Monthly Archives: March 2012

Feedback from a publisher !

Phil: Out of the blue a few days ago, I get a letter. Oddly, it is addressed to both myself and Candice at my address. Then I notice the franking and realise it’s from a publisher.

Tearing open the envelope, I hope with all my heart that it says something along the lines “We love your book, here’s a huge cheque.” but I know it’s more likely to say “Please don’t bother us again or we’ll call the Police.”. I read the page contained within. Then I read it again.

It’s a rejection letter.

But it’s a special rejection letter. One with a little bit of positive feedback. The second paragraph reads:

Although your story had appealing elements and your writing style was suited for the chick-lit genre, our reader felt that the authors were too concerned with explaining the background rather than introducing the main character or getting into the action of the story.

They think our writing style is suited to the genre ! We can actually do this thing !

OK, so there is the bit about taking too long to get to the point but as regular readers will know, we are working on this. Sadly the query letter to response time straddles the point where we found this out and started trying to fix it. Had we realised this earlier then maybe the latter would have been more positive. Or maybe there would be something else wrong. For the minute we are both taking the little bit of positive out of this.

Anyway, at the very least, someone has at least read our three chapters. Someone in a publishing house. Better still, they didn’t just send a standard letter, but took the time to make a suggestion. Someone who gets loads of stuff from the slush pile to plough through took the time to help. How special does that make us ?


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How social media works

Phil: In a word; procrastination.

Last weeks post on Twitter by Candice set me thinking. First, it made me think “I suppose I ought to have a go at this Tweeting Lark” and so now you can follow me as @Practical_Phil or at least you can once I’ve read the instructions and worked out how to do it properly. Two tweets so far but both were celeb filled, so move over Stevie Fry.

Second, and related to reading the instructions, was a pondering about the very nature of social media and why it is so succesful. The anthropologists amongst you will probably say something about humans being social animals and living in groups and sharing experiences. Very nice and oh so scientific but I suspect you are wrong. There is a bigger factor at play and it’s this: Work is boring.

Let me take you back to the early days of the interweb. Before Facebook and Twitter, before even MySpace (yes there was such a time) the killer site everyone looked at was BBC News. According to a conference I attended once where the BBC webmaster was speaking, even in the dark days of the late 1990’s, this site was receiving trillions of visits every day. That’s from a time when home connections were dial-up, most people didn’t have the web on their desk and we all talked about being able to use this new-fangled thing called WAP on our mobile phones in glorious black and white. Despite the difficulty accessing the content, when you got the chance, it’s where you went.

Does everyone need to keep up with the news on a minute-by-minute basis ?

No they don’t. But when faced with something in Excel, the urge to go and read something new, and the BBC has always made a point that the website is constantly updated, was very compelling.

Then along came blogs, of which the most succesful were also streaming out new content continuously. And then Facebook where you looked at a stream of new status updates from your friends, even if they were people you’d met once and would never see again. Finally Twitter boiled Facebook down to its essentials. A constant vomit of drivel from all corners of the world and yet because this is new and shiny we lap it up.

Look at it this way. What is more exciting, checking a sheet of sales figures or reading that Peter Andre has eaten a digestive biscuit ? No contest.

Which is good and bad news for us writers. On one had we are much in demand as everyone needs new content. On the other, everyone reckons they have the skills of Shakespere. The result is a sea of stuff for our readers to swim in. There are multiple channels to be attended to. You could see these as opportunities – why not give your character a Twitter account and tweet as though they were real. Could you even tweet the story from their point of view ? You also get more tools to use in a story to move it forward. Kate vs The Dirtboffins relies at one point on e-mail and the sort of conversations that are had using this channel.

Just remember that there are more bored people stuck in jobs they hate with plenty of web access. Crack that market and you’ll be made for life.

Anyway, must go. I see Holly Valance has seen some sparkly shoes…

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Joining the Twitteratti

Candice: I’ve been pondering how the help more people became part of our small, tight group.  Regular readers, we know you like to dip into the land of nolan parker for some humour and light relief from the day to day monotony.  So, we want to make as many people as possible aware so they can experience this.  We’ve already done some local PR and got a mention in the media but the odd bit of press coverage a larger following does not make.

So, I’ve been playing with Twitter.  It’s a funny entity, social media.  I was abit unsure about Facebook when I joined it a few years ago. But I’d been made redundant and thought I’d have a play.  The development of a Blackberry in my mobile arsenal and its App for Facebook, six months after joining, and suddenly I could see what those people I’d once been friends with a school had been up to at any time of day or night.  So, when people started going on about Twitter, I thought what is the point?  I can talk to everyone I want to via Facebook, see photos of what they had been up to and post pictures of my holidays and car when I wanted to brag.

But, since the purchase of my iPad, plus buying “Social Media for Dummies”, I have started to get an idea what the fuss was about.  Yes, you have to be more careful about what you say to whom as it’s open to everyone but, I can plug away for the blog and the book with a hope that someone who has some influence might read our lowly blog and think, “hey, they sound interesting.”

So I’m following some key people – Steven Moffat, Doctor Who and Sherlock Writer (because I’m a big fan of both), Stephen Fry (’cause everyone else does), Daisy Waugh (from the Sunday Times) some writing posts and some actors from the series I like – New Girl and Lost Girl for a start.  I’m still playing with it at the moment but I keep looping these people into comments and hoping that they might reply.  It would extra cool to get someone famous (or semi famous) to respond.  Fingers crossed and I’ll keep you updated.  If you want to follow – @seemecomms.

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I have been unfaithful

Phil: It’s true. I have been messing around behind our main books back with another story. A dirty, dirty but oh so thrilling one.

It’s not my fault of course. It never is. I blame the pressure of work.

OK, I’ll come clean. Sometimes my job requires nothing more of me than I stand in a foyer making sure that people don’t trash the building. Handing them parking fine avoidance car-passes and explaining how you fill them in to those unable to read and comprehend the simple instructions written on the front. The shifts are 10 hours long and if everything is going well, not too taxing mentally. My feet might hurt but my brain can atrophy.

So it was that my mind wandered a bit and started to assemble some ideas into a story. I didn’t want to do this. It just sort of happened. Then I thought some more and fleshed out the words into a decent plot. Before darkness had fallen I had even got the first chapter pretty much sorted out in my head. It was nasty, violent and yet there was a little frisson at the thought of it.

The next day fortune provided me with an afternoon sat in front of a computer. Like most writers, once I have an idea in my head, there are only two ways to clear it out. Once involves a Black & Decker drill which is messy and painful. The other is to write it down. How familiar this sounds. In the early days of Kate vs The Dirtboffins, both Candice and I felt the same about this story. Now it has been released on the page, perhaps we have become overly familiar and so my mind decided to find a new tale. One very different to the old one.

A couple of hours keyboard-bashing saw the new story started and my mind cleared. I don’t know what I’ll do with it. Probably nothing. Maybe I’ll introduce the new words to Nolan. Maybe I’ll read them again in a week and think they were rubbish. Dunno.

With my mind cleared and having had a little dalliance elsewhere I find myself with renewed interest in my old flame. I now see it in a slightly different light. Time to reacquaint myself and see if we can pep things up and add a little spice…

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Found: The perfect writing spot ?

Hilton BreakfastPhil: For various reasons, I was put up for the weekend in a Hilton Hotel. Before you get too excited, it was the Hilton Hotel, Basingstoke. The one that Mr & Mrs Hilton wished they’d named their daughter after because she’d be a lot less trouble that way.

Anyway, I think it might be the perfect hideaway for writers. When you are sat in front of the computer screen you must be free of distractions and this is exactly what a business hotel provides. Those on the road don’t want character, they want anonymity. The space has to be clean, serve food and enjoy a decent car park. My hotel, whilst technically in Basingstoke, actually exists in a little bubble just off the ring road. As far as I could tell you couldn’t actually go anywhere from there other than back on to said road, so there was no temptation to wander off into the town to the pub. The decor is pleasant but bland so you aren’t going to be distracted for too long once you’ve worked out what all the light switches do, sniffed the toiletries  and played with the menu on the telly for a few minutes.

From a practical point of view, there is a decent desk in each room intended to house a laptop and some business papers. There’s even a little notepad and a pen. Alternatively, power points (as opposed to PowerPoint, which is what many of the laptops will be being used for) could be found in the foyer. Food and drink are served there by discreet staff. What else do you need ?

As far as team nolanparker go, I can see this being a big help finishing Book 1 (again) and getting cracking on Book 2. From my perspective, I can start the day with a nice bit of museli, some fruit and a yogurt before flexing my creative muscles.

Nolan can go for the full English (3 rashers bacon, 2 sausages, scrambled eggs, fried eggs, beans, hash browns, potato scone thing, all covered in lashings of brown sauce with a touch of ketchup because it’s important to have some vegetables), toast (with butter not that yellow spread), strong coffee, glass of traditional Oirish stout and maybe finishing off with a chocolate muffin or three. Then after a snooze, there is the little gym to work it all off again. Maybe after that a bath making use of the body wash that appears to be full of glitter (yes, really) because that’s what people in marketing like.

The only snag is paying for this. Once you are a superstar author, you don’t worry about the bill but as we aren’t technically there yet I need to have a chat with Hilton Hotels and see if they want to supply two free rooms with food for a couple of writers in residence occasionally. For this consideration, they get a plug in our best-selling book. We already have our characters stopping at such a place so adding the appropriate trade name and perhaps a few carefully researched details would be no great hardship. In fact the product placement in this blog post ought to get me about a week in one of the less glamorous locations.

And the point about the location is vital – I don’t want to stop in Paris or London. Basingstoke is fine – I’m not going out of the front door. Best of all, those are the very rooms they can’t let at weekends, so there you are commercial hotel owners, a whole new and lucrative market is waiting for you.

Please make your thank-yous payable to “Mr P Parker”.

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One for the techno-geeks

Phil: Things you don’t expect to read in an interview with author Tony Ballantyne, “One big change I’ve made in the past year or so is to switch to emacs for writing.”

Really ?

Obviously most of you are wondering what the hell emacs is and why I should feel strongly enough to write a blog post about it.

The first answer is, emacs is a text editor. Not a word processor with all those buttons and functions and things but a bog standard text editor with very little in the way of “features”. I was first introduced to it many years ago when editing some C++ code for some reason or other. You’ll probably have it on your computer if you write in a strange language that requires a semicolon at the end of every line and a large collection of Star Wars memoribilia. All I remember was that compared to the alternative, an editor called Vi (presumably an acronym for “editor from hell”) it was a joy to use. OK, so I would have much prefered to use something else such as Windows Notepad, but I managed. A shudder of horror at ever having to use either again is my excuse for a post.

But maybe there is something in this. After all, if you want to get some serious work done there is a lot to be said for switching off the Internet. As a time water, it’s second to none. A will of iron is required to eschew dipping in every now and again. After all, BBC News is always worth a quick look and it’s important to keep up to date with breaking news…

On the other hand, I’ve never found the various options in MS Word to have the same appeal. Quite the contrary, I’ve known many a user manage to show absolutely no interest in learning any of them at all. Why bother when you can just ring up the IT Helpdesk and demand to be told how to use them immediately rather than bother to recall the two-day course you were sent on at the companies expense, or that you claimed to be an expert at your interview ?

So, it’s a proper wordy processor for me. I can’t write without one to be honest. It doesn’t need all the gizmos but some ability to move text around and perhaps the squiggly line thing to show me my spelling mistakes and typos is nice. Cut’n’paste obviously, paragraph formatting, page breaks, Bold, Italics etc. Different fonts are useful too for emphasising bits of the text. We’ve included some e-mails in our story that appear on the page in a mono-type form so they stand out a bit.

In fact, if I have to use emacs to be a writer, I’m going to become a brickie.

On the other hand, if you fancy a go, click here.

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Read your own filth

CENSOREDPhil: Like most aspiring authors, the moment I read on the BBC that Catlin Moran was recording an audiobook from her book “How to be a Woman” and described how she actually read the book through for the first time and was “absolutely amazed” at what she found, I inadvertently shouted at the computer screen. How could she now know ?

Is this “her book” in the sense that she warbled some generalities to a ghost writer who then went off to do all the real work ? Argghhhhhhh !

Taking a deep breath and wiping the volley of tea from my screen I pondered if there was an element of this at our current stage of writing. Not a load of being published just ‘cos you are famous and it’s easier to sell than talented newcomers bit, but reading your manuscript and being surprised at what you find.

I’ve been noodling around with the idea of a hook for the start of Kate vs the Dirtboffins for a while but other work has meant a bit of a break from the subject. This has one benefit, I’m re-reading passages with a fresh eye.

The good news is it’s still brilliant. I’m still very proud of what I find. Since it’s a 2 person project, a fun game is to try to work out which bits I wrote and which bits are Nolan. Not always easy and there are some I’m simply not sure about any more. Perhaps this is the key to good writing – don’t rush it. Leave it and come back a few times and you see things you don’t otherwise spot when submerged in the story. I know the first time I read our tale properly in (Lulu) book form I spotted a few continuity errors. A couple of hours later these were fixed to the benefit of the text.

What I don’t understand though is how you get a book with your name on it on the shelves and not know that it’s full of filth. I might not remember every single word in ours but I have a pretty good idea where the debauchery is and which bits I won’t be reading out in front of an audience if my Mum is sitting there (Candice can do those ones, she probably wrote them anyway as I’m far too well brought up).  Surely you’d look in the bookshop window and think “That lady looks like me on the cover. And she has the same name. What larks, I’ll get a copy.”

On the other hand, do you think Dan Brown knows everything in his massive novels ?

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Overkill on the testosterone

Candice:  As a writer, in the loosest sense of the term obviously, I read books with a slightly different eye these days.  It’s the same with TV, as my other half has found having dipped into the land of extras work in the last year too, you can’t watch TV or especially a show you are in and just watch it any more.  You are too busy watching the extras.

Anyway, I’ve just finished my latest read.  Its been awhile since I read a book as, not commuting or having had a holiday yet this year, time to sit down and read is lessening.  Phil lent me “Blott on the Landscape” weeks ago and I’m only half way through.  I think that is partly related to the fact it feels dated now when it didn’t when I read it 15/20 years ago.  Still very funny in places !  However, my latest book was given to me by my Sister.  I’m not sure where she got it from because it doesn’t seem like her usual read but it is “Empire of Gold” by Andy McDermott.

I’ve not heard of him before but this is the fourth or fifth book in this series so I was a bit confused with characters on first read.  The premise is a man and wife team who investigate archeological finds which lead them to much bigger things.  By this point they’ve unearthed most of the seven wonders of the world!  This book is based around them finding El Dorado, the lost ancient city of gold built by the Incas.  All well and good thinks I, a bit Da Vinci Code then.  However, being a writer and general liker of strong female characters this book got on my nerves.

The main female character is intelligent but keeps getting into scrapes which her ex SAS hubby has to retrieve her from.  Ok, not so bad.  But the way he does it is way above the usual over dramatised saving level taken by your Indiana Jones etc.  It really does get a bit silly and the body count is huge!

But I can see the appeal to an Agent.  Series – tick, fast paced male/female audience tick, market it on the back of Da Vinci style thrillers – tick.  They would have seen pound signs all the way.

But hang on thinks I, series – yep we’ve got that, male/female pacey – deffo for former working on later, thriller – ok not so much but with the ideas I have (when I finally get the computer fixed and can do some writing) I think we can get to that.

So, why have we not been picked up…..I think I’m going to research Mr McDermott and see what worked for him.

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What was your first book ?

Phil reading the LadyBird Book of Commercial Vehciles. A first edition too !Phil: It’s World Book Day today. To quote the website, “a celebration of authors, illustrators, books and (most importantly) it’s a celebration of reading.”

This started me thinking, what was my first book ?

The first one I read, rather than had read to me. Initially my thoughts turned to Book 1 of the Rev Awdry’s Railway Series – the ones that are now better known as “Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends”. Thomas didn’t turn up until book two in fact but presumably Britt Alcroft & Co. who made the TV series decided that a cheeky tank engine was better for the market than the real first engine to star in print was Edward. I always prefered Edward.

To be fair, Rev Awdry himself recognised that Thomas was the star, presumably because young Christopher, who the stories were originally written for, liked him so much. Having met Chris a few times, I can’t quite imagine this but then he was at least 40 years older by that point !

However, this was relatively late in my discovery of books being at around the age of 4. There was a book before this that was much more important apparently. The only problem is that as soon as I mention this, Candice will be moved to tears if she isn’t there already at my anorakiness.

The publication in question was The Ladybird Book of Commercial Vehicles.

For those who haven’t read it, LBBOCV was first published in 1964 and 52 pages long. Half of the pages contain a pair of paintings illustrating a couple of vehicles. The opposing page provides the information to match the pictures. We start with the Bedford 1 1/4-ton Spurling Van and discover that “The Bedford 1 1/4-ton chassic can be fitted with a variety of different bodies. The one shown opposite is the Spurling van which is used for general goods delivery. The sliding door at the side enables the driver to get in an out easily.”

Riveting stuff, but there is more. We get the specifications so the reader can know that both petrol and diesel engines are offered, the later of 3,285cc. capacity, developing 64 brake horse-power.

Can you imaging pitching this as a childs book today ? No, I can’t. Top Trumps maybe, but a book ?

Anyway, there are many other fascinating vehicles such as the Karrier 2 to 3-ton Low Loader, Dodge 7-ton tipper, Thorneycroft “nubian” Crash Tender and finishing up with the fantastic Scammell 6X6 “Super Constructor”. Each painting, by David Carey, is a masterpiece I would love to own as much as a Canaletto and the text is short but informative. If this wasn’t enough, there were different vehicles in later editions including one I liked because it seemed to be loaded with one enormous piece of my Mum’s shortbread.

Apparently I would spend hours sitting in my little chair as a small child, reading out loud from this book. You might think this is a bit odd.

What really is odd is that at this point I couldn’t read. I had memorised the whole book from countless bedtime readings by exceptionally patient parents. I knew every word, including the technical stuff. I even knew when to turn the pages and did so as I went through.

I still don’t really know why. I had lots of other Ladybird books. Why I should choose to memorise Commercial Vehicles is beyond me, but I did, so I suppose this was the first book that was really special to me.

What was yours ?

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