Monthly Archives: June 2011

Nailing our banter to the page

Phil: Earlier today, Candice and I were sitting outside a cafe talking book stuff. As we performed experiments to see just how much tea there was in the posh teapots and munched down on our cakes (me, cherry shortbread, her croissant with a filling that looked like custard), the discussion turned to the synopsis. While we have one, and it’s hit a number of literary agents doormats, it is quite frankly, dull.

This is no good, we need exciting. A synopsis which brings our fun-filled book alive on the page. The problem was that I had read all the instructions I could find on writing this, followed them to the letter, and produced a document that sucked the life out of our prose. I knew it had to be redone and redone much better. I could even see in my mind’s eye how this could be done. Sadly the vision was a bit misty.

Not to worry, as we chatted, things became clearer. Bashing the idea between us, the biggest benefit of joint authorship, clarity arrived. My notebook pages are part filled with a rough plan. As I sat there, I could see myself banging away at the keyboard to write a first draft. Eventually we shut up and headed off our separate ways.

Back at home. faced with a blank screen, things looked very different. How was it that a couple of hour earlier, I knew what I wanted to do and now my fingers were frozen ? I had promised to get stuck in with the synopsis and when I said this was sure that all I needed to do was turn on my creative tap to let the good words flow. But when the tap was opened, the water of ideas was frozen. Working together and powered by tea and cake, the banter flows. One of the jobs on our “to do” list is find a way to turn this back and forth of ideas into something that can be shared. For the minute though, I was on my own.

This was bad news. Initially, I did what everyone faced with a similar crisis does at work – procrastinated a while on the internet reading some blogs and checking my e-mail. Naturally this didn’t help. Worse, being self-employed, I was only wasting my time and when I do that no money is raised. At least when you do this at work there is the satisfaction of getting one over on your employer !

To clear my mind, perhaps you are expecting me to say I say cross-legged on a cushion and chanted. Nope. Sitting like Buda and saying “Ommmmmmmm” isn’t my bag man.

Instead, after a bit of staring into space, I came up with the idea to write this blog post. It’s not much but any typing is better than no typing. I think I’ve now got my clarity back. In a few minutes I’ll find out.


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The Insider Guide to How to Get Published – Part 3

Candice: So you have Phil’s interpretation of our trip to London.  So here is mine. The day started badly with the fact I had to get up at 6.50am to get the train.  I’d like to say I only get out of bed for £10,000 but these days its more likely to be a cappuccino and a muffin!

The trip down was made eventful by the people who seemed to not understand the concept of reserved seats and then kept having to be moved at each station as someone came on and said – “um that’s my seat”.  These non-seasoned traveller types, pa!

Due to the early start I’d managed to remember to put a very stylish bracelet on but totally forgot the earrings and necklace to go with it. Feeling under dressed I was tempted to buy a new pair in Accessorize in Euston, but got a funny look from Phil when I mentioned this… can you see why I write the fashion bits!

Our day got better though as I saw one of my idols at Euston Costa coffee. No, not Kate Winslet but Denise Welch!  As I have aspirations to get on Loose Women to talk book, I nearly dived over and threw a business card under her nose, but held back.  Good job I did, as she swanned off before I could get up, with her minion picking up the Louis Vuitton luggage.

With which I come to our fellow attendees at this historic event.  Well, queuing up I had a quick scan at the line.  This is London, you know, and on my previous trips down I always feel like I’ve got to make a bit more of an effort as “everyone is more stylish in London”.  Perhaps it’s because I was travelling down for work to see a certain large retailer, but looking at our queue friends, I started to think that they’d been dragged out of a hole to come down.  There was far too much tie dye going on!

However, tea and cake in hand I found a fellow fashionista. A large, patent, bright pink Mulberry Roxanne was in front of me, with owner of course.  Thank god I’d make an effort, all was not lost.

Sat down in the conference room the people there were varied to say the least, all 150 of us.  Black clothes and piercings – vampire novel, floaty skirts – Jane Austen style, preppy shirt – children’s picture book, yes I was confused by that one too as I had him down as a John Grisham type.  At this point I thought I should stop making sweeping assumptions.

Lunch break came and in between heavy downpours we ran over to the American Diner, Phil has mentioned and had a nice lunch.  I suspect we were served by a ‘resting’ actor by the fact he did a nice line in American style accent.

I had a near miss at post lunch break as a lady in the loos asked me how it was going.  I looked for her silly sticker name badge but could not see one, though could see the day pack in her bag.  I replied in a jovial manner, yes all fine blah blah.  Thank god I did as she was the last speaker of the day!

The day finished strangely with a short story prize being handed out but the winner not knowing what she had won.  I think when they called her name she thought her taxi had arrived.  I put this down to the lack of post lunch tea or biscuits to wake us up!

Before wandering back to the train we had an hour to kill so made the most of the art gallery within the Wellcome centre.  Let us just say the exhibition was on Dirt and finished with a big pile of solid human faeces…

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The Insider Guide to How to Get Published – Part 2

Phil: I know, I know. In the last post I teased you with a bit of info on this conference and then only talked about the people we shared a room with. That’s not what you were hoping for, instead, as Ronald Regan once said, “Where’s the beef ?”.

The answer to that is “In the very nice burger I had at lunchtime at the American style dinner near the station.” but that’s not very helpful either, so I’ll try again.

I’m not telling you. You should have paid up and gone yourself. There. Done it.

What ? Not customer friendly enough ? Well, if you’ve kept the receipt for the money you paid to read this, you can have a refund.

However, because I am a kind person, here’s a few titbits.

  • First up a short summary of the first session was saw by a nice man from Bloomsbury – no one is buying books any more. The shops don’t stock a back list and no one is making any money. Howard Jacobson bumbles along selling about 15,000 books a year with 60,000 if they bag a really good  film deal. Advertising doesn’t work. Publicity doesn’t work. Publishers only bother to keep the authors happy. All the top sellers are by celebrities so if you’re a cute animal from a car insurance advert or Kate Price/Jordan/ Micheal McIntyre then you’re in luck, if not, go away and leave us alone.
  • You don’t need a synopsis when submitting fiction. Or you do. Take your pick as we heard both during the day. If it helps, the don’t camp includes Esther Freud and Alexandra Pringle, one a published author who seemed to come through the process remarkably easily (jealous, moi ?), the other a literary agent (with big L). On the do side we have Carole Blake and every article you read on submitting work to agents. You choose basically.
  • If the Artisits & Writers yearbook says submit one way and the agent/publishers website says differently, go with the website.
  • Basically, there is no right way to get a book published. Every story you hear or read is slightly different. The important thing to remember is that publishing is a business. If you want to write just for the sake of it then your manuscript will forever languish in a drawer, or at best you’ll have to self-publish. If you want to interest a publisher than you have to be commercial, at least a little. Just looking around the room we knew that there were plenty of other people in competition with us. Those looking for people to fill pages can take their pick.
  • Cafe Nero do a cracking chocolate crunch biscuit. A sort of rocky road cake with extra chocolate. Just what you need after a hard day learning stuff.

Was it worth it ? Yes. Since our little trip to the big city, our writing has been invigorated. There have been a few changes to the manuscript in the last week thanks to a new-found sense of purpose.

The journey continues.

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The Insider Guide to How to Get Published – Part 1

Phil: Back in February, Candice sent over a link to a conference taking place in London organised by the people who publish the important “Writers and Artists Yearbook“. It had the tempting sub-title “How to Get Published in 2011”.

Well we want to be published in 2011 and the price wasn’t too scary, especially with the discount for booking early, so how could we go wrong ? Anyway, doesn’t that nice Ms Rowling recommend the book, and she’s not done too badly out of this writing lark.

I was ticket number 5, Candice number 6.

On the train down to the big city we pondered on the sort of people who we would be sharing the event with. All would be aspiring authors and pretty serious ones if they were willing to book on to an event. At the very least it was going to be a chance to size up the competition in the marketplace. The advert promised the chance to network with high-level agents and publishers and meet the successful teams behind the scenes. Maybe an agent or publisher would spot us in the crowd, recognise our potential and sign us up on the spot for a huge advance !

The venue was the Welcome Collection opposite Euston Station. It’s proximity was handy thanks to the torrential rain that greeted our arrival in the capital. Inside we joined a queue to register. At this point I realised I’d forgotten the ID we’d been told to bring but as it happens, nothing was asked for one we presented out tickets. I guess that in the event of a duplication, details would be requested and the imposter sent packing.

More importantly, inside there was tea, coffee, water (still & sparkling) and loads of cookies ! I opted for the one with raspberry like bits in as it’s always sensible to pick the healthy choice early in the day. Sadly, the lighting wasn’t conducive to quality photography hence the slightly soft focus and reaching for my camera I forgot the glass on my hand and made a bit of a puddle on the nice wooden floor. Sorry about that.

The crowd looked disappointingly normal. None of the gentlemen were wearing elbow pads or Terry Pratchet style fedoras. As for the ladies – if you think I’m going to have a crack at fashion commentary then you’re mistaken. One outfit did make me think, “I bet she’s writing chick-lit” though. That’s all I’m saying.

Most of the day was spent in a pleasant auditorium deep in the bowels of the building. Tube train noises could be heard through the walls and I suspect were at about the same level. Half way through the day, it was pointed out I didn’t need to balance my notepad on my knee as the fat arms of the chair housed a fold-out table. Very clever !

I’ll cover some of the lessons learned from the speakers in a post later this week but the overall impression of some of the audience was interesting. Most people didn’t ask any questions but many of those who did betrayed a complete lack of understanding of the commercial realities involved in writing. One lady proclaimed that her book, “MUST be published this year”, perhaps a rather literal interpretation of the “How to Get Published in 2011” and this drew an exasperated, “But we are planning our books for 2012” from an agent on the panel. Another was upset that the process of applying to agents differed between companies – she wanted to be a writer, not waste her time with all the different formats people wanted.

For many of us, this opened a window on what it must be like being on the receiving end of all this output. As authors we are all writing with various degrees of detachment from the real world and yet at some point someone gets the results of our efforts land with a thud on their desk, and at that point the difference between on of the guys working in an ivory tower and people like us (hopefully) who are thinking commercially, become obvious.

Another common thread to the day was people dropping names. Inevitably, the very first person to get the chance to speak did this. He boomed that he’d watched something literary on the TV a few days ago and proceeded to frame his question mentioning this and relating it obliquely to those appearing on his magic fish tank. This happened at least three times during the day – each time you could hear the thud as the name landed and I certainly squirmed with embarrassment. Sadly, it is considered bad form, but very tempting, to turn around and explain to someone that saying a famous name does not make you their friend, and telling us you watched them on telly does not fool us that you are and insider in the publishing world. Let’s face it, if that were the case you’d be sat at the front answering questions instead of in the audience.


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Keyboard vs Longhand

Phil: Listening to Andrea Levy on Desert Island Disks over the weekend I was shocked and surprised to find that she writes her first draft on longhand.

This amazes me for many reasons. Firstly, how does her longhand get turned in to digital type ? I doubt very much that the publisher is happy to work with a big pile of paper or multiple exercise books. Like all modern businesses they will store all the data, for that is what the content of the book it, as electronic files. I bet none of them have cupboard bulging with paper nowadays ! This means that a copy typist must be taking the longhand and banging away at a keyboard to transform the book from one media to another. Now I don’t know about you, but my handwriting is terrible so anyone trying to do this for me would end up re-writing half the thing rather than constantly asking “What does that say ?”

So is the resulting manuscript pure Levy ? Possibly not. With the average book coming in at 80,000 words or more, surely at least one of them gets changed, even by accident. Now I appreciate that this relates to the first draft and there is much fiddling and polishing of the text after this which is presumably not carried out by printing the computer file and writing on it. Even so, I wonder if the people who get the chore of typing the stuff in ever read the book once published and think “I put that word in there” with a small glow of satisfaction.

More importantly though, how does she do it ? I simply can’t write fast enough with a pen. I string a lot of words together for my work and know that my brain works far faster than any pen I’ve ever held. This forms part of my justification for the aforementioned appalling handwriting. When I do try, whole words get missed as I think ahead of the scribing. Sometimes the whole thing becomes garbled or at the very least illegible. Maybe if I practiced then my hands would speed up a bit but I doubt they would ever overtake my “two fingers and a thumb” style of typing. Were I to become good enough at touch typing then the disparity would be even greater.

Worse, I simply don’t write stuff sequentially. On a course I was taught to write and not edit until the first draft was complete and I sort of stick to this but not fully. Sometimes I want to edit bits while it’s still in my head. I’ll fiddle with words and this can only happen on the screen. Do that on paper and the page quickly becomes a mass of crossing out and over-writing. Then we are back to the typist writing the book themselves. More than this, not being able to edit as I go would simply drive me nuts.

The idea of the author sitting in a cafe (Rowling) or library (Levy and sometimes nolanparker) scribbling in a notebook is very romantic but we might as well include scribing with a quill pen for all its practicality. Writing, like all crafts, requires tools. For most of us, the most vital one is a keyboard. Even if it is full of cake crumbs.

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Not strictly in the right order…

Candice:  In my spare time I like to do some drama alongside my usual marketing stuff.  So last week I had a lucky break in having two days work on a well known BBC drama.  Off I toddled to Bristol for two very long days – 5am starts and 10pm finishes – to film a funeral scene.  It did help that catering is provided – including this rather stonking chocolate fudge cake.

Now you may or may not know that life in TV and film does not work in strict order.  I turn up on Tuesday and find myself doing the Wake of the funeral, Thursday was to be the funeral itself.  Now this is quite a common occurrence as it is all dependent on actors availability, whether its day or night filming, availability of location etc.  So there we are supping Kaliber and fruit juice, AKA beer and red wine, watching a big punch up.  Then off we went to the cemetery on Thursday to watch the burial before we’d actually been through the service.  It must get very confusing for all involved, no wonder they keep referring to their scripts.

  But, apart from you being  interested in what life’s like as an extra, what has this got to do with the book, you cry?  Well, we kind of worked in the same way.  Initially the writing was all about whatever popped into your head at that particular time with no real structure.  But then it all had to be strung together, I worked out that Kate was wearing the same clothes on the wrong days and we needed to work a path though it all.  In in filming world this would be continuity and editing. 

Obviously, with my penchant for throwing myself infront of a camera, we would like the book to put on celluloid at some point in the future.  But its all about the publishing deal first!


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Games without steak bake

Kelvin wouldn’t admit it to anyone, even under threat of water boarding, but as with Tracey, for him the best part of the job was the location. The building housed a branch of  Games workshop, and he could nip in in his lunch break and talk with like minded individuals about Dungeons and Dragons to his hearts content before returning to the sterile office. If he wanted variety there was also a branch of Maplin around the corner where he could sate his need for gadgets and gizmos, right next to a Greggs bakers for his favourite steak bakes. This all seemed to his mind, very neat and efficient.

Phil: Those who know Solihull will recognise the office that we’ve put KOD into. There really is a block containing a Games Workshop and it is just around the corner from Maplin and Greggs. Mind you this isn’t that much of a surprise, you could say the same in may towns especially the proximity to a Greggs.

I used to look out on this building while sat in the cafe area of the second employer Candice and I shared and while my game playing tastes never stretched to Orc and Golbin fighting (apart from a couple of games as a teenager which I put down to being young) but Maplin – yep I was there. And occasionally the bakers too, although the appeal of the steak bake escapes me. It’s far too messy for me, like tomato in a sandwich, let me lose on one of those and I might as well smear the contents all over my shirt.

Kelvin and Tracey are a pair of second tier characters in the book. They do some important stuff but this isn’t really their story. I’ll leave her for Candice to explain – he was my problem. Having working in IT for years I think I know what the people who live in the corridors that normal people fear to visit are like. Despite the stereotypes, they aren’t all a bunch of weirdos with no social skills and a tenuous relationship with soap. Most (note, not all) are perfectly decent chaps who care about what they do and exist in a rapidly changing environment. For some reason they do all wear light blue shirts. I’ve never fathomed the reason for this but it seems to happen wherever I’ve worked so I guess that something about proximity to banks of flashing lights and network cables must be responsible.

Whatever you feel about the guys in IT, you know you need them. Yes they use a lot of jargon, but then so does anyone with an interest in fashion or who works in any specialist environment. They say Cat6, you say peplum frill. Get over it. Anyway, when your computer breaks down or something weird happens, who y’gunna call ? And how many of us can work without a bunch of technotools nowadays ? So, if we write anything involving an office, it’s going to need some computer power and web stuff. A laptop plays an important part in one story strand – not a big surprise there and so Kelvin is an integral part of the tale. Sometimes he plays comic relief when we need to lighten things up. At other times we get to feel his pain or at least embarrassment.

Oddly, he never gets a flat pasty in the text. Perhaps in the sequel. Mind you, we have a lot more good things lined up for him there…

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Beware the wooden fork

Lemon cheesecakePhil: So there we are in the Yumm Cafe at the Custard Factory, Birmingham about to talk book and other things, and I make a decision. Left with the responsibility of collecting the eating irons, I decided that one of the wooden forks would be a good idea. I like this kind of earthy natural stuff and for a moment and on the face of it, this was the more eco-friendly option (we’ll return to this in a moment) and I like to be a bit green when I can – public transport, reusing, recycling, that sort of thing.

What a mistake !

I dug into my lemon cheesecake and the first thought in my head was “This fork is rough.” A second later “Wow this is really lemony” replaced it, but too late. My first impressions were formed not by the fruit of the bakers art, but by the texture of the fork-stampers efforts. The fork didn’t affect the taste but as I manfully worked my way through the delicious confectionary, I looked in slight envy at Candice’s proper metal utensil.

You’re probably thinking I’m some kind of idiot for not ditching the dead tree flesh as soon as I found it less than satisfactory, but then it would have been a waste. That fork has been made out of wood from a tree that took at least ten years to grow. It would have been cut down, sawn up, the thin wooden planks stamped out in the manner of a cookie cutter (technically it’s called die-cutting but if you are reading a blog where we rattle on about cake, you’re probably more familiar with the biscuit/cookie cutter) soaked or steamed then stamped again to get the business end to a bowl shape. Next it’s packed with thousands of identical fork brothers and sisters, shipped in a container half way around the world, loaded into a lorry, then a van and finally dropped off at the cafe. Someone then releases it from the plastic bag that has hitherto been it’s home and put it into a stainless steel pot.

Finally I come along, take one bite of my cake with it and go “Oh, this fork is rough. I will discard it for the metal version I should have chosen in the first place.”. The fork will sit on the side of my plate, be taken into the kitchen and thrown in the bin, because it’s made of wood and can’t be cleaned.

Which all seems a bit unfair. Years of growing, all that effort. The very least I can do is let it have its day in the sun and finish my cheesecake. At least as it heads off in a dustcart, it can think “I did my duty and lived as full a life as a fork can expect.”

But it still gets thrown away. I mean, on the face of it the wooden utensil is the “green” option but when you think about it, it’s not really.

What’s this got to do with writing a book ? Not much but at least you know how to avoid cheesecake disappointment and because of this, I’m sure your time reading this hasn’t been wasted.

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Finding £150,000

Kate was really excited, Gareth was getting the general gist of her idea. Now the money….

 However, I’ve got all these ideas but I need some funding. I’ve worked out I need around £20,000 to get this off the ground.”  She left that comment hanging to see if Gareth could work out what she meant.

Phil: This was the text from the book earlier tMillionaire shortbread on wheels. Yes really. It looks a bit like a car doesn't it ?his year. It prompted this comment from Steve –

“£20,000 seems too little money to start a business with staff, office space and that gets paid at least 6 months in arrears. It seems to me that £80,000 is still probably not enough money. ”

He’s right. £20k is the sort of figure that is way too low for kicking of a business like the one we have in mind for Kate. It’s a bit like watching the James Bond film “Thunderball” today and laughing because the price set for a couple of nuclear missiles by SPECTRE is only £100 million. That’s well under a billion quid to save the world. Try that nowadays and the governments are likely to laugh at you too which isn’t good for the supervillan ego. Mind you, there are plenty of bits of the UK the current government would let you turn into a smoking crater for less…

Anyway, neither of us can work out where the £20k figure comes from. It probably just went in as a number with the intention of looking at it again later. Then we got distracted and never thought about it. To be fair, there are plenty of other things to do !

This is why we needed test readers. They look at the book with fresh eyes and then tell us the truth. Sometimes the comments are big (see the last post) sometimes they are details. At least the later are easy to fix. With a bit of tweaking, we now have:

However, I’ve got all these ideas but I need some funding. I’ve worked out I need around £150,000 to get this off the ground.”  She left that comment hanging to see if Gareth could work out what she meant.

£150,000 ?! I hear you cry. Where did you get that figure from ? Is it Candice’s annual handbag budget ? Or the amount it will cost you to get that old VeeDub through its next MOT ?

Well, there is a method in my madness. Steve might think £80k will do it but I know Steve and reckon Kate has much more expensive tastes. Her firm is based in Solihull which while it doesn’t need London rents for office space, will swallow more than a pokey room over a chippie in West Bromwich. There will be nice desks and other furniture to buy too. After all, you can’t impress clients if everyone is sitting behind things that have been rescued from a skip, and Kate doesn’t do rescuing things from skips. Not even skips in posh areas.

My thought process ran along the lines that Gareth was going to find the funds, if he didn’t the story stops there. The problem is that while he is wealthy, he isn’t (here comes the cake reference…) as rich as a big piece of millionaires shortbread so he couldn’t just dig around the back of the sofa for enough loose change. The only way he could stump up would be to make an economy. But what can you do to save £150k ? Simple, don’t buy a car. If you don’t buy the correct car, the money magically appears.

Maybe it was this thought or just the lunchtime Dutch courage but a trip to the loo suddenly like a good idea. That little voice in his head was saying he needed to keep her on her toes. Standing over the urinal he did his serious thinking – for a moment he thought of the Aston Martin brochure on his desk picked up a few days ago. He had promised himself something better than the Jag for a while, but maybe that could wait. Was the idea of spending more time with Kate, too good an opportunity to miss ? Obviously Olivia wouldn’t be getting a new car either but then the state she managed to get them into with he collection of old string, farming implements and mud, well it wasn’t any hardship. She didn’t care about those sort of things anyway.

Simple really. Gareth keeps the Jag and we get to carry on with the story. All of which brings me back to Bond. You see, in the books, he didn’t have an Aston Martin either !

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