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Hello!  Thanks for stopping by!  Fiction Can Be Fun is a writing project run by David (@breakerofthings) and Debs (@debsdespatches).   We each post a piece of fiction every month, run a writing prompt once a month and are the originators of #secondthoughts. #secondthoughts are reflections on writing, responses to writing and…well, take a look and you’ll see!

If you’d like to find out more/get involved, please do take a look at the ‘About’ page.

 

Our regular schedule

1st Sunday : #FF Prompt – submission deadline the Friday following @ 2 pm GMT
(or use our #TortoiseFlashFiction page if the deadline is too tight)

2nd Sunday : An original Short story from David or Debs

3rd Sunday : A #SecondThoughts piece from David or Debs
(except for those occasions when we’ve been able to persuade a guest to write one for us!)

4th Sunday : Another Short Story from David or Debs

5th Sunday : on the occasion when these occur, we’ll provide details as early as possible (but typically we’d hope to host a guest post, so do get in touch if you could be interested!)

#secondthoughts: an argument for adverbs

I’ve been thinking a lot about the process of writing recently, about the advice given by writers, to writers, and ultimately editing.  Writing and, primarily but not exclusively, the editing phase, is a lot like sculpture: it’s about starting with a block of an idea, of some collection of words, and removing all the extraneous words until you can’t remove anything else without fundamentally moving away from what you want to say.  This isn’t an original description, but is one that I have used with my day-job students, because this works with factual writing as well as fiction.

One of the things that I tend to focus on when editing my students’ work – scientific issues/intellectual agenda aside – is that of ensuring that we don’t repeat ourselves.  That can be quite tricky to deal with sometimes, because you need to link back to things that you said earlier, but in a way that doesn’t just repeat what you said the first time.

Different people have a different focus.  One piece of advice that a lot of people seem to like is to strip out all the adverbs – Hemmingway App (which I like a lot, but disagree with everytime I use it) allows you a ration of so many adverbs per chunk of text.

Adverb:  a word belonging to one of the major form classes in any of numerous languages, typically serving as a modifier of a verb, an adjective, another adverb, a preposition, a phrase, a clause, or a sentence, expressing some relation of manner or quality, place, time, degree, number, cause, opposition, affirmation, or denial, and in English also serving to connect and to express comment on clause content.

– Merriam-Webster Dictionary

When it comes to editing, adverbs are an easy target: ‘using an adverb to modify a verb just means that you didn’t use a strong enough verb in the first place’.  Whilst that is sometimes true, this is something that does need some thought when it is applied – removing all the adverbs can limit your palette significantly.  Who am I to go toe-to-toe with the likes of Ernest Hemingway and Stephen King on this subject?  I’m certainly not suggesting that they don’t know their craft.  Recently though, I’ve seen a few descriptions of editing out adverbs which have given me pause.  The English language is full of all sorts of foibles that can be difficult to describe, let alone teach, but words tend to carry gradations of ‘weight’ and meaning.

One example I’ve seen suggests that “walked slowly” is bad and could/should(!) be replaced by “crept” or “tip-toed”. I don’t know about you, but I rarely tip-toe, even – perhaps especially – when I’m walking slowly.  The nice thing about walking slowly is that it can be used in a range of contexts, whereas crept, for me, should be reserved for spies and school boys on their way to class.

So next time you’re editing, do ask yourself whether you should really be using that adverb or not, but don’t automatically reach for the delete key either:  English is a varied language, and all the more beautiful for it.

*****

If you are interested, Hemmingway App, pegged this as Grade 12, and thought that I should have only used 3 adverbs.  I used 14.  To be fair, it is tricky to write a piece about adverbs and not use any.  It also thought I should change ‘exclusively’ to ‘only’ and ‘modify’ to ‘change’.  You can see why writers get cross with editors, from time to time.


© 2018, David Jesson

The Raspberry Sousaphone

Squeak was bored. All the signs of restlessness were there: the shuffling bottom, the flollaping, the taking off of shoes… I freely admit that the majority of my attention was elsewhere, but it is difficult to explain to a three year old that you can’t focus solely on them. It was a cold day, but a warm room, and I’d rolled my sleeves up. I became aware of a certain dampness in the wrist region. Squeak was licking me. Ew. Before I could say anything, he started blowing raspberries up and down my arm. He was actually quite musical – clearly the lessons were playing off. And he’d obviously been paying attention to me: he managed to capture my favourite hum, the Liberty Bell, quite well for such a limited instrument.


© David Jesson, 2018

#FF: Colony

“As per the agreement, our colony will be mining beryllium only. Any secondary products will be turned over to your people – with a small fee for the processing of course.”

Beryllium’s quite rare, in the Universe as a whole.   In some ways it turns out that Earth-like planets are probably less rare than beryllium.  This one was pretty typical.  When the terraformers were finished, it would almost be a carbon copy, except that the continents would look funny compared to home.  We could afford to lose the 400,000 tonnes of beryllium that the X’ would mine.  It was an excellent deal.  The X’ were past masters of extracting minerals.  They could probably extract the beryllium without digging anything else up if they really wanted to, and it was only the beryllium they really wanted.

Nobody really knew what they did with all the beryllium they collected – ate it for all we knew about them.  There were some who said we shouldn’t let them have it, particularly if they were that desperate for it; others said we didn’t need it, so why shouldn’t we capitalise on the fact that someone else wanted something that would potentially be a bit of pain for us to sort out.   Berullium used to get used for all sorts of things, mainly as an alloying addition, or in on of its mineral forms such as the semi-precious beryl.  It got used in missiles, super-duper special air-frames, X-ray equipment and all sorts of other things but, with the exception of beryl, we’d found better ways than using an element that was a pig to extract and a pain in the…in the…neck to process, let alone recycle at end-of-life.   No, we were better off without it.

Without a doubt, the X’ would make back the fees that they paid for the right to set up this mining colony.  We’d probably get offered more than we really wanted in purified elements, but the X’ seemed to produce everything at six-9s purity and whatever they produced, we’d end up using or we could sell it at a premium on the galactic market.  For example, another element that isn’t used very much anymore – by humans at least – is gold.  24 karat gold was a touchstone for a long time, but even this was only three-9s pure.  To go from 99.9% to 99.9999% pure takes so much effort that nobody bothers very much.  But the X’ can turn out that without blinking.  So, they’ll charge a “processing fee” and we’ll get the materials that are going to help us turn this world into a home.

And that’s where I come in.  The X’ are pretty tame as far as aliens go: they’re basically humanoid, sensory appendages aren’t too wacky, no tractomorphic limbs, but the semi-prehensile ears are slightly disconcerting.  It would be a mistake to assume that they are human though; it would be a mistake to ascribe human priorities to their thought processes.  I like to think that we’d have included this in the contract anyway, but they always insist that we provide a team of inspectors.  What they don’t specify, but which we learned to be a priority after the first time, was that you need to have a few X’ specialist xenologists on the team.   They really don’t think the way that we do – or perhaps that should be the other way around: we don’t think like them.

There were a couple of points during my university years when I wondered if I’d made the right choices, whether I’d studied myself into a dead-end.  The X’ were something of curiosity.  On the face of it, we had lots in common, but they never seemed to want to talk to us.  Then we started to colonise planets which were rich in beryllium, as rich as any planets could be, and that’s when real first contact, or perhaps I should say first negotiations began.

Which is why I find myself here today.  If you were to ascribe a human drive to today’s visit, you’d say that they wanted to show off, that’s the only possible explanation for this demonstration of their engineering prowess, their elegant architecture, their overall better-than-human colony, right?  And this is why I’m here.  There’s a small group of us who can at least make an attempt at talking to the X’, trying to meet them half-way.  We don’t really understand them, and they don’t really understand us.  Let’s say it’s a religious function – it isn’t, they don’t have religions in the same way that we do, but it’s a useful shorthand – it’s not something that they’re doing because they want to, it’s something they have to do.

I’d done this enough times that I’d got the measure of it, without becoming blasé.  One of the things that the older generations of diplomats had impressed on us newbies in the Xenoc department was that it didn’t take much for things to go south fast.  There were frequent reminders of the events on Ross 128c – events that are still classified, so don’t ask me for the gruesome details.

Today was not to be a day when things went wrong, and to be honest we’ve yet to see something that knocks the X’ out of their urbane rut.  The Engineers did their thing, the scientists did theirs, and the Security people made a show of ensuring that the only thing the X’ really were taking was the beryllium that they’d done the deal for.

My turn: show time.

I’ve said that the X’ are similar to humans: this extends beyond physiognomy.  They share a – not belief exactly…acknowledgment?: they think in terms of the ancient elements of air, wind, fire and earth and so there is only one way to end this review:

“Is coffee not the summit of perfection?  Is the drinking of coffee not to be at peace with the Universe?”

“There’s probably some truth in that!” I grinned, ruefully.

© David Jesson, 2018


 

“Oh Muuuuum … that’s gross!”
“Someone’s got to deal with our waste product Michael and, because it’s such a nasty job, the pay is good, really good.”
“But still Mum … groooossss!”
“Sweetheart, I think it’s time we had the chat”
“Huh?”
“The one about your father …”
“How did we get from you shovelling poo at work to my father?
“Frankly, it’s not that big a leap …

curly cue

“Jan, thank you for talking to us at such short notice.”
“Not at all Principal. You know Michael’s schooling has always been of the highest importance to me.”
“Yes, that’s why we decided to speak to you straightaway, rather than leave this small concern festering.”

Jan groaned inwardly. She’d heard this nonsense so many times before, and she knew only too well what it meant. The underlying message was always present in her interactions with authority here on The Colony.

“Thank you Principal, I appreciate that. Has something happened? When last we spoke, you appeared to be satisfied with Michael’s focus and achievement levels.”
“Indeed we were Jan, but in the last few days … well, it’s like he’s had a complete personality switch.”
“Oh? He’s seemed the same at home.”
“He’s been disruptive in class, not handed in his home assignments, even though the work is already complete in his workbooks. When questioned about it, he said he felt there was no point to it any more.”
“Are you suggesting Michael’s suicidal?”
“No, no, not that Jan. I’m sorry to have startled you. The impression I’m getting from reports of his interaction with staff and pupils is that – for some reason – he believes his future is to become a deadbeat, so why should be bother to put in the work now.”

This time Jan’s groans were all too audible. She covered her face with her hands, fighting back the tears.

“Jan, please let us help you. I know your interactions with authority must’ve been challenging. But here at Colony High, we genuinely do admire you. Your work ethic, your high standards, your impeccable morals … honestly Jan, there isn’t a better parent. And the fact that you’ve done it alone, without support from a partner, from parents, from the authorities, makes us all the more admiring of what you’ve achieved. Please Jan, let us – let me – help you?”

When Jan raised her eyes back to the screen, the other members of Colony High’s governing body had been removed from the conversation. Only the Principal’s face remained on screen. In all honesty, he did look truly concerned … and unexpectedly kind.

“I told him the truth about his father.”
“Ah, I see. That can’t have been easy for you.”
“It wasn’t. But it sounds like I let my personal feelings show through which wasn’t my intention.”

A sound like a cross between a sob and a sigh escaped from Jan.

“Michael previously believed his father had died on the journey?”
“Yes. It seemed like the best way not to pass on the stigma until it was unavoidable.” “That decision’s served him well. He’s fully integrated with his peers and whilst not the model pupil, has long been well-regarded by staff and is even on track for the mentor programme.”

This time, there was no mistaking the sob.

“I shouldn’t have said anything. Why oh why did I let my annoyance and ego get the better of me?”
“There’s no need to be so hard on yourself Jan.”
“Yes Principal, I’m afraid there is. All this year, ever since he found out what I do for a living, he’s gone on and on about it. Calling it gross, ragging me, even making me feel guilty that it might reflect on him. Finally, I just snapped.”
“I suppose there’s no option for you to change jobs?”
“No Principal, there isn’t. In order to live here and to keep Michael at Colony High, I need to earn sufficient credits. Dealing with waste disposal is the only job which pays enough so I earn the same as other two-adult families. If Michael’s father had genuinely died on the journey, the Colony would be providing me with a pension to make up the difference. But as he choose to skip out on me – they don’t. They put me under a lot of pressure to return when they first found out. Truth be told, they’re still trying to persuade me to go – just now they use more subtle means. But you know all this. You’ve always judged Michael and me by a different standard to ‘normal’ families. You pick up on tiny transgressions immediately, stuff other ‘normal families’ get away with. I’m not blaming you mind, I’m sure it’s Colony policy as I experience it everywhere.”

Jan raised her eyes back to the screen. The Principal looked pensive.

“I’ve said too much haven’t I? I’d better start packing; the eviction order won’t be long in coming.”
“Jan, whatever makes you think that?”
“I’ve criticised the Colony. We both know dissenters aren’t welcome. Especially ones who don’t fit the ‘normal’ profile. The fact that it was him who deserted me and that I did nothing wrong doesn’t seem to matter – never has. I still get treated like dirt. Only good enough to handle the Colony’s waste matter. Know what? I chose to come here for a new life, but it seems our prejudices came with us.”
“Jan, this conversation has been private for some time now. There is no reason for its substance to be placed on the record, and I will not be doing so. Let me talk to Michael. I can help him to understand. I’ll tell him about being on track for the mentor programme and I’ll offer to be his personal mentor to keep him there. Colony High values both you and Michael. The Colony needs more people like you, regardless of what a few small-minded individuals in authority think.”
“Yes, but …”
“There’s a change happening Jan. Slowly but surely, good fair-minded people are achieving positions of authority. Thinking is changing, policy will follow. Will you let me help you?”

This time, when Jan looked up at the Principal on screen, she smiled through her tears.

“I will Principal. I will.”


© Debra Carey, 2018

#FF Prompt: Colony

Write about a colony on another planet or in space. Bonus points for building in the theme of the classical elements (earth, wind, fire, water) and/or for approaching it from the perspective of an alien species.

500-1,000 words
Deadline: 2pm on Friday 10th August 2018


 

A reminder to new readers/writers, please post on your own site and add a link in the comments section below.  If you don’t have your own blog or similar outlet, do send us your story via the contact form on the About page and we’ll post for you, with an appropriate by-line.  

Two caveats if you want to go down this route: if you want to retain the copyright, then you will need to state this, and this is a family show, so we reserve the right not to post anything that strays into NSFW or offends against ‘common decency’.

 

#secondthoughts : Why I Pants

Saving our bacon on yet another month’s fifth Sunday is Stuart Nager. We ‘met’ Stu during 2018’s April A2Z Challenge when we both fell for his gloriously creepy tales of The Abyssmal Dollhouse, and thoroughly enjoyed the banter during his daily visits here.

A man of many parts is Stu – Professional Storyteller, Drama Teacher, Teaching Artist, Director, Performer, Playwright, Arts Administrator, Curriculum Writer, Professional Development Coordinator & Facilitator, Drama Coach, Composer, Singer to name just a few – yet still he dashed off this post in response to our enquiry if he’d fancy writing ‘a little something’ for us.


 

The Urban Dictionary defines Pantsing as “To yank someone else’s pants down. Usually done in a humorous fashion.” While that may hold its meaning in a Three Stooges short or Middle School hallway, in the blogging world it takes on a very different meaning.  To some, it comes with a different set of emotions: fear, unease, anxiety.

Pantsing is writing as you go. Being in the moment and letting your characters and story take you where they wants to go. No real planning. No outline. No mega research, piles of notes, no creating a huge backstory/bible. Just going with the creative flow.

Pantsing, as I see it, is Writing Improv.

I am an Improv trained actor/director. May seem an oxymoron, since improvisation is creating on the spot: really communicating by listening and then responding. But, the training is in not going for the joke but finding the truth in what you are doing, committing to it wholeheartedly, and allowing the scene and characters tell their stories.  What you see televised, more often than not, is comedy improv; the headset is to make the audience laugh, and sometimes that’s done at the expense of pure improve by going for the puns and the easy laughs.

Scene and character driven improv, as in the way I see writing, lays a foundation that is much deeper and much more satisfying.

I’ve done both types of improv. I’d rather have a great scene then a cheap laugh.

So, my roots of creating on the spot, my improv life (I created, lead, and performed in an improvisational storytelling troupe for twelve years: The Brothers Grinn), helped to form my pantsing style of writing. I find a freedom in doing it this way; research will happen, some pre-planning may enter my head, but in the end, I find more satisfaction out of seeing where the characters and story idea(s) take me.

Of course, this may all get thrown out the window as I contemplate pulling thing together in a Novella or Novel form. THAT is causing me the fear, unease, and anxiety.

Non-pantsers can sit back now, nod their heads, and drink their tea with satisfaction.


© 2018 Stuart Nager

Anti-ageing Pill

Things in Hollywood had gotten decidedly weird. I’d heard from a friend in Mumbai that Bollywood was having the same issues. They’d had to limit making films with – ahem – more mature characters in them, as pretty much every actor and actress had decided to take that miracle pill.

For the last two decades, they’d been taking it as we used to take vitamins. Not me though. I’ve always been fussy what I put in my body – food, drink, medications – and that habit saved me. These days my agent can’t keep up with the calls for me to read for parts – and from directors who wouldn’t have given me the time of day 20 years ago. But when all your character actors have started to display – let’s just call them side effects – you have to really work that Rolladex.

Hollywood was always a place for the young, but now all the older actors have been hiding away, waiting on the unbelievably long waiting lists with the best plastic surgeons. Hell, even the not so good plastic surgeons have lists as long as your arm. Seems even that solution isn’t working reliably. The last director who risked casting his male lead with a guy who’d just had corrective surgery, well … let’s just say he regretted it – and how. Turns out even the best plastic surgeon can only correct one aspect of damage. When that’s corrected, the poison contained in that miracle pill just turns to another bit of the body.

It’s not so bad for a character actor who gets to keep their clothes on, so long as the poison only affects their body. Once it moves to the face … well, it depends what particular version of the side effect you get. The face-melting bloodhound look wasn’t too bad – at least it gave you a couple of years more work, but a shrivelled ear or nose meant you were consigned straight to B pictures in minor roles as the bad guy – until it got too horrific that is. The skin conditions – well, they were beyond even the most talented make-up artist, so those meant straight to retirement no matter how big a star you’d been.

Of course, the ones worst hit were those who’d relied on their looks. Sure, a few of ’em could act – I mean really act – and they survived. But the pretty boys and girls – nope. Ironically, if they’d just gone the normal route of waiting till the signs of ageing (or a life lived hard) started to show and headed for a top plastic surgeon, they’d probably still be working. Quick fixes aren’t always the best way to go. Especially when it seems that the side effects aren’t the same in humans as in the rats they tested it on …

But seeing as I owe it my new found career and the healthy bank account that came with it to that miracle pill, I raise a glass of wheatgrass juice in salute to it every evening.


© Debra Carey, 2018

#Secondthoughts: Where Eagles Dare

“Broadsword calling Danny Boy…Broadsword calling Danny Boy…”

There are some phrases that just seem right.  They work.  They’re so good that they enter the population and almost become some kind of genetic memory.  These days we tend to call them memes and they get hacked about by anybody with access to a meme-generator, in order to illustrate a point.  I will freely admit to having done it myself once or twice.  But before the internet, before we knew they were memes, there were lines from books and films that became short hand for jokes, or action scenes, for heroism, or dark deeds.

Thirty years or so after the first time that I read “Where Eagles Dare”, and the famous radio call-sign exchange still brings back memories of Alastair McLean novels, and a slew of WWII films.

“Broadsword calling Danny Boy…Broadsword calling Danny Boy…”

Social Media can be a strange place.  You never quite know what will catch on.  By chance, I happened to notice that #WhereEaglesDare was trending on Twitter the other day, so I thought that I would have a quick look.  It turned out that the film was showing on some channel or another, and people were flagging it and then talking about.  The opening credits came in for a mention, and yes, they are pretty good.  I’d dispute that it is the best film ever, though.  The film has some great set pieces, but I’m going to go out on a limb, and say that it was miscast, and that the adaptation of the dialogue was not quite up to the mark.  I’d even suggest that it is worth remaking the film – Richard Burton, as Smith, is rather wooden, and Clint Eastwood, as Schaeffer, is…Clint Eastwood.  To his credit, at least he put a bit of effort into climbing the rope, instead of using a scissor lift…  a young Nathan Fillion might have been a good Schaeffer, I don’t know who the equivalent would be at the moment.  But I digress.

In any film, there are a number of things that need to come together, including the casting (and the on- and off-screen dynamic between the cast), the cinematography (including special effects), and the script.  In the case of a film adaptation, the casting is especially important, as is the script.  For fans of the book, if the writer did a good job then you will have a mental picture of the characters.  In terms of the dialogue to inform the script, you’d hope that it could just be picked up and plonked down as is, but of course there will be scenes that can’t be included – but you really need that line, yes that one there – and so the process of revising the script begins.

In terms of a film adaptation, whilst I love Guns of Navarone, Force 10 from Navarone and WED – all for different reasons – I’d argue that Where Eagles Dare is the best adaptation of the three.  But it also shares in one of the biggest frustrations that I have with the Lord of the Rings films: they messed up the humour.

When you think of Lord of the Rings, the inherent humour is probably not what springs to mind.  I will be the first to admit that we are not talking about a laff-a-minute, light-hearted read, but there is humour, albeit somewhat understated. The film adaptation, to my mind, makes the cardinal sin of rejecting the humour that Tolkien wrote into the book, and importing a totally unnecessary slap-stick element, usually at the expense of Gimli and the dwarfs.  I recently came across the term “Mary Sue” to describe a character who is improbably skilled at everything: in LOTR, the Elves, and in particular Legolas, become a race of Mary Sues, leaving the dwarfs to bumble along as the comedy country-bumpkins.  But that’s another essay.  Suffice it to say, that my view is that Legolas and Gimli were designed to be a balanced pairing in the author’s mind, and that there are all sorts of things that don’t work properly because the relationship between Gimli and Legolas is undermined.

So too, then, the balance between Smith and Schaeffer is not quite right in WED.  The humour is muted, the dialogue doesn’t sparkle.  Burton is, as I’ve said, a bit wooden – it almost feels like it should be one of his last performances, but it’s not; Burton died young, but worked for another 15 or so years after this film.  The book is a little more thoughtful, and doesn’t reduce the Germans to ciphers – at least, not all the time.

“Broadsword calling Danny Boy…Broadsword calling Danny Boy…”

And now for the kicker.  Having written all of the above, having assumed that the book came first, I’ve just discovered that McLean wrote the film first and then the book.  Apparently Eastwood didn’t like the original script and asked for fewer lines, which surely must be a rarity in the acting profession.  On the other hand, he got to do most of the action, so it probably worked out about even.

Even with that last minute shock revelation, I stand by the view that the book is better than the film, but perhaps now we need to say it is because McLean had the opportunity to polish things – and he didn’t have to worry about troublesome actors.  His characters would do as they were told.  He also had the opportunity to embellish some scenes and add depth – so for example the pilot who drops off the team and picks up the survivors gets to be a proper character rather than just an extension of the aircraft.

How about you?  Any films where the script/casting messed up a really neat book?  Any favourite books that got a good film treatment? Any films that fell flat even though they had an all star cast and the dialogue was straight off the page?

“Broadsword this is Danny Boy…Broadsword this is Danny Boy…Recieving”


© David Jesson, 2018