Writerly Questions With An Obvious Solution Once You Write Them Down

Part 1: Which Should I Worry About More — My ‘Grand Theme’ Or Whether The Audience Laughs?

This is a short addendum to last week’s piece on The Adventurer’s Journey. One of the things that I was quite careful not to say was that adventures were stories and stories were lessons and, thusly, adventures were lessons.

There is an academic passion for analysing stories for grand themes and universal morals, summed up by the question: what does this story have to say about the human experience?

It’s a forensic approach that has been translated wholesale into the dozen or more ‘how to write’ books that fill my own bookshelves.

Books as diverse as Save The Cat! by Blake Snyder and Story by Robert McKee all have the same underlying logic: find your theme and you’ll find your story.

But I’ve just finished reading an excellent book that takes the complete opposite approach to story analysis — and therefore implies a wholly different logic for creative writing.

Rather than mining the library shelves for themes, meanings and lessons, Angus Fletcher’s Wonderworks examines the psychological effect that different stories have on the reader.

It’s a disarmingly naive method, inspired by Aristotle’s Poetics, that can be crudely summed up by the question: who gives a crap about theme when my readers are gripped by catharsis, shaken with wonder, bawling their eyes out and lolling their heads off.

Fletcher’s 400-page thesis is a little repetitive and certainly misses out a huge chunk of what makes certain stories so effective, but it’s a potent corrective to a tendency that I have as a spreadsheet-driven writer, when an obsession with structure blocks a clear view of how the story will land in the mind of the audience, with tears and laughter.

The Beatles: Not As Good As Dylan

I know how enthralled you all were by my breakdown of every single Dylan album (see 88 Percent Perfection), so it was only a matter of time before I inflicted the same analysis on The Beatles.

I went through every single Beatles song on every single canonical Beatles album (except Yellow Submarine because: huh?) and ranked them according to the same vigorous scale:

  1. SKIPPER. I’d skip this song more times than not. Actively unpleasant.
  2. FILLER. I’d probably leave this song on, but might skip. Unmoved either way.
  3. BOPPER. This song would get me moving pleasantly and possibly singing along.
  4. BANGER. I’d be singing by now. A thoroughly enjoyable experience (the song, not my singing).
  5. KILLER. My life would not be the same without this song. I’d stop what I’m doing to listen and probably rewind when it gets to the end.

I won’t agonise over the details and let this chart speak for itself:

Dylan = Red (N=35 – four exclusions shown as 0), The Beatles = Blue (N=12)

Before you weigh in with invective, it’s worth remembering that over 60% POP is, as I said in my original piece, ‘a sublime album’.

Once they got their cover album training wheels off, The Beatles delivered six sublime albums, including one that almost rivals Dylan’s mid-sixties output.

Of course, no metric can fairly judge something as subjective as a song — our experiences are so fluid in our own minds, not to mention in other people’s. Already my Dylan chart has changed. I expect my Beatles chart to change with almost every listen.

But there are a few surprises in the data: I have long held as a truth self-evident that The White Album is my favourite Beatles album.

That’s as may be, but according to the POP chart it is surpassed in perfection by Revolver, Abbey Road, Let It Be and, top of the rankings, Rubber Soul.

Although it contains almost a quarter of my favourite Beatles songs of all time, The White Album’s rating is stuffed by a surfeit of tracks all too easily skipped.

Naming no names, but ‘Dear Prudence’ (mainly composed by Lennon), ‘Wild Honey Pie’ (McCartney), ‘Piggies’ (Harrison), ‘Don’t Pass Me By’ (Starr), ‘Revolution 9’ (Lennon), ‘Glass Onion’ (Lennon), ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’ (McCartney), ‘Long, Long, Long’ (Harrison) and ‘Good Night’ (Lennon) could have been saved for a Bootleg Series-style retrospective.

But even if The Beatles had shown a little more, er, prudence in the cutting room, The White Album would still only have ranked fourth in a combined Dylan-Beatles album chart.

I suppose that’s why Dylan was awarded a Nobel prize for his songwriting and all Paul McCartney got was a red ribbon with a threaded golden border and the letters CH after his name.

(What about the others? Annoyed with Britain’s support of the Vietnam War and ‘Cold Turkey slipping down the charts’, John Lennon returned his MBE in 1969; George Harrison, hoping for a knighthood, refused an OBE in 2000; Ringo Starr, in 1989, accepted an Emmy for his role as The Fat Controller in Thomas The Tank Engine.)

Word Of The Week: Rhabdomancy

Rhabdomancy is the use of a rod (rhabdo-) for the purpose of divination (-mancy), specifically the technique of using a dowsing rod to find underground sources of water or minerals.

Needless to say, rhabdomancy is about as effective as haruspicy, the least vegan of all the ancient divination practices.

I stumbled across rhabdomancy by complete chance while browsing the splendid interactive lexicon, Visuwords.

By complete chance, really? Or was I guided by a higher power?

Seven Superb Books I Read Despite 2021

I’ve read 43 books so far this year, 21 fiction and 22 non-fiction. This is a slight decline on last year, but still the second highest total since records began in 2013.

For some bone-headed reason, I always finish the fiction I start reading, but there are 4 other non-fiction titles that I started and gave up part-way through.

14 of the books I’ve read this year were by female or non-binary authors, another was by a collective of non-binary, female and male authors. 6 of these female or non-binary-written books were fiction; 8 were non-fiction.

All of the books I gave up on were written by men. Make of that what you will.

The stand-out worst book I read all year was the horribly racist and sexist Neither Here Nor There by Bill Bryson. If you were being generous, you could say that it was ‘of its time’. In the same way that slavery or the guillotine was ‘of its time’.

Moving rapidly on.

The meaningless average year of publication was 1994 — meaningless because I read zero books published in 1994. (But a stunning hattrick from 1995: Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson, High Fidelity by Nick Hornby and Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh. Wonderful.)

The mode (most frequent) year of publication was, surprisingly, 2021. I don’t think of myself as a hot-off-the-press kinda guy, but this is a symptom of my lockdown habit of buying books instead of waiting for the library to open, as well as an attachment to certain authors, including friends.

Here are the seven books I’ve read that were published this year:

Although all were highly enjoyable and/or instructive, only one of these books also appears in my list of seven absolute corkers that I read this year. Tension.

So here, finally, is that list.

The Chinese zodiac might insist that 2021 was the year of the ox, but for me it was the year of the wolf, as I devoured To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Woolf and Feral by George Monbiot.

Naturally I had to follow that pack of wolves with the splendid The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd.

Heimat by Nora Krug taught me history, A World Without Email by Cal Newport taught me technology and Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez taught me perspective.

You could do a lot worse than putting any of those seven books on your Christmas list, but, in the generous spirit of overdelivering, this year I also re-read two books that I remember enjoying decades ago, way back, before I had a beard.

I was relieved to discover that both A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S Thompson are indeed appealing and enduring works of the highest order.

Dare I re-read Catch-22 in ‘22?

88 Percent Perfect

One significant highlight of the past seven days was calculating a formula that tells me exactly where each of Bob Dylan’s 39 studio albums lies in relation to the others…

The raw data for my Every Dylan Album formula comes from a personal rating, on a five point scale, of every Dylan song.

  1. SKIPPER. I’d skip this song more times than not. Actively unpleasant.
  2. FILLER. I’d probably leave this song on, but might skip. Unmoved either way.
  3. BOPPER. This song would get me moving pleasantly and possibly singing along.
  4. BANGER. I’d be singing by now. A thoroughly enjoyable experience (the song, not my singing).
  5. KILLER. My life would not be the same without this song. I’d stop what I’m doing to listen and probably rewind when it gets to the end.

WARNING: This scale can only represent my feelings about a song at a particular moment in time. It excludes one very important category: the GROWER.

One example of a Dylan grower is Make You Feel My Love, from Time Out Of Mind. It’s as slushy as you would guess from the title and, until the summer of 2011, was a firm skipper.

Then Adele’s cover of the song came on the cafe radio as I sat waiting for breakfast, utterly exhausted from one of my first bivvies, a long way from home with a long road ahead of me, a couple of weeks after a painful break up. The tears rolled into my sausage and beans. Now it’s an easy banger.

The Secret Formula

I’m tempted to tell you that the Colonel’s formula is top secret, but it’s the first time I’ve ever used the LARGE function (proud!) so here it is in full:

=SUMPRODUCT(LARGE(($'All Songs'.D$2:$'All Songs'.D$1000=B2)*($'All Songs'.H$2:$'All Songs'.H$1000),{1,2,3,4,5}))

This formula, as I’m sure you’ve all effortlessly deduced, returns the total score of the five highest rated songs from any particular album.

This is then multiplied by the average song score for the whole album and converted into what I call the ‘Percentage Of Perfection’ — or POP.

See what I did there.

The POP Scale

On the POP scale, Bob’s albums range from a zenith of 88% to a nadir of 11%, with an average of 43%.

That might sound quite low, but remember the five point scale. An album of mostly twos and threes — a not unpleasant, if unmemorable, experience — would score 30%.

A POP score of 43% could be an album that’s got one killer track, a couple of bangers, a couple of boppers and the rest filler. That’s a decent album in my book.

I’ve not got as much raw data on any other artist (and I don’t have time to go through all thirteen Beatles studio albums), but let’s use Arctic Monkeys as a reference:

(Side note: these are four of the six albums that Arctic Monkeys released in their first twelve years of operation. By that time, Dylan had released thirteen. Just saying.)

In short, over 60% POP is a sublime album — and Dylan’s done seven of them, as you can see from this chart:


Note: I haven’t scored Columbia’s 1973 rogue outtake album, nor the trilogy of songbook albums Dylan released between 2015 and 2017 because a) I haven’t got them and b) I’ve heard they’re not worth the entry fee.

Scraping The Barrel

You can all guess the highest scoring albums; the real fun is found scraping the barrel at the bottom of the scale.

No surprises to see the universally panned Knocked Out Loaded and Saved down there, but as bad as these (or worse) was an album described by Rolling Stone as ‘a stunning recovery of the lyric and melodic powers that seemed to have all but deserted him’.

Nope. Not in my world. Infidels (1983) is shite. Yes: even Jokerman. I don’t get it.

Instead of leaving you on a downer, I’ll leave you with three pearls cast into the swineyard of three otherwise scarcely redeemable Dylan albums:

It’s a whortleberry, whortleberry, whortleberry’s world There is no clear evidence that Oscar Wilde didn’t start writing The Importance of Being Earnest after a hundred-mile detour for a whortleberry cream tea. Is there?

All great comedies start with a hundred-mile detour for a whortleberry cream tea.

At least, there is no clear evidence that Oscar Wilde didn’t start writing The Importance of Being Earnest after a hundred-mile detour for a whortleberry cream tea. Is there?

Propitious omens indeed for Beth and I as we tuck into a jammy scone on Exmoor before we tuck into the writing of a proper, full-length stage show edition of Foiled, our immortal comedy, set in a Welsh hair salon.

Foiled, incredibly, is entering its second decade. There are some who would bandy around such equine idioms as ‘flogging a dead horse’ and ‘one trick ponies’ to describe mine and Beth’s continued relationship with Sabrina, Tanisha, Richie and the hapless clients of Bleach For The Stars.

But the reality is that, even after two plays and four radio serieses, there are still over 7.9 billion people yet to be balayaged by the staffs of Clipadvisor’s highest ranked salon and spa (thanks, dad).

And even those who already have seen, heard and/or enjoyed Foiled, miraculously, come back for more.

So give the people what they want!

That hundred-mile detour ended me up in Cardiff: the first time since 2017 that Beth and I have lived in the same city.

Last night I ate non-fish and chips at her clifftop manor, before jumping on the bike and whooshing down the hill to a rented room in Splott. Even when we did both live in London, with its galactic dimensions expanding into infinity, we couldn’t really do things like that.

I’ll be here for a whole month, osmosising the rhythms and dithums of Wales and photosynthesising them into words on the pages of a script.

By the end of October, we’ll have… more than we have today. The idea is to set the play on its feet sometime late next year, an immersive theatrical experience in a found space with barebrick walls, full length mirrors, running water and live bottles of bleach.

First we must breathe life into its bones and reanimate the salon with an incantation of words.

We have stockpiled hundreds of pages of Foiled scripts from the last decade so, tonight, we’re gathering around the kitchen table to read our Collected Works.

We’ll mark pages and make notes, then steal our own best jokes before weaving together the strands of the story that will become Foiled 2022.

And we’ll never forget that it all started with a hundred-mile detour for a whortleberry cream tea.

Self Portrait (1970) Is that all this is? A kiss-off to the Folkslingers and Rock’n’Rollers who didn’t get the message after Nashville Skyline? Maybe, but humour me for a moment…

Recorded over the space of a year and bloated with old-time cover versions and obscure live takes of the hits, Self Portrait must have come as a shock to fans of both Dylan the Folkslinger and Dylan the Rock’n’roller.

In Rolling Stone magazine, Greil Marcus welcomed the 24-track LP into the world with the famous words:

What is this shit?!

Let’s give it a listen, shall we?

The author, ten years old, on a family holiday in Dartmoor (April, 1993)

A Note On Random Chance

If you’re wondering why I’m starting my review series with Dylan’s most vilified album, it’s because I used a spreadsheet to select the order at random.

If you’re wondering why I’ve just shown you a photograph of me aged ten, well… Dylan has released 39 studio albums, which is one for every year that I’ve existed.

So, for no obvious reason at all, I’ve decided to pair every Dylan review with a corresponding photo from my forgotten past. Hence, for Dylan’s tenth album, a photo of myself aged ten (see above).

Anyway, back to the music.

The Music

It is, by and large, shit. So let’s get a shovel and start digging. Can we unearth an album worth the listening?

Of the 24 tracks, I say that we can immediately dispense with the three live recordings.

Putting aside their variable quality (Like A Rolling Stone: flat-out terrible; She Belongs To Me: passably interesting; Quinn The Eskimo: entertainingly rompish), their place is not on a studio album, but on a greatest hits compilation (which is exactly where Quinn is plonked a year later).

So we’re down to 21 tracks.

Of those, 16 are covers, leaving just five Dylan originals. It’d be unfair to completely dismiss the cover versions, but I’ll set them aside for a moment.

The Five Originals

Actually, three of the five are instrumentals and it’s hard to say quite how much songwriting Dylan himself did. Certainly the most successful, Woogie Boogie, relies heavily on the talent of the blues band soloists. Dylan never learned the sax.

There are, apparently, some interesting musical goings on in All The Tired Horses, but mostly I hear the twiddlings of a guy who’s just discovered a few new gadgets in the recording studio. Hard to listen to, even by accident.

Wigwam summons the atmosphere of Dylan’s consistent preoccupations: Cowboys and Indians, Mexico and the Mariachi. For that reason, I give it a free pass.

That leaves just two Dylan originals with words. Not exactly a prodigious output for the voice of several generations. In fact, now we come to listen, we realise that Minstrel Boy was plucked from the famous Basement Tapes that Dylan recorded with The Band back in 1967.

That leaves Living The Blues as the last remaining Dylan original on Self Portrait.

It’s not bad.

The 16 Covers

Where do we start with this mess? First, let’s split them into traditional and contemporary.

9 Contemporary Covers

There are nine songs on Self Portrait that were written (or re-popularised) in the 1960s or 1950s by people other than Dylan.

Given that the median Dylan album contains only ten tracks in total, why ram this Self Portrait with an albumful of songs written by his contemporaries?

There seem to be two reasons for these covers:

To Show Off His Crooning Voice

The crooning category contains I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know, Let It Be Me, Copper Kettle, Blue Moon and Take Me As I Am.

Vocally, these songs sound like the inspiration for Nashville Skyline, which Dylan had released the previous year. But, stripped of Dylan’s Skyline smile, they come across as utterly humourless.

Perhaps with the exclusion of Let It Be Me, we can dispense with the whole lot without fear of recriminations.

To Have Fun

Into this category we put Early Mornin’ Rain, Gotta Travel On and The Boxer (yes, the Simon & Garfunkel song).

I can’t think of any reason why these cover versions should exist, other than Dylan had fun singing them. No harm in that. Except that at least one of the covers is simply horrible. I’ll leave it to you to work out which.

The Everly Brothers’ Take A Message To Mary seems to fall into both categories, which is FINE.

A brief mention is due to Thirsty Boots, a splendid Eric Anderson song that Dylan recorded in a bombastic rendition for Self Portrait, but chose to exclude from the album. More on that sort of shenanigans in a bit.

7 (or 4) (or 5) Traditional Covers

Here, Dylan is on more solid ground. So solid, in fact, that he steals the songwriting credit in the liner notes.

Ever since Bob Dylan (his first album), Bob Dylan (the singer) has been a jukebox of the American folk and blues tradition.

His special talent has always been one of interpretation and, often, the appropriation of melody for his own lyrics. See Blowing In The Wind, The Times They Are A’Changin’, etc..

It’s what he’s best at and, when it works, it’s genius. When it doesn’t work, it’s In Search Of Little Sadie.

The Little Sadies / Sadists

In Search Of Little Sadie is purportedly the sound of Dylan trying to find an interpretation of the traditional folk song Little Sadie. I say ‘purportedly’ because the musical chaos has been carefully written and practised. This is not a rehearsal. This is — what else? — a joke.

I’m sure it’s very clever, very funny and very Dylan, but it’s not particularly fine listening.

Two songs later, we get the actual Little Sadie. Jaunty. But even here, mystifyingly, the producer cuts late and we hear the sound of a tape machine clicking off and a guitar clanging.

In some ways, these two songs are the beating heart of Self Portrait. This album was written and produced to sound like a band warming up. The sound of Dylan behind the shades: an honest self portrait.

The question is: why be honest? We’ll never know for sure, but we all have guilty pleasures (Gangsta Rap, Bryan Adams) and — guess what? — Dylan does too. Just no one ever dreamed his would be this embarrassing.

Trad Today Gone Tomorrow

Okay, so we’ll cut the Little Sadies, but what about the other trad songs?

It’s a mixed bag.

The album begins and ends with two almost identical versions of the traditional blues song Alberta — one in double time, one in triple time.

Alberta is a great song and both performances crackle — but why did Dylan think we needed both takes? Perhaps, taking his own lyrics literally, he really was ‘going through all these things twice’.

Days of ‘49, credited to American folklorists Lomax, Lomax and Warner, is another triumph, driven on by the menacing drum kick and the rolling warmth of the piano.

It Hurts Me Too is insipidly unnecessary. Even if Self Portrait wasn’t already overlong — 74 minutes, really?! — It Hurts Me Too would still be unnecessary.

Thanks to the 2013 Bootleg Series release of Another Self Portrait, we know that Dylan recorded at least four superior trad songs that were ultimately cut from the album:

  • Pretty Saro
  • Railroad Bill
  • This Evening So Soon
  • House Carpenter

In fairness, no accurate self portrait of Dylan would be complete without leaving a few of the best songs off the album. Blind Willie McTell, Abandoned Love, Seven Days, Seven Curses, Series of Dreams, Red River Shore — it’s a classic Dylan move.

The Disappearing Act Of Belle Isle

That leaves one final song that did make the cut: Dylan’s take on Belle Isle. Marc Bolan was a huge fan:

Belle Isle brought to my memory all the moments of tenderness I’ve ever felt for another human being, and that, within the superficial landscape of pop music, is a great thing indeed.

Bolan’s right that Belle Isle is a beautiful song, even if, personally, I feel like the campfire guitar clashes with the strings as the song reaches a climax. With its soaring strings and matinée crooning, Belle Isle doesn’t even sound like ‘Dylan’. He’s not there.

On which note, it’s time to return to that famous Rolling Stone review:

There is a curious move toward self-effacement; Dylan removing himself from a position from which he is asked to exercise power in the arena.

Is that all this is? A kiss-off to the Folkslingers and Rock’n’Rollers who didn’t get the message after Nashville Skyline?

Maybe, but humour me for a moment…

Is Self Portrait a buried classic?

If I were compiling a ten-track Dylan album from the bloated ruins of Self Portrait and Another Self Portrait, this is what I’d come up with:

  1. Alberta #2
  2. Days of ‘49
  3. Early Mornin’ Rain
  4. Let It Be Me (or Take A Message To Mary if you prefer)
  5. Pretty Saro
  6. Woogie Boogie (Wigwam if you need to cool off)
  7. Belle Isle
  8. Railroad Bill
  9. Thirsty Boots
  10. Living The Blues

And, blow me, if that isn’t a great album. A 32-minute Self Portrait of which anyone would be proud. Even my ten-year-old self, face down in a swimming pool in France:

Masquerading with Bob Dylan Through the changing colours of his chameleonic career, Dylan has shown exactly how ferociously that work ethic must be defended against the ossifying effects of wealth and fame. Let’s put on our creative masks and show up for work. Let’s masquerade.

Last week I wrote about one ancient Bob; this week I’ll write about another.

On Monday, I took my usual seat on on my usual cross-legged cushion for my usual Chess Club match-up with my confederate-cum-competitor. There are only three rules of Chess Club. The first rule of Chess Club is snacks, but the second is music.

Yann Tiersen, Ludovico Einaudi, Nick Mulvey. That sort of thing.

I wasn’t expecting Bob Dylan.

Between the years of about 2004 and 2015, I listened to very little other recorded music but Bob Dylan. Then, on his seventy-fifth birthday, I played a couple of his songs live. Overnight, my life changed. And I stopped listening to Bob Dylan.

A fool such as I.

Back in May, Bob Dylan turned eighty and, on Monday, I was turned on again.

His Bobness will always be an important artist for me, not because of what he is—not because he’s the Voice Of A Generation or a Nobel Prize winner (although he is certainly one of those things)—but because of what he is not.

He’s not a great guitarist. He’s not a great singer. He’s not even a great harmonica player. He’s not a great poet. He’s not a great painter. He’s not a great prose writer. He’s not even always a great lyric writer.

And yet his life could be an instruction manual on how to get the most out of what you’ve (not) got.

Work fucking hard!

In 1965, Bob went to Newport Folk Festival and plugged in his electric guitar. He made such a racket that people booed. In fact, his entire electric tour of North America and (most famously) England got booed and heckled.

This all culminated in his performance at Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1966 where, just before playing the last track (Like A Rolling Stone), a man stands up and shouts, ‘Judas!’

Dylan sneers back, ‘I don’t believe you.’ His voice rises in hysteria: ‘You’re a liar!’ Then he turns to his band and screams—‘Play it fucking loud!’

Grammarians: Good spot—I’ve changed tense because you can hear all this for yourself, as if live, on The Bootleg Series 4: The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert Disc 2.

I tell you this little side story because the entirety of Dylan’s artistic method boils down—if I can paraphrase the man himself here—to one maxim: work fucking hard.

How many songs?

When he didn’t include Blind Willie McTell on Infidels, one of the diabolical albums he released in the 1980s, Bob Dylan justified himself thus:

Relax. It’s just an album—I’ve done thirty of them.

Bob’s record record now stands at an impressive thirty-nine—and that’s just the studio albums.

Some are exquisite (Bringing It All Back Home, Blood on the Tracks, Oh Mercy, Time Out of Mind); some are execrable (Empire Burlesque, Infidels, Saved, Shot of Love, Knocked Out Loaded); but you can deny the existence of none.

Wikipedia reckons Bob has written or co-written 736 songs, lending credence to his claim to ‘write ten songs a day and throw nine of them away’.

Empire Burlesque seems to exemplify this philosophy—just without the throwing away part.

Nine overproduced synth-laden atrocities are wholly justified by Dark Eyes, a sublime Bob plus guitar plus harmonica love song. Don’t get me wrong: the musicianship on Dark Eyes is Dylan-level incompetent, but the song itself is wonderful.

You could make a superb album from the songs that Dylan actually did throw away. How about this?

  1. Paths of Victory, hiked from The Times They Are A-Changin’
  2. Seven Curses, doomed to be unreleased in 1963
  3. Mama, You Been On My Mind, forgotten in 1964
  4. Love Is Just A Four Letter Word, ****ed off in 1967
  5. On A Rainy Afternoon, never properly dried off in 1966
  6. She’s Your Lover Now, kissed off from Blonde on Blonde
  7. The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar, jilted from Shot of Love
  8. Abandoned Love, left on the doorstep of Desire
  9. Foot of Pride, stamped out of Infidels
  10. Blind Willie McTell, overlooked from Infidels

In fact, since 1991, Colombia Records have been releasing, not one, but a dazzling series of albums from abandoned songs such as these. And, arguably, the so called Bootleg Sessions series, now into Volume 15, are a grander setting for many songs than the albums they might have once adorned.

How many gigs?

On June 7 1988, Bob Dylan went on tour with his band and, basically, never stopped playing shows.

In the three-odd decades since, Dylan has, according to the frighteningly forensic histories of Olof Björner, played no fewer than 3,064 shows. That’s roughly 100 shows a year.

For comparison, between 2014 and 2019, modern chart-toppers Arctic Monkeys played about 50 shows a year. About half the work rate of an eighty-year-old.

Dylan’s hyperactive schedule has been called the Never Ending Tour—a title Dylan himself rejects because it romanticises instead of normalises the hard work that goes into being a touring musician.

Does anybody call Henry Ford a Never Ending Car Builder? … These days, people are lucky to have a job. Any job. So critics might be uncomfortable with my working so much. Anybody with a trade can work as long as they want. A carpenter, an electrician. They don’t necessarily need to retire.

For some reason, a lot of musicians get to a certain point and stop writing and performing. Maybe life gets in the way. Maybe they run out of money. Maybe they get bored. Maybe the fame that comes with musical success was the end goal. Who knows? It’s none of Bob’s business.

Bob Dylan sees his music as a job. One that he’s lucky to have. So he does nothing more than what a person lucky to have a job does: he shows up for work every day. If he were a carpenter, he’d plane wood and make dovetail joints. Instead, he writes songs and plays them.

How many masks?

Dylan prickly reaction to the Never Ending Tour media moniker hints at something he has fought against from the beginning: the desire of journalists, fans and even fellow musicians to burden him with responsibilities and expectations.

You only have to watch a few of Bob’s interviews to see how doggedly he evades the ribbons and bows that journalists want to pin on him.

Take this example from 1986:

MR JONES: What about being a role model for so many of the people who are doing music today?

BOB DYLAN: No, no, no. Not a role model.

MR JONES: What are you, then?

BOB DYLAN: I’m just me.

Creativity isn’t a fixed trait. It’s not something that you are born with. It’s not something that you have or don’t have, like electrical current running through a lightbulb. It’s not that.

It’s something else. Something more ethereal, something that would suffer under the weight of responsibilities and expectations. Dylan seems to know that, if he accepts and believes media titles like ‘Voice of a Generation’, the creativity would vanish.

Instead, throughout his whole career, Dylan has played a succession of roles. Just when an interviewer thinks they’ve pinned him down as a protest singer, he goes electric. When they’ve finally caught up with the rock’n’roller, he’s a Nashville country singer.

And so it goes, through a dizzying repertoire of acts that encompasses carnival ringleader, born again Christian, Delta bluesman, big band crooner and even Christmas entertainer.

Being noticed can be a burden. Jesus got himself crucified because he got himself noticed. So I disappear a lot.

Dylan told us the secret back in 1964. While getting ready to play If You Gotta Go, Go Now at a concert on Halloween at the Philharmonic Hall in New York, he messes up the tuning and hits a bum note:

Don’t let that scare you! It’s just Halloween. I have my Bob Dylan mask on. I’m mask-erading, ha ha ha!

Dylan defends his creativity against the frozen fixities of responsibility and expectation by masquerading, playing a succession of characters behind the chrysalis of the Bob Dylan mask.

Everything else—the genius, the mystery, the doctrinaire Platonism so beloved of outsiders—he determinedly and consistently downplays, much to the annoyance of the press.

From the same 1986 interview I mentioned earlier, this is how he answers a question about why his work has meant so much to so many people:

I guess it’s been inspiring. I know it’s been inspiring for me to write it. Outside of that, I wouldn’t know.

When the hapless journalist presses Dylan on the matter, the mood turns to frustration for both parties:

I don’t know. I just don’t. I’m still trying to make sense of it to me.

Dylan’s honesty is too simple, too personal, too Stoic.

Back in the sixties, there was a mania to understand Dylan’s ‘message’. In Dont Look Back, a documentary filmed on Dylan’s 1966 tour of the UK, one journalist asks him what his ‘real message’ is.

‘My real message?’ Dylan replies. ‘Keep a good head and always carry a lightbulb.’

For me, Dylan’s real message is that there is no such thing as personal creative genius, only persistence and hard work.

And, through the changing colours of his chameleonic career, Dylan has shown exactly how ferociously that work ethic must be defended against the ossifying effects of wealth and fame.

Let’s put on our creative masks and show up for work. Let’s masquerade.

~

This piece emerged from something I wrote about a hundred years ago called What Bob Dylan Means to Me in Twenty-Five Words. If you’d like me to rewrite this 10,000 word masterwork, then you’d better become a paying subscriber or email me or something.

Oh, and, no, I’m not telling you what the third rule of Chess Club is.

UPDATE: 16 July 2021

For those of you asking for my all-time favourite Bob Dylan songs, I found two lists that I made during what I’ll call The Rabid Dylan Years. The first, made in 2009, turned Dylan’s songs into a knockout tournament. These songs made up the semi-finals:

  • Idiot Wind
  • Maggie’s Farm
  • Subterranean Homesick Blues
  • Tangled Up In Blue

Two songs from Bringing It All Back Home; two from Blood on the Tracks. It was impossible for my 2009 brain to pick a winner.

Then, in 2012, I compiled a list of my most played Dylan songs, going back a year or so. This was the top four:

  1. Things Have Changed
  2. Tell Ol’ Bill [Alternate Version]
  3. Dirge
  4. Blind Willie McTell

Two things to note. Firstly, only three years later, the list is completely different. Things have changed indeed. In fact, none of the four from 2009 are among the twenty most played songs of 2012. Secondly: both lists would be completely different again in 2021.

As a topper, only three of these eight songs make the top thirty of this 2020 Rolling Stone list and two of them don’t even make the top hundred. The catalogue is fathomless.

‘The literary equivalent of gold dust’ Or: How hard is it to publish a novel?

Back in the winter of 2017, I went on a novel-writing course with literary agency Curtis Brown. For me, it was a way of forcing a decision point: do I really want to get any deeper into the world of publishing? The answer, as it transpired, was ‘no’.

The reality of the industry is that authors work extremely hard, often alone, typically for several years, without reward. At the end of this purgatorial period, a successful author might be paid a retrospective minimum wage for their work. An unsuccessful author will, of course, get nothing more than an RSI.

As much as I enjoy writing books, I much prefer the higher pay, shorter deadlines, tighter feedback loops and creative collaboration of writing for radio or theatre.

Occasionally, however, an author will get everything their work deserves. One such is Kirsty Capes, a fellow student on that novel-writing course three years ago. Her book, Careless, was published last week to great critical acclaim. Benjamin Zephaniah called it ‘the literary equivalent of gold dust’.

To give you some idea of the work that goes into writing a novel, Kirsty came to that Curtis Brown course with over 100,000 words of the story that became Careless. I remember reading and critiquing a couple of the chapters she’d written.

I say ‘critiquing’—really my feedback was nothing more than an appeal for more of the same. It was clear that Kirsty’s writing was destined for the big time: an exciting, young voice, telling an important, often untold, story about social care. Even so, it took her more than three years to edit the novel and get it into press.

Comparing the opening lines of Careless with the opening lines I read all those years ago, I was fascinated to see that not a great deal has changed. The framing has been tweaked and moulded, yes, but the imagery not materially altered.

The long and short of it is this: it’s the kind of day where the heat sticks plimsolls to tarmac and I’m standing in the toilet in the Golden Grill kebab shop with a pregnancy test stuffed into my backpack.

Novel writing is not for everyone. It’s not only about talent. It’s about hard work and sheer bloody mindedness. Well fucking done, Kirsty.

Now, finally, I can get my hands on the rest of the book!

Buy Careless wherever you can—ignore where it says ‘pre-order’, it’s already out.

How Long Does It Take To Write an Entire BBC Radio Sitcom?

Over the past half decade, Foiled has grown from low budget fringe theatre actually staged in a hair salon to being the most popular comedy show ever broadcast by BBC Radio Wales, starring legends of stage and screen including Ralf Little, Miles Jupp, Felicity Montagu, Vicky Vox and Sir Derek Jacobi.

That’s all well and good, but great comedy doesn’t get written without great data. Am I right? Probably not, no. Nevertheless, ever since Foiled series one, I have counted the hours I spend writing using both time tracking software and my own high-tech kitchen timer and spreadsheet combo.

What this means is that I can now go back through four years of data to tell you exactly how long it takes to write an entire BBC radio sitcom series. How cool is that?

🎭 Read the rest of the story over on Toggl

Foiled Series 4: On air


Episode 1 of Foiled, a radio sitcom written by me and Beth Granville, airs on Monday.

Bleach for the Stars is thriving under the guidance of local baguettes entrepreneur Tariq. But the baguette mogul’s new world order is seriously threatening Tanisha and Richie’s historically lax working life. Will they be able to oust Tariq and convince Sabrina to take her salon back, especially now she’s flourishing in her new role as Head of Baguettes?

I’m excited and nervous to listen to the show—excited because we think the scripts are brilliant; nervous because the poor actors had to record those scripts while hiding under their duvet and/or inside a wardrobe. Oh, 2020…

How to write a BBC radio sitcom during a global pandemic

Beth Granville and I started working on the scripts for Series 4 of our BBC Radio sitcom Foiled at the end of March, making use of the uncertainty of the first lockdown to produce first drafts of three of the four episodes. We worked remotely, of course, and although we shared script ideas and weekly phone calls, we wrote more or less independently during this first phase.

(For the writing data geeks among you 👋 I spent 75.5 hours working on the project over those three months of sunny loneliness.)

We took a hiatus over the summer months and then, slapped with a November deadline, took up our keyboards again at the beginning of October.

I don’t mind sharing with you the fact that our producer hated two of the draft episodes we’d handed in. It’s hard to say whether that was down to the distance between Beth and I, the distractions of the health crisis or—I think most likely—the natural process of writing anything.

This second, autumnal phase was marked by much closer collaboration, with phone calls every other day and the luxury of ten days of in-person time, spread over three blocks. There was a lot of work to be done.

But gradually, as the hours totted up, the scripts, as they do, started to fall into place. We got great feedback from the producer, first on one episode (‘Oh my giddy aunt this is wonderful’), then on another (‘Hoorah! This is fucking WONDERFUL’) and finally on the series closer (‘I think this is the best episode you’ve ever done’).

There was just one problem: we’d been hired to write four episodes, not three. Episode 1, that big bang series opener, didn’t exist yet. This was last Tuesday, the last Tuesday in November. Our deadline was the first Tuesday in December.

We made that deadline.

I don’t know how, but we started, muddled and finished a 30-page radio sitcom episode in a week. Actually, I do know how: by spending a lot of time writing.

(Precisely 30.5 hours from my side, plus more from Beth and a day with comedian Adam Hess. Incidentally, this episode broke last year’s three-week record for fastest ever script—but the number of hours spent writing were identical.)

On Wednesday, we heard from our producer: ‘This is fucking great. Funny, feasible, surprising but makes sense—it’s ticking all my comedy boxes.’

Finally, 8 months, 213.5 logged writing hours and a global pandemic after we started, we have (almost) finished.

(This compares with our experiences last year. I estimated that Series 3 took about 50 hours per episode, but that excluded time spent talking through story with Beth. The ~54 hours per episode this year includes most of that time. Although our 2020 writing process has felt quite different, the amount of effort has been identical.)

Foiled is due for broadcast on BBC Radio Wales and BBC Sounds in late January. I hope you enjoy listening as much as we’ve enjoyed writing. There really is no substitute for putting the hours in.

Feel the Fear… And Give Future Readers a Hard Time By Not Referencing Your Sources Anyway!

I’m currently reading Feel the Fear… And Do It Anyway, a classic of the self-help genre, by Susan Jeffers. It was written in a fever of enthusiasm back in 1987 and you can kind of tell.

Although there’s plenty of practical wisdom in there—clearly inspired by the Stoics I might add—there are also moments of sweeping generalisation and unsubstantiated assertion. All good fun.

I’m reading the revised edition, published in 2012, and very much enjoying the fact that she felt no need to update the references to ‘audio cassettes’ and ‘portable CD players’. More annoying, however, is her tendency to quote other writers without attribution or without context.

In the chapter ‘Filling the Inner Void’ Jeffers presents a long quotation from George Bernard Shaw. I wanted to share his idea of ‘feverish selfishness’ with you, but also wanted to give some context. So I looked it up on the internet—something Susan Jeffers can kind of be forgiven for missing out on in 1987, but not in 2012.

Irrelevant fact: Bernard Shaw and Bob Dylan are the only artists to have been awarded both an Oscar and a Nobel Prize. Life goals.

It wasn’t easy sourcing this supposed Bernard Shaw quotation. It seems like most of the internet has slavishly copied out the words as they appear in Jeffers’ book, but I’m more demanding than that. The internet is full of ‘inspirational’ quotes spuriously attributed to dead white men: I want to see the words printed by a reputable publisher, ideally in Bernard Shaw’s very own blood.

Plugging the first words of Jeffers’ quotation into DuckDuckGo, I quickly traced them to the dedication at the beginning of Bernard Shaw’s 1903 play Man and Superman:

This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.

I note that Jeffers edited the text slightly, changing ‘you’ to ‘me’ at the end and excising the excellent ‘scrap heap’ clause. (For pity’s sake, Susan, there are ellipses in the title of your book, why not use them in quotations?)

But even ignoring those minor quibbles, this text is scarcely half of what Jeffers had presented as a continuous quotation. Where’s the rest? Cue more frantic searching, but the words are nowhere to be found in Man and Superman.

DuckDuckGo had to work hard to earn its crushed biscuits this time. Mainly because the second part is uncontextualised reported speech quoted at the very end of George Bernard Shaw: His Life and Works, a 1911 biography by Archibald Henderson:

“I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community, and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatsoever I can.

“I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no ‘brief candle’ for me. It is a sort of splendid torch, which I have got hold of for the moment; and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.”

Jeffers was a little more free with the translation here: her source—clearly not Henderson’s biography—less precise. This makes me think that she was given this quotation as it’s presented: the two parts as a whole.

Looking back at how Jeffers presents the quotation(s), I can see the disjunction in the two texts. The first, written by Bernard Shaw himself, is a single sentence with a transcendent idea concisely expressed from three different angles. It was this first sentence that I wanted to share with you (and now look what’s happened).

The second passage you can tell is reported speech. It’s no less than five sentences, including two half-thought fragments. It’s both more wordy and a little cliché. With all due respect to Archibald Henderson, you can tell it’s not the drafted and re-drafted work of Bernard Shaw.

Anyway, the point is: always reference your sources. Oh, and please be ‘a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy’. Nice one.

Two Georges on art as activism

After about 10 hours, I’ve come to the end of George the Poet’s inspired piece of radio. One couplet particularly struck me and has stuck with me:

When artists become advocates
The audience become activists

I wouldn’t call myself an artist, but this message captures the best of what my writing can achieve. Worth remembering when it feels like pissing in the wind.

George’s line reminds me of how George Orwell explains his motivation in his 1946 essay Why I Write:

My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice. When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art’. I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing. But I could not do the work of writing a book, or even a long magazine article, if it were not also an aesthetic experience.

Three years later, Nineteen Eighty-Four was published. Art is at its best when it motivates action.

Are you a hedgehog or a fox? The value of persistence in writing

Are you a hedgehog or a fox? It’s a question that goes back to an Isaiah Berlin essay and one that helped Malcolm Gladwell determine that he was destined to become a journalist, not an academic.

A fox knows many things, but a hedgehog one important thing.

The distinction is wafted at, but totally unexplained, in this slightly unhinged profile of Gladwell in the Independent. The most interesting thing Big Malc says is when he’s asked whether he has ‘a gift’ for writing:

[I]f someone worked really hard could they write like me? Yes. But it’s a bit like saying, if someone worked really hard they could have your personality. My writing is who I am. Is good writing available to a larger group of people than we think? Absolutely. But the amount of work that goes into my writing… The last piece I did was 12 drafts, and if you write 12 drafts, I guess it’s going to be a pretty good piece, but how many people will do 12 drafts?

It’s not a style; it’s who you are. It’s not a gift; it’s hard work.

Which brings me neatly onto…

The value of persistence in comedy writing

I’m currently reading Good Habits, Bad Habits by Wendy Wood, one of the world’s leading social psychologists. She describes one piece of research that shows how we consistently underestimate the power of persistence.

At Northwestern University, Brian Lucas and Loren Nordgren asked a group of comedians to come up with as many punchlines to a setup as they could in four minutes.

Then they had to stop and tell the researchers how many more ideas they could come up with if they carried on for another four minutes. Typically, the comedy writers reckoned that they’d come up with fewer ideas after the break.

But when they were forced (presumably at gunpoint) to work for another four minutes, the comedians actually came up with more ideas than they expected—almost as many as in the first burst of creativity.

Lucas and Nordgren’s follow up studies showed that we particularly underestimate the value of persistence for creative tasks. In one experiment with over two hundred participants, the responses generated while persisting with the task in the second time period were significantly more creative than the responses generated initially.

The well doesn’t run dry, it runs deeper.

You can read a nice summary of Lucas and Nordgren’s work here. I’ve doubled the duration of my work sessions from 45 to 90 minutes.

Rocking rejections: ‘I really admire their chutzpah!’

A television pitch that I helped write was passed on by a production company this week. This isn’t, in itself, much of a surprise. Rejections happen all the time in life, let alone in television. But the manner of this particular rejection was, let’s say, interesting.

To be fair to the rejector, her words weren’t necessarily meant for our eyes — she was replying to another developer who’d forwarded our pitch to her — but nonetheless, I found those words, let’s persist in saying, interesting.

The email began:

It’s nice to hear from you — thanks for getting in touch with us about this project. I certainly admire their dedication and determination with this, they’re not ones to take no for an answer are they?!

And continued:

The project wouldn’t be one for us though at the moment unfortunately […] It’s a real shame because, as I say, I really admire their chutzpah!

Sending a pitch out to television companies looking for scripts to develop isn’t usually what I’d call chutzpah and the language of this particular rejection could be read as patronising, but that would do a disservice to the truth: chutzpah is what it takes to get stuff made.

Chutzpah is exactly what T.S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock struggled with: ‘Do I dare disturb the universe?’ and later, equally as ambitious: ‘Do I dare to eat a peach?’

Needless to say, Prufrock ends his days gazing out to sea, wondering ‘would it have been worth while, to have bitten off the matter with a smile’? He’ll never know.

Chutzpah gets things moving. Chutzpah is what Prufrock needs to squeeze ‘the universe into a ball, to roll it towards some overwhelming question’.

That question, for Prufrock as for us, isn’t necessarily a cosmic one. It might be as simple as following up on an unanswered pitch I sent to the Guardian last week: I know you can’t reply to every pitch, but just checking — did you get my email?

The developer was absolutely right: dedication and determination are essential character traits – in pretty much every human endeavour, let alone the creative arts. We need to keep putting out what she calls chutzpah: a thick skin she just helped make thicker.

At the end of her TIFF masterclass on The Female Gaze, Jill Soloway, crediting filmmaker John Cassavetes, says:

The job of the artist is to inspire the people with money to pay for the art. The people with the money never want to pay for the art. They are only there to make the money.

[…] Half the job [of being an artist] is making the art and the other half is being a politician for your art and coming up with a believable, positive, forward-thinking, money-making story around why your story matters.

So what have you been rejected for recently? Follow it up: maybe with an even more forward-thinking, money-making story, or simply by trying to inspire some other person with money to pay for your art.

Now is not the time to step back into the shadows, like Prufrock, and cry out, ‘No!’:

I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two

Instead: follow up, finish the scene, be there when the curtain falls.

Trust The Process On writing habits

Last Sunday I finished reading Atomic Habits by James Clear. With its tawdry promise of ‘a revolutionary system to get 1 per cent better every day’, I resisted reading this book for more than a year.

I wish I hadn’t.

It’s an excellent summary of the current research on habit-building and habit-breaking.

One of the deceptively simple insights that has stayed with me is that every action you take is a vote for your future.

If you write one newsletter, then that’s one vote for becoming a newsletter-writer. If you only ever write one newsletter, you’re not going to accumulate more than one vote and you’re unlikely to become a newsletter-writer. That single vote will be swamped by all the other votes you’re constantly casting for other future selves, whether that’s ‘master carpenter’ or (in my case) ‘internet browser’.

If you keep publishing newsletters every week, then you’re regularly casting votes for ‘newsletter-writer’ – and, more than 150 Fridays later, here we all are.

~

What’s made this newsletter-writing habit stick for the past three years? I think there are, appropriately enough, three major reasons.

Firstly, and most importantly, I’m accountable to my readers. I have made a promise to write something interesting for you to read every Friday and I want to make damned sure I deliver. So thank you for sticking with me. You are my habit!

Secondly, I have a set time every week that I publish: Friday. If I miss a Friday, like I did last week, then I publish as soon as I can. Missing one Friday deadline isn’t a disaster and skipping a whole week is hardly likely to cause much of a cataclysm either, but habits like this are all too easy to let slide.

As James Clear says: don’t miss twice. I’ve now got this motto written down in the notebook where I record my work progress.

Thirdly, I enjoy writing. Writing is creative, obviously, but it’s also critical. Writing is a way of being in the world. Putting words down on paper forces me to think a lot more about what I do – and pushes me to do a lot more than I think.

Writing the scripts for Foiled is a slightly different experience. Rather than delivering content directly to an audience every Friday, the accountability for a radio series like Foiled lies in making my co-writer laugh and in regular deadlines throughout the three-month writing process: pitching story ideas, drafting story beats, writing the first and second drafts, and incorporating writers room punch-ups.

What makes a writing habit hard is when there is no one reading.

~

Since 2014 I have written a regular diary and I’ve been aiming for at least 1,000 words per day since 2015. I have more or less managed to stick to this habit, as this count shows:

  • 2014: 314,084 words across 353 entries
  • 2015: 392,241     ”           ”       354     “
  • 2016: 327,837     ”           ”       320     “
  • 2017: 248,865     ”           ”       254     “
  • 2018: 292,593     ”           ”       313     “

But in 2019 I’ve only written 159,220 words in my diary – less than half you’d expect by the beginning of December.

This year so far, I’ve skipped 141 days. On 42 percent of days, I haven’t written anything at all in my 2019 diary. Can this still be called a habit?

In comparison, during my most ‘successful’ diary year of 2015 I missed only 11 diary days, just 3 percent.

Browsing the data, it’s obvious that James Clear’s rule holds fast: don’t miss twice. It’s astonishing how quickly a habit as strong as my five-year daily diary can break down after I skip just one day.

When nothing bad seems to happen after I skip a second day, my habit easily unravels and I go one or two weeks with hardly an entry.

So don’t miss twice.

~

I say that nothing bad seems to happen, but my daily diary is where I work out all the kinks in my life, personally and professionally.

My 2015 diary was enough of a success for me to start putting together a collection of highlights.

Looking back over words that I wrote nearly five years ago, the value of this daily habit comes clear. I can watch as moments of realisation surface, like in this entry from 5 January 2015:

There is no such thing as a great writer or a great anyone. We are all partners. My story is your story. My story is only a story if you’re invested in it; the language of finance is not misplaced. You invest in my story; you become a partner – an equal partner, no less. My story cannot get off the ground if it doesn’t have outside investment. I need that, we need that, the story needs that.

Diary writing is one of the most important habits in my life. I can scarcely pinpoint what the diary does for me, but I know that I am better off when I am writing regularly for nobody but myself.

Postscript: There’s something similar going on with running. At first glance, the benefit of a running habit is that you get outdoors and stay relatively fit. But running is so much more than that. On my lunchtime run today, for example, I came up with six good ideas that I can immediately implement to save money, improve my fitness and get better at business. Not bad for twenty minutes’ work.


UPDATE 6 January 2021: In 2020, I’m pleased to report that my diary-writing habit bounced back, despite, well, everything. I wrote a total of 319,893 words over 335 days, missing only 8.5 percent of that momentous 366-day leap year.

My Reading: Summer/Autumn Edition

This week I came across an excellent long read written by Craig Mod and bearing the superb title, Stab a Book, the Book Won’t Die: On the resilience of books in the face of apps, attention monsters, and an ad-driven online economy.

In this entertainingly comprehensive examination of why books still exist, Craig quotes Philip Roth, speaking in 2009:

To read a novel requires a certain amount of concentration, focus, devotion to the reading. If you read a novel in more than two weeks you don’t read the novel really.

As someone currently pootling through Jane Eyre, this struck a chord with me. Two weeks? I’m currently on Week 5 and I still have fifty pages to go.

I do see what he means, though. The faster you read a book, the more ‘into it’ you become, and the more, perhaps, you get out of it. Certainly, a little more speed might make it easier for me to recall beside which hearth poor Jane is once again warming her ice-crusted fingers…

Reading 20-30 pages a day would be enough to get through most books in a fortnight. That seems doable – surely I could find 25 to 35 minutes for reading in a day?

In 2019 so far, I have finished eight novels at an average reading speed of 18 days per book. Six of them I finished inside Roth’s two week deadline, but three (if we also include Miss Eyre) took me more than five weeks each.

Dear reader, you are my witness to a solemn vow: I shall add to my evening bedtime reading a morning session. What better way to start the day than with ten pages of invigorating fiction?

The Pick of My Summer/Autumn Reading

  • A Passage to India (1924, fiction) by EM Forster. A splendid novel that dances wittily around the social politics of British rule in India, before exploding in your face. A Passage to India frequently makes ‘all-time best novel’ lists and I can make no accusation of false advertising.
  • Bitter Lemons (1957, non-fiction) by Lawrence Durrell. An autobiographical account of the three years (1953-1956) Durrell spent on Cyprus, as British rule disintegrated. A wise companion for any journey east; alternatively, ideal for those seeking literary sunshine during our dull northern winter.

My Current Autumn/Winter Reading…

  • Jane Eyre (1847, fiction) by Charlotte Brontë.
  • Underlands (2019, non-fiction) by Robert MacFarlane – a gift, thanks T.
  • Neurotransmissions: Essays on Psychedelics from Breaking Convention (2015, non-fiction) – also a gift, thanks B.

What have you been reading – anything good? Share with us!

Foiled is finished

Foiled is over for another year.

It’s odd because, of course, Foiled has yet to begin for most of you. The broadcast dates are lined up in August, but all our work is done and we’re already looking ahead to what’s next.

Tom and Dave have finished editing episode one and say that it sounds like the best thing they’ve ever produced. Certainly from the writing side, I feel like – somehow – Beth and I have delivered on our grandiose ambition of writing our own (more modest) version of Radiohead’s OK Computer.

Which brings us to the cheerful faces of those sprightly actors in the photo above. Our guests for this last episode were Sir Derek Jacobi – so good they knighted him twice – and his partner Richard Clifford.

Sitting in the rehearsal room with these two grandees of British stage and screen was a pinch-yourself moment. All the actors were stealing glances at Sir Derek as if they couldn’t believe what was happening – but also to learn from a master of their craft.

Every single one of Derek’s choices was spot on. He took the lines and lifted them beyond wherever they deserved to be.

In all the knight-of-the-realm kerfuffle, Richard Clifford could be overlooked. But that would be a serious mistake. An equally fine actor, although undecorated, Richard brought relish and gravitas to his role as Professor of Celtic Studies from the University of Monmouth.

And, so I’m told, the actors we know and love from Foileds past, raised their game to match theirs. I can’t wait to hear the finished audio.

This episode was written inside three weeks – only 30 hours of scriptwriting compared to the 50 or so for the other three episodes.

With no writers rooms, we had only ourselves and a little assistance from producer Tom Price on story, and from comedian Ed Easton for a few lovely gags here and there.

Everyone has said maybe we should write all our episodes with a three week deadline. Maybe they’d be right, but that method leaves no leeway for mistakes.

In three weeks, we could afford course correction, but no full rewrites. If we’d fucked up too badly, then who knows what would’ve happened. Maybe it would’ve ben fine; maybe Sir Derek might have politely declined. Who knows?

People like Sir Derek get fifty offers a day. He has no need for a job on Radio Wales. No need whatsoever. This is a man who has played Hamlet at Elsinor Castle.

Derek and Richard only do passion plays now and it’s down to my wonderful writing partner that they felt this project was worth their time and creativity.

As they rushed off home to get back to their dog, Derek chortled: ‘Let’s get this on TV, shall we?’

What a day.

L-R: David Charles, Beth Granville, Richard Clifford, Derek Jacobi, Tom Price, David Oakes, Garnon Davies, Dave Cribb, Stephanie Siadatan

What does it take to write a BBC radio sitcom?

The scripts are in! We record tomorrow!

In our third year of Foiled, I feel like I can say something about the rhythms of writing a radio sitcom. Settle in, this is a long read.

Writing a sitcom episode is like building a house (kinda)

In reality, Beth and I usually start laying bricks before we’ve got any blueprints. If you hired us as builders, you’d probably want your money back.

Whether any of those early bricks make it into the final building is a matter of luck. The risk is that we’ll fall in love with some clever brickwork, which makes it all the harder to tear the folly down later.

But it feels good to write ourselves into the series, reacquaint ourselves with the world and the characters. Unlike in construction, in writing nothing is ever really wasted.

Typing through a script, once the plans are finally in place, is pretty easy now we’re in our third year – a matter of placing one brick alongside another and remembering cement. By this point, we know the returning characters back-to-front; and the hardest part is always putting together the episode’s new characters.

Once a story is written out from start to finish, it’s clear where the problems are. We can start the heavy manual labour of ripping walls down, moving the bathroom into the kitchen, and adding a loft conversion. This part of the process feels very physical – huge swathes of script cut and, sometimes, pasted.

As the story sorts itself out, we move onto the fine work of painting and decorating, sanding and polishing. At this point, we can stand back and admire our handiwork, or – as so often happens – realise that the whole edifice is about to collapse and we need to buttress our walls or tear them out.

The timeline of construction

Foiled was re-commissioned at the end of 2018. The first mention in my diary of any writing comes in mid-February. We were slow to get started, basking in the glory of a commission, putting off the actual labour.

By this point we’d already got the broad ideas for stories: something about a work exchange, something about hedgehogs, and something about a cash and carry. It’s not a lot to go on.

We really started working on the scripts from the beginning of March, with ten days together in London. By the end of this spell, we’d pulled together the ‘beats’ of each of the episodes, and run them past the producer with mixed results.

The ten weeks through the rest of March, April and May were mostly spent working separately, with increasing dedication.

By the end of April, we’d sent the producer first drafts of two of the episodes. The third episode follows in early May. The producer sends us notes. We tear our hair out in gratitude.

The week before the writers rooms, we send the producer what we think will be approximate working drafts. We’re wrong, for two of the episodes at least. Frantic re-writes ensue.

The two days of writers rooms at the end of May give a burst of energy to all three scripts. Which is handy because we only have 9 days before the recording.

Luckily, by this point I’m in London and Beth and I can work together more closely, in the high-rise, riverside solitude of my friend’s flat in Woolwich (thanks Tim!).

A hangover the day after the final writers room doesn’t help, but long days mean that by Monday lunchtime we can send the producer what we think are two finished, record-worthy scripts – Episodes 1 and 4.

Again, we’re wrong about one of them – something we realised only yesterday.

In the meantime, we go over the final script – Episode 2 – with a fine tooth-comb, tightening the nuts and bolts of the story and turning place-markers into zingers. We send it off on Wednesday morning in a blaze of emotion.

Why are we doing this, again?

That night, I re-read Episode 4. After two days’ creative distance, and having raised the bar with our work on Episode 2, we decide that the mid-section is completely wrong. One of the characters is just floating along and a pair of titanium toaster tongs appear at the episode climax for no discernible reason.

It’s not just the amount of work needed that’s a concern. The scripts have already been sent to the actors and the sound engineers have already done the work needed to make sure all the SFX are in place. A new script for Episode 4 is completely out of the question.

So yesterday morning, I start working on the re-working, and Beth starts working on the producer. She jokes that she’ll pull out of the project if he doesn’t accept the new script. At 2pm, with the ‘new’ script almost finished, I go for a swim in the Thames to await his answer.

None of us do this for the money. I don’t think the producers have made more than a few pennies from Foiled. Beth and I get paid, of course, but it’s not much more than minimum wage.

The only real reason for writing and recording Foiled is for the sake of the work itself. This is our creative reputation. Tomorrow’s recording will almost certainly outlive all of us. The oldest recording in the BBC archives is dated to 1890. The scripts that go into St David’s Hall tomorrow will be humbly printed on eternity.

So it’s fair to say that my leisurely swim yesterday was quite stressful. Could I even bear to sit in the room as the old script was being recorded?

The good news is that our producer gave the new script the green light. And we worked into the summer dusk sanding and polishing Episode 4. It’s now a piece of writing that I’m proud of and I reckon it might make you laugh.

So the writing is done. All that remains, for me at least, is to send one of the actor’s a recording of my sister’s partner speaking Danish, and to get myself to Cardiff tomorrow.

Oh – and then start work on Episode 3, which we’ll record in a studio in London at some point over the next month. The cycle continues!

~

For those of you interested in a more detailed breakdown, the first two weeks of March involved about 8 hours per week of script-writing. We stepped up script-writing to about 11 hours a week for the seven weeks from the beginning of April up until the week before the writers rooms at the end of May. For the last three weeks I have done almost nothing other than work on Foiled: more than 20 hours a week on script-writing alone.

I write this not to show off, but to show you honestly the work it takes to write three episodes of a radio sitcom: about 150 hours of pure script-writing, plus plenty of other work behind the scenes on story-writing and talking things over with Beth and the producers.


By complete coincidence, I got an email this morning from a man who saw Foiled at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2016.

We met you in George Square gardens in 2016 when you talked us into coming to see Foiled that afternoon. Brilliant!! We’ve raved about it ever since and watched its success since then.

It blows my mind to think that there are people out there who, years later, are still thinking about the work that we’ve done. This is what I mean when I say that we don’t do this for the money.

Series 3 of Foiled – indeed all of Foiled since 2013 – has been a wonderful experience; thank you for your support and I really hope you enjoy listening as much as I’ve enjoyed writing.


UPDATE: After writing this, a fellow writer of radio sitcoms got in touch to share his data. In terms of hours, I was reassured how similar they were: he takes 55-65 hours per episode.

Where we differ is on how spread out those hours are. Beth and I spent about 74 days working on Foiled since the beginning of March; my correspondent and his writing partner cover similar ground in only 40-50 working days.

But they do have 30 years’ writing experience on us!

Comedinsanity

We’ve been in the writers rooms for Foiled and we record next Saturday so I’ve spent most of the week staring at a computer screen and laughing.

To the untrained eye, there really is very little discernable difference between writing comedy and insanity.

It’s hard to explain what’s so great about the Foiled writers rooms, but I’m not exaggerating when I say they are my favourite two days of the year.

I suppose, imagine that you’re buckles deep in the hardest part of your job, with only two weeks until the deadest of deadlines. Then imagine that your supervisor pays for six specialists to come in and work on your project with you for two days.

There’s no element of competition, everyone wants the best for the project and, ultimately, it’s still your name on the project.

Wouldn’t that be cool?

So the next 8 days will be spent trying to sift what was just funny in the room from what might actually be funny on the radio.

I’m sure these last 8 days will still get stressful, but it’s a whole lot less stressful for us now, knowing exactly what needs to change, and with a carnival of suggestions on how.

There’s also not much better feeling than having a roomful of professional comedians laugh at something you wrote. Imposter syndrome is fading…

Foiled Diaries: On First Drafts and Producer Notes

And, just like that, it’s May and we’ve only got 5 weeks to finish Foiled. So far, we’ve delivered the first drafts of 3 of the 4 episodes, and got notes from the producer on 2 of them.

First drafts are funny beasts. Every time we finish a first draft, we think that it’s more or less great. In spite of all experience, we hope that this time will be different and the producer’s only note will come back: ‘This is so good, would you mind turning it into a Netflix series?’

Strangely, this is yet to happen.

All first drafts have problems. Some bigger than others. But those producer’s notes land in our inbox like a letterbox turd, stinking the place out with their effortless skewering of the plot holes, character motivations, and the Purple Line of Doom that strides over pages of boredom.

Made all the worse by the fact that, deep down, we knew these problems were there all along, and all we can say is daaaaaaaaaaaaaaaamn.

The only remedy to producer’s notes is, of course, panic. Swiftly pursued by exactly the same attitude that got us into this mess: sitting down and writing a lot more words.

Nothing ever came out right first time, and this series won’t either. But it’ll get written the same way it did last year: patient hours in front of a computer screen. Putting the time in. Sitting there and writing until eventually something good pops up.

The skill, if there is one, is in spotting the good when it pops, grabbing hold of it, pinning it to the page and not letting go until it’s been bled dry.


This episode of Rule of Three with Miles Jupp analysing his favourite episode of Frasier has given us good writing energy. Now all we’ve got to do is avoid plagiarising!

The Meteorological Secret of Comedy

The secret of comedy, they say, is timing. This is such a well-known truism, that it has, in its fame, become false.

The only remaining secret of comedy is the weather.

Like a meteorologist, comedians (by which I mean anyone attempting to make another person laugh, whether professionally or not) see the world around them in topographies of pressure.

They are constantly monitoring the world around them for areas of rising pressure that they can lance like cloudbursts with their wit.

The well-timed release of such pressure is what makes people laugh.

Ah – timing!

Yes, timing, although no longer much of a secret, is still important to comedy.

Lance too early and there is no pressure to release; lance too late and all kinds of things might go wrong. In stand-up, the audience might have got bored with the preamble; in conversation, they might have moved on to a different subject; in conflict, they might have got too wound up and become closed off to a comic intervention.

Say the wrong thing at the wrong time and the atmosphere can turn pretty sour.

That’s why the BBC won’t let us have a plot-line about a missing stylist – even though she wasn’t missing at all, but on holiday. They don’t want to risk the atmosphere turning sour.

Part of reading the meteorological chart of conversation is knowing not only when and where pressure is building, but also whether to lance that pressure at all.

Not all human interaction is served by comedy. There is a reason why lawyer and stand-up are separate professions. It’s not that the lawyer can’t use comedy, nor the stand-up evidence and argument, but each will favour the discourse style of their field.

You may spot the perfect moment to lance the pressure in a tense negotiation over the custody of your children during divorce proceedings; that does not mean that the judge will look favourably upon a hilarious reference to his wig.

On the plus side, you will know almost instantaneously that you have misread the comic moment. If you are sensitive without being precious, you use this failure to calibrate your instruments.

What are your instruments? Simply: your eyes and your ears. But more on that next week.

Foiled nominated for Celtic Media Award!

SABRINA
Pay attention team because I’ve got some very important newses. We are salon of the year!

TANISHA
Wales’ least active salon of the year?

SABRINA
No, awards-wise: we are Clipadvisor’s Salon of the Year.

TANISHA
Really?! Us? How exciting! How?!

SABRINA
Oi! What do you mean how?

So we wrote way back in 2016 and now, just 3 short years later, Foiled has been nominated (Hold on, we haven’t won?) for best radio comedy at the highly prestigious Celtic Media Awards.

Proof.

Compared to theatre, writing for the radio is a strange experience. We write the scripts, have a laugh recording them, listen to the broadcast with butterflies in our stomachs and then – nothing.

No one reviews radio comedy. No one gives us the listener figures. We have no idea how the show’s gone down with our audience – or even if there was an audience. We have no idea which episodes – or even jokes – worked for our listeners, which didn’t, and why.

In Bird By Bird, Anne Lamott paints a pretty picture of this eternal, gaping, yawning silence. She’s writing about book publishing, but it seems to me that the sense of emptiness and craving is the same for radio.

There will be a few book-signing parties and maybe some readings, at one of which your publisher will spring for a twenty-pound wheel of runny Brie, and the only person who will show has lived on the street since he was twelve and even he will leave, because he hates Brie.

So it’s wonderful for something, some acknowledgement and approbation, to come crawling out of the ether and say: YOU DID A THING AND WE LIKED IT.

The nomination cites my personal favourite episode from the last series, starring Miles Jupp as Richie’s dad. Sitting across from Miles as he read out words that I’d written was one of the most thrilling events of my life last year.

There is nothing more rewarding for a writer than to watch a talented actor rub your words together and make sparks fly until the whole thing catches fire.

But where do we go now, now we’ve been nommed by the Celtic Media Awards? Will the Celtic imprimatur spur us to write ever funnier scripts – or will we become complacent, crippled by our glory like Wet Wet Wet after Four Weddings came out?

I guess I can turn to Anne Lamott again:

The fact of publication is the acknowledgement from the community that you did your writing right. You acquire a rank that you never lose. Now you’re a published writer, and you are in that rare position of getting to make a living, such as it is, doing what you love best. That knowledge does bring you a quiet joy. But eventually you have to sit down like every other writer and face the blank page.

Series 3.

For now, big love to everyone for supporting Foiled. I’ll get Beth to give you a shout out in her acceptance speech. (Hold on, we still haven’t won?)

The Foiled Diaries: Life as a Way of Writing

Foiled has been clipping along all week, with the usual ups and downs. Example: We thought we had a lovely opening episode until our producers said the BBC won’t countenance anything to do with people going missing. Spoil sports.

As I write this, Beth is out networking with potential famos for Series 3. She’s pulled in some wonderful guests over the past two years: Felicity Montagu (currently in This Time With Alan Partridge), John Culshaw (Dead Ringers), Ralf Little (The Royle Family) and Miles Jupp (News Quiz). Blows my mind to see them all written down like that.

When writing with someone else, you have a balancing act to perform between working alone and working in tandem. Too much of one and you fall into narcissistic solipsism; too much of the other and you die from caffeine poisoning.

I think my favourite, most productive moments of writing Foiled have come in two thankfully common situations:

  1. Beth pacing up and down in the kitchen, and me at the keyboard frantically trying to synthesise her comic stream of consciousness into grammar.
  2. Working in the same house, but in different rooms at our different tempos, with enough excuses to share snippets while re-boiling the kettle or filling a bowl with homemade soup, and occasionally, for a change of scenery, swapping scripts.

These shared moments are why I don’t think I could ever be a solitary novelist – or at least, not a contented one. For some people, writing is a way of life; for me, life must be a way of writing.

OK Foiled

People talk about the difficult second album, but what about the third?

Studious readers of this newsletter will know that Beth and I are in the throes of writing Series 3 of breakout hit BBC Radio Wales sitcom Foiled. (I’m pretty sure I can use the term ‘breakout hit’ thanks to our repeat on Radio 4 Extra last year.)

Over the past three years, we have developed enormously as writers of sitcomedy. Broadly one could sum up the progress as psychological, from scatterbrained panic in the first series, through sophomoric eustress in series two, right up to this year’s waaaaay too casual late start.

Fingers crossed that our trajectory as writers is following the course of everyone’s favourite emo-rockers, Radiohead.

Our first radio series was very much a Pablo Honey – an enjoyable collection with some terrific moments, but very much the sound of a group of people figuring out who they are and what on earth they’re supposed to be doing.

Extended Metaphor Tracks: Prove Yourself, swiftly followed by I Can’t.

Our second series was The Bends – emerging from the zeitgeist with a confident sound that draws attention from some of the industry’s biggest names.

Stretched Metaphor Tracks: Writing: Sulk. Recording: Nice Dream.

Third time around, we’d absolutely love to present for your listening pleasure the OK Computer of radio comedy – as rule-breaking as it is ground-breaking; as rabidly reviewed as it is devoured by an adoring public.

But, frankly, this analogy is growing thin, and we haven’t got two years to write the bloody thing.

Tortured Metaphor Tracks: Fitter, Happier – and almost certainly very soon Climbing Up The Walls.

Having said that, we’re feeling pretty Lucky about our ideas for episodes one and three, and if we get anywhere even half close to the artistic and commercial success of Radiohead’s third album then one day, maybe, just maybe, Beth and I can finally launch our own line of commemorative beach towels, RRP £35.00.

Daves of the Year 2018

2018 is over and it’s time for me to reflect on what the heck has happened on this blog in the past year.

In 2018 this humble blog somehow garnered 18,218 views from 12,064 visitors. Bearing in mind that up to 60% of web traffic is ‘fake’, this is remarkably similar to 2017.

Thank you!

I published 85 new blog posts in 2018, including 29 about Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl.

However, the most-visited blog posts from the past year were very familiar, proving that – one exception aside – my best content is behind me. 🙂

  1. Hypnagogia: How to Dream like Thomas Edison (Published in 2010, 2,343 views)
  2. Vipassana Meditation at Dhamma Dipa: What I didn’t do (2010, 924)
  3. Charity or Solidarity? (2015, 850)
  4. Experiments in Publishing: Unbound Crowdfunding (2016, 747)
  5. Lessons from 10 Years of Hashimoto’s Hypothroidism (2018, 660)
  6. Bob Dylan and William Shakespeare: A Reference Guide Part I (2010, 655)
  7. Vipassana Meditation at Dhamma Dipa: What I did do (2010, 572)

More Stats From 2018

  • I did 13,111 press ups
  • I did 1,633 minutes of yoga
  • I ran 755.7km over the course of exactly 100 runs
  • I spoke to friends 806 times
  • I wrote 292,593 words in my diary
  • I spent 1,533 hours and 50 minutes on my computer (data recorded from Valentine’s Day): an average of 4 hours 47 minutes a day. According to global RescueTime data, this is about average.
  • About two thirds of that time was what I’ve deemed to be ‘productive’. According to the same RescueTime data, this is above average.
  • I read 41 books (a personal best since records began in 2013, beating 37 in 2014), including 17 fiction (also a PB, beating 11 in 2013) and 24 non-fiction
  • I visited 26,251 unique webpages (a few more than this, actually, but it’s a good estimate)

Here’s to another year of reading and writing!

Books of the Year 2018

As I’ve mentioned previously, I keep data. I’m particularly proud of the data I have collected over the last 6 years about my reading.

Firstly because I think reading is quite good, and keeping the data reminds me how important books are for my contentment.

Secondly because my reading tells a story.

For example, I finished a total of 41 books in 2018 – that’s 46% more than last year – and I read twice as much fiction.

Sherlock Holmes would deduce from this information that I had much more free time to spend reading in bed, and that, in all likelihood, I did not have a girlfriend. Elementary!

Anyway, enough chit-chat. Here are the 7 books I’m most glad I read this year, in order of their date of first publication.


FICTION

Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake (1946)

This is actually the second time I’ve read this astonishing novel, but the first time was about 17 years pre-spreadsheet so basically never happened.

It has been said that the British were so traumatised by the Second World War that the survivors couldn’t muster the creative energy to write a truly defining war novel.

The missing space on our collective bookshelf, it has been said, was (appropriately enough) occupied by the Americans and, in particular, by Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.

But in my opinion (and I wasn’t there) the horrifying aesthetics, the elaborate grotesquerie and the shadowy skulduggery of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy (of which Titus Groan is the first volume) was exactly the novel that the Second World War deserved.

It’s also very funny.


PSYCHOLOGY / HISTORY / MEMOIR

Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl (1946)

Wait, did I only read this book for the first time this year?

This book has been so instrumental in my thought patterns for the past 9 months that I can’t possibly have only finished it in March.

But the spreadsheet doesn’t lie.

I’ve written about this short masterpiece far too much in this newsletter already, but if you’re catching up then here’s the link to my famous 5-a-Day Book Cult.

(Incidentally, I’m pondering another accessibly high-brow Book Cult next year. Maybe Marcus Aurelius. How does that sound?


WRITING

Draft No. 4 by John McPhee (2013)

This is nothing more than a collection of essays that long-form non-fiction specialist-generalist John McPhee has written about his craft, and previously published in The New Yorker and elsewhere.

In other words, it is an indispensable logbook for any writers who one day dream of, say, writing a whole book about a tennis Grand Slam semi-final.

McPhee’s writing process is singular, and he is well-aware of the luxuries he has enjoyed with editors over the years. But his commitment to structure (how the heck do you write a whole book about one tennis match?) is an inspiration to us lesser mortals.

McPhee also shows us around his Luddite collection of low-tech and no-tech writing tools that fondly remind me of my own attachment to the now-out-of-production Alphasmart Neo.


NATURE

The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben (2015)

This book made headlines for popularising the ‘Wood Wide Web’, the idea that plants, and in particular trees, communicate with each other through a network of fungal connections in the soil.

The headlines were deserved, but the book goes much further.

Peter Wohlleben is himself a forester, which lends an authority to the book that would be missing were it written by a generalist, or even an academician.

I believe him when he argues that trees in a forest care for each other when they are sick, to the point of sending vital nutrients to mere stumps.

I believe him as he carefully builds a vision of a forest as a society operating on time scales that are scarcely imaginable, let alone observable to the human eye.

I believe him when he suggests that this society of trees is as important to humanity and the rest of our ecosystem as the oxygen we breathe or the water that nourishes us.

And, when he politely points out that the forest is the only reason that we have such an amenable atmosphere in the first place, I believe him.


PSYCHOLOGY / NEUROSCIENCE

How Emotions Are Made by Lisa Feldman-Barrett (2017)

I remember banging on about this book back in the summer. And I’m going to bang on about it again, goddammit.

Lisa Feldman-Barrett is a practising neuroscientist. This makes me like her.

In this book, she turns the ‘classical’ model of emotion completely on its head. This makes me like her even more.

To sum up her argument in one sentence would be grossly unfair to Feldman-Barrett and do the book a heinous disservice.

So here we go:

Emotion is a social construct: it’s a linguistic concept like ‘hot’, ‘ours’ or ‘breakfast’, and has a social reality that is not ‘real’ out there in the world.

This is good (if vaguely mind-blowing) news. It means that we can directly change our experience of the world by changing the emotional layer of constructs that we slather all over our lives like hot butter on our breakfast toast.

It means that, like the US Marines, we can decide that pain is just weakness leaving the body.

It means that we can go out and buy a book that changes the way we model the world (or at least read more about such a book on Dave’s blog).


COMEDY / MEMOIR / HEALTH / FUCK

This is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay (2017)

There are very few books that you think might change the prevailing political attitude to our public services, and even fewer that do so while being ALOLZ (‘Actually Laugh Out Loud’ – blame inflation).

Not so funny is the fact that Junior Doctor Adam Kay got so fucked off with the way the NHS was being treated by our politicians that he quit his job and become a stand-up comedian.

It’s a sorry state of affairs when ‘stand-up comedian’ is considered by anyone to be a more promising career than – well, almost anything – but certainly than being a doctor.

Please give this book to anyone who thinks that doctors are greedy selfish oafs or that the NHS should be replaced with Logan’s Run-style executions. Thanks.


PSYCHEDELICS

How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan (2018)

Like John McPhee or Malcolm Gladwell, Michael Pollan is another one of those specialist-generalists who have done so much to popularise overlooked corners of our world.

In How to Change Your Mind, Michael Pollan shows us the vast spread of our psychedelic knowledge, from the natural history of the mushroom and the social history of the 1960s, through his own first psychedelic experiences undertaken as research for this book, to the modern renaissance of brain imaging and medical therapies.

Our doctors are desperate for new treatments for serious afflictions like depression and addiction, and, in combination with a global movement to ease restrictions on the use of other previously taboo compounds like marijuana, this feels like the start of a big decade for psychedelics.

This book is a good place to start if you want to make sure you’re on board before take-off.


Honourable mentions go to Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, The White Tiger by Aravinda Adiga (both fabulous fiction), Carpe Diem Regained by Roman Krznaric (on how to seize your days), The Antidote by Oliver Burkeman (anti-positive thinking) and Into The Woods by John Yorke (storytelling).

Further Reading

  1. Really interested in my reading? Feel free to peruse my Books of the Year from 2017.
  2. The Nine Best Books Ever Written in the English Language (2010).
  3. Also: visit a library. Before the internet we had books and it’s not been an upgrade, he emailed with zero sense of irony.

The Limits of Rationalism: The Existential Journey of Levin in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina

I recently finished reading Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy and was struck by the philosophical wranglings of the character of Levin, particularly in the final book.

Some readers might write Levin off as a bit of a prig, especially in contrast to the wild passions of the eponymous female hero, but I find his incessant naval-gazing appealingly familiar.

In this blog post, I’ll pick out Tolstoy’s line of argument that takes Levin from the torment of existential doubt to the clear certainty of his purpose in life. Continue reading The Limits of Rationalism: The Existential Journey of Levin in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina

Foiled Diaries: Finito!

The Foiled recordings last weekend went down an absolute storm (see above cast photo). In the memorable words of one superfan: ‘That made Series 1 sound shit.’ And I couldn’t agree more fervently.

Probably my favourite moment of the whole weekend was the read through before what will become Episode 2. Sitting across from the exquisite Miles Jupp as he transformed my words into actual live comedy is something I will never forget – barring a governmental lobotomisation programme or degenerative brain disease. Continue reading Foiled Diaries: Finito!

All News isn’t Good News; Most News is Crappy

Today I thought I’d buy a couple of newspapers, one national and one local, and cut out the stories that I considered ‘positive news’.

What do I mean by that? Although not necessarily ‘good news’ (certainly not in the Biblical sense), for me positive news stories are reported with an eye on constructive analysis and solutions. Above all, they steer clear of threatening or fear-mongering language.

Armed with my copy of The Guardian and The Bournemouth Daily Echo, I set about on the floor with a pair of scissors. Continue reading All News isn’t Good News; Most News is Crappy

Foiled Diaries: Writers Rooms

This is necessarily going to be a super short diary update: I’ve done more than enough typing for one week on Foiled and I haven’t slept in a bed for a few nights – the glamour!

One particular highlight of the last 7 days was realising on Wednesday that our producer wanted a rewrite of one episode by 9pm – at 8.40pm. I still don’t know how I managed to write 8 pages in 20 minutes – and only half of it was chucked out the next day! Continue reading Foiled Diaries: Writers Rooms

Foiled Series 2: A Sitcom Writer’s Diary

The half term holiday was the perfect opportunity for Beth and I to go down to Wales, breathe the comic airs and get started on series two of Foiled.

The temptation, of course, was to treat the half term holiday as, well, a holiday – and there were indeed blows along the respective proms of Barry and Penarth, as well as long cups of tea in the terrace sunshine. But sitcoms, even radio sitcoms, have to start somewhere. And ours, however leisurely, started here. Continue reading Foiled Series 2: A Sitcom Writer’s Diary

Dave’s Books of the Year 2017

This post is so sophisticated it should have its own Times Literary Supplement font. That’d distract you from the embarrassing fact that most of these are non-fiction. But hey – these seven books inspired me this year, each in their own way. Continue reading Dave’s Books of the Year 2017

How to be a sincere writer

In other news, the opening of my novel-in-progress was reliably eviscerated at Curtis Brown on Wednesday.

Fifteen different sets of educated critique of my work. Fabulous. As you’d expect, there were equal and opposite opinions on particular lines, but also a useful seam of agreement.

However, the most valuable feedback I got was completely unwitting: this is not the opening to the novel that I’ve actually written.

On the basis of my 3000 words, everyone was expecting a riotous satire of modern life as the hero wades deeper and deeper into cult worship.

It’s not that. It’s not that at all. But maybe it should be…

On Tuesday, Curtis Brown held a Q&A with two literary agents and a publisher. One of the pieces of advice the publisher gave was in equal parts useless and invaluable:

BE SINCERE

When I asked her to elaborate, she replied that readers can ‘just tell’ when an author is being truly sincere and that she wouldn’t publish anything that bore even a whiff of abdication.

But the question of sincerity cuts far deeper than the superficiality of a novel. It asks what I really believe in. What I really really really believe in. What I believe in so much that I’m willing to spend 80,000 words arguing with myself about it.

Sincerity is a fair demand to make of the author. Who wants to read anything so insipid that the creator couldn’t even muster the attention to sustain his own passions?

I caught sight of the Zac Efron A-Z in the library earlier and felt a pang of sympathy for author Alex Kincaid (That’s speczacular!).

It’s one thing sincerity being a reasonable demand for readers to make; it’s quite another to bear that weight as the congenitally doubting writer.

Is Alex sincere in his gushing (and alphabetically comprehensive) lionisation of an eminently forgettable Hollywood celebrity?

Credit if you are, Alex. You deserve every penny of your Public Lending Rights (7.82p per loan: not a route to fortune but that’s another story altogether).

But what about me? Will I discover what I believe in?


UPDATE: No. I’m abandoning novel writing, for the next few decades at least.

How to get a BBC Radio Comedy Commission

In January 2016, Beth Granville and I were commissioned to write four episodes of our sitcom Foiled for BBC Radio Wales. I still get goosebumps writing that sentence! Getting a comedy commission from the BBC really doesn’t happen very often in a writer’s life and I feel fantastically lucky.

Earlier this week, Beth and I were invited by London Comedy Writers to share our recipe for the secret sauce. This blog is more detail on how I reckon we got that BBC radio comedy commission. Continue reading How to get a BBC Radio Comedy Commission

Experiments in Publishing: Unbound Crowdfunding

In October last year, I started a very exciting experiment with crowdfunding publishers Unbound. We had a target of £10,648, and an initial funding period of 90 days. Sadly for me and the 100+ people who pledged money for my book You Are What You Don’t, earlier this week we acknowleged that, despite raising around £2,400, this experiment should be catalogued under FAILURE. Continue reading Experiments in Publishing: Unbound Crowdfunding

Positive Constraints in Literature

Positive constraints are found everywhere in art. Leonardo’s Mona Lisa is unimaginable without its frame. Bach’s Toccata would dissolve into meaningless without its reliability of time signature or key. And, from literature, Joyce’s labyrinthine Ulysses bamboozles us with words and sentences we still recognise as English, and even Tolstoy’s house brick epic War and Peace has an ending, eventually.

Obviously, these are all positive constraints: boundaries that the artists has chosen and used to contextualise their creation.

Sentence structure, picture frames and time signatures are all so common to their respective art forms that they almost fall into the category of unconscious constraints. I didn’t consciously choose to divide my thoughts up into sentences when I started writing this blog post, I just followed the customs of the art form so that you can easily understand what I’m trying to communicate. To a great degree, the constraint of good spelling and grammar is actually necessary to the art form of writing.

Introducing other totally unnecessary constraints can, however, make our writing more compelling, more interesting and, as writer Milan Kundera says, more ludic or game-like.

No Adverbs

The writers Elmore Leonard and Stephen King are among many who advocate the positive literary constraint of No Adverbs.

In his article 10 Rules of Writing, Elmore Leonard saves his adverbial admonition primarily for dialogue, frowning upon constructions like: “Damn!” he said, angrily. Elmore says that such use “distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange” and I’d completely agree with him. Stephen King, in his excellent book On Writing, is even more critical, saying that adverbs, any adverbs, are the preserve of “timid writers”, driven to clumsy writing by fear or affectation.

Verily, this is not the mere moanings of two crusty literary snobs. No Adverbs forces you to be more precise and active with your language. Quite often the attribution of dialogue is a refuge for laziness. “Don’t you dare use adverbs,” Elmore growled viciously.

Elmore growling viciously is supposed to communicate an air of menace, but it’s far more effective to do that with action, not attribution. Elmore ran his finger along the keen edge of his pocket knife. “Don’t you dare use adverbs,” he said.

Word Counts

Counting words is a classic positive constraint for writing that every journalist or student will recognise, usually with something approaching dread. But a word count is such a simple device to make your writing, not only more concise, but also exist in the first place.

One simple thought experiment might help elucidate the theory. If I were to ask you right now to write something on the subject of women in literature, what would you do? Where would you begin and how would you know when to stop? Do I mean women writers, women characters or even women readers? It’s likely that, faced with such an overwhelmingly vague task, you would never even begin.

Now, on the other hand, if I were to ask you to write 100 words about women in literature, you would probably have a very precise idea of what to write. 100 words isn’t much (the same number of words as this paragraph), but you have some opinion on women in literature and you would want to get that opinion into those 100 words. There is no space for faffing around, so you’d go with your strongest idea, perhaps supported by a couple of examples. The imposition of a positive constraint somehow crystalises your thinking and helps you to write.

Similarly, if I were to ask you to write 1,000, 10,000 or 100,000 words on women in literature. Each different word count suggests a different approach to the writing.

Target 1,000 words, and you can afford to introduce more supporting examples and perhaps a couple of different critical angles. With 10,000 words to play with, you must dig deeper and research your subject thoroughly. At 100,000 words, you can hunt down every last footnote and take a broad view of women in literature that encompasses the full sweep of history.

Right at the other end of the scale, Twitter is perhaps the most obvious and extreme example of modern literary concision, permitting only 140 characters. A well written tweet can nevertheless capture a thousand pictures.

And the utility of a word count goes far beyond inspiration and concision. You can use word counts to make sure your minor characters don’t take over the protagonist’s story, to beef up your B-plot, or to tune down your C-plot. I even use word frequency analyses to make sure I’m not using the same words over and over (I once used the word “just” 213 times in a book of only 50,000 words).

No Clichés

If you’ve ever actually listened to a conversation between two human beings, you’ll be amazed to hear how dull the language used by most people is. We default to clichés, crank out tired metaphors and serve up idioms that have long since lost their freshness. As a writer, it’s easy to let these slip into your writing and end up sounding like a sack of drunks at the end of a long night.

Now, I’m currently reading The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien, a writer described on the cover as “Ireland’s funniest genius”. But what has captivated me is not so much the humour, but the freshness of the language.

Three samples of his language from one paragraph taken at random from the chapter I finished last night will serve to demonstrate my point:

  • “When I awoke again two thoughts came into my head so closely together that they seemed to be stuck to one another; I could not be sure which came first and it was hard to separate them and examine them singly.”
  • “The sun was in the neighbourhood also, distributing his enchantment unobtrusively, colouring the sides of things that were unalive and livening the hearts of living things.”
  • “A bird sang a solo from nearby, a cunning blackbird in a dark hedge giving thanks in his native language. I listened and agreed with him completely.”

Some of you might have skipped over my little introduction, so I’ll repeat: those are from just one paragraph. The richness, the depth, the clarity! A lesser writer could have covered all three images in one sentence: “I woke up to bright sunshine and birdsong.” Dull, dull, dull.

And if you’re ever doubtful about how far No Cliché writing can take you, think on Shakespeare. In the course of his writing career, Shakespeare contributed 1,700 new words to the English language. He also coined dozens of new phrases that became so popular as to turn into clichés themselves: all that glitters isn’t gold, be all and end all, break the ice, green eyed monster, heart of gold, neither a borrower nor a lender be and to wear one’s heart on one’s sleeve.

Ludic Literature

Right. So far, we’ve looked at three positive constraints that can make our writing objectively better: more captivating, more concise and more interesting for the reader. I’ll end by looking at the more gameful ways we can use positive constraints.

Eunoia is a book by Christian Bok with only five chapters. The ludic twist is that each chapter contains only one vowel: A, E, I, O or U. Christian believes that each vowel has its own personality and his positive constraint allows that personality to flourish. Chapter A, for example, begins: “Hassan Abd al-Hassad, an Agha Khan, basks at an ashram – a Taj Mahal that has grand parks and grass lawns, all as vast as parklands at Alhambra and Valhalla.”

Gadsby, a 1939 novel by Ernest Vincent Wright, dispenses with the letter “e” for its entire 50,000 word plot. These kind of omissions in literature are called lipograms and have been used to rewrite Mary Had a Little Lamb (“Polly owned one little sheep”, without the letter “a”), Hamlet without the “i” (“To be or not to be, that’s the query”) and to imitate the song of a nightingale in Russian.

Right after writing The Cat in the Hat using only 236 words, Dr Seuss took on a bet with his publisher that he couldn’t write a book using a smaller vocabulary. Green Eggs and Ham clocked in with a vocabulary of only 50 different words. Dr Seuss won the bet and Green Eggs and Ham became the fourth best-selling children’s book of all time. Not bad for a stupid positive constraint.

Easily the most quixotic of ludic positive constraints in literature that I’ve come across is Pilish, in which the number of characters in each word matches exactly, and in order, the digits found in the mathematical constant Pi. Wikipedia tells me the following sentence is Pilish for the first fifteen digits of pi, 3.14159265358979: “How I need a drink, alcoholic in nature, after the heavy lectures involving quantum mechanics!”

And so we come to my all-time favourite example of literary positive constraints, from an article concerning Bob Dylan and plagiarism. I thought the article (which I can tragically no longer find online) was very well-written and made its point with artistry and intelligence: that plagiarism must be distinguished from the patina of collage that all artists must create when they create. The punchline was that the “writer” of this piece had “written” not a single word: every last phrase was “plagarised”. I was gob-smacked and re-read the article again and again, with utter delight.

The punchline to this blog post is that it is acrostic, the first letter of each paragraph spells out… Answers on a postcard to the usual address and thanks to C for the idea.

The Literary Consultancy Manuscript Assessment Review

I know some of you are writers or would like to become writers, whatever that means. One of the problems with writing is that it’s almost entirely subjective. I say almost because there comes a point when the mass of subjectivity is so overwhelming as to become objective. Subjectively, I wasn’t entertained by the first dozen pages of the Harry Potter fiasco. 450 million book sales tells me I’m wrong. Objectively, Harry Potter and his minions are the very definition of excellent writing, writing that captures and holds an audience.

The only problem with this form of objectivity is that it requires a mass, a horde, of subjects. And this horde is precisely what the becoming writer does not, by definition, have. So we have to seek out other subjectivities, expert subjectivities, in the hope that they add up to something like a stab at objectivity.

(I should note that publishers have this exact same problem. Their decision on the worth of a new submission is taken on the basis of a dozen subjective opinions. That’s nowhere near good enough to match the objective opinion of the mass audience out there. Hence why many, many books fail, despite getting the seal of approval from an expert publisher.)

But to get back to the becoming writer. After friends and family, one of the places we can turn for a stab at objectivity is a manuscript assessment service, like The Literary Consultancy. In the spirit of scientific enquiry, I handed over my 257 page manuscript, along with a cheque for £449.75. And I held my breath.

Now, bearing in mind that I’ve scarcely earned £449.75 from my writing ever, that’s an awful lot of money to spend. Why did I do it? Because I had to know. The testimonials from writers who had used the service were glowing. I had to know if The Literary Consultancy could sprinkle the same gold dust on my manuscript as they had on Bruno Cassidy’s. “I can honestly say,” Bruce gushes, “that I received more engaged and positive criticism from him on this story than at any time during a two year part time Creative Writing MA.” I suppose £449.75 is a small price to pay in comparison to funding a two year part time Creative Writing MA.

I waited six weeks for the report. It arrived precisely on time, straight into my email inbox.

It was a touch over ten pages long, as promised – but some of those pages were not filled. It was double spaced. The whole thing totalled 3643 words, each one costing twelve pence. My first thought, on reading, was Have I wasted half a grand on this? I felt blood rush to my cheeks. I closed the email and forgot about it for a week.

After I got back from Calais, I printed the whole thing out and re-read it, with a pen in my hand. There must be some treasure to be found between these pricey pages. It was written by a man who had published books. He had won Wales Book of the Year. The Independent on Sunday had even called his most recent travel book “thorough”. So I dug deep down into his report, determined to uncover the treasure.

NB: From this point onwards, non-serious writers may get bored. Sorry. This isn’t really written for you. For the serious writer, wondering if it’s time to shell out for professional objectivity, I hope you find this report summary useful.


Approach (0.25 pages)

This was a short précis of my story, useful to ensure that he got the gist of what I was trying to do. He did. Phew.

Where am I coming from as a critic? (0.25 pages)

A short biography of the critic, establishing his bone fides as both a writer and a traveller. This made me feel more comfortable that he was a suitable critic for my book. I should say that The Literary Consultancy had given me a choice of two critics, so I had already done some research on the man. This put me at ease.

Opening Remarks (1 page)

This section addressed my cover letter and synopsis, as well as the title and the fact that I look young in my photograph. On the plus side, the manuscript was well laid out and “very professional”. Neither of us liked the title and he suggested a couple of alternatives.

Concept (0.5 pages)

This section placed the manuscript within the wider world of publishing. This is where the central problem with the manuscript was first addressed: “you have to offer something distinctive in delivering the story, to make it a commercially marketable book”. Storm clouds gathering on the horizon.

Technique (1 page)

General comments on style and structure. I have a “breezy no-nonsense prose style”, combined with a very good ear for speech. I’m particularly proud that he says: “There were no significant passages where my interest flagged.” Now there’s a review for the front cover! However, he is right when he says that there is precious little description of landscape and culture in the book. That is a weakness.

The Narrative (3 pages)

This is the meat of the report. Here he gets into more detail about the manuscript, its achievements and its failings. He addresses story-telling style, dialogue, characterisation, use of detail and description. He gives advice on how I could increase the reader’s emotional involvement and interest, through use of more encounters and personal reflection. He even raised the possibility of importing characters from elsewhere, à la Paul Theroux and Bruce Chatwin… By my honour!

Details (0.5 pages)

This addressed half a dozen typos, factual inaccuracies and general puzzlements. He missed several that I’ve later caught, but this wasn’t supposed to be a proof-reading.

Conclusions (2.5 pages)

Here he tackles the root problem of the manuscript and offers ideas for its development. The question is: “Will your book force its way to the front of the queue?” His answer is no, despite enjoying the story and seeing that I have the skills to write a publishable book. The manuscript as it stands is “a little short of rounded interest”. He urges me to “be more ambitious”, believing that I have “the potential to write at a higher level”. He finishes with a reading list of published books that could hand me the key to this higher plane.


Overall, I would say that the Literary Consultancy report told me nothing of the manuscript that I hadn’t already suspected myself. But I think that is a good sign: it would have been terrible if he’d hated all the parts that I thought were brilliant and vice versa. It shows, at least, that I have an honest eye for my own work.

Where the report hides its genius is in how it has inspired me to go back to the manuscript and improve it. That is what I have paid for, not the words of the report, but the encouragement. That encouragement, from an independent, experienced writer is invaluable.

I have since read and re-read the critic’s words many times and they have been an invaluable guide in my most recent edit of the book. I feel now that I have the thematic structure of a richer dish. The light shone by the report has improved my writing.

Was The Literary Consultancy worth £449.75?

In short: Yes.

Of course, I couldn’t afford to pay this every time I write a book, but perhaps I won’t have to. The report confirmed my suspicions of my literary weaknesses and affirmed the skills I do have as a writer, so perhaps all I will need next time is more confidence in myself.

The Death of Elmore Leonard: 10 Rules of Writing

DC: In honour of the passing of US crime writer Elmore Leonard, here is a reprint of his 10 rules for writing, first published in the New York Times. There is no better or more concise schedule of advice for writers, young and old. Over to Elmore:

WRITERS ON WRITING; Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle

By ELMORE LEONARD
Published: July 16, 2001 in The New York Times.

These are rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. Still, you might look them over.

1. Never open a book with weather.

If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways to describe ice and snow than an Eskimo, you can do all the weather reporting you want.

2. Avoid prologues.

They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in nonfiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want.

There is a prologue in John Steinbeck’s ”Sweet Thursday,” but it’s O.K. because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: ”I like a lot of talk in a book and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks. . . . figure out what the guy’s thinking from what he says. I like some description but not too much of that. . . . Sometimes I want a book to break loose with a bunch of hooptedoodle. . . . Spin up some pretty words maybe or sing a little song with language. That’s nice. But I wish it was set aside so I don’t have to read it. I don’t want hooptedoodle to get mixed up with the story.”

3. Never use a verb other than ”said” to carry dialogue.

The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with ”she asseverated,” and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb ”said” . . .

. . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances ”full of rape and adverbs.”

5. Keep your exclamation points under control.

You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.

6. Never use the words ”suddenly” or ”all hell broke loose.”

This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use ”suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes, you won’t be able to stop. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavor of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories ”Close Range.”

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

Which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway’s ”Hills Like White Elephants” what do the ”American and the girl with him” look like? ”She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice, with not one adverb in sight.

9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

Unless you’re Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language or write landscapes in the style of Jim Harrison. But even if you’re good at it, you don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.

And finally:

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

A rule that came to mind in 1983. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative. It’s my attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing. (Joseph Conrad said something about words getting in the way of what you want to say.)

If I write in scenes and always from the point of view of a particular character — the one whose view best brings the scene to life — I’m able to concentrate on the voices of the characters telling you who they are and how they feel about what they see and what’s going on, and I’m nowhere in sight.

What Steinbeck did in ”Sweet Thursday” was title his chapters as an indication, though obscure, of what they cover. ”Whom the Gods Love They Drive Nuts” is one, ”Lousy Wednesday” another. The third chapter is titled ”Hooptedoodle 1” and the 38th chapter ”Hooptedoodle 2” as warnings to the reader, as if Steinbeck is saying: ”Here’s where you’ll see me taking flights of fancy with my writing, and it won’t get in the way of the story. Skip them if you want.”

”Sweet Thursday” came out in 1954, when I was just beginning to be published, and I’ve never forgotten that prologue.

Did I read the hooptedoodle chapters? Every word.

The start of the Not Just Watching Football Season

The Never Ending Story: Monotonous or Life-affirming?

It’s that time of year again.

At this very second, men in ill-fitting polyester advert shirts are gathering around faux oak tables in dingy back rooms to accumulate another season’s worth of adipose tissue. And all for the pleasure of watching socially dysfunctional teenage athletes earn more cold hard cash in ninety minutes than their admirers could dream of earning in a month.

Yes, the football season is with us again, heralded by England’s defeat of Scotland on Wednesday night, thanks to a well-timed headed goal by 31-year-old debutant Rickie Lambert. Mr Lambert, exercising his imagination like never before, described the crowning achievement of his career as a ‘dream come true’.

I have a deeply humbling confession to make: I don’t play professional football. I never have. Rickie Lambert’s dream come true is about as relevant to my life as Emmental meteorites.

My relationship to football is exactly the same as a reader’s relationship to a book. I am not a player inside the world of football; I look on from the sidelines. I read about the world of football in exactly the same way that I read about the world of Miss Marple (but with less murder and significantly worse dialogue).

Millions of other people enjoy these same soccer stories and I could talk football with them until the Cowdenbeaths come home. But I will never myself take part or affect the world in which I am cognitively immersed. And I will probably never even meet someone who does. Just like I’ll never one day take the 4.50 from Paddington to St Mary Mead, nor meet Mrs Elspeth McGillicuddy.

Not the 4.50 from Paddington. No trains leave Paddington at that time. Do your research next time, Christie.

So what?

I suppose that what I’m trying to say is that football might as well be a fiction, a story, or combination and complex interaction of stories, told every day, all over the world. The football fan’s longing for the start of the new football season is no different to the crystal meth fan’s rabid anticipation of Season 5 of Breaking Bad. Football is the ultimate box set: a never-ending reel of intertwining plot lines, with a cast of thousands and story twists that no writer has even written.

The question we have to ask ourselves is:

Is this story interesting enough to justify a few hours of my life every week?

The answer, I suspect, is increasingly no. But I’m going to try to find out. Instead of just watching football this season, I’m going to start thinking more deeply about what it does for me, does to me – and does to and for us all.

So I hereby declare the official opening of the Not Just Watching Football Season (catchy, I know). Stay tuned for my football-based examinations of such topics as Tribalism, Slum Clearances, Sexual Assault and Consumer Capitalism. To be fair, it’ll almost certainly be a game of two halves, at the end of the day.

Tiny Tips for Writers: Emotional description

Rather than flatly describing sights, sounds and smells, provide contours by showing us the emotional responses of your characters as well.

From A Game for the Living by Patricia Highsmith:

The boy nodded and licked his thin lips. The sight of his tongue near the soft moustache was peculiarly disgusting to Theodore.

An entirely irrelevant detail of the boy has become a character trait for Theodore, and we can feel an unsteady current in the subtext.

Tiny Tips for Writing: Reality in Failure

[This is the first in a new mini-series of tiny tips for writers; those little insights into the things that make fiction believably real. Those forgettable details that make the fourth wall melt away, drawing the reader into the world of the book, as imagined by the author, but without feeling the author, without being clever.]

For every interaction, there is reality in failure, in minor conflict, in minor obstacles.

At a cafe advertising an all day breakfast.
‘Sorry, we’ve finished breakfast,’ the waitress says. ‘Today’s the day we change the oil.’

Not a huge problem, in the usual scheme of things, so the only possible explanation for this (otherwise redundant) piece of minor conflict is that it must be true. And if that was true, then the fiction around it must be as well.

For even greater reality, slip one tiny extraneous detail into the scene.

The cafe is called Tiffany’s.

Cute. You could have Breakfast at Tiffany’s – if not for the changing of the oil. And those two details make the fiction.

David Varela, Goldeous Kline and Me

Last week, David Varela took a vow of silence and spent one hundred hours writing stories. To prove it, he streamed all one hundred hours live on www.100hours.tv and created a live notepad so that the whole world could see his words appear on their screen as he typed them.

David was raising money for the Arvon Foundation (they run residential creative writing weeks for schools and community groups – I went on one of their paid courses in October: outstanding) and for every person who donated, he would write a story.

I found out about this spectacular project through my friend and neighbour, Naya. She recorded an interview with David Varela for Trans Limits Storytelling, and you can watch a snippet here:

You can help the other David reach his well-deserved £3,000 by donating here (although he won’t write you a story any more!).

One of the glorious features of David’s project is that all his writing is freely licensed under the Creative Commons copyright. That means I can (and you can) share the story he wrote for me! So here it is, along with a little comment by David before he started writing:

###

DAVID CHARLES: Goldeous Kline and the Borrowful Glaxons

4 hours to go…

At this point in proceedings, 95 hours in, I really do start to doubt my sanity. If I’m writing slower it’s mainly because I’m double-checking that everything is real. David Charles has made that deliberately difficult.

He’s asked me to write the story of Goldeous Kline and the Borrowful Glaxons.

Not being sure what exists and what does not, I Googled this phrase and was ‘shown results for Golden Kline and the Sorrowful Klaxons’ because clearly I’d made some kind of typo. So I know that these are not pre-existing entities. One David has come up with their names, and another David will come up with their story….

I’m excited. Are you excited?

Having destroyed the Amaloid horde and saved the galaxy once again, Goldeous Kline fired up the thrusters and headed back to base. She could expect a heroine’s welcome – indeed, she did expect it, as she had a shower of Finusian champagne at least every couple of weeks, the galaxy being as dangerous as it was.

Once out of Amalon’s orbit, she engaged hyperdrive and was back in Sector Omega-6 within milliseconds. She opened the comms channel.
“This is Goldeous Kline, requesting permission to dock. Repeat, Goldeous Kline. Yes, it really is me.”
She awaited a response.

And she awaited some more.

“Switching to secondary wavelength… This is Goldeous Kline. Acknowledge.”
More silence.
Maybe this was a prank. The boys in the comms shack did enjoy a good joke – but not normally on duty.
“This is Goldeous -“
“Hi Goldeous. Just hang on a sec. We’ve had a -“

There channel went silent again. Were they under attack? Was there a fire in Command?
“Sorry, Goldeous, we’re – no, let me – let go of that -“
“Command? Everything all right?”

The channel buzzed into life for a second and she heard what she thought was somebody being slapped across the face.
“Bzzzk… Eh oh? Eh oh.”
“Hello?”
“Greeting, pilot. All your base are belong to us.”
“Excuse me?”
“No excuse. All your base are belong to us. Also your ship.”

There was the sound of wrestling at the other end of the line again. Goldeous wondered who this invader could be. Their dialect was unusual, but the larynx must be humanoid. The Provaricons? Shepsy? Yes, she’d never trusted Shepsy.

“Kline, are you there?”
“Yes! Status.”
“This is Commander Sheppard…”
“Commander – good to hear your voice.”
“Yeah… bit of an issue back here. Admin cock-up really. Problem with the bank.”
“Who are the ‘Bank’? A new enemy alliance?”
“Could say that, yes. Thing is, they rather have the Galactic Council on their side on this one.”
“A conspiracy!”
“I’m not really making myself clear, am I? Goldeous, fact is, we’ve got ourselves up to our ears in hock. Acquisitions went wild with the credit card last year and now the lenders are foreclosing on us. Seems we were borrowing against our bases, but what with all the conflict recently, property prices have gone through the lunar crust.”
“I… don’t understand.”
“They’re repossessing everything. The bases, the ships… even Deckard. Apparently galactic law still regards him as a thing not a person.”
“But this is absurd! Sir – permission to launch a counter-offensive!”
“No, Goldeous… do you have any idea how much those photon torpedos are worth? Save your ammo and bring your ship back here. That’s a direct order from your Commander.”

She wrestled with the concept in her mind. Surrender? It felt… so wrong.
“Sir. Yes, sir. Requesting permission to dock.”
“Granted. Bay Three.”
“But Sir… I don’t understand how we could have spent so much money so fast.”
“Finusian champagne isn’t cheap, Goldeous. Glaxon Command out.”

—-

I’m going to end it there – because I’d have to stop at that point or follow through and finish a whole sci-fi parody novel, and I’ve only got three-and-a-bit hours left. Thank you, David, for the inspiration!

###

And thank you, other David, for the story! It was perfect, especially given my current reading of Debt by David Graeber (The Davids are taking over!).

“My name is David Charles and I’m Britain’s funniest qualified Egyptologist.”

It’s not a great opening line, but it is accurate. At least, I’ve not met a funnier qualified Egyptologist. Tony Robinson doesn’t count; he’s an actor. Did he get a First in Ancient History and Egyptology from UCL? No. So screw him.

This is an auto-review of my stand up show at The Camden Head on the 4th of November 2012. You can listen to the whole show by clicking on the play button below. Let’s do this!

This is only my third gig on the London stand-up scene and there is an audience of about fifty people waiting to be entertained. Only three of them are my friends, so that leaves forty-seven people to win over. Forty-seven people. That’s two football matches’ worth (including a referee and two linesmen). Two football matches playing out in front of me and only three supporters. Sounds like Hackney Marshes on a Sunday morning. But it’s not; it’s the Camden Head on a Sunday night and these football teams are missing Downton Abbey and Homelands to be here. Sacrifices have been made. I’d better be funny.

I stay sober and don’t eat for hours beforehand. This, combined with the fact that backstage is a exterior fire escape, means that I’m shaking like a leaf, when that leaf has drunk too much caffeine. But I am also on stage and that means I am under threat. To my caveman mind, the audience are lions in the Serengeti. Instead of fight or flight, though, my only defence is having faster neurons than them. This is why I don’t drink beforehand, whereas they are drunk. Hopefully. I also have the advantage that I have written six hundred and fifty-six words of funny material and if I can only remember those six hundred and fifty-six words, then I will have made them laugh and the lions won’t eat me.

But stand-up is more than just paper writing; stand-up is the scent of blood. Stand-up happens live, in the Colosseum, a gladiatorial battle of wits between the comedian myrmidon and the lion audience. I’m lucky, these particular lions want to roll over and have me tickle their tummy. But, as in all human-feline flirtations, the cat holds at least as much power as I do. And there are forty-seven of them. Merely repeating written words into the arena might get a laugh, but it is the liveness of stand-up that has the lions rolling around on the floor like you’ve just sprayed the room with catnip. Every reaction from the lions, every laugh, every cough, every ooo, urhh, eww and whahey, is registered in my brain and my neurons must react with funny. That’s liveness.

I can feel a punch-line coming up and the lions aren’t ready, I back off and set them up again, this time they roll over and I tickle their tummies, before dancing back to go again. They howl and mewl at one joke, so I rub it harder; they roar again, I rub still harder; they roar a third time. These are the moments, off script, where the lions have forgotten they’re lions and the myrmidon is in complete mastery of the Colosseum. These are the moments where feline and human fall in love.

Five minutes later, I’m off stage and the game resumes with another gladiator*.

*This is a classical metaphor, rather than an Egyptological one, because the Ancient Egyptians weren’t barbarous animal torturers, unlike Boris Johnson.

Experiments in Publishing: Success?

A month ago, I published a book. But I didn’t publish it the usual way. Oh no. ‘Usual’ doesn’t work any more. I published it in three different ways:

  1. as a paperback book (£5.99);
  2. as an e-book on Amazon and the istore (£1.99);
  3. in 152 episodes on hitchhikingbritain.com (Now discontinued).

I called this experiment Slow Publishing, for obvious reasons (it should take about a year for the whole book to trickle onto the blog). I had very low expectations, especially as I had no time for promotion – but how is it going?

The Website

Well, I’ve been publishing three episodes a week since the 23rd of July, so we’re up to Episode 16 now (about halfway through Chapter One). I’ve had over 600 visitors in total since the start and I can count on 15-20 people reading each instalment, plus 9 people have signed up to the ‘Soles’ RSS webfeed.

Sales

In terms of conversion, I’ve sold 10 copies of the e-book on Amazon, 1 copy on the istore and 1 copy of the paperback. I’ve made about £16.43 in royalties from these sales.

Promotion

The only promotion I’ve done has been one email to my good friends at the start of the project, plus notifications of new episodes sent to my twitter and Facebook accounts.

I’m hoping that some promotion will start to trickle in from my readers. I’ve already had my first 5-star review on Amazon, from which I quote here:

The Soles of My Shoes is an erudite, eloquent and warm book. A deceptively simple tale of a long weekend spent hitchhiking with an unrequited love-of-his-life, the protagonist reveals insights into love, life, class, wealth and what it is to travel… I left this book wanting (a) to climb Ben Nevis and (b) to go hitchhiking. Possibly to visit Scarp as well… Highly recommended.

Interim Conclusions

Well I don’t think £16.43 is too bad for a month’s work. True, all my friends who are likely to buy the book, probably have. But that just means that any sales from now on will have been earned. I’ll post another update here in a month or two and we’ll see.

But, for now, I like the idea that the internet is never closed for business and people are stumbling upon my book while I sleep. ‘The Soles of My Shoes’ will never be out of print and, who knows, perhaps in fifty years I’ll be drawing my pension from between its e-pages.

What a to do! Suggestions for list-makers

I have a problem with TO DO lists. They are impossible. Not only that, but – being optimists – we don’t even realise it. It’s almost tragic, our list-making.

Bob Dylan’s TO DO list.

What I mean to say is: if you managed to survive the public education system with a shred of your imagination intact, then of course your life is going to be overflowing with things TO BE DONE.

Put another way: there will always be more on your TO DO list than CAN BE DONE in an average human life-span.

You still don’t get what I’m saying, do you?

Here it is: if you were to write out your TO DO list in full, you must understand that you will DIE long before every item is ticked off.

There.

That might sound a little morbid, but it does give a certain poignancy to all such lists, which could be useful. Perhaps if we considered these lists in their true light, we would spend less time on TIDY ROOM and more time on READ HAMLET.

Suppose you have a TO DO list of ten items. What six items would you immediately strike off if you knew you were going to DIE after only doing four of that list? That should be a pretty reasonable guide as to what you should be doing and what is probably not worthwhile.

I also wonder what items would miraculously appear on our TO DO lists if we are honest with the truth that our time on this earth is finite. Perhaps CREOSOTE FENCE would be replaced by APOLOGISE TO JANET.

Think about it the next time you are looking down your TO DO list…

###

Even if you don’t follow my rather morbid objection, I have a further problem with TO DO lists. The name.

I believe that the first step in doing anything is to think of doing it. So merely by adding a task to your TO DO list, you have (by definition) already started it. Therefore, it shouldn’t be called a TO DO list, but rather a DOING list.

This has the advantage of being far more optimistic and gives you the impression that the task is pretty much over and done with. Which (I would argue) it is. If you think about it, you can easily write a novel without ever being able to spell properly, but it is an impossible task if you never even think of writing a novel. The thinking of it is always our biggest hurdle to accomplishing a task.

So I challenge you to change the name of your list and see what a difference it makes to your productivity and contentment.

The Mundane and the Sublime What library data says about the human condition

Today, I stumbled upon a list of the most common books stored in public libraries.

It strikes me, looking at the list, that these are our most precious books (in the Western tradition). These are the ones that have been chosen to be protected for eternity by our libraries.

As the list-makers say, these are “the intellectual works that have been judged to be worth owning by the ‘purchase vote’ of libraries around the globe.”

The data is from 2005, but I don’t think it will have changed much. Here’s the top ten:

  1. The Holy Bible
  2. US Census
  3. Mother Goose
  4. Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri
  5. Odyssey by Homer
  6. Iliad by Homer
  7. Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  8. Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
  9. Hamlet by William Shakespeare
  10. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Now, for comparison, here’s the top ten most loaned books from US libraries in 2009.

  1. Run for Your Life by James Patterson & Michael Ledwidge
  2. Cross Country by James Patterson
  3. Finger Lickin’ Fifteen by Janet Evanovich
  4. The 8th Confession by James Patterson & Maxine Paetro
  5. Plum Spooky by Janet Evanovich
  6. Swimsuit by James Patterson & Maxine Paetro
  7. The Shack by William P. Young
  8. The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown
  9. First Family by David Baldacci
  10. The Associate by John Grisham

Now you might feel a certain depression looking down this list.

But I like it: the two lists represent the beautiful dichotomy of our humanity.

They represent the two worlds we have to manage every day, the two worlds of the mundane and the sublime.

Only monks can spend all their time contemplating sublimity, the rest of us have spreadsheets and nappies and traffic jams to worry about.

But it’s nice to know that, when we need them, our libraries guarantee the wonders of literature.

Like Mother Goose.


How to Write a Real Novel in 30 days: Part 3

I have finished!

I have created, from scratch, a fully edited novel of 80,000 words, in 114.75 hours, over the course of 31 (44) days.

An Admission
Some of you might be thinking: he’s been going longer than 30 days! And you would be right. I started writing this novel on the 27th of May. Today is the 9th of July, so that makes 44 days.

However: I only worked on the novel for 31 out of those 44 days.

[The reasons for this are varied. I took a few days off to hitch-hike up to the Lake District, raising money for Macmillan Cancer Support. I took a few more days off to be ill. Another couple of days here and there for various reasons that I won’t bother mentioning. Suffice to say, excuses should never be a part of a writer’s conversation.]

So, by my reckoning, I’m only 1 day over budget. Not bad for a first attempt.

Anyway, in 31 or 44 days, it all happened in two phases.

Phase One: Write like crazy

I wrote in a straight line, from 0 to 65,000 words in 71.75 hours of writing time, over the course of 21 (25) days.

At the end of each day’s writing, I transferred everything from my electronic typewriter to my computer. Sometimes I broke these chunks into scenes, sometimes I didn’t bother. But, thanks to the concentrated writing each day, I spent even my hours of leisure thinking about the problems of the novel. Quite often I’d think of some way out that I’d write the next day. Occasionally, and increasingly towards the end of the novel, I’d think of something that I wanted to have in the final chapter, some loose end that would need tying up, and I’d note this down for later.

By the end of Phase One, I had broken down the massive chunks of writing (about 3,000 words a day) into scenes. I had also decided that I wanted the novel to fall into five parts, plus an epilogue. Some of these parts arrived better formed than others. For example: most of the parts had about 13 scenes in them. Part II, however, had 27. This was ridiculous, especially as it was the shortest part in terms of words!

It would need a lot of editing in Phase Two.

Phase Two: Edit like crazy

I went back to the beginning and re-wrote, edited and generally tidied up the rough stuff of Phase One. This took me 43 hours, over the course of 10 (19) days.

There were quite a lot of things that didn’t quite make sense. So I had to write new scenes and completely redevelop some existing scenes. This made the novel grow quite substantially.

As an indication, by the end of Phase One, my novel looked like this:

  • Part I: 14,000 words
  • Part II: 10,000 words
  • Part III: 14,000 words
  • Part IV: 10,000 words
  • Part V: 17,000 words

By the end of Phase Two, it was looking like this:

  • Part I: 14,000 words
  • Part II: 17,000 words
  • Part III: 14,500 words
  • Part IV: 16,500 words
  • Part V: 19,000 words

As you can see, Parts II and IV expanded by two thirds between the first draft and the first edit. The other sections also increased in size, but more modestly.

The reason why Part I didn’t grow was because I actually started editing this Part during Phase One. The first draft of Part I was only 10,000 words in length, so it too grew significantly during the editing process.

Reflections on the 30-day process

The process, I believe, is devastatingly effective, but only if you can dedicate the hours to it. I spent between 3 and 5 hours every day that I worked.

Essentially, I worked for 21 days straight on Phase One, then took a week-long break, then spent 10 days straight on Phase Two. I would not necessarily recommend this week-long break, but it didn’t seem to hold me back too much. Perhaps it helped, perhaps it didn’t. I won’t know until I try and do this again.

One thing I probably would not recommend is starting to edit before you’ve finished the first draft. I did this with Part I. Although I felt at the time that it was helping me, in retrospect, I’m not sure it did. But again: who knows?

I do know for certain that some parts of the novel came very easily and some parts were difficult. Parts II and IV, notably, took longer to edit and required more smoothing out of the plot. Parts I, III and V were much more coherent from the first draft.

I think this is no coincidence. These parts contained much more of the action of the novel, rather than reaction and set-up. Action is no doubt easier to write: with action, you can write with the flow, whereas reaction is more circumspect and much harder to keep interesting.

So why bother with reaction at all? Because the reader needs a break! Also because I like to write novels that are a little more thoughtful than most smash-bang thrillers. So, while this novel is a thriller, it is perhaps a little more considered than Dan Brown.

Personally, I think this is a good thing; financially, it’s a disaster!

What’s next?

I’m still not entirely happy with the novel, after only one full edit. So I am going to spend the next 5 days doing a second edit to the whole novel, making sure that the plot is logically consistent. Then I am going to hand the whole thing over to my editors and first readers. So I fully expect to have finished this project after just 36 (or, if you like, 49) days.

Then I’m going to cycle around Britain…

And now? Over to you! I’d love to hear from anyone who’d like to have a thrash at this crazy, wild, magical 30-day real-novel-writing technique!