Hatching the Hummingbird
The Creation of a New Adventures Novel
By Kate Orman
What's the first thing you learn as a writer? Is it rhythm, plotting, characterisation? Nah, it's how to procrastinate. There are always dishes to be washed, Trek videos to be watched, lettered to be answered.
Well, it's time to stop procrastinating and start writing this long-overdue article for TSV. Because the impossible has happened: I've given birth to a book.
Evening. I get home around six, throw something vegetarian into the microwave, scoff it while reading the mail.
Shut the phone up (Hi, I'm Kate and Dave's answering machine - what are you?). Put aside Dark Circus, the fan fiction, the articles for other people's fanzines, the letters, the stuff for the feminists at uni. Start up Word for Windows 2. Light strawberry incense. Attach headphones. Get the egg timer and twist the dial to one hour. Write.
Do that every night for five months, and you have a New Adventure.
Almost nobody except writers realise what bloody hard work writing actually is (except possibly fanzine editors...). You wake up thinking about the book, you go to sleep thinking about the book, you brush your teeth while trying to work out how to kill off one of the characters. Plot devices strike like lightning while you're in the shower - and anywhere else there isn't a pen handy. You write strange words like massage on your wrist to avoid forgetting ideas and hope nobody notices. You make notes to yourself - The butterfly effect: a tiny spanner in the works - "You died!" - which are incomprehensible the next day.
But it all comes down to that one hour's work every night. It was something I learnt when writing my very first New Adventures submission, The Milk of Paradise; if you don't actually sit on your butt and write the book, nothing happens.
Flashback: 1990. After five months of desperately clinging to an honours degree in genetics, my supervisor gently suggests I should consider giving it up.
Let me tell you, writing's bloody hard work, but being a lab technician is harder. And the pay's lousy and science labs are full of radiation and corrosives and hideously transparent mice... and if I'd had any sense, I would've realised two things much earlier in the degree. One, I hate lab work. And two, I was writing the whole time, all five months - often when I should have been setting up an experiment. A bit of a giveaway, really.
Thus ends the saga of Kate Orman, the Great Cancer Researcher. And thus begins the saga of Kate Orman, the Unemployed.
You might think that the jobless have it easy. Get up in the morning, lounge around, maybe pop down to the CES in the afternoon. Yeah? Try doing nothing for six months. Nobody wants you; you have no money; you're worthless. It's like sensory deprivation.
During that time, I wrote my first ever Doctor Who novel.
It was crap.
Watch the Skies! was partly based on a script Peter Griffiths and I were working on for the series, back in the misty past when Who was still a TV show. Peter has since gone on to become a talented director; our co-authorship taught me a great deal, but we never actually produced anything. So I salvaged Watch the Skies! and spent those despairing months hammering it into a novel. It was 27,000 words long; the average Target novelisation is about 35,000. It was thinly plotted, padded trash. But I finished it.
This was a year or more before Virgin announced that they were to begin publishing the New Adventures. I'd been writing fan fiction since 1986 - in fact, the urge had first struck in 1984, because I can distinctly remember some story ideas involving Peter Davison's Doctor. In 1988 I wrote a 12,000 word epic during genetics lectures - one folder on top of the desk, the other one underneath. I spent most of my university study vacation in 1989 writing a 9, 000 word story. In 1990 I produced a short story for Jason Towers' fabulous fanzine Pirate Planet, called The Left-Handed Hummingbird - but more on this later.
My instincts must've been good. Target had run out of stories to novelise. WH Allen and Virgin had just merged. Shortly after I finished Watch the Skies!, the New Adventures were announced.
I still have the rather ratty photocopy of the original writer's guide, published in DWB, a publication which to this day I won't pay money for. But some kind soul, and I cannot remember who, mailed me a copy. Whoever you were, thank goodness for you. Without that guide, I wouldn't have known where to start with a submission. Thankfully, it's not necessary to write the entire 85,000 words of a New Adventure before bundling it off to Peter Darvill-Evans. You need only pen the first 15,000 words, plus a synopsis of the complete story. For a new writer, that's a fantastic way to begin - odds are you'll be rejected, but you haven't invested the phenomenal amount of energy required to produce an entire novel.
A bunch of important things happened around this time. Rumours Of Martians in Epping - ROME - the writers' circle which has been absolutely essential to my writing for two and a half years - was begun. (In those days, it consisted of David Carroll and Glenn Langford, whose Brief Encounters have appeared in DWM, the magical Kyla Ward, and occasional appearances by Evan Paliatseas). Fan writer Paul Cornell's novel Total Eclipse was accepted by Virgin.
And I got a bleeding job.
Things were definitely looking up in 1991. Not only was I working, I was working at a library. Not only was I working at a library, I was working at Macquarie University Library. I had thought lab technicians were bizarre, brilliant people, with the strange twinkle of obsession in their eyes. I wasn't prepared for reference librarians. These people can find out anything. Mention that you're writing an article about attitudes to prostitution in Mesopotamia, and before you know it, you're up to your elbows in interlibrary loans.
My boss, Robin Walsh, was invaluable in researching The Left-Handed Hummingbird; he's at least as obsessed with the Aztecs as I am (he makes a cameo as an anthropology student in the book). It doesn't hurt that Macquarie University teaches a course on pre-Columbian civilisations.
But back in 1990, I was writing The Milk of Paradise, in four-thousand word chapters - about eight million of them. That's when the hour-every-night habit began; I absolutely belted through Milk. Every two weeks, like clockwork, ROME gathered in Epping to read out our latest work. Dave's and my New Adventures came in regular instalments, almost as though they were serialised for the group. We were caught up in our own forward momentum.
This is a curious thing. I sometimes think, "Why did I write a book?" Then I realise that's as meaningless a question as, "Why do rocks roll downhill?" Like I said, it's the first thing when you get up, the last thing when you go to bed. I couldn't not write a book, any more than I could not produce a fanzine, or not eat, or make a rock roll uphill. Stuck at the security desk at the door of the library this morning, I wrote a Star Trek story. I just can't help myself.
I submitted The Milk of Paradise - the first 15,000 words, anyway - in August, 1991.
Then the Strathfield Massacre happened. But more on this later.
Two months after I submitted it, The Milk of Paradise was hoping for a polite rejection slip. Most rejection slips are form letters, and usually rather brusque. They bruise. I wanted a nice one.
Let me quote Peter Darvill-Evans' letter:
I have two reservations. The first is that the structure of the plot - the progression up the drug-dealing ladder to find the power behind the epidemic of addiction - will inevitably lead to a very linear story... The other problem is that the story's moral is very simplistic and very easily identifiable as a preoccupation of the governments of the Western hemisphere of Earth in the late twentieth century. The recreational use of drugs has become a bugbear only very recently in mankind's history. It seems unlikely that the Doctor would have the same scale of values as George Bush. In places the book reads almost as if it's intended as part of some governmental anti-drugs campaign: "How can we persuade kids to say no to drugs? I know - let's write a Doctor Who story about the horrible things that happen to anyone who even so much as catches sight of a reefer..."
Those of you who have ever mailed anything to an editor will recognise the odd thrill of horror you get as you actually slide the thing into the post. Did you remember the cover letter? Were all the pages in the right order? What if someone snuck into your computer and typed "Darvill-Evans sucks" halfway through a sentence?
Reading the rejection slip is a slightly different kind of horror; in fact re-reading it just now, the sting hasn't diminished. I'd continued to write Milk while awaiting the letter. Yeah, it was linear, and it was preachy, and I was lucky to get professional advice to that effect. In some ways it was a relief that the slip arrived when it did: I'd hit the forty-thousand word mark, and I'd run out of plot.
But PDE's criticisms were tempered with some very exciting and encouraging praise. And I'd done what I'd set out to do: I'd gotten a nice rejection slip.
By this stage, Timewyrm: Revelation (formerly Total Eclipse) had reached Australian shores. I'm never going to quite recapture the excitement of reading that particular book. The hardest part was putting it aside long enough to do my hour's writing. I stayed until one in the morning to finish it. Not only is Revelation an absolutely stunning novel, overflowing with detail and references and intelligent writing, but it was the first one to be penned by a fan. Just like me. It was possible.
So that was the end of The Milk of Paradise - thank the gods.
The next book was The Undreaming World, the nth remix of Watch the Skies! This time, the setting was not McCarthyist America, but an island community on another world which finds itself being invaded by UFOs from Earth. I had just discovered the real joys of the uni library. I read up on McCarthy and the anti-Communist witch-hunts of the early fifties, on the development of the solar system, on attitudes to the hearing impaired. I filled exercise books with notes, plus little asterisked plot suggestions: * The mirror breaks when McAllister falls onto it. I was becoming more systematic, more organised.
I must've got my second submission into the mail at a cracking pace, because the next letter in my file from PDE is dated 12 February 1992. I had just moved into my flat, so the letter went to my old address. My mother rang me up at work and read it over the phone:
Yep - The Undreaming World is even better than The Milk of Paradise.
I don't think I even heard the rest of the letter. But my novel had made it onto the short list for 1993: " ..all you have to do for the next few months is wait!"
One of the best things about getting a Who book accepted is that it justifies everything. People can't tell you it's a waste of time being a fan anymore, though I'd pretty much come to that conclusion when I got my job by waving a copy of Dark Circus under the selection panel's collective nose. The library needed someone who knew about desk-top publishing, you see... My father was certain it was a terrible waste, why wasn't I writing LITERATURE, you know, not this science fiction rubbish. I had to explain about Orwell and Huxley.
It only spurred me to work harder. There's no difference between Great Literature and genre novels, even Doctor Who novels; all that matters is good writing, and that's what you go for. There aren't any excuses for slacking, because this is a TV tie-in. Never let anybody put Who down as pop-culture, sci-fi rubbish - all that matters is how well it's done.
Unlike Milk, I wasn't going to waste time continuing The Undreaming World. By this stage I had four more books planned out in my head. Number three novel was The Left-Handed Hummingbird, an attempt to resuscitate the somewhat confused story from Pirate Planet (the fanzine). Truth is, I started writing this story in 1986; early mental drafts contained Colin Baker's Doctor, which made more sense of the hummingbird image. Then there were Terpsichore, Faust Forward, and The Book With No Name. I'm working on Terpsichore (aka The Gingerbread Man) at the moment.
I went berserk researching Hummer. It started with a few core ideas: Samuel Taylor Coleridge and opium and Kubla Khan; John Lennon and LSD and She said she said; human sacrifice and psychic energy, with concepts nicked from Ghostbusters and The Awakening and Vibes.
It was only recently, talking to some people at WhoVention 2, that I realised the most important source for Hummer: the Strathfield Massacre. I don't know how much you would've heard about this in NZ...
Once upon a time there was a little coffee shop in the Strathfield Plaza, just down the street from where I now live. When friends came to visit from Adelaide, they would disembark at Strathfield station, and we'd take them to the coffee shop to recover from the train trip.
I managed to move in next door to where a madman stabbed a fifteen-year-old girl to death. And shot fifteen people with a machine gun. Seven of whom died.
I still have the Sydney Morning Herald's front cover for that day, but I'm not going to go into the details. Suffice it to say that it's a lot harder to buy automatic weapons in Australia now. And that the little coffee shop doesn't exist any more.
There was only one question: "Why?" In some ways, Hummer is an attempt to answer that question. Or rather, not to answer it, because I can't.
In May 1992, I received a copy of the updated writer's guidelines, introducing the new companion, Bernice. Around the same time I sent off the first two chapters of The Left-Handed Hummingbird. Much of the plot was still embryonic, though Coleridge had disappeared by this stage: Douglas Adams had already done that bit, and anyway, Coleridge's link with the Aztecs via Purchas' Pilgrimage was unbelievably tenuous.
Then, in July, another letter:
This is as you can tell a standard letter. I'm sending a copy of it to each of about a dozen authors whose typescripts I've selected as particularly good. The Left-Handed Hummingbird is one of these. I must stress that this letter doesn't constitute a commission to write a Doctor Who New Adventure; but I do hope to commission most of the dozen texts by the end of the year.
The letter went on to describe Hummer as potentially being part of a series centering around alternative universes.
With the exception of the title of Anarchy in the UK, this series is exactly what you'll be reading, starting with Blood Heat in October.
Added to the bottom of the form letter - in his own fair hand - were Peter's comments:
Kate - this needs Bernice the new companion plus Ace is 3 years older and much tougher. The story's great. I suggest that Huitzilopochtli needs not just deaths but also mass outrage and grief - that's why he chooses a herofigure like Lennon. Perhaps the Doc + Julia bring Lennon to his attention in 1968?
...all of which will make more sense to you when you read the book. Heh heh.
I did have a bad moment when the next letter described the series as consisting of Blood Heat, The Dimension Riders and/or The Left-Handed Hummingbird, Conundrum, and Anarchy in the UK... Mercifully, before I could employ an English assassin to destroy Daniel Blythe (author of The Dimension Riders), Hummer was confirmed as part of the series.
It was time to take a monumental step, to do something courageous and unprecedented. It was time to phone Britain.
In the last three months, I have made $A90 of phone calls to the UK. (The $A20 one was to Jim Mortimore, who's even more of a chatterbox than I am). The biggest problem with writing a novel from Down Under is being so dramatically separated from the other authors and the editor; there's much more trouble involved with trading ideas, bits of manuscripts, etc.
The first time I rang Peter Darvill-Evans I was so excited I could hardly hold onto the phone. It was eleven at night (around 1pm UK time). After dialling about four million digits, the phone makes an odd noise as the satellite linkup engages, and then it starts ringing. "Good afternoon," says a chirpy East Enders voice on the other end, "Virgin!"
"Hmmm," David commented, "must be the new girl."
Peter's pretty amazing on the phone: he talks, and talks, and talks, and you listen. And take notes. Lots of notes. The man must have at least three brains to be able to think about so many things all at once. Kerri Sharp, PDE's editorial assistant, has fielded most of my calls, and a more helpful lady you could not hope to find. We spend much of our conversations giggling at the awkward delay in conversation produced by the satellite link.
During that first call, Peter told me all of the changes that would be taking place in the series, which took about quarter of an hour of rapid-fire speech, and then said, "Do you think you can incorporate all that?" Well, what was I going to say? "No, I couldn't possibly"?
It was Kerri who replied when she'd gotten the revised chapters, written in a blur of adrenalin. I'd included Bernice, and Julia had become the more authentically Mexican Cristián. Kerri also organised to send me the upcoming New Adventures for free; there's an alarming delay in their arrival in Sydney, and getting them even before UK publication is one of the best perks of the job!
I received the contract for The Left-Handed Hummingbird in October 1992. Dave and Kyla took me out to a Mexican restaurant. When we got there, it had turned into a Swiss restaurant, but someone had built another Mexican restaurant next door. That's Sydney for you.
I had five months to write the rest of the book, which might sound like a lot of time. (Gary Russell has about three months to write Legacy, and good luck to him!). I took down the calendar and started writing notes allover it. Basically, I had to write one 7500 word chapter every two weeks.
More stuff arrived in the post: Rod Ramos' sketches of the Doctor and Ace's new costumes; a letter telling me not to worry so much about the obscenity clause in the contract; the addresses of the other authors in the series. Permission from the University of Oklahoma to use a translated Aztec poem. The first part of the MONEY. Yeah! I spent the bit that the British IRS didn't pinch on a printer.
I'd already written the beginning, so I wrote the end, then the middle, because I was still researching the middle, and then I had to rewrite the end. In a city where Mexican restaurants turn into Swiss ones, this did not seem particularly odd. I spent a three-week holiday writing for three or four hours every day, and got three month's worth of RSI.
Shortly before sending the final version of the novel off, the current line- up of ROME got together and, over an extraordinary weekend, read the entire book out. It was like a massive spring clean: glitches, continuity errors, repetitions, gibberish, and just plain dumb bits all came tumbling out. It took eighteen hours. And ROME - Dave, Kyla, Sarah, Steven, and the intermittent Antony - are on the acknowledgements page. (Don't tell 'em - it's a secret.)
I got Hummer in on time. This was despite killing the printer at the last minute by dropping its toner cartridge on my foot and breaking it (the cartridge, not my foot). And getting a gum infection so appallingly painful I couldn't sleep. What a week. One printed copy, $A44 postage; one diskette copy, $A2 postage.
A week later, the diskette came back again. I'd sent it to Virgin's old address, which was now Virgin Games. I sent it back across the world to Virgin Publishing. Paul Cornell pinched it and sent it back to me again. That diskette has clocked up enough frequent-flier miles to earn it a free holiday.
Now it's all a matter of waiting for the galley proofs - one last check for mistakes before it goes to press (if there are any typos, you can blame 'em on me). PDE will be making a handful of minor changes in order to smooth out the continuity of the alternative universe books. Oh, and a mock-up cover with Pete Wallbank's art was sent to me. The blurb on the back got me so excited I said, "My gods, did I write that?". It also contains two errors and gives away a rather major plot point... I've asked them to change it. Major plot points and another article for TSV - have to wait until the book's out.
If anyone's still reading this, it's probably because they've been through at least part of the process themselves. If you've written part of a New Adventure, if you've been rejected, if you're in the in-tray along with The Undreaming World, good on you! If you haven't, but you've been thinking about it, go for it! The worst that can happen is that you'll be rejected. And that happens to every writer. Isaac Asimov was still collecting rejection slips up until the time of his death.
There's only one caveat, and that's this: be prepared to be possessed. Be ready for the book to take over your life. You're going to be writing phone messages on the backs of the rough drafts for the rest of your life. This is not as serious a commitment as getting pregnant, but there are some alarming similarities.
Now all I've got to do is look forward to the birth...
This item appeared in TSV 35 (September 1993).