Friday, 28 December 2012

The Museum of Me (2002 - 2012)

Welcome back to the second half of The Museum of Me for a trip through the last ten years. Don't fret if you missed part one, there's still time to catch up on knockabout blasphemy, duelling fanzines and videos of me playing James Bond (badly) by clicking here.

The period I'm covering this week is the one in which I started writing for children, but I'm going to restrain myself from dumping a 300 page unpublished manuscript on here for you to read! One of the things I dislike about writing novels is that you often have nothing easily digestible to show friends and family - in many ways a book doesn't really exist until you get it published. Compare that with my wife, who's an artist - she can finish a beautiful picture in the morning and have it up on Facebook attracting likes before the day is out (sigh). Accordingly, I've tried to select my more visual side projects for your viewing pleasure.

Philosophy is Fun!

I used to make such amazing presents: mix tapes; books; mix tapes and books (with each page telling the incredibly untrue story of a different track on the tape). The most elaborate present I ever attempted was the Existential Distress Kit.

Existential Distress Kit (2002) - Click to enlarge

This box of goodies was an attempt to cheer up my best friend Stefan, who was at the time stuck working a job in construction that he hated. By subverting the ideas of the very best philosophers, I hoped that I could pull my friend from his existential funk. In the kit, you could find:

Existential Door Hanger (2002) - Click to enlarge

Then there was a t-shirt that I can't imagine anyone wearing unless they wanted to get into a fight:

Existential T-Shirt (2002) - Click to enlarge

We were mad keen on collectable card games at the time, so I designed some cards of my very own, printed them out on proper cardstock and wrapped them in a foil envelope - all designed to look like an actual booster pack you might buy in a games shop.

Moral Vacuum Collectable Card Game (2002) - Click to open in new tab

Pride of place in the Existential Distress Kit was my first (and so far only) finished picture book. It was inspired by a children's Star Wars book about C-3PO called I Am a Droid, but my version took a very different approach. The PDF here doesn't really do justice to the original artefact, as I painstakingly glued the pages onto thick cardboard, so the whole thing looked and felt like a board book.

I Am an Existentialist (2002) - Click to open in new tab

Wow, I did like loads of different fonts, didn't I? Even if they were occasionally unreadable...

Was the Existential Distress Kit a success? Well, I think Stefan was a little nonplussed when I originally gave him the present, but since then, he's gone back to university to get an MA, then a PhD and is now a full-time lecturer. Coincidence? I think not!

A Richly Imagined History

In 2004, we decided to move from Guildford to Abingdon, Oxfordshire. We exchanged a character Victorian cottage (which was actually a creaking money pit that would have bankrupted us) for a boring but solidly-built 1970s suburban residence. Tasked with producing an invite for our housewarming party, I was struggling to find anything notable about the house, apart from the slightly pretentious name fixed to the porch: "Dalmore." Suddenly, I came upon a perfectly simple solution - if the house needed a history, then I could just invent one!

Years of poking around stately homes had prepared me well for this task. The finished invite was designed to look as if it had been torn from the pages of the National Trust guidebook:

Dalmore House Invitation (2004) - Click to open in new tab

As if organising a party for fifty people was not enough work, I also "researched" the history of the site and recounted it in loving detail. I put these information boards on the walls of each room, so our housewarming guests could discover the whole amazing story as they toured the house.

Dalmore House - A History (2004) - Click to open in new tab

JK Who?

Writing children's books was not a task I fell into particularly gracefully. Stubbornly self-taught, I refused to associate with other writers or even read books about how to write for my first five years. Instead, I took whatever I was dealing with each day in my own life and worked it into a scene featuring my characters. After a couple of years of writing this way in longhand, I had filled numerous notebooks and typed none of it up. A sensible person would have junked the whole project at this point and started again with something more structured. Never mistake me for a sensible person - I took it upon myself to wrangle the 150,000 words into a coherent narrative.

The result was The New Janice Powley, a YA comedy/drama/satire that was as unfocused as those multiple slashes suggest. The premise was a simple one: What if you became the next J.K. Rowling? I invented a thinly-veiled J.K. analogue called Janice Powley and her boy wizard Tom Farley, both of whom my teenage protagonist David hates with a vengeance. In an act of retaliation, David begins to write his own book spoofing Tom Farley, while weaving in elements of his own life. His book finds its way into the hands of a washed-up writer who smells gold, and David is suddenly catapulted into the literary stratosphere.

Yes, there was more than a little wish-fulfilment at work here. I was writing a book inspired by my own life about a character writing a book inspired by his own life, and we had both been inspired by the success of J.K. Rowling. I think I'd seen Adaptation one too many times and fancied myself as the Charlie Kaufman of the children's publishing world. When sending the book to agents, I decided to run with the concept a bit further and create a rather unique query letter:

New Janice Powley Agent Letter (2007) - Click to open in new tab

Despite (or because of) this letter, I managed to secure a couple of full manuscript reads from agents, which in retrospect was an amazing achievement for a first novel. Of course, I didn't see it that way, because the book didn't make it any further and I was crushed. But it's been five years since I put the book to bed, and I can see that the whole thing was too scattershot to work, no matter how much professional editing it might have received. But there are still moments of rough charm, and I wanted to pick out my very favourite scene for you here. Sex, Shakespeare and school subversion - what more could you ask for?

New Janice Powley Extract (2007) - 1,800 words - Click to open in new tab


Most of you reading this know that I didn't avoid other writers forever. In fact, I joined the SCBWI a few years back and discovered a wonderful community that's helped me through some tough times. For several years now, I've entered the SCBWI conference badge competition, and somehow I still haven't won first prize! But true to my pigheaded nature, I keep entering in the hope that maybe all the illustrators will lose their crayons one year or something. Here is a small tableau of all the badge designs I've produced so far, some of them winners, but many of them sadly neglected. Sob.

SCBWI Badge Designs (2010-2012) - Click to enlarge

And that's all from The Museum of Me. I hoped you've enjoyed this rummage through the archives, as much as I've enjoyed revisiting the artefacts from my past. It's a process that's reminded me how much more comfortable I am with words than pictures nowadays, how moving pixels around in Photoshop feels more like work than pleasure. But never say never - perhaps there is some amazing graphical Transmedia app project around the corner, just waiting for my dubious design skills and mastery of clip art. Until then, I guess I'll keep on writing books for children. Because I'm stubborn like that.


Friday, 21 December 2012

The Museum of Me (1991 - 2001)

Regular readers of this blog will know that I usually write a big comedy thing for Christmas, but this year I wanted to try something different. The aforementioned regular readers (all two of you) might recall a post I wrote in May this year, encouraging you to start archiving your past work for posterity. True to my word, I've been doing just that, and I'd like to present a small selection of the results for you this week and next.

The process of exploring twenty years of my past work, much of it originally seen by only a handful of people, has been scary and exhilarating in equal measure. It was scary on two counts, actually - both because of the sheer volume of stuff I uncovered and because I feared discovering that I wasn't as funny as I used to be. But I don't think that's true - like a fine wine, I've just matured (a little). What was exhilarating about it was the sheer thrill of rediscovery. It might not be as culturally significant as the early Hans Christian Andersen story found this week, but I really got a buzz from searching old notebooks, folders and hard drives to uncover my own lost artefacts.

There's quite a lot of stuff here and some of it's a bit rubbish(!), so feel free to graze as you wish. Christmas is a time for self-indulgence, though - I hope you'll excuse mine as I cut the red ribbon and declare The Museum of Me open to visitors!

The University Years

Although I dabbled with writing during my teens, what there was of it seems to have been lost. So you're going to be spared my early satirical masterpiece The Sylvia Plath Guide to Gas Cookers. Going away to Brighton Polytechnic (as it was then) in 1991 was the catalyst for spreading my creative wings.

I joined the television production society (BTV) because I saw some of their videos at a freshers' fair and figured they could use my help! This off-the-cuff decision was to be instrumental in both my future writing and my life (I later met my wife at a BTV party).

I set about writing my first scripts, while also getting experience in front of and behind the camera. Material from this period isn't exactly abundant, but I managed to find a handwritten script dating back to 1992. Entitled "Aceman", the sketch was inspired by our visit to the National Student Television Awards. There, we ran into our nemeses, a posh TV society from University College London who dared to also call themselves BTV (Bloomsbury Television). There was instant class war between the two groups and we became enraged by their snobbish attitude as well as amused by their inability to make toast (perhaps they had servants to do that). One of their number was moronically enthusiastic - saying "Ace" in response to pretty much any idea - and I quickly turned my poison pen in his direction.

Aceman Script (1992) - Click to open in new tab

Aceman was never filmed, but plenty of my other scripts made it onto video. Here, rescued from a grubby VHS tape by my friend Penny, are just a couple of examples. They reveal my extreme youth, poor acting skills and a worrying obsession with farmyard animals. Cringeworthy as these first steps seem to me now, I guess I had to start somewhere. First up, I don Hawaiian shirt and shorts to become gameshow host extraordinaire Johnny Dungthorpe:

Whose Bin (1992) - 8 minutes 32 seconds

And here, sparkling with amazing pre-CGI special effects, I take on the role of James Bond. Take note of my towering quiff and also the TV-edit framing device to cover up for the fact that we'd run out of studio time to film all of the footage.

Licence to Grill (1992/1993) - 8 minutes 15 seconds

The Fanzine Scene

After university (where I somehow gained a First, despite my extracurricular activities) we all got proper jobs and settled into a life of boring responsibility. Well, kind of. My BTV friend Stefan and I became fascinated by the possibilities of fanzines, those cheap photocopied magazines that had sprung up during the Punk period and never gone away. We had both grown up reading Whizzer and Chips, which had the novel idea of putting together two separate (and rival) comics into one publication. Couldn't we base a fanzine on the same principles?

So, CheeseCrank was born. Cheese (which Stefan edited) would be a music fanzine with humour, whereas Crank (which I edited) would be a far more eccentric and irrelevant proposition. The two twenty-page magazines would then be stapled back-to-back, so that shops could display them with the Cheese or the Crank side out, depending on their preference.

CheeseCrank Covers (1996) - Click to enlarge

We rounded up the old BTV crew as contributors and slaved for many hours over incredibly slow desktop publishing PCs. Printing up fifty copies, we hawked them round record shops and via the back pages of the NME:

CheeseCrank NME Form (1996) - Click to enlarge

Although it took several months, we eventually sold every copy, which must make it one of the most commercially successful things I've ever done!

Here's a selection of pages from the inside of Crank. Look out for Max Tastic's dad.

Crank Articles by Nick Cross (1996) - Click to open in new tab

One of the centrepiece features of Crank was our take on the popular fantasy football leagues of the day - the Fantasy Freedom Fighters League (FFFL). Even now, I can't believe that we filled four whole pages of the fanzine with what was basically a list of funny names. You'll see that there was an address to send your entry to, but I never received any (which was probably for the best).

Crank Fantasy Freedom Fighting League (1996) - Click to open in new tab

The FFFL was an early example of me bowing to the sensitivities of the market. Here's the original pitch and title:

FTL Pitch (1996) - Click to enlarge

Making CheeseCrank was an exhausting experience, and the first issue turned out to be the last. But I did take the idea of the FFFL to heart and started running play-by-mail games for my friends. Entitled TV Wars and later Media Moguls, I designed these to allow us to invent TV programmes and other media, then fight for audience share across a virtual marketplace. They were a lot of fun, but again, very labour-intensive for me. This is a typical film of mine from the game:

Media Moguls Film (1998) - Click to enlarge

Vatican Values

Now that I've blundered into this section, I'm wondering if it's appropriate this close to Christmas (or at any time, really). Oh well, I was recently saying that I should be braver in my artistic choices...

I'm not entirely sure what year it was when Stefan came up with the idea for a time-travelling pontiff who kicks ass for the Lord. Whatever, I took the idea and ran with it, pioneering in the process an entirely new genre that I like to call "knockabout blasphemy".

TimePope was one of the first projects where it seemed like the scope of the story was even bigger than we could imagine. It was an epic idea, and I can remember endless brainstorming where we set out the ongoing story in terms of episodes, moving from ancient Byzantium to the future, via a comic interlude where our hero gets stuck babysitting the infant Jesus. Clearly, no bounds of religious taste were to be observed!

TimePope doing what he does best
Somehow, it made perfect sense that I should realise this epic tale through the medium of stop-motion Lego animation. In retrospect, this was a tonal choice that made the end result feel a little more unreal and a little less offensive. It also allowed me to take total control of the project. I was to be my own mini mogul - writing the script, building the set, acting all the characters, lighting the action, moving the camera and even providing the special effects. This was how Peter Jackson got started, after all, and his early films were in even poorer taste than this!

TimePope Character Designs (2001) - Click to enlarge

The action was to begin in ancient times with a vampire attack in a confessional (don't ask me how that worked). Here's the first page of my storyboards:

TimePope Storyboards (2001) - Click to enlarge

When I looked over the TimePope archives, I found a lot of material, but very little of it was in a finished form. I seemed to repeatedly go off on tangents, depending on what interested me most at a particular time. A community of Lego animators was forming online, but I remember being dissatisfied that there was no way to make the characters' mouths move. Cue weeks and weeks spent building animated minifig faces on the computer and superimposing them on the Lego figures (see right and below)

TimePope Effects and Dialogue Test (2001) - 5 seconds

At some point, even though I had finished barely any footage from the film, I decided that I needed a trailer. Again, this was unfinished - though I remember spending a lot of time trying to animate an exploding model of a Lego Big Ben. The audio was complete, so I've used some stills of the set to give you an idea of how it might have looked. It takes the form of me trying to pitch the project to a couple of Hollywood execs:

TimePope Trailer (2001) - 1 minute 43 seconds

Thank you for joining me on this sprint through a decade of poor taste! I'll be wrapping myself up under the Christmas tree until next week, when it'll be time to unleash the concluding installment of The Museum of Me.


Friday, 14 December 2012

Following Up

Last week's post (What If You Never Got Published?) clearly struck a chord with many of you, and thank you for all of the heartfelt comments. The responses were so good that I thought it was worth following up those sentiments in this week's post.

A key theme that came up was not trying to write to the market. I hear you on this and believe me I'm trying not to. But it's more than just a case of not following the market, I also live in fear of it catching me up. There's nothing worse than having an idea in your head for years and then finally writing the book, but just too late. I'm quite a slow and deliberate writer, so that stuff tortures me – I still shudder when I think about the publisher who would have loved to acquire my zombie book, if only they hadn't bought a similar one just the previous week. And when writing my last book, I found dystopian elements creeping in, but I just let it happen because that was what felt right creatively. Unfortunately, by the time I'd fallen out with my agent, written another draft and got the book out to editors, any hint of dystopia was a no-no for commissioning purposes.

I said last week that I'd been writing for ten years, but that's not entirely true. I've been writing for children for ten years, but for another ten years before that I dabbled in all sorts of things, trying to find my style. When I look back on that period now, it's remarkable the freedom I felt to experiment with form and content, without recourse to thoughts of the market or the idea of gatekeepers. It's also striking to see the volume of work that I managed to turn out, whereas nowadays I often find myself paralysed by thoughts of perfection as I try to meet the high standards that the children's publishing industry demands.

Candy Gourlay made a very telling comment on last week's post where she said that with the sure knowledge of never being published, "I might allow myself to try other kinds of writing that have always interested me." I totally empathised with that feeling of being boxed in by the process of writing and publishing a book, the idea that I must spend all my creative time doing only this because otherwise how can I hope produce something good enough? But what starts out as a tool for promoting focus can quickly fall into tyranny.

I do think that my fantasy of giving up writing is just that – a fantasy. I might not find writing the easiest activity, but some inner need keeps drawing me back to it. I do wish it could be more fun for me, though – I lost some of that joy during my own rush to publication and subsequent depression a couple of years back and I'm still struggling to find it again. But there's an undeniable buzz to writing that rewards my efforts from time to time (like writing this blog).

There's also the question of identity. So much of who I am is bound up in being a children's writer, along with my social networks and support structure. If I walked away from writing, would I also be walking away from my friends? After all, it's hard to talk about your latest book if you aren't writing one. I'm sure I'd drift into other hobbies and find other people, but dammit I don't want to! Children's writers are the nicest people you'll ever meet. Fact.

OK, that's enough navel-gazing for one week. Thanks for reading this and do come back next Friday, when I'll be presenting something no less personal but hopefully much funnier for your Christmas reading pleasure.


Saturday, 8 December 2012

What If You Never Got Published?

Writers love high-concept "What If" scenarios, so here's a challenging one. Imagine you're a promising unpublished writer (not unlike myself), who has been learning your craft and persevering with it. You have good contacts and a profile in the industry, so publication must be only a matter of time, right? But through some amazing crystal ball/time-travel MacGuffin you uncover a horrifying truth – you will never be traditionally published. What do you do?

When I came to ask myself this question, I found the answer kept slipping away from me. I started writing this part of the post and found myself saying things like "you could do this" or "you could do that." Now I wouldn't presume to know what you would do, so let me know in the comments. The most important question for me is what would I do?

Hmm. It's a tricky thing to have all hope taken away at a stroke. I've been writing for ten years now, and it was always with the presumption that my books would find both a publisher and an audience. In that time, I've seen things become steadily tougher for writers, as the small financial certainties have drained away and publishers have focused on an ever narrowing list of lead titles. In this climate, even as your own skills as a writer improve, so the goalposts seem to move farther away.

Would I self-publish? It would be the logical thing to do, but I worry about reaching a sufficient audience, particularly amongst pre-teen children. I've also long since hitched my wagon to publishing's star, defending the system of gatekeepers and editorial oversight that has ushered in the so-called "golden age of children's publishing." So going it alone would still feel weird to me. And there are some aspects of publishing - particularly the distribution, sales and accounting parts – that I have zero interest in and would really rather have someone else do for me. Maybe if I'm selling electronically, then Amazon or whoever can handle this, but if my target market wants print books (which they mostly do) then there's going to be a lot of driving around with a boot-full of novels. And I can't drive.

There is another option, which is just to give up writing. There's a certain freedom to that idea, a weight that lifts from my shoulders. But is that just because it's the easy thing to do, to walk away? Nothing worthwhile was ever easy, I'm certain of that. The thought of submission and publication is something that pushes me towards the end of a novel or encourages me to go through one more draft to perfect things further. What happens if that is taken away?

One positive thing that comes from the knowledge of never being published, would be the removal of the need to satisfy the market. I could write whatever I wanted with no concern for how the gatekeepers might view it, and satisfy my artistic aspirations, rather than my commercial ones. Perhaps I might even stop writing books altogether and throw my energies into digital-only projects. I have to admit that the idea of so much creative freedom worries me a little – would I start everything and finish nothing?

It's definitely a tough scenario and one that I hope won't come to pass. Because hope, I now realise, is a very important force in my creative life.