Monthly Archives: May 2014

500 Words

500 WordsPhil: Because I am old (Apparently, although not old enough to shop at Marks & Spencer. Still at least 130 years too young for that) during the day, my wireless is tuned to Radio 2.

In the morning, they have been running a short story competition for children entitled “500 Words”. This tells you pretty much all you need to know about the rules. Sadly, we are too old to enter but that doesn’t mean they will be short of stuff to read. This year, there have been 120,000 stories submitted. That’s one child in 30 taking part – an impressive statistic.

With all these words, 50 million, there is an interesting analysis performed by the Oxford University Press. You can read the full report in PDF form here.

Children use the characters around them as characters in the stories they make up. Minions, from the film Despicable Me, are big this year. Lego gets a look in with and increased appearance too.

Sinkholes have been in the news and obviously attracted a lot of attention. You can see why – who knows what is at the bottom of the crevasses that has suddenly opened up? (Geologists I suppose, but I bet their answers are boring).  News programmes full of flooding earlier in the year have provided some handy jeopardy, perhaps the kids are putting themselves in the soggy shoes of those they see on-screen.

Cynics will scoff but I think this is brilliant. Children have always made up stories, I know I did, and encouraging them to limber up their imagination is surely a good thing.

Mind you, reading Chris Evans height in books might take them until they hit university!


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To kill a book?

Candice: I note, with glee, that they are removing Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ from the GCSE English Literature syllabus.

Now I was in the first year to take GCSE’s (1988) and it was on the syllabus then!  I have distinct memories of it as I hated that book, I just couldn’t get in to it and it was the only time my parents came home from a parents evening, took me into the dining room and told me I wasn’t to leave until I had read the book.  Obviously, not all that night but they would be keeping an eye on me.

I was savvy though, I just read some of it and then the penguin pass notes, so I could get through the course.  Luckily, I did a pure coursework GCSE so they just didn’t use that essay when they submitted my paper – I do remember getting good marks on one about Malvolio from Twelfth Night and that was used instead.

In fact,  I know children everywhere will be moaning about the fact Shakespeare is still included in the syllabus. But as someone who can still quote parts of some of his plays now, and works in the town that millions of people flock to just to see where he lived, I can kinda see his relevance still now. And that ability to quote has been very useful in pub quizzes!  I’m sure there are elements of Romeo and Juliet in their day to day life all the time.

What I find interesting is what they have now included.  One of the pieces is ‘Anita and me’ by Meera Syal.  I read this years ago, can’t remember what it was about but do remember enjoying it.  It’s a complete change from the works above, but if it engages those who don’t like to read – all the better.

I don’t think Phil and I will ever hit the GCSE syllabus but maybe they will grow up to read our books?

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That Near-Death Thing

That Near-Death ThingPhil: I don’t do sports. Growing up being the last one picked for every sport at school put me off taking part in them for life. I can’t stand football, don’t understand cricket, can watch snooker but only if Ronnie O’Sullivan isn’t playing ‘cos his fans are all rude noisy w***ers.

I do have a soft spot for motorcycle racing however. Unlike Formula 1 cars, there is overtaking and real tension. The best racing though is to be found on the Isle of Man. For just over 37 miles, riders on motorbikes hurtle around a small and beautiful island in the Irish sea travelling along normal roads dodging walls, lampposts and other solid trackside features. Driving around the course is an awe-inspiring experience, especially when you realise your car is travelling at 30mph at the same spot man in leathers will be doing nearly 200.

21 years ago, I first visited the Isle of Man. It was during the TT practise week and every evening the streets of the capital were turned in to a race track. Standing outside a newsagent shop at a point where there was an S-bend in the road, I realised that the racers on their sidecar sets were pointing at me for a fraction of a second. Since there was a slight hill crest in the middle of the bend at this point, the wheels left the tarmac. I moved behind a green telecoms box on the pavement, a wholly inadequate shield, but the best on offer.

Listening to the local radio at the hotel each morning, there were always reports of deaths on the course. Not from those racing, but from fans who thought after a few beers that they could ride windy, complicated roads in the dark. Sadly, they found out that it takes skill not alcohol to do this, something that would go through their mind as they ploughed in to a stone wall.

The TT course is dangerous, but no one likes to talk about it.

Except Rick Broadbent. He has written a superb book on the race – not looking at nerdy details but talking to the characters who battle each year to win a TT.

Each man, and one woman, have their own motivations for taking on the challenge. The common factor seems to be not a death-wish but the feeling that you get living on the edge of disaster. They all know how tough it is. They all know the risks, but those risks are integral to the challenge.

Now, I’m pretty risk-averse. I’ve never ridden on a motorbike and have no interest in trying one. I am fascinated by the people who are very unlike me in this respect.

We meet lots of characters: Guy Martin is well-known as TV companies have picked up on his “character” and shoehorn him into different formats, mostly ones that once would have been sent to Fred Dibnah. He’s always struck me as a top bloke who would make excellent company over tea and beer. Well, if you don’t mind talking old engines and spanners anyway. In so many ways, he is TV gold and sadly that can seem to get in the way of being a professional racer. Guy has yet to win a TT after years of trying.

John McGuiness used to be a cockle picker in Morecambe. He travels to the TT in a motor home and has won it many, many times. The exact opposite of a sporting superstar, slightly overweight and middle-aged, he currently holds the lap record with an average speed of 131mph.

Ian Huthinson managed the remarkable feat of winning every TT race in 2010. Later that year he was involved in an accident that nearly ended his career and kept him from serious racing for 3 years.

The Dunlop brothers come with history and something to prove. When your Uncle Joey is the most succesful racer in the events history and you have to pass a statue of him on each lap, everyone expects you to do well.

Conor Cummins is the Manxman who was poised for greatness in 2010. Leading the TT, he fell off his bike. And then off a mountain. The whole things was captured on film from a helicopter (Don’t worry, there are no gory bits). The book takes us through the accident and his subsequent recovery and it’s here that we see just how all this matters to the people who take part. Interviews reveal that the injuries aren’t just physical, although these are bad enough, they are mental with Cummins struggling to come to terms with not being able to do the one thing he loves.

Beyond the racers, we meet the families, the wives and partners, the mothers and fathers. Those who support and worry. Even the ones who mourn like Bridget Dobbs who travelled from New Zealand with her husband Paul to take part in the TT as they had done for several years. 2010 was the year he didn’t finish the race. It finished him. You might expect bitterness but instead there is passion. She firmly believes that her husband died doing what he loved and that life is better live in a blaze of light for a short period than it is simply existing as a dull glow.

That’s what this book is about – Character. People. The people who do something extraordinary yet when you see inside the helmet, profess to be very ordinary.

I don’t do sports books, this is probably the first one I have ever read. It’s so good though that I couldn’t put it down. Broadbent introduces the character and lets them talk. It’s no hagiography, we see them warts and all. Unlike the excellent film shot during 2010, there is a lot less Guy Martin than you might expect. The author knows he’s a character and excellent content, but we also see the side of riders who wonder why a man who has never won the race gets all the attention.

There is a bit of nerdy detail but very little, just enough to provide background for anyone unfamiliar with the TT. This is about people and emotions and all the better for it.

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Stretching the story

Mark Williams as Father Brown


Candice: I’ve just spent a long but fun day on the set of Series 3 of Father Brown.  This light, afternoon show is based on the stories of G K Chesterton, of which there are a number, but not a many as the episodes from the three series that have been made.  So where do these extra story lines come from?

The description of the show says that they are based on the characters but new story lines, in the same vein as the books.  But they have moved the stories to the Cotswolds and cast a man who must be 6 ft in the role of  a ‘short,stumpy’ character.  Hum.

Then take James Bond, an extremely famous set of books which have been expanded in to many films.  How many of those are based on the actual books and how many ‘expanded in the same vein’?  There have even been additional books written by others including Sebastian Faulks, described as continuation books. Faulks wrote the book in the style of Fleming, and the novel carried the credit “Sebastian Faulks writing as Ian Fleming”.

So, where do you go when you have run out of source material?  You obviously get someone to interpret it themselves in the style of.  But I question whether this really works?  If the original author knew the character and the concepts, and that is all they wrote, should you really take it on yourself to make something else when they never did?

As a purist I’m not sure I am a big fan of taking things further, and I dont always think it works. You often lose the real sense of the characters and the way the story will flow.  I know we have ideas for up to seven books with Kate and Dave, but if we don’t get past two or three before we decide that enough is enough, well then thats fine.  The characters have told their story.

When Bond returned to the screen with Daniel Craig, Casino Royale was based on a Fleming story but Quantum of Solace and Skyfall arent.  The first is a great film, the other two ok and totally different in style.  Skyfall particularly gives you a completely different Bond.  I have to say I wasn’t sure if it was my thing. The question I want to ask was, would the original author approve.

I do wonder with all of this if it is all about money rather than staying true to your characters.  I’d love to be in a situation where someone offered me money to carry on our stories, but I’d also like to say ‘enough is enough’.




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Pity the man who has to say no

I'm sorry, butPhil: Following on from Candice looking at things from the literary agent point of view, I thought I’d relate a recent tale along those lines, one that will hopefully provide some guidance to anyone hoping to see their name at the top of a magazine article.

One of the jobs I have is editor of an on-line model railway magazine. It’s basically an edited letters page with added news and other articles. We don’t have a budget for submissions but that doesn’t always put people off. Our ranking on Google is pretty good and as a first place to see your name over an article, it’s an excellent choice. You might not get paid, but it could be a stepping stone to greater things*.

The first and most important rule when approaching any publisher is:

Write what they are looking for.

Don’t pester Motorcycle News with 5000 words on growing pansies. It doesn’t matter how good a piece you’ve written, they really, really, aren’t interested.

In the book world, if your publisher specialises in sickly romance, your mix of Andy McNab and vampires, probably won’t spend much time between slush pile and bin.

We have been very careful to send our manuscript to agnets who have worked in the same genre in the past. We know they aren’t likely to be looking to make a hard job any more difficult by looking for a news set of contacts, even if they do hold the best book ever writen in their hands.

Anyway, a few weeks ago I received an e-mail from a lady who wondered if I would be interested in a piece for the mag. I replied saying I would be but pointing out we had no contributors budget. She wasn’t phased by this.

A couple of weeks later, my in-box was home to a really well written and interesting article. At 2000 words long, it was a good length for on-line reading. None of it had been obviously lifted from the web, or if it had, the re-write was sufficiently good to move from plagiarism to proper research.

The only problem was that it was a short history of the hobby, obviously aimed at people who knew next to nothing about it.

So, here I was with a very good quality lesson on sucking eggs that it was proposed I present to the thousands of grannies who read my mag (they aren’t grannies, I’m using a metaphor, stick with me). I looked long and hard at the piece. It was good but no matter how I thought about it, the fit with my mag was poor. I could have run it and just let it go but I knew the letters page would have been full of moaning or people wondering what the heck I was doing.

Eventually, I wrote a nice (I hope) note rejecting the offer. My suggestion was that it needed to go to a general interest magazine such as “Readers Digest” where the fit would be as good as the last piece in a jigsaw. I never heard anything more.

It’s not fun saying no, but sometimes you have to do it.


*Writing for free is fine as long as it’s a stepping stone. The trick is to learn when to stop. (Hint: Quickly)

Membership of a special interest society such as for your hobby means there will be a newsletter editor always on the lookout for free words and this is a great place to start. Look to move on to submitting to places where you get paid pretty quickly though, at least if you aspire to turning writing in to a job. Be warned, the world is full of people advertising great opportunities to write for “up-and-coming” websites where the only thing on offer is exposure. Trust me, real editors are not cruising the web looking for random writers. They have enough to deal with looking at stuff sent to them in the post.


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A view from the other side – how to be a Literary Agent

Jonny Geller

Candice: I was going to write a post about the book I have just finished reading, ‘Reckless’ by Andrew Gross.  However, though it is a perfectly readable book, and I finished it, I wouldn’t say it broke any boundaries or I could add anything to it, so I’m not sure what I’d write about it.

So, I’ve been trawling the web for ideas and found this interesting interview with a Literary Agent. Obviously, Literary Agents are like God to us. To get one would be like finding the Holy Grail.  But it seems no one wants to bite.  So I thought it would be useful to see the other side of this conversation.

The interview is with Jonny Geller from Curtis Brown.  He represents some big names including John LeCarre and Adele Parks.  It seems he fell on to his role by chance.  But I have to say that is the case with a lot of careers I think, I certainly didn’t come out of my degree and decide to become a Marketer (though I did want to be in something creative like writing or acting), I worked my way around to it.  I often think that’s better as you have time to develop into what you want.

The most interesting piece in the interview is the kind of authors he is looking for.  “We get around 13,000 manuscripts a year and I’m looking for someone who is a career writer.”  He wants some one who is driven to write above all else, and of course some one who can generate a stream of books which he can make money from.  Now, at which point in out covering letter have they missed the fact Phil and I have ideas for a seven book series….

He also doesn’t rate social media. “I think social media is really interesting, because I don’t think it works for most writers.” He thinks it actually means they are giving all their hard-earned ideas away for free.  Hum, I’m not sure if I agree, I think you can tease through social media to get more of an audience, especially the younger ones.

However, the most important point to me in the interview is this, “It certainly doesn’t matter if an author is good-looking or not because sometimes that actually gets in the way funnily enough.”  Phil, I don’t think we need to worry about that head shot quite so much…

Read the interview, it’s a useful insight into the literary world.


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Praise the Double entendre

Project 365 #138: 180509 Oooooh, cheeky!From Wikipedia: A double entendre is a figure of speech in which a spoken phrase is devised to be understood in either of two ways. Typically one of the interpretations is rather obvious whereas the other is more subtle. The more subtle of the interpretations is sometimes sexually suggestive. It may also convey a message that would be socially awkward, or even offensive, to state directly. 

Phil: So there we were enjoying a quick bite to eat before the Tim Brooke-Taylor show. I had posh bangers’n’mash, Candice, the pulled pork medallions. She enthused about the meal and offered me a little bit of medallion to try. In return, I asked if she wanted a little bit of sausage. “Only my husband is allowed to ask me that” was the reply.

Boom Boom!

The short radio segment of TBT’s show covered a lot of ground. He grew up when broadcast media were fiercely policed and any hint of rudeness excised from scripts by BBC censors terrified of corrupting the nations morals. Thus, if you wanted to be rude and funny, you needed to be careful and hide the smut in more innocent language. So popular did this become that shows such as Round the Horne were full of double meanings – precisely why the audience loved them so much.

In film we had the Carry On series where no potentially smutty pun was left unmined, but in oh so gentle a way. At least until the world became more liberal, the audience wanted things straight and all this double meaning stuff seemed so old-fashioned.

I wonder if we’ve lost something?

The best joke of the evening, and the one that made my friend roar with laughter, came from the radio show I’m sorry, I haven’t a Clue. It concerns the exploits of the the scorer, Samantha, a regular source of stories told by the quizmaster. It seems that she went to the local butchers and was offered beef in gravy, but she prefers his tongue in cider.

I think I might go away and stuff some more subtle smut in our masterpiece…


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A Goodie evening with Tim Brooke-Taylor

Tim Brooke-TaylorPhil: The final event of Stratford Literary Festival was to be another celebrity filled extravaganza. Last year we had Michael Palin, this time it was to be Tim Brooke-Taylor.

To make things even more exciting, Tim was being interviewed by Chris Serle, who many will remember from “That’s Life”. If you are a child of the 1970s, this was a good night out.

The format involved a couple of chairs and Searle interviewing TBT. This is a stage show they have performed around the country and basically involves some chat interspersed with clips from Tim’s TV career. If you were expecting something of the Radio 4 Tim then sadly, “I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue” was quickly dealt with early on, although at least this was with a filthy joke that made Nolan roar with laughter.

For those who saw Palin last year, there were many connections. Tim had also gone to Cambridge University, had also joined the Footlights review and was very nearly also a Python. In fact he was partly responsible to writing the classic Four Yorkshireman sketch that is normally considered pure Python. We have now seen film of the earliest version with the man himself playing one of the parts.

From here he progressed through several classic black & white comedy sketch shows until we got to The Goodies. The idea behind this was to take a couple of issues and throw them together with a sort of sketch format. Intended as an adult show and broadcast after  9pm, it’s usually remembered for a giant cat or flying black puddings. We were shown the climax of “The Movies” and it’s still very funny even if one or two jokes have dated.

To be honest, we didn’t learn much about writing other than Tim fell in to it having discovered that he really enjoyed making people laugh much more than he fancied being the lawyer he trained to be. He also doesn’t like to work on his own, jokes are funnier when you bounce them off people both on stage and on the page. That’s a lot like the way we work with ideas and banter driving the text.

More to the point, we both grew up with The Goodies and watching and old episode on DVD before writing this, I wonder if it has influenced the funny set-piece sections in our book. We certainly aren’t afraid to think outside the box with the jokes and although they have roots in reality, we are both capable of stretching this a long way for comedic effect.

Maybe TBT and collegues have more of a hand in our work than we realised.

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The Next Chapter in writing

CakesandTicketCandice: Phil and attended another Stratford Literary Festival event tonight ( I wasn’t on holiday this time) titled – The Book: The Next Chapter.

Obviously we’ve been to a few of these how to get published events over the years, so I said to Phil let’s try something different.  They did also say it included tea and cake which was a bonus.

The event was chaired by Tim Davies from History Press, who we’ve seen before at Lit Festival events.  He was accompanied by Sam Jordison, Journalist and author, and Charlie Warburton from a digital marketing agency with a publishing bent (though he looked like he’d be just as comfortable on the rugby field).  The premise: where are books going now.

Tim opened with a discussion of an article from this weeks Bookseller magazine about the death of the paperback. They discussed about how discounting was affecting the market, how Amazon and their Kindle was having its own impact and that it was a hard world to be a writer or publisher in if you wanted to make money.

Then we got to the nitty gritty of the famous ‘how to get published’ question.  It all came down to things Phil and I have heard before, that its 50% the book and 50% what you have done to promote it and you; be that social media, blogs or even being able to put yourself in front of a camera and talk turkey. Yeah, yeah we know this – we just need to get signed or self published and get a product out there.

However, the more interesting part of the discussion was about using independent publishers.  Now this lot are all going to biased as it’s their bread and butter (Sam is a publisher as well) but they all said ‘independent is best’.  And they backed this up.  Big publishers need to make big bucks to cover their overheads.  People are reluctant to pay for anything this days, Tim and Charlie used the example of apps which are much better received when they are free.  The same goes for books, people struggle to part with a quid to buy a new book.  So bigger entities need the JK Rowlings of the world to shore them up.  And if you fail you get unceremoniously kicked out.  However, a smaller publisher can nurture you, give you time to develop and be happy with a 1000 sales from book number one.

Now. we’ve said before we would love to live off the proceeds of our writing but realistically that’s not going to happen.  In our world its all about being published and appreciated.  So this idea works for us. We are already in talks with a small self publishing company, I think its time to give them a good push and get this ball rolling.

One thing I will add, as an aside, Phil and I dropped the age demographic by at least 20 years.  So when Charlie started talking about html 5, only Phil understood him!


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