From Screen to Page. Una McCormack on Writing Tie-ins.
I met Una McCormack at the AltFiction weekend in Derby last year. I was acting as a volunteer and assigned to help provide the authors with whatever they might need for a reading. Una read from her new Doctor Who book and James Goss from his new Torchwood book.
In this article Una talks about ‘putting on’ the voice of a character. I saw this first hand. In the particular excerpt she read, she did just this with the Doctor and nailed the latest Matt Smith incarnation.
Other Doctor Who writers were also there and the banter that ensued between all of them was both hilarious, informative and changed my sceptical view about tie-in books.
It was only when I read Una’s answers to my interview questions, I realised I had some original Star Trek books sitting on my bookshelves that I had bought as a teenager.a
How did you begin to write for tie-ins?
I was ‘discovered’! Back in the late 90s, when I was writing fan fiction based on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (DS9) and posting it online. Out of the blue, I got an email from the editor of the Trek tie-in range at the time, saying that I’d been recommended to him as a good writer and asking whether I’d be interested in pitching a story for a forthcoming DS9 anthology.
I practically fell off my chair hastening to respond that I’d love to. That pitch eventually became my second DS9 novel, Hollow Men.
The books don’t look very long and as they’re children’s books, surely there can’t be much to writing them?
I’m not sure I know how I go about constructing these books. Both my parents and many of my relatives were/are primary school teachers, so I spent most of my childhood having things said to me in a clear and helpful tone of voice. Perhaps I’m unconsciously channelling that.
I want an eight-year old to be able to pick up my books and read them with the same sense of excitement and suspense with which I read Terrance Dicks’ books when I was kid.
Or I would like a fourteen year-old to find an idea explored that’s puzzling them about life. For example, in The Way Through the Woods, most of the characters are concerned about what impact their decisions are going to have on the world, and whether it’s better not to risk making a mistake. So I wanted the book to say, ‘Making mistakes is fine – it’s how we learn not to make mistakes.’
The other audience I have in mind (although secondarily to the younger audience) is the parent reading the books to their kids: I want them to enjoy the ride too. This doesn’t mean talking to them behind your hand, winking at them over the kids’ heads. That would be betraying the child reader. But I hope adult readers are amused a little by, for example, the cube farm spaceship that the aliens have in The King’s Dragon.
I hope I don’t talk down to the readers. That would be awful. I hated it when that was done to me as a child. You’ve got to take everyone’s experience seriously, no matter their age. The younger you are, the more intensely you experience the world, and the easier it is to feel tricked or betrayed. Look at all those people who’ve never forgiven CS Lewis for turning out to be proselytising. I think writing for children/young adults is about offering suggestions for how life might be lived, rather than being didactic.
I have heard tie-ins being referred to as knock offs. How do you feel about this attitude to tie-in novels?
I’m fairly relaxed about what other people think of tie-ins. I work to the best of my ability to deliver enjoyable stories about interesting characters in distinctive settings, and as long as I feel I’ve done that, that’s what counts. Sometimes people like them, and that’s really all I can ask for. If somebody has decided that tie-ins are junk, I suspect there’s very little I can say to persuade them otherwise!
Is there a ‘bible’ you are given to follow and what guidance are you given as to what is required in terms of content and characters for the particular book you are writing?
I’ve never used a ‘bible’, just the episodes, and various ancillary reference books, e.g. The Deep Space Nine Technical Manual or The Deep Space Nine Companion. Briefs for the Doctor Who books have tended to be quite short: ‘something contemporary and spooky’ for The Way Through the Woods, for example. Obviously with the Doctor Who books you’re writing for the current Doctor and companion(s). The Star Trek books can be more negotiable.
How well do you need to know the TV series you are writing for and do you think being a fan is a help or a hindrance?
It can be a hindrance if you’re too absorbed in the detail of a show. When I was writing Hollow Men, I relied too much on the assumption that readers would be as immersed in the minutiae of the show as I was. The book was set during the show’s sixth season, so some refresher for the readers of the story so far wouldn’t have gone amiss. Otherwise, knowing your stuff is not only a help, it’s part of what you’re being hired for.
Does every tie-in book of a series have the same style, or are authors allowed to have their own voice?
Authors definitely have their own voices. The most exciting tie-in author, for me, is James Goss, who has terrific style and virtuosity.
What dimension does a tie-in novel bring to a story that the TV cannot?
For me, inner space: the character’s interior worlds. What they’re thinking; how their motivation works. Obviously actors convey this, but with narrative you can linger and explore more.
How do you get yourself into the heads of the characters (the Doctor seems a particularly difficult character to pin down, particularly as he can completely change personality by regenerating)?
I put on their voices and mutter to myself. Really, that’s what I do. Once I’ve got the voice, I’ve got the person. Sometimes I stand up and move around too.
I find the Doctor very hard to write. He’s a catalyst: someone I want to watch, rather than someone whose head I want to explore.
Are you able to consult at intervals with anyone, for example if you need to check details of place or character?
There are so many resources available to the writer of both Trek and Who, online and offline. And, if in doubt – watch the episode!
Have you ever invented a race or alien for the books? If you have, were you allowed to have complete creative freedom?
In both my Doctor Who books, I invented aliens: the Feond in The King’s Dragon, and the foxy people in The Way Through the Woods. My current Star Trek novel, Brinkmanship, introduces a new interplanetary civilization – the Venette Convention – as well as exploring an alien culture already known to Trek aficionados – the Tzenkethi. I’ve always been allowed creative freedom.
Can anyone write a tie-in book and submit it or do you have to be asked (commissioned)?
It’s extremely rare not to be commissioned these days. There are very few slots available for tie-in novels, and the production schedules are extremely tight. Editors commission authors with a proven track record of delivering publishable manuscripts on time. I’d suggest that anyone hoping to write for the Star Trek or Doctor Who book ranges gets publishing their own material first. That way you’ve proven you can deliver a complete and publishable manuscript.