Home : Archive : TSV 41-50 : TSV 47 : Feature

The Making of Just War

By Lance Parkin

In 1995 only three of the twenty-four New and Missing Adventures were written by authors new to the series, and all three had written for Virgin before. In 1996, the situation is completely different; five of the New Adventures will be by newcomers. Anyone who has read stories by Russell T Davies or Matthew Jones knows that they are in for a treat, and what I know of the New Adventures by Lawrence Miles and Simon Butcher-Jones is also very promising. It's the best of both worlds: not only are there new books by Cornell, Cartmel, Dave Stone and Aaronovitch (not to mention two by Kate Orman), all of whom are in top form, but there are also fresh perspectives.

Sandwiched between Terrance Dicks' best New Adventure yet and the culmination of Andrew Cartmel's 'War' trilogy is my own first novel, Just War. It makes me, I suppose, the first of the 'new crop' of New Adventures authors, the first completely new face since Daniel O'Mahony stunned everyone with Falls the Shadow.

So, how did I do that?

It started a long time ago: Just War was finally published in mid-January 1996, but I began to work on it in autumn '93. I sent off for the Writers' Guide, received it by return of post and began to read it and make notes. A number of aspiring authors have written to me since, wanting to know what magical secret I possess that got my novel accepted - well, that's the secret: read the Writers' Guide. It tells you everything that Virgin are looking for, how to set out the manuscript, who to send it to, what they aren't looking for and not to use old monsters. It even helps you with punctuation and prose style.

One of the main pieces of advice is 'be aware of what the audience wants'. This bit was easy: I had read the New Adventures from the beginning, and had enjoyed them all - A Who fan is at a hell of an advantage when he submits his New Adventure because he is the audience. Everyone knows what's been done before, what he did and didn't like and what he would like to see in the future. I thought it was high time that a pure historical was done - it's a genre that was an important part of early-Who, and the New Adventures at the time were neglecting the past in favour of space opera. Nothing wrong with that, and it would help make my historical book all the more distinctive.

So, which period would it be set in? I narrowed it down to two, both suggested by friends: Mark Jones suggested the Gunpowder Plot, Michael Evans suggested the German occupation of the Channel Islands. Both had merit, but I though that the latter had the edge, and began plotting the story.

This took about six weeks, and the story went through a number of permutations before settling down. When I had finished I set about writing the 15,000 word sample chapters that Virgin needed. I tried to include action and more descriptive passages, to prove that I could handle the regular characters and create new ones. I also tried to establish the two main settings for the book, London and Guernsey, and what the Doctor, Benny and Ace were doing there. After a month or so it was as ready as it would ever be, and I sent it off at the beginning of January 1994.

The next day I got an acknowledgement slip through the post and was told that Virgin would look at it when they got around to it. I was expecting this: I'd read interviews in which New Adventures authors said they'd had to wait ages. I went off and carried on with what passes for my life.

Just before Christmas (yup, almost a whole year later), I got a long letter back from Rebecca Levene, the series editor. Essentially, she liked Just War, but there were a couple of problems ... as I read the letter, I realised that Rebecca understood my book a lot better than I did, and her comments were all spot-on. First of all, Ace was about to leave the series, so she couldn't be in the book - Rebecca suggested that Benny got Ace's bit, Chris got Benny's and Roz got something else to do. Rebecca was a bit worried that an historical story might lack the 'wow factor' that science fiction would - I needed to demonstrate that there was something in the book interesting enough to make up for the lack of robots and ray guns - Sanctuary had been accepted because it was about religious intolerance - what was mine about? At the end of the letter were the magic words 'I can't commission it as it stands, but would be happy to consider a revised version'.

Frantic redrafting ensued. Luckily, not too much had to change. The companions shifted around, new subplots appeared. I tightened up the themes of the book and set it in four days later on 23 December 1994. Just after Christmas I got a phone call from Rebecca. The new version was much-improved. She queried a couple of plot and motivation points, said that the ending was a bit weak and the story petered out a little, and suggested how to remedy it. She also suggested a way to rationalise the Doctor's involvement that in one stroke solved all the niggling doubts I had. At the end of the phone call she commissioned the book and said she'd draw up a contract.

It took a while for the contract to work its way through the various departments at Virgin, and we used the time to bring me up to speed on the forthcoming books. Just War would be published in either December or January, depending on whether Shakedown was going to be a New or Missing Adventure. Human Nature and Toy Soldiers would both be set during the First World War, and so I'd need to read those (at one point the three books were going to be linked, but this fell by the wayside when it became clear that they were all very different), I'd need to read Original Sin to see what made Cwej and Forrester tick. The contract arrived on 26 January 1995 and was back in the post within an hour.

I was very lucky. The final version of Just War is almost unchanged from the original plot summary - although the ending is a damn sight better. Once the writing was underway, Rebecca only asked for a handful of changes - literally a matter of a word here or there. For me, the process has taken a while - over two years from first idea to seeing the book in W H Smith's - but has been smooth and very rewarding.

A first-time author can't write a Star Trek novel: you have to have had two previous novels published, the manuscript must be submitted by an agent, Paramount read every word, they and Pocket both have the right (ultimately) to edit your work without your approval and you are paid a flat fee for your efforts. Although they now have an established stable of writers and could get by quite happily operating a 'closed shop', Virgin still read every manuscript that is sent to them. On average one unsolicited manuscript arrives a day. Over half are sent straight back with a little pink slip: this isn't what we are looking for. Most of these are enthusiastic efforts, but the author hasn't read the Writers' Guide and as a result the manuscript is a mess and the story is far too reliant on continuity. Many more fall at the second hurdle: they are competent, well-presented and make sense, but there is something wrong: the story has been done before, it's too predictable or unoriginal, or it isn't pitched at quite the right level of complexity. These get a proper letter, explaining what was wrong, not the rejection slip most publishers would send you - a lot of the authors now writing for Virgin got these and followed the advice given, and got their second, third or fourth submission accepted. Some of us have been lucky enough to have their manuscript accepted straight away. Somewhere, a Doctor Who fan who's never written a book before is putting the finishing touches to his submission - and you'll be reading it in mid-to-late '97.

This article was first published in Broadsword issue 6. It is reprinted in TSV with the permissions of Lance Parkin and Broadsword.

This item appeared in TSV 47 (April 1996).

Index nodes: Just War