Tag Archives: Books

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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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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Having the faith to put yourself in the book

Phil: Last week, I wrote that I felt the need for a nice, readable story and thanks to my local library had picked up A Brush With Death by Ali Carter.

I’m pleased to say it ticked the boxes perfectly. A pleasant read with a reasonably easy to follow plot that fitted my day. Doing a little digging, apparently this fits into the “Cozy Crime” genre. Think Miss Marple with a little less bite.

The plot is simple enough, Lord of the Manor dies, the police decide it’s murder and artist Susie Mahl solves the crime. I guessed whodunit pretty early in the book, but this didn’t spoil things – in fact I wanted to see if I was right. I was, although the method I had settled on wasn’t quite correct.

There are a couple of areas where the book stands out.

First, we learn a great deal about the English upper classes. If I ever find myself called to stay for the weekend at a great country house, I will have a better understanding of the protocol thanks to this book. We learn that all houses tend to run to a timetable, and once you know this, you can plan your trips snooping around. Stick to the rules, including not marrying anyone beneath your station, and everyone will get along swimmingly.

My main fascination was with the lead character, Susie Mahl, herself. She’s an artist who has found painting dog portraits to be a lucrative job. Handily, it sees her invited to many country seats for the weekend, you need to get to know the pooch to render them in paint. Apparently, this pays enough to buy a house in Sussex and a lot of very expensive luxury underwear. This detail is covered repeatedly.

Why? Because art follows life. It turns out that Ali Carter paints pet portraits and likes luxury underwear.

The most unusual aspect of Susie though is that she is a fairly strict catholic. At one point she goes to mass and also hints at disproval of divorce. Religion plays very little part in British novels, in fact I can’t think of a character who has expressed any interest in this direction. OK, we have Bother Cadfael and Father Brown, but they are monk and priest respectivly – it’s a massive part of their character. What I mean is we rarely see religion being part of a “normal” person’s life in this way.

It’s odd that this should leap out at me. In America and many other parts of the world, religion is a massive part of many people’s lives. You very much wear it on your sleeve. Politically, following the right flavour of God can be more important in the decisions a voter makes than a candidates policies or behaviour. Despite this, I don’t reacall many modern day American novels showing the impact of belief on their character.

My guess is that this is another area where author and character cross over. The interview I linked to above mentions a post-accident pilgrimage, but never explicitly mentions this being a religious one. That’s simply not how we do stuff in Britian. The Church of England is as inoffensive as possible and rarely do we have the zealots found in other branches of faith.

Ultimatly, “Write what you know” is an oft trotted out maxim, and one Ali Carter appears to have taken to heart, with interesting results. Susie Mahl is a stand-out character and will easily carry the three-novel deal Ms Carter has landed. She’d probably make a good TV drama too, something for the Sunday evening wind-down slot on BBC 1. However, I wonder if her faith will make the transition to the screen?

 

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Tackling the reading pile – library to the rescue!

The book pile

Phil: My slightly unconventional job often leaves me feeling I’m keeping lots of plates spinning at once. Sometimes this is energising, sometimes I need to get my head somewhere else for a little break. Reading a book is great for this, but it has to be the right book.

My reading pile is growing, but nothing grabs me as the perfect candidate. Watling Street, The Seabird’s Cry and Prisoners of Geography have all come my way via my family and I’m assured they are excellent reads. From the enthusiastic descriptions and a quick look at the blub on the back of the cover, I think this is probably right. The only trouble is, they are fact-filled books. Don’t get me wrong, I love learning stuff and if it’s well written, I’m a happy man, but, pummelling my brain with new knowledge isn’t what I needright now.

Candice passed me The 50:50 killer. The cover design tells me it’s not chick-lit, something confirmed by the synopsis on the jacket.  It’s one of those gruesome Police procedurals that she loves. Hopefully, it’s not one of the really gruesome ones. I suspect she thinks I’m a little bit of a wuss as I avoid those. After the last one I decided we should only meet in public places…

Anyway, there’s nothing on the pile that will do the job, so while strolling back from the Post Office yesterday, I dropped into our local library and grabbed something random from the new books shelf. A Brush with Death looks like a light whodunnit without a hint of blood or gore. The main character is a typically English amateur detective who paints for a living. Pets mostly, so we are on safe ground I think.

Reading the first few chapters, I’m safe enough. It won’t be groundbreaking but I get to disappear into another world for a few minutes, which is exactly what I need.

All this relates to our continuing literary efforts. We have firmly pitched the Kate vs series as pleasant reads. There’s a little bit of bite, but both books, and the third instalment due next year, will work well on a sun lounger beside a pool. Candice will be happy to demonstrate if required!

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To the moon! (and back again)

Phil: I was reminded that a review of Andrew Smith’s book Moon Dust was overdue while sitting in a nearly empty cinema (10am showings are great if you want it quiet) waiting First Man* to begin. The thought almost persuaded me not to open my cinema treat packet of Maltesers.

The book charts Smith’s efforts to track down and talk to every man who has walked on the moon and see how the experience affected them.

We’re only talking about 9 people, 3 have already passed on, but the quest takes the author all over the world. I was fascinated by this – how did he fund his travels? I get the feeling that it was a side project to other work, but still…

Walking on another planet is, let’s face it, the most exciting and impressive thing anyone can ever do. There are many years of build-up, some terror as you sit on top of a bomb that will fire you into space and a huge job list from NASA once you arrive. All the time knowing that every single component in your equipment has been chosen because the person building it tendered the lowest price. You rely on a machine so complex that even if the  agency achieves it’s 99.9% success rate, several hundred parts will fail. There’s no intergalactic RAC to come and rescue you either!

Once you’ve splashed down, been hauled out of the sea and returned home, what do you do next?

The astronauts’ answers to this are fascinating. Some stay in the system fighting to get man back out into space and back to the moon or even Mars.

Others drop out and start painting as a way to try to make sense of the experience they have been through. Alan Bean cleverly includes dust from his space suit badge in his paints so everyone buying a picture owns a little bit of the moon. This doesn’t appear to be a cynical marketing ploy, more a way to convey the experience.

Along the way, there are insights into the world of the Apollo programme. Astronauts weren’t that well paid. They didn’t receive media training, even though they would become some of the most famous people on the planet. Wives were expected to be part of the show, but not get in the way. Space bases aren’t situated in bustling towns and Cape Canaveral was basically a swamp when they all first moved there.

This is a portrait of a very different world from the one today. It’s all history and not even recent history. Apollo was a bubble of optimism where the US, while bogged down in the Vietnam war, offered a chunk of the future. Kids who had grown up on science fiction thought they were seeing the first days of something great, little realising that a couple of missions in, the public would be so bored of the whole thing that the TV networks couldn’t be bothered to show landing live.

An enjoyable read, it probably helps if you are a little bit geeky and love space things as the author experiences the wide-eyed wonder of meeting his heroes. Some turn out to have feet of clay, but most are still clad in moondust.

*Review: Armstong is taciturn.

 

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Flogging books

Phil: You’d think with 15 best-selling novels under your belt, when your next book appears on the shelves, you’d be able to sit back and take a bit of a break. After all, success breeds success, doesn’t it? 3 million readers will be waiting for something new and will run out to snap up a copy.

It seems not, or at least if you follow Adelle Parks Twitter or Instagram accounts it doesn’t.

The arrival of I Invited Her In has seen a rush of promotional activity. There are appearances at shops up and down the country for a start, with an awful lot of book signing. Several radio interviews in a day last week, a blog tour, an interview for Hello and even a short story in a Sunday supplement magazine. In addition, there are poster campaigns at railway stations.

It all goes to show just how much marketing work is required to flog books. Considering this is from a well-known author with an established track record it makes me wonder if this is a chicken and egg situation. Finding a budget to promote a successful author is easy as the bean counters are confident of a return. This is a crowded market and resources need to be targeted carefully.

It makes you realise just how much extra effort it takes to launch new authors. If no-one has heard of you, how do you change that? It’s not like radio stations are queuing up to chat with new writers, selling a chat with someone the audience have heard of is far less likely to lead to anyone switching off. Social media matters and for that, you have to rely on having a marketable writer who can promote themselves. Mind you, since the main requirements are an imagination, it’s probably an area where an author has the advantage!

And if from this you think I’m a bit jealous – too right. Running around the country plugging our books? Team NolanParker would be well up for that. But then having legions of fans telling you how wonderful your latest story is, is all part of the writing dream. We’re not the sort of shrinking violets who just want to hand down our work from an ivory tower!

Still, having a goal makes us want to work harder. Now, I better go and write some more for book 3…

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