Category Archives: Phil

Don’t fall down the research rabbit-hole

Phil: Have you ever found yourself on Wikipedia reading up on something and unable to resist clicking on a related link? At the time you tell yourself it’s relevant to the topic, but then there is another link, and another. And another.

You start reading about tractor production in post-war America and half a day later you’re learning about the proclivities of minor German aristocracy in 1830.

It’s addictive, something to do with dopamine in your brain, and the urge to procrastinate while kidding yourself that any education is good. I mean, who doesn’t need to know about flat-roofed pubs for example?

I’ve just finished the enjoyable Funny You Should Ask book by the QI Elves. It’s full of unrelated facts such as what would happen if you tried to dig through the Earth, or what causes deja-vu. If you enjoy odd snippets of information, it’s a good fun read.

The most useful fact in the book isn’t in the main text, but the introduction.

When writing for the quiz, they start with the answer and then craft a question around it. Working the other way around means endlessly researching as they fall down the rabbit-hole (named after the rabbit-hole Alice falls down in Wonderland) finding linked facts when they should be working.

I’m not sure this will help cure my procrastination, but maybe it will do something for you. In the meantime, I need to go a read up on The Auburn and Lidcome Advance. You never know when knowledge of old Australian newspapers will come in handy!

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Without problems, there are no solutions

When Emma opened her gorgeous little chocolate shop in the harbour village of Warkton-by-the-Sea, she realised a lifelong dream. Love is also blossoming with her hunky beau, Max, who’s slowly healing her fragile heart.

A rival sweet shop and killjoy landlord give Emma a headache, and when a face from the past turns up unannounced, Emma finds herself spiralling down memory lane. With Max’s crazy work schedule driving him to distraction, Emma’s in danger of making some choices she might regret . . .

With close friends, spaniel Alfie, and the whole village behind her, can Emma get the chocolate shop and her love life back on track?

Phil: Spoiler Alert. The book does not end with Emma sitting on the steps of the local war memorial, sucking the dregs from a bottle of Diamond While concealed in a plastic bag and watching the shop burn, consuming the bodies of her landlord and Max who had been having an affair.

Nope, it’s happy ending time, pretty much as you would expect from the cover. All the problems are solved, hunky Max is everything she wants him to be and all the bad choices are forgotten.

And relax.

The Nolan and I have been talking about marketing recently. She explained that if you want to sell a product, the first job is to identify a problem the customer has. Then you tell them how you are going to solve it for them. Simple, ut effective.

That’s what the blurb on the back of the book is doing – setting up a load of problems, with the promise that they will all be solved by the time you close the covers. Let’s be honest, we want that happy ending. Life is rubbish enough and books like this are lovely to wallow in, like a warm bath.

Every story needs a conflict at its core. Without this, it’s just words.

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Lockdown is turning me into Bridget Jones

Phil: With all restrictions in place and our worlds clamped down hard, communications between members of team NolanParker have taken a turn for the weird.

“4067 steps. 2 trains. No cake” I message. “10009” comes the reply.

Basically, we’ve started becoming competitive on the numbers of steps taken during the day. Occasionally, I even win.

Since many of my strolls involve bits of the countryside where I might see a train (how I miss the days of travelling this way) and occasionally, there is a cake pickup involved, I bundle those into the message too.

Trouble is, it all sounds but Bridget Jones. Her diary lists the number of calories eaten, cigarettes smoked and units of alcohol consumed.  At least our messages are a bit healthier!

I suppose describing ourselves in numbers is all we have left at the moment. It’s not like talking about the weather is much fun, and we’re all bored of chatting pandemic!

 

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Something bad is on the way

Phil: I’m reading the excellent All the lonely people by Mike Gayle, but as I look at the book right now, a thought hit me.

I’m 2/3rd of the way through, but I know something bad is going to happen.

The story is partly told in flashback, and so we know where the characters are now, and where they were years ago. And not all the characters are in the Now.

So, somewhere in the remaining pages, there are bad things going to happen.

Perhaps I should stop reading and everything will be all right, but that would deny me the pleasure of finishing off the book. I probably should remember that these aren’t real people, but then I’ve invested in them and care what happens. And (I have the surname for it) I’m nosy.

Does anyone else ever feel like this?

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Booky loses to the pandemic

Phil: As I go for my evening allotted segment of allowable exercise, what we used to call a stroll, I pass by my local library. Which is shut.

Not just shut because I’m walking at dusk, but shut, as it has been for most of the year, because of Covid restrictions. Sadly, if you are stuck at home, you’ll need to find another way to access books.

That’s fine if you have an e-reader, the library service has developed clever ways to lend electronic books. They have even created a click and collect service from the larger locations. What’s gone is the pleasure of perusing bookshelves, waiting for a title to leap out at you. The random book you didn’t know existed, but will enjoy once you open the cover, is denied to you.

Second-hand bookshops suffer the same fate. How I miss the higgledy-piggledy nature of the shelves. You never know what’s going to be there – apart from many copies of whatever best-seller has dominated the charts recently – books decades-old rub shoulders with more recent releases. There’s the sense of adventure and the slightly odd smell. Bookshelves crammed into odd spaces to handle the stock. Peering around corners to find a topic and then tripping over it in a pile on the floor.

I know we can still buy new books, and fair play to those local shops offering some sort of service in these difficult times, but I like old books too.

And what do you do with those on the read pile? All the charity shops you’d drop them off to, and replenish your stocks from, are shut as well. There’s going to be a lot of books in landfill I’m afraid.

Let’s hope this is the last #worldbookday when getting your hands on a book is difficult. A time when we all need to be transported from reality into a different place for a few hours, and yet are denied this pleasure.

And let’s hope the Nolan and I can meet up for coffee and plotting. It will save us a fortune in postage swooping books by mail, and the chance of a proper chat is far better than the daily swapping of numbers of steps walked each day.

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A great title WILL sell your book. To me anyway…

Phil: It’s my old editor’s fault. David and I are both VW campervan fans, and the conversions in our vans are by the Folkestone firm of Dormobile.

So, when he posted the cover of Tess of the Dormobiles on Facebook, I knew it was only going to be a matter of time before I read it.

The story concerns Theresa Finbow – a self-published author, and her plan to write the difficult second novel. She borrows a holiday cottage in a quiet area of Norfolk, the plan being to emulate her lead character Tess.

In Norfolk, a trip to the local pub brings her into contact with Billy, a local farmworker who has a mysterious and ominous past. Worse, his brother is the reason that Tess is on holiday without her husband.

Can Tess get her novel finished, survive contact with Billy and resolve the issues in her personal life?

Will Stebbings is a self-published author with at least five books to his credit. Tess of the Dormobiles is printed by Createspace, a print-on-demand house, and sold via eBay, which is where I bought it.

You might expect me to review this with 2 stars and tell you I’d been ripped off. And you’d be wrong.

OK, the text could do with the attentions of a copy editor. There’s too much nerdy detail in places. Both Will and Tess know Norfolk and relate some locations in a very blokeish way with road numbers. I also query what two chapters of the fictional Tess book add to anything.

But, as I read it, one word kept popping up in my head – fresh. The writing is fresh and enjoyable. The plot rolls along well and a few surprises are chucked in along the way, especially the twist at the end. It’s not the best book I’ve read, but a lot better than many efforts by names famous for things other than writing.

I’m pleased the title, which is explained in the story, sold me this book. Reading it was fun. Owning it is a bit of a laugh. Passing it on to La Nolan will be a pleasure.

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A little man with a big story

Phil: The Smallest Man by Frances Quinn takes place in 1625 and follows Nat Davy – a man who became “the Queen’s Dwarf”. Based loosely on a real person, Sir Jeffrey Hudson, it weaves a story around his life from being sold by his father and living as a plaything (initially) of Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles the first.

The book is an interesting and enjoyable historical romp. I suspect that if you are a hard-core history buff, you’ll we clenching your fists in a few places as fictitious versions of real events unfold, or at least versions that have been enhanced by imagination simply because there is no other way to do it.

I found it fascinating to read the tale of the English Civil war from the losing side. Nat is firmly embedded in the Royalist camp and even though he doesn’t rate the king highly, doesn’t disagree with the basic idea of someone with the God-given right to rule the country. This is a world, where you find yourself forced to fight, and die, for a cause that you might not believe in. Nat’s brother is enlisted to the Parliamentary side simply by being in the wrong place (at home) when they took over his village. He doesn’t want to fight and has no interest in politics – all that stuff seems a long way away from his rural village in the era before instant communication.

The Queen grows from a terrified 15-year-old the entire country dislikes (she is a Catholic) to a powerful force behind the throne that the country hates.

Nat is devoted to her, and becomes a trusted confidant. Both are outsiders, her because of her faith, him because he stoped growing at ten years old. She lives in a palace full of intrigue and suspicion where courtiers brief against each other and vie for the ear of the king. It all sounds very similar to politics today!

I’m not really one for historical novels, but this is a real page-turner. I’m sure history buffs will find much to criticise, but it’s not a school exercise book, it’s an enjoyable story which has a historical background. My limited knowledge means I didn’t spot any major issues – but the author has stuck to many established facts for the main events in the story. What she has intended is the stuff that wouldn’t be recorded anyway.

 

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Writing with Marian Keyes

Phil: We’re missing literary events. The chance to spend time in a room listening to someone talking about the writing process with the added bonus of being able to ask questions.

Luckily, the web has come to our rescue in these locked down times. Candice spotted that Marion Keyes was running a series of talks on Instagram, and we tuned in for an hour to enjoy the chat.

This week, she talked about many topics including timelines – the importance of which she emphasised. While you don’t need to write one at the start of a book, you will need to create it at some point to keep the story going.

Exactly what appears on the timeline matters too. In one book, she included a lot about the Trump election. Her publisher asked for this to be removed as it would “date the book” quickly. Not a fan of the orange one, Marion happily complied. I’m not so sure about this. If a book is set in a particular period in time, surely you mention the news to fix it at this point?

Anyway, it’s all very relaxed, just someone sitting on a sofa chatting and answering some questions thrown in by the audience of 1598 people also tuning in.

If you’d like to catch up, the videos head over to her YouTube channel:

Week 1. Plot and point of view, software and word count.

Week 2. The Fear! Your voice. Characterisation.

Week 3. Timelines, pacing, and sex.

This sort of thing is great. Maybe it will help us find our mojo.

 

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Don’t listen to Instagram

Phil: I love Instagram, but if I hit the magnifying glass icon and start strolling through the random picture feed, I wonder. Suddenly, among all the pictures of Amanda Holden (how does she find the time to do any work?), there are bits of cod psychology from people desperate to say something profound.

“Words are the worst form of communication” was exceptionally special.

For a moment, let us imaging I am heading into my favourite fast-food restaurant. I would like to purchase a Wimpy burger followed by a delicious Brown Derby desert.

How should I convey this information to the person behind the counter?

In the past, I would have said, “I’d like a Wimpy burger, a Brown Derby and cup of tea.”, but according to Instagram, that’s wrong.

So, should I try to convey my order through the medium of interpretive dance?

I don’t know about you, but I find playing Charades takes ages but if we aren’t doing words, that’s pretty much where we are. Heaven knows what happens if I decide to add a Bender in a Bun to the order!

Seriously, we’ve written two and a half books full of words and read thousands of books, also full of words. How could I be so stupid as to realise there was a better way?

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Radio recommendations

Phil: OK, we’re back in lockdown. The message is “stay at home with a paper bag on your head” and the chances to go and sit in a cafe chatting over plot twists for your latest novel have receded into 2022. In the meantime, one of us has become a part-time teacher to her daughter, stealing away valuable writing time.

Anyway, books are a good way to hide from the gloom and doom. For a start, they don’t generally involve listening to Michael Gove, and there’s usually a happy ending. We’ve always recommended reading matter, but now I’m going to take another step and start looking at radio programmes and podcasts that are worth downloading to your phone for entertainment. I like to listen during my allotted hour of exercise – basically going for a walk being careful not to get within 2 metres of anyone not wearing a full-on gimp suit, and several miles of anyone who is.

Before we start, I recommend searching for the BBC Sounds App, it makes this sort of thing so much easier.

Can I talk about heroes?

We’ll start with a serious one. Vicky Foster looks at the way society creates heroes and the nature of heroism. At least that is what the description for the programme says.

The more interesting side is that her ex-partner was killed by the man who later made the news tackling a terrorist on London Bridge with a narwhal tusk. How do you explain to your children that the man who killed daddy is now being lauded by the Prime Minister as a hero?

Download “Can I talk about Heroes” (37 minutes)

 

Austentatious

Now for something funny, or at least it is if you can stand mock versions of Jane Austen, the famous author who died ay 41 fighting in a pigmy goat wrestling competition, without getting huffy about not taking things seriously.

The cast improvises a version of Pride and Prejudice largely based in a fish and chip where we find the usual women looking for a husband. The results are very funny, taking the mickey out of literary tropes, the social morays of the time, and we all like gossip about young ladies…

Settle down for Pride and Bread with this.

Download “Austentatious” (28 minutes)

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