Nick's winning novel
BACK FROM THE DEAD by Nick Cross
Hi Nick and welcome to tall tales & short stories.
The floor is yours, take it away...
Let's go back to the start of my story. Ok, maybe not that far, it's sometimes depressing and the birth bits are pretty icky. Instead, let's pick June 2003. The BBC News website is running a competition entitled "Are You the Next JK Rowling?"
I'm browsing through the entries and frankly, they're rubbish. All stuff about pixies falling into bowls of magic porridge and meeting the enchanted Nibbly-Pibbly people. I can do better than that, I reckon, and I scribble out a brilliantly dark and sardonic 200 words about a young boy who is being held captive in a basement by a flamboyant baddie.
I press "Submit" and the message comes back "We are sorry. This competition has now closed."
Fast-forward again to January 2008. The winner of the competition did get published (in fact we have a copy in our house), but she was certainly not the next JK Rowling. I've spent the intervening period working on a teenage sex comedy novel that is both brilliant and a complete mess. The book misses the market by about a hundred miles, but two agents like it enough to read the full manuscript, making me determined to really nail my second novel.
Despite being traumatised from an early age by horror stories, I love them now, and I go to the cinema with my friend to watch Will Smith's I am Legend. It is rubbish.
In the restaurant afterwards, we discuss our frustration with the film, and especially the ending, because the movie finishes just as a cure for the zombieism has been found.
"Wouldn't it be great to start a story right there?" says my friend.
BANG. Suddenly I can see the whole opening: the first-person perspective of someone waking from their zombie state, the staccato thought patterns, the confusion.
This opening morphs into a book about a thirteen-year-old boy who wakes up to find himself captive in a basement (see what I did there?). He doesn't remember where or who he is, but it quickly becomes clear that he used to be a zombie. Like all good thirteen year-old boys, he knows precisely what a zombie apocalypse looks like, so he's rather disappointed to discover that life is still carrying on as normal.
As he comes to terms with this new environment, he finds out that the scientist who cured him isn't exactly sanctioned by the government and that his own parents are also zombies - running wild on the Yorkshire Moors and eating sheep.
Thrown into the eye of a very English storm, Griff Lawford has to cope with a family he didn't want, the search for his real parents and the daily struggle of not turning back into a zombie.
The book takes me about a year to write (which compares favourably with the four years the teenage sex comedy took). I get critique from my wife, from friends, from an academic editor I know. This being my second time through the process, I know the drill, so I have custom-designed my first three chapters to be as absolutely mind-blowing as possible.
I send them out to a handful of agents. I get a handful of rejections.
I join an adult writing group and receive some favourable murmurs, then one of the members tells me about his other critique group - The Society of Children's Something or Other, with an unpronounceable acronym to match. I go along, taking the first chapter of Back from the Dead and not sure what to expect.
The group leader reads my work and utters the fateful sentence "You should definitely enter this for Undiscovered Voices. Just make sure you don't go winning instead of me."
Thank you, Bekki Hill, for not killing me outright when you had the chance!
I grumble for a while about the cost of SCBWI membership (as if that wouldn't turn out to be the best seventy-five dollars I'd ever spend) then join and send off my submission.
Through the three months that follow, I maintain a cautious feeling of optimism about the competition. This isn't arrogance but simple ignorance - I have no idea how tough the competition will be or how highly regarded the anthology is within the industry. Still, when I get the call I am ridiculously, impossibly excited.
Then I start to doubt myself and my ability to actually get published - despite the glaring evidence to the contrary. This is the way it seems to go with me - life is full of ups and downs but I spend more time obsessing about the downs and less time enjoying the ups.
Anyway, I'm on the Undiscovered Voices rollercoaster now and it's thundering along whether I think I should be there or not. Less than an hour after the formal announcement of the results, I get a call from one of the Judges. My heart starts racing, my throat goes dry - the usual near-death feeling of actually talking to an agent after years of waiting.
Her first words after congratulating me on being among the winners? "I always say that there aren't enough apocalyptic horror novels for children."
My heart rate drops. My skin goes ice-cold. Hasn't she read the synopsis? I have to tell her. "Actually," I try to sound nonchalant, "actually, it isn't a post-apocalyptic zombie story at all."
This is a disaster! I hold my nerve through the rest of the conversation, but already it seems that my insecurities are being confirmed. In the end, it isn't the apocalyptic aspect that stops us working together, but the fact that we don't quite connect - either personally or through the material. I feel a little crushed, but it isn't the end of the world (boom boom), because another agent contacts me through my blog who ate my brain and asks to see the book.
Five days later - a mere blink of an eye in the world of publishing - she invites me to meet her. Meeting an agent? This must be it - I've finally made it.
I rearrange my week at work and nervously visit the agency. It's not far off what I expected - neatly packed with paper, books and ledgers, plus the occasional poster of Boris Yeltsin! It resembles a small efficient library, I suppose, and I'm led upstairs to where a conference table and a pretty good cup of coffee await me.
The agent does her best to put me at ease, but I find her a little scary (I still find agents scary in general). She has prepared for the meeting almost as hard as I have, and when she puts the manuscript down on the table it looks, shall we say, well loved. And well scribbled on. If this wasn't enough of a clue, the agent's words spell it out for me. "Your book," she says, eyes coolly fixed on mine, "has great potential."
Potential? Potential! This is not a word I want to hear - again my heart dives into my shoes and I want to run home to Mummy.
Instead, I grab my poor frayed nerves with both hands and listen to what she's saying.
Our meeting lasts an hour and a half, and is very productive, with plenty of creative back and forth. What it mostly produces, however, is a whole load of things for me to change in the book. I walk to the tube with shoulders slumped and no idea of how my precision-turned plot can possibly be twisted into the new shapes that she is suggesting.
By the evening, global warming sets in and I find glacier-sized blocks of plot starting to slide around in my head. This might just work, I tell myself. I am starting to understand that this is how you get a book to publication - you need just enough self-belief to keep moving forwards and just enough faith that you don't second-guess the changes you might have to make in the draft after this one.
Time to fast-forward once more.
There's a reason why, in all those movies about writers, they hardly ever do any writing. Just imagine how you'd feel about Stand by Me if Richard Dreyfuss did much more than type the last few lines of his novel onto that prehistoric green screen! As well as rewriting, I fill my time with reading children's books. This is something I've been avoiding for a year or more, afraid that I would unconsciously soak up another writer's ideas or voice. I choose boy books - Young Bond, Artemis Fowl - and I finally read The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, which is as clever, funny and touching as everyone has said.
After what seems like an age, I can see my own book getting better too. My wife informs me that the story is "much thicker", which I take to be a good thing and not a sign that it's turning into Wayne Rooney's memoirs.
The Undiscovered Voices anthology finally gets released into the wild and I receive a gratifying amount of interest. Some more agents contact me (one of whom gets the title of my book wrong) and quite a few commissioning editors. The shifting balance of power disturbs me - I would once have been happy to send these people my shopping list if I'd thought it would get me a book deal, now I'm refusing to give them my latest manuscript until it's completely ready. More disturbing than that, they are happy to wait.
In my insecurity, I wonder why they aren't just moving on to the next big thing. Maybe, just maybe, it's because they think that I am the next big thing. No pressure, then.
The launch party looms and we (the authors) focus on important stuff like who to take with us and what to wear. We seem to have selected a lot of black clothing - perhaps they won't circulate a photo sheet at the launch, but just tell the publishing masses to seek out the group dressed for a funeral. I say "group", but any hopes of huddling together for protection at the party are dashed by the Working Partners' facilitators, who make sure that no two authors are allowed to fraternise for more than twenty seconds. The social whirling of literary life passes off quite well, and I talk enthusiastically about writing for over two hours, to people who genuinely want to hear me.
The most telling moment is when an editor asks me about my day job and I struggle to describe it. That job is where I used to be, before Undiscovered Voices, before it all started. This, right here at the launch party, is where I want to get to. The story in-between is, both literally and metaphorically, one I have yet to write.
Welcome to the end of my beginning.
Nick's blog can be found at Who Ate My Brain