The Sky Will Soon Be Full Of Suns

I Never Want to See Another Potato as Long as I Live…!


The life of the freelance writer has its moments. Having a book published or seeing your name on screen is always nice – though the self-doubt (I could have done better. Has the director screwed it up? What will people think of it? I wish we’d gone with a different cover) is never far behind. Supping cheap BBC wine or going to exciting book launches is a highlight, partly because they so rarely happen. And I’ve walked down the red carpet at the BAFTA TV awards (I’ve never felt such a luvvy), but I paid for the tickets myself, and let me tell you, it was that or a holiday.

Then there’s the agony of actually writing (when it flows it’s the best feeling in the world; when it doesn’t, it isn’t). Or staring at a blank screen all day, feeling worse than useless (I’m a writer, I’ve done this before. How hard can it be?!). Or the displacement activities and the hours that pass without interacting with another (non-fictional) human being.

Am I doing a good job of implying that the life of the freelance writer is anything but glamorous…?

And finally – let’s not beat about the bush – there’s the money. Or the lack of (regular) money, unless you are a genius and work hard and get all the breaks. (I’m not a genius, but I work hard and have had a few good breaks – but that’s not enough.) As I hinted in my blog earlier in the year, when I launched my script and prose reading services, I’ve not exactly been rolling around in commissions recently. Which is OK, it happens. If writers were footballers, we couldn’t all play in the Premier League – at least, not at the same time. Someone has to play for Accrington Stanley.

Mind you, when you listen to some writers, it all seems so easy. Actually, not easy – that’s not fair – but when interviewed they can sound relentlessly upbeat. A TV scriptwriter, for example, will basically say that s/he wrote for this soap, then wrote for someone else’s series, then created their own, then did another, and it won awards, and then they wrote a movie, and the next thing you know they’re sitting in a Jacuzzi of champagne and oysters. (No names, no pack drill… Oh, OK, you’ve twisted my arm. I’m thinking perhaps of the wonderful Paul Abbott, who I heard (and drank with) many years ago. But then he is a genius, and he works bloody hard, so of course he got the breaks, and wrote amazing things that I can scarcely dream of. I don’t want to sound like Red Dwarf’s Rimmer, always bemoaning other people’s opportunities and ‘luck’.)

Of course, one shouldn’t be surprised if scriptwriters and novelists – the successful ones, at least – talk in these terms (or, rather, unwittingly allow their audiences to think like that). Even in the UK, where we have a complex and antagonistic relationship with success, we still think in a way that could be described as being a facsimile of the American Dream. We’re brought up on a diet of Hollywood movies, and if there’s one thing Hollywood loves (because, naturally, the people making these films have got to the top, and have succeeded), it’s a happy ending, and a Be Yourself or Don’t Give Up message. No one wants to watch a movie about someone struggling against the odds, who contemplates turning away from their vocation, but then decides to keep plugging away – and promptly fails. (Actually, I would, but you can guarantee such a movie could not be made in (mainstream) Hollywood.)

And, of course, we writers are brought up on the hero’s journey (even if we’ve never read Campbell, we’ve seen Star Wars) – on that moment when everything is at its darkest (roughly three quarters of the way through a film), and then suddenly the light floods in.

As a writer, I’ve already had what I thought were my darkest moments – times when money was so tight I ended up spending a few days delivering Thomson directories in Wincanton, before vowing “Never again!” (And, do you know what? Things did pick up at some point after that.)

But only the other day, just when I thought I was content with my status as a Third Division writer, I found myself working in a potato packing plant.

Having endured a tricky couple of years in TV land, I’d signed to a temp agency in the hope of getting some casual office work. Instead I was offered a one-day shift at the spud factory. (No criticism intended of the agency. They can’t magic me the perfect job from out of their bottoms.)

And no criticism is indeed of the spud factory, either. They pay, I think, the Tory Living Wage, and it wasn’t exactly Dickensian in there (mind you, there was almost no natural light, and the work was both relentless and back-breaking, though you were at least provided with ear plugs to drown out some of the constant machine noise). But when offered the job I didn’t really think I could say “I’m an artist! Do these hands looks like the hands of a horny-handed son of toil to you?”, and flounce off to check my newly-acquired Morrisseyesque quiff.

As it turned out, and without wishing to be melodramatic, my day in the spud factory was just about the worst day of my life.

Actually, that’s not quite fair. I think “worst working day of my entire life” would be more scrupulously accurate – or, more seriously, the worst day that did not involve death, life-threatening illness, or a trip to the courthouse. (Long story, and not for this blog.)

Over the spring and summer I’d been teetering on the edge of what might have been clinical depression (it was never formally diagnosed, but my missus is a GP, and she lives with me, so I’ll take her at her word). That mental fragility certainly didn’t help. Neither did the fact that, on my breaks (15 minutes in the morning, 30 minutes for lunch, 15 minutes in the afternoon), I found myself thinking “OK, this is it. I’m no longer even a Third Division writer. I’m someone who works in a potato factory who happens to also be a failed writer.”

That makes me sound terribly grand and ooo, get her. To be fair, I’ve got nothing but respect for the people who do this sort of thing (though I observe in passing that I was the only British person in my group. Post-Brexit, you can say what you like about Eastern Europeans (the fascist tabloid press certainly do), but, by goodness, they work hard). And – because the work is so relentless – when you’re in the midst of it you can only really think in terms of open up the bag, shuffle forward to receive spuds, drag it and turn it so that it can be stitched shut, throw it onto the pallet with the label upwards, return for another bag. Repeat, and repeat, and repeat, until you reach an almost Zen-like state where you’re not even sure you exist any longer.

But I worked eleven and a half hours that day. I’ve never felt more tired at the end of my shift (in my defence, though I’m not unfit – three hours of kickboxing and kendo most weeks – I had recently suffered an apparently unprovoked deep vein thrombosis, which meant I hadn’t done anything remotely strenuous for a while). I felt 48, going on 148. My ears rang. Everything ached. My brain was empty, bar the thought, Was that more like purgatory, or hell?

Oh, and I never want to see another potato as long as I live.

As I say, bless the people who work there, but no, it wasn’t for me.

So, was this me, as a writer, at my lowest ebb? (Was that day – for those of you who know Blake Snyder’s approach to movie structure – the All is Lost moment, followed closely by the Dark Night of the Soul, where the hero hits rock-bottom and wallows in hopelessness…?)

Well, possibly. (I must stress again, I know it’s a First World problem; I know that plenty of people in the world would think safety from bombing and famine worth an infinite number of days in the spud factory. But if never wanting to return to that place, after one day, makes me a bad person, then, yes, I’m a bad person.)

And can we now expect a turnaround? Will my story – the narrative I retrospectively impose on my own life, and writing life – be ever-upwards?

We’ll see. In truth, I wanted to write this blog – only my third in six years! – the day after my stint in the potato packing factory, as a corrective to any woolly notions regarding the glamorous life of the writer, or that any artist’s career is always and resolutely going in one direction. (The fact that I’m doing this via a blog hints at one of the problems with having a ‘professional’ website. I can’t exactly talk about how hard things are, or getting turfed off various TV shows, there, on the front page. It’s got to be good news. It’s got to be positive.)

But I didn’t get around to it, and a few days later, I started to get busy. And blow me down if I’m not now busier than I’ve been in years. Half of the projects and sniffs of interest I can’t even begin to announce, but, as you’ll see from my web page (, I am now the Wessex regional rep for the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain, and as of next week, I will be an Associate Lecturer in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University. However, a lot of these opportunities and hints of work stretch back to the early summer, and often beyond even that – and an expression of interest butters very few parsnips. It’s certainly not impossible to imagine a future where the writing income dries up again (not that the Writers’ Guild position, though lovely and an honour, is paid), and I find myself contemplating the real world of work – even work in a potato processing factory.

So, what am I saying? Possibly that good things come to those who wait, as the Guinness ads used to indicate – but that no one ever tells you how long you might have to wait for something, as Micawber said, to turn up. That sometimes being a mere Third Division Writer ain’t so bad. And that the writing life – hell, life in general – is damn hard sometimes, and it doesn’t always fit into tidy Hollywood narrative arcs.

And yes, dear reader, of course I was back on the spuds – within 24 hours, as my waistline will testify.

Reading, Rates & ’Rithmetic


As you’ll see from my main web page (, I’m now offering to read people’s scripts (and short stories/novels, because I’ve had a few of those published over the years). Why am I doing this? Partly because I enjoy reading scripts, and I’ve had a reasonable reaction to my notes and written feedback in the past. Partly because I’ve sometimes been asked to do this for people, and at least I now know what I should be charging! And partly because I know my own work across the board has always benefited from external input. (Scriptwriting is by its nature collaborative – all my ‘spec’ scripts are read by readers at the agency that represents me, and I’ve also paid for script reports from readers I trust when I want more detail on a certain project. However, I’m not sure that much prose even is written in isolation these days. The world has moved on, for good or ill, and there aren’t too many writers who toil away in their garrets without any outside influence.)

But let’s be honest. I don’t think Stephen Moffat or David Nicholls have the time to offer to read other people’s work. Though freelance writers always write, most have gaps in their schedules from time to time – and most still have bills to pay and food to buy during those apparently fallow periods. And I’d rather proofread or read scripts than, say, stack shelves at Tesco. (Not that I have anything against people who stack shelves at Tesco, you understand. I’ve worked in retail…)

Of course, when someone sets themselves up as a reader (or proofreader), it is perfectly fair to ask about their track record and background. My experience comes from being a writer – from doing this ‘in the field’, as it were. I’m not like one of those people who make money from talking about script structure but have never sold a script (ooo, can of worms). My first job, post-degree, was in publishing; I spent two years as an editorial assistant and one of my major responsibilities was proofreading (The Guinness Book of Records, as it happens). Since then I’ve acted as de facto proofreader and project manager on a number of my books (I’ve written eleven novels and audiobooks and eight non-fiction books, often in collaboration, over about two decades).

With respect to scriptwriting, I’ve worked for an American production company, generating script reports for a number of well-known Hollywood execs. I have read countless scripts at various stages of development and for various individuals and organizations on a much more informal basis. As I hinted earlier, I’m not trying to make out I’m some sort of writing superstar – but I’ve been around the block, I think it’s fair to say. I’m a member of BAFTA, the Royal Television Society and the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain. I know how to get TV projects into development (of course, only a small percentage of what gets developed ends up getting made and transmitted…), and how to get a foot on the ladder – in publishing as well as television. I don’t pretend to have all the answers – but if I were to read your work, I’m sure we could work out a few together.

The other hypothetical question I posed over on the web page was What do you like reading? Lurking behind this question is my belief that (broadly speaking) a writer should be matched with a like-minded reader. As a writer I’ve had editors and script editors who are pretty much on the same wavelength as me – and whose only interest was ensuring that the end result is was good as it could possibly be. And I’ve one or two that weren’t… Bar proofreading, everything you get back from me will necessarily be subjective, so the least you want is a reader that ‘gets’ what you’re trying to do. Do have a butchers at my CV, and the things I’ve written, and see what you think. Does it help if I say my favourite directors run from Peter Jackson to Fellini and authors from Peter Ackroyd to Carlos Ruiz Zafón? (Probably not.) Or that I’ve strived to root my fantastical writing in the real world (I’m still chuffed I wrote a Doctor Who novel with a bipolar/suicidal teenager as its protagonist) while trying to bring the odd and the unusual to the world of continuing drama (my episodes of Doctors involved apparent time travel, the SS, and Goths getting tattoos)? I’ve sold thrillers and rom-coms; I’ve worked in children’s television and I’m currently writing a very adult novel that aspires to the literary end of the spectrum. And a thriller. And…

At the end of the day, I’ll read anything and offer my most constructive and honest thoughts (though for feedback on something as lengthy and personal as a novel you might want to send me a few chapters first, just to see if we have a similar perspective on things). The one exception I’d make is sitcom – it’s a very particular sub-genre, and you’re probably better off going to someone with a real track record in the field, such as the lovely Andrew Ellard (

If, having read all this, you’re interested, but still not sure, do drop me a line via my web page (, or leave a comment here. Hopefully a few of you reading this will think about sending something in. As I keep saying, writers don’t work at their best on their own. And at least maybe we can swap stories from the trenches.

Yellow Cover Frenzy!


I’m so chuffed that (most of) the various TV guides I worked on with Paul Cornell and Keith Topping are being electronically ‘republished’ by Gollancz that I thought I’d push the boat out and start a blog. If I’m honest, I’m not absolutely sure how many people ever look at my web site ( anyway, which is a pretty dour and professional ‘front end’ for my work. I certainly imagine this blog will have its own tumble weeds blowing through it before too long.

However, I wanted a little more space than I normally allow myself in my News section to talk about this, and, maybe, other things. (Of course, this might prove to be my one and only post. I’ve always worked on the basis that, if I’ve got anything to say, I should say it in my scripts and books, and not splurge free words into a blog. But that hasn’t stopped me enjoying Twitter… Even if all I seem to do is repost dull but anger-inducing political snippets.)

Anyway, back to the TV guides. Written when the universe was less than half its present size*, these books – covering Doctor Who, The Avengers, the first five seasons of The X-Files, and bits of modern Star Trek – are the first non-fiction titles to find a home in Gollancz’s SF Gateway range. Like those band T-shirts from ages past that you can’t quite bring yourself to throw away, I remain really incredibly fond of these old things – for all their faults, they’re pretty much where this whole writing malarkey thing began for me. And I’m delighted to even tangentially be associated with the classic Gollancz yellow covers (Paul shares my excitement – see his blog at Though I read precious little SF these days, I’ve lost count of the number of yellow-covered Gollancz novels I consumed as a child.

As you’ll see from the announcement at, a book on British telefantasy shows – cobbled together from two chapters from our first joint work, The Guinness Book of Classic British TV, and lovingly updated by Keith via his blog at – will follow at some future point. (As, perhaps, will something else I’m working on, he added, not very mysteriously.) But barring typos and some catastrophic errors, these first four books are resolutely as they were when first published. I don’t usually believe in looking back, but, especially with the fiftieth anniversary of Doctor Who approaching, I hope we might be permitted a moment of retrospection. Perhaps – if we’re very lucky – a new audience will be introduced  to these guides. Or, at the very least, they’ll find a readership whose dead tree versions of the books are now in danger of falling to bits.

* In other words, between 1991 and 1998.