Monthly Archives: November 2012

Creativity comes in many forms

Candice : I’ve just come back from a lovely holiday in Mexico.  I can certainly recommend the place, friendly people, lots of things to do and sights to see.  I’ve now seen two of the new seven wonders of the world in six weeks, need to keep this up!

Sitting around the pool all day didn’t make my creative juices flow so much, as just allow my mind to relax for a while.  However, I did read five (yes that’s right five) books so I have lots of new reviews for you.  I also watched some films I wouldn’t have seen at the cinema on the plane so I have content for the blog for weeks and weeks (Phil will be glad as he has been propping this blog up for weeks!)

However, I did see some stuff that made me smile.  We stayed in our resort for 11 nights, and each day when we came back from chilling there would be a new surprise in the shape of a decorative design with our towels.  Yes, that’s 11 different designs.  Some were better than others but we had:  an octopus, two elephants, two fish plus others.

Image  Two people chilling!

Some sunbathing?

And finally … a little crab!

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Writing characters you can recognise from the office.

Relaxing on the beachYou know, you can’t find a decent bikini around here” said the girl 

Why do you want a bikini for, you off on holiday?” asked one of the scientists as he waited for her to find the form he needed.

 Lynda groaned. She knew exactly what was coming next.

 “Oh, didn’t I tell you. Ricki and me, we’re off to Magaluf in a couple of weeks. Get a nice bit of tan. That’s if we get outside the hotel, if you know what I mean !

 I think I’ve got a brochure in me drawer. Would you like a look ? It’s a really lovely place. Got a pool and a bar and a club in the complex. Reckon we won’t have to go anywhere to have a good time, if you know what I mean !”

This was the third time this week Lynda had heard about the holiday and, if she was honest while it might leave her team short of people, at least there would soon be no talk of pools and bars and knowing what she meant.

Phil: If you are going to set a story in an office, it helps if you’ve actually worked in one for a few years. Most people have and so they will spot unrealistic characters invented by creative types who have never experienced the grind of doing the same job day in day out.  People who can’t understand why men wear ties, that the quality stationery indicates status or that no working day includes a “huddle” to brainstorm. More to the point, you would rather die than take part in a “huddle” especially if there are bean bags involved.

Writing the office requires great subtlety. The characters must be muted. Surround yourself with beige and pale grey while writing is a great help. Creative types tend to live in a Technicolor world where people’s little foibles are indulged and even celebrated whereas the real world involves a whole lot more seething and bubbles of hatred – carefully masked of course because if they weren’t, the average British workplace would quickly become a bloodbath. Think “Lord of the Flies” with staplers.

The little scene above doesn’t move our story along much apart from fleshing out a couple of minor characters, but it provides a quick scene change and touch of comic relief in the middle of a more serious section. Most people will have worked with someone who wants to bang on about their holidays and looks for any excuse to shoehorn the subject into a conversation so I’m hoping for a little chuckle of recognition as they picture their own bete noir. If they think, “That is just like…” then we’ve succeeded.

To be fair, there are lots of people like this and holidays are more palatable topics of conversation than why ‘elf and safety is ruining the country and less tedious than a description of their latest object of desire on the Autotrader website.

I also wrote the section for a more unusual, but nevertheless practical reason. You see, we know that when the publishing world picks up on the book, there will be a bidding war for the film and TV rights. Whoever wins is going to have to offer a part to one half of the writing team as a condition of the contract. The role has to be a speaking one and it somehow a woman who is always going on holiday just sort of formed itself in my head. Vikki and her boyfriend Rikki make a quick appearance earlier in the book. He will be played by George Clooney. That’s also what it will say in the contract.

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Grammar Nazi vandalism

Phil: At the moment I’m reading Anthony McReavy’s book on the life and times of Frank Hornby – “The Toy Story“. Bought from a charity shop, the volume had originally be owned by the Worcestershire County Library service. Despite being published in 2002, this hardback volume in excellent condition has been sold out of service ten years later. Thanks to years of working with people from this service, I know libraries aren’t just about books,  but books lasting less than a decade in the stocks despite being just as relevant as when they were published saddens me a little.

Not as much as what I find inside the book.

Someone has taken it upon themselves to “correct” the text in pencil. You can’t go more than half a dozen pages without finding this amateur editors efforts defacing the text.

Why? Who on earth cares? Did they think that somehow if they scribbled in the book, all the copies would magically “correct” themselves?

The problem is that every time I hit an alteration, I find myself required to stop and decide if “correction” is correct. The flow of the text is lost. Each pencil mark is a set of traffic lights along the highway of knowledge.

Have you ever augmented a published book in pencil? I’m really fascinated to know more. If only the “editor” had included their address at the front, perhaps on the page that lists copyright and publisher, I could have gone along and asked them.

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When does a contraction become a word?

My model plane!Phil (The half of the team who isn’t off on holiday. Again): Writing something a couple of days ago, I typed the word “Plane”, this being the abbreviated form of “aeroplane” or “unnatural flying machine that any sensible person will agree will never work.”

I couldn’t decide if it should be plane or ‘plane.

Likewise, I have a tendency to type ‘phone and even, if I’m feeling particularly obstreperous, ‘fridge.

Sadly, I think I’m the last person in the world to think like this.

At what point did fridge, plane and phone become words and not just the truncated versions of refrigerator, aeroplane and telephone?

(Note: It may help if you imagine this post read in received pronunciation and probably by a gentleman wearing evening dress. Or tweed.)

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Time limits

Phil: To those who’ve taken the time to read our short story, Lot 38, thank you.  Today’s post was supposed to show the feedback we received from Writers-Forum but about 10 minutes ago I read this comic on the Oatmeal and changed my mind.

One of the panels explains that “I sometimes solicit ideas from other people, but I rarely use their suggestions. Instead, hearing their idea allows me to see another one more clearly.”

This is true and it’s how Lot 38 came about.

Candice and I were lunching in the pub one day, discussing writing short stories. We decided that if you want to carry the reader, your tale needs a bit of pace and that possibly the best plan was to look for ideas with a timescale or deadline. A classic plot involves is a bomb, which in the movies is always fitted with a great big red countdown timer. There’s no need for this but it helps build tension as the audience know that something is going to happen. We don’t know what but even if the hero just sits around drinking coffee, events will carry on around him. Should he wish to affect the outcome, it’s time to step away from the latte and get a move on.

Bombs are a bit old hat but there are lots of other situations that can be employed – the arrival of a train was good for 3:10 to Yuma. High noon and 24 both stuck the timescale in the title.

I don’t know how, but as we chatted, the idea of an auction popped into my head. Maybe it’s because Bigwoods auctioneer’s operate from opposite our lunch venue, or maybe it’s just that I love the atmosphere of a good auction and have sat in quite a few over the years. Candice has never been to an auction, probably a good thing as I fear that she would be fantastically competitive leading to paying well over the odds to win, or hunting down her opponent later. (Can you tell she’s on holiday so I can say this without fear?)

Anyway, I had the scene, all I needed was the story. We rattled some ideas around a bit, by which time I was fired up to go and make some words. Writing the piece didn’t actually take very long and the subsequent edits were minimal. Sometimes, an idea is so strong that it just works.

Anyway, you probably want to know the official critique:

Title: Apt for the story, but not intriguing.

Opening: This introduces the main character and contains a hook to grab the reader’s attention, giving us a reason to read on.

Dialogue: Very good – the dialogue helps to drive the story onwards and also aids characterisation.

 Characterisation: Good – the characters come to life on the page.

Overall: The ending is a bit too predictable. I feel you need to mislead the reader more. Throw in a couple of subplots to take the reader’s mind off the main storyline. You have an easy to read writing style, but in a short story one of the characters (usually the main one) is changed or grows as a result of what happens to him or her. This depends too heavily on the twist (which, as I have pointed out, is easy spot almost from the outset) and needs a few more layers to give the plot depth.

One to learn from – use this experience to help with your next story

So, not bad but not great. I’m not sure how to cram more subplots into the story but not add more than about 1000 words. Suggestions for the sort of sub-plot that we could wedge in would be appreciated too. Part of the joy of using an auction is the intensity of the moment. When you are bidding, it’s a battle of nerves between two people. Perhaps the other bidder should have been more aggressive but then I wanted to contrast his attitude with the main character who so desperately wanted the painting. Maybe the idea of it being of great value and a potential financial saviour should be turned up to 11, the daughter could take a larger role, perhaps with her own internal dialogue.

Maybe there will be Lot 38 (MKII) here soon!

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Lot 38

It’s National Short Story week, so here’s our contribution:

Lot 38Gavel

Next up, lot 38. Oil on canvas.”

As the auctioneer recited the description a porter held a painting aloft. The weekly sale had attracted the usual small crowd of dealers and locals sheltering from the rain. They looked at the picture and someone from the back wolf whistled. Most of the others sniggered and returned to their conversations.

Reclining nude. Unknown artist.” he continued and then, more in hope than expectation,  “Shall we say fifty pounds ?”

At the back of the room, David steeled himself. This was what he’d come for.

Thirty pounds ?”

Looking around, he could see that most people weren’t interested.

Twenty ?”

He couldn’t wait any longer and raised his hand. Was it too quick ? Had he given away his  enthusiasm ?

The man on the rostrum looked relieved. “Twenty Pounds. Who has twenty five ?”

For a moment no one had. David’s heart was in his mouth. Could he get it on a maiden bid ?

From the front, one of the regulars lazily waved a catalogue without even looking up.

Twenty five. Who has thirty ?”

David nodded. Mustn’t look too keen.

Thirty. Thirty five ?”

Another wave.

Thirty five. Forty ?”

He nodded again. What was that idiot bidding for ?

Forty. Forty five ?”

There was a pause and then the catalogue moved.

Forty five. Fifty ?”

Wondering if his opponent was wavering, David responded quickly. From the next seat, his daughter looked at him with alarm.

I have fifty. Sixty ?”

Another pause. Slightly longer this time. Then a wave.

Sixty. Seventy ?”

Dad, what are you doing ?” she hissed.

It’s all right. I know what I’m up to.” he whispered, signalling acceptance at the same time.

Seventy. Eighty ?”

No delay this time.

Eighty. Ninety ?”

Dad. Stop it. You can’t afford that much for a picture.”

She was right. Twenty years ago, the family business had collapsed. David had sold everything to pay off the creditors. Two decades later, he still lived in a one room flat. The thought caused him to pause before nodding again.

Ninety. One hundred ?”

At the front, the other bidder turned to see who he was up against. He weighed his enemy up for a moment before wafting the catalogue again.

No Dad. You can’t.”

Don’t worry. I know what I’m doing.”

What do you mean, you know what you’re doing. You’re bidding on a mucky picture that’s not even by a proper artist.”

I know who painted it.” he replied looking her in the eye.

He’d not wanted to join the family firm. They were all engineers and had never approved of him studying art history at university. Despite this, he’d done his best but it hadn’t worked out. For years his parents had barely talked to him. Even when his small gallery opened they had refused to visit. There was no money in art apparently.

You know ?”

Yes I do.”

The auctioneer interrupted “Are you bidding sir”

Sorry, yes.”

One hundred pounds. Do I see one ten ?”

Sensing victory, there was an immediate response from the front.

One ten. One twenty ?”

Are you sure Dad ?”

David nodded at both her and the auctioneer. He thought of his wife. She would approve. A shared love of art had kept them going through the tough times.

One twenty. Do I have one thirty ?”

The room had fallen silent. Most lots were little more than junk went after a couple of bids.

One thirty. One forty sir ?”

Well, I hope you’re right.” she smiled. David nodded again. They had visited galleries just to keep warm when money for heating was short. After a few years they knew more than the curators.

One forty. One fifty ?”

A scowl from the front followed by a wave.

One fifty. One sixty ?”

Everyone turned to look at the back of the room. David blushed and then nodded. Time to concentrate.

One sixty. One seventy ?”

The man paused. Was he having second thoughts ?

No.

One seventy. One eighty ?”

In his ear, David heard the whisper “What do you reckon it’s worth ?”. He looked to his side and gave his daughter a knowing wink.

One eighty. One ninety ?”

Another scowl but also a nod.

One ninety. Two hundred ?”

This time, David received a smile from his daughter. He raised his hand.

Two hundred. Two twenty ?”

This was getting serious now the bids were going up in twenties. To David, the pause before the bid seemed to last forever.

Two twenty. Two forty ?”

The crowd were swivelling their heads like people at a tennis match. David nodded and all eyes turned back to the front.

Two forty. Two sixty ?”

Another long pause.

I can do two fifty if it helps.” the auctioneer offered.

We’ve got him Dad.”

One more wave. Weaker this time.

Two fifty. Two sixty sir ?”

Bugger. I thought he was beaten.”

David looked the auctioneer straight in the eyes and nodded firmly.

Two Sixty. Two seventy ?”

This time the pause seemed eternal. Then the man looked down glumly and shook his head.

Two hundred and sixty pounds. Two sixty going once.”

Another paused. David looked around the room to see if anyone else fancied a go.

Two sixty. Going twice.”

Why doesn’t he just get the gavel down ?

Sold for two hundred and sixty pounds.”

Relief swept over David like a wave. He brandished his bidder number towards the rostrum weakly.

Well done Dad.”

Next up, lot 39. A German art pottery vase…”

Two hours later they stood in the car park examining the picture.

Well Dad, who do you think it’s by ? It looks like some of those I’ve seen in your art books. A Leighton perhaps ? Or a Godward ?”

David smiled. His daughter had always shown an interesting in art. She was more practical than he was but still, a little bit had rubbed off on her. Since his wife had died he wondered if she was humouring him a little but hoped the interest was genuine.

Go on. Tell me who you think it’s is. Have we discovered an old master ? Is it worth a fortune ?”

Take a close look. I think you can work it out.”

She paused and returned to her examination, holding the canvas inches away from her nose.

I don’t know. It’s not signed. The frame is old. I can’t help feeling the model looks familiar though. Is she famous ?”

Not famous but very special.”

She looked at him quizzically.

David smiled again and took the painting from her. Holding it at arms length and examining it again.

You mother was always a beautiful woman. She was younger than you when I painted this. And to me, it’s priceless.”

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I knew I was an author when…

Feed my ego! My name on the spine of a bookazinePhil: …I realised that my name was on the spine of the bookazine.

I don’t know whether this is interesting or not, but getting properly published doesn’t quite feel like I thought it would. The thing is, I first pitched this project 18 months ago. Since the initial acceptance, I’ve been living with it every day. Even when I’ve been working somewhere in a “proper” job, the bookazine has been floating around the back of my mind.

When we reached the date on my calendar marked “Delivered from the printer”, I was excited. Think 5 year old waiting to open his Christmas pressie and you get the idea. A pessimist to my core, I simply couldn’t believe that this would actually come off until I held a copy in my hand. When I did, I tried to casually flick through the pages as though it was the most natural thing in the world and I wasn’t really bothered.

Which was easy as I just didn’t get the thrill I’d expected.

It’s not that I was disappointed, far from it, it was just a bit “Ho hum. It looks like the proofs I’ve been reading”. Not nearly as special as I had thought.

I guess that the nearest analogy for most people would be a wedding. Although I’ve not been at the centre of one, I’ve been closely involved a couple of times and it seems there is a heck of a lot of work and fuss and stress. Then the day arrives. More work, fuss and stress and then…

It’s all over and pretty much forgotten.

Writing, it appears, is work. Proper, normal work. Pretty boring in places – re-reading the same chapter repeatedly to try to untangle a bit of text requires a serious effort to maintain concentration – nothing like the air-fairy creative process most people envisage. In this case a couple of times that concentration slipped and mistakes made it through to the page.

John Scalzi summed it up in an interesting way last month by saying that he was grinding out the last few thousand words of his novel. He’d reached the point where he knew what was going to happen, it just needed turning into words on a screen.

I think this is the stage The Book is at. We know the plot. We’ve written the first draft. We’ve messed around with it. Now we have to do the bit no-one knows about when they think about writing and beat the thing into a sharper, better defined shape. That’s not nearly as much fun as writing the first version of the story, but it’s a hurdle that we have to get over. If we don’t, we’ll be left with all the other wannabee writers who also couldn’t take the next step.

Anyway, you will be pleased that I eventually did get a bit of a thrill from publication and it was when I saw my name on the spine. I didn’t spot this until 2 days after I’d bought a copy (Yes, I blagged some free ones but buying your book from a proper shop is exciting), it wasn’t expected, this is really just a fat magazine after all and a spin-off from another magazine so I assumed that it would be the mothermag name on there. It is, but so is mine.

It’s only a minor triumph but it give me hope that we can manage the much greater success of being paid to write something that only ever existed in our heads. Once that one is heading to the printers, I will be like a 5 year old waiting for Christmas expecting a really big Lego model to be under the tree.

Candice on CasualtyAnd now, I promise, I’ll shut up about it.

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