Let’s talk about cake

spoonpencilPhil: As you will know, team NolanParker likes cake. We also like literary festivals. Thus, when checking out Warwick Words brochure, one of the sessions that leapt out at me was Frances Quinn talking about winning the Great British Bake Off and her latest cookbook.

I prefer eating cakes to baking but my sister is very keen so I fired an e-mail over to her mentioning the event. Half an hour later she replied that tickets had been booked and I was going along as well.

Literary events are funny things nowadays. They start with lofty ideals filling sessions with earnest people who don’t own a jacket without elbow patches and like nothing better than discussing the sort of book that makes your head hurt to read.

Gradually numbers go up and the sessions are being run by writers people have heard of. At first this will be half of Radio 4 but eventually you’re seeing proper celebrities appearing. Now the elbow patch crowd don’t get a look it. Sessions sell out in minutes, all to people who care little for writing but love to meet people whose books they have read. Questions at the end are more Fearne Cotton than Jeremy Paxman.

Surely writing a cookbook isn’t really literature is it? If I’m honest, it’s not that much different from the job I do showing people how to build models, just with less glue and more chocolate.

And you know what, there wasn’t much talk about writing. What there was though was lots of talk about presentation. And for me, that was very, very interesting indeed.

On stage while we waited, (me, 6 other men and 144 women including the Southam Baking circle), there was a big screen. I’ve seen this before and it usually means clips from the telly.

Wrong. No clips but lots of slides and a few videos showing how ideas come about and how they are developed. There were pictures of cakes of course but these were accompanied by stories, not recipes, explaining where the inspiration came from.

Sketches. Photos. Ideas.

And it was well done. Frances Quinn can work Powerpoint. Even though she was standing behind a screen and seeing everything in reverse, we saw slides and videos and it was slick. This might not sound impressive but I’ve sat through far too many presentations where the person at the front is acting as though they’ve never seen a computer or a mouse before and we lumber through the slides in a random order because the concept of back and forward is too challenging. Worse, when it’s time to show anything else, a pathetic, “It’s all a bit technical for me” issues forth while the audience wonder why they paid to see this.

The thrust of the talk was that execution of ideas is often simple.

Having the good idea in the first place is the hard part, but a whole lot easier if you keep your eyes and mind open.

A couple of examples: Cakes cooked in paper coffee cups to look like coffee. Really neat and simple but had you thought of it? Modern sculpture cakes based around millionaire shortbread to celebrate the millionth visitor to a gallery. Even I could work out how that was done but as I say, the execution is easy(ish), the idea is the thing.

This ties back in to thoughts we’ve been having about our book. Some recent feedback said our style was enthusiastic albeit a little undisciplined but that the basic idea was sound. We can tweak the former but if the basic idea is rubbish, it doesn’t matter how well you write it, you are on to a loser. Our idea is as good as we think it is.

My sister came away with a signed cookbook. I left with a load of thoughts about how I can present my work in the future and the promise of cake to test soon.

A pretty good evening. You might not be able to buy inspiration, but this was pretty close.


Regular readers might be concerned that Candice missed out on all this cake talk. Well, she’s still on holiday. More to the point, she didn’t get the chance to point out that here we have yet another succesful author who runs for “fun”. It’s not fair. Where are all the slothful writers?

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If you are making a Christmas list…

FestivePhilPhil: When the Nolan is away*, the Phil will play.

Christmas has been on my mind this week. I spent a day surrounded by fake trees on Tuesday. There was even an opportunity to wear my elf hat.

The festive season approaches fast and so I need to pull my finger out on the publishing front. We are determined that Kate vs The Dirtboffins is going to be available in some form by the time you are decking the halls with boughs of holly. It’s ready to go and just needs some technical formatting issues sorting out before Candice can launch a multi-million penny advertising campaign to see it on every Kindle out there.

The ability to say, “I’m going to publish” no matter what happens is one of the joys of the modern age. Recent train and tube trips show that e-publishing is freeing authors from the shackles of the big publishing houses. Yes, a paperback is very nice, but the ability to distribute electronic copies takes away all that complicated printing and the need to persuade a bookshop to give space over to your work. No need to drive a van full of paper around either, although I quite like driving vans but then I bet Dan Brown doesn’t do his own deliveries.

So, watch this space. We have a brilliant new cover to show off very soon for a start. In the meantime, if you are looking for something to while away a few hours with some tea and cake then I have another bookazine out, and with the Nolan out of the country I can mention it here without the eye-rolling admonishment at my nerdiness.

The British Railway Modelling guide to building your first model railway will hit WH Smiths magazine racks on October 12th. If you can’t wait (I know you are keen) then it’s available on-line now. I’ve already signed and wrapped a copy for my friend. She’s going to be so pleased. Don’t anyone tell her and spoilt the surprise.

The BRM Guide to Building Your First Model Railway

*apparently it’s easier to write when you are somewhere sunny near a swimming pool, or so I’m told…

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Anthropomorphise Me

AshleyPhil: Reading a story on the Clients from Hell website recently, I was struck by one tale where someone breaks an entire network with the excuse, “I saw this cable lying there, and no one was using it. I saw two free ports and put it in them, so it wouldn’t feel useless.”

Serious technical types will laugh but I have some sympathy for the hapless employee. You see, I am terrible for ascribing human characteristics to inanimate objects.

A few weeks ago, I was on the bus passing a couple of recently renovated houses. The alleyway between them has been fitted with a double glazed door unit, the sort of thing normally fitted into a wall. I wondered if the uPVC frame was pleased to be able to see the sunshine or sad not to be set in a wall to avoid the rain.

I was concerned how a piece of plastic felt.

I’ve got this anthropomorphising thing bad.

This is a bigger problem than you might think. Of course my cars have names. The Beetle is Marrigold, camper Ashley (in my defence, he had this name when I bought him) and Peugeot 206 is “Little Car”, a pathetic attempt not to name him or her.

I talk to them, congratulating each vehicle at the end of every journey. Part of me, the bit that knows cars break down, hopes that this will persuade the car to try hard to get me home.

Trouble is, I’m not using Ashley and it’s time to sell him. Truth is, it’s been time to sell him for the last 5 years.

It’s like selling a pet. I don’t care so much about the money, more that he goes to a good home. I want to vet prospective purchasers. Ideally they will have a garage so he doesn’t get cold or wet. He will be taken for nice runs and enjoyable holidays. Money should be lavished if any repairs are required. At no point should he be customised.

I put all this down to the same imagination that helps me write stories. Writers should be able to approach a subject from different angles and work “outside the box”.

At least that’s my excuse. Does anyone else suffer from this?

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False endings

inspectorcallsPhil: Years ago, I was a top hospital radio presenter. Every Tuesday evening, our team would gather requests for top tunes from those unfortunate enough to be on the wards (although lucky enough to be able to listen to us) and between 8 and 10pm, we’d be spinning the platters that matter on the wheels of steel for their entertainment.

One of my favourite tracks was, and still is, Mr Blue Sky by ELO. If you know the song, you’ll remember that it has pitfall for DJ’s – a “false ending”. Basically, the song comes to the end, pauses for a fraction of a second and then an instrumental section bursts forth.

If you don’t know this, you’ll probably be speaking when Jeff Lynne and co come back and drown you out. A top jock knew about this, could whack the fader down so the CD stopped, read out the list of the next days shows and then fade it back up again. How a career on national radio eluded me, I don’t know.

False endings aren’t confined to music though. I was watching the BBC’s excellent new version of JB Priestly’s “An Inspector Calls” recently. Not knowing the plot, when the Inspector left the family, I was thinking that the play was every bit as good as I’d been told.

If I’d stopped watching at this point, I’d have been happy.

But, no. Preistly then takes things a further step by making the inspector who had so brilliantly shown the family how they were all partly responsible for a girls suicide, into a ghost. He didn’t exist and it’s not really obvious what he’s supposed to be.

I’m not great with ghost stories at the best of times but this annoyed me. The ending, where I thought it should be, was powerful, tied up all the lose ends and pretty much perfect. Instead we had this wooly stuff which didn’t finish matters up to my satisfaction.

What happens?

Do the writers decide they need to fill a bit more time and wang a bit on the end?

Did ELO see the first pressing of their disk, notice some unused vinyl and think, “We’ll rustle up some instrumental stuff to fill that.”

Was Preistly persuaded by the theatre management that audiences would like another 20 minutes for their ticket money?

When you reach the end, here’s some advice. Stop. Just stop.

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RIP to the Hollywood Bonk Buster

Candice: I was saddened and shocked to hear of the death of Jackie Collins the other day.

I have to say I read quite a few of her books and though not pulitzer prize winning fiction they certainly entertained me while lying on a sunlounger. Before the days of out and out sex in Fifty Shades, Jackie was letting her ladies give the gents a ‘one two’ in great detail, but without all the breathy tosh.

It is a shame to hear of anyone dying, whether by cancer or any other means, but I would like to think that Jackie had a full life writing her fun, entertaining books which mocked most core American characters.

I don’t think Phil and I will ever hit those dizzy heights, there isn’t enough sex in our books to drive that kind of audience, but we’d like to aspire to be some where in that league.  Oh to have the time to write 32 novels!

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Should we start at the end?

CocoPhil: Last Sunday, I spent a few hours looking after my sisters dogs. While lovely animals, they are hopeless conversationalists and so my plan was to spend the time writing the first draft of Book 2’s conclusion.

Progress was good. I had the advantage that our recent cake-fuelled discussions pretty much mapped out the main plot points I needed. The result should have been the writers equivalent of dot-to-dot. Start here, go there, and then there. Just fill in the bits in the middle.

All this is pretty much how it went, except that as I approached the end, it seemed very natural to take a little detour. A few hundred words popped in a little diversion that while we hadn’t planned it, fitted the mood required.

Writers are always talking about characters developing a life of their own and that was the case here. More than that though, the plot developed a life of it’s own. I knew what I was writing would work because it seemed so natural.

Anyway, just over 4000 words later, I passed the result over to Candice who read, giggled and said ‘yes’.

Now we have the ending, there is work to do to add in some scenes to get us there. I’ve also had an idea for a further twist and sub-plot to enrich the overall story arc. Oddly, that will fit in with a piece already written, but that I didn’t know was going in that direction at the time.

I almost wonder if writing Book 3 should start at the end. After all, JK Rowling wrote the last chapter of the Harry Potter stories when she produced the first book and then stuck it away in a safe, so the method has shown previous success.

Talking of directions, a final tweak gave me what I thought at the time was a very neat ending. Right up until I realised that the sun sets in the West and not the East, exactly the opposite way to what I needed. Grrrr.


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Strong Female Characters – how do you not make them a ‘bitch’?

Candice: Phil lent me a book the other week by Adele Parks called ‘Game Over’.  We like Adele as we met her at the Stratford Literary Festival earlier this year.

I haven’t finished the book so I won’t write a review yet, but the main female character is a ‘balls out, no holds barred’ woman who only does one night stands and is totally focused on her career.

Our main character, Kate, was originally more like that, but after some feedback we softened her a little.  Not too much mind as the whole point of these books is that the woman is not ‘wet’!  I hate females that turn into quivering wrecks at the sight of a six pack and then proceed to dribble after a man until they are married and have their first child.

Not that Kate is based on me (she isn’t), but it’s interesting that some of my friends are going back to work after having their first child and there are lots of discussions on Facebook about missing the child and feeling lost.  Um, I don’t really understand that as I didn’t feel like that.  I love Erin but she and I get more out of our day by going to nursery and work respectively. I haven’t said that on Facebook though as I think it would go down like a lead balloon

So, how do you make a female character strong and not make people hate her for either becoming too soft or being so hard you can’t empathize with her?  I think we have got that fine balance but it is that, a fine balance.

Phil has sent me the final big scene for Book 2 this weekend.  It’s cracking and well on the way to bringing it all together, but it does need some other parts adding into the rest of the book to make it make sense.  And part of that is deciding how much Kate is in to Dave.  This book is where their relationship starts to change and we have had a lot of discussions about where their relationship goes long term.

So my job is to go back through what Phil has written and make Kate strong enough but soft enough that we still believe in her and like her.  It’s not going to be easy.


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