Time, by Jimmy McGovern

Contains a spoiler.

Simplicity of narrative, complexity of character, that’s my mantra.

Jimmy McGovern

When I heard McGovern say that in an interview some years ago I wrote it down. I’ve long admired his writing, and when I saw the trailer for Time on BBC 1 I knew it was a must-see.

The performances were stunning: subtle, real, relatable. And through it all a subtle thread that culminated in what was, for me, the killer line of the whole thing:

I told him that I loved him.

Brendan Murphy (Jonathan Harden)

Fed to us in single lines and a couple of scenes, the tragedy of a 13-year old lad who professes love to his best mate, then kills him in the pain and fear of rejection. A simple story, a complex character, brilliantly played.

Jonathan Harden as Brendan Murphy in Time

The Big Shift

I received an email from Andrew Seaman at LinkedIn News. He wants to know my thoughts on the “Great Resignation” some are predicting will occur as a result of COVID-19. Lockdown, working from home and bereavements have changed perspectives regarding work. He wants to know what advice I’d give to those “making a shift right now — whether it’s landing a new job or making a career pivot?” I wouldn’t normally respond to such a request, but this one struck a chord. So, as I enjoy writing, and even though this is unpaid and the Sewing Bee final is on telly, here goes.

In 1998, having secured some freelance work, I walked out of a relatively well-paid job with a large company. It was a mover and shaker in the newly emerging business of internet retailing. You’ll have heard of them. You’ll have been a customer. They have a store near you. It was a good job with prospects, but a bullying line manager made life miserable, so I left. With a six-week old baby at home leaving this job was a heck of a risk, but I knew I could make it work. I could do this freelance gig, give good time to my own writing, and be a dad.

I then worked on a freelance basis for over 20 years. I had other clients and published some novels, but that first company was the main source of income. The work was somewhat boring and repetitive, but it paid the bills. Then, a few months ago, a more recent client asked if I could take on some additional work. This would take up most of my time for four months, was well-paid, interesting and fulfilling. Previous work I’d done for them was clearly valued, and they wanted me to help them out in unexpected circumstances. I jumped at the chance.

Now that work has ended. Although challenging, it was extremely rewarding and I got fantastic feedback. Now I don’t want to return to the uninspiring, relatively low-paid work I did for so long. So I’m not going to. I see significant alternatives, and have saved enough money that I don’t need to return to what I was doing before, or rush into another role I don’t really want.

I recently saw a video in which a 100-year old man was asked what advice he would give to young people: “Take a risk.” was his answer. So, although no one would consider me young, I’m taking another risk like the one I took in 1998. I’m determined to find more interesting clients who value my skills and creativity. I’m very lucky. I recognise that I’ve had a relatively soft upbringing and benefit from white male privilege, so what I’d really like to do is find some way of helping others achieve their full potential. If it involves writing, then that would be a bonus.

You only live once. If you’re unhappy, dissatisfied or frustrated in your work, make a positive change. It’s worked for me; with application, it can work for you to.

Take a risk. Make a Big Shift.

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Want to benefit from my skills and creative thinking? Get in touch. Competitive day rate. Honest work. No bullshit.

One email, five words, multiple issues

I received this in a “professional” email from someone who doesn’t know me: 

Good morning,

 Hope your well?

Problems?

  • Tone: the salutation is simultaneously brusque and overfamiliar.
  • Punctuation: the salutation ends in a comma: in this context, the comma should precede my name, which should then end in a full stop – but my name isn’t there. This is not the traditional “Dear [name],” style, so use of the comma is not appropriate. It was probably just copied and pasted, which is another problem entirely, but a contributory factor.
  • “Hope your well?” There are two errors here: “your” should be “you’re” as a contraction of “you are” – although, “you’re” would be overfamiliar in a professional email, but I’ll let that slide as we’ve enough to be going on with. The question mark is inappropriate: this is a statement not a question – an increasing trend as the rising inflection at the end of statement sentences creeps into everyday conversation. The writer is saying that she hopes I’m well, but these two mistakes compromise the message and undermine authority.

What she should have said is “I hope you’re well.” or, “Are you well?” Although the former can come across as a bit insincere – “I hope you’re well [but let’s not get into that right now…].” while the latter has the potential to open a can of worms.

One email, five words, multiple issues. Want me to sort out the writing in your organisation? Get in touch.

Think. Feel. Write.

Today sees the launch of Think. Feel. Write.!

This has been inspired by my personal experiences of the therapeutic benefits of writing, and my work with the Royal Literary Fund, both as a Fellow and as part of the Social Sector Projects initiative.

Studies show that expressive or reflective writing can help us find direction, reduce stress, and have both short- and long-term health benefits. You can subscribe to site updates, read articles, try some exercises, and there’s a TFW Twitter profile. Please share with anyone you feel might be interested.

With all best wishes,

Martin

Do you remember a guy that’s been?

I have an obsession with time and dates. It’s reflected in everything I write. If when watching telly I see a clock in the background, or can make out the face of someone’s watch, I’ll note the time. If the programme’s old I’ll check out the “first aired” date, then try to work out where I was and what I was doing. I’ll even try and work out the time of year in which a scene was shot from the weather. I do live in the past a bit. My mate Aaron wouldn’t be at all impressed. Today is 14 June 2020, and for some reason my mind’s drawn back forty years to 1980.

14 June 1980 was a Saturday. I was 12 years old. Most kids would have been at home watching The Adventure Game or Tiswas, but I was at either Tamworth or Burton market, with my dad at the former, my mom at the latter. I’d have spent the week at Rawlett High School. Mrs Pitts would have sucked all the potential for enjoyment out of English; Mr Blatch would have told us about weather fronts in geography; chemistry teacher Mr Clamp would have told me repeatedly to get my hands out of my pockets; I was not the only 12 year old getting hot under the satchel in the presence of French teacher Mrs Whitby. In Britain, Mrs Thatcher was relatively new to Number 10, and Jimmy Carter was President of the Good Ol’. Some guy in white called John Paul (the Second) was Pope.

Musically, things were very mixed. On this particular day Xanadu by Olivia Newton John was number one in the singles’ chart. Highlights of the year as a whole were anything Two Tone, Atomic and Call Me by Blondie, Going Underground and Start by The Jam, and topping it all (for me) David Bowie’s Ashes to Ashes. These gems were, however, offset by Kenny Rogers’ The Coward of the County, Barbara Streisand’s Woman in Love, with the year capped off by the utterly atrocious There’s No One Quite Like fucking Grandma by St Winifred’s School choir. Geno by Dexys was okay, and they were from nearby Birmingham, but I never got the denim dungarees thing and didn’t like Kevin Rowland’s voice. Meanwhile, Don’t Stand So Close to Me was a hit for The Police: a catchy number in which Sting admits to fancying a young female pupil, and makes out his inappropriate thoughts are all her fault. I won’t mention What’s Another Year by Johnny Logan, other than to plant the seed of the song in your head so you’re humming it all next week. On Saturday 14 June 1980, we were just a month down the road from Ian Curtis’ suicide, and a few weeks away from Peter Sellers’ death. In New York, John Lennon would be seeing some places for the last time.

Approaching the end of my first year at secondary school it was becoming clear I was not academic, but I had a pristine shit brown uniform and a school bag full of other people’s hopes and expectations. Juvenile epilepsy was a relatively new cloud; formed just a year earlier, it would hang around until I was 20. I watched six hours’ worth of telly every weekday, and started my week’s homework with reluctance on a Sunday afternoon; Mrs Pitts’ 45 chapter summaries had no chance. In the end I’d usually give up, go to bed, and watch That’s Life and Hart to Hart on my black and white portable telly. Of note to me now is that this was the only period of my life during which I did not write.

I’d always written as a kid, but my secondary school years were a creative void. I had a Commodore Vic 20 computer, but no tape recorder to save anything I did on it. I had a CB radio, but hadn’t yet touched an electric guitar. Some music got me right there, but I didn’t know anyone who liked Echo & the Bunnymen. My entire childhood was full of love, and the kind of gifts that can only be bestowed with the good intentions of those who have worked their way up from nothing; but I would feel a misfit for another eight or nine years, until my creative impulse began to surface once more. Whereupon everything began to change.

So, that’s me on 14 June 1980; but where, and who, were you?


I’m a writer, editor, and Royal Literary Fund Fellow. Find out more, tweet me, or email.

Progress?

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As far as I’m concerned these two devices allow me to do exactly the same thing: write. They’re both portable, admittedly one more so than the other, yet they couldn’t be more different.

One cost me around a thousand pounds, the other fifty. One of them is less than a year old and will probably last me five or six years if I’m lucky. It kinda does the job, but I don’t particularly enjoy it, because the keyboard’s shite and it secretes my words away somewhere within its glass and metal shell, as if they are somehow its property rather than mine. The other is around 60 years old, and if used and not abused will probably last as long again. The keyboard’s fantastic, and it’s a joy to use. There’s even a bell. In return for my efforts the machine gives me sheets of paper with words printed upon them. Words I can annotate, cross out, cut up and paste if necessary. It’s always necessary.

One of them needs electricity to work, and required huge amounts of power to smelt its pretty carcass, and extract the raw materials used in its components. The other needed some energy in its production, but has since enabled years of green creativity. One I’ll leave as an heirloom; the other will have no sentimental value. One is laden with distractions and promises, the other gives out only what you put in. Warts and all.

If you asked me to choose between them, I wouldn’t even have to think about it.

The journey…

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Scissors & Glue – top tips for writers

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Over the years I’ve been given some great advice on writing by people I’ve met, and I thought I’d share a few examples in case they might help you along the way too.

1: Easing off
received from David Garnett, writer and editor

I met Dave at the first SF convention I attended in 1997. We chatted, got on well, and he introduced me to a lot of people. It was a great weekend. He was at that time editing the New Worlds anthology, and invited me to send him something to consider. When the story came back a few months later it was one of those enthusiastic rejections which, while issuing a no thank you, encouraged me to keep at it. His feedback included the following piece of advice:

“Don’t try to cram in so much.”

I thought about the story and wondered where I’d crammed. By how much. And how not to. What to leave out of any creative endeavour – writing, music, choreography – to avoid “over-egging the pudding”, to quote one of my former editors, can be difficult to judge. I think I worked out what Dave meant eventually, but it’s a process unique to every piece of work, every paragraph, every sentence. I’ve still got that letter. It’s in a folder full of others just like it.

2: How they did it in the olden days
received from Christopher Priest, author

I’ve always written to people whose work I’ve admired and asked politely whether they might have any advice. These included Priest, after I’d read his novel The Prestige back in the mid-90s. Our correspondence developed, and he told me he did have some advice, but that I wouldn’t like it:

“Print it, delete the electronic file,
then re-key the whole thing.”

When people wrote longhand or with a typewriter, multiple copies could be created using carbon paper. Cutting and pasting was just that, using scissors and glue – a process that still has its place in creative writing today. And a re-draft was exactly that: type the whole thing out again, dude. But by the time this tip came my way we were firmly in the age of the word processor. Surely such antiquated techniques were redundant, weren’t they?

He was right: I didn’t like it. But when I gave the re-key a chance its benefits were immediately apparent. Bored typing a certain section or paragraph all over again? Then your reader will probably get bored too. And without doubt the weaknesses in any text are somehow more evident on the printed page than on screen, so re-keying from hard copy has benefits there. Whether you actually delete the electronic file is a matter of choice (I could never bring myself to go quite that far), but without doubt, taking the time to perform a real deal, old-school re-draft pays huge dividends.

And while you’re performing your satisfying re-key, implementing my final tip will make a world of difference.

3: You move your lips when you’re reading
received from unknown

I honestly can’t remember who gave me this nugget. It might have been John Meaney. Or I might have read it somewhere. But the most important thing is that I came across it somehow, because this one makes a huge difference:

“Read your text aloud.”

You may raise your eyebrows, but during speech the tongue will stumble over words that seem to work just fine when reading them silently in your head. Rhythm – or more to the point a lack thereof – makes itself known. Problematic syntax or repetition emerge from their hiding places between the words. Sentences that fall short. Or those that run too long and leave you feeling a little out of breath as you try to keep up with either the message or the mechanics of the content or sometimes both.

You’re sceptical right? Right. But give this one a go and I’m willing to bet a whole pound that the changes you make to address the problems that become apparent will make your text more readable.

So there you are. Three gems that just might help improve your writing in some way. Feel free to share any tips of your own.

Addendum – 9 July 2017
Come to think of it, here’s a tip of my own, gleaned through years of attending conventions and the like…

“Got a light, mate?”

Smoking is increasingly unpopular and unfashionable. I’ve never smoked, but lots of people do. With the ban on smoking indoors, smokers now huddle in groups outside hotels, pubs and restaurants, taking a moment. There’s camaraderie, formality is dropped, a joke and a lighter shared. But if you don’t smoke – what then?

Go anyway.

Maybe one of those smokers is an editor or agent you’d like to work with, or a writer you’ve read and admired. Away from the formality and panels, new-build relationships can be cemented beside that smouldering metal bin.

There’s one golden rule, though: no shop talk. None. Don’t mention that book or script, or that really brilliant idea for a TV show you’ve had. Certainly don’t offer a card. To take a leaf from William Gallagher, this isn’t networking – it’s notworking. For the smokers those fags are an escape from the hubbub and the pitching and the sell of whatever event you happen to be attending. Just join them to get some air, engage in some chat and get to know people a bit more. Don’t be a stalker – if you’ve been bending their ear all evening then be aware it might be you they’re trying to take a break from. But otherwise, next time you meet or email they might just put a face to the name, and five years down the line…? Well there’s no guarantee they’ll be interested in anything you’ve written, but you might have made a friend.


I’m a writer, editor, and Royal Literary Fund Fellow.
Find out more, tweet me, or email.