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04 November 2021

#WriteCBC tip and task from Michael Mann

by Katie Smart Events, From Our Students, Writing Tips

Welcome to our November edition of #WriteCBC. I hope you’re ready to be inspired by our latest writing challenge! If you haven’t taken part in a #WriteCBC competition before, we’re excited to welcome you to our writing community – and you can quickly get up to speed by reading this blog with information about how to play. It’s a lot of fun, and you might just win a free place on one of our six-week online writing courses.

This month’s special guest is the brilliant Michael Mann. Michael studied on our Writing YA & Children’s Fiction course in 2018, found representation with Curtis Brown’s Stephanie Thwaites, and landed a book deal with Hachette Children’s. His debut middle grade adventure story Ghostcloud is out now.

Michael’s Tip:

A good starting point for your story’s setting can come from taking a location you know and transforming it into a new, strange or dangerous place. For example, my debut Ghostcloud takes place in London, but not as we know it…

Experimenting with a well-known place is a brilliant way to generate ideas for a story, as your existing knowledge will help you convincingly portray the time, place and even the politics of your chosen setting.

This method can work extremely well with dystopian settings like that of Michael Mann’s Ghostcloud, which takes place in a future London where children work shovelling coal beneath Battersea Station to provide power to the city. This world is both advanced and archaic, because there have been great technological innovations as well as a rise in exploitation and poverty due to resource shortages and the fall out of a great war.

Read this short extract from Ghostcloud’s opening to get a sense of the strange, new London of the story:

‘Luke was a shoveller for the station’s first chimney. He kept the fuel coming in the great furnace room, feeding the fires till they glowed white-hot. Lines of children, one hundred kids long, snaked across the hall to the hungry flames, each passing coal dust to the child in front. Hidden from the millions of people above they powered all of London: from Big Ben’s beep to the robot-horse carriages, from Buckingham Palace to London Zoo.’

The changes Michael makes enhance his story and shock the reader, while the recognisable use of London landmarks (just not always how we expect them) helps the reader imagine the setting.

This method of drawing on real locations can also inspire fantasy settings. Think of Tolkien’s Middle-earth, so heavily influenced by the English countryside, the trenches in France and other European locations the author visited in his lifetime.

Of course, real locations often appear in novels, and there are many contemporary examples that spring to mind: Shaker Heights, Ohio in Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere; Ireland (particularly the fictional town of Carricklea) in Sally Rooney’s Normal People; New York in Raven Leilani’s Luster; Philadelphia in Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age; the fictional town of Mallard, Louisana in Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half (inspired by real towns in the Deep South). In each of these examples the authors take bits and pieces of the truth to invent entirely new towns, or makes changes or adds details to enrich their existing settings.

Michael’s Task:

Picture a place you know well (e.g. your home-town) and alter something. Perhaps a building, the landscape or the climate is drastically (or subtly) different. Write a mini-scene set here. How do your changes impact the characters and story?

Start by envisioning your well-known setting. This could be where you grew up, where you went to university, where you live now or perhaps a favourite holiday spot. 

Now think about what you’re going to change. A good way to generate ideas for this is to ask yourself ‘what if’ questions…

  • What if all the wildlife disappeared?
  • What if there was a drought/flood?
  • What if the electricity went out?
  • What if the sun never set?
  • What if the hospital was destroyed?

These are some quite dramatic examples, but your change(s) could be smaller, subtler and more quotidian. What if a new family moved in next door? What if they build a new shopping centre where a park used to be?

What you change and how big of a difference it makes is completely up to you. Just keep in mind that even a small change will cause a ripple effect that should lead to the action of your story.

Now it’s time to think about what story is taking place in your ‘parallel universe’. Perhaps your characters are inconvenienced by the change, fighting against the change or have always existed in this different reality so it appears normal to them but strange to the reader. Remember, we want to read something intriguing that is set somewhere uncanny, scary or even funny.

Please do share your mini-scenes by tweeting us (@cbcreative) – we can’t wait to visit your strange and exciting new worlds and discover what your characters are facing!

Follow Michael on Twitter @mikebmann.

Get your hands on a copy of Ghostcloud!


This month’s winner is… Mikey @MikeyboyWriter

This was his favourite place. Mine too. Sand and stones perpetually fighting to claim the beach their own. He loved the arrival of the waves, how they just kept coming back for more. He is somewhere else with someone else, and all about me lie guillemots drowned in oil. 

We love the themes of the consistent environment: the perpetual sand and stones, the waves that keep coming back. Then comes the change, the disruption of this cycle with the reveal that the beauty of the beach and ocean has been spoiled (much like the narrator’s past relationship).

Congratulations! Mikey has won a free place on the six-week creative-writing course of her choice.

Well done to our runners-up!

@catecawley and @See_Susanna both win a £50 discount to be used on the six-week creative writing course of their choice.

Please email to claim your prize!

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