Monthly Archives: February 2011

Dead bird in Solihull Library

A nice live blackbird

A nice live blackbird

Phil: Not all the work on this book has been carried out in cake shops. These are only suitable for talking about the work in hand, try to do some work and you’ll get a laptop full of crumbs. As someone who in a previous life used to work on a computer helpdesk, I know how disgusting that can be (Hint: Turn your keyboard upside down now and bang it’s bottom. See what fell out ? Horrible wasn’t it. Now imaging it’s someone else’s detritus…)

The subject of finding a suitable place to write has been discussed over at the Cakes, Tea and Dreams blog where everywhere from cafes to parks has been suggested. Sadly, those romantic aspirations are normally cast aside in favour of somewhere quiet with a table, which is why in an effort to find some conducive writing space we’ve been meeting up in Solihull Library. There’s a nice area for “Quiet Study” which has power points for laptops, desk space and none of that distracting Interweb.

A few months ago, we had finished our tea and cakes (excellent selection in the cafe downstairs by the way) and I grabbed the window seat because my eee PC has a cable long enough to reach half way around the building whereas the Nolan beast is a little stunted in this respect and the sockets are miles away. More important than electricity, I like to be able to gaze thoughtfully out at the passing world while working as I find it helps me think though problems. Or at least that’s what I tell my boss anyway. Outside, Christmas was getting into full swing and Santa was being followed by one of his elves on a fag break. In most versions of festive tales Santa’s helpers are supposed to be a bit on the short side but, unless there were two in the single costume standing on each others shoulders, then 6ft elves are perfectly acceptable nowadays. Presumably this is what the press calls “Polical Correctness gone mad”. At least he would be able to keep the kids under control I suppose.

When I wasn’t watching festive fun, Solihull Council had provided some statuary in the corner. Those enjoying some quiet study could look on, and presumably be inspired by, a 3ft high marble girl. “Lovely”, you are thinking except that she is cradling a dead blackbird in her skirts. Now, I don’t know a lot about art but can someone explain to me what makes you wake up in the morning, look at a block of stone and decide to carve a small child. Then to make it extra special, include a dead bird in the composition ?

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Planning our story – one cupcake at a time

M&M CupcakeCandice: Having just come from a long discussion with Phil about where to next, thought it was about time I updated you on what the team of nolan parker are doing at the moment.

Being between contracts is a bonus as it allows for sugar fueled discussions in the new coffee shop in Solihull – Fallen Angel.  The trouble is, throw in a few pots of tea and a rather nice chocolate cupcake, plus our ability to talk about anything and everything, it takes up about three hours to get round to the point of the discussion – how we get this bloody thing published. 

So here’s the plan of action:  I am currently going though all 80,000 words checking spelling and grammar before we take the big step to print some copies and hand them to friends.  Why?  So they can sanity check the book for us and make sure it all makes sense.  We are both far to close to it all to see if it’s funny outside of our own warped sense of humours!

Alongside this hours of research have been done to find out how one gets a book published.  It seems that a synopsis and covering letter are the way forward, but what constitutes a good ones of these is an unknown quantity.  Phil is on the case working out how to write that gripping piece that will move us from aspiring writers to the next JK Rowling (fingers crossed).

Red CupcakeWe’ve set a deadline to get the first letter issued, else we’ll be here for years trying to get it right.  So by the end of next week a chunky brown envelope will be winging its way down to an agent of choice and then it will be a waiting game.  Reading about this, it could take years to get us nowhere but at some point we have to try.

However, all of this cake and tea has given us a sugar and caffeine rush which means we now have ideas for books two, three and four, plus some spin offs.  Better not get any full-time work soon else we’ll never get all these written!

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Location, Location

March and toy BeetlePhil: I see that I’m somehow responsible for chosing the location for the main action in the book. If it was me, I’m sorry. Except if March ends up with a Holmfirth style tourist industry in which case it was my brilliant idea and I will be claiming my payment in tea and cake.

Truth be told, I can’t really remember why I picked on March, I probably just looked at the map and thought, “That looks like an interesting name”. If you are going to pick a place where a sleepy agriculture based quango could exist without anyone in government really noticing it, the options are simple:

  • No-where in London
  • No-where in the South East of England

Apart from that, the country is your oyster. In the UK our government, major offices of the executive and main broadcasting organisations are to be found in London, specifically within the ring of the M25. Should anything happen outside of the motorway, it better happen in Kent or Sussex or no one in charge gives a toss. Sorry to break it to you, but Birmingham being destroyed by an asteroid wouldn’t make it to the first item on the news if a man in Hoxton stubs his toe on a paving slab on the same day.   During the recent MP’s expenses crisis, I bet many of them were surprised to find that they had a house outside London. Every five years someone drags them around a town they don’t recognise, makes them stand on a stage in a town hall to make an acceptance speech and then they head back to the safety of  Zone 1 on the underground map and the members tea room.

All this meant we could pick pretty much anywhere, but, we needed rural and while there are plenty of suitable areas across the UK, it had to be close enough for an MP to visit,  meaning it can’t be too far from London. Heaven help our legislators if they had to spend a night in the sticks ! The big skies of East Anglia seems a bit mysterious when you are sitting under flourescent lights in office near Coventry, even if the former is a much nicer destination for a holiday (trust me, I’ve been to both and only one is lovely).  Root vegetables thrive there there (we could have gone for Worcestershire for example but apples aren’t as funny as beetroot) so there we go.

As Candice has said, in the book, the location isn’t that important. Many institutes such as Universities, have sites that are pretty much self-contained and don’t interact with the world outside very much. This gives rise to a close-knit community providing even more comic potential for us. They feel aggrieved at interference from outside as well as being apprehensive at being forced to leave their comfort zone. It also gives the opportunity to introduce certain very local traditions that wouldn’t pass muster in the wider world…

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Um – someone moved the borders…

March this way ! Candice:  I’m sure Phil will explain that somewhere along the way we had to come up with a setting for the book.  There needs to be an office for company it’s about and a suitable setting for HIA – the vegetable research people who are the comedy value of the book.  Office – that’s easy as we were both based in Solihull at one point, with an empty office block next to us – that becomes KOD’s home.

But back in the quango days Phil comes in with the venue of March, described as in Norfolk.  March, strange name but innocuous sounding place so that’s fine by me.

However, this weekend I pop off for a night away with the other half in Cambridge.  We are busily driving down the A14 (within the speed limit, of course) and I see a road sign.  March – this way.  Hang on, says I, we aren’t in Norfolk yet.  So I get the map out and discover that, though in the Norfolk direction, March is in Cambridgeshire.  So, my job for today – changing all references to Norfolk to Cambridgeshire in the book.    Research – it’s an important thing – makes you realise there are so many things to consider when writing a book, not just downloading what’s in your brain.

Its OK though, that’s what find and replace is for, thank god, because otherwise I’d go bonkers typing Cambridgeshire over and over again, it’s bl*ody long compared to Norfolk.

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Andrew Davies

Phil: When not being a top author, I can sometimes be found working the front of house at the Royal Spa Centre. My role involves wearing a slightly uncomfortable radio earpiece, making sure everyone can get in an out easily, pointing people in the direction of the toilets and doing what I can to ensure they have a pleasant time. While I’m keeping an eye on the audience during a show, I get to see parts of some very interesting performances. Obviously it’s not as good as being a proper audience member – no seat, you miss the beginning and end of the performance to do the doors and you are supposed to look at the crowds and not the stage – but you can’t complain. OK, seeing the pantomime 15 times over Christmas (Oh yes I did) soon takes the shine off live theatre but most of our events are one offs.

Last night we hosted a talk by Andrew Davies. For those who are mystified, he is one of the adaptors of novels to TV and film. UK readers will doubtless be aware of his work on the Austen classic Pride and Prejudice, especially (one for the ladies) the wet shirt scene containing Colin Firth. This was great news for me as I could hopefully pick up a few tips and get paid at the same time.

As it turned out, the talk was mostly film clips and anecdotes, which is exactly what the audience wanted. You can’t argue, a technical treatise on writing can’t compete with Kiera Knightly in Doctor Zhivago for most normal people. Everyone in the sell-out audience had a good time anyway. Andrew is approachable and was very happy to chat. One of the advantages of the venue is that it’s intimate enough you get to feel you have met “the talent” rather than just seen them from a distance looking about 6 inches high.

What interested me was how he approaches turning a book into drama. Sometimes it just involves re-typing what it is on the page. Every so often though, the author throws what I believe is called a “curve ball”. In Pride and Prejudice, the first half of the book is “easy”. Then Austen drops in an important letter from Darcy to Elizabeth. This is fine in a book, we just get to read the letter which explains how Wickham and Darcy were close and then how the former wronged the later terribly including trying to seduce his 15-year-old sister (As an aside, girls in classic novels often seem to be remarkably young when they are married off, a problem for today’s audience and it makes finding an actress who looks the part yet is able to carry the role a challenge) a pivotal point in the narrative, but on telly ? Watching some bloke working with a quill ? Something more visual was required.

At this point the adaptor has to fall back on understanding the book. And then make it all up so the story continues even if it’s not entirely faithful to the printed page. Quite how faithful the adaptor is to the page seems to vary depending on the quality of the source material. Famously Davies fell out with the writer of House of Cards over changes made to the book. Mind, you have to avoid being too precious about it as with this series, at the end of the book the main character dies. By altering this it left the option of a couple of lucrative sequels. I suspect the author might not have been too chuffed but his accountant will have told him to stop moaning !

When writing Seeds of Change I’ll admit to thinking in pictures. There are certain sections where I image it looking like the BBC adaption of Blott on the Landscape. OK so it’s a book so you have to write the words down but then when I read I don’t really see the type on the page, in my head I can see the character talking and acting. I think most people do this which is why they get so annoyed when a book is adapted for TV or film because the characters don’t look like the ones in their head.

I didn’t offer Andrew Davies first refusal on the book adaption – I suspect he gets loads of people banging on about their books to him and anyway, it would be beneath my professional dignity (see also: asking for autographs). However if he promises not to bugger around too much with the bits I wrote, he is in with a shout…

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A place for the action

Phil: The standard advice to writers is to write what you know. That’s fine if you want an autobiography, but we had decided to write a funny book.

Of course there is a genre out there called “Misery fiction” but anything that ends with the line “and I worked in an  office of a quango and we got closed down” doesn’t sound like a best seller to me. OK, so my childhood years building things out of Lego might appeal to a certain sort of person but they probably work in one of those special IT jobs where you aren’t encouraged to emerge during daylight hours or mix with normal humans.

More important, we didn’t want to set the story where we were working at the time. There were plenty of reasons for this but the most obvious were:

  1. It was an office.
  2. Offices aren’t funny.

Before someone says “What about The Office on TV ?”, well that was fine but that was telly. I can’t think how you translate those awkward pauses that made it work, into print. Worse, it’s been done. No, most of the humour in an office comes from in-jokes completely incomprehensible to anyone outside the click. If you don’t believe me, ask someone who has been a “plus 1” at a works Christmas dinner…

What we needed was a place of work with the potential for humour and as it happens, I had worked at just such a place years ago. A vegetable research station.

In real life the place wasn’t that funny at all. There were lots of science types who spent their life growing things or prodding the results in bits of science equipment. It’s just that vegetables are inherently funny.

Maybe it’s to do with growing up seeing That’s Life and their regular “Oh look at the parsnip that looks like a willy !” spot  (in fact isn’t the very word “Parsnip” just a bit amusing ?) but we could both see immediately how this could work. Cabbage research isn’t the sort of subject that media-friendly Governments find sexy, as my old employers have found to their cost, so it fitted the bill a treat. Best of all, the boffins are likely to be a decent match for people whose stock-in-trade is management speak.

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