Writing 2.0

A book I’ve been looking forward to getting my hands on finally appeared on the shelves of Waterstone’s at the weekend. And even as it comes out on ‘deadwood media’ (i.e. paper), the actual format seems to me to owe at least a little to Web 2.0.

Book jacket

Book jacket

The book in question is “The Writer’s Tale“, by the chief writer and ‘showrunner” of the revived Doctor Who series, Russell T. Davies, and in part it’s a behind the scenes production diary packed full of glossy colour photos like any other output of the Doctor Who marketing machine. But don’t worry, this blog post isn’t going to be a fan-geek peon to the series.

(That said, I am of course a long-time fan of the series; and before you ask, the answer to The Big Question is: Jon Pertwee. That said, I’m startled to realise that I’m comprehensively out-geeked by the current star of the show, David Tennant: it seems delightfully wrong, somehow, for a professional actor to be such an unabashed fanboy of his own series. Moreover he’s also equally as much of a fanatic about one of my other favourite TV shows, The West Wing. He really is quite irritatingly, the geek’s geek – only cool and a TV star as well.)

But it’s not the show or the behind-the-scenes aspect of the book that makes it so fascinating. The book is chiefly a look at writing: where do ideas come from, how do they take shape, how do they evolve? Various drafts of the scripts are used as case studies, and Davies talks about how reality impacts on the writing.

If you’re interested in the craft and profession of writing then I strongly recommend it – and also Stephen King’s “On Writing” come to think of it. I’ve always had a mild delusion of being a writer, and sometimes think that this blog and its motor sports sibling are my way of sublimating that desire while I’m too busy with life, work and the universe to actually write, and so I consequently indefinitely postpone the Great First Novel that would “take me away from all this.”

But what’s all this ‘Web 2.0’ aspect that I trailed at the start of this post?

“The Writer’s Tale” is actually constructed from the email dialogue that Davies had with his co-author, journalist Benjamin Cook over the course of a year. Complete with (truncated) headers and subject fields (the word “arse” appears an awful lot), it starts with the proposition of a year-long project and the first chapter is the two of them sounding each other out and figuring out whether it was workable. Initially it’s a fairly standard format with Cook lobbing questions at Davies about what he’s doing, but the length of the project together with the intimacy of the medium become the core and heart of the book for me as it goes on. While the emails are tidied up and a few edits are made, they feel substantially untouched and as-it-really-was. By the end of the book, Cook is involved and trusted enough to make a suggestion to Davies that changes the very ending of series four. Few “making of” books can ever lay claim to that sort of effect.

Emails are arguably the most personal form of written communication we have these days. Blog posts are performance pieces by comparison, often mulled over and as deeply thought out and considered as the essays of great 19th century authors (though I make no such claims of greatness for anything on this blog, that’s for sure.) But emails are usually spontaneous, nearly stream-of-consciousness outpourings, sent very quickly after finishing (unlike snail mail) before second thoughts and self-editing can set in. Perhaps only texts and Twitter score more highly for being über-personal; and sure enough, “The Writer’s Tale” throws in some text correspondence between Davies and Cook too. After all that it’s surprising that they didn’t end up Twittering as well.

It’s hard to imagine how an “as it happened” book on writing a TV show can happen without resorting to something approaching a ‘2.0’ strategy. If you don’t capture it at the very moment it’s happening then the moment has gone and all you’re getting is a old fashioned dispatch from the front line long after the event: the book shelves are crowded with such “how to write” self-help books and manuals, and all of them have as much in connection to the reality of writing as … well, as Daleks and Cybermen have to do with the normal office routine.

The book does rely on Davies sharing his very first thoughts and drafts with someone else – something normally considered total anathema to a writer. I did something not too far removed with a private conference on The WELL, which was a daunting but rewarding project, until the pressures of work and life sadly got in the way. Even so, I’m not sure how quickly I’d move back into trying something like that again in the future, it really is nerve-racking. Then again, so is just writing a blog post like this when you realise that other people may actually read it and have certain expectations that it will be good and worth their time.

I suppose the next development of writing 2.0 will be using blogs to write stories, either solo or by collaboration; or using wikis for a group of people to write, rewrite and reshape documents in ways that we’re only just beginning to think about. Actually that’s all happened, in some bleeding edge experiments, but hasn’t yet broken into the mainstream. It could be quite fascinating when it does, but I admit that when it comes to writing I’m still a traditionalist – one person sitting in front of a keyboard, pouring out his or her thoughts, imagination and unique vision rather than that of a committee – and then managing to find a way to communicate that to another human being.

The irony is that the best way of capturing and sharing what that solitary writing experience is really like is to move into the realm of writing 2.0.

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  1. Sebastian Crump

    It would certainly be interesting to see if any co-authors are using web 2.0 for their collaboration.

    There are several blogs that have subsequently made it into print and a couple that have even made it onto screen. However, I don’t think they were initially written with that in mind. Would it work if one tried?

    However, some great writers, e.g. some Dickens, were newspaper serialised stories, so originally appeared piecemeal – rather like a blog really. Nothing new under the sun, eh.

  2. Have you seen NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month)? The idea is to sign up and then write 50,000 words during November. You’re not allowed to edit at the time, and so my delusions of writing have been somewhat captivated by the idea…

  3. andrewlewin

    Yup, there’s a NaNoWriMo conference on The WELL which I follow every year and admire the participants from afar, and have delusions of participating in. I was going to say that “it always falls at a really bad time for me work-wise” but that might be my excuse gene kicking in. It’s amazingly well-developed when it comes to this sort of thing.

    > blogs that have subsequently made it into print

    Paul Carr’s book “Bringing Nothing to the Party” talks about trying to sign up a few of those a few years back which is interesting to read about. One is the online blog/diary of call girl Belle, which has been made into the ITV2 series “The Secret Diary of a Call Girl” – starring Billie Piper, which links nicely back to the Doctor Who theme of the post as well 🙂




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