Lessons from Ken Dodd

Image from RuddyMuddy on Twitter

Phil: I can’t claim to have been one of the late Sir Ken Dodd’s showbiz friends, but I did meet him a couple of times while working at a local theatre.

Once, while minding the stage door at some time past midnight, he came off stage and pointed at my shoes.

“Crikey”, he said, “Those are fine feet, are you a policeman?”

I replied that I wasn’t to which he added, “Well, you know what they say about blokes with big feet…” and then swept off to his dressing room with a chuckle.

The amazing thing about Ken (never Mr Dodd) was that he’d arrive at the venue looking every bit of his 80 years. A small, quiet old man.

Yet the moment he got on stage, he came alive. The Ken in my anecdote was buzzing, almost as though there was electricity flying off him. This was after a 6-hour show too.

So, lesson 1 – If you are doing something you really love, you’ll never feel better or more alive.

In all the tributes, it’s been said by many people who you never knew when a Ken Dodd show would finish. The rumour was that every night management would have to haul him off the stage so the staff could go home.

This is a good story, but not strictly accurate.  Yes, the performances would go on a long while. No other act gave a longer show, but the staff knew when he would finish. Usually 1am on the first night, 12:30 on the second. Hidden from the audience in the wings was a clock which Ken kept an eye on.

Lesson 2 – If you want to be good at something, you need a professional attitude.

Ken didn’t just hang around telling jokes until he got bored. He honed his act through the study of comedy. Learning to play an audience, he only kept the jokes that got a laugh. Yes, material stayed in the act for many, many years – but only if the audience enjoyed it. In many ways, this is just like editing a novel. You take out anything that doesn’t add to the reader’s enjoyment. After a while, you are left with pure gold.

Legend is an over-used term, but it’s appropriate here. There will never be another Doddy, but if you aspire to his status, you better put the work in like he did.


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Simple stories = compelling narrative

Phil: A couple of weeks ago, I spent a Sunday afternoon in the Electric Cinema in Birmingham watching the 1973 film Westworld.

For those not familiar with this Michael Crichton written and directed film, the story follows a couple of guys heading off on holiday to the new and amazing Delos resort in 1983. Phenomenally expensive ($1000 a day!) they promise that “”Boy, have we got a vacation for you!”.

Indeed they have. Guests stay in either MedeivalWorld, RomanWorld or WestWorld, sharing the locations with incredibly lifelike robots who that can fight, kill or shag to their heart’s content.

This being a film, things go wrong. The robots develop some sort of virus (the first time this had ever been mentioned) and malfunction. Eventually, they kill all the guests except our hero. He finds himself pursued by Yul Brynner wearing the all-black costume last seen when he appeared in the Magnificent Seven. This time, he is an unstoppable robot gunslinger and the final third of the film is taken up with a chase around the park.

Brynner hardly speaks, or runs during this, making him a proper, menacing unstoppable force. I’ve seen the film before and it’s still edge-of-the-seat stuff.

“So, why have you illustrated this with a low-res picture of a dinosaur?”, I hear you ask.

Well, this screen grab comes from one of the greatest computer games of all time – 3D Monster Maze.

Launched in 1982 for the Sinclair ZX81 computer, the premise is simple. You are in a maze along with a T-Rex. You can’t see the beast, you have to run around and find the exit. If Rex sees you, he will give chase and probably eat you.

Since the computer was very basic, there wasn’t any sound. Instead, we had subtitles. The words “Rex has seen you” appearing at the bottom of the screen sent a shiver through the player as it was time to run or be dinner.

Graphics were low resolution as you can see, but it didn’t matter. Played in silence, this was properly spooky. OK, we weren’t used to first-person points of view in games back then but this just makes things more claustrophobic.

The game is really, really simple. But utterly addictive. You know what you’ve got to do and since there are only 3 keys for movement, how you’ve got to do it. It’s just you and a dinosaur.

Which is pretty much how WestWorld works.

We can put ourselves in the position of the “prey” in this particular hunt. The predator is unstoppable (Spoiler: In theory) but we will our hero to escape. Whatever plot holes there are (how are the guests stopped from fighting, killing and shagging each other rather than the robots in  MedeivalWorld and RomanWorld?) we cast them aside and get caught up in the action.

In fact, this is such a simple and effective plot that Crichton pretty much used it again in Jurassic Park (see, dinosaurs again) and James Cameron did it in The Terminator. I’m sure readers could suggest others. So, feel free to have a go in your novel too!

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Dead Girls Dancing by Graham Masterton

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Candice:  Its been one of the most strange weeks here in the Nolan house.  I spent most of last week at home with a combination of an inner ear problem and then flu.  By Thursday I was resolutely fed up with seeing the same four walls.

I did fight back at the weekend and go to the gym, but now I feel like I’ve taken a step backwards as, though I am back at work, I don’t seem to have any energy.  Not even Salted Caramel Teacakes are helping to perk me up.

It did give me time to some reading, as well as watching a lot of the winter Olympics (go people throwing themselves down a hill at speed on a tea tray).  My book of choice was ‘Dead Girls Dancing’.  I’d picked it up in the supermarket as it looked like a nice juicy police procedural, just my cup of tea.

So there was I about half way in when I started to get a surprise.  I’d already found the book quite gory, the dancers of the title were spectacularly killed at the start by an explosion which burned them on the spot.

The book is number eight in a series, so I’d picked up bits about the protagonist having lost a husband and son, as well as another partner, due to her job as Detective Chief Inspector.  She’d just started a new relationship, with a guy, but then it got more complicated.

The book revolves a splinter IRA group, targeting a diplomat from the UK come to talk about Brexit.  The dancers being killed is just a side story, it demonstrates how ruthless the killer is.  By half way he’d shot one of his partners who wasn’t on board with his plan, put a knife through another’s hand and watched a gang rape of a woman who was going to tell the police what he had done.

So I’m sitting in the lounge at the weekend with my daughter, she’s watching ‘Mr Maker’ and the next scene starts.  I suddenly learn ways to use Nivea I’ve not heard of as the main character has a three-way with her new beau and one of her female work colleagues.  Not really what I was expecting.

To be honest I really didn’t like this book.  I found the story line jumped around a lot and was quite implausible.   And it was just so NASTY.  At the end of the book her dog gets kidnapped due to an unrelated case she is working on and the book closes with her dog returned, dead.  I turned the page expected something else uplifting to help drag me from this darkness but nothing.  I actually had to read something else to get a good night sleep.

So, I won’t be tackling Katie Maguire books again.

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Behind Her Eyes

Phil: Reading a book is often about the journey rather than the destination.  Plots can be summed up in a few lines and if you really want to know what happens, Wikipedia will probably fill you in.

Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough is an excellent case in point.

On the cover, something designed to look like a sticker (it isn’t) promises “The most shocking ending you’ll read all year”. The publishers have bagged #WTFthatending on Twitter. On the back, John Connolly entreats browsers to “Read it now before someone spoils the ending.”.

And that someone won’t be me.

The story revolves around single mum Louise who devoted her life to her son but finds that she needs to get back into the world of work. David is her new boss, but just before she meets him at work, the bump into each other in a bar and enjoy a furtive (an initially regretted) snog. In the early stages, the plot covers the embarrassment of having got off with someone you then have to work for and the uncomfortable situation this provokes.

Very quickly, we meet Adele, David’s wife. She befriends Louise but doesn’t know she knows David as anything other than a colleague. Louise is lonely and fascinated by Adele so she doesn’t say anything to David. Nor does she tell Adele her secrets about her husband.

And that’s about as much as I can tell you.

The story is great at gradually unfolding. The author never lies to the reader, but you are constantly changing your opinion of the main characters. This draws you in gradually until the book has to be consumed in great chunks of reading.

Everything is told from the characters point of view, with the chapter title explaining who’s eyes were are looking through. Just as in real life, each one has a slightly different take on matters. As a reader, we think we have a handle on the various duplicities, but do we? Adele says, “The truth is different to different people” and she’s not wrong.

You could skim this, jump to the end and find out what happened. That would be a mistake. Enjoy the journey.

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Working while walking

Phil: I need to get more writing done. And, as mentioned last week, I need more exercise.

Now I think I’ve found a solution to the two problems.

Listening to the radio a few weeks ago, there was an interview with a children’s author who dictates the first draft of all his books to his phone while out for a walk. This sounded like a good idea, so I downloaded a suitable app and gave it a go.

First job – Dictate a 14-page article provided in handwritten form. 25 minutes later, I had a file. An hour after this, I’d been through, edited it for typos and sent it off to my editor to start on the process of subbing it to fit on the pages available. Results were pretty good, certainly no worse than my typing when I’m trying to work quickly and copying someone else’s text.

Next – Killing time waiting for an MOT test to finish, I headed to a local park to try and write a chunk of novel. 2,500 words laid down in an hour or so (I was interrupted by a couple of phone calls) but if I’m honest, when I looked at the file, it was a bit rubbish. OK, so turning it into an acceptable first draft didn’t take quite as long as starting with a blank page, but not far off.

I think the trick is to dictate properly. Reading someone else’s words was fine. Making up my own, the speaking is less regular and worse, I can’t stop myself doing the character voices. Slow down and the results are much better.

Despite this, I have a feeling that with practice, using my phone this way might work. It’s perfect for transcribing articles from others, and since I have half a dozen of those lined up this is A Good Thing. For novels, work in progress.

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Running for my Life

Phil: A book about running? Read and reviewed by Phil? Shome mishtake surely…

OK, so this is a looong way from my normal reading. Candice does the running in this partnership. I tried it once and hated it, much like I’ve hated going to the gym, even though I have forced myself to pay a visit 2 or 3 times a week for years at a time twice in my life.

Lets’ get this straight. I don’t just dislike going in a sort of half-hearted way because it’s boring (it is) but because many times I found myself sat on some sort of machine paralysed with misery. Do you ever find yourself thinking depressing thoughts in the middle of the night? Thoughts that become blacker and blacker the longer you are awake? Thoughts that fly away like so many butterflies when dawn breaks? It’s like that except the flying away bit.

Endorphins are something I had to look up in the dictionary, not something I ever found on a cross-trainer.

It doesn’t help that I am rubbish at going to the gym. Aided by staff who couldn’t be bothered to turn up for booked programme reviews, I went through the motions but without enough intensity to really do any good. If I’d turned into a ripped and buff Adonis, I’d probably still be going. Sadly, a jelly with a little bit of muscle tone was the best I could achieve.

I envy my writing colleague many things, but number 1 is her love of exercise.

Anyway, I saw Running For My Life advertised and thought it looked interesting. Maybe I could be inspired into fitness. A couple of days later, loitering in my local library, there it was on the “New Books” shelf. From there, it was in my bag via the checking out machine faster than Usain Bolt can run 100 metres.

Rachel Ann Cullen is best described as “damaged”. She has issues with depression, body image and pretty much everything else. A classic chubby child, her mother, hostage to her own mental illness, would feed her as much food as she wanted, and she wanted lots.

The book chronicles her university life, disastrous relationships with men and all-encompassing love of running. Starting as a way to lose weight, the book takes us through her life showing how running made things better – right up to the day she ran her first London Marathon. Running helps her define who she is. It provides a release from life, a source of friends and even her own business.

Did it make me want to don my trainers and pound the street?


Because the book isn’t so much about running, it’s about setting and achieving goals. The pleasure you can have from pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone and achieving things you didn’t think you could – be it running for ten minutes, beating your PB in a marathon, setting up your own business, exiting a depressing job, dumping a partner who is wrong for you.

I read the book in a sprint – 3 days while doing other things. Like your first jog, the early parts are slightly hard work and I was tempted to give up. Reading the book as an observer, it’s easy to see what the main character needs to do, but then you have to remember this isn’t a story, it’s someones real life. The role of Rach is played by Rachel Ann Cullen and it to do it.

Ultimately though, it’s an interesting read with loads of insight into the world of someone with a metal illness who found a way to beat her demons, ditch the Prozac and chisel out a new and fulfilling life.

You can read Rachels’ blog here.

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Finding Secrets by Lauren Westwood

Alex Hart loves her dream job as manager of Mallow Court, a historic Elizabethan house. But the discovery of a precious jewelled locket changes everything, and Alex realises that things are not as they seem.

From an old diary, to a handsome barrister, a mysterious clockmaker, and the darkest hours of the London Blitz, Alex must follow the trail of clues to uncover the truth about the things she holds dearest – whilst someone is determined not to let sleeping dogs lie!

Phil: Finding Secrets, at 403 pages, offers plenty of story for your money at very least. In fact, it offers two stories.

Alex who finds herself in charge of a stately home, a job with which he appears to have loads of aptitude for, but absolutely no qualifications or experience. This makes you wonder how she ended up there in the first place – one of the many mysteries solved by the end of the book. along the way, there are lots of mysteries and plenty of plot strands for the reader to keep on top of.

Fortunately, Alex’s story is pretty well signposted.  For example, when she meets the hunky, cool clock mender and goes weak at the knees, everybody reading is going knows she’s going to end up with him in another 300 pages. (Incidentally, how come chick-lit is full of people who do no exercise whatsoever but still manage to be in physically tip-top shape for the heroine to lust over?)

Alongside the modern tale of Alex, a story of ambulance men working in the blitz rescuing people and some of the dark deeds that went on at the time. Of course, the two stories are relevant to each other and the wartime tale explains how we end up with Alex where she is, and more importantly, who she is.

Readers need to suspend their belief on a hook a long way from wherever they read this book as the conclusions, while reasonably logical within the context of the story, are pretty far-fetched. There are a few moments when you wonder how she can be so dim, but then remember that Alex doesn’t know she is a character in a book…

Does this matter? Not at all. This is escapism. If you want a documentary on the war then there are lots of books to read, or endless documentaries on the higher numbered digital TV channels. This is a modern fairy tale and none the worse for it. It rattles along – if you need regular breaks the text is split up into several sections. I’m wondering if it was originally published in serial form, but can’t find anything on-line.

Another interesting detail for writing nerds. The cover on Amazon is very different from the cover of the book I read. Which one works best for you?

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