With his run on IDW’s Doctor Who series coming to a close with Assimilation², the Doctor Who/ Star Trek crossover, Tony Lee has shared some tips for writers on his website’s blog. And first of all, he tackles the biggest question for writing types: where do we get ideas from?
Of course, nobody really knows. There isn’t a formula. Steven Moffat once said that he got his ideas the same way every other writer does: by staring out of a window. Well, Lee has another method:
“The truth of the matter is that I create my ideas in much the same way as everyone else – by utilising the Coulda Shoulda Wouldas…
We’ve all done it – watched a film, read a book and at the end gone ‘that was great – but the ending sucked.’ Or ‘it was okay, but I loved the scene in the [insert location here]!’ These are the ideas that a writer takes, moulds, crafts. The simple fact that you’ve highlighted a moment means that you’ve considered alternative scenarios. And more importantly, that these alternative scenarios could become something unique and brilliant in their own right.”
Various people claim that only so many storylines exist, but perhaps the best-known is that of Christopher Booker, whose book, The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, helps you simplify even the most complex of books, films or television series.
Christopher Vogler, meanwhile, further explored this in The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, in which he looked at archetypes and journeys running through the history of storytelling. The journey generally develops through twelve stages, from an introduction to the ‘Ordinary World’ (ie. establishing normality and the rules of a world before an incident takes place), taking a ‘Call to Adventure’ in its stride, and continuing through stages like the intervention of a ‘Mentor’ and ‘Allies and Enemies’ before the ‘Ordeal’, until finally returning with the ‘Elixir,’ which will have an effect on the ‘Ordinary World.’
Lee briefly touches on these theories, saying that:
“When stripped to its core, Alien is a monster in a haunted house story… Take a film. Any film. Change one moment of one scene for better or worse and see what happens.”
Of course, a big part of being writer isn’t simply having ideas (though that is, naturally, vital); it’s also about writing them down. Some use computers, others use post-its. Tony Lee uses the good ol’ fashioned notebook.
“If you’re a writer and you don’t have a notebook? I suggest you get one. And if you are? Get a moleskin. They’re made for people like us. The number of times I’ve pulled it out at a talk or on a train or anywhere to jot down a note are too many to count. It’s portable, has a pocket for business cards and more importantly it keeps you thinking. Write that note down. Then, later on, read through the pages. Two or three ideas put together will suddenly inspire you.”
You don’t really need a moleskin, okay? For one, they’re really expensive, even if they do last a few years. But you can pick up something that’s moleskin in everything but name from Asda, honest. Looking back through one is surprisingly enjoyable (and indulgent), as you remember things that never came to fruition, others that did, and some that’ll make you question what you were drinking at the time. This is reflected in Lee’s Who-related musings:
“A page later, and I’m working on ideas for Doctor Who. From what I’ve written, it’s the pitch for [the comic strip] ‘Don’t Walk On The Grass’, the Tenth Doctor story I wrote. Notes like ‘use Tin Dog’, or ‘Code Nine is UNIT code for ‘call the Doctor.’’… There are the ideas that disappeared, too. The note written about the last train at Mile End that, over several incarnations turned into [his Big Finish audio] Rat Trap, without a single train involved.”
As any writer with one will agree:
“The notebook is a magical thing. It inspires and reminds. It keeps you focused while allowing you to soar with imagination. And in a few weeks this notebook will be consigned to the shelf as I pick up and start a new one…”
But how do these ideas actually get turned into the finished product?
“I was working in a ‘three act’ structure. The first act was to block out how I saw the ‘beats’ of the story. I’d work out roughly what needed to go into an issue, usually almost to a page by page outline, something that I’d learned was incredibly useful while working for Doctor Who Magazine in 2006 [on the comic strip, F.A.Q.] – by planning out each page, even to the simplest level of a single sentence, i.e. ‘the Doctor and Rose fight the Dragon’, I’d be able to work out how many pages would in total be needed in the story I had in my head and therefore whether a) I’d need to lose some pages or (more usually) b) I’d see where I had gaps I could either flesh out or add more to.”
For ‘Act Two,’ visualising the pages, he goes back to the moleskin, sketching them out using stickmen. The final ‘Act’ is – you guessed it – actually writing it:
“Act three isn’t just the script. It has two little sub acts in its claws. The first is the scripting… I’ll finish the story and then go through it again, highlighting dialogue that needs to be emphasised, that sort of thing… [After converting it from Final Draft to Word] I go through it with a fine tooth comb here, check for grammar / spelling issues that I might have missed and, more importantly to me, place a page break at the start of every new comic page.”
But having a script is one thing; seeing it in print is an entirely different ball game! Luckily, Lee’s got a few tips…
“When you pitch [to] someone for the first time, you’re not selling them the product. You’re selling them the idea of the product. You’re selling them the image that they think the product should be. If they like it, they’ll ask for more. And then you sell them the product. Pick the simplest way to explain the idea. Use that.”
And for those of you who think you’ve got off easy, it’s not just one idea that you need…
“You always need to know what else [producers] want, even before they do and you never walk up to an editor unless you have two killer pitches in your pocket. And whats more, you never have more than a ten second elevator pitch on either of them. An elevator pitch? It’s the ‘high concept’ pitch that you have ready in Los Angeles for when you find yourself in, well, an elevator with some hoity toity big wig producer. It’s a pitch that can be given in the twenty seconds you have, from first to whatever floor they get off at. It’s your chance to get your foot in the door, nothing more.”
A big part of the pitch process is actually being likeable, and this is obviously to Lee’s favour. When I met him a few years ago at the Bristol Comic Expo, he was very welcoming – and particularly happy that someone had approached him about Doctor Who, and not solely his other work (as this was just after his DWM strip, but before his IDW series).
This is all very positive stuff. But becoming a writer is hard work. However, I think I’ll leave you with the words of another great writer, J. Michael Straczynski, who notes – in his book, The Complete Book of Scriptwriting – that everybody thinks that you can’t do it, that it’s too impossible…
“Everybody is wrong. Keep writing. Keep fighting. Keep dreaming.”
Tony Lee departs from his work on Doctor Who with this month’s Doctor Who Annual. We’ll be sad to see him go, but have every faith in the new creative team, Andy Diggle (The Losers; Daredevil) and Mark Buckingham (Fables; Peter Parker: Spider-Man). You can read more from Tony here.