Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Practicing Prestidigitation on Pretend Pachyderms

In the comments section, Neil Shurley asked:

"So. About this 1000 word synopsis. How close do you end up sticking to it? Walker Percy, I believe, made a comment once (seriously paraphrasing here) about writing being no fun if you already know in advance where it's going. But most folks, I think, benefit from having an ending in mind. But, anyway, all that being said, I'm curious about how much you end up drifting from your initial synopsis over the course of writing the novel. I suspect it differs from project to project, but I also wonder if you're contractually bound to follow the synopsis you've delivered."

This is a good question, and touches on a number of things.

Contractually, I have to deliver a book that’s like my synopsis. In practice, as Tolkien put it, ‘the tale grew in the telling’. There’s a major character in The Eyeless who’s not in the synopsis at all, another who does all the same things for completely different reasons. I dropped one big thing about the monsters: they were going to have a strict caste system, with strictly defined roles. I had it all worked out and had drawn pictures of the various castes and everything. I dropped it not because it’s an SF cliché and invariably rubbish, but because it just didn’t really go anywhere when I came to write it down. They spent far more time explaining the caste system than doing anything with it. One bit that I thought would take up chapters and chapters ended up being half a chapter long. When the title changed, I decided I needed to introduce the Eyeless themselves a little earlier. The ending hits all the same basic beats and points, but is quite different from the original plan. Justin Richards – Series Consultant/my editor is a writer, an extremely prolific one, and knows that these things happen. So ‘like’ doesn’t have to mean ‘identical’. There’s no doubt at all that the synopsis and the final book are ‘like’ each other. And, in the end, no editor worth his salt will ever say ‘that works at every level and doesn’t clash with our other plans … but isn’t like the synopsis, so change it’.

Now … the rules are different when you're writing for a series with lots of different authors, particularly one based on a TV series that the books are running alongside. If you’re an established author writing your own standalone book, with your own characters and so on, your publisher probably won’t require you to write a synopsis.

But The Eyeless is one of three Doctor Who books coming out on the same day, and that’s the day after a television episode. It’s the thirtysomethingth book of the range. The tenth Doctor books aren’t a ‘series’ like the New Adventures and Eighth Doctor books, which told an ongoing story – they’re all self-contained adventures … but they are all part of a range, and lots of people read them all.

The synopsis is a quick way to make sure that the stories are all sufficiently different. In a series that’s been running as long as Doctor Who, it’s very easy to come up with an historical character or setting or type of monster that’s been in a story before (it's harder not to, at times). All series and genres have formulae and only tell certain types of stories – Doctor Who is a great deal more flexible than most (Paul Cornell once said ‘the format is there’s no format’), but I don’t think I’m being massively controversial when I say that there are some old stalwarts – the alien invasion; the base under siege; the planet that seems nice but is secretly ruled by aliens; the everyday object that turns deadly as part of the invasion plans; a shipwrecked alien having to kill to survive. In any given year, the Doctor will face evil insects, evil robots and aliens disguised as people. There will be stories set in the past, present and future. It’s the rules.

Individual writers, though, won’t know what the other writers are up to. Not at first. Now, obviously part of my job is to come up with something … well, let’s be polite and call it ‘original’. It’s not original in the true sense of the word – it’s more like coming up with something that you assume no one else will be doing at the moment. If the editor has a synopsis he can say things like ‘don’t end it with a big shoot out, a lot of books recently have done that’ or something like that.

Once the book is commissioned, the synopsis is very useful to the various marketing and sales people. The cover has to be designed while the book is still being written, so the artist has to work from the synopsis (I’ll be talking about my cover soon).

There may be people – other writers, even – who read that and think that novelists shouldn’t be worried about commercial stuff. Surely, they say, novelists are artists and should be free range and organic and dancing around meadows, and so what I’ve just described makes me the writing equivalent of a battery hen. No wonder these books end up in supermarkets.

Well, they’re wrong for any number of reasons, but let’s just pick one: once it’s been approved, the synopsis actually frees me from all the ‘commercial stuff’. I can get on with my writing, confident that all the marketing and publicity and editorial people know what they’ll be getting and are happy with it. That’s all sorted out before I’ve written a word my readers will read.

But …

I also think there are at least two obvious advantages to having a synopsis whatever you’re writing. I think new and aspiring writers should at least try writing a synopsis before they set out trying to write a novel.

Firstly, it's much, much easier to change a synopsis than a novel. This is obviously true physically - if you write and rewrite and edit 10,000 words, then throw it away and write another 10,000 words ... that all takes time – weeks, at least. But I think the main advantage is an emotional one: you can get very fond of your writing. There’s a bit of description you really love, or a joke, or a character … but that section of the book isn’t working. Instead of biting the bullet and throwing it away and starting again, you get the urge to tinker and juggle things around and rework. It becomes all too easy to throw good money after bad.

It's very hard to get emotionally attached to a synopsis. The ending doesn't work? Come up with a different one. In the end, you’re changing a couple of sentences, not a couple of chapters. And the prose is usually pretty functional.

Secondly ... it's easier to see the problems. Novels are big and complex and take months to write. You make thousands of little decisions, all the time, and it's very easy to end up drifting a little off course. Sometimes you'll end up in a more interesting place - often, though, you'll just be getting lost.

But even before you set off, if you have the plot laid out in front of you, you can see where the problems are likely to be. There are always weak moments. Bits where you write ‘she decides to trust the Doctor’ when there’s no real reason for her to do that other than you need them to work together now, or ‘the Doctor suddenly reveals that’, where what you’re really saying is that the Doctor doesn’t earn the knowledge, he’s kind of known it all along.

Top tip: when you’re plotting something, if the word ‘suddenly’ appears, you’re probably doing something wrong. I’ll explain why in a later post.

The trick isn’t always to eliminate plot holes, it’s often to understand where they are and hide them. Authors use the same basic trick as stage magicians – distraction. Look at my right hand. My right hand is doing something really interesting with a handkerchief, ooh ooh, look at my right hand. While you’re busy looking at that, my left hand is slipping the playing card into your pocket. Telling a story is exactly the same sort of thing – controlling and limiting the information the audience is receiving. Getting you to ask the wrong question, withholding the one piece of information you really, really need to see what’s really happening.

There’s a massive plot hole in the greatest movie of all time, Star Wars. A stupid one. One that defies all logic. One that you’ve probably never noticed (although the writer of the radio version did and tried to plug it). Our heroes escape from the Death Star, Princess Leia says that the escape was too easy, that they’re clearly being tracked and then says … let’s got to the Rebel base. The one that the Imperials have spent the whole movie looking for and have no other way of locating. They lead the Death Star to Yavin. And know that’s exactly what they’re doing. Which is pretty dumb.

Now, George Lucas is a genius. Yes he is. If you don’t agree, leave – we don’t serve your kind in here. He distracts the audience with the space battle, the mourning of Ben, Han teasing Luke about Leia. That bit of the movie works brilliantly as a nice, short gap between the action of the Death Star escape and the big space battle at the end. Even though it’s people just sitting around, it moves so fast, there’s so much else going on, that you’ve seen that movie loads of times and never noticed the ‘plot hole’. Although I’d wager a lot of you will be telling your mates about it now.

It is, in the end, basically the same trick that Arnie uses in Last Action Hero when he’s surrounded by an army of mobsters – he points behind them and shouts ‘look – an elephant’, then runs away while everyone’s looking for it. Writers point at a lot of imaginary elephants.

The synopsis allows an author to see the story laid out without the distractions, allows him to see if there’s stuff that doesn’t work. There’s then the choice of either fixing it, or burying it. In the case of Star Wars, getting the Death Star to Yavin for the final act was the important thing, and made for a much better story than any alternative way of doing things.

I saw a lot of synopses for the New Adventures when I was researching the Virgin version of A History of the Universe. Some writers, like Andrew Cartmel, sent in vast chunky things – I think the one for Warchild was about thirty pages, complete with dialogue samples and so on. He clearly preferred to have it all mapped out before he started. Gareth Roberts and Ben Aaronovitch preferred two or three pages, get the strong basic idea down, then build on it.

Writers all write differently. They all have their own tricks and ways of getting the job done. Kelly Hale recently said in her blog that she never reads when she writes … I do the complete opposite, almost pathologically. Some authors swear blind that they just start writing and don’t know where the characters will take them. That sounds reckless and crazy to me, like jumping off a cliff and then trying to work out what to do next.

In the end, the reader never sees the synopsis. In the end - while it's often preferable - it doesn't matter if the creators of some story all got along, or whether the writer had fun doing it, what matters is the end result.

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

Become A Published Author **Guaranteed**

Some discussion on The Forum Formerly Known as Outpost Gallifrey about 'the Challenge'.

The 'challenge' is, as I say there, the challenge I faced, writing the book. If people want to try taking on the challenge, please feel free. But I'm not asking people to write a whole novel in six months.

It would be a fun exercise for people reading this to try writing the 1000 word synopsis now, though. Better still, when this blog ends on Boxing Day, it might be fun to try again. Hopefully you'll do a much better job second time around because of all the wonderful things you've learned.

I think a week to ten days is a perfectly sensible timescale for those 1000 words. So ... if you're going to try, try getting it finished sometime next week.

Now ... what I've done here is lay out the guidelines I was given. There were no sealed orders to be kept away from the eyes of muggles or whatever. You've been told what I was told.

I already know what most people will get wrong. The guidelines are very simple, but people will ignore one or more of them. I've said, for the purpose of the exercise, that you use Donna as a companion. Someone, somewhere has decided they don't like Donna, so they'll use Martha. Well ... send that into Justin, he'd reject it out of hand. Or, if he was feeling kind, ask you to rewrite it for Donna. Someone's decided that they're doing it for fun, so they've put the Daleks in it ... well, again, instant rejection. Or, if the idea's great, a very swift email saying 'try doing the same story, but with new monsters'. If it was a good Dalek story, that should be almost impossible.

The rules are transparent. The things I set out in The Challenge post are the non-negotiables. If you find yourself negotiating with them, you're doing something wrong.

Writing a novel isn't a thought experiment. It's a series of concrete choices. You decide to do one thing, not to do ten others. The end result isn't a vague set of ideas about what your story should be, it's the story.

Which is great ... because the great enemy of the writer is the idea that writing is what you are, not what you do. You wouldn't call yourself a plumber if you had vague ambitions one day to do some plumbing. You're a writer if you write.

These days, it's never been easier to be a writer. Hell, I'm being a writer just now by typing away. Here's my gift to everyone here: reply to this post and become a published writer. Assuming I don't moderate the comment, so try not to libel any comics creators.

What's more difficult is to be read.

Over at there's a great T-Shirt reading 'More People Have Read This Shirt Than Your Blog'. It is probably true of most blogs. Oh, and they also sell this,,, which is great.

I'm hoping to offer some really useful tips to improve your writing and storytelling. But above all, I hope to be able to show that the real art is in being read.

Sunday, 8 June 2008

The Best Advice I Can Give You ...

Before I really start wibbling away, I should probably admit that the best practical advice I can give anyone who wants to improve their writing is to read this book:

The Creative Writing Coursebook: Forty Authors Share Advice and Exercises for Fiction and Poetry

Now … one 'how to' book a lot of people tend to end up mentioning is Robert McKee's Story,

Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting

and that's a great book and it's a good read ... but it's mainly about how to write a Hollywood movie. It’s a little like going on a bodybuilding course with Arnie, when what you really need when you’re starting out is a bit of walking and perhaps a swim a couple of times a week. For us mortals, McKee’s book is probably better as a tool for analysing the formulae of American cinema than as a place to find hints and tips to improve our own writing. It's cool to learn stuff like that the twenty third minute is often the crucial one for a traditional Hollywood film, though.

(The twenty-third minute was the traditional place to put the moment when the Protagonist of the story is presented with the Call to Adventure. In other words, you spend the first twenty two minutes showing us the everyday life of the main characters and establishing what the status quo is ... then the hero gets a chance to change it. In the twenty-third minute of Star Wars, Luke sees Leia's message; in Back to the Future it's when Marty sees the time machine for the first time. The hero then … doesn’t leap into action, at first he almost always decides to stay home, because - well, buy McKee's book to find out. After you’ve checked all your movie DVDs to see what happens in the twenty-third minute, of course.)

The Coursebook has all sorts of exercise and insights. It’s a much more practical and everyday than McKee’s if you’re just starting out, and is based on the UEA creative writing course. It was co-edited by Paul Magrs, who by an amazing coincidence has also written - amongst many other things - Doctor Who books like:

Doctor Who - Sick Building (New Series Adventure 17)

And so, to conclude, everything always comes back to Doctor Who.

Here are those links for US Amazon:

The Creative Writing Coursebook: Forty Authors Share Advice and Exercises for Fiction and Poetry

Doctor Who: Sick Building (Doctor Who (BBC Hardcover))

Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting

Friday, 6 June 2008

Finding The Books

I read a lot of books. More of this anon (I know I keep promising this).

People often say things like 'the NAs are difficult to find'. It's certainly expensive and time-consuming to locate, buy and read all of them. Remember that the NA/MA/EDA/PDAs were released one or two at a time for the best part of fifteen years, so trying to collect the whole range in one go will be like trying to swallow an elephant.

There are books available for free online, including my novel The Dying Days (the first original novel featuring the eighth Doctor) at:

And you can still find bargains at Amazon Marketplace and Ebay.

A site I use a lot to feed my insatiable book habit is:

And a quick check shows that there are a lot of old Doctor Who books on there.

I've also started using and they've got
a smaller range (and are UK-only), but the books are cheaper and you save the planet and stuff, and surely that's what the Doctor's all about.

Thursday, 5 June 2008

The Challenge

People often ask me for advice about writing Doctor Who books.

These questions break down into two categories, really – the first is a practical one, specifically about the Doctor Who books: ‘Who do I write to at the BBC? What do they want? What’s the secret to getting commissioned? What’s the appropriate level of bribe?’. I’ll write a little about this at some point, I’m sure, but the harsh truth of the matter is that the BBC aren’t looking for new writers at the moment. They return, unread, any unsolicited submissions they get. The secret of my success with The Eyeless? I don’t know. I’ve written a fair few Doctor Who books in the past, and I’d let the BBC know years ago that I’d be happy to do so again, but hadn’t had any real contact with them for ages until Justin Richards (the Creative Consultant of the Doctor Who books) phoned me up out of the blue last November. So the only advice I can offer at the moment is ‘sit by your phone and wait for Justin Richards to ring’. Not terribly helpful, sorry.

There’s a second set of questions, and they boil down to ‘how do you write a novel?’. People are very interested in the general process. I suspect this is because of that old expression ‘everyone has a novel in them’. I don’t necessarily think everyone does really have a novel in them – on my darker days, I wonder if some published novelists do - but I think it’s certainly an area of creative expression that’s valuable. Particularly if, like me, you can’t really draw, dance, sing or play an instrument. And lots of novels get published every year, and someone’s writing them.

One thing that has surprised me as a writer is how many of the techniques and tricks that can be used in one sort of story can be used in another. I’ll be giving away all sorts of my secrets over the coming months, the sort of heuristics that I use. You can trust this advice, because I know fancy-schmancy words like ‘heuristics’ and ‘schmancy’.

But for now … I’ll lay out the challenge for writing a Doctor Who book. Now, if you want to have a go at this, please do. I have to warn people: this isn’t a Pop Idol type thing or anything where I can go over individual entries and offer pointers.

Also … writers have got very wary of encouraging people to describe their ideas on their websites, because of a couple of cases where someone’s posted something like ‘I think you should bring back the Romulans’ on the website of a Star Trek writer, and then tried suing when they did.

If you want to try this out, post the results somewhere like the boards, or (of course) on your own blog or Myspace page or wherever it is the young people and hepcats hang out online these days. Feel free to post a link to that here in the comments section.

So … what’s it take to write a Doctor Who book?

The guidelines are deceptively simple. In no particular order.

1. A tenth Doctor book should be between 50,000 and 55,000 words long. You have to be able to write it in six months, perhaps less.

(I think the word length thing will be the subject of my next entry here, because it’s something people seem fascinated and worried by).

2. It can’t feature any old Doctor Who monsters or anything like that. Not even stuff from the new series.

(No exceptions, no excuses – Virgin used to say this in their writers guidelines, too, and apparently about half of the submissions they got started something like ‘I know you said no old monsters, but when you read my book, Valeyard of the Daleks, you’re sure to make an exception’. They never did make that exception. The BBC want you to come up with your own ideas. Yes, there have been authors allowed to bring back old monsters – but not many, and never with their first book.)

3. You’d always be told which companion the Doctor would be travelling with. The Doctor doesn’t have a companion in The Eyeless, but for the sake of this exercise, let’s say you’ve got to have Donna in it.

4. Like the TV series, the audience for the Doctor Who books includes children these days. When you’re coming up with your story, bear that in mind. As a rule of thumb, the book should feature nothing unsuitable for an intelligent twelve year old.

(Heh … it’s safe to say that this is the source of most confusion and consternation among fans, particularly the fans of the New Adventures and Eighth Doctor Adventures, which were often pitched at adult fans. In the end, this is pretty much the easiest instruction to follow. I’ll be writing about this soon, too, and I suspect I’ll be returning to the subject after that. For now … I’ll repeat what I’ve said in a couple of other places: I’ve approached this book like I’ve approached my previous Doctor Who books, none of which were ‘unsuitable’ for that mythical twelve year old).

5. Your book has to be completely standalone – it can’t be the sequel to a previous story, or just the first book of a trilogy, or just setting something up. Imagine that, for some of the audience, this is the very first Doctor Who story your reader has ever seen or read.

Now … following those guidelines to the letter, write a synopsis of your book. It has to be concise … so, in no more than 1000 words (that’s about two sides of single-spaced A4 paper). The purpose of the synopsis is to give a detailed breakdown of the story, and to get across the flavour of your book.

(Hopefully you’ve read that last one and thought it sounds a bit tricky. That’s because it really is quite tricky. It's an art, not a science, and every author approaches it differently. I’ll talk about writing up a synopsis in a future entry, too. For now … think of it this was: this is your pitch. This is your one chance. You have to come up with something that, in a thousand words, is – all by itself – enough to persuade someone to commission the book.).

The best hint I can give – try to come up with a really strong, simple, central idea and then try building on that. Father’s Day, for example: Rose realises that if she can go back in time, she can save her father’s life. Dalek: someone has a single Dalek locked up in their basement. These stories don’t write themselves, not a bit of it, but straight away you can see the possibilities, you can see the potential for drama. You can already see that saving Pete Tyler is going to have consequences that Rose hasn’t foreseen and picture the moment when that Dalek gets free.

Try to play around a little, bring your own ideas to the story. There’s no point saying ‘oh, I want to do a story just like the ones where the Doctor met Charles Dickens and Shakespeare and Agatha Christie but with [insert name of another writer]’ … Mark Gatiss and Gareth Roberts already did that. If they want to hire someone garethrobertsesque, they already have a number to call.

OK … if you want to have a stab at that, good luck!

Monday, 2 June 2008

Interview With Me

The Unreality site has an all-new, long interview with me at ...

It's in two parts, with The Eyeless stuff going up tomorrow.