Steve Emmerson
Sacred CoW

Sacred CoW

Steve Emmerson writes about writing ‘Casualties of War’ for BBCW's 'Doctor Who Telepress' newsletter in 2000

‘It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a writer to get into print.’

So goes the biblical adage. And so goes real life, I can tell you from a lifetime’s experience of scampering up and down blind alleys with my material. The vicious circle generally runs something like this:

‘Hi. I’m Steve Emmerson. Would you be interested in looking at a manuscript for…?’

‘Have you had one of these published before?’

‘No, but I’ve had a lot of success with…’

‘Well, I’m afraid if you haven’t already had a … published before and you don’t have a proven track record with this kind of thing, then we wouldn’t really want to see it.’

C’est la vie. It’s a writer’s life for me… But there is a way out. I’ve discovered there are some wonderful people at BBC Worldwide who are willing to put their trust (and a considerable investment of time and energy) into new, untried authors. And if, like me, you happen to have grown up with an affection for that wonderful, magical BBC institution called Doctor Who, then you’ve got a good head start.

I wrote my first novel at the age of twelve. A long time ago now. It was a Doctor Who novel called ‘The Death-Cheaters’. A Dalek story. I wrote it in an exercise book I filched from school. It turned out to be longer than the exercise book so I had to add almost another book of pilfered pages at the end to bring the story to a satisfactory conclusion. That was probably the second most enjoyable novel I ever wrote. My best mate, Chang, loved it, and couldn’t wait for me to write another. Which I very promptly did. ‘The Xargon Inheritance’- a tale of alien possession set in the Wild West. Chang loved that as well. So I wrote more. And more. And I’ve never stopped since.

After enduring my rites of passage in the fanzine wilderness, and managing to get some non-Who short fiction published professionally, I sent Virgin an idea when they started doing the Who novels. They were keen, and after a conversation with editor Peter Darville-Evans I set to work on a full-length novel called ‘Rendezvous’. For complicated reasons the novel unfortunately never came off, so I went away from Doctor Who and returned for a while to my other projects. Then the Who-licence reverted back to the BBC and I tried them with a sample of the same prose material that had originally worked with Virgin, this time with a different plot. The BBC weren’t interested. I got a standard refusal.

I won’t pretend I was undaunted. I was tremendously daunted. My daunt had never been so ted. So I threw myself again into my non-Who writing projects, and the usual round of completion and brick-walls.

At the end of June 1999 I submitted another idea to BBC Books for a Doctor Who novel. I sent around 7000 words (prologue and opening chapter) along with a brief précis of what the story was about. I made it clear that although it was submitted as an 8DA, it could be written as a PDA. I didn’t mind. I just wanted to write Doctor Who. And Adaptable and Accommodating are two of my middle names. (Along with some others which I won’t go into right now…)

Anyhow, it was posted on Friday afternoon, and on the following Tuesday morning I got an e-mail from Jac Rayner asking me to send in a more detailed synopsis. This was something of a shock to me. The e-mail was friendly, informal, and so QUICK! I’d spent years of my life waiting for editors to respond to my stuff, and I thought I must’ve had a bad road accident, slipped into a coma, and this was all one big dream.

But no. It was really real. And it was going to get even better.

I sent in my 3000-word synopsis and shortly after got a phone call out of the blue from Steve Cole ! The man himself!  That was also very friendly and informal and like something out of a dream. Steve liked my prose, but felt that my synopsis, a haunted house-type thingy, was an area already too well explored. He’d like me to write an 8DA. Could I send in some more ideas and we’d develop something from there? Could I? Could I!

The first idea I had was a thing called ‘Casualties of War’. Essentially a horror story, set in a post WW2 psychiatric hospital, about the evil of war. I e-mailed this to Steve. Then I had some more ideas. Just basics. Seeds from which great Doctor Who books might some day grow. I sent in another three. Then I had some more. I sent those in as well. Eventually, Steve e-mailed me to say ‘Thanks for inundating us! We’ll be in touch!’ … Oops.

Things went quiet. Until towards the end of September. Then I got an e-mail from Justin Richards, newly appointed Doctor Who Range Consultant for BBC Books. Things were suddenly moving again and through a short series of e-mails and phone calls, we thrashed out the basics of a revised version of ‘Casualties of War’, this time incorporating new elements from one of the other ideas which I’d submitted. This was an exciting process that saw the characters, motives and narrative dynamics of the plot all coming together.

Something big was going down in the Eighth Doctor novels. A new story arc that would have fundamental repercussions. My story had to be moved back to WW1. At first I didn’t know exactly why, and the prospect of all that additional research didn’t really fill me with enthusiasm, but I gradually learned that I was part of something wonderful. Something that would put the 8DA range in a big bag and give it a damn good shaking.

My slot was a wonderful book to be given to write. And I realised during my conversations with Justin just how appropriate, entirely accidentally, my CoW idea had been for the slot. There were areas we could really have fun with here. Themes to explore which would resonate.

I’m sure I’ll never lose my love of writing. It’s a process that seems to take place as much in my subconscious as in my conscious mind. The characters simply come alive. Sometimes they surprise me. Occasionally they do things that I didn’t expect and they take the work off in a completely unanticipated direction. And here in the world of CoW I had gathered together a small group of characters that I loved to bits.

Then I hit a bit of a problem. I run my own business, and although it’s very flexible as far as work-pattern goes, it’s also extremely demanding. I found that I was forced to take a month off writing to get the work back under control.

I’d told Justin that I intended finishing the first draft for him to see by around Christmas. Because of the changes that were being made, I wanted to liase regularly with Justin to ensure that my book was right, that it fitted in with what was coming around it. Due to the delays connected with my work, my self-set deadline became a bit shaky. I had to move the goal posts a little bit. I wrote right through the Christmas hols (traditionally a quiet time for me in my ‘real’ job) to get the book finished about a week late just before New Year. That was great. It was the beginning of the New Millennium, and the beginning of a very bright new year for me. I had achieved what I’d wanted for years. I’d written a Doctor Who book.

Wow!

When I say the book was about a week late, my official BBC deadline was set at mid-March, so I now had another two and a half months to make sure the thing was right. That felt like sheer luxury. Now was my chance to get some feedback…

I have a couple of Doctor Who-fan friends who would have been ideal to read it, but the material was sensitive at the time and I didn’t want to risk letting any of the BBC’s big secrets out. Because I was new, I also didn’t feel I could ask any of the other writers to comment on it for me. So now I had this book that I wanted somebody to rip apart, and nobody suitable to do the job.

My wife had kept an eye on things as they developed. She was very encouraging, telling me how well she thought it was going (even though some nights she didn’t see me at all, and when she woke up the next morning I was already in the office bashing away at the keyboard). I refused to let her read the last three chapters until the whole end of the book had come together, and she read them in one go, unable to put the thing down. She said she was out of breath by the time she got to the epilogues, and I took that to be a positive sign. But I still really needed a few fresh perspectives.

I sent a copy to Justin. I also, finally, had other copies read by three friends. One was Major Paul Laycock, the guy who’d been totally indispensable to me during the writing of the military side of the book. Paul’s an expert on all things military. Another reader was Susan O’Neill, the sister of a good friend. Susan likes to read sci-fi, but she’s not particularly a Doctor Who fan, and she hasn’t read any of the other novels in the series. Finally came Jane Moore. Jane’s head of children’s books in my local central library. She loves reading anything, and when I first started trying to write professionally, years ago, I spent some time with Jane discussing markets because she got all the latest industry mags and followed publishing with a hawk-like scrutiny.

Responses? Major Laycock- ‘Great! What the hell have you got inside that brain of yours, Steve?’ Susan O’Neill- ‘Great! I read some of it late at night and I daren’t turn the lights out afterwards.’ Jane went through with a fine-tooth-comb. She’d recently had a baby and was just returning to work so she found it difficult to meet my deadline. She let me have the first quarter back with encouraging comments, and also pointed out my excruciatingly embarrassing, entirely deliberate mistake connected with bullocks!

Around this time, during January, I was surfing the net one day when I came across the Gallifrey One website (gallifreyone.com) advertising imminent books, and I was amazed to see my book being promoted (‘details forthcoming…’). That was quite a revelation. There was my name amongst all those established Who-regulars. Official. It sunk home a little bit more that I had become part of this thing for real.

Double Wow!

Meanwhile- I was back at work doing 110’s. (That’s one hundred-and-ten-hour weeks!) These lasted all January while everybody else was doing some work on my book for a change. At the end of January Justin got back to me. He was giving me very encouraging signals, though he was only halfway through.

At the beginning of February, Justin came back with his final list of comments on my book. There were lots of niggly little bits, odd words etc out of place, but also plenty of comments on things that worked well. I was chuffed that Justin had bothered to point those out. It’s great to know what you’ve done right as well as what you’ve done wrong.

These comments landed just as I was itching to get back into finishing the book. I used the comments supplied by my three readers, but mainly Justin’s list, to start work again on the serious task of finally knocking the novel into shape. This job was much easier and much more enjoyable than I’d anticipated. For a start, there was little to do. For another thing, I’d been immersed in something else for long enough to cut off from CoW, and now it felt fresh to me again.

I had felt early on that the material of this story really required a book nearly twice this length. I found trying to write against the backdrop of WW1, with all its sensitive issues, difficult at first. I didn’t want to glorify the war, make it appear all heartless heroics. Neither did I want to diminish it. For that reason I wanted to get inside the men’s heads. Let everybody see what they’d been through. Have them remembering their loved ones, their mates, their real lives. There are plenty of damned good novels set around this time, including Pat Barker’s ‘Regeneration trilogy’, and I did feel a bit overshadowed by the competition. Then I thought - it’s not competition. I’m writing a Doctor Who book. A Doctor Who adventure. Let’s get away from too much heavy stuff. Once that decision had been taken, it was easier not to put so much of that stuff in in the first place, and to take some of it out at this edit stage to make the story 'tighter' in its final draft.

They say editing your work is like killing your children. It didn’t feel like that at all. The book had become, over the weeks that I’d spent working on it, a very pleasant domain to escape to. For me, the act of writing is a kind of transcendental meditation. As if I put myself on a different plane of existence. A separate reality. A parallel universe. And, truth be known, I didn’t exactly relish the thought of losing contact with all those people I’d got to know who lived inside the story. So I welcomed this chance to revisit all the nooks and crannies, clear out all the cobwebby corners, get rid of the excess stuff that had accumulated. The world of CoW had become quite a sacred place, but it was a place that I loved to be active in, not all reverent and afraid to touch.

At this edit stage, reading it again was a pleasant task. You may well laugh- but I thought it was, on the whole, a great read, full of humour and darkness. A nice combination for any kind of book. I was really pleased with the end result, even though I thought the plot was very linear and a bit on the simple side. The straight-forwardness of the plot seemed to help focus on the important issues in the story.

On the last day of February I posted off what was, ostensibly, the book you’ll read if you go into your local bookshop and part with very nearly six quid of your precious hard-earned.

Now all I can do is wait for the reaction. I only hope that those of you who buy it enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. It was many, many hours in the making, but not a single minute of that time felt like work. If you do enjoy it, don’t let your friends borrow your copy. Get them to buy their own. Please. You’ll be doing them a favour!

And who knows, if the reviews are good and the sales are healthy, perhaps Jac and Justin might even let me back to do another one. Casualties of War II? More Casualties of War? Casualties of War and Side Steps? Hmm…

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