Category Archives: Phil

I’m living in a computer game

 

Phil: I’ve never been properly into computer games. Truth is, I don’t have the reflexes, nor the enthusiasm for killing things for first-person shooters, and can’t be bothered to spend hours getting involved with the more complex ones.

Many years ago, I did quite enjoy a game on my ZX Spectrum called Tir Na Nog. Cast in the role of Cuchulainn, you are required to mooch around the afterlife in an effort to reunite the pieces of the Seal of Calum.

Basically, you wandered around in what was, for the time, a very impressive graphical environment. Your character moved fluidly, the background scrolled and it was all very nice. I never got into the purpose of the adventure, instead, finding my own amusement.

By pacing out the complex road system, and filling these in on a massive sheet of graph paper, I was able to draw up a very accurate map. This satisfied me enormously, and I didn’t even mind when similar maps appeared in computer magazines. I had done it and they just proved I was right.

Those days of pacing a digital road system came back to me every time I go for a stroll. I’ve become very familiar with the roads and pathways near where I live. Thanks to not being allowed to go anywhere interesting for nine months, the challenge has been to create a bit of variety in my routes. While walks are lovely, the scenery is a bit monotonous now.

It’s a bit like my computerised wandering, except without having to spend seven minutes loading your walk from a cassette. Every slightly different side-road becomes an adventure. Gradually, I am building a mind map (I’m not using the graph paper, human strides not being as consistent as computer ones, anyway, I have Google maps) of even the more complex housing estates nearby. There isn’t really any point in this other than taking me away from staring at a computer screen, but then there isn’t really much point in anything nowadays.

Maybe I just need to be grateful that life is a bit Tir Na Nog rather than Space Invaders!

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The Little Cottage in Lantern Square

Hannah went from high flyer in the city to the business owner and has never looked back. In the cosy Cotswold village of Butterbury she runs Tied up with String, sending handmade gifts and care packages across the miles, as well as delivering them to people she thinks need them the most.

Phil: I’ve just had a revelation. Literally, as I searched for the bit of blurb above, I also found this:

The Little Cottage in Lantern Square is the collected Lantern Square novellas.

NOW it makes sense.

You see, while this is a pleasant, undemanding read, there were a couple of niggles.

The first is my usual financial concern. Houses on the green in a Cotswold village are going to be painfully expensive. They are not where you end up when looking for somewhere cheap to live because your entire income is based on sending luxury care packages out in the post. They are also not where you live when running a business that will need large quantities of products to go in said packages, not to mention the masses of wrapping and packing consumables. What you want is a barn, not the cottage dining room.

Mind you, Hannah, our lead character, did work in accountancy in “the city” for a while and therefore we assume she earned a mahoosive amount of money to fund this. We assume that anyway because we’re going to need to suspend belief. Am I the only person who thinks like this? I keep reading books where the numbers (to me) don’t add up.

“Stop being so nerdy” I hear you cry, “It’s fiction. Let it go.”

Fair enough, it was only a niggle. The bigger issue, but one explained when we realise this is a collection of novellas, is that there are cliff-hangers through the book that are almost immediately resolved at the start of the next chapter.

Often they take the form of us being told that HANNAH HAS A SECRET. Yes, we are told she has several, but not told what each is until later. One early SECRET is divulged to another character, and we aren’t in on the conversation. This is annoying, to me at least.

All of this doesn’t change the fact that I liked Hannah. She is, in chick-lit terms, a real person. She has a believable backstory, once we get to find out about it. She works too hard. She has doubts. She does nice, and believable things. Most of the time, when I read this sort of thing, I want to shout at our lead on occasion, but not this time.

OK, the supporting cast could be from an episode of Midsommer Murders, by which I mean they are a bit cartoony slotting neatly into various stereotypes, but that doesn’t matter. If you want gritty drama, then this isn’t the book for you. If this was TV it would be a warm Sunday evening drama. Perfect soothing reading.

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Sandi Toksvig and my London dream

Phil: As someone much more important than me once said, I have a dream.

I dream of living in London, but on my terms.

I’ll have a nice apartment near Marylebone station. My day will be spent pottering around the capital visiting galleries and museums. I’ll meet up with my (technically, our, but I’m doing the pottering) editor for lunch in a nice restaurant. Occasionally, I’ll head over to the BBC where I’ll be in demand for the occasional appearance on Question Time or a Radio 4 show to dazzle everyone with my wit and wisdom.

My clothes will be of the finest quality. My shoes hand-made. The sort of clobber that lasts forever and is best described (by me) as timeless and by someone I know as boring.

All this came to mind as I read Sadi Toksvig’s memoir Between the Stops.

The book hangs around the number 12 bus route, which our author likes to take from home to work. I like this, because I also love a bus ride in London. I enjoy looking at the capital as it passes by, and in my dream, I’ll reguarily get out and visit the more interesting shops I spot. Visit and not feel intimidated at walking in the door.

It’s a very unconventional memoir – we learn about Sandi’s life, but also some history of London. It’s a place with a lot of past to learn about, much of it fascinating and frequently grueome.

Anger plays a big part in our literary journey as it’s pointed out that very few women seem to rate a mention on the road signs or anywhere else. It’s not that women have never made their mark on history, just that the bar for memorials is a lot lower for men.

So we get a mix of life stories, showbiz annecdotes, politics, femanism and history. Quite a mix and I enjoyed it. There’s no showing off as in a tradtional autobiography and it’s not all looking at the past either. The future is just as important or at least making sure the future is a good deal more equal than the past.

Apart from the famanism and lesbianism, Sandi is living my dream. I mean my dream doesn’t include any misogyny and I’m inclined to agree that a few more women being commemorated would be a good thing and many of the men slipping into history would not be a bad thing, no matter how much the Daily Mail readers (Sandi has good reason to hate that paper) might howl. As for the lesbian thing, it’s just another on the list of things I don’t qualify for.

Of course, my dream is just that. The apartment I fancy is £1.6m and the BBC aren’t hammering on my door. A London publisher would be nice, but I bet they don’t pay enough for the hand-made shoes.

I do have the boring clothes though.

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The Giver of Stars

Alice Wright doesn’t love her new American husband.

Nor her domineering father-in-law or the judgmental townsfolk of Baileyville, Kentucky.

Stifled and misunderstood, she yearns for escape and finds it in defiant Margery O’Hare and the sisterhood bringing books to the isolated and vulnerable.

But when her father-in-law and the town turn against them, Alice fears the freedom, friendship and the new love she’s found will be lost . . .

Phil: So much, so chick-lit. Readers will know Jojo Moyes from her bestseller Me Before You. It was an enjoyable read, but could possibly have been described as an excellent idea, competently carried out.

The Giver of Stars is on the face of it, quite a pedestrian idea, but the execution is superb.

Set in 1937, the story centres on new British bride, Alice. She has married into an American family in an effort to escape the stifling life she sees ahead of her. The marriage is not happy for many reasons, but she finds escape joining a band of women operating a horseback library, bringing books to the remote townspeople in Kentucky.

The synopsis on the back of the book suggests something full of lurve, but that’s the least important storyline. What strikes the reader is this is a world very different from today.

Women were expected to know their place. Marriage meant becoming your husband’s possession and not answering him back. You didn’t take a job unless you were poor, and there was poverty on a scale we don’t really understand today.

Power was in the hands of a small number of people and they generally seemed to abuse it. As for being the “wrong” colour, then you could aspire to very little in life. We even see racism and hypocrisy making a dangerous cocktail.

Overall though, this is a book about strong women. Women who don’t sit back and let the world wash over them. That probably sells less well than the love story promoted by the publisher, but it’s an important part of the story. You might even call it “feminism by stealth”. For many people, it will open their eyes to how far womens rights have deservedly advanced, and how easy it would be to lose those gains.

When I started reading, it took me a few chapters to get into this book. By the end, I knew I was looking forward to handing it over to my book buddy. I think Candice is going to feel the same, I’m confident she’ll enjoy it, and it’s always a pleasure to hand over a book you know someone else will love.

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The Internet is lying to you. The rise of clickbait headlines.

James Bond: Superman Henry Cavill on replacing Daniel Craig as 007 “Very, very exciting”

Phil: This headline popped up on my tablet a couple of days ago. From it, you might conclude that Henry Cavill has bagged the job as the next 007. You might be surprised, having read that Tom Hardy was already lined up for the role a couple of days earlier.

What has happened?

Basically, the newspaper who “wrote” the Cavill story has turned an old quote saying he would like the role, and was the second choice to Daniel Craig*, into some words online. What they want is for you to click through and read.

The title is “clickbait”.

Clickbait: content whose main purpose is to attract attention and encourage visitors to click on a link to a particular web page.

OK, so you might not think this matters. It’s only an entertainment story, and since you know it’s going to take you to the Daily Express, not likely to be something of great importance.

Why do they want your visit?

Advertising. Land on their page and you’ll find loads of ads as well as more clickbait headlines to try to keep you on the site. Your visit will also raise their traffic levels, making the page more appealing to advertisers.

In publishing, this is called “reach” and it’s valuable. Very valuable indeed. Greater reach means you can charge more for adverts. It creates greater demand for your ad space. Sometimes it’s as valuable as actual sales.

Which is why media outlets look for people with headline writing skills. Yes, there will be a story of sorts behind the headline, but it’s all about the clicks, Don’t get me wrong, writing lots of clickbait headlines is a serious skill. Short, snappy and containing what the marketing world terms “a call to action”. If you can churn out a few dozen of these a day, stick it on your CV, it’s a saleable skill.

Does this matter? I think it does. At the moment, every news outlet is vying for your eyeballs and the best way to do that is shout the scariest news imaginable. Bad news sells, it always has done, and the worse it is, the better the “sales”.

In the middle of a pandemic, you’d like to think accurate information would be easy to find, but what we are served with are ever more apocalyptic headlines. Whichever numbers look worst, those are the ones we are told are most important and the figures are then twisted to suit the narrative. And those headlines keep coming. Endlessly.

As I write, more people die each day in the UK from suicide than Covid. Does this get reported? Of course not, because then someone might suggest that the endless stream of bad news is killing people.

Clickbait is deadly.

*Humourous book note: In our first novel, Dave is compared favourably to Daniel Craig emerging from the sea in a Bond film. I did not write that bit. I might have suggested we didn’t need quite so much detail in the description.

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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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