I was asked to write a piece on how I wrote my October Short Trips, Rulebook for Big Finish. There are plenty of how to write articles on the internet, but I thought it might be more relevant to explain the writing process for Big Finish (at least as far as I’ve experienced it), which in many ways is like writing any commissioned piece with some nuances.
If you aren’t a writer (or even aspiring to be one) you may not get a lot from this piece – I don’t answer where did I get my ideas; just how did I write it.
I think there are four distinct steps, each covered below:
There’s a myth on many forums that Big Finish aren’t interested in new writers. This is far from true as a look through the new Torchwood and many other ranges will tell you. It is true they care deeply about quality and have a lot of releases in the pipeline. I believe this makes them cautious and keen to work with writers who can deliver what is required when it is required.
The key step here is gaining permission to pitch – there is no silver bullet for this; in my case I already knew producer, Ian Atkins through reviewing Big Finish titles for several years so I wasn’t an unknown quantity.
When I’m asked to pitch, I tend to put three or four ideas together each with some sort of title and short description of the story hook. The title can change, and the hook needs to connect to some sort of story concept in your mind so you could write it if asked. For Rulebook, I was asked for a Fifth Doctor and Peri story and put several ideas forward. The idea chosen was originally called The Evanescent and was much different from the final product, but the core ideas were circling.
An outline has to be a single page of A4 in a sensible font able to be read and printed off. Outlining is often required by producers and is where some writers struggle as they want to get on with writing the story.
My outlines for Rulebook went through at least four iterations. The first were too dark, the second and third had too many characters and so on. Here the relationship with the producer/ editor is vital and Ian gave me two important steers – one was the starting point, the other changing the viewpoint character. Once done I had an outline Big Finish was happy with, the next step was approval.
As a fan as well as a writer, this is the key step. Outlines go to Cardiff and (depending on how busy they are) a reply comes within a couple of weeks or much longer. As far as I’m concerned, approval by Cardiff makes the story canon (or at least not anti-canon!).
I’ve now done three stories for Big Finish, the first (Helmstone) was rejected by Cardiff and needed another round of outlining; Rulebook came back with one comment – change the name of an alien race as it wasn’t unique enough. I emailed back a new name and got approval that evening.
Once Cardiff are happy, there’s the process of agreeing delivery of drafts to Big Finish (and this is done based around holidays/ likely recording schedules, etc.) and then it’s time to write.
I don’t imagine my writing method is far different from other people’s. Having struggled over the outline, I find the drafting a quick process. I first write without much review (except some spelling) and get the content down to about the correct length, turning the outline into prose sentence by sentence. I try to add descriptive language for as many senses as possible, and focus on a well-defined introduction. I already have a sense of who Peri is in my head from listening to several Big Finish audios and produce a rough first draft to order. I then file and forget it for a few days. I write with Microsoft word on either my Mac or desktop PC depending on where I am.
Next stop, I print a copy, take a red pen and go through sorting out typos, poor grammar, repeated words, and other bits. I do those edits on screen and start to wonder about the word count. I generally produce a smaller first draft and this gives me time to work up some keys scenes. I edit then do another read through on screen and even turn on the various grammar checkers in Word (use with caution). I also have a tool called Pro Writing Aid for when I get near the later drafts.
Once I’m happy, I use the inbuilt text-to-speech function to get my computer to read the story to me. Behind the odd, mechanical intonation, I still get a sense of which parts don’t flow well.
By now I have a draft I am confident enough to send in and wait for comments. I think for Rulebook, comments were mostly around some typos, a few suggestions and two or three key moments that didn’t shine fully or were not thoroughly thought through. For me the lesson here is to be clear on what the editor’s comments mean and query rather than do a bad edit. Fortunately, I can turn edits round in a few hours and that’s it (barring some last tweaks)!
Of course there is then an enormous gap (potentially) between finishing a story and it being record – but that’s another thing altogether!
Short Trips: Rulebook is out now, priced just £2.99.