Friday, 26 September 2014

You Don't Have to be Mad to Work Here...

I’ve found myself drifting back towards actual bricks-and-mortar bookshops recently, both in a “use them or lose them” way and in the hope that I 'll discover something completely unexpected (my continuous diet of kids’ fiction over the last few years having started to feel a little constrictive).

Thus, it was while browsing the graphic novels in Waterstones recently that I chanced upon a book called Marbles by Ellen Forney. I don’t know what it says about me as a person that when I picked up a graphic novel memoir by a bipolar bisexual cartoonist, I knew I had to buy it!

Friday, 12 September 2014

The Evolution of Max

Why is it that there are some ideas and characters that won’t go away, no matter how you try to ignore them? I’m not the kind of writer who subscribes to the idea of characters as voices in my head, demanding I tell their story, so I'd prefer a scientific explanation. And that answer, I feel, must revolve around such characters and stories satisfying some kind of deep psychological need.

But first, a bit of history. Actually, quite a lot of history, so bear with me...

I have a character - originally called Mark Tastic - who first surfaced twenty years ago. I’d written a sketch for our student TV club called Do It! in which Mark reeled off a list of leisure activity suggestions to camera, in an extremely anarchic style. I guess, in its primitive form, it was intended as a spoof of Why Don’t You? (which people of a certain age will remember from BBC children’s TV in the 1970s). My friend Peter took the lead role and completely knocked it out of the park, to the extent that I still struggle to separate the character and his performance.

We filmed at least one more edition of Do It!, but that was in no way enough to exorcise the character from my psyche. I wrote a long, rambling history of Mark’s subsequent career, in which he became a reality TV star, drifted into pop group management and finally joined forces with undead rock stars to foment revolution. The scattershot treatise was illustrated with new photos of Peter (including one of him apparently lying in the gutter and drinking Domestos). This all went up on a now lost website and I’m sure it was read by almost no-one. Mark also made an appearance in his “Moral Crusader” form in my CheeseCrank fanzine, which was actually read by a few people and which you might have spotted in The Museum of Me.

Given this ongoing trend, you won’t be surprised that when I came to write my first Young Adult novel, I couldn’t resist a cameo from Mr Tastic. In one very memorable scene, Mark “prepares” my young protagonist for an appearance on his TV chat show, which consists of Mark freaking out in the green room and singing a heavy metal song about darning socks! It was all part of some literary master plan I had concocted to build a connected world in my novels – a kind of Kurt Vonnegut/Quentin Tarantino for kids.

The next step, therefore, was to launch into a full-length Tastic adventure, a spoof biography entitled Mark Tastic – The Man, The Maniac, The Messiah? This opened with Mark jumping out of a helicopter into a giant vat of custard and got progressively sillier from thereon. I wrote nearly 20,000 words of this, so I must have been really into it at the time, but clearly not enough to actually finish the book.

I took a break from all things Tastic to write Back from the Dead, which took a couple of years (given the many rewrites that book went through). But, when I was thinking about the next book, who reared their ugly head again? Yes, it was Monsieur Tastique once more, although this time he became an eleven-year-old boy and underwent a name change to the more contemporary Max Tastic. I wrote the first 3,000 words of a 7-9 comedy book in which Max attempts to become a world-famous rock star, while giving useful tips on how the reader can do the same. I got great feedback on this from a critique group and excitedly sent my progress so far to my agent, sure that she was going to love it.

My agent, sadly, was decidedly lukewarm on the book. I didn’t realise it at the time, but her image of me as a writer was very different to mine. From what I can tell, she thought I should be working on more serious teen novels and not bothering with silly knockabout stuff where the main character pretends to be a girl called Abigail Cheesemold, while hiding a family-sized bag of Haribo cola bottles in his knickers.

This is the exact point when I should have put my foot down, and said that I wanted to finish the Tastic book. But I was so desperate for approval that I sent her the harrowing first chapter of an older children’s book I’d been experimenting with. “This is the book,” she said immediately. “You must write this.”

Big mistake.

Thus, Max Tastic went back into the drawer for another four years, apart from a brief cameo on this website. But to paraphrase his great work of children’s fiction, Max Tastic is the character that wouldn’t die. I’m currently 10,000 words into a new 9+ Tastic book, a book that my Oxford critique group have enthusiastically demanded I must finish!

Quite clearly, I can’t leave this Tastic character alone. But what is it that makes him so recurrent? What deep psychological need does he satisfy for me? As far as I can analyse it, I think it’s his anarchic personality that strikes a chord. Exuberant, self-confident and brashly assertive – Max has all of the qualities that I perceive myself to lack. As a free spirit, rule-breaker and iconoclast, he is the Ferris Bueller to my Cameron Frye.

All this being true, I have to wonder why I’ve never completed any of my long-form stories about him. Indeed, my recent creative crisis did cause me to park this latest book for a couple of weeks, while I considered other outlets for the work, such as a website or enhanced e-book. But my critique group are very insistent that the latest instalment works extremely well as a book, and I need to complete it that way first.

So, it looks like I’m writing “just one last book” before I move on to other projects. After twenty years, I certainly feel that Max/Mark Tastic and I could benefit from some closure.


Friday, 5 September 2014

Higher Ground

It would be remiss of me to launch into this post without acknowledging the incredible response to last week’s blog post, both here and on Facebook. I received so much encouraging, perceptive (and occasionally completely contradictory) advice that I'm still struggling to process it all and come to a firm conclusion. Also, the scars of my rejection are still raw, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised if my emotions continue to be as changeable as the late summer weather.

It’s clearly no good continuing to brood, though, and this week has felt like a process of clearing my desk, ahead of finding some new work to get excited about. I put the creepy flash fiction story through another draft and finally got it out to Stew’s editor (who liked it). I wrangled the first three chapters of my 9+ work-in-progress into a semi-coherent form, for my Oxford critique group to look at this weekend. And, after much umming and ahhing, I’ve decided to send a sample of my completed novel for the SCBWI Conference manuscript one-to-one. I was exceedingly tempted to send out 4,000 words of my work-in-progress, because that book is shiny and new and untainted in my mind by rejection. But I’ve also fallen into this trap before, of focusing on the new project and letting the old project fall by the wayside before it’s had its chance.

Meanwhile, I’ve been giving some thought to my creative direction. If this really is it for my hopes of becoming a conventionally-published novelist, what does that mean? Several writers have suggested taking the artistic high ground, and this is an idea that appeals to me right now. For too long, I’ve shaped my material to fit a preconceived idea of the market, frequently discarding books after a few chapters, as it seemed pointless to spend so long writing a novel that was unlikely to find publication. But when even my most commercial work is not finding favour, it’s time for some new thinking.

Given this self-imposed process, I suppose it should come as no surprise that my Stew stories (many of which have been constructed from abandoned material) feel more creatively vibrant. The short length and low risk has definitely encouraged me to experiment with form and content. I’m not putting my longer work down – it’s just as well-considered and well-crafted – merely observing that it tends to play things safe. Having said that, when I was rereading my work-in-progress this week, I was cheered by how out-there some of the book is. It’s full of the kind of voicey/zany stuff that often gets ruthlessly deleted in my quest for novelistic clarity. It isn't what anyone would describe as high art, but then it's not realistic to expect that I will suddenly start pumping out literary fiction!

Novice authors are often warned against writing a series of novels before they've secured publication for the first. There are good practical reasons around this, namely that a publisher may want major changes to the first book, which will then impact on the sequels. But I think there's also a stigma created by a certain kind of unpublished writer, who has embarked on a massive word splurge series (typically fantasy) and who becomes so lost in their own internal world that they also become immune to sense or reason.

I've always prided myself on being a "good" writer, one who wouldn't dare to send a fifteen-page synopsis of a seven-volume fantasy epic to an agent, and who dutifully parks my series ideas after the first installment is written. But that also means I've been missing out on creative opportunities that might have made me very happy. I fondly remember the day that my former agent asked me if I had any ideas for a sequel to my Undiscovered Voices novel Back from the Dead, as she wanted to share them with a publisher. I hadn't thought about this much, but once I opened Word, a miraculous stream of ideas poured out. Within half an hour, I had a fantastic one-page synopsis for a whole new novel. And yet the first novel didn't sell, so, four years later, I still have only those 337 words to show for it. But when I read those words back, they still excite me, and it's very clear that zombies as a cultural artefact aren't going anywhere.

Should I write it anyway? Even if I'd have to publish it myself? Here's the synopsis, so let me know!



Life should be getting back to normal for Griff Lawford – he and his parents are fully cured of the zombie virus, and his scientist friend Hugo Curzon has just been appointed the head of the government special task force for infection management. With the help of the Remedion 7 serum, it looks as if the zombie outbreak will be brought under control in a matter of weeks. Griff’s parents are still feckless musicians, of course, but he loves them and becomes annoyed at their random behaviour – disappearing at all hours of the day and night, and not being able to remember where they’ve been.

Griff tries to concentrate on helping his friend Sarah, who’s decided to find her own zombie parents. Hugo’s son James has become obsessed by the Broken Scar water-poisoning incident that caused the outbreak and Griff helps him hunt for clues to a cover-up. But then Griff himself starts to suffer from unexplained blackouts, waking up in unfamiliar places and with blood on his hands. At first, he fears that he is becoming a zombie again, but as he repeatedly flashes back to the eleven months he spent as a zombie, he begins to see a more sinister pattern. Griff knows that rogue scientist Roger Forsythe was experimenting on the bodies of the zombies he had captured. Griff fears that he might have been experimenting on their minds as well.

The zombies – previously scared of other humans – become bolder, venturing into towns, stealing and causing public hysteria. Griff’s parents disappear completely and he realises that Roger might be building an army of zombies, but to what end he can’t imagine. Hugo comes into grave danger and it is clear that Sarah’s parents are involved in all of this in a way none of the children could have expected. Griff must again fight against himself and the zombie threat, as he follows the threads of conspiracy that lead high into government and threaten the safety of everyone.

Friday, 29 August 2014

Falling Back

It’s been a funny kind of week. Some nice things have happened, specifically the series of posts about Stew Magazine that Space on the Bookshelf have been running. And I’m wrangling that flash fiction story I mentioned last week into shape, although it has been a slower process than I expected (ditto the reorganisation of this website). But all of this has been overshadowed by two rejections I received within days of each other, both on the full manuscript of my children’s novel.

I’m sure I don’t have to tell most of you how crushing this feels: to get so very close and then to fall back, seemingly to square one again. It’s an outcome that has made me question why I’m spending so much time and emotional energy on a process that seems so intractable.

I’ve written several different versions of this blog post during the week, with varying degrees of anger towards the industry and our book-obsessed culture. But I suspect the person I’m most angry with is myself. Why have I continually failed to write a book that someone wants to publish? And (more importantly) why do I care so much about having a book published anyway?

To address the first question for a moment, it’s become increasingly clear to me that craft is not enough. Both rejections were careful to itemise the things I was doing right in my writing, whether that be character work, plotting or humour. But both also agreed that the book wasn’t distinctive enough to gain traction in an increasingly competitive market. And that’s where I find myself stuck for answers. Getting a manuscript seen by agents or editors requires a certain amount of commercial spin – coming up with a compelling pitch and angle on the material that will get their attention. But actually being accepted for representation or publication requires a certain special “X factor” that my recent work seems to lack. And if a book isn’t strong enough to stand out with a traditional publisher, what chance would it have if I self-published it?

As for why I care so much about publication, I refer you to the voices in my head. “Just get a book published, and then you’ll be happy,” they whisper to me. Although, rationally, I know this isn’t true, changing my subconscious attitudes is a lot tougher. I sometimes feel that I’m stuck in an endless cycle of submission and rejection, a cycle I can only break by getting a book accepted by the gatekeepers so I can move on to the next stage. But I also know this cycle is draining my creative energy and distracting me from other areas of the children’s market where I might be able to find a niche.

So what next? Do I give up writing novels, as some of my friends have done? Do I slog on, safe in the knowledge that there are plenty of others in the same boat? Every time I ask myself these questions, I get a different answer. The only thing I’m sure about right now is that something has to change.


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).