Tag Archives: Arts

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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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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Murder Mystery Nights

Candice: Has anyone been on a murder mystery night?  I’ve been on one a long time ago for a Hen do.  To be honest we drank too much and couldn’t really keep track of what was going on.

However, Friday night I went to an amateur one, amateur performers but a professionally written play performed by them. The proviso was a wedding where the whole family were there and suddenly in the middle of the performance someone keeled over and died.  It was our job, as a table of 8, to work out who done it.

The deceased was the father of the groom, an obnoxious man who told everyone what he thought of them before keeling over. The rest of the wedding party then came round each table and you were able to ask questions about what you had seen or heard.  This turned into a bit of a bun fight as everyone on the table wanted to ask questions at once (and got progressively worse as they drank more Crabbies Ginger Beer).  At the end we had a conclusion…however it wasn’t the same conclusion across the table!

After a vote we decided on the answer but I didn’t agree, it seemed too obvious to me.  The murderer was supposedly the wife of the deceased, killing him for being cruel to her.  Well, the fact she had her arm in a sling was a bit of a give away.

However, that was the consensus and we went with… and we were right.  Or rather the table was.

But to me it did not ring true.  In my world of plotting, she was too much of an obvious subject and I thought it was some else, some one more subtle.  However, in all my reading and watching these kind of programmes perhaps I am looking for the red herring before the actual culprit.  This show did not break off 10 mins before the end to have an advert break before announcing who the real killer was, which messed up my usual lines of deduction.

So, am I not as good as I thought I was?  Perhaps I’m just better as murder dramas for TV or film, not for entertainment on a Friday night in the local community hall.  Good show though!

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The police procedural

Riozoli and IslesCandice: I like to read police based fiction as the main body of my reading matter, as well as watching it on TV too.

To me it is the toughest kind of writing, as I always struggle to work out how they come up so many different ways for people to commit a crime, with added twists and turns and red herrings. I know, during the writing of the book, Phil and I have created some side stories to make things more interesting but none of them involve having to know about police procedure or medical technical jargon. They just involve mad ideas that popped in to our heads.

When I read and watch these dramas I am just amazed at how they come up with the route to the end of the story, does the crime and culprit come first and then the padding of extra characters. How do they manage to find so many ways for people to seem like they’ve done it, when they haven’t ?

I love to work out who has actually done it before the end, I actually quite good at it, but it doesn’t mean I could write a story like that. So hats off to all you crime writers out there.

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Autumn is here

WW-Autumn-2013-Prog-FC.jpg

Candice: We’ve had a great summer in the UK and then all of a sudden, on the 1st of September, autumn has hit.  We are still getting lovely days but the nights are drawing in, it’s colder so I’ve had to put the heating on for a few hours each night.

However, this does bode to a time of year when more reading might be done as people draw round the fire, and have more time to sit as they feel less inclined to do things as it gets dark outside.  I was moaning the other week about not having had anything to read recently, well I’ve gone the other way and now have three books to read but don’t seem to have had time to read them so this might be a my chance.  Of course, come January I’ll had loads of time on my hand (!) to do lots of reading.

Well this weekend the other half and I having a well deserved break from the decorating and general house sorting for our five year wedding anniversary.  Thinking about the weather, five years ago it was absolutely throwing it down all this week but the sun shone on our day, then the UK had a heat wave while we were on honeymoon – so there is always hope for one last trip out for the shorts.

So, the other week I got an email from Warwick Words, another local literary festival.  Warwickshire must be a popular area for this, I suppose due to our Shakespearean roots?  Anyway, it’s a about their Autumn Festival, just a few events over the first weekend of October to whet your appetite for next year.  Phil, being Phil, fancies the Pun Run,  “the only pun and wordplay-based comedy club in the UK”, I also think this sounds interesting but it happens to be on a day when I am away.  However, if we want to keep up the comedy vibe then ” An evening with Mark Watson” is the way to go.  He’s not a comedian I know but it sounds like he is also a prolific writer so we could have a laugh and learn some stuff too.

Have a look, there might be something you fancy.

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Does your reader need to speak the lingo?

?Phil: According to the BBC, the work “Twerking” has made it in to the Oxford English Dictionary. According to them, it means, “to dance to popular music in a sexually provocative manner involving thrusting hip movements and a low, squatting stance”.

No, that didn’t help me much either. I understand that Miley Ray Cyrus did it at some awards show and apparently that is enough to get you an entry in the big book of words no one buys anymore.

Is it a problem if you use words in your book that exclude the reader?

What matters more – that the language is right for the scene, or that the person reading it understands it?

I ask, because while busy not knowing what Twerking is, I’m reading Feral Youth by Polly Courtney . Who says men can’t multi-task?

To help the reader, the book starts with a glossary of “street” terms as all the speech is written in the language the characters would really use. Obviously being down wid da kidz, I knew all this anyway, but I can see how it would help a less hip reader.

As I read, I am reminded of Anthony Burgess’s book “A Clockwork Orange“. Written from the main protagonist Alex’s point of view, the early chapters are in Nadsat, an English dialect that the author invented to keep the text from becoming dated. Had he used contemporary language from the time, characters would have probably being saying “Daddy-o” which would have nailed the period firmly in the early 1960s rather than a few years into the future from whenever you are reading it.

(I know Daddy-o is probably dated for London in 1962, the rest of the country tends to lag behind a little and the book was written in Hove which is permanently set to 1934)

Anyway, I remember really struggling with the language when I read it. To be honest, if I hadn’t read the book in that period from finishing answering the questions to being allowed out of the my Social Science exam, I might not have stuck with it. As it was, I always wondered if Burgess is partly responsible for my hopeless grade in the subject (CSE 2) as me being rubbish as the subject. I know I’m not alone here (with the language, not rubbish exam results) as others I’ve talked to about the book mention the same problem. The film noticeably tones the language down.

Now, we have Alesha and Co speaking their own version of English in Feral Youth, and again the readers will struggle initially, although not as much. It was probably a third of the way through the book before I stopped turning to the glossary every few pages.

Despite this, my instinct is that it is the right way to do things. I couldn’t believe in inner city youth yammering away on their mobile phones in received pronunciation any more than Alex and his droogs would have. If the reader wants to immerse themselves in the world of inner London “yoot”, they need to learn the lingo. Perhaps this is a case for reading the book twice, the first time to get your ear in and the second to follow the story. Maybe it’s an indication of how far I am from the world of Alesha and her “bredrin” but perhaps that is part of the thrill – being allowed entry into a very different space.

We’re still not putting Twerking in our Book though.

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Will David Cameron kill Chick-Lit?

"Pwooorr" said David. I gotta ban this!Phil: You might well have read recently that David Cameron has announced that in the next few years, if you wish to view porn on your computer, you will have to opt-in for it.

At first, you might have though, “Thanks goodness for that, someone has finally thought of the children”.

But like most loudly trumpeted government policies, there are likely to be unintended consequences. One of these could be a big hit on the sales of chick-lit books.

Let me don my nerdy IT hat and explain. There are three ways that this can work. The first is that site on a banned “black list” are blocked by your Internet Service Provider. There are several international lists and most ISPs already block sites on them.

Next, the system can use what is called a “flesh filter” to try and work out what the images on the page are. These exist and can prove entertaining for your local IT department as photos of people on beaches and close up pictures of faces tend to have too many skin tones so find themselves blocked. This results in phone calls to hard-working Helpdesk staff to sort it out. Since most homes don’t have any hard-working Helpdesk staff to call and the ISP doesn’t want to provide them, you can bet this isn’t going to play a big part in the filtering. If it does, then I predict the death of Facebook.

No, the main method of stopping you getting to filth will be good, old-fashioned text filtering. You might not realise it but every search you carry out and every site you visit, is recorded somewhere. When I worked in IT, we used to check server logs for certain banned words. Anyone who typed them into a search would be found out. If those words were in the title of a website, the culprits would be investigated. Even with a few hundred staff we didn’t look very hard unless you were under suspicion. If you were stupid enough to print the page out on a network printer that was situated behind the Helpdesk, well it didn’t take Sherlock Holmes to lead to you being in big trouble with your boss.

I bet in our book, Kelvin from IT keeps a very close watch on the stuff Tracey does on-line. Poor lad, it’s mostly going to be shopping with a few work sites thrown in for when her boss Kate walks past, but I bet there are few juicy finds that will make him go goggle eyed when he has to check them out. I know how I reacted when I once had to visit (for official business) that sort of site at work…

Anyway, this is going to happen on a much larger scale. The ISP will be reading everything you download and comparing it against official government rudeness lists. I would love to be in the meeting that decides on these…

“So what”, you say, “I’m not looking at filth, so it won’t affect me.”

Hmmm. Do you read chick-lit? From my limited investigation, there’s some pretty graphic sex in much of it and Candice says I’m too innocent to read 50 Shades of Rumply-Pumpy. I’m only allowed the relatively tame stuff.

And do you own an e-reader? Do you plan to buy one?

Good-oh. So you intend to download your book with all the mucky bits intact through the official filters?

No chance. There’s a lot of words I recognise in there that would set off alarm bells in an IT department.

So, how will it all work? Will chick-lit readers revert to paper so they can get the proper mucky stuff? Will we see a new genre of wholesome chick-lit suitable for the government censors? Will it be Lady Chatterley’s Lover all over again with copies passed around illicitly between consenting adults?

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Alan Titchmarsh on words

At school, I loved writing stories. I loved writing them rather more than Miss Weatherall liked reading them, but that’s by the by. And then I grew up. A bit. And I realised, when I grew up, that unless you are an artist, or a composer, or a novelist, you never get to use the one thing that gives so much pleasure as a child – your imagination. – Alan Titchmarsh

Phil: I don’t really do biographies. The phrase “History is written by the victors”, attributed to Churchill, could be re-worked as, “Biographies are written by lucky sods.” In many spheres, especially the biz called show, success is as much about being in the right place at the right time. As one who always manages not to do this, I’m not that interested in filling my days reading about those who did.

Yes I am bitter.

Anyway, Alan Titchmarsh’s biog , “Knave of Spades” came to me with the suggestion that I ought to read it because his writing style is similar to mine. Fair enough, it’s not a fat book and I wanted some easy reading so I gave it a go.

So far so good. There is an element of right place, right time with his post-Kew Gardens career but it’s amiably written and kept me turning pages. The bit that sparked my interest starts on P277 in the chapter entitled “Words…”

At this point, our hero decides to have a go at writing a novel. He sends off three query letters and gets rejection, mild interest and offer of lunch.

Hold on, A rejection letter? For Tichmarsh? The man who is considered some sort of sex God by the HRT patch crowd?

That must have been an interesting meeting for someone.

“So, you turned down Titchmarsh’s book.”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“Well, it’s not about wearing jumpers or doing gardens. Some sort of novel about a lighthouse keeper I think.”

“ARE YOU NUTS!!!! I DON’T CARE WHAT HE’S WRITTEN. TITCHMARSH WILL SELL BY THE TON!!!!! YOU’LL NEVER WORK IN THIS INDUSTRY AGAIN !!!”

And so it proved. Number 2 in the Times Bestseller list.

By the point he wrote his first novel, Alan had produced 40 books on gardening and stuff. I’m told that these are informative and easy to read without talking down to the reader. He understands that he’s not writing great fiction, that the literary world is desperately snobby. The point is made that JK Rowling was lauded as the successor to Roald Dahl until she started selling by the barrow-load and then faced a backlash from the establishment.

I think he puts it well when he says:

It is up to all authors to plough their own furrow – whether it be light fiction or prose laden with scholarly substance – and to write well, within their genre.

Which is pretty much what we are trying to do. Maybe it’s all bluff but he doesn’t come accross as someone who took acceptance for granted. It’s reasonable (if anoying) to expect that if you are a “name” you are a lot less likely to end up in the slush pile. Publishing is a business and celebrity sells. I like that he understands what he’s writing. It’s light fiction. Feel-good stuff to be read, “on the bus or the train, in a book-lined study or on a lilio, by butcher, baker, computer-maker or housewife.”

Which is all we aspire to. Kate vs the Dirtboffins isn’t high art. It is fun to read. It will make you laugh. We wrote it because writing it was fun. To sum it up in Alan’s words:

Provided that they can give the reader a day or two of escapism, and a fraction of the pleasure that they give me to write, I ask no more.

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I don’t know what a gerund is. And I don’t care.

Luke as punctuationA gerund is a noun made from a verb by adding “-ing”.

Phil: A new test has been introduced this week for children. It examines the more ‘technical’ aspects of English – such as grammar, punctuation and spelling and is assessed via an externally marked test.

According to the Department for Education, the introduction of this new test reflects the Government’s beliefs that children should have mastered these important aspects of English by the time they leave primary school, and that appropriate recognition should be given to good use of English throughout their schooling.

Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove is frothing with excitement at this, but then he believes that Queen Victoria is still on the throne and that geography lessons need to remind everyone that the most countries on the globe should be coloured in pink.

Several arty types like Michael Rosen think he is wrong.

I think I’m inclined to agree with them. Most of my work involves writing, the pinnacle of my education career was an O Level grade B in English and yet I still only managed to score 5/10 in the BBC Grammar Quiz.

Does knowing the full technical aspect of the language make it easier to write clearly? I suspect not. The title of this post involves starting a sentence with a conjunction – a crime that would see my work marked with a big red circle and the words, “See me” appended to the bottom in teachers sternest handwriting.  Did you understand it? Almost certainly.

This isn’t to say that I feel you can completely throw out the rule book. I still get annoyed when sub-editing letters were the writer uses a lower-case “i” when they should use “I” or doesn’t understand that commas and apostrophes are not the same thing. Mostly I’m angry because the writers come from an era when teaching involved the same type of tests that are now being introduced. My suspicion is that they are the same people bashing youngsters for not being able to write.

Language should not get in the way of reading so I’d argue that the subject, or story, is more important than the correct technical English. Let’s encourage children to read widely and fire their creativity thinking. The best-selling authors out there aren’t known for the greatest quality writing but they grab the reader with the story which is a far more impressive skill.

How many people finish a book and say, “Well, the story was dull, the characters one-dimensional but the author really knows how to work a semi-colon.” ?

More to the point, IF we must drill the full set of technical rules into children, please can we lock all the people who claim to care passionately about the subject in a room and only start testing when they have all agreed on all the rules. That should keep them out of our hair for a while!

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Talking to a ‘National Treasure’

Me and Michael PalinCandice: Phil and I were lucky enough to attend an event at Stratford Literary Festival last week, presented by Michael Palin.  To quote the lady who introduced him, everyone else Pales in comparison (ha ha).

I’ve been a fan of Michael’s for years, as our six form common room would always be full of the sounds of boys chuckling to ‘The Knights who say Ni‘ or ‘The Parrot Sketch‘.  Whether we wanted to be fans or not, we took it in by osmosis.  In fact, it was more the films than the Python TV show as they were on repeat on the TV and we’d sneakily watch them and then spend the next days quoting stuff back.  My one friend took on herself to write down all the words to the song at the start of ‘The Meaning of Life’. Year’s later the same group of female friends who listened at school went to see ‘Spamalot‘ and were quoting sections back to the cast (which they realised as we were in the front row and Lancelot was winking at us as we did it!)

Mr Palin has done alot, from Python to films to some random children’s books and then a travel writer.  It’s quite a varied list, though his presentation his travel shows is always done with tongue firmly in cheek, and I wonder if some times he’s going to break into the Ministry of Silly Walks.

Sitting listening to him talk for an hour, it was less about the art of writing per se but more about the amount of things he’d done. But he gave us snippets of some of the scripts he’d written as well the above mentioned books.  What I didn’t realise he is has actually written two fiction books, the most recent being ‘The Truth’.  As we were running out of time I didn’t get the full gist, but I might have to search this one out. The hour wasnt enough to get in nearly 50 years of experience and anecdotes.  However, he comes across as such a nice chap I could see you walking over to the local pub and carrying on the conversation over a pint!

I’d been set a task by the other half for the evening, as Michael is from Sheffield, the hubby wanted to know who he supported.  Well, while sneaking a cheeky photo, I asked.  ‘United’ was the response, I mentioned Richard was a Wednesday man, but Michael came back and said really either as he always supports his northern roots.  Good answer!

I’m not sure I came away from the event learning any more about writing but I certainly had a good laugh.

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