Tag Archives: Arts

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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Self Publishing – not as bad as we thought?

Cakes!Candice: Phil and I toddled along to a “self publishing clinic” as part of Stratford Literary Festival yesterday afternoon.  Having delved into the idea of self publishing before Phil and I had been reluctant as it seemed like the route for those who couldn’t get an Agent or a proper publishing contract, but having listened to tonight’s event, it seems things have changed in the publishing world.

In fact, in the two years since we started this project, and went to London to the Writers and Artists year book event, the perception of self publishing seems to have come along in leaps and bounds.  No longer is the pariah of the book world, it seems that more people are going down this route than the traditional as the publishing world gets squeezed by ebooks and the recession.

The event was compared by Ian Davies, owner of a self publishing company Swift Publishing, Gareth Howard, a book marketing expert and Polly Courtney, self published author.  Obviously, these guys are going to have a bias as they work in this industry (or have been successful by this route) but what they said made a lot of sense.

I really like Gareth’s description of this being like selling your house:

1. Get an Estate Agent – yes it’s slightly easier than getting a literary agent but their job is to sell your house/book.  They don’t have to like it, it just has to be well presented and saleable.

2. Market it properly – be that rightmove or social media, it’s about getting your commodity out there on the market.  In the book world, that’s about creating a good sales package that you can do alongside what your agent is doing.

3. It’s all about the money – remember this is a commercial enterprise so whether selling a house or a book, it needs to make money.  Make your offering as good as possible, perhaps sell the first book online and then show you are a saleable entity – Agents aren’t about making the world a better place, they are all about ROI.

And then finally, you have to be an entrepreneur in all this.  You can’t be precious about what you are selling, you need to put together a professional package, be that social media or a good spokesperson for the media. Tim backed this up by saying publishers may often turn away a perfectly good book if the author isn’t PR friendly.

Polly added some useful thoughts on how she made it in this book world. I admired her gumption as she had the offer of a publisher but stuck to her guns to publish the book she wanted, not what they wanted.  And she’s carried on from there.

Another useful event for Phil and I, and has left us fired up to investigate the world of self publishing as it sounds like it’s no longer “vanity” publishing.  Put us on your Christmas book shopping list now!

And of course, there were tea and cakes with this event, something I think we should have at all of our signing events in the future.

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Grown-ups shouldn’t be beige

BeigePhil: My next door neighbours son has curtains printed with pictures of planets and stars. Great big ones in virulent colours. Walking by the house at night, if the light is on you can see this fabric solar system.

If you look at any of the curtains in the same street owned by adults, you won’t see any bold designs. Watch one of the property programmes that infest television (why are there so many?) and the first thing bellowed at prospective sellers is to paint the walls a “neutral” tone so the potential buyers can project their own ideas onto this blank canvas. Anyone who dares to indulge in colour is ridiculed back into line PDQ.

Sadly, as Candice has found, buyers arrive at the house completely lacking in any imagination. Bedrooms must contain a bed for example, or the person looking around is incapable of working out that the room upstairs is a bedroom. Put a desk in there and they will think it’s an office and wonder why there aren’t as many bedrooms as advertised but an office that isn’t. Therefore when they see the regulation beige walls, they don’t think “Oh, I could paint that a nice lilac colour” they thing “Oh, beige. Lovely.”

I hate sodding beige and not just ‘cos I live in a town painted in it.

It’s the same with clothes. Look at a station platform full of commuters and you’ll see a sea of black. Lots and lots of black coats. On the rare occasion you see someone who has dared to buck the trend and chose a colour, or heaven forfend a pattern and colour, for their coat, I want to run up and hug them. Obviously I don’t because I’m British and don’t want to be arrested.

When employed in an office, I wear a white shirt and black trousers. It’s easy as you don’t have to work out which clothes to wear in the morning. I do put on a tie though and I have a massive collection. Most are bright. Tasteful, not cartoons, but bright. Nice enough to wear to a proper meeting with important people but definitely not beige or grey. I used to have a reputation for them. It was the nearest I got to being “wild and wacky”.

As a child, my favorite T-shirt featured a big picture of two space ships fighting. It was some sort of horrid polyester material but I loved the big, colourful picture.

What’s all this got to do with writing?

Simple. When we are children our imaginations are allowed to run free. We haven’t learned not to be creative. As we age, all this spark is drained from us. The solar system curtains become nice plain ones to fit the decor. Our clothes monotone. We aspire to be beige.  I wish I’d never stopped writing stories – I know I wrote some and illustraited them when I was young. As you get older it becomes harder to re-learn the skill. When you get back in the grove, as we have recently re-plotting The Book, it’s wonderful.

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An unashamed plug for Stratford Literary Festival.

 Candice: Last year Phil and I went to the Stratford Literary Festival and enjoyed a talk from three recently published authors.  I work in Stratford upon avon so was pleased to see that my work has decided to get involved in this year’s festival. Why, because it means I might be able to blag some free tickets!  Seriously, its nice to be involved in something local and give them some support, the same reason I do my best to attend shows or plays that friends of mine are in as if we didnt all experiment in these things the world would be a boring place.

Anyway, work is sponsoring at talk by, and I quote, ‘Python, adventurer, travel writer and all round national treasure, Michael Palin‘.

COOL!  I love the Palin.  Even though he is old enough to be my Dad he has a certain something that isn’t exactly sexy but just makes you love him a little bit.  Girls, you understand.  Even more confusing that one should feel like this as he is often seen dressed as a woman or making a tit out of himself trying to dance like the locals.

Anyway, Michael is not the only one appearing at this month-long event, there are lots of other writers of all styles and other events all about things writing.  Phil and I will be doing our best to pop along to a few events and get some more insight into the hallowed world of writing and publishing.

As part of my conversations with our writing buddy Daisy Waugh I’ve mentioned the festival so I’m hoping she might be able to get involved.  If that’s the case we might get to meet her (not stalk her, promise) which would be extra cool.

If you want more information have a look at their site. http://www.stratfordliteraryfestival.co.uk/

Go one, branch out and give it a try.

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A chat with Daisy Waugh – Part Two

Daisy WaughPart 2 of our chat with Daisy Waugh. If you missed the first installment, where were you? OK, follow this link to it. Enjoy

How long did it take to write your books?

Some take longer than others. Last Dance With Valentino took many years. But that was partly because I wrote several chick novels in between, also had several babies. Also I was learning about a new period in history. Melting the Snow on Hester Street, also set in early 20th Century America took me a year to write.

What about the editing process, does this take longer than getting the first draft down? Does the story change much during this time or have you got it pretty much planned out before starting?

The editing process is by far the longest bit. Also the most enjoyable. The first draft is fast and  pretty agonising. I always have a skeleton structure but I have no idea if what I’m writing is drivel, and a lot of it  is- But I have to force myself to keep writing and not look back.  Otherwise I can – and have – spent months and months and MONTHS fiddling with the opening  scenes of a book. It doesn’t necessarily improve them. Once you have something on paper, the editing, cutting, honing and improving is a joy – at least I think so.

How do you feel about the current state of the publishing world and book’s in general, is there still a market for writing?  How about the reading format, do you prefer books or e-reader devices like Kindle?

There will always be market for good story telling! Look how the thriller market thrives.  I think the Richard and Judy book club does a great a service to non pretentious fiction writing, by promoting good, intelligent  well written novels which are a generally a pleasure to read.

I get a bit depressed watching people on the tube fiddling vacuously with their bloody smart phones – I WISH they were reading novels. Because I think people forget what a joy it is to be lost in a good novel. I also get frustrated by the weight we give to ‘literary’ fiction. Reading novels – intelligent and well written –  is meant to be a pleasure, not an exercise in self improvement.

Don’t like Kindles. Spend all day looking at a screen – and anyway I like the smell of books.

We’ve noticed that unlike a lot of writers, you don’t have a personal website and have only recently joined Twitter. Is this a deliberate move, or do you feel that all modern writers need an online presence?

Oh god – it’s just because I haven’t got around it … There are so many other things to do. Like writing the books! And painting my children’s bedrooms. But I must I must I must ….

You’ve got a couple of new books lined up, are you ever nervous about their reception? How does it feel to walk into Waterstones and see your work on the shelf?
Melting the Snow on Hester StreetMelting the Snow on Hester Street – historical fiction set in 1920s Hollywood.  Out March 28th — I am pretty confident about this book. The difficulty isn’t getting bad reviews, it’s getting any reviews at all. Novels – unless they’re written by the heavyweights – tend to get ignored by the book pages.  It’s very, very hard to raise awareness for a novel.

I Don't Know Why She Does ItI Don’t Know Why She Bothers (Guilt Free Motherhood for Thoroughly Modern Women) is out June 4th – This book is incredibly provocative and I think I’m going to get letter bombs as a result. Not looking forward to that at all. But there’s so much sentimental, repressive bullshit surrounding modern motherhood – and as a libertarian and a feminist –  there’s a lot of stuff, I think, which badly needs to be said.

And yes – it is wonderful to see the book for sale. Usually though, you wind up feeling neurotic because – either it’s displayed in the wrong place/or it’s impossible to find… etc etc. The best part is when you first get hold of a finished book. Am watching the post daily for first editions of Melting the Snow on Hester Street — due any time now

What are your writing plans for the future?
I have a novel to begin, which needs to be delivered by Christmas. It would be lovely just to concentrate on that …
Thanks Daisy – we both really appreciate you taking the time for us.  Nolan Parker

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