The results of the BBC Writer's Prize were announced last week, with Simon Topping and Sarah Hehir both securing radio drama commissions and Mark Wallington a commission for his radio comedy. A hearty congratulations to all three, but I wouldn't be human if I didn't have a twinge of envy as I was a finalist in the drama category.
More than 1200 scripts were entered for the Writer's Prize last December. After being assessed by a team of BBC script readers, shortlisted drama and comedy scripts were given to experienced radio producers to select the finalists. Ten dramas and eight comedies went through to the judges, with the finalists notified at the end of January.
Getting through to the final stage was a lovely surprise. The three weeks of waiting that followed were slow torture, and not winning obviously a big fat disappointment. But there's still feedback to come, and a sense of achievement in being one of 18 finalists from among so many entries. A little validation does wonders for any writer's ego.
My entry was an original radio play called NO TEARS. Here's the logline: When a buttoned-down undertaker is suddenly bereaved after twenty-seven tempestuous years with a promiscuous partner, he is almost relieved - but any hope of a quiet life is utterly upended by his partner's legacy... I described the writing process in a lengthy blogpost.
I had no expectations for my entry when I put it in, using the contest deadline as a motivational to get me writing a project I'd been idly noodling with for months. That NO TEARS got so far is a lovely bonus and gives me another calling card script for my portfolio. It also makes apparent something I knew, but about which I needed reminding.
My scripts that have attracted attention - my Page Award winning short film screenplay DANNY'S TOYS, my Red Planet Prize finalist FAMILIES AT WAR, and my Writer's Prize radio play NO TEARS - were all passion projects. I didn't write them to suit a commission, and I certainly had no expectations any of them would strike a chord.
I wrote them for myself, to see if I could, to see what would happen. There's nothing wrong with writing for a commission, and most writers want to be paid for their labours, their skill, and their imagination. But writing for the love of it seems to strike a chord in me, producing work that speaks to readers - that reveals my voice, I guess.
The challenge for me is being able to write that way more often, to channel that into more of my writing projects. If I make a conscious effort to do that, it shows - like when you can see actors acting, instead of being the character they are playing. Resolving that conundrum is my challenge for the weeks, months and years of writing ahead.
One last thing: I notice someone moaning in the comments for the Writer's Prize announcement about commissioned writers being among the winners. Well, they were among the finalists too, but the contest was judged blind. It was the quality of writing that determined the winners - not their names. There's a lesson to be learned from who won.
Sometimes a new writer wins acclaim without a long history behind them. Some are naturally gifted, others get lucky early in their career. The challenge is being able to replicate the writing that made them a success. For most scribes is it takes years of training, failing, writing and rewriting to get better, to get good. It just does.
Should commissioned writers be barred from contests like the Writer's Prize? Perhaps. I entered because I had a story to tell and radio was the perfect medium for it. That I'd had two radio plays broadcast before was irrelevant. Every new script starts with a blank page, an empty screen. You still have to fill it with your story. Onwards!