Last December I had an idea.
Actually, the idea itself was the culmination of a series of ideas going back to around 2005, when Doctor Who Magazine finished their run of Complete Doctor Who Special Editions, in which fan professionals from the world of Doctor Who had looked back to important or memorable stories from the classic series, and written about the impact these stories had first had upon them. The essays were brilliant and universal, and it didn’t matter if you’d seen the story on its first broadcast or not, because what was being evoked was a feeling of ‘first contact’ between the authors and the show and its constituent parts. When the Complete Seventh Doctor Special Edition was published, the series came to an end and I was left ruefully hoping they’d carry on and do one more, a collection of writing by non-professional fans along similar lines. Needless to say, it didn’t happen.
But my favourite interviews with new series writers in recent years, had always been the ones in which they’d talked about how they’d originally become interested in the series, or why they’d wanted to write for it; so that idea stuck with me – the idea that someone, somewhere, ought to collect together a series of essays by the average fan-in-the-street, talking about how and why they had come to fall in love with Doctor Who in the first place. Their ‘first contact’.
Fast-forward several years, and in one of the threads on Gallifrey Base, I read about a chap called Richard Kirby. Kirby had written an account of his attempts to collect the autographs of all the living female companions of Doctor Who, and had self-published the book, Desperately Seeking Susan Foreman, through Lulu.com (of which I’d never heard at the time), with the proceeds going to charity. A number of people on the thread had written rather nice things about the book, and I decided to buy it and see for myself. Quite apart from the fact that it sounded like a pleasant read and the money was going to a good cause, I was curious about this ‘self-publishing’ business. I was curious, in fact, about how professional-looking the actual, physical volume itself would be. The seeds of an idea were starting to come together in my head...
At around the same time, another thread on Gallifrey Base was asking people to say which were the first Doctor Who stories they’d bought on both VHS and DVD. Those kinds of ‘list’ thread never held much interest for me, as I was always more interested in the opinions behind the choices, rather than just the simple, meaningless list of stories. Fortunately, a chap called Wilf was one of the first to reply, and rather than just rattle off a couple of names, he’d actually written the history of how and why he’d come to buy the stories in the first place. It wasn’t just that it was engagingly written (which it was), it was the fact that I recognised something of myself and my own habits and preoccupations in what I read. It was, essentially, pretty much the story of Wilf’s ‘first contact’ with Doctor Who.
Desperately Seeking Susan Foreman arrived. It was short and sweet and very lovely, and it was a ‘proper’ book alright.
I thought of the name You and Who.
The idea itself arrived more or less complete: I would start threads on all the major Doctor Who forums, with a simple message. Write the story of you and Doctor Who, send it to an email address that I would create, and once the submissions process was complete, I would self-publish the book with all the proceeds going to Children in Need (which seems to be the Doctor Who charity of choice). In truth, the charitable aspect (while significant, particularly in encouraging people to take part) was perhaps less important than putting together a book of all the Doctor Who writing I’d always wanted to read, but had never previously been able to. And sure, the internet’s full of threads in which people share these kinds of memories, but threads on forums tend to be rather ephemeral, and a book would tell the story much more clearly and permanently.
So, I organised the email account, posted the threads, and waited to see what would happen next.
Within 24 hours or so, three very interesting – in various different ways – things had happened. Firstly, someone I knew from Facebook had sprinted off the starting blocks and sent me something immediately. It was a short and narky comedy sketch about The Twin Dilemma, and not at all what the book really needed, and it was something he’d already posted elsewhere. I think he just wanted to be first.
Secondly, that internet legend from YouTube known usually as Babelcolour, submitted a much longer essay, detailing how it was that watching Doctor Who as a child had informed the whole of his adult life, how it had made him a better person. It was an excellent piece of writing, and very important for a couple of reasons: on the one hand, it gave me an assurance that this whole idea wasn’t as nutty as I might have feared (I’d had a real rush of confidence just before I posted the threads, and then a huge crisis of confidence afterwards), and on the other, it kind of gave the whole project a feeling of legitimacy. Some of the replies on the threads had been of the “Are you serious?” variety, but now I could tell people that Stuart Humphryes had made a submission already, and even quote an extract from it as an example.
The third thing that happened was, in the long run, the most important of all. Tim Hirst sent me an email, telling me about his publishing company (he counts Colin Baker among his authors) and explaining that he also had a ‘self-publishing’ imprint. If I were to get in touch, he’d be able to help with some of the more technical aspects of the project. Now, that really boosted my confidence. More on Tim later...
At this point, things slowed right down. I’d given the submissions process a deadline of three months hence, and for the next few weeks, the number of essays I received was the tiniest of trickles. My target was forty; fifty would be great and thirty would perhaps be the absolute minimum I’d need to save ditching the idea altogether. But if things didn’t pick up, I might not even make that thirty – I’d kind of assumed I’d get something of a rush at the start (and then again at the end), given that the first couple of weeks might see people enthused by the idea firing off submissions as quickly as they were able to write them. It didn’t really happen that way.
So I brainstormed with myself, and came up with a couple of notions.
The first was to set up a dedicated ‘free’ website, so I logged on to Weebly and, being a total techno-cretin and never having done anything of the kind before, spent some time working out how to set one up. The second was trickier. I’d had a couple of minor conversations with respected figures from the Doctor Who community online, and thought of writing to them and asking for a submission. If just one were to reply, then being able to tell people I had an entry in the book from ‘such-and-such’ (as well as the submission from Babelcolour, of course), might be what was required to kick-start the submissions process.
Nobody wrote one, of course. It was silly to think that anyone might. But Rob Shearman wrote a very nice reply telling me what a great idea it was, and how he wished it every success, and so I asked him if he’d mind me repeating his kind words on the website.
That’s when it really took off.
The number of submissions coming in increased; not massively, but I was now receiving a constant and steady stream of emails. But the thing that indicated I might have a success on my hands was the number of visitors to the website; prior to my posting the quote from Rob, there had been an average of around maybe twenty visits a day. This number increased tenfold (and indeed, the total number of visits is now well over 11,000).
Several of the submissions were of particular interest for one reason or another (although I’m not going to pick out any favourites, as that would be akin to choosing a favourite child; it’s just not done – besides, you can find out for yourself by reading the book). Probably the most exciting was Dez Skinn’s. Formerly the editor (and creator, indeed!) of both Doctor Who Weekly (which became Monthly and then Doctor Who Magazine itself) and Starburst Magazine, Dez is a neighbour of one of the other contributors to the book, who passed on the details and invited Dez to contribute himself. There’s a short but lovely piece in the book concerning Dez taking to the road back in the late 1970s, with Tom Baker in tow, to promote the nascent DWW. I had my ‘professional’ submission at last!
I’d also been intending to sequence the essays in the book more or less according to when they were received, but this approach proved inadequate for a number of reasons, not the least of which was my desire to keep those on similar subjects either completely apart, or else right next to one another (thus emphasising the differences rather than the similarities). When a 13-year-old’s essay arrived in my Inbox, showing an innate understanding of both how the show and the book were intended to work, I knew I had my opening piece. The promise of a short piece by a short six-year-old (whose father was another contributor) seemed likely to be the book’s epilogue (and indeed is).
One essay arrived from Mexico, and it was apparent from reading it that the author’s native language wasn’t English. It was, however, entirely comprehensible, and the message was clear for all to see, but as I’d been editing the essays as I went along (mostly for ‘formatting’, but also because one or two of the authors’ sentences occasionally ran away with themselves and needed a little nipping and tucking), I emailed the author back, offering to revise the essay into a clearer English – albeit with the suggestion that I didn’t think it needed changing at all. You’ll read Fernanda Boils’ essay if you buy the book, and you’ll see which decision we reached and why it was the right one. Another essay arrived comprising 2,000 words and not a single paragraph break; with the author’s permission, I chopped it up and made an easier read of it.
A couple of people I particularly wanted involved, thanks to my familiarity with their writing on internet forums, were the aforementioned Wilf and another regular on Gallifrey Base, KisstheZygon, although both seemed a little reluctant to take part (perhaps more because of a reticence about what they’d be able to accomplish, rather than any dissatisfaction with the aims of the book, I hope). Thankfully, a little prodding saw them both submit essays in the end, and I hope the resultant writing will delight the reader as much as it did me. Andrew ‘Wilf’ Philips’ submission was so central to the project (Wilf having been the key to the project’s inception in the first place), we actually split his piece in two so it could work as a kind of backbone to the entire volume. Mike ‘KisstheZygon’ Russell’s essay speaks for itself. And I even managed to persuade Richard Kirby to contribute, writing about Desperately Seeking Susan Foreman.
The most pleasing aspect of the project was how good everybody’s essays were. I was expecting some variable writing, to be frank, but I don’t think a single person submitted anything that doesn’t read as if it hadn’t been thought long and hard about, and given plenty of care and attention before being sent. There are no ‘scrappy’ submissions, in other words. No ‘chaff’. Not all of the essays will ring true with every reader, of course, but the amount of love for the programme that the authors feel is apparent throughout, and everybody will find something that chimes with their experience of Doctor Who.
The saddest aspect was the death of Nick Courtney towards the end of the book’s gestation. There are several essays in which he is at the very least mentioned, if not the subject itself, and I had to ask people, via the website, not to submit any further similar pieces lest the book become imbalanced. That Lis Sladen passed away a few weeks later (after deadline day) was worse still, and I added a short piece about the pair of them to the start off the volume, and there’s a dedication to that effect.
Eventually, the deadline passed in a flurry of extra submissions (I think the penultimate day brought six new essays, the most I’d received in any single 24 hours), and the book was, effectively, finished. After a few days’ editing, I forwarded the manuscript to Tim Hirst for a once over before the ‘self-publishing’ could take place.
“This is too good to self-publish,” Tim told me over the ’phone. “Instead, I’d like to publish it for you.” The rest is history, and You and Who is now available to order from Hirst Books here.
If you like what you read, or are interested in finding out more, then you should visit the website here. It’s full of interesting things, including a number of submissions that weren’t used in the book (one or two of the authors submitted a second essay when it looked like the final numbers might be rather low; eventually, I limited the book to a single piece per writer), and more information about several of the contributors – some of whom (Michael Russell, Cindy Matthews and Tony Green for instance) have published books of their own which I feel happy to publicise; these people took a risk on me when they first became involved in You and Who, so it’s the least I can do to thank them.
Moreover, you can also find out how to become involved in a potential second volume of You and Who stories. Because as good as this first book might be, I’m quite sure a second one can be even better, and right about now I’ll be launching the search for essays. You have nothing to lose but your anonymity...