Monthly Archives: March 2011

The Book takes physical form !

Seeds of Change - the book !Phil: While my writing colleague is swanning around Florida in her Daisy Dukes (Strange, because her favourite character in the programme was Rosco), I’ve been left to do all the work. Pity about this, because things have just got exciting as I have The Book in book form !

Before anyone gets the wrong idea, while these are real books, we haven’t bagged a publishing deal. Yet. You can’t head out to Waterstones and pick up a copy.

These are test copies I had produced via Lulu.com so we could hand them to test-readers for some feedback. While we could just chuck them some printouts on A4 from a local printer, this doesn’t give the feel of a book and it’s a whole lot less easy to read. You don’t want to be taking a ring-binder to bed do you ?

Actually as a method of getting your words on the page, this is pretty cheap. Each book cots under a fiver and for that we have 225 A5 pages and a colour cover, all perfect bound. In fact the “product” is good enough to sell on its own. The same day I received these in the post, I had a couple of copies of the test printed up by a local company and they cost me £10 each. OK, so I had them within half an hour rather than waiting a few days, but it made me wonder.

Anyway, if anyone is thinking of having a crack at Print On Demand publishing via Lulu, here are some hints:

  • What you see isn’t entirely what you get. The preview seems to show that you control the inside front and back covers. You don’t, these are blank. Your document starts from the front of the first printed page, which logically should be the title page. Don’t leave a blank first page like I did thinking it was the cover or the result looks odd.
  • The words on your A4 page in the wordy processor are the ones that fit on the A5 page. Mine came out in a font too small. It’s perfectly readable but again, looks odd.
  • A5 is the same height as a conventional paperpack but very slightly wider. Sadly Lulu don’t offer a narrower version so we’ll have to live with it. I’m being picky here as paperbacks come in different sizes.
  • There is no border on the front or back covers if you select the all picture option. Make sure you put your own border on or the text (as in this one) goes right up to the edge. Oh, and you get the barcode on the back whether you like it or not so format your image around it.
  • Uploading files works better if you are on Chrome than Internet Explorer, at least it does on my PC.

Despite the caveates, at the end of the day I am massively pleased with the results. Seeing your words in a real book is fabulous. I re-read a few bits marvelling in simply holding something with a shiny cover and a flat spine. Then I scribbled stuff in the margins, made the tweaks mentioned above and ordered 4 more copies. The bigger font pushed the price up over the fiver but I think they will be worth it. If all else fails, and we are many months away from this, I’ll link in the on-line shop to the blog and sell the thing direct. With a turnaround of 3-5 days, it’s not much worse than ordering from Amazon.

In the meantime I’m thinking about future uses for POD technology. Well until madame gets back from holidays anyway.

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What is a peplum frill ?

Phil: You know how it is; after years of writing about proper blokes subjects like boats and trains and greasy car maintenance, you get stuck into producing a novel and find you have fallen into the pink, fluffy, pit of chick-lit.

I don’t really know how this happened. When we first talked about the book, in my head there was something Tom Sharpe-ish going on. A bit less pervy stuff maybe, but definitely lots of funny set-pieces and preposterous ideas. Laugh out loud funny stuff.

The thing about working with someone else though is that your ideas get an immediate editing. The sort of thing that all writers ideas get, but instead of this happening at the end of the process when the manuscript is complete, they take a beating straight away. This is good as they never grow from mere acorns into sacred cows but you can find things eveloving in directions you didn’t expect. Quite exciting really.

Gradually, as e-mails pinged back and forth and lunchtime chats fleshed out the plans, Kate took over. Kate Smith, the main character that is. To put it in a nerdy way, she is Darth Vader in our Star Wars story but with better clothes, less space ships and no breathing issues.

In fact the clothes became more and more central to the story. Kate’s wardrobe defines her. It’s not just about appearance but (and this is where it gets chick-lit) her moods and personality are summed up by the contents of her wardrobe. It would be going too far to suggest that clothes are all that matter to her but she does use them in a way a male character wouldn’t. Not just her either, once you get into this stuff, everyone gets the treatment.

All this is fine but it leaves me marooned. I mean, I can understand why I don’t need a spanner suitable for Whitworth threaded bolts but am lost when it comes to outfits. For example, apparently different brands of jeans fit differently. Who knew ? I thought they just fitted or didn’t and if they didn’t then you picked a bigger waist size or longer legs.

All this means it’s a good job I have a co-writer. Now when I need to know what someone is wearing, I send an e-mail “Candice, what shoes are required for walking around a field in the summer ?”. I’d guessed “old ones” but apparently the correct answer is “Gladiator sandals or wedges”. Also, when I fire a block of text over, the next time I see it the paragraphs have added brand names. Chick-lit it seems should read like a shopping list.

Which brings me to peplum frills.

One of our minor characters wears a jacket with one and my first response was “What the hell is one of those ?”

Tentatively looking on teh interweb, I find it is “a flared ruffle attached to the waistline of a dress, jacket, or blouse”

That wasn’t much help. So, emboldened by the knowledge that I wasn’t about to inadvertently surf porn at work, I looked at the pictures. This helped, it’s the frilly bit at the bottom of a womans jacket. To my eye, an extraneous bit of detail stuck on by designers hoping to persuade gullible customers that they need a new jacket even when the current one hasn’t worn out yet.

I enquired further. According to Candice, you might wear a jacket with a peplum frill to distract the eye from a “fat arse”.

Genius. Without describing the person, you are saying that she cares about her appearance but is a little heavier than she would like to be. That’s why I need a colleague. Mind you, with all these cup cakes we are eating now I’m wondering if there are any blokes jackets with the same feature…

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Pole dancing in the office?

Candice: Yes really, we were pole dancing in the office, it was a very progressive place, this quango.

No, seriously, back in the time line of how this little beauty of a book  came about there were some very weird situations. 

Once we got in the flow of writing, ideas came thick and fast, some of them autobiographical and some I have no idea where they came from but they just popped into my head. 

So Phil and I would be writing chapters at home and then emailing them to work for the other to critique.  Sometimes, due to the fact the company was closing down and work was getting thin on the ground, we could crack on with editing and doing some writing in the office.  Being a progressive company we were allowed to wear iPods, and once the Pod went on I’d disappear into the world of KOD never to be seen again.  In fact the number of times an email came in to do some work and I’d be like, “Hang on, I’m right in the middle of something, and now you want me to do some WORK!”

So imagine the surrealness, sat in an open plan office of about 40 people, who are in differing states of depression due to the fact they have just been given their marching orders, and you are chortling in the corner because you’ve written a cracking line or Phil’s sent a suggestion over.

The number of times I had to pretend I had something stuck in my throat, “No I’m not laughing, honest!”

So, we come to the pole dancing.  To create tension, Kate has a love interest, Dave, her old university flame; but a co-worker takes a fancy to him too.  Now imagine Tracey, we all have one in the office; office flirt, likes to wear minimal clothing what ever the weather or situation, and if you see a man you like, she wants him too!   But our Tracey has a taste for clothes from net a porter, due to her inheritance, and for tequila.  One too many and she’s pole dancing for Dave. 

So I’m busily writing this situation and around me people are making tea, discussing office politics and getting more documents printed.  Too bizarre for words!

Of course there would be cake too – as that always helped the creative processes.  Today’s representation is from yumm in Zellig at the Custard Factory – topped with a red nose to celebrate comic relief.

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How long is a book ?

Tunnocks TeacakePhil: Once upon time, a long while ago (or so it seems now), two people had written some words and were contemplating turning these into a book. They chatted over the divider between their desks and wondered if this were possible. One of them (the one who does web stuff, not colouring pens and glitter) punched the question above into Google and got an answer.

80,000

That’s eighty thousand words.

Put it this way, if you had a delicious Tunnocks Teacake for each word and piled them on top of each other, the construction would reach nearly 2.5km into the sky. That’s a lot of teacakeage and more than even I could eat, in a single sitting at least. My esteemed colleague would want to run around the equator 4 times to burn off the calories if she tried to eat them. Incidentally, if you do try this, go for the dark chocolate version as they are a calories a cake lighter…

Anyway, I checked this number in several places and it appears to be correct. 80,000 words is the average length for a first novel. Once you’ve reached Rowling-like importance to your publisher then you can knock out double this, but then I suppose by that point you aren’t thinking about fitting your writing in around the day job.

So, we had a scary figure. At this point the word count was no more than 3000, which seemed a hell of a long way to go.

At this point someone will be shouting at the computer about writing the story and letting it find its own length. That’s good, but if you want to sell a book to a publisher you better give them something they want. JKR can pitch up with a pile of paper and she will be welcomed with open arms. Even when it’s no more than a mountain of A4 the latest work will be at the top of the Amazon best sellers list. The first time writer can’t expect to be treated with anything like such accommodation. If we wanted to turn our story into a commercial proposition then we wanted to get an idea what this meant.

From a personal perspective, this was a real shock. I write for a few hobby magazines and my editors like pieces up to 2000 words long. Most come in at around 1500 which everyone seems happy with. The subs don’t have to do too much work and the result, with photos, fills 4 pages and lets the designer produce something that looks pretty without any slabs of text. Now I was looking at 40 times this length. That’s 2-3 years of my normal output and would have to be produced while working and carrying on the other writing.

Blimey. Was the idea strong enough for that ? Could we muster the effort to do it ?

Time for another teacake. Only 79,999 to go…

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Letting the characters breathe

South RidingPhil: A few weeks ago I saw Andrew Davies giving a talk, during which he showed a little clip of his latest adaption- “South Riding.” The audience let out a dreamy “Ohhhh” in the way only a large group of older ladies can (they made the same noise for a clip Colin Firth in full Darcy mode earlier in the evening) and I wondered if they would be quite as pleased when they saw the actual programme. I didn’t know the book at that point and the Wikipedia entry isn’t exactly fulsome, but from the clip it appeared to be a strong-willed young woman become headmistress in a northern girls school and shakes things up a bit whilst upsetting the stick-in-the-mud governors and local gentry. For an audience of Daily Mail and Express readers, it might all be a bit too close to communism.

Never mind, I like a bit of pinko drama myself so had a look. And it’s erm, not very good. But not for the reasons I expected. The problem is, at some point the head of BBC drama will have made a decision.

“Andrew”, he or she will have decreed, “We want a three-part series.”

Andrew will have gulped and pointed out that the previous adaption ran for 13 weeks.

“That was the 70’s Andrew. People had longer attention spans then. They needed something to save them looking at the horrid orange swirly wallpaper.”

And with that he will have been dispatched from the office.

Which is why the characters don’t get time to develop. The plot is Bang, Bang, Bang. For example, promising but  poor child Lydia Holly is encouraged by headmistress with talk of going to Oxford. 30 seconds later she is hauling her dying mother out of a ditch. By the end of the minute her family are being turned down for poor relief so she has to give up school. In the next scene she is scrubbing clothes and shouting at the headmistress who has visited the slums to try to tempt her back to class with a book of poetry.

Did we get a few moments for our poverty-stricken child to dream of a place among the dreaming spires ? Does hope well up in her heart only to be dashed by being snatched away again ? Nope. We don’t have time for that.

That’s what happens when you have to knock a complicated plot out in three hours. Not Mr Davies fault, he had twice as long for Pride and Prejudice which is a simpler story – in the film version nothing important got missed out. That worked out well so why not go for 6 parts on South Riding ? It’s not like they skimped on anything else. Locations, setting, costume, cast – all brilliant. OK, so the steam train was a bit wrong but people look at me like I’m nuts when I mention this, so I won’t.

All of this is why books are better than telly (until I get to do TV adaptions or film, then this bits going to get edited). There is space for characters to develop or “breath”. We can have scenes that don’t move the plot forward but do allow us to get an impression of the people involved. In our writing partnership, Candice did much of the actual character development, especially of the main protagonist Kate. Even so, when sitting down and talking about her over coffee, we both had a pretty good idea what she looked like (actually, I got her hair colour wrong but was quickly put right) and how she would behave. The advantage of this is that we could both let the character go on the page and not write anything that the other would object to too much.  Hopefully this will allow a reader to care about her, something that is important for some passages when you have to feel her pain.

The best books, the ones you fall in love with and re-read time and time again, are those where you feel close to the people on the pages. They don’t even have to be nice people, can anyone honestly say they like Poirot as a person for example ? It doesn’t matter, there is something about the character that makes us want to know more. Even when we know the plot, we like to revisit our old friends.

The thing is, the people on our pages have been friends for nearly a year now. So much so that as I was helping out at an event last month as watching people come out of one of the buildings immediately thought, “Blimey, he’s Gareth” because he looked like him. Or at least the him I have in my head. I wonder if any of the people I saw will one day read the book and think, “Blimey, that’s me !”

Candice:  Hey I didnt think it was that bad – though the last episode was abit – interferring fella dies, woman loses love, dad finds new girlfriend etc all rolled out in quick succession.
I did like the comment back to the cat, “That wasnt what we were expecting at all was it, puss!” I can understand talking to cats as I do it on a regular basis and it’s very therapeutic.

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