Monthly Archives: February 2013

Character flip sides

Phil: From last weeks news:

Person A – A man who he couldn’t adapt to working life. He just couldn’t comprehend everybody moving on and he was struggling to leave behind his school days. He has a vague hatred of  society and a general social inadequacy with his place in it. If he ever managed to find a women who would have him, his anger with the world may eventually go away.

Person B – A committed, passionate extremist with a real intention to kill and maim as many people as he possibly can.

I picked all this up from the BBCs report on a group of Birmingham men plotting terrorist activities. Both phrases refer to the convicted men. They are in effect, the same person.

This is cause and effect. If you treat the perpetrator as a character in a story, much like those in the film “Four Lions” then you see that an inadequate individual who feels that he is backed into a corner can come out fighting, grabbing hold of the most preposterous cause to channel his anger. They can pervert a belief system that many millions of people follow peacefully every day to help justify their cause. It’s one of the great joys of writing that you can provide an internal dialogue for your character as well as showing the face they present to the outside world.

All this allows you to tell the story. Interestingly (in my opinion)  this is what is happening in the media generally. Scary stories sell the news so they collude with the terrorist by taking them desperately seriously. This isn’t to say that the planned acts weren’t serious but imagine how much harder it would be to recruit converts if they realised the root of your anger wasn’t a logical disagreement on the policies of a government but simply that you couldn’t grow up and find a girlfriend.

If you want to use this as a starting point for a story, imagine if in the 1920s, people had looked at a failed Austrian artist with slightly mad eyes and laughed at him instead of listening to what he said…

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An unashamed plug for Stratford Literary Festival.

 Candice: Last year Phil and I went to the Stratford Literary Festival and enjoyed a talk from three recently published authors.  I work in Stratford upon avon so was pleased to see that my work has decided to get involved in this year’s festival. Why, because it means I might be able to blag some free tickets!  Seriously, its nice to be involved in something local and give them some support, the same reason I do my best to attend shows or plays that friends of mine are in as if we didnt all experiment in these things the world would be a boring place.

Anyway, work is sponsoring at talk by, and I quote, ‘Python, adventurer, travel writer and all round national treasure, Michael Palin‘.

COOL!  I love the Palin.  Even though he is old enough to be my Dad he has a certain something that isn’t exactly sexy but just makes you love him a little bit.  Girls, you understand.  Even more confusing that one should feel like this as he is often seen dressed as a woman or making a tit out of himself trying to dance like the locals.

Anyway, Michael is not the only one appearing at this month-long event, there are lots of other writers of all styles and other events all about things writing.  Phil and I will be doing our best to pop along to a few events and get some more insight into the hallowed world of writing and publishing.

As part of my conversations with our writing buddy Daisy Waugh I’ve mentioned the festival so I’m hoping she might be able to get involved.  If that’s the case we might get to meet her (not stalk her, promise) which would be extra cool.

If you want more information have a look at their site. http://www.stratfordliteraryfestival.co.uk/

Go one, branch out and give it a try.

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A Personal History of Libraries

Whitnash LibraryPhil: My first library was unsurprisingly the one nearest where I lived.

Whitnash Library wasn’t always in black and white but in recent years, the original late 60s building has been extended a couple of times. They’ve moved the entrance around the side too. This photo shows it as I remember. Nothing special but important to me.

It was where I attained my first library card. Not one of your fancy modern computer readable jobbies – a little yellow wallet about an inch wide that the librarian would fill with the ticket from the book I was borrowing. It would then be placed in a drawer, the book stamped with a return date and off I would go for some serious reading.

It was here that I borrowed my first book on railways, “Model Trains, Railroads in the making“. More importantly, it supplied me with every Famous Five and Secret Seven story that Enid Blyton ever wrote. I remember being allowed to go on my own to the library, which was handy as children were only allowed a single ticket. Adults got 3 green tickets as they could be trusted to keep more books at home. It didn’t matter, I could work my way through the shelves one volume at a time. The most important thing was the choice was mine. An adult didn’t need to help, I learned to look at the covers and decide if I wanted to read the contents. Sometimes I would borrow a book more than once and re-read it if nothing else appealed to me.

Leamington Library

Leamington Spa Library

Later on, my Mum used to take me to the big library in town. This was a real revelation – the children’s section was nearly as big as the entire building in Whitnash.

I think I started with most of the “Marmaduke the lorry” stories writen by Eizabeth Chapman. A bit like the Rev W Awdry’s Railway series, these centred on an old lorry called Marmaduke who, along with his driver, had adventures. Nothing earth shattering but pleasant enough for a child.

It was here that I first dipped my toe into science fiction with Patrick Moore’s “Mission to Mars” series. Since he was of a scientific bent, as well as enjoying the stories, I learnt a bit. For example, I was introduced to the idea of muscle wasting because astronauts who had lived on Mars for a long while wouldn’t be able to stand Earth gravity. In one of the books, it was suggested that the base be shut down and so those unfortunates who lived there would have to live the rest of their lives on a space station. OK, not rocket science (pun intended) but when you are eight, quite something to take in. Even tougher was trying to pronounce Woomera – these were British spacemen so they launched from our fields in Australia. I didn’t understand exactly what an empire or commonwealth was until this point.

After a couple of years, there was the inevitable frustration that my reading had advanced beyond the children’s section. Young adult fiction didn’t exist but my Mum let me use one of her tickets (she had 5, I had 3) for books from the grown-up shelves.

Leamington Library

Leamington Library Today

The library still exists but has moved around the corner to the Pump rooms into the old swimming baths. They’ve taken out the water and replaced it with books. The old changing rooms have gone too, I won’t miss them as they were horrible.

Anyway, I still drop in from time to time. The number of books has been reduced, although you can still order them from stock elsewhere in the county. I’ve had the Writers & Artists yearbook out a couple of times. The reference section is still pretty good and you can read quite a selection of current magazines for free. There are banks of computers and people to help you make best use of them. There’s also someone I once interviewed for a job in there but I hope he doesn’t remember me as he didn’t get it.

Occasionally I drop in for the atmosphere. You can go into town, wander into the library just to sit and read. I like that. It’s a good place to work if concentration matters or I simply need to be somewhere different.

What I like even more is that there are books to borrow for free. And events to get youngsters interested in reading. And staff who want you to read – they change the display of books regularly so you are encouraged to discover something new. It was because of this that I read Michael Rosen’s moving book “Carrying the Elephant” about the death of his son. It caught my eye and I read it sat in a comfy chair in a corner. I’d never have seen it otherwise. More recently, I picked up my first Stephen King from the shelves.

All the libraries allowed me to read. It’s not like I come from a home where there were no books, far from it. No matter how many books we had, I could always read more. My parents didn’t need to try to keep up with my voracious appetite for reading, it was there for free. I could experiment – if I didn’t like a book, there was always another. I was proud of my library card and certainly gave it a good workout.

This post was inspired by John Scalzi’s Personal History of Libraries.

His post was inspired by the news that Horrible Histories author Terry Deary thinks libraries should be shut down. I think Terry Deary is an idiot.

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Will famous people please step away from the keyboard. Thank You.

I used to be a local radio DJPhil: Some people have suggested that being famous doesn’t make it easier to get a book published. Presumably those same people are so stupid that they can’t work out how to eat or have just been discharged from a jury.

Of course it’s easier to be published if you are famous. Publishing is a business and if you want to sell units to a celebrity obsessed public, then you comb the pages of Now/Hello/OK and pick your writers from the “bikini bodies” section. Lets’ face it, Martine McCutcheon wrote a book and she’s not even clever enough to remember that everyone has to pay taxes, or at least find a good accountant who can provide a good reason that you don’t.

Anyway, my ire is raised by spotting a couple of things in the media recently.

1 – Frank Lampard has signed a 5 book deal to write a series for children called “Frankie’s Magic Football”.

Now, I’ll admit to knowing nothing about football. I never got picked for a team at school, being the leftover who just joined the team that hadn’t picked last. From there it was a position in defence, or hanging around nowhere near the ball, as it was probably better termed. Still, I did my research and looked up Mr Lampard’s Wikipedia entry (Yes it IS research, you think the BBC/ITN/Sky reporters do any more than this?). Sadly, the page goes on forever and I couldn’t be bothered to read it.

At the end, it appears he has an A* in Latin. Assuming this is accurate (it’s Wikipedia remember) then he might be better placed to be the new Pope since it’s the only job that requires a working knowledge of the language. The Catholic church might even benefit from a bit of star status. What we can be pretty sure of is that the books will not appear in Latin. I don’t care how desperate the publishers are, lines are drawn and it doesn’t matter what words are on the page, as long as they are in English.

Anyway, Frank has bagged a deal to write children’s books about a footballer called “Frankie”. I know you are supposed to write what you know but this is ridiculous. The cynic in me suspects that the illustrator  is under strict instructions that “Frankie” must look a lot like Frank.

2 – Richard Hammond is a judge for a short story competition.

OK, lets start with I watch Top Gear and think “The hamster” is a fine presenter. Not as good as James May, but pretty good. He’s also smart enough to milk his popularity for all it’s worth, hence the BBC being full of shows that start with his name. It’s also good that the BBC is running a short story competition for kids. On Radio 2 amusingly, so for middle-class kids who don’t like an endless diet of R’n’B from Radio 1.

But, there are real writers on the panel: Dame Jacqueline Wilson and Charlie Higson for a start. Hammond is there for no other reason than the competition needs Celebrity. Presumably someone in the Beeb thought, “No one will enter if we don’t have a famous face involved.” and hit the Hammond speed dial. He worked out it wasn’t going to take much time (teachers and librarians are being asked to do the first sift to create a shortlist – for free) and would add a bit of gravitas to the CV. And that a shed-load of money would be heading his way for a quick voiceover.

Look – I understand the marketing advantages of a famous face, but I’m still bitter OK?

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A Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling

Candice: I decided I wanted to give this book a try before Christmas so stuck it on my Christmas list.  I’d heard mixed reviews of it but wanted to see what else JK had been up to as I had really enjoyed the Harry Potter books.

We all know how hard it would be to follow something so well-loved, everyone wants you just to write more of the same.  I suppose, like Stephanie Meyer you could write in a similar genre (Twilight and The Host) or you can write under a pseudonym (like Stephen King and Richard Bachmann).  But either JK wanted to keep her name on it or her publisher did.

So I started this book just after Christmas, and I only finished it last week.  Why?  Because each time I went to pick it up I would grab for something else instead because it was such hard going.

I’m trying to be fair in this review because it’s not Harry Potter and I wasn’t expecting that.  But this was like the author trying to get rid of all of her hate of the UK, its people and their idiosyncrasies in one book.  I think she might have finished and gone “Nur” to the popular press.

The premise is the sudden death of a local council member which creates a “casual vacancy”.  This causes a ruckus in the small village that it affects as different parties decide to stand for the position. It seems the departed councillor was the glue holding the village together and with him gone the semblance of nicety that villagers have been keeping up, falls apart.

And that is the crux of it, each family involved has their own problems: father beating son, son discovering he is adopted, daughter with drug addict mom, the list goes on.  The trouble is, you just don’t like any of them.  And I mean, they are hateful people and reading the book actually made me feel somewhat depressed as their nastiness went on and on to greater depths.

The reason I say it’s JK thumbing her nose to the media as this is what we like to report on.  Soaps, news papers, magazines are all full of this level of dirt as we try to find greater and greater ways to shock.  It’s just not pleasant in a story and therefore does not make for a fun read.

All in all I wouldn’t say it’s badly written, it just isn’t my cup of tea.  To make up for feeling depressed for most of January I read two books in a week, Manhattan by Ronni Cooper ( a stonking good read for chick lit ) and The Girl who loved Tom Gordon, which Phil reviewed the other week and I devoured in just over a day.  Phew, normal book reading returns.

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Chick-lit for beginners: Fen by Freya North

FenPhil: Back in July last year, I lost my chick-lit virginity to Cat by Freya North. A gentle introduction to the genre and one I surprised myself by enjoying.

Cat is one third of a trilogy based on the three McCabe sisters, the other being Pip and Fen. Guess which one is the subject of this book?

The idea is that this book and Cat’s take place at around the same time and events in one appear in the other. So, when Fen and Pip head of to France to visit their sister, you could say, “Oh, I know what happens when they get there.” even though it’s not in these pages. I found the idea novel, so spotting a tatty copy on sale in a charity bookshop while I was buying something else, I spent an extra 50p out of curiosity.

Anyway, the plot. Fen McCabe is the middle sister and something in the art world. She bags a new job sorting out the archive for an organisation that tries to stop important works heading out of the UK. This bit is based on the authors own experience as an archivist at the National Arts Collection Fund. She (Fen) is obsessed with the (fictitious) artist Julius Featherstone, a dead painter and sculptor, producer of the sort of mucky statues and canvases that rich people used to “admire” while chastising the lower orders for their lack of morals.

The new job brings her into contact with magazine editor Matt Holden and also the owner of a couple of Featherstone pieces, broke gardner James Caulfield.

To reduce the story to its basics, Matt lives in London, where Fen now resides. James lives in Derbyshire, where Fen was brought up. She falls into both love and bed with both of them. Much of the story revolves around here trying to sort out her feelings for both. There’s a lot of fourth wall breaking and quite a bit of narration talking to Fen, unusual but as a style it works well. A monologue of her thoughts would be really difficult to pull off whereas this comes over as though you were sat on a sofa with a glass of white, trying to sort out a friends love life.

I suspect this is pretty classic chick-lit. Whereas Cat had a strong background story in the Tour de France, Fen has to generate its own momentum and without a deadline to fixate on, it doesn’t manage to do this as well. There are no real surprises at the end apart from a hasty appearance of some photos and a sort of joined up family tree affair that lost me. I think the idea is that both lovers and Julius are in some way related but I can’t be bothered to go back and work it out. We had the same issue with The Book but recognised the problem and dropped a few clues into previously written passages. Here it looks like a bit of an afterthought.

There’s also the little issue of the sisters ages. Fen is the middle sister but apparently the same age (28) as her younger sibling, Cat. Not that it matters. Matt is a couple of  years older, James 20 years so you can guess what happens in the end. Interestingly, reading her website, Freya was surprised who the character ended up with, something that amazed me as I couldn’t see the story playing out any other way. Incidentaly, she also tells us what happened to the characters after the books ended, a fascinating idea. Apparently this was the first book where North’s editor told her to tone down the sex, which might explain why it’s less raunchy than Cat but not to the detriment of the story.

Enjoyable? Yes, in a light and fluffy sort of way. I’ll keep an eye out for Pip so I can read the set.

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Chatting with Miss Daisy

Phil: Wow! A proper author talking about writing on our blog. I’m still a bit amazed that you managed to pull that one off madam.

Candice: Well, I am THAT good…

Phil: I think the most surprising thing was the idea that editing was the most enjoyable part of writing a novel. I know that like most writers, as far as I am concerned the first draft contains the greatest writing the world has ever seen and I hate going back and fiddling with it. Daisy seems to consider the first draft to be a rough cut to be refined. I suppose it’s a bit like a sculptor knocking his lump of marble into something that nearly resembles a statue and then going over the stone repeatedly to refine the result.

Spending months fiddling with the opening of a book does ring a bell though. If you don’t get it right, then the reader is turned off but I wonder how easy this is when you are so close to the work. At least we can pass text to each other for feedback.

Daisy says she feels the need to write, it’s not just a means to an end, and I’m not sure that you could write a novel without passion for the story. For everything we’re produced, at least one of us has really believed in the story from the outset. Sometimes I have to write stuff just to get it out of my head. I suppose that inspiration strikes at odd times, especially when you work on historical novels. That means you have to be open to new inspiration, she must have dozens of events filed away in a mental “That will make a good story” box.

I love the idea that it’s a relief to escape into writing a novel from journalism. Disappearing into a story you have complete control over, if your characters will let you, must contrast massively with trying to work with real world events. In a novel you don’t run the risk of history proving you wrong either as many columnists found to their cost when the much derided Olympics were succesful last year.

One surprise was that Daisy writes in cafes. I’d always assumed that as succesful writer would quickly sort themselves out an office to hide in. Presumably in the part of London she lives in, the residents aren’t constantly interupting her typing to say, “Are you that Daisy Waugh? I saw you on the nolanparker blog the other day. They’re very good aren’t they. You must be so proud.”. Good to see that I’m not the only one who find the Interweb a drain on my productivity though!

Not sure about going for a run as thinking time. Far to energetic for me.

Candice: Hmmmm.

Phil: Interesting point about people fiddling with smart phones on the tube. When I visit the capital, I always reckoned you could tell who worked there because the paperback would be out and open as soon the moment its owner stopped moving on the train. Reading was an unselfconcious thing to do. As she says, there are less novels and more Angry Birds entertaining commuters nowadays. As a writer, you have to say this is a bad thing and not just because fewer books will be sold. I’m sure someone will suggest that many will be reading e-books but I suspect that once you are using a screen, the dreaded web will offer other temptations. You can’t check your e-mail in a paperback.

One thing I do get is the joy of seeing your book on sale. I’ve shuffled magazine racks in Smiths before now if something I’ve writen is in print. This couldn’t compare to the first time our novel was printed up for test readers and I picked the copies out of the box. As I recall, the only other person who would have been as thrilled as me was on holiday at the time. If that happens when The Book is published, I’m going to the printers on my own. I don’t care. I’ll be the one in Waterstones fondling the covers.

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