Friday, 26 April 2013

Back from the Dead - My 2010 Undiscovered Voices Extract

I try my very best to do something new every week on this blog, but this week I'm doing something old! Inspired by the inclusion of the 2012 anthology on the SCBWI Undiscovered Voices website, I thought it was a shame that you weren't able to see the extracts from the earlier anthologies. So here is a small piece of that puzzle, the Undiscovered Voices 2010 winning extract from my own zombie horror comedy Back from the Dead. I hope you enjoy it, and if it inspires you to enter your own work for this year's competition, then all the better.

Looking back at this now, four years after I first wrote it, I'm mostly just pleased that it all makes sense! It was a wild ride for me once the anthology came out and I ended up rewriting 80% of the novel before it went out to publishers. Although it didn't quite make it to publication, I remain immensely proud of it. And who knows what the future holds? After all, you can't keep a good zombie down!

Nick.

Friday, 19 April 2013

Anything for a Laugh?

After reading Celia J. Anderson's article for Word & Pictures this week on Writing Humour for Children, I commented that I was glad she'd covered the subject, because some writers can get a bit snooty about funny books. But in the hours following, I realised that I was just as guilty of being snooty. Reading Celia's impassioned defence of toilet humour for nine-year-olds, I'd thought "That's all very well for her, but not for my book."

So what caused that reaction? It's fair to say that I'm writing for a slightly older middle-grade audience (I'm guessing that Celia writes for 7-9), which gives me more latitude in terms of character, plot complexity and subtlety of humour. But I think it also reflected my own fears that my work-in-progress – which I'm describing as a comedy adventure – might not be funny enough for my intended readers. I do love slapstick (and there's plenty of it), but so far no farts or burps, and only one pair of amusing underpants. Will my otherwise dry comedy of family manners translate to a preteen audience?

It's ironic that I'm apparently seeking some higher moral ground for my writing, because when I'm with my own children I'll do anything for a laugh. Bad puns, stupid names, deliberate mishearings or humour on all manner of bodily functions – nothing is too cheap if it gets a reaction. Even in my professional life, I have a habit of joking in haste and repenting at leisure. Just last week I got a huge laugh at a staff meeting for a joke at the expense of a colleague, then felt bad afterwards for my meanness. It wasn't a career limiting joke (I hope), but it did make me acknowledge the dangerous adrenaline hit that pleasing an audience can bring.

Should I sacrifice my artistic vanity and be prepared to stoop to any level to please my readers? After all, one of the virtues of good children's writing is its transparency and lack of distance between writer and reader. But I would also point out that humour is a subjective thing that's very much in the eye of the beholder. I couldn't possibly write a "funny" book that I didn't myself find funny – that would be a horrible experience for everyone. Looking back over some of the other comments left on Celia's post, it seems like I wasn't the only one wanting to approach humour in a different way – which makes me feel better.

Perhaps this whole internal debate is another stick to beat myself with, something I shouldn't be worrying about at the first draft stage. I had another small wobble regarding voice last week (and thank you to everyone who assured me I did have one), so maybe it's reflective of general self-confidence issues as I try to power through to the end of the story. One of the things I love most about this blog (apart from you, dear readers) is the way it allows me to channel my fears constructively, rather than just letting them bounce endlessly around my skull. Which, in turn, gives me more spare time to pour custard down my pants or shout "Bum!" at passing policemen.

Nick.

Friday, 12 April 2013

The Book That's Just Like Mine

When I'm in a low mood, I try to avoid children's book stores. It isn't that I don't love reading children's books, it's just that sometimes the shops themselves give me the fear. Row upon row of books by authors who I've never heard of, all of them scrapping and struggling to find an audience. "What chance for me?" I ask myself, and then sadly turn away. Anyway, this week I found myself in the children's book section looking for a present for my daughter. And that was when I saw it:

The Book That's Just Like Mine

I turned it over in my hands, reading the title and looking at the illustration on the front. It wasn't exactly the same story I was currently writing, of course, but it was close enough. I flicked through and put it back on the shelf. On the way home, I knew what I should be hoping, that the book would be a success, so that every publisher would want their own version of the story. But I couldn't hold back the self-flagellation, cursing myself for being so slow at writing and letting someone else get there first. Suddenly, my book idea wasn't as fresh and new as it had felt that same morning.

A kind of low-grade panic overtook me, a feeling that I needed to accelerate the process of finishing my first draft so I could get my book out there before it was too late. I sat at my computer and composed an email to an editor, attaching the first chapter so they could take a look at it and hopefully start building an early buzz about the book. My cursor hovered over the Send button and then I clicked Save Draft instead. In a moment of clarity, I had realised what I needed to do most of all at this point in time, and that was to:

Hold My Nerve

I wrote the first half of this blog, then went back to my book with renewed purpose. And what do you know, this is the best I've felt about it in weeks. My low mood has lifted and I've carved out a couple of chapters that I really like. And all of that from a situation that would have driven me to despair just a couple of years ago.

As authors, we're always being told by agents that the worst thing we can do is send them a book too early, that it's better to take the time to get it right. But on the other hand, we also see them chasing trends and rushing to get books ready for the London Book Fair, Frankfurt and Bologna. So it isn't surprising that we're conflicted! I've been affected by bad timing with my last two books, in both cases caused by oversaturated YA trends that affected the market for middle-grade acquisitions as well. Both books were eminently publishable, but as yet, neither has been published.

So here I am, still holding my nerve and looking forward to returning to my manuscript when this blog is finished. But I know from experience that this won't be the last bump on the road – what happens the next time I feel the jaws of failure approaching? Hmm, maybe I'd better delete that draft email...

Nick.

Friday, 5 April 2013

The Art of Transgression

Long-time readers will know that I like to play the odd video game, and we’ve recently bought one called Need for Speed: Most Wanted. Unlike most games, it has no real plot, characters or story. It simply dumps you into a high-powered supercar and invites you to drive around a beautifully-realised American city, crashing into other vehicles, accelerating past speed cameras, evading the police and taking part in illegal street races. Its whole raison d’ĂȘtre is to provide the player with endless opportunities for transgression, and it’s hardly surprising that my kids love it.


The game features no bad language or sex, and any violence is confined to vehicles crashing, crunching and rolling over. There are no pedestrians to be seen and the drivers of the various cars are rarely glimpsed (and never injured, even after the worst accident). So it’s a game with a 7+ rating that I’m happy for my children to play, but clearly not everyone feels the same way. My daughter was breathlessly describing the gameplay to another member of our family the other week, and he was visibly disturbed by what she was saying. He kept interrupting her with questions such as: "But you wouldn’t do that in real life, right?" He seemed to need assurance that she wasn't going to run out into the street, steal a Porsche and smash it into the nearest police van. I should mention at this point that she’s only nine!

In my experience, we are all fascinated by transgression, but none more so than children. Through video games, films and books they're keen to explore the boundaries of society, to enjoy the thrill that comes from breaking the rules, but without the danger of doing it for real. From chapter books upwards, child protagonists find themselves sneaking out, keeping secrets, breaking rules and generally going against the wishes of adults. Transgression and the associated risk of punishment are key mechanisms for raising tension in children’s writing.

But sometimes, well-meaning adults will try to restrict children’s ability to explore transgression, believing that exposing them to such things increases the risk that they will actually carry them out. This leads to the seemingly endless debates about the influence of violent video games and arguments about sex, drugs, self-harm etc. in YA fiction. Personally, I think children are a lot cleverer than we give them credit for and are able to play-act from an early age, clearly distinguishing fantasy from reality. I also think it’s my responsibility as a parent to vet what my children read, watch or play. I welcome consumer advice on films, games and even books (such as what Hot Key provide), but it’s ultimately there to help me and the kids select what’s appropriate for their age and emotional development.

Exploring transgression can be educational and, more importantly, a whole lot of fun. What writer doesn’t enjoy crafting those parts of the story where someone does something very very bad? Without the risk of transgression, our world would be a safe and boring place indeed. So please excuse me, because I’m off to crash a few more hundred-thousand-dollar cars.

Nick.