Good Films

Despite my best intentions, I wasn’t able to get to the pictures to see the last Avengers film. Or Captain Marvel. Or pretty much anything since, possibly, the last Star Wars film (and I’m not even going to go there because I’m still furious with 1) a rubbish story, badly told 2) that someone thought it was a good to idea to throw out everything we know about certain characters and the whole franchise to date and 3) that someone seemed really, really desperate to be the one who got to kill Luke – well done, you!) – that’s a cinema demon that definitely needs exorcising, and one that I’m sure I will if I ever manage to get a chunk of free time when I’m not sleeping).

And, breathe.

But! I have had a cold and that’s meant I’ve taken the foot off the gas a little and I’ve watched stuff.

Prospect was great (and low budget) sci-fi fun.

Green Book was absolutely magnificent. I adored it. You’re welcome.

still grumbling: bloody Rian Johnson.

Experimental Writing Deadline

The Streetcake Magazine Experimental Writing Prize’s deadline is fast approaching so there’s still time to enter something, poem or prose, for the chance to be mentored by a professional writer (I’m one!). For me, ‘experimental’ can means anything you like – it doesn’t have to be whacky or weird (it can if you like!). We experiment, I think, every time we write something and that’s what I’d like to see when I’m reading the entries. I like it when we do something different, put a different slant on a familiar theme, offer an unexpected perspective. It’s up to you how you approach it – tell a story backwards, show us something we might not have noticed before (there’s a brilliant thing Margaret Atwood says about re-telling Little Red Riding Hood – why not start with It was dark inside the wolf).

So, don’t be daunted – embrace the opportunity to explore whatever you fancy without any restrictions. Surprise us! We’re (all the judges) looking forward to working with one of you soon…

Teen Music

You’re the most malleable and open as a person, I think, when you’re in your early teens. That’s the place where you’re wanting to expand beyond what’s familiar, when you’re the most curious about the world (and able to explore it and process the things you see) and when you’re able (sometimes because of you £10.60 a week paper round) seek more truths. And, I guess, it’s when art’s the most accessible and when it can affect you the most.

I’ve spoken here before about how studying First World Way poetry in English alongside The Great War in history made me want to be a writer. It’s one of the precious few things I’d thank my school for. And it must be one of the main, driving reasons I think working with young people’s so important (and why I love it so much). This is the time to give them things that could shape their lives – be it Owen’s poetry, Buddy Wakefield’s spoken word, Aimee Bender’s short stories, novels, films, and music.

In 1994 I was a very wet behind the ears lad who’d (thanks mum) already had a reasonable musical education. When I found people like The Clash, Nirvana, Therapy?, Terrorvision (so many more, but I’m knackered and nursing a cold so that’ll have to do for now) – everything changed because these were normal people making this fantastic, noisy, angry music that was good. And when I look at what The Clash did for me, in terms of a political and societal education – well, I don’t know who I’d be without that. Their message was good: it was left wing, it was inquisitive, it was about being angry at injustice – anti-facist, anti-racist – embracing all colours and cultures. And looking pretty fucking cool doing it. (With pompadours.)

And in 1994 I remember watching MTV’s Headbangers’ Ball’s coverage of the Monster of Rock festival at Donnington Park. The video will still be at my mum’s. The Wildhearts blew me away. It was like finding a sort of home. They were this brilliant mix of Motorhead and Metallica and The Beatles. Loud and angry but their songs were so brilliantly crafted. And Ginger’s always been a wonderful lyricist – funny, angry, and able to hit the nail squarely on the head (I still love the anti-abuse words of Give The Girl a Gun).

Since the turn of the year I’d been listing to them again, and then: boom! New album was a comin’. I bought it the night it was released and listened to it like we used to listen to new albums – when they were an event.

It’s brilliant. Every song is brilliant. It’s not a collection of things, the album, itself is something to listen to in its entirety (and I don’t think people do that as much as they used to). It’s heavy (production-wise, it might be their heaviest as a whole (forgetting individual songs like Chutzpah! and the like) but now, along with being pissed off with the right things (sexism, homophobia, the state of internet bullying, the pharmaceutical making billions as a priority over helping people, mental health – not giving time to w*****s (did I blog about that…?)) there’s a real wisdom to the words. I don’t want to sound patronising and say ‘social responsibility’ but I just did, so tough luck.

Renaissance Men (click to buy) is the best album I’ve heard in years. It sings and it soars and it’s as catchy as hell and honest – and you know that they mean it. And it feels like owning a new album used to feel: anticipate, wait, order, buy, play it to DEATH. Buy a band tee. Pray that they’re touring. (They were – well they are – and seeing them at The Stylus in Leeds was everything you’d want from a band – I don’t think there’s a band better at what they do, and I mean that honestly.)

Go, listen to them. Go, see them live. Google them. Find them on Youtube or Spotify or – better – buy their records (it does make a difference – we all need to eat). And, if not them, do me a favour and find someone new. Get a different perspective or find someone who reaffirms your own, or someone who might get you to question things. It’s a big world out there, with a ton of ideas: let them into your mind through your ears, or your eyes. You don’t know who you’ll end up being if you don’t.

National Writing Day, 2019

My Worlds

And a quick postcard of lovely before the long weekend… Melior Academy’s School Winner of First Story’s 100 word competition, now freshly printed and glorious. Congrats, Mia!

Hive, Hull, Huddersfield, and Somewhere Not Beginning With H

Typically, it’s been a break-neck, non-stop, busy few months. I’m still writing and working on something I seem to have thought I’d have finished by the end of the month every month since February but these things take time and I’d rather end up with something really good than something quickly. In incidental, Nik news… I have bought a hat and a dressing gown. It works for late working nights like this. I have not drunk beer this year. And I have been watching a lot of things about art – most of them, not literature which is cool because I think forms feed into forms. I’ve been reading more science-fiction than I have in a long time, too.

More more excitingly…

The HIVE YOUNG WRITERS’ FESTIVAL IN THE NORTH happened and it was incredible – even better than the last. Hats off to the team (99% Vicky Morris) for pulling of such a jaw-droppingly awesome (and I don’t use that word lightly) day. We were in a state-of-the-art building at Sheffield Hallam University, there were workshops from pretty much every angle: page and performance poetry; novel, horror, comedy, historical fiction, plays, gaming, short story (hello), zine-making, song writing – even a little something on comic books. One to one sessions with industry pros, a booming open mic. And a good lunch. It was a sell-out. There is nothing like it, I swear. I know everyone will have their own highlight, but I loved chairing a panel with the brilliant Simon Bestwick, And Other Stories, Oz Hardwick, and Bluemoose Books. You can read all about, and see the pics, here.

I took a train up to Hull University, and then Huddersfield for two First Story events, and they were brilliant too. More young people, more celebrating stories and poems and teaching and the wonderful things they made. I loved it. You know, writing’s a strange old thing in that you can be as euphoric and proud of something someone else has created and been brave enough to share as you get about your own stuff. It’s cool that you’ve helped facilitate it but, for what it’s worth, I think the best things you can give anyone wanting to write are confidence and audience – even if that’s only a pair of eyes or ears. Of course, I think you have to know a thing or two first, but I seem to be getting by okay… It’s a privilege (I can never spell that) to be asked and to be involved. (And I’m waving at the Zelazny Girls – hello Anna and Lizzie!)

And the other highlight (these are in no order at all) was the launch of Melior Academy’s anthology launch. I was in Scunthorpe, as writer in residence, until 9pm last Thursday feeling absolutely humbled by the quality and the passion and the kindness of the young writers there, the audience, and the school. I even got my own tee, with the cover on its front (which was designed and illustrated by a super talented year 7).

I am tired now and, of course, there’s been loads and loads of stuff that I’ll come to later, or that I’m not allowed to talk about, or that’s boring, or that I just don’t have time to share (remind me to talk about the autism dog buddy moment one day) but let’s just say it’s been a brilliant few months and it’s a pleasure having a hand in good things and sharing space with so many talented and generous people. You can’t fake quality and you can’t fake commitment for the right reasons – and they’re the things I want to be involved with. Good, supportive, inclusive, nurturing things – with neither ego nor arrogance – are what moves the world towards being a better place, and what helps the people in it shine.

The Animal Child

One of my non-actual-Nik-writing jobs is being Writer in Residence at Melior Community Academy in Scunthorpe for First Story. I’ve been there since last May (a year!) and I absolutely love it (in fact, I’ve just seen the anthologies comprising the best of the work that we’ll be launching next week – they’re so good – more of that soon).

And today, one of the brilliant young writers (and there are many) has a piece featured in First Story’s Friday story. Rosie’s in Year 7. Yes, I know…

Big thanks, too, to Olivia Moyes (who’s not at school) for her incredible illustration. I love it!

Tanaka Mhishi, poet and playwright says, ‘This last line is both sinister and bold. The voice of the hunter comes lunging up towards the reader from the page, and it’s especially brutal following the incredible tenderness of the rest of the poem. We know the hunter has caused a massive separation, and yet he has tied his story to the other characters irrevocably. It’s a hard thing for a writer to create a good villain, harder still to do it in a poem with so few words at their disposal. This is definitely how it’s done.’

Big Top!

The Big Top’s up now for my local arts festival. It’s blue and white and big and it’s on the rec. It looks very impressive whenever I drive past it. And so does the bunting. It’s all very lovely. But there’s a really scary message hidden there too.

Does it fill me with joy and pride? Nah. It really doesn’t. I think it’s brilliant that a small village/town like the one I grew up in, and have lived most of my life – the place where I’ve written all of my books – has a cultural event – and this, for the size of the place, is a four-yearly big one. I think it’s terrific. But there’s also something really uncomfortable about it too that organisers and participants might miss, and something hugely misleading. Something that can kill local art. (Because all art starts at home.) And it’s something that can limit the potential new stuff people are exposed to.

When I first started out having books and stories out there, I offered to be involved. They didn’t want me. Neither did the next bunch of organisers. Or the ones after that. Repeat: over 12 years. And that’s fine – I’m certain that anyone who ever volunteers to organise an event like that has the best of intentions. The trouble is, those intentions don’t mean they know what they’re doing. It means they probably know what they like and, as a result, that’s what gets put on. With, perhaps, not enough thought of the audience (and don’t get me wrong – if I was doing it there’d be Vonnegut interpretive dance and Aimee Bender mimes – immersive Asimov silent discos, and an imagined walk around Kawakami’s Tokyo). But then I wouldn’t be thinking of anyone else, would I?

My point is this. I have been trying to be involved for over a decade, and I’ve been ignored or told the same thing (ie it won’t be like this next time) and I’ve learned that it’s all quickly forgotten. I’ve given up now. I’d have done it for free – since 2004 I’ve been doing what I do really well all over the country and I’d have loved to have been able to give something back. To inspire people. To show them an uneducated local lad can get somewhere. Or just to talk about stories and celebrate them. To show that writing isn’t a closed door. That we can all do it or enjoy it.

But you know what’s really, really scary? If I’d have taken my home town’s arts people’s opinion as a measure of success I would have got nowhere. I would be a failure. I would have given up long ago. No Kensington Palace summer parties, no teaching at Oxford, Cambridge, the BBC. No being used on the same course as a Pullitzer prize nominee, no awards, prizes, brilliant residencies. No amazing experiences at other festivals (I’ve loved them all!).

No books.

Jesus, there’d be no career!

I have advice for people just starting out: get out of where’s familiar. Try new places. Do not EVER think you need to tick a small box before you move on to the bigger things. While there are tons of brilliant local writing groups and things like that where you can grow (don’t turn your noses up at those – they’re where great stuff is nurtured, where it grows – just don’t expect them to feed into anything bigger just down the road), look beyond them. Not every town aims for cultural diversity. Not every organiser even thinks of it. Aim high – you might not get there straight away (I didn’t) but at least you’ll be putting yourself, and your work, in places that might understand what you do better. (There’s a great segment on youtube where Ira Glass talks about you not being at the level you want to be at, but reminding you you know this because of what you know of the form you love. Chase that over local recognition.)

Aim to be brilliant. Keep your local writing buddies (they’ll get you, and support you) – Be brave – you’re probably a lot better than you think you are. And, if you can, find something that you love locally (I’m sort of hoping there’s more for you than there was for me here!) There’s a big world out there, and a lot of it will have far better taste than the one you might be living in right now.

New Stories

I think the weirdest thing about being a writer is that you can spend as much time as you want writing without feeling like much of a writer. I’ve always said that being in a room with other writers helps with that – it’s probably some sort of antidote to the hours we spend on our own and in our own heads – sharing space with people doing the same thing, or struggling to do the same thing, is a nourishing thing. Teaching, doing readings – they help as well because there’s a connection between you and who you’re working with and, I believe that writing, that stories, are always a sort of dialogue between reader and author, even when you’re not even in the same room.

The best connection though, the best thing about being a writer, is having work out there and having people read it (and enjoy it). And it’s been a strange couple of years in terms of output from me. I’ve spent loads of time writing, and I’ve written loads of stuff – some I’m really proud of, others that are best not remembered but, for a multitude of reasons, stuff hasn’t been getting out there. Mostly that’s because of time and me not actually sending things anywhere (which is a bad habit I developed – new writers: once you’re happy that what you’ve written is the best it can be get into that habit of sending stuff out there – and when it comes back, see if you can make it better and then send it out again – read the places who publish the sort of things you write, enjoy what they publish, and aim to be as good as them).

Which is a long way of saying that I’m delighted that two of my stories, one about a mistaken wink on a train, another about someone appearing, mysteriously, in someone’s morning cup of coffee, are live over at the brilliant Across The Margain. They’re both stories I’m proud of and I’m thrilled that they’re out there for other people to read. It feels good to be back.

You can read them both BY CLICKING HERE.

ROBOTS!

I’m coming to this, typically, late (both because it happened two weeks ago and because I’m typing this at 1:30 in the morning), but let’s not that stop us. It’s busy at the moment, and busy with good things, so I’m not complaining.

Over half term I had the BEST time. I worked in libraries all over Sheffield with younger writers and we wrote about robots. We designed them. We made characters who were robots and characters who made and used robots and sometimes the stories or poems were funny, sometimes they were terrifying, sometimes they were filled with tension and were super action-packed, but they were all, always, brilliant. The best thing about this job is ideas, and it’s a genuine thrill sharing the ideas that other people have. It was one of the best weeks I’ve had teaching – I had an absolute ball and I’m so, so happy that everyone produced something good and had fun doing it. And I worked with a lot of people.

Huge, huge thanks to Sheffield Library Service for asking me back again and to all the amazing staff in Stocksbridge, Ecclesall, The Children’s Central Library, Chapeltown, and Darnall – and an even bigger thanks to everyone who came.

Watch this space for more soon… (I know the places filled up super quickly again and I’m sorry we couldn’t accommodate everyone who wanted to be involved – the waiting lists were bulging – I promise we’re all working really hard to accommodate as many as we feasibly can next time.)

And here’s some brilliant things…