Last year, winner of SFX’s Pulp Idol competition, Colin Harvey , was invited to write a story for Big Finish . SFX spoke to the folk who run the short story collections there, to find out more about it all. Ian Farrington has edited four Short Trips collections for Big Finish, and is the range editor of the series, while Joseph Lidster has written extensively for Big Finish's series of Doctor Who audio dramas.
SFX: Is there anything the Big Finish series of Doctor Who anthologies have a particularly strong reputation for?
IAN FARRINGTON: "The Short Trips series began in 2002, and so far we’ve published 19 collections. The 20th is out in May: that’s Destination Prague edited by Steven Savile. We publish short stories based on the original series of Doctor Who, so we use the first eight Doctors, and we’ve used many, many writers over the last few years. I think it’s close to 180 different writers now. I’d like to hope we’re seen as having a good track record in terms of writers. We’ve used numerous writers from the TV series, both original and new, and we’ve also given many writers their first professional commission. I’m really proud of that. Each of our collections has a theme – some are thematic, such as all the stories being set in history or strongly focussing on the Doctor’s companions, whereas some are more plot-heavy. In the more plot-driven collections, each story can be read on its own and it’s a self-contained short story, but when it’s read in context, it forms part of a larger story that runs throughout the book. We try for a good balance of different types."
SFX: What's the key to writing a good Doctor Who story?
IAN FARRINGTON: "The real strength of the short-story format is its variety. It’s a bit like Doctor Who: the cliché about Who being that the format enables you to tell any story you like, wherever it’s set, whenever it’s set, no matter who it’s about. A short story is similar in that you have so many choices with what you do. We’ve published stories of a few hundred words, and stories that are almost novella length. You can do a big, epic, action-packed Doctor Who adventure, full of aliens and space ships – or you it can be a really contained, focussed piece that all takes place in someone’s head or is a letter or a diary entry. The format lends itself so well to ‘character’ above all else, so I’d say that was a key: prose allows you to get inside someone’s head, read their thoughts, and experience the events through their eyes. Other media can do that too, but I’d say short stories do it the best."
SFX: We're running a writing competition at the moment – any tips for newbies on what they should be doing?
JOSEPH LIDSTER: "The one piece of advice that someone told me and I’ve found invaluable is to always carry a notebook around with you. My mates laugh when I’m in the pub and suddenly the notebook comes out and I’m jotting something down but you never know when a conversation or a throwaway comment is going to suddenly inspire you. Watch how people behave and listen to what they say."
IAN FARRINGTON: "First off, write. Write anything, whether it’s short stories or scripts or reviews or a blog. Just get into the habit of writing and thinking about how writing works. It doesn’t really matter where any of it gets ‘published’ – online, in fanzines, professionally, not at all. It’s all experience. [Beyond Pulp Idol] find out what each publisher wants – some don’t accept anything, some want to see an outline, others want you to send a full story. At Big Finish we assign an editor to each anthology and it’s down to them just how they assemble their line-up. From my point of view, the things that excite me from new writers are fresh, exciting ideas. You’d be amazed how many pitches we get that involve Doctor Who ‘continuity’ – it’s an assumption I can understand, but it’s not really what we’re after. The writers who leap out and get noticed are the ones who bring their own ideas to the table, not a sequel to someone else’s story. So, try to do something different. But, contradictorily perhaps, I’d say be aware of conventions and rules. If you want to write for a particular range or editor, then read what they’ve done before and pay attention to what sort of stories they do. For example, if you want to write a story for Doctor Who – which is essentially a family franchise – then it’s probably best not to think about a story that involves sex, swearing and violence. If you want to make a go writing short fiction, there aren’t actually that many people you can pitch to. That’s one of the reasons why the Pulp Idol is so great – not only does it promote the format and get people thinking about and writing short stories, but it gives new writers a chance to pitch their work. Big Finish does have an open-submissions policy... to a point! We’ve always read and replied to the on-spec stuff that comes in, but we’ve never exactly been inundated. All that changed, of course, late last year. We launched a competition similar to Pulp Idol – to enter you had to have no previous professional credits, and the winner will have his or her story published in one of our collections later in 2007. We had such a fantastic response. I was kind of expecting about 50 entries... and we got over a thousand! But, as I say, we’ve worked to make sure the range gives people a chance – I’ve edited four collections now, for example, and each one has given someone their first professional commission."
SFX: How did your association with Colin Harvey, last year's Pulp Idol winner, come about?
IAN FARRINGTON: "Joseph had just been commissioned to edit a Short Trips called Snapshots and, as is the case when you start one of these books, he started to look around for writers..."
JOSEPH LIDSTER: "I wanted to make sure that Snapshots had a good mix of authors – people who were new to Doctor Who, people who were new to the Short Trips range and so on. I’m a regular reader of SFX and when I heard about the Pulp Idol competition, I figured it would be worth seeing if there was anyone worth asking to pitch for Snapshots. Of course, what I found was that I enjoyed most of the stories in the book - but because I already had a load of other authors sorted for Snapshots, I decided I could only really ask the winner, Colin. I contacted SFX, who put me in touch with him. He pitched an idea called The Eyes Have It which was brilliant, so I commissioned him. I love his story. What it does so well, and I think most of the Pulp Idol runners-up did this too, is tell something that’s actually quite simple. It can be summed up in one line. They’re the type of short stories I prefer really. His prose is fantastic and it’s a really nice character piece. I’m looking forward to reading whatever he does next."
SFX: Which other writers have written stories for you?
IAN FARRINGTON: "Ooh, I’m not sure it’d be good form for me to pick a favourite! They’re all great! We work really hard to get a good mixture of big-name, well-known writers, as well as new, even unpublished authors. From the new Doctor Who TV series, for example, Robert Shearman, Paul Cornell, Gareth Roberts, Helen Raynor and Gary Russell have all contributed. Paul and Gary have also edited collections for us. From the original TV series, we’ve used Eric Saward, Marc Platt, Ben Aaronovitch, Andrew Cartmel, Terrance Dicks and Glen McCoy. Then there’s people who perhaps aren’t known for their Doctor Who work but can be found in our anthologies – sci-fi writers such as Brian Keene, Stel Pavlou, Keith R. A. DeCandido, Sean Williams, Chris Roberson, Dan Abnett, Juliet E. McKenna, Steven Savile and Steven A. Roman. We’ve also had stories from novelist Paul Magrs, the voice of the Daleks Nicholas Briggs, and Dead Ringers’ writer Nev Fountain, and in Snapshots we have a story from Brian Dooley, who created and wrote the sitcom The Smoking Room. It’s a list of writers we’re really proud of!"
SFX: What's your next Big Finish project and when will we see it?
IAN FARRINGTON: "Well, the next Short Trips collection will be Steven Savile’s Destination Prague. That’s out in May. Steve has put together a really interesting book – it takes a look at the future of the city of Prague, and the Doctor’s many visits over the years. For a city with so much great history stretching back centuries, it’s such a fun concept to see how that history will affect its future. The book also has a nice spin we’ve not done before – we’ve had collections that use the same characters from story to story, or are all set in the same year, but this one uses the same city; it’s fascinating to see how it changes, develops and, in some cases, stays the same over the years. Me personally, the next collection I’m editing is called Defining Patterns and it will be out in September. It’s a collection all about how the universe works – fate, destiny, coincidences, consequences and such like."
JOSEPH LIDSTER: "And between those two is my book – Snapshots. My favourite Doctor Who short stories are the ones that are written from another character’s point of view – stories that are character pieces rather than necessarily full-blown adventures made shorter. So what I asked authors to do is to think about it as if they were writing a short story that just happened to be Doctor Who. No continuity. No TARDIS scenes. The reader only encounters the Doctor at the same time as the main character does. Each story is about the affect the Doctor has on someone’s life. As well as Colin Harvey, the collection features new series writer Helen Raynor, Smoking Room creator Brian Dooley and some of my favourite writers such as Stel Pavlou and Paul Magrs. The book is nearly finished now and I’ve got to say that I’m really happy with it."