The Pen is Mightier than the Nerd: A Twitter Novel (part one)

I decided to write a twitter novel, once.

NOT a novel 140 characters long, of course, that would be insultingly easy (but no doubt if I was commissioned to write a 140-character long novel I’d still sit there doing nothing about it, twiddling my wotsits, leaving it right to the last minute, and then dashing out thirty words in an hysterical caffeine-addled blur).

No, this would be a full novel, tweeted out one line at a time.  I announced this to my partner.

‘I’ve decided to write a twitter novel,’  I announced, thusly.

‘Oh,’ she announces back.  ‘You’ll be wanting to write it in real time then?’

‘Oh,’ I say, my voice quieter, and a bit scared.

That’s a thought…’

And so it began.  A novel unfolding IN REAL TIME over a number of weeks.   I was doing it ostensibly to promote my ‘Mervyn Stone Mysteries’ books, so I used Mervyn as the central character, and it became one of the most interesting, exhausting, rewarding and above all, organic writing experiences I’ve ever had.

I decided on a start day, got my publishers to promote it, tweeted a bit of pre-publicity myself, pre-wrote page one of the novel to help me (which I promptly scrapped by the second tweet) and on the morning of that day I had my amateur sleuth wake up beside a dead body.

I have to say, at this point, before anybody else points this out; yes I know tweeting when you wake up beside a dead body is a somewhat unnatural thing to do given the situation, but no more nuts than tweeting at a live concert, or when you’re a juror in a trial, or having sex, which I gather is what the young people do these days.  Just go with it folks, I hoped, and thankfully a lot of people did.

On day one there was something I hadn’t bargained for; people tweeting to Mervyn while he’s tweeting; this gave the process a mad, improvised quality, with ‘Mervyn’ addressing their concerns at the same time as pushing the narrative forward. (If you’re confused by the ‘It’s Andrew Smith’ reference, it’s because one of the tweet followers happens to be a policeman).

The story mutated as it went along; elements were dropped, others were thrown in as they occurred to me.  I only realised several days in that I’d actually started the novel on april the first, so I incorporated that into the story.  I called a character the wrong name on one tweet, and not being able to correct myself, I worked that into the story too.  I got a bit bored a week or two in, and had a brainwave; so I got the murderer to start tweeting as well.  I decided to allow my followers to guess the identity of the murderer, and select one of the correct guessers to be in the story during the final day of the novel.

Every time I tried to plan something, the twitter laughed and shook its mocking birdlike head.  As my detective was involved with the world of cult TV (creator of an old Space TV show) , I planned for Mervyn to reveal the murderer from the stage of a Science-Fiction convention, and with ‘life’ imitating ‘art’, I would go to a Science Fiction convention myself, and tweet the identity of the murderer from the stage.

…Only I couldn’t get a signal for the bloody phone in the hotel, so I had to finish the climax of my novel sitting in a bus-stop down the road.

So anyway, I think it’s a shame to let something float away inside the twitterverse.  Understandably, a few people fell by the wayside as their twitter feeds were filling up with Mervyn’s investigation, a few others missed key plot points as they weren’t near their phones or their computers, so this is for those people too, and also, rather selfishly, for me too, as it’s time to promote more Mervyn Mysteries (the audio is out this month).

I’m reprinting it in chunks here.  Below is what happened on the first day.  Many thanks to Mike Bell for transcribing the tweets, and collecting them.  The story opened on the morning of april the first, 2011,  and twenty four days and twenty thousand words later, it was done.

A few notes:  I left some natural breaks during the day so that Mervyn’s twitter followers would wonder ‘what’s happening with Mervyn now’?  That’s why those dotted lines are there.


Oh God. My head…

Where the hell am I?

Jesus Christ. Are you alright?

Oh shit. Guys, I’ve discovered a body.

Well ‘discovered’ is a pretty pro-active term. I’ve just opened my eyes and its there, lying on the floor.

He looks about a quarter of a tonne. Ton. What’s the right spelling? Oh my bloody head.

He’s covering most of the floor. I can’t miss him. What’s a good image for a huge fat dead guy? Stunned walrus? Sunbathing German?

Anyway, he’s definitely dead. He’s not breathing. I’m looking over him now. Oh right. I see what his problem is.

There’s a big bloody crater in his head. Where his forehead used to be. Someone’s going to get into trouble for that.

I’m going to clean up now. God my head…

I’ve just splashed some water on my face in the bathroom. That’s supposed to make things look better, right?


Bloody hell…

I’ve just realised I was holding something when I woke up on the floor.

I put it down on the table, just a reflex. I’m looking at it now.

It’s not pretty.

It’s a brick. A huge Perspex brick. Like they give out at the cheaper awards ceremonies. The ones where they don’t feed you.

The ones where they just supply booze and hope a fight breaks out later.

Inside the brick is a scrap of paper. A bit of old newspaper. A photo of a smiling girl. There’s writing on it.


I’m feeling pretty queasy now. Not at the nasty punctuation, but at the fact that the Perspex brick has got blood on it.

This Perspex brick has been impolitely imbedded in the head of this fat guy…

Just like the apostrophe has been impolitely imbedded in the phrase LOT’S OF LOVE GERTIE! XXX

Okay, thanks guys, you’re right. I’d better look around. Find out where the hell I am. I just need to sit down and rest.

I’m shaking here.


I just fell asleep on the sofa! Here I am with three acres of dead body and I fell asleep!

Oh my GOD!

The Perspex brick…

It’s back in my hand!

Someone put the brick back in my hand while I was asleep!

The murderer must have still been in the house when I woke up!

He might still be here!

You’re right everyone. I have to get out of here. I’ll try all the doors and windows.

@mikegbell: @mervynstone take the brick with you. It has your fingerprints on and this Gertie could be important

@mervynstone: @mikegbell Easier said than done, Mike. The door’s locked. And the windows. I’ll try upstairs.

@Andrew_Smith_DW: @mervynstone. Calm down. You’ve nothing to worry about. You don’t have to say anything but it may harm your defence if…

@mervynstone: @Andrew_Smith_DW Easy for you to say. You haven’t got a dead man downstairs looking like he’s trying to impersonate the island of Jersey.

Everything locked upstairs too. I could try smashing a window…

There’s nothing I can use. There’s a Klingon head on the wall, a big wooden sword with ‘Prop: Xena Warrior Princess’ under it…

I’m realising who the dead man is. Funny I didn’t recognise him before.

But I know so many big fat guys in this business; they all melt into one big fat guy after a while.

It’s Alistair Guffin, cult shop owner and ace collector of bits of sci-fi nonsense. That’s why I’m here. He had my boots! The bastard!

Oh no…

I can hear lights. And a siren. There’s tyres on gravel…Let me look out of the window…

Oh dear. Guess who’s here?

I think it’s Andrew Smith!

Or someone who looks a lot like him. He’s certainly brought a lot of policemen with him.

They’ve rung the bell. I think I’d better stop tweeting now.

Does anyone know the name of a good lawyer?


If they think locking me up in a tiny cell’s going to intimidate me, then more fool them.

I’ve had much smaller hotel rooms for science fiction conventions. And the police facilities are much nicer.

They’ve finally allowed me to make a phone call. I’ve asked if tweets count, and the policeman just gave me a look like he doesn’t like me very much.

I’ve been divested of the contents of my pocket, and been asked to pee into a bottle.

I made a joke about selling the urine on e-bay, as the fans might like to buy it. The policeman looked at me like he really didn’t like me very much.

I don’t think he’s heard of the TV show ‘’Vixens from the Void’

And even if he did, he looks like he wouldn’t be impressed if he knew I wrote most of it.

In contrast, the copper who took my possessions, Clive, is a cheery little man. It’s his job to bag up the evidence.

At the house, I watched him put the Perspex brick into a little bag, and then into a bigger bag, then into a little box and I don’t know if they had a bigger box to put the little box in..

…because then I was bundled into a police car and brought here, sirens wailing like Vanity Mycroft in a number two dressing room.

I’ve been asked questions for a few hours, and the conversation has been chugging around in circles for a while now.

They’ve pointed out that me not phoning the police and trying to leave the scene of the crime makes me look very suspicious.

I’ve pointed out that being found at the scene of the crime with a murder weapon in my hand makes me look suspicious anyway…

so the best thing I could have done is not make me not look suspicious at all, i.e. get the hell out of there.

They’ve asked me about the mess upstairs, the opened drawers and the clothes on the floor. They asked me if I did that. I said no.

The mess didn’t even register with me when I went upstairs – I always assume fan’s houses to be messy.

They tell me that there’s signs of a burglary, and there’s items missing. I’ve said I know nothing about that.

The policeman wants my phone back. I’ve had it long enough. Bugger. I should have called a lawyer.


Hi. My name’s Clive, and it’s been ten years since ‘Firefly’ got axed.

June is going to be a busy month for me; after two years a new Mervyn Stone Mystery is going to surface, this time on a shiny CD…


…in which Mervyn is challenged to solve a murder, and comes face-to-face with Phyllis Trilby, the TV executive who cancelled his show in 1992.

Any fan of a Television programme that gets suddenly ripped from their screens will sympathise with the murderous rage this person inspires…

‘Cos it ain’t fair, is it?  We don’t want the story to ever end, and we never have.  The frustrated grinding of teeth from deprived fans are, ironically, over-familiar sequels from years past; it’s probably the distant ancestors of ‘Babylon 5’ fans who bullied Homer into recounting ‘The Odyssey’, that disappointing follow-up to the Iliad.

Queen Elizabeth used the force of her magisterial power to fight wars, kill catholics, and nudge Shakespeare into rolling out Falstaff one more time in a crowd-pleasing but ultimately unwelcome prequel.  In many ways she was the first ‘Star Wars’ fan.

(Apropos of nothing, are the ‘Star Wars’ prequels the most sophisticated textual joke ever played on a movie-going public?  The message in the films is ‘those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it’, a cautionary motif that is contained both within the narrative of the story and the fact they exist at all.  Is the should-have-seen-that-coming impending doom visited on the Jedi actually a metaphor for the gullible optimism that fans deluded themselves that ‘this time round it’s not going to be a disaster’?)

Scheherazade saved her own life with the promise of ‘just one more story’.   Perhaps like many fans today, that Persian king might have looked back on his huge Scheherazade box set, and actually wondered if staying up red-eyed for a thousand and one nights was worth it, and he should have just chopped her head off and gone out to play football, or learned to play the piano, or something.

Writers pretend to share the fan’s rage, but secretly, we love it.  I’m sorry to tell you that, but yes, we do.  Joss Whedon may have popped his bottom lip out when ‘Firefly’ and ‘Dollhouse’ got the chop, but he’s a writer and writers are unsentimental bastards; his brain had finished with them the precise second they died, and already busy forming quips that could be delivered by buff men and women in spandex.  I’m sure the only reason why Chris Boucher regrets there was no ‘Blakes’ 7’series five is because then fans would not keep asking him WHAT THE F*CK HAPPENED NEXT?  because i’m sure he had no idea either.  He had the best thing that could ever happen to a writer.  He got to write a fantastic cliff-hanger and never had to resolve it.  As ‘Sherlock’ series three advances on us, and we are on the verge of what happened after that impossible ending, Steven Moffat  knows full well what a lucky bastard Chris was, because if the BBC pulled the plug after series two, Steven could still tantalise the viewers for years with ‘what could have happened’ anecdotes on chat shows, but he could have also powered down the macbook and gone to the pub.

We writers love it because it give us a feeling of power without having to do any work.  Someone has very helpfully taken our creations hostage on our behalf, put a gun against their head, and reminded the fans why they care about them.  And how much do fans care about them?  A lot more than the writer does.   We get bored much quicker than the audience, because we have to write the f*cking words.  Just look at Sherlock Holmes again; most of the time we just kill them off ourselves, Conan Doyle stylee, just to see if anyone cares anymore.  Marvel and DC comics do it every other week, to jolt some passion into their readers.  Shame they’ve done it far too many times and it doesn’t work anymore.

‘Stop the debrillilators boys, I’m calling Superman at 1992’

To this end, I have given ‘The Axeman Cometh’ a subheading of ‘Mervyn Stone’s Last Story’.  Modelled as it is on Agatha Christie’s ‘Curtain’, Poirot’s final bow, I am going to tantalise you and enrage with the possibility that this is the last you will ever hear from Mervyn Stone EVER again.

Of course it’s all rubbish, but you can’t blame a lazy writer for trying, can you?

‘The Axeman Cometh’ is available from here:

Douglas Adams once smiled warily at me in a corridor.

I had the great honour of doing a tiny bit for the Douglas Adams virtual 60th birthday at the Hammersmith Apollo.

I once had the great honour of not meeting Douglas Adams.  I wear the fact that he once passed me in a corridor in BBC Broadcasting House, and smiled, and I smiled back, and I didn’t run around him and buy him drinks, and scream at him like a lactating gibbon, as a badge of pride.  I hope he enjoyed the day unpunctuated by noisy hero worship.

I had the really great honour to have a drink with Douglas’s daughter, Polly on the night of this charity bash.  We talked about college, and places to live, and really really normal Mostly Harmless stuff.  We laughed.  It was fun.

I can’t fathom why some people on the internet get upset at the death of their idols because of the future books they’ll never write, the records they’ll never make, the jokes they’ll never think up.  Even if that’s your immediate response, pause with your fingers hovering the keyboard, and try and think about the future games they’ll never play with their children, the future surprise kisses they’ll never plant on the necks of their wives.  To me that’s work unfinished.

So thank you Polly, I hope you enjoyed the day.

Here is my sketch, as wonderfully performed by Joh Culshaw on the night, in his ‘Fourth Doctor’ persona.  Please be aware if you read a charity sketch, like the one below, you are legally obliged to contribute to the charity, so please visit



DOCTOR:  Oh dear.  Oh dear oh dear.  This won’t do at all.  I was planning to hop back to 1979 to have a chat with my old friend Douglas Adams.  I had this idea for a stunningly amazing and informative television show he could write, about endangered species.  He could call it ‘My Big Fat Gypsy wedding’.  Oh well maybe the title needs a bit a work…

But It seems I have overshot and landed in 2012.  Still, I’ll tell him all about it. I’m sure Douglas would be very amused.  Nothing much has changed on Earth.  The ape descended life forms in 2012 are still so amazingly primitive that they still think digital television is a pretty neat idea.

How fascinating!  Many of his predictions have come true, I see.  (PULLS I-PHONE OUT OF POCKET) all earthlings now own handheld devices that claim to tell us everything about the life, the universe and everything, and yet are wildly inaccurate.

(PEERS AT I-PHONE AND PRESSES A BUTTON) (CAN WE HAVE A GUIDE SOUND EFFECT HERE?) I see the wikipedia entry for Rupert Murdoch reads ‘mostly harmless’.


The I-phone has this to say about Greece.

Monetary units: none.  Well there are actually three freely convertable currencies in Greece.  The Euro has recently collapsed, the goat can only be exchanged for other goats, and the banks refuse to take the Elgin marbles as they refuse to deal in fiddling small change.

Yes Douglas will be delighted to know that In 2012 the banks are still products of a deranged imagination.

(READS FROM I-PHONE) What else?  Ahh.  And I see in 2012 they’ve finally perfected the infinite improbability drive – or I assume so from watching the republican presidential elections. Douglas would be very impressed to hear about Newt Gingrich.  He would think it’s a sign of progress that they allow Vogons to run for president.

Let’s see what it says about David Cameron…

(HE PRESSES I-PHONE) (SOUND EFFECT?) Ah!  The i-phone has this to say about David Cameron.  Your plastic pal who’s fun to be with.

Yes Douglas, in 2012 the Prime Minister of the UK is a product of the Sirius cybernetics corporation – and they still can’t do genuine people personalities.

And remember that idea of yours for a ‘b’ Ark?  Where they put the useless third of the population and put them where they can’t harm the rest of us?  The people of earth are doing that in 2012.  Only they call it the BB ark.  Or big brother, as some of them call it.    The only problem is they’re only getting rid of them eight at a time, and they keep letting them out again.  Don’t worry I’m sure they’ll work it out one day.

And would you believe it Douglas?  This device even has the ultimate question, the one to which the answer is 42.  I have it here…

(PRESSES) ‘What is the dullest song ever written by Coldplay’?

I’d better get back to 1979 and let him know.  I’m sure he could work out what it all means.  He’s good at that.n  There was no limit to Douglas’s genius.


Oh no, that voice can only mean one thing.  A freak wormhole has appeared in the space time continuum.  It has brought a Douglas Adams sketch from 1974 and placed it here.  We must watch it carefully.  Don’t worry, it’s perfectly safe.  It’s just us that’s in danger.


Tomorrow is Big Finish day.

Just a note to say I’ll be on my way to Barking tomorrow (the place, not the state of mind) where I’ll be signing copies of my books and CDs under the wary eye of such Sci-Fi luminosities as Tom Baker, Paul Darrow and David Warner.—february-11-446-c.asp

Don’t miss it, or you’ll be completely barking (the state of mind, not the place).

Tips for writers

Everyone else seems to be handing out tips for writers, so here are mine:

1. In hospitality, always go for the quiche first.  It’s always in demand.

2. When going for a meeting, if the producer has a picture of Clive Dunn in ‘Dad’s Army’ costume on his/her wall, leave immediately.

3. Be nice to all the lazy, stupid, thoughtless people you meet, for they will be kicked upstairs to be kings and queens of your world.

4. If someone says there ‘isn’t enough at stake’ in your script, smash the fire alarm and ring the police.

5. If they say they love the premise, they haven’t read beyond page 3.  If they say they hate the title, they haven’t read beyond page 1.

6. Never miss out apostrophes.  They don’t like it, and the unused ones wait above your head in the dark.

7. Whatever your script, whether it be comedy or drama, or a documentary about earthworms, the first line of your pitch should read:  ‘This show can best be described as ‘Mad Men’ meets ‘Only Fools and Horses”.

8. If a producer tells you to put a joke of theirs in the script, do it.

9. If an actor tells you to put a joke of theirs in the script, don’t bother.

10. If an actor asks you why his/her joke isn’t in the script, tell them you put it in the script but the producer told you to take it out again.

11. Don’t get drunk in hospitality and try chatting up the prettiest runner.  His/her body already belongs to whoever got him/her the job in the first place.

12. The writer’s theory of relativity states: If a writer is in a writer’s room doing bugger all work in relation to every other writer, chances are he/she is the relative of someone very important.

13. Don’t get drunk in hospitality and try to sell your idea for a ten-part spin-off series to the executive producer.  He/she is not there to socialise.  He/she is just waiting for the right moment to have sex with the runner in the BBC toilets.

Tony Blair’s dancing men.

Watching the excellent ‘Borgen’ last night reminded me of this…

The dance of Spin Doctors is a wondrous thing to watch; one of the most beautiful and terrifying things in the world, like killer whales fellating each other on icebergs, or silverback gorillas cuddling David Attenborough.

I’ve only ever seen it once close up.  I wish I’d brought my camera.  Or a net.

A few years back, Tony Blair had agreed to appear in a sketch for ‘Children in Need’, involving another version of himself, or to be more precise, Jon Culshaw in a wig.  As head writers for ‘Dead Ringers’ we were charged with writing a sketch showing, for the very first time, the two faces of Tony Blair (ahem).

I can’t remember the details of the sketch, but I’m sure it was going to be a frightfully fun wheeze where Blair would meet Blair, there would be some jokes about how to work out which one of the two was fake (ahem), the VT would end and we’d cut straight to some Estate Agents freezing their knackers off in a Cardiff football stadium and waggling a huge cheque, or something.

The Prime Minister’s office said that Blair was up for anything.  Anything, right chaps?  After all, it was for charity, and ver lickle children, dontcha know.

Another Tony Blair, yesterday.

We wrote a sketch, foolishly, naively, taking them at their word.  Now don’t get me wrong; we didn’t have Blair humping the body of John Smith while dressed in a Thatcherite hair-helmet and pearls, or anything like that.  We weren’t eejits and we wanted this to happen just as much as anyone – for ver lickle children, you understand.

The sketch was, by and large, respectful of the office of the Prime Minister; with one or two slightly cheeky lines that we thought would be the basis of negotiation.

And we were right.  The ‘up for anything’ pledge vanished as swiftly and as silently as a commitment to ban advertising in sport, and then the negotiations started.  This had to be taken out, that gag wasn’t acceptable, no to this joke, no to that joke…blah blah blah.  Or, if you’d rather, Blair Blair Blair.

We made the changes and sent it back.

Then there was an explosion of outrage from number ten!


Someone had LEAKED the fact that TB was going to be on CIN!

They raged.  They ranted.  They made poor Pudsey’s ears burn.  How dare the Bolshevik Broadcasting Corporation do this!  Deal off, old boy!  Not doing it now!  Not playing!  And that was it.  We were left on the floor trying to put our stuffing back in.

Now here’s the thing: I’m certain the ‘Children in Need’ office didn’t leak it.  The CIN people are the most honest, diligent, dedicated people you could find, and if there’s a condition of secrecy, they’d ruddy well keep it secret.  They’d kept far bigger secrets than this, and there has never been any leaking from them – apart from this incident, strangely enough.

We, on the other hand, weren’t the most honest, diligent, dedicated people you find, but why would we leak the fact that Tony Blair was on Children In Need, when we’re in the process of writing a sketch that would work MUCH MUCH better if the fact that Tony Blair on Children in Need was a big, big surprise?

Of course there was a third possibility; another bunch of people who could have leaked it, and of course we realised when, after the project was pronounced deader than Harriet Harman’s eyes, they came back to us three days later with an ‘all right then, we’ve had a think, and even though you’ve been very naughty, we’ll do it, but this time we’ll do it right, and this time YOU’LL do it right’.

We realised we were being played; there seemed a distinct whiff that some well-groomed haircut had sat down at a mahogany desk, and thought silkily to himself, as he played with a silver letter opener with his long manicured fingers: ‘Okay.  So if we leak it, we get publicity for being nice for ver lickle children, we blame someone else so we don’t look crass in advertising the fact, and blame the EVIL BBC so we get leverage in the forthcoming negotiations of how brilliant Tony is going to look in this sketch.’

It felt like we’d got on a tube for a nice ride to somewhere fun, but found ourselves sitting on someone else’s discarded McDonald’s wrappers.  This was not our world.  This was not the dance we expected to dance; we didn’t have this problem when Adrian Chiles came on the show, for crying out loud…

So we danced the dance, and did our rewrites and then thought, once again, foolishly and naively, that this was the end of the matter.  And it was.

…Until the day of the recording.

Because Spin Doctors love to dance, and the music hadn’t stopped just yet.

The day of the recording was a complete ambush.  Jon Culshaw turned up on the set, only to find that Blair’s spin-doctors had ‘had a bit of a think’ and had written THEIR OWN sketch, to be performed instead of ours.

Of course Jon stood his corner.  Not only had he not rehearsed this sketch, stuffed into his hands with a nanosecond’s notice, he had a huge loyalty to the Dead Ringers team and the writers, and resented the way the whole thing had been handled.  Did these number ten functionaries think they were comedians all of a sudden? (ahem)  So up brewed a fight, an argument so synthetic you could have served it up to me in 1978 instead of Bird’s angel delight and Puffa Puffa Rice, and I would have choked on the E numbers.

And in amidst this artificial spat strode Tony Blair, the peacemaker in chief.


He was very charming, and he didn’t know what this was all about, and was sure there was some sort of mistake somewhere, and he was sure that he could sort something out.  And they did.

Of course, to create a ‘third way’, both sketches got discarded, and replaced with a little bit of nothingness, and then Blair went on to do the speech he wanted to make all along, with Jon standing on the sidelines.  To Jon’s enormous credit he didn’t take it lying down, and kept spontaneously interrupting the speech with helpful ‘coaching tips’ for the real Blair, telling the Prime Minister when to say ‘in a very real sense’.

It was the funniest thing about the piece, in a very real sense.

So that’s how they dealt with one charity sketch.  God knows how they behaved when they came across anything resembling a policy.  No one begrudges a political party a means to present themselves in the right light; but using spin-doctors as a political tool is like using a tin opener to stir soup.  They have only one job; and they approach that job the same way every time.  They brief against, they run whispering campaigns, they find leverage, they ambush, they trample over everything in their rush to create the ‘right’ image, and leave behind them a fine inedible paste which you would only feed to toddlers.

They dance.