Category Archives: Phil

Reading is good for your child – FACT

Phil: I’m special.

You’d probably guessed that, but it’s true. Deciding to put in an appearance a few days before I was due to be born, I became part of a massive survey which has, and will continue to, influenced how you and your children live.

The 1970 “cohort” was a survey of all children born in an April week. Since birth we’ve been survey and interviewed every so often and the results have helped to shape science and government policy.

I didn’t know much about this, other than that I and my best mate Bod at middle school were part of all this. We got to sit tests every so often that asked things about how we felt and how often we went to the toilet. They told us it was science and everything sounded sensible, especially the bit about skiving off the odd lesson to be “special”.

Now, thanks to Helen Pearson’s book The Life Project, I know what was going on. We weren’t quite as special as we thought, cohort surveys have taken place in 1946, 1958, 1970, 1991 and 2000. Many thousands of children have been part of these and the results are fascinating.

Towards the end of this complex but very readable book, a story of the way life in Britain has changed emerges. Looking at these results over long periods allows trends to be spotted such as the link between mothers smoking and low birth weight. Even if, as was often the case, no-one isn’t sure why it seems to be a good idea to ask the questions at the time, later on looking at how various factors affect children’s development pays dividends.

You might think that this would be enough to sell the idea of running these to politicians, but the story of the cohort surveys is of dedicated scientists constantly having to fight for funding and support. Many real characters emerge, without whom much of this information would never have come to light.

One constant result seems to be that if you are born into poverty or a broken home, you’ll find life much harder than those with a more fortunate start in life.

However, the 1970 cohort, my lot, showed that children who read for pleasure tended to advance further in vocabulary, spelling and maths between ages 10 and 16. This mattered more than having a parent with a university degree.

So, don’t put your daughter on the stage Mrs Worthington, send her down the library!

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Who’s that Girl by Mhairi McFarlane

Phil: The moment you read that title, you heard the Eurithmics in your head didn’t you?

Well, I did. Presented with the book by Candice over cake, I wasn’t sure. It looked very chick-lit, but I know she wouldn’t be shoving anything rubbish my way so I gave it a go.

We first meet Edie at a wedding. During the day, just after the speeches, the groom decides to snog her. The bride spots this and things all fall apart.

Friends and colleagues not only abandon her, but thanks to the joys of social media (this is very much a book set NOW), they gang up and start bullying her. Leaving London for the family home in Nottingham, she has to face a father who has never really recovered from the death of her mother and a sister to hates her. That and getting used to not being in the capital.

The move north is partly engineered by her boss and involves ghost writing a celeb biography for the latest blokey hot totty from something that sounds a lot like Game of Thrones. He’s filming in the city, doesn’t want the autobiog written due to a secret in his past.

Basically, everyone has secrets (Edie wasn’t having an affair with the groom, but was flirting) and needs to take control of their lives. So much so standard. If I tell you any more, then SPOILERS.

What sets this apart is it’s a very modern book. We get loads of social media and also old-skool media problems. A row in a nightclub with the totty results in Edie being identified in the papers as a mystery woman attached to him. This gives her vile and bitchy workmates a chance to sell their stories. There are loads of communication channels, including an internal e-mail system that provides the chance for some blackmail and they all help to build the pressure on our main characters in a way that you don’t see in most books.

Even the ending, while leaving room for a sequel, is convincing and plays like grown-ups making decisions. Not very chick-lit at all, in a good way.

Not living in a metropolitan bubble, I found some of the workmate characters hard to relate to. They are bitchy and quite frankly, childish. Some of the actions are more playground bullying than proper adult behaviour – however, that’s because I live in a different, and probably considerably less well paid, world. That said, I enjoyed the book a lot. It’s a proper page turner with plenty of twists and turns along the way. The main characters all develop and change during the story and lots of loose ends get tied up in a way that satisfies the reader.

Lots of short chapters too which builds the pace and, as I found, keeps you reading. Not quite enough to persuade me to take that girly cover on a train mind you, even though by that point I really wanted too!

 

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Can grammar be glamourous?

Phil: Grammar. It’s dull, boring and essential.

Worse, it’s endlessly argued over by very dull and boring people who really need to get out more and take up and exciting hobby, like bus spotting.

You find them haunting on-line discussions, pouncing on minor infractions in someones posting, promptly dragging themselves up to their full height to denounce the criminal. Never mind the subject under discussion, they have nothing to add to this, no, all they want to do is show their superiority handling a preposition.

Sadly, grammar does matter when you are writing, which is why I pitched up to see David Crystal : Making Sense: The Glamorous Story of English Grammar a couple of weeks ago.

David is described as ” the most famous name in English linguistics” although I’m not sure how much competition there is for that particular accolade. What I do know is he is marvelously entertaining.

Basically, grammar is all about ensuring your audience can understand you. And English is an evolving language. Things change over time and some of the rules laid down many years ago were arbitrary.

A good case is the Oxford comma.

Were I to be described by Cambridge University Press, I would be tall, dark and handsome.

Oxford University Press would say, tall, dark, and handsome.

See the extra comma before the and? Should it be there or not? I’m in the Cambridge camp here having been taught that you don’t comma before an and in a list. It’s the sort of thing that keeps grammar Nazis entertained for hours.

And what about starting a sentence with a proposition (e.g And)?

This rule dates back to the 19th Century when teachers decided children were doing it too often – so banned them from doing it at all. Sorry, who voted them in for the job? Perhaps they should be asked if it’s wrong, does that mean children should be exposed to Shakespeare, who writes, “And then it started like a guilty thing.in Hamlet. Yes Hamlet, that dreary play where everyone ends up dead. Basically, if starting sentences with And is A. Bad. Thing. Then the Bard can come off the syllabus.

For a potentially dull topic, this was a fun hour.  The Q&A at the end was especially entertaining as David punctured the balloons of some questioners who obviously had specific grammar crimes that really bothered them. A quick explanation of how each came about soon explained why this stuff isn’t life and death.

Me, I took away the knowledge that there are very few hard and fast rules. If the reader understands what you are saying, that’s all that matters. We’re writing a story, not a university text. Even if we were, would it be for Oxford or Cambridge? FIGHT!

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Navigating your way to publishing success

Phil: While might be blisteringly succesful with our writing, I banked another £1.56 from sales earlier, we are both still interested in the whole publishing world. With this in mind, I attended a seminar at Stratford Lit Fest last week looking at the continuing changes in the industry. An interesting hour, which provided some welcome pointers.

  • Series sell better than 1 off novels. Readers prefer to invest in something that isn’t a one-off story.
  • Sales don’t really kick in until book 3 or 4. This seems pretty consistent – it worked for Harry Potter after all.
  • Differential pricing works. Price book 1 cheap to get people hooked and then offer the follow-ups at full price
  • Publishers are using e-books as a slush pile and picking up the best-selling ones. Traditional submissions still exist but more and more they are letting sales on-line handle some of the filtering process for them. Why read a thousand poor manuscripts when you can just cherry pick something other people already like and has a proven track record of sales?
  • The biggest trend is authors selling direct to readers. 9 out of 10 members of the Independent Publishers Group are doing this at events.
  • To sell non-fiction, try relevant special interest groups or sports bodies. They may be willing to offer grants to help pay for the work. At the least, they will offer a route to a potential audience.
  • Authors can go to the London Book Fair in April, it’s not trade only any more and there are seminars worth attending.
  • Quality matters. Do not launch without a professional edit. Likewise, get someone who knows the market to design the cover and don’t get upset if they reject your ideas on this.

Of the 40 people in the room, 1 had traditionally published and 2, including. me had self published. Only half the room seemed to be working on a book at the moment which makes me wonder why they had given up a Wednesday evening to find out about publishing.

Anyway, from this, I took that we are doing the right thing. Once Kate vs the Navy launches we are another book towards big sales. The point about the covers was well made too, long-term readers will know that we changed ours at the suggestion of our publisher to something more market-friendly. As a bonus, it’s more bloke friendly too, I’ve been reading something with an overly chick-lit cover recently and couldn’t bring myself to finish it on a train ride…

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What’s your road to publication?

Phil: It’s Stratford Literature Festival time again. Sadly, we aren’t on the bill this year, but there’s still many sessions worth tootling along for.

“My Road to Publication” featured three debut authors talking about their first books with Meg Sanders, how they came about and what happened next. Ironically, thanks to refurbishment of the local library forcing this to decamp to the arts venue, the session took place in an adjacent local theatre (this is Stratford-upon-Avon, there’s a theatre on every corner daahhhling) which I’d never been in before. That made it even more interesting but I have to apologise for the lighting confusing my phone’s camera.

Anyway, the author were, from left to right, Emma Slade, Ruth Hogan and Harriet Cummings.

Ruth and Harriet were both conventional authors in that they have written fiction and writing has become their livelihood, albeit with some freelance copyrighting thrown in for Harriet.  Her novel, We all begin as strangers is inspired by happenings in her parents village. It’s actually her second book, the first absorbed a year an a half before being abandoned. The current book was written in a 3 month session where she devoted her time exclusively to the task.

Of the three, she is the only one with anything approaching formal training with a Faber Academy course. Despite claiming it didn’t provide any real technical knowledge, the course gave her the confidence to write a novel and more importantly, an agent as she had to take part in a mass pitching session. Fellow attendees form a feedback group for each other to provide help and support.

Ruth was an avid reader as a child and had always wanted to be a writer but kept finding excuses not to start, until a car accident in her 30s left her working part-time and with the time and no more excuses. Her writing method is interesting – a chapter at a time laid down in longhand with a fountain pen. This is then typed up on the computer and edited at the same time. Then the pages are printed and edited again. This contrasts with Harriet who writes the entire first draft before doing any editing. The idea for The Keeper of Lost Things possibly relates to a long forgotten, until a “What was your favourite book as a child?” question unearthed it, short story of a child who finds a teddy bear in a puddle and manages to restore it to its owner.

They say all books should start with a bit of a bang and that certainly applies to Emma’s. Her memoir starts with her being held hostage.

This is the least conventional story of all. Emma was a high-flying investment banker but when she saw a photo of her kidnapper after her release, the process of changing her life to becoming a Buddhist nun started. The book is a fund-raiser for her charity Opening Your Heart to Bhutan. written as a respite from her work towards becoming a nun, including creating several thousand hok mandana’s, unlike the others, this is very much a one-off. Buddhism teaches you to either be working for the community or be in retreat from it. Eventually she plans to go into full retreat, but at the moment it’s time to raise funds for a minibus.

All this is of course at odds with one of the first things all three were instructed to do by their publishers – get on social media. Ruth picked on Twitter and Instagram. Harriet is on Twitter too as is Emma. In the modern world, the author can’t sit back and do nothing between manuscripts – writing is just a small part of the job!

 

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How many chapters is enough?

Phil: We’re making excellent progress with Book 2 – but the 80,000 word target is still bugging us as we aren’t there yet.

“If something doesn’t move the story forward, leave it out.” is the traditional advice to writers, but we’re wondering if we have been too efficient. There’s been a lot of planning in the book, lessons learned from last time, and it’s pretty fat-free. I can’t see anyone lopping a thousand words out this time!

So, we are looking hard and thinking about areas that need fleshing out. An obvious problem is that while we know what certain people and places look like, it would be really helpful if we told the reader. Several scenes have now been enlivened by a bit of description, adding many hundred of words in the process.

Last Friday we sat down in an excellent farm shop cafe with the laptops intending to do some writing. And eat some cake, but mostly to do some writing.

What we actually did was to go through the book as it stands and write a timeline. Candice skimmed each chapter and I typed the synopsis into a spreadsheet. We created an overview of the story which included a surprise.

49 chapters.

That’s the not the end though. Some of those included far too many scenes. Later in the day I broke them up and we now have 56.

I don’t think this is a problem. Personally, I like short chapters. When reading I can think I’ll just finish another one before putting the bookmark back in. If it’s half-a-dozen pages then I might be tempted to do just one more. If it’s 30 then forget it. Short chapters add pace to the story.

Anyway, the upshot is that our overview revealed not too many plot holes. The book is nearly ready for its first test readers…

 

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Work where you want to

 

Phil: We are hard at work writing Kate vs the Navy and are grabbing any chance we get to put a few words onto the page.

Last weekend I was on a stand at a model boat show and knowing it would be reasonably quiet on the Sunday, took my laptop along. Fitting on the corner of our stand, appropriately enough, I was working while surrounded by miniature waterborne military craft. It helped too as Candice had left me some ship describing to do and from where I sat, I could see a model of the very vessel I was writing about. Very handy indeed!

 

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