Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Writing Short Stories for Radio

Penguins listen so carefully they sometimes fall over

Ah, the cherished dream of the fledging short story writer – to get 13 minutes’ exposure on BBC radio. Such is the potential prize, each time I draft a story to submit to Radio 4’s Opening Lines, for example, I fail to send it in because I feel I have not edited enough, it is not quite as close to finished as I can ever get it.

I’m glad, now, that I followed this impulse. At the first London Short Story Festival in June, canny curator Paul McVeigh had managed to get hold of Di Speirs, books editor at BBC radio, and arranged a session for her to talk about short fiction on the radio along with writers whose work has made it thus far.

The pleasurable part of this session was listening to Claire Keegan, Lisa Blower and Stella Duffy all read from stories of theirs which were written for broadcast, or edited for radio having made the BBC Short Story Prize shortlist. It was interesting to listen to writers read aloud in voices not their own, and to be asked questions that only another radio-edited writer, KJ Orr, could ask. But the nuts and bolts of this session came from Di Speirs herself, so for writers who crave their 13 minutes of radio fame, it is Di’s advice that I’m going to summarise here. This woman, after all, has an attuned ear – she gleans the three best stories from 2,000 or so submissions – and her advice is golden.

1. Think of the woman chopping onions

When Di looks at a piece for BBC radio, she imagines that woman, standing in her kitchen chopping onions, and goes from there. This stands for a lot: as Di went on to explain, many listeners will hear the start of a story whilst distracted, and then be drawn in, so you better grab their attention if you want them to stay with it. So think of that woman chopping onions as a shortcut to thinking of the listener as Di does. However...

2. The woman chopping onions is not a stereotype

Some of us might dress that imaginary onion-chopper in a sensible blouse and a mid-length M&S skirt; we might give her greying hair and received pronunciation, grown children and a King Charles spaniel. However we imagine her, we must not take the next step into imagining this listener is conservative (small c). Di believes that BBC radio listeners love fiction, and that they love experiment, challenge, originality and innovation. Whilst swearing, gratuitous violence and guttural sex scenes are not really on the cards, do not think of your listeners as po-faced.

3. Onion chopping may not take brains, but listeners are clever

Do not underestimate the intelligence of your potential audience. Also, do not underestimate the attention they will be giving to your story if they are fully listening. Especially when you remember that ...

4. You are naked

Di made this point, and Stella Duffy absolutely emphasised it. A story on the radio is exposed. There is only one voice; no print, no pictures to distract the listener. Poor writing, sentence structure and awkward rhythms will show up more here than ever.

5. As well as onions and nudity, keep these pitfalls in mind:
  • Time-jumping is tricky – the listener cannot flip back
  • Unattributed dialogue is confusing, especially if the voices are similar
  • Voices of small children are also tricky when it comes to recording
  • Stories that rant do not appeal, so avoid polemic in the guise of fiction
  • Elliptical, over-clever stories are hard to listen to

6. Finally: edit, copy edit and proof read as much as you can without crying, onions or no. There is no better excuse to put down a submission than evidence that the writer has not edited properly.

Above all, though, think of a voice – this story must have its own voice (it doesn’t have to be the mythical one that we writers are supposedly ever seeking – just one that belongs to the story) and imagine it speaking aloud as you write. 

You can submit work for radio to Sweet Talk and Pier Productions as well as direct to Radio 4, but they all have their submission periods, so check these first. The next deadline for Sweet Talk is 18th July, and you can find the details here.

Good luck!

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