Tuesday, 14 October 2008

COMMISSIONED!

The setting and the shape of the monsters are basically dressing. The structure of a novel is its plot – what happens and when. The trick of a novel, really, is working out when the audience finds out information. Writers keep information back. They either gradually introduce it, or keep some vital point either obscure or out of the equation so they can come back and surprise you later with it.

The typical Doctor Who story has the Doctor arriving to find some monsters menacing a group of nice people. The Doctor discovers that the monsters have a bigger plan than just menacing those people – the running joke on some Doctor Who discussion boards is that every blurb for a Doctor Who book seems to include the phrase ‘but not everything is as it seems’.

For The Eyeless, I was keen to tell a story where everything was exactly as it seems. The problem is set out right at the beginning, there are no real twists and turns. The issue is solving the problem, not simple redefining it away.

I was keen to do a type of story that Doctor Who does surprisingly rarely – what I call the ‘Guns of Navarone’ type story. Basically, it’s a mission, with the characters having to get past all obstacles to reach their objective.

I also really wanted to tell a psychological story, one that explored the Doctor’s character a bit, tested him. Now, there are limits to what you can do. Not because Cardiff are mean and don’t let you, but simply because Doctor Who is a running serial. You can’t change him all that much. What would you want to change him for, anyway, when he’s the Doctor? He’s great. What you can do, though, is reveal stuff about him, challenge him, see him how others see him.

I wanted to play with the themes of the new series, wanted to make it distinctly a tenth Doctor story, not just a generic one. A lot of the new series is set on modern day Earth, with pop culture references and a soap opera thing going on with the companions and their families. The brief was to stay away from all that – so, bye bye any story featuring a pregnant Lucy Saxon and the Space Pig and a visit from Torchwood: 2020 where Maria Jackson’s on the team and K9’s the boss. Instead of those trappings, I had to think about what the new series was about. I’ve tried to pick up on the themes of the new show and, if you’re looking, you’ll spot a few things like lines of dialogue that quote the television series.

I was writing a book in which the Doctor travels on his own. And what we’ve discovered time and time again (actually starting in the New Adventures, and first articulated in Paul Cornell’s Love and War) is that the Doctor needs a companion. When we see him in Rose, say, or The Runaway Bride, without a companion, he doesn’t have the checks and balances he usually has. He’s not a human being, he’s acutely aware of the bigger picture, and that can make him act a little … inhumanely. Think of him surrounded by fire, wiping out the Racnoss at the end of The Runaway Bride. That’s the Doctor on his own, if he’s not careful.

The goal at this stage, as people who’ve read the early posts of this blog know, was to come up with a two-page synopsis.

Here, it’s taken me the equivalent of two and a bit sides of A4 just to set all that out. You can imagine that explaining all that, while structuring it in the form of a Doctor Who story, explaining who all the characters are and what happens was something of a challenge. It’s very easy to waffle on. As Pascal said – I’m pretty sure I’ve already quoted this in this blog, but it is one of my favourite quotes – ‘I’m sorry for the long letter, I didn’t have time to write a short one’. It must be a good quote, because it’s constantly ascribed to Twain, Churchill and Voltaire.

By the 23rd of November – appropriately enough - the synopsis had been batted back and forth to Justin a couple of times and between us we’d got the two page synopsis for a book I called The Hidden Fortress into a fit state to send to the Doctor Who production office in Cardiff for approval.

Now … I’ll be perfectly honest, I’ve no idea about the process that goes on at Cardiff. None at all. They could have a trained monkey with a rubber stamp, they could have a crack team of fifty Doctor Who book-approving specialists working over every line. They might have fifty trained monkeys - that would be cool, although probably a bit of a waste of licence-payers’ money. I didn’t have any direct contact, I didn’t get to visit the set or anything like that.

What I do know is that at some stage in the process, Russell Davies looks at the synopses – and that’s presumably why they’re two pages long, now, because he’s got plenty of other things to worry about.

I got two notes back, and this was all within a couple of days (around the 26th of November). I was keen to take advantage of the Doctor being on his own, wanted the hook of ‘this is too dangerous a mission to take a companion on’, but the note came back that the Doctor takes his companions to plenty of dangerous places. The story didn’t change one bit, but the marketing hook, if you like, did.

One thing I know that came back from Russell Davies himself was that the title should be The Eyeless, after the monsters in the book. It’s a much better title than The Hidden Fortress, not least because the Fortress in the book isn’t hidden. That led to a slight structural change – originally the Eyeless showed up out of the blue at the halfway point. Now they were in the title, that reminded me a little too much of The Sontaran Experiment, a two-part story which has the cliffhanger at the end of the first episode of ‘it’s … a Sontaran’ (the working title of that story was The Destructors, which would have maintained the surprise). So I added a couple of things that mean the Eyeless show up a lot earlier in my book.

Russell Davies knows what he’s talking about, to the point that it’s mildly insulting for me to point that out. In other news: Lewis Hamilton can drive cars and Pavarotti was an above-average singer. At this stage, I hadn’t signed a contract. If he’d said something I profoundly and utterly disagreed about, I could have walked away. He was right, on both counts.

OK … as soon as that came through, Justin gave the formal go-ahead. This was around the beginning of December. The Eyeless was commissioned, contracts would be drawn up. I could start work actually writing the thing.

My deadline was the end of June.

8 comments:

Stuart Ian Burns said...

There seems to be a recursive occlusion in that post.

Lance Parkin said...

Hmmm ... thought it seemed a bit long.

Allison C. said...

Darn. No pregnant Lucy Saxon. I'd pay to read that. Or anything else involving her, actually. :D But great to see you're writing Who again!

That Neil Guy said...

This post inspired two thoughts.

One, I love the idea of the quest and not holding back information from the reader. One of Kurt Vonnegut's "rules" for writing was "Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages."

Second, these cumulative postings are actually making me want to purchase my first tenth doctor novel. It's called The Eyeless and I understand it's coming out later this year...

Lance Parkin said...

'No pregnant Lucy Saxon'

That would be my pitch for the TV series - 'Lucy Saxon's pregnant'. I'd then fillet the best bits of Father Time for the story, with the Doctor having to protect this last of the Time Lord baby from alien assassins. Or, actually, thinking about it, just some human being who's really mad at the Master and wants to take it out on the baby.

Just to clarify something: it's a pretty obvious idea, and it's not yet a workable story. And, if the production team are planning or end up doing something like that, that's great and their prerogative and oops, I hope I haven't just put my foot in it.

The brief for the books is different. This isn't a case of me going 'oh, I wish I could do that, but I can't' ... it's a case of me thinking 'what would work well as a book?'.

Hmmmm ... I've had emails from people who want to read the Jane Austen book, and now from people who want to read the Lucy Saxon one. There's always the danger in Doctor Who that the story we *don't* see is more appealing than the one we do.

There's a huge difference between a tantalising hint of what the author originally wanted to do and an actual book. As Borges discovered, the hint is always going to have the advantage, because all it has to do is sit there bragging that it would have been great.

Anonymous said...

What would you want to change him for, anyway, when he’s the Doctor? He’s great.

*headdesk*

Jack Beven

Iceduck said...

One of Kurt Vonnegut's "rules" for writing was "Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages."

For writing? That was a rule for writing short stories. A novel being more of an investment, I'd be pretty displeased if I read a book and thought, "that's exactly what I'd have written, given the same beginning".

For The Eyeless, I was keen to tell a story where everything was exactly as it seems.

I do actually prefer the hook "and everything is exactly as it seems" to "too dangerous a mission to take a companion on". The former's wonderfully bizarre, whereas I think the vast majority of Doctor Who stories are Basically The End Of The World.

You mentioned "not having time to write a short one" - how much stuff do you cut for word count? Do you cut as you go, or cut a whole load at the end, or do you just write instinctively to the right limit?

Lance Parkin said...

'How much stuff do you cut?'

Different writers do very different things - I remember Paul Cornell saying in an interview once that he always wrote half as much again and then ruthlessly culled it.

If a method works, it works.

Personally, I tend to agonise about the sentence level stuff, and the first draft is pretty much there. The second draft is basically 'tuning in' - I cut out repetition, I realise where I need to make my point better, I alter the odd word choice here or there.

My method is a sort of endless building up - I'll do a scene that starts up as 'The Doctor explores the ruined hotel' and add more and more until it's a finished paragraph.

I'll explain what I ended up cutting from The Eyeless as I go on. The prose was fine, it was the content that was the problem!