Monthly Archives: July 2011

Good writing is overrated

Phil: This week we sat down and came up with a new mantra. “Stop messing around and get on with it.”

Progress has stalled while we fiddle with the book text then hum and haw over the query letter. Simply beating the first paragraph of the later into shape took 2 cakes, a pint and half of beer, 2 cups of tea and a glass of over-chlorinated water. I leave it to you to work out who consumed what but the point is we aren’t going to get anywhere until we start pushing this book out to some agents and publishers.

Those who aspire to bookdom know that the standard advice is to keep polishing your manuscript until it is perfect. I suppose this is because there are people out there who send off a first draft without bothering to see if it reads well and which professionals would rather not see bloating the slush pile. On the other hand it might just be a way of saying, “We’ve got enough books now. Would you all stop sending them to us.”, but I don’t think so. After all, publishers need new books. If the gems were never sent because the authors were busy agonising over odd words and commas then they would pretty quickly go bust.

It’s not like the manuscript is going to be untouched once a publisher has it either. At some point an editor will get their mitts on it and tell the poor author that the style stinks or the story needs more shape or that chapter 2 is b*****s and should be re-written before home time tonight or you won’t get any tea.

No, while polishing is all very well, we have concluded that there is something more important.

Tell a rollocking good story.

Look at it this way, has anyone ever read a book just because it was well written ? Yes ? Well they probably don’t get out much. No one, and by this I mean no-one who matters, goes on holiday with a whopper picked up from the airport bookshop and comes back saying that they enjoyed the punctuation or that the use of the past participant was excellent.

On the other hand, they do buy books that literary types consider very badly written. And they buy them in spades. I give you Dan Brown as an example. Even on the Writers & Artists day there were comments from the front about the quality of the prose, but no moans about the sales. When you buy a book you want to be transported to another world. As long as the writing style doesn’t get in the way and you are enjoying the plot, then you keep turning pages until the end.

Which is what we think we have written. There are some scene setting bits, some funny bits and some parts where we just move things along. You want to know about these people, you wonder if Kate will get it together with her old flame, find out why things are happening and see a few people get their just deserts – and by that I don’t mean trifle.

Neither of us is Lynne Truss, we want to be Dan Brown. Not only do we dream of seeing well-thumbed piles of our books in charity shops, we aspire to film deals, long lunches at The Ivy and book tours. All of this requires healthy sales and people desperate to know what happens in books 2 to 7.

Oh, and there is a discussion on the importance of “correct” English taking place on the Ceefax Letters pages. Someone has suggested that Shakespeare wouldn’t have been succesful if he hadn’t used the “correct” language. I’d suggest that using a man who couldn’t spell his own surname consistently and operated at a time when most of the population couldn’t read anyway as an example, might not be the best plan. Anyway, only masochists and actors read his plays. The rest of us go and see them on stage, where they usually are a rollocking good story.

 

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“Seeds of change” becomes “Kate vs The Dirtboffins”

Kate vs The DirtboffinsPhil: Big announcement time – we have changed the title of our book !

Yes, the manuscript previously called “Seeds of Change” will hereafter be known as “Kate vs The Dirtboffins”. Well, until we change our collective minds again anyway. Needless to say this has entailed a great deal of work for me. The blog header has been modified so you find us staring even more intently at you. I think that might be a bit scary so perhaps it’s time for another session with the camera.

Anyway, there is one person to blame for all this – Esther Freud.

A few weeks ago we were sat in a secret underground bunker at the Writers Conference and Esther was on stage telling us all how she got her first book published. Apparently her agent had spotted the title “Hideous Kinky” in the slush pile and it leapt out at her.

From this moment the idea formed in both our heads that perhaps “Seeds of Change” wasn’t a jump out title. It is a good title as it refers to the changes taking place in Kate’s life, the lives of those as HIA and of course as this is a vegetable research place  it gently satisfies my love of puns. As a chick-lit title I can see it on the shelves amongst the other books. We took quite a while bashing this around when we started writing, for weeks the book didn’t have a title at all, and eventually picked it from a list of candidates.

So it was a few weeks ago I raised the subject over tea and cakes. I’ll be honest, I can normally float any idea without fear of immediate injury but this time I felt the subject was a bit more sensitive, after all, we’ve been living with this for a year now. I was wrong. Candice had been thinking exactly the same thing. While we had a good title, it wasn’t catchy enough, certainly not in the Hideous Kinky league.

So, there was cake eaten and more discussions. and now we have “Kate vs The Dirtboffins”.

Kate, because a name always helps grab the attention and introduces our main character.

vs to show there will be conflict.

The Dirtboffins because people will say “What !” and dirtboffins is a funny word.

Well I think it is.

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93 miles an hour, surely not, Officer?

Mostly cream album cover with black-and-white image of tall, bearded gentleman holding the hand of blonde, cape-wearing woman. In the top right-hand corner, it is captioned "FLEETWOOD MAC" and "RUMOURS" below it.Candice:  “The road between HIA’s home in leafy Solihull and March hadn’t been easy. Thanks to picking up the others, the team, or advance party as Gareth liked to describe them were running late. This was despite Kate’s driving, in a style that had kept the list of points on her license bordering on full for several years. In fact if it hadn’t been for some sassy sweet talking of a young policeman a few weeks earlier, someone else would have had to take the wheel. She always said. “There’s no point in having a powerful car if you don’t drive it properly.” In the back seat, Kelvin was glad of his seatbelt.”

Our main character, Kate Smith, drives a rather nifty BMW 3 series, that typical statement, upwardly mobile, look at me I’ve got a Bee Mer.  Being a strong-headed, aggressive lady, she drives her car like she lives her life, totally in control but at a very fast pace, with no patience for anyone who gets in the way.

Funnily enough, when my sister read this bit, she made some comment about it being autobiographical?  Now, I do like to drive fast, and I currently have a rather speedy Alfa which has some poke, but is also rather thirsty! But hey, I’ve only, currently, got three points which is not bad going really. I’ve never had the chance to chat up a Police man to try to get out of any more, as mine have all been related to those damn speed cameras.  Anyway, my sibling is correct, Kate’s driving and a few other parts of the book do have a basis in my background (though it will be up to the reader to work out which is which!).

But the other week I found a perfect driving song, well perfect if you want to get caught speeding.  I find that the type of music you have on when you drive influences how you drive.  Rock and its all aggressive, Pop and you bounce along the round with a smiley face, Classical and you are probably the person annoying me by doing 50 in a 70 mile an hour zone.

My suggestion is, don’t try driving to “The Chain” aka the F1 theme.  I was listening to Kerrang the other day and they were talking about what songs got you into rock music, and played this Fleetwood Mac classic.  The next thing I know I’ve got my foot down, there is a long stretch of straight road ahead and I’m thinking I’m Jenson Button!

Thank god none of Warwickshire’s finest were out and about!

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March, with Little Candice

Phil: Have you ever visited a place purely because you saw the name on a map ? That’s pretty much how we came to set the book in March, Cambridgeshire. I’d never seen the place, didn’t know if it was full of devil-worshiping fiends or anything useful. I just looked at a map of roughly the right area and though, “That’ll do”. Gingerbread lady

Anyway, earlier today I was visiting my editor, who is based just to the right of Peterborough. Once we’d had a nice long chat and I’d worked out he wasn’t going to take me to the pub on the magazine expense account, I found myself looking at some very flat landscape and thinking about lunch. On a whim I typed “March” into the satnav and after picking the right one from the list, found it to be only half an hour away. Half an hour further into deepest Fenland, past many signs promoting the amusingly named  Tacklefest, but still not that far.

The roads in this area are straight and reasonably empty and I soon found myself  standing by a sign proclaiming “March  Fenland Market Town Twinned with St JeanDe Braye”. I took a picture and pressed on to try to find the centre. After a couple of miles this duly appear and thanks to a Fenland Council temporary (and free !) car park I was soon out and about exploring.

Sadly, I was on my own, sans sidekick and that was a shame. We both wrote this book and this would have been a great spot to scoff some cake. All was not lost though as a visit to Julies Bakery nearly solved the problem. In the glass counter was a nearly perfect model of my friend made from gingerbread. “Little Candice” is wearing a fetching pink dress with sparkly bits. Sadly, she appears a little perturbed, or applied that lipstick in a hurry and that third eye effect on her head must be some sort of fascinator but I can’t be sure. It certainly was nice of the bakers to produce a figure in her honour.

Unfortunately LittleCandiceTM was only available for a photo before being purchased by the lady in front of me along with some gentleman gingerbreads. Worse still, I had to explain why I needed to take a picture and might have sounded more than a bit mad. Everyone humoured me, presumably while they call the local asylum. They also took the time to sell me a rather delicious jam lattice (think open-top tart). It was so nice that once I’d finished my stroll I went and bought the remaining stock and have just eaten half a lemon curd lattice which was just as yummy. Please go to the Julies Bakery website and look them up if you are in the area. I’m 90 miles away or I’d be a regular and even fatter than I am already !

Anyway, March itself is a very pretty market town. The town hall beside the canal is an impressive structure that dates from 1900. Nearby is the old market whose buildings house what we tend to term a “junk shop” or vintage items emporium depending on your point of view. In many places they would have been torn down for a hypermarket or empty shopping centre a doubtless will be one day. For the moment it’s a chance for students of historic architecture to find something “real”.

The highlight though is a dome. In the middle of the town. A cast iron dome that serves no purpose other than to look nice and perhaps support some hanging baskets. Why don’t more towns have this sort of thing ?

The good news is that on the outskirts, there are a couple of vegetable packing stations. Niether does research, nor are they based in an ugly, ramshackle stately home. That’s just in our book. Mind you, there is an out-of-town adult superstore (they say it is a superstore, it looked like an old garage to me but maybe size doesn’t matter)  which looked to be doing surprisingly good business for a weekday afternoon if the number of cars outside is anything to go by. Perhaps we could set something there ?

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Everyone knows a Kate

Phil: I’ll admit I’m not a big chick-lit reader, what with not being a chick and all, but according to my research (a couple of movies and reading the backs of books), novels in the genre tend to revolve around a female character who is looking for love. Either she has it, loses it and has to find it again, or she doesn’t have it and needs some. Personally, I find that if I lose something it’s probably gone down the back of the sofa but that’s not where you find love apparently. The remote control, some old biscuits and 34p in change, yes, love, no. Apparently all women are looking for is love. They don’t have real lives, never go to the supermarket, don’t hold down jobs or climb the corporate ladder, they just wander around like some airy fairy Jane Austen heroine trying to trap blokes into marriage.

This is of course, rubbish. It’s also patronising and if you suggest it to a real woman you’ll probably spend the next few days tending to your black eye. Serves you right.

The character I understand less than most is Bridget Jones – I’ve read excerpts from the books and seen the films in the spirit of curiosity. Apparently, women will identify with her. Really ? When I asked female friends the general reaction is that someone needs to grab her, and suggest that she ought to grow a pair instead of mopping around after Hugh Grant and the other bloke. Why she bothers when he’s going to end up with Lizzie Bennet and then become King of England I don’t know. By the time she meets him he would be around 220 years old and while he’s looking good on it, that’s a whopper of an age difference.

Anyway, our thoery runs that in the book, Kate is a good character because everyone knows a Kate. They know someone career orientated who might have sacrificed some personal life to achieve other objectives in her life. The stereotype involves a beautifully furnished, lonely flat, cat and red wine. There’s something else in the bedside drawer according to a friend of mine but this is a family blog so we’ll gloss over that.

Mind you, I wasn’t 100% convinced until last Sunday.

Then I saw Kate on telly. Strictly speaking, this Kate was called Helen and she was one of the candidates on the TV game show “The Apprentice”. I normally enjoy the programme but thanks to working Wednesday evenings in the film industry, I’ve not seen many episodes of the current run. However, Sunday was the final and one of the lizards (come on, you can’t really like any of them can you ? It’s 12 w******s from management wearing suits and shouting at each other. String them up, it’s the only language they understand except that they would probably call it vertical neck separation exercises) was called Helen and she proudly boasted that her personal and social life meant nothing to her – “’I see my job as my complete life. I work 24/7. There isn’t a cut off”. This level of focus had taken her to the very highest levels of management in Greggs the Bakers where presumably she gets to try swan flavoured pasties or really fresh iced buns covered in hundreds and thousands.

I’m not alone in this character assassination, Margaret Mountford, one of Sir Lord Sugar of Amstrads right hand aides, commented that Helen appeared to have no real life. More damming still, is the fact that on her website in the list of outside interests, one of the first items is “reading”, which is the same thing suggested to anyone at school filling in an application form when the teacher realises that they don’t actually do anything other than watch TV and play computer games. Follow it with “travelling round the country seeing family and friends” and you have the very epitome of a 1 dimensional character. I bet “buying food in the supermarket” nearly made the list too.

Of course this might be a completely inaccurate character summary. Helen might be a warm, wonderful, fully rounded human being who has been badly let down by the guys in the edit suite and the version we see on-screen as fictional a character as our Kate. It was such a shock to me to a younger version of our creation on telly though, I momentarily became a 12 year old girl and used the expression OMG on Facebook !

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But that’s cheating!

The Distant HoursCandice.  A couple of weeks ago I went to see a book reading by an author called Kate Morton.  I’ll be honest, I’d not heard of her but my friend promised a free glass of wine on arrival and a chance to pick the writer’s brains.  It was held in the Library Theatre in the middle of Birmingham, a lovely historic setting.

So after we’d eaten various types of food for dinner, as there was a food fair on in Brum, off we trooped to see this lady.  In the mean time I’d looked at her website and thought, “Hum, her writing is not really my cup of tea but I’ll give it a go.”

Anyway, a lovely evening was had with some gossiping with my friend, but no free wine (council cuts, we think), and Kate was actually a lot more interesting than I thought.

She began by explaining how she came to be a writer and then her writing process. One of the most interesting things was, she’s an Aussie, but her books are set in the UK.  One of the audience asked her why, and she said it just seemed natural as all the books she’d read when she was growing up were set in the UK, and she’d grown up in a place called Tambourine Mountain outside Brisbane which was a little British enclave. Gave her a good excuse to come to the UK regularly for some research too!

However, after 45 mins of patter and abit of book reading we got to the most interesting section.  Up went my hand first, but she wasn’t looking at my side of the room.  After abit of desperate attention seeking, “Me Miss, Me Me” I got to ask my question.

“So, how did you get published?”

“Well”, says our Kate in her lovely Brisbane accent, ” I had a friend who was a published author and I gave my first book to her agent.”

“Oh,” says I, though quietly.  And turned to my friend, “That’s cheating.”

Kate did go on to explain it took three manuscripts before someone finally picked up on her, but she had an AGENT!  Needless to say I left the event most miffed!

But, I might still give one of her books a go – I quite got into it when she read the first chapter. I’ll let you know what I think.

And, as Phil quite rightly pointed out afterwards, yes I did sit in the theatre and think, “that should be me!”

 

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Finding a writing catalyst

Olly ?How do you start to write ?

A little while ago I riffed about the problems I was having finding motivation. At the time I was trying to put together a book synopsis and desperately wanted some of our cake-powered banter to shine from the page. You will be pleased to know that this was achieved, passed to Ms Nolan, and promptly torn apart and re-written to become even better. In business world you’d call this (well I would anyway) putting up something to shoot at. The idea being that if you give people a blank page the possibilities are endless and the results patchy. Produce something that is in roughly the right ball-park (I can do buzzword bingo too) and this aims everyone’s creative juices in the same sort of direction and the original idea gets refined to perfection. Even if it’s wrong, it acts like the bamboo canes on an allotment, guiding the runner beans of ideas in something like the same direction.

Basically, what I am trying to say is that I wrote some stuff, Candice refined it, I refined it again and so forth. But without the original draft we wouldn’t have got anywhere. That first page of words was a catalyst.

Which brings me to this post. I’ve been pondering the contents on and off all day. There are a few subjects jotted down on a list, but one of them is a big announcement that needs me to do a bit more work, others don’t feel right for today. The thing is that despite all this pondering, I didn’t know exactly what I was going to write until I started hitting keys.

For me to work I need a catalyst that allows the ideas to germinate.

cat·a·lyst

noun /ˈkatl-ist/
catalysts, plural

  • A substance that increases the rate of a chemical reaction without itself undergoing any permanent chemical change
  • A person or thing that precipitates an event
    • – the governor’s speech acted as a catalyst for debate
  • A lyst of cats

The first catalyst for this book is of course my co-author.  When we get together to discuss ideas, what start as a fairly basic premise can grow exponentially, especially if there is tea available. Those weeks spent firing e-mails back and forth at the quango got this book going and without them neither of us would have written anything like it. They say everyone has a book inside them but giving birth to it is another matter. When there are two of you it’s a whole lot easier. That’s probably why babies have two parents.

The other catalyst for me is a computer. While I can plan on paper, what I really need is a keyboard and screen to draw the words from me. It doesn’t matter what I write, blog posts, articles, presentations or great works of fiction, the action of punching those keys seems to tap into the seam of ideas. Maybe it’s muscle memory – my body knows that typing leads to finished articles and so requires it before my brain can really do the detail of a piece. You probably think this is odd, but then for many years I could only remember my PIN when faced with a cashpoint, which was a real b****r when I started using chip’n’PIN cards – so maybe I am odd.

Whatever, it works for me, so what works for you ?

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