Several years ago, I engaged in a series of interviews with various authors in which I asked them ten questions about the craft, their work, and advice for new writers. Appropriately dubbed “The Ten”, I am reposting those interviews here for archival purposes.
Q: How did you break into writing?
A: When I was twenty-two, I read a New Adventures novel – which shall remain nameless – thought it was awful, decided I could do better, spent three weeks putting together sample chapters for Just War, sent it in and – pretty much exactly a year to the day – it was commissioned. Er … that’s it. It’s not really a story of hardship, there were no twists or turns. I very much appreciate how lucky I was.
Q: Were you active in the Doctor Who (or other) fan fiction scene before going pro?
A: Someone asked me the other day if I was a James Bond fan, and I said â€˜not really’, then went on to clarify that I do have more than half the Fleming first editions, all the DVDs, all the newspaper strips and plenty of other stuff besides. I can tell you which years the books came out, when the films did and how they differ from the books, how to spot a true first edition of The Spy Who Loved Me, the origin of the stainless steel delicatessen line, and so on.
So … was I active in the fan fiction scene? Not really. I wrote a fan novella, edited a range of fan novellas, I did a fan version of A History of the Universe and about a dozen articles for fanzines, all in about a three year period. That’s more activity than the average human being, I’ll concede that. I love Doctor Who, I’ve made many friends through my love of Doctor Who, I spend a fair amount of my time in online discussion about Doctor Who. I bought myself a sonic screwdriver yesterday then spent an hour tracking down batteries for it. I am very clearly a fan. I don’t really consider myself part of ‘fandom’, though I’ve been to literally less than a handful of conventions, two of those as a guest. I’ve nothing against it, I’m certainly not suggesting that me not being the clubbable type makes me morally superior. It’s just … well, a lot of the people reading this will have met ‘the big name fans’ a lot more often than I have. It was quite amusing to read a Lawrence Miles interview where he said he saw himself as an outsider because whenever he’s at the Tavern he sits in a corner and people don’t talk to him. I’ve no idea where the Tavern is. Not that, by any sensible definition, I think I’m an outsider either.
Q: What have you written outside the realm of Doctor Who?
A: I was a storyline writer on Emmerdale for a couple of years – a while ago, now – and that led to four Emmerdale related books, two fiction, two non-fiction. Emmerdale’s a soap set in a Yorkshire village, one with bigger explosions and a more thriving gay scene than is generally the case.
I’ve written a lot of non fiction, like guides to Alan Moore and a co-written guide to Philip Pullman. I’ve written comics, too, I’m working on a couple of really exciting comics projects at the moment which I can’t say too much about, yet. Doctor Who and related stuff’s still about half what I do, though.
I’m working on a couple of original novels, now, trying to get those into shape. I’m used to knowing my audience, and it’s a bit weird writing into a void. That’s what it feels like. It’s fun, though. I wrote a novel for the Faction Paradox series which, and I feel terrible saying this, started out basically as me taking a rejected Doctor Who proposal and thinking I could take a month to hack it out. Then I read the book before mine in the series, and it was brilliant, and I got intensely paranoid about upping my game. In the end Warlords of Utopia took me about ten months, I really got into it. I went to Rome to research it, I spoke to an Army official historian and asked him whether giant clockwork crabs could have swung the Battle of Remagen. I pretty much relearned Latin, to the point I composed a love poem in Latin, then translated it back into English for the book. I’ve done stuff like that for books before, but this was … well, a lot. The result is, I think, one of the best things I’ve ever written. It made me realise I could do this properly, basically. Since then, I’ve been working on idea after idea for original novels, some science fiction, most not, some sort of. Ninety percent of which won’t become anything. And, of course, struggled to pay the mortgage, because no-one pays you to sit around doing that. Unless anyone knows differently, in which case, please get in touch.
Q: You have written a few audio dramas for Big Finish. How do you like the writing process or an audio compared to writing a novel?
A: It’s much faster – it takes a couple of weeks to write an audio, several months to write a novel. You get less control over the finished result, too – which can actually be pretty fantastic: you give a script to a team of people, and the director, actors and sound designers all bring their own energy and inspiration to it.
I thought the script for my first Doctor Who one, Primeval, was brilliant. I thought the script for my second, Davros, was terribly scrappy and unimpressive. The general consensus – and I tend to agree – is that the finished plays are the other way round.
Q: Describe your writing process. Are there any particular methods you use (such as outlining) or tools (such as Dramatica)?
A: I use the absolute most basic Word package that still works on a modern computer, and no other tools. I teach a two hour a week Creative Writing course, but I’m actually pretty suspicious of that sort of thing. A lot of it is gimmicks and distractions. If you want a novel, you need a pen, a paper and an author and nothing else. The author thing is the tricky one.
I tend to have a very firm idea of structure before I start writing. The thing that takes me forever is finding the ‘voice’ of a novel – the tone, I guess. I tend to start from a very skeletal, but very thought through, list of events. From that I build each scene up, thinking very carefully about the viewpoint character, about what to reveal and what to keep back. I tend to do one full draft, that forms sentence by sentence – I get the impression I’m a pretty fast writer, when I get round to actually writing. But it really depends – Warlords of Utopia and The Infinity Doctors took about a year, The Dying Days and my half of Beige Planet Mars took about a month. Horses for courses. When I’ve got the whole book, I go back and revise it, just doing tiny tweaks and pulling the thing into focus. It’s strange – changing one word here and there can be the difference between something that works and something that doesn’t.
Q: There is a very active “fan fiction” scene across the Internet, for all types of shows and media. Do you feel that aspiring writers would benefit from becoming a part of that scene?
A: Hmmmm. Yes and no. They will if they take criticism on board, if they really seek to understand why people have said what they say about their work. And all writing is practice. But some of the places I’ve seen go in with precisely the wrong attitude – lots of slaps on the back for pretty crummy work. If anyone says ‘this really is better than the professional stuff’ … well, it’s probably best to assume they’re trying to hit on you, rather than take it as literary criticism. And, once we’re out of the realm of shipping and slashing and all that stuff I’ve never really understood the worth of, there’s no difference whatsoever between what makes â€˜good fan fiction’ and what makes â€˜good fiction’.
An anecdote. Virgin Publishing once published a book called ‘Cluck: The Complete History of Chickens’. If someone’s getting regularly rejected by the publishers of Cluck, it’s not going to be because the publisher’s standards are set so high no mortal can attain them. Go into a remaindered bookshop. See all the crazy, uninspired, derivative drek that is published. Publishers publish. They have to keep publishing. Lots of things get published. A lot of these things are not very good, but the harsh truth is that if you’ve got rejected, what you sent in didn’t convince the publishers that it was as good as that complete chicken history thing they did a few years back. The moral of the story – don’t blame the publisher, when it’s almost certainly your fault.
I’m possibly being unfair to Cluck. I haven’t read the work in question.
Q: What advise, as a published professional, would you give aspiring writers looking to become professionals themselves?
A: Read. Understand the market. Treat any and every submission to a publishing company with the same combination of nerves, confidence and professionalism as you would treat any other job interview, because that’s exactly what you’re doing when you send a sample chapter to a publisher. Above all else, try to think what you can bring along that no-one else can – what makes your work unique? And be extraordinarily self-critical – understand what works and what doesn’t, and why.
Q: In a way, The Gallifrey Chronicles marks the end of an era for Doctor Who fiction. With the new TV series on the air for the foreseeable future, are the novels in danger of being less relevant?
A: Of course there’s a danger. I get the sense that if that happens it will be because of corporate brand management, rather than because the people who’ve enjoyed reading and writing grown-up Doctor Who for the last fifteen years have all suddenly left the planet. The Christopher Eccleston series was great, and it was great precisely because Russell Davies and people like Paul Cornell and Mark Gatiss knew that Doctor Who could be … more than it had been on TV before. They’re all good writers, they’ve all got careers that go far beyond their Doctor Who work, but it’s not some weird coincidence that so many people working on the TV show had been involved with the books. There’s plenty of new talent around, and the books will remain a brilliant place to focus that.
Q: Is The Gallifrey Chronicles your last foray into the realm of Doctor Who writing?
A: I hope not!
Q: Are there any new writing projects you would be able to discuss?
A: Hmmm. I’ve finished a new version of A History of the Doctor Who Universe. I’ve got a Prisoner novella that’s … er … taking me a long time to write. Plenty of things now that are at an early stage, or which I can’t talk about yet. I keep busy!