27 Jun

Next month my first novel, Dolly Butler’s Eight-Day Week, is out. Having being conceived and written as a script for my final MA (Scriptwriting) submission, its development has been unusual, and the differences and similarities in the two disciplines are worth reflecting upon.

Casting about for an idea that would excite me, I came across Susannah Stapleton’s The Adventures of Maud West who was an early 20th century detective and seemed a hoot. I knew immediately I wanted to create a similar character, despite not having a massive interest in the detective genre or in creating period drama. She tackled her work with a gung-ho pluckiness, reported her exploits in gingered-up tales, and sported what are, in today’s eyes, unconvincing disguises, many of them male. Dolly was to be a mix between Inspector Clouseau and Gentleman Jack. 

Round this time I read Tessa Boase’s Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple Feather about the conflict between the feather-adorned suffragettes and bird conservationists campaigning against the plumage industry. My Dolly would be a keen supporter of women’s rights, and so she was to sit comfortably in the 1900s, an independently-minded “new woman” – and the plot could bring her into conflict with activists of a different kind. After distracting myself with lots of research, the script was finally written and submitted.

However, the chances of my getting any script accepted for production are negligible. All the networking, career building and the industry experience isn’t going to happen – I just don’t have enough life left! But novels regularly form the basis for TV and film dramas. We were in lockdown. Nothing was getting made anyway. And I’d done all the hard work already. So I set about the task of converting my work into a novel as something to do.

The course requirement was to write only 2 of the 8 TV episodes, so for these I just had to add a bit of inner reflection and some descriptions, and write out the dialogue in prose form. I described what I had imagined for the screen, seeing the action unfold in my mind’s eye, writing the whole thing in the third person from an omniscient point of view. For the rest I took the opportunity to improve the plot, mainly because I’d had time and space to rethink it. I planned it out as if it were a script because that what I was familiar with, organising the story into scenes and making sure the plot moved forward, even if sometimes it wasn’t by much, in each scene. Having regard for the well-known dramatic structure of set-up / inciting incident / rising action / crisis / resolution was useful and one I doubt I would have given much thought to without the course. It made me more mindful of escalating tension, pace and the spacing of events and reveals.

Every day I scribbled down 500 - 2000 words hoping that they were all the right words though not necessarily in the right order. I knew it would all need revising and editing so I didn’t linger long over every page. I just got it down. At first I felt very pleased with my long sentences, grandiose terms and abundant adverbs but after studying contemporary form I realised most of them had to go. 

The writing also lacked the immersive quality that I particularly enjoy reading. It worked best when character’s voice came through so I changed the whole thing from third person to first, narrated by three different characters, using suitable language and idioms for each one. It was like writing dramatic monologues, and it was at this point that the novel really took off. 

Initially a case of describing a scene I had already planned, it gradually more like following my characters around and watching what they did. It’s at its best when one of them does something I don’t expect. For example, when one of them found a whole pile of old letters I had no idea they were there. I was so pleased she’d found them. It gave me a chance to describe events from an entirely different point of view, in another voice. It wasn’t part of the original plan, but I only used that as a guide, something to fall back on if my characters don’t lead me to something more intriguing and exciting. 

One big advantage of studying scriptwriting before attempting to write a novel has been to steer me away from attempting to write something semi-autobiographical, which almost certainly would have been dreadful – way beyond my capabilities. Scriptwriting demands pure imaginative invention, dreaming up fictional events and people. I am quite sure I would never have found Dolly Butler, Jessie Spink, Maggie Fisher and friends without it.

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