Over the next few posts, I’m going to run through a quick timeline of the commissioning and writing process for The Eyeless, to give everyone a sense of what happens, when and how long everything takes. It’s something that people often ask me about, and it is normally (and should be) an invisible part of the process.
I got an initial email from Justin Richards, the consulting editor for the Doctor Who range, on the 6th of November last year asking if I was busy. Suspecting that, if not, he would have something that would keep me busy, I eagerly replied.
He wanted me to write a tenth Doctor book.
I had an idea for one all ready and waiting. I proceeded to explain that it was the Doctor and Donna meeting Jane Austen. The Slitheen were active in Bath during the Regency, setting up an auction for an old superweapon from the Time War. Because they were in the past, zips hadn’t been invented, so the Slitheen had button-up foreheads. Donna hasn’t read any Jane Austen – she proceeds to tell Austen the plot of her favourite book, which is Bridget Jones’ Diary.
Justin told me that if I’d just shut up a minute, they were looking for a book where the Doctor was travelling on his own, they wanted it set anywhere but Earth and that, under no circumstances was I to use old monsters.
In circumstances like this, a writer has to adopt, adapt and improve. So, naturally, I looked at my proposal and said ‘OK. About this superweapon … ’
Justin is very good at giving guidance – what the Doctor Who books are after is a story with a strong hook. That ought to be a given, of course, but with something like my earlier book Trading Futures, there’s a more like a ‘high concept’ than a strong story ‘Doctor Who spoofs James Bond’. The Gallifrey Chronicles has quite a simple idea at its heart – ‘the Doctor discovers who destroyed his home planet … turns out it was him’, but it’s not a standalone story. Father Time’s got a strong story hook – the Doctor literally is left holding the baby, Miranda, and has to protect her from enemies from the far future who are hunting her.
A couple of days later, I had a new idea and got in touch with Justin. We exchanged emails, Justin clarified a couple of points, we honed the idea. The basic story hook stayed exactly the same throughout this and it’s right there in the blurb on the back of the finished book – the Doctor lands on a dead planet dominated by an alien fortress, intent on decommissioning the weapon at the heart of the Fortress.
He wouldn’t let me use the Daleks. I suspected this would be the case, but I felt I should ask. I asked if it could show the Fall of Arcadia from the Time War, mentioned by the Doctor, and was quietly told that it was best if I didn’t. The TV people are telling those stories, and want to tell them on TV – they certainly don’t want to end up contradicting anything that’s in a novel. This actually strengthens the books. We have to come up with our own ideas.
Coming up with a story that will sustain a novel is an odd process, and it’s not something that I can break down into formulae. What I’ve found is that once you’ve got a few strong ideas, other things start to snap into place.
With a Doctor Who novel, of course, a lot of things are sketched in for you beforehand. I’ve also got notebooks full of ideas and bits of ideas going back years. There’s an aircar chase scene that I wanted to put into Cold Fusion (which I wrote in 1996), and which has been in contention for most of my Doctor Who books since. It was very nearly in The Eyeless, but I played around with the ending a bit at a very late stage and lost the scene.
I’ve had the idea for the monsters for a long time. I’m not going to reveal who or what The Eyeless are, you’ll have to read the book, but I had a clear picture of them, a little scene plotted out in my head, and that’s made it onto the page pretty well untouched (page 116, to be precise).
The setting is a Jetsons-style futuristic city – you know the sort of thing – but one that’s fallen into ruin. I just like the images that creates, all this amazing utopian promise, now rusting and collapsed.
I read a couple of articles years ago by Stephen Baxter about the human legacy – what we’d leave behind. The answers are a bit sad and strange. As the weather erodes everything away, in a million years or so, the only structures that would be left are the absolute rock solid things like suspension bridge supports. The main evidence for mankind will be the cuttings in rock for railways and roads. Oh, and there would be a thin fossil layer of refined metal, pollution and nuclear waste. Baxter dramatizes this in his book Evolution.
There was clearly something in the air that makes this idea current. As I started writing The Eyeless, I found out about The World Without Us, a book that imagines what would happen if human beings just vanished today. The conclusion of that book is that, even in seven million years, the faces on Mount Rushmore will be recognizable. It starts out, though, just documenting what happens for the first few years as a city falls apart. The movie I Am Legend came out at the end of last year, dealing with the same sort of situation. There’s always apocalyptic fiction, of course, but the current brand – almost certainly an imaginative bashing together of War on Terror anxiety and eco-guilt – is quite distinctive.
These things happen, there’s a zeitgeist and people all end up doing things independently that look like they’ve been comparing notes. Sometimes, the reason’s obvious – there was a lot of stuff set in China this year like Kung Fu Panda because everyone knew about the Beijing Olympics (this raises the prospect of 2012 being the year of movies like Pub Fight Badger, of course). It may be as simple as we’re all watching the same stuff. You can see the NA/EDAs go through phases of Terminator 2/Warhammer 40,000 gung-ho action, X Files style mysteries, Babylon 5 knock-off future wars that are a bit rubbish when you actually get there, before ending up all Joss Whedon.
A lot of my writer pals are watching The Wire and reading Death Note right now. You have been warned.
The superweapon … well, ultimately, these devices are always McGuffins. This one is a pretty ultimate ultimate weapon, though, as these things go. As the Doctor says at one point in the book ‘It’s a weapon that would give your run-of-the-mill ultimate weapon an inferiority complex’. The nature of the weapon changed over and over as I was writing the book, from just a straightforward big radiation-burst thing through to ideas so exotic they looked remarkably like they didn’t make any sense at all. The trick was to find something strange, big and vaguely plausible, but which worked in a way I could easily explain. The final version is kind of hard-sciencey, in a Doctor Who way.
These are all elements that would end up in the story, but they’re not the story …