The Red Lines Page

February 22, 2009

Avoid rejection

Filed under: drwho,writing — Peter A @ 7:17 pm

I’ve had a few things published professionally — novels, audios, short fiction, even a comic. All of it is commissioned as tie-ins to TV series and related spin-offs. The second-most frequent question I get in my e-mails is: “how can I get published?” The most frequent is: “how do you pronounce your name?” to which of course the answer is “Пέτρος Аγγελíδης”.

So here is a pronunciaton guide to anglicised Greek surnames.

No, on reflection, here are some random thoughts about writing. It’s informed, obviously, by my experience in writing franchise fiction for Virgin Publishing,  BBC Worldwide, Big Finish Productions, and Random House.

So, you want to write a Doctor Who novel?

Eric Saward is a former Doctor Who script editor, TV script writer, and novelist. His advice to aspiring Doctor Who writers (in a Doctor Who Magazine interview) was “don’t”. By which he meant: “don’t just want to write Doctor Who.” You have to want to be a writer first, and specifically a Doctor Who writer second.

But suppose you enjoy writing, and you do particularly want to write a Doctor Who novel. You should put this ambition in perspective:

  • BBC Worldwide was unusual, in that it sometimes commissioned unsolicited proposals for the Doctor Who range. If you don’t believe that the BBC offered an almost unique genre opportunity, read this article here by published author Roger MacBride Allen about how other media franchises like Star Wars and Star Trek handle their commissions.
  • Even so, back in the day, the BBC would receive 500 unsolicited proposals each year—that’s two for every working day. Fewer than 10% of those got past the first reader to the commissioning editor. The large majority failed the basic requirements of good writing.
  • The BBC used to publish 22 novels per year (one eighth Doctor novel and one past Doctor novel, every month except December). Most of these were by people who had already written for the series before, or who were already published writers elsewhere. We weren’t guaranteed acceptances, and we’ve all had rejections. But we’d shown in the past that we could deliver a publishable book on time. Sometimes we were commissioned directly.
  • Subsequently, the BBC announced that from September onwards it would publish only 12 Doctor Who novels each year. And after the new TV series began, in 2005 the BBC started to commission a smaller number of new Doctor Who and Torchwood novels directly from authors.
  • In 2006, the BBC Books imprint was sold to Ebury Books. They no longer consider unsolicited proposals for Doctor Who or Torchwood novels.
  • In 2007 and 2008, BBC Audio started to commission audio scripts for Torchwood, Doctor Who, and Sarah Jane Adventures CD releases. They do not consider unsolicited proposals.

Your chances of getting your BBC Doctor Who book published used to be better than any other franchise. But that never meant it was easy, and the odds were always against you. There was competition not only from the existing authors, and not only from published novelists who had not yet written for Doctor Who, but also from all those other enthusiastic would-be novelists—people like you. And today, no unsolicited proposals are considered.

Incidentally, Big Finish Productions do not consider unsolicited proposals, as they explain in their FAQ. They will return unsolicited proposals unread. They sometimes have an open competition for new writers. On the last occasion they did this, they received more than 1,000 entries, from which only 25 were published.

The only way currently to get a new Doctor Who or Torchwood novel commissioned is for the BBC to approach you directly. And that’s only going to happen if you have a track record of published fiction. And even if you’re invited to write a proposal, there’s no guarantee that the novel will be commissioned.

So let’s assume you’re writing because you enjoy it, and you’re going to submit a proposal to another publisher. The bad news is, they are…

Looking for reasons to reject you

It sounds unfair, doesn’t it? But if publishers’ readers can’t quickly reach a point where they can say perhaps without reading your entire proposal that “this won’t do”, then they’d do nothing else but read proposals all week and the other books would never get published!

A really good book to read is Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages (ISBN 0-684-85743-X). It’s subtitled “A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile”. Lukeman has worked as a literary agent, and he explains the brutal truth about unsolicited manuscripts: when publishers’ readers read them, they’re looking for a reason to reject. And if that’s not disheartening enough, Lukeman says in his Introduction (so, that’s before the book even gets going): “You’ll come to see why this book should not have been titled The First Five Pages but The First Five Sentences.”

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to prevent the publisher’s reader ever reaching “this won’t do”. Keep your proposal in that reader’s hand. Don’t put anything in your submission that will give that reader an excuse to discard it.

And Noah Lukeman’s book explains step-by-step how a publisher’s reader will look for reasons to reject your manuscript. So now you’ll know how to avoid that!

OK, now you shouldn’t be disheartened. You should see this as a challenge. Besides which, there are plenty of books about writing that can help you avoid the usual pitfalls of the first-time novelist. In my next post, I’ll mention the ones that I found most useful.


  1. I got on blogger back in 2001 (when it was pretty much the only game in town), and used to have custom template to match my site, but a year or so ago when I redesigend realised comments weren’t working, hence everything getting moved to blogspot until I could be arsed to fix my custom HTMl template again so it matches the rest of my site. But I’m dying to play around with WordPress, because I know it has features built in that allow you to upload blogs to multiple places (LJ, etc.). So I am very curious as to how your experiment gets on.

    Comment by Tara — February 22, 2009 @ 11:54 pm | Reply

  2. […] Avoid rejection February 20091 comment Leave a
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    Pingback by WordPress 2010 assessment « The Red Lines Page — January 2, 2011 @ 12:33 pm | Reply

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