Adaptation

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to adapt my book for serialization on radio. In this post I reflect on the process of abridging, adapting and reshaping an existing narrative (and nerd out about New Zealand’s public broadcaster).

I’ve always been a bit of a public broadcasting tragic. New Zealand’s “National Radio,” as it was known then, was always on in our house as I grew up. They had a kids’ program called Ears that broadcast on Saturday mornings. There were two hosts, Dick and Chrissie, and a strange electronic-voiced character called Letterbox Lizard who read out listener correspondence. I loved it. Each episode featured some chat between the hosts, a mystery sound for kids to guess at home (eg toilet flushing, onions frying in a pan), letters, and most importantly, stories. Stories from all over the world, but especially stories from New Zealand, recorded in the studio by people with New Zealand voices. Stories about kids like me, and kids like the kids I went to school with. These days RNZ’s slogan is “Sounds like us,” and when I was growing up, it did.

This is not an RNZ advertorial, but it helps you to know how formative these stories were for me to understand the significance of this next bit. Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to adapt and record my book The Whole Intimate Mess for RNZ, and then come into the studio to voice it. You can probably imagine my reaction.

I’d never thought much about the fact that the daily book readings on RNZ’s Nine to Noon program must be heavily abridged. A full-length novel might be serialized across two weeks: that’s ten 15 minute episodes. As I learned, when I took on the task of abridging my own work, 15 minutes’ air time is about 1800 words. Ten of those is 18,000; a standard novel is between 80,000 and 90,000. That’s a lot of words to cut.

In my case the task was a little easier. Mine was a short book – about 30,000 words. But I also had only five episodes, so I had to somehow condense the narrative by about a third, and cram it into 9000 words. Cutting around 21,000 words seemed like a tall order.

It had been about a year since the book was published when I eventually sat down with the final proof and set about hacking it up. I didn’t have a lot of time; I’d been trying to get to it for weeks, but with a baby and a four-year-old, a PhD on the go and all the rest, the deadline was pressing and I hadn’t started. Drastic measures were called for: I handed the baby to Dave when he got home from work, picked up my laptop, and went to the pub.

With a pint of stout in one hand, I started to read. I hadn’t looked at the inside of the book in the year since it was published, nor would I have had any inclination to do so if it hadn’t been required. I suspect this is the case for many authors—re-reading later can be a fairly cringeworthy experience. It was fascinating though. My book documented some of my experiences following the birth of my first daughter. Now with my second baby a similar age, I could compare and contrast. I was both pleased with how well I was doing now, and slightly horrified at what I’d been through the first time. And, because I’m being honest here, there was also some shame at what I had so willingly shared. I don’t think this will ever go away, but I choose to ignore it.

There was another kind of cringe too though: not just “oh my god I can’t believe I wrote about that,” but also, “oh my god I can’t believe I wrote THAT.” With a year’s hindsight, it was glaringly obvious where all the bad writing was. Long, overcomplicated sentences. Confusing timelines. Superfluous exposition. Irrelevant anecdotes. Cut, cut, cut. They say you have to kill your darlings. Perhaps I’m a monster; I felt no compunction at slaying them dead. They didn’t even feel like my darlings at all.

It was a slash-fest, but it was also a shaping exercise. I had to mold what was left after all the cuts into five individual episodes. Yes, they were connected, but each needed to stand on its own, needed a beginning, a middle, and an end, and that end should lead neatly into the next beginning. I had the feeling of pushing clay around in a tray like my older daughter might do at daycare: I had the raw material contained, but the possibilities for shapes I could mould it into were endless.

I took pleasure in reordering stories from the book, putting certain events together when I thought it made sense, and injecting that element of serialized drama that I had never considered when writing it the first time. I could have kept going; could have turned it, in fact, into a different story altogether given enough time, but of course I had to maintain fidelity to the story I had originally told in the book and the time in which I told it. I resisted the urge, for example, to refer to our current Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern who has just had a baby. No doubt audiences will draw their own connections between my story and hers if they want to. My job was simply to let my story speak for itself.

After three nights at the pub the episodes were complete. I fired them off to the producer and awaited my summons to record.

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