Monthly Archives: June 2013

Golden Keyboard – A chat with Polly Courtney Part 1

Polly CourtneyPolly Courtney left university to embark on a career as investment banker with no intention of becoming a writer. Her first book, Golden Handcuffs, came out of a desire to expose the reality of life in the Square Mile. This self-published novel attracted the attention of HarperCollins who signed her for what most authors dream about, a 3-book deal.

Having discovered her passion, Polly went on to write Poles Apart, a light-hearted novel based on her Polish migrant friend’s experiences in England. Subsequent novels have covered sexism, racism, fame culture and the summer riots. She is a passionate champion of the underdog and this is reflected in her novels.

In late 2011, Polly famously walked out on her publisher, for the ‘girly’ titles and covers assigned to her books – most notably, It’s a Man’s World, a hard-hitting take on the lads’ mag industry and its impact on society marketed as chick-lit.

This experience has seen Polly return to self-publishing, most recently with the novel Feral Youth  launched yesterday, and become a champion of authors who wish to go it alone. We first met her at Stratford Literary Festival in a session that saw us walk away fired up to crack on with The Book in a way we hadn’t been for some time. Obviously we wanted to know more, so I fired off a quick e-mail request quickly answered with a generous agreement to answer a few of our questions despite being in the throes of launching Feral Youth.

We’ve split the interview into two halves. Today we look at the nuts and bolts of writing a book. On Tuesday we’ll be asking about self-publishing a novel.

PollyWritingWhere and how do you write? Do you set goals for numbers of words written per session? Write in the morning before breakfast or later in the evening? Use only pink and fluffy pens?

Definitely the pink and fluffy pens!

No, I use a clunky old laptop, which is black and only a little fluffy. I plan my books meticulously before I sit down to write the first chapter: planning the different threads, the interactions between characters etc. so that when it’s time to sit down and write, I know who’s going to do what and how.

I can only write in the afternoons (I know… don’t ask why) so in the mornings I get ‘stuff’ done: go for a run, tweet, make calls, tweet, write articles, tweet… you get the idea.

Your books always focus on an issue and then weave a story around this. How do you pick the central theme? I’m assuming you don’t just grab a copy of the Daily Mail and see what they are getting worked up about.

Damn – you’ve worked me out!

The truth is, the ‘issues’ (lads’ mag culture, city sexism, wealth divide etc.) are ones that have been swilling around in my head for a while, making me angry. I don’t like to see inequality or prejudice going unnoticed and although I’m not deluded enough to think that my novels will change society, it makes me feel better to know that ‘the flipside’ (of the Daily Mail argument) is getting some airtime.

FYPlanDo you plot the entire story before starting or do the characters become alive and drive the plot lines?

I plan the story, but when I start writing the chapters, the characters soon start behaving in ways I hadn’t quite anticipated. I’ve never managed to stick to the original plan for a novel – but I think that’s OK. I’d hate to force the characters to do something against their will!

How much Polly Courtney is in your characters? Your first book came from your job but after this, there are some interesting similarities – the main characters mother is usually strong and demanding figure for example.

My first book was definitely semi-autobiographical, based on my experiences in the City. Since then, there have been components of me in all my novels, but only streaks: attitudes and opinions, not the whole me. In my latest novel, Feral Youth you might struggle to see me in any of the characters, as it’s set on the streets of Peckham – but I’m sure you’ll find me in there somewhere…

Interestingly, the ‘mother figure’ who appears in a couple of my novels is based not on my own, but on an amalgamation of ‘pushy mothers’ I saw during my school days: parents who would push their girls so hard that many of them suffered from depression and worse – driven by the relentless goal to ‘have it all’. My parents are definitely not pushy; in fact, their attitude has always been ‘do what makes you happy’!

Unlike chick-lit authors, your male characters are very well written and rounded. How easy do you find to write the opposite sex without resorting to clichés?

Why thank you! I actually enjoy writing in different voices: the teenagers in Feral Youth definitely felt most ‘alive’, and the men in my previous novels were interesting to write, too. I guess I’m just fascinated by people and things that are different from what I’ve grown up with.

Thanks Polly for this. Next week we’ll peek behind the scenes of publishing a novel yourself. In the meantime, visit Polly’s website at pollycourtney.com

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Alan Titchmarsh on words

At school, I loved writing stories. I loved writing them rather more than Miss Weatherall liked reading them, but that’s by the by. And then I grew up. A bit. And I realised, when I grew up, that unless you are an artist, or a composer, or a novelist, you never get to use the one thing that gives so much pleasure as a child – your imagination. – Alan Titchmarsh

Phil: I don’t really do biographies. The phrase “History is written by the victors”, attributed to Churchill, could be re-worked as, “Biographies are written by lucky sods.” In many spheres, especially the biz called show, success is as much about being in the right place at the right time. As one who always manages not to do this, I’m not that interested in filling my days reading about those who did.

Yes I am bitter.

Anyway, Alan Titchmarsh’s biog , “Knave of Spades” came to me with the suggestion that I ought to read it because his writing style is similar to mine. Fair enough, it’s not a fat book and I wanted some easy reading so I gave it a go.

So far so good. There is an element of right place, right time with his post-Kew Gardens career but it’s amiably written and kept me turning pages. The bit that sparked my interest starts on P277 in the chapter entitled “Words…”

At this point, our hero decides to have a go at writing a novel. He sends off three query letters and gets rejection, mild interest and offer of lunch.

Hold on, A rejection letter? For Tichmarsh? The man who is considered some sort of sex God by the HRT patch crowd?

That must have been an interesting meeting for someone.

“So, you turned down Titchmarsh’s book.”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“Well, it’s not about wearing jumpers or doing gardens. Some sort of novel about a lighthouse keeper I think.”

“ARE YOU NUTS!!!! I DON’T CARE WHAT HE’S WRITTEN. TITCHMARSH WILL SELL BY THE TON!!!!! YOU’LL NEVER WORK IN THIS INDUSTRY AGAIN !!!”

And so it proved. Number 2 in the Times Bestseller list.

By the point he wrote his first novel, Alan had produced 40 books on gardening and stuff. I’m told that these are informative and easy to read without talking down to the reader. He understands that he’s not writing great fiction, that the literary world is desperately snobby. The point is made that JK Rowling was lauded as the successor to Roald Dahl until she started selling by the barrow-load and then faced a backlash from the establishment.

I think he puts it well when he says:

It is up to all authors to plough their own furrow – whether it be light fiction or prose laden with scholarly substance – and to write well, within their genre.

Which is pretty much what we are trying to do. Maybe it’s all bluff but he doesn’t come accross as someone who took acceptance for granted. It’s reasonable (if anoying) to expect that if you are a “name” you are a lot less likely to end up in the slush pile. Publishing is a business and celebrity sells. I like that he understands what he’s writing. It’s light fiction. Feel-good stuff to be read, “on the bus or the train, in a book-lined study or on a lilio, by butcher, baker, computer-maker or housewife.”

Which is all we aspire to. Kate vs the Dirtboffins isn’t high art. It is fun to read. It will make you laugh. We wrote it because writing it was fun. To sum it up in Alan’s words:

Provided that they can give the reader a day or two of escapism, and a fraction of the pleasure that they give me to write, I ask no more.

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How long should a book chapter be?

How long sir?

Phil: When working on people’s websites, I come from the usability camp. That doesn’t mean I sleep in a tent or walk funny, it’s those of us who decide how a site should work by looking at the people who use it and see what they are doing. We don’t ask them what they want, we watch to see what they do and then modify the pages to match those expectations.

The theory is that if you give people what they expect, using the website is easier and they achieve whatever it is they came to it wanting to do. It’s a bit like car design really – put the brake pedal anywhere but the middle and you’ll lose a sale. Steve Krug nailed it with his book, “Don’t make me think“. If I have to learn how to use a website then I’m probably not going to bother.

I reckon you can apply some of these lessons to writing a book and chief amongst these is chapter length.

Grabbing some books from my shelves, I did a quick survey:

John Wyndham – The Midwich Cuckoos – 12 pages

Tony Hawks – A Piano in the Pyrenees – 16 pages

Freya North – Pip – 13 pages

Stephen King – The Long Walk – 19 pages

Alan Titchmash – Knave of Spades – 7 pages

My methodology (for those who care about such things) was to pick a random chapter somewhere in the middle of the book and count the pages. Don’t complain, it’s as scientific as most of the stuff you get reported on the telly.

What does it tell us?

Not as much as I expected. My guess was that chick-lit would have shorter chapters than other genres. Freya North and Alan Titchmarsh (same audience I reckon) are on the lower end of the scale and she manages a few 2 pagers in the book. A quick look at our Book and I think we are in line with this.

Since it’s rude to gawp over people’s shoulders while they read, I’m basing the conclusions on Candice and my feelings. Both of us are fans of short chapters to give a story pace. We’ve broken our story pretty much every time you change scene as this seems logical and tried not to stay in any one place too long.

I also think it makes the book easier to read. I pick books up and put them down to snatch a moment of reading. If I can do a chapter, the bookmark moves in a satisfying way and it doesn’t seem odd to stop. If the chapter end is 4 pages away, I’ll stick at it. 10 pages and I’ll probably realise that I’m not going to make it to the end in this session so will look for another convenient place to halt, be it a paragraph or end of page. Picking up won’t be so easy but I don’t have any choice.

Injecting pace with short chapters will probably increase the tiem a reader spends with you each session. Get momentum in the story which carries you along and you think, “Oh I’ll just do another chapter” making the book becomes a page turner. Both readers and writers want that don’t they?

Conclusion: Length matters and for commercial fiction, short wins.

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Every vow you break by Julia Crouch

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Candice:  Phil and I always like to do some research on the people we are going to interview so a few weeks ago I bought Cuckoo and Every vow you break by Julia Crouch.  He got Cuckoo, I got Every Vow.

Getting together a week later I asked how he was getting on with the book,  “I dont really like it, I have to admit.”  I was surprised as I was really enjoying mine, but wondered if it was a girl/boy thing.

Every Vow is about a family who have moved to Upstate New York for a summer as the father is an actor in a play.  Bringing with them two teenagers, a small child and the memories of an unwanted baby just recently terminated, the message at the start is this family is not in a good way.  The house they are to stay in is dirty, the father Marcus is only interested in his career, leaving his wife Lara to pick up the pieces, entertain the children and try and find something to do in a town that is more of a ghost town.

Lara stumbles on a secret, Stephen, the once love of her life and now Hollywood actor, is holed up in the town to escape a stalker.  No one is supposed to know where he is so she and her brood spend their days in his amazing home, while Marcus gets further and further away in the pursuit of his dwindling acting career.

The story twists and turns as things start to happen to the family: clothes get taken from the laundrette, they find out the house they are staying in has a dark secret and Lara begins to pull away from her husband.

I wont give away the ending but I thought it was clever and obvious but not obvious.

To book tackles some hard topics: abortion, the realisation that you may have married the wrong man, murder and even incest.  Though that last item is only touched on as it means that Olly, the teenage son, is in the right place at the right time to protect his twin sister, Bella, I would have like to have seen it explored more as I think its unfair poor Bella has to hide that horrible secret.

Having now read Cuckoo, I can see what Phil means.  Though in the same style, Cuckoo is a harder book to read as the characters are all unlikeable.  In Every Vow I wanted Lara to get out of this stuffy marriage and her situation, where as in Cuckoo I couldnt understand why the main female character would put up with an overbearing husband and controlling friend.  I can also see why they might be more ‘female’ books as both protagonists are very led by their children (something neither he not I understand) and particularly in Cuckoo the baby seems to be the centre of the universe.

Cuckoo was Julia’s first book, Every Vow her second.  Perhaps this is showing how her writing has developed from book 1 to 2 as she has made the characters more rounded and put a bit of heart into book 2.

Though we are well on our way to getting the Novel back out there, and would like to think its a well written piece, I think this is the case with all writers.  The more you write, the more developed your style becomes.  Just thinking back to the Harry Potter books, the first two or three are slim, more child friendly novels, and then they get more heavily plotted and thicker as JK’s style develops.

By the time we get to book seven it will be Booker prize winning….. or just a really good holiday read!

 

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Bookmark’s progress

booksandmarkPhil: Tuesday’s post wasn’t the one we’d discussed over curly fries the day before but a combination of technical problems and a poorly puss-cat conspired against my friend. As is often the case though, the results made more of an impact, on me at least, than the original plan.

By the time I came to read the post, I’d been on the road for 4 and a half hours sandwiched around a day full of meetings. I was knackered. However, my friends words pushed me into reading a couple of chapters from the book I’ve got on the go and I felt much better for it.

At the moment, I’m in the happy position, for a self-employed person, that there is more work than I can shake a stick at. While my work is enjoyable, work/life balance is a bit off whack. No trips to Italy for me for a couple of months. At the moment, a trip to the Post Office is the highlight of the week!

Anyway, it hasn’t stopped me reading. Dipping into a book for half an hour takes my mind off the pile of projects that consume my waking hours. Unlike watching TV, I can immerse myself in another world. Watching the box tends to be a passive activity involving sitting in front of flickering light as stuff plays out in front of you. Aside from the fact there isn’t much on that I would like to watch, I can do it and think about other things. It’s not really a break.

Reading, like juggling, meditating and apparently even going for a run, clears the mind. The activity takes you out of yourself and forces a conscious break in your thoughts. My brain might be wiring away in the background but the bit I live in is consumed with the story.

That break is good but I find a side benefit from the progress my bookmark makes through the volume. It’s one project that I know will advance reliably as long as I keep reading. I get a sense of satisfaction just seeing how far I’ve read. Not a great achievement perhaps but I like it. Approaching the back of a fat book is especially satisfying as I feel I’ve put the work in and will soon have the sense of achievement that I’ve finished the story. Sometimes, I don’t want it to end but mostly, I enjoy the journey but like to get to my destination. Hopefully that’s a nice, satisfying denouncement with all the loose ends tied up.

Which is why, no matter how busy I am, I’ll make some space to read.

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Where do you read?

ReadingCandice: I’ve just come back from a week in Sorrento (very nice, shame about the rain) and it was interesting to see how people are different when they are on holiday. 

We all like to read but when you are in the hustle and bustle of the normal day-to-day I hardly ever see people reading books (or kindles).  The only time I did use to was when I got the train to work but now I drive I don’t see that.  Perhaps, in a lunch break I might see some one in the coffee shop with a book, though it seems more likely for them to be reading a paper as it’s about eating, reading and then getting back to work, rather than relaxing.

Our hotel had a pool on the top of the building.  Sorrento is a bay surrounded by hills and the hotels are all built into the hillside, so they go up (and up and up).  Our pool was on the 8th floor, next to another hotel whose rooms were at the same height, so we could see right into their balconies.  There am I one day, relaxing on a sun lounger, reading some other holiday tosh and I can see the people on the balcony next door.  In the hand of the reader is a greeny grey book I recognise – Inferno.  On the next balcony down is another lady relaxing on a lounger, also reading some thing.  This makes me think, so I look round the pool area and everyone has their nose in something.  The choice varies from Chick Lit to the other half’s reading topic of Ron Atkinson’s biography. 

In our room in the hotel, there are stack of books to choose from all left by previous guests I assume, and there are also ones dotted around the reception and bar area.  In fact, there are books everywhere.

At the airport, while we had two hours to kill before our flight, I again looked around at the people reading.  We had another copy of Inferno on the go, alongside more Chick-Lit and Kindles (that’s frustrating as I can’t see what they are reading!)

I’d love to know how much these people read when they are at home?  I suspect some, not at all.  I certainly know that is true of my husband who only reads the Sunday Times.  From a book publishing point of view I think its very interesting, as I’d love to know where these people bought their books.  I suspect that the market for purchases in the airport is massive as people forget all about books until they are about to get on their flight.

If this is the case, we need to create a holiday friendly piece of literature (which I think we have) than is well marketed at the airport.

But I also think it’s a shame, as people are missing out on the relaxation that comes from reading.

This time of year especially I love to come home from work and then go and sit in the back garden catching the last rays with my book.  In fact, we hardly watch any TV in the summer as we are often found in the conservatory reading and catching up.  But, I suspect most people only do this on holiday and miss out on the great opportunity to disappear into a book after a stressful day at work.

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After the darkness – ruminating on our chat with Julia Crouch

Julia CrouchPhil: Well done again for bagging another top interview.

Candice: Why, thank you. Your turn to get the next one.

Phil: Hmm. Anyway, the main thing I notice is that as with Daisy Waugh,  editing is the key to the finished book. I can understand this as Julia’s books rely heavily on a well-planned plot. You can’t just let the characters run off and do their own thing, they have to perform like actors on a stage so you reach the denouncement and tie up most, if not all of the plot strands. This is, I suspect, the difference between “real” authors and the rest of us. They see the big picture whereas we are too busy enjoying the details. I even found this post on her blog that shows the novel split up into Post-it notes. I suppose this must mean we are heading in the right direction.

Glad you asked the question about being “light and fluffy”. We were both completely fooled by Julia at Stratford Literary Festival. I’m glad I didn’t get to ask a question because it’s obvious that if she didn’t like it, a horrible death would be plotted for the questioner! Seriously though, I read the first two novels and wondered where the author stopped and character started. Every Vow You Break takes place around the background of a theatre company and I wonder if there are people reading it who are thinking, “Has she based XXX on me?”.

Maybe this is catharsis – you can do things on the page that you shouldn’t do in real life. In fact, people generally want to read an extreme version of real life and that’s exactly what the crime writer provides. The trick is to keep things believable which must mean reining in the imagination at times.

Work-wise, Julia is very organised. Deadlines. 90 minute writing sessions. Word targets. Even a proper office, albeit a shed at the bottom of the garden. Yet again though, there seems to be a lot of running involved. Not sure I like the sound of that.

Candice: I seem to be handling the running part of this partnership. Perhaps we should share the workload here?

Phil: Maybe not. I mean, I’m sure that running is fine if you can get yourself “in the zone”, let your mind float free and enter a Zen-like trance. Becoming a frustrated, sweaty lump isn’t quite so helpful.

Candice: Hum. I really like this idea but am not a morning run person so I wonder how this works for me? The idea of doing something before settling down it is good though, hence the idea of leaving the home as otherwise it takes me ages to concentrate.

Phil: Yes, we always seem to be more productive when using a library for work. When fame and riches arrive, we’re going to hire office space so a working mindset takes over. Thinking along those lines, the targets are a good idea. At “real” work, everyone has deadlines and I bet if we’d had something definite to aim at, our book would be finished by now.

Another area to look forward to is publicity. We can both do the showing off bit, so the thought of appearing at festivals, talks, library events, signings and workshops appeals. This is another difference between “real” authors and the rest. They understand that writing is just part of the job. You have to sell what you produce and this can’t be done from an ivory tower, or even well-insulated shed at the bottom of the garden.

Candice: I’ve been thinking hard about needing to buy new frocks for public appearances. In fact I’m planning to do some more research on Asos.com as soon as I’ve finished writing this post…

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