by Julio Angel Ortiz
Writing is at once the most wonderful thing in the world and the most damning. Sometimes you could spend mere minutes formulating an idea that you think will make people go “Wow!” and “That’s brilliant!” only to spend hours, if not days or months getting that idea down onto paper, and getting it written out in satisfactory form. You might start writing it, only to toss it aside (or delete it from your computer, as is the case with me), and repeat this process several times until you feel that you’ve got it right. This is what an experienced writer does, I would imagine. I say experienced though, really, who or what determines how experienced you are? If I write one audio play and that’s all I ever do, am I considered experienced? Or do I have to reach the level of, say, a Stephen King or Charles Dickens to be considered “experienced”?
Maybe I should just get to the point. When I first submitted Past Imperfect to the script editor for The Doctor Who Audio Dramas, in this case Thomas Himinez, I had no idea what was in store. It sounds like a cliché, but it’s true. If you’ve never written for an audio drama before, or have limited writing experience (in the sense of submitting to people other then your friends), then you are in for some surprises. All I knew was that I was buzzing around alt.drwho.creative and saw a posting from some guy named Lighthope, looking for submissions to a fan-produced Doctor Who audio series. I saw an opportunity to flex my writing muscles. After all, I had said that I wanted to be a writer for twelve years (at the time, I was twenty-two-almost-twenty-three), and I thought that I should probably do something about it. So I sat down in front of my email program (Microsoft Outlook, in case you’re wondering), and thought to myself, if I could write any Doctor Who story, what would it be? Then I just started typing. What came out when I was done was a partial synopsis for a story called Nexus, which would later become Past Imperfect. When done, I looked over my synopsis with nervous attention to detail, and sent it off. Now came the fun part. The waiting.
I’m a terribly pessimistic person when it comes to things that I do, so I didn’t think I would even get a response for my story. Imagine my surprise when, a couple of days later, there was a response in my inbox from Lighthope saying that he was interested in my story. Interested! I felt like I had won the lottery. The biggest rush a writer can get is when they have a story get accepted, or at least it is in my case. Other writers might say the biggest rush is getting paid for their novels, but I’m not quite at that point yet.
Of course, with the words “I am interested in your story” came something else I hadn’t even expected: questions. Of course, my story was not foolproof, even though it was a brief synopsis. And since I had written it “on the fly”, so to speak, I hadn’t anticipated the questions. This was the beginning of the learning process for me. I needed to learn that I couldn’t just write as I go. I needed to lay things out beforehand. So I answered Lighthope’s questions and sent the email back. Of course, this process repeated itself once or twice more. Before a story can be commissioned, you can expect questions to be raised before proceeding, and there are some good reasons for this. In the case of Nexus/Past Imperfect, the story dealt heavily with temporal paradoxes and with returning to companion Christine’s home time of 13th Century Earth. Lighthope needed to make sure that my story wasn’t a sequel to a previous one that they had done regarding Christine’s first appearance, and also, we need to hammer out some of the early details of the paradoxes since they’re so tricky. Or, in the case of a story I submitted after Past Imperfect was completed called The Doll’s House, my story submission was very similar to a story they had already produced years ago. So the “questions” stage is not one to be discouraged by. The editor is not looking for reasons to disqualify your story out of spite, but is making sure that all the proper criteria is met. It also helps you, the writer, think deeper about your story, and may make your story even better. It gives you an opportunity to make up more details about the story that you really hadn’t thought of before, but you present them to the editor as though you had it planned all along. It makes you look smart. Just don’t tell the editors.
After the “questions” stage is complete, and if your story is accepted, then you go onto the next stage, where step-by-step you layout your story. It works like this:
- Write the synopsis of Episode 1.
- Submit it to the editor.
- The editor reads it, makes comments, and if they have any questions/comments/concerns, will send the synopsis back to you with those questions/comments/concerns.
- You answer the questions, make any necessary edits, and send the updated synopsis back.
This process repeats until the editor is happy with Episode 1, and then sends the synopsis back to you for your final thoughts on their edits. If you are OK with them, then you may proceed to writing the synopsis of the next episode. Repeat the whole process until you finish the entire story.
There are a lot of nice things about this method. First, you see how evolutionary the writing process is. Rarely will your original synopsis remain unchanged through the plotting out of the individual episodes. You see opportunities to embellish details, characters, and dialog. Also, you get one-on-one feedback from the editor. This is by far the most useful thing any writer could get. Working with Lighthope (and later Fawn [Adamson], who is the current story editor) most definitely made me a better writer. They ask you questions and force you to think about your story more then you would otherwise. They force you not to be lazy; whereas you might settle for a cliché (the character’s surprise revelation of “he was my brother!”), they will come right back and tell you “That’s not good enough.” It might bruise the ego slightly, but you realize that you’re the better writer for it.
Once the plot synopses for the individual episodes are done, you then proceed to what may be considered the hardest part of the whole process: scriptwriting. You might think it’s hard coming up with the story, and then laying out the story in a detailed manner. But getting the characters to actually say and do what happens in your story is a whole different ballgame. My biggest problems were having the characters talk more naturally, and Christine’s dialog. Let me explain.
With the character’s dialog, I tended to be a little too formal. “I will not do such a deed!” can simply be “I won’t do it!” to make it more natural. How many people today talk with formality to their co-workers, strangers, friends and loved ones? I had to stop and think about how people spoke to each other. I had to think about how I spoke to my friends and family. Sometimes simple observation can go a long way in improving your writing.
Christine was a little different. She is from 13th Century England, so she will tend to speak in old English. I had to remember this when writing her dialog. I also had to remember that she couldn’t be too modern in her thinking (in fact, this is something I still have to remember from time to time). When you’re not used to thinking in these different modes, especially when you also have to keep the main story in the back of your head when you’re writing, you’re bound to make mistakes. But that’s what the editors are there for.
My first script had plenty of red marks where Lighthope had edited. It’s OK when this happens. No matter how many scripts you write, you’ll always see a piece of dialog changed, or whole sections removed/edited. What you think may be good for the story may not be in accord with what the editor has in mind for the story. The nice thing, though, is that you can look over any edits and discuss them with the editor. I’ve never had a problem with the edits. In fact, sometimes they’ll add dialog that I wish I would have thought of!
The scriptwriting process works like the synopsis process. You write the script, submit it, and then have it returned with comments and questions. You edit it and send it back. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. This process repeats itself until the whole story is done. When it’s all done, grab yourself a beer (or if you’re underage, a Snapple. After all, it’s made from the best stuff on Earth). You deserve it! Completing a story is a credit to your commitment and dedication as a writer.
Speaking of commitment, there’s something else you should know. From submission to completion, Past Imperfect took about a year. Then I had to wait nine more months to hear it when it was released in December 2001. So you’re also going to need patience. Sometimes I would submit a script or synopsis and not hear back for a couple of weeks. Everyone involved in this work does this on a voluntary basis. No one gets paid for it, and it’s done, within reason, on his or her own time. But what you learn is invaluable. As I said earlier, you’ll just need some patience.
I hope this article has served to give aspiring writers some hint of what goes on inside (of course, I left out all the tawdry details and debauchery that really goes on). It certainly was not meant to scare off anyone, but you need to know what you’re in for.
Until next time, keep on writing…