11 February 2010

Terrific writing tips # 3a: The Writers Tale

The Writers Tale: The Final chapter

Sleeping, watching Dr Who and uploading holiday pics to Facebook weren't serving as adequate procrastination activities today, so it was off to the beach before summer runs out – and I took The Writers Tale:The Final Chapter with me, so that I could justify the lazing on the sand time as kind of work.

The Writers Tale began as an exchange of emails between journalist Benjamin Cook and writer Russell T Davies, as Benjamin thought he might put together a good magazine story about RTD's creation and writing of series 4 of Dr Who. He ended up with a book – and an extended version of the same book, which has just been released and takes us through to the end of series 4.

(For Australian readers, RTD and David Tennant's final episodes are on the ABC over the next two weekends.

And here is the cheapest way to get a copy of the book in Australia - and it will only take a week to arrive.)

I discovered RTD in 2003. A Scottish aerialist and actor was staying in my spare room (now the writing room) and came back from Out Video with Tales of the City (and a copy of the book), Will and Grace, Queer as Folk and Bob and Rose. Spot the theme?

Not only did I discover Armistead Mauphin and an American sit com that I loved, but I found the television writing of RTD.

It's not like RTD and I had similar lives. He spent his youth drinking too much and dancing with pretty boys in gay night clubs in Manchester. I spent my youth drinking too much and dancing with pretty boys in gay night clubs in Adelaide. Totally different accents.

We have different lives, but in his stories I saw someone who created a world that I believed. A world where the people and their lives were so recogniseable, even if I'd never experienced anything they had, I never doubted them and was drawn into their fictional lives like they were my own.

"I consider that I've something to say when I've thought of a person, a moment, a single beat of the heart, that I think is true and interesting, and therefore should be seen."                            The Writers Tale: The Final Chapter,  p 57
Needless to say, having watched Dr Who most weekdays of my childhood, I was bit too excited when he took on the challenge of bringing our Time Lord back to the BBC.

And rightly so. Fans don't need me to rave about the Dr Who. They know it's brilliant.

And so is The Writers Tale:The Final Chapter.

On opening the book at the beach, my procrastinating self was ironically confronted with RTD discussing procrastination, the fear of being crap, the excuses made not to write, not seeing family and friends because you're 'writing' (meaning NOT writing and hating yourself for not writing) and wanting to be more like Jeanette Winterson. He once read an interview with Jeanette (another one of my favourite writers) where she said writing was like flying. I'm googling around for it now, but glad I never read it, as I too feel the fear, fear not having the fear and will do anything to avoid the writing, even though its the one thing I want to do. I'm more comforted knowing that writers need a bit of temporary self-loathing.

I'm only 90-odd pages in (it's a mighty tome at 700 pages), but I can't imagine reading a better book about the process of writing. And I've read a lot of them.

As writers, artists or people, we have constant chatter in our heads. Even as I do the dishes (on those rare occassions) I'm over analysing everything I've seen or heard that day (and my whole life), there's a few different stories trying to make sense in my head, a handful of characters trying to come to life, I'm writing and re-writing blogs and reviews, planning what I'm having for dinner, thinking who I could invite over for dinner and replaying everything past, present and future in dozens of different ways.

Our brains are never still and (luckily) we only ever let a tiny bit of that chatter leak out to the world.

The Writers Tale is a door to Russell's inner chatter. Reading his long, detailed emails is like hearing his brain at work.  You can see the seeds of wonderful scenes appearing as chat and minor ideas. You see episodes (and companions) that never were - and why they were scrapped.You see the doubt and the confidence and the craft and the skill.  He talks about the need to suffer and the total bollocks of the suffering artist.

As a writer, he talks to other writers about how they can write. Isn't that what we want to hear? That we can do it.

RTD is only part of the book. As a worthy companion  Benjamin Cook asks the questions. Every writer should have a Benjamin to question them. Writers could  just read Benjamin's questions to Russell and see how they answer them.

Amazing writing is meant to inspire new (and old) writers, but sometimes it just scares the bejesus out of me. As I watch or read something that is so far out of my reach as a writer, I'm more likely to head to the couch than the computer. Russell is one of those writers for me. His work scares me.

Reading this book is already taking away some of that fear and self-doubt. Seeing how he works and recognising so much of it, takes the halo off his head and brings him back down to the pub having a beer. And it is sending me to the computer (when I'm not on the couch watching his writing or reading this wonderful book).

If you are a Dr Who fan, there is no question of not owning this book. Like your K9 mouse mat and Dalek keychain, your life won't be complete without it.

If you don't dream of travelling in the TARDIS, but love television or just love writing, give this a go. The knowledge of the telly series helps, but not having it doesn't hinder.

However, you will then be compelled to watch all of Dr Who and Queer as Folk (UK version then US version) and Bob and Rose (still my favourite telly series) and The Second Coming and everything else Russell has touched, but you may also be inspired to get to the keyboard and see what stories are lurking in the chatter in your head.

Series 4 of Dr Who says farewell to RTD, but the new head writer is the equally marvellous Steven Moffat, who wrote my favourite episode of  Dr Who, 'Blink,' and he wrote the wonderful sitcom Coupling (that I love as much as Will and Grace).

So RTD, we will miss you, but we have no fear that Dr Who is going to be just as addictive. And I've just read that Neil Gaimen (yes, Neil Gaimen!) will be writing an episode of Series 6. Again, I'm a bit too excited.
PS - My Scottish actor friend is living in London and he would be a wonderful alien, companion or evil genius for Series 6.

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