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!


vurt69 said...

just listening to your commemts about writing for the 12 year old boys gives me hope that will be the best book since only human and i am a dalek by gareth roberts

vurt69 said...

your books fills me with hope that finally somebody other than gareth roberts will write a book for the new series in the same manner as the 8th and new adventures.happy days,i hope more will take your lead

r quayle said...

I've only read a few of the new adventures- I'm in america and they're a bit hard to get ahold of where I live but you're my favourite author for the series - you can definitely tell the different authors apart by the writing.

Pete Galey said...

1. A tenth Doctor book should be between 50,000 and 55,000 words long.

Ah! A nanowrimo! (The SI unit of fiction length)

Lance Parkin said...

Hmmmm ... not a huge fan of nanowrimo, for reasons summed up here:

If people want to be published commercially ... the first thing they need to understand that it's a job, and that it's the quality of the work, not the quantity or the speed at which it was written.

[pill]owtalk said...

Kudos to you man. I couldn't write a novel it would do my head in, Must be pretty awesome writing for DW Im looking forward to the books coming out.

Garpu said...

Interesting challenge. Might just take you up on it, although a dissertation to finish and defend kind of puts a damper on one's extra-curricular activities.