Author Archives: Phil

Hit the road with Rosie Lewis. And her big, pink, tea van.

Phil: Some light and fluffy reading from me. I love tea. I love campervans. More importantly, the cover design tells me nothing horrible is going to happen, and right now, that’s what I need from a book.

Things don’t start well for Rosie Lewis. A workaholic chef, the book opens with her husband running off with a younger woman. In the tight-knit world of posh London restaurants (the ones with menus, cutlery and a dress code, not the sort I frequent) is the last to know about this, and decides, in a moment of red-wine induced madness, to chuck it all in and hit the road with a mobile tea shop.

She joins the festival circuit, meets people, re-assesses her life, blends a lot of tea and finds a bloke. Some mildly bad things happen, but in the end, it’s all OK. As I say, this is just the sort of book I need right now.

It all sounds like a nice life and I’m sure there are plenty of people who will idly dream of chucking in the 9 to 5 grind to sell dreamcatchers and spiritual rocks. Then realise that it’s cold in the winter, some idea how to fix your van is a good idea and when it rains, you’ll be living in mud.

As I say, I enjoyed the read, but, a few aspects bothered me:

How did Rosie get so drunk she forgot she had bought a pink campervan the night before. OK, an ill-advised eBay purchase I can understand, but she negotiated with the seller over the price and delivery, then drunk enough to wipe her memory?

Campervans aren’t massive, even the big ones, yet as well as the sleeping area, toilet and shower, Rosie seems to have a pretty well-appointed kitchen in her van. And a deck out the back. Come on, I’ve been in a van that is home to a funfair owner and even that didn’t have its own deck.

When did the Internet lose its capital I? The nerd in me wants to point out that they were really referring to the World Wide Web most of the time, but we’ll let that go as I can hear Candice rolling her eyes.

Never mind, that’s really not the point. This is all about dreams and finding yourself by taking a sharp left in your life. I’ll just re-read the bits featuring cake and enjoy my own dreams.

 

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New shoots?

Conkers

Phil: Over a decade and a half ago, I planted a conker. There had been a big storm and many trees had been lost, so I did my bit to rectify matters.

This year, the tree that came up has delivered it’s latest batch of horse chestnuts, and I’ve planted a few of them to see if I can make more trees.

A few years after my green-fingered activities, another seed was planted. This time it was an idea and the fertile minds it germinated in were those of Candice and myself. From this, we grew two excellent books with a third starting to push its shoots up through the earth.

Anyway, autumn has arrived along with the arrival of conkers, our thoughts turn back to tending our next novel. Neither of us has made a secret that we’ve found 2020 especially hard. In lockdown we’ve manged next to no creative writing. Some people might have found their muse, I know all I’ve found is confusion.

We both feel hemmed in. At least my friend has managed to escape for a break followed by a pleasant staycation. I’ve either been really good and stayed put as we have been exhorted to, or rubbish and not taken the opportunities the relaxation of lockdown has allowed. While I don’t worry about “proper” holidays, sometimes I like to just get on a train and go out for the day staring out of the window and reading a book. Months of stern government instructions that public transport means death has dampened my enthusiasm for this to the extent that I don’t know if I’ll ever do it again.

Everything is weird, and listening to the news, I suspect it’s just going to get weirder for a while.

But I don’t want to send Book 3 to the literary compost heap. I care, we both care, about our characters almost like they are real people. Kate and Dave deserve a happy ending and the only way that happens is if we get our acts together and write it for them.

Anyway, as work precludes cake and a chat, we’ll just do the chat thing via video at the end of the week. There will be grumbling about some things and laughing about others. Hopefully a little of the magic banter we enjoy will come back. With a bit of luck, we’ll bully each other into getting on with writing and suitably fertilised, the little shoot will grow into a big, strong book.

Talking of books, I’ve finally ordered a couple of copies of our existing novels in their newly tidied up Amazon paperback format.

They look great – why not make our day and order both Kate vs the Dirtboffins and Kate vs the Navy – you need cheering up, let us do it!

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Publishing on Amazon, here are a few things to remember


Phil: I spent quite a lot of last week swearing at my computer. It was not fun.

We use Amazon to publish both of our excellent books, and when we received the proof copies of the latest version of Kate vs the Dirtboffins, they were bigger than Kate vs the Navy.

While Mrs Picky was at it, she pointed out that the text on KvN was a bit small and dense on the page.

There was nothing actually wrong with either book, they just weren’t the same as each other. Told to go away and do something about it, I learned a few lessons on the way:

  • Preparation is everything. Decide how big you want your paperback, and stick to this. You can’t change once the book is published. I suggest comparing the options to a few paperbacks you have lying around.
  • While said paperback is in your hand, measure the margins.
  • Count the number of lines on the page. Most seem to have 32-36. Navy had over 40.
  • Set up your manuscript in Word (OpenOffice broke our text) and make sure the page size and margins are set to the size you will be published in. Yes, you can upload something different and let the Amazon machine do its thang, but it won’t do a great job. It doesn’t exactly replicate your layout even if the margins are right, so you certainly can’t trust it to do all the work.
  • Word is also a pain. Just because you have told it that the default for a paragraph includes an indent on the first line, don’t think it will bother applying this to all paragraphs, not when it can randomly leave some out. Check every page.
  • Be prepared to mess with your cover. If your page count increases, the spine needs to get wider. Our designer, Zoe, was brilliant and kept sorting out revisions for me as we found the system that only works in inches (why?) kept throwing up tiny errors.
  • Allow lots of time. This stuff matters and you are likely to need to walk away from it a few times to calm down or have a drink.
  • Proof the thing using the Amazon viewer. I needed to tweak our text to avoid odd-looking pages. We use asterisks to denote changes of scene, but a lone * at the top or bottom of a page just looks wrong.

All this is horrible, but a necessary evil if you don’t want to shell out £600 for someone to typeset the thing for you. I’ll admit that in the depths of despair, I did contact a company who would do this sort of thing, then baulked at the cost and time this would take. I’d promised to sort everything out by the time madame came back from holiday. I didn’t quite make it as the system uploaded our cover twice in the previewer and I had to wait for technical support to sort it out. Fortunately, she took a couple of days to recover from being back byt which time I could claim victory in my battle againast the forces of publishing.

The really worst bit?

Our precious reviews haven’t moved across to the new version of Dirtboffins. I still need to look at this, but as Amazon considers it a new book (because I changed the size) this isn’t likely to be possible.

Next time, I’m sure this will be a whole lot easier. So, dear reader, learn some lessons from my woes. You thought that the writing was the difficult bit…

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The Authenticity Project

Phil: As we’ve mentioned in the past, I’m rubbish at taking holidays, but I felt I needed a break and decided that last Saturday would be a reading day. My plan involved doing nothing more than lounging around with my nose buried in a book.

But which book? The reading pile is tall and I didn’t want something that I’d have to slog through.

My choice: The Authenticity Project by Clare Pooley. Reader, I chose well.

Six strangers with one thing in common: their lives aren’t always what they make them out to be.
What would happen if they told the truth instead?

Julian Jessop is tired of hiding the deep loneliness he feels. So he begins The Authenticity Project – a small green notebook containing the truth about his life.

Leaving the notebook on a table in his friendly neighbourhood café, Julian never expects Monica, the owner, to track him down after finding it. Or that she’ll be inspired to write down her own story.

Little do they realize that such small acts of honesty hold the power to impact all those who discover the notebook and change their lives completely.

Artist Julian Jessop writes the truth about his life in a notebook and leaves it for others to find. They add their own “truths” as the book travels around them. Julian is desperately lonely, Monica wants marriage and children, even though she wonders if she should, and so on.

The premise is really interesting. What are we really like in the depths of our soul? How does this compare with the face we show to the rest of the world. I suspect that everyone hides some deeper secrets but wear a suit of armour. We’ve written our main character, Kate, like this and it’s not an original premise. How the idea is handled is what matters.

I liked all the characters, admittedly some more than others. Cleverly, there is someone most of us can identify with in the cast list. I’m very much Monica who abandoned her life as a city lawyer after a colleague faces up to the horror that all those extra hours at work are just a way of escaping life and does something terrible. As you read, you wonder what you would do, how should you change things in your own life?

OK, this is light fiction and so you need to suspend disbelief occasionally. The flimsy book seems to survive its travels well and finds just the right person in the right frame of mind no matter where it is left – but then the story would be a lot shorter if it had been chucked in the bin in the cafe. I don’t want a documentary, this is fiction, entertain me!

Aside from that, everything worked for me. I particularly liked Instagram star Alice, based very much on the author, whose very public perfect life is the result of a lot of effort, lies and clever photography. I’m fascinated by “influencers” and their apparently perfect lives. It’s summed up by Alice realising her kitchen might look like everyone’s dream, but it doesn’t feel like home. How often have I watched Grand Designs and wondered what those picture-perfect houses that cost a fortune are actually like to live in day-in-day-out?

Sadly, Alice’s is the only story not neatly tied up by the end. Everyone else reaches a pleasantly satisfactory conclusion. Exactly as a feel-good novel should do.

I consumed this in a couple of sessions – just what I needed. Now I’m refreshed and ready to go again.

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The machine starts? What can we learn from stories?

Phil: A few days ago, the government floated the idea that everyone 50 years and over should be shut away for the duration of the pandemic. While they quickly denied that they had suggested the idea to some excitable tabloid journalists, it stuck in my mind. Partly ‘cos I’ve just reached the age of being locked up and doubt that government food parcels, if they are part of the plan, would include Tunnocks teacakes.

At the same time, I was discussing the prospects of going to public shows and exhibitions on my blog.

Both there and on other bits of social media, I find plenty of people who quite like being locked down. Not in a purvey way (stop sniggering Nolan) but a mixture of introversion and social anxiety means they are quite happy being told not to go and mix with other people. A couple said they were quite happy ordering everything online and chatting via video calls. Hunkering down at home and shutting the world out is appealing.

This put me in mind of the short story, The Machine Stops, by EM Forster. The story describes a world in which most humanity lives in isolation underground in standard rooms, with all bodily and spiritual needs met by the omnipotent, global machine. This gradually breaks down, but acknowledging this isn’t allowed.

You can read the full text here.

Now, doesn’t that sound a bit like the natural extrapolation of all those happy to shut themselves off from real contact? Unknowingly, Forster is showing us our potential future.

We see it in film too. Look at the people in Disney’s Wall-E. Locked in their mobile seats endlessly staring into a screen.

Some say we should learn from history, but it’s just as important to look at the worlds writers have conjured up for us. After all, we are the first people who can deal with our problems in this way. When I was a kid, the Interweb was science fiction. Mail order existed, but only by telephone. Grocery delivery was unheard of. Now, for many, there is no pressing reason to leave the house, and we are constantly told many excuses not to do so.

Imagination is a powerful thing. We should harness it.

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Looking for the happy ending

Phil: Does anyone else feel like they are being blown along by events at the moment?

We seem to be inching along to some sort of normality, but with very little idea what the new version of “normal” is, or whether it will be as nice as the old version. Everything is up in the air, except those hoping to go on holiday, who suddenly find themselves grounded.

Maybe this is why books are such a comfort. Even in the grimmest of “misery memoirs”, the ones that start with rape and get progressively worse, you have the expectation that by the end, everyone will be happy again with the worst of the problems behind them.

In our genre of humourous chick-lit, the girl will get her boy and be heading off to happily ever after land. I don’t think that I’m giving away a massive spoiler if I say that we expect Kate and Dave together by the end of our series. Anything else would upset the readers.

For most of us, Covid is the first time we have been in the middle of a massive event over which we have little control. We don’t generally, live in a war zone or a famine thank goodness. Now though, we look at the news and wonder what new plot twist is about to come our way. I’m hoping that whoever is writing this story and think that they have thrown quite enough at us. It’s making me have sympathy for our fictional characters and the wringer we have to put them through!

Let’s just hope that we’re a long way through the story and can soon close the cover with the satisfaction of a happy ending.

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What’s in your background?

Phil: In the world of lockdown and social distancing, while we might not be meeting up with others, another portal has opened into all of our lives – the Zoom video call.

Suddenly, your friends and colleagues are able to gawp into your house and we can see into theirs.

This calls for some work on our own personal TV studios. Politicians go to great efforts to include suitable books behind them. In general, books are a safe choice as they say that you can read – and being able to read counts as being an intellectual nowadays. The suspicion is that no-one has actually opened the volumes behind them but interviewers never seem to ask.

Others take a different tack. My favourite is seen above. George Hinchliffe, founder of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. In the video for their superb and hilarious rendition of Wuthering Heights (get me with the literary references) he has casually hung some printed 50 euro notes among the instruments. They are never mentioned, just there. The rest of the band, also working from their own homes, have entertaining staging.

I’m not immune. Recently, I had to interview telly star Tim Dunn, and realised that the background of my clutter “office” wasn’t quite right, so dressed the set with some trains (we were talking about trains).

There is even a sneaky advert for the magazine I edit.

Tim, being a proper nerd, had done likewise.

What you don’t see, because I edited it out, is the discussion over the large scale High-Speed Train in the background. Tim also recognised some of the models behind me. He is that much of a rail anorak.

The point is that we have yet another way to send out subtle messages about ourselves. Like the face coverings last week, this is all new thanks to COVID. Twelve months ago, who would have really considered all this, now it’s second nature.

Anyway, time for some entertainment. Just play this.

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Covering your face, in style

Phil: Phil in a face coveringFace coverings, or masks, are in the news at the moment as the government flails around trying to work out if we should be wearing them. I’m no scientist, but even though don’t have to, as I write, I have been wearing a covering in shops and confined spaces for a couple of weeks. Some would suggest that this is a good thing, virus or not.

Exactly what you cover your mug with is a big decision. These things are going to become like ties – a way to express yourself.

My main mask has VW campervans on it. I’ve also Dr Who, steam trains and a sort of trendy stars design. This collection is likely to grow over time. They are fun, as well as potentially helpful for health.

This makes me wonder what sort of covering the characters in our book would wear. After a little discussion with Candice (there is fashion involved, I’m out of my comfort zone), here are our thoughts:

Kelvin – He’s in IT and has no sense of style. One of those blue disposable paper jobbies will do the job.

Gareth – He’s going to keep forgetting his mask, but it’s probably going to be something picked up on his wife’s cattle farm. She will disapprove of the idea but when he askes, she’ll have something from an agricultural supplier handy. If he’s lucky, it won’t smell of dung. If he’s really lucky, someone in the office will save him from Tracey’s joke present of a gimp mask.

Dave – A sporty number aimed at cyclists.

Tracey – Now we are talking. Tracey will want a covering that says designer. It must have logos. It must be exclusive and expensive. This article from Vogue will help.

Kate – Our hero will quickly acquire a selection of discrete coverings that will co-ordinate with her outfits. Not for Ms Smith, the leopard print that Tracey will doubtless be sporting. Maybe she’s started with this Wolford number as worn by Jenifer Aniston as it’s streamlined and will go with most business attire. These Citizen’s of Humanity masks send out the right message to the more “right on” client, her wardrobe is all about image after all. It’s politer to drop hints via the medium of clothing rather than shout, “WE’RE REALLY KIND AND CARING AND DON’T YOU FORGET IT!” at a new lead. The one she won’t be wearing, is the Kittens and Cats mask someone in the office bought her as a joke, no matter how much any of the cats looks like her Olly…

So, what’s on your face?

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Not going out

OutPhil: Have you spent time on Twitter recently? It seems that boasting that you have no intention of visiting a pub, park, beach or anywhere else the #covididiots can be found, is very much the fashion nowadays.

The boast is bandied about with the same pride as people used to have when announcing they don’t have a television. Superiority seeps from their pores as they try to pretend that they are too busy reading complicated Greek poetry or other “worthy” pursuits to lower themselves to watch the box.

Now, people are proud that they will never, ever, ever visit a pub again in a million years.

Not being able to get out and about has been an interesting experience. Incredibly frustrating for me as much of my work relies on going to shows where there will be several thousand people, many in high-risk groups. All that stopped in March and it’s not looking like it’s going to start again any time soon. Best bets are that 2020 is over, and the first half of 2021 is looking shaky.

Necessity is the mother of invention and last weekend, our magazine attempted a “Virtual Exhibition”.

There were displays made up of photos and videos to replace those found at a physical event. We managed to have model-making demonstrations via video too.

Being on-line, we did things you can’t do in real life too, such as interviewing people from around the world. While there is a little bit of this on stage at our London event, working via Zoom, things were taken to a whole new level. We are now used to “proper” telly being done this way, and technology allows us all to have a go.

The result was a huge amount of work – but it paid off. Plenty of visitors to the event and loads of great feedback. While you can’t really replace the physical show, what we produced wasn’t a bad alternative.

Have we created a new type of event? Could it carry on in the future even when the “real” shows come back?

Who knows. What I can be certain about is that the on-line genie is out of the bottle. I’ve seen a few virtual events aimed at writers. Candice is off to a concert, with bopping, in a car park. Some of these will become popular, others will lose their novelty value. Humans are adaptable.

The future probably won’t look anything like we imagine.

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Missing feeling like a PROPER author

Phil: According to my increasingly useless* calendar, last weekend we should have been enjoying the Writing West Midlands conference.

Candice and I have enjoyed our trip to Aston University for the last few years. It’s always a good day out. We look down the list of presentations and seminars then dole them out between us. Being a team is very handy when two events are on at the same time because we can pool our knowledge over lunch or tea. They do excellent catering at these events. Good cake, and we like a good cake.

Surrounded by other authors, it feels like we are actually part of “the industry”. I know we’ve knocked out a couple of books but neither of us gets to live off writing fiction, so we don’t feel we’ve “made it” yet. And yes I know very few authors survive purely on the income from writing, but allow me the fantasy.

Sadly, it’s not happening this year. The shoes I wear because they feel suitably authorly will stay in the wardrobe. My only complaint is that with the event being held in the summer, it’s always too hot to wear my tweed jacket which feels even more writely.

Attending writing events has been an unexpected highlight of our literary efforts. OK, we are paying to go rather than being feted up on stage (except for Stratford Literary Festival a few years ago) but it’s a start. We’ve seen some interesting talks from fascinating people. There have been moments to groan over too as the first question from the audience is always someone who just wants to talk about themselves, but it’s part of the fun.

Writing West Midlands events tend to be more technical with useful ideas on publishing and publicity. We, hard-core writers, feel more at home there than at those events where celebrities just pitch their latest book to an adoring room of fans. That and we can never get tickets for the later.

Mind you, if anyone feels the need to hear from a couple of entertaining writers about some really funny books at your international literary festival or local book club, please give us a shout!

 

*Useless, unless your hobby is crossing out events you can’t go to any more, then it’s brilliant – loads of practice.

 

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