1. Well you’ve certainly been busy over the last few years, after having a few short stories published, you moved on to editing and have also had two novels published. In truth it’s difficult to keep up with you. What are the current projects and how is everything going?
Things are going just fine, thank you. I’m currently proofing an anthology of Doctor Who short stories by 25 first-time authors. “How The Doctor Changed My Life” is a collection of winners from a competition we ran last year. I’m really, really pleased with the book – we’ve spent months honing the stories, knocking them back and forth, getting them just right. And as a result it’s a really strong collection, due out in September.
On top of that, I’ve just written a half-hour audio play for the new version of Blake’s 7, which explores the early life of Blake’s friend Jenna Stannis. She’s a space pilot and I had to bone-up on all the fiddly mechanics of rocketry and velocity in space, because they don’t have convenient sci-fi things like space drives and warp engines. I’m not really very good at maths stuff, so that was a bit of a challenge. But now I know all about orbital rendezvous and delta-v calculations. Go on; test me.
I’ve just been asked to do a couple of reviews and I’m making notes for an academic paper on Iain Banks’ science-fiction stuff for Foundation – a follow-up to a paper I wrote them a decade ago. And I’m also writing a handful of things that I can’t talk about yet because they’ve not been formally announced. It’s odd how this works; by the time something’s announced you’re usually long finished on it and have moved on to other stuff. So watch this space. But still busy!
Blimey, no wonder I can’t keep up, that’s storming stuff!
2. You’ve been a fan of Doctor Who for many years and this is where most of your published work is based. How has the return of the TV series affected your career and what do you think of the new Doctor Who compared to the previous incarnations?
I love the new series of Doctor Who. I get the same giggly thrill from it now as I did when I was six years-old. What’s changed is not how I feel about it but that so many other people love it, too. Liking Doctor Who used to be something you only admitted in whispers.
I love that the new series cherry picks stuff from previous versions of Doctor Who – and not just the old monsters and characters. Just on Saturday, David Tennant had a line referring back to stuff he did when he was William Hartnell. They’ve also nicked bits from audio plays, books and short stories… And in some ways that’s a vindication of all the stuff going on while the show was off the air. All this stuff I used to read avidly. See? It was brilliant! Anything can go in. The doors on the inside of the TARDIS are lifted from the two Peter Cushing movies of the 1960s. It all counts!
As to how it’s affected by career… I was writing my first Doctor Who novel, The Time Travellers, as the new series started to air. And it made me rethink a lot of what I was doing; the feel of it, the structure, the emotional complexity, the need to feel consequences. I think – people might disagree – that my writing’s got a lot better as a result of the things they’ve done on the new series. I think it’s made my plotting bolder and helped me find my “voice”. And writing a new series book, with the show so popular, has opened a lot of doors. One publisher I’d pitched to for years with little response offered me a job on the back of it. Thank you, Doctor!
3. Speak of Doctor Who novels, how’s The Pirate Loop doing and tell us a little bit about it.
I got an email out of the blue about a year ago. “Probably a stupid question,” said Justin the editor, but would I like to write an original novel featuring the tenth Doctor and Martha Jones – who’d at that point not been on the telly. They wanted a science-fiction story and they liked the paradox stuff in my earlier book, The Time Travellers.
In fact, a lot of the plotting was about how to make it different from that earlier book. At a basic level they’re the same story – they’re caught in a loop which makes strange things happen. But where The Time Travellers was earnest and bleak, The Pirate Loop is joyful and silly. It’s Doctor Who versus space badger pirates, foiling their wicked schemes with some canapés. I wanted to write something that would make my wife laugh and cry. And – hah! – I did.
Doctor Who Magazine made it their pick of the month. I’ve been delighted by how many old and long-lost friends have been in touch as a result of me doing it. So yeah, it seems to be doing really well. Of course, not everyone agrees. My favourite criticism so far is an old mate who complained that, compared to The Time Travellers, “It’s almost a completely different book”. I like the almost.
4. Although this has been half answered with your Doctor Who question, are there any writers out there that have inspired you, made you want to write? What sort of stuff do you prefer to read?
I’ve always written stuff but the bloke who made me realise I could actually be a writer – and pay the bills by writing – was Doctor Who’s Paul Cornell. I love Paul’s writing but he also explained the practicalities of being a writer – that if you want to write, you just have to get down and do it. And being a Doctor Who fan means you have a lot of very supportive peers. Well, I say, “very supportive” – there’s lot of people to point out what you’re doing wrong.
When I find writers I like, I tend to work my way through everything they’ve done. Maybe that’s a weird obsessive stalker thing, but I like to think it’s because I’ve latched on to the good stuff. Authors who I’ve read pretty much all of include Iain Banks, Paul Auster, John le Carre, Ian Fleming, Alexei Sayle, China Mieville, Neil Gaiman… I’m not sure there’s much of a connection between them. Um… They all kind of write twisted thrillers, maybe? Apart from the ones that don’t…
But I also read a lot of history and pretty much anything my clever mates recommend. A lot of the writing I do needs some level of research, but I’m quite happy finding stuff out. And it’s quite common that a commission includes some kind of reading list.
5. You’ve been part of a few competitions to promote new authors, with the obvious one being the new book mentioned in question 1 (an idea I have taken for Gilgamesh Press). What have been your experiences of them and what tips do you have for aspiring writers?
Running the competitions has made me realise how generous so many authors and editors have been with me as I was starting out. There’s a lot you pick up just by having your first thing published. Thanks to Johnny and Clay and Jac and Gary who mopped up my toddling mistakes. But it’s worth it because of the writers’ enthusiasm and élan, and from knowing how much the same break would have made to you. It also makes you realise how much you’ve picked up since you started, all the tips and tricks that you can pass on.
The main advice for aspiring writers is just to write. Finish the things that you’re writing. It’s not about just having a good idea; you need to practice and improve making it work as a story. That’s the difference between knowing a good joke and being able to tell it so people laugh. And until you’ve got something written in full there’s no point giving any other advice.
But once you’ve written something, the advice is all about things that can make it work better. How you rewrite a sentence to make it punchier. How you can make things easier for the reader by being sure we always know who is speaking, or whose point of view we’re in. How you can make a description more vivid by using all the senses. Tips on avoiding clichés or the passive tense. Specific ways of honing that specific bit of writing.
6. How important a role does music play for you as a writer, do you listen while you write, are you inspired by music or do you prefer silence?
I listen to music when I’m writing, usually in the background and not really being conscious of it. The shuffle on iTunes is my friend, so there’s a weird hodge-podge of poppy stuff, angsty stuff, stuff made by my mates and one or two obscure novelty records.
Sometimes I use the feel of a song as the “voice” of a book – I think The Pirate Loop really came together when I realised it should feel all bouncy like Mika’s “Grace Kelly”, which is why that song’s in the book. The Bernice Summerfield anthology “Something Changed” took its name from a song by Pulp which is – like the book – a paradox.
But I find music very difficult to write about. One of the best editorial suggestions I ever made was a stage direction in the final scene of the audio play The End of the World. I added “Bach’s St. John’s Passion is playing in the background.” And when the writer asked why, I could only say “Trust me.” I couldn’t explain it any better. It just it lifts that scene, makes it work on such a different level…
See? I can’t even articulate it now. There aren’t the words to explain just what it does. I guess that for me music isn’t about words. It has lyrics, yes, but they’re never as important as how the music makes you feel. Something that’s especially evident in my own crummy efforts to write song lyrics.
*remembers he hasn’t read any of Simon’s lyrics and makes a note to get hold of them*
7. After successful stints as both editor and writer, do you have any preference to focus on one of them in the future or do you like working with both? What do you like/dislike about the two?
Editing and producing takes a lot of time and effort. I was producer of the Bernice Summerfield range for two years and it rather took over my life. It was brilliant to do, it meant working with some fantastically talented people, and I’m really pleased with what we achieved under my watch. But it was also just exhausting. As producer you have to watch everything – the type-setting and the paper stock and the delivery dates and the bookings. Whereas just doing the writing that’s all someone else’s problem. You can zip in and away again like some magic ninja. So I’m concentrating on my own writing now, rather than working on other people’s. That’s not to say I won’t edit anything ever again, but not for a long while yet.
8. What do you do when you’re not writing/editing?
I try to drown out the horror with booze and Jaffa Cakes. Um… I read. I laze about, thinking odd thoughts. I try not to bother my wife or cat too much. I dunno really.
9. What is speculative fiction?
Easy! It’s a euphemism for science-fiction, as used by embarrassed fans. They use it to justify why they’re reading whatever it is they’re reading. “It’s not that schlocky stuff with monsters,” they say. “It’s really a testing ground for new kinds of philosophy.”
Thing is, I really like the schlocky stuff with monsters. And weird stuff. And jokes. Yes, I like the big and clever ideas of sci-fi, but the word “speculative” always make me think of “pondering”: dull people in polyester uniforms explaining at tedious length how the lights on their spaceship work. The kind of conversations that begin, “Well, as you already know…”. I came up with the following bit of advice after I’d judged last year’s writing competition. People walking down a corridor and discussing science: no! People being chased down a corridor by monsters and discussing science: yes!
Ha, well no wonder I have received countless e-mails about this question as all three writers I’ve asked have come out with different viewpoints – let’s just blame Atwood eh?
10. Does being an editor help when you submit your own pieces or can it just be as much of a hindrance? What do you expect from editors/publisher when you send work to them?
I think it helps because you know the sorts of things that you yourself respond to. People who are polite and funny and make you want to listen. People who keep their pitches short. People who don’t assume you’re going to employ them. I’ve also got some experience of financial and project management which means I can at least sympathise when an editor is tearing their hair out. But then you also pick these things up just by working with different people, seeing how they like to work. It’s about trying to make their lives easy. That’s why – you hope – they employ you again.
Pretty much everything I send editors and publishers now is something that they’ve asked for – either an opportunity to pitch or a straightforward commission. So you usually have some idea of what the stages of the job will be. But when you’re starting out, and even now when you’re sending stuff on-spec, you’re not even sure of getting a response to say that they’ve received it. So you just plug away, sending stuff to different people, hoping someone will notice. Nobody is obliged to read what you send them, nor to recognise your genius. So it’s probably best not to expect anything from them.
Thank you very much for agreeing to do this and I just want to take this opportunity to wish you all the best with your future projects and looking forward to seeing your books on bookstores’ shelves for many years to come.
(Simon can be found hanging out on his blog here)