Earlier this week we reported on the exciting social media announcement of a new fiction anthology. With an impressive line up of authors telling the hitherto untold adventures of the War Doctor, Seasons Of War is set to become a fan favourite. The book will be available from Mid-December in ebook, paperback and deluxe editions with all proceeds going towards the children’s charity Caudwell Children. The ebook is available for pre-order now by making a donation towards the charity on the Just Giving Page: https://www.justgiving.com/declan-may1/
We are delighted to welcome the Seasons of War originator and editor Declan May for an exclusive interview about the project.
Declan, thank you for agreeing to chat with us in what must be an incredibly busy time for you and your editing team. Can you start by sharing a little bit about yourself – how long have you been in this industry and what have been your greatest achievements to date?
I’ve been in the industry – in one form or another – since 2002 and a fulltime freelance writer since about 2004. So just over ten years. I started my career in France, writing English dialogue for French sitcoms and soaps and terribly short-lived drama series’. Also did the English adaptations of the narration for a French erotic TV series. All good practice though. Best advice I ever had as a writer was “Take on any job. It’s always good practice and helps you perfect and hone your skills”. So basically, I just accept most things that come my way. Not that I’m some sort of ‘tart’! Just that every opportunity, for a freelance writer, leads to another.
I’ve done comedy for the BBC (both TV and radio), script rewrites for movies, ghost-writing, joke writing for panel shows, synopsising scripts for producers, screenplay rewrites for films never intended to be made and, well… whatever pays the rent. As for my greatest achievements so far, I’d probably say it was writing the English language scripts for some of the live action Asterix films. By scripts I mean the dialogue for the English dubbing actors and the English language subtitles for the films. Essentially I had to rewrite the script – as jokes in French don’t translate into English easily – come up with puns, one-liners, throwaway gags and so forth. Really good training. Besides that, I’d say my greatest recent achievement was getting Seasons Of War together. It has really been all-encompassing for the past few months. But I’ve had to work for a living at the same time by finishing a novel before the deadline (released next year) and working on another ‘passion project’, a biopic about the actor and writer Dirk Bogarde, which, finally is getting off the ground. Four or five years of work and, fingers crossed, it’s being made this year. But Seasons Of War and all the people involved… that’s what I’m proudest of.
Dirk Bogarde is one of my Mum’s all time heroes (bizarrely he features alongside Freddie Mercury above the fireplace) so she would be made up with that (Come to think of it – how about a Freddie tribute too?)! It’s an impressively rich range of credits, no doubt invaluable experience when it came to putting together such a diverse collection for the anthology.
With a bewilderingly enormous number of worthy charity causes out there, all in need of funding, what motivated you to select Caudwell Children as the beneficiary?
There are a few reasons why. The main reason being that my son continues to benefit from the support given by Caudwell. He is 7 years old and autistic. Caudwell offer on the ground, real support for children with disabilities, learning difficulties and all sorts of illnesses. Also, I wanted to bring attention to the fact that, for many families with a disabled child or a child with a condition such as autism, epilepsy, ADHD and so on, it can be very difficult. Financially, emotionally, in maintaining relationships, connecting with the rest of the world, getting the right support and keeping your head above water. Depression and isolation is a big factor for carers… living with a child (or an adult) with a disability can be a very stressful and difficult thing and Caudwell help with all this. Providing material support, helping to build and encourage and help families in an extremely difficult situation. It can be a very violent thing, you know? The upheaval and change in your life and lifestyle when there’s a person who depends so much upon you, who is so vulnerable, who needs constant help and stimulation and support. So that’s why I chose Caudwell. They help. They are utterly fantastic. And they need our help – the help of the public at large – to enable them to finance this support.
With all of time and space at your disposal, what was it that inspired you to make John Hurt’s War Doctor the subject of this anthology?
Well. After the 50th anniversary episode Day Of The Doctor I found myself wanting to know more about this man. Wanted to see more. But, I realised, as we’ve seen his ‘birth’ and ‘death’, story-wise it is complete, you know what I mean? We saw Paul McGann regenerate into him and we saw John Hurt start to become Chris Eccleston. So that story, in a way, has been told. Plus it’s John Hurt and it’s highly unlikely he’ll be popping up on Doctor Who every so often. Also, ever since the series began in 2005 and they’d talked about the Time War, I’d always imagined what it’d be like to see, at least some of it. But with the War Doctor character, this incredible idea by Steven Moffat, this rich and layered character, I thought: well, there’s plenty of scope for new ‘untold’ adventures. Missing adventures, if you will. Lost episodes.
So, as I was casting around, trying to think of a book, an anthology in order to raise the most money and interest for the Charity, using the War Doctor seemed like the perfect solution. And, discussing it with some people who were involved in the show and fandom in one way or the other, I realised that there was an appetite for this. Also, I’d been watching on DVD the series The World At War and the scope of the thing – its 25 episodes or something – showed me that within a war, (even within one individual battle like the Normandy landings or Stalingrad or the Anaheim) there are so, so many individual stories. Plus the War Doctor is supposed to have been fighting in the Time War for 400 years or something, so that’s a hell of a lot of ground to cover – so many stories. So what we have in Seasons Of War, whilst being in no way official or anything like that, is just ‘some’ of the stories from the adventures of John Hurt during the ‘story arc’ of the Time War.
John Hurt’s performance was almost universally lauded at the time, and no doubt the majority of fans were hoping that following The Day Of The Doctor we wouldn’t be saying War Doctor No More. Certainly the initial reaction to the announcement has been really positive.
How did you go about assembling such a high calibre of writers and contributors, all willing to give freely of their time and talents for the anthology? Were there any particular joys or set backs along the way?
It’s been nothing but a joy from start to finish. From soup to nuts. At the beginning I was helped informally, conversationally, over chat and instant message, by someone who helped me out with email addresses, contact details, possible lines of enquiry and the like. This was Paul Spragg, who sadly died a week or two after those discussions. But we’ll come back to that. Basically, I just asked, or got other people to ask. And people are, really, just very nice and enthusiastic and willing to help, you know? Especially for a worthwhile charity. And that’s the important thing: the charity always comes first – before ego, before reputation, before storyline or pitch or whatever.
Little by little, we got some really fantastic names. But I can’t take credit for all that alone. I was helped by so many people. For example, Simon Brett, one of the editors and writers in the anthology as well as the main illustrator, he put me in touch with the wonderful, funny, humane and gentlemanly Andrew Smith (author of Full Circle and so many great Big Finish audios) and the bloody amazing author Paul Magrs put me in touch with the equally bloody amazing George Mann, author of so many things but, Doctor Who-wise, the War Doctor novel Engines Of War which is absolutely cracking. A work of art and which, as we got further down the line, acted as a sort of standard or template. This was the first ‘Time War’ novel, so we looked to that for inspiration. Then there were people like Gary Russell, Jenny Colgan, Matthew Sweet, Kate Orman, Jim Mortimore… I just asked. John Peel too. He delivered a story in a matter of days. Same with Lance Parkin. Incredible work. I can’t wait for people to read them all.
Anyway, short answer: I just chanced my arse and asked! I mean, what have you got to lose? The worst someone can say is “no”. One of the things I’m most proud of is that we’ve got contributors of all ages and from all over the world. UK, Ireland, United States, Canada, Australia, Israel, France, the Netherlands… Very diverse and varied bunch. Two of the best pitches and stories I’ve seen, and are included in the Anthology, are by an 18 year old Israeli girl. If I was writing like that at 18, I’d be a lot richer now, I can tell you. Big future for her. Also, there’s a fantastic writer called David Carrington, who’s ostensibly a comedy writer and hasn’t really done much in the way of sci-fi prose or short stories. His story is glorious. I reckon he is going to be massive.
Without giving away any spoilers, can you give us an idea as to the style and variety of stories we can expect and will there be a running arc tying it all together?
Christ. The style varies. We’ve people from all over the world, different types of writers from diverse backgrounds. We’ve fairy tales, horror stories, thrillers, cyberpunk, steampunk, hard sci-fi, Ballardian ‘inner space’ science fiction, comedy, Shakespearian pastiche… But there is a consistency. And there is an arc, of sorts. It all ties together and there are thematic overlaps and connections. It’s a very satisfying collection, if you know what I mean. It builds up, sometimes in subtle ways, sometimes in overt ways, to a conclusion. So the Doctor we see in Arcadia in Day Of the Doctor…well, we see a little how he came to that point. How he got there. But in such a way that there is a lot of scope for a thousand other stories to be told about this version of the Doctor. We’re not plugging every gap. But it should all work out and you’ll get the feeling of having read the story of a life at different points. But, being Doctor Who, that can be in a very Timey-Wimey way…
The anthology is not officially endorsed by the BBC but how conscience have you been of maintaining links and continuity with the ongoing show? (For example, has the reference to The War Doctor in Listen impacted upon any of the stories). Is the current production team aware of the project?
As for links to the current ongoing show, we have been very careful. For example, during the pitching process back in June and July, someone submitted a story set in that barn from Day Of The Doctor. Now, because of my job and because I know people involved with the show, I knew that that would be coming up in Listen. So I said “We can’t use that” and they changed it to somewhere else. Same with the Doctor’s childhood and so forth. Some things were out of bounds. It was all in a ‘writers guide/bible’ thing I gave out to prospective authors. I’d things like “no Rani, no past-Doctors, no sequels or prequels to TV episodes”. Seems to have worked out ok.
As for the BBC, well I’ve been in touch with them throughout and, as long as it is all for charity and nobody earns a penny out of it and as long as we do not make any claims to it being ‘official’ or ‘canon’ or whatever, then we’re ok. I use the analogy of a charity fete where the local am-dram group puts on a stage production of… Midnight. Same with all the fan-fiction on the net. Like us, it’s absolutely free. Anyone can access it. The difference is we’re doing that, but making sure those who read it donate to the charity. But, all along the process I’ve made sure to check up and run things past certain people now and again.
Having contributed three stories to the anthology, what was it like for you to write about The War Doctor? And do you have any advice for would-be new writers?
It’s liberating. It really is. And also, because Steven Moffat’s writing of the character was so strong and John Hurts portrayal was so bloody good, you find that the voice comes easily to you. He’s a sort of ‘posh bohemian gone to pot’. You can see him propping up the bar in the Colony Rooms with Francis Bacon and Jeffrey Barnard. But with a hint of steel. He’s still the Doctor (even though he strenuously denies it) but he’s a warrior. He can be gruff, but there’s still this English gentleman underneath. That’s how we’ve been writing him. Everyone seems to have gotten him spot-on!
As for advice, it wouldn’t be my place to say except what I said earlier. Go for everything. Every opportunity. If you’re offered a chance to stretch your writing muscles, then do it. And be sending stuff off everywhere ALL THE TIME. There shouldn’t be a day that passes where you haven’t sent off a pitch, a synopsis, a chapter, a treatment, a few jokes, a request for work. People wont come to you unless they know you. So, make yourself known. Be a pain in the arse. Also, don’t be a snob about it. Don’t say “Oh well…I only write sci-fi” or “I only write drama”. F**k that! If you want to be a writer, then write. Send stuff off. It can’t just be a hobby. You need to take it seriously like any other trade. As for writing a Doctor Who short story, the only advice I would have is that ideas and concept should come first. See if there’s a story in it. Then see if you can add Doctor Who to it. The other way round rarely works. The story shouldn’t serve the Doctor; The Doctor should serve the story.
Any project like this generates a hell of a lot of submissions and I imagine you were swamped with synopses. How many did you receive and how difficult was the task of whittling down the stories? Are there any memorable stories that for whatever reason didn’t make the cut?
In total, I received something like 330-340 submissions. Pitches for the most part, but a few full stories as well. Quite a few were clearly already written with another Doctor in mind and then changed to “the warrior” or “the Time Lord”. But you can always tell. A lot of really good ideas. Really. There are a lot of really creative people out there. But we wanted to make sure that a great idea could be backed-up, followed on by good writing. It’s often the case that you’ve someone who has great ideas and concepts but who can’t really write prose. Sometimes it’s the other way round. We needed people who could do both. So there I was with a couple of other editors looking through the submissions. Far too many “the Doctor arrives on a strange planet and discovers a Dalek superweapon” or stories based around Romana or Drax or Leela and Andred, or just generic sort of stories where nothing much happens. No story…just people talking a vast screed of canon and Gallifrey references. Dull as dishwater to read.
What I did want to avoid – and submission-wise, we did receive a lot of these – were stories set within the Doctors head, or in the Matrix or in some ‘dreamscape’. We received far too many of those. It’s very difficult to read or to hook in the reader, if all that is happening is the War Doctor walking through some fantasy dreamland, talking to wise old characters who are aspects of himself or something like that. We needed stories with a start, middle and end. Antagonists. Action. Story coming first. But any story where it was just the War Doctor by himself, wandering round his own head or the Matrix, talking to himself with nothing much happening… Not interested. But Christ, there were quite a lot of those. And we had to refuse any pitches that changed the lore or the history of the show too much. I can understand totally why people would want to write a story like that, the temptation is huge, but we didn’t feel it right or appropriate to do anything too drastic (like blow-up Karn or kill Romana) in the anthology.
The other thing was people sending-in pitches and work and saying: “I am a brilliant writer and my Doctor Who fan-fic is highly praised at such and such a website” or “You should choose my story because everyone who has seen it thinks it’s the best thing they ever read.” or “My writing is better than Steven Moffat’s” and they’ll send a story that demonstrates painfully clearly that that is categorically not the case. A lot of that. And a lot of very angry people who, when you politely reject their pitch and say why, get quite abusive and there’s personal attacks and so on. If you want to get on in this business, you have to learn how to take rejection (on a daily basis!) and don’t be a rampant egoist, throwing your toys out of the pram if your story doesn’t get chosen. But, for the most part, people were lovely. And out of about 300 pitches we narrowed it down to about 35 and, the stories and writers chosen…well, they really are the best. Some absolutely remarkable work.
What a great mix of established and new writers and I would like to echo Declan’s words about dealing with rejections – keep plugging away and respond with grace and humility, but be absolutely confident that you do have stories worth telling. You have to find the right place for them and take on board all the advice you can get from experienced editors and writers.
This will sound cheeky Declan, extremely so… but can you give Doctor Who Worldwide any exclusive teasers or quotes?
Well… as far as teasers go, I can give you a few to whet the appetite. There’s a comic strip, drawn by one of my fellow editors and writer Simon Brett, with a script by the New Adventures and BBC Books author Jim Mortimore, based on notes and ideas from Russell T Davies! It was going to be used for something else a few years ago, but that fell through, so now it’s being included in Seasons Of War. It is fantastic – a thing of beauty. We’ve stories that will utterly astonish you and really question the War Doctor and show just what utter incomprehensible hell the Time War was. As for plot details, we discover how Rassilon got brought back from the dead (and it is horrible) we learn why the Doctor’s age is what it is (the War Doctor says he’s 800 in Day Of The Doctor, the 7th Doctor was 953 or something) and it’s a fun and interesting plot point with a lot of retconning.
You also will get to see how the War Doctor tried to keep his beloved planet Earth away from the Time War, although he doesn’t always succeed. And there is a delicious cameo from a future Doctor and his companion which all fits in with the continuity of the show. There are stories that had me weeping, there’s great pieces about how war affects the little people and there are some mindblowingly creative villains and alien races and planets and concepts that, I think, is some of the best Who prose fiction I’ve ever seen.
Another teaser is, of course, the short film that will accompany the book’s release. All done by professionals, directed by a fantastic director, scored by a well known musician and… Well, I can’t say too much about that. Oh, we’ll also be announcing some very familiar names who’ll be reading extracts from Seasons Of War. But I won’t say who.
Dec – you are such a tease! Lots of jaw dropping stuff there with the promise of more announcements to come once certain funding milestones have been reached (so readers – you know what to do!)
The anthology is dedicated to Paul Spragg, familiar to some of our readers but for those who never had the pleasure of knowing him, can you tell us a little bit about Paul and why this particular anthology is particularly fitting for such a dedication?
I never met Paul Spragg, but we had a few mutual friends in common. Like everyone, I’d heard him on the Big Finish podcast and had talked to him via email or chat. But, while I was thinking about the anthology, it was he who right at the beginning really helped me out getting in contact with writers, and with his infectious enthusiasm and optimism offering suggestions, encouraging me to see how far I could take this. Really fired me up, you know? He was such a lovely man. Then, a few weeks later, he was gone. And I think that is a massive blow for so many people, even people like me who didn’t actually really know him outside of ‘virtual communication’ and text messages. But for his partner, his family, his colleagues, his family and his friends it was awful for them. So very sad. But, beyond the shadow of a doubt, the Anthology had to be dedicated to his memory. I think that’s right, isn’t it? I haven’t yet found anyone who could disagree with that. And, in some way, his name will live on through this Anthology, read all around the world and contributed to by people from all over the world. All in the spirit of charity, enthusiasm, love for the show. Part of Paul Spragg’s legacy I think.
I am sure readers of DWW will echo your sentiments Declan. As one of the contributors to the anthology I remember the enormous wave of positive support from all of the writing and editorial team when you first proposed it, along with so many moving and personal stories of Paul’s generosity and kindness. Here is a great opportunity for our readers to ‘spread the love’ by supporting Seasons of War and the staff and beneficiaries of Caudwell Children.
Thank you for such a candid and insightful interview Declan, you have given us a great understanding of the writing and editing process as well as some exciting teasers about the forthcoming anthology. But above all you have given us the opportunity to reflect upon and consider the wonderful work of the staff and supporters of the charity Caudwell Children.
Look out for more announcements over the coming two months and don’t forget to sign up to the Facebook Page: