I've been reading Russell T. Davies The Writer's Tale, which is hands-down not only the best book on TV writing I've ever read, it's a great book on writing period.
The Writer's Tale is mostly a series of emails Davies traded with journalist Benjamin Cook, who wanted to document what it's like to create a show like Doctor Who. That's an ambitious goal because there is literally no other show like Doctor Who. It's the longest-running sci-fi TV program in history, about an adventerous alien being who travels space and time and has a strong liking for us Earthlings. The Doctor is a striking and singular main character who can regenerate new bodies for himself (nicely solving the problem of actor recasting by not making it a problem at all). And, capitalistic intentions aside, the show is produced with public funding from the BBC.
Cook got what he was after and then some. These discussions with Davies encompassed more than just one script. Their conversation lasted almost an entire season of Doctor Who (mostly the fourth) and this book provides the most in-depth glimpse into serial TV production since J. Michael Straczynski took online fans into the world of Babylon 5 as it shot.
The price tag may seem steep to some readers, but you're getting a huge, thick, handsome book chock full of scripts and great behind-the-scenes photos.
Davies was no stranger to TV when he was charged with revamping this character. he'd created the hit TV show Queer as Folk, written for the long-running British soap Coronation Street, and scripted many other TV shows and mini-series. He was also, thankfully, a Doctor Who fan from childhood onward, and he wanted to bring the Doctor to a new audience.
I could pick and choose from his emails all day long. That's because Davies is wonderfully candid and honest about his writing process, even when it embarrasses him.
Davies talks about the big Maybe, his idea space where story elements gestate, take form, collide and interact. He likes to leave it alone and not probe its workings too much. Hell, he doesn't even like to call it the Maybe -- that's too much thinking about it right there. It's his mental cauldron of infinite choices, an endless web where things can go from any given point. Davies keeps those paths open as long as he can and quickly confesses to the guilt of procrastination, always waiting till the last minute to "put ass to chair in front of typewriter," as writer Joe Lansdale calls it.
"It all exists in my head, but in this soup. It's like the ideas are fluctuating in this great big quantum state of Maybe. The choices look easy when recounted later, but that's hindsight. When nothing is real and nothing is fixed, it can go anywhere. The Maybe is a hell of a place to live. As well as being the best place in the world.
"I filter through all those thoughts, but that's rarely sitting at my desk, if ever. It's all done walking about, going to town, having tea and watching telly. The rest of your life becomes just the surface, chattering away on top of the Maybe...and the doubts. That's where this job is knackering and debilitating. Everything - and I mean every story ever written anywhere - is underscored by the constant murmur of: this is rubbish, I am rubbish, and this is due in on Tuesday! The hardest part of writing is the writing."
So how does Davies know when to start writing?
"I leave it till the last minute. And then I leave it some more. Eventually, I leave it till I'm desperate. That's really the word, desperate. I always think, I'm not ready to write it, I don't know what I'm doing, it's just a jumble of thoughts in a state of flux, there's no story, I don't know how A connects to B, I don't know anything! I get myself into a genuine state of panic. Except panic sounds exciting. It sounds all running-around and adrenalised. This is more like a black cloud of fear and failure."
You get the sense that Davies' idea-space is a sort of big stew, a boiling pot filled with big meaty chunks of stuff but sorta dark and murky and always being stirred. Sometimes images and scenes and bits of dialogue surface with a crystal clarity. Davies grabs these and hangs onto them for dear life. If something bubbles up and doesn't melt back into the Maybe, he knows it's important.
It may be a three-second bit of story that won't factor that large into the overall script. It may be a killer image like Rose Tyler, brave and bawling and hearbroken, in the cold winds of Bad Wolf Bay. Davies doesn't question anything's importance or lack thereof. He simply acknowledges that it's a keeper, and goes on from there.
It's funny: while I deeply value Davies' insights into his process, I don't really know how much of it is applicable to my habits. Or yours. Writing is deeply and intensely personal, and what works for one doesn't work for all. The best writing advice I ever heard? "This is how I work, not how you will work. Everybody does it their own way."
I totally get Davies' concept of the Maybe -- I have a boiling cauldron, too -- but I always reach a stage where I have to start outlining and storyboarding. Davies' well-honed instincts let him make these calls in his head, but I have to get things down on paper before I decide whether to keep or discard them.
As for learning about showrunning itself, I appreciate the detailed glimpse into the workings of the BBC, but I know that very little of it applies here in Hollywood. There is no Doctor Who writers room, for example. Davies meets with writers one-on-one while keeping the big season arc firmly in his head. The BBC's funding structure and chain of command resembles nothing you'd see from American networks. But for its revelations about telling stories and producing a show under any circumstances, this book is a must-read for anybody looking to tell stories in serialized format. Journalist Cook has an insightful way of getting Davies to open up about almost any topic.
Davies deserves major kudos for jump-starting Doctor Who for a new audience, but I don't think he was Who's best writer. That title goes hands-down to Stephen Moffat, who Davies was smart enough to bring aboard in the first place. Moffat takes over the show's reigns when actor David Tennant departs this year and a new Doctor is regenerated. Moffat wrote some of the smartest, most inventive episodes of Doctor Who. I think his third-season episode, "Blink," is one of the best hour-long dramas ever. Period. I'd love reading Moffat's description of his creative process.
But while Moffat's work strikes me as more accomplished and assured than Davies', can the man match his predecessor's showrunning prowess? We're about to find out. I'm looking forward to it. Maybe we'll even get another awesome book out of the process.
Note: BBC Books has just announced a revised and expanded edition of this book that will include Davies and Cook discussing how David Tennant's reign as the Doctor was brought to a close with four Doctor Who special TV movies. I already sprang forty bucks for the first edition, but I think it's such a vital book I'll be first in line to get the new edition.