Writing for radio part 2: thinking
Not just better but also richer

Writing for radio 3: meeting

I walked down the hill in the sunshine to meet the producer of my story for Radio 4 - let's call her Rosamund - trying to assemble my thoughts about what and how I write, in the hope that I'd be ready to hitch that onto what she wanted. With any new piece of work, but particularly one which is being written to contract, there's always a finely-balanced decision about how much to play to your strengths, knowing that it's a safe(ish) bet that you'll get an okay story, and how much to challenge yourself in the hope of getting something new and extra-good, but the fear of ending up with something bad.

It had been hard to decide what stories to send her in the hope of bagging this commission; I can't help thinking about how radio stories work as stories, because I left Eden many years ago, but I'd never thought about how they work as radio. I also just don't have very many stories: I love writing them, but my writing mind spends the majority of its time processing the novel-in-progress (there always is one). It's always tempting to send 'Maura's Arm', but it's uncharacteristic in various ways: what if she commissioned me to write something based on those un-characteristics? On the other hand I also wanted to show range, not least because I hadn't the faintest idea of what's suitable for radio. So after much thought I sent an unpublished story, 'Closing Time', which was longlisted for Bridport the year after 'Maura's Arm' came third, and which I revised last year under the eye of Susannah Rickards. (Yes, I know I said I never re-visit stories, but there was a competition I wanted to enter...) And because I didn't know what Rosamund would be looking for, I sent 'Russian Tea', one of my most successful stories, but one which is unusual for me in being written in third person and with a limited, moving point-of-view.

Rosamund made coffee and told me that she loved both stories: that they were moving and beautifully written, evocative of time and place. This is always a good start. And then I told her about the story I wanted to write for her. It's always nervous work, telling anyone - but particularly someone with power over your writing - the bare bones of your story. As anyone knows who's tried to write a synopsis, let alone a hook, for their novel, summarising so often seems to condense your wonderful, glowing cloud of unknowing into a small and all too familiar patch of damp. How do you convey the excitement, in words, of something which isn't yet in words? And I didn't actually have a synopsis: I still only really knew what the central problem was - she'd given me that, in 'Lost in the Lanes' - and where the story would end, and that wasn't, exactly, in the Lanes at all.

But she loved it. She liked the fact that it would be historical, agreed that it sounded the right size of idea for 2000 words, thought a first-person narrator was fine, was cool with the idea that he (it was a he, always had been from my first thought) would be speaking from old age about long ago, and didn't seem fazed by the unknown bits. And in talking round it, one or two more little bits of the cloud condensed into something rather more sparkly than damp. I remembered that Kellie had talked about direct communication in a read-aloud story, and no swear words, and I'd wondered if there was anything else I ought to know about writing for radio. But the only explicit guidance Rosamund offered was to say that I should establish the setting quickly: that with a read story the audience can't go back and check where we are; that they're much more just in the moment that's being read. So I left Rosamund's house with a commission, a deadline, a recording date and a transmission date. And I walked back up the hill, my brain-cogs whizzing.

I nearly said I walked home 'thinking hard', but it doesn't feel like that, does it, when your creative brain's really going. I only know I'm thinking hard when I'm having to make myself do it: when I haven't yet found the problem. But I had found the problem, and it was voice. Plots are heavy but straightforward engineering, to me: you arrange things which happen into a convincing-seeming chain of cause and effect. But voice is life and no-one's quite worked out how to engineer that: how the story is told is what makes it seem real. And voice in a story like this is inevitably a many-layered affair. There's the voice of the narrator: an oldish man whose character I didn't really know, except inasmuch as it was formed by the events I hadn't yet written. And since he's recalling something which happened when he was quite young, that old, adult voice would be sliding, in a kind of restricted free indirect style, into a young voice. But of course, underlying both is my voice: my writerly DNA of sound, rhythm, vocabulary, grammar and syntax. I went home, did the Happy Author Dance round the kitchen, armed myself with a cup of tea, then went upstairs to my bookshelves and starting looking for voices.