JUST WAR (Doctor Who: New Adventures)

Virgin Publishing, January 1996, ISBN 0426204638, edited by Rebecca Levene, cover by Nik Spender

My first professional work, Just War went on to win Best Novel in that year’s Doctor Who Magazine awards.

I started work on Just War in late 1994, when I was twenty-three years old. It was the first piece of creative writing I’d ever done outside schoolwork, and it was accepted for publication. This isn’t, to put it mildly, typically the way people get published. I knew at the time that I was very lucky to be commissioned, and doubly lucky that my editor was Rebecca Levene, who guided me with the stated aim to help me make my book the very best iteration of the book I wanted to write.

How did I manage it? First and foremost, Virgin Books published two Doctor Who novels a month at the time, and had a permanent, truly open solicitations policy: in other words, they’d look at every proposal that was sent in, even if the author didn’t have a track record or an agent. This was astonishingly rare then, and I’m not sure that any major English language publisher, any genre, has that policy now (some open up to unsolicited manuscripts for one month a year, or run competitions).

A little over a year after Just War came out, Virgin lost the licence to publish Doctor Who novels. It meant I’d snuck in through a window that was not open very long. The BBC had a similar policy, but not an identical one, and a number of their best authors who’d never written for Virgin were already established, for example Paul Magrs and Lloyd Rose. Nowadays, the Doctor Who range is strictly for people with previous publications.

But how did I get published? Well … I’d been a Doctor Who fan all my life, and an avid follower of the New Adventures range. I was at university when they were coming out, and I’d hurry off to Waterstones on the release day, often being disappointed when I didn’t see the new title in the row of white spines. I avidly followed them, was thrilled to discover authors like Paul Cornell and Kate Orman on rec.arts.drwho. I could recite passages from the books, and had the first lines of all of them memorised, which is, I discovered, a great way to freak out an author when you meet them.

I knew that a lot of the books were being written by first time authors, and started tracking down interviews with New Adventures authors to find patterns. Virgin had a set of Writers’ Guidelines which you could send away for – this was, even though the young people today won’t believe it, before publishers used the internet. I sent a stamped, self-addressed envelope to their office in Ladbroke Grove for a photocopy of the guidelines.

I knew what the range had done, and so I knew what the range hadn’t done. The guidelines were very clear: they didn’t want stories featuring old characters or monsters, they wanted original creations (the rare occasions where old monsters appeared, those books were written by people who’d written a New Adventure beforehand). There was a specific ban on using the Daleks, or the Valeyard (an evil future incarnation of the Doctor, who’d featured in The Trial of a Time Lord, a television story that was relatively fresh in the mind back then). A good proportion of prospective NA authors fell at the first hurdle, with cover letters that started something like ‘I know you don’t want any Dalek stories, but I’m sure you’ll make an exception for me’. I was ruthless about following the guidelines, but also extremely keen that mine stood out from the pack.

When Doctor Who started back in the 1960s, the stories had alternated between science fiction and historical stories. Back then, the historical stories didn’t feature any science fiction elements, except for the presence of the TARDIS crew. Fans have called these ‘pure historicals’, to distinguish them from stories where the Sontarans are running around in the Middle Ages, or alien space witches fight Shakespeare. ‘Pure historicals’ all but vanished after a few years – there was one exception, 1982’s Black Orchid. So my plan was simple enough: write a pure historical. No one else had got one published, which I assumed meant no one else had tried, which I assumed would make mine stand out in the slushpile.

And for my next trick, I’d do something that only an arrogant twenty-three year old could possibly think was a good idea: this would be Doctor Who fighting the Nazis.

I couldn’t possibly do the Doctor in the middle of a battle, I certainly couldn’t do anything as crass as have him confront the Holocaust. I’d decided I wasn’t going to have Hitler in it, or any real-life Nazis (Hitler isn’t even named in the final book). It had to feel, in its way, like a ‘traditional’ Doctor Who story, and there was a pocket of history where that was possible. The Nazis had occupied the Channel Islands, and fortified them. This was basically an ‘alien invasion’ story, very much a Doctor Who standard plot. I added in a science-fictiony plot twist with no real historical basis (I had the Nazis developing a secret stealth bomber), and ended up with a plot that ‘felt’ a lot like a Doctor Who story.

It took me about six months to write, I was happy with the result … when an author says that, they mean they can see tons of things wrong with it, but they believe they can get away with them.

It was a bold idea. One I doubt I’d dare to pitch nowadays, particularly in the current political climate. It stood out from the crowd. Or, rather, Gareth Roberts, who was working through the slushpile for Virgin at the time, found it and liked it.

I honestly don’t know what I’d have done if it was rejected. I was working on another pitch while I waited for Virgin to get back to me: Cold War, an adventure for the third Doctor, which started when a giant Ice Warrior spaceship took position over the Houses of Parliament. My heart wasn’t totally in it, though – although it was, as a lot of people reading that brief description will realise, the basis for my third Doctor Who novel, The Dying Days. That may have been it for my writing career. It was accepted, though, and … well, its success bred more success.