When my friend Kellie Jackson started telling me how she came to write a story for BBC Radio 4, and what she learnt from it, I found it so fascinating that I asked her to do a guest blog for me. So here it is. The story itself, The Indian Hospital, is broadcast tomorrow, Wednesday 19th August, as part of a series of threePavilion Pieces stories (the first is this afternoon, the third on Thursday). Listen again link here.
After completing an MA in Creative and Life Writing at Goldsmith’s College, I’ve been blundering along trying to complete my first novel. The trouble is as a reader and a writer, I’m drawn to short fiction. Then, by chance, I was asked to submit a sample of my writing for the opportunity to be commissioned to write a short story for Radio 4. If commissioned it would mean writing one of three stories, all by new writers, set around Brighton’s Royal Pavilion. To my utter astonishment, weeks later the producer emailed to say they liked my writing and so, I made a foray to Brighton, soaked up the inspirational Pavilion vibe, did some preliminary research in the Brighton Museum Library, and was ready to meet the producer armed with an idea. My imagination had been snagged by the transformation of the Pavilion into a Hospital for Indian soldiers at the beginning of the First World War.
Writing short fiction for radio is different from writing for print. Listening to the radio is similar to reading a book, it’s a direct form of communication, but a listener can do it while doing something else. Radio demands memorable images, especially visual images to speak directly to the listener’s imagination. The brief was to fill around 13 minutes of airtime, approximately 1800 to 2000 words. No inappropriate language, it would be going out at a 3.30pm slot. Much excitement. Must remain calm. I mentioned that another BBC radio producer had given a seminar during my MA. I didn’t say that when I looked up my notes from that session, I’d found a page of doodles. It was a fascinating seminar; we’d listened to some examples of new writing, but obsessed with the printed page, I’d never considered the possibility that radio might offer my first professional writing job.
A few more mad spurts of research; the Imperial War Museum, London, then back to the Museum Library in Brighton and more time online. Then, hoping my children could fend for themselves, I hunkered down to a first draft over half term. During the research, I’d caught glimpses of my Gerkha boy soldiers in old photos, started to see them in situ, began to hear their voices. I’d certainly no trouble with the King and Queen characters sweeping imperiously through my setting. The Pavilion was a joy to write but it’s people that people really care about. So keeping in mind the old mantra, ‘character is action’, I began to tease out the characters by overwriting, trusting some sort of story would float to the surface. I ended up with about 3000 words and set about paring down to find the narrative.
In many ways the whole exercise was like writing any other story, especially trying to employ the senses; except I ‘listened’ a lot more to the words. Instead of reading the work out loud, I listened to my story in progress via the speech command on my Mac (always trying to find new ways to ‘hear’; by sitting in a different part of the room say...). I sent a rough draft to my writing group, who kindly dropped everything and met for an emergency workshop. I rewrote the thing again, then with fingers crossed I sent off the first draft.
A week or so later I met the producer for notes and received the calm encouragement I needed. The bones of the narrative were there but I needed to bring out the drama, especially in terms of developing my characters within their setting. Think of actors on a set, said the producer, with good acting you don’t notice the set, the characters are at home in it...I needed to find my close up and work on it. Normally at this stage I would put the work in a drawer and leave it to settle, come back to it later with with new eyes and ears. No time!
More rewriting. More new writing and editing. I took favourite scenes out, mainly descriptions of the setting. Another meeting. A timed read through. The favourite scenes were missed. I put them back. Apparently much can be done in the editing room. I rewrote the last 2 paragraphs, thinking how the final work might be edited. Would it still make sense if the last paragraph went? I found out the amazing actress Judy Parfitt was going to read my story and nearly turned inside out with excitement. I panicked I was not up to the task. The producer was all kindness, support and reassurance for the nervous novice.
I went along to the recording and met the production team. I listened in absolute awe and wonder as Judy Parfitt read my words and brought such life to the characters and story. Judy’s voice is so layered, full of inflection and intonation.
I could hear how radio rendered superfluous the few adjectives and adverbs in the story; they stood out like stage directions; not necessary when such an amazing actress had injected so much into the reading. After sitting in on some of the editing, my time was up. They needed to move on to recording the next Pavilion Pieces story. Over a speedy bowl of soup, the producer was interested in where I thought cuts could be made. But truth be told, my story was in such safe hands. The editing would be finished later...So I’ll be listening with fresh ears on Wednesday. It will be my first listen of the finished product. I’m also looking forward to hearing the other two stories.
After all that excitement, I’ve now skulked back to my novel like an unfaithful lover. Superstitious to the core, I no longer refer to the work as a novel, rather, my ‘longer piece of fiction’. Maybe that will fool the Gods and eventually my unwieldy ragbag of fragmentary writing will be crafted into a cohesive shape. I’m a slow processor, but not as slow as I thought. Writing a short story for radio has been a learning curve, not least because it had real purpose beyond writing for pleasure or even an imaginary reader. And next Wednesday, just for a change, I’ll actually have an audience for fifteen minutes.