Archive for the ‘writing’ Category

And the word was good

Increasingly posts here are going to be more about writing (and at some point about e-books as that’s where writing meets my long-standing technical interests, obviously), and we’ll start with this one about a couple of writing days this week which have been remarkably … what’s the word? Oh yeah: good.

I know that writing is meant to be a painful, horrible, torturous process involving suffering at every step of the way. I’ve never been quite that authentic as a writer, but certainly there are days when you labour over something and it feels like a drudge. And the work that comes out just reads (to yourself, at least) appropriately like sludge. But just occasionally there are some bright, happy, shining days where it all goes right despite your best attempts to foul it up.

Last week I started writing a new long-form fiction project for the first time this year (a shameful admission) as of late I’ve been mostly distracted by keeping up with motor sports writing. At times this has taken over whole weekends, or even long weekends such as the one just past in which every motor sports series in the world suddenly seemed to hold events at the same time.

The most exciting of them was the F1 Grand Prix at Spa, Belgium – which was a terrific race. Unfortunately it wasn’t one of the ones that I was slated to write-up for crash.net and instead I was covering the IndyCar race from Sonoma, California later that evening. Whereas the problem with the Spa race was packing all the incidents into a single coherent post shorter than War and Peace, the Somona race presented an entirely different problem: that quite literally, nothing happened.

Honestly, I could write up the whole race in a short paragraph: “Top five cars finished in the same order they started after 75 laps of following each other around. A couple of minor crashes toward the end failed to affect the crucial results and affected only midfielders.” Trouble is, if you’re a writer who is supposed to be turning in a lovingly crafted 1000-word race report on an event, then handing in a 36-word stand-first instead isn’t going to really cut it.

I’ve often had this sort of ‘stage fright’ before where I’ve wondered, just before a motor race starts, whether I would find anything to write about afterwards. Invariably the race delivers and there’s a load of stuff to cover, so much so that trying to condense it becomes the overwhelming problem (and one I always struggled to satisfactorily overcome and have always ended up with reports that are too long, I confess.) But this IndyCar race at Sonoma is the first time I’ve got to the end of a race and suddenly thought: “F*** me, I have absolutely nothing to write about.”

Actually it’s a two-fold problem, because while it’s always possible to just pad it out with some witless prose at the end of the day, if you do that you’re doing a disservice to the readers: if a race was dull and boring and non-eventful than that’s what the story should say. It shouldn’t make it artificially hyped up or you’re lying and deceiving your readers.

Given this starting point, I was very happy therefore at how the final piece turned out that you can read on crash.net if you care to. It’s over 2000 words long, but up to a half of that is sourced driver quotes and hence don’t count for my purposes here. The rest of it tells the story of the non-event, making the most of the two mid-field incidents near the end, but also not hiding the fact that this was a deeply dull race in which everyone was just playing team loyalties and holding position. In fact it says so, repeatedly – in I hope a dryly humorous fashion that ends up making it a more fun and interesting piece than many of the incident-packed race reports that I’ve diligently put together from the race synopsis in the past.

I’ve rarely felt quite so smugly self-satisfied as when I finally published that piece. I’d gone from literally not having a clue what to write, to delivering a piece that was both accurate and didn’t flinch from properly reporting the dull nature of the event, but which in itself was still hopefully a good and entertaining read. In fact I was a little jealous about all those people who would (I sincerely hope) enjoy reading the piece in its own right and in doing so would be forever spared the two hours of having to watch the original race that it represented, as I’d had to do.

I think perhaps it’s weekends like this that are having a massively improving effect on my longform fiction writing as well. For one thing, after a frenzied weekend of motorsports to cover on a deadline, sitting down on Tuesday and rolling out 3500 words of fiction from my carefree imagination seemed like a holiday compared with having to research every little detail and put it together coherently in a short space of time.

With the fiction, my mind goes to work overnight and the next morning I have some idea what I want to write. I can sit down at the keyboard, my fingers get busy, and before I know it I’ve somehow got to the word count and it’s not been a strain at all. It’s rather miraculous, in fact. Whereas with the motor sports writing, you can’t start until the race is underway; and once it’s finished, the piece has to be written and up as soon as possible. No time for long walks along the riverbank to find one’s muse, it just has to get done.

It’s fine training for writing in general and seems to be doing wonders for my creative writing, although at the same time the motor sports work does eat up almost all of the Friday, Saturday and Sunday time which means the creative writing had to be condensed into four days of the week, which is exactly not what the writing self-help books tell you to do. They will all insist that you should write continuously, every day, at the same time each day, and that to pause or hesitate or take a day off is probably fatal to the cause.

That was certainly my fear when I returned to the creative endeavours on Tuesday: would I be able to pick it up after several days ‘off’ for the other writing? Would there be a noticeable join in the text? Would it flow, or would I just sit there unable to think of what happened next? Even after Tuesday went well (so well I even merrily skipped away and did three reviews for Take The Short View while I was at it as a sort of literary dessert or cheese board) I was still thinking: maybe that was just a one-off, a sort of “this is everything that was stored up from before your hiatus, but don’t expect anything more once this has gone.” So I was a full of trepidation on Wednesday as I sat down, wondering if this time the well would be dry.

Nope. Actually, better even than the day before. I massively overran my word count and practically had to drag myself away from the keyboard mid-scene to finally bring the writing day to a halt.

Not that all days will be like this. God knows, I’ve had days where it’s been a real effort to write anything; where the words will not flow; where the result on paper is truly execrable and you just want to give it all up and never write another word ever again in your life. Any writer who tells you otherwise is almost certainly deceiving you – or themselves. And we hear a lot about such days from writers who love to martyr themselves and romanticise their periods of writer’s block so that we all know how much suffering and effort they’ve put into the final product, as if that will somehow make us like their book more.

I’ll have days like that too. Maybe today will be one of them. Or tomorrow, or next week – it’ll come, as the inevitable by-product of the act of putting letters on paper in the first place. And I’ll whine about those days, I can assure you – you will suffer, dear reader, mark my words, just so that you will duly appreciate the miracle of there being any end result whatsoever, and are perhaps more forgiving of its faults as a result!

But fair’s fair. If I expect you to share the copious bad days and the cliched long dark nights of the soul, at the very least I should also share with you the good days when things go really rather well. The days when it’s even possible to read back through some of the product without flinching, and instead to find yourself thinking: “Hmm, not bad. Heh, that bit’s funny. Maybe it’s not terrible after all.”

Such days are good days. Really, really good days.

A relatively brief blog post, back on the subject of writing having spent the most part of the last two hours writing a 3333-word race report on Sunday’s Canadian Grand Prix. (Again, don’t worry, this is about writing rather than about motor sport per se, I promise.)

I’d taken the last couple of Grands Prix off in terms of writing a post-race report on what happened. It’s not because I’m losing interest in F1 or that the races themselves weren’t very good (Barcelona is usually a bit of a snoozer but was enlivened immeasurably by new technology and a new tyre provider, while Monaco is my favourite race of the year and was packed with incident and controversy) – but simply that May got so overcrowded with motor racing that I had to prioritise my work for crash.net instead and put GP2, IndyCar and NASCAR first as explained in last week’s post.

Strangely, though, after just two races “off” on hiatus, I found my attachment to F1 wobbling despite how good the races themselves were. Without the investment of writing about it afterwards, I felt strangely removed from it, as though F1 was becoming a “secondary” interest compared with those that I was still covering and writing up. It made me realise how much the process of writing about it now connects me with the event and the sport itself: because I was still doing that for GP2, NASCAR and IndyCar, they were becoming closer and more pre-eminent to me.

I even doubted that I would get around to writing up this weekend’s Canadian Grand Prix; having been on hiatus for two races, surely another one wouldn’t matter? Especially because, thanks to the IndyCar event at the weekend being in the middle of Saturday night, I was feeling a bit tired and wiped out by the evening and wondered whether I would just doze off – especially when the race was interrupted by a two hour rain delay that must have infuriated BBC1 viewers wondering what had happened to the 8.15pm showing of Antiques Roadshow just to make way for grown men staring at rain puddles.

Actually my big problem after the race itself was: how to write about four hours of events that made absolutely no sense? Far from the old processional days of old when I first started to do these reports in the 90s that made for easy translations into a linear narrative, recent races have thrown up so many incidents that whole theses could be written about any one of two dozen race incidents. How to boil that down to a single race report that made any sort of sense and yet still do the race as a whole sufficient justice?

This is of course a universal problem facing any writer: how to take any story and characters that the writer has in their mind and chip away all the other details that aren’t quite so important in order to leave the best possible end result? It’s like a sculptor chipping away at the marble in order to reveal the statue of David that he knows is within, if only he can get rid of the distractions; but that means discarding so much fine marble in the process that you could weep for the waste, which to another artist could have been a different wonderful piece altogether.

So it is with a Grand Prix, and especially so with this week’s where there was just so much to cover than you just have to absorb it all and decide which pieces of the marble raw material you wish to keep, and which – sadly – have to go.

So I decided early on that this would be a story of one team – of McLaren. The story would be from their view, from the depths of despair in the early laps when their drivers took each other out, to the heights of the most extraordinary victory. But so do that I knew I was leaving to one side just as many if not more amazing stories, such as Michael Schumacher’s dramatic return to form after looking on the verge of quitting (again) because he wasn’t enjoying his return from retirement; of the travails of the Ferrari team; or the heartbreak for Sebastian Vettel who threw away a race win. All of these were secondary footnotes in the service of the McLaren story and many others not mentioned at all, but someone is sure to be writing an account which centres on them which is wholly different to my version.

I’m not pretending that the end result is some work of art comparable with David, it’s “Just Another F1 Race Report” at the end of the day. But I’m pretty pleased with it, not least because when I started I genuinely didn’t know how on earth to even begin capturing the events and the sense of the afternoon – most of which had gone by so fast that I could barely remember it let alone keep it straight in my head – and yet by the end it it was all there, on paper. All the key facts, but also all brought to life. It’s this challenge of bringing some sense and order to complete chaos, no matter how overwhelming the basic initial pool of facts and events is at the start, that gives me a real sense of achievement by the end.

It’s actually not unlike the type of work I used to do in the past: as a digital media consultant, I’d go into a situation and be presented with a load of facts info-dumped on me and be expected to make sense of them, form a narrative and be able to not just understand and interpret them but come up with some sort of “answer” to boot. That was the job, and no matter how difficult or how unlikely it seemed to be at the start, we did exactly that each and every time – just like the process of taking a real life event such as a Grand Prix and making order out of chaos there, too.

Whether writing or consultancy, when it all goes right, it’s really one of the best feelings you can have. Although I’d imagine Jenson Button would say there are even better legal highs and that he’s in the middle of one after his Canadian victory!

It might seem to you that I’ve been rather quiet on the blogging/writing front in the last month. Turns out that this is because in fact, I’ve actually been frantically busy on the writing front …

When it comes to my budding writing career, May turned out to be the busiest and most frantic months work of all time. Not particularly profitable, mind you – but extremely valuable in terms of what I’ve learnt about writing both fiction and non-fiction, which I thought I should share. (Even though the writing concerned is on motorsports, don’t let you put that off – the subject matter I was writing about is almost irrelevant to the wider themes of this blog post. Honest. Trust me!)

Long-time readers of this blog will know that I’ve been writing “race reports” of various motorsports events for many years, originally for The WELL online community, then briefly on this blog before being spun out to a separate companion blog; it was an outlet for my frustrating writing aspirations, and I thought it would help improve my quality of writing (it did) and also train me to be able to sit down and actually produce writing on demand rather than sitting in front of a blank screen feigning writer’s block – and the whole NaNoWriMo experience last November proved just how effectively all these years of writing pieces effectively on a tight deadline really had been in making it comparatively easy to sit down and Just Do It when it mattered.

In the middle of last year I was asked by a professional motorsports website called crash.net if I would ‘syndicate’ some of my material there as well as they were without a correspondent covering NASCAR Sprint Cup, IndyCar and GP2. Since I was writing these pieces anyway it was a no-brainer to cross-post the material there as well, but now it meant that I had a vastly increased audience for these pieces. Where before I’d been writing purely for my own entertainment (even if the WordPress stats told me a few dozen people might actually be reading these things), it was nothing compared to the audience that the pieces were now in front of, and who were not afraid to make their feelings known on any aspect of what was being written about (or how it was written.)

It’s a scientific axiom that the mere act of observation changes the thing that’s being observed, and that’s certainly true here: I had to start considering how these were being written, what the audience might be interested in, how to best deliver a good coverage to them.

Very quickly, the limitations of delivering ‘just’ a race report after that week’s event were evident. It’s rather like producing a film that consists of just an extended action sequence: from the minute the curtain goes up, it’s all explosions, fist fights, gun flights, yelling. But you have no idea what’s going on, what they’re fighting about, who the good guys are – it’s just sound and fury, signifying absolutely nothing at all. It might be viscerally thrilling for the first two or three minutes, but by ten you’ll just have a headache. By 15 you’ll have walked out, no matter how good a narrative depiction of the events of the action sequence are rendered.

That’s because in order to work, the action sequence needs two things: context and character. And just as it’s true in fiction (whether cinema, TV, stage or novels) so it’s true in making the journalism work. The only difference is that whereas in a film or book all the parts would be in one piece of work, here the oeuvre would have to consist of dozens and hundreds of individual pieces contributing to the overall whole. And just to add to the difficulty, I would have no idea from one day to another what tomorrow’s storylines would be, and yet still had to knit them together into something that overall would provide all that necessary context and character regardless.

Just like a novelist, that meant identifying storylines that would be of interest to people, and identifying characters that could be introduced, fleshed out and followed – so that when it came to the races themselves, the activity would mean something. People might actually care what was going on, rather than just being expected to follow descriptions of on-track race activity no matter how well (or not) it was written.

So now my brief had fleshed out to finding interesting news stories, following them through, producing driver profiles and interviews, and other background material such as explanations of the history of an event or how the rules worked. It was all the context and character that anyone would need to have to invest in anything else we went on to produce in out motorsports coverage. It was a lot more work than originally envisaged, but it would be worth it.

Then along came May, and suddenly it all went a little bit berserk with a classic case of “scope creep” writ large.

The original idea with my crash.net submissions, you’ll remember, was to provide a race coverage for three different series, with an average of one race every 1-2 weeks. No problem. Except that at the start of May, a development meant that a former F1 world champion would be going to the US to try his hand at NASCAR. Obviously we wanted to cover that because he’s got huge name recognition among F1 fans that form the bulk of crash.net‘s audience and who would want and expect to read about it (and from my point of view it was also a way of potentially growing the audience for the site’s NASCAR section.)

Trouble is, he wasn’t going into NASCAR Sprint Cup – the series we covered. He was going in two levels down (“Truck”), so suddenly we had to provide at least baseline coverage of that series to provide the same sort of context and background I was previously talking about developing. And then there’s a mid-series (“Nationwide”) which we thought we should cover just in case he tried that out while he was there (and indeed he did). So suddenly we were covering three NASCAR series rather than just one, and overarching all of that was the need for specific “pop-out” focus coverage of the F1 champion meta-story. It increased the NASCAR output by at least three-fold.

Which would still have been fine if it hadn’t coincided with the Indianapolis 500, America’s biggest motor racing event of the year. Where most motor race events consist of a few hours of practice on a Friday, an hour or two of qualifying on the Saturday, and the race itself on the Sunday, the Indy 500 was a completely different level: a full day of rookie orientation to cover, then seven days of practice, followed by an entire weekend of qualifying and then a full week of build-up before the race itself. Where a normal race weekend would consist of perhaps ten hours of track activity, the Indy 500 was scheduled to deliver nearly nine times that amount in under three weeks in a non-stop daily rotation.

Where NaNoWriMo is regarded as a Big Ask because it requires writers to commit to producing something like 1700 words every day for a month, suddenly the cumulative effect of all this context, character and scope creep meant that most days in May was requiring between 4000 and 6000 words of reporting on an average day of coverage (this blog post, which may well feel interminable to you, dear reader, is a relatively succinct and concise 2300 by contrast.) Even if you were just able to sit down at a keyboard and start typing, that’s a lot of work each and every day.

And the thing with reporting rather than fiction/creative writing is that you can’t sit there pummelling away at the keyboard producing everything out of your imagination. You have to know what you’re talking about and it has to be accurate, which means an awful lot of research work on top of the actual writing: finding the facts, sifting through them – which takes a lot of time.

The Indianapolis 500 qualification is a particular case in point: it has the most bizarre, unintelligible process I’ve ever seen, called “Bump Day” (it’s protected from a rational overhaul by the historical reverence Americans have for the Indy 500 as a whole, which celebrated its centennial this week.) I confess that coming into it, I didn’t understand it. I didn’t have to cover it last year, and looking back at other people’s reports it made absolutely no sense to me. I soon found out why: I tried researching it and couldn’t find any consistency in explanations among all the sources; even the official IndyCar.com guidance on it turned out to be inaccurate when it came to the actual day. It seems that there’s a certain amount of “making it up on the spur of the moment” that goes with it, and unless you actually sit through it all and follow virtually every moment it’s almost impossible to understand it fully, and if you don’t understand it then you certainly can’t explain it with any confidence or clarity to the people relying on your account in turn.

As a result, in the last few weeks, most of my time spent not writing has instead been catching up via streaming Internet radio stations, blogs and Twitter feeds covering the events that I’m writing about; I’ve also found some great podcasts which have been perfect in adding to my understanding and to the authenticity of what I produce, plus I’m receiving a ton of emails every day which are press releases from the various teams and venues involved which need going through for usable material. Just reading through the various driver and team PR quotes after a day’s activity looking for those one or two lines to bring a report to life – making a character live on the page, or having them provide a description of events from their point of view – can take an age, but is inevitably worth it when it pays off.

My writing has become a lot more informed and nuanced thanks to immersing myself in the culture of the IndyCar and NASCAR worlds, but it’s meant that for every hour I’ve spent writing I’ve spent almost two in background and prep work: I’ve taken up going off for two-hour walks on most days just so I can take my podcasts with me for a good listen. In the past I’d naively assumed that I was good enough that I could get by without this sort of hard graft, but now I can really see just how much it adds to the quality of the end result if you invest the time and effort to really know your subject. (Yes, experienced journalists will be rolling their eyes and doing “durrrr!” and not without good cause. All I can say is that everyone needs to learn the lesson themselves to really take it to heart.)

So if anyone’s been wondering where I’ve gone, why I hadn’t been tweeting or blogging or emailing as much as usual in the last month, that’s why – and I just hope the end effort over on crash.net justifies the time and effort that has gone into it.

Anyway, it’s all done now, and there’s a lot of writing been done over the last two weeks that I have to say – with all due humility – I’m immensely proud of, pieces that I can read back after just a few days or a week later and actually think: “Ooooh that’s good,” either because the original seed of an idea was a nice original twist or simply because the execution has lifted what in other places had seemed to be a rather dull, flat, uninteresting piece and made it something genuinely interesting. (If you want to check out any of this stuff, just go to the IndyCar, NASCAR and GP2 sections of crash.net and read from the archives.)

What this has all taught me is how much sheer hard work covering real events properly can actually be. By contrast with this sort of reporting work, fiction writing is positively a breeze. Small wonder that so many newspaper journalists, having spent years honing their craft, then go on to become such fabulous novelists and look so darn happy about it: it’s far easier than all that slogging away in the reporting trenches and pays better to boot.

I don’t pretend to be suddenly a world class journalist just because of a few weeks of hard work covering some motor races. But it’s certainly made me appreciate some things a lot more about what writers go through day in and day out to produce quality journalistic coverage of events.

It’s also made me appreciate my own abilities to pull this off, and I think I’m a better writer because of having had the chance to do this. Plus, at the end of the day, I still love the subject matter as much as I ever have. In fact, even more so having had the chance to properly immerse myself in it all.

At some point I’ll have to surface back in reality, but the Month of May Motorsport Madness has for me been quite magical – but I am certainly ready for a few days rest now!

Word counting

I mentioned in passing last week that I was going to give NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) a shot this year, and eagle-eyed readers of the blog (rather than the RSS feed) will have spotted a little NaNoWriMo widget on the right hand side giving daily updates as to my progress.

For the uninitiated, NaNoWriMo is basically an annual challenge to write a novel of more than 50,000 words purely in the 30 days of November. It’s a case of “never mind the quality, feel the quantity” – at the speed you have to write at, you’re going to write some pretty terrible trash, but the point is to prove to yourself that it can be done if you get the discipline right and stop the nagging goblins of the mind from persuading you to give up because it’s not really very good.

I’ve been writing for years – seriously, I think my first attempt was a novel written when I was aged five or six during a family holiday to the Isle of Wight. It was basically a James Bond pastiche and ran to a full 70 pages of one of those reporters’ notebooks from WH Smiths, which at that age I thought simply must equal a ‘proper’ novel length, surely?

Alas I soon knew better. As I grew up I realised just how long a novel really was, and how much work it took; and despite continuing to write ever since those early years I’ve never really tried anything novel length before that hasn’t quickly ended up aborted and shoved in a desk drawer.

So for me, NaNoWriMo is the perfect opportunity and indeed excuse to see, once and for all, whether I can keep up the focus and effort on a piece of writing over the sustained period of time that it needs to produce a novel-length work of fiction. And so far, so good: I’m up to 22,189 words as of today, which is 11 days in. That’s ahead of schedule, and so far I’m finding it pretty okay. I even have a fairly structured story that I know what is going to happen over the course of the next week, too.

Which is not to say there haven’t been a few hiccups. A couple of days have been really down to the wire as to whether I would get myself together and put in the time when I really, really didn’t want to and had plenty of other more appealing things to do. That I forced myself to not skip a day was very much helped by a group of fellow NaNoWriMo-ers that I know on The WELL: it was not wanting to go back and report to them that I was faltering that pulled me through a couple of close calls.

What’s weird about this – for me at least – is how quickly the daily word count (and overall tally) quickly become an all-consuming fetish. I’ve never experienced this sort of narrow focus before when writing something, and it feels a bit odd. It starts innocently enough, with the NaNoWriMo site helpfully telling you that the daily target is 1,667. Then you tell it your daily amount, and the site records your progress and you can compare it against those of your “writing buddies” already taking part. Suddenly meeting or exceeding that 1,667 becomes the prime target of the day; and worse, keeping up with whatever your buddies produce becomes a powerful driver as well. If they just put in a 2,000 word stint, then it’s hard not to think that you should be doing the same, too.

The last time I was this fixated about word counts was way back when I was at school, and the homework assignments used to stipulate “1500 words” or whatever the minimum acceptable length was. Of course, I’m so old that back in those days we didn’t have word processors and wrote everything out in exercise books by hand, which meant guestimating the number of words of the finished piece by calculating average number of words per line, number of lines per page, number of pages completed to make sure that you’d delivered, or at least near enough.

Since then, when I’ve been writing for myself I’ve never been particularly concerned about the word count: the length written is simply the length that the piece needs. The same is true for business documents, where at most you’ll have a vague page count to aim for (whether it’s the legendary two-pager executive summary or a thirty page report the client is after.) When I wrote for printed publications, they were all set in page layout software like PageMaker or Quark Xpress, and instead of a word count target I simply knew how much space I had to fill, and wrote accordingly until it was done. And when I started writing online, it was even easier – without the limits of paper, you can write to whatever length you need to for web publications because the web page is infinitely extensible.

Readers of this blog and especially its motor sport sibling know that I can go on at length seemingly without problem (whether you, dear reader, can keep reading for the same length is entirely a matter for your own judgement and mental health!) but it was only when I was considering NaNoWriMo three weeks ago that it occurred to me to actually check out the length of my regular blog posts. I was startled to find that the most recent NASCAR race report that I had just completed at the time ran to almost 2,700 words, far more than I had expected. It actually helped greenlight the whole NaNoWriMo endeavour: if I could do that for a single motor race then surely I could manage a sustained 1,667 words over the course of a month?

Since then, I’ve been obsessively word counting everything I’ve written: I humorously ended last weeks’ blog post with a comment that “this blog entry has stolen about 1,390 words from my writing quota for the day … You’re being a bad influence on me!” but in fact it was only partly a joke – I really was seeing word counts and writing output in a whole new way. I’ve calculated word counts for emails to friends and forum posts as well as blog articles, just to see how many words I’m squandering and stealing away from the main November focus; I’ve found myself wondering how long the book I’m reading in the morning is in terms of words; or how many words a classic short story such as one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes tales is – just in case I feel the urge to write something in that format, you understand.

Actually I’m not seriously finding that writing a blog post or an email is “stealing” words from the NaNoWriMo endeavour. On the contrary, the NaNoWriMo entries seem to demand a certain amount of time per day, but if I try to press onwards after that then it all goes rather pear-shaped; whereas if I switch to writing something else then I can press ahead for ages. This blog post, for example, comes after a rather hefty 2,800 word stint on NaNoWriMo, but as the cliché goes “a change is as good as a rest” and I’m happily cranking it out, enjoying the difference between the fairly formal prose of earlier with the more conversational, informal dialogue of blogging.

But I’m also wondering about the impact of the word count on the writing itself. In my NaNoWriMo effort, I’m coming up to the point where someone is going to get murdered (I can’t write a story without a murder in it, basically.) And that murder is going to come pretty much on the stroke of 25,000 words – exactly middle distance. Just a coincidence? Or has the word count been subconsciously driving me to this point, a whispered suggestion that the halfway point should have some important marker and be used to kick the story into a new, higher gear? Does that mean I’ve been extending or compressing other scenes I’ve been writing along the way to match some other word count landmarks en route?

Perhaps I’d be better off using a piece of software that doesn’t include a word count at all, but to be honest I doubt that would stop me from obsessing about the count and pasting it into another program that will do that for me. Once Pandora’s Box is open, it cannot be closed again: now that we’re surrounded with word processors with this capability, it’s nigh on impossible to go back to counting up words in school exercise books.

For the record, the NaNoWriMo endeavour is being written in a piece of software called Scrivener, a low cost program that seems to be absolutely adored by everyone who uses it. I can’t say that I’m getting the best out of it yet, and some of the features – like extensive outlining and ‘index card’ planning tools – I never seen to use or really need in my writing, so far at least. But it’s certainly a very comfortable, all-encompassing environment for writing that allows me to block off distractions for the duration, and keep all the bits together and move around the project freely instead of scrolling forever through screeds of Microsoft Word pages to find that damned elusive key piece of information, like I was forever doing with work documents.

For blog posts I prefer something a little more rough and ready, and ad hoc; so I use BBEdit, which is really a text processor more intended for wrangling bits of HTML, PHP and other code into shape but which I find a really nice and simple notebook for any self-contained pieces such as the one you’re reading right now. It’s especially good for taking columns of data and crunching them into a publishable format, which is how I process all the detailed race results (positions and times) for the motor sports reports.

Scrivener has a nice little floating palette which contains both the project word count target and total to date; and a second measure which is of that session’s word count as a percentage of the daily target. In other words, ideal for NaNoWriMo where the targets are 50,000 and 1,667 respectively. The bars are updating in live time and you’re a better person that I if you don’t have this palette open as you write, eyes flicking to it every few minutes to check your progress.

Is this word count obsession good or bad? Is it a distraction, or does it drive you on with thoughts of “just 100 words more and you’re halfway there …”? I’m not sure. Maybe this obsession is just a temporary thing for relative newbies on the scene like myself, and after a while you forget about it; I’ve already noticed that today I went through the 20,000 barrier for the project without even noticing, and when I got to the 1,667 target for the day I then pushed on because I hadn’t finished the scene I was working on, and completing that was more important than any arbitrary daily word tally.

But at least Scrivener gives you the choice; if you wish, you can close the word count palette down and fly blind. Personally, I find that sends me into something of a panic, and I need my teddy bear back on screen to help calm me down. BBEdit on the other hand just has a little summary figure at the bottom of the window telling me the number of characters, words and lines that I’ve racked up in this open document, and there’s no getting away from it.

Obviously you’re now expecting me to share with you the total word count for this blog post, aren’t you? Of course you are. And I’m happy to tell you that we just topped out at just over 2,000 words; 2014 to be exact. Congratulations if you made the full ascent with me; did you not have anything more interesting to do with your time? Like writing a book of your own, perhaps? Be careful with that word count addiction if you do …

Just some quick final thoughts on Doctor Who – or more specifically, some final thoughts on the Russell T Davies era of the show.

The final chapter

Attentive readers of this blog may remember a post (from 16 months ago! Yeesh) in which I wrote about and praised a book called “The Writer’s Tale” written through a series of email and text exchanges between Davies and journalist Benjamin Cook over the course of a year, and giving an insight not only into the Doctor Who show itself (it’s sort of a “Doctor Who annual for grown-ups” in that regard) but also into the mechanics of making a 21st century television show and – best of all as far as I’m concerned – a really honest, uncensored look into the art and craft and science of writing.

It’s a brilliant book, and last week it got even better with the publication of the paperback version, “The Writer’s Tale – The Final Chapter“, which added an entire second year’s worth of material to make it as much a follow-up/sequel as just a “paperback edition”. Where the first book covered the writing of the show’s fourth series, this new edition takes us through the writing of the specials – right through to the final words Davies writes for David Tennant’s Doctor – and also how the show handled breaking the news of Tennant’s departure and the new Doctor’s unveiling. In a nice post-modern touch the book even follows the authors as they promote the first edition of the book and the reactions to it, and the effect that it has on the writing of this edition and of the show.

It really is terrific stuff, I can’t recommend it highly enough for anyone interested in Doctor Who, writing, or television. If nothing else, you’ll simply enjoy the company of Davies and Cook’s often witty, searingly honest, and always insightful repartee over the course of two years.

If nothing else can persuade you, how about the following brief teasers:

  • Want to share the exact moment, read the very email, where Davies worked out exactly how the Doctor would die?
  • Want to know who nudged and cajoled Davies into the spectacular return of Gallifrey, even as budget concerns threatened to result in the axing of an entire special?
  • Wondered who The Woman played by Claire Bloom was in “The End of Time”? There’s a definitive answer.
  • And how about the postscript casually mentioning that new boy Matt Smith had just done to dinner at Steven Moffat’s (Davies’ replacement) house with Peter Davison and David Tennant? How Dr Who fandom didn’t implode at that moment is still a mystery.

A brilliant book, please do buy it.

A final review

The problem with reading a book like “The Writer’s Take – The Final Chapter” is that you find out, understand and empathise with what the writer went through creating something like “The End of Time.” It then becomes very hard to critique the finished work without feeling harsh, that you’re wounding someone who has sweated blood producing the script that you’re casually throwing barbs at. I wasn’t exactly kind to Part 1 of “The End of Time” in my review and I now feel bad about it, even if I meant every word of it and was honestly trying not to be harsh. At least I can be happy that I was positive about Part 2.

The trouble is, after reading in the book how the script evolved and how it ended up the way it did, it’s impossible not to think better of it. You get sucked in, you take a swig of the Kool-Aid, and objectivity gets kicked into touch. You can see how successful writers (and CEOs and politicians) quickly get surrounded by yes-men – not because everyone’s sucking up to the boss, but because once you’re on the inside and see what’s gone into this sort of endeavour it’s hard to stay one step removed and say “No! That’s a bad idea. Cut that!” You get swept along and everything in the garden is rose-tinted.

But even before I read the new parts of the paperback edition of the book, I’d started to realise that Russell T Davies scripts need more than one viewing – especially Doctor Who ones. The first viewing comes with all sorts of expectations, packed with “oh, he shouldn’t have done it that way” moments. Doctor Who fans are too involved with the show just to sit back and be uncritical so it’s hard to just enjoy the episode without judging it and wanting it to be better.

The thing is, when you can go back some time afterwards and just watch an episode without all the hype and expectations, you suddenly realise just how good it was. Case in point was “Partners in Crime”, the first episode of season 4, which was burdened at the time by being the first of a new season and the start of Catherine Tate’s stint as a companion (a controversial move at the time, now universally lauded as a masterstroke and Tate as Best! Companion! Ever!) Against that the alien threat was a daft, throw-away CGI collection of “fat monsters”.

We watched this episode as a way of coming down from “The End of Time”, just a bit of light relief that we could talk through. Except we didn’t: we ended up really watching and enjoying it. I’d remembered certain bits I’d liked: the early ‘farce’ scenes where the Doctor and Donna keep missing each other; their first meeting done in superb mime through office windows; the stunt sequences hanging from a window cleaner’s platform off a tall office block. But the odd thing was that all the things I thought I hadn’t liked so much suddenly seemed so much better, from Sarah Lancaster’s deliciously performed Supernanny villain to the cheerful little CGI Adipose blobs. Dammit, I was even moved to wave at the little critters by the end. I was totally sold on it.

And then mid-week I caught most of the reshowing of “The End of Time” Part 1 on BBC3 one evening. I hadn’t intended to watch, but I did, mesmerised by how well the show had been put together, the terrific John Simm doing a Heath Ledger Joker-inspired villain, and of course David Tennant being generally magnificent, dammit. Somehow the problems with the episode seemed far less important than the triumphs.

I suspect that Russell T Davies’ episodes of Doctor Who are the kind of productions that get better with age and repeated viewings. Maybe that’s just a different way of drinking the Kool-Aid, but it’s suddenly made me think how wonderful it is to have the DVDs of a show that does get better each time you watch, rather than some of the flashy US shows (like CSI for example) which are fantastic when you watch them but which have exactly zero re-watch value.

All at once I’m suddenly thinking that it’s not the end of the Tennant era at all: just the start of the opportunity to go back and watch the Tenth Doctor properly as a completed piece of work at last.

Finally finally

Oh, and for some reason, having been unconvinced and a little anxious about the show post-Tennant, I suddenly find that I’m also completely optimistic about the new series coming up in the Spring, and about Matt Smith. Whether it’s seeing him at “The End of Time”, or the new season trailer shown on BBC TV, or the publicity shots, or reading the first interviews and articles about the new era I’m not sure: all I know is, I’m suddenly convinced that the 2010 Doctor is going to be every bit as good as his predecessor. (Even – whisper it gently – better?) I’m genuinely excited about it.

How fickle am I? The minute Tennant and Davies walk out and I’m lauding Smith and Moffat. That’s showbiz.

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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