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Michael Mann: 'I wanted to write a book with a mixed-race hero, who was half-something, like I am'

BY Katie Smart
26th Jun 2020

Michael Mann took online Writing YA & Children's Fiction course in 2018. After taking the course he became a client of Curtis Brown agent Stephanie Thwaites and now he has an exciting book deal with Hachette Children's for his debut middle grade novel Ghostcloud.

Read on to find out about Michael's 'messy' excel spreadsheet (used for tracking his writing progress) as well as the inspiration behind Ghostcloud and his journey to publication ...

You worked on your debut novel during our Writing YA & Children’s Fiction course in 2018 – how did the course change your approach to writing?

I feel like I went in an enthusiast, but left with a much more professional outlook. Catherine really pushed us – every sentence had to work hard, every character needed to feel real, and the opening couldn’t be ‘good enough’, it had to be great if you wanted to catch an agent’s interest. This led to much gnashing of teeth, but I know I’m a better writer for it.

Now, when I edit, I often find myself ‘channelling’ Catherine and my other course mates. There’s this voice in my head saying:
- Is this dialogue too on the nose? (Yes, usually.)
- Is there enough conflict? (No, usually.)
- Is this moving the plot forward? (Sometimes)

The course also taught me to trust my instincts. Though you get this mountain of fantastic feedback, you also see that what one course mate loves, another may hate. Ultimately, it’s you need to go with your gut. (Unless they all hate it… then you change it.)

Many writers find a group of trusted readers on our courses, are you still in touch with any of your course mates?

Yes, absolutely. At first, we basically ran our own version of the course, swapping a few thousand words a month with a feedback timetable (there was an excel and everything!). Later, we shared extracts (or whole manuscripts) on a more ad hoc basis. Recently, in a desperate attempt to complete our edits, a few of us set up a weekly check in, to hold each other to account.

One of the best things has been getting to celebrate each other’s achievements – whether it’s a first draft, a competition win, a new jobs or baby. Though the emails are less regular now, there’s always a lot of love, generosity and collective wisdom there to draw on.

After completing the course, you became agented by Curtis Brown’s Stephanie Thwaites, can you tell us a bit about how you worked together to get your novel ready to submit to publishers?

As soon as I read Stephanie’s bio, I realised we shared a similar (and excellent!) taste in books. When the course finished, I almost submitted, but then decided to wait and edit more. In the end, it was a whole year before I submitted, but the book was much stronger for it. I had a few agents interested, but Steph (and her brilliant assistant Izzy) had great ideas and so much passion, I had to pick them.

I actually received the first set of edits the week lockdown started. I’m a teacher - and asthmatic - and it had been a very stressful week at school. I thought I’d be distracted, but instead, it galvanised me. With the world basically ending, I knew I had to finish the book. I wrote during my toddler’s naps and late into the evening, and ended up finishing the first edits in a couple of weeks.

It was very much a collaborative process. They had really perceptive questions about the book’s world and its mythology, which frankly, I hadn’t even considered. I felt privileged to have them engaging so deeply in my work, and the world is so much richer as result.

They brought lots to the table without ever imposing their ideas. It was fun. For example, when working on secondary characters, we had a lively debate about whether my pipe-smoking villainess wouldn’t look better with a stylish cigarette-holder. After I sent a bucket of photos of badass pipe-smoking ladies they were very much convinced.

Your debut novel Ghostcloud will be published by Hachette Children’s. How did you feel when you found out that you were going to be a published novelist?

Giddy. Thrilled. It all felt unreal. I’d barely left the house for weeks, and suddenly, invisibly, everything had changed. I ran downstairs to Joe and opened a bottle of bubbly, and then we jumped up and down in our tiny garden. I think our toddler joined in. It was one of those gorgeous lockdown sunny afternoons.

I’d love to have celebrated with my friends and family, but in hindsight, it was perfect. Writing is such a solitary pursuit, a private celebration felt somehow appropriate.

And the Hachette team are just brilliant, I couldn’t have wished for more. We’d met them via Zoom, and my (wonderful) editor Anne had got the whole senior team on board. They were so experienced, full of ideas and excited about the book. They’d even changed their zoom background to a cloudscape to fit my novel!

Can you tell us a bit more about your middle grade debut Ghostcloud and the setting and the inspiration behind it?

Ghostcloud is a magical adventure about a boy who escapes his workhouse with help from a ghost, set in the furnaces and skies of a steampunk London.

Much of the book is set in Battersea Power Station, but not as we know it. Instead of luxury flats, it’s a functioning plant. Thousands of kids shovel coal to its furnaces, overseen by the glamorous scientist Tabatha Margate and her greasy henchman. It’s all gloomy and fun and over the top, and I had great fun writing it.

I’ve always loved London monuments, and books like Aiken’s Wolves and Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, where the author reinvents a familiar landscape, in a playful way. As a teacher, I also get to see the kids’ wonder first hand when we go on school trips - things we take for granted, like the River Thames, often blow their mind. So I went to town: I closed the Channel Tunnel, flooded East London (I love houseboats), and turned South London into a toxic wasteland. (Apologies, South Londoners – I do like it, really, it’s just so far from my house.)

There are a couple of other inspirations too. I’m an avid cloudspotter, and ever since I was kid, and my grandad Luke died, I liked to imagine he was up there – that when I saw a shape in the clouds, it might have seen me too. That led to the ghostcloud idea – ghosts riding clouds through sky, bending their shape to their will to catch the wind. In the book, the flying and cloudscape scenes were great fun to write and I think help balance the gloom of Battersea.

Then finally, I wanted to write a book with a mixed-race hero, who was half-something, like I am. The protagonist, twelve-year-old Luke Smith-Sharma, is half-Indian like me, and sometimes he wishes he could be one thing properly. I wanted to deal with that sense of not fitting the category. I see it often when I teach. A child might be South American, but feel embarrassed that they don’t speak Spanish. It’s not a big worry for them, but it’s there, and that’s how I’ve tried to write the book: an adventure at heart, but with those ideas in the background. I can’t help feel that growing up might have been easier if there’d been a mixed-race Matilda or queer Tintin.

What does a typical writing day look like for you?

I’m not good at routines. I’m better with deadlines. But at the moment, I basically write:

- When my daughter is napping (when she grows out of this, it will be my turn to have a tantrum)

- 2-3 evenings a week (sometimes with a glass of wine)

- And when my partner is looking after my toddler (we divide and conquer a fair bit at the weekend, so we each get some solo time)

I keep a messy excel sheet, where I log what I’ve done each day (it’s less target setting, than a retrospective pep talk, as I have tendency to get a bit doom and gloom about how little I’ve done). I often set myself an easy target, like 300 new words each day, and find that once I’m in the swing, I may write much more.

I swear by those noise cancelling websites (e.g. noisli), coffee and chocolate in moderation, and do find it helps to have a separate space, whether it’s a café or desk to get away from everyone.

Do you have an advice for aspiring authors work on children’s fiction?

- Don’t be too critical of yourself. Especially at the start, and in early drafts. I had years when I didn’t write anything, because it didn’t measure up to what I wanted. Then I had some great, encouraging course tutors (CityLit, City University & Curtis Brown Creative), and began to get back into it.

- Make time for it. I went four days a week for a year, and dedicated that fifth day to writing. That was a turning point, and enabled me to complete my first (terrible) novel. Now, I have a two-year-old and far less time, but the habit is there, and I find it easier to carve out time than before.

- Take on feedback, but filter feedback too. Tutor and course feedback was instrumental for me, but I also learned to trust my instinct and ignore (politely!) too. At the end of the day, you need to be happy with your book, that’s within your control – and if it gets published, it’s a bonus.

Finally, what’s next for your writing journey?

Writing the sequel – my editor wants it next year! I’ve started, but I’m hoping my school let me go part-time from September, otherwise it’s going to be intense.

I’d like to keep improving as a writer. I’m hoping to spend a little time each week on short stories or poetry, probably on an informal course, to keep me fresh.

Finally, overcoming my social media angst. I am determined to embrace the tweeting (though currently even WhatsApp stresses me out). Any tips welcome. I’m on @mikebmann.

Get your hands on a copy of Ghostcloud!