How to survive #AprilA2Z: A #SecondThoughts list

It’s easy to wish time away, but equally, Proper Preparation Prevents Poor Performance.  April is nearly upon us (sort of), which for a sub-set of bloggers means it’s time for #AprilA2Z.  That being the case, we thought that some tips (earned the hard way) on how to survive the month of April might be helpful.

For those unfamiliar with the AprilA2Z, it’s probably worth taking a moment to explain what this blogging challenge is – and if you are a blogger yourself, perhaps I can tempt you into giving it a go.  If you are already familiar with the Challenge, then you might want to skip to the list, but for those who need some context, read on!

The AprilA2Z challenge was created in 2010 by Arlee Bird, who said on his blog:

Can you post every day except Sundays during this month?  And to up the bar, can you blog thematically from A to Z?

He, and a few others, set out to show that you could.  (You usually get Sundays off for good behaviour, but it depends on the calendar, some years April has 5 Sundays, so you have to work one of them.  Them’s the breaks).  The challenge took off, and now there are still people who haven’t learned better, joined by newcomers who think that this looks like a jolly idea… Some people write on the day, prompted only by the letter.  Others spend a lot of time in preparation, and/or following an additional theme, prompted by their interests.  Part of the idea is to go and check out what other people are doing as well, comment, and say hi.

Debs had a go at this in 2015 without a theme and another run at it in 2016 on book genres. This was also the year she  inveigled David into giving it go, which lead to 26 posts on “How to write a thesis”. Having survived the experience (just) he came back again in 2017 with “The Materials Science in Fiction and Mythology“, whilst Debs had a third go with Jazz (and some fiction it inspired her to write).

David then came up with the insane brilliant idea of writing a novella over the course of April 2018, and persuaded Debs that it would be a good writing experience to share the load.  (They’re now putting the finishing touches to a full length novel based on this extended piece of writing, and are starting to flesh out plans for further stories in the same setting).

The following list represents their combined top tips for surviving the A2Z, having fun, building your blog and/or writing practice, and meeting new bloggers.

But before you start, you need to make a decision – what’s your purpose in joining this Challenge? Do you want to get into a regular blogging habit, make new online friends, find interesting new reading material, showcase your business, practice writing short stories, have a place to showcase the research you’ve done for a book you’re writing, write a series of linked posts which you can publish, or, or, or …?

a-z

Decision made? Then dive in …

1. Write what you know: This is one of those pieces of writing advice which some people swear by and others try to burn to the ground, salting the earth where it stood afterwards.  An interpretation of ‘what you know’ is not ‘what you have lived’, though, but rather, ‘what you have knowledge of and understand’.  A lot of science fiction and fantasy would never get written if we waited for writers to get abducted by aliens, but a good grounding in physics can be essential to get your head around time-travel or Faster-Than-Light space craft.  Similarly, a better than passing knowledge of horse-riding or some-such can add a level of verisimilitude to a description of the cavalry of the Third Imperial Lances fighting a desperate rear-guard action on the steppes of Hzrun.  In a non fiction setting, there are some great blogs about crafts, and David’s colleague used the A2Z to write a series of posts on metallurgy that now form extra reading material for one of the degree modules he teaches.

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 A2Z organisers try to make it as easy as possible to find out what a blog is about, so that is a helpful way of reducing the number to look at – time is precious and you don’t want to spend time looking at loads of blogs you aren’t ultimately interested in.  There are two approaches that you can take.  One is to pick a handful of blogs that you will look at and comment on everyday.  The other is to work your way through the list and look at a few new ones everyday, and follow up with a few later on.  The only problem with the latter method is the challengers who are running something that has a thread that runs through from the beginning.  (See point four, below).

3. Saying hello purposefully: If you say hello, people will try and check back if they can.  Also, people visiting this third party website will know that you are active, and might want to see what you’ve got to say.  Say hello purposefully, with a meaningful comment, and sign off with a link to your blog.  Not sure how?  Et voila!  The AtoZ people are very keen on electronic signatures that make it easy to find out where you are from, and ideally why.  I’ve found their tutorial very helpful, and I’ve used it several times.  This is mine from something called 23Things, which was a blog challenge I did for work.

[Your name or Twitter handle] from
<a href=”yourblogaddress”>Name of Your Blog</a>
You could add a mention to a specific project/event, with a link. For example, my signature for that event looks like this:
@BreakerOfThings from
<a href=”https://abackoftheenvelopecalculation.wordpress.com/”>A Back of the Envelope Calculation</a>
<a href=”https://abackoftheenvelopecalculation.wordpress.com/”>Calling by from #23ThingsSurrey</a>

4. How long should posts be? How long is a piece of string?  (Twice the length from the middle to the end).  The advice from A2Z HQ is not less than 100 words, to make it worth while for people coming to read what you’ve got to say.  That also works well if you’re going for a daily drabble challenge or some such.  An upper limit is probably about 1000 words, although experience suggests that even that can be a bit much.  There are two factors to consider – what do you have the time to write and what does your ready have the time to read?  Remember what we said about thousands of blogs in the challenge?  No one has the time to read several long form essays everyday.  That said, what is your USP?  What works for you?  What do you want to say?  If you are bashing out some random musings, and aren’t planning on major edits, then you can probably manage something slightly longer.  If you are aiming for something a bit more polished, then you probably want to keep the word count down a bit, if only to keep things manageable for you as a writer.

5. To theme or not to theme?  A theme might be obvious – it might spring fully formed from the reason that you blog in the first place.  Or it might be an opportunity to try out something new.  But you don’t have to blog  to a theme.  The queen of free association is probably Isa-Lee Wolf.  She does this a lot throughout the year anyway, but somehow always manages to up the ante for A2Z, without really doing anything different.  For us though, independently we’ve both found that a theme makes a lot of sense and helps to provide some focus.  It also makes it that much easier to write blog posts in advance, meaning that you have that much more time for checking out other people’s blogs during the challenge.

6. Being found & finding your fellow A2Z participants
6.1 You can sign up to take part on the Blogging from A to Z website, where you can also grab a selection of images to post onto your site, as well as purchasing items of merchandise. In earlier years they’ve provided either a list or a spreadsheet linking to participants; hopefully this practice will continue.
6.2 If you use Facebook, there’s a Blogging from A to Z Challenge page which you can like and follow. A daily post is provided for each letter of the alphabet where participants can post a link to their daily blog and find others participants.
6.3 Finally, there’s a Twitter account which you can follow, and where you can link your daily posts and read other news. But most people use a hashtag with #AtoZChallenge and #A2ZChallenge being two of the most popular.
6.4 One more random option (which is a favourite of Debs) is when visiting other participants to leave your own comment, click on the names of others leaving comments. The bonus in this method is that when you’ve found a site you like, other commentators could well be on the same wavelength as you are.

7. Write your posts each day, or in advance?  Is your time your own? Are you confident in being able to set aside the time every day throughout April to prepare and produce a post? Is part of your purpose for taking part in the Challenge to build a daily blogging or writing habit? Is the idea of a theme an anathema to you and would you prefer to go freestyle, writing on a subject that inspires you each day? If the answer to these questions is Yes – then you’ll have a lot of fun sitting down on April the 1st to pen your first post, and to repeat that each day until April 30th.
But for the time crunched among you, or for those wanting to use the Challenge to produce a series of more structured posts, or posts which could build into a body of work, advance planning and preparation is vital. The truly organized have all their posts written before April begins, many have them set up to auto-post, so their only action is to respond to comments and visit other participants to leave their own comments. But even having a plan and some advance posts in hand can dramatically reduce the requirement for burning the midnight oil.

And that’s all Folks!

Seriously though, remember that while it’s a Challenge, it’s meant to be enjoyable. There can be a fair degree of stress involved in making it through to the end, especially when life gets in the way – they don’t issue those “I Survived …” badges for nothing. Really, this isn’t about winning or losing – it’s about challenging yourself … but only so long as it’s fun.


© Fiction Can Be Fun, 2020

#WritersResources: Hemingway Editor

Last month we kicked off a new series of posts looking at some of the resources that we’ve gathered together in one place here.  The inaugural post looked at the process of using text to create a word cloud, with the added benefit that you could look at the list to see if there are any ‘crutch’ words that are over used.  It’s a nice tool: it has a functional, if slightly focused, role in support of editing AND allows you to produce some fun graphics that are tailored to your work in progress (WIP).

Today though, I thought we’d continue with the editing theme but get a bit more fundamental with Hemingway Editor.  There is a paid for version (which I have not used) that can sit on your computer, and apparently it had the ability to import and export to Word etc, and you can publish direct to WordPress and Medium.  One of these days I might shell out the $20 (less a cent) that it costs, but as there is a free version that is available via the web, I haven’t splurged yet.

I don’t use Hemingway for everything, and I have some issues with a few things – which we’ll come to in a minute – but I do use it frequently (and have it in a pinned tab on browsers on both my home and work computers), and in my day job I frequently recommend it to students.

So what is it? And how does it work?

Hemingway Editor is a bit like having Jiminy Cricket sitting on your shoulder, but this conscience is only interested in making sure that you use clear English.  In terms of the programming that underpins, I can’t tell you how it works, but it flags difficult and very difficult to understand sentences, adverbs, and use of the passive voice.  Lets see what I’ve written so looks like:

HA_1

Eeek!  That’s a lot of red!  If we look at the right hand side, we can see the stats: 15 sentences, over half of which have been flagged as problematic, and I’ve used too many adverbs.  On the plus side, the passive voice index is happy.  Also worth noting, it reckons the whole piece is at Grade 9 – this is a piece of software coming out of the US.  I don’t have a firm idea of what the Grade level indicates, but I do know from using the software that a lower number indicates work that is easier to read.  Personally I take some of this with a pinch of salt.  I quite like adverbs for example, and I think that people have taken the anti-adverb rhetoric to an extreme.  That said, there are a couple that I could edit, and the shading of the text has helped me to see that I used frequently twice in the space of a couple of sentences.  Oops.

What’s to like

This is an easy to use piece of software which you can just dump a chunk of text into and it automatically highlights the various issues.  I haven’t stress-tested it with a big lump of text, but I’ve edited chunks of a few thousand words with no problem.  I like the colour map produced and I think that it forces you to look at what you’ve written in a slightly different way.  Simply breaking up the text can highlight things that you missed when it  was a uniform block of black and white.

What’s not to like

There’s really very little not to like about this piece of software – as I’ve said, I recommend it to students regularly.  The caveats that I give when using it are that passive voice is not necessarily a bid thing in academic writing (I’d quite like to be able to turn that feature off from time to time, and that you need to use your critical faculties when you are revising – it would be handy if the app came with a health warning in this regard.  This is the downside of having something relatively simple – the software does not suggest any changes (which is probably for the best) but neither does it give very much detail as to what is wrong.  Why is that a hard to read sentence?  Is it just that it is very long?  It should also be noted that Hemingway Editor will not pick up typos (such as if you were to forget to close parentheses) so you do still need to do some careful proof reading.

All in all a useful tool in your writing toolbox, but one that needs to be used with discretion and as an active rather than passive mindset.  But what do you think?  Have you used Hemingway before?  What did you think?

 


© David Jesson, 2020

#FlashFiction Photo Prompt

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The Glow

She was sure there’d been something there, something she hadn’t seen for a very long time. From back when the world was … well, what it had been before they’d had to start over. But when she’d woken Sam up and dragged him out of their little cabin, there was nothing to see, and now he was acting all hyper vigilant and careful around her again. She knew why. It wasn’t like there hadn’t been episodes before. But she was confident this wasn’t one of those. There hadn’t been one for ages – which could mean she was due one. She knew Sam – and the rest of the community – hoped that her body’s chemistry had changed and settled. How she hoped the same.

The cravings had been bad when it first happened, she’d never have survived without Sam and his friends. Her friends had bailed pretty darn quick and, despite their scorn of Sam’s survivalist way and his prepper friends, it was they who’d taken her in and coped with the onslaught of her emotions running rampant without drugs to modify them. Mercy didn’t doubt it had been a mighty big ask. She didn’t remember all of it – what she did remember was grim enough – but ever since, there’d been those half-spoken exchanges, words and phrases which seemed to mean so much to everyone else … but nothing to her. She’d asked Sam, but he’d brushed it off, insisting it was nothing for her to worry about. When the frequency of the episodes has settled down, she’d pushed him on it. Eventually, he’d cracked, insisting that if it didn’t matter to them, it really needn’t matter to her. Over time, she’d come to see the truth in that statement, choosing instead to be appreciative and grateful for their acceptance of her.

Working hard when she was well, harder than she needed to, Mercy felt better for pulling extra duty in return for those times she hadn’t been able to do her bit, indeed when she’d added to the heavy load everyone already carried. So, when there’d been nothing for Sam to see that night, she knew to keep quiet. Once Sam relaxed, Mercy started going for a stroll in the night air before bed. The summer months had been hopeless, for it was too late when darkness finally fell, but Mercy steeled herself for the wait till autumn returned. It wouldn’t be that long, for one thing they’d all had to get used to in this new world of theirs was waiting – for the seasons to change, for crops to be ready for harvesting, for planting time to come round, for the ice to melt so they could fish, for the long winter to pass so wild animals didn’t get hungry and hang around their little group of cabins.

With autumn, the evenings started to draw in and Mercy caught sight of it a few times – far off in the distance – just the briefest of glimpses. But, ever careful not to arouse Sam’s suspicions, she hugged the knowledge of it to herself. Until she was sure it was what she thought it was, she was saying nothing.

The nights and mornings had been frosty for a few weeks when they had the first of the big snow falls. As Mercy put on her outdoor garb, Sam hurried to join her. Curbing the desire to be alone, she accepted his company with good grace, holding his hand and chatting while they walked in the fresh snowfall, their footsteps crunching beneath them. There’d been the odd flash, and Mercy saw Sam had noticed something – though he said nothing. She accepted the wisdom of his desire to wait and see before saying anything to the others, even to her, but her delight grew – she wasn’t having an episode.

After a while, Bob and Julia tapped on their door asking to join their stroll. Mercy feigned surprise, but she’d noticed Sam and Bob deep in conversation over chores the past few days. Julia took Mercy’s hand as they walked out, leaving Bob and Sam to walk together. Right on time the flashes appeared, leaving Bob and Julia gasping aloud. The next night, another couple joined them, and so it went on till the whole community was out of doors walking, waiting and watching.

Then, just as suddenly, the flashes stopped. It wasn’t long before worry set in. What were the flashes, who’d made them, what were they going to do now the flashes had stopped? The little community’s mood plummeted and no-one was sleeping well. Mercy and Sam still went for their night time stroll, but now they weren’t alone, for the community had re-instated their watch rota.

It had been a few weeks of solo strolling and no flashes when it happened – and this time it wasn’t just a flash, but a truly magnificent sight. Rapidly shouting for everyone to join them, Sam and Mercy gazed at the unmistakable sign of not just of life, but intelligent and innovative life. One not simply able to simply generate electricity, but having a desire for beauty and decoration. The size of the display left reflections in the broad expanse of lake which lay between them. As some of their number gazed in joy and awe, others worried how they’d not known another community lay so close by? While they’d stopped searching a while back …  it’d only seemed a year or two ago, till Julia remembered their last search had been the night her youngest was born, and he’d just celebrated his 13th birthday.

Activating those old plans for rapid reaction to such signs, morning saw an advance party setting off to trek around the lake. Nervously, the remaining community members gathered by the lakeside at dusk. With darkness came the light display, then – unmistakably – two flares. Two to indicate success and safety. Relief turned rapidly into joy, as they broke into loud cheering. Lighting the large bonfire they’d sent the day preparing, they remained outdoors until the lights went out.

Mid-morning saw the return of their advance party … and they brought with them new friends.


© Debra Carey, 2020

Everyone knew about the tree in the middle of the field.  Knew it so well that they didn’t really think about it.  A tree had stood in that field, it was said, for thousands of years.  The pedants and the know-it-alls would say it couldn’t possibly be that old, it wasn’t big enough, very old trees like that don’t grow in this part of the world.  The local wisdoms would point out that it had never been said it was that tree, just a tree.  At least, those were the sort of conversations that would be had, if anyone remembered to have them; but whilst everyone knew about the tree, no ever talked about it.   People would notice the tree as they passed by, dredge up some half-forgotten lore and then – nothing.  As soon as the tree was out of view, it fell back into whatever cellar such memories languish in.

****

Katy was walking home.  It was inky black, but she trusted her own knowledge of the of the paths hereabouts, and the pepper-spray in her bag, more than she did the slightly drunk friends she had left behind.  There was no Moon to guide her way tonight, but she triangulated on the flood lights of the church, up on the hill, and those of the manor house away to the right and across the fields, as she emerged from the copse of beech trees.  She took a moment to listen to the rustles of small creatures shuffling through the undergrowth.  There was a coughing sound which meant a hedgehog was exclaiming its ownership of some part of the hedgerow, and the bone-chilling yowl of a fox.  The path continued between a double row of hedges, a thorny demarcation separating two fields and using the right of way as a buffer state between two unfriendly neighbours.

She nearly missed it.  Out of the corner of her eye something seemed out of place; another step and it would have seeped away from her.  Some unexpected firing of neurons caused her to step back, to see what she had only glimpsed before.  She hadn’t imagined it: in a slight dip of the hedgerow she could just see the tree in the middle of the field.  In the darkness of this night of the new moon, it should have been invisible, but no.  It was lit up in the light shed from a strange, squat building that stood near its base.

She pulled out her phone, shook it to activate the torch and set about finding a gap that she could squeeze through.  It took her a minute or two, and when she wasn’t looking at the tree she found her mind becoming fuzzy, wondering why she was doing this.  She persisted: the fox she’d heard earlier must have a trail around here, and she found the hole that it had made.  She squeezed herself through, breathing in, and popped out into the field.

Ahead of her, the tree reached up into the night.  As she got closer, she realised that the lit-up structure was some sort of pergola, festooned with strings of fairy lights.  There was no consistency to these: some were bauble shaped, and others had been decorated with bits of plastic to look like butterflies.  Closer still and she realised that she could see a figure, standing at a distance of some 25 metres or so.

“Ah, that you, young Katy?  Thought we’d be seeing you here some time.”

“I’m sorry, who is that?”

“No need to be sorry, young’n, powerful dark night, and these blame lights don’t actually much do they. It’s me, Bill Darrow.”

“What are doing here Bill?  What’s going on?”

“Ah, well, that’s all of piece, really.  Vicar’n tell’n more’n I, but this be one of those thin places you hear of.  We never know much ahead of time when the door opens, but it’s always on’t a new moon.  Vicar’n me’n a few others come up here to make sure none get lost. N’I been thinking for some time that you’d be joining us, eventually.”

They stood together for the rest of the night.  Bill offered her hot, sweet tea from a thermos, and squashy fudge from a paper bag.  The inky night faded to the colour of much washed jeans, and tendrils of red threaded their way across the horizon.  Despite her scrutiny, afterwards Katy couldn’t remember whether the lights had gone out, whether the structure had faded or simply winked out.

The little group formed a knot and headed back to the vicarage – apparently a full English was on offer to the watchers, and Katy was invited.

“I have questions” Katy said to the Vicar.

“I’m sure you do” she replied, “I’m sure you do”.

© David Jesson, 2020

#FF – Photo Prompt

The photoprompts are normally Debs’ demesne, but I took this at Christmas on a trip to the RHS Wisley’ Glow – a display of lights around the gardens. (And I confess to being quite pleased with it).  I thought it might make a good prompt…

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So, any style, any genre, just nothing NSFW – otherwise feel free to branch out as you wish.  Tell us your tale …

 

Word count: 500 – 1,000 words
Deadline: 2pm GMT on Sunday 9th February  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’.