Saturday, July 29, 2006

It's a book, Mr. Grainger, it's a book!

July 22, 2006: Towards the end of the second third of a lovely evening filled with lovely dining and libations, our lovely editor, Mr. Ian Farrington, proudly bears aloft The Centenarian's lovely birthday cake, provided by the also lovely Lizzie Hopley.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

I'm Steve, my story is called Testament

It's a funny thing writing. Testament in The Centenarian is my third for Ian Farrington and for Big Finish and after each and every one of them, I have become convinced that it will probably be my last. The writer is entirely dependant upon an editor having the generosity and indeed perspicacity to commision a story. An ex-writer must be the easiest thing in the world to become.
Such was my state of mind in early 2005. All my recent story pitches had been rejected - including two for Ian's latest book A Day in the Life, and I was begining to suspect that the game was up.
Then on one of Ian's regular visits to Derby, he told me of his plans for The Centenarian. I was honoured and delighted to be offered the chance to contribute, not just any story, but one detailing a crucial point in the life of our man Edward - although he wasn't called that at that stage. As I recall at one time he might have been Chandler. I suggested we make him a non-British European - French or German or somesuch - but quite rightly no-one else fancied that idea.
Although I was one of the first commisioned, I was one of the last to turn in an outline, feeling as I did that because of the nature of my story, I would need to know what most of my fellow writers were going to do with their stories, before I could decide where to go with mine.
Ian had given me Edward as an old man, writing him memoires, with the 7th Doctor trying to stop him. He had also mentioned a library as a possible setting. The library fired up my Virgin New Adventures sensibilities. The only thing that I was sure of was that the setting would be the famous Library of St John The Beheaded, created by Andy Lane in the wonderful NA All Consuming Fire. I clearly remember the "Oh no, he's off on that NA kick again" look that Ian gave me when I proudly announced that idea, but we agreed that I would see where it took me before he vetoed it.
As my colleagues posted their stories on our forum, I devoured them, becoming more and more convinced that the book was going to be rather special, but also aware that my story had rather a lot to live up to.
My problem was that I was struggling to find a reason why the Doctor had to stop Edward's memoires from being written. Thanks here should go to Whoovers local group members including Robbie, Dan, Ben and others, as well as the hugely talented John Davies for helping me talk it through. The breakthrough came on a Saturday in Manchester in November. Most of the story came to me in a rush. I had to sit down on the floor in the Arndale Centre to get it down. There it all was, a vast sweeping epic featuring both the 7th and 1st Doctors and providing an arc to the whiole book - brilliant! Actually no, less brilliant, more bollocks. As Ian patiently pointed out, adopting my suggested backstory would mean that everyone else would have to re-write their stories. Perhaps not!
Any road up... This did at least put me on the correct path to draft one, upon which Ian provided me with copious notes, most of which were about dodgy writing, but which also contained the unambiguous instruction to lose the New Adventures stuff. Sigh!
And that's about it really - oh apart from a quick word about my aliens, the Benanki. They are named after a young gentleman at the school where I teach - Ben Hankey - I thought his name was just right for a race of aliens. Blow me down, wouldn't you just know it though, no sooner had I named them thus, than the new Chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve assumes office - Mr Ben Benanki (not sure of the spelling here). Ian and I decided to stick with the Benanki quand même - let him sue, what do we care!
So I hope you enjoy the story and more importantly the book. Buy one for a friend, buy two, three even!
Many, many thanks to all the old blokes for so much fun and for a shared learning experience.
Lots of love,

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

First Born - the conception

I first landed on planet Big Finish in May 2005, thanks to the wondrous Conrad ‘C’rizz’ Westmaas who had suggested me for the equally wondrous Joe Lidster’s ‘Terra Firma’. Feet – ground – literally – did – not – touch. Playing a Doctor Who assistant. Travelling with Paul McGann. Mind control by Daleks. Then death. Then being asked by Ian Farrington to write my first short story for Short Trips. Cor. Having only written scripts before, this was also to be my first professional venture into prose. Yikes.

I’ve had big fun at BF in the last year – playing evil rabbits, getting ripped apart by Cybermen, blowing up Paris, meeting Philip Olivier (mmm…) and Sophie Aldred (ahhh…) – but for me, the Centenarian project has been the biggest challenge and the most rewarding so far. Ian’s concept for the book was genius. Amongst the human story of one man’s entire life there was safe space for those nervous of writing sci-fi and of getting Doctor Who WRONG. Like ME. So I asked if I could have the year where the guy’s son was born, thinking I’d concentrate on the family birth business and bypass all the hard stuff. And of course I ended up writing a full on AI sci-fi story where the Doctor, Tegan and Adric carry the entire plot. See how a girl on a strange planet can get carried away…

I had to write for Tegan and Adric. Tegan was the girl I wanted to be in the 80s – she had the best earrings and the best scowl. Unfortunately at school I was better at maths than fashion so always had more in common with the bowl-headed one. A maths mind fascinates me – especially as I was left stranded at A’ level mourning the sudden loss of my intelligence. Adric always got a lot of flak – here was my chance to make him a SUPERBEING MOO HA HAAA!

Of course this choice of companions meant I was writing a 5th Doctor story and it turned out to be harder than I thought. I don’t know why, as Davison was my Doctor growing up, but for some reason Patrick Troughton kept visiting my mind and minxing around and I was hearing his voice instead. I was sure people would read it on the page as being him and find me out. So I got my hands on every 5th Doctor DVD and BF audio I could and just Davisoned out and gradually, I started to hear his voice while I was writing. I swear it makes a difference! If you read carefully, you can hear the floppy hair and wilting celery…?!

The original concept for ‘First Born’ changed a great deal between drafts. Fortunately, Joe Lidster founded a web-forum for the Centenarian writers called The Old Bloke so we could swap ideas from the start and things like embarrassing plot holes, violence in the TARDIS and over-using the sonic screwdriver were weeded out swiftly. I did at one time have Edward Grainger’s baby born in the TARDIS but it was decided that it was best to get that stuff out the way before the story started. TARDIS as maternity ward is a no go! As a result of this change, Nyssa’s role was largely reduced (oh yes, she was in it too – I thought she might conjure up some emotion if she had to deliver a child??!) but it was necessary to reduce the number of perspectives going on in the story. It also made my favourite maths boy more central to the plot.

The Short Trips books have a house style which involves the story always being told from someone’s perspective. You can choose to write from only one POV but changing scenes can get tricky. It’s a great excuse to invent new characters though - whose viewpoint you wouldn’t normally share. I found it harder in the group scenes in the TARDIS when I had to cater for 4 characters and an alien identity. I’m used to writing scripts where action scenes are shared and the focus can switch between protagonists. This tripped me up at first but it was fun telling the story from the AI perspective – I had to work harder to find a new language of expression that sounded advanced but was still readable.

Then of course, I was starting to read other Centenarian stories and the bar kept rising. Seriously – these guys are good. It was both supportive and daunting to be surrounded by such expert knowledge – not just the Doctor Who stuff but in the whole sci-fi & short story medium. It was a prose master class and has already led to other writing work for me – who knows what monstrous deformed trees will now sprout from the Farrington acorn!!!

The expansion of Edward Grainger’s world has been incredible – with all of us pitching character names, occupations, childhood experiences to build his life from scratch. As you read each original idea – you are anchored by two strands – the life of two men woven together in ever more ingenious ways. I feel honoured to be amongst this bunch of people on such a unique project. I shall miss Edward Grainger but he’s given me one of the coolest jobs I’ve had and a lot of generous and talented mates. Long live the Old Bloke!

Sunday, July 16, 2006

An American in Wembley

When the E-mail came from Ian Farrington, asking if I cared to contribute to The Centenarian, of course I jumped at the chance. Write Doctor Who for Big Finish? Yes please!

And then Ian asked me to set the story at the 1936 FA Cup Final.

Me, the non-sports-fan American. Eek! Did I even know what FA meant going into this? Did I hell!

But I was game for the challenge. Writing to order for a theme antho is really quite fun; when I know the parameters, I also know exactly how wild I can get within them. And if I wasn't really familiar with the footie, at least I knew which companion would share my confusion: Peri, the Doctor's only American companion in the original series.

Perpugilliam Brown, bless her soul, is my age, give or take a year. On top of that, Peri's backstory includes spending part of her youth in Pasadena, California. Whaddya know, I lived in South Pasadena. (Hi, neighbour!) During the 1970's and early 1980's, "soccer," as it's unfortunately known here, was a marginalised sport mostly played by Latino youths. Most high schools didn't even have soccer teams, so Peri wouldn't know anything about the sport beyond what she may have seen while flipping past a Spanish-language television channel.

So I asked Ian if I could use Peri as my POV character. At the time I'd planned on pairing her with the bombastic Sixth Doctor, but I didn't mention that to Ian. His suggestion was the Fifth Doctor, which immediately made sense to me; after all, this was the sporting Doctor. Of course the Doctor would drag Peri to matches. Cricket, football . . . I'm sure he got rugby in there as well.

With my main characters in place, the next step was researching the match. There's actually a fair amount of information on the 1936 FA Cup Final available on the internet, including moment-by-moment accounts of the match, which apparently wasn't terribly exciting overall. I got lucky by discovering there had been an eBay auction of a community sing broadsheet for that specific day at Wembley, so I E-mailed the auction winner and asked him which songs had been sung at the match. He responded promptly and comprehensively.

Now that I had background details, my next step was trying to see through Peri's eyes. I decided early on to have her narrate the story. It's not often that a companion tells the story in the first person -- the most notable example being segments of Jim Mortimore's Eye of Heaven (BBC Books, 1998). It seemed to me that -- due to her age and her generally accepted backstory involving her stepfather, Howard -- Peri would have tendencies toward being an unreliable narrator, which can often be the most fun to write. . . .

But that's enough background. It's time for "The Church of Football" to speak for itself. It's a romp, with subtext. I hope you like it.

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.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

The "Bear" Necessities - The Genesis of "Dear John"

Somehow Ian Farrington heard of me and liked some fan-fiction piece I’d written called “Clarke in Action”. “Clarke” is a comedic piece, and I think that’s what Ian liked in my “style” of writing.

So, I received an email.

The initial brief I had for my story stated that a) it must be set in 1956, b) Edward (not named at that stage) should be 50 and “well to do” c) he has a son (not named at that stage) born in 1950, d) I had to use the Eight Doctor, e) I should write for two “unknown” companions, “a bloke and a girl”, both around 20, f) I could have my own plot, as long as it was continuity free and g) Edward can’t recognize the Doctor but the Doctor will know him, but won’t let on.

Oh, and “Something light or comedic could be nice”.

This was my first pitch for a professional commission. I didn’t want to lose this opportunity and so I started working on ideas straight away.

As Edward was nebulous and the companions a mystery, I immediately focused on the son. I would be the first writer to actively use him and as such I could have a relatively free reign. Without giving anything away about his later development in subsequent stories, I really wanted to create a “good boy”, one that it was easy to see why Edward would love unconditionally, family blood notwithstanding.

So, I had a “character piece”. Obviously I needed an event.

The Birthday Party idea came quickly and would lend itself to “something light”.

Plot wise, I wanted to toy with how much Edward may know about alien technology at this stage in his life. The first draft was destined to centre around an alien artifact.

So, rather nervously I sent my first ideas to Ian. While he liked the focus on the boy and the Birthday Party he quite rightly told me to forget the artifact – overused in so many Who plots before.

So, I had a party and a boy. But no plot. And still no commission. I had to think of a plot asap.

“Something light or comedic could be nice”. Yes, Ian … I’ll remember that.

While I was striving to think of plot, the companions started to worry me. Who were they? What were there characters? What could I have them say or not say? I was given a brief “outline” of certain traits from another writer and just went with that.

By luck rather than design I drew them close to who you now know them to be – and Lizzie, thanks for your kind words about “my” Gemma.

So, the plot… “Something light or comedic could be nice”. Yes, Ian. I know …

Rethinking, it was all well and good just having a “good boy” but he needed to be interesting. Or someone that someone else would find interesting. Who like? The reader? Yes, but not at this stage. Rather someone in the story. Someone like … an imaginary friend.

Within the space of a bus ride home, I had the plot, with a number of contingency ideas for the friend thrown in.

Thankfully, Ian embraced the one I wanted to go with and I was commissioned.

With a party in my head, I think I wrote the first draft in two days. Tweaks and drafts ensued, but the core of the story remained pretty much the same from beginning to end.

I wanted to the title to reflect the focus on the boy and as soon as he was named as John by the group, “Dear John” seemed the obvious choice. It summed up what the story was about quite nicely and once again, thankfully Ian liked it and the name stuck.

As for “something light or comedic could be nice”. Er, yes, well … there’s a joke in there somewhere, Ian. I think.


Friday, July 14, 2006

Dr wagered a ring

Let's get this thing started then. What can I tell you at this stage that won’t give too much away?

I first heard of Edward Grainger in a pub in early 2005. He didn’t have a name then and didn’t share my birthday. “Cor,” I might have said. “That sounds exciting.”

On 6 July 2005, Ian asked me to write Story 7 of his exciting new anthology, on the condition that I work six particular elements into my plot. “No problem,” I said, and spent the next 13 days coming up with a story which included almost two of them.


Six days later on 25 July, I sent in a more obedient outline called “Shoulder to shoulder”. This made use of bits of an idea I’d already been thinking about anyway, called “Good deeds”. The title referred punningly to the kindnesses performed by Dr Who and also to a document proving the ownership of a building.

“Sounds great,” said Ian, obligingly, and added another condition. Could I also introduce a… Well no, you’ll have to read the story to find out.

On 27 July, Ian was the lucky recipient of a 1,036-word “crude outline” (my words) of the whole story, which is pretty much as it finally came out. Most of the “Good deeds” stuff had been excised for reasons I cannot remember (probably because it wasn’t any good), and I also suggested the alternate title “Picking up the pieces”.

The plan was to discuss this over lunch on the Friday, though I managed to oversleep and miss lunch (and Rob Shearman), having been up until 5 in the morning finishing off Short Trips – the History of Christmas. Oops. But the outline got agreed.

There was then a fallow period where I worked on other things, nattered with the other authors about what we might do, and thought idly how it might be more complicated. There was a rather good night in the pub with some of the other writers on 8 October.

By 9 December, I had begun writing the story up and four days later Ian rang (while I was congratulating myself for using the word “paroxysms”) to ask me now not to include Condition #6.

I sent the first 262 words of the story to Joseph Lidster and my friend Boab on 16 December. Getting started is always a bit tricky and I needed to know that it made some kind of sense.

“Lovely!!!!!!!!” said Joe, which was something of a relief. I sent him the next 1,902 words later that day.

The writing slogged on over the month, in between other things. Gradually it all came together, which is quite fitting when you read the story. Which you're going to, aren't you?

“Silly, giddy mood on Christmas Eve,” I reported to my blog, “having finally finished a draft of a story at 8,155 words. Needs some polishing, but the hard work’s done. Such a relief! And I now know what a Mim is.”

“Far too long and all over the place,” I admitted to Boab, Joe, Ben Woodhams, Eddie Robson and Philip Purser-Hallard, who I sent it to for comments at 18.45, before knocking off for Christmas drinks.

They all gave valuable insights on what didn’t work, most notably Phil who wrote a 1,326-word critique. I reworked the thing accordingly and in it went to Ian.

On 17 January, Ian replied in a generally positive manner. He wasn’t wowed by yet another new title, preferring the old “Shoulder to shoulder” to the new “Picked up bits”. He had 12 other points of concern.

“‘Shoulder to shoulder’ didn't really reflect the story," I replied. "How about ‘Details’ or ‘Incongruous details’?” Which he liked.

The final version, bar some tweaks at the proofing stage, was delivered on 25 January 2006. Then I had a lie down.

Countdown to The Centenarian

Welcome to The Centenarian Blog - the collective musing/rambling of the writers involved in the Big Finish Dr Who Anthology, The Centenarian.

Over the next eighteen days the writers and editor involved in bringing this all together will drop by to share interesting little tidbits about the process of writing for Dr Who and what exactly (or not-so exactly) inspired their story.

You never know who you'll get, or when, but these writers include:

Joseph Lidster
Gary Russell
Ian Mond
Glen McCoy
Steven Savile
Richard Salter
Benjamin Adams
Simon Guerrier
Brian Willis
Lizzie Hopley
John Davies
Stel Pavlou
L J Scott
Samantha Baker
James Parsons &
Andrew Stirling-Brown
Stephen Hatcher

As well as Ian Farrington, who served as editor for Edward Grainger's life.

There is nothing special about Edward Grainger.

His life is much like any other - full of family and friends, love and passion, incidents and turning points. He travels, works, laughs and cries. He has parents, a wife, a child, a grandchild. He lives life to the full.

There is nothing special about Edward Grainger.

Except… from the day he was born, until the day he will die, he keeps meeting the Doctor. Sometimes a different Doctor, sometimes the same Doctor.

There is nothing special about Edward Grainger.

Release Date: July 2006
Editor: Ian Farrington
Format: Hardback
RRP: £14.99 (£16.50 non-uk)
ISBN: 1-84435-191-2