It didn’t feel like it at the time, but my bad writing patches were when the huge leaps occurred. Scott Bain on YA, re-writing and his journey to our final four.
2016 shortlisted Scott Bain was born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, studied art and worked in London advertising agencies as an art director before moving to Stratford-upon-Avon. The God Bullet (YA Sci Fi) is set in a future London, where a teenage boy is hired to fire dangerous curses from a high-powered sniper rifle, until a hit goes badly wrong leaving him enemy number one in the London underworld. Scott lives in Warwickshire with his wife, Claire and two sons.
Congratulations, Scott, on reaching our final four from over a thousand entries.
Thank you so much. I still can’t quite believe it. To be on such a brilliant and diverse shortlist with a young adult novel was beyond anything I expected. The quality of the previous winners and shortlistees was so high I had no sense of anticipation waiting for the results.
There was an electrician in the house when the shortlist was announced. I was so happy I think he thought I’d lost my mind.
What’s the reaction been like from friends and family?
Everyone I know has been delighted for me. They all know how crazy I am about stories, and I’ve been boring them for years, talking about interlinking subplots or characters who are not as they seem, but I’m so grateful to them and for their support.
The God Bullet is the story of a teenage boy who is hired to fire dangerous curses from his high-powered sniper rifle in the London underworld. What sparked the idea for the book?
I have lots of notebooks filled with ideas but if I switch from words to sketching scenes and characters, that’s when I know I’m interested enough to pursue it further. That happened with The God Bullet. The idea came from a conversation I had with a friend about chakras, the invisible energy points of the human body. A few days later an image dropped into my mind of a boy on a rooftop firing a transparent curse bullet from a sniper rifle into a victim’s chakra. I think my subconscious worked out that chakras are circular, spinning discs of light, a little bit like targets. I’m intrigued by morally ambiguous and conflicted characters, so someone like Jay, a loving son The God Bullet and underworld sniper, really appealed to me.
How did you plot your book?
I created a rough twenty-page outline that included snippets of dialogue and chunks of scenes with the general direction that each chapter would take. Things changed as I wrote it but the central premise that Jay fired a curse bullet which came back to haunt him remained intact as the plot evolved. I want to plot more efficiently in future, hence my interest in screenwriting and story structure, but really the only way to see if it works is to write it.
How long did it take to write?
About seven years, as my priority was looking after my children when they were younger. I always went back to it when I could. I’ve made much more progress in the last couple of years. It went through two re-writes where I changed the setting and lost characters so I could really concentrate on Jay and his journey. I dread to think about the word count I’ve racked up, but I’m learning and improving all the time so re-writing is something I enjoy.
The setting is Outer London in 2049 and we especially loved your light and original approach to worldbuilding…
Thank you. It’s something that I really enjoy in fantasy and Sci Fi novels. Who doesn’t like stepping into a strange new world? I approached the worldbuilding in The God Bullet with geographical ideas and specific detail. There are places that are always just out of Jay’s reach, such as the immense starscrapers of Inner London and the M25 Fortress Wall, seen from a distance or mentioned, but never encountered directly. Then Jay experiences at first hand his advanced sniper rifle, his Omni-net band, the smell of garlic soup or a baboon trained to read tarot cards. My idea was that the city and Jay’s point of view should merge into something that appears lived in and functional and that seems to tick along even when his attention is elsewhere.
The technology in The God Bullet is diverse and mass-produced, so homes have small wind turbines, or solar sheets, and because they are affordable, everyone has them, and they create a messy look that merges with advertising hoardings and satellite dishes which blur the hard edges of buildings. I imagined it as a kind of man-made vegetation.
I lived in London for many years when I was an art director and although I loved the city and still do, the sheer mass of concrete, people and noise could be overwhelming. I remember standing in a packed tube train, deep underground, when a butterfly flew down the carriage. No one else seemed to notice it. Moments like this are poignant for city dwellers, and I’m sure that it led me to Jay’s ability to see something delicate and subtle, the spinning illumination of chakras, in a place where everyone seems to be out for themselves. There are such beautiful, unusual things in cities, you just have to be open to them. I love seeing skinny weeds pushing through gaps in concrete. Their optimism is inspiring.
But my best advice for worldbuilding would be to read Mortal Engines. Philip Reeve creates a stunning world that seems to exist. I often wish I could read it again for the first time.
It’s a highly visual, fast-paced book which feels like it could easily be adapted for the big screen. Was this something you had in mind?
I didn’t have that in mind, but I love stories that have a powerful forward momentum and visual look and that comes from being a film freak. Movies are my hobby and I read screenwriting books to learn about story structure, because in a screenplay, that’s all you really have. You can’t describe the setting much, or go inside the characters’ heads; all you have are the characters’ actions and their dialogue, and you have to infer to the audience their motivation and hopefully their deepest subconscious desires. It’s like the framework of a novel. I will write a screenplay one day.
You have such a talent for dialogue. Any tips?
Thank you. I really enjoy writing dialogue. I like to make characters talk in a different way. I notice how people speak and how it hints at their character, although dialogue should not try and replicate everyday speech.
Because Jay is a teenage boy, he only really becomes animated and vocal when things don’t go his way (as a father of teenage boys, I know this well). Damorion, the master cursemaker he works for, is more flamboyant and narcissistic so he tends to speak in longer sentences and uses similes and metaphors to elaborate his point of view. Musgrave, the underworld gangster that Jay antagonises, is a brutal man with a simple black and white world view, so he speaks in short sentences, like punches, straight to the point with the occasional grammatical error.
But I suppose the key to unlocking dialogue is conflict. If everyone is agreeing with each other then the scene is going to fall flat. There needs to be an imbalance in the conversation – possibly extremely subtle – that reflects two (or more) different world views. Of course people do agree, but try to keep that to a minimum. Also, it’s good to have characters that have secrets, or hidden depths they don’t yet understand that may be revealed as the story progresses. This can be hinted in dialogue and it’s a technique I’ve used in The God Bullet. Dialogue is ultimately story material, and if it doesn’t drive the story forward or complicate and enhance character relationships, then you should cut it.
The God Bullet is your first full-length novel. What else have you written?
I practised with few short stories but my natural inclination is towards a longer format so I had a go at a novel for younger children about the origin of clouds called The Cloudmaker. It was more like a long short story, with limited breadth and no subplots, of about 80 or 90 pages. It didn’t really work so I abandoned it when I realised I was drawn to darker, more complex ideas and characters.
How did you come to enter our prize?
Cornerstones Literary Consultancy have been incredibly helpful over the years and are passionate about writing. I heard about The Bath Novel Award when they sent out an email newsletter.
What kind of editorial support did you seek from Cornerstones? Mentoring hours or editorial reports?
I received two editorial reports from Cornerstones for The God Bullet (called The Fourth Chakra initially) and their input and guidance spurred me on and really improved my writing. The fact that they have countless stories passing through their hands every year means they are in a fantastic position to tell you what works or doesn’t. You get a sense that they look for the same things that agents and publishers do, which is a great story, brilliantly told.
Have you ever studied creative writing?
Yes, with Cornerstones and on Robert Mckee’s Three Day Story Seminar that is angled towards screenwriting, but still applies to anyone interested in writing stories. I also travel down to London to watch writers speak. The last one was a conversation between Neil Gaiman and David Mitchell (author of The Cloud Atlas) which was superb, really funny, and full of amazing ideas and inspiring advice.
As a child I loved 2000AD. The dangerous streets of Mega City One seemed more accessible to me than the town I lived in by the River Tyne. I also spent a lot of time in the local library, and although I read many books, I remember fondly The October Country by Ray Bradbury, The Crystal World by J.G. Ballard, and The Forever War by Joe Haldeman. I also loved The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.
The books and authors which have inspired me to write are Weaveworld and The Thief of Always by Clive Barker, His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, Great Expectations and A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, The Artemis Fowl books by Eoin Colfer, The Mortal Engines quartet by Philip Reeve, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North, Dark Eden by Chris Beckett, Snowcrash by Neal Stephenson, and everything by David Mitchell and Neil Gaiman, but especially American Gods and Coraline, and lots of other authors and books that are too numerous to mention.
Where and when do you write?
I have a desk in a spare bedroom that is full of clothes and boxes so it always feels like I’m pushing through the wardrobe into Narnia, but if that gets too claustrophobic I write at the kitchen table with my two dogs at my feet and our Siberian Forest Cat, Jasmine, trying to absorb the heat from my laptop. I write anytime I can, and if it’s going well, late into the night.
Tell us about you.
Home is Stratford-upon-Avon which I love, with my wife Claire, and two sons, Joe and Sam. My career after art college was working in the creative departments of advertising agencies. I love winter and especially the night sky and I follow the progress of deep space probes with the enthusiasm of a dog chasing an ice cream van. I had a small telescope as a child and seeing the craters of the moon and the four brightest moons of Jupiter blew me away. Around that time, I remember watching The Cosmos by Carl Sagan. I loved the way he merged poetry and science so beautifully. He added meaning to our awe-inspiring universe. He was a wise, gentle being. We need more people like that around now.
Have your children read your book? If yes, what did they make of it?
This question made my wife, Claire, laugh. My two boys haven’t read it because they see it as work in progress and don’t want to commit to something that is, as they describe it, not yet available in the shops. Thank you boys!
Do you have a critique group?
I’m not in a critique group. I sent The God Bullet to Cornerstones and to my friend Dianne who was a huge help, spotting things that didn’t make sense and silly typos.
I’ve also had terrific support and encouragement from the fantastic YA author Bryony Pearce. I’m so grateful to her – you really can’t do this alone.
What are you writing now/next?
I have several ideas that I’m working on so soon I will be able to type Chapter One with that lovely blank white page beneath it.
Lastly, any advice for anyone thinking of entering their novel for a future award?
The Bath Novel Award is a fantastic competition and you really must enter it, so improve it until it feels like someone else wrote it. Don’t worry if your writing ever goes through a bad patch. It may not feel like it but this is when the huge leaps occur. Just keep going. Your love of writing will overcome any obstacles.
I can only really talk about The God Bullet so this doesn’t apply to every genre, but make sure that there is a lot at stake for the main character, that they have a clear goal, and most importantly, that you retain your sense of wonder for the world. Anything is possible.
Read the opening chapters of The God Bullet by Scott Bain here
The Bath Children’s Novel Award (£2,000 prize judged by JULIA CHURCHILL of AM Heath Literary Agency) is currently OPEN to entries from writers of YA or MG novels.
Interview by Caroline Ambrose, July 2016