Now with added…Satire

I did not, and still don’t, consider myself to be a creative mind, so when it came to thinking of a story I drew an emphatic blank. Eventually I chose something unusual, something never done in novel form before to the best of my knowledge.

I landed on a Neanderthal comedy.

As with a lot of the writing community on Twitter, I’d be hard pushed to remember exactly when I made contact with John Drake, the focus of last week’s Indie Spotlight here on Fiction Can Be Fun. What I do know is that he has a great eye for the absurd, and great ear for comic dialogue. I’m always incredibly grateful (and amused) when I spot his tweets, and I am beyond chuffed that he’d agreed to give us an insight into the crossover between his life and his writing.

Without further ado, I’ll hand over to John. Give him a big hand guys, that’s right, make him feel welcome!

I didn’t enjoy English lessons in school; I hated that it involved lots of writing. I would have been far happier had I been able to summarise the novel “Of Mice And Men” with a couple of sentences explaining how it was a story of a friendship’s boundaries, and perhaps a nod to the importance of beans. I also dropped history at the first opportunity, aged fourteen, for the same reason. The idea that one day I would write a book, let alone three historical ones, was preposterous.

I never wrote a simple, cute story as a six year old, I never wrote one about playing football for my favourite team as a teenager, and I grew into adulthood without once picking up a pen in anger.

When, as a young twenty-something, I started work in a large sales office in Liverpool, England, colleagues would ask me to write their complaint letters to businesses they felt had wronged them. I enjoyed weaving their situation into a coherent and infallible grievance. But that was it. I still hadn’t written a single word of fiction, despite the gently growing calls from those around me. You should write a book they would say, as they often do. I would nod placatingly and ignore the well-meaning advice.

The tipping point, I think, was when I read the last available Terry Pratchett book a few years ago. I had devoured them in double quick time, along with the works of Douglas Adams, P G Wodehouse, Oscar Wilde and other satirical greats. I could find nothing similar out there for people like me. As the years wore on I began to think more and more that perhaps I could write something to combat this dearth. Almost three years ago, at the age of forty, I decided to give it a go with neither hope nor expectation that anything would come of it.

 I did not, and still don’t, consider myself to be a creative mind, so when it came to thinking of a story I drew an emphatic blank. Eventually I chose something unusual, something never done in novel form before to the best of my knowledge.

I landed on a Neanderthal comedy.

Before writing a single word I concluded only two things about the story; it would be full of wordplay and the Neanderthal main character would be an engineer. It is no exaggeration to say that was the sum total of my planning. I had no idea what the plot was, why he was an engineer (other than it being a humorous juxtaposition), nor how I was going to string out a story for seventy five thousand words with no points of reference other than some trees and perhaps a mountain. This was, literally, the first piece of fiction I had ever written. I opened up a blank MS Word document and stared at it for a while. Then I wrote:

‘The Sun had finally risen, slowly but inevitably, like an almost-too-heavy balloon’

    I must have read over it a dozen times. Yes, I was happy with that. It was thunderously lonely, but I liked it.

Now what?

Inexplicably, I chose to write a one hundred word scene where a goat falls of a rocky outcrop.

Great. Now what?

I had given no thought to the environment within which the story would happen, so I began to describe the scenery, with the main character sitting on the same rocky outcrop (though without the goat) as he scanned the landmarks. I named them in self-explanatory ways; Cave Mountain was a mountain with caves in it. Green Forest was a forest that was green, and so on. It was a natural progression, then, to have the secondary characters as simple, unimaginative Neanderthals in contrast to my engineer. This set the dynamic for the rest of the story and all I did was lay the tracks of the plot in front of me as I wrote. Before I knew it the main character had had enough of his tribe and had left them behind in favour of a hopeless adventure. I was motoring along, adding no more than a few words each day, until I finally wrote ‘The End’.

Terry Pratchett once said that the first draft is just you telling yourself the story, and this is certainly true of my writing journey, since I had no idea what the story was when I started. Come to think of it, the same can be said for when I was more than halfway through it too. I gave it out to family members, who came back with bits and pieces of valuable feedback. Once I had ironed out these issues and checked for continuity errors and typos, I was done.

Without boring you with the intricacies of every writing decision I have ever made, I applied the same logic to book two, a satire set during the Black Death, and book three, a Genghis Khan comedy. All three were chosen because I hadn’t seen anything similar before, and the last two were also subjects I had a general interest in.

You may be reading this and thinking that I have oversimplified the writing process in the same way that I condensed Of Mice And Men, but the honest truth is that I haven’t. That is it; the process that took me from not being an author, to being one.

All you have to do is tell yourself the story.

In the end, I told myself the story and it changed me in more ways than I could have imagined. I’m now a writer with a publisher and have four novels out there in the ether, all of which will outlive me. I no longer spend my days ticking boxes in a boring office job. Instead I travel through my imagination and spend my days turning ‘what if’ ideas into storylines.

I am, literally, living the dream.

Several people in history have noted that “If you do something you love you will never work a day in your life” and this is absolutely true. I love writing, and it seems I have some level of talent for it. Being able to do it and pay the bills at the same time is something for which I will be grateful for as long as it remains sustainable. It started out as a simple hobby, then morphed into a personal legacy for me to be sentimental about when I’m sitting under a tartan blanket in a rocking chair with too many grey hairs and not enough summers. Now it is a way of life. It defines my day to day living as my office job once did, but with more joy and a sense of accomplishment.

Could I imagine doing anything else? Not on your nelly.

© John Drake, 2021 (Main text)

©David Jesson, 2021 (Intro)


Indie Spotlight: John Drake

Have you seen this man? Wanted for writing biting satire.

Indie spotlight is a new feature that we’ve added this year, and for our second issue, I’m delighted to introduce John Drake. I say delighted, but that’s through gritted teeth, because John is not only a brilliant writer, and not only horribly quick at getting his books out, but he’s a terribly nice person. In fact his only real fault is his obsession with Tranmere Rovers. John currently has three books out in the cruel world, with a fourth joining them on June 1st.

John’s first book, Making Man, is a little gem: it’s billed as the world’s first neanderthal comedy novel. Whilst Littlenose might have something to say about that, until further evidence is found, I think we have to support John’s assertion, if only because the Littlenose books are collections of short stories. But I digress.

Making Man follows the adventures of neanderthal engineer Cobble of the village of Boardom (possibly one of the earliest puns in prehistory). Cobble has the kind of dreams that change the world, and sometimes leads to the dreamer being chased out of their home by people with flaming torches and/or a tendency to ask difficult questions about your role in breaking things of inestimable value to the community…Ultimately the book is about family and friendship, particularly the family you choose for yourself, and surviving the family you get born with.

Possibly the first neanderthal comedy novel in the world.

Fans of Douglas Adams and Sir Terry Pratchett may not enjoy Making Man as much as those esteemed authors, there are fewer elephants and no Vogons after all, but they should enjoy and remember it fondly nonetheless.

Making Man, blurb

I’m cautious of comparisons with other authors, but that’s another story. Do not be fooled by the mention of Pratchett and Adams – John Drake does have his own voice. I’d even go so far as to say that this is a much more original work than Pratchett’s Colour of Magic. If you’re unfamiliar with Pratchett’s first Discworld novel, it is a great pastiche, but it wears its inspirations on its sleeve. Making Man is a very different beast. Fans of authors such as Pratchett and Adams will find themselves well-catered for here, but the inspirations are well hidden behind the scenery.

John Drake is a champion of people with all their imperfections: he sees the best in people and how they can achieve so much more when they talk together and work together. Read this book and share in a tale of overcoming adversity.

Finding the funny side in the plague sweeping medieval Europe

In case you haven’t realised yet, John is a man who likes to take his own path… From prehistory, he turned his attention to the medieval period, and then moved from Europe to the Steppes of Asia.

Cheating Death takes as its back drop the Black Death, which is not well known for its humorous potential. A woman seeking revenge by assassinating the pope doesn’t sound like it should add many laughs and nor does a dubious individual known as the Cutler… Still, it doesn’t take two bibidinous English pilgrims to carry the humour – Drake is far too canny a writer to rely on such obviously comic stalwarts.

What’s funny about Genghis Khan’s Golden Horde? Read and find out!

Ghengis Khan is also not well known for his sense of humour, but rather creating an immense empire that stretched all the way to middle Europe. Here we find an older despot, arguably entering a second childhood, which has all sorts of opportunities for comedy in itself. But wait! There’s more! You wouldn’t think that the Golden Horde would need a Human Resources Manager would you? But here he is, up to his neck in it, and sent off on a reconnaissance mission as penance. Whilst Drake’s pun game is always strong, there is a particular satisfaction here with respect to the names of the division leaders. I really wouldn’t recommend turning recognition of these into a drinking game.

And then we come to John’s latest book, which from the title sounds like it’s completely about the current lockdown crisis and working from home, but from the cover and the snippets that I’ve seen I can categorically state that it isn’t… Somewhere it has some Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in its DNA, and perhaps a little Only Fools and Horses (as revised by Simon Pegg), but fundamentally it’s pure John Drake, and it will deserve your complete and undivided attention!

If you’d like to find out more about any of John’s books, then you can find him on Amazon, Goodreads, and his Three Ravens Author Profile.

John has also taken the incredibly brave step of setting up a proofreading and editing service, Cobblestones. We’ll be adding that to our resources page. John offers a discount for independent authors.

© David Jesson, 2021 (New material.  Author picture, book covers etc used with permission of John Drake).

How to edit: Some #SecondThoughts

…today I thought it might be helpful to look at how to edit in terms in deploying various strategies to get into the text and tinker with the nuts and bolts of it.

Sometimes it seems like there’s nothing on which the #WritingCommunity can agree.  I suppose it’s a microcosm of the whole of life – there’ll always be at least two sides to an issue and a spectrum of possible positions which ever side of the fence you sit.  Assuming you’re not sitting on the fence itself of course.

Editing is one of those things that most writers seem to despise: you’ve got the first draft down on paper, it’s an incomplete mess, and now, somehow you’ve got to impose some kind of order.  I have a bad habit of editing on the fly rather than trying just to write and get everything down – but that’s another story…Under the right circumstances (time, quiet, space) I actually quite enjoy editing.  There’s something quite therapeutic about bringing order from chaos.  That said, there are different kinds of editing.  It’s tempting to think that it’s just about catching the typos, the split infinitives, and the fact that you’ve used a particular word three times in two pages (or even two paragraphs).  But editing can also be about making sure that the thread of the story is complete, that the story is well balanced, that you don’t change a character’s name halfway through.

So far, I’ve had three very positive experiences working with editors to revise texts.  The first was with Rachael Ritchie who helped enormously in getting ‘The Cave of Legix’ into shape for inclusion in The Crux Anthology.  The second was working with Cally Worden of Enigma Editorial: Cally was the first professional editor that I have worked with to review a story that I had a particular destination in mind for.  Whilst the story is yet to be published, that’s more down to me as I need to finish some extensive revisions, because Cally helped me to see where there were some significant flaws in the story.  Don’t get me wrong – Cally was incredibly supportive, and made me feel that the story was worthwhile working on.   Most recently, I’ve been working with Jaime and Liz of Cardigan Press to polish a short story for their debut anthology – they’re great at letting the writer’s individuality come through, but absolutely insistent that the writing is top quality.

I’ve previously mentioned that I sometimes use Hemingway Editor as part of an editing strategy, and Debs has done a great comparison of various routes to listening to what you’ve written. But today I thought it might be helpful to look at how to edit in terms in deploying various strategies to get into the text and tinker with the nuts and bolts of it.  In fact, thinking about your text as a piece of machinery is not a bad way to go.  We’re trying to get from the workshop, where there are wires that are the wrong length, redundant bits that were part of an initial concept, important bits that fall off because they’re not fixed down properly, to the sleek, elegant form that’s going to convince people to buy it.

Editing strategies are going to depend a little bit on how long the story is that you are trying to edit. Micro or flash fiction is obviously fairly easy to see what’s going on – your entire story might be less than one screen’s worth of words.  Once you are over a couple of thousand words though, and certainly when you are talking about novella and novel length stories, it’s seldom a good idea to begin with a complete read-through straight off.  Like any exercise, editing requires a warm up – whilst your writing muscles may be lovely and flexible from getting all the words down on the page, you will pull something if you try to dive straight into editing.  You will be using a different set of muscles now.

My warm up exercise for editing comes courtesy of Victoria Griffin and her ‘10 Red Flags‘.  I work through the list sequentially: using ‘find’ I look for every instance of a particular word and delete if it’s unnecessary or revise the text as appropriate.  This is also a handy way of dropping you into the narrative in random places and engaging with what you’ve written previously.  What might have seemed like a lovely piece of text when you wrote it can be shown to be a bit flabby or unhelpful when you look at it again.  Likewise, something that might have felt like you only put it in to fill a gap might be worth a second look.  In either case, seeing it out of immediate context can be helpful in exposing flaws.

An extension of this first step is to check and see if you have any ‘crutch’ words – words that you use repeatedly for whatever reason.  Last year we added Word Cloud to our list of Writer’s Resources, and I talked about how you might use it. It’s easy to generate a list of words and how many times they are used in the text.  Again, find is your friend.

At some point, you will need to read through the whole thing, and you will probably need to do this more than once.  Different people will have different takes on this, but, as an aside, I’m always surprised that people don’t turn on spelling and grammar features in their writing software of choice.  It won’t catch everything, and it might flag things that you need to ignore, but I’ve always found it useful for catching a significant number of issues.  Anyway, back to the read through.  There is a temptation to try and and hack through as much as possible as you can in one go.  This is rarely fruitful.  Like any exercise, no matter how much you train, there is a limit.  Whilst you might get over the finish line, do you really want to be figuratively (or perhaps literally?) vomiting because you’ve over done it?  If you try to do too much, there will come a point at which you’re not doing yourself or your manuscript any favours.  Depending on your style, concentration, and resolve, you might get through 500-1000 words in a session, but it might be better to think in terms of a scene, or even a time-limit.  Twenty minutes is a good session time, and you can always come back to it after a quick brain-break.

If you’ll excuse me, I’ve just noticed that I’ve used the same word five times in one paragraph, so I’m off to do some editing…

But what about you?  What are your top tips for editing?

©David Jesson, 2021


AtoZ: ZotA

From David:
The A-to-Z challenge is old enough to have its own little rituals, and one of these is the reflection post: how was your challenge? Did you win? What went well? What would you do differently? This is my fifth challenge, my third sharing the load with Debs and by most objective standards, to quote the Go Jetters, we aced it. Not only did we have content posted everyday, but we’d pretty much got everything done and dusted before April had started. I’d hoped to post round-up posts on the Sundays, but only managed the first two of these: I’m not too worried about that – they were a nice to have, not essential to the plan. People came by and said hi, which was great: I managed to visit people and say hi, and that was great too. On both counts it was good to catch up with old friends and to make new ones. All in all, it was a good challenge. Some more footfall on the blog would have been nice, but the quality of what we had was top notch.

Looking over what I’ve wriiten above, there is definite lack of sparkle, life and a writing deadline for a nearly missed opportunity have left me without much energy to write this post, and all the words have been used up elsewhere. The road-trip beckons and I’m looking forward to catching up with some of the blogs that I missed during April. Probably best if I leave it at that.

From Debs
April was a funny old month with health challenges limiting the time I could spend at the keyboard, combined with unexpectedly heightened demands from the day job. But… it was absolutely wonderful being transported right back into the world of The November Deadline. I loved being back among the characters, it was joyous researching little bits & pieces of history to weave into the story, but most of all, it was the best experience ever to fully embrace the next book, when I’ve been holding myself back from that luxury as we’ve worked to finish the first one.

There is no doubt that the pressure of a deadline – an external one – really does get the writing juices flowing. Self-imposed deadlines can be useful, but the glare of the outside world works way better. The writing of the first book will always be associated with 2018’s A-to-Z Challenge, and it feels so very right that the second book sprung properly into life during 2021’s Challenge, when we got to embrace our thoughts & ideas and see them turn into words on a page.

My biggest disappointment is not being able to spend much time visiting other blogs, something which provided me with such great pleasure during the early years of my participation. Even acknowledging the limitations on my time, this aspect takes some of the shine off 2021’s participation for me.

In summary, as a writer – 2021’s Challenge was a real win, but as a reader – I think I’d have to give myself a “could do better”.

© Fiction Can Be Fun, 2021

#FF Prompt: Pantry Raid – the Stories

THE PROMPT: They were in the middle of raiding the pantry when a cough came from behind them …

Steve had booked a country house for Adele’s special birthday weekend, and invited a group of friends. He’d also bought one of those murder mystery packs for the weekend as the weather forecast couldn’t be relied upon at this time of year. He worried in case it was a bit cheesy, but everyone their friends had been keen, thinking it would be fun. He was careful to pick something set in the twenties so the outfits would be easy, and the bonus was that Adele’s vintage clothes business meant she’d have her choice of outfits, and could shine… which is what Adele liked to do in any gathering.

Antique crystal glasses filled with champagne greeted them as they entered the grand hallway, quickly followed by their guests– chinking glasses and calling out birthday greetings. Adele’s laugh tinkled out across the gathering and Steve began to relax – it seemed he’d got it right.

The staff, resplendent in their uniforms, gently encouraged guests to make their way upstairs to change for cocktails and dinner. Gathered once more in suitable garb, the butler was displaying his encyclopedic knowledge of cocktails. Even while serving them, he managed the snooty down-his-nose look perfectly.  

Decked out in his white sharkskin dinner jacket, bought specially and altered to fit, Steve was delighted with the sight which awaited them as he walked Adele into the dining room. The long table positively sparkled. Lit with a vast array of candles in silver candelabras running down the centre, they glinted off the vast array of silver cutlery and crystal glasses. The table was set for a formal multi-course dinner, and although Steve had worried that many courses would leave people uncomfortable full – the portions proved to be well balanced, absolutely delicious and beautifully presented.

They remained in character for a twenties dinner party, the time when the men would typically to retire for coffee and cigars. It being Adele’s party, she wasn’t going to be left out of anything, so the whole party retired to the drawing room for coffee and liqueurs. It was there the murder occurred.

In true country house murder mystery style, the lights went out, rapidly followed by the sound of a single shot. When the lights came back up, the under-butler was lying, theatrically clasping his chest, where a red stain was spreading across his perfectly starched dress shirt. Steve had to admit he was impressed how realistic those fake blood capsules looked.

The rest of the evening and much of the next day followed the script of an Agatha Christie country house murder. The detective behaved in an imperious manner, asking questions (according to the script provided) and insisting that “nobody leave” without his permission. Steve had chosen Adele’s ex-boyfriend to play the detective – an actor by profession, if not yet hugely successful – he carried out his part with great aplomb.

Saturday’s schedule was packed. A full cooked breakfast was followed by detective playing his part to the full, as he interviewed each guest in turn, until the butler finally called in positively plummy tones: “luncheon is served”. A large cold spread partnered with home-baked bread and home-made pickles greeted the party, accompanied by soft drinks and locally brewed beer. The guests laughed at feeling like naughty children when, luncheon over, the butler suggested they might all enjoy a walk in the landscaped grounds. The fresh air proved surprisingly enjoyable, and it gave them the opportunity to speculate on the identity of the killer.

Afternoon tea served in a striking Clarice Cliff tea service, allowed them to wile away the afternoon, before breaking out their finery once more, dinner was an equally sparkling affair as the night before. Yet something seemed off, and Steve couldn’t quite put his finger on it.

Just as he was dozing off, Adele shook his shoulder. Despite insisting that she was too full to eat her chocolate brownie desert, she now had a craving for it. Wondering how on earth he would fulfil her request, he was pathetically grateful to hear the butler had whispered to her that he’d put a serving aside in the pantry, in case she changed her mind. And she had. Could they…?

Adele in a full length chinoiserie dressing gown and Steve in newly purchased silk pyjamas, both giggling like naughty school kids, finally located the pantry. There, as promised, was a plate of chocolate brownie desert. Picking up the plate, Steve nearly dropped it again when there was a cough behind them.

Recognising the butler, he breathed in relief. But the butler gave him his most supercilious of looks to date, saying in his most snooty tone “why am I not surprised to find sir raiding the pantry?” Turning to Adele for support, Steve was surprised to see her standing beside the butler, her arm linked in his.

“What’s going… “

But before he could finish, Steve saw the butler reach out and touch his shoulder. Yet he felt no pressure on his skin, only coldness – a deep, bone numbing cold. Feeling as if his body suddenly weighed a ton, Steve tried to reach out, but his limbs didn’t respond. Crying out, he was terrified to realise he’d made absolutely no sound at all.

Two weeks later, the group gathered again – this time without Adele or Steve. The actor who’d played the part of detective took centre stage once more.

“She’d planned it all after he made a will. Poor bugger had absolutely no idea. She’d been monitoring his emails from the word go, and when she found the booking, she arranged with her new man to get the part.”

When the shock had subsided and the questions started flying, he raised his hands for silence.

“He slipped something into Steve’s bedtime hot drink. They planned that he’d faint in the pantry, where they could fabricate an accidental hitting of his head on the marble table. But something happened. He had some sort of strange allergic reaction – and went stone cold – then his heart stopped.”

Adele’s best friend shook her head…

“I never understood what she saw in Steve. She had a proper penchant for actors, and he was all heart on his sleeve – not her sort at all. Never thought she’d kill him though.”

© Debra Carey, 2021

#FlashFiction Prompt: Pantry Raid

They were in the middle of raiding the pantry when a cough came from behind them …

You can make this quote the beginning, the ending, or even put it in the middle of your story – your choice. As always, any genre, just nothing NSFW.

Word count: 500-1,000
Deadline: 8am GMT on Sunday, 9th May 2021

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 – 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’.