Category Archives: Phil

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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And that was 2020

2020 in the binPhil: So, there we go. 2020 is nearly over, and I don’t think it will be mourned by anyone.

Let’s be honest, it was rubbish. We’d all have been happier to hibernate through the whole thing, and the first six months of 2021 too, I suspect.

Team NolanParker can’t claim to have enjoyed any great success.

Early on, we tidied up both of our books, applied all the proof-reading and removed the typos. All good, but after that March happened, and it all fell apart.

While others were (they claim) learning a new language or developing the ability to make pasta, we just disappeared into the “joys” of ever more work, homeschooling and generally losing all our motivation.

Sadly, our writing mojo is still missing, but at least on a socially-distanced walk in the cold yesterday, we started to look for it. That’s another thing we miss – sitting in a cafe with tea and cake. I’m sure that strolling in the park is good for you, but you can’t use a laptop.

Will 2021 be the year we break through? Will we finally finish our third book?

Does anyone else have hopes and dreams for next year? Please share – you might inspire someone else.

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Party like it’s 2020!

Phil: Do you know what’s good about 2020?

No office Christmas parties!

No standing around awkwardly pretending to have fun. No wishing you didn’t have to drive home so you could enjoy a drink to dull the pain. No being stuck with colleagues who have partners picking them up so they can drink.

Yes, I know we’re all supposed to love this stuff, but some of us don’t. Can you just not go, leaving the party to those who enjoy it? No. Apparently, it’s the law that you have to turn up for the “fun”. It’s rude (I’m told) to explain that you didn’t choose to be with anyone you work with, it’s only being paid that keeps you in the same room as them. And only the threat of a tedious interview with HR that stops you murdering the lot of them. (I have worked in IT support. You have no idea how much we hated some of our users. No, more than that.)

But 2020 comes along and everyone is working from home. Parties are held via Zoom!

No dancing. Drinking if you want it because, well, you are at home.

And when it’s time to leave say something along the lines of “My Internet is playing up.”, switch the computer off and leave them to it.

In Kate vs The Dirtboffins, our IT nerd Kelvin has a neat party trick. He pretends to take an urgent phone call when he needs to get away. That wasn’t my invention, party monster Nolan came up with that, but if we are ever allowed into the same room as other people, I’ll remember it.

As it is, meet-ups via Zoom have worked very well this year. My circle of regular drinking buddies has grown now we no longer have to worry about geography. Yes, I miss visiting a pub, but even my annual nerds trip to London boozers has a virtual stand-in this year. It won’t be the same, but at least we won’t be jostling out on the pavement in the cold. And the beer is cheaper.

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Lock-down reading

Phil: The Parker book pile was getting thin a few weeks ago. Somehow Divorced and Deadly ended up in it. Spying “Fast-paced and fun-packed” on the cover, I gave it a try.

The “story” follows the post-divorce life of Ben. He establishes himself as a narcissist almost immediately – the divorce came about when his wife caught him in bed with another woman, something he thought was “a bit of fun”.

Moving back in with his parents, including murderously crazy mother, he quickly moves out again to a flat with his best mate, Dickie Manse brains-in-his-pants. Yes, that’s his name, and it’s repeated many, many times through the book. A joke that doesn’t get wearing at all…

Apparently, the book is based on a series of real stories that appeared on the author’s blog. It’s written in a diary-style with a series of incidents rather than a traditional narrative.

The result is a bit like a traditional British farce. Unbelievable situations escalate quickly and preposterously. Trousers fall down. Arses are exposed.

None of the characters make much sense. Some of them, such as his ex-wife who seems to devote her life to following him around and hiding in bushes (yes, really) don’t sound very grounded in reality. I’m not even sure why she’s in the book as nothing much happens with her unless you consider a “hilarious” hosepipe squirting incident.

I nearly gave up on this in less than a chapter, but with few other options, I stuck with it. To be fair, it is fast-paced but when you can’t connect with a single character, it’s a little difficult to care.

One for the charity shop book pile rather than the shelf of your library at home. Thank goodness a recent meet-up with the Nolan restocked my shelves!

(In case you think I’m being harsh, once I wrote this, I checked the reviews. Oh dear.)

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Are you Doomscrolling?

TwitterPhil: 2020 might have been rubbish for many things, but it’s produced a fertile crop of new words for us to make use of.

Ask me in 2019 what the “R Number” is, and like most people, I wouldn’t have had a clue. It’s the same for “T Cells”. “Furlough” is something to do with horse racing, “bubbles” are what you blow and talking of blowing, that’s what a “circuit-breaker” did in the cupboard under the stairs next to the electricity meter.

Suddenly, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, we have a whole new lexicon, and boy don’t we employ it? I wonder what our 2019 selves would think if they heard pretty much any conversation we have had this year.  Not for us the finer points of I’m a Celebrity, no, we talk about The Pandemic.

All. The. Time.

Seriously, I can’t remember the last time I talked to someone for more than about ten minutes without Covid rearing its ugly molecules in some form or another.

Which brings me on to my favourite new phrase – Doomscrolling.

This is the act of browsing the web looking for ever more apocalyptic news.

Humans are evolved to do this. Caveman Phil would want to be aware of the presence of danger, so he could do something about it. A new painting on the wall that said “Look out for the sabre-tooth tiger” would be useful.I would read this and my brain would give itself a little shot of dopamine to tell me I had learned something useful. Hopefully, not to hang around and be eaten.

Today though, we have mobile phones and Twitter. Endless hours can be spent searching out the latest bad news or getting annoyed at those who fail to see the sense of our position. If you want lockdown, there is always someone who wants a harder lockdown and is competitive about it. Think it’s all made up? Don’t worry, someone has an even better conspiracy for you to wallow in.

But this stuff is addictive. Every bit of terrible news provides the dopamine jolt and so we go hunting for the next gloomy prediction. Sadly, our brains can’t work out that this is bad for us, because they are enjoying the drugs.

What a problem this is going to be for writers in the future. How are you going to set a drama in 2020 and not bore the pants of people with endless virus talk? If you don’t, everyone will know just how unrealistic your words are – so you won’t be able to win either way.

And how will chick-lit survive? Maybe those furtive looks over the top of a mask are a start, but if your characters aren’t allowed within two metres of each other, the romance is going to fade pretty quickly.

She might find the man of her dreams, but can they get into each other’s bubbles?

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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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