Author interview: Paul Cornell

Over the weeks we've been honoured to get a variety of industry insiders to offer their tips on the fiction-writing life. This week we're fortunate to have some advice from Paul Cornell , author of Doctor Who TV episodes like "Father's Day", last Christmas's Telegraph short story "The Hopes and Fears of All the Years", and most recently Captain Britain and MI-13 for Marvel. We quizzed him about his writing experience and asked him some practical questions...

SFX: Is there a knack to hooking a reader?
Paul Cornell:
"Don't tell them everything the character knows. Why is this odd scene happening? You can hold motivations back for as long as you like. Presenting something that's anti-intuitive and then explaining it through the substance of the story always works. Like with Orwell's 'clock that was striking thirteen' in 1984: it says wrongness."

SFX: Can you just sit down and bash out a short story if you've got a good idea?
Paul Cornell:
"You can do, if you're willing to keep chucking pages of stuff that you suddenly realise don't go anywhere. Some really bad, and usually unpublished, stories are the ones where the writer isn't willing to do that chucking, so has to conjure an ending up out of what they've already written, whether or not it works. That reads like bad improv. If you plot first - and with a short story that could just be knowing what the ending is - then you'll only have to chuck lots of little plot paragraphs as you replot, and not piles of prose as you rewrite."

SFX: How long did it take to write your Christmas Doctor Who story?
Paul Cornell:
"Two or three weeks. I had the idea first, and knew what the ending was all the way."

SFX: A short story is a different beast to a longer work like a novel - but how different are the creative skills involved? Can you keep the same author's head on for all of these?
Paul Cornell:
"You have to change your head for each medium. And indeed between short stories and novels. A novel is about memory, keeping all the motivations and themes in mind every day of work. With a short story you have to represent big things through small details. If all else fails in terms of being subtle, just tell the audience what they need to know. Hemingway won a Nobel prize doing that. In terms of [learning] things from other media, take any individual scene from the current series of Lost and view it as a short story. It goes, 'That's odd, what's going on here? Oh, that's it. But that means -! End of scene.' And often that's it. It's always told in the fewest lines possible."

SFX: The first draft of a piece of writing is not enough, you have to edit. How do you know when you've revised your story enough?
Paul Cornell:
"You get a feeling for when you need to stop. I tell you what, though, if you're reading this thinking you've got that feeling: you haven't, go back and do another draft. You need many drafts. Many drafts. This process is about rewriting, not writing. It's not about inspiration and dreaming, it's about craft, like working a piece of wood. Start every new piece of work from the top, editing as you go, and you'll smooth out the start, which is the most important bit. Keeping in your head a need to say things in the fewest possible words will help too. You've noticed you used 'that' this time? 'He saw that she was moving.' Get rid of it. 'He saw she was moving.' (You can always get rid of 'that', except when you can't.)"

SFX: What happens if you get halfway through your story, and you have a better idea - should you start again?
Paul Cornell:
"Yes, you should start again. Maybe there are bits of this one you can still use, but don't depend on it. You motivate yourself by thinking of all the other writers who stopped now, or who wrote their original idea, knowing it wasn't as good. They'll fail and you might win. And you're a better writer than them just for doing this. You'd be amazed at how many writers send stuff off before they have to, knowing there's something wrong with it. I think it's a mental defence against getting rejected: you already know why they're going to turn you down."

SFX: What are the pitfalls that new authors fall into when they start out?
Paul Cornell:
"I think assuming that fiction is explanation is one problem. You're depicting people in dramatic conflict - we only need to know enough of their situation to allow for that. Shakespeare obviously knows hardly anything about, say, the Danish court. He tells us almost nothing: it's a court, you know those. It's the conflict that matters. Which is not to say you shouldn't do the research, you'll come up with all sorts of interesting background things which feed that conflict: poison in the ear, eh? And you need to convince the audience you know what you're talking about before you start lying to them. That's harder now. What I'm saying is, it's better to start with a swordfight bursting in through a window than with 'in the year 5673 of the old calendar, in the land of Grawp (see map)...' But it's probably still a good idea to have made the map. I think also assuming that utterly heroic characters are interesting is a novice problem. Grey area and complexity are interesting, where our hero stands and how she's formed by the world is interesting, and if she tells a few good jokes we will love her forever and suffer with her through Hell . Anyone who makes us laugh: they've got us. We're on their side. Don't give the baddy better jokes against a straightforward hero or we'll start going 'you know, I don't care if he is Merciless, I like him!'"

SFX: Does having a deadline help you write, or is it better to have all the time in the world?
Paul Cornell:
"Deadline, word length and theme are all good. Otherwise you have to make your own."

SFX: What one tip would you give to a new writer, inspired to put pen to paper for the first time?
Paul Cornell:
"I've got one sentence that sums it up: 'it is your job to seek out harsh criticism of your work and change it as a result'. That, frankly, is hideously painful. But boxers don't get good by avoiding being hit. If an editor, or someone else, starts offering you criticism, listen, make notes, and change the work as a result. If you start arguing, saying, 'No, you see, what I meant by that was...' you're not a writer yet. You're trying to dodge instead of learning what the blows mean. To pre-empt that, also, deliver what the editor, series or range wants. Don't send them what you think they should be doing instead. That's like pre-arguing! I remember when Big Finish did a contest for new writers, saying they couldn't use old Doctor Who monsters. About a third of the entries used them anyway, and, I assume, therefore went straight in the bin. You need to get good at the straightforward craft before you can break the rules. Anybody who was ever any good at anything did the basics first, whether we saw them do that or not (Picasso becoming a fine classical figure artist to acclaimed level over many years, perhaps being the best example - because when that man starts breaking up the human figure, it's for a great reason). Show up with what's required, do the work, learn your craft, dazzle us during the process. Simple!"

SFX: Thanks Paul!

Find out more about Paul Cornell at his personal blog , and be sure to watch out for the latest edition of Captain Britain and MI-13 . See you next week on www.sfx.co.uk for more writing tips and advice.