example. A bit of an odd example, but here goes. One of the few times I've watched Coronation Street was when there was a big court case legal story and the kick was that we knew the person on trial was innocent. The nation watched. I watched.

And today I can't tell you which character or what the story was because I switched off and have never gone back.

Because in the week of the big reveal, the big climax to the story, the producers were quoted in newspapers as saying that they would never let an injustice happen in the show. They would never allow an innocent to be convicted.

I do think it was the absolutely most stupid time to tell us that. But, more, it erased Corrie for me. Not just this particular story that I'd been enjoying, but all stories. Ever. I want to say that phrase from Down the Line: "What is point Corrie?"

There is now no story in Corrie that won't work out happily. True, it was never very likely but now it's official. I get very tense in romcoms even though they always end well because there is always a pixel of a possibility that they won't. I give you Lost in Translation. Er. That's about it.

So it's not much of a pixel of a chance of a sad ending. Oh! One Day. There you go.

I will watch and enjoy a series where I know everyone will at least scrape by to next week. I've written Doctor Who and there's not a moment's doubt that's the Doctor will prevail. But I don't kill him and bring him back.

Actually, I did one where a character survives. Originally I had planned for her to die but it was honestly too upsetting. Not for me. But it wasn't going to get made if it were that bleak. And I like the compromise we made, I like where we went instead of her dying. I liked very much what new possibilities it have us in the characters if she didn't die.

But if she had died, she'd have stayed dead. I promise.

I'm fine with: have they died or haven't they? I'm not fine with dying and then coming back. Not even when I'm glad about it. Not even when I loved the character and it is bliss to see them sitting up, coming through the door or stepping out of a shower.

Because all they had and all they were died with them. A reborn character is a new character and we're starting again. We're starting again with a character who has had the most almightily improbable beginning. When you care enough about a character, it's as if they are real. If they come back from the dead, there is now zero reality to them.

I didn't want them to go yet now they have to prove their worth to me anew and they have to get me back to seeing them as real. And it doesn't happen.

It's not like you have to kill characters off. But if you want us engaged, if you want us caring at all, let them die.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The moving finger types and, having typed, quickly saves your work

Okay, here's a thing. It's 5am and I'm at my desk. I know that I will spend at least the next twelve hours here, possibly fifteen. I will make myself take a lunch break, but the odds are that I'll spend it eating right where I am, watching or reading something on this Mac. There will also be many, many and indeed yes thrice many tea breaks. But I'll bet money that while I'm boiling the kettle, I'll be reading a book or looking up news on my phone.

So every moment of the day will look ridiculously identical. I told my mother yesterday that I'd passed a certain significant word count on a project and she asked if I'd had to press the buttons on my keyboard all that number of times. Yes, I said. "And the rest," I thought, as I decided not to tell her that I'd written and thrown away about as much again. It was rather a lot of words and she was thinking about RSI, but there was also this element that from her perspective, the job was sitting on this chair, pressing these buttons and that's all.

That is about all. And saying this to you now, I can see why she didn't exactly rush to start writing herself. I can see why this work might not appeal to you if you long to spend your days outside in the sun.

But from here, from this perspective, from my perspective, I'm not going to be looking at a screen at all. I'm not going to be typing all day. I'm certainly not going to be using a computer. Instead, I'm going to be writing a really difficult section of a book: my head will be in facts and sources and interviews and transcribing and describing and keeping an eye on whether any of it is libellous. I'm going to be designing a different book this afternoon. Then I'm preparing for a teleseminar I'm giving tomorrow.

And I'm going to be talking to you.

Here I am, there you are, what's not to enjoy about that?

I just worked this out because I'm curious and it was starting to bug me: today I only have to work on three projects but I will almost certainly use 26 software applications to do it. I've already used 9. Each one needed these keys, this screen, but it all feels so different. I didn't sit down at 5am thinking that I must switch on a computer. I sat down thinking I can't remember who I am or why I get up this early. Lit up by this rather huge screen, I just spent some time wondering where you were and what my name is.

Tea helped with that.

But even when I was fully caffeined-up and you had finally got out of bed so I didn't have to keep tiptoeing around, I didn't think the word 'computer'. Didn't consciously think that I must now open Evernote, Safari, Mail, Word, iTunes, InDesign, Muse, Photoshop, 1Password, Transcription, OmniFocus, OmniOutliner, iBooks Author, TextEdit, Pages, Preview, Reeder, Numbers and Excel. I just reached for that note I made yesterday, that thing I was going to tell you. I reached for a Suzanne Vega album. I did also grab for my headphones when I remembered that it's a bit early and I've got neighbours. That may be the fastest I move all day.

But while I don't think of this as using a computer and I sure as all certain hellfire do not think of anything I do as work, I do think a lot about the way my life goes through these 102 keys. I think about their cute QWERTY layout and why we have that, why French writers have AZERTY instead. I think about how Windows has a keyboard shortcut that lets you switch from QWERTY to AZERTY by accident and would then let you switch right back except the new layout means the bloody keys are not where they were and you cannot find the shortcut.

It fascinates me that while I'm looking at this blank screen, my fingers are typing away and all these words appear. It deeply, deeply fascinates me that the moving finger writes and occasionally holds down shift. I love that we have shift keys that no longer shift anything, they don't physically move the whole keyboard assembly up an inch so that it's a capital letter that strikes the page. I love that I'm kneading the keys, needing the keys, and in the moment that I pause, I'm unthinkingly pressing Apple-S. How the same key that put the letter S on the screen is, when pressed at the same time as one other key, the way that I save what I'm doing. Maybe I wouldn't feel all this if I had to hunt-and-peck at the keys to write but I touch-type so it's like there isn't a keyboard here at all, there's just the writing.

Bear with me a sec, I think I might actually be reaching for a philosophical point here.

Life is a keyboard with 102 keys. Cor. Everything we breathe goes through this small, simple life and everything we do looks physically exactly the same from moment to moment. Yet what we do with what we've got is infinitely different. And we can do anything we like, so.

As I say, I think about this a lot. I don't often think about the 12 or 15 hours ahead of me, at least I don't think of it as 12 or 15 hours and was a bit surprised when I worked it out to tell you. Instead, I think it is a thrill that I'll get to work on these projects today. I admit that I do also think it's going to be a bit of a chore doing some other bits like tax returns later, but then it's terrific that I'll get back to all this. Today's a straight writing day, up to about 2pm when I'm going to be using InDesign. But other days I'll be writing one minute, editing video or audio the next, then reading or watching something. Given that I do little but express how much I enjoy this lark, I'm going to tell you that it is inexpressibly great.

And that life is 102 keys. Official.


Call it 103. Because, freakily, that Suzanne Vega album – Songs in Red and Gray – has this very moment finished and I think that means it's time to go press the key on my kettle. And read some news, obviously.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Outlining: beat that

I've been using a thing called OmniOutliner to work out a book project that was just so stupidly unwieldy that I couldn't see the words for the trees. With immense regret, I have to tell you that it worked. I've previously been an extremely reluctant outliner, only doing it when mandatory for a contract, and my heart is still not in outlining at all, but my head might be. I realised this yesterday when I needed to figure out something else that I'd ordinarily have just got on with writing and exploring. And instead, I unthinkingly turned to this OmniOutliner.

Here's the thing. Some writers plan out in immense detail, some don't. I fixed Alan Plater's email once when he was having trouble sending attachments and the example document that we batted back and forth happened to be an outline. I didn't need to read it to fix the email, I couldn't read it because it was confidential, but I had to ask him. Why had he written an outline? He told me to read it.

It was a remarkably boring document. About as un-Plater-like as conceivable. But the very last line went something like this: "Now can I just go write the bloody thing?"

Outlines don't kill writers, outlining does. We get the fun and worth of the story sucked out of us. Alan put it better in a memo to a producer – which I've got verbatim because it's in my own book about his show The Beiderbecke Affair – where he explained:
“This kind of story is in part a process of discovery and deduction for the writer as much as for anybody else. I know the A and the Z and have a reasonable knowledge of B to about K… after that it gets complicated and misty.”
As I say, some outline and plan while others don't. My natural inclination is to explore on the page and I think I've been helped or encouraged in that as much by how well it's worked out and because I've written so much in magazines. Once I had the form in my head, once I knew how to write articles, I never planned again. Start at the top, write to the end, deliver. It's rarely quite like that but it can be and the number of changes I make are fairly few. Or they tend to be nuances and key points, they are never gigantic structural chunks being shuffled around.

Some drama writers call some outlines these beat sheets: you're listing the key moments in the piece like the beats in music and you end up with the overall shape of the work.

But I could always see the shape of the piece in my head when it was a 5,000-word computer feature or especially a 70-word Ceefax one. Books have proved to be somewhat harder: Beiderbecke was only 30,000 words or so but it was immensely hard to get everything in to that short limit. One of the books I'm doing now is 150,000 and that defeated me: I could not hold that in my head. Especially not when circumstances of when I could get certain research material, when I could speak to certain people, meant that I wrote about 100,000 of it completely out of sequence. I've asked the copy editor to please watch out for when I may have introduced someone twice because I first wrote them in chapter 6 and only later got them in to chapter 1. I think I've caught all that, but I have lain away at night worrying about it.

That worry was from the sheer weight of words, the sheer volume of the volume. Drama is different. I have a big stage play on the go now and I can smell it, you know? I know the opening pages because I explored them, testing out the idea. And I know the very last line because, I promise, it will choke you up. I even know about eleventy-billion things that will happen, right down to whole exchanges of dialogue between these characters in my head, but the whole eludes me. That's partly because if it works, if I do this right, it will be the most delicate, gauzy writing I've ever done and the faintest breeze will wreck where I'm trying to take you.

That's why drama is different. I was taught that you should write to express, not to impress. That's right and great and useless. Because drama needs to express and move and feel and share and transport. Off you go.

I find I'm noodling around this particular stage idea a lot on the bus. I used to do all my best thinking while I took long drives so I am least a tiny bit greener now. The other week I was thinking about the idea as I rode past the Birmingham Rep so I counted the windows: they sometimes put the title of plays up with one letter in each window across the front. It turns out they have just enough for this one, so. Probably not a deal breaker, but.

I'm going to outline it. I just know I am. Desperately broad strokes, please no more than that. Maybe I can do A and K rather than A to Z. I need to explore it too.

But there is a cost to exploring drama on the page, there is a price. I'd heard a thousand writers say and extol and evangelise outlines and they were rubbish at it. All of them. Until one television writer said something like "You can't have a blank screen on Tuesday night". It's true. You can fight about what makes better drama, structured planning or freeform exploration, but you can't argue that you have to write and produce something. A stunning work of piercing Tuesday night drama is no use if the script is delivered on Wednesday morning. Even if outlining guaranteed you a boring story, at least you'd never type "the end" on a full one-hour drama script and realise you had to throw it away and start a different one.

It wasn't always like this. It wasn't always that you're hired and we're airing it Tuesday, get writing.

John Hopkins was commissioned over a pint at the BBC once in the 1960s and didn't deliver. Not on time. Not anywhere near on time. The story goes that he delivered the next year. He wasn't especially pressed about it, though I understand the BBC did occasionally say, you know, how's it going? And then he turned in Talking to a Stranger, also known as the Hopkins Quartet. Four television plays set over the same weekend and all from the perspective of a different member of a family. I tell you, I read the scripts and when I reached the last one and realised why it was all done like this, why it wasn't just a gimmick, I cried.

If you want to tell me that Hopkins could do that from an outline, fine. If you even want to tell me that he did do it from an outline, fine. I have no idea either way. And that's the way it should be: whether outlines help or throttle a writer, it's the end result that matters, it's the audience that matters.

Oh, stop looking at me like that. You're not an audience, you're you. We're just talking. We could've phoned each other up first and devised the beat sheet for today. We could've decided that our chat should logically go thisaway: "1. What outlines are. 2. Outlines are bad. 3. Except when they're good."

But if we were that boringly efficient, we could've just left it with that and gone to the pub. And then where would we be? Exactly. I'll make us some tea.

1. Find kettle
2. Fill kettle with water
3. Switch on kettle...

Friday, August 02, 2013

Austen-ity culture

Human beings are basically good and kind and honourable people – until they get on Twitter. I like tweeting, I've had such good times on there, but I don't know what else to take away from the foul abuse of Caroline Criado-Perez.

The day I heard that the Bank of England was dropping women from its new currency design was the same day that I heard someone was lobbying to get Jane Austen on there. And then when she did it, I cheered.

The thing with writers is that we're supposed to be able to get into the heads of other people. More than just understanding their point of view, we're supposed to really get it. It's necessary in drama, it's terribly handy in negotiations. I'm just finding it completely impossible today: I can't conceive how anyone would object to a woman's face on a bank note. If you can summon up an actual reason against it, I then can't conceive why you would care enough to object.

And then there's the abuse.

The shortest, least asterisk-requiring one I've seen was a tweet to Criado-Perez that said exactly this: "Stop breathing".

The mind of someone who would think that.

The mind of someone who would type it.

And send it to her. To anyone.

It makes me shake. Now, I can see that the bile and rage and fury I feel over this is pretty much the bile and rage and fury that these people appear to feel over the issue. I'm going to rise above all this, I am going to be the sophisticated, mature man that I aspire to be, and I am going to say that they started it.

I did want to be mature about it. I don't like that the fact I am shaking and that I could spit is actually a very male response: I am male but so what? I recoil from issues where I'm expected to respond less because of what I think and more because of my testosterone levels. I think the differences between people as individuals is fantastic and fascinating, but the difference between the genders, not so much. I feel a bit as if when I take a particularly male position, it's not entirely me.

Similarly, a friend once went through some horrible times striving to use IVF to get a kid and I remember it seeming so unfair: how much of the drive and the misery was biologically induced, how much was her gender and how much was her very self? (She had a child through IVF and then had another one without it. I cheered both times. Actually, the first time, I swerved in the car when she texted me. I don't use my phone in the car any more now, I promise. Partly because she made me swerve.)

We are all such a gorgeous chaotic mess and our sex is part of it, I just loathe when it's expected to be all of it or it appears to be the only factor in something. I don't know for certain that it is solely men who have abused Criado-Perez over twitter but it looks like it and you think it is. Perhaps because I cannot see an actual reason why one would object to a woman on a banknote, the fact that men do object focuses me on the issue that they are men.

If I loathe people assuming that I will think one way or be one way because of my gender, I so much more despise being in the same sex as people who think and say and do these things. People assume that because I'm a man, I like football. Doesn't matter. They assume that because I'm a man, I won't admit when I'm wrong. I actually enjoy that one because it isn't half fun when I do admit it and they everyone blinks at me.

This is so much more. I hope I am never in the company of men who write these horrendous tweets about death and rape but even the concept that I share a gender with them and that I cannot do anything to stop them makes me shake and twitch and spit.

I looked up Criado-Perez's name online to check how to spell it and – I am not going to give you a link to this – I found a major British newspaper saying that Austen should not be on a banknote because she's so boring. Jane Austen! Boring!

I'm having a bad week with this. Another thing that has been assumed about me and that is generally assumed about men is that I and they would never read Austen. I've heard women say that they have never met a man who has read her work.


I'm William, it's nice to meet you.

By sort-of coincidence, I'm re-reading Sense & Sensibility at the moment. It's a sort-of coincidence because I'm not doing it as a result of all this, I'm doing it because I just reviewed a radio dramatisation of it for Radio Times and so enjoyed it that I wanted to read the book again.

I came late to Jane Austen and I've not read all her work yet. That first bit narks me because I could've been enjoying her stuff so much sooner and the second bit irritates me no end because it's my fault. I so enjoyed Pride & Prejudice that I raced on to Emma and then made myself stop. Made myself.

Follow. Some years ago, I had a job that meant a walk and a train ride to the office. For some weeks during it, I would start reading a Simon Brett novel on the way in the morning and then I would finish that book in bed at night. The same night. Start the next one, finish the next one. He writes funny, interesting but ultimately a bit forgettable novels where I got hooked chiefly because of his great titles. He does murder mysteries, it was his series of books with an actor detective named Charles Paris that I was reading, and the titles are all things like "Cast in Order of Disappearance". Loved that.

Thoroughly enjoyed the books. But he'd been writing them a long time before I got to any and so I think there were eighteen novels when I started. I read all eighteen, I expect it took me about three or maybe four weeks. And I can never read another one because I have no idea whether I already have or not. I've stood there in a bookshop thinking about it: have I already read this one?

They've all blurred together and while that is doubtlessly my fault for reading them so fast and so contiguously, because it is my fault, I didn't want to ever do that again. And especially not with Jane Austen.

And especially since she hasn't got eighteen novels. I so enjoyed P&P and Emma that I wanted to savour them.

And I admit I've gone too far the other way. I'm a bit confused now over which ones I've got left to love. So part of the reason for re-reading Sense & Sensibility is that I'll enjoy it again but part of it is that I give up. I'm not going to try being clever, I'm not going to try eking her work out to make it last, I'm just going to reread the ones I have and relish as I get to the ones I haven't yet.

If I cannot speak to the issue of why anyone objects to having a woman's face on a banknote, I can so incredibly easily speak to the point of why Austen deserves the slot and why she isn't boring. Here's my entire argument:

Read the bloody books.

She's fantastic. She wrote this stuff 200 years ago – no, that just doesn't look enough, let me spell it out: she wrote this two hundred years ago. Seven thousand days after she died, she's made me laugh aloud.

Everybody quotes her P&P opener about a single man in want of a wife and all that, but the line that sums her up for me is from her letters where she said "pictures of perfection make me sick and wicked".  I want that on a teeshirt.

If you know her work through films and TV, and you surely must, then I can see that they look pretty perfect. Costume designers and set dressers and lighting and makeup have a very good time. But I see a lot of similarity with Terry Pratchett's work. His strengths, it seems to me, are in how he tells his tales rather than the tales per se. On the page he is smart and funny and writes with a verve that I admit I tend to forget once I've finished a book, but it's all very much alive and engaging while you read. On TV, it's people in silly hats.

I've met and very much liked some of the people who've dramatised Pratchett's work for Sky and I think they did a great job, I think they did the very best that was possible. But it's ultimately still David Jason in a hat.

Similarly, while I think Austen's plots are very good, if a film just does that, it doesn't serve either us or her terribly well. This is why, I think, you get so many dramatisations of her work and yet suddenly there'll be one that rises above them all. The BBC's 1995 dramatisation of Pride and Prejudice is a terrific piece of work by Andrew Davies because he got it. Yes, it's sumptuous, at least for the BBC. And yes, there's that bit with Colin Firth all sopping wet that makes women – conforming to their gender expectations – go weak and makes men – conforming to their gender expectations – think it's soppy and wet. Seriously, don't we lose out by sticking to expectations?

Davies argued that Pride & Prejudice is really about sex. He would say that. I think it's really about people and I think that's so stunningly obvious that I approach being fatuously irritating. Read her books and see how sharp and clear and witty and brilliant she is.

The line of hers that made me laugh aloud earlier this week is a description of the man Willoughby who has swooped in and now "departed, to make himself still more interesting, in the midst of a heavy rain". Austen does this constantly and yet so delicately. She is mocking and celebrating and framing moments and characters but so much as a part of the novel that you don't think of her as a narrator, you don't think of her as the author's voice.

You just like her.

It's easy to say that if you don't get Jane Austen, you're missing out.

So let's say it.

If you don't get Jane Austen, you are missing out.