Throwback Interview: Richard Dinnick (2006)

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. 

Richard Dinnick started his writing career in 1986 on that most prestigious of titles, the Esher News Mail. From there a career in journalism beckoned. He decide to concentrate on the business arena and joined Director magazine as its editorial assistant. Richard has subsequently written for many publications ranging from the Sunday Express and FHM to Nursery World and Caterer & Hotelkeeper. He is also the author of The Internet Atlas published in 2000 and A History of the Internet is still in the works. Richard has also had a short story, “Neptune”, published in Big Finish’s Doctor Who anthology, Short Trips: Solar System, as well as a Space: 1889 audio play, The Lunar Inheritance, released by Noise Monster. His first Sapphire and Steel audio drama, Surest Poison is due to be recorded and released later this year. He also has an agent interested in his novel, The Dream of Reason. Richard takes some time out of his schedule to immerse himself in The Ten

Q: When did you realize that you wanted to become a writer?

A: I really can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a writer. I think this was because Mum was a journalist (and later an English teacher, so you can imagine her critiques are no-holds-barred), so I guess I was always aware that writing was something you could actually do. As I always loved stories “be they in print or on TV”. I knew I wanted to write my own.

While most children I knew were happy to play out existing scenarios from TV or film with the action figures, I was busily inventing my own stories and even painting up some figures differently to act as my own characters. It sounds terribly sad, but I think it shows that my imagination was already going ten to the dozen to create new tales!

When I was 10, I joined the printing club at school and got into type-setting. This was when newspapers still used hot metal. I remember going on a trip to a newspaper’s offices and seeing them literally cutting and pasting – and I don’t mean with a computer, I mean with a scalpel!

I think this started my all-round fascination with the writing and publishing world and only served to exacerbate my desire to be part of it all as a writer.

Q: Describe for us your background in journalism.

A: I’ve been really fortunate with my journalistic career and owe thanks to many people.

When I was 17, I knew that journalism was one way to make a living from writing and with Mum’s stories of Fleet Street buzzing around in my head, I decided that being a reporter was what I wanted to have a crack at first. Luckily, the mother of a good friend at school was a journalist and photographer on the Esher News and Mail, a local paper in Surrey (UK). She got me a week’s work experience and I loved it. However, writing general pieces on church fetes and other cosy, local event s seemed a bit, well, trivial.

So, I went to work at Director Magazine, the monthly publication for members of the Institute of Directors (IoD). As is often the case, I started at the bottom: as editorial assistant. This means I was a glorified secretary, really, but I did get to do some sub editing, proof reading, headline writing, etc. The editor at the time was Stuart Rock and he became a sort of personal guru for me.

After I went to university (where I read English and Writing & Publishing as a joint honours degree), Stuart asked me if I would be interested in joining his new company, Caspian, to work as Assistant Editor on Real Business magazine. This was the opportunity of a lifetime! Not only could I help launch a new magazine, but I would be working with Stuart and at a position that was at least half-way up the tree. I said yes immediately.

While there, I also worked on several contract publications; in effect editing them myself. It was great experience and soon I was eager to move upwards and onwards. One aspect of business that had really struck me was the emerging technology of this thing called the Internet. We did a piece on the medium and its rising stars and from then on in, I was hooked.

That heralded a move two years later to Internet magazine. It was 1998 and the Dot Com boom was about to happen. It was a marvelous two years. The press parties, the freebies! Not, of course, that all this is what being a writer is all about, but it helps! I was also short-listed as the PTA journalist of the year in 1999, so that was a real boon. While there, I learnt a great deal from editor Martyn Moore and publisher Sonja Woolley.

When I went freelance, it allowed me to write for both Internet and Real Business, while adding the likes of Caterer & Hotlekeeper, FHM and the Sunday Express, the last of which really represented a coup as it was the Daily Express that Mum had worked on all those years ago. To have my name in lights in a national paper was great. I treasure those clippings!

Q: You are one of the creative forces behind Doctor Who: The Legacy, one of the highly regarded Doctor Who fan fiction projects out there. So I ask you: why does fan fiction matter?

A: Well, Legacy is Andy’s baby. I’ve been involved on the periphery for a few years now, and it’s great to be the “range consultant”; it means I can dip in and out, allowing me to help Andy out and do my writing without over-committing myself!

It has also provided me with a great “dipping a toe” exercise in that I could post my then untried fiction writing and see what reaction I received from people who owed me nothing.

I also think fan fiction is a great way to spend one’s time! How to writers hone their skills? By writing. If you want to be a writer, you have to write. A lot. All the time. And if there’s something that gets you to write, then great.

Some people write fanfic just for fun; for their own enjoyment, and that’s fine – each to their own. I think, though, that as a writer, you are out to entertain and/or inform – hopefully both! So, you should try to put your work in front of people.

I think the value of a fan fiction site like the Legacy is that it’s pretty much like writing professionally or joining a writing circle. There are editors who suggest changes and improvements to the writing and stories, deadlines, publication dates and an audience. This is what I mean about writing in a vacuum. It never really goes anywhere. Personally, if I write something I think is half-decent, I want other people to see it.

Q: You have written in various mediums/forums – short stories, audio dramas, and non-fiction. Do you lean towards one more than the other?

A: My immediate response audio dramas. I love them. There is no messing about with them. While well-honed prose is a joy to behold and sometime I strive for, with a script, everything must come out in the dialogue. It’s both easier and a far harder discipline at the same time.

But I find the rewards are excellent. Not only do you get to hear your words spoken by professional actors, you also have the knowledge that an audio is far more accessible than a book.

All that said, I love writing prose. I have a novel sitting with an agent. They’re waiting for me to finish it! And I will. So if they manage to place the manuscript and you ask me again in a few months, my answer may be different.

But at the moment, with The Lunar Inheritance just on release and my Sapphire and Steel about to be recorded, audio dramas are flavour of the moment!

Q: You wrote an audio drama for Noise Monster called The Lunar Inheritance as part of their Space: 1889 range. Could you describe the writing process for that project?

A: John Ainsworth gave Andy and I the setting and sent us the original source books for the original role playing game devised by Frank Chadwick. We read them through and chatted about possibilities for the script on the phone and MSN Messenger. John would occasionally join us on there and we would tell him how we were getting on.

Finally, we came up with a plot synopsis that we actually produced straight off as a scene breakdown. This is where you give the number and location of the scene followed by a brief description of what happens, perhaps with some key lines of dialogue thrown in.

John made some excellent suggestions about the first treatment and we duly revised it. Then, happy with it, John sent it to Frank for his blessing. That soon came back and we started to write the play proper. Andy and I divided up the scenes and got to work, swapping scenes with each other for comments, suggestions and re-writes every now and again.

The process of actually writing the play took a few weeks and we submitted the first draft to John. A while later he came back with some quite major re-writes due to a change in cast. Andy came up with a new character (Brooker) and I set to work on the re-writes, passing them over to Andy for comment, etc.

Again, once we were both happy, we sent it off to John. He was very happy, but as is quite common, made a few minor tweaks himself. After all, this was our first audio script. I have to say, though, John was absolutely fantastic throughout. He really is one of the nicest people I have ever met and really guided us through the process, mentoring us, even.

I guess the last part of the process was attending the recording. At times there are lines that seem fine on paper, but when someone comes to speak them, it turns into a real tongue twister! As such, John would turn to me (Andy couldn’t attend the recordings) and ask for an alternative line conveying the same meaning. That’s thinking on your feet!

And the cast were all top-notch. That really helped. I know some audios get a bashing for poor acting, but I thought ours was a great cast.

It was a hugely enjoyable process, but I was amazed by the time frame. It took 14 months from commission to release, but I now know these things all take a long time. Once a play has been recorded it could be months before it is actually released.

Q: You recently completed your script for the Sapphire and Steel audio drama The Surest Poison. How did that come about?

A: OK, well, after we recorded The Lunar Inheritance, I went out with John Ainsworth and Nick Briggs and we were talking about stuff and they said “oh, you should pitch an idea or two to Nigel Fairs for Sapphire and Steel or the Tomorrow People. So I did.

To be honest, I had already thought about it and had a (VERY) rough idea scribbled down. So, I dug it out, did some more research, polished it up and then sent it to Nigel as a two-page proposal.

I think I was very fortunate timing-wise as (unbeknownst to me) Nigel was commissioning for the next season at that very moment. So, serendipity played its part in this. That and the fact that Nigel loved the idea!

He commissioned me to write the play five days later.

Q: What tools and/or processes do you use to write?

A: Research is massive for me. I love the process and I feel that a good story will not annoy those who are experts in the field in which you are playing. Of course, the biggest research tool is the Internet, but I do tend to use the journalistic rule of thumb of checking things from three different sources. The Internet can be full of half-truths and myths, so it pays to triple check facts.

I guess the process really starts with an idea. That can be a setting I really want to use or an emotion I really want to explore. I get ideas from all over; from documentaries and factual books or from what I’m feeling in life.

What I then do is what could be termed a “mood sheet”. I just write down everything I can think of to do with the subject, what characters might be used and how their stories will develop to tell the story. Sometimes things are just wildly left field, but I put them down anyway. You never know what may come in useful or indeed be used on a different proposal. One thing I always try to keep at the forefront of my mind is the word “conflict” as without that there’s no drama.

I also have myriad notebooks where I scribble down ideas and thoughts, lines of dialogue and character names for the thing I’m working on at that moment. I think a psychologist would have a field day with the doodles I make while I’m thinking, but that’s probably best left well alone!

I do think it helps to produce a solid plot synopsis or breakdown. I find that if I get stuck I can return to it and think “oh, yeah, that’s what I’ve got to do next!”. And if you’re sending off proposals, a decent synopsis is a must, I find.

Then it’s a case of writing it! I know some people like to dip in and out, writing a scene here, a chapter there, but I’ve found the linear approach suits me best. And then reading it is a must, too. Of course with audios, you have to have a read through (I do mine with mates who are very understanding and willing to be bribed by a bottle of wine or two!).

I have dabbled with writing software, but I haven’t found them all that useful. Good old Word is my preferred tool as it is still the classic blank piece of paper.

Q: As an editor, what mistakes do you often see new writers making?

A: I think my two biggest bugbears are repetition and cliché. If you use a particular word in sentence and then use it again in the next, it grates on the reader. I’m not talking about the simple, workaday words, but usually adjectives or adverbs – the descriptive part of the construction. If you re-read your work, they should jump out at you and it’s simply a case of replacing it with a suitable alternative.

Cliché is something that you simply should not do. As a writer, I think you should be coming up with new ways to say things. Even in dialogue (and people do speak in clichés a great deal) I shy away from them.

If I had to go for a couple more it would be overwriting and sentence length and/or complication. These are linked because if you overwrite something (and I mean using three adjectives to describe something), your sentences will be clumsy and overlong. No sentence should rally be a paragraph long unless it’s a short paragraph or your name is Charles Dickens!

With description it is a case of finding the right word. The English language is vast, so if something is brown and tall, you might say it was like a winter tree. That’s not great because I’ve made it up on the spot, but I’m sure you get the gist!

Q: As someone involved in journalism, do you feel that the media as a whole, in this age of the Internet and increasing competition, has failed to maintain checks and balances in the effort to get a story out quickly?

A: It’s an easy thing to say and yes, certainly stories go out with the half-truths I mentioned above. I do feel – as you intimate in the question – that there is an enormous strain put on journalists to deliver, even if the story hasn’t fully panned out. Everything was affected by the first Gulf War. The way TV reporting changed then has had very real implications for how the actual *telling* of a story has been treated since. It’s all reporters in front of buildings or “on the spot”, when nothing might actually be happening.

Papers don’t have that problem, but they are in competition with the Internet and the immediacy that offers. However, they also have an advantage in that they have a deadline. The Web doesn’t. So it’s often a case of print (or upload) and be damned on the Net, while papers should have a tiny bit more time to check things out. It doesn’t always turn out that way, but there you go.

Q: What’s next for Richard Dinnick?

A: I’d also love to do more for Sapphire and Steel and indeed, Space 1889. I love the Tomorrow People and Bernice Summerfield ranges, so perhaps bending Nigel’s and Simon’s ears will pay off there… Being an avid Who fan, I’d love to add to my Short Trip of last year with a full-blown audio for the Big Finish Who range, but that’s something I’ll have to pester Gary about! Failing that, I always fancied editing a Short Rips anthology myself, but again, that’ll be down to me convincing Ian Farrington that I’m the man for the job.

I am dabbling with other proposals and projects on the audio front, but I will be concentrating on my novel in the immediate future. I’d also like to write for TV. Indeed, I’m putting together two drama series proposals to send BBC Writers’ Room. I can’t say much about them as sites have ears, but one is fantasy-led while the other won’t be fantasy-related at all. I think that’s called hedging your bets!

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