Friday, 26 December 2008

... but the moment has been prepared for.


Well, it's Boxing Day, and The Eyeless is officially out in the shops. As promised, my blogging ends here.

Thanks for reading, I hoped you enjoyed some insight into the making of the book. As I said in the various entries, there's no one way to write. I'm sure a lot of other writers reading my stuff about 'the process of writing' would have been baffled and bewildered because so little of it was like their own process. If you're an aspiring writer, good luck and the trick is to actually write stuff, not just to want to if only you had the time.

This blog's still here and it's not going anywhere ... please feel free to post reviews, comments, links to reviews about The Eyeless here and so on. I'll still be here to answer questions.

Thanks again, and a Merry Christmas to all you at home.

Lance Parkin

Sunday, 21 December 2008

Death Ray Interview

Great big long interview with me at Death Ray.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Approved and Proved

OK … so here’s a quick description of the various stages a Doctor Who book goes through once the manuscript has been delivered. This is an author’s eye view, of course. Which is a polite way of saying that, for an author, a lot of this is pretty much invisible – you hand your book to someone, a few weeks after that you get back a list of comments and you don’t do very much with your book in the mean time.

Once a book is written, it’s edited. That’s what Justin had done during June, and what I described last time – he went through the manuscript looking at it artistically, making sure the story worked, suggesting ways the narrative could be improved, letting me know if there were any wider issues. With Doctor Who, there’s the danger that you end up clashing with something that’s coming up in another book or on the telly. As you’ll have seen, I pretty much finished The Eyeless before the fourth season even started, and I had no special prior knowledge of it (less than most people reading this, probably, as I try to avoid spoilers).

The edited draft then went to Cardiff for approval. The book’s going out with a Doctor Who logo on it, the BBC have all sorts of taste and decency standards. Obviously this is a stage most books don’t have to go through. On 30th July, I got a rather anti-climatic note from Justin saying that the book had been approved by Cardiff, but that they’d asked for ‘a couple of changes’ and I’d see them at the proof stage. My paranoia gland started secreting whatever it is a paranoia gland secrets, but Justin assured me that there was nothing to worry about (his actual words were ‘we removed all that stuff about a powerful alien fortress and replaced it with a sinister hillbilly dance routine’).

It was now onto the next stage – Steve Tribe, Project Editor, got in touch on 8th August to let me know that he’d got the approved manuscript and would be dealing with it from now on. Different publishers do different things at this stage, but it boils down to copy editing and proofreading stages, with a proofreader also going through the manuscript checking for spelling/typing errors, punctuation and so on. BBC Books run these two stages at the same time, but the books have separate proofreaders and copy editors.

Steve’s job was to take the completed, edited and approved manuscript and end up with typeset page proofs – a PDF file of the book that looks just like the pages of the final book (and for good reason, because the printers will use that file). Then we all have a final read of the proofs to make sure we’re happy and we sign off on them and they go to the printers.

All publishers have a house style, and one job at this stage is to make sure the book conforms to that. These can involve a set of quite idiosyncratic rules, and it’s usually fairly mundane stuff about the use of dashes, the exact form that numbers and dates are expressed (‘26 December 2008’, not ‘December 26th 2008’, that kind of thing), the use of American spelling (Virgin had some quite bizarre rules about that, ones that probably made sense to someone). Consistency in place names (it’s World Trade Center and Pearl Harbor, for example – you could have a sentence that ran ‘the Japanese attacked the harbour at Pearl Harbor’) and titles (the rank isn’t capitalized, the individual is, so the Brigadier is a brigadier).

Then there’s all the grammar stuff that makes me glad I have a proofreader. Sometimes I’ve had fairly heated discussions about grammar. Proofreaders tend to want good grammar throughout a novel – which sounds like the sort of thing we should all want, but this has led to proofreaders in the past changing some of the dialogue I’ve written. Now … I want readers to be able to parse the sentences and stuff, but I think dialogue’s allowed to be a little rougher (‘a little more rough’?) than the narration. People don’t speak grammatically. And sometimes the change of grammar can alter the sense of the sentence. A proofreader would make Mick Jagger sing ‘I can get satisfaction’. Kate Orman has the best anecdote here – one of her proofreaders changed ‘the spaceship left the planet’s gravity well’ to ‘the spaceship left well the planet’s gravity’. The way it should work is that the proofreader highlights every grammatical ‘mistake’, the editor and author decide whether to implement the change.

With The Eyeless there were no arguments.

The changes Cardiff wanted were very few and far between and almost all were incredibly minor. The thing that linked most of them was that they didn’t want to pin down things the TV series hadn’t pinned down – how the sonic screwdriver recharges, what the TARDIS defences can and can’t do, how long the Doctor’s been travelling the universe. There were notes on how they don’t like referring to the person the Doctor travels with as an ‘assistant’ these days, and that there are some other words they’re wary about. They took out a joke about shoe sizes, possibly because they didn’t see it was a joke (which is as good a reason as any for taking out a joke, of course).

In addition to those, I got a list of notes back from Steve on 4th September. Steve’s developed a good ear for the tenth Doctor, and noted about a dozen places where he didn’t think what I’d written sounded like something David Tennant would say. He’d altered one scene that was a flashback within a flashback within a flashback and so was hideously confusing. But there was nothing changed for being too gruesome, there was nothing major or dealbreaking at all. As with every stage, I wasn’t presented with any of these things as a fait d’accompli, and we talked everything through and I persuaded Steve to change his mind about a few things, he persuaded me he was right about others.

To show how smooth this all was, we settled everything so quickly that Steve was able to go away and come back with typeset proofs on 9th September. As is the way of these things, we all noticed a few minor things that had somehow managed to elude us all up to this point, despite dozens of re-readings – an item that was described as ‘featureless’ on one page was ‘covered in symbols’ on the next, that kind of thing.

Editors have reasons for making suggestions and if a writer disagrees, his job is to work out why the editor thinks what they think. Both the writer and the editor should be able to back up their opinions, explain themselves. Often, an editor and writer agree about what a scene should be trying to do, but disagree about the way to land the scene on that spot. It is possible for writers and editors to lose track of the fact they want the same thing, or for some pretty basic miscommunication to mess things up, although that’s thankfully been an extraordinarily rare occurrence for me. I think the crucial thing to note here is that this stage of The Eyeless felt no different to the editing stage of any of my other books – it was a lot smoother than most, to be honest.

A lot of the online discussion about ‘mistakes’ or ‘inconsistencies’ or ‘wrong turns’ in either the books or the TV show just doesn’t recognise that the writers and editors have endlessly discussed things. As I said very early on in this blog, if a writer chooses to do something, he’s almost always making a conscious choice not to do plenty of other things, things he’s agonized about, talked through and so on for months, decisions that are influenced by often the weirdest things. The main influence for Doctor Who is, surely, time – my book’s out on December 26th 2008. It had to be finished in time for that to take place. It’s the same for television, only far moreso: actors have to be booked, sets built, costumes made and so on and so on.

So … 17th of September, that was it. The proofs had been corrected, the file went off to the printer. The Eyeless was done and out of my hands.

Monday, 15 December 2008

Spotted In The Wild

News from TBFKA Outpost Gallifrey that The Eyeless has started showing up in actual shops. Good hunting!

Friday, 12 December 2008

Edited ...

On June 20th, I got the comments back from Justin Richards, consulting editor and prolific author in his own right.

The note he sent was about 1700 words, and made about thirty separate points, about twenty of which were minor and easily-corrected with a little bit of clarification. For example, I’d done a sequence with three people talking and it wasn’t always clear who was replying to whom. Those little ones just take a minute or two to sort out, on the whole.

Justin’s very good on plot logic stuff, and there were a couple of things he needed to be sure I’d thought through. Generally, there were bits that were a little confusing, and needlessly so. There were also a couple of places where I’d moved a scene around and not noticed that a character now knew something they’d only find out about later. As ever, there were a number of Hartnellesque pronoun problems (I managed to write ‘They could do so much they couldn’t’ at one point).

A good example of the bigger things that needed fixing – in the first draft, the locals called the Fortress ‘the Folly’, while the Doctor called it ‘the Fortress’. Gradually, some of the locals started using the Doctor’s name for it. It meant I ended up with people exchanging dialogue like ‘We should go to the Folly’ / ‘Yes, you’re right, we’ll head off to the Fortress in the morning’. Now, that wasn’t the end of the world or anything, I’m sure people would have figured it out, but why not just have everyone call it ‘the Fortress’ from the beginning? As you can tell from the cover, it’s a perfectly sensible thing to call something that looks like that.

As I’ve noted before, Justin wanted the opening trimmed back a little. This was the only time in the whole process he invoked ‘the younger readers’, saying they’d want to get to the story faster. I lost about two or three pages, purely of descriptions of the Doctor walking through the city. On the initial read throughs, people had made that same point – Mark Jones and Lars Pearson both suggested cutting it down, Mark Clapham wondered about it, but said he liked it the way it was.

Other than that, it was fairly straightforward. The Doctor mentions an encounter with an alien that I’d made up for the book. Justin was worried that people would think they were missing a reference to a telly episode or one of the other books. At the same time, I was meant to be avoiding continuity references, so I couldn’t just change it to refer to the Daleks or whatever. I cut the Gordian Knot with a slightly meta line from the Doctor explaining that this wasn’t something a reader should take as a continuity reference.

Conversely, there was a continuity reference I’d put in the first draft I really wanted in there, if at all possible, it was smack in the middle of what The Eyeless is about, although I’d always known it might be a problem. Justin and I talked it through and … well, it’s on page 46 of the finished book. You’ll know it when you see it and you might even think ‘I can’t believe he got away with that’.

One thing I didn’t think would be a problem: I’d broken the book into two ‘parts’, and there’s a big cliffhanger at the end of part one. The book is a game of two halves, too – like most of the telly two-parters, there’s a definite shift in emphasis for part two. This was a bone of contention for a little while – it has page count and other design implications that I hadn’t realised. I did really want it broken up like that. Ideally, I’d like people to take a week off between part one and part two! It is, though, entirely artificial – going strictly on wordcount, the novels are more like four episodes of new Doctor Who (or six or seven parters in old money). In the end, Justin was able to grant my wish, and so if you’re the sort of fan who insists the first story is called 100,000BC (it is, of course), then The Eyeless is actually called The Eyes of a Child / Unless. Which you can shorten to The Eyeless, of course.

We played around with one of the very last scenes, one where the motives of the characters and what they were really thinking wasn’t clear. One of the characters was the Doctor, and – as ever – I wanted some ambiguity and mystery about his thought processes. Back in the days when Virgin published the books, it was an absolute no-no to have scenes that went too deep into what the Doctor was thinking. Here, though, what the Doctor was thinking and planning needed to be a little more explicit. It’s the end of the book and he has to be resolute and strong … but not psychopathic, which is how what originally happened could read in certain lights. This was a bit where the editor was doing what a director would do if it was for TV – just making sure the motivation and movement of one scene wasn’t cutting against the story.

That was, to be honest, the only tricky thing this time around, and it was tricky because – as I’ve said a number of times – the ending of the book was something that had to be very poised and carefully-judged. I always have a faint dread that an editor is going to want something completely removed or changed. Or, worse, that they’ll ask for something they think is minor but which will mean great big structural changes. If it’s in the synopsis, there’s always the ‘it’s in the synopsis’ defence, but as I’ve explained in earlier entries, very little of the book is actually in the synopsis. I had my new anxiety that, at some point, the fact it was a new series book would mean someone would be going through it and changing it. It still hadn’t happened.

Justin is always very clear about what he wants, and open to negotiation – it’s my name on the book, and I’d spent six months thinking about it and writing it. If I can make a case for something, Justin is always willing to listen. I had a list of things he wanted me to do. I’d had a month off from the book. I was now able to re-read it again with a bit of a fresh eye, and I spotted a couple of other things I could do and tricks I’d missed. With any project, it’s great to be able to put it in a drawer for a few weeks then come back to it with a bit of distance. It’s rarely a luxury I get, though.

The changes took a week, and I posted the second draft back to Justin on June 27th. He was happy enough with it to send it on to Cardiff for approval.


Thursday, 11 December 2008

Pullman Interview

A Philip Pullman interview there. Lots of short answers, but the longish answer about democracy in texts is a good one, I think.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008


May was a busy month.

I delivered the official first draft of The Eyeless to Justin on May 16th.

I say official first draft because … well, these things are hard to define. Back in the day, an author (or his or her secretary!) would type out a manuscript and it would be a very solid, defined thing. Now it’s a computer file, and I went back and forth changing as much as I wanted, whenever I wanted.

For the record, Justin was getting a fourth draft, I think:

By the end of December, I had just about everything done but the ending. I sent it around to people and waited for feedback from them – in part because I needed that feedback to help crystallize that ending for me.

By mid-March, I’d got a much better second half and an ending that worked but which I wasn’t completely happy with.

There was a much stronger draft by the end of April, thanks in large part to all the people who’d read it and commented. The ending was a lot better, but still not quite right.

By 'ending' I really mean the 'third act' - the whole last bit of the story, where all the cards are on the table, all the plans are in the open and reaching a critical point. Every Doctor Who story has one - in the olden days, it was the whole last episode. Now it's that last, frantic ten minutes or so. I say every Doctor Who story, but Mark of the Rani just sort of stops. So every Doctor Who story but one has one.

One of the things I wanted to avoid was what I’ll call the ‘The World Is Not Enough’ problem. There are two main baddies in that movie. They kill off the most interesting one first, then the last act is Bond beating the less interesting one. And, as it turns out, in an extremely dull way – literally they push a prop back and forth until the bad guy dies. I really have three sets of antagonists by the end, and spent a long time juggling the order in which – spoiler alert – the Doctor sorts them out.

I wrote one ending and it was literally, almost word for word, the ending of Watchmen. Which has a great ending, but one with the slight disadvantage - for my purposes - of not being something I wrote.

There was also a separate question of the actual last scene. I had four or five different versions of this, all basically the same scene, played differently. These were nothing like the end I'd described in the synopsis - that no longer fit the book. In Doctor Who there's always a problem with this last bit - you want the Doctor back in the TARDIS, ready for his next adventure. If you're not careful, you end up finishing with a pretty redundant bit - the Doctor and companion walking back to the ship saying, effectively, 'well, that was exciting, wasn't it?'.

Around May 10th, it came to me exactly what the very last scene needed to be. This, though I say it myself, had everything – a nice echo of some things Russell Davies wrote (no, it’s not someone shouting ‘Paul McGann doesn’t count!’), the Doctor doing something clever only the Doctor can do, a sense of the story coming full circle to an extent, and a real sense of closure. A real ‘eureka’ moment, and quite a relief.

As is the way with these things, once I knew what to write, writing it was pretty straightforward. It quickly expanded to become the whole last chapter - as I was already bumping against my wordcount, I then had to go back and did a bit of trimming to fit it in. This sounds blithe and untroubled, but I’d been trying to find this last scene since the end of December, getting increasingly worried. Writing endings is a little like doing a balance sheet, it all has to fit together and add up, while leaving nothing out. Some of my favourite authors are hopeless at endings, and I think it’s because they’re reluctant to leave the wonderful world and the characters they’ve created. I understand that, certainly.

It’s also because life never has neat endings. One of the best endings of anything, ever, is the end of Our Friends in the North. It feels like a culmination of the thirty year journey we’ve been on. Superbly written, and expertly performed by Christopher Eccleston, the guy who went on to play a famous doctor on the telly. (Indeed, nowadays, as it also stars Daniel Craig, Our Friends in the North feels like a story not even Paul Magrs dare write – the Doctor and James Bond growing up in the sixties as Geordie best friends). If you nitpick it, then the end only feels like things have changed, but it's incredibly cathartic and emotional. And now I've said all that, I can’t find it on YouTube, so just … y’know, buy it on DVD. It's worth it.

Endings are tricky, and I speak from experience.

Now … I know I run a risk with this blog. I’ve been on the internet since 1991, and I know that it’s an information-driven economy here. I’ve given people information about how The Eyeless was written. I am genuinely worried that I’m tainting the evidence, that the people who’ve read this know the second half took a while to write and this will affect how they read the book. It's very easy to let what you know about the author or the circumstances the book was written in colour your reading of the book.

Just look at how people let their ... well, often their prejudices, affect what they think of Russell Davies' work. It's all gay, it's all atheist, it's all Welsh, it's all just so ... tall. I know Russell Davies wears glasses, but does he really have to impose a bespectacled Doctor upon a family audience? I'm very, very suspicious of this way of seeing novels or movies or telly. We all wrote essays in school that said things like 'Shakespeare clearly thought that ... ' but ... well, we can't telepathically commune with the dead.

Obviously, by this logic I can't presume to tell you what Russell Davies thinks. Speaking as a poststructuralist, technically I can't even presume to tell you what Lance Parkin thinks. In the end, though, what I tell you here or what Russell Davies says in The Writer's Tale is ... well, not half as important as what we're telling you in the stories we've written.

I went through a process to write The Eyeless, I had to identify, define and solve problems. Part of my job was to make the final book seamless and untroubled and to make that process pretty much invisible. If you ever go 'that was a great bit of direction' or 'what a great special effect' ... it wasn't. Not in the normal course of things. Reading should be a bit like driving a car - if you can hear the engine rattling, something's gone wrong. We're all very savvy and postmodern and meta and well-informed now ... but the paradox of my job is that, at its root, what I'm trying to do is to distract you from the mechanics of what I'm doing and leave you with a purely aesthetic experience. And, surely, I get bonus paradox points for announcing that in a blog about writing the book.

These are the risks we take in the age of DVD commentaries and making of discs. I hope that the people who’ve read this far are the sort of people who appreciate a trick all the more if they know how it’s done. David Copperfield once said that the difference between a Vegas audience and the London audience was that in Vegas, they look at him when he started flying overhead, in London they look past him for the wires, but they end up clapping louder. I hope you're a London audience.

Anyway, I sent the book to Justin.

Within a day or so, Justin was able to send me the cover (which I’ve talked about before in this blog). At first, I got a PDF file emailed to me, but I soon got a nice glossy copy posted to me. I’ve always frame these, which means, by now, I’ve got enough book covers to fill up a fairly sizable wall.

The Eyeless was announced around the 25th, and I started this blog on the 27th. I spent six months knowing I was writing a tenth Doctor book without being able to shout about it!

The book wasn’t finished yet, though …

Thursday, 4 December 2008

TV Writing

Charlie Brooker, who's been mentioned here a fair few times, has interviewed a number of TV writers about their craft for his show Screenwipe and it's well worth a look.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Buy The Eyeless ... for less!

So ... here are the best deals for The Eyeless I've found.

According to the wonderful, saved-me-so-much-money site Find DVD both Amazon and Play have the book for a fiver.

For non-UKers, there's no excuse. The Book Depository delivers free worldwide within a week. When they get their stocks in, it'll be less than cover price, too (5.24 GBP, usually). That works out cheaper for someone in the US than it would do from their local Borders ... three months earlier, too. Delivered to your door. Go on, you know you want to.

There will be deals in supermarkets and three-for-two offers, too.

So ... are these the best deals out there? Let me know.

When it does come out, please feel free to review it - on your own blogs, on Amazon (that's particularly useful, because so many people will read that) or just by posting a comment here. I'd love it if people posted a link to any review here (positive or negative, I don't mind as long as it's not actively sweary or libellous).

Saturday, 29 November 2008

Companions and Allies

I asked a number of people to look over The Eyeless for me – they’re credited in the book, and absolutely every single one of them immeasurably improved the story, and if you’re not named specifically in this blog, please don’t get offended – your freebie copy is, even as we speak, in the post! It’s no exaggeration, for example, to say that Jon Blum gave me both the best joke in the book (the ‘down the pub’ one, when you get to it) and one of the best scenes (‘begone, shift!’).

A lot of the time, people would say things I knew already, either deep down or just because they were obvious. This is often the most helpful criticism of all – a lot of what a writer does is, as I’ve mentioned, papering over cracks and he needs to know what he’s got away with. There were a couple of plot logic things I’d been avoiding thinking about, but everyone agreed I had to address. The blurb for the book – which I’d written pretty much when I’d started – talks about the weapon at the heart of the Fortress and asks ‘What is the true nature of the weapon?’. This was a very good question. I knew what it had done, I knew what it looked like … not its ‘true nature’. As with so much science fictiony stuff, you want an explanation that’s both bizarre, over-the-top and yet which is simple enough to get your head around. It would be difficult, for example, to build a ringworld or an ansible or a transporter or whatever, but it’s simple enough to explain what they are and what they do, and why it would be cool to get your hands on one.

Another problem … and I think this is pretty common with a lot of writers: faced with a second half of a book that was a problem, I just went back and refined and revised the stuff I’d already written. It was something to do, but every time I polished the beginning of the book, the gap between the lovely first half and the scrappy second half just became more and more pronounced.

I think it was Lloyd Rose who first pinpointed that there were two distinct problems I was facing in the second half. The first one I knew, but was too close to the story to see as a big problem: I’d set up an interesting group of characters, then had the Doctor just walk away from them – it was essentially a bit of a waste. The second was something I hadn’t spotted at all, but which was absolutely fundamental. Plenty of stuff was happening to the Doctor – quite big emotional beats, real challenges and so on … but they were just happening very episodically, there was no real sense of things getting harder for him, or any development at all.

The mistake I’d made is something I’ve already talked about here – the idea of the protagonist and his choices. I was giving the Doctor a sequence of physical challenges, and these were getting trickier and trickier. The emotional beats, though, were all at one level (broadly ‘gosh, how will I beat this physical challenge in time?’). Part of this is the problem with the Doctor as a character generally – he’s a thousand years old, he’s been through so much. It’s hard (arrogant, even) to imagine that your story is finally the one that really puts him through the ringer or threatens to break him. He’s resistant to any kind of change, really – even when something extraordinarily traumatic happens to him (Rose leaving is the best example recently, perhaps ever) he should be back to being the Doctor pretty quickly. He’s not all that different in The Runaway Bride, and three episodes into the season, when he mentions Rose to Martha and it’s still a sore point, it feels a little ‘off’, I think.

Mark Clapham noted the places where the ‘influence’ of The Subtle Knife on my book was straying into legal territory and wondered if the characters were a little too ‘normal’, given their circumstances. Mark Jones and I had a long phone call where we talked through the plot logic of just about every element of the book, including – again – the psychology of the other characters. Kate Orman and Lloyd Rose set me straight about when the tenth Doctor wears his glasses.

Everyone asked why the Eyeless were called the Eyeless.

The second half of the book began snapping into place, but it took a long time. It’s quite intricately plotted – very tightly focused on the Doctor, but with stuff going on close by that’s affecting the action. At every stage, there’s a tension between moving the story along and dwelling on things.

I had my own notes, too. Three pages of my big notebook were taken up with bullet points that needed addressing – these were often big things or just references or lines or words I wanted to fit in the book somewhere. Many of these look pretty obscure:

‘Sunlight = plants’
‘Handful joke’
‘why no survivor guilt’
‘No H in “Antony Gormley”.’
‘callous to boys, not girls’
‘how Eyeless can see?’
‘Casino Royale’
‘Civilisation Zero?’
‘Museums rotting’
‘Urban jungle’

OK … the upshot of this was that I had to completely restructure the second half of the book, and there was a lot to fit in there. The irony is that I recently re-read the synopsis now, and it’s pretty much exactly the same as both the first draft and the published book.

I’d got a second draft I was relatively happy with by March 10th. I think I could have got away with this version of the book – it was the first complete draft. For the first time, the ending felt satisfying - although it still wasn’t quite right. I sent this revised version to people, saying that it was ‘still missing that special sauce’.

I also had a secret weapon. Phil Purser-Hallard. On the Jade Pagoda mailing list (which is all about the Doctor Who novels – in theory at least: be warned that the list once got into a fight over whether the argument they were having was circular or, as one person suggested, triangular) PPH’s reviews of my books were always incredibly perceptive and constructive and eventually I realised that if he reviewed my books at the manuscript stage, I’d end up with much better published books. I only emailed Philip the book when it was at this stage, because I knew I wanted a fresh eye on it. As ever, I got another great list of tweaks and suggestions.

Oh, and you should track down The Vampire’s Curse by Mags Halliday, Kelly Hale and Philip.

A piece of television has hundreds of people making direct creative contributions, it’s actually quite tricky to see ‘authored’ TV – Doctor Who, of course, is now an exception. But even shows with ‘showrunners’ whose names you know aren’t created by one person, not even one writer. The Eyeless is ‘more me own work’ than a television episode would be – even so, there are dozens of people on the production side – editors, copy editors and so on … and plenty of people who were happy to give me their time and perspective while writing. Thanks, everyone.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Meanwhile, back at The Eyeless

Okeydokey. Writing The Eyeless had been very smooth, but now I’d hit a structural problem, and this can basically be summed up – spoiler free – by saying that the middle of the book was proving to be better than the big finale I had planned.

I’d whizzed through the book at this point, and at one point seriously thought I’d have it all done by Christmas. Bear in mind that my deadline was June – and the secret editors never like to share is that these deadlines always have a little bit of a buffer built in, because writers are prone to miss deadlines. When I handed one of my first professional magazine articles in, the editor said ‘this is on time, it’s about what you were briefed to write about and it’s the word count we agreed’. I said something along the lines of ‘well … duh’, and he told me ‘no – if we only get one of those, we’re happy’. Note that ‘well-written’ doesn’t factor into that.

But now it was mid-January and I’d stalled. I’d kept writing … I now had about two-thirds of the book, but I wasn’t that happy with the last couple of chapters and I only had a scattered impression of where I was going. I knew I had structural problems, I knew I'd be throwing out a lot of what I was writing, which I always dislike doing (This sounds strange - but there are two basic writing techniques, I think: writers who throw down twice as much as they need onto the page, knowing they'll carve away at it and get it into shape; or writers who only commit things to paper when they're broadly happy with it, so end up putting half as much as they need, then adding things to get it into shape. I'm definitely the latter.).

Structural problems usually aren’t the result of something external like Vampire Science suddenly having to lose Grace. It’s usually something the author realises isn't working about their book. The Alsa thing I mentioned last time is quite a good example. Changing her role in the book changed a fair amount of other things. I wrote earlier about how a story is about choices – we see far more of her choices, the reasoning behind them and so on. All that meant that she had to be in different places at different times and all of that has knock on effects.

The first ten days or so writing The Eyeless, I was writing stuff that was setting up the story and it was fairly straightforward. It’s not a spoiler to say that the opening section has the Doctor arriving and doing a little bit of exploring. Now … there was a complication. In a normal Doctor Who story, there’s a companion, and it’s the perfect set up: an older, experienced character can answer all the questions the companion has. And because the companion is an audience identification figure, unless the range has temporarily gone a bit mad, the questions the companion asks are the ones the audience would, if they were there.

The Doctor is travelling without a companion in The Eyeless. The easiest thing to do would be to have him meet someone early on who can act as a sort of temporary stand-in for a companion. I wasn’t interested in doing that – I had an opportunity to have the Doctor alone, and hooking him up with someone would cancel all that out. And I didn’t have the option the TV series has exercised a couple of times, now, to have a stellar celebrity guest star as a one-time companion.

But I’d known all along that the Doctor wasn’t going to have a companion, and that was all part of the plan. You’ll see how I got on when you read the book. The irony was that my writing slowed down once I got past that phase and to the easy bit where the Doctor met up with other characters.

In the synopsis, this was a fairly brief encounter – the Doctor would meet them and move on. Even when I was drawing up the synopsis, though, I suspected that this would be an area of the book that would expand. It always happens – there will be some part of the story that just comes alive and presents all sorts of dramatic opportunities. Then there are always parts of the synopsis that seemed like really great ideas that would fill fifty scintillating pages which you realise you can cover in one chapter, one scene or even a single line … if it needs to be in there at all.

One thing that dropped out – I originally wanted the Eyeless to have a caste system, with clearly-defined roles. One would be a pilot, one would be a telepath, one would be a leader, some would be warriors and so on. That’s completely missing from the finished book for a couple of reasons. First, it’s a bit of a rubbish science fiction cliché. I’m not saying it couldn’t be done, or hasn’t been done - there’s meaty stuff to be had about ‘we’ve all got our part to play’ and individual v society stuff, which are nice big themes for any book, and already part of what my book is talking about. I was originally going to explore that using the Eyeless characters. Those are still themes of the novel, but there were just better characters to tell that story with.

Second, though … it was just taking far too long to explain the set up. I was literally creating a convoluted problem for myself, then taking forever to solve it. The problems in the rest of the book are fairly straightforward and easy to relate to real life. I’ll probably write a SF novel at some point where there are aliens with a strict caste structure – one of the great things about writing is that you end up recycling your old ideas sooner or later but it’ll be a book all about that.

My big structural problem came when it became obvious that the people the Doctor meets are actually big identification figures … and that one of the problems with the book was that there were precious few identification figures.

It coincided with me realising that the bulk of the second half of the book wasn’t going to work. Remember that bit with the big grabby robot arm thing in Planet of the Ood? That hadn’t been shown at the time I was writing The Eyeless, but the whole of the second half of the book was going to be like that – relentless action. It was something I knew would be a challenge, and not quite right or sane for a piece of prose. There’s a piece of received wisdom that there has never, ever been a great car chase in a novel. I can’t think of one. I’d probably look in Ian Fleming to find it. The idea was to take something that would work really well in a movie and try to make it work in a book.

Yeah … it quickly became obvious that I couldn’t get it to work. Whenever I tried, what I was doing sounded like the subtitles for an action film.

So … I had a couple of problems. The action bit didn’t work and I wanted to expand the role of the people the Doctor met. The problem: the location of the story switches, definitively moves away from those people.

And, for the first time, it was a problem for me that the Doctor didn’t have a companion. In a normal Doctor Who book, the narrative can be in two places at once – the Doctor in one location, the companion in another. That’s actually what happens in most Doctor Who stories.

The Eyeless is more like first person narration, in a way – the Doctor’s in virtually every scene. Which has the advantage that it feels nice and immediate and that you're in the heart of the action ... but the disadvantage that it's hard and vaguely boring whenever you cut away from what the Doctor's doing. I suspect I'm not the only person who has been reading a Doctor Who book and decided to skip ahead when there's half a chapter about the colonists (or whoever) and the Doctor and companion aren't in that bit. It's called Doctor Who, not The Colonists.

Originally what I planned was for the Doctor to be in and out of the Fortress pretty quickly … that had to change. The air car chase sequence that I’ve dropped from pretty much every Doctor Who book since Cold Fusion got dropped again. Alsa’s new role was working nicely, and helping to show off the Eyeless themselves. To be honest, what I was writing was OK, and would have made for a functional Doctor Who book, but … well, this was my first tenth Doctor book, I had plenty of time, and I wanted it to be special, if I could manage that.

This wasn’t exactly a looming disaster, but I was finding it frustrating. So I sent the book out to a few people, hoping they’d be able to tell me where I was going wrong.

Thankfully, they did …

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Special Guest Synopsis

As promised, a special guest synopsis, courtesy of Jon Blum and Kate Orman.

About a week after I started writing The Eyeless – when I was sixty pages into the book - Justin emailed in the morning and said ‘how would you feel about putting Rose in it?’. That would have … altered the structure of the book somewhat. Almost before I’d had a chance to reply, Justin emailed again to say that he didn’t want Rose in it. Problem solved. Although, to be honest, while I told Justin that my concerns were purely artistic, this was basically a lie and my main problem was that I’d already written the beginning and wasn’t keen on rewriting because that would mean more work.

Such things happen, albeit rarely – Kate Orman and Jon Blum started the second EDA, Vampire Science thinking that Grace from the TV movie was in it. They then had to edit her out, when various licencing and editorial people decided against it.

Vampire Science: The Original Synopsis

This is the original synopsis for VS, before Grace had to be dropped from the novel. Her role in the story was divided between new companion Sam and Dr Carolyn McConnell.

Dr. Grace Holloway is one of those people the Doctor doesn't forget. He turns up on the odd occasion to take her to the opera in various centuries, and every year he shows up on her birthday to bring her breakfast in bed. Until, that is, the year when she leaves a note for him in the kitchen suggesting that he not wake up her new boyfriend.

The Doctor has also helped with getting Grace a position consulting for UNIT. When it doesn't conflict with her more ordinary hospital duties, they call her in as a medical advisor. This time, UNIT has her conduct a couple of unusual autopsies - for deaths which follow the classic patterns of vampire attacks.

Intrigued, she gets her new boyfriend James (a lighting designer at a prestigious uptown theatre) to do some additional investigation into the deaths. He's not entirely sure about all this risky cloak-and-dagger stuff - he's not used to being her legman, or rather her companion - but he cooperates.

Her own contacts lead her to a young doctor by the name of David Shackle, working at a downtown hospital, who knows about a whole series of similar cases of apparent vampire attacks. Thing is, all those happened to homeless people, lowlifes and bums of various sorts... Shackle's rather ticked off about the fact that all these cases have been ignored up till now, when "nice" people have started to die.

After swapping information with Dr Shackle, Grace goes back to the cafe where she was supposed to meet James, and waits for him.

And waits.

He doesn't show up. He's vanished, and she has no clue at all what's happened to him. Neither the police nor UNIT turn up any leads. Now she devotes all her energies into trying to find one man who's disappeared in the midst of a cityful of people, but to no avail. While she copes as best she can with trying to juggle all her work, she's coming apart at the seams.

So she contacts the Doctor. She feels a little awkward about involving him, not least because she's never actually told James about this other man in her life, and the Doctor feels similarly odd about it. But then, he's used to being the hero who doesn't get the girl - there's nothing really different about this time, is there?

He decides that, since James was probably kidnapped to send Grace a message - back off or else - their best course of action would be to press on with the investigation into the vampire deaths, so the kidnappers will get in touch with them. Grace is shocked by this approach - what if the kidnappers decide to simply kill James? - but she trusts the Doctor.

The Doctor, Grace, and Shackle continue their investigations, staking out the alleyways near a gothic bar/club which appears to be at the center of the "uptown" attacks. Shackle gets mugged. Once they get him away to safety, the Doctor and Grace are incredulous at his lack of regard for his own safety, and the stupid chances he took on the stakeout. Shackle, it becomes clear, really doesn't care much if he lives or dies - he's spent so much time swamped in his downtown hospital, surrounded by the trivial deaths of unnoticed people, that he doesn't really see much point in fighting to stay alive. He still has his idealism, but figures that all it'll get him is an eventual death from cholera while working in some squalid Third World charity hospital... where's the point in fighting it?

The Doctor's plans pay off when a man meets Grace in a cafe. "Slake", as he calls himself, is a lurid, self-consciously Gothic poseur, trying to act all menacing, threatening, and darkly sexy in an Anne Rice sort of way. Grace, of course, isn't buying any of it. Finally he gets to his point, giving Grace the ultimatum: back off, or he and his "brothers and sisters" will kill James and come for her. He shows her his fangs as a final touch.

The Doctor intervenes at this point. He very politely tells Slake that he's a Time Lord, a member of the race which wiped the vampires' kind off the face of the cosmos a few million years ago, the race which is sworn to destroy descendants of the Great Vampire anywhere they may find them, so could Slake kindly take his dreary little melodramatic self back to his masters and tell them to let James go? Because otherwise the Doctor will be most displeased with them. Slake tries to look unimpressed, but slinks away with his tail between his legs.

Meanwhile, Dr Shackle has been sending blood samples from victims off to one of the premier medical labs in the city for analysis, looking for some kind of common factor in the blood types. He goes there and meets the woman who's handling his samples, a rather dishevelled-looking post-graduate student named Joanna Harris. Harris seems attracted to Shackle's morbid-idealist persona, and he offers to bring her in on their investigations once they find out more.

Grace and the Doctor go back to the bar and continue to watch for signs of the vampires. Another vampire attempts to pick Grace up. This one's a particularly sociopathic one, who has lost the ability to distinguish between pleasure and pain, and who thinks that his victims suffer willingly. It takes the combined efforts of the Doctor and Grace to fight him off.

Slake reports back to his fellow vampires: a coven of fourteen, led by Joanna Harris. She's still the same unassuming, somewhat dumpy figure Shackle met - she's so used to being powerful that she doesn't need any of Slake's posturing. Her extreme age and experience - she's about as old as the Doctor - allow her to get away with being a vampire geek.

She's the only one of them who remembers the legends of the Time Lords, and figures that the Doctor needs to be handled very carefully. After a few withering comments in Slake's direction, she sends him back to arrange a meeting between her and the Doctor.

Slake delivers the message to Grace's home: the Doctor is to meet the vampires at an old abandoned theatre at midnight. Come alone, don't inform the police, et cetera et cetera. The Doctor has Grace drive him there, and leaves her with strict instructions before he goes in: if he doesn't walk out of this building by two AM, she's to set fire to it. Great, Grace says to his back as he strides inside... How?

As they await the Doctor's arrival, Slake tempts James with the possibility of becoming a vampire. James refuses - not out of a sense of any great nobility, but simply because he's not interested. He likes his life to be pretty much normal, thank you very much.

The Doctor arrives and offers Harris a deal - if the vampires let James go, and cease hunting humans, the Doctor won't destroy them, despite his oath as a Time Lord to do so. He knows that doing so would reopen the old war between their races, and he'd much rather try to take steps towards some kind of peaceful coexistence. Slake is scornful, but Harris tells him off. She says that if someone hadn't started breaking the rules of the cabal by hunting the Remembered, rather than derelicts who wouldn't be missed - not to mention gorging themselves on many more victims than they need to survive - they wouldn't have attracted this attention in the first place.

Harris dismisses all the other vampires and then gives her answer to the Doctor. She will try to control the feeding of the vampires, though she can't promise that they'll listen. She's already working on an alternative method of feeding, she says. In return, she demands to be bonded to the Doctor - an exchange of blood and a telepathic link between them. That way they can trust one another, because if one of them dies, so does the other one. To safeguard James, the Doctor agrees.

The weakened Doctor walks out of the theatre, leading James with him, much to Grace's joy. The Doctor assures her that his pact with Harris isn't going to turn him into a vampire - he's just getting occasional flashes of what she's experiencing. All appears to be under control.

But the next day, back at Grace's house, things begin to come apart at the seams. When Grace finds out that the Doctor let off a group of killers like the vampires with nothing more than a "don't do that again", she's shocked and furious - the Doctor's protests that he's trying to avoid restarting the Great War, and that Harris seems to be seriously trying to change the vampires' ways, mean nothing to her.

On top of this, James has a Long Talk with her... if she's going to be dealing with this insane world of vampires and extraterrestrials, he doesn't want any part of it. He leaves and tells her to call him when it's over, if it ever is...

And Dr Shackle meets again with Harris. Slowly but surely she's leading him to believe that everything he's devoted his life to - trying to hold back death - is hopeless. Death wins. And if you can't beat 'em... She offers him the choice to become one of them. He balks at the thought of killing, but she tells him that she's working on a method which could let the vampires feed without hunting the mortals. He won't be hurting anyone, the only one it affects is himself... She leaves him with her offer.

Shackle runs to Grace. She tries her best to persuade him back from the abyss, but he doesn't see much reason not to believe in Harris. He ends up going off, not sure what he's going to do, much to Grace's distress.

The Doctor again infuriates Grace by seeing Harris' side of the matter. These people are killers, Grace tells him, they hunt and eat humans! So do lions and tigers, counters the Doctor, but he doesn't see Grace campaigning for their extermination... Grace refuses to just sit back through all this, and she storms out on the Doctor.

She goes to the lab where Harris works and follows her - tracking her to a secret laboratory in which she and her fellow vampires have been working on their project. Grace discovers what they're growing in their nutrient vats... fully-formed humans, mindless zombies... experimental subjects. She rushes back to report to the Doctor.

Meanwhile, the Doctor has gone to James, to convince him not to run out on Grace. He tries to inspire him with tales of all the good he can do, and how well-suited he and Grace are for each other... like Grace's intervention with Shackle, though, this hasn't quite convinced James.

Shackle himself has given up and gone to Harris. He's ready. But she's not; she wants him to help her with her research first, and as a reward she'll turn him into a vampire. Slake overhears this, and offers Shackle a quick fix: he'll turn Shackle before Shackle changes his mind, in return for information about this Doctor...

Harris catches Grace snooping around the lab. She considers Grace's investigation an infringement on her agreement with the Doctor. For this she is going to kill Grace - making sure the Doctor can see this through their link. Across town with James, he can do nothing to stop her... except that the Doctor clambers out onto the ledge outside James' apartment, threatening to kill himself (and therefore Harris) unless she spares Grace. (James, who has no clue what's going on, is horrified.) Harris relents, and the Doctor, himself amazed by what he was about to do, asks James' help to get him back inside.

Harris is horrified that the Doctor would pervert a bonding - a symbol of trust - and use it as a weapon against her. In return for this, Harris kills someone just to make the Doctor experience it through her eyes. The Doctor, shaken and furious, goes to confront her. "How could you?" he demands. He's beginning to realize the mistake he's made in trying to do a deal with her.

The Doctor challenges her on her scheme, and realizes why she's growing humans - they're like veal, grown and fed in controlled circumstances to be a good meal for the vampires. Harris says this is a humane method; her synthetic humans are mindless, not self-aware, no more likely to feel pain than your average cow. But the Doctor demonstrates to her that she hasn't perfected it - these humans are dimly self-aware, and suffering. And then of course there are those vampires like Slake and his fellow uptown hunters, who won't be satisfied with killing domesticated humans, who love the hunt too much...

Shackle tells Slake about the link between the Doctor and Harris, which Harris has been keeping from the other vampires. Slake realizes that, if they can kill the Doctor, that will destroy Harris, and Slake will be free to lead the cabal... In return for his cooperation, Slake prepares to turn Shackle. To avoid any incriminating signs of Slake having fed on Shackle, the turning will be done by artificial means. Slake draws a syringeful of blood from himself and injects it into Shackle. There's no romance, no dark drama, none of the supposed sensuality of a vampire's kiss... just a cold, lethal injection.

Then Slake and his followers move against those loyal to Harris, killing them. Harris and the Doctor realizes that they both face a greater threat from Slake's bloodlust. They need a weapon against him... The Doctor and Grace leave Harris to continue working on the toxins while they go home.

James is waiting on Grace's doorstep, with roses and an apologetic look. He's sorry for the things he said, and he wants to try to help in any way he can. Grace's reaction is awkward, unsure. She's not feeling particularly close to either him or the Doctor at the moment.

James also has a message for the Doctor - Slake stopped by earlier. The Doctor is to meet him at the abandoned theatre tomorrow night. Of course it's a trap, the Doctor realizes - they want to kill Harris by killing him. He comes up with an idea, and he'll need both Grace's and James' help to pull it off.

During the day, James goes down to the theatre. The Doctor and Grace go back to Harris' lab and finish work on the anti-vampire toxins... the Doctor swallows a large dose himself.

That night, the Doctor and Grace arrive at the theatre. The first vampire to show himself is Shackle. Grace has a moment with him, just to ask him why. He shakes his head and asks, "What else was there to do?"

Slake and the others arrive and instantly move to attack the Doctor. The Doctor is aghast at this poor form on Slake's part - not even a half-hearted attempt at pretending he's interested in negotiating, not even pausing for a few melodramatic speeches, just going straight for the jugular. He waves his hand...

And James, up in the lighting control booth, powers up the lighting rig he's set up... a perfect simulation of full-bore sunlight, right down to the ultraviolet. It's not quite right to destroy the vamps, but it throws them off long enough for Grace and the others to escape.

Except for the Doctor. Enraged, Slake and his fellow vampires surround him and tear into him. The Doctor struggles for his life, but they're all sharing in his blood...

...and, as they realise too late, in the vampire-killing compounds he'd ingested. They're destroyed by their own bloodlust, and all would be well, if not for the fact that the Doctor himself is at death's door.

Harris, aware of the attack through their link, races to the theatre. She can't let the Doctor die - her solution is to turn him into a vampire. Grace refuses to let it happen, tries to get him medical help... but the Doctor waves her away. He's ready for this. Grace is horrified. She tells Harris, with cold conviction, "If you destroy what it is that makes him the Doctor, I will kill you." Grace shakes her head. She can hardly believe that she, a doctor, could find anything worth killing for. But it's true.

Harris just shrugs and crouches over the Doctor. The turning begins.

All sorts of cardiovascular hell breaks loose. The vampire-killing compounds in the Doctor's blood reject the infusion of vampire DNA, and in effect kick- start the Doctor's healing. In turn, his link with Harris causes the effects to bleed over to her, just as he'd planned. She'd assumed a taste of the anti-vamp formula wouldn't kill her, because she's so old and strong, and it doesn't... in fact, it heals her. It restores her humanity, severs the link with the Doctor, and turns her back into an ordinary mortal. Life wins.

Later, as the survivors all walk away together, Joanna Harris tries to figure out what to do now. Hell, maybe she'll just find another vampire and get them to bite her all over again. No, urges the Doctor. "Read a book, get married, go on a picnic, feed the ducks, do all the little things you humans do." Caring for the proto-humans she's grown would be a start. His words might actually be reaching her.

And James and Grace are becoming reconciled. Each has seen the other show strength and determination they'd never seen in them before... as well as compassion, when Grace mentions wanting to arrange a decent funeral for Shackle. After seeing her devotion to the Doctor, James is willing to step aside so that Grace and the Doctor can go off together... but Grace tells him that's not what she wants. The Doctor, after all, is half not human; James is right for her.

And the Doctor, healed, says farewell.

Shackle, the only one among the vampires who wouldn't drink the Doctor's blood, stands alone in the theatre. His one-time friends think he died with the others. He has no idea what to do now.

Outside, the sun is rising.

Copyright Jonathan Blum and Kate Orman, 1998. All rights reserved.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Game on

I got my first copies of The Eyeless this morning. Now, the book's not out in the shops until December 26th, but it's real!

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Father Time Synopsis

I thought it might be useful to look at an actual synopsis. This was the second draft of Father Time - note that the title at this point was still 'Miranda'.

The basic story is exactly what ended up in the book. The odd detail or name gets changed - I really streamlined the far future politics stuff, I lost some of the Cold War parallels. I think the real difference is that there's a whole bunch of things in the final novel that just aren't even mentioned here - supporting characters and so on. I think that's pretty typical - the synopsis is there to give a book a good, strong skeleton. This is the deep structure of the book, a bit like the foundations - I've often found that the big problems with books come when the synopsis doesn't quite work. The key thing is that anyone who's read Father Time will recognise what they're about to read, it may even clarify a few things for them.

This is pretty typical, I think - it's certainly what happened with The Eyeless.

More on the writing of The Eyeless soon, and that pesky structural problem I hit and I'll also feature a Special Guest Synopsis from another EDA, so you can see an example of how other people write their synopses.

So ...


A proposal for an Eighth Doctor Adventure by Lance Parkin

The 1980s. The Doctor inadvertently discovers Miranda, an alien princess and child, in hiding on Earth. A number of factions of her race want her for their plans – regardless of the human cost. As the Doctor protects her, he takes on a role we have never seen before: a father. The story takes place over ten years, and the Doctor in it is a Byronic, Romantic figure – fighting for a child, by turns both reassuring and scary. It’s a story of revenge, destiny and the importance of family – even to a man with no past.

Part One: Winter, 1981

Schoolteacher DEBORAH Rowley’s car breaks down a few miles from her Derbyshire home. Trudging through the snow to the nearest farmhouse, she finds the DOCTOR, living in isolation with his books, experiments and cats. The TARDIS sits outside the farmhouse, looking like a Police Box. (This familiar object has struck a few chords for the Doctor. He still doesn’t know who he is or where he’s from, but he sometimes surprises himself with scraps of knowledge.)

The Doctor fixes Debbie’s car, and Debbie (who has seen he has a chess set) invites him to speak at the school’s after-hours chess club. He challenges every member of the club to a game – and works around the room, move-by-move, outsmarting every one of the ten-year olds and their teacher. Every pupil but one – the Doctor is horrified to realise that a ten-year-old girl called MIRANDA is letting him win. He tells Miranda to try to beat him, and she does.

The Doctor realises that this girl has great potential. He asks to give Miranda extra tuition. The school are enthusiastic, but the PARENTS aren’t – they just want her to be ordinary. The school explain to the Doctor that they are immigrants – fled from the East Germany for political reasons, and they want a quiet life. The Doctor tells them Miranda should make the choice, and her enthusiasm to be taught by the Doctor convinces her parents it’s a good thing. The Doctor starts to teach Miranda after school, and learns that her parents are over-protective. Miranda is an enthusiastic pupil, and the Doctor is gradually drawn into village life.

The Doctor’s friend Debbie is married to BARRY, a boorish lout who wants her to give up her job to raise children. The Doctor thinks she should do what she wants. Barry is growing suspicious of a man who spends so much time with his wife. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, the friendship flourishes.

There’s a UFO flap on in the local area, and it’s becoming a magnet for UFO spotters. The villagers find it all a bit amusing, and good for trade. The Doctor, of course, is less sceptical – these are the first aliens he has come across since the 40s, and he is fascinated by the prospect of contacting them.

The Doctor witnesses a UFO landing. The aliens are a mixed bunch of weird robots and creatures, and clearly possess advanced technology. He follows them around. At the very end of the night, the Doctor hears where they are from: the Klade Imperium. They are a long way from home – they are from millions of years in the future. The Doctor is drawn to them like a moth to a flame – could these be his people? Is he a … time traveller?

Gradually, the Doctor is growing suspicious of Miranda’s parents – he realises they aren’t from East Germany at all. One night, while they are out, he searches the house and finds a few items of advanced technology. Miranda’s family are Klade, fleeing from enemies in the Imperium. The Doctor tells them he’ll protect them from the aggressors. The parents tell him the Imperial Family are notorious throughout the universe for their brutality and crimes. The Doctor is enthusiastic – he’ll gladly fight them. The parents are forced to explain: there has been a bloody revolution and the Family were rounded up and killed. Only the infant Miranda survived – brought to Earth by her nanny and the nanny’s lover. She is all that remains of the Imperial Family. Miranda could be an important figurehead to the Royalist cause, perhaps justifying any atrocity. Her adoptive parents are terrified that the Republicans will have them all killed – the Republic is far more brutal than the Imperium ever was.

The Doctor makes contact with the Klade party, and they claim that they are Royalists, here to protect Miranda – they want to return to their own timezone and take her to safety, but her adopted parents have refused. The Doctor is sure he can broker a deal, but it’s clear he is uneasy about having the Klade, whatever faction they might be, on Earth at this time, and doesn’t want Miranda involved in the war – she’s innocent of the crimes of her family.

The CAPTAIN and his DEPUTY know about the Doctor – the Deputy has met him before, and although he doesn’t say it, it’s clear they were enemies. The Klade are suspicious of the Doctor and his motives: is he feigning amnesia? The Doctor assures them he isn’t, and is fascinated to discover what they know of him. The Klade keep the Doctor in the dark, telling him there’s a more pressing problem: an enemy battleship is on its way from the future. They had hoped to have left with Miranda by now, but the Doctor’s delays have allowed the enemy to locate her; they don’t have a hope of stopping a battleship. The Klade tell him that he can earn their trust by helping them to repel their enemy. The Doctor adjusts the Klade time machine to seal off the time corridor, preventing the battleship from arriving – he’s surprised to realise he knows a lot about time theory. Once he is out of the way, the Klade commander adjusts the settings. Instead of arriving in orbit, the Klade ship crashes into a hillside.

The Doctor examines the wreckage of the Klade battleship and discovers that it’s from the Royalist faction – the last survivor uses his dying breath to tell the Doctor that the Klade from the UFO are a Republican death squad sent to kill Miranda and her family.

The Republican death squad have tricked Miranda’s father into taking them to Miranda. They kill him when he realises they aren’t Royalists. The mother and Miranda escape, with the Doctor’s help. After a pitched battle, the mother is killed. Barry also dies, and Debbie is surprised just how relieved she is.

The Doctor makes an appeal to the human captain of the Republicans – how could he kill an innocent child? The captain explains it would be very easy – her grandmother massacred his family, and his family has blood feud on the Imperial Family. Miranda’s entire bloodline is tainted. The captain is convinced Miranda, if she lives, will become a terrible dictator.

We see a darker, more Byronic side to the Doctor as he defeats the Republicans – they’ve crossed the line, and the Doctor seems willing to follow suit. The Captain is killed, but the Doctor refuses to kill the Deputy – he has to return to his timezone and live with his dishonour.

Miranda has seen nothing of this. The Doctor returns to Miranda – something terrible has happened, but he’ll look after her. The tearful Doctor hugs Miranda.

Part Two: Summer, 1986

Debbie is astonished to bump into the Doctor in the City of London, in a Porsche and a sharp suit. The Doctor tells her he has responsibilities now, and needs to provide a certain level of income. He works in Trend Analysis, and is proving to be good at predicting trends and fads and is finding it ridiculously easy to make a fortune. They go back to the huge house he owns on the bank of the Thames. A beautiful teenager walks in and pecks the Doctor on the cheek. This is his daughter, Miranda.

Miranda is one of the star pupils at a southern boarding school, and a champion swimmer, capable of beating any boy her age. A teacher tells a new colleague that her parents died in a car crash five years ago, and she has a wealthy guardian who adopted her, and who’s grooming her for Cambridge or Berkeley. (All this exposition might be framed in an Ian and Barbara style investigation).

Something odd is going on – it becomes clear that the new teacher is a disguised Klade agent. He reports back – he thinks he’s identified the princess, but there is no sign of the Doctor.

The Doctor tells Debbie he has never explained Miranda’s heritage to her. Her parents wanted Miranda to have an ordinary childhood, and that’s what he’s giving her. But he knows the Klade will come back for her, and he’s been watching out for them. But are the Doctor’s motives pure or is he keeping Miranda close so that he can find out more about himself when the Klade find her?

In the pool, Miranda loses a race to a boy from a visiting team, Ferdy, a honey-skinned lad like herself. She’s annoyed to be beaten. Ferdy gets her alone – unseen, he draws a knife on her, but is interrupted by a teacher before he can assassinate Miranda. They part.

Ferdy returns to his craft – he is the younger brother of the Captain from 1981, and he’s brought a group of Klade soldiers here to avenge his family’s honour, led by his father’s Deputy. Ferdy is angry that he was not able to kill Miranda, but refuses to sanction the more drastic methods urged by the Deputy, such as the destruction of the whole area – this is a matter of honour, and he must kill her face to face. Ferdy is sure of his success – there are no records of Miranda after this year. The Deputy only wants a chance to avenge himself on the Doctor. We get a sense, though, that Ferdy’s heart is not in it – and that he wants Miranda alive for some reason.

Miranda’s best friend Dina has a crush on the Doctor, but it’s clear there’s not a hint of that with Miranda – she’s keen on Bob, one of Ferdy’s classmates. As Miranda returns for half term, the Doctor paternally grills Bob, asking whether his intentions are honourable – a mortifying experience for Bob, but for Miranda in particular.

Dina’s parents are away, and she invites Miranda and some friends over for a party. It goes very well, and Miranda is getting on very well with Bob. (We also see how odd ordinary life seems to Miranda – she doesn’t have a-Ha posters on her bedroom wall, unlike Dina, Dina hasn’t spent every summer travelling the world). That night, she sneaks into the room Bob’s sleeping in - and finds him in bed with Dina. Miranda storms out of the house. Miranda is being stalked by Ferdy, but hails a cab and, oblivious to the danger, gets away.

Dina tries to apologise, but Miranda isn’t interested. Instead she catches up with Ferdy and invites him out to the pictures. At the pub, Ferdy tries to poison her drink, but the landlord throws them out for being underage before she can drink anything. By the end of the evening, Ferdy has fallen for Miranda, although when he returns to his ship he angrily denies the Deputy’s charge that he could have killed her given the chance. Ferdy gets to see Miranda’s strengths at school – he sees she’s a powerful, charismatic person. Ferdy is ambitious, and realises that if they were to marry, his family would strengthen their standing among the Klade. The Klade Republic is teetering on the edge of collapse and needs a strong leader – Ferdy realises it could be him, if Miranda is there to legitimate his claim. Something Miranda does reveals something of a ruthless streak – she’s not quite as lily-white as the Doctor thinks (we get a real sense that she could take the dark path).

The Deputy discovers where the Doctor lives.

There are some areas the Doctor just can’t advise an ordinary teenaged girl on – he can’t remember his own childhood, but seems to recall it involved being taught by giant robot badgers. Debbie tries to help, but Miranda resents this new presence in the house and Debbie can’t get through.

The Doctor and Debbie go up to Derbyshire for a reunion night. Miranda sees her chance, and invites Ferdy over for the evening. As soon as her guard is down, Ferdy explains everything – her alien heritage, the crimes of her family, the Doctor being an alien. Miranda is convinced and horrified – she can’t possibly come back with Ferdy. Ferdy tells her that in that case, she has to die. Miranda escapes, with Ferdy and his mercenaries chasing her. The Doctor returns in time to save her.

The Doctor tells Miranda she doesn’t have a destiny – she is not responsible for the actions of her family, she doesn’t have to return. Miranda tells the Doctor she’s leaving home – she just can’t face him, now, her entire life has been a sham.

The Deputy kidnaps Debbie, and uses her as bait – the Doctor has to rescue her rather than follow Miranda. The Deputy attacks the Doctor, out for revenge for the defeat he suffered in 1981. This time, the struggle ends with the Deputy’s death (and there’s some dispute – could the Doctor have won without bloodshed?).

Ferdy departs, defeated, but defiant that there will be a final reckoning.

Miranda has gone, and the Doctor is left devastated.

Part Three: Winter, 1989

The Doctor has been searching for Miranda for years, and he’s spent his fortune looking for her. He is in Berlin, watching the Wall come down, but Miranda isn’t there. We can see the Doctor is edgy, more rattled than we’ve seen him for a while. He phones Debbie – has Miranda called? Debbie tells him what he already knows: there’s been no hint of her.

Miranda is in India. She wakes up next to a West German backpacker – they spent last night celebrating the end of the Cold War. For the last three years she’s wandered the world, earning enough to get by, and having adventures. She goes outside – and a Klade Saucer is hovering over her hotel. She is captured. Ferdy is inside – ten years older than her, now. He’s spent a dozen years searching the ancient records of this timezone for a trace of her. The German backpacker will become a famous film director, and made a film based on his experiences of India – he mentioned Miranda, so Ferdy knew she would be here. The Klade ship launches into orbit.

The Klade ship is vast, with opulent living quarters for the officers, but squalor for the engineers and slaves. It’s Red Dwarf meets the Titanic, with elements of the Liberator. Miranda is given a handmaiden and shown the glories of the Klade. Ferdy tells her they are returning to Klade homeworld, where her marriage to him will cement his claim to power.

The handmaiden tells Miranda that the Klade homeworld is now in total collapse – structurally, socially, environmentally … the old palaces stand on a polluted, shattered world. The Republic is on the brink of collapse and civil war. There are now a dozen Klade warlords who style themselves as the Emperor: Ferdy is the strongest, though, as he holds the Throneworld, and now the Empress.

Suddenly there is an explosion deep within the ship – rival saboteurs have sabotaged the ship. They want to kill Miranda rather than let her become a figurehead for a new dictatorship. In true Doctor style, Miranda escapes down a ventilation shaft, with the help of a handmaiden. (The Miranda/handmaiden relationship is very reminiscent of the Doctor/companion one).

The Doctor realises the Klade have been active in India, and puts two and two together: they must have Miranda. Miranda manages to contact him – she tells him the Klade ship has been damaged and will need to make repairs before it can timejump to the Klade home planet. The trouble is, she’s five hundred miles away – in space.

The Doctor and Debbie fly to Cape Canaveral and, in a sequence that this synopsis doesn’t do justice to, steal the Space Shuttle from its launch pad, much to the amazement of the crew. This is a first for the ‘new’ Doctor … but space travel feels like a homecoming for him.

We see Miranda is more pragmatic than the Doctor – but even she is moved by the terrible conditions the slaves live in. As she walks, incognito, among the huddled masses, we see a new maturity and sense of responsibility developing. The ship is becoming a battleground between the saboteurs and those loyal to Ferdy, and the slaves are being caught in the crossfire.

The Doctor brings the shuttle alongside the Klade ship. The astronauts are now willing to work with the Doctor and Debbie. The Doctor and the astronauts launch a daring rescue mission. It’s exciting, there’s a lot of swashbuckling – but, of course, Miranda isn’t in her chambers. They are captured, and the Doctor is interrogated – although he manages to turn the tables and learns Ferdy’s true plan. He’s discovered computer records containing lost secrets and technology from the Klade’s past, when they took place in a vast intergalactic war - if Ferdy has these, he will have enough power not only to unite the Klade, but to begin expanding the Empire. But the files can only be opened by the genetic code of a member of the Royal Family.

Miranda frees the slaves. There is a huge revolt, and the palace is stormed. Miranda rescues the Doctor.

Ferdy kills Debbie and threatens to kill the Doctor unless she opens the files, but she won’t. The Doctor and Miranda are side by side, now, and clearly a winning team. Ferdy is caught in one of his own traps.

The Doctor tells Miranda she must return to Earth – opening the files will be dangerous. Miranda laughs: no, she’s staying – she’s going to raise an army. She’ll crusade in the Klade timezone to restore the Doctor’s values, something that seem to have been forgotten in that distant future. Her handmaiden agrees – this is a chance for the universe to rebuild. The Doctor is faced with a genuine dilemma: how can he know that Miranda won’t become a dark force? Can she be trusted? He decides that she can, and gives her his blessing.

The Doctor returns to Earth in the space shuttle, landing it on the M25 and getting away before he has to answer any awkward questions.


One thing that isn’t coming across in the synopsis is that there are strong villains. Each of these get a
confrontation with the Doctor in which their philosophy is made clear.


Mentioned in passing in The Infinity Doctors, the Klade come from a warlike far future, a fascist empire spanning galaxy after shattered galaxy. They resemble the Nazi supermen – tall, blond, muscular. They are militaristic – seemingly genetically destined to be cruel, warlike, sadistic and
decadent. Their technology is advanced and efficient.

The brutal, oppressive Imperial Family is wiped out in a revolution while Miranda was an infant. The fate of the Klade mirrors that of Russia in the 1980s. When they arrive in 1981, the Klade Republic is monolithic and seemingly at the height of its power. By 1986 the Republic is beginning to break up – the economic and military strains are showing. By 1989, the Klade are once more on the brink of revolution and civil war.


Arriving in 1981, the Captain is ideologically opposed to the Imperial Family, as well as out for personal revenge on what they have done to his family. A man in his late thirties, early forties, he’s a natural leader and military tactician. A professional soldier, he leads a disciplined band of troops who are totally loyal to him. There’s an intensity there, and he won’t hesitate to slit Miranda’s throat or kill anyone that gets in his way. There is honour there, there is pride, but a stubborness and inflexibility, too. He’s George Baker’s Tiberius from ‘I Claudius’.


A loyal servant of the Captain, the Deputy is a vicious thug. He’s a soldier, not a thinker, and goes wherever his Captain leads him. His total loyalty and tenacity mean the Captain trusts him absolutely. When he returns in 1986 he has become obsessed with avenging his Captain and destroying the Doctor. The Deputy has no ideology, only loyalty. The collapse of the Republic means little to him – he’ll carry on fighting for his master, whatever the circumstances. Think of Michael Sheard’s character from Blakes Seven (Aftermath / Powerplay).


A young man in 1986, Ferdy has found his life mapped out for him – his childhood was spent as a privileged member of the new Republic. In 1981, with the death of his older brother, he was thrust into the political arena, and is clearly uneasy. There are a lot of obligations – the blood feud with the imperial family, the need to command soldiers – that he is barely equipped to deal with. He’s sharper, more intelligent than his brother was, and that means he’s seen that an endless cycle of revenge and counter-revenge will end in genocide on both sides. Unlike his brother, Ferdy is imaginative, and not restrained by tradition and ‘the rules’.

When he returns in 1989, Ferdy has aged ten years – now he’s beginning to resemble his brother, but his intelligence makes him paranoid, his lack of respect for the ancient ways of honour means he is more cynical and less driven. He wants Miranda now entirely for his own pragmatic gain, not for the family honour. Ferdy sees himself as the leader of a new Klade society – a dictatorship.

Monday, 3 November 2008


As requested, a brief discussion about naming characters.

It’s a weird one. At one level, naming characters is fairly trivial. What your character is called doesn’t really affect the story all that much. I’m a firm believer in the theory that if you can remember the name of the lead character in an action film, the makers have done something wrong (Broken Arrow takes this to the extreme of having the audience find out the names of the male and female leads as the last lines of the movie).

For long running characters, it seems to be more important. There’s clearly a resonance to ‘Sherlock Holmes’ or ‘Dracula’ that must be, in part, because their names are so distinctive. Would Kylie Minogue smell so sweet if she’d been called something less unusual, something that didn’t sound like a team in the UEFA cup? I’d still fancy a sniff, I think. Some of this is clearly just our familiarity, rather than because they’ve got weird names – you can’t really get more ordinary names than Elizabeth Taylor, Bruce Willis or Richard Burton.

‘Hardy and Laurel’ sounds discordant, but there’s no particular reason why, it’s just that we’re used to it being the other way round. Other things are cultural. The name ‘Kevin’ in the US is Costner and Kline and Bacon. In the UK, it’s still Gerbil.

Other names are just at hand. The name ‘Dalek’, famously – if, almost certainly, fictitiously – emerged when Terry Nation saw a phonebook that ran DAL-EK (or DAL-LEK). The most famous example of that is probably James Bond. Ian Fleming had an ornithology book by a ‘James Bond’ on his shelf. Um … I’m probably not going to help my case that I’m not a James Bond fanboy by pointing out that that’s why Pierce Brosnan poses as an ornithologist in Die Another Day. Er, or by noting that I have a first edition of James Bond’s book. Elsewhere, Fleming used the names of friends and acquaintances – not always amusing them in the way that he hoped.

I named a character in Emmerdale after a friend, once … and then (after I’d left the show) the character was revealed to be a golddigging ex-prostitute. Oops. Hilariously, when I tried to name a character ‘Mark Clapham’ I was warned not to use any more joke names. This, I think, might have been the very episode where Gareth Roberts introduced a character called Roger Blake.

It’s very hard to find an ‘ordinary name’ (this a person called ‘Lance Parkin’ speaking of course … people always confuse me with Lars Pearson and Lawrence Miles, making Warlords of Utopia, - written by me, published by Lars, edited by Lawrence – like some weird Three Doctors type special). The temptation is always to go weird and Pythonesque – Celia Molestrangler, that kind of thing. One of the things Vic and Bob always used to do so well was find ordinary names for their characters. A talking Labrador was ‘Greg Mitchell’. Douglas Adams managed to have characters called Arthur Dent and Zaphod Beeblebrox in the same scene.

There are practical considerations – on the whole, you want to avoid characters with similar names, just so the audience don’t get confused. You want to avoid libeling anyone (Barbara Cartland got very offended by Fatherland, when she learned she was still writing romances in a parallel universe where the Nazis won).

You want the names to be nice and memorable, to suit the characters without going the Restoration comedy route that would have seen Jack Harkness called something like Roger Proudcock.

So … how do I come up with my names? A lot of the time, characters just grow into their placeholder name. This has happened to me with pets in the past, and I suspect it’s the power of the label – soon, they’ve ‘become’ that name.

The names in mine usually mean something, even if it’s something trivial. All the names in my Big Finish play Davros are from Diff’rent Strokes, for example. The ones in The Dying Days are all place names from The War of the Worlds. I often use vaguely punny names, and don’t explain them – in Father Time, Ferran is a corruption of Ferdinand, for example, and Klade is an anagram.

The Eyeless has quite a small cast. A lot of the names are short, almost fragments of other names, because the planet is small and broken. This isn’t some code to break or anything, and I hope now I’ve said this, it’s not distracting, but – for example - there’s a character ‘Jeffip’ who I originally pictured as being sort-of played by David Bowie. His name’s a mashed up version of ‘Phillip Jeffries’, the character Bowie played in Fire Walk With Me. In the event, I heard Bowie was in season four, so Jeffip ended up played by someone else. Regular readers of mine will be able to work out who. Regular viewers will note that Bowie didn’t show up in season four. ‘Gyll’ is meant to be reminiscent of ‘Gyllenhaal’. The planet Arcopolis is basically a city of Arcologies, if that’s not a contradiction in terms, but the word also echoes with Ark and Arc and Arcadia.

The reason the Eyeless are called that is explained in the book, and it’s not the obvious explanation.

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

The Difference Between a Synopsis and a Novel

OK … so I had a synopsis. But I wasn’t just religiously following that. No plan survives initial contact with the enemy.

The synopsis I’d written, the one Justin and I had worked through, the one that Russell Davies Himself had read and approved, was two pages long. It wasn’t meant to contain every single thing the book would. Editors know that. The idea is that when you hand the book in, the editor can look at the synopsis and go ‘yeah, that’s what we commissioned’. Basically it's so, down the line, the marketing people, the cover designer, the sales reps, the press and publicity people … they all know, months before the book actually exists, what they’ll be getting.

Tales grow in the telling.

The thing a lot of non-writers ask is ‘where do you get your ideas?’. It’s the wrong question to ask. Ideas are easy, it’s stringing them together in a coherent way that’s the challenge. What I’ve found is that to string ideas together, the process of writing is more like a set of heuristics … ‘solutions to problems’.

There are a variety of strategies a writer adopts. Now … again, as I’ve said before, very little of this is conscious, particularly when everything’s working. It’s not a matter of sitting and calculating – you don’t catch a ball by calculating a parabola, you do it on instinct. Or, in my case, you fumble and drop the ball because you lack even basic hand-eye co-ordination.

The basic problem to solve is that there’s a set of specific story points you want to make – people who study drama tend to call these ‘beats’. If you want to make the point that a character is cool in a crisis … well, the golden rule is that you don’t just write ‘Steve was great in a crisis’, you have a scene where we all see Steve coping well in a crisis (and, conversely, other people coping badly, by way of contrast). ‘Show not tell’. And the difference between fiction and real life is that everything in fiction is there for a reason, and is making a specific point – the art of it is to make it feel like real life, and the irony is that necessitates hundreds of different contrivances and conventions. So, for example, people in real life don’t speak in any way at all like people speak in the movies – unless the real life people are quoting from movies. The biggest con job of all, the most artificial and convention-bound, is the story that's 'realistic'.

Things change as the writer turns his ideas into an actual book, and that was certainly true of The Eyeless.

One character, Dela, isn’t even mentioned in the proposal and just ended up becoming a major character. This often happens – stories work much better if there are two people in a room, arguing and explaining things. As I said last time, I was splicing scenes together, keeping things pacey and efficient. I needed characters to hit three ‘beats’ – to do three things – and it turned out that Dela could do all three, and suddenly was there in my book, a rounded character.

Another character, Alsa, started out as one thing and ended up as exactly the same character but playing a completely different, much more interesting and involved role in the story. Again, I don’t want to spoil any surprises, but the book altered quite substantially once I understood the active role she’d take in the story. Gar, on the other hand, a character we first meet with Alsa, ended up with far less than I was expecting. I thought the two of them would be a double act, and get pretty much equal time.

The thing is … synopses are always a bit of a fudge. Legend has it that the outline for the Paul McGann movie ends with something like ‘and then the Doctor gets back to the TARDIS and stops the Master in his own inimitable style’. That’s the whole last act basically down as ‘TBC’. And the last act is a bit of a mess, probably not coincidentally. If nothing else, if you’ve not pinned it down, every random passing executive can pitch in and add a suggestion like ‘wouldn’t it be great if they went into, like, a time orbit?’ and he’ll be too senior for anyone to express their natural, healthy reaction to the idea, which is basically to re-enact that bit with Heath Ledger and the pencil.

There will always be things you’ve not fully worked out in your synopsis. You’ll have things like ‘and then the Doctor gets through the impenetrable forcefield and meets the Guardian who tells him the way to the Old City’ or something, without knowing how he does that literally, by definition, impossible thing or what the hell a Guardian is or looks like. In that case, it’s basically deferring your imagination. You’ll explain later.

There are two simple problems there … coming up with a trick for the Doctor to perform to get past the forcefield while trying to maintain suspense, and playing fair with your readers – ‘oh look, a button that deactivates the forcefield’ is a bit rubbish, but so’s ‘I’ll plug my sonic screwdriver into the tachyon emitters and send a plasmotic pulse’. Ideally, you want some way that the reader could guess – ‘oh, he uses the crystal he picked up in the forest in the first chapter’ or just make a fight of it. The Doctor gets past five traps a story, there are over a thousand Doctor Who stories, so it’s tricky coming up with a novel way of getting past a trap. As I said a while back, stories are about choices. If your protagonist gets past the trap by making a clever, characteristic, choice, it’s always going to be more satisfying than if he does it by luck or coincidence.

Likewise, the Doctor’s met lots of monsters – a number of them called ‘Guardian’, for that matter, like Mavic Chen, Guardian of the Solar System (except on Sunday, when he’s merely an Observer, joke © Jim Smith), the Guardian of the Doomsday Weapon, not forgetting the Black, White, er … hang on, I think I can do this from memory, Gold, Azure, Red, Crystal and Beige Guardians. Was there a Pink Guardian? Somehow, you feel there ought to be in the Doctor Who universe. Pink could play him or her.

These are basically just three pipe problems. You spend a day going ‘the Guardian’s a big lizard … nah … she’s a little girl … nah … he’s Stephen Fry in a UFO style purple tinfoil wig … yeah … er … nah’ until you hit on an idea that just works. It is, in all honesty, a ridiculous way to make a living, and to justify it, authors work themselves up until things like this seem like the Schleswig-Holstein Question or trying to prove that N=NP.

These aren’t structural problems. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter what the Guardian looks like from a story point of view. The story beat is only that the Doctor needs to meet someone who can tell him about the Old City. If the book was running over the word count, or was dragging a bit, you could ditch the whole forcefield/Guardian bit and have the Doctor find a signpost marked ‘to the Old City’.

If you’re writing a book and you change your mind, you only have to edit a few sentences. Or, and this is the great thing with novels, you can defer everything to your readers: ‘she was the most beautiful woman imaginable’. OK readers … get imagining. On TV, you have to be more concrete – you have to cast that woman, so it becomes a question of the most beautiful woman by the standards of the casting director who’s available and agrees the fee. Not really the same. But even on TV, the writer can palm a load of the heavy lifting off onto the director or designers. You type ‘it’s a futuristic control room’ and get on with things, leaving some other guy to design and build the damn thing.

Ten days or so into the writing of The Eyeless, I hit a structural problem …

Thursday, 23 October 2008

I (heart), (heart) Doctor Who

A brief digression.

Doctor Who is great, Doctor Who under Russell T Davies is the best thing on television. I love it, I love the fact that millions of people also love it, I love the fact that a television is now basically a device that lets people watch Doctor Who and its spinoffs and also has some rarely-used additional functions. This is, essentially, how I've wanted the world to be since I was about six.

With The Eyeless, I wanted to write a book that helps celebrate the strengths of the new series. Part of that, of course, is accentuating the stuff that I like and downplaying stuff I like less. Although, be warned that my favourite episode is probably The Last of the Time Lords - but there's so much competition I feel so guilty saying that - and my favourite scene is definitely the Scissor Sisters bit.

A video did the rounds last year. I've no idea who put it together, but I love it and it was a major source of inspiration for the tone of my book. It's got a lovely, bleak New Adventuresy feel to it, gives me real 'want to see' pangs. While I understand the reasons why, it's a little sad to know we'd never, ever be allowed to get away with a scene where the Doctor's down a dirty alleyway in a fistfight with a bunch of kids. Thank you, whoever did this.

Charlie Brooker also said some trenchant things about the second series, then got paid again for saying them again.

I agree with a lot of that - most of all, the stuff about loving the show and the need to hunt down and punish those who don't.

The Eyeless had drills in an early draft of the book. They didn't actually need them for anything, or use them, but they did have them.

Monday, 20 October 2008

Quotients, Balances

This is going to sound arrogant and horrible, so imagine me saying it in gently ironic tones: I don’t find writing a Doctor Who book all that difficult. Douglas Adams had that quote about how writing was about sitting there until your forehead bleeds … I prefer former BBC political correspondent John Cole’s line that the hardest part isn’t getting words on a page, it’s keeping your bottom on the seat. It’s very easy to get distracted, particularly when it’s oh so easy to justify watching a DVD, popping out to Borders or just staring out the window as ‘research’.

John Cole made his remark in the pre-internet age, if anyone now can imagine such an epoch. Now you can be quite happily sat at your computer with the document open and still be involved in displacement activities.

As a productivity boost, can I recommend the Morning Coffee Firefox extension? It automatically loads a bunch of websites in the morning. So you get to check Outpost Gallifrey, Lifehacker, Penny Arcade, Unreality, your friends’ sites and so on all in one concentrated burst, then you get on with your day.

I am, apparently, a fast writer. A fair few professional writers say they manage about a thousand words a day. Now … this isn’t anything to get hung up about. If you write five hundred words a day and they’re good, that’s pretty handy. Most people have actual jobs and friends and family, that sort of thing, so it’s hard to make time to write at all. If you want to be a writer, you have to work out a way to find that time, of course. The Eyeless is 55,000 words long, and that’s at the lower end of novel-length. A thousand words a day is two months with a few days off for good behaviour, assuming you're doing nothing else.

My record is about 15,000 words in a day – the first great surge of activity on The Dying Days, where I had a really, really clear idea of what I had to do (and, more to the point, a deadline of five weeks to do it). All cylinders blazing, the first burst, or with a real mastery of the material, I can do something like 6000 words in a day. My record the other way … well, I’ve thrown away a chapter, so probably something like -5000 words. With books that completely fail to take root – my Prisoner novella, my Great American Novel that I’ve been writing for three years now and refer to, dreadingly, as The Whale Oil Book - I must be averaging less than ten words a day. On the whole, I reckon I write about 2500 words a day on average. The best trick I’ve found is to try to do a novel at the same time as a non-fiction book – they don’t really feel like the same kind of thing when you’re writing so you can displace from writing to … writing something else.

This time I had a couple of extra challenges.

The first was the length. As Pascal said … no, hang on, I quoted him last time. You know what he said.

It became very clear to me that The Eyeless couldn’t be paced at quite the way my other books had been. The Gallifrey Chronicles, to be honest, is probably more frenetic, but it had a lot to do. The pace of Doctor Who TV stories just kept speeding up. Watch The Web Planet and it’s hard to shake the idea that Tennant and Donna would get to halfway through episode three by the opening credits (virtually every ‘sting’ that comes just before the opening credits now would have been the episode one cliffhanger even in the eighties). It’s no coincidence that the ‘typical’ story started at six or seven episodes long, dropped to four, was dropping to three in the late eighties and is now fifty minutes. There’s just as much ‘story’ in, say, Planet of the Ood as a Troughton six parter, probably more.

As a digression … it’s interesting that while TV is getting shorter and punchier, novels are getting longer and longer. Technology allows this – word processors let authors store more (the completed Eyeless book would fit on half an old floppy disc, it barely registers on a flashdrive), it allows editors to edit faster. Books get emailed, not posted. An author doesn’t cross out mistakes or have to retype pages, or have one manuscript that they can’t, at any cost, leave on the bus. It’s pretty amazing to think that in the Target book days, someone at a printers was fitting together little metal letters to make up each page in turn, then running the press, then rearranging the letters on the frame to make the next set of pages. All of this means that these days a long book costs about the same for everyone as a short one.

Long story short (see what I did there?), if I’d paced The Eyeless like an old Past Doctor book, it would have felt like a short, light, slow Past Doctor book. The book starts out with quite a slow build, establishing the setting. I very quickly found myself splicing scenes together – instead of two scenes where the Doctor walks down a corridor, then into a room and starts talking to someone, we have what The West Wing production team took to calling ‘pedalogues’: the Doctor and someone walking down a corridor, talking as they go. The advice scriptwriters get is to start the scene as late as possible and finish it as soon as possible. I found myself doing that a lot.

This is all great for the book. It’s very focused, there’s not much you could mistake for padding. It was quite tricky, though – not least because if you’re writing with everything tightly packed like that, it becomes very difficult to change things around when you need to.

The other issue was that this was a book marketed as YA. I’ve discussed that already in my September posts. In practical terms, although I was very determined just to write a Doctor Who book, not paralyse myself by endlessly second-guessing what ‘Cardiff’ wanted or whether kids would like it, I did have ‘older children will be reading this’ in the back of my mind. I knew my Philip Pullman, and figured that if Young Adult books allow kids to not just go around with knives, but to stab God with them, that the ‘ratings’ issue wouldn’t be too much of a problem. But I did want to read up on what was popular, mainly – I have to admit – so I could use it as precedent (‘Justin, in Silverfin, a girl pins Bond down with her thighs and a eel squirts out of a dead man’s mouth *, so it’s clearly acceptable for the younger readers … ’).

I had a clear idea of how my book started, I’d already started assembling phrases and images and jokes and so on.

It’s always good to read. If you want to be a writer, read more, and read more widely. As I wrote The Eyeless, I relaxed by reading. And what happened is what always happens when something’s working: I’d be reading something completely unrelated to my book, and a factoid or quotation or bit of history would suddenly leap out as something to look at. This happens a lot with me. Either it’s some amazingly powerful unconscious, holistic thing, or I just become completely blinkered and uncritical. I was reading Life, the Universe and Everything when the exact quote I needed appeared, a lovely turn of phrase from Douglas Adams I’d never noticed in the dozen or so times I’d read the book before. It’s in The Eyeless, with all due credit.

I try to give every book its own ‘voice’. It’s hard to describe – it’s to do with pace and the length of sentences. The Infinity Doctors, say, has loads of descriptive passages and dwells on little details. Trading Futures skates over things really fast (there were quite a lot of long, dense books in the previous batch of EDAs, and I just thought people would appreciate one they could gulp down in two sittings). This ‘voice’ is all about the internal logic of the story. In One Fine Day in the Middle of the Night, Christopher Brookmyre talks about the bullet-deadliness quotient, he’s right and I think there are lots of equivalents in fiction. Kissing someone is far more significant in Doctor Who than having sex with them and their sister would be in Skins. Each story has its own level of meting out justice, the relationship between what they do and the punishment they get. There are Child Spunkiness Quotients, Adultery Forgiveness Quotients, Swearing Quotients, Quip and Eloquence Quotients, Character Disposable Income And Free Time Quotients, Recovery Time From Injury Quotients. You create a world, with rules. The trick is, as Brookmyre says, to stay consistent within those rules.

Some books, I really struggle with finding those balances. If I had to describe the writing process, that’s the word I would use: ‘balancing’. Writing is about making lots of choices – choosing a path, which means not choosing other paths. You have to work out if you’re telling your audience too much or not enough. A lot of this is instinctive, but writing itself is a sort of ‘guided instinctive’ process. You go on your instincts … then go back and make sure.

Finding the ‘voice’ for The Eyeless was fairly smooth. While I would eventually edit a few things down, I pretty much had the first sixty five pages or so done and dusted inside a week. Gosh, everything was going so smoothly. I’d have it done by Christmas at this rate.

By moving so quickly, I had got a little ahead of myself …