TV Drama Writers’ Festival

Last week I went to the BBC Writersroom TV Drama Writers’ Festival in Leeds.  My main aim was to galvanise my interest in screen-writing again because, like most creative endeavours, it often feels like an uphill struggle – or whistling in the wind.  I was extremely, I mean EXTREMELY, lucky to see my first TV pitch, Blue Murder, get greenlit and become a successful returning series.  That is the stuff of fairytales but since then, I’ve had much more experience of not getting projects off the ground.  Of having meetings with commissioners and producers where I pitch my ideas and see them crushed (in the nicest possible way) one by one.  The responses usually go along the lines of ‘we’ve got one of them in development, we don’t want any cop shows, we don’t do private eyes, we’re hanging fire on legal dramas, we’ve got one of them, and one of them, and (insert name of uber-writer) is doing a show looking at that world with us.’

What was refreshing about the conference was understanding that this is how it is, 99% of the time for all writers, even the ones who seem to be at the top of the game.  And that scripts can get written and paid for and everything be going swimmingly until the plug or rug is pulled.  A panel with Danny Brocklehurst and Toby Whithouse and Mark Catley looked at ‘The One That Got Away’ – and there was more than one – they were myriad!  And then there are the fairytales.  Wonderful to hear Chris Chibnall talk to Ben Stephenson about Broadchurch, Sally Wainwright and Nicola Schindler discuss the development of Last Tango with Peter Bowker and Dominic Mitchell and the team at BBC North describe the creation of In The Flesh.  All shows I love.  Good too to meet writers from theatre and radio and swap stories of where we’ve been and where we’re going – or would like to go.

So, when I can possibly carve out some time from my novel writing I will work on some new ideas to pitch for television.  I will!  Just don’t hold your breath…

PS The BBC Writersroom is a very useful website – do have a look if you’re not familiar with it.

Recommended Reads

Here are the books that I’ve enjoyed most over the last couple of months.  Some funny, some sad, all compelling.  I hope you enjoy them too.

Crocodile Tears – Mark O’Sullivan

Tell The Wolves I’m Home – Carol Rifka Brunt

Hungry, The Stars and Everything – Emma Jane Unsworth

Where’d You Go, Bernadette – Maria Semple

Just What Kind of Mother Are You? – Paula Daly

In Her Blood – Annie Hauxwell

A Land More Kind Than Home – Wiley Cash

Precious Thing – Colette McBeth

The Yellow Birds – Kevin Powers

You Couldn’t Make It Up

(Spoiler alert – some stories from the Sal Kilkenny series revealed here.)

The truth is always stranger than fiction and one of the spookiest things in being a writer is when something you think you’ve dreamt up turns out to exist in real life.  There are two particular times when this has really struck me.  The first was with my debut novel Looking For Trouble.  When I set out to write the book I didn’t know where it would take me and I was disturbed to find myself writing about organised child sexual abuse in children’s homes run by the local authority.  News was just emerging back then (1992) of suspected cases of  paedophile rings violating vulnerable children and young people but it was still very much under the radar.  Some time later I met someone who had worked in social services in Manchester City Council and who had read the book at the same time as an undercover inquiry was going on into exactly this type of crime in the Manchester area.  She almost sought me out, thinking I had some insider knowledge that they might draw on.

A second example was with Go Not Gently, the second Sal Kilkenny novel.  In this a number of unexpected and unexplained deaths in old people’s homes leads to a discovery of horrendous malpractice by the local GP who ‘cares’ for the residents.  Sometime after publication, news broke of the horrific crimes of GP Harold Shipman in nearby Ashton-under-Lyne.

In both cases it was complete coincidence that I had chosen these topics – or they had chosen me.   The stories emerged through the writing.  I hadn’t picked a topic, researched it and then given it to my PI as a case.  Perhaps there is an element of a writer picking up on the fears and rumours and speculation in the air at the time, on the undercurrents of anxiety and whispers of wrongdoing.  There’s also an element of writing about what you fear – and then real life showing you those fears are well founded.  In much of my work I write about what I dread – about my nightmares writ large.  And of course I sincerely hope none of them come true.  But life continues to be ever stranger, darker and more harrowing than fiction.

Research – A Story of Resentment

I hate research.  I think, as a writer, that’s probably a minority position.  Most writers seem to relish it, waxing lyrical about libraries and reference books, research trips and source material.

There are three reasons I hate it: it’s tedious, it takes me away from writing and it’s scary.

Tedium first.  I find it very hard to connect to non-fiction, my eyes glaze over and my mind wanders off.  It takes me a week to make it through Saturday’s Guardian – in small chunks at a time.  Practical research is easier than reading – visiting a location to check it out or meeting someone to talk about their area of expertise – but even so it is something I would avoid if I could get away with it. Because…

… My second point – it takes me away from the writing.  I want to tell a story, I invent the characters and a situation, I know roughly where I am going and that’s what sets my heart beating, that’s what gets me up in the morning.  Not another two hours spent on Google and Wikipedia or at the library.

And scary?  Because you can get it wrong!  Fiction is never wrong, it’s only a point of view, an offering which you hope will mean something to other people.  It might be badly written or unsatisfying but it can’t be objectively incorrect.  However research is about facts and figures and dates and procedures that are objective.  Mistakes are possible.

When I started writing I chose a private eye as my protagonist, I based her in Manchester and gave her the problem of juggling work and childcare.  That immediately let me off huge swathes of research as there were no rules whatsoever to being a PI, I lived in Manchester so knew the city well and I was steeped in my own real-life attempts to find a balance between work and home life.  But as I developed as a writer and broadened my horizons, I was drawn to tackling subjects that couldn’t be done without proper, careful research.  So, for example, recently I’ve written fiction or drama about assisted dying and life in a women’s prison, about the Mau Mau rebellion in colonial Kenya, and the way dangerous driving offences are investigated.  The writing couldn’t happen without the research (though I did persuade my partner, who is a history buff, to read some of the books about the Mau Mau for me and mark relevant sections).  The meetings I’ve had with solicitors and women prisoners have been incredibly useful and illuminating and I’m glad that the work I’ve produced is as authentic as I can make it.  But with each new project my heart sinks at the thought of yet more research.

DIY is one of my hobbies and I guess research is a bit like having to get all the gubbins out and prepare the space before you can actually get cracking.  An inescapable, necessary and unrewarding part of the job.

Wonderful words

Words are the writer’s medium, the raw material, the building blocks with which we construct our stories.  A follow-on question to, ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ might well be, ‘Where do you find the words?’  How do we translate that vision in our head, that image in our mind’s eye, that scene, the picture of a character into marks on the page or screen?

For myself it’s an organic process, the words come into my head, sometimes visit my mouth (I shape them as I’m writing, tasting them which must look bizarre and is one reason for not writing in front of an audience) and then they travel down my arm to my hand and through the pen to the page.

As I’ve said before I don’t like to analyse the process of writing too much (superstitious) but as I write I am often automatically seeking out better words to capture what I mean.  My first draft has plenty of crossings out.  A grey sky will become a blank or bleak sky.  ‘How are you?’ will be replaced by, ‘You okay?’ or, ‘How you doing?’  There are dozens of choices as I write.  And a sense of the rhythm of the words, the beat beneath them, figures in there somewhere.

Then there is the Thesaurus.  I love the Thesaurus.  I’m prone to repetition and finding alternative words helps keep that in check and introduces variety into my work.

Sometimes I collect words as I read other people’s books.  If they strike me as particularly eloquent or visceral then I jot them down and when I am tidying up my prose I consider whether there is a good place for any of them.  Often they don’t fit or they don’t suit my style so they languish on the list for the future.

You may have read lots of rules about writing: cut out your adverbs, avoid the passive voice, don’t split infinitives.  None of these rules help me, I ignore them all.  I prefer to rely on my instincts.  And I constantly break a rule that I was taught at school – never start a sentence with ‘and’.  (See what I did there?)  I also have loads and loads of sentences that are not proper sentences even though they start with a capital letter and end with a full stop.  I leave out the subject or the verb or both.  Suffice to say the grammar and style function on my word processor is permanently disabled.

It works for me.

Where do you get your ideas from?

It’s the question writers get asked most.  Sometimes I make a jokey reply: ‘Off a stall in Longsight Market.’  Truth is, I’m a little reluctant to examine too closely how ideas come, I don’t like to analyse my writing process.  For me, writing is about letting go, freeing up my mind to play, create, invent and I fear that too much unpicking of that might make me self-conscious, hamper that flow.  In a similar way, as a reader I don’t want to analyse the books I’m immersed in, I want to suspend disbelief and accept the world of the story and connect with the characters.

What is true for me is that stories come in different ways, some grow from a phrase that triggers a situation, and an idea of character in that situation.  Some follow from seeing an image in my head: dust motes in sunbeams in a hallway, Victorian tiles, the house holds a secret.  Particular books might start more cerebrally – thinking about a theme that seems ripe for exploration or a situation that would petrify me, or even an incident I experience that suggests a parallel in a fictional world.  These are all seeds.  In order to germinate them I need to have a sense that there’s potential in the ‘idea’, which I can only explain as a spark, an excitement; when I consider it my mind goes racing ahead.  But I can’t make real progress until I discover the characters.  I can’t go anywhere until I’ve worked out who the people are, what they’re like and named them.   And then the story, the ideas develop and change as I write.   Like mould or grass or fruits.  What a job, eh?  Love it.

More Books

Here’s another unadorned list of my recent reads.  All thoroughly recommended.  Aren’t books great?

Under The Dome by Stephen King

Collecting Cooper by Paul Cleave

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

Dominion by CJ Sansom

The Wicked Girls by Alex Marwood

The Betrayal by Helen Dunmore

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

The Last Warner Woman by Kei Miller

Ghostman by Roger Hobbs

Snowdrops by AD Miller

National Libraries Day

Today I’ve been along to Fallowfield Library – one of 6 Manchester libraries threatened with closure in the latest round of public service cuts – cuts due to the government’s austerity programme.  (And that’s working really well, isn’t it?)  The meeting room was packed and reflected the wide cross-section of local people who depend on the library and see it as the heart of their community.  From pensioners who meet there and find it a lifeline, a social hub, and who can only attend because it is near enough to walk, to children involved in youth activities  (no youth clubs are left in the area) or who use the computers and other resources for homework.  From students who study there and people who use the library to try and find jobs, to people who need help and advice and know the best place to start is at the library.  Then of course there are the people of all ages who go in to borrow books (including talking books and books in other languages) or DVDs, to read newspapers or get something photocopied.  The clear shared feeling at the meeting was that the library is the heart of the community and that losing it would be a life-blow to community cohesion.  ‘There’ll be nothing left,’ was said and repeated several times.  ‘It’s all we’ve got.’  There are no other community venues in the area and the library supports many local groups who meet there.  Back in June I wrote a piece for The Reading Agency for National Reading Group Day about what libraries mean to me – you can see it here.  Every person at the meeting today and those in libraries across the country will have their own stories to tell about what their library means to them.   And everyone there today who spoke, except the local authority’s Head of Libraries, was totally opposed to the proposals.

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.

The Next Big Thing Blog Tour

I’ve been tagged by Russell James crime writer extraordinaire, to take part in this relay style blog called ‘The Next Big Thing Blog Hop Tour’ or some such combination.  In essence I answer a handful of questions, and then tag other authors who will answer the same questions on their own blogs.  I am going to cheat a little bit here but for good reason – I’ve been working on two books this year, both out in spring 2013 and would like to talk about both of them.

What is the working title of your next book?  TBC but it’s the second Scott & Bailey novel.

Where did the idea come from for the book?  The characters come from the TV series Scott & Bailey, created by Sally Wainwright and Di Taylor, but the central story is about a family homicide – a subject which I find very frightening.

What genre does your book fall under?  Crime fiction.

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?   The same ones who already play them on telly!

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?  A man kills his wife, daughter and brother-in-law and flees with his two young sons, can Scott and Bailey save them while fighting their own private demons?

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?  Agented, published by Transworld.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?  Five months.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?  Broken Harbour by Tana French begins with a similar crime but develops it in a very different way.  (I read it after I’d plotted out my story and totally loved it!)

Who or what inspired you to write this book?  My agent Sara Menguc flagged up this topic some time ago when we were talking about my standalone titles – this book seemed like the right vehicle for it.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?  The female friendships remain very much to the fore, it’s rooted in the North and there’s some inventive swearing a la TV series!


And for round two….

What is the working title of your next book?  Blink of an Eye.

Where did the idea come from for the book?  Thinking about what it would be like to have a child in trouble – in this case charged with causing death by dangerous driving.

What genre does your book fall under?  Crime fiction.

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?  Absolutely no idea!  I can only see them in my head for now.

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?  A moment’s recklessness destroys the lives of three families; how would you cope if your daughter was to blame?

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?  Agented, published by Constable and Robinson.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?  Five months.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?  Not sure, to be honest.  The stand-alone books I’m writing are less detective fiction and more about ordinary people caught up in the criminal justice system.  They do ask ethical questions and one reader compared them to Jodi Picoult.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?  Just my imagination.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?  The impact of the accident puts great strain on the family and fans a feud between two sisters while mother and grandmother Carmel tries to hold it all together.

Please do visit the following authors who are taking on the baton:

Dagger award winner Margaret Murphy writes gripping psychologial thrillers (and is an accomplice of mine in Murder Squad)

Kate Ellis (another Squaddie) creates an intriguing blend of mystery and history in her novels

Mel Sherratt (who I’ve met on Twitter and at crime writing festivals) specialises in gritty crime drama

Janis Hill (also a Twitter friend who lives down under) is about to launch her debut book in the speculative fiction genre.  Find her here