Book Review: The Writer's Tale - The Final Chapter

Vision 64

The Writer's Tale:

The Final Chapter

 By Russell T. Davies and Benjamin Cook


Jeri-Tallee Dawson

Copyright © 2011, Jeri-Tallee Dawson, All Rights Reserved


So why do it? Why write? Well, there’s no choice. Russell T. Davies, page 58.


When I think of the perfect writing book, I don't think of a book that teaches me about structure, improves my grammar or gets me up to speed on the latest trendy writing formula. I'm thinking of a book that inspires me to write, that burns with a writer who can't do anything but, who writes because he must. That is probably why The Writer's Tale - The Final Chapter is the one writing book I own that shows the most use: broken spine, a myriad of dog-eared pages, yellow page markers sticking out all sides, and marked passages throughout the whole book.


But what makes this book so special? Let's take a look.


What impresses first is its sheer size. Encompassing two and a half years of e-mail correspondence between Benjamin Cook, a journalist working, among others, for Radio Times and Doctor Who Magazine, and Russell T. Davies, head writer and executive producer of the British TV Series Doctor Who, it not only contains 700 pages of fairly fine print, but also a myriad of other material, as well: illustrations, behind-the-scenes pictures, correspondences with other writers, excerpts from scripts that were not used or illustrate the journey to the finished product, text messages, a couple of articles, and a slew of other material.


The format of correspondence between the two men, brought about by Cook's original intention to interview Davies on the process of writing for the series, feels foreign at first, like one has to filter out the messages brought forth on one's own. In the beginning of their conversation, Davies takes the time to answer Cook's queries about the process of writing frankly and with quite some time on his hands, so his treatises on different aspects of writing are lavish and informative. As soon as the pressure mounts on him to finish his scripts on time and he shoulders a workload that would easily break ten camels' backs, the choice of format becomes clear as the only one that is actually fitting to show just what being a writer of that calibre, in those constrains, actually means. In that, this book is uniquely fit to show the working writer's life between deadlines and impossibilities, a writing life that does not exist separate from pressure and distractions, but exactly within those constraints.


And while Davies is working on his last full series of 13 episodes of Doctor Who, Cook triggers, with his well-placed questions and comments, free-flowing thoughts on the nature of writing, editing, and the pursuit of excellence. The first few pages are already a font of information on the technique of writing ("It's not what you write, it's what you choose.") and come across as witty and informative, with a writer who is as easily ready to poke a little fun at himself as to open up fully about the hard times, as well. For example, the times, when "Every single minute of the day, every single sodding minute, is labelled with this depressing, lifeless, dull thought: I am not writing.". Writing, as a job, comes across as something that can be fraught with anguish, indeed. Davies concludes that "To write without that fear is not an option".


At the same time, the moments in which creation happens, the writing simply flows, the reader is treated to watching a master at work: how Davies creates full episodes from a few line sketches and lays out a complete, working story in a few sentences is truly an inspiring thing to witness.


But the reader is not relegated to simply watch Davies do his work. What I find most remarkable about this book is how the reader is being engaged by the topics raised. Whether it is the frank discussion of the role of dialogue ("Dialogue is just two monologues clashing.”), the necessary selfishness of characters and how it functions in a story, the need to be arrogant to be a successful writer, the complete conviction that, "Creating something is not a democracy. The people have no say. The artist does", or his scorn at successful writers becoming dictators when it comes to insisting on writing formulas, his opinions divide. You may agree with him, or you may not, but his frankly stated opinions will never leave you cold, and you might be surprised, at the end, of how much you've learned simply by engaging with his views.


Other topics include honing the skills of young writers for television, the ruthlessness of the editing process, the ephemeral nature of writing for television ("Potential is never reached."), and the technical aspects of scriptwriting, whether it's for actors, directors, the different departments, or simply to write to budget, FX, or time constraints. More universal themes for writers of all colour are his enlightened insights on the use of language, rhythm, and the need to find "a moment, a single beat of the heart, that I think is true and interesting and therefore should be seen." It is in those passages that I see a true master of his craft at work, because all these techniques are tools he employs in his writing every day, without having to think about it much, with a passion and skill that is as enviable as it is infuriating when he states, quite convincingly, that he has complete confidence in his judgment, and his is the last word on everything concerning the writing of the show: "My job is to make it as good as it can be."


The tone changes somewhat in the second part of the book. Pages 340 and on were added later, after the original The Writer’s Tale was already published. Benjamin Cook's role as an observer changes into one of a collaborator at times, and for Russell T. Davies, the sheer pressure of writing so many scripts in such a short time (he has by now moved on to a year of Doctor Who specials that denote the end of David Tennant's reign, and he oversees the five-episode-arc of Torchwood's, "Children of Earth"), means that the "Great Maybe", the fairly self-contained receptacle that contains all possibilities for all scripts before paths are chosen and words are put on pages, is transformed to "writing out loud" ideas, bits and pieces, and possibilities in his e-mails to Cook.


This technique de-mystifies the act of creation somewhat and allows the reader a unique insight into how those scripts come to life. At the same time, it is a unique view into one of the most creative minds of our time. It is at this point that knowing some of the material he writes about is most helpful, so one can better appreciate the twists, turns, and often setbacks that it has taken for him to come to the finished product. It is also at this point that Cook reveals himself the perfect writing ally by asking the right questions at the right time, encouraging the writer to exceed his own limits, reassuring, challenging, and providing a constant backdrop of feedback at all times. One could easily come to the conclusion that every writer should have her own Benjamin Cook.


It is only fair to ask if one needs to be familiar with Doctor Who to read this book. The things Davies has to say about the mechanics of writing, the state of the writer, creation and art are certainly universal. When it comes to the actual application of the craft, however, it would no doubt be helpful to be familiar with his work. If you have never seen anything of it, I would recommend the episode Midnight from the fourth series of Doctor Who, since it is easily one of his best work, and very accessible for people who are not familiar with the program at all. You can, by the way, download (at the finished versions of all of the scripts discussed in the creation of this book for free, but it is, in truth, akin to studying Shakespeare on the page instead of seeing it on the stage. It is, after all, written to be seen.


Is this book useful for script writers only? No. The context may be unique, but the working writer's principles of use of grammar and language, rhythm and sound, time constraints, distractions, fear and loneliness, and how the writer engages with the world are certainly universal to the writing experience as a whole. I recommend this book wholeheartedly to anyone interested in writing, the working writer's life, and an exclusive look at how one of the most brilliant minds of our time works.


Russell T. Davies and Benjamin Cook

The Writer’s Tale – The Final Chapter

Published in 2010 by BBC Books, London ISBN 978-1-846-07861-3