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.