Monthly Archives: May 2011

What makes a good book intro?

Candice: Have just returned from another one of my mini breaks, Phil says I get a lot of holidays but I just view them as a quick tan and life top up.  As Naomi Campbell once said, she has to take a holiday every six weeks to feel human. I think that was said while swiping a minion and telling them to keep kissing her feet, but I know the feeling.  So a girls break was required, three nights in Spain for sun and sangria, though there was more of the later than the former due to two days being cloudy.

Anyway, to the point of this rambling.  Two of the three people I went away with have ‘the book’ to read, one hadn’t seen it.  But she jumped in and grabbed a copy to see what it was all about.  24 hours later she put it down and went “finished”.  Obviously, I hadn’t tied her to a chair and told her to do this, there was sleep involved in this period.    Now for the feedback.

“I liked it, but I dont think the end reflects the start and the start’s abit weak.”  Ok, straight to the point there.

But its fair comment, because, when we started writing the book without any real timeline or action plan then we may have been thinking one way.  But as the story flowed and we came up with a stronger plot ideas, then it became more chicklit and less blot.  So, I started to think, does the start not work with the end, and then in general, what makes a good intro?

I’ve read a few books in my time and I like to think I know what hooks people in.  For example I’m reading a Dan Brown style book called Angelology at the moment.  Its caught me from day one as I am dying to know what happens.  I’ve found that alot with these style of books but they are often quick reads which mean  you can’t put them down, but they do leave you rather unsatisfied at the end.    Or you can go the other way. Has any one read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo?  It’s the first book in what they call the Millennium Trilogy.  OMG the first 100 pages are hard work, you have no idea what is going on as there seem to be two totally separate stories going on.  Then, the protagonist moves to another place and it all falls into place.  From then on it’s a cracking read.  But patience is a virtue with those books.  I’ve read book 2 and have book 3 waiting in the wings for when I’ve finished the current read.

So Phil and I going to sit down next Monday and have another look at the intro and see if we can spot what my friend means.  I am hoping my other proof readers will have come back by then and have given me their feedback but even if they havent we need to get this right as we are now at the point of sending of the first three chapters to agents.  And if the first three chapters don’t wow them we might as well forget it!

Oh yes, and there will be cakes!

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Wallowing in ChickLit

ChickLitPhil: This post was supposed to be decorated with a picture of a lovely, gooey, delicious and totally indulgent cupcake. Our plan was to meet up for lunch at a Brimingham cafe which makes excellent cakes so we could plot world domination and I could listen politely to stories of recent holidays. Sadly, as my train passed through Dorridge, I received a text “Going to have to cancel today im afraid as at home sick”. Since Candice isn’t one to take a day off lightly, I assume this has no connection with it being her turn to pay for the goodies !

Anyway, I was on a train and it wasn’t going to turn back just for me. I’d arranged to give blood in the afternoon anyway so this meant an extra hour and a half of spare time in my day. No matter, Birmingham is a big place with plenty to entertain anyone for a day.

One of the places I had intended to visit was the Central Library. This impressive building, a fine example of Brutalist architecture, is being demolished and replaced with something modern. The new home a few metres away will be made of glass and be all very whizzy but I wanted to have a wander inside the old one before it changed too much. The interior is confusing for the first time visitor but I eventually ended up in the engineering section marvelling at the many shelves of car repair manuals or “bloke-lit” as you might term them. Soaking up the studious air in the place made a little bit of me wish I’d not been too thick to go to university. I could have been one of the badly dressed men studying the intricacies of gearbox design, delving deep in my subject and moving into my own ivory tower.  As it is I tinker with old cars and bits of metal but know that I don’t belong there.

Moving on I found the fiction mezzanine which is home to the exact opposite of engineering corner. The shelves are bright, the books small and pretty, much like the readers. Along one wall, there are the “books for women”. I knew this because someone had been busy with the computer to replace the boring old labels seen everywhere else in the library with bright pink ones bearing the legend “Chicklit”.

They didn’t need to bother though because something else gave the contents away. The covers were all pastel shades. Titles were written in a handwriting style font. In pink.

Since I had the time I decided a bit of research was in order. This is, after all, the biggest selling category of fiction so it seemed sensible to find out as much as I can. “Know your Enemy” as they say.

Once I’d got past the colour schemes I noticed several other points:

  • The description on the back starts with a womans name. This will be printed in a brighter colour than the rest of the text. In the odd case when this isn’t true, there will be a name in the first 3 words.
  • Once you write a novel then you are on a roll. There were very cases of an author only having a single book on the shelves. Many had half a dozen, all of which looked the same apart from the title.
  • The readers like to know what the author looks like so a glamorous photo beside the bar code on the back is common. As I looked at the pictures, I now wonder if I’m too ugly to write chick-lit.

Writing the synopsis appears to be very similar to good writing for the web. Here you have to try to include as many key words as possible so the search engines can find you. I guess that the browsers in a bookshop work the same way as readers of a web page. They don’t take in all the words, just spot the jewels that appeal to them. As an example, I give you “Lorna is up to her eyeballs in debt but can’t help bidding for the newest Jimmy Choos on eBay”. See what they did ? You like Jimmy Choo shoes, you like eBay, you don’t enjoy opening the credit card bill each month, this book is about you ! Buy it now !

In the end though, amongst all the stuff about marriage breakdowns, new men on the horizon and life changing activities, I found a real gem. Out of all the dust jacket blurbs, you simply don’t get better than this:

Sometimes life can be as complicated as a knitting pattern.

Wise words indeed.

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Carrot Cake and Clever Ideas

Phil: Sitting in the Rocking Horse Coffee Shop in sunny (and windy) Kenilworth, we have been pondering the path to publishing heaven. The current count of rejection letters from agents is now 5. Or 4 if you ignore the one who said they weren’t looking to take on any new authors at present so isn’t really a rejection. I know this is the sort of thing that all aspiring writers go through but it doesn’t make it any easier.

As we chatted, carrot cake was shared and very nice it was too. The only reason we had shared it was that one of us was off on holiday and needed to be in bikini form (despite saying she couldn’t manage a whole slice, honest) and the other is too polite to sit and gorge himself on a cake while being watched. It was a big slice though. Nice creamy topping and of course carrot cake IS one of your “5 a day”.

We talked over a number of options to try to get this thing in to print. There are lots more agents in the Writers and Artists Yearbook to bother with query letters so things aren’t looking too black yet. The Beatles were turned down many times etc. etc. Despite suggestions otherwise, there are even a few publishers who take on authors sans representation and we haven’t started on them.

So, the process carries on. We both believe in the book, it’s just that the same world that really should be interested in recession era stories, is facing a recession and so is less inclined to take a risk on new writers. Thus ideas for alternative marking are in order. The Writers & Artists blog recently briefly mentioned “Thinking outside the box” and this is where we are going. More on this in later posts.

All this coincided with my discovery of some clever marketing in the publishing world as I waited for Candice. A few doors away from the coffee shop is Kenilworth Books, an independent bookshop of the type that everyone says they like to see but rarely seem to buy from. I wandered in and browsed for a while before spotting “On the slow train again” by Michael Williams. I love a good train journey and had enjoyed the first book so buying this one was what they call a “No brainer”. Taking the book to the counter I was offered a freshly baked biscuit.

Since I knew there was cake in my immediate future I declined but almost straight away wished I hadn’t. They looked lovely, a sort of shortcake with vibrant pink icing and shiny bits on top. The proprietor explained that she normally baked at the weekend and brought the results in on Monday. Apparently many people have spotted this and take the time to drop in to the shop and have a chat at the start of the week. This, of course, is brilliant marketing. You can only sell books to people who come in through the door (apart from the Amazon shop but we’ll ignore that for the minute) and if that means giving away free baked products then maybe it’s worth it. Or maybe, it’s just a pleasant thing to do.

Maybe I ought to stick a sausage roll in with the next query letter ?

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Cover story

Phil: The sharp-eyed amongst you will have noticed that last time the post showed a book cover rather different from the one we are reading at the top of the page. Have we gone and written another book and forgotten to come up with a different title ?

No – it’s just that I like messing around with pictures and so when the test copies were produced, I made up a few different covers.

I should start by saying that I know whatever we put on our covers won’t matter a jot once a publishing house becomes involved. When that happens (surely any day now), the front of the book will be handed to the marketing department who will get out their best new coloured pens and fresh pots of glitter (Candice: Oy, watch it or you’ll get a smack) and having consulted various focus groups, will come up with the design most likely to persuade a casual passer by to pick up a copy and head toward the tills to pay for it. The idea will then be passed to a MacMonkey sitting in front of a huge white computer that has a picture of a fruit on the back and he will turn it into the finished product. If we get to be involved at all, this will be limited to being shown a picture to which we are expected to say “That’s nice” or attract the scorn of people who know what they are doing.

So, all this work is just for fun. That doesn’t make creating them a bad idea since the only thing I waste is my own time and it’s good fun !

Book cover - 1st goCover One

Here we have the sort of scene that we are supposed to imagine when being told that our job is about to vaporise. The person telling us will be waffling about new horizons, times for personal growth, chances to try new things, please don’t hit me etc. etc.

This is kind of the idea we were thinking of when talking about a “change management” company. In truth, I nicked the image from one of the party manifestos at last years general election. You could see this as a biting satire on politics – they wanted to say “Hope for the future” and we said “You’d being chucked out in the cold” – but really my artistic skills don’t run to drawing this sort of thing from scratch.

Book Cover - Second go with added tractorCover Two

A Lanz Bulldog tractor features in part of the story. In fact it plays a prominent part in the grand finale. I fancied that this made a photo, taken of a machine seen in a collection of tractors I pass by regularly, very appropriate. To soften the edges for the female audience, there are some flowers stuck on the front in the manner of a doll on a dustcart.

The big change here is the new and exciting female friendly pink title in a handwriting style font. I’ve looked at covers of other novels in this genre and that seems to be the way things are done. Who am I to mess with convention ?

This book went to test reader Steve, who we have previously established isn’t a girl. Giving him a more macho cover hopefully stopped any reticence at diving between pink fluffy covers. And if Harry Potter can have an adult cover, why shouldn’t we have a blokey one ?

Book cover - third go with footy cabbageCover Three

Now we are in chick-lit territory. High heel shoes, you don’t get more lady friendly than that. Unless you are a man wearing them and trying to attract the ladies obviously.

Bung “High heels football” into a popular photo sharing website and this is sort of what you get. That and a few hundred other pictures that make you wonder about the state of humanity. A few minutes work with the photo editing tool sees the ball replaced with a cabbage and voila ! A book cover suitable for Ros, my friend who is a girl and as such, likes shoes.

Obviously the vibe I’m working is the strong woman taking control of the vegetable boffins. Our main protagonist, Kate, certainly sees life in this way, even if life doesn’t always pan out as expected.

So which one do you like ? Were I trying to justify myself, I suppose these have been created to be a visual version of the famous “elevator pitch” everyone is supposed to have for their novel. An attempt to get the entire story over to someone who can’t read, or can’t be bothered to.

Or maybe I have too much time on my hands !

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A good review

Book coverCongratulations, you have written a great book.

Steve Walton

Phil: Yes dear reader, we have had our first review. Unfortunately Steve isn’t an influential writer for the Times or some other important literary publisher. In fact he writes computer code for a living and it’s in that capacity that I met him years ago. We both worked for a vegetable research organisation and that, combined with the fact he’s on my Faceybook friends list, made him an ideal test reader or crash test dummy. I reckoned that he would be able to tell me if we’d got the scientists wrong. More importantly we are distant enough friends for him to be brutally honest.

As it was, he enjoyed the book. Twice. Or at least one more read through than I was expecting. Very decent chap that Walton.

Needless to say there were comments. Several typos (typical programmer, always with the details) and a feeling that we hadn’t handled the main character transition quite as well as we might. That’s interesting as of course we know her very well but some of the transition she undergoes through the story is obviously too subtle and needs another look at. Mind you, Steve said “The beginning of the book had a bit of chick-lit feel to it, for me.” which is what we were aiming for and as you can probably tell from his name and that fact I refer to him as “he”, Steve is no a chick.

Ever perceptive, he did make one point that made me really happy: “I liked the ending a lot, for me it had a real ‘blot on the landscape’ vibe about it (good thing). ”

Which is exactly what we were looking for. There are a couple of big set-piece funny sections in there. Much of the rest is funny too but these are hopefully the sort of pages you shouldn’t read while drinking or you’ll snort tea all over the book – just like sections of Tom Sharpe books. In fact Blott on the Landscape was one of the books I re-read while writing ours, so it looks like it might have worked.

Anyway, it’s time for more cakes and conversation as we digest this first dose of feedback.

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Famous yet?

Candice & Phil by the The QuangoCandice:  Its just a quick blog as I’m on my lunch break – but the 15 years of PR experience have come off.  We’ve made it in to the Solihull News and Leamington Courier.  Does mean we are famous yet?

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The importance of chocolate

Chocolate machineA lot of writing involves telling people things without actually telling them subtlety being the key. While our characters endure much emotional turmoil we can’t keep saying “Kate looked miserable” or “Tracey was elated”. There has to be another way to convey this to the reader.

Ironically, a lot of the time we use a visual metaphor. When Kate is feeling threatened she dresses sharply, her suits are a carapace to protect her and hide any vulnerability. Tracey on the other hand exploits her wardrobe to enhance her feminine whiles and so the clothes become tighter and occasionally there are less of them, especially in an important scene you’ll have to read in the book if you want to know more !

I think this works better on the page than on television or film. Most of the time, characters wear clothes because that’s what we do. Therefore when you see someone on telly wearing clothes you don’t think anything about it, unless you’re watching a specialist channel late at night anyway. In the text we also assume that or characters are wearing clothes suitable for the situation they find themselves in, or that they would like to find themselves as in Tracey’s case, after all, this is a story and not the Freemans Catalogue so we need to get on with the plot (I am going to get soooo much stick for that shopping reference, probably have said the Asos website) .

All this means that when clothes get a mention, the writer is telling the reader something. I’ve blogged about my learning curve in this respect before so I’ll leave this there. The real point of this post is to mention an important character who isn’t human and yet is important to the plot.

The chocolate machine.

It doesn’t matter where you work, the organisation has a “mood”. HR call it staff morale and produce PowerPoint presentations on the subject. Even though the company isn’t a real entity*, it sometimes seems down and sometimes cheerful. On the good days, everything is going to plan. Individuals might be sunny or grumpy but they often seem at odds with the overall mood and b****y anoying because of this. But as writers, how do we represent this ? After all, the plot revolves around an organisation being closed down. Mentioning every couple of pages that the whole place seems miserable is likely to have the reader on the phone to the Samaritans by chapter 3. That’s got to limit the potential sales of any sequel.

Luckily, we were sitting in a quango which had an ideal character. Now we’d been carefull not to include anyone who might recognise themselves from the page. The Horticulture Investigation Agency is entirely fictitious and not anything like where were working but that didn’t mean we couldn’t pinch ideas and inspiration from our situation. In the corner of the office was a kitchen and in the kitchen a chocolate machine. And you could tell how people were feeling from the state of he contents.

If everyone was fine then the would slowly be consumed but there were certain delicacies that just didn’t seem worth the bother and never sold between refills. When you buy sweets there are some you like and some you just ignore. For some reason the machine often had a quantity of the later. Worse, the design was such that before the delivery spiral got to the nice sweets, they dull items often had to be sold. When the news came through that the place was closing, if the packet chocolate in any form in it, there was a willing buyer.

So, the chocolate machine acts as a barometer for the organisation. If you are in Human Resources, you might like to bear this in mind. At least it will give you and excuse to nip down to the kitchen and check on the contents. Perhaps management ought to be informed when the staff will even eat the Blue Ribands ?

*Companies might not be real entities but according to a particularly nutty person I knew many years ago, they could have horoscopes. Really, people used to pay her money to cast a bespoke horoscope for their firm. If you find out that the CEO is having this done then perhaps it’s time to polish the CV and head for the lifeboats.

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Gracias Grazia

Candice:  It has been a bizarre week, two long weekends seem to have left me with less time on my hands than my usual two day weekend.  Though I think spending at least four hours discussing the merits of ‘the dress’ might have been a bit much.Princess Margaret\'s Wedding to Anthony Armstrong-Jones

Anyway, along side spending a 14 hour day travelling to and from Guildford for work and trying to train for my triathlon (next sunday, gulp), Phil has been hassling me about something else.

Two weeks ago I spotted a competition in Grazia magazine (hello to you Grazia if you are reading!).  A writing competition.  This is different from their usual ‘win a handbag’ competition which I must have texted for so many times I could probably buy a bag with the text costs. ANYWAY, a real, genuine writing competition where we might be able to get some recognition for our fine talents.  Ah, but there is one thing amiss.  It has to be written by a woman.  That’s fine, I obviously fit that criteria, but the question is can I write it without my writing partner?

After a year of having a sounding board this is a tough one.  I’m even more worried as the rules are so strict I can’t even have any assistance so I have to keep my ideas to myself, else Phil’s active brain will start churning out great ideas which I can’t use!

But I have been so busy I haven’t really had time to get down to writing something, hence Phil’s texts and emails saying – ‘come on, get on with it, it’s a great opportunity!’

So have used my training runs and long train journey to come up with a cracker of a story, inspired by a bit of costume drama on the telly,an article on royal wedding dresses (including Princess Margaret’s, above)  and a chance to write about clothes in the 196o’s for a change.  So, with bated breath I will be sending the email tomorrow and the fingers will be crossed.

Obviously winning, or even getting some recognition would be great, but I am especially interested in the fact that if you win, you collect your award at the Orange sponsored ceremony in London.  So what is my mind already thinking about it, ‘oh what shall I wear.’  Long way off there mate.

While this is all going on we have had another rejection from an agent, to add to the pile of two.  Ah well, such is the life of a struggling writing team…


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Kate Middleton wears a fascinatorPhil: From Chapter 2 of our book – She knew there was something missing though. All her friends were loved up – she had more wedding fascinators languishing in her bottom drawer than Accessorise.

From Wikipedia- A fascinator is a headpiece, a style of millinery The word originally referred to a fine, lacy head covering akin to a shawl and made from wool or lace.

And that, Ladies and Gentlemen, is how I was able to watch the coverage of last weeks royal wedding and not say “What’s a fascinator ?” to the general derision of the fashion cognoscenti present. Indeed I can show my modern man credentials by making a stab at telling the difference between a collection of feather’n’stuff nailed to someones head, and a hat which is being worn at a crazy angle. Obviously I don’t want to appear too camp so I get it wrong from time to time. Deliberately obviously…

Up to the point I received this bit of text from Candice, obviously I had no more idea what one of these was, or why anyone would have a drawer full of them,  than I would expect my co-author to identify the component parts from the front suspension of a Volkswagen. Or understand why I have a garage full of them. Now, I am a true renascence man as I can do both. A regular Leonardo de Vinci.

Which goes to show that writing, especially with someone else, can be educational as well as fun. In many ways we’ve treated this like the sort of project you find yourself involved with at work. Each brings our own strengths to the job and sometimes we disagree over the direction the plot is taking. Weirdly, since the beginning and ends of the book were planned out pretty early in the process, it’s more a “discussion” over the route to betaken between the two points and the interesting places to visit along the way. So it’s like arguing in a car then. And you don’t get satnav for writing fiction.

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How to get free beer for writing

Beer at the Long Itchington Beer FestivalPhil: If you look at this picture you will be thinking that it shows a barman handing over a pint of beer to a waiting customer. That would be correct, but it is better than that. If you carefully examine the photograph you will in fact see that it is the barman from the Green Man pub in Long Itchington handing over a freshly poured pint of “Flying Dutchman”, a nice light golden summery beer, and that no money has changed hands.

So how do I manage to get people to give me free beer ?

Simple, among my other writings, I run a blog amusingly (I think) called The Travelling Philbury. On it I write notes about trips out I have had. While I might not be a Bill Bryson, it’s fun to have a go and you never know, someone might be interested.

Well, they were. The landlord of the Green Man also runs the Long Itchington Beer festival and enjoyed my write-up a couple of years ago. At the time my visit we’d missed his pub out of the tour. If I came back the next year, a free drink was promised. I did, described the pub and especially the toilet facilities and thanks to the crowds, missed out on the drink. This year I was not to be defeated.

So, the trick is simple. Write about places to drink. Hope the owners spot your words and that they like them enough to offer free refreshment. Enjoy.

So far, in 4 years I’ve managed 1 pint. Beat that Bryson.

Update: Beer blogging is so popular, there is a conference about it !

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