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Bob's 2001 Journal


Journal of a Virtually Unpublished Writer

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Bob's 2001 Journal

Journal of a Virtually Unpublished Writer


by Bob G Ritchie


2 April

Worrying about money. In The Observer Julie Myerson writes about swanning off to Milan for a five-star shopping and eating weekend. Jealously wonder if her novels really earn that kind of money or if she lives with a banker.

John Updike once said that no one ever wrote for any reason other than to make money. Suspect on the contrary that in my case I made more out of writing when I was what the Japanese call a salaryman. As an employee in IT I once had to write a massive technical manual with a total intended readership of six. A depressing calculation tells me I was paid about £5000 a copy. Think maybe I should go back to a proper job.

Spend a dispiriting afternoon reading the Sits Vac. Decide to stick with writing a bit longer.

Currently hoping to make my fortune with a TV sitcom set in an Intensive Care Unit. Has just the right level of utterly tasteless black humour that should appeal to Channel 4 viewers. Then disaster strikes. One of my best gags is quoted almost word for word g$ The News Quiz as a true story from a South African newspaper! Can’t decide whether this is the most awful coincidence or a demonstration of my brilliant anticipation of world news. Hardly matters, of course. I’ll have to rewrite it now anyway.

According to a piece in the IoS, no one’s developing sitcoms anymore, so not sure why I’m trying my hand at allegedly the most difficult kind of writing. Can hardly kid myself being shortlisted in last year’s BBC Talent is one short step from becoming the next David Renwick. But at least writing comedy is fun. Well, more fun than writing about a family watching a funeral train go by, which is what I spent most of January doing.

BBC now have two radio plays and a TV drama to chew over. Product of about five months work - and so far nothing to show for it.

‘Then why do it?’ non-writer friends ask. Good question. Fellow writers never ask it, of course. Because we all have our reasons. Reasons that have nothing to do with money. In my case, because it’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do since I was 11 years old and received an A+ for ‘I was the sole survivor of a train crash’.

Create wonderful new worlds out of one’s own imagination and get paid for it. What better way to spend one’s life? Well, halfway there. I’m creating new worlds. Now all I have to do is get paid.


15 April

Start the day by filing a few rejections and feeling unloved, when a small envelope arrives in the post. Good news? (Large envelopes mean bad news, because they contain returned manuscripts or, for some inexplicable reason, insurance documents.) And indeed it is. A magazine wants to publish one of my stories. Yesss!! Feel immediately as if I could leap tall buildings. Especially since the editor is also hanging on to the other story I sent 'for possible publication in a future issue’.

What an exhilarating sensation it is when someone actually likes what one writes. Professionals advise thick skins: rejection is a fact of life, but remember, they reassure, it is only of one's work, not of oneself. Indeed. Yet no one tells us that we shouldn't feel pleased for ourselves when the opposite happens, when someone likes what we write. That means they like me too, doesn't it?

Last Saturday I went to a concert; just a local amateur affair, but when I arrived with 15 minutes still to go before the overture I could hardly find an empty seat. (According to the National Federation of Music Societies twice as many people attend amateur concerts every year as go to non-professional league football matches. There's an article in that: music, more popular than football.) Anyway, while I was watching the musicians assemble - amateurs, maybe, but all properly attired in black evening dress - I fell to wondering.

Why do musicians play? Why do singers sing?

To produce beautiful music, of course. But they could do that just as easily - perhaps on occasion more easily - without an audience. No, what makes them perform? For others? To communicate, perhaps. To give something. To move, to make the audience feel. Yes, getting there. But it was only when they reached the end of the overture that I realised the main reason, the reward for which most musicians play, singers sing, actors act, comedians tell jokes.


Just look at their faces as they take their bows. They want to please. And applause is the most direct way they can tell if they're doing their job.

I unfortunately, like most writers, will never hear the sound of hand on hand, unless it be when I step up to collect my Booker for best novel or Oscar for best screenplay. Occasionally my heart may be lifted by a good review or a larger than expected royalty cheque, but for the most part I shall have to make do with friends and relations wearily repeating, no, no, I really enjoyed it, honestly.

So when an independent voice expresses enthusiasm I make no apology for seizing upon it disproportionately. An editor likes my stories! I don't care if that's all she likes. As far as I'm concerned it is a vindication of my entire life. It is applause. It is praise. It reminds me of being a child, of seeing my mother's smile when I finally read a difficult word, when I drew a pretty picture, when I passed an exam. It reminds me of a time when almost everything I did was appreciated.

An editor likes my stories! It means everything to me. I don't mind admitting it. I feel loved.


23 April

Spend Easter in Cornwall visiting brother and family.

He gave up the rat race almost twenty years ago. Swapped his highly-paid job in IT for the Good Life on the edge of Bodmin Moor. Being an unreconstructed hippie he had in mind they could be largely self-sufficient on their five acres. Vegetable plots, polytunnels, a few cows, goats, pigs, chickens, geese, a couple of horses, an authentically grubby Land Rover.

Needless to say, that's all gone.

After a few years of barely being able to put food on the table despite hours of back-breaking toil, he started taking on freelance IT work again. Then he converted his granite stone barn into offices. Then the Land Rover was replaced by a Renault Espace. Then the animals started to go, one by one.

Can't help thinking he got everything right.

He got it out of his system,

       ......all that dreaming stuff,

           .......all that 'grass is greener',

            ........'there should be more to life',

              .........that naive, immature, ambition stuff.

He tried it, it didn't work out, he grew up. Now he's happy.


Reminds me of another friend, same age, always wanted to be Neil Young or Bob Dylan. But sensibly he put it on hold, trained to be a graphic designer, built up his business until he could afford to live in a Victorian vicarage. A few years ago he dusted off his guitar and now he and a couple of mates play the local pubs once or twice a week. Never been happier. Lives in a mansion, kids are grown up, work's easy and he plays the music he loves without all the heartache of having to earn a living at it.


Cornish countryside is proving too beautiful to ignore so I take a break from the tenth rewrite of stalled TV comedy drama to visit Eden. Anyone alive not heard of it yet? All the superlatives apply. Truly amazing. And the work of another of my generation, ex-pop record producer Tim Smit. Practised on the Lost Gardens of Heligan then built the largest geodesic lean-to conservatory on the planet. He was a dreamer, too, just like my brother, my guitarist friend, me. The main difference being that he made his dream come true.


The next day comedy drama still stalled, so go and see Bridget Jones' Diary. Spot Andrew Davies' name under Helen Fielding's so know I won't be disappointed. Excellent film. Always enjoyable to observe someone who's more hopeless at life than oneself. Halfway through have absolutely brilliant idea for kickstarting comedy drama, but miss crucial bit of Bridget Jones plot thinking about it and fail to grasp reason for climactic fight as result. Resolve to stop having ideas in middle of films. Resolve to stop dreaming altogether. Face it, am I ever going to be Andrew Davies? Or Helen Fielding? No.


Spend the 200-mile drive back from Cornwall listening to Classic FM and having no ideas whatsoever. Awaiting me is a phone message from a lively-voiced American woman called Carol. Gather she works for a publisher in Kent. 'We really enjoyed reading the first chapter of the novel you sent us and we'd sure like to see the rest. Give me a call as soon as you can.'


14 May

Speak to Carol, the publisher who wants to see the rest of The Novel.

Carol. What a lovely name.

Two reasons for calling her.

  • One, to check that her phone message wasn't a cruel prank by some vicious friend of mine.
  • Two, to confess that the rest of The Novel isn't actually in a fit state to be read. Reason being, in the seven months since I sent the first chapter to her I've accepted the fact that it isn't good enough and put it away in a drawer, along with the cheery play about a businessman buried by an earthquake, the murder mystery set in a creative writing class and the sitcom about an architect who marries his daughter's best friend.

'I'm on the third draft,' I tell her. True. Second draft is the one in the drawer.

'Doesn't matter,' she says. 'Send it when you can.'


So now committed to spending the next few weeks licking it into shape. Not exactly looking forward to it. Recall what it was like when I was writing the first draft: became so engrossed, I hardly saw the light of day; social life stopped dead, I almost forgot how to speak. Like that movie where an American family spends thirty years in a nuclear fallout shelter thinking World War III has laid waste the planet. Very similar, except my incarceration felt a lot longer.

But it has to be done. Second draft truly dreadful. Can't risk that getting into anyone's hands. Plot is fine, but characters completely lack definition. American setting also poorly realised. Might help if I'd actually been there, I suppose, but I take comfort from the experience of a friend, who, when he made his first trip to LA, was surprised to feel no culture shock: he realised he'd seen it all before on television. Research is overrated anyway, according to Stephen King, pandering to those who feel that reading fiction is somehow immoral, a low taste which can only be justified by learning something at the same time.


So I'll rely on American TV, American friends and the Rough Guide. Kafka never went to America either, but that didn't stop him writing a book about it.

Meanwhile, the pilot of Intensive Care - a TV sitcom that tries to do for private health what St Trinians did for private education - is rejected by a couple of independent production companies, but is still being considered by three others, so I live in hope. One rejection letter says the humour is 'sick', so I feel I've got it about right.


And half a dozen companies express interest in my idea for a comedy drama series based around a shady company that promises to 'make over' people's entire lives. A sort of 21st century version of Cinderella, combining Ground Force, Changing Rooms, Looking Good and Don't Try This At Home.

Also decide to enter BBC Talent competition and write a script for Casualty: deadline 31st May. Download sample script, character profiles and all the last six months' story lines. Last year I reached the shortlist in the sitcom competition; maybe this year I can go one better. Let's see now. Time for student nurse Anna to fall in love with Holly, I think, or for Charlie to lose a limb. Or maybe I could trap the whole cast in a nuclear fallout shelter for thirty years...


28 May

After the high of a publisher wanting to see The Novel, the lows of the usual rejection letters.

A BBC reader thinks my radio play about a family watching Bobby Kennedy's funeral train 'feels rather like The Wonder Years - it too often relies on narrative interjection, overstated exposition and a sense of wistfulness for its effect'. Can't help agreeing, even though I've never seen The Wonder Years. Which is the depressing thing about rejection letters: they're nearly always right. Feel a bit miffed, though, when a few days later I listen to a play that seems guilty of exact same crimes.


Intensive Care now back from all six TV companies who expressed an interest. Pete Atkin, script editor at Hat Trick, gives a detailed response. It hurts, but at least helps more than the usual 'funny moments, but not for me'. There are 'a lot of enjoyable aspects to it, in particular the individual foibles of the nurses', but it doesn't 'go on and do anything' and is 'a bit too dependent on predicament and situation rather than using the characters and their relationships to generate a bit more narrative'.

Victoria Grew at Alomo comes to the same conclusion: 'it reads more like a long sketch than an episode of a long-running series', but then adds 'I do really like your writing' and asks me to write to her and tell her about myself. I consider this request for about half a second, then send a long letter by return.


A few days later Makeover, my 21st century take on Cinderella, comes back accompanied by a letter from her colleague Amy Humphrey. 'Some imaginative moments', 'some interesting characters', but 'the plot is perhaps a little over-ambitious', 'character motivations are too confusing', 'too many revelations in the final scenes'. Interestingly she suggests stretching the narrative over an entire series, giving the characters more space to develop. The very opposite, in fact, of what I spent most of April doing: ruthlessly cutting it from ninety minutes to sixty.


So not a great month. But not bad enough to make me give up and get a proper job. Bobby Kennedy will be allowed to rest in peace, but there's a flicker of life left in Intensive Care, so that may go to re-use another day. And Makeover is still sitting in a few slush piles, so who knows?

Meanwhile I am almost done with moving Charlie Fairhead and Co. around Holby A&E. Only a couple of days to the BBC Talent deadline, which is cutting it fine, even by my standards, but we are, after all, dealing with matters of life and death.

Also my first serious attempt at multi-strand plotting, which is almost as difficult as assembling flatpack furniture from IKEA. Characters - particularly the established ones - refuse to go where I tell them. Just when I need Josh and Colette to have a heart-to-heart I realise she's shocking a patient out of cardiac arrest and he's seeing to an RTA twenty miles away. Never mind, there are plenty of incidents: charity bike ride, injured child, serious skull fracture, paracetamol overdose, self-inflicted burn, road rage, bankruptcy, divorce, reconciliation - even a man dressed up as a dog. I bet you don't get all that in The Wonder Years.


18 June

The fact is, we all have ideas. Every day. And the very next day we've forgotten them. Except writers. Writers write them down.

Just manage to get my Casualty entry for BBC Talent in the post in time, so now it's back to The Novel. That's not the title, of course; it's actually called The Conductor.

'Oh, what's that about?' asks a friend wittily. 'Life on the buses?'

No. It's about a young English choral conductor who moves to New England and decides to fall in love with a middle-aged American soprano - the important word being 'decides'. Love as an exercise in power. It also contains a few twists so bizarre that a reader of the first draft asked me, 'Where do you get your ideas?' with an unflattering emphasis on the 'do' and the unspoken word being 'weird'.

'I don't know,' I answered defensively. 'They just come.'


A lie, of course. Ideas don't just come. Not to me, anyway. They have to be searched for, winkled out, worked at, sweated over. Alan Coren was on holiday with his family when he caught himself hoping that some awful disaster would strike them so that he would have something to write about in his next column. A writer of US sitcoms opens a TV listings magazine at random and stops at the first word that catches his eye, 'car', say. Within a few minutes he has a dozen ideas: Frasier buys a car; Niles takes driving lessons; Daphne has a car smash... Another TV writer has the same method but uses a dictionary. A Hollywood screenwriter writes any idea he has on a scrap of paper and puts it in a shoe box. Apparently every drawer and cupboard in Benny Hill's house was full of unused ideas for sketches.

The fact is, we all have ideas. Every day. And the very next day we've forgotten them. Except writers. Writers write them down.

My ideas file on my laptop now has over 400 entries, including - let me see - ah, yes - the film transposing The Magnificent Seven to a gang-infested council estate; the love story set in the golden era of Soviet cinema; the thriller about the hijacking of the world's first ocean-going apartment block; the story of my father's abortive attempt to emigrate to the South Pacific in the 1930s; the Aga saga which is actually about an Aga; the sit com set in an employment agency (slogan 'We're people people') ...


The inspiration for The Conductor was the choir I sing in every week. I was struck by what a powerful figure of authority a conductor is. No doubt because this is the only way to perform music on a large scale, but also because conductors just love ordering people around. Leonard Bernstein was described as having 'a pre-Copernican ego; he believed everything revolved around him.' This kind of power is unnerving. Every week I and my one hundred fellow singers completely surrender our wills. Gladly.

So I imagined an amalgam of all the conductors I've ever come across, then applied Stephen King's 'what-if' method. What if my conductor believed he could persuade people to do - well - anything?


3rd July

Rewrite of The Conductor hits a wall. Or perhaps 'pause' would be a more musical simile. Or should that be metaphor? Not sure I really know the difference, though Humphrey Lyttleton on I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue does: 'a simile is a figure of speech involving the comparison of one thing with another thing of a different kind, whereas a metaphor is a system of sending messages using flags.'

Problem is, can't decide how much of my hero's childhood to include, nor even what kind of childhood he should have. Given that he does some fairly bizarre things when he's an adult, feel I must provide some psychological justification. On the other hand don't want to turn it into a case study of an obscure medical condition, like Ian McEwan's Enduring Love. Much more interested in how my hero is redeemed than in how he got to be the way he is.

But where to stop? Already regressed him to eleven years old, but he was a bit of a psychopath even then, so obviously his problems started earlier than that. Maybe it was the nasty encounter he had with a bully when he was eight, or the mysterious neighbour when he was six, or the alcoholic aunt when he was four. Or maybe his ex-hippie mother has always been the problem, something to do with the man with whom she had a passionate but violent relationship when she was only sixteen.

And where did she come from? London? Too 60s. The North? Too 50s. East Anglia? Too bleak. West country? Too autobiographical. Wales? Too poetic. Ireland? Far too poetic. Must go further afield. America? Yes. And I've always had a thing about Salt Lake City, ever since earnest besuited young men kept knocking on our door when I was a youth. Which, because my hero ends up in America, makes his journey a circle. Very satisfying. And very popular in Hollywood movies - Well, you have to think of these things.

So that's his mother: a lapsed Mormon, and probably in England to escape some terrible cultish punishment for having a child out of wedlock. A single mother, of course. But is she bright? Dim? Does she smoke? Take drugs? And how did she get on with her parents? And what were they like? Why didn't they support her when she became pregnant? Why did they drive her out of the family home? Obviously something happened to them to make them the way they were. Probably the way they were brought up by their parents...

Stop! Feel as if I'm disappearing into awful black hole of ridiculous exam questions. Describe Lady Macbeth's mother. Was Hamlet popular at school? Did King Lear have any hobbies?

Decide to bring my hero fully formed into the world at age 18.

Next day get an acknowledgement card from BBC Talent competition for my Casualty script. Shortlisted applicants will be notified by 31st August, it says. It also gives me a reference: 885C. Instantly have a silly urge to ring them up and shout like Patrick McGoohan in The Prisoner, 'I am not a number!'


4th July 

Two more TV companies want to see pilot script of Makeover (TV comedy drama series: Cinderella meets Ground Force). 'Sounds interesting', says one. He likes the 'dynamic' between the two main characters. Wonder if I dare mention Moonlighting as an inspiration. Decide to take another quick look at it before sending it off. Must not let it interrupt third draft of The Conductor.

6th July 

Three solid days rewriting Makeover. Three more days lost; will I ever finish this novel? TV pilot hardly resembles initial concept now; even cut the scene that gave me the idea in the first place. But suppose that's what rewriting is all about; can't be sentimental. Even so, shed a tear in the early hours for the demise of two characters I'd become quite attached to. They were conceived, were born, grew, lived their brief lives, died - and no one knew about them except me.

7th July

See Le Gout des Autres and become transfixed by idea of apparently insignificant characters turning out to have major thematic importance. Makeover has one - though one reject letter complained I had too many revelations in the final scene - and I'd like to work one into The Conductor, but can't think how. A friend solves murder mysteries by always looking for the character who never seems to have any function, so plainly something in it.

At risk of spoiling pleasure of those who haven't seen Le Gout yet: a chauffeur is occasionally glimpsed learning to play the flute, but can only manage one note. He's obviously still on the first page of 'A Tune A Day'. He figures in one or two scenes and there's a suspicion that he might have a fling with the hero's neurotic wife, but because he's the kind of insignificant person he is, it comes to nothing. By the end of the film he's done nothing, gone nowhere, and there he is, still determinedly trying to play his one note. And then, in a shot worthy of Hitchcock, the camera pulls back and we see him as part of a whole orchestra. And his single note - indeed his whole life - now makes sense. It is the starting point of a wonderfully jaunty, life-affirming version of Je Ne Regrette Rien.

Would die a happy man if I could think of just one scene as good.

13th July  

Parlous financial state of Ritchie Inc forces me to take on some proofreading for local publisher. Bit heartbreaking checking another writer's book, when mine is still unfinished and unpublished, but take comfort from fact that a collection of essays on philosophy of logic is unlikely to be a bestseller.

Proofreading forces weird shift of focus from broad transatlantic sweep of novel to minutiae of misspelled words and misplaced commas. On face of it, seems trivial, but realise it plays a part. My changing 'propsition' to 'proposition' is a bit like the flute-playing chauffeur contributing his one vital note to Je Ne Regrette Rien.


2nd August

I have been invited to my first book launch party.

I'll just let that sink in.

A book launch. To celebrate the 15th birthday of The Writer's Handbook, courtesy of Pan MacmillanOne of largest fiction and non-fiction book publishers in UK; includes imprints of Pan, Picador and Macmillan Children’s Books. My entry into the London literary scene. At last I'll be rubbing shoulders with writers, publishers, agents. Who will I meet? Perhaps Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, Jeffrey Archer - oh no, he's in prison. I wonder if I should take along some mss to pass round...

6th August 

Back to reality. Another rejection of Makeover, this time from Parallax, Ken Loach's production company. As usual, I try to dwell on the encouraging phrases: 'some great ideas', 'some fun story twists', 'love the trickery of the Ground Force introduction', 'makeover culture is rich material for a series', 'great funny dialogue', 'clearly differentiated and accessible characters'. So not complete and utter rubbish, anyway.

Unfortunately it also 'starts and develops too slowly', 'stretches credibility a bit too far', and has 'distracting elements'. In argumentative mood I read the script again, but am eventually forced to agree. But two companies still have it, so I decide not to do any more rewriting. Instead, in what can only be explained as a fit of madness, I decide to turn it into a radio play. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.

7th August 

Realise that Makeover is much too visual for radio as it stands - about 15 scenes have no dialogue at all - but instead of doing the sensible thing and giving up, I decide to turn my heroine into a narrator, despite knowing this will involve a massive rewrite. Know I keep inventing these distractions in order not to have to face The Novel, but can't help myself.

Take a break to pay one of my regular visits to The Writer's Room at the BBC website. There's an interesting interview with Paul Abbott, writer of Clocking Off. He started off like a lot of writers, on soaps. Nicola Schindler of Red Productions said in a recent article that the best dramas come from soap writers. I'm not sure I agree; I'm also not sure why soap writing can't be regarded as an end in itself. It's nothing to be ashamed of.

Among lots of useful advice, Abbott suggests most aspiring writers do too little actual writing. They work away at their single masterpiece, instead of trying out lots of different ideas. I suddenly panic that I'm not working hard enough and do a quick count of the projects I've tackled in the last two years. Six short stories, five novels (all right, no more than a few pages of notes for three of them), two TV dramas, two TV sitcoms, one TV comedy drama series, five radio plays, two articles and ten of these columns. At the end I'm none the wiser. Is that enough? Or am I spreading myself too thinly?

Before I leave I skip to the Eastenders pages and catch up on Dan's escape from Phil's nasty scheming. I also discover to my surprise that every character has a horoscope. Which reminds me. Must check my stars to see if I'm going to meet anyone important at the book launch party.

14th August

I finally get down to The Conductor after weeks of procrastination, when a little bird tells me my publisher has gone bust. Don't know whether to laugh or cry.

Phone Carol to check: dead line. Note also that the current edition of The Writer's Handbook (snip at £12.99) no longer has an entry for them. So much for novel-writing.

I expect to be devastated, but in fact feel almost instant relief. Huge weight lifts from my shoulders. Feel like running into the street and punching the air. Celebrate by dumping all my drafts and research notes into a large box and hiding it in a corner of the office. Have dinner with some friends and find myself giggling like an idiot throughout. Now I can concentrate on other things without feeling guilty.


15th August

Large envelope arrives from the BBC. No longer makes my pulse race: probably another rejection.

But no, not the usual 'thank you but'. Casualty script no. 885C (that's mine) has made it onto the shortlist of the Drama Writer Talent Competition. Well, of course. I knew it would.

Alright, it's only one of a hundred, but as Jenny explains in her letter (Jenny - what a lovely name, so much nicer than Carol), at least it's already been passed by two readers. And they probably received thousands of scripts.

Now all I have to do is wait and see if I am one of the final fifteen to be invited to an interview/workshop on 6/7 Sep. If I am, then I must immediately submit an original idea for a new series. The winning three will be selected on the basis of their Casualty script and their series idea.

Help! What series idea

17th August

In complete panic. Numerous half-formed ideas swimming round my head, but can't focus on any. Jenny's letter enclosed a 4-page example proposal, which reads remarkably like a pitch for MerseyBeat. Characters and concept so clear, they leap off the page. Panic increaseJe Ne Regrette Riens. How can I write with the same confidence if I don't even know which idea to choose?

Read a book about Morse in the hope of some useful advice from the scriptwriters, but they're not much help. Julian Mitchell found thinking of ideas difficult too, but the actual writing easy; Alma Cullen on the other hand found the ideas easily: 'pick up any newspaper and you can find at least four possible plots'.

I pick up a newspaper and fill my head with yet more possibilities. I trawl my ideas file. Which one to go for? Which one 'has legs', as they say in Hollywood? Makeover has been turned down by almost every production company in the country, so that's out. What about the one set in an employment agency? The one about Britain's first president? The one set in a complementary medicine clinic? The private eye who specialises in missing persons? The one set in a hotel bar (Cheers without the laughs)? The one about...?

22nd August

In a moment of madness start thinking about The Novel again. Maybe I shouldn't let all that research into transexualism go to waste, after all. Before I can stop it, a great idea for a TV thriller creeps into my mind...


28th August

Finished first stab at Alternative Therapy series proposal for BBC Talent. Also made a start on another: The Choir. It's about, well, it's about a choir. Feel sure I can convince the BBC not all choral singers are emotionally repressed middle-class music snobs. Though now I come to think of it, a lot of them are.

Writing this on the edge of the Scottish Highlands, where I'm spending a few days with friends. My mobile phone inexplicably gave up the ghost a few days ago, so I feel thoroughly cut off.

Alison is a retired teacher and very fussy about English grammar: her harshest criticisms are reserved for people who use ' I ' when they should use 'me', and vice versa. In a photo album I find a clipping from a local paper containing her advice on the plural of 'lord provost'. As an aspiring hack writer who has never worried about such finer points I feel intimidated, until in the evening she declares she wants to watch ITV's Poirot 'for the authentic sets'. Reminds me of my late father, who used to sit glued to the TV for hours, then declare it was all rubbish.

30th August

Nervous about BBC Talent. Whether about getting to the last 15, or not getting to the last 15, I can't decide. Both options worry me. If I'm invited to the workshop I'll probably make a fool of myself. But if I'm not, what shall I do next?

Over late-night drinks Alison tells a heart-rending story about how her husband never talked about his miserable time at boarding school, except when he was only a few weeks away from a painful death by cancer. He thought his parents had deserted him. Even after they had left him at the school gates, they rarely visited him. On one of the rare occasions, his father turned up unannounced on a Sunday and took him out to a swanky hotel and treated him to a huge eight-course meal. He was so pleased merely to see his father that he didn't dare mention the fact he'd already had a full meal at school. He was certain his father would just drive away again. When he was deposited back at school he was immediately sick from over-eating.

Must write a story round that.

31st August

Spend almost the entire day driving the five hundred miles between the Highlands and home. Return to a small mountain of post, phone messages and email. Most of the post is junk mail, most of the email is system messages telling me previous email of mine has been successfully delivered and most of the phone messages are from publishing editors asking me to proofread yet more books on the philosophy of mathematics and the theory of management.

But the last message is from Jenny at BBC Talent. 'I've been trying to get hold of you for days,' she says. 'Please call me as soon as you can. It's urgent.'


Tuesday 11 September

I finish packing for tomorrow's pre-dawn departure for France, then turn on the TV for some mindless relaxation. Channel 4 interrupts programming with a news flash.

For some reason I recall the day more than 35 years before, when as a student I was walking along the Headrow in Leeds and passed a newsstand: 'US Pres Shot Dead'. I can still remember how I walked a couple of paces further on, hardly taking it in, then turned and looked again. Kennedy? Shot dead? On this sunny day, with the traffic still flowing, people still walking by?

I can feel it already: today will be like that day. Except that now we have television.

BBC and ITV are already covering the events non-stop, promptly enough to film the second plane live as it crashes into the World Trade Center. I can't quite believe I am watching something real. The awful thought enters my head that this is a rather good remake of Towering Inferno. The only things missing are the screams of the actors as the screenplay dictates who shall live and who shall die.

Tuesday 18 September

Since my French is not much above ordering steak frites and biére pression, for the last six days my only source of news has been CNN. I am now as familiar with the unblinking gaze and fixed half-smile of the blonde anchorwoman as I am with the face of my own mother. At the bottom of the screen the numbers of missing and confirmed dead scroll by, constantly updated like some ghoulish stock market index.

More unwanted thoughts creep into my head. It strikes me that if someone wanted to go missing from his life and be presumed dead, this would be the perfect opportunity. I feel ashamed for thinking of story ideas at a time like this.

Wednesday 19 September

Back in England I watch Martin Bashir front a programme promising a 'minute-by-minute' account of 'that fateful day'. It is no such thing, thankfully, given that such a programme would be at least 24 hours long. Instead it concentrates on the deeply moving stories of a few individuals caught up in the terrible events; stories of fear, courage, self-sacrifice and miraculous escape. They are, I realise, what people now want: individual stories that we can readily comprehend. We don't want considered analysis. The bigger picture is too big, the rationale behind the attacks too insane. The gaping hole in Manhattan is a gateway to hell; we would all much rather not look down it.

Instead the TV coverage becomes like an endless version of 999. We crave some happy endings. As I write, no doubt the heroes of the past few days are being contacted by publishers. Thriller writers are emailing their agents with proposals. And why not? Stories are a way of coping with tragedy. They provide meaning where there seems to be none. They give cause and effect where there seems to be only randomness. They remind us of our humanity when we seem to be no better than dogs fighting in the dirt.


Wednesday 26 September

After being sworn to silence by the BBC three weeks ago, I spot photos of the Talent competition winners in Radio Times, so assume the result is no longer a state secret. The story can be told.

I reached the final fifteen (out of 1400) and was rewarded with a day-long workshop at Pebble Mill, a £250 'advance against future commissions' and a request - well, more of a demand - that I not accept any commission from 'that other lot' without consulting the BBC first.

What with being told not to speak to the press either, it all sounded very serious, as if we fifteen were already on the payroll. I was interviewed by the head of drama series development and the woman in charge of BBC Talent, who declared themselves 'very moved' by my Casualty stories. Even my series idea 'had potential', a gentle euphemism, I discovered later, for 'go away and try again'.

Then their searching questions about my characters' motivations almost floored me. I'd deliberately put my script out of mind for the last two months. Of course, they might simply have been checking I'd actually written it. At the workshop we all sat in a circle like a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous, with Mal Young (head of drama series) and various producers, script editors and writers from Casualty and Doctors.

Mal asked us to introduce ourselves and name our favourite TV series. Somewhat disloyally, more than half chose US programmes: Frasier and The Simpsons picked up a couple of votes each and Mal himself confessed he would never miss an episode of The Sopranos. Perhaps being in charge of drama series is like running the mafia. Only one person chose Casualty, but she was a BBC employee so that didn't count.

One the producers and script editors told us what they were looking for. Essentially it came down to the same thing: squaring the circle of providing complete originality within a rigid set of guidelines. A Casualty producer rather bizarrely claimed that he liked 'humour'. It all reminded me of William Goldman's comment about Hollywood: 'No one knows anything.'

Then we were given a tour of the Doctors set. Extraordinary how cramped and tacky it was compared with how impressive it looked on screen. Ah, the magic of television. We were all beginning to wonder when we'd be told about our first commission when the Casualty scriptwriter brought us back down to earth. He'd had quick success in his early 20s with a short film on BBC2, then nothing for five years. Everyone's faces fell. Even when he'd finally made it to Coronation Street it had been a disaster. He'd dutifully attended script meetings for a year, but when he'd eventually submitted his first script, he'd been sacked. Our faces fell further. We were finalists in BBC Talent: surely our futures were assured? 

After a weekend of nailbiting, I heard on the following Monday I wasn't one of the three winners. I was reassured that as far as the BBC were concerned all fifteen of us were winners; it was the Radio Times who wanted the numbers narrowed down to three. Actually I was less disappointed than I expected to be. Maybe I was just exhausted by the whole thing.

The next day I left for eight recuperative days in the French sun. When I returned I was ready to get down to work again. I felt as if I had done no serious writing for weeks. Almost the first thing I saw was a newspaper photograph of the South Shields graffiti: 'Avenge US deaths: kill a muslim now'. I felt instantly weary again. Evidently the words of Jonathan Swift - written almost 300 year ago - still applied: 'We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.'


Wednesday 10th October 2001

Another invitation from the BBC. Would I like to attend a session at London's Soho Theatre with a few heads of radio drama and comedy? Takes me all of five seconds to decide. Feel as if my name has been added to some list, as if I've solved the first part of a long and complicated puzzle.

Actually the theatre is jammed with 200 to 300 other hopefuls, so the list obviously isn't short. I only hope I don't look quite as down-at-heel nor have the same sad, pathetic expression of anticipated rejection as everybody else. En masse, aspiring writers are a depressing bunch.

The session is chaired by a familiar face from my day at Pebble Mill, Kate Rowland, creative director, new writing. She's flanked by the commissioning editor for Radio 4 and the heads of drama and entertainment. Each gives a little spiel about where they fit in the BBC hierarchy, which is interesting but not why we're here. What we all want to know is why our efforts keep getting rejected.

One poor soul actually asks, point-blank. How he expects his script to be remembered from among the 10,000 they receive each year, goodness knows. 'Well,' improvises Kate, 'it probably wasn't good enough.' 'But,' protests possibly the next Harold Pinter, 'you gave it second prize in the BBC Alfred Bradley competition.' Embarrassed looks all round. 'Come and see me afterwards,' says Kate, 'this one obviously slipped through the net.'

Ah well, I can hear everyone thinking, that's obviously what happened to mine too.

An elderly gent in a pinstripe suit wants to know if Samuel Beckett would have become such a brilliant playwright if he had been foolish enough to follow the BBC script guidelines. Plainly only modesty prevents him from suggesting that the guidelines are the only things standing between him and similar acclaim. A querulous voice asks if Radio 4 is inextricably tied to its time slots of 30, 45 and 60 minutes. 'For example, would you accept a play if it was only three minutes long?' There's a momentary hiatus while we all grapple with the concept of a three-minute drama. Maybe he'd be happier writing commercials.

And so it goes on. An earnest young man wonders why there isn't a place for two-hour narrative poems. A middle-aged woman in a pashmina asks if the BBC would be interested in a series of short stories about a middle-aged woman, 'humorous, of course, but also dark.' A thin bald man who has been assiduously scribbling notes in an A4 pad throughout the session, states defiantly that he wrote all six episodes of a TV sitcom before submitting it - and receiving the usual rejection. The head of entertainment looks at him as if he might be mad.

Thursday 11th October 2001

Call from Jenny. My Casualty script has been passed to EastEnders with a strong recommendation from Sally Stokes at BBC Talent. For a moment I'm confused. I thought we were all going to end up writing for Doctors. Then I recall at my interview I said something about how I really wanted to work on EastEnders, but didn't suppose there was much chance. Seems Sally took me at my word.

Quickly call a few friends so I can casually drop it into the conversation, then have a celebratory drink. Nursing a hangover the next morning, start to panic I've burnt my bridges with Doctors. A neighbour comments, 'EastEnders? That's going to be a bit depressing, isn't it?'


As I discovered at the Soho Theatre: writers - we're a depressing bunch.


Thursday 25 October 2001

Chat with Jenny at BBC Talent. Ostensible reason for calling is to check on the date for the Showcase at the Casualty studio, when the three winners get to see their scripts realised by a professional cast and crew. Real reason is to make sure I've not been forgotten. Pathetic.

She mentions she's trying to get everybody an extra ticket. A nice present for my partner, who as a lecturer in health care is responsible for nearly all my medical ideas - though most of those she tells me, despite being true, are so bizarre they would never be believed.

Jenny advises me to wait a few days before complaining to EastEnders they haven't got back to me. 'In any case,' she adds, 'it's a long process. Even if they like your script, they have their shadow scheme and...' Shadow scheme? She moves on before I have a chance to ask what she means. I imagine following a scriptwriter round with a notebook and tape recorder, scribbling things like 'Dot Cotton always carries her handbag in her left hand.'

'Oh,' remembers Jenny, just before she says goodbye, 'expect a letter from Doctors soon. They've read your script.'

Friday 26 October 2001

Envelope arrives with BBC logo on it. Tear open with trembling fingers. Scan quickly for word 'sorry', but fail to find it. Instead see 'enjoyed' and 'invite' and 'submit' and 'commission'. Decide now safe to read properly. They want me to submit ideas for an episode. Yes!!! Immediately phone partner and she has a little scream, which must be a bit of a surprise for her students.

Put phone down and immediately get into mindless panic. What ideas? Have been working almost non-stop proofreading for an academic publisher all month. Have done no writing for weeks. Think maybe the academic tomes will give me some ideas, but difficult to make much drama out of Organizational Theory and Practice, Gender in Religion, or Gene Manipulation: a Primer.

Thursday 1 November 2001

Listen to the News for ideas and hear nothing but news of the war. Not that I object. With no bombs dropping on us and our lives continuing pretty well as before, we need to be reminded that we are a country at war. On Newsnight one talking head states his belief that the war is a mistake, while another claims it is exactly the right thing to do. The third talking head is Martin Amis - an odd choice, given that he is a novelist, a writer of fiction - who says that to deal with Bin Laden we need to be more 'imaginative'. I recall that shortly after 11 September Woody Allen said that at least it meant the end of the Hollywood disaster movie for a while, but now I hear that on the contrary video stores report a sharp rise in exactly those kind of rentals. On Radio 4 a poet deplores the fact that 'recent wars' seem to have inspired little outstanding poetry, yet when New Yorkers pinned scraps of paper for missing loved ones in the subway, many of them did so in verse. And in the afternoon drama slot I listen to a play - surely pushed up the schedule? - inspired by Wilfred Owen's First World War poem 'Strange Meeting'.

It all seems to be part of a large need, the need to have our experiences explained to us. Not for the first time, I start to have doubts about what I am doing. Should I be wasting what little talent I have on TV soap operas? Or should I be writing about the only story that matters?


Friday 9 November

Busy dreaming up ideas for Doctors. The lunchtime radio news mentions a group of boys who have been expelled from their public school. Their crime: making ecstasy from a recipe they got off the Internet. Well, trying to make. I don't want to give the impression that for one moment one can obtain from the Internet any information remotely useful in the area of recreational drugs.

For one thing, the boys were hospitalised.

It all reminds me rather sadly of my own youth, when Oz magazine claimed that the highest high could be got from smoking the charred remains of baked banana skins. Oh, dear.

Saturday 10 November

Party to celebrate my brother's birthday. Buttonholed by a distant cousin who says she's taking a break from her teaching job so that she can write the novel 'I know I have in me'. She's a single mum, so immediately I slip into 'are you sure you know what you're doing?' mode, which is actually not so much an indication of cousinly concern, more a euphemism for 'watch it, I'm the only writer in this family'.

But it turns out she wants to write a children's book. That's OK. No competition.

Immediately I slip into 'I am the authority on writing' mode and 30 minutes later she goes away happy in the knowledge that she's been given an insight into the hitherto closed world of publishing. Now all she has to do is write the book.

It's the third time in as many months I've had this conversation. A friend's girl-friend knows - just knows - her idea for a story would be a bestseller, though even after close questioning no one is any the wiser about its subject or plot. And the occupant of the office below mine has a sure-fire hit with a family saga set in Iran. Iran. Right.

Later I get into a drunken conversation with a 25-year old insurance assessor. I decide to try out on him the Doctors story I've been mulling over: the one about Internet ecstasy, expelled public schoolboys and baked banana skins.

"Oh, not the banana skins!" he exclaims. "How do you know about them? I tried them last week and imagined I could fly."

Hang on a minute. Public schoolboys? Drugs? Flying? Single mothers? Fantasies of writing bestselling children's books? This sounds horribly familiar.

Still, never mind all that. I've done it. Despite not being able to turn round without seeing his idiotic, bespectacled face on every bus, billboard and magazine cover, I've managed to reach the end of this without once mentioning Harry Potter.

Oh, damn.


Wednesday 21 November

To the cinema to see Harry Potter - Purely for research purposes. How does one write a bestseller?

Plot: erstwhile ordinary boy faces many trials in order to prevent a mcguffin falling into wrong hands.

Setting: public school, complete with inter-house rivalry, silly headgear, sinister out-of-bounds cellars, peculiar slang and an impossibly complicated and lethal sporting activity.

Characters: plucky hero, aided by poor but fundamentally nice best friend, clever but fundamentally nice girl, stupid but fundamentally nice Oirish boy, rough but fundamentally nice gardener, fierce but fundamentally nice mistress and old but fundamentally nice headmaster - all up against rich and therefore nasty boy, ugly and therefore nasty servant, and handsome and therefore thoroughly nasty teacher.

In other words, nothing too surprising. Leave cinema convinced magic must be secret ingredient. Not the potion brewing, incantation muttering and broomstick flying Harry and his chums get up to, but more the spell that Ms JKR has obviously cast over all the world's children.

Resolve to try something similar at first available opportunity.

Sunday 25 November

To Bristol to see the BBC Talent Showcase. A grubby warehouse in an unlit industrial estate on a cold and wet Sunday evening. Ah, the glamour of television.

Congratulate Syed, Linda and Paul, the three winners. Am I bitter? Not at all. I and another failed finalist decide our scripts weren't chosen because they used too much outside broadcast. Well, stands to reason.

Along with our partners and 70 Casualty fans we are herded into groups and put in various bits of the set, so we can see the winning scripts done 'live'. A sobering experience, particularly for Syed, Linda and Paul, given that the cast and crew only had three days to prepare, as opposed to the usual 8-10 weeks. Derek Thompson (Charlie) reads most of his lines off a clipboard and an impressionable member of the public almost collapses at the sight of Ian Kelsey (Patrick) in the flesh, but otherwise it goes well.

My partner (a lecturer in nursing) points out to the producer that he is about to be filmed doing an introduction alongside two upside-down and wrong-way-round chest x-rays. He makes the correction, then asks, 'How am I?' Partner replies, 'If the bottom one is yours, you're OK; if it's the top one, you're dead.' Laughter all round. 'You're not a nurse, by any chance?' he asks. More laughter.

I fume in silence. Next he'll be offering her a job.

I say hello to the BBC people I feel I should say hello to, but Mal Young (head of drama series) is surrounded by acolytes; all I can manage is a familiar nod. Remembering Ms JKR I utter a silent incantation to be sure I'll see him again soon.

Wednesday 28 November

Watch the News with half an eye, when who should appear but Her Royal Highness on the EastEnders set. All attention is on her and the other two royals: Queen Mitchell and Queen Fowler. But my attention is on the slight scouse figure doing the introductions: Mal Young.

All right, not exactly what I intended, but proof enough. Just as I said. It's all down to magic.


Monday 3 December

Spent most of last fortnight frantically trying to complete my entry for a TV scriptwriting competition. Yes, another competition. Obviously becoming a competition junkie, hooked on the excitement of almost winning.

Still, this one was by invitation, so thought I should make the effort. A month ago a letter arrived from Jessica Dromgoole at the BBC New Writing Initiative: would I be interested in pitching an idea for a new early evening animation series?

Well, no, to be honest, not really. I was more flattered than enthused. Maybe this kind of invitation was a perk of being a Talent finalist - or maybe they were short of entries. And an animation series? I'd never considered it. Normally, apart from The Simpsons and Wallace and Gromit, I can't stand them.

But then I thought, why not? My entry only needed to consist of a one-page outline, a CV and a sample of work. And the prize was a two-day workshop and £500. Actual money.

Read some background advice on writing animation on the BBC writersroom website and discovered that the ruder the concept the more difficult it is to get funding. That put paid to the first ten ideas.

Then had the most brilliant flash of inspiration. So simple it could be expressed in a sentence, yet so full of potential it could run for ever. This was a winner. Only a nincompoop wouldn't snap it up. Checked CV for spelling mistakes, half-truths and downright lies, then blew dust off medical sit-com pilot. Spent three days sharpening up the dialogue, giving it more plot and making it less rude. Put the whole lot in the post with about an hour to spare.

........Homer Simpson, your days are numbered.

Tuesday 4 December 2001

Lunch with Barry Turner, editor of The Writer's Handbook, and Jill Fenner, his right hand. Very convivial. Bring him up to date on my writing career - or lack of it - and he says he'd like me to do a follow-up to my article for next year's edition. Very flattering. Also if I get any commissions before the deadline I can do a piece on how to get into TV. Feel this a bit premature, but by second bottle of wine ready to write entire 'how to' book.

Leave restaurant slightly worse for wear and pop into Waterstone's. Surreptitiously rearrange display so that Writer's Handbook more prominent than Writer's and Artist's Yearbook. Even turn one round so my name is visible. I know. Pathetic. But that's me. Writing is a competition and I have to win.



Monday 31st December 2001

In keeping with tradition, spend the last day of the year looking back. 2001: the highs and lows.

January. A promising start. My article is accepted for The Writer's Handbook. Will soon have my name on 25,000 bookshelves. Continue writing Makeover, my 21st century TV take on Cinderella.

February. Inspired by a photography exhibition, I write a gloomy radio play about an American family watching Bobby Kennedy's funeral train go by.

March. Cheer myself up by writing the pilot episode of a very black and very rude TV sitcom set in an Intensive Care Unit.

April. A small envelope arrives, i.e. not a returned manuscript. A magazine editor wants to publish one of my short stories. She's also hanging on to the other story 'for possible publication in a future issue'. Excellent. Maybe prose fiction is what I'm good at. Realise Makeover is too longwinded at 90 minutes: ruthlessly cut it to 60.

May. More good news. A publisher wants to see the rest of The Novel. Actually, feel less pleased than I should. Had more or less let The Novel die, but now committed to spending the next few weeks giving it the kiss of life. And as if that were not enough, I enter the BBC Talent competition as well, which requires me to write a complete Casualty script in less than two weeks. Rejections arrive: the Bobby Kennedy play is too 'wistful', Intensive Care too 'sick', Makeover too short. Too short?

June. Just manage to get my Casualty script in by the deadline. Feel sure judges will love dramatic combination of charity bike ride, savaged child, skull fracture, paracetamol overdose, self-inflicted burn, road rage, bankruptcy, divorce, reconciliation and a man dressed up as a dog.

July. Imminent financial disaster forces me to take on some proofreading. Suspect I am just looking for excuses not to finish The Novel.

August. More rejections of Makeover. Decide, in a fit of madness, to turn it into a radio play. Oh, dear. Hear by the grapevine that my publisher has gone bust. Feel more relieved than anything. Now I can kill off The Novel with a clear conscience. Reach final fifteen of BBC Talent competition. TV is obviously my natural home. Spend a day telling friends and accepting congratulatory drinks until I fall into a relaxing coma.

September. To BBC Pebble Mill for a day-long workshop with Mal Young (head of drama series) and various producers, script editors and writers from Casualty and Doctors, who tell me and the other Talent finalists what they look for in series writers: nothing less than complete originality within a rigid set of guidelines. In other words, the moon on a stick.

October. Another invitation from the BBC: a session at London's Soho Theatre with a few heads of radio drama and comedy. I think my name has been added to some list. The Talent people pass my script to EastEnders with a strong recommendation, and I receive a letter from Doctors: they want me to submit ideas for an episode. Cool. As my daughter would say.

November. To Bristol to see the BBC Talent Showcase, where the Casualty and Doctors casts perform three of the winning scripts live. I try to maintain an air of professional detachment, despite being within a few feet of faces known to millions, but it's no use. I'm thrilled to bits. Decide to enter another competition. BBC Animation want ideas for a new series. Why not? I'm obviously on a roll.

December. Email seven brilliant story ideas to Doctors. Hear that my script has passed one EastEnders editor: now it's in the hands of the decision-maker. Have lunch with the editor of The Writer's Handbook. He says he'd like me to do a follow-up article for next year's edition. Very flattering. 'And if you get any TV commissions before the deadline,' he adds, 'you can do a piece on how to get into TV.'

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© Bob G Ritchie 2000-2007