Category Archives: Phil

Be brave at work and take a break

Phil: A couple of weeks ago, Candice wrote about being brave and how her taking a big leap eventually lead to the two of us writing books.

She wasn’t alone in taking a leap like this. Back in 2008, I discovered that I was to gain a new layer of management above me. Quite why this was was a bit of a mystery as the role seemed to be covered by someone higher up the food chain, but I applied for the job and as expected, failed to land it.

In the run-up, I had decided that if I didn’t get it, I wasn’t going to hang around. To be honest, I knew the guy running our department didn’t like me much and I wasn’t doing a very good job at handling this. There is a skill to managing your boss and it’s one I’m pretty hopeless at. My tongue is freer of bite marks than it should be!

Anyway, I decided that I would blow my savings on a “gap year”. We’ve mentioned in the past that I’m rubbish at taking holiday so I felt I was owed some big time and if I wasn’t at work, I felt I could take it. People said I was being brave taking a leap into the unknown, but I had a little confidence, although not as much as I claimed.

Sadly, 8 weeks after I left, the economy fell apart. I decided to bin the holiday idea and try to get back into work.

Now, unlike my friend, I don’t just walk into jobs. I hate the application process as much as I hated revising for exams – presumably why I have rubbish qualifications and once managed to apply for 60 jobs in a year and only get 3 interviews. I did manage to secure a couple of contracts looking after websites and it was at one of these that I met La Nolan. I remember starting and hearing about the mystical “Candice” for a week before she showed up after a holiday. Quite how we ended up chatting I don’t remember, but I’m very glad we did. So, our writing partnership is due to both of us being brave in our careers.

It’s Metal Health Awareness Week at the moment and the news is full of people telling others that they need to talk. With so much of our lives tied up with work, it’s here where the biggest problems can be found. I “escaped” a situation I felt was toxic. It wasn’t easy, and had my personal circumstances been different, might have been impossible. As it was it worked out OK.

Since then, I’ve had to jump again – although this time it was easier. Having a “manager” screaming and swearing at you because she’s been doing something she shouldn’t have been and you’ve risked exposing it makes the jump out of a part-time job a no-brainer. I can’t say there isn’t another leap in my future either.

Those suggesting ways people can help themselves in this situation will bang on about “mindfulness” – basically taking yourself out of your metal situation for a while to allow your brain to relax. This usually involves some chanting or meditation. I prefer to lose myself in my imagination.

Read a book that you enjoy – it doesn’t have to be good, just a page-turner.

Write a book. This doesn’t have to be good either, just somewhere for you to lose yourself devising a story. Both Candice and I have found this useful. Heck, we don’t even have to actually write, just the planning process where we bash ideas around is a joy and definitely a break from “proper” work.

Think of it as mentally freewheeling on a bicycle down a hill compared to puffing along up a hill. The wind is in your hair and you just enjoy the ride for a few precious minutes, recovering your energy for the next stuggle.

 

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The Beachside Guest House

Phil: Vanessa Greene books get vintage teacups on the cover. As far as her publisher is concerned, that’s the rule.

Odd, because this book concerns three friends who drop out of their lives and set up a guest house on the Greek Island of Paros.

No teacups there.

I can’t help feeling Ms Greene is being let down here. The cover says “snuggly heartwarming and safe story”. Inside, there is plenty of plot that is safe enough for early evening Sunday television, there is also a bit of bite.

Disillusioned charity worker Rosa finds financial irregularities with her bosses daughter. Bee is about to get married to her childhood sweetheart. They drop everything, including Stuart, Bee’s fiance who I think gets a rough deal, and head to the location of their most important holiday together.

Rosa buys the old windmill guest house they remember staying in, they restore it and return the place to being a successful business.  There’s some heart-searching along the way, an old boyfriend returns and departs. New love is found. So far, so chick-lit. Nothing to disturb the sunlounger there.

Bite arrives with Iona, trapped in a psychologically abusive relationship. Years ago, she lost contact with her friends, but they didn’t forget her and use the move to reestablish contact. The chapters written from Iona’s point of view are genuinely chilling as we see how her boyfriend is controlling her. By the third chapter, you are past the point of willing her to leave, you want him smashed in the face with a heavy or sharp object.

The three women’s stories are journeys – each one grows and changes thanks to their involvement in the project. It is heartwarming, and I suppose you know from the start that everything is going to be all right in the end, but then that’s what we want from a book like this. There is a hint of a sequel right at the end, perhaps the author liked the characters so much she wasn’t ready to let them go?

The cover still intrigues me though. Is “the brand” more important than the contents?

 

 

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The Hideaway

Phil: In the book tsunami from my writing friend is a new title – The Hideaway by Sheila O’Flanagan.

I can guess why she picked it. The front shows a sunny villa and the back cover talks about “the enchanting Villa Naranja in Spain”. This is sun-lounger reading in every respect. Opening it in winter is going to make you want to jump on a ‘plane for a bit of sunshine.

The story revolves around Juno Ryan, an Irish radiologist who discovers that her boyfriend is married. Worse, she finds out he’s married when he’s killed in an earthquake. Along with his wife and child.

For obvious reasons, this upsets her and she ends up taking up the offer of a few months unpaid holiday at a villa in Spain.

There is a pool, complete with Greek God style poll cleaners. Regular chick-lit readers won’t be surprised what happens there. It is not the end of the story though.

In fact, the book splits reasonably nicely into three parts and getting it on with the pool boy is in the early stages. After that, things progress and you see Juno start to recover and grow as a person. She conquers some of the demons that hold her back thanks to her family as well as those caused by her relationship with a married man who lied to her.

The story is deeper and far more involved than most sunlounger fiction. It’s light enough to be pleasant, especially the running cat story arc, but involving enough that you are pleased you are reading it. The ending isn’t quite what you’d expect from the first half of the book.

Summing up, the book is better than the cover would suggest. You can enjoy this while covered in suntan lotion, but it’s just as good while supping a warming cup of tea in the rain.

 

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Time hurdles

2013 Nevada NIAA HS Track & Field / Reed Sparks Rotary Invitational / South Tahoe - Brandon Cramer - 300m Hurdles WinnerPhil: My life is full of “time hurdles”.

Let me explain. I look at my calendar when I’m busy and think “It’s OK. After such-and-such date/event, things will settle down”.

Each date or event is a “time hurdle”. Once I jump over it, things will be different. Hopefully better.

Time hurdles are fixed points on the calendar. Sometimes I can’t see beyond them. Not literally you understand, I’ll still book other things in and in my rational mind, I know that there will be days after the hurdle, it’s just that everything after that date has an air of unreality about it. I know they exist, but in a slightly etherial way as though I know, but don’t believe.

There are especially big-time hurdles.  Holidays, hospital appointments, big/serious work meetings, new jobs, weddings etc. I imagine those to look like the massive walls found in some showjumping events. Beyond these, the view is distinctly misty.

Most of the time though, the hurdles are smaller. I’ve just taken part in a show that required quite a bit of preparation. Now it’s over, the next hurdle is some filming work I need to get things ready for.

After this, I believe the rest of the month should be plain sailing.

But will it? As the hurdle gets closer, I find it easier to concentrate. My focus becomes laser-like. I imagine a horse feels the same heading towards a jump. I actually achieve more.

The plain sailing bit is where you need to keep a foot on the accelerator (yes I know I’m mixing metaphors, get over it) and get stuff done while the next hurdle is in the distance. I look forward to this coasting phase but know there are probably things I should be delivering. Things the approaching hurdle has permitted me to ignore for a while.

Does anyone else look at the calendar and feel like this?

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Why can’t writing be fun?

Phil: For the last few weeks, the Nolan has enjoyed a break from the daily grind which has seen us meeting up on a weekly basis for chatting and in theory, writing.

Truth is, there has been a lot more talking than typing. We’ve done a reasonable amount of planning but progress on Book 3 has been limited.

Both of us have had things other than writing on our minds and since we are mates, we talk about them. Afterwards, we both feel better, not just through the effects of tea and cake either!

I suppose we should feel guilty about this, and we do. But not much.

Writing is great. We’re really proud of the books produced so far, and looking forward to seeing how the next ones work out. But it’s not everything to either of us. We have lives as well.

Does this make us bad?

Some authors take great pride in hitting daily word targets. Writing has, we are told, got to be a painful process. Only by travelling through the fire, can you forge a book worthy of the name.

Well, sorry, but no.

You can’t write light chick-lit fiction if your day is spent agonising over every word. Our style is humorous and if you analyse every single line to death then you’ll suck all the fun out of it. Worse, you’ll create something so convoluted that any reader will need another book just to explain the one they are reading. We don’t want anyone opening ours to have to suffer. I know that “proper” literature is all about this, but we’ll steer clear of that thank you very much. Editing and polishing is one thing, agonising is another and enduring it doesn’t make you a better person.

Taking time to step back and look at what we are doing, we’ve worked out that for us, the journey is part of the fun. Yes, we’d love people to read an enjoy what we produce, but why shouldn’t it simply be a pleasurable activity?

Progress would be quicker if we knuckled down and got on with things, but maybe this isn’t everything. Perhaps the journey should be as pleasurable as the destination.

As it is, the weekly meet-ups are over. Candice has a posh new job and my work is going through one of its periodic explosions of demand. For the minute, tea, cake and finishing the book will have to be a dream, but, as Captain Sensible once said, “You’ve got to have a dream. If you don’t have a dream, how you going to have a dream come true?”

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The Lido by Libby Page

Phil: Dropping into my local library, I spotted an attractive book in the new items section. I’m not sure why it appealed – although a local fight to save a lido, or perhaps the Nolan’s requests for lido’s she could visit during last summer’s heatwave might have had something to do with it.

The story has two main strands;

Rosemary has lived in Brixton all her life, but everything she knows is changing. Only the local lido, where she swims every day, remains a constant reminder of the past and her beloved husband George.

Kate has just moved and feels adrift in a city that is too big for her. She’s on the bottom rung of her career as a local journalist and is determined to make something of it.

When the lido is threatened with closure, Rosemary rallies the local community and comes into contact with Kate, who champions their cause in the local press. Along the way, Kate grows in confidence and starts to find her feet in the local area.

There’s a third strand as we follow Rosemary and her husband in flashback, the lido playing an important part in bringing them together.

Said like this it all sounds a bit run of the mill, but the book sweeps you along to the bitter-sweet conclusion.

What I don’t understand is why I enjoyed it so much. The front cover describes it as “Joyous and uplifting” which it certainly is.

It’s not just me either. A quick renewal and for the first time ever I lent it to Candice and she quickly read and enjoyed it too. Then my mum read it and loved it.

This is not great literature. To be honest, you can probably work out the bare bones of the plot pretty early on but it really doesn’t matter. What it is is the sort of book people enjoy. Read on a sunlounger it would be perfect, but it’s just as good on a chilly winters day in front of the fire. Just the sort of book we have aspired to write.

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Pitch battle

Writing West MidlandsPhil: We’ve mentioned in the past that one of the trickiest stages in getting a book out there is working out how to pitch it. We know what’s on the pages and reducing this down so it can be explained in the duration of an elevator journey has always proved impossible.

We’re not alone. Nearly everyone who has completed a novel feels the same way. Which bits do you leave out?

Luckily, Writing West Midlands runs a day-long course to help. We both paid up and went along – two heads are better than one after all.

The 14 attendees first had to talk to someone else for two minutes about themselves. Not easy, but I managed it without boring my victim to death. Then we had to do it again. At this stage, the rules said no mentioning your writing.

Then we moved on to proper pitching. Pair up (Candice and I were deliberately and sensibly kept in separate groups) and explain your novel in 2 minutes. Repeat another 3 times to different people.

The repetition is important. Each time you find yourself modifying your pitch to pack more in, or to keep it under the time limit. Doing this several times in quick succession sharpens you up.

After lunch and a pep talk from the tutor, we were back at it again. This time there were another 7 attempts.

I felt I was getting better at this each time. My best effort was 1:53 and that seemed to be pretty good. I’d managed to get the start of the pitch down pretty tightly I thought and as I went around the room, the second half where I tried to include more details of our characters exploits was coming together.

Finally, it was time to pitch to the room. Speaking to the entire group was more of a challenge to most and pitches I’d heard earlier got a bit less focussed when faced with a crowd and no time limit. One thing became apparent as we went through this process, most people were writing literary fiction, not our commercial stuff. I guess that’s no surprise, Arts (with a capital A) organisations like “serious” material. There doesn’t seem to be anyone supporting those who just want to write fun stuff. Maybe there should be.

My effort seemed OK to me, but then Candice had a go and dropped the listener straight into the middle of our first scene. I didn’t feel so clever after that…

It was interesting that our efforts were more performance than a straight pitch. We were selling the book rather than just trying to distil the contents into 350 words. That might be something to do with our backgrounds and past experiences, or just that we are a bit more flamboyant than most. It’s possibly down to the type of book we are selling too. I don’t feel the need to take anyone through the wringer on my pages. That’s not to say you shouldn’t, a couple of the books sounded really interesting but not a light read, it’s just not our style. The tutor also suggested that our book was very filmic in style – something others have said to us. Perhaps we should be pitching a screenplay, but where do you start with that?

Anyway, as far as our pitches go, do we have the right approach? Apparently not quite but we got some pointers at the end and a few things to go and think about, but that’s why you go along to these events.

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