Writing for Radio

They say my dialogue is weak. What do I do?

Fiction writers often talk as if we have to write in two completely different modes: dialogue, and everything else. There is a basic difference: while narration is, clearly, the writer's choice of words to convey a story, dialogue is trying to evoke how people who are not the writer actually speak. But if you've ever listened to recordings of real conversation - all ums and ers and going round in circles - you'll know that even the most naturalistic written dialogue is in fact very different. And by no means all fiction-writers and playwrights - who deal chiefly in dialogue... Read more →

Writing Historical Fiction, Creative Darwins, The Genre Swap and other stories

There seems to have been a lot going on, lately, and if the blog's been a bit quiet, that's why. I'm up to my neck in the last work on Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction. It's due out mid-Autumn and, as ever, even when I've been living with a project for years, I can't quite believe that it is about to become a Real Book, but all the signs are there! And historical fiction's a bit of a theme elsewhere. Also in the autumn, I'll be heading down to Leith Hill Place, the lovely house where Ralph Vaughan Williams... Read more →

Listen Again to my story "Calling" on Radio 4 Extra

I'm delighted that the story I wrote for Radio 4 has been repeated on Radio 4 Extra. Click here to Listen Again for the next four weeks.* Twelve-year-old Tom and his sister first came to Brighton after they lost their father in the great storm of 1883. They left their mother at her new job in the big house and walked to their lodgings in the Lanes. But in the middle of the night Tom hears their mother calling for them. And in trying to find her, he finds his own future. But, of course, that's only how the story... Read more →

All the posts I mentioned at Arvon/Historical Fiction with M C Scott

These are all the posts I think I mentioned at Arvon Lumb Bank, when M C Scott and I had the pleasure of spending a week talking about writing historical fiction with fifteen writers who are rash enough to want to join us - and then wrote some truly fantastic stuff. We also had a splendid evening with Robert Low, ex-Para, ex-journalist and current Viking. If you were there, and remember me mentioning a post or a book or a topic which I haven't put here, do say so in the comments, and I'll do my best to dig it... Read more →

Postiversary Competition Third Prize Winner: Where Do You Get Your Ideas From, by Sophie Jonas-Hill

Congratulations to Sophie Jonas-Hill for this delightful post, which won third prize in the This Itch of Writing 500th Postiversary Competition. Sophie wins a two-night writers' retreat at Retreats for You in Sheepwash, North Devon, where full board and friendly writerly company come as standard, and total silence and lunch-on-a-tray are offered with equal generosity. What I loved about this post is that it takes a classic question which we're all very familiar with, and finds a way to express it freshly, and practically. And I always love connections between different kinds of creativity: so often they illuminate each other.... Read more →

Is your sex and violence boundary-breaking, brave, or just plain lazy?

One of the things you learn to take in your stride, when you're teaching creative writing, is sex and violence, on the page, at least. And then there's other "strong material": racism or misogyny in action or language which would be distasteful to some or many readers. I'm sure anyone reading this blog would agree that for writing as a creative discipline the default should be No Limits - and yet we do all have limits. And very, very occasionally the piece is genuinely ethically dubious, and hopefully the institution you're working for will have a policy that you're not... Read more →

What does your character say about him/herself?

When Jessica Chastaine is working on a part, she says, she makes two lists: "One: everything my character says about herself, and Two: everything everyone else says about her." It's a good technique, and I'm sure she's not unique in using it: it sounds like a classic Drama School exercise. And, as so often, listening to how actors work is illuminating for writers. If our first draft is like the kind of improvising that goes on when actors and a playwright are devising a piece, and our obsession with finding the right verb is almost indistiguishable from Stanislavski's, then Chastaine's... Read more →

6 questions to ask your descriptions

In How Would You Describe It? I was talking about this thing called Description, which seems to get so many beginner-writers worried, and how you can get better at it. But I don't myself have a mental category of writing called Description at all; I just think in terms of Dialogue, and Everything Else - or, more grown-uply, Narration. That's not because evoking places and things isn't important. The places and spaces we live in, and the things we live with, are profoundly important - but notice that they're important because we live in and with them: it's how we... Read more →

London Road Calling

Last week I went to see London Road at the National Theatre. It's a verbatim play: its script contains nothing but things real people actually said over two years from the first of the Ipswich Murders, to the conviction of the murderer. And as we discussed it, I remembered the part of the Writing for Radio course I've just done, where we explored the use you could make of pre-existing spoken-word material - news broadcasts, for example, or other kinds of sound clip, right back to the days when you tuned your wireless from the Local or the National, and... Read more →

What time are you talking about?

I've been working flat-out on the WIP, and I can now see the end of the story, in the sense that I know pretty much how I'm going to get to the end which has always been there, though I still need to imagine-out-and-write my way through all the exact moves... So I didn't get out for my statutory walk till after ten last night, and halfway round it I had a qualm. The last few days' writing is quite brisk because there's lots happening; there's not much expansion of setting or atmosphere, nor much in the way of flashback,... Read more →

Making a Scene

One of the things that's often recommended to neophyte writers of novels is to have one scene per chapter. And someone then asks "What's a scene?" and someone else "How long should a chapter be?" And they're right that the two things are interrelated, but I don't think one-scene-per-chapter is necessarily the best solution. And the length any chapter "ought" to be is actually determined by what you think a chapter is. So, what's going on? We all know what a scene is in a play, of course... or do we? English drama packs multiple comings and goings into a... Read more →

The Hoops You Must Jump Through: an insider's view of writing competitions, part 1

Susannah Rickards won the Scott Prize with her debut collection of short fiction, Hot Kitchen Snow and it's just out from Salt. She's also the teaching a workshop on entering writing competitions at the Claygate & Esher Short Fiction Festival, which is running 26-28th November as part of National Short Story Week. For many writers competitions are their first taste of trying to get their work noticed, but most of us have little idea of how they work and therefore little idea of how we might improve our chances of getting onto the longlist. So when I heard that Susannah... Read more →

A very Itchy birthday

Today's the third birthday of This Itch of Writing, and a good moment to thank everyone who's joined in over the years. I really didn't know, when I started this blog, whether I would find I had anything to say, or anything I wanted to say, let alone whether anyone would want to listen or respond. So it's been a delight to find that I have, and people do. Indeed, it hasn't just been fun: I've thrashed out ideas on here which ended up in my PhD, and your comments have enlarged not just my ideas about writing, but my... Read more →

Writing for radio 8: a streak of evening sun

So now the dust has settled, and my story 'Calling', broadcast on Radio 4, has vanished into the ether (except for me, since I've got a lovely CD of all three Lost in the Lanes stories), and my writing brain's moved on to other projects. But there's no denying that even if I'm commissioned again, it's definitely one of the landmarks that will be visible for a long time, when I look back over my shoulder. So what does the landmark consist of? Some of these are my perceptions, some I gathered from friends who listened. My work read by... Read more →

Writing for radio 7: how I wrote 'Calling'

Now that 'Calling' has been broadcast, and the flurry of flattering Facebook comments and tweets and emails had died down, I meant to do one last post in this Writing for Radio series: how it feels to have your story read on the radio. But then a friend who writes magazine fiction for a living started a discussion of where stories come from, and I realised that actually I haven't been able to talk properly about where 'Calling' came from, because it would have given away the story. So this post is one big plot spoiler, and if you'd like... Read more →

My radio story and other - er - stories...

I was foolish enough to think that when I'd got my new novel off to my agent for her opinion, life would get a bit simpler. In fact, of course, it's got more complicated, as there's a huge swathe of stuff that I put aside to get the novel done, from doing my tax return to booking a holiday, by way of returning my London Library books and even reading a book or six purely for fun. The tax return, in particular, is not only tedious to do, it also gives me a weird sensation that last year is passing... Read more →

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... Read more →

Writing for radio part 5: editing

The first pass revisions of my story for Radio 4 were the usual ones. First, once I had the story down on the page, it was about adjustments to the structure and spacing of the piers of the bridge: this is where being able to spread the pages of a short story out is wonderful. In such a short story, and one to be read aloud, there isn't space for anything structurally complex, but it's an oldish man remembering his youth: was the frame the right width (length?); did the sense of the speaker's 'now' fade in and out at... Read more →

Writing for radio part 4: writing

It sounds a bit obvious, but I realised that knowing my radio story would be spoken aloud and heard, not written and read, did change things. I write in first person most of the time, because it's so much easier to find the right, particular, different voice and the plotting problems it leads to are usually surmountable. If I want more than one viewpoint I'll have more than one first-person narrator. But I'd been flirting with the idea of writing this story in third person with a shifting or even omniscient point of view, since it's a while since I... Read more →

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... Read more →