Frank Cottrell Boyce is a judge for BBC Radio 2’s 500 Words children’s writing competition – entries close on 8 March. He has also written a new world book day book, The Great Rocket Robbery and a new standalone book out in May, Runaway Robot. We caught up with him to discuss the award and his new stories.
Could you tell us about the 500 Words competition? Who can enter, and what is your role in the prize?
Well the prizes are amazing. First prize is Chris Evans’ height in books PLUS 500 books for your school library PLUS an original illustration for your story by a famous illustrator PLUS an invitation to the set of a C Beebies production. But by far the best thing is the final itself, when you’ll see your story read aloud by a famous actor in front of a huge crowd at the live broadcast of the final which this year comes from Windsor Castle. The final is an unforgettable day.
For those reading who may thinking of entering, what are you looking for? What makes a good story?
Make us laugh, make us cry, make us gasp. We do not care about spelling or grammar. Only about your ideas. In past years we’ve given prizes to everything from a 500 word Science Fiction epic to a story about a grandmother and a robin. It could be a ghost story, a swashbuckling tale of history or exploration or something quite personal. As long as you love it, we’ll probably love it too.
Make us laugh, make us cry, make us gasp. We do not care about spelling or grammar. Only about your ideas.
When you were a child, what did you write? Can you remember the first story you wrote?
I can remember my lovely year 6 teacher - Sr. Paul - reading something I’d written out loud to the class and everyone laughed in all the right places. That was amazing. For years and years when we were at primary my best friend - Graham - and I wrote a comic together in old exercise books. I’ve still got some copies.
Can you tell us about your new collection of stories? How long have you been writing them for?
What are the differences (if any) between writing for an adult rather than a younger audience?
A story is a story. It makes its own terms. When I’m writing for children I’m probably more aware that at some point I’m going to have to read this out to people who may not be that interested - because I usually perform in schools. That probably makes you more aware of the most important rule in writing - namely “leave out the bits that people tend to skip”!!!
The most important rule in writing - namely “leave out the bits that people tend to skip”!!!
You're known as someone who writes across a range of media - screenwriting, fiction, drama - how do find moving from one to another? What are the particular challenges of short story writing?
A film or a novel can be a slow burn but a short story is more like a great pop song. It’s got to punch its way into your heart or your head and stay there.
A great short story finds something universal in something very specific. It’s like a piece of software. Something that should slightly shift the way you see the World.
Like William Blake said , we see eternity in a grain of sand. The main challenge with any piece of writing is figuring out how long it's going to take. Some short stories take longer to write than any big fat book. It can be so frustrating and definitely messes up your plans.
A short story is more like a great pop song
Which short story writers and stories influence you?
I love Richmal Crompton’s Just William stories for their swagger and her amazing ability to chose the most surprising word. I absolutely adore Frank O’Connor. I don’t think anyone has written so precisely about human feelings and especially how it feels to be a child. Then there’s the other great O’Connor - Flannery O’Connor. I never stop reading her.
How important is humour to a good short story?
Great short stories should hit you on a visceral level. That’s why things that by-pass your conscious, rational self work really well in short stories - whether that’s humour or horror or poetry. A really great short story gets access to your brain via the back door.
What is your favourite short story?
Can I have three - First Confession by Frank O’Connor, William and the Triplets by Richmal Crompton and an absolutely jaw-dropping tale by Ursula Le Guin called Those Who Walk Away - everyone should read that last one.