Tag Archives: characters

Boozing our way through the difficult third novel

Phil: Book 3 is proving tricky. We need our main character to go through a significant change during the story and it’s all going to be quite emotional.  To this end, we’ve not involved her much in the comedy strand, which has progressed quite nicely without her.

The trouble with this is, that we now need to work out her path through the book, and try not to make it either miserable, or unrealistic. There will be no lightbulb moments that aren’t the result of a bit of personal growth. Readers are not to think, “where did that come from?” when Big Moments happen.

So, we meet up in Ikea’s cafe. Not our normal place of “work” but someone needed storage boxes, and it’s not a long way out for me. In fact, on the way I managed to find an interesting shop and was involved in a chat about 3D printers when the “I’m in the cafe” text arrived instructing me to attend.

I had had the foresight to arrive by bus and so when choosing lunchtime supplies, realised that a little alcohol to grease the creative brain cells wasn’t out of the question. To whit, I grabbed a can of Cider Apple and some meatball based food. 0.1% ABV – no slouch me, a couple of these and I’d be outside shouting at pigeons!

After a bit of chat, we felt that it was time to move on. Most of Coventry had decided to bring their children in for the day to add a flourish to the end of the school holidays. That meant the normally tranquil restaurant was transformed into a scene of mayhem, not conducive to producing great works of literature.

Next stop – a pub. We do good work in pubs, but of course, you must have a drink.

My first thought had been tea, but when Miss Prim and Proper ordered lemonade, I changed my order to a shandy.

And it worked. We both feel this book is hard going. There are loads of scenes written, but the love story, apparently so easy on initial inspection, has turned out to be more complicated than we thought.

After an hour or so of debate and pondering, we are pretty certain we’ve nailed it. Some of the work we’ve done needs to be moved in the timeline, a few bits go in the bin. No matter, the plotlines are basically mapped out and they seem to make sense. Candice has written the bare bones of a pivotal scene and sent it to me for added comedy and fiddling.

We are on our way! Now, where did that traffic cone come from?

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Throwing a spanner in the works

 

Phil: I know I am a writer, because sometimes I get an idea in my head and it bounces around my tiny brain until I’ve written it down. It’s almost like I’m pouring the words out of my ear.

Last week, we met up for a planning session, Candice produced a timeline in different colours to help our thinking and in my mind, our discussions had started an idea forming.

My work is a bit stupid busy sometimes, but I have managed to find a semi-regular writing slot late on a Thursday evening, so I sat at my laptop and started typing. A couple of hours later, the scene was complete and unexpectedly, had turned out to be rather more pivotal to the overall story than I’d expected. I tend to just write and let the plot flow. Editing is for later, first, the words have to head to the other half of the team for approval.

It’s a slightly nervous wait for each of us as the other is reading. We both want a “Well done” but are happy to take criticism – from each other at least. I was confident though, this was good stuff.

The response, “Hum. You’ve thrown a spanner in my works.”

Oh.

“But I like this and it’s not in the timeline.”

I scramble to find the timeline and look through. When I came up with the idea, I thought I knew where it fitted.  Sadly, it didn’t quite slot in as I’d hoped, a bit like an annoying jigsaw piece that you are sure should go in one of the remaining holes, but stubbornly won’t go in no matter how hard you push.

Never mind, I’m not precious about it. I just needed to stop the idea bouncing off the insides of my head. We exchanged a few more e-mails looking at the plan and finally, I opened one to read,

“Hang on I think I’ve got it…”

Result! With a little bit of re-working, this idea does move the story forward. It isn’t going to slot in quite where I thought it would, but like the jigsaw, if you attach it to the big pile of pieces already assembled, it helps complete the picture.

I’m pleased with the result, after a bit of worry, my new words are an excellent fit for a major turning point 2/3rds of the way through the book. They galvanize our heroine and stir her into action. An action that will culminate in the love story reaching the place we planned it to be by the end of the book and blasting through a couple of major impediments along the way (can you tell how hard I’m trying to avoid spoilers?).

Writing as a team isn’t always plain sailing, but working this way brings a dynamic to the early stages I don’t think you find plodding away on your own. Knowing that someone else who cares about the book as much as I do is about the comment keeps me on my toes!

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Yin and Yang

Image result for post it notes on a tableCandice: Phil wanted me to write about our trip to the Writing West Midlands event, which I will do, but actually I thought it would be good to comment on our meet to discuss Book 3 on Friday.

People always ask us how we write as a partnership, who does what, and how it works.  To be honest, it’s like being in a working relationship with anyone, some are better at some bits than others.  I’m more ‘task’ focused and Phil can be more ideas.  We are each others ‘Yin’ and ‘Yang’. I can be as creative as you like when the need takes me but I had limited time on Friday for discussions so wanted to get our timeline sorted.  Why was the timeline so important?  Well, we had reached that point, 35k words in, that we’d written lots of sections that tailed off at the end because we kept asking the question ‘what happens next?’.

Everything, whether book or work project has a beginning, middle and end.  There are probably ups and downs before you get there but without knowing your end goal then you won’t be able to achieve it through these bumps.  Writing is the same, if you don’t know where your characters end up, all the lovely set pieces and plotting come to squat as you end up writing something that doesn’t make sense.

Part of the other problem with Phil and I is we like a chat.  He talked about his holiday, I talked about mine and the next thing we knew an hour was gone.  Then he starting firing storyline ideas at me.  I had to put my hand up and say ‘STOP’.  The ideas might all be great but we need the timeline.

The other thing you need to make sure you can deliver on your project is the right tools.  I hadn’t ga ot pen or paper so off I walked to WHSmiths and bought post-it notes and coloured pens and then we were ready.

The first job was to write out what we’d already written and put it in the correct order (as in the book it’s not linear).  And then work out the gaps.  Time was ticking and it became like a game of ‘Countdown’ – we’ve got two minutes how do we solve it.

In the end, we only built the comedy storyline, the love one still needs work, but that means that a few more thousand words can be written; and a few other ideas were bounced around.

Tea drunk and off home I went, feeling satisfied with our activity.  Now I just need the time to write 🙂

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Discover your characters with Instagram

Phil: Why was I in London last weekend looking at posh products in St Pancras station?

It’s all down to Candice’s latest marketing wheeze. We’ve set up an Instagram account for our main character, Kate Smith.

On her account, Kate posts pictures of things she sees and likes. Along the way, she comments on the photos, mostly about how much easier life is without children, but there’s also been musing on Jane Fonda and the being able to enjoy chocolate cake after working out.

All this is great fun to do and it’s made me really get inside her head, especially for me as Candice is normally firmly in charge of Kate on the page!

On my trip to London (not just for this, I just had time to kill), I found myself walking around in Kate’s shoes (not literally, I don’t think I could manage high heels) looking at the goodies on offer in the posh shops section of the Eurostar station undercroft. I snapped away with my phone, sending the results to Candice to post on Instagram over time. She will add comments and hashtags to each before it goes up on the site. Or just deleting the picture if I get it wrong.

Hopefully, later in the week, we’ll be meeting up to write and chat and I’ll receive further instruction in “Kate thinking” – it’s all very educational and helps to give Kate an added dimension, at least in my mind. I suppose this is a little like “method acting” where you immerse yourself in a character. It’s certainly not the sort of thing I thought we’d be doing when we started writing our books, but then why not have some fun along the way?

Kate Smith on Instagram (katebooks)

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Taking the train through Pauline Hazelwood’s writing

Phil: I’ve met Pauline Hazelwood a few times at model railway exhibitions with her Saddletank Books stand. She has written and illustrated a series of children’s books using steam locomotives as the main characters, with historically accurate stories. Readers not only enjoy both the words and pictures, along the way they learn a bit too.

Having badgered her to agree to an interview, we’ll be running this over two weeks. Part One covers writing and storytelling. Part Two, promoting yourself as an independent author and actually selling copies.

Your books feature wonderful illustrations as well as a story. Do you write the book first and then produce the illustrations or do they evolve side-by-side?

I’m an artist foremost. I usually create the stories at the beginning in sketch books. I work round the images in my head. They inspire the words. I see everything in pictures and I love drawing people. I sketch a lot, especially when I’m travelling. I have lots of sketch books full of drawings, little studies in watercolours too. They build up a library in my head so that when I go to sketch a scene, it’s there.

Quite a few of the pages come from events that have happened around me, they get mixed into the story line of the engine. Or I get inspired by something, for example the scene from the auction in the second book, is very loosely based on the painting by Norman Rockwell’s.’ Freedom of speech‘, it was such fun to use as a basis because it was the right period and really had all the elements in my mind , to go with the story. Norman Rockwell used the ‘Thinker ‘ sculpture for one of his pictures of an American football player.

Each book is historically accurate. How much research does this entail to find a suitable story?

The choice of each engine story has just naturally evolved as I’ve visited different railways and met owners of engines and railway enthusiasts. There are fantastic engines everywhere, and so much history that I want people to know about. I enjoy the research. I love finding out little incidental things about the people and time, to humanise the whole thing and make it more than a mechanical engineering history. The enthusiasts often have loads of information to pass on and will disregard some elements but if I ask lots of questions I can usually find a lot of things that interest me and hopefully interest the reader. I might have a theme in mind of friendship or including animals or showing how hard the work was , whatever it is, I dig around till I find enough to support the theme or end up finding another exciting path to follow.

How long does it take to write/draw each book?

There isn’t a fixed time. it depends on what other work is on and how busy I am in life generally ( as I run some art classes and paint in oils and watercolours which  I love. I also do painting demos for art societies. )… sometimes I mull over things for quite a while, rehashing the text. I sketch out a vague outline, and carry it around with me all the time and sketch and write bits in cafes, or wherever. Sometimes it flows and is really quick.and at other times, odd ideas and suggestions from other people add to the whole thing too.

The illustrations appear hand drawn. Most writers just use a laptop, but I’m thinking that your “tools” are rather more varied.

My illustrations are very much hand drawn, I start with soft pencil drawings, slightly larger than the finished book. I create a detailed pencil drawing of every page and solve every problem before tracing it onto watercolour paper. The pencil stage is the most creative bit and the pencil drawings to me often seem nicer and more expressive. I’ll make prints of some of them, some time, to sell.  I then do pen and wash paintings of the whole book which then doesn’t take that long. I’m quite particular about which pens, paper and paint I like to use. Teaching watercolour helps a lot. I know my materials well and even though they are cartoons, I’m using the same ideas that I teach in general watercolour work. With a children’s book I have to put as much of the information into the pictures, not the words, which suits me..

The elephant in the room for books about steam engines with faces has to be Thomas the Tank engine. How do your books differ from the Rev Awdry’s?

Awdry’s books were irrelevant for me. My three sons never liked the books but they did watch the videos and loved playing with the toys along with other toy trains. His books were written in a very different way, based on the Isle of Sodor and the facts that were used, were put into a different context. I absolutely love Edward Ardizones’ illustrations, whimsical pen and wash. He illustrated the Graeme Green book about an engine and Colin McNaughton books and style of illustration, I loved reading to my sons. We used to get loads of books from the libraries and buy quite a few too, always full of illustrations and I loved the fantastic writing in some of them, that appealed to adults as well as children. You could tell that the writer had thoroughly enjoyed writing them . And I enjoyed putting on silly voices too, big time, so I had to include those in the books.  I also love alliteration and the sound of certain words. I have favourite letters and I like long words too. I have to stick to the facts at the end of the day though so this provides a nice  framework for me.

Any hints for people aspiring to write children’s books?

After I started doing these books I remembered that when I was a child, I used to tell my older sister bed time stories that I made up each night as we lay in our twin beds.  I wrote quite a few little story books for fun for myself. I lived in a daydreamy fantasy world as a child and when I played with the chess set, I gave each piece a character and voice. If you want to write a children’s book, you probably are already writing, you just haven’t found the right subject or idea to share with the world so far.  I don’t know whether writing a children’s book is something I aspire to do. I wanted to share some amazing things that I had discovered.  I feel as if I’m uncovering a whole load of stuff that is kept hidden because it’s tucked away in boring manuals and boring history books, but if you tell it through pictures, people like me, that are too busy or lazy to read those books, will find out about it.

You can find visit Pauline’s Saddltank Books website here.

I reviewed Polar Bear and Sealion here.

Next week, we look at marketing books and getting out to meet the readers.

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The Lubetkin Legacy – Two Stories. One book.

Phil: You don’t read many books where a block of flats is a central character, but in The Lubetkin Legacy by Marina Lewycka, the building plays a central role in the plot.

Story 1 – Lily Lukashenko dies and her dying words to son Bertie are “Don’t let them get the flat.” He has been living with her since the breakup of his marriage, unable on his actor’s salary, to afford anything else. To be fair, his acting work seems to be mostly “resting” and grumbling about the success of George Clooney. To be fair, George probably can’t quote Shakespeare as well as Berthold, but that’s as good as it gets.

In an effort to avoid eviction, he moves the lady from the next door hospital bed in to impersonate Lily with modestly comic effect, especially if you consider the names of Eastern European meals to be amusing.

Along the way, there is much rage about the problems faced by people relying on the state for an income. Officialdom comes calling many times, although one particular functionary eventually lifts Bertie out of his gloom.

Story 2 – Violet is a young Kenyan-born woman who gets a job in the city working in “wealth preservation”. This turns out to be tax avoidance and plundering African countries funds by overcharging the health services for basic supplies. She quickly grows a conscience and decides that the dream job really isn’t.

The two characters are neighbours and interact sporadically. There is a plot involving building plans that involve grubbing up a patch of cherry trees to be replaced with executive flats.

If I’m honest, Bertie ends up OK, but pretty much nothing else nice happens in the end. Violet is back in Kenya working for an NGO, but her efforts to expose dodgy dealings don’t go well. The trees get cut down. One character dies due to lack of money. If this is what The Times considers “A joy to read”, then I can only assume the reviewer likes seeing poor people get a kicking. Even those officials who went into public service are worn down and cynical. Everyone assumes that bad things are just going to happen and you might as well accept it.

One of the central plot strands, that Lily had an affair with the architect Lubetkin who designed the flats and left her a tenancy, is never tied up. Bertie finds a plan under the sofa but that’s it.

I’d planned for this review to be a bit more upbeat, but after a couple of days mulling the book over since finishing it, I’m just becoming more miserable about the story. I think that’s partly the point. Lewycka has written several other books including the well known A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian and I suspect that these are also full of downtrodden people. You certainly feel for the characters (OK, I certainly do, maybe the Times doesn’t) and the lives they are trapped in.

The contrast between people working in “wealth preservation” and those at the bottom of the pile constantly being ripped off is pretty powerful. Very much a serious message wrapped in pretty paper.

 

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Lessons from Ken Dodd

Image from RuddyMuddy on Twitter

Phil: I can’t claim to have been one of the late Sir Ken Dodd’s showbiz friends, but I did meet him a couple of times while working at a local theatre.

Once, while minding the stage door at some time past midnight, he came off stage and pointed at my shoes.

“Crikey”, he said, “Those are fine feet, are you a policeman?”

I replied that I wasn’t to which he added, “Well, you know what they say about blokes with big feet…” and then swept off to his dressing room with a chuckle.

The amazing thing about Ken (never Mr Dodd) was that he’d arrive at the venue looking every bit of his 80 years. A small, quiet old man.

Yet the moment he got on stage, he came alive. The Ken in my anecdote was buzzing, almost as though there was electricity flying off him. This was after a 6-hour show too.

So, lesson 1 – If you are doing something you really love, you’ll never feel better or more alive.

In all the tributes, it’s been said by many people who you never knew when a Ken Dodd show would finish. The rumour was that every night management would have to haul him off the stage so the staff could go home.

This is a good story, but not strictly accurate.  Yes, the performances would go on a long while. No other act gave a longer show, but the staff knew when he would finish. Usually 1am on the first night, 12:30 on the second. Hidden from the audience in the wings was a clock which Ken kept an eye on.

Lesson 2 – If you want to be good at something, you need a professional attitude.

Ken didn’t just hang around telling jokes until he got bored. He honed his act through the study of comedy. Learning to play an audience, he only kept the jokes that got a laugh. Yes, material stayed in the act for many, many years – but only if the audience enjoyed it. In many ways, this is just like editing a novel. You take out anything that doesn’t add to the reader’s enjoyment. After a while, you are left with pure gold.

Legend is an over-used term, but it’s appropriate here. There will never be another Doddy, but if you aspire to his status, you better put the work in like he did.

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