Throwback Interview: Simon Guerrier (2008)

Simon Guerrier is the author of various stories, audio dramas, and novels, including The Wake and Summer of Love for the Bernice Summerfield audio drama range, The School for the Sapphire and Steel series, and the Doctor Who novels The Time Travellers and his most recent, The Pirate Loop (featuring the Tenth Doctor and Martha). Among his other duties, he has edited several short story collections and produces the Bernice Summerfield audio drama range. Mr. Guerrier was kind enough to participate in The Ten.

1. What was the defining moment for you wanting to be a writer?

I don’t think there was ever a defining moment – I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a writer. But then I also wanted to be a pop star, an astronaut and the next James Bond. The difference was that I’ve always written stuff. I’ve this whole cupboard full of really, really bad short stories and comic strips and even a couple of novels, all in my terrible handwriting. So the defining moments as such have been working out the practicalities: how do you write something someone will publish, how do you present it, how do you pay the bills… A lot of that came from getting more involved in Doctor Who fandom, getting to meet and chat to different writers, and stealing their ideas.

2. You have been involved in writing for the Doctor Who and Bernice Summerfield ranges. What is the appeal of these fictional universes to continue wanting to playing in the proverbial sandbox?

Both ranges want the sorts of wild and imaginative adventures I like reading myself. They’re great fun to write for, and while there’s a pre-defined structure, generic conventions and so on, you’re also given a lot of freedom to do your own thing. So that’s all good. But then, the question rather implies that all I’ve ever wanted to write is Doctor Who and Benny. And yes, I love writing for them. But it’s more that, for whatever reasons, I’ve been more successful getting my ideas commissioned there than I have on other things I’ve gone for. That said, I’m finding having some Doctor Who books and stories under my belt has helped me get my foot in the door elsewhere…

3. How did you wind up getting commissioned for your first novel, The Time Travellers?

It took 10 years of pitching stuff, first to Virgin and then the BBC. I got a whole load of very generous letters back, explaining the myriad problems with what I’d sent but encouraging me to try again. And slowly, what I was sending must have been getting less appalling.

4. What is your creative process when working on a novel? What tools and/or techniques (outlining, writing software) do you use?

I’ve kept notebooks since I was in my teens, and jot down any old rubbish as I think of it. You can then scour these for ideas when you’re pitching. For the Doctor Who novels you need to provide a synopsis of the whole book before they commission you, so when you actually start writing you’ve already got a chapter-by-chapter outline. I just start from the beginning and write it up as prose. The first chapter is usually the hardest, because you have to rewrite and rewrite until you get the ‘voice’ of the book right. There were maybe five or six completely different openings to The Pirate Loop before I got it working. Once you get that tone and style, the rest follows much more easily. It’s then a question of filling out the synopsis, trying to keep it interesting and intriguing, and looking for any plot holes or inconsistencies. And then you go back again and again, trying to make it better. I don’t use anything more complicated than Word, really. And Google for cheating on the research.

5. Between novels, short stories, and audios, do you find one medium particularly more satisfying to work in?

I find prose more of a slog than writing scripts. But the end results are just as satisfying.

6. How did your latest novel, The Pirate Loop, come about, from pitch to final draft?

Entirely out of the blue, I got an email from Justin Richards in March asking for a science-fiction story. I sent him a whole bunch of ideas, and over a couple of days we cobbled some of these together into a two-page outline. The badgers were in there very early, though not as pirates. My original idea was that after the TARDIS crashed into the Brilliant, everyone would wake up on a desert island, and it would be a bit more Lord of the Flies. But it was a bit wild and woolly, with too many ideas crammed together, so Justin suggested some ways to pair it down, make it more focused. I took his suggestions with me when I went to Spain on holiday, and came back with a version that’s pretty much what became the book.

There was then a couple of months where I was writing the Inside Story of Bernice Summerfield, and also jotting down ideas for the Pirate Loop. Once the Benny book was out of the way, I started work in earnest. Joe Lidster leant me the notes he made for Martha’s blog on Myspace, where’d he put together everything we learn about her life and friends and outlook from the TV episodes. And my friends Alex Wilcock and Richard Flowers organised a marathon watch of all of Series Three, which was also really useful.

It was a reasonably quick write – and much less complicated and exhausting than the Inside Story, so a much more fun experience! And Justin and the BBC seemed pretty happy with the result. There were some changes to be made – stuff to make the Doctor and Martha more like they were on TV, or to make the plot stuff in some way fathomable to the reader. Oh, and the first draft had a joke about the Doctor knowing David Bowie, which got cut for not being very good. I shall sneak it into something else some day.

7. Do you feel that, with the advent of the new Doctor Who series that the novels have become watered down versions of what they once were?

Well, they’re aimed at a different audience – that’s a different thing. Of course a range of spin-off books will take its lead from the TV show. Look at the effect the 1996 TV Movie had on the books, for example. Even the New Adventures owed a huge amount to the TV show as it had been in its last couple of years. I loved the New Adventures, but the new series is hugely popular with all ages, whereas those books were aimed at a very specific, and niche, demographic. It wouldn’t make sense to produce Doctor Who books like that now, and actively snub a major part of your audience. But that doesn’t mean watering down the ideas or plots, it’s more a question of emphasis and tone. The new books have more the feel of the old Target novelisations. They could have just done adaptations of TV episodes, but it’s much more rewarding, what with repeats and DVDs, to do entirely new stories. It’s certainly more rewarding for me to write, anyway.

8. When dealing with new and aspiring writers, what the most common mistake you see them make?

I think there’s only one ‘mistake’, as such, and that’s people who don’t do any writing. They say they’d like to be a writer, or that they’ve got this idea for a story, but nothing ever gets done, or they start something they never quite finish. You can’t help them until they’ve actually written something. After that, it’s not about mistakes so much as things that will help you get better. The more you write, and the more you submit stuff, the more you pick up useful tips and advice. Part of the wheeze behind the Doctor Who short story competition Big Finish ran last year was to prompt people who’d always meant to write something to buckle down and write it. Just by reading those stories, I could put together a list of pointers that would, I hope, be of benefit to everyone who took part.

9. What advice do you give to aspiring writers who want to break into writing?

Write. Read – and widely. Keep a notebook with you at all times. Collect rejection letters proudly, because they’re part of the writing life. Make sure you can pay the bills. And, if you’re going to make money out of your writing, get yourself an accountant so you never need worry about all that technical stuff. And try not to bore your friends and family all the time with the agonies of you art. They are liable to throw things.

10. What’s next for Simon Guerrier?

I’m working on the book of 25 short stories by our competition winners – How The Doctor Changed My Life will be out in September. I’ve got a couple of other Big Finish things in the offing which will be announced in due course. And I’m working on a novel that’s got nothing at all to do with Doctor Who. Though it does have a feisty heroine caught up in a thrilling adventure… And it’s probably not suitable for kids.

Simon, thank you for your time.

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