Wake up and re-write
Repainting the (finger)post

Writing for radio part 6: recording

A few days before I was due in Brighton for the recording of my radio story, Cecilia the producer rang to say that the story did, after all, feel a bit short: could I make it a bit longer? When it comes to revisions I'm basically an adder, not a cutter, so it's not an inherently unnatural process, although you always worry that you're adding fat rather than muscle to the bones of the story. I didn't so much add, as develop latent moments in it, and I was pleased with the result. I read it for time - slowing down to my best guess at performance speed, and it was just right: 13.30 minutes. But, just in case, I marked some bits that could come out if necessary.

On Tuesday morning I hopped on a train and wizzed down to the headquarters of Pier Productions. Pier may occupy a house which one of Georgette Heyer's heroines would recognise, but at the top is a radio recording studio and there, reading my story aloud, was actor Philip Voss, with Cecilia and the production assistant, stopwatch in hand. As you'd expect in a stalwart of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Philip has the most wonderful voice; full and flexible. Later, I reflected that there's an analogy here with one of the things we're getting at when we talk about the writer's voice. It's not necessarily that it's idiosyncratic or instantly recognisable (except to a die-hard fan). What's more fundamental is that the voice - while undeniably still yours - has as wide an expressive range as possible, free of tics and tricks and habits, and without restrictions: it can then respond as the character and setting demand.

But at the time it was just extraordinary to hear my words spoken by someone else. Reading writing aloud is a crucial part of my process, and I do a lot of readings, and I've had a certain amount of voice training along the way too. Most of the time I 'hear' what I'm about to write before it hits the page, and when a copy-editor and I disagree about punctuation it's usually because I'm punctuating for how I'd read it, not for the formal rules; in short, I'm very used to how my work sounds in my voice, even if the people I'm voicing aren't me at all. It is, if you like, voice as medium. But this was someone else; Philip, voicing an older Tom telling a story of younger Tom, said things differently, thought things differently, was a different person. And some of that person was Tom, bodily, whereas as a writer I was Tom only in my mind. Voice as medium had become partly voice as message.

After the read-through, the rest of us shuffled next door to the control room, and Philip sat down before the microphone. There were two main takes, and then another for a few bits where neither take was quite right. But it was over a minute too long. Of course, it isn't a question of just saying, 'Can you read faster?' Although an actor expects to be directed as to how the story works, and told if something's not quite working, how he then expresses it must be left to him. Micro-managing a performance is as counter-productive as trying to micro-manage your fellow writer's work. For the piece to be a coherent whole, it has to be the outcome of single person's mind, body and personality.

But it was too long; Radio 4 isn't about to rejig its schedules for me. There was scope for shuffling up some pauses but after that stuff was going to have to go. First, out came the things I'd marked. Then some more. But you can only cut audio in ways that keep the shape and sound of the reading. You can't easily cut the beginning or middle of a sentence, for example, because what's left doesn't have the inflexions our instincts expect. And you also need to make the sense work: it's no good keeping a sentence which starts 'but' if the previous sentence has gone. But we could only work with the audio material we had. So finding the best cuts became a whole new way of thinking about how writing works.

In the nature of things, quite a few of the cuts were some of the late augmentations. They really did add some nice small complexities and extra resonances, but in structural terms it didn't upset the story to lose them. I wondered whether, if I ever published a print version, I'd restore those cuts. Some of them? What about the ones which were done on the recording, that I don't have marked down? Do they actually exist as part of my work? I liked the original story; I liked the augmented story; I like the cut story. So which is the 'right' version? I like how I read it; I loved how Philip read it. But which reading of the story is more 'true' to Tom's story: mine as the original imaginer and storyteller, or Philip's as an actor really embodying Tom?

The answer is, of course, that there is no 'right' version of any story you imagine. With every word you choose, you are choosing to go one way, rather than another. Even in a story of 2000 or so words, that's a lot of different possibilities, different versions have different virtues, and some of the cutting suggestions weren't even mine. Yes, if it's a good version then it will seem complete and satisfying to the reader/hearer. But there isn't necessarily one 'best' or even 'better' version. That's okay too. I think. Of course, I have yet to hear it broadcast, which isn't for another month (and yes, I'll be posting and Tweeting like mad, when I know the date.) How will it sound to me then? I'll just have to wait and hear.