Archive for October, 2009

Pro-fic and fan-fic

After spending most of the last week steeped in Series 4 of Doctor Who (a birthday present from my brother), that thing happened in my brain where it wanted to celebrate being flooded with tasty input by outputting something in kind. It just does this. It’s like an egg timer going bing and announcing a delicious meal is ready in the oven.

I had noticed, as I moved from watching the 13 episodes to listening to selected commentaries and watching the podcast documentaries, that my ears were attuned to scraps of information, juicy tidbits hungrily picked out and devoured, about the craft of writing for this particular series in the present incarnation. Just little things that Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat happened to say in passing, usually while other people were talking over them, that lit up a pathway for how you actually put a Who script together. It makes them less mysterious, less products of pure imagination and more about a couple of good idea seeds wonked into shape as a job you have to do. It’s a job I could now fully understand, suddenly, thanks to these morsels of information.

It was a lot of input. 13 hours, stretching to 20 with the supplemental materials. Steven Moffat’s 2-parter about the library had such a good script, was written so dazzlingly well, that I actually hopped up and down with joy at it when the episodes finished. “That man is the one to beat,” I said, or at least, match. That would have to be the goal, to write an episode as good as that. As wobbly as my self-esteem is, my sense of my abilities as a writer give me the gumption to believe that I actually can write an episode at that level of quality.

So yesterday, I had to go ahead and see what would happen if I wonk an idea of mine into shape as a Doctor Who episode. Extremely tentatively at first, I didn’t want to even write “The Doctor” or “sonic screwdriver” because it felt too much like writing fanfic, an activity that I tend to sniff at, because coming up with your own original characters and adventures for them to have seems like a better use of one’s abilities and time on the whole. In fact, I stole the seed ideas from another project I’ve been working on since this past spring. One or two times at least I paused while writing it to notice that parts of it seemed very Doctor Who episode-like.

I started with those and decided to see what it would all look like if I intentionally steered it towards being Doctor Who on purpose. It developed rather quickly and surprisingly from there, with ideas I couldn’t quite get to work together before now chunking together logically, and new ideas appearing every minute that made it all work better than it ever had in the original project, and a sense of “this feels really right” pervaded everything I wrote. In treatment form it seemed short, and yet in my mind I could see it like a whole episode on fast forward.

I wrote it in a blur in the morning then had another look before I went to bed, and I liked what I saw. There was a lot of snappy dialogue and a lot of Doctorish racing about, and some scary bits and some funny bits. There was a bit that reminded me of Russell T. Davies’s writing, and a bit that was very Steven Moffat, and even a bit that stuck out a little because it sounded like Douglas Adams. Picturing it in my head as a finished episode kept me sensibly in mind of the usual budget per episode, how many characters in how many costumes in how many sets, how many special effects would need to be done, and how expensive those might be. It was a bit dodgy on certain specifics, because essentially I was writing for a Doctor who has since been replaced by someone whose take on the character I haven’t seen yet, and for an unknown assistant. “Assume a female companion” I wrote in the upper margin, as a note to… nobody.

Well, right. Of course, what use is it to write this at all, even as a treatment? This is about the seventh time this year, about once a month since March, that I’ve cooked up something that I had virtually no hope at all of selling to the person or market it was aimed at, but I couldn’t help myself and I created it anyway, only to tuck it on a shelf and sigh. There are people around me who go mad when I tell them that I spend time and effort (and love) on projects that just go on the shelf, but imagine how I feel.

I mean, I have to be realistic. Along with my understanding of the craft of writing and storytelling — which I would love to demonstrate to such a high degree of professionalism that Steven Moffat (now the executive producer of the series) would exclaim, “I don’t know how it is that some guy in Texas of all places knows how to write for this series this well, but we’ve got to get some more scripts out of him!” — is an understanding of how they hire writers for Doctor Who. I believe that the proper way to go about getting that job is to live in the UK, have a UK agent, spend 12 or more years working your way up and writing for various BBC series, become known as someone reliable and a good bloke to work with. Then, if there’s an opening, which there are fewer of now that they’re going to a different format of a few movie-length episodes per season, perhaps the Doctor Who production office will give my agent a call and ask if I’m interested in writing for Doctor Who, and if I have any ideas.

Which I suppose would be a cool thing to do with my life, if I’d thought of it 12 years ago. Unless someone hands me a paycheck it’s just fanfic, and the world is full of people writing Doctor Who fanfic. They don’t take spec scripts for Doctor Who because they’d be inundated with well-meaning but unfilmable material. Moffat’s a geek himself, but he’s also a highly disciplined writer who’s earned his way into his current position the proper way, the way I just outlined. He doesn’t write fanfic, he writes real fic; he writes real episodes.

And so, on the shelf it goes. In a way, it helped me with the other project — if I remove everything I carved out to put into the Doctor Who treatment, the remaining ideas go together better, as if they had been wedged apart with things that only sort-of fit. So there’s a certain point to having gone through the exercise. Yesterday, my head was full of those words intended for that particular bit of writing, and now that they’re printed on paper those neurons that were all excited by it are resting again.

Actually, what’s in my head today are these words, for this meta-analysis of yesterday’s work, for whatever that’s worth. Had to get these down, too, so that tomorrow something else can shove its way to the fore.

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