The event was hosted by Kate Rowland of the BBC Writersroom, and featured Sarah Daniels and Kwame Kwei-Armah, both of whom have written extensively for radio as well as stage and screen. Both of them were articulate and amusingly candid, and gave a lot of useful insights into the business of writing. Talking about how he got into writing in general, Kwame said that as an actor he realised the best way to play the roles he wanted would be to write them, and that he had a need to create the stories he wanted to see.
Sarah, in reference to the radio medium, said that she felt it was the best medium to write for, because as a writer you had the freedom to take the story anywhere in space and/or time, as there’s a sound effect for everything you could possibly write. She stressed, though, that it was important to focus on writing good drama rather than thinking in terms of writing for radio, as there could be a tendency to overdo the FX side of things.
Kwane echoed this, adding that due to the absence of visual cues on the radio – he cited the example of one character looking at another knowingly – he enjoyed the challenge of ‘negotiating the medium’, and finding words to convey emotion and the like.
Talking about the opening moments – and for writers, this would equate to the initial pages – Sarah urged everyone to make sure that there was something, no matter what it was, to hook the listeners’ attention within the first couple of minutes. She pointed out that whilst someone who wasn’t enjoying a play would probably wait until the interval before leaving, with the radio it’s all too easy for a listener to switch channels, so you need to hook them in quickly.
Both writers agreed that one of the huge benefits of working in radio was the fact that you invariably worked with one person as Script Editor / Producer, compared to the multiple levels involved in, say, TV. Kwame used the phrase ‘multiple frustrations’ to describe the way that he’d previously had contradictory notes on his non-radio scripts, especially when they came from the same person.
Kwame pointed out that, as opposed to necessarily having to paint some kind of aural soundscape, it was possible to make a radio play very intimate, and he drew attention to how Sarah’s work contained what he called ‘space around the words’, which I thought was a rather evocative phrase (reminds me of the comment about music being the gaps between the notes, which I think was said by Debussy).
Sarah admitted that she’d never been good at getting up early in the morning, and said that one of the best things about being a writer is that “you never have to do ‘really early’ again”, a comment which drew laughter from the audience, even if it was probably slightly tinged with envy.
Discussing the issue of self-censorship (for example, when basing characters on, or portraying, real people), Sarah told about how she’d once removed some rather barbed material from a play she’d written, and it had actually been better for it, though Kwame had a contrary experience; to prevent his central character being too purely and unfeasibly heroic, he’d needed to add in some ‘human foible’ to the character, and had worried that this might have offended the last living relative of the person in question (it hadn’t). He suggested that it was a question of negotiating your overall agenda as a writer – if you have a specific stance or point you want to voice – and how this could be balanced with the needs of the story and the characters. In a similar vein, Kate Rowland added that it was an important skill for writers to be able to self-edit.
Tying in rather nicely with his ealier remarks and bringing things full circle, one of Kwame’s closing comments was that a good question to always ask yourself is “Is this something I’d enjoy?”
And that’s my summary of the event. It was interesting, and did – as I’d hoped – spur me on to get on with the radio play which has been sitting on my hard drive, half-done, for… well, too long. Certainly glad I attended – it cost nothing to do so, and they were dishing out free drinks and notebooks – though it was amusing to spot, as I have at such events before, that my preferred choice of notebook, Moleskine, was very much in evidence. I think they’re really good notebooks, but they do seem to be fairly ubiquitous amongst writers (though that might be testimony to their usefulness).
One slightly disappointing aspect of the event for me was that various people seemed to be less keen to take advantage of the opportunity to ask questions of the proper, living, breathing and more importantly professional writers in front of them, and a bit too keen to ask Kate Rowland questions about the process and policies of the BBC Writersroom – specifically, about issues relating to the rejection of their script, the background of the Writersroom readers, and that kind of thing. I thought this was misjudged, and I actually felt bad for the two writers, as they were sidelined in the overall discussion whilst Kate replied, explaining things which I felt she shouldn’t have had to get into in that forum. There’s enough information on the Writersroom site to answer most general questions, and if you’ve got a specific question about it, that’s something to ask Kate afterwards – like the writers, she was available to chat with afterwards – and as there was a limited timeframe, I felt that this was a waste of time and opportunity – perhaps this is the self-editing so vital in writers that was referred to? (He wrote, at the end of a lengthy paragraph, as the words and irony weighed down on him…)
Anyway, it was a good event, and I even got to chat to Mr Beckley (who’s not one millionth as terrifying as his profile photo might suggest), and bumped into an old workmate (hello Jessica, if you’re reading this), which was a pleasant surprise, as when I worked with her I hadn’t known she was interested in writing.
So, all in all, I’m very glad I went along.