Sunday, July 16, 2006

Short Trips 17

It all started, ooh, back in early 2005. I was busy editing a Doctor Who short-story collection called Short Trips: A Day in the Life, and - as is often when I have lots of pressing work - I began to think about my next collection, which wasn't due out until September 2006.

Each collection in the range needs a theme - that's always the starting point. (A Day in the Life, for example, where all the stories' fictional running time add up to a 24-hour period, came about in part because I was watching a lot of 24 at the time.) I'm not entirely sure where the idea that became The Centenarian came from - certainly my love of history played a part. I'm a big fan of Doctor Who set in the twentieth century, so began to think about a format that would give us the chance to set each story within the last hundred years.

Over time, it became clear that we could tell one man's story. A big influence on this (NAME-DROP ALERT) was Paul McGann. I was chatting to him at a recording session for a Doctor Who CD and he was talking about a friend of his who was making a documentary about veterans of the First World War. He gave me the seed of the idea to do a story of a man who'd lived a long time, and also a couple of anecdotes that have ended up in the book. And if our man was born one hundred years before the book was published, and lived to be a hundred years old, that would give us a nice gimick. A quick flick through a dictionary gave me the title, The Centenarian.

Pretending that I was Russell T. Davies, I wrote an outline - I mapped out each of the 16 slots, giving each a year to be set in, what age our character would be, and, for about half of them, a rough setting or plot-point. A lot of these would change over time, but it gave us a good foundation to work on. They weren't plots as such - that's the writer's job - but, for example, might say, 'Set at the 1936 Cup final' or 'Edward's son in born'. I showed the outline to three key advisors, Joseph Lidster, Robert Dick and Stephen Hatcher, and the four of us started an embryonic email list. They helped enormously in changing, moulding, melding, refining the idea and the concept. We worked out just how the book would work. Joe was especially helpful: over a few nights in a pub in Lewisham, we talked a lot about the book; what we could do, what would work, what wouldn't. We worked out the prologue and how that would work; Joe pitched his ideas for the final story (thinking I'd say no, I suspect!). His enthusiasm and ideas were invaulable.

Next: writers. The way you find writers for a short-story collection is not an exact science. In the past, I've emailed dozens of people; they've sent me pitches; I've picked my favourites and commissioned them. For The Centenarian I was keen on a different approach, for two reasons: one, I was keen to get some fresh blood on-board, people who hadn't written for Big Finish before; and two, the format of the book would require people to work quite strictly to an overall plan, be willing to fit in with others and be up for discussion and changes.

Sixteen writing teams ended up being commissioned, from a variety of sources. Joe, Simon Guerrier, Ian Mond, Stephen Hatcher and Samantha Baker make up my kind of unofficial gang of regulars; I've used them in most of my books so far. So, it was natural that when I started a new anthology I would talk to them and see what we came up with. Steve was given the vital penultimate story of the book; I offered Ian the chance to do something about the ANZAC troops in the First World War (and he took that and came back with something that fulfilled the brief AND took it off into a very odd place); Simon was given rather a mental shopping list (as outlined elsewhere on this blog) and took it all in his stride; Sam's changed a fair bit (it was originally going to feature a nine-year-old Big Finish regular, fact fans!).

For nearly four years, I've shared an office with Gary Russell, so when our plans for a story began to get close to something Gary had done in an old short-story collection back in the '90s, I was able to talk to him about it. I also asked if he'd be up for writing a story himself; I had a slot that I thought would suit him brilliantly, and it seemed just wrong somehow that after 16 Short Trips collections, Gary had only written one full story.

As he's outlined on this blog, John Davies came through Joe. Joe had sent me a short story by this friend of his about a year previously. Like all submissions I liked, I stored it away, thinking I'd follow it up one day. This seemed like the right time. John was given a brief, which he used brilliantly (and as he knew Joe, it helped that Joe and I could trust him with a pair of characters that, at that point, hadn't seen the light of day).

That pair of characters, by the way, come from Joe's Doctor Who audio Terror Firma. And it was at the first recording day of that play that we got our next writer: Lizzie Hopley, a writer and actress who was playing Gemma Griffin. We all got on so well with Lizzie as soon as she showed up at the studio, and we became friends. She's written radio dramas and stage plays, so it was a bit of coup when she said she's do a short story for us.

Talking of briefs, two were especially hard. Steve Hatcher had to consolidate everything that had gone before, which meant adapting a lot to others' plans, and set up the last story. The other really difficult one thrown at a writer was thrown at Richard Salter. Richard had written for my last collection, and done a great job. He's also an editor, and had said he'd be willing for a bit of a shopping list. So, he got the 'hinge' story, the story that takes our character and grows him up, changes him, sets up the rest of the book. He did marvellously.

In 2003, at Big Finish, we opened up a window for people to send us submissions for audio plays. It was my job to open up all the envelopes - hundreds and hundreds, I tell you - and go threw them. The one submission that lept out at me was called LIVE 34, and it was produced as a Doctor Who audio and released in 2005. I'd met its writers, James Parsons and Andrew Stirling-Brown, at its recording session and we'd got on. So, a quick email to them, asking if they'd be interested in writing for The Centenarian later and they were on board. Also, from that submission process, I got in touch with L. J. Scott, whose pitch I'd liked a lot. L. J. joined The Centenarian team early on and has been an invaluable help.

As I'm the range editor of the Short Trips, unsolicited submissions come to me. I get a lot, which are replied to and filed stored away; the others editors have access to them too. But, because of the way it works, I kind of have first dibs on them! So, whilst I was working on A Day in the Life, knowing that I'd be doing another collection for 2006, when pitches came in or points of contact were made, I kept a note of them. When The Centenarian got underway, I was able to get in touch with Benjamin Adams, Brian Willis and Steven Savile, who'd all impressed me a lot (and who also fulfilled that new-to-Big-Finish thing), and ask them if they were interested in being involved. Thankfully, they all were! Steve also got another writer involved by asking me if I'd be interested in getting in touch with best-selling-novel-writer and writer-of-Samuel-L.-Jackson-starring-The-51st-State Stel Pavlou.

So, that was the book commissioned. I'd always, however, held back a bit of the budget. I knew from previous collections that sometimes you realise late on that you're missing a story beat or something to help the flow. As drafts came in and stories started to develop, it became clear that we'd rather ignored Edward's teenage years. So, I began to think about getting a seventeenth story commissioned. At about the same time, Steve Hatcher got to know Glen McCoy, who'd written for Doctor Who in the 1980s, and told him about the work we were doing. I was put in touch with Glen, who didn't mind all the parameters put upon him - as we were a way in to the collection, Edward's history and character had developed, the stories too.

And that's the main point about The Centenarian, I think. Co-operation and flexibility. Everyone pulled in the same direction; we were all aware of what everyone was doing, and writers developed, changed and refined their stories to match, compliment and enhance other stories. A cast of regulars soon grew up - not only Edward's family, but story-specific characters that other writers then took and used. Drafts were circulated and commented upon. It's not overemphasing it, I don't think, to say that The Centenarian has created its own family, its own team, its own support group.

The work in earnest began in May 2005, with writers joining at sporodic points over the rest of that year, slotting in to what had been decided and adding their own spin to the collection. As all that was going on, Richard Atkinson designed us a great cover (using photos supplied by Joe). The ever-excellent Steve Tribe proof-read the book for us.

It's been the most fun. The hardest work. The most-rewarding work. The best time. Long live, Edward Grainger.

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