The Importance of Writing

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Anyone who knows me personally knows that my political leanings are left of centre. Not extremely left but left enough for my father to express his disapproval when I tweeted congratulations to a famous Australian gay couple who had flown to New Zealand to get married after that country’s marriage equality laws were passed. (Before I continue, please be assured that this post is about writing and not politics).

So when Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election and I couldn’t take watching the coverage anymore (which took less than two days), I picked my jaw up off the floor and did what all left-leaning writing fans would do: I put Disk 1 of Season 1 of The West Wing in my DVD player and began binge watching it again (for about the one hundredth time). As well as being able to pretend I was living in an alternative reality, I could yet again immerse myself in and appreciate what is essentially a master class in writing.

As I write this, I’m up to Season 3 in which Democratic President Bartlet has announced his intention to run for a second term and the Republicans are on the verge of nominating Governor Robert Ritchie to run against him. When Governor Ritchie attacks affirmative action, President Bartlet has the opportunity to respond but chooses not to, prompting this exchange with Communications Director Toby Ziegler.

Toby Ziegler: I was a telemarketer for about a week. I can’t remember what we were selling but you worked off a script. “Hi. Good evening. My name is…” And Toby Ziegler was okay for New York but once I got into other time zones I needed a name that wasn’t gonna bother anybody.
President Josiah Bartlet: Toby, if you have something to say, please say it.
Toby Ziegler: Ritchie’s good for all time zones.
President Josiah Bartlet: My family signed the Declaration of Independence. You think I’ve got an ethnicity problem?
Toby Ziegler: The line isn’t between light skin and dark skin.
President Josiah Bartlet: Yeah?
Toby Ziegler: It’s between educated and masculine. Or eastern academic elite and plain spoken.
President Josiah Bartlet: It’s always been like that.
Toby Ziegler: Yeah but a funny thing happened when the White House got demystified. The impression was left that anybody could do it.
President Josiah Bartlet: You’re not telling me anything I don’t know.
Toby Ziegler: It’s one thing that Ritchie came out for the Pennsylvania referendum today but the manner in which he articulated it… His presence. The clear sign he wasn’t personally engaged with the facts…
President Josiah Bartlet: Toby—
Toby Ziegler: His staff was cringing, I promise you. And we let it go.
President Josiah Bartlet: It wasn’t the moment to go—
Toby Ziegler: You were asked the question.
President Josiah Bartlet: Do you have anything else?
Toby Ziegler: Sir, I don’t think I need to tell you that the level of respect with which the staff speaks of you doesn’t change depending on whether or not you’re in the room.

From “The Two Bartlets”, Episode 13, Season 3 of The West Wing

This episode aired in January 2002 meaning it was written in 2001. And even though it all happened 15 years ago, it struck me how relevant it was to what has just happened. How President-Elect Donald Trump could easily be substituted for the fictional Governor Robert Ritchie. How Aaron Sorkin and his writing team had anticipated the situation the US and the world now finds itself in. A battle between feminine and masculine, between smart and ignorant, between the elite and the common man (although anyone who thinks Donald Trump is part of the 99% instead of the 1% should really think again).

And I had a realisation, one that I really should have had long before now, about the importance of writing. Why, I hear you asking, has it taken me so long? Why would someone who has spent the last twenty-five years writing doubt the importance of the very thing they do day in, day out?

It says more about me than I would like – because I don’t doubt the importance of writing, just the importance of my writing. I’m not a philosopher or an influencer or one of the great minds of the twenty-first century. I write action adventure, young adult and crime fiction as well as non-fiction about writing and editing and the occasional article about employment. I suspect I will outlive by a long period of time the importance of anything I end up writing during my lifetime.

When I finished my master’s degree in writing with a high distinction average, I had the option of continuing my studies by undertaking a PhD. At least one of my classmates did. I chose not to because I didn’t think writing was something that PhDs should be awarded for. Chemistry, biology, medicine, physics, psychology, yes but writing, no.

In 2016, my little sister finished and submitted her PhD on psychological insulin resistance in Type 2 diabetes sufferers to become the first person in our family ever to be eligible to use the title “Dr”. That could have been me. Any thesis I could have written wouldn’t have been nearly as impressive and useful as hers is but I could have done it if I’d had the confidence, if I’d had the belief in the importance of what I was doing. But I didn’t.

Writing doesn’t have to be important but it can be. I know that now. What I do could be important.  What I write could be important. What you write could be important and I suspect you’re more likely to write something important than I ever am. (What can I say? Old habits die hard.) Why is it important? Because writing is the way we explode the bomb to explore the consequences without anyone having to die and without having to destroy anything and without having to pay for it (both in economic and historic terms).

Regardless of what it is we do, whether it’s writing or something else, it could be important. We have to be able to recognise that within ourselves, within whatever it is we are doing. Perhaps most importantly of all because if we weren’t doing these things, if I wasn’t writing, it would feel like something was missing.

I’ll give the last word to Kalinda Vazquez and Jane Espenson, who wrote the following dialogue about character of the Author who writes the fairytales Once Upon a Time is based on and became trapped in his own book. They say it much more succinctly and beautifully than I have:

August Booth: There have been many authors throughout time. It’s a job, not a person, and the one trapped in here was just the last tasked with the great responsibility. To record, to witness the greatest stories of all time and record them for posterity. The job has gone back eons: from the man who watched shadows dance across cave walls and developed an entire philosophy, to playwrights who tell tales of poetry, to a man named Walt. Many have had this sacred job. Great women and men who took on the responsibility with the gravity that it deserved.

From “Best Laid Plans”, Episode 17, Season 4 of Once Upon a Time

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Things Your Characters Should Never Say

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It’s easy to be told that character dialogue in fiction should be short and sharp and punchy and witty but actually executing it without a little more guidance can be hard. I could tell you to watch everything Aaron Sorkin and Joss Whedon have ever written and you’d have some great examples.

But sometimes the easier path is to start with what not to do. So here are a few pieces of dialogue your characters should never say.

“Tell Me About It”
It’s almost twenty years since my first class as part of my Advanced Diploma of Professional Writing and Editing and I can still remember my Novel teacher telling us how “Tell me about it” was the most overused piece of dialogue in Hollywood and that it applied equally to books. And it was funny. I never noticed it on my own, even though I went to the movies every week and spent the rest of my non-writing and non-studying time watching more movies at home and reading as many books as I could. But as soon as he said it, I began to notice it everywhere.

So if you don’t want to end up being a cautionary tale in a first-year writing course, leave it out. Continue reading

For the Love of Language

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I like knowing stuff. It doesn’t matter what that stuff is, I just like knowing it. Knowledge is cool. I haven’t figured out what to do with it all yet but in the meantime, I’m continuing to accumulate it.

In that spirit, I was watching a couple of documentaries about Tourette’s syndrome – one focused on children struggling with the condition and the other explored the difficulties in obtaining employment when unable to control muscular and vocal tics. And as I commonly do (because I always want to know more), I Googled Tourette’s syndrome and began reading on Wikipedia about the details the documentaries weren’t going into.

One of the children in the documentary and one of the men looking for work had what I discovered was called coprolalia – “the utterance of obscene words or socially inappropriate and derogatory remarks” – and that only a small minority of people with Tourette’s exhibit this symptom. When I clicked through the link to find out more about coprolalia, I discovered that “copro” came from the Greek for “faeces” and “lalia” came from the Greek for “to talk”. Coprolalia literally means “to talk shit”. Continue reading

My Top Ten TV Shows – Part Two

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This is part two of my list of top ten TV shows with a focus on dialogue, which (as I explained previously) I decided I could create from the one show that towers over all others when it comes to this topic – The West Wing.

You might notice that all the episodes I’ve used are from the first three seasons. However, this is not a show that ever gets anywhere near to jumping the shark. All seven seasons are equally terrific and equally jam-packed full of wonderfully witty dialogue. I could have had an entry for every episode. In fact, I could have had a top ten list of dialogue from just the show’s first episode.

For anyone who is serious about mastering the art of writing dialogue, I would highly recommend watching The West Wing – over and over and over again. Continue reading

My Top Ten TV Shows – Part One

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After constructing my Top Ten Movies list with a focus on dialogue, I thought I would do the same for TV shows. I easily came up with ten well-written, witty productions – Buffy, Angel, Firefly (yes, I’m a Joss Whedon fan), Veronica Mars, Frasier, Scrubs, The OC, Dawson’s Creek, The Newsroom and The West Wing (yes, also an Aaron Sorkin fan).

You can probably identify the common theme running through all of them. At the time of their original screenings, they were known specifically for their dialogue – verbal battles, perfect slap downs, quick comebacks, dry and highly intellectual humour, all those words we wished we could come up with on the spot but never did.

However, the more I thought about it, the more strongly I felt that although I love all these shows, I could easily find a top ten list of terrific dialogue that would outshine all others in just one of these shows. And that show is The West Wing. Continue reading