Friday, 22 August 2014

A Work in Progress

Well, my plan for world domination by sharing a load of stuff I’ve written is still under development, but here’s what I’ve got so far:

(click picture to see a bigger version)

This mind map is an attempt to flush out some ideas for the type of content I could be sharing. Whether anyone wants to read these things is a different matter, but I guess we’ll see about that.

My next task is to reorganise this website and add some tagging so you can actually find the interesting stuff I’ve already written (and the uninteresting stuff too!) This week has got away from me a little – work has been super-busy and I was also compelled to get down the first draft of a flash fiction that I’m intending for Stew Magazine. It’s a creepy story in the classic Edgar Allen Poe/HP Lovecraft mode, with a dash of Monty Python and a modern twist. The end still needs a little work, but otherwise I’m happy with it. I've noticed a tendency for the definite article in my recent short story titles (The Last Typewriter, The Improbable Prince, The Visitors etc.) so I'm trying to avoid calling it something with "the" on the front, which is harder than it sounds!

Talking of Stew Magazine, I got the proofs of my forthcoming story from the September issue, which looks as fabulous as ever:

(no, you can't see a bigger version. Buy the magazine!)

The illustration by Daniel Duncan is nicely opaque – hinting at the story but not giving too many details away. After a bit of back and forth, we’ve settled on The Visitors for this issue, and anyone keeping score will recognise this as the story I read out at the SCBWI Retreat in May. From laptop to printed magazine in less than five months – pretty good going, I’d say!


Friday, 15 August 2014

Out of the Cave

You’ll have noticed that I’ve been blogging less and less this year. Although I’ve kept up my weekly Blog Break schedule, my updates here have become pretty much monthly. In fact, when I checked, I found that I hadn’t written a “think piece” like this since April, even though they used to be the weekly bread and butter of my blog.

So what changed? I’d love to say that I’ve been working on an amazing secret project, but mostly I’ve been writing the same kind of stuff as usual: the odd short story, a new 9-12 novel that’s about a third complete. I’m sure that I could fit blogging around my schedule, but I haven’t felt compelled to share my thoughts with the world.

This is the crux of the matter, part of a pattern that has also seen me retreat from my personal Facebook and Twitter accounts. I don’t mind the Blog Break, because it allows me to highlight (and hide behind) other people’s work, but nowadays my only regular tweets are the ones I send to promote it. It’s not like I’ve become a digital hermit, but I am sharing less of myself with the world than I once did.

Why swim against the tide? There isn’t a single reason, but one thing I have become tired of is the constant noise from social media. Everywhere I look on the internet, there are voices clamouring to be heard, and life seems to be boiling down into a competition about who can shout the loudest. Children’s literature has been characterised by one furore after another this year: Sick Lit, Lynne Shepherd laying into JK Rowling, the Bunker Diary winning the Carnegie Medal, the Slate article about adults being embarrassed to read YA and just last week the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory cover debate. In each case, battle lines are drawn and the usual rent-a-gobs of children’s literature wheel out their opinions.

I’ve contributed in a small way to some of those discussions, but I don’t want to be one of those people who can always be relied upon to have an inflammatory opinion when these issues come up. Most of the time, I don’t have a strong reaction and want to read the arguments for and against before I make up my mind. But like quiet books, it seems nowadays that quiet voices don’t get much of a look-in.

It’s true that writing is one activity where retreating from the world has traditionally been encouraged. Authors often talk about disappearing into their “writing cave” to work on the next book, and sometimes disappear from the internet for weeks or months at a time. But I must admit that I’m becoming tired of the treadmill that is writing a book, sending it out, waiting for months to get rejected and then beginning a new book that starts the whole cycle again. I’m not saying that I want to stop writing books and trying to get them published, it’s just that I’d like a bit more balance between the delayed and instant gratification of being a writer.

Oliver Burkeman echoed a lot of my feelings in one of his Guardian articles recently. As well as talking about people who shun the limelight, he introduced the concept of creative “stock and flow”. This idea, devised by novelist Robin Sloan, depicts flow as being our daily output of tweets and updates, while stock is the durable content we create that lasts. Perhaps I’ve been spending a little too much time on my stock to the detriment of my flow in recent months?

This week, I stumbled upon a terrific book by Austin Kleon called Show Your Work! which also talks about the stock and flow idea. Kleon’s take on it is slightly different, because he maintains that flow can be converted into stock, with ideas that started as tweets or blogs becoming whole chapters of his book. That sounds easier to achieve as a non-fiction writer than a children’s author, but Kleon’s ideas are still really intriguing. He advocates sharing your process as the best way to build an audience and get discovered, ideally posting something every day.

This approach echoes what I’ve seen Sarah McIntyre doing on her Livejournal site. Sarah is one of the creative people who I really admire, and I always enjoy it when she discusses her influences or shares her work in progress. This is perhaps more straightforward for an artist to achieve than a writer, but it’s made me realise that there are lots of avenues to get my work out there that I’m not exploring right now. After all, Sarah is also the busiest person in children’s books/comics, so if she can find time to blog regularly, anyone can!

Another creative person I admire is my wife Claire, whose beautiful drawings and paintings seem to attract a lot of oohs and ahhs from her Facebook friends. She’s taken to uploading a photo of each one as she finishes it, and I’m quite jealous of the instant hit of admiration she gets by doing so.

I‘m still planning what form my own creative sharing will take, but one thing I’m adamant about is that I want to achieve it without shouting too loud. So be ready to gather close and listen carefully, because I’m hoping we’ll all learn something.


Friday, 18 July 2014

Writing Flash Fiction

Illustration by Clair Rossiter

July is upon us, and with it the fourth issue of Stew Magazine (hooray!) My flash fiction story this month is called Apocalypse Wow and it’s notable for being the very first thing I wrote for Stew, way back in January last year. The fact that it hasn’t appeared until now is more a quirk of scheduling than anything, and it’s a story I continue to hold close to my heart.

I’ve decided to celebrate the publication of Apocalypse Wow with a blog post all about flash fiction – why it’s worth writing, what types of stories are best suited to it and some of my own experiences of the process. I hope you’ll find it useful and informative, and that you’ll also consider checking out Stew Magazine to read the stories themselves.

If you’re a member of the SCBWI Yahoo Group, some of this material may be familiar from my month spent as moderator – I’m pleased to bring this advice to a wider audience.

What is Flash Fiction?

Flash fiction is generally defined as a complete short story of a thousand words or less, such that it fits on two facing pages of a magazine. This length makes flash fiction great for our ever-declining modern attention span, and is ideal for reading on websites, e-readers and mobile devices. There are lots of different formats of flash fiction - many of which drop precipitously in word length - from the Drabble (which is a story exactly 100 words long), through 140 character Twitter fiction to stories of just six words! My Stew stories are a positively indulgent 600-700 words, which still allows plenty of space on the page for some gorgeous illustrations.

Why should I waste my time writing flash fiction when most publishers aren’t interested in it?

For a long time, I looked down on short stories as a lesser art form, simply because I kept seeing statements on agent’s websites saying "no poetry or short stories." I was focused on writing something that would get me published as quickly as possible, so it's rather ironic that flash fiction eventually turned out to be my route into print! The other great thing about flash fiction is that it's not just quick to read, but quick to write as well (so it won’t take you away from your novel for too long). I particularly enjoy the fact that I can have an idea one day and have a complete first draft of a flash fiction story by the end of the next. I find that ideas can very quickly go stale for me; there are so many that I've abandoned in the past because I didn't like them enough to commit to a whole novel. Flash fiction is a great way of capturing my enthusiasm and getting it onto paper.

What sort of subjects make for good flash fiction?

Pretty much anything you like. Why not pick something fascinating that you want to explore - a specific idea, emotion, tone or voice? Flash fiction is also great for experimenting with structure. Some of my stories are very metafictional, and the September issue of Stew will feature Hacking History, which is a story about what would happen if your e-book got hacked while you were reading it! It’s unique among my stories for being written in three different voices (and is still only 600 words long).

This all sounds interesting, but I’m still not sure what I’d write about

You probably already have loads of things you could write a short story about, you just haven’t realised it! I've found flash fiction to be a great way of recycling discarded ideas and stopping them going to waste. Apocalypse Wow was an idea I’d had for a novel, and I’d already done a couple of weeks’ work on it. I loved the idea of writing the most positive book possible about the most negative thing I could think of (the end of the world). But somewhere along the line, I got whisked away by a new idea and Apocalypse Wow became another pile of words gathering dust in a notebook. When the chance came to write a story as my audition for Stew, I realised that the climax of the book would be perfect for a piece of flash fiction.

What's the difference between writing a novel and writing flash fiction?

At the most basic level, only length! If you're used to writing short chapters or blog posts, then you're already halfway to making the switch. But if you want to write a rounded piece of flash fiction, you'll need to consider what you want to say and how to express it as succinctly as possible.

My writing needs room to breathe and develop over thousands of words. Why should I strip back the evocative sensory detail/rich internal monologue/powerful world building that makes my work great?

You don't have to lose all of this good stuff in a flash fiction story. In fact, I'd argue that these things are what help to suck a reader into your world. The important thing to realise is that you can't do ALL of them in one story. Pick one aspect and build your flash fiction around it. For instance, I'd become frustrated at the lack of sensory detail in my early efforts, so I built a tale around the sensations a boy feels as he writes a letter using the last typewriter on Earth, and how this reflects on his future world where almost everything is done by direct brain control (you can read that one in Stew issue three).

Can I have plot development in a flash fiction story?

Absolutely - I seem unable to write a story without loads of plot! You just need to move the plot along more quickly - one of the reasons that short stories tend to end with a twist is that it's much easier to deliver a short, sharp shock than to have a long slow character arc. But you can do that too, provided that's what you're focusing most of your words on.

Stew Issue 4. Cover illustration by Joe Lillington

I’m sure that there’s more I could say, but I seem to have gone over a thousand words just talking about how to write a story in less than a thousand words! Feel free to ask me any further questions in the comments below, though.

Good luck with writing your own flash fiction, and I hope some of you get to read Apocalypse Wow in Stew Magazine (if you live in London you can find the magazine in branches of Foyles and at the Tate Modern shop).


Friday, 13 June 2014

The Improbable Prince

It was hard to miss the kerfuffle over fairy tales last week. A certain eminent scientist was quoted (or misquoted) over his attitude to telling fairy tales to children, and the media ran with the story as hard as they could. At this point, a story idea popped into my head and I knew it would be perfect for a piece of flash fiction, which I'm very pleased to present for you today.

That said, this is fiction, and any resemblance to anyone living or dead is purely coincidental...

By Nick Cross

Once upon a time, there was a girl who loved to listen to fairy stories. But her father was a rational man who lived only for truth and science. “How can I be expected to read this drivel?” he would say, tossing a beautiful picture book into the bin. “Are we really supposed to believe that a prince could turn into a frog? It’s statistically improbable.”

The girl protested, for she loved her father and could not understand why he would deny them this shared pleasure. But the hard-hearted man was having none of it. “As a parent, it would be irresponsible for me to read these blatant untruths.”

The girl bunched her nightdress in her fist. “They aren’t untruths, Daddy. They’re stories.”

“Simply lies by another name,” the father replied, tipping an armful of wonderful books into the bin. “I can see your mother has been indulging you while I was away on my lecture tour.” Mistaking the girl’s sad expression for fear, he patted her shoulder. “Worry not, my dear, normal service has been restored.” The girl lay down, and he pulled up the bedcovers. “Now sleep well, and may your dreams be full of reality and reason.” Nodding to himself, he left the room.

The girl cried then, and wished her tears could become a glistening, magical river that would carry her far away from this cruel place. But, instead, they just made a wet patch on her pillow.

The next day at bedtime, she asked her father again if he would read aloud. To her surprise, he agreed – as long as he could choose the book.

“When on board H.M.S. Beagle, as naturalist, I was much struck with certain facts in the distribution of the inhabitants of South America...”

The father read from On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin. The book wasn’t boring, exactly, but the girl found her thoughts drifting to sea monsters and dragons. Why couldn’t Mr Darwin have discovered some of those species?

The father seemed to forget he was reading to his daughter, and kept talking long after her usual bedtime. Eventually, he looked up and realised she was sound asleep.

On the third day, the girl developed a dread of bedtime, and stayed in her evening bath until the water was quite cold. The father knocked on the door in a great temper, demanding to know why she was taking so long. “I’m missing a documentary on particle physics!” he shouted through the door. The girl sighed, reluctantly dried herself and put on her nightclothes.

When she opened the bathroom door, the father was brandishing a new book. “I’ve got something very exciting to read tonight!”

The girl narrowed her eyes, peering at the large brown hardback book with peeling plastic covers.

“This...” The father tapped the book, and a small puff of dust came from the spine. “ a landmark text of modern secular humanism. So much better than those silly fairy tales, I’m sure you’ll agree.”

The girl wished and wished there was some way she could show her father that stories had meaning and purpose. She wished he could see that the time she spent in her imagination was not time wasted. But her wishes once more failed to come true, and the girl finally had to admit that her father was not a bad man – he was just a little stubborn and narrow-minded.

“I love you, Daddy.” She kissed him on the cheek. “As long as I’m with you, it doesn’t matter what we read.”

But a most peculiar feeling had come over her father. His insides felt like they were on fire and there was a sudden POP that echoed around the small bathroom. The landmark text of modern secular humanism fell from his hands and plopped into the bathwater.

“Daddy?” The girl rubbed her eyes. “Is that you, Daddy?” A large green frog was sitting on the bathmat where her father had been.

“Ribbit,” the father replied. “This is highly improbable. Ribbit.”

The girl bent over to stroke his scaly back and hold his webbed foot. “Improbable, but not impossible?”

He sighed. “So it appears. Ribbit.” He turned, and with a huge leap and a mighty splash, jumped into the bath.

© Nick Cross 2014. All rights reserved.

Friday, 6 June 2014

The Massive Mash-Up Machine

Originality is tiring, isn't it? All that time spent developing richly nuanced characters in a unique world that reflects everything you're passionate about. And then, after all the months of writing and rewriting, you find no-one's interested unless you boil the whole book down to a one line pitch that makes your masterpiece sound like everything else ever written.

Well, fret no more, because the Massive Mash-Up Machine is here to do all that tiresome work for you. Building on the revolutionary technology pioneered in the Amazing Rejectomatic, this Large Hadron Collider of storytelling smashes together pre-existing books and movies to make something totally new. At the touch of a button (and at no cost to you), you'll receive an X meets Y pitch and a readymade plot synopsis that could become the next publishing sensation!

Just hit GO to spin (or respin) the wheels of fate. Once you find a story you particularly like, click Share at the bottom of the synopsis to pop up a version suitable for the comments section or for posting to social media. Do beware of getting so excited that you immediately email the synopsis to every literary agent in the country - I can take no responsibility for the fame and fortune that may result.


P.S. A couple of people have reported odd behaviour such as the reels getting out of sync. I haven't been able to reproduce these issues, so for now please try reloading the page if you encounter any problems.

  • ? ? ?
  • Harry Potter
  • The Godfather
  • The Hunger Games
  • Aliens
  • Winnie-the-Pooh
  • Pride and Prejudice
  • Die Hard
  • Captain Underpants
  • Rainbow Magic
The Massive Mash-up Machine works best in Chrome, Firefox or Safari on a PC or Mac.
This is a work of parody, and all copyrights in character names, trademarks etc. remain with their respective owners.
Fruit machine reels powered by jSlots.
Image adapted from an original photo by Abril Sicairos as licensed under Creative Commons.

Saturday, 26 April 2014

The Roller Coaster of Writerly Emotion

As well as being a kick-ass school librarian, my wife works part-time helping new mums to adjust to all the stresses and strains of living with a baby. She has this nifty exercise that she does with them called "The Roller Coaster of Postnatal Emotion" where they plot out their positive and negative feelings about motherhood on a graph.

Now, I may not have the excuse of being a hormonal, postnatal woman, but it's nevertheless occurred to me that as a writer, my emotions are in flux like this all the time. So, as a scientific experiment, I've constructed the graph below as a genuine example of my creative highs and lows over the last week (though looking at it now, I wonder if I'd have been better off pretending that I'd made it all up).

The graph may take a couple of seconds to load, but once it has you can hover your mouse pointer over each of the dots to see the description of what I was feeling at that time (sorry, this probably won't work on touch screens - you'll need to be using a desktop browser). The scale at the side shows how positive I was feeling, with 100% being very happy and 0% being very miserable indeed!


Friday, 11 April 2014

Reach for the Sky

When I sat down to write a blog post about ambition, I was sure that I must have written about it before. I searched my blog archives and found nothing, then discovered a Word file from 2012 on my hard drive that I must have abandoned. But before I’d given up, I’d written over a thousand words – so it must have been a subject that really mattered to me! In that almost-blog, I’d covered ambition in many forms: for status, money and creative expression. Perhaps by focusing on just creative ambition today, I’ll manage to succeed where I previously failed. Ironically, my last attempt may have been just too ambitious!

I don’t think any of us would disagree that being creatively ambitious is a good thing. We all want to feel that our work is good enough to be published and read. We all want our work to mature and improve, and not to feel that our best days are behind us. But I think this also needs to come with a slice of realism – an acceptance of your own (current) limits as a writer and the knowledge that what you enjoy writing is not always the most intellectually challenging thing you could be writing.

This creative realignment is something that I’ve been through myself of late. After reaching for the sky and falling short with my previous novel, my recent work has definitely been less ambitious in plot and thematic terms. But (in my opinion) it’s also a lot more fun to read, which is a valid ambition when writing children’s fiction. Simplicity has replaced complexity as my writing goal, although I’m very much discovering that the path to simplicity is not a straight line – it’s sometimes necessary to push through the complexity of a book and out the other side.

Learning to simplify is a skill that takes time to acquire. When we first start writing, it can be hard to separate what we dream of doing from what we’re actually capable of producing. Sure, it’s surprisingly easy to plot out a seven volume fantasy series when you’re really enjoying it, and to fill in reams of backstory for every character, no matter how minor. But all this detail can obscure the story, and we are not all J.R.R. Tolkien or George R.R. Martin (who has himself fallen prey to the lure of too much world-building in recent volumes).

I’ve talked to several fantasy-novelists-in-waiting who are struggling to reconcile the scope of their ambition with the logistics of realising it as a story. The YA fantasy market continues to be series-based, which puts extra pressure on writers to map out a coherent story over several books, and to pepper the first volume with clever foreshadowing of future events. Agents (keen to find the next big thing), sometimes sign up such authors early and put unwitting pressure on them to deliver on their promises. Too much pressure too soon can be a toxic cocktail, which is something I’ve discovered to my own cost. I was only working on a single novel - what can that pressure be like for an author trying to write three books in their head simultaneously?

It’s a definite shame that the publishing trade’s love of launching debut authors with an instant breakout novel leaves less room for the small, frequently autobiographical novels that new writers have traditionally been drawn to. To use a movie analogy, it is as if Christopher Nolan’s first film had been the mind-bogglingly complex Inception rather than the small but intriguing Following (which was shot for virtually nothing in the houses of friends and family). Hilary Mantel is someone else who has benefitted from working up to her greatest work over a period of years, rather than being expected to deliver Wolf Hall out of the gate.

There is a point where healthy creative ambition becomes mania, where the author begins to disrupt their own working processes by worrying too much about the market, or by trying to (in my own words) "write a book so excellent that no-one could possibly say no to it." That way lies madness...