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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 started the blog because we wanted to practice writing stories, and to talk about what writing (and reading) means to us.  Over the last few years we’ve showcased a number of short stories of different lengths, genres, voices, and you can find these via the Index.

We run a monthly prompt for #FlashFiction (used here in both senses: a short story that can be read quickly, and one that is written within a short period of time).  We like to go with quirky prompts (again, have a look at the Index!), and we mix in a few photoprompts together with one of our USPs, the Gutenberg Prompt – have a look out for these.  We’d love to get more people involved with these, so do spread the word.

We post every Sunday, following a regular schedule.  As of January 2020, we’ve revamped this slightly.  We’re still presenting our stories, and one of our other USPs, #SecondThoughts, but we’ll be adding some features on the items on our Resources page, together with a new series of articles written by guests on how their chosen genre is entwined with their normal life.

If you’d like to find out more/get involved, please do take a look at the About page.  Or you can send us a message via the Contact page or our Twitter handles (above).

Our (revised) regular schedule

1st Sunday #FF Prompt – submission deadline the next Sunday @ 8 am GMT
(or use our #TortoiseFlashFiction page if the deadline is too tight)

2nd Sunday #FF stories

3rd and 4th Sundays

Either:

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!).

Or:

A focus on one of the resources on our resource page, or on something else of writerly interest.

Or:

Occasionally a short story from one or another of us.

Exactly what turns up will depend on what we’ve been doing, and what is going on in the wider world.

5th Sunday On the occasion when these occur, we’ll be posting our guests’ musings on the intersections between their life and their chosen genre. (Do get in touch if you’re interested in writing one yourself).  The post that kicked it all off is here.

#FF Prompt: The Feud

“Of course, you realise, this means war!” said Bugs Bunny, breaking the fourth wall after he’d been insulted or something by the antagonist.  Who’s going to feud in your story? Why? How low are the stakes that are being fought over?

Anything goes – so long as it’s nothing NSFW.

Word count: 200-500 words
Deadline: by 8 am (GMT) on Sunday 12th July 2020

Don’t forgot, if you miss the deadline, you can always post your story to our #TortoiseFlashFiction page


Post your story on your site and link to it here in the comments below, or drop us a line via the contact us page and we’ll post it for you.

#WritersResources: Edit Out Loud

One of many discussions I’ve had with David is the subject of audio books and their narrators. Personally, I’m a massive fan of Stephen Fry’s reading of the Harry Potter books, and David has spoken in glowing terms of Kobna Holdbrook-Smith’s reading of Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series.

But …

I’ve given up my subscription to Audible more times that I can count, for I struggle to find books which translate as well to being heard as being read. I’m absolutely certain this isn’t just a one way street of pointing the finger at the narrator, especially after completing Hilary Mantel’s final part of the Thomas Cromwell trilogy The Mirror and the Light, where I struggled tremendously during earlier chapters to figure out what piece of dialogue was being spoken by which character. As a narrator, I guess it could be possible to save the listener from that confusion, or it might prove just as confusing a process to figure out as to a reader.

That said, this is about writers editing, rather than readers listening, so …

One thing which struck me when listening to the audio of a couple of Cormoran Strike books (from J K Rowling’s nom de plume, Robert Galbraith) was how many times I heard “he said” and “she said”. I did manage to read past, for the characters were well crafted and the story line interesting enough, but it proved to be a most helpful learning around the whole subject of dialogue tags.

That experience added extra weight to the advice given to writers of reading our work out loud – a practice I now generally follow. The problem is, I know where I intend the inflection to be … so I place it there when reading aloud. Whereas, having tested the Edit Out Loud app, it’s clear the matter at hand is whether I’ve used the correct punctuation and sentence structure for that to be clear to my reader.

The Edit Out Loud app was one of those things I fell across somewhere, made a note of on my phone, having every intention of trying it out when I had time. At the end of 2019, I rummaged through the notes on my phone, after accepting it it was high time I made the time to do something about all the ideas I’d stored there. It became pretty clear that a number of the items had been time sensitive … and that certain ships had long sailed. One good clear-out later, and my note to check out Edit Out Loud shot right up the list.

Edit Out Loud Trial

The software is available to download for use on your desktop – be that an Apple or Windows platform. For mobile devices, it’s currently only available for Apple, but an Android app is currently in development. I chose to download the software to both my Windows desktop and my iPad. As my writing is done on the desktop, it’s easier to upload it from there, but I listen to the app on the iPad for the purposes of editing.

There are four levels of membership – for the purpose of this trial, I used the Free version, and in all honesty, cannot see from the features listed, that I’d either need or want to upgrade.

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You can select from a number of computer generated voices – there are three UK English options – 2 male, & 1 female. Similar is available for US English, and there are a vast range of other languages to choose from. It’s also possible to alter the voice’s speed.

So, what did I learn? The major learnings did turn out to be around my use of punctuation. The first observation is that either the software doesn’t cope with dialogue, or I’m not doing it right. Sadly, I suspect the latter is correct, for I have issues with punctuation marks appearing inside of quotation marks AND outside; I’ll no doubt be put straight by a professional editor on that subject in due course 🙂 I’m also not using commas correctly for indicating where a reader should pause for breath, and the app also made obvious when a sentence of mine has gone on for WAY TOO LONG. But I was absolutely delighted to discover the app copes well with hyphens and with my favourite ellipses, as none of the other options I tried did.

While you’re being read to, a highlighted block moves across the text, and you have the option to add a comment, or to “mark” the text with the following notations :

  • Make Shorter
  • Add Details
  • Redundant
  • Grammar

To review the marked up manuscript, simply tap on the little fin-like markers in the left-hand margin, and a new window opens to let you know which of the listed options above you selected to mark the text (for multiple markers in the same paragraph, just tap the fin again for a second/third etc window to open).

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In order for this to be an entirely fair trial, I decided I needed to compare it with other free options available. My first attempt was with the Narrator feature available in Windows. Unfortunately, it read aloud Every.Single.Thing as you try to set it up, meaning I quickly decided it would drive me totally nuts before I got anything useful out of it. While there’s also a similar feature within Microsoft Word, since Microsoft Office decided adopted the subscription model, I no longer have a copy and so cannot comment. Adobe Reader also has a ‘Speak Out Loud’ feature, but it is horrendously slow and, as I could find no option to amend the speed, it was also rejected. Finally, I tested the ‘Read Aloud’ extension to Google Chrome using the ‘Simple Text to Speech’ option, and it wasn’t at all bad. The major drawback being once that it starts to read, there’s no option to pause or annotate the file as you go.

The only other software option I found worthy of further note was Natural Reader. Like Edit Out Loud, it has a number of membership options, including an entirely free version. Of note, one of the premium membership options offers natural voices, and the sample readings provided do sound a lot easier on the ear when compared with the digital voice options available in Edit Out Loud. The cost for the natural voice option was $19/month or $119 annually at the time of writing. One drawback for me, is that Natural Reader didn’t cope well with hyphens, and my favourite ellipses absolutely mystifies it. However, if computer-generated voices drive you to distraction, this option may be worth considering, if your budget will stretch to it.

The outcome of my trial is that I’ve deleted all the trialled options, with the sole exception of Edit Out Loud. At the ideal price-point (free), there were enough learnings gained for me to decide it’s worthwhile using as a quick and easy editing tool.

I hope you find this helpful – please do share you experience with this (or similar) software, or add your own suggestions below in the comments.


© Debra Carey, 2020

 

#SecondThoughts: Characters and transition to other media

Debs and I first met through a bookclub.  Fairly regularly, but not at the end of every meeting, we would round things off by playing the “who should play the main characters in the film?” game.  Sometimes it would be fairly clear cut, with consensus achieved within a name or two.  Sometimes, it was much harder.  Now that Debs and I are working on a shared writing project, sometimes the only way to match up what a certain character looks like is to think of who would play them in the film or TV series.  For me, the easiest character to cast in this setting is Cledwyn Cadwallader, better known to his friends as Tinkerbell.  No spoilers here, but the mental image I have is Brian Cox (the actor, not the musician/physicist), and Billy Blind started out in my head as being some sort of cross between Sid James and Dick Van Dyke, although I think now I would like to see Toby Jones in the role (although I’m not sure Debs and I have yet reached a consensus on this!).  Some of the other characters have been harder to place, and from time to time, impressions change.  Jack Runward, despite being one of the key characters for kicking off the story in my head was quite hard to think about.  I had a flash of recognition when rewatching the 2011 film version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.  There is a scene early on when Jim Prideaux (played by Mark Strong) is walking down a street in a town in the then Czechoslavakia.  It is possibly a trick of the camera work, but there is a quality to the way that Prideaux/Strong walks down the street, apparently unhurriedly, but such that he is moving deceptively quickly.  For me, this mapped perfectly to a description of Jack that Debs wrote, and suddenly I could see Strong playing Jack.  I think the only failure that we have had is Michaela: she has proven very difficult to cast, for a variety of reasons.

Getting the casting right, so to speak, is easy when you are able to cast anyone you like, but of course if there is one adaptation, then there might well be others, including stage adaptations.   Google estimates that at least 43 people have played Sherlock Holmes in various adaptations.  Basil Rathbone is the one that I grew up with (repeats, repeats), but I think Jeremy Brett was possibly one of, if not the best.  Still, Michael Caine in ‘Without A Clue’ gives a solid and completely appropriate performance (even if he is really Reginald Kincaid, an actor hired by Dr Watson).  We can also look to Willy Wonka: there are two very different performances, one by Gene Wilder and the other by Johnny Depp.  Neither are the Wonka of the book, so a definitive portrayal is still to be given, but both acted the role in a way which fit with the adaptation that was being made.

When multiple adaptations are made, sooner or later there will be some casting decision that will cause furore amongst those with an emotional investment in the story.  For example, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the stage play based around the children of many of the main characters, saw Hermione being played by a black actress.  JK was quick to support the decision, commenting that nowhere in the books does it say that Hermione is black or white.  But that, as they say, is another story.  Except for one slight digression, if you’ll permit me.   I went to see the new production of Oklahoma last year at the Chichester Festival Theatre, and it was an excellent.  The casting had been done ‘blind’: I don’t know if they had done anything in terms of seeing if the actors gelled at all, but they filled the roles with the best actors that auditioned regardless of any other factors. But I can’t help wondering about this, because whilst two of the key characters were black, none of the chorus were, and I couldn’t help feeling that this was a mistake. Further, the black actors played Jud Fry and Laurey, which added an unexpected, perhaps even unwelcome dimension to their relationship.  We need more diversity in story telling and in the dramatisation of those stories.  We also don’t want particular plays to become bastions of racism because you ‘can’t cast that actor in that role’.  But there does need to be some thought to the whole picture that is being presented. Diversity is not having two actors, out of a cast of fifty or so, not looking like the rest.  /Rant.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently with the announcement of the new BBC America series, The Watch, based on the characters and back story of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series.  The novels (Guards! Guards!, Men-At-Arms, Feet of Clay, The Fifth Elephant, Jingo, Night Watch, Thud!, Snuff) are some of my favourites.  The casting announcements and some of the pictures coming out of the production have been quite divisive amongst the fan base.  There are some raised eyebrows and much profanity on social media, at one end of the spectrum, and soothing noises and interest in the interpretation at the other.  For myself, with every announcement, I’m moving more to a position of ‘I’ll take a look, but this is not Terry Pratchett’s City Watch’.   Leaving aside issues with story-line that has been revealed so far, there are one or two decisions, which individually could have been made to work. Many of the roles have been selected through gender-neutral casting, including, for example, Anna Chancellor who is to play Lord Vetinari.  This I can imagine working, and could be convinced by, although Charles Dance was near definitive in this role in the Sky adaptations of several Discworld stories.  On the other hand, I think they have not only got the casting completely wrong for Lady Sybil Ramkin, but have missed an opportunity.  Lady Sybil is of an age with Sam Vimes, whom she marries in due course, is robust and Rubenesque, and has little interest in current affairs, being more interested in breeding dragons.  She went to a jolly hockey-sticks kind of private school.  Imagine Ruth Jones (Nessa in Gavin and Stacey) chanelling Joanna Lumley.  Instead we get someone who is much younger than Vimes, slim, and is apparently some kind of vigilante.

I also find myself deeply disappointed in the treatment of Cheery (later Cheri) Littlebottom.  Pratchett had an excellent grasp of narrative and cliche, and subverted them wherever possible.  He also did his best to scotch stereotypes and reveal the humanity in all his characters, even the ‘baddies’.  With the little information I have, it feels like BBC America have tried to make things easy on themselves by removing any species that makes life a bit difficult for the props/sfx department.  So Cheery is now human.  They’ve tried to deal with this by making the character non-binary.  Cheery had her own prejudices to overcome, and whilst there are those who would argue that it’s great that this issue is being addressed, I can’t help feeling that it’s being done in a cheap and ultimately limited way.

It’s difficult to know how the series will play out without seeing the actors in action, but from the simple perspective of the stories, it’s already a disaster.  The characterisations will be a mixed bunch, with several characters apparently edited out, some miscast (IMO), and others moving amongst an unconvincing set, in ‘the wrong’ costumes…

The chances of The November Deadline transitioning to either the big or small screen are quite small, but the conversations that I have had with Debs have been useful for driving the writing forward, and have helped keep us consistent.

How about you?  Do you ever play the ‘who would play that role in the film?’?  Have you ever been disappointed in a piece of casting?

© David Jesson, 2020

#FlashFiction: Project Gutenberg

Indian Summer

Leaning against the rail, Ivy felt a trickle of sweat make its way down her spine. Although the early evening temperature was considerably less than that at midday when they’d docked, she was grateful for the slight breeze from being underway once more. She couldn’t linger long, for it would soon be time to freshen up before dressing for dinner.

Musing with an affectionate smile over the care Jonathan had taken to warn her not to be shocked at the advice contained in that delightful letter from Valerie, Ivy ruefully admitted how much gratitude she felt towards someone she’d not met. Tucked into the same envelope as one of Jonathan’s regular missives, it had expressed how much Valerie was looking forward to meeting Ivy – but the most welcome part of it had been the clothing advice, that on undergarments in particular.

She’d mistakenly believed her wardrobe from that long Indian Summer when she’d met Jonathan would stand her in good stead for the journey. Nevertheless, she’d acted upon Valerie’s advice, and her suffering had been considerably less than that of her fellow travellers as a result. A number of the ladies had been most unwell on the journey, with fainting becoming an almost everyday occurrence. Indeed Alice, the young lady who shared Ivy’s cabin, was suffering horribly with heat rash. She’d been especially distressed at the thought her husband would see her looking so defaced after their long months apart, so Ivy had felt moved to share Valerie’s excellent advice. She was pleased to see Alice had received a package at their last stop, and hoped she’d be sufficiently recovered before reaching their final destination.

Smiling as she strolled along the deck, Ivy recalled that early September day. The weather had been simply glorious, unseasonably warm and sunny. Eleanor had suggested they walk to the river, for while the hostel had a small patch of grass at the back, it was crammed with bodies, each vying for space to enjoy the sun on their bodies. On their return, they’d found him standing by the open front door, chatting to one of the men. Eleanor had given a shriek of delight, before running to hug him. As she made the introductions, Jonathan’s face had broken into a broad, friendly smile. Ivy remembered chiding herself later that evening for behaving like a silly romantic, but couldn’t pretend her heart hadn’t given quite the lurch.

They’d fitted a lot of living into that Indian summer. Jonathan would arrive from his digs early every morning carrying fresh bread rolls from the local bakery. Pouring himself a mug of tea, he’d spread the rolls with thick layers of butter and jam, having arrived laden down with jam from the family estate, much to Eleanor’s glee. After they’d served lunch at the hostel, he’d turn up with a picnic basket and drag them away for a proper break. The basket contained all kinds of little treats his careful questioning had established Ivy liked, not just things he knew would please Eleanor. He’d taken them to pretty riverside pubs, persuaded them to watch a film or two, and always made them laugh. When he’d gone, Ivy realised she didn’t just miss the fun and the laughter, she missed him. After envelopes with matching handwriting arrived for them both, she’d sat with a foolish grin on her face reading that he felt the same way.

Ivy’s family had taken to him right away, but there’d been a fair old to-do with his parents. Through it all, Eleanor had insisted her brother was made of stern stuff – and so it turned out. They’d plans to get married on Jonathan’s next leave home, but in the meantime, Ivy was going to Egypt. He’d found her somewhere suitable to live and lined up a job for her, helping a retired diplomat writing his memoirs. Ivy was looking forward to getting to know Egypt, the Embassy routine, to meet his friends, and to reassure everyone still in doubt that this was the future they both wanted.

© Debra Carey, 2020

 

The Blue Behemoth

Tophe straightened up and wiped his hands on an oily rag.  In these strange times, he’d been lucky to have a project to work on.  He could have easily filled his whole time with this, but he’d tried not to let it become all consuming.  There were still exams to pass, after all.  He’d had tentative plans for the summer hols, volunteering in Africa, but the current situation had put the kibosh on that.  There was still time for that, other summers.  For now, he was working to a deadline.

He’d found the VW campervan completely by accident, several years before.  It had been chocked up in a field, between two villages, quietly mouldering.  Out for a long cycle ride to get some peace and quiet, he would probably have missed it completely if he hadn’t glanced over his shoulder in preparation for overtaking a car pulled in at the side of the road.

The little scene had gone into his brain, and lodged somewhere.  He hadn’t really thought about, not in an active way, but it had clearly stuck, and been reinforced by repeated exposure.  From then on, every time he cycled that route, his eye unconsciously sought out the rusting vehicle.

The plan had come upon him unexpectedly when he was home for Christmas, and he’d talked to his parents about it.

“Oh yes, I know the van you mean.  I’m surprised the council haven’t taken it away.  There are rules about abandoned vehicles” his father had said.

“Do think you could get it back on the road?”  His mother had been more practical.

“Yes.  But I’m not really sure how much it will cost.  It might need a new engine for example.  And given that it’s been a few years, it will definitely need new tyres.”

“I tell you what dear, you go and work out what the worst case will be, and we’ll have a think.”

He’d already spent a little time on the internet, looking at other people’s projects, now he set to work and started thinking about everything that could go wrong, what tools he would need what he might need help with.  It was a more than a little daunting.

What he didn’t know was that whilst he’d been doing all this research, his parents had been doing their own.  They were under no illusions.  This was a big project.  But Tophe had been throwing himself into his studies (not that they would be of much use here), and he was clearly determined in his plans for the future.  Even if the whole thing was completely unfeasible, surely it would be good experience?

In the end, it was Tophe’s godfather who settled the matter.  A high-powered lawyer, he’d been a soldier in the Territorial Army since university.  It was not something that he tended to talk about too much, but he’d just hit 60 and had to retire.  When he’d popped over for a visit between Christmas and the New Year, he’d talked of finding a new project to work on.  It turned out that he was surprisingly knowledgeable about cars and engines and no sooner had the van been mentioned than he was practically dragging Tophe out to the Aston Martin, to go and have a look.

By the same evening, various people had been called and arrangements made.  It was by no means a done deal by the time that Tophe had gone back to halls, but he talked to his godfather and his parents every day.  By the end of January, everything was set.  Tophe headed home straight after his last lecture on the Friday and on the Saturday was there to help get the broken down campervan on the back of pick-up truck, and deposited in a barn-like outbuilding in one corner of his godfather’s land.

What was left of the paintwork was a faded-blue, and his brother Jonno, on a visit, had dubbed it the Blue Behemoth, and the name stuck.

And then there had been the threat of lockdown.  The word ‘unprecedented’ had become stale through over-use, and eventually his university had moved to online teaching and all but told everyone to go home.  It had been decided that he would go and stay with his godfather, allowing him to work on the VW campervan in his spare time, of which there was rather a lot.

Today was the day.  Lockdown was over, and the family he’d been talking to on video were coming over to see what he’d done.  He walked round to the front and turned the key in the ignition.  The engine rumbled to life and he went back round to the engine, watching and listening intently.  Everything seemed to be working perfectly.  The van had been repainted and was now a deep, luxuriant blue, a behemoth revitalised.  He’d worked on the interior, too.  Everything was clean and well appointed.

“Hey, there he is”

“Wow!”

“Amazing!”

There was a babble of excited voices as his parents, Jonno, and his littlest brother Tom were shown in by his godfather, who was saying “Yes, it has turned out rather well, hasn’t it?”.

He turned off the engine, hugged them all, and showed them what he had been up to.  Tom was wide-eyed with wonder; Jonno was trying to play it cool, and very nearly succeeding.

“She really is a Blue Behemoth now” Jonno said.

“Happy birthday, little brother” Tophe said, holding up the keys, with a twinkle in his eye.

Jonno’s jaw dropped.  Tophe showed him how he’d fitted out the back of the vehicle so that it could be filled with art supplies, or used to transport Jonno’s work, and tactfully ignored the tears at the corner of his brother’s eyes.

Later, over a beautiful birthday cake, his godfather had asked him if he’d like to work on another project together.

“I know a chap whose got a classic car rusting away in his garage.  Can’t have moved in 30 years, at least.   What do you think?  It would be a shame to let all this equipment we’ve put together go to waste!”

Tophe wasn’t a social media influencer, yet, but his blog and his YouTube videos had made him a little money on the side, not enough to cover all the costs of rebuilding the van, but these had been taken care of.  He’d planned to use his savings, but his elders had forbidden this, and made the arrangements themselves.  So, he still had some money in the bank.  Africa still beckoned.

© David Jesson, 2020


Post your story on your site and link to it here in the comments below, or drop us a line via the contact us page and we’ll post it for you.

 

#FF Prompt – Project Gutenberg

I can’t remember now exactly what gave me the idea for plundering the titles of the recent additions to Project Gutenberg for prompt ideas, but I can remember that Debs took some persuading to add it to our list, and was reluctant right up to the point that it actually went live.  She soon came round thought and now we see this as very much a Fiction Can Be Fun USP.

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This is a deceptively simple #FlashFiction prompt but does require some active choice on your part…

To select your prompt, go to the Recent Books section of the Project Gutenberg website. Pick a book whose title makes you go ‘ooooh I know what I want to write about …’ and there you have it – your #FlashFiction prompt for this month.

Do have a good browse while you’re there – you could find even more reads to add to your massive TBR lists – and all at no cost!

 

Word count: 500-750 words
Deadline: 8 am GMT on Sunday 14th June 2020

Don’t forgot, if you miss the deadline, you can always post your story to our #TortoiseFlashFiction page.


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’.

Now with added…Flair!: The Pirate Costume

There are several ways in which Debs and I meet new writer-friends, one being through the shared experiences of the April A2Z Challenge.  Our reading interests overlap a great deal, as you might expect, and we share a great deal of admiration for this month’s guest, Melanie Atherton Allen.  Melanie has an amazing imagination, and the way in which she is able to produce coherent bodies of work from multiple perspectives is a joy to behold.  There is a temptation to compare some of her work to…well, I won’t say, because that would be to do Melanie a disservice.  She is herself, and you should check out her ‘blaugh’ for yourself.  But now, over to Melanie!

The DoctorThank you, David and Debs, for inviting me to do this! It has been a surprisingly difficult piece to write (because I am usually a 100% fiction kind of gal, and I’m actually not sure I even know how to write about me), but that made it all the more interesting to me as a project.

Interesting—and also really, really hard. Really, I don’t know how you memoir people do it! This essay is about the seventh or eighth time I’ve tried to approach the subject, which is supposed to be about me and my genre. How does my life intersect with my fiction? That should be sort of obvious, or so I thought.

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And then I sat down and started probing. Sort of poking at my writing, this way and that, looking for the places where I came in. And I found plenty of me in my writing—my voice, my ideas, my interests, the whole life of my mind. But all I could say about that was “I seem to write what I like to read,” which, though a good working principle, isn’t exactly personal.

The-Kitchen-MaidAt this point, I panicked, and messaged David. He came back at me with a series of helpful questions, but there was one that really unlocked things for me. “That sounds great,” he said, “but perhaps you’d like to comment on your inclination to dress up as your characters?”

And then I remembered the pirate costume.

I suppose, before we get to the pirate costume, I should explain about my website, www.athertonsmagicvapour.com. I don’t call it a blog (though I sometimes call it a blaugh), because it is my understanding that blogs get updated regularly. With Atherton’s Magic Vapour, this does not happen.

Yeoman-twoWhat Atherton’s Magic Vapour does contain is several of my more eccentric creative projects. Many of these projects include pictures of me, dressed up as various characters. A good example of this is a thing called Alas!, which is a complete Edwardian-era mystery novella (50,000 words!) that I wrote during the 2015 April A To Z Blogging Challenge.

In Alas!, I tell the story of the murder of the wicked Lord Cadblister from the perspective of 26 different people (The Aunt, The Bastard, The Constable, The Doctor… etc.), and include a picture of myself, dressed up as each character, with each day’s chapter.

So, obviously, I do feel inclined to dress up as my characters. But why? I still don’t exactly know, but something happened when I started to think about the question. I seemed to see before me the image of a small girl. I see her still. She is impressively dirty. Her blonde hair is wild and tangled. Her ears are enormous and stick out surprisingly from her head. And she is dressed as a pirate. That would be me, age… well, I have no idea, actually. Let’s say I was eight.

The-InspectorIt wasn’t a great pirate costume—just your basic red-and-white-striped shirt and black pants (both artistically tattered). It was made of that horribly thin Halloween-costume material, ideal for catching cold in on a dark October night. But that didn’t matter. In that costume, I was a pirate. I remember wearing it quite a lot, and I am sure I tried to wear it even more often. I probably tried to wear it to school but was thwarted.

Recently, I was going through an old file of childhood things when I came across a report from my childhood therapist. Yes, I was in therapy as a kid, because I had some fairly serious learning disabilities. Anyway, in this report, my therapist recorded my first meeting with her. I apparently looked at her, peered into her office, and announced, “I can’t bring my sword in there.” It was not a question. It was a statement.

The-WitchThe first appealing thing about this note was, of course, the fact that I apparently had a sword with me at my therapy appointment. I remember, alas, nothing of this incident, but I’m quite sure that the sword in question was the plastic cutlass which came with the pirate costume. So—yay small Melanie, for going to therapy armed and ready for trouble.

But the other thing that I find pleasing about this little snapshot from my sordid past is this: that I had an eye to the etiquette of the situation. I took one look at that office and said to myself, nope. No swords in there. I am sure that I was inhabiting the role of the noble pirate as I saw him. Interpreting the therapist as a lady well-disposed to pirates, I decided it would be wrong to come armed into her home. Or anyway, that is how I re-construct the thing now. It is, in any case, a narrative consistent with the sort of kid I was. I took everything with deadly seriousness. Everything.

Anyway, I feel that this story shines a light on why I love dressing up even now. It transforms. It turns a very confused little girl into a confident, yet polite, pirate.

Me as Simon Wake la

© Melanie Atherton Allen, 2020 (Article and Photos)

© Fiction Can Be Fun, 2020 (Introduction)

 

#WritersResources: How to format a manuscript

I’ve been trying to get more of my short-form fiction into (paying) magazines, which is one of the drivers for the changes to the blog that have been happening recently.  One of the key tenets for the magazines is, it doesn’t matter how low-key your blog, once it’s out there, it’s published.  So whilst I still want to share my writing, from my perspective it’s going to be much more of the micro/flash fiction and the experimental stuff.  And I’m using ‘Flash Fiction’ here in both senses – stuff that is written on a short deadline (no time to over-think things!) and stuff that is quick to read, typically 1000 words and under.  Anything over this is going to be heading to a magazine, probably.

As with everything to do with writing, there is a learning curve.  The publishing industry has been around for a while, and despite the digital revolution there tends to be not just a way of doing things, but THE way of doing things.  Some of these date back to the time when you would have sent a type-written manuscript in the post to the editor.  If they didn’t like it, they’d send you the manuscript back and you could hawk it elsewhere.  If they did like it, then they might scribble some changes they wanted, perhaps to fit with a house style, perhaps because they had it in for the Oxford comma, and send it back for changes, or agreement to the changes.  They might simply scribble on it and send it downstairs to the typesetter.

Cutting to the chase because, for reasons that will be self-evident in a moment, I want to keep this post brief, there is a standard format for manuscripts.  This is not to say that all magazines conform rigidly to this standard, nor that all magazines follow it at all.  However, having been less successful than I might have liked, and having had to submit certain stories to successive magazines, I have noticed that many editors direct prospective authors to one or other of two key  articles on formatting.  These are worth a read (links below), but not when you are in the process of trying to re-format your work ready for submission.  All the information is given, but not in a nice succinct way to make your life easier.  What I have done here is to pull out the key points for easy reference.

DISCLAIMER AND HEALTH WARNING: Always check what the magazine wants first.  These points are to help if someone refers you to either Shunn’s style guide or McIntyre’s, but it’s up to you to make sure that your document is formatted correctly – Fiction Can Be Fun cannot be held liable if your story gets rejected out of hand because it’s in the wrong format.  My opinion of the features of the standard format doesn’t matter, so I’m not going to give it.  It’s what’s been asked for, and that, as they say, is that.

All of that said, the two style guides mentioned are written as essays, with the formatting discussed.  This is a great visual reference, but a complete pain if you are frantically trying to sort things out so:

  • Courier or Times New Roman fonts.  Nothing else.
  • 1″/25 mm margins on all sides.
  • Double spaced.  Not 1.5, not 3, definitely not single.  Double.
  • Do not justify the text, leave it left aligned, with a ‘ragged’ right edge.
  • Do not leave lines between paragraphs.
  • Indent the start of a new paragraph.
  • If you have a section break (in the sense of the narrative, rather than with respect to formatting) mark it with a single #, centered.
  • If your text requires italics for emphasis, then italicized words should be underlined.
  • Mark dialogue with speech marks and remember what Shunn says:

“When a new person speaks, start a new line.”

  • As a header, place Surname/Key word/ page number in the top right corner.
  • Some people want a cover page, in which case the header starts on the first MS page.
  • Start the MS half way down the first MS page.  Just above this, put the document title, then your byline.  Top right, your name, your address, email. Top left, ~ word count (rounded to the nearest hundred for a short story and 500 for a novella).
  • If you are doing a cover page, put the title about a third of the way down, byline underneath this.  Your name, address etc goes a further third down the page, on the left, and the approximate word count goes to the right.
  • Some people end the document with ‘End’, to indicate the end.

Hope that helps.  If you’ve got some top tips, stick them in the comments!

 

#SecondThoughts: 6 Tips for writing Acknowledgements

While realising it’s getting way ahead of ourselves, I know there are a number of people to whom enormous gratitude is due, from both David & myself, for their support & encouragement of our co-authored work November Deadline. I’m not going to attempt to list them now, for I dread missing anyone unintentionally, and I not only hope they already know how we feel, but that we’ll get the chance to thank them properly in future.

This train of thought started when I read an article about acknowledgements – for the real question as far as I’m concerned is – does anyone read the acknowledgements?

I know I don’t, for I’ve always considered it a bit like that boring bit in an Oscar acceptance speech – you know, when winners get to name check all those people who don’t usually get the chance of being acknowledged – by name – to a TV audience of over 25 million.

Most viewers mentally switch off during the list of names being recited by rote, and I presume any reader who actually does check the acknowledgements, does so while allowing their eyes to skip over the names, or while keeping a look out for the unusual or the famous. Sometimes an author will even dedicate a book to someone who’d normally be included in the acknowledgement, although – in my experience – dedications tend to be family members or loved ones, sometimes even a secret one.  Again, unless a dedication named you, can you remember the dedication in any book you’ve read?

But back to that article I read recently entitled “Pretentious bores make me want to burn every book: why can’t a single novel end without acknowledgements to every ‘darling’ from George and Amal to the Middletons?” in which Giles Coren expresses his frustration, nay loathing, of this particular practice. So strong is his feeling, he believes this is what’s wrong with the modern novel. Certain of his barbs made me literally laugh out loud, including this one about authors rushing “to kiss the completely irrelevant arse of everyone they’d ever met …” or name-checking famous people such as Zadie S and Phoebe W-B (you know who you are) for just being there on the end of a phoneline from NY or SoCal when I couldn’t find the mot juste” – and yes, I did embolden than particular bit for making me positively hoot and snort. The article is well worth a read, even though it’s behind a paywall on The Times (you can register your email address for a free peak every now & again) for it didn’t just make me laugh, it made me stop & think.

You see … I’m certain the author genuinely feels gratitude and means the heartfelt thanks they are expressing, and hopefully, those on the receiving end get – at the very least – a degree of warm feeling.

So, what can we learn from this? Well, what I came away with was this – do write an  acknowledgement, but …

  1. Use it to make your professional thanks – editors, beta readers, publishers & the like.
  2. Don’t use it to brag about the famous people you know, unless you want to to be on the end of eye-rolling, or to incite Giles-Coren-like rage.
  3. Don’t bore the pants off readers by naming Every.Single.Person you know (it’s not a radio show shout out).
  4. Don’t name a vast amount of people, or it will turn in to one of those Oscar-like mind-numbing recitations, instead limit it to those who made a significant contribution (and by that I don’t mean financial).
  5. If you’re going to thank your loved ones and/or family members for putting up with you, make it brief.
  6. Make sure you give thanks to everyone who is due it – do it in private, and do it properly.

As I see it, we should all bear in mind this final bon mot from the pen of Giles Coren: “when I pick up a novel in a bookshop, I shall no longer flick through the pages to see if it sounds like my sort of thing. I shall turn straight to the acknowledgements and if you sound like a dick, it’s going back on the shelf.”

 

What’s your view on acknowledgements? Do you have any tips you’d add to my list?


© Debra Carey, 2020

ZotA: A reflection on our A-Z Journey

2badge (2)

 

As we may have mentioned once or twice ;), we’re both great fans of April’s A-Z Blogging Challenge. Set up by Arlee Bird back in 2009, it’s grown like topsy since that time.

It would probably be fair to say that 2020 has been a strange year.  The zeitgeist can be summed up by the conversation between 2019 and 2020:

2019:  I can’t believe I managed to out-do the last few years!

2020: Wait until you see what I’ve got in store! [Waggles eyebrows]

We started the month by saying neither of us were able to participate this year.  There were a number of excellent reasons for this, not all related to the implications of lives affected by the implications of Covid-19.  Both of us prefer to have a linking theme to work with, and both of us are haunted by the behemoth that our 2018 challenge ended up becoming… But we did want to do our bit. We decided instead to highlight one (or more) blogs each day, to encourage people who visit us to visit, to make new friends, and to find some entertainment during the current crazy world we’re in.  As we noted in our A2ZChallenge Survival Guide:

2. Say hello: a fundamental tenet of A2Z is going and saying hello.  The thing is, with over a thousand people, sometimes nearly two thousand, having a go at this blogging thingy, it can be tricky to know what to look at.  It is well worthwhile though – Debs and David have both met great people through the A2Z, people with whom they are both still in contact…

The Challenge could be used as a modern day update for the parable of the seeds: some blogs, despite signing up well in advance, never actually post during April; some start strong then fizzle out after perhaps a week or so; some are just not of interest to certain readers…But some make it through the entire month with entertaining content.  Surprisingly, in one sense, this last group is the majority.

Surprising to us, was that we managed to get through the month with a daily instalment of a blog or two that spoke to us in some way, inspired us to be better writers, entertained and delighted us.  Surprising not because of the wealth of excellent blogs (I’ve already said that they are there for the looking for), but because we were able to find a link to the letter of the day, and even some of the tricky ones are not that tenuous!

Some of our highlights are old friends, made during previous challenges, but some are new, and we’re looking forward to keeping up with these new friends moving forward.  We’re only sorry that we couldn’t visit more blogs, give more shout-outs.

Thus ends another challenge, and we’re delighted to be in the survivors club, given that we didn’t think we’d be doing the challenge this year!

missionaccomplished


© Fiction Can Be Fun, 2020

#FlashFiction: The Thesaurus Challenge

A quick reminder that this week’s challenge was to select five words from a list of  synonyms for walk. For the full list, see last week’s prompt post here.

My five words: lumber / stride / shamble / plod / race

Rag ‘n Bone

Peering through the late afternoon gloom, Mick was a worried man. Sheltering against the rain, his shoulders hunched from the cold, Mick lit yet another smoke. He was in serious trouble with Doris, for there was no doubting he’d let her down. For years now, Doris had taken in washing from the big house. She’d saved up hard and even got herself a machine, but it had sprung a leak a few weeks back. He’d promised to fix it, even getting so far as to ask Stan to look out for a suitable bit of pipe for him. He’d got a message Stan has found something, but had been diverted by the pigeon racing season, spending evenings down the pub with the other lads, and forgotten all about it.

Finally, what felt like hours later, he heard the unmistakable rumble of wagon wheels on cobble stones. First came Harry, calling out to announce their arrival, striding from door-to-door with the all vigour of youth, picking up anything on offer to show his Dad. Stan followed, shambling alongside his beloved cart horses. They plodded along at their usual pace – slow and steady, not stopping unless Stan called out “Whoa!” to them.

Racing across the cobbles Mick blurted out to Stan “Got that pipe still?”
Stan gave him an old fashioned look “I bin holding on to it for you for 6 week now …”
“Don’t mess about Stan, have you still got it?”
“I has lad, but only for I knows it be for your Doris. She done paid me for it too.”

Spitting to show his disgust, Stan gave Mick the pipe, then turned to Old Mrs Roberts who, as usual, wanted to barter over her old rubbish, trying to get an extra penny or two out of him.

Embarrassed by old Stan putting him firmly in his place, Mick hurried indoors. Doris’d had to turn to the neighbours to help her out this week, so the money she made would be shared out among them. He’d spoken to her sharply when she’d told him so this morning, telling her off for making a fool of him in front of their neighbours. Unusually for her, she’d snapped right back at him: “I give you plenty of rope Mick. Even though I work hard for that money, I don’t begrudge you your drinking, nor your time with the lads. But you’ve made a right fool of me to my friends. I stand up for you whenever folks call you lazy, and now I’ve had to go cap in hand to them all ‘cos you’ve proven them right and me wrong. My savings jar will be feeding us, ‘n buying the kids new shoes. You’ll be going without your nights out till it’s filled up again my lad.”

Pulling out his tools, Mick turned in time to catch sight of Stan and Harry’s rag ‘n bone cart lumbering on in the gloom, their round nearly at an end for another week.

© Debra Carey, 2020


I got slightly carried away with this one!

In addition to meandered / plodded / promenaded / sauntered / shuffled /stumped / trudged, there are three Easter eggs for you to look out for.  Let me know if you spot them!

Dark doings on a summer’s day

Sarah and James meandered through the streets of town, busy with milling tourists now summer was here.  Eventually they found themselves down at the docks.  Their friend Wendel was perched on a bollard, taking in all the sights and sounds.  A docker plodded past on his way to help unload the ferry.  In truth, this dock was not on the scale of the grand passenger docks of Southampton, nor yet the busy cargo port of Felixstow.  But for all that, Greycliffe had a rich heritage, once having been the haunt of smugglers.  Today, there was the daily ferry, a few fisherman, and a small marina for private boats.  The three children promenaded around the harbour with all the dignity of aldermen, skirting around holiday makers waiting to travel to the island just off the coast.

“Look over there!” Wendel pointed.  In the bay, moored out of the way of shipping but in deeper water was a schooner.  Smaller than the ferry, but much larger than the pleasure craft they were used to seeing, it sat at rest, dark and brooding.  They watched as three men climbed down a rope ladder to a dinghy that had been brought alongside by a fourth.  Once they were all aboard, the dinghy set out for the sea wall.

The three children talked and watched and watched and talked.  Sarah and James were enthusing about the summer reading challenge.  Wendel was not such a big reader as the twins, but this time the challenge was themed around his specialist subject: pirates, and by extension smugglers, particularly those that had haunted Greycliffe in the 17th Century.

As they talked, the scuffed dinghy from the schooner drew closer, finally tying up at some steps leading up to the quay.   At right angles to the steps, the children had a clear view of the occupants as they disembarked and climbed up to the wharf.  Sarah let out a little squeak and Wendel drew in his breath sharply.

“They’re a villainous looking crew!” James said gleefully.

Villainous, but also a tad theatrical.  One was wearing a tricorn hat.  Another, with long hair, greasy and straggling, had an eye-patch.  The last man to come up the steps had a wooden leg.

A sudden movement caught their attention and they saw another disreputable fellow, who had been lurking in the shelter of a stack of lumber, waiting to be loaded onto the ferry.  He was beckoning to the little knot of sailors – pirates? – who sauntered over to join him.  They put their heads together, conspiratorially.

The children looked at each.  What was going on there, then?

The huddle broke up.  Two of the pirates – surely pirates! – shuffled back to the steps and back down to the waiting dinghy and cast off.  They sculled away from the quay and then lay to their oars.  The peg-legged man stumped off down the quay; the remaining sailor trudged off in the direction of town with the man they had met.  The game was afoot…

©David Jesson, 2020