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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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Wondering about the war

Candice: I seem to have read a few books about World War II recently.  Not specifically by choice but its just the ones I have picked up.

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The first was given to me by my ex-boss as a Christmas present.  Its called ‘All the light we can not see’ and follows the story of two sides of the war.  One is Marie-Laure, a blind girl who is displaced, with her father, from Paris to the coast at the start of the war.  The other is Werner, an orphan living in Germany who has an uncanny ability with radios and mechanics.

The two stories run in parallel as Werner is spotted by the Nazis and taken off to a camp to be made into a perfect soldier, and Marie-Laure finds out why she and her father ran, as he has been entrusted with the safekeeping of a precious diamond from the Museum he works in.

The second is ‘Mr Rosenblum’s List’ and relates the story of Jack Rosenblum, German Jew who has traveled to the UK before the War and is desperately trying to find his place after the annihilation of most of his family and race at home, accompanied by the British nervousness around someone with a German accent.

In his pursuit of a perfect Britishness, Jack ups sticks from his London home and successful business and moves to Dorset to build a golf course, something that will make him an equal with his peers.

Two very different books you say, well yes, but undercut with the same dark story of the horrors of war.  The first does not shy away from representing the way that your take away someone’s humanity by drilling them everyday, and how this can create a world that would think concentration camps are a good idea.    Jack sees the other side as his wife particularly struggles to cope with the fact she will never see her family again, as they were unable to get visas.  How hard must have that decision been, who can leave and who can stay.

Neither were books I would normally read but I enjoyed them both, even with the dark subject matter.  Sometimes its good to step out of the comfort zone and read something other than the ‘sunlounger’ read.  And also, never to forget what happened in that war, so it never happens again.

 

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Spreading the word

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Candice: A few years ago Phil and I had the chance to speak at Stratford Literary Festival.  To be honest I can’t believe it was 2016!  Since then a lot of discussion has been had about marketing the book and getting the word out there, but let’s be honest we’ve not been that great at it.   It’s one of our biggest downfalls, we just enjoy the writing too much.  I have a plan for that – but that’s for another blog post.

But, we have found a new group to talk too.  Phil had spotted a newish cafe in Leamington Spa, The Temperance. and we’ve had a few successful meets there, as well as Phil attending an event a few weeks ago we has sent us off on another route.

So this Thursday we are off to talk Book to a group of fellow enthusiasts at a Storytelling event.  We have done this one other time before, down in London, and got a good response.  One of the things about Phil and I is that we write like we talk, so the quips in the book are also the way we present, which has been independently verified as funny!

However, I’m more off the cuff and Phil is more formal, so I’m sat in front of a script that Phil has written.  I have to say I hate scripts, I feel obliged to be word perfect which makes me more nervous than actually just riffing it.  I think we’ve had powerpoint slides and cue cards before.  So between the two of us this afternoon we are going to plan a talk that is funny and gets across why you should read the book, but set up in a way that we are both comfortable with.  Looking at previous posts that might be harder than you think!

So, if you fancy a night out and meeting Phil and I then we will be in The Temperance on the 21st February from 8pm. It’s free so come and enjoy some reading and good wine.

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Life’s too short for dull books

Phil: I’ve an admission to make. When I resolved to read more earlier this year, I also resolved to do something that would make that easier.

I resolved to give up on books I wasn’t enjoying.

Yes, I know. Every book is the result of hundreds, nay thousands of hours work by an author. They have done their best and part of me says I ought to stick at it and see every book I open through from start to finish.

But, that’s not me any more.

No. If I’m not enjoying a book, it’s heading for the charity pile. I read for pleasure, not because “it is good for me”. I can’t see the point in struggling through a book, especially a book of fiction, if I’m not drawn back to it when I find odd moments free during the day.

I console myself with the thought that not every book suits every reader. The photo shows The Waiter by Matias Faldbakken. Initially, I quite enjoyed the first person perspective of a finicky character happily serving in the same hotel for years. He loves routine and rules and the slightly old-fashioned feel of the place. Then a beautiful woman appears as a guest of one of the regular customers and he falls apart. At this point, I gave up. He would have seen attractive people before, so why was he instantly serving the wrong food to people and collecting unordered drinks?

Reading reviews on-line, it seems I’m not alone. Others love the book and good luck to them.

On the same basis, I’ve just given up on Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome. I tried, I really did. This is a classic and it would have been nice to have ticked that box. Sadly, I found it insufferable. To me, it’s a book you find funny because you are TOLD it is funny. Others will doubtless disagree.

As for Gulliver’s Travels – I can only assume it became popular because there was literally nothing else to read.

So, I will read what I enjoy. Does that make me a bad person?

 

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Get the facts right

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Candice: If you had been sat near Phil and I in Costa Coffee in Henley in Arden on Monday you might have wondered what was going on.  We’d had a disjointed meet up as it was – the first coffee house we’d gone to informed us that they were closing in an hour.  Ah, we thought, as I am on a drive to use local places, not chains, bang goes that idea.

So a quick cuppa in there and then down to the Costa, which was full of people with laptops (or having loud conversations with HMRC which is another story).  After an hour of writing, plus some coffee and cookie-fueled help, we passed our laptops over to see what each other had written.

I’d been focusing on the earlier story in the book.  My job recently has been to go back and check on what we have written: facts, continuity, stuff like that.  Phil has been very focused on one pivotal scene mid-book which pushes us towards the big finish.

Having read Phil’s scene there was one thing I wasn’t sure about. Would it actually happen like that?  I quizzed him.  He explained his thoughts.  But I still sat there going – ‘so what?’.

I know this is fiction but I don’t want something to be so glaring that it makes someone step out of the book and then lose their ability to suspend disbelief.  Saoirse Ronan had done that for me the other week as she chatted on Graham Norton about ‘Mary – Queen of Scots’.  A scene in the film shows Mary and Queen Elizabeth meeting – something that didn’t happen in real life.  I assume the writer wanted to bring out things that had been conveyed in their letters and this was the easiest way to do it on film.  However, when I watched the film yesterday I sat there at that point in the film thinking to myself  ‘this didn’t happen.’  It ruined to ending of a good film for me.

So for ten minutes, I pushed him on his logic, asking why the characters were doing what they were doing.  The man behind us in his business suit was doing his level best to pretend he was concentrating on his laptop but when we mentioned Councillor I’m sure he twitched.

We got there in the end, but I’m sure Phil wondered why I’d got such a bee in my bonnet. Well, its got to make sense.  Else its just going to annoy me and the readers – that’s why.

Phil: This story illustrates why we can write as a team so well.

I tend to let the story flow when writing the first draft, but having presented the words to my mate and been quizzed about the direction I was taking, we beat the idea about a bit. Eventually, I managed to work out where the story should be going in reasonable detail.

Having a sounding board is really useful and we’re pretty good at fulfilling this role for each other. It helps that we can both take a bit of criticism without flouncing off in a huff. It certainly saves time because we don’t need the re-writes you have to go through when working on your own when realising bits of the story don’t hang together.

 

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Merry Christmas!

Yes, it’s time for the annual bauble photo with us looking sort of festive. Now go an buy our first book – and the second one! Please! They are more fun than Brussel sprouts!

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Conversion to TV

Phil: A couple of years ago (doesn’t time fly), Candice reviewed a book I’d passed on to her – The Christmas Train by David Baldacci. It’s a heartwarming tale set on a cross-country train in the USA. We both enjoyed it.

I hadn’t twigged that the book has been turned into a movie. But it has. So I watched it.

The first thing to realise is that the studio responsible for this is Hallmark. The people who make the greetings cards. As such, you won’t be surprised that the result is a gritty expose of life for struggling railroad workers forced to give up the festive season with their families to mend track.

No, of course it isn’t.

This is comfort TV. You don’t watch it, you wallow as though in a nice, warm bath.

The first change is that our journalist hero is taking the train as a promise to his father, and not because he’d been banned from flying for an air rage incident. This isn’t essential to the story, although anyone trying the book, or reading the excerpt on the Hallmark website, might be surprised to find this out.

A few characters have vanished, but more due to the pressure of time than anything else. Max Powers has an assistant in the book, but not the film. I didn’t miss him.

Perhaps the biggest change is the removal of the jeopardy when Tom and Elenor head out into the snow when the train gets stuck. The book really places them in danger and provides a pivot for their love story. In the film, they get a bit lost, then find a remote ranch and return to the train in a horse-drawn sledge. This apparently causes all the snow to melt or at least it’s pretty much gone in the next scene.

The movie doesn’t need to place them in jeopardy to make the characters realise their true feelings because it’s signposted from the start that they will fall in love again. There’s a bit of bickering, but almost every other character says, “Get back together you pair of muppets” (I paraphrase, but you get the gist).

Don’t get me wrong, the book is unlike all other Baldacci output in that’s a heart-warming tale from the off. You know what’s going to happen. No-one dies.

The film takes this and adds shmaltz. At one point the bartender offers a hot chocolate and asks “One candy cane or two?”. I’m thinking “Sugarcanes in hot chocolate? Noooo. You’d be bouncing off the walls!” but it’s a perfect allegory for the work whoever turned the book into screenplay had to do.

Despite this, it’s not a terrible film You need to be in the mood for it in the same way you need to be in the mood to consume endless Christmas food, but then that’s what the festive season is all about, isn’t it?  I do wonder what the author made of it though.

 

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