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.


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, 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

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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!


© 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

#FlashFiction Prompt – The Thesaurus Challenge

Following up on last week’s #SecondThoughts, we thought it might be fun to have a go at putting the thesaurus through it’s paces.

Walk, verb: to move along on foot.  According to (an online version of Roget’s 21st Century Thesaurus), the following are all synonyms for walk

go on foot
hit the road
hoof it
knock about
take a walk
travel on foot
wend one’s way


So the challenge is to pick at least five of these and fit them into your story in the sense in which they are intended.  No Lucien Freud style lists!

Exactly 500 words – on your marks, get set go!Be it fairy tale, thriller, steampunk, romance, pick your genre and write (with the usual NSFW proviso)!

Deadline: 8 am on Sunday, 3rd May 2020.

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 – you retain the copyright.

One caveat, if you want to go down this route: this is a family show, so we reserve the right not to post anything that strays into NSFW or offends against ‘common decency’.

An A-Z Journey through the Challenge: Z

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. As neither David nor I are able to participate again this year, we decided instead to highlight one (or more) blogs each day, to encourage you to visit, to make new friends, and to find some entertainment during the current crazy world we’re in.

Some of these highlights will be old friends we’ve made during previous challenges, but some will be new. We don’t plan to stick to any theme other than maintaining a (possibly tenuous) connection to the letter of the day.

The final day of 2020’s Challenge – Z …

You can find participants via the Master List, but in order not to miss any of April’s blogging riches, you may also seek participants via the hashtags #AtoZChallenge and #A2ZChallenge on Twitter. For today, I’d like to add:

Zalka Csenge Virág and her Multicolored Diary.  Ok, yes, the blog is so amazing I should have introduced you to it sooner, but I plead the Challenge, and the fact that Z can be one of the more challenging letters to fill…  To say that Zalka is an expert on Folklore and Mythology would be to sell her short.  Her incredible challenge theme this year was to present the many and varied animals, insects, etc, that are to be found in folklore around the world.  With enviable scholarship, a brief bio of the creature of the day is included, together with it’s impact on a story.

If you’re catching up, here’s our previous highlights …

The letter A
The letter B
The letter C
The letter D
The letter E
The letter F
The letter G
The letter H
The letter I
The letter J
The letter K
The letter L
The letter M
The letter N
The letter O
The letter P
The letter Q
The letter R
The letter S
The letter T
The letter U
The letter V
The letter W
The letter X
The letter Y

Let us know of other blogs connected to the letter Z which we should read.

© David Jesson, 2020