From Fact To Fiction

As well as writing novels and TV scripts, I write for radio, mostly for the Radio 4 Afternoon Play slot.  That means creating a forty-five minute drama usually over a three month period and involves up to five drafts of a script to get it ready for production.  But just before Christmas I was given the chance to work on a very different project, From Fact to Fiction, which invites writers to work on a topical news story and create a fictional response to it for a fifteen minute slot.  The challenging – and exciting – aspect of this is the timescale.  It all happens in a week.  The writer meets with a news journalist and the production team on a Monday to agree on the topic and by Wednesday must deliver a first draft, with the recording taking place on the Friday and broadcast on the Saturday. This Monday, January 21st, I’ll get my assignment and I’ll be tweeting  about the process throughout the week.  Deep breath!  You can catch my From Fact to Fiction on Saturday January 26th on Radio 4 at 7pm repeated at 5.40 pm on Sunday 27th.  Happy listening.  And here’s the link.   

Day 1

Tram through sleet and a grey cityscape to Media City.  Met with the production team at BBC Radio Drama to trawl through the papers and identify potential stories and topics.  Read newspapers I never read (and now I know why!)  Joined by a guest journalist who could tell us what was on the horizon for the week and how the news might shape up. Left the meeting with a list of items that interested me, a very sketchy setting for the piece, a bag of newsprint and a deadline.  By the end of the afternoon I’d uncovered a potential narrative and characters.  Beginning to see it in my head and hear the voices.  Sent this as an outline which will be considered by the commissioner.   Tomorrow might be back to the drawing board.

Day 2

This morning I got feedback from the commissioner which meant I needed to focus my idea more tightly and alter some of the elements in my story.  Discussed this with the producer and then set to work.  I’m not sure whether the changes weaken my original idea but I need to meet the demands of the slot.  That’s the trouble with writing to a particular brief – your imagination can tempt you down interesting new paths but away from where you’re meant to be going.  I also kept an eye on the weather forecast as it’s an element in my story and was slightly dismayed to hear it is due to get milder.  Noooo!  Fun sticking in some veiled references to another writer.  Afternoon spent hammering out a very rough first draft then reading it.  The script needs to be 13 minutes long.  Mine is.  But the corrections I’ve just made might have added too many lines.   More to do before I send a draft in tomorrow.

Day 3

After a read through and further work, the first draft of the script went off this morning.  Then a tense wait for the response.  The first draft is usually where the biggest notes arise when the producer and team see how the writer has interpreted the brief and how much it conforms to or differs from what they thought they were getting.  I’ve had some daunting sessions on first draft notes, as characters, structure and plot are called into question.  When this happens I resist the urge to climb into a deep well for an unspecified duration and instead take deep breaths and then set about solving the problems.  Which is my job.  Given the time demands of this project though any big changes could be really difficult to do well.  It doesn’t seem to matter how much experience I have, the confidence in what I’m creating is very fragile and there’s always doubt and insecurity.  That’s one reason why I don’t read my reviews unless someone else has scanned them for me first, and selected the good ones.  Anyway, today’s phone call came bringing positive feedback and for me a flood of relief.  Notes concentrated on clarifying the motivation of one of the characters, adding some specific references to better connect with our original news topics and ratcheting up the sense of jeopardy and tension.  The afternoon I spent putting all that into effect in the second draft.  Duly emailed.  Today I also settled on a title.  And heard about the cast!  Now it’s really getting exciting.

Day 4

Notes on the second draft came through last night and I set to work on them first thing this morning.  By this stage the notes are small* – cuts to make the dialogue flow better or where ideas are repeated, additions to make the setting and the action clearer for the listener who will be picturing it all in their head.  I make tweaks of my own too, when I’m reading it aloud and find a clumsy phrase.  Draft 3 completed and goes off.  Watching the clock, I’m aware that at this time tomorrow we’ll be in the recording studio at Media City and actors will be bringing my drama to life.  The cast are confirmed as Sarah Belcher, Stephen Hoyle and Kate Coogan.  On a techie note, scripts have a standard layout and for this I use Script Smart Gold software which I downloaded for free from the BBC.  A quick check tells me that they’ve now ‘retired it as obsolete’.  Harrumph!  However you can find information on other free and paid-for packages via the BBC Writersroom  The producer rings with another query – still trying to get the ‘pictures’ right around a bit of business that is crucial to the tension in the piece.  We talk through a couple of possible solutions but they feel clunky until finally we come up with something that might do the trick.  Once I’ve done the amendments I send that off as draft 4… *See that line above about notes being small – I spoke too soon.  Late afternoon and a new pair of eyes brings with it major notes that mean a substantial rewrite and me jettisoning some elements of the story and reining in the more futuristic aspects of the piece.  Kill your darlings.  Awash with blood and frothing at the mouth I send off draft 5.  And wait to hear if I’ve got the balance right.  I am encouraged when the producer says she still thinks it works really well and by reports that someone who’s only read the very latest draft (and doesn’t know about the cull) thinks it’s great.  Finally get a thumbs up and I must admit the emphasis of the new version does include some pertinent references that we didn’t have before – and which I like.  And I breathe.

Day 5

Day 4 went on longer than expected with a phone call at 9.15pm to say that because of the earlier cull we were now short on material.  Rather than leave me to turn up and panic today, and write stuff on the hoof, they gave me warning and so I sat and wrote it on the sofa last night and finished it on the tram to Media City at the crack of dawn.  In the process of scrabbling about for extra lines, most of which were an elaboration of existing dialogue, I came up with something totally new but I needed a second opinion as to whether it would suit the tone of the piece.  The producer thought it was a good addition and when we were recording it did work well (and the performance brought tears to my eyes).  Once the new drafts were typed up (with me dictating insertions) and copied we had a read-thru with the cast and then it was into the studio to rehearse and record the piece.  The action is set in a single location which meant we didn’t have to spend time shifting microphones and actors to different areas of the studio space.  The play is called The Cold Cold Snow and each time I heard the wintry sound effects I felt a shiver of delight.  The actors really were brilliant: big thanks to Sarah Belcher, Stephen Hoyle and Kate Coogan, and it was a pleasure to work with the production team who are so skilled at the job – thanks to Sharon Sephton, Richard French, Graham Davies, Steve Brooke and Celia Hutchinson.  And to their colleague who ‘read the news’ for us, whose name I didn’t get.  With radio, the writer works alongside the producer/director and can contribute feedback to the cast which is quite different from my experience of writing for television.  The script (20 pages) was broken down into ‘scenes’ and generally two or three recordings made of each scene.  This afternoon they are putting together the final edit of the programme ready for broadcast tomorrow.  And my work here is done…  Happy listening.