Monday, December 03, 2012

Writing a new script in a week

Entries close today for The Writer's Prize, a new opportunity for radio drama and comedy writers. Entries have to be scripts for half hour comedies or longer, dramatic pieces, written for radio. The prize? The chance [but not the guarantee] of a BBC commission.

I used the competition as a deadline to get myself writing an idea I've been mulling over for months. As a self-employed writer, finding the time to write spec scripts is problematic. 99% of specs never get made, and most never get read - a sad fact of life.

So an external deadline is way to overcome that hesitancy. Imagination may be unlimited on radio, but a cast of thousands is less practical, so choice of material was crucial. My plan was to write a 45-minute radio drama, which equates roughly to 7100-7800 words.

[My last radio play was a half hour conspiracy thriller. Normally a 30-minute radio drama script runs about 4500 words, but mine was long. But at read-through it was wildly short due to the pace and amount of action. Cue rewrites on the studio floor - scary!]

Ghost stories and supernatural chillers work well on radio, long on atmosphere, short on the need for visual effects. I spent two days contemplating my spec feature Akumu, a supernatural chiller with a limited cast in a claustrophobic environment. Suitable?

I decided not. Having had script reports from three professional readers, I know Akumu needs more work. Simply cutting it from feature length to 45 minutes would not resolve the underlying issues, nor overcome narrative differences between film and radio.

Having made that decision eight days ago, I needed another project fast. No time to develop a new idea and write it well, at least not for me. I have to give ideas breathing space, let my subconscious think. Rushing development never works well for me.

I considered turning an unpublished graphic novel script [which I've optioned from another writer] into radio drama. Again, this posed adaptation challenges, alongside the not inconsiderable issue of writing it from scratch in time. So that got shelved.

A few months ago I pitched for a TV drama opportunity. Didn't get the gig, but liked the narrative I developed and loved my central character's story. [It was inspired by my first radio play, a 15-minute piece broadcast in the Women's Hour drama slot.]

I dug the idea out, re-read it and got to thinking. The pitch was for a 45-minute slot, so it was a good length. It was a character piece, rather than a more high concept, visually led story. And I had a voice for the protagonist in my head - always a good sign.

I spent the rest of Sunday prepping my putative project, tweaking the two-page outline and reading radio drama scripts from the BBC writersroom site for formatting guidance. I didn't want to waste time worrying how music and sound effects should look.

Monday morning I made a start. Nailing the first scene is crucial, because it sets the tone and creates expectations in the reader. Will there be voiceover or a narrator? Is it contemporary or period drama? In a particular genre? Gritty or wry? Tragic or upbeat?

I opted for a framing device, with the protagonist telling his story to another character. One scene at the start to set things up, a quick return early on to nudge things forward, and a final scene taking the narrative full circle, designed to draw it all together.

What about a narrator? Would it help to tell the story, smooth the transitions from scene to scene? Yes, but that's lazy writing in my humble opinion. If you're having voiceover narration, it should add something - not merely duplicate or deliver bald exposition.

By the end of Monday I had 1300 words. Not a bad start, but I knew a lot of it would be rewritten or cut. Goal one - get it written. Goal two is getting it right. Tuesday was a little better, another 1700 words in total. But I knew trouble was looming up ahead.

I teach part-time on the Creative Writing MA at Edinburgh Napier University, Thursdays and Fridays. So both those days were taken. I try to avoid writing after a day's teaching, as there's usually nothing left in the tank - and I had prior bookings both nights anyway.

So Thursday and Friday were non-writing days. The contest deadline might be today, but it required hard copies be submitted by post. That meant I had to send my entry by 12.30pm on Saturday, before the local post office closed, so it would arrive in time.

By the end of Tuesday I'd written less than half of my script, and only had 1.5 days to finish the rest. Was I panicking? No, because I was not expecting my script to win anything. I was merely using the contest as an external deadline to finish a first draft.

If I had it written and ready for posting on Saturday, great. If not, so be it. I certainly wouldn't submit something I wasn't happy to have leaving the house. So the pressure was off. Deadlines might help motivate writers, but they don't guarantee your best work.

By the end of Wednesday I was just over 5000 words. I always hope for more, but use the start of each writing day to review the previous material. If possible, I print out the script to date and sub-edit it on paper. Gets me back into the characters' voices.

Plus it has another advantage: your opening ten pages will have been re-read and re-written so many times they should absolutely shine. The first ten pages of a script can determine the fate of that project, so it makes sense to have them utterly resplendent.

Two days away from the script was a bonus, in many ways. It gave me some distance from the material I'd already written. It gave my subconscious time to think about what I'd done, and suggest ways of improving that, along with a path to the finish.

I grabbed five minutes on Friday night to scribble some notes for the next day. Sections to rewrite, tonal lurches to correct, and a list of scenes that could get me to the end of the narrative. Then I fell into bed at 1am, and set the alarm for early o'clock.

Saturday: up at 5.45am, sub-editing by 6am, writing new scenes from 8am. By eleven I had finished my first draft. It was long, over 8000 words, and still a bit baggy in places. I printed out a complete copy and - armed with fresh coffee - set to work cutting.

One last run at editing, smoothing out joins, making character voices more consistent, and cutting out sections that read well but added nothing. Kill your babies time, in other words. Printed out a fresh copy, filled out my entry form and sealed it in an envelope.

The walk to the post office was the most dangerous part, with skating rinks where the footpaths used to be. In the end I get my script posted [special delivery, of course] with 18 minutes to spare. Not bad for a week of writing, interrupted by teaching and life.

As Dorothy Parker said, having written always feeling better than the experience of writing. But the physical act is only the last stage of writing. The development work happens in my head, over a period of weeks and months, not those few days of typing.

So, is my script any good? That'll be for others to judge. The deadline was a helpful arse-kick to make me script a story I had been threatening to write for months. I entered the contest with no expectations, so anything hereafter is a bonus for me. Onwards!


Jason D Jawando said...

I thought I was cutting it a bit fine writing my script over a month. That said, apart from the odd short-story, I haven't had anything published so the chance of being seriously considered is more important to me. I can also spend more time on spec scripts as I don't have any commissioned scripts to write.

Incidentally, the BBC will accept scripts postmarked with today's date, so you could have taken a couple of extra days.

Anonymous said...

Narration is a useful device in radio to create intimacy. It's definitely not lazy. Most of the experienced radio writers use it. It's actually quite a difficult technique to master. Over use of Voice Over is lazy.