Monday, 6 October 2008

The Net Effect

I’ve written Doctor Who novels before, but The Eyeless is a little different. My last one, The Gallifrey Chronicles, was the last of the regular novels to feature the eighth Doctor (the ‘EDAs’), and came out about halfway through the run of Christopher Eccleston’s season. I was in an odd situation with that book – trying to write a novel that celebrated and wrapped up an ongoing story that was over two hundred books long, while also being acutely aware that a new show with a fresh approach would be on the scene. It’s my bestselling Doctor Who novel to date – although my Emmerdale books sold more – and while I don’t have the figures, I’ve been told that The Gallifrey Chronicles ended up as the bestselling EDA of the lot.

The books featuring the new Doctors, though, are in a different league. I’m pretty sure that virtually everyone who bought The Gallifrey Chronicles was an old school fanboy. These were people who’d read the books at one point or another tuning in to the series finale, and the audience for the books then was – pretty much by definition – the hardcore fanbase of Doctor Who.

The big difference nowadays is that the Doctor Who books are truly mainstream. In a competitive marketplace the three Doctor Who novels will be among the bestsellers this Christmas. The books are available in supermarkets and three-for-two offers in bookshops. So, a great big chunk of my readership won’t be Doctor Who fanboys, just people who enjoy the TV show and the previous books. For the first time, a chunk of my readership will be children.

Does an author have a picture of their readership in their head when they’re writing and does that affect what the author writes? Well … yes.

It’s easy to imagine that things divide up neatly between ‘art’ and ‘commerce’, but the fact is that every person buying any book has made a commercial decision, and has done so, in part, because a publisher has carefully offered them a product and persuaded them to buy it. Now, some authors may want to distance themselves from that process, to create an uncompromised, unalloyed work of pure art and form … but that just means that someone else has to do the marketing for them. Or, I suspect is more often the case, that the book is so ‘uncompromised’ the author’s cat hasn’t even read it. And The Eyeless is a Doctor Who novel and part of an existing range, when all’s said and done.

So … how do I picture my audience? This is the first time I’ve written this down, so don’t get the idea that I’ve been drawing up Venn diagrams or anything.

I think readers of The Eyeless will mostly fall into one of three categories: the old school fanboys who’ve been Doctor Who fans for years and who may well have a book by me already; more casual adult readers who like the TV show and end up giving the book a try; younger readers.

The first thing to point out is that while it’s tempting to imagine that these groups will place competing demands on the book, they want mostly the same thing: a good Doctor Who story. They want a novel which is at least competently written, with interesting characters and ideas, a story that hooks them, some stuff that scares them, makes them laugh and makes them think.

What’s quite interesting is that all three groups there tend to prefer ‘a solid story’ over more literary qualities. I’m a writer, I’ve got a Masters degree in English Literature, I tend to get a bit poncey about imagery and turns of phrases when I read (and when I write, of course). I find it very difficult to read books with just ‘functional’ prose. A lot of people who read tie-in stuff seem to want more meat-and-potatoes writing, almost as if it’s a straightforward account of what happened to their favourite characters. They want a story with a beginning, middle and end (in that order), and they don’t want an author getting in the way of it with poetry and metafiction.

I’m generalising wildly. Just because you read tie-in novels doesn’t mean you only read tie-in novels. It doesn’t mean you approach every single book wanting exactly the same thing. As noted, I read a lot of books. When I read, say, William Shatner’s Collision Course, I did not read it looking for exactly the same thing as I did when I read, say, Nicholas Christopher’s Bestiary.

I enjoyed both books, I’m a big fan of both authors and have the secret desire to be both of them when I grow up. I recommend both books. They’re very different. My point is that I didn’t go into Collision Course expecting literary fiction. As Jonathan Ross said, if you play money to see Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes movie, you shouldn’t complain when it's got a load of apes in it all being very Tim Burtony.

Of the three audience groups, it’s that last one, ‘younger readers’, which is the tricky one for me. It’s also the one that scares fanboys most. The thing that scares fanboys is the thought that if you’re doing something ‘for kids’, it means you have to compromise and tone down and rule out and bowlderise. The thing that scares me is that … well, writing for kids is way harder than writing for fanboys.

Fanboys see it as a censorship issue or a ‘ratings’ one. As it happens, the NSAs are meant to be ‘suitable for twelve year olds’. Or, in movie terms, PG13. They can be as dark and violent as Dark Knight or Casino Royale … both of which, I’d say, are at the upper end of how dark Doctor Who should get. We can’t use swearwords … again, I don’t really see how that would ever really cripple a Doctor Who story. You can’t use swearwords on primetime TV, either. As for sex … well, again, it’s not traditionally what Doctor Who does. In the olden days, Doctor Who was ridiculously asexual – pace slashers and ficcers and shippers. I think I’m right that the first romantic kiss in the show’s history is in season 25 and The Greatest Show in the Galaxy (my ignorance will be exposed in the Comments section below). Even nowadays, it’s ‘saucy’ rather than explicit – the show now acknowledges that sex exists, and not just between a married man and his lady wife. This ‘sauce’ is filthy at times. Jackie Tyler’s ‘you could always splash out on a taxi or … whatever’ being a great example.

And the thing is … all these restrictions were in place before, with the EDAs. Doctor Who books shouldn’t really be the place to look for sexy stuff. If you’re reading this, you’re on the internet. If you’re on the internet, a hint: you don’t need to buy a Doctor Who book if you’re looking for filth.

I’ve ‘got away’ with stuff in The Eyeless that, in all honesty, I wasn’t sure I would do. You’ll see what when you read it. Nothing, at all, got cut for ‘ratings’ reasons (unlike Father Time and The Gallifrey Chronicles, as it happens). The only thing that changed ‘for the kids’ was that I sped up the opening a little, got to the action a little faster than I did in my first draft. That was on the advice of Justin Richards, my editor … although to be fair, two or three of the people that read the draft suggested the same thing. In practical terms, there are about two pages of description of the cityscape ‘missing’.

So … ‘kids’. I imagine my youngest reader as being about ten or eleven, but those would be really smart, bright ten year olds, ones who were big fans of Doctor Who. I think the ‘typical’ younger reader of the NSAs is about thirteen. And I wouldn’t know how to aim a book at ‘thirteen year olds’ – I’m thinking specifically about a thirteen year old reader. Someone who reads a lot, probably, who loves reading. So this is someone inquisitive, who likes learning things, solving puzzles, thinking things through.

In all honesty, smart thirteen year olds are going to be smarter and more literate than a dumb adult. They will know bigger words and more science and history.

The difference isn’t in the word choice, it’s in the world they live in. Doctor Who is, basically, about a man who fights what scares us. What scares me? Well, it’s not insects or reptiles or any of the phobic stuff Doctor Who monsters usually represent. It’s the idea that I won’t be able to pay the mortgage, for one. Interest rates. I was going to say that’s not exactly the topic for SF action-adventure, but then I remembered that the running story in Captain America at the moment is an elaborate supervillain plot to … undermine the credit market, thus destabilise the US economy to lever in a third party Presidential candidate.

I have a different perspective on the world and people than I did when I was thirteen. There would be something deeply wrong with me if I didn’t.

For The Eyeless, what I’ve tried to do is take a cue from Philip Pullman – who, in turn, took his cue from Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. A child and adult can look at the same event and see two completely different things. Neither is right or wrong, particularly, but adults are often better at seeing the hidden agendas and reading into situations – of looking out for what’s not being said. There’s plenty left unsaid in The Eyeless that the younger readers won’t spot, but which the adult readers can’t miss.

The net effect of all this … I’ve written a Doctor Who book in the exact style and manner I’ve written Doctor Who books in the past. The idea that a lot of my readers are younger or more casual than back in the day has actually kept me honest – I can’t throw in an injoke or rely on the goodwill of people who know Doctor Who (or Lance Parkin) … I’ve had to make sure those characters work, that the story makes sense and so on. I think, to put it another way, having a more mainstream audience has only made the book stronger – for all my readers.


Will Salmon said...

Oh, go on then, I’ll bite.

Surely the first romantic kiss in Who is between Susan and David in The Dalek Invasion of Earth? Though as I recall, it’s little more than a peck.

Or have I been imagining scenes that never actually happened?

Anonymous said...

I think the first romantic kiss was with Jo Grant and that professor in The Green Death.