We are a reading group from a year 7 class at Saint Peter’s Prep School in Cambridge. We are really into our reading and have easily reached our fifty book target this year already! Fantasy is a huge part of our reading and we really enjoyed Gary’s Super Sister because it included the element of fantasy in everyday life. We have also been studying heroes so this theme fit into the conversations we were having in class. Most of us are also really into writing! We write in our spare time and would love to know more about the writing process where which will help to get our own work published!
Gary Cross is a junior fiction writer who usually writes horror stories. Some of his books are Super Sister, Borderland and Empire of the Dead. He lives with his wife Karen and his three kids in Auckland. He used to run his own advertising agency, but now is a creative director for others. He has several picture books and children’s novels published. He went to Horahora Primary and Whangarei High when he was younger and lived in a hotel that his parents owned and met a resident who told him horror stories which inspired his passion for writing them for his work. (Note from Paula: I went to Horahora primary school too! I wonder how many other writers went there?)
- How do you get ideas for your books and titles?
Historical events (Plague of the Undead sprang from the idea of “what if the Great Fire of London was started to get rid of an infestation of vampires?”), current events, folk tales or legends, things that have happened to me, or even a casual conversation with a friend. Another inspiration was a guy called Paul Rogers who used to stay at the hotel my parents ran when I was a kid. He was blind – in exchange for me reading stories to him, he’d tell me stories he made up on the spot. They were always horror stories and featured my friends and myself – and would invariably end up with us getting torn apart by some sort of monster.
The titles tend to come while I’m writing the book – there might be a working title when I start but that often gets discarded as the novel progresses (The Infected, for example, started life as Dust Monsters).
Hammer Studios, who used to make horror movies starring Christopher Lee, used to come up with the title first (the more outlandish the better, like Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed! or Die, Die My Darling) and then write a script to suit, but for me, writing the story comes first, then the title. But what I have picked up from Hammer is trying to come up with titles that are as enticing as possible.
- What inspires the ideas for your characters and their names?
Some of my characters have been drawn directly from history (Plague of the Undead, Facing Jesse James and Walking into the Fire for example). Others are based on people I know – I had a major disagreement with someone once and they ended up being the inspiration for a villain in one of my books.
Virtually all of the characters from Super Sister were based on people I knew as a kid.
Character names are very important – they should reflect the character’s personality (think Jack Reacher, for example – very short, sharp, to the point and macho). For a villain, I try and concoct a slimy or brutal name. A gentle character should in turn have a more sedate, gentle name.
When I’m “inventing” a character I try and draw on character traits of people I know (one character can be made up of a number of people) – I find it easier to create a more fully developed character that way.
- How long do you spend on planning/drafting/editing?
It varies from book to book. Plus, if a book is accepted for publication, the editor or agent usually suggest a number of changes/edits.
Typically I draw up a broad outline first and write profiles for all of the main characters, then break the story down into chapter synopses and then start writing from there. I’ll often go back and change things as I write and sometimes, even when I had the ending all planned out, I may end up changing it because it doesn’t logically fit with the rest of the novel.
- When you were young, did you write? If so what/how?
Yes. My favourite subject at school was English – specifically when I got to write stories. When I was in high school I wrote stories that were revamps of old movies (like King Kong and Jaws) that featured my friends as the heroes and the local bullies as the bad guys. There was one time when one of the stories ended up in the hands of one of the bullies (he was rummaging through my school bag looking for something to steal) – it ended badly.
- What was your dream profession when you were young?
Being a movie director (and a movie critic).
- Do you plan the entire story before you write?
Yes. I find that if I don’t know where the story is headed, it’ll go off in all directions and writing becomes a hard slog. There have been a few instances when I haven’t had the plot planned before I started and it has shown in the finished product (I’ve had three books that haven’t been accepted for publication and in all cases these were ones that I wrote without having the story planned).
Leon Uris, who wrote lots of best-sellers in the 1970s, said that you shouldn’t start writing a book unless you know how it ends – and while there are people who have different views, I tend to agree with his.
- Are you currently writing a book? If so, what?
Yes. It’s called ‘The Infected.’ It’s a horror story set in the American Dustbowl during the Great Depression in the 1930s. A top secret army experiment that involves injecting soldiers with an aggressive strain of rabies (who the army then intends to let loose in enemy countries) goes out of control. The infected soldiers escape and everyone they bite turn into rabid maniacs and everyone the rabid maniacs bite turn into rabid maniacs and… you get the idea. The only chance the locals have of surviving comes in the form of gangster John Dillinger and his gang of psychopathic killers – and in the meantime the army is getting ready to use its new super bomb to cover up its mistakes.
- Do you have any tips for helping young writers such as us about writing/publishing?
- – – Create characters that your reader can believe in. Readers are going to join your on your journey if they have strong emotional ties to the characters they’re journeying with. Try and base your characters on people you know – that way it’s easier for you to get a handle on them – their strengths, weaknesses, foibles etc. Before you start your story write a couple of paragraphs about each character. Not only what they look like, but how they feel. Their personality. Give them a background – where they came from, where they lived, did they have a happy childhood. It’s all stuff that will help create a three dimensional character – and help them to stay IN character throughout the book.
- – – Treat even your minor characters with respect.
- – – Know your world. Draw a map so you know how your characters get from A to B. If your story is set in a small town, map out the town and pinpoint where each character lives.
- – – Share your creation. Get feedback from people you trust – friends, family, even a teacher. Invite feedback. And don’t be too protective. You’ll be surprised at how helpful some of that feedback will be.
- – – Form a writer’s group and share your ideas.
- – – Don’t “write what you know about” – what good is that going to be if you’re writing a science fiction story set on a far off planet or a tale about the zombie apocalypse. Instead, “write what you feel”. Write from the heart. You can draw on your own experiences and feelings and then adapt those to your narrative (let’s say you’ve had to walk home late at night. How did you feel? Were you scared? Vulnerable? Now use those emotions to describe how your hero feels when he’s trapped in a shopping mall with thousands of flesh-eating zombies.)
- – – Always ask yourself “What If?”
- – – Above all, have fun. And don’t give up. I got about twenty rejection notices before my first book (Borderland) was finally accepted – and ironically, it was accepted by the publisher who had rejected it several years before. I’d gone back and did a major rewrite, turning it from a gentle fantasy into more of a fantasy horror.
- – – Which brings me to my last bit of advice – don’t be afraid to make changes. And keep making those changes until you feel you’ve written the best story you can.
- How many books have you started and not finished?
Two – but they literally didn’t get beyond the second page. I can usually tell at an early stage whether the idea is going anywhere. Having said that, some of the books I have finished didn’t really deserve to be.
Thank you so much for the hard work that went into this – Gary and all the students! A fascinating read for older children.