Welcome Simon! The floor is yours.
All roads lead to Rome. It’s a shame the same can’t be said of publication. Still, there are a number of routes open to writers, even if they will often feel like dead ends. The world of licensed fiction is one avenue I’ve explored fairly comprehensively and I’ve yet to determine whether it’s an actual cul-de-sac. As a route to publication it certainly works – I have books published, some even with my name on – but it can be a bumpy road and the real question you have to ask yourself is, does it get me to where I want to be?
Before that, you might want to ask, how do I get on board the bus? The truth is, I don’t know. To be honest, I kind of fell on board. Although for a fall, it involved a lot of hard work.
In 1993, I think it was, Virgin Publishing acquired the license to produce two ranges of Doctor Who books – the New Adventures, stories continuing on from where the TV series had left off (featuring the Seventh Doctor, as played on the screen by Sylvester McCoy); and the Missing Adventures, stories that slotted into gaps in the series continuity, featuring any of the previous Doctors. Having grown up with the Third and Fourth Doctors (Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker), it was the latter range that most interested me. And to my delight I learned that Virgin were operating an open submissions policy, inviting budding authors to send in proposals (15K words plus a full synopsis) for novels.
Naturally enough, I went to work. I couldn’t tell you how many submissions I sent their way. Lots, let’s call it. Including, in 1994, one entitled Emotional Chemistry, a sweeping epic of time travel and Russian literature – which I only mention because it will feature later in this tale.
A great many “No, thank you”s and “This is great, but”s later, I was no further forward and then Virgin lost their license, the rights returning to BBC Worldwide. End of the road, right? Well, not quite, because the BBC decided to produce their own twin ranges of books along much the same lines – the Eighth Doctor (Paul McGann from the TV Movie) Adventures and the Past Doctor Adventures. The door was open once again and I got busy once more, sending in submissions.
The beauty of having been a Doctor Who fan since childhood meant I had no shortage of ideas to craft into novel proposals, and as a writer, born and bred, no shortage of stories I wanted to tell. Most sci-fi stories will prove readily adaptable to something like Doctor Who.
My first break came when then-editor, Steve Cole, who had been impressed with some of my submissions, offered me a short-story slot in an anthology they were putting together. Not long after that, his successor, Justin Richards, phoned to have a talk about how much he liked a little idea of mine called Drift – a snowy New Hampshire ghost story, sort of - which was ultimately commissioned and published as a Fourth Doctor (aka Tom Baker) novel. My first published novel. I was over the moon. I had arrived.
What immediately followed, hot on Drift’s heels, were other Doctor Who opportunities. Having one book under my belt prompted me to sign up to a Doctor Who internet forum or two and attend a couple of conventions, just generally making myself known in so far as my inherently shy personality would allow. At the same time, I continued submitting proposals, to BBC Books, to Telos Publishing (who had their prestigious range of Doctor Who novellas) and to Big Finish (who were producing Doctor Who audio dramas). Not only did those submissions meet with success, but I was soon being asked to contribute to short story anthologies. I was, in my own small way, ‘in demand’.
Long story short, my second Doctor Who novel appeared in the shops a year and a half after Drift, and was a sweeping Russian-literature time travel epic. Yes, Emotional Chemistry. Editor, Justin Richards, loved it. But I mention that not as a boast, but as a lesson to us all. At the risk of stating the obvious, one man’s “meh” is another man’s “spot on”.
Ironically, it was when Doctor Who returned to our screens, reborn, in 2005, that opportunities in that particular universe dried up. The range of authors was limited to those who approved by the production team top brass and a number of us who perhaps hadn’t moved in the right circles or shaken the right hands, fell by the wayside.
I was fortunate in that other non-Doctor Who opportunities came my way, most of them courtesy of Steve Cole (I owe that guy so many beers). Which absolutely supports that old principle of “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know”, but if you don’t happen to have been born with a silver spoon in your mouth, then there is every merit in benefitting from friendships and professional relationships forged through hard work and sociability. That goes for the publishing world as a whole, not just the licensed fiction pond.
Anyway, I moved on to other projects, such as the Fright Night series and the Monster Republic series, for Hothouse – developers of packaged fiction - which were published – under different pseudonyms - by Puffin and Random House respectively. And, concurrently with those, three novelisations for the BBC’s Merlin TV series, again published by Random House.
A long and winding road? You could say that. It’s an individual one and amounts to a combination of hard work and good luck that accompanies many a path to publication. The hard work anybody can do, but the luck can be tricky to emulate.
It’s not all doom and gloom though. There’s generally some room for exercising your creativity. Perhaps less so with something like the Merlin novelisastions, where the challenge lies in abiding faithfully by the episode shown on screen and any background or character depth added, in seeking to bring it alive in book form, has to conform with the producers’ own concept. It’s not always easy, because you won’t always know the producers’ view on a given character or other aspect of their series, but these are the kinds of details that are ironed out in second or third draft stages, where their comments will govern the edits. Your main task, creatively speaking, lies in colouring the scenes, throwing in a sprinkling of character insights and relating the action dramatically according to the beats laid down in the script.
Tie-in novels are more common and more worthwhile, both as reads and as writing projects. But licensed fiction isn’t all about tie-ins either.
With the Fright Night and Monster Republic series, Hothouse set out to develop series from concept to completed MS stage. They then take that, along with their market research, and sell it as a package to a publisher. For contract purposes, they are the ‘author’ – and they get the author’s percentage – whereas you are only the person who wrote it. As with the novelisations, your job is very much to deliver an MS to spec, but because these projects are in development and not an established series there tends to be a bit more freedom in that spec.
So you can see it is a route to publication, but for me it’s quite distinct from my own writing. My writing, I do for love. Licensed fiction, Doctor Who aside, is for the money and the publishing credits on my CV. Fair to say, those credits have not yet swayed the decision of any agent or publisher when considering my own work, but I don’t suppose they can have done me any harm. Other factors come into play when an editor is assessing a manuscript and sometimes, I’m sure, no quantity of credits is going to win them over.
By way of example, my Sci-Fi comedy, Evil UnLtd is just one of several projects of mine that has been neglected while some of this licensed fiction output helped pay the bills. Now, it can be hard to see your own brainchild (or brainchildren, plural) left neglected while you focus on delivering someone else’s baby. It can be harder still when publishers and agents are telling you how “colourful, imaginative and well-written” your work is and yet that there is “no market” for it, while some more generic, developed-by-committee work (that you helped to ‘create’) is securing a two or three-book deal with a major publishing house.
Hence, in an effort to make it up to my neglected characters and projects, I decided to give the licensed fiction world a rest for a while. It’s something of a financial risk, but it’s something I felt compelled to do for the sake of my craft.
As well as resuming the traditional approach of submissions to agents and publishers, I was persuaded – by friends and my mother-in-law – to give Kindle a try. Embrace the 21st century and, in the process, bypass the publishers and agents who were acting as a barrier between my work and potential readers. I’m kind of hoping my licensed fiction credits will count for something: it’s why I’m not shy about mentioning them. But I do worry that self-publishing still retains a certain stigma in many readers’ eyes. My wife tells me not to concern myself and just get my work out there. In essence, all I’ve done is traded one minefield for another. It’s scary. But isn’t that the thing about the roads to publication? They don’t all lead to Rome, but they are all littered with mines.
Simon Forward is an author of several licensed fiction works, including Doctor Who novels and novelisations for the BBC’s Merlin series. But these days he is primarily focused on promoting and developing his own original works, ranging from adult science fiction to fantasy for kids and Young Adults, as well as, of course, books that are downright Evil...
Find out more at www.simonforward.co.uk