What I Learned From Writing An Unpublished Doctor Who Novel

“You’re writing fan fiction?”

I recoiled, visibly, as if stung. That’s not an easy thing to do in an office chair, even one with a recline lever. Sara didn’t mean anything by it. The words ‘fan fiction’ may have, in my mind, been loaded with connotations, none of them good – but she didn’t mean it as an insult.

As far as I was concerned it was, though, and my bristly response reflected that. “It’s not fan fiction,” I said. “Fan fiction is stupid short stories where the Doctors rewrite history and have sex with their companions. They’re cringeworthy, superficial and generally badly written, This is not like that at all. This is a full length novel with developing characters and a self-contained story.”

“You’re a fan, and you’re writing fiction,” Sara replied, adamant. “It’s fan fiction.”

It was 2013 and I’d recently taken voluntary redundancy, which involved a decent pay-off and a sudden influx of free time. While I pondered my next career move (three and a half years later, I’m basically still pondering) it occurred to me that now was the ideal moment to actually get that novel written. “Because if I don’t do it now,” I said to Emily, “I never will. And for once in my life I’d like to actually follow through on a project, rather than have it sit in the pipe dream folder or languish in the unfinished pile of stuff I never got round to finishing.”

Still. Fan fiction. It conjured scenarios of Tennant and the Master doing… actually, let’s not finish that sentence ever. I don’t care that many of the Past Doctor/ New Adventures were written by fans. Fanfic was the sort of thing you find on dodgy websites, replete with spelling errors, inconsistencies, and appalling widow/ orphan control. I know that this doesn’t necessarily reflect the reality but I’d read enough of it – without choice, and in the name of research and sanity-checking – to get a general idea, however skewed that idea turned out to be.

Gareth is usually good for advice in this sort of situation: he speaks the truth, but with a degree of tact, and while he will never tell me what I want to hear, he’s also far more polite about it than most people I speak to.

“Is it wrong that this bothers me?” I asked him. “I mean, I know it’s a trivial thing, but it feels like…”
“I think,” he said, “that there’s probably fan fiction, and then there’s Fan Fiction. You’re writing Fan Fiction.” And I was happy with that.

Most of the best stories start with a ‘What if…?’. Mine started in much the same way: what if, I can remember thinking, the Doctor visited Hamelin in the aftermath of the incident with the Pied Piper, and found that the story was real? And it struck me that the genesis of a fairy tale would be a story in which those things that could not be adequately explained in human terms – but for which Time Lord science would have a simple answer – were consigned to the realms of ‘magic’, thus instantly categorising the story as fiction, a children’s narrative. There’s a scene early on where the Doctor is asked about this, and he says “Sometimes things happen, and they’re written down as facts. But sometimes – other times, other less black-and-white times – there are stories that are so horrible they can’t be written down properly. And we call them fairy tales.”

It borrows (quite unintentionally) from a certain other speech that often finds its way onto the Tumblr feeds; the point is made nonetheless. But that’s not enough. You need a human angle. And I started thinking about a character oft mentioned but never really explored: the lame child who, having reached the Piper’s magical entranceway, suddenly found himself abandoned, being unable to reach the cliff wall before it swung shut. The children are led on their merry dance in a far away country, but what about this solitary remaining child? How would he be perceived in Hamelin? As its last hope? Or a reminder of something terrible? How about both? And what about his parents? And once I’d pictured him, and mapped out the political games and machinations that would likely follow in the aftermath of the Piper’s visit, the rest of it was easy.

The Child Left Behind – that was almost always its title – is a story involving time travel, even if it isn’t actively about it, and planning was essential. Usually I’m the ‘write first, plan later’ type: on this occasion I did a timeline, and fleshed out an entire story, with the exception of the finale (something I fear shows in its execution) before I actually started writing anything. I was back and forth to Gareth almost daily asking about character development, plot holes, and predestination paradoxes. While he wouldn’t pretend to be any sort of expert, Gareth is my go-to man for information like this – he’s more reliable than the TARDIS Wikia, and a darn sight funnier to boot. I mentioned ‘What if…?’ – with Gareth, my question was usually ‘Has this ever happened…?’.

While I was doing all this, Justin Richards was busy writing his own collection of fairy tales – and he dropped the Hamelin narrative in there. His version (and yes, I have read it) is rather different to mine; a brief, entertaining (if predictable) jaunt. It wasn’t the first time the Doctor had encountered the colourful musician: veteran fans will recall a 1960s narrative, Challenge of the Piper, in which the First Doctor tangles with a series of puzzles and problems and winds up rescuing the children of Hamelin from the Piper’s malevolent clutches. There is nothing new under the sun. So I did it anyway.

When it came to Doctors, the Eleventh was the only real choice. He had that vein of eccentricity about him: I enjoyed not knowing quite what he’d do next. Writing dialogue – or even thought processes – for an established character is a constant tightrope walk between straying too far from the sort of thing that character would actually say and merely rehashing old speeches and gags. I’ve seen fans make both sorts of mistake; the trick is to re-read every line of dialogue in the Doctor’s voice and, if you can’t imagine him saying it, go back and redo it (memo to George Lucas: this sort of basic sanity check would have dramatically improved Shadows of the Empire). But you can get away with a certain amount of silliness, simply because that’s who he is. The Eleventh Doctor, in his first series, is basically fun, and the non-sequiturs and tangents were a joy to conjure. If anything, there is a little too much zeitgeist. There are references to Benjamin Button, Shinya Tsukamoto, and Google Glass. On the other hand, the chapter titles are all lines from Mother Goose, which never goes out of style.

The story is set between Vincent and the Doctor and The Lodger. There is a very specific narrative reason for this, but also a style-related one: that early, psychologically damaged version of Amy is my favourite reading of the character, so much more interesting than the bland, smug woman she eventually became. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she and the Doctor face off against the Cybermen. This makes one or two scenes in The Pandorica Opens somewhat baffling, but I think I got away with it, although it took a bit of shoehorning. The fact of the matter is the Cybermen worked in this story, and the Amy/ Doctor pairing worked in this story. So you find a way of making it fit, and hang the people who complain about it. (Well, not literally. That’s not to say it hadn’t crossed my mind.)

Curiously, the Cybermen I used are the 1980s Earthshock variety, simply because I liked them the best. It always struck me as odd that the Doctor seemed to encounter the monsters in an evolved form, further along their timeline – as he frequently did with the Daleks, for example. He’s a time traveller. Why shouldn’t he flit about and meet earlier versions of monsters, all Styrofoam and rubber skin? But then came the announcement about the Mondasian Cybermen, and then we had Empress of Mars, so clearly the producers had similar thoughts.

Don’t broadcast this, but The Child Left Behind may involve more than one Doctor. I’ll say no more than that, but if you make a habit of reading my stuff on here regularly, you’ll probably be able to work out who it is. I almost didn’t tell you, but it made for an interesting experience – and I can understand why Steven Moffat is not keen to repeat it, despite the pleading and wailing of fans. Multi-Doctor stories are a narrative burden, if only because it should follow that the current Doctor has already experienced events, and you have to blame the diverging time streams. (Incidentally, “And then you forgot” is the greatest tool a writer has at his disposal when it comes to multi-Doctor stories.)

Having two Doctors on screen at once is problematic – translating it in print is even worse. I had a glance through Terrance Dicks’ novelisations of The Three Doctors and The Five Doctors, because if there’s one thing the man can do well it’s making things clear for a younger audience. He wrote ‘Doctor Two and Doctor Three’, which is something I really couldn’t bring myself to do – so instead the Eleventh Doctor is always ‘the Doctor’, and his younger counterpart is referred to by his number, as ‘the XXX Doctor’ – or ‘his counterpart’ or ‘his other/ younger self’ whenever I was getting bored with that. It’s not perfect, but at least it anchors things.

More to the point, what do you actually do with them? Do you put them in a room and have them back-pat, or put them in a dungeon and have them squabble? Or both? If they’re fighting, how long do you leave it before reconciling them? If they’re largely off doing their own thing (as they are in The Five Doctors, which I nonetheless enjoy), what’s the point in having them both there in the first place? I solved the problem by giving them certain key scenes together and then splitting them up for large chunks of the story, pairing them off with each other’s companions – it was interesting to see how the earlier Doctor reacted to Amy, although for the most part they get along.

A novel gives you free reign, but you have to be careful. It’s not so much that adult audiences can’t handle adult themes, it’s just that they don’t really fit. I’m currently reading Chris Boucher’s Psi-ence Fiction, and while it’s reasonably well-written the students’ tendency to swear like troopers is off-putting, as is their occupation with sex; it feels like it doesn’t belong in a Fourth Doctor story. The Child Left Behind features a few mild obscenities but nothing that you wouldn’t find in your average PG-rated drama. Aside from that it’s mostly business as usual. Amy gets drunk. I had my doubts about putting it in, but if she’s allowed to lie seductively on a bed, actively trying to shag the Doctor the night before her wedding, she’s allowed to overdo it on the beer.

“I’m really not sure about that ‘pump him for information’ line,” said Emily after she’d finished reading a first draft. “It’s rather schoolboy humour.”
“It’s nicked from Bond,” I admitted. “And it struck me as exactly the sort of thing Amy would say in that context.”
“Bit juvenile, though.”
“You say that like it’s a bad thing.”

It stayed.

Still, it’s funny how you have to tone down the language and sexual content but can overdo it on the gore. It occurred to me that in all our years of stories about Cyber-conversion we’d never really seen it done properly: the buzz saws of death in Cyberwoman came closest, but they’re the Lumic Cybermen and thus disbarred from my consideration. In the Classic run, the conversion pods in Attack of the Cybermen do, at least, give you some idea, so I used that as a starting point, and then piled on the blood. And if this strikes you as not entirely kosher, and perhaps rather messier than the sort of surgical precision you might expect from Mondas’ finest, these Cybermen aren’t using their usual equipment: they’re having to improvise. So there.

On that note, one thing I learned is how easy it is to write yourself out of a corner. If an object isn’t behaving the way you want it to, it becomes an alien object, conveniently abandoned by a never-before-encountered species I just invented. When I wanted the TARDIS to vanish, suddenly, unexpectedly, I blamed it on the HADS. This is the sort of thing that Moffat does all the time, and more often than not the fans haul him over the coals for it. You can understand why, but sometimes it’s the quickest way to tell a story without getting too bogged down in detail. I’ve argued for a long while that continuity is both Doctor Who’s biggest strength and also its greatest weakness: that it quantum-shifts between millstone and buoyancy aid, depending on how it’s used. I’ve endeavoured to adhere to continuity with a diligence that I suspect would even impress Ian Levine, but I worry, when examining some of the narrative passages, whether I’ve just created something that works but without actually being fun.

What was fun was the death scenes. This is a dark, occasionally violent tale of medieval invasion and intrigue and not everyone makes it out alive. It helped that I knew, even before I’d written the first word, which of the supporting characters would be killed off: it made working towards their deaths that much easier. The trick is to strike a balance between excessive foreshadowing and the sort of awkwardness that punctuates Leela’s surprise engagement in The Invasion of Time – you don’t want it written in the stars, but having a character you’ve spent months writing suddenly catch the end of a stray laser bolt feels… well, cheap, somehow (step forward, Buffy The Vampire Slayer). So you build them up and make the dark ones likeable and give the nice ones a shady backstory, and then when you’re at the stage where you tighten the noose you find it actually counts for something – and there were, I admit, a couple of tears shed on my part when I wrote some of those final moments.

The rather splendid cover was produced by a chap named Yvain Bon, who I came across quite by chance in a Facebook group, showcasing some of his fan-made posters. “These are fantastic,” I said. “Could you do one for me?” Yvain responded by producing a brilliant piece of work, tailored to my vague-but-specific requirements, in less than a week and without asking for a penny’s remuneration. I stuck it on a Facebook group in advance of actually publicising the finished product.

“Amy wasn’t the child left behind, though,” said someone. “The Doctor went back and explained that she couldn’t go yet.”
“The child left behind is not Amy,” I explained.
“But she’s on the cover.”
“Yes, but…”

And then, after two years of planning and writing and rewriting, it was finally finished: and unpublishable. I’d created a three hundred page white elephant. I know there are stories about writers who produce work that eventually makes it into print (and even into a series), but I don’t think fairy tales happen in real life. Still, it was a story, and it was mine, and it was told. On the advice of a writer I met in Cholsey I put it on the internet for free download, with the usual disclaimers. I don’t think the BBC are going to be too upset about that. At least it’s out there. And at least I could say, just once, that I’d finished something big. I could stop being one of those people who said “I’ve always wanted to write a book,” and say that, irrespective of fanboyish pedantry, or borrowed characters or narrative inconsistency, I’d actually done it.

“So what are you going to do now?” said Emily.
“Besides that one that we’re doing together?” I said. “Well, I have this great idea for a story.”
“Will you actually be able to do something with this one?”
“Yeah, because the characters are either mine or public domain. You know how Jack and the Beanstalk ends when Jack chops down the beanstalk and the giant crashes to the ground? And then Jack and his mother are rich and live happily ever after?”
“Mm-hmm?”
“Well, what happens if the giant wakes up? With amnesia?”

See you in a couple of years.

The Child Left Behind is available to download, free of charge, from James’ blog, in PDF and EPUB form – although be warned the EPUB version may not work on some devices. You can also read an HTML version of the first chapter, with exclusive illustrations, courtesy of his children.