Monday, 22 March 2010

Interview with Andrew Cartmel

In the run up to Hub's Doctor Who special I will be posting a series of small interviews with those writers who have kindly contributed specially commissioned pieces for the Easter Special.

The second interview is with Andrew Cartmel, Doctor Who's script editor from 1987 - 89, novelist, playwright and comic book scribe.

Hi Andrew. You’ve had a very varied career so far; written books, TV and audio scripts, a stage play and worked as script and magazine editors. Do you have a preference for working in one of the above formats? Perhaps one is slightly more satisfying than the others?

Two are more satisfying than the others, and not just slightly — writing novels and writing stage plays. Here the writer is king and retains creative control. The main difference is that with plays you’re dead unless you find a sympathetic and talented director to collaborate on your work. Tennessee Williams had Elia Kazan. Harold Pinter had… who the hell did Harold Pinter have? Anyway, luckily I’ve found one in Conrad Blakemore who directed my political thriller Under the Eagle. As for novel writing, I’ve just completed a hot new spy thriller which my hot new book agent, Julian Friedmann, is in the process of selling.

I notice from your blog that music plays just as big a part in your life as reading and writing. To what degree has music been an influence on your writing output over the years?

I’ve always loved music. It used to be the Rolling Stones. These days it’s mostly jazz or film music, although I’ve been known to slip in some Stravinsky when no one is looking. It was Ben Aaronovitch who gave me the idea of listening to music to set the scene of what I’m writing, although I’m not very rigorous about that. I listen constantly while I work, but the music doesn’t have to precisely match the mood of what I write, it just has to engage me, and hopefully excite me on some level.

As script editor Terrance Dicks’ philosophy was get the first draft in, get the writer to do a second draft, then he’d take care of all rewrites after that. Russell T. Davies on the other hand has been known to push the writer to do as many as ten rewrites. How do you approach the job?

After three or four drafts the only reason a script goes on being rewritten is if the goal posts are being moved, which will demoralise and destroy a writer while exhausting the script editor. If, on occasion, I’ve gone beyond three or four drafts it’s because I was working with a novice writer whom I was very eager to help make their debut. As a rule I always tried to get the writer to do their own rewrites. This not only maintains their interest and sympathy, it involves less work for the script editor! On occasions when I wrote scenes or dialogue for other writers I tried to do it with their consent and cooperation, usually over the phone.

There are some writers who write when the mood takes them, others need discipline and structure just like any other job. Talk me through a typical writing day for you.

I tend to work a day on and a day off. On my day off I frequently go to the movies. On my day ‘on’ I start work after breakfast, or even during breakfast, sitting at the computer with a bowl of cereal. At that stage I basically just want to get the story back into my mind so I can think about it, although I might do a little light tinkering and revising. Once I’m thinking about the story I like to go and do some mindless physical activity, like hoovering the house. While I’m doing this undemanding work I’m turning the story over in my head and deciding what to do with it today. Then I turn on the music, sit down at the computer and get to work. I work fairly steadily until I’ve achieved my goal for the day. For prose that might be one or two thousand words. For a script it might be five or ten pages. In any case, a substantial chunk of whatever’s in hand.

When you sit down to write a novel do you work from a detailed plot outline or do you just sit down with a basic idea and see where the story takes you?

I know some writers follow the ‘where the story takes you’ route and that’s what I used to do. But I’m now a convert to working from a detailed storyline which is a map of the entire novel. I divide the novel into a fixed number of chapters, work out roughly what will go into each chapter and then create a bunch of blank documents, one for each chapter. I chop up the storyline and cut and paste the appropriate chunks into each document. Crucially, I give each chapter a title which not only serves as a reminder to me of its contents but also, if I get it right, makes it an inviting prospect to write. If I hit on a title I like, I’ll be looking forward to writing that chapter. The more lurid or funny the title, the better. Often the titles survive into the text of the book. I’m a big fan of Dashiell Hammett and Kurt Vonnegut, both of whom used chapter titles.

What’s the most untrue, outrageous or hurtful thing you’ve ever read about yourself either online or in a magazine?

Soon after I started work on Doctor Who I found my name in all sorts of fanzines. This was a thrill — for about thirty seconds — until I read something about myself which annoyed me. It stuck in my head for days. It struck me then that reading about yourself is a mug’s game. I’ve scrupulously avoided it ever since. The only time I’ve subsequently read anything about myself or my own work was when I was doing the publicity for one of my own plays and was obliged to read the reviews to see if there were any useful quotes. (There were: “Bitingly funny” — Time Out.)

What piece of advice would you give to an aspiring writer?

I used to prepare for a project by writing notes about the events in the story or biographical notes about the characters. These notes were written as if I was preparing for an essay — in an abstract, remote, objective kind of way. By the time I’d written such notes I found I’d pretty much killed the urge to write the story. The problem is that the analytical part of the mind which is good at that kind of detached, methodical, rational thinking isn’t the same as the subjective, intuitive, artistic part of the mind you need to write well. Now I have a completely different and vastly better approach. When I write notes these days I try to write them absolutely in the world of the story. For instance instead of making notes about the plot, I’ll write a fragment of the story itself, or better yet, have a character talk about what’s happening. As for the characters themselves, I never write any kind of biography. Instead I try and catch a bit of dialogue in their authentic voice. Just one line of good, idiosyncratic dialogue can bring a character emphatically to life. A good, vivid, memorable name is also crucial for a character. In fact, sometimes a good name is enough.

And finally…What does the future hold for you in the writing arena? Are there any more novels in the pipeline, or have you plans to return to television?

I mentioned my spy novel, which is entitled Operation Herod, and is kind of James Bond for the 21st century, though it has a sardonic sense of humour which is a departure from the Bond books. In tone it’s perhaps more like Flashman. That’s out there with publishers. Interestingly, I wrote one other espionage story, some while back. It was an original novel based on The Prisoner TV series from the 1960s. It’s called Miss Freedom and it’s about to be printed, after some delays, and if you remind me I’ll give a link to the publisher’s website. I’ve also completed two stage plays which are vying with each other to go into production on the London fringe, with a bit of luck the first one will be staged this autumn. Lastly my television agent Janet Fillingham is busy placing me on a huge hit drama series. I don’t want to say which one until a contract is signed, because I don’t want to jinx it. Maybe not even then!

Andrew's blog can be found at

Similarly Andrew's agents can be found at (Book) and (Screenwriting)

For more information on Andrew's forthcoming novel The Prisoner : Miss Freedom check out Powys Media's website : His book Script Doctor - The Inside Story of Doctor Who is still available from

Next interview will be with British Horror author and poll-topping New Who novel writer Mark Morris.

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