#SecondThoughts: What makes a Writing Space?

Although I’ve occasionally written something longhand in a notebook, if I write anything at all when I’m away from my desk, it tends to be notes – an aide memoir about a thought which popped unexpectedly into my head, or an item to be researched at a later date. I’ve also trained myself to think that it’s writing time when I’m sat at my desk.

That said, there’s very little about my desk that says “a writer works here”. My desk is very much a multi-purpose space – somewhere I do my day job providing support at an IT company, where I sit while doing my second job providing life coaching to my clients via Zoom, where I do all my personal and home admin. It’s also where I process my photographs, where I write my blogs (one life coaching, one personal, and this one), and it’s where I write fiction.

One wall of my office is lined with bookcases, positively groaning with books and yes, there’s a fair few on the craft of writing and publishing (perhaps one day I should review them). But there are also books on a variety of other topics (hence the groaning shelves). My office also stores the large pool of camera equipment I share with my partner.

But there are writerly aspects…

I’ve a simply beautiful antique writing slope which my partner bought me for Christmas a few years ago, which I really want to set up somewhere it can both be displayed and used for it’s original purpose. It currently sits on some shelving next to my desk and, whenever I see it, it makes me smile. I really rather like the idea of getting a quill or some form of dipping pen for it’s inkwell. One day…

Despite the fact that I now write my stories straight to screen, I have two large pots of pens & pencils – multiple colourful ballpoints and felt-tips pens, as well as many an ink pen. To date, I’ve three shades of ink – black, magenta and jade green. I love them all and feel sure I’ll be adding more, for they are gorgeous and I really enjoy the feel of writing with ink onto quality paper – it has a way of slowing down my thoughts, and that causes quite unexpected things to appear.

That leads nicely onto the dangerously swaying piles of notebooks on my desk – one pile of small (A5) and one of large (A4). There’s a mix of soft covers and hardbacks, ring binders and fully bound, all in multiple colours and patterns of cover. I intended to implement a system for their use, but have failed miserably to date. Instead, I regularly flip through them, either looking for something specific, or just to check what I may have forgotten (quite a lot as it turns out).

One item which really gives me the “I’m a writer” feels is the old black Anglepoise lamp sitting on the right-hand corner of my desk. It sheds a lovely warm pool of light across my desk, and creates a cosy atmosphere which feels more writerly than business-like. To add to the cosy atmosphere, when its time to do some writing, I put on one of my father’s old wool cardigans – oversized, rolled up at the wrists, and with holes which need darning. I’ve no idea if famous authors wore such things, but I feel more writerly when wearing one.

There’s also always a mug of tea – either Chai or Earl Grey – for tea is my fuel. In the background are the latest drawings from my grandchildren, and I try to keep space in the corner for a small sprig or two of something in a little glass vase from my daughter.

To the side of my desk, I have an inspiration board leaning against the wall. It’s filled with a selection of images and words cut out from magazines, together with a sprinkling of gold stars (someone sent me them and they seemed just the thing to add). It’s there to remind me of the life I’m working towards… one in which a writing shed plays a starring role.

What’s in your Writing Space? If you don’t have a dedicated space, what might make somewhere your ideal Writing Space?


#Secondthoughts: What I’ve learnt about writing from bad films

In the past, I’ve been pretty discerning in my viewing. There was the occasional yawn-fest when someone else picked the film, or if I watched TV when staying with someone else. But, generally, I’ve a pretty good idea of what type of thing I enjoy, and I’ve stuck to it.

Then my partner moved in with me and so naturally we watch a mix of what he likes and what I like. He likes action – high speed affairs with fights and stunts, and less attention to character development and storyline. That’s not all he watches – but it is what he watches at the end of a hard week when he simply wants to switch off and be diverted. As a result, in the past few years, I’ve watched a fair bit of – if not bad – then certainly not especially good stuff.

For I like films (and TV programmes) with well-crafted stories, with characters who are well-drawn and have depth, where there’s quality dialogue, not too many tropes, and a plot without a telegraphed outcome. The actors don’t have to provide award-winning performances, but must be believable in the role.

What I am not is a fan of films (and TV programmes) which are all action, horror or gore-fests, where the acting is one-dimensional or completely wooden, where there are glaring inaccuracies or plot holes, and where the plot follows a same-old same-old scenario. And so we come to…

Lesson 1: Humour can rescue those genres which are not my preferred – by which I mean wit, not macho banter (I have a strong aversion to macho banter). Macho banter is all about trying to be top dog, whereas wit doesn’t care, because it knows it’s clever.

To demonstrate this point I give you the action franchises Fast & Furious and Red. Both are headlined by action stars, both have action sequences and big stunts which require me to suspend disbelief. But the former takes itself terribly seriously, while the latter sends up the genre, albeit with affection. The former I find as dull as ditch water, while the latter proved pleasantly entertaining (if far from award-worthy). The quality of acting in the former runs from a to b, while that in the latter uses the full spectrum of the alphabet. The former is played for the ego stroking of the cast, the latter strictly for laughs. And with that we move on to…

Lesson 2: When you’re not playing it for laughs, you really must get the details right.

Professionals in the personal protection business absolutely trashed the BBC series The Bodyguard because the central character was running around not fulfilling his primary role – that of guarding his charge – but frankly, you didn’t need to be in the industry to notice, for it was the first question I asked. another BBC drama Vigil struck an immediate duff note in the characterisation of the captain. The action, which largely takes place upon a British nuclear deterrent submarine, is somewhere lead officers have to pass the notoriously unforgiving training programme before even being considered for service. Only the cream of the cream make it through, so depicting a weak captain in this key role, even hinting at his being a positive discrimination appointee by casting a black actor, is as unlikely to happen as a bodyguard with PTSD being selected to safeguard a key government minister. It was a shame for in both dramas, there was good tension, unexpected plot twists, and a quality cast. While there were other issues which caused a raised eyebrow or two, it was the sloppiness with characterisation which undermined their quality and made it impossible for me to take them seriously. While still on the subject of getting the details right, let’s move on to…

Lesson 3: while not Chekhov’s Gun Principle, if you’re going to name a weapon in your story, make sure it’s apt and historically accurate (surely a requirement for any named prop).

While I’ve blithely paid not a bit of attention to weapons used on screen, for my partner (whose great passion is military history) it’s the first thing he notices. Let’s compare and contrast The Battle of the Bulge and Fury. In the former, the easily available US Patton tank was used to depict German Tiger tanks. While entirely common at the time for German WW2 hardware has always been extremely rare), they also used post-war US Jeeps, despite earlier models being in plentiful supply. But in the latter film, accurate replicas were used throughout, and the producers also engaged with a British museum to use two fully restored WW2 tanks – one US, one German – for certain key scenes. Although there’s a certain amount of leeway assumed in film, you cannot get away with the same when writing your story. So, knowing that WW2 Soviet tanks are so small you’ll find no six footers in a T34, indeed knowing that they’re likely to be no taller than 5ft 6in, could not only help you avoid a distracting mistake but also contribute to your choosing to craft a character of Tartar, Turkic or Mongolian origin.

Lesson 4: when writing fiction in a historical setting, the bits which actually happened have to be correctly reported.

Let’s look at the bad and the good in a few TV series. In the hugely successful TV series Peaky Blinders, we see lead character Thomas Shelby meeting with Home Secretary, Winston Churchill in 1919 – except that Winston Churchill wasn’t Home Secretary in 1919. A similar error occurred in Leonardo, where da Vinci is shown being best friends with Niccolò Machiavelli, in 1467 – a full two years before Machiavelli was born. On the flip side, I offer Downton Abbey, where the writers demonstrate how to get it right by their successful depiction of the Grantham family living their lives weaved around the major historical events of the period, such as the sinking of the Titanic and WW1. With my second example of getting it right, I offer Band of Brothers. Based on a non-fiction book, it enhanced its accuracy by including clips from interviews with the surviving real life members of the cast of characters.

Have bad films/TV provided you with useful writing lessons? Where else have you discovered unexpectedly useful lessons in writing?

© Debra Carey, 2021

#FlashFiction – Mary Sue: The Story

Burnham finished the last paragraph, shook his head in disbelief and turned back to the beginning. Perhaps a third reading would make more sense, make the transcript of the interview more palatable.

Subject: Interview with Miss Mary Susan Broom, ATS

Interviewer: Thank you for coming today Miss Broom –

Broom (interrupts): Please call me Mary Sue, everyone does.

I: Indeed. Well Miss Broom, as I say, thank you for coming today. Could you tell me a little about yourself?

B: Oh, there’s not much to tell really. My mother joined the Women’s Volunteer Service as soon as it started and between helping out with air raid precautions, running the local evacuation effort and so on, she didn’t really have enough time to knit things for soldiers, so she got me started on that. But after knitting a hundred pairs of socks in two days, I felt there must be more that I could do, so as soon as I’d had my eighteenth birthday, I volunteered for the Auxiliary Territorial Service.

I: I see. And it looks like you passed the ATS training course with flying colours – (copy of training record attached).

B (interrupts): Oh yes! Such fun, and I really enjoyed helping the other girls when they found things a bit of a struggle.

I: Now, tell me a little bit about this reprimand on your record.

B: It was so silly. I still can’t believe that I was reprimanded for that. I was waiting to pick [REDACTED] up from [REDACTED]. I’d just finished the Times crossword – jolly nearly a personal best too, I think it took me three minutes that day – when I spotted this cove looking terribly suspicious and thought that he must be up to no good.

Burnham decided he couldn’t face dealing with the ‘tailing’ of the spiv again, especially the lengths Miss Broom had gone to to disguise her ATS uniform, so he skipped to the end.

B: And so they docked me a days wages and gave me an official reprimand, even though I’d caught this spiv and handed him over to the police. I thought that was jolly unfair.

I: Hmmm. Well now, could you tell me about this letter you sent to [REDACTED]? (copy of letter attached).

B: Well, I would have thought it rather obvious. There was a puzzle in the Times – jolly hard, too, took me nearly ten minutes to solve it – and it said if you could solve it to send your proof to an address and there would be a small prize. So I thought I would send in my proof.

I: Yes? And then what?

B: It turned out my prize was an invitation to sit some sort of exam! Cheek! Well, I swapped my day off and went and sat the exam, just for something to do really. I couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about, because it was quite easy really, easier than the puzzle in the Times, although maybe I’d just got into the right frame of mind by then. Anyway, the whole thing took me about half an hour. On my way out, I pointed out that there was a mistake in one of the questions. The examiner was a bit rude about it actually. Anyway, I didn’t hear anything more about it, except that someone in my section was saying that her boyfriend had also answered one of these ads and was now working on something hush-hush somewhere. So I thought I’d write to [REDACTED] and see if there was any possibilities for me there. I do enjoy my ATS work, but this sounded like such a lark.

Burnham took a sip of his tea, and realised that it had gone stone-cold. He’d wasted enough time on this. He flipped to the last page of the interview.

Conclusion: Subject considered unsuitable for SOE work. Promote within ATS and move to non-critical sector. Surveil. Possible Security Risk.

Burnham picked up a rubber stamp, inked it, and brought it down firmly on the paper underneath the conclusion:

RECOMMENDATION APPROVED stared back at him in big red letters. He gave the stamp a moment to dry, closed the file and repeated the process with another stamp. When he was finished, REJECTED crossed over the legend ‘Special Operations Executive Recruitment Interview’. He sighed, rubbed his eyes and picked up the next folder.

© David Jesson, 2021

Author’s note – in answer to a comment made when we posted the prompt, the character is definitely not a reflection of an idealised form of the author! Also, regular readers of the blog may recognise the name Burnham. Yes, it’s the same chap, although until I’ve had a chat with Debs, this is very much non-canon…

#FF Prompt: Mary-Sue

I think I’ve mentioned ‘Mary-Sue’ in passing on this blog before, but I can’t now find the post. C’est la vie. Suffice it to say that a Mary-Sue (a male version is sometimes referred to as a Gary-Sue) is someone who is impossibly perfect (except for one, obvious, knowing flaw), typically has something tragic in their past (which is what drives them on), and somehow manages to stay on good terms with everyone on their side. The most blatant examples of this character are to be found in fanfic: the classic, and possibly definitive version is the raw ensign who is somehow able to out-Kirk Jim, out-Scott Scotty, out-Vulcan Spock, and out-Doc McCoy. This prodigy will probably die saving the Federation, and Spock will cry at her funeral.

So, for a bit of fun, 500-1000 words about a Mary-Sue kind of character. Bonus points for:

-Fanfic – anything you like, but perhaps lets give Star Trek a miss. Double points for something non-obvious. This can include a parody of your own work, should you happen to have written something suitable.

Word count: up to 1,000
Deadline: 8am GMT on Sunday, 14th November 2021

If you can’t make this deadline, don’t forget you can use 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’.

#IWSG: What makes you sweat – Titles or Blurbs?

The first Wednesday of every month is officially Insecure Writer’s Support Group day. It’s an opportunity to talk about doubts and fears you have conquered. To discuss your struggles and triumphs and to offer a word of encouragement for others who are struggling.

November 3 question – What’s harder to do, coming up with your book title or writing the blurb?

Doesn’t it makes you wonder why we put ourselves through all this torture? As if writing the book itself isn’t hard enough, we then get to beat ourselves up with everything else – and book titles and blurbs are just two of those sticks.

I’ve written previously on both these subjects (titles and blurbs – if you’re inclined to read further) but, far from having either subject sorted, I barely scraped the surface in the first- talking about some of the advice I’d collated thus far, and then had a good old complain at how hard it is to do in the second. Of course, our books will get names and blurbs will get written, but because our stories are so precious to us, we want them to have exactly the right title and the perfect blurb, which is what makes it all so terribly hard.

If we’re fortunate, inspiration will strike with the former, and we won’t have to go through the painful process of digging out that title which ticks all the boxes – although whose boxes we’re ticking, isn’t entirely clear to me. As for the blurb, my suspicion is you’re on a hiding to nothing with that, for there will always be those who want more while others will want less.

For me, the pressure for one is internally applied, while the other is external. You can only be frustrated with yourself if you’ve been unable to find exactly the right title, but dealing with the knowledge that readers could be picking apart your blurb, either complaining it told them not enough, or upset as it said too much, will always be out there.

Like I said – torture.

The awesome co-hosts are Kim Lajevardi, Victoria Marie Lees, Joylene Nowell Butler, Erika Beebe, and Lee Lowery – do take a moment to visit them.

While you’re here, can I tempt you with a #FlashFiction prompt?

Every month, we run a different #FF prompt and this month it’s Mary Sue.

If you’re inspired to give this a go, come back on Sunday morning, when full details will be published.

© Debra Carey, 2021