#SecondThoughts: Causes or Passions colouring your writing

In my experience, it’s virtually impossible to prevent bits of yourself leaching into your writing, so why wouldn’t your causes or passions colour it too? As I see it, you can choose to make them the driving force of your story, or to simply be one aspect of it, or to form a background against which it’s told.

Let me start with an example of shared passion which colours our co-authored WIP The November Deadline, that of gender equality. It might be obvious why this would be a cause close to my heart, but it’s David whose the passionate STEMinist – advocating for greater opportunities and a more welcoming environment for women in the areas of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. It’s no surprise, therefore, that he was drawn to the Dvergar for their matriarchal structure and skills in this area. The obvious bonus being it provided us with a methodology to showcase non-typical – for the era – female characters in our WIP. The contrast between our Dvergar characters and those who do met the historical norms of the era, allowed this disparity to be heightened without any need for drum banging in our writing.

Moving on then to focus on how I’ve seen this done beautifully in my reading.

The Wayfarer’s series from Becky Chambers (which I highly commend to you by the way) comprises a quartet of books – The Long Way to A Small, Angry Planet, A Closed and Common Orbit, Record of a Spaceborn Few and The Galaxy, and the Ground Within – and is an excellent series of space opera, where individuals from a wide range of planets are drawn together, to work, to love, and to live. It’s not an unrealistically utopian world for there are – of course – conflicts, some of the global type, but more of the inter-personal kind. What I’ve especially enjoyed is the depiction of variances in culture, belief systems, physical needs, attitudes to things such as parenting, and gender. In the final book of the quartet, we meet a mother and child from a people where it’s standard practice for children to be gender neutral until they reach a certain age, at which point they get to choose which gender path they will follow thereafter. With Trans issues being a rather combative subject at present, this gentle depiction of a different way of looking at gender identity was both interesting and enjoyable.

James Baldwin as both a black man and a gay man, has written passionately on both these subjects. His stories ring loud of authenticity, of pain and suffering, of wrongs being done to. But he does this by placing at the heart of his stories, characters – people – who you believe and are drawn to and care about, so that what they endure – and why – is drawn even more sharply into focus.

In a recent piece about queer literature, a blogger I follow highlighted a series they’d enjoyed reading, because there was a story and a plotline with gay characters, but that the sexual preference of the characters wasn’t the story. One of the commenters expressed his agreement, stating that this was a more accurate depiction of his own life experience, and therefore felt more authentic.

I’d like to close this musing with the following observations I ‘ve taken from an article I read in The Bookseller (do read the entire article as it’s both interesting and amusing). Penned by author and blogger Ellen Hawley, it explains that Hawley doesn’t limit herself to writing solely lesbian characters or storylines because “It’s a big world out there. I can’t write it all, but I won’t limit myself more than I have to.” But what most interested me was this statement: “I want my work to find its way into the lesbian community…. But it’s easier to reach into the community if I publish in the mainstream, than it is to reach the larger world by publishing within the community.” This aligns with my view that, if a cause is important to you, it needs to reach the widest community and not just those who agree with you – so using it to colour your story, rather than noisily banging away at a drum, could be the most effective method for an author to achieve that aim.

© Debra Carey, 2022 (for the blog & images)
© The Bookseller & Ellen Hawley (for the extracts)


How to survive #AprilA2Z: A #SecondThoughts list

We first published this in February ahead of 2020’s April A-Z Challenge. Unfortunately, pressures of our day-jobs mean we’re not going to be able to participate in 2022’s Challenge, but it seemed like a good time to re-blog the list below in case it proves helpful to anyone new to the Challenge. Those of you who’ve been doing this for years need no help from us, but you all have our best of wishes for a successful month. 

.      .      .     .     .    .

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 …?


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 & 2022

#FF Prompt: The Story – Make Mine a Mystery!

The sweet smell of Mum

Millie didn’t know how to explain it, but she was certain she heard echoes of her Mum’s voice and smelt her scent. She’d know it anywhere ‘cos she was the only person who continued wearing it despite knowing it caused Millie to feel sick. At family gatherings when Millie didn’t eat much and kept her distance, she’d ask her what was up, always insisted she’d “forgotten about Millie’s little aversion to her scent!” when she was reminded. Millie’s brothers used to try and step in, but Mum always rolled her eyes as if Millie was the one being difficult.

She’d talked to Trev about it and he said something rather odd “sounds like it only happens in rooms where you’ve got her photos displayed.” Now my Mum, she liked having her photo taken for she was a right beauty. People said she resembled Liz Taylor – not the old fat version, but the young beauty. She did have those gorgeous curves, plus long chestnut locks and beautiful big eyes – even if they weren’t violet ones like Liz had. She regularly had portraits done, gifting big black & white prints in fancy frames to each of the children for their birthdays or Christmas. Not anything they wanted or needed you understand, but more pictures of Mum to find places for, ‘cos yes, she’d check they were all on display each time she visited.

After she’d died, Trev had waited a decent period for her to grieve – then he’d insisted they get put away. “It’s like living in a bleedin’ shrine” he’d complained – and he was right. She’d packed them away in a lovely trunk, filled with Mum’s silk scarves which she’d been given, as well as her fancy cashmere cardigans and beaded tops. They weren’t anything Millie would – could – ever wear, but she couldn’t bring herself to get rid of them. So, into plenty of white tissue paper everything went, and into the trunk in the guest bedroom.

Hmmm…. maybe there was something in what Trev said, she got that smell of her scent strongest in the guest bedroom. Initially she put it down to Mum’s clothes being in there, but everything had been properly cleaned before being put away, and she was sure they hadn’t smelt of her scent then. Weird.

One day, Janet came over in tears. It took a while to get to the bottom of it, but it seems like she kept hearing Mum’s criticisms as she was cooking, and every time she laid the table for one of Bob’s business dinner parties. “And it’s just the sort of thing she used to say too” she’d sniffed through the tissue Millie had offered. “She be telling me off using a tissue instead of a lace handkerchief if she were here now” Millie had laughed, before looking guiltily at Mum’s silver framed photo. Surely not, she must be imagining things, but there was that whiff of scent….

Then her other brother came round. Now Bob had been Mum’s favourite, so she and Malc had been a lot closer. “You heard about Janet then?” he asked and Millie nodded while handing the biscuit tin. Sitting across the kitchen table from each other with their big mugs of tea and a mouthful of biscuit each, she’d waited. He got round to it eventually – he and ‘Chelle been noticing something similar. They’d first moved her photo out of the bedroom when they’d been having rows as ‘Chelle was absolutely convinced she was watching and judging her. Malc had just humoured her, but things had certainly got better in the bedroom, he admitted with a wink. But they continued to have rows in the rooms where they still had pictures of Mum displayed. On a whim, he took them all down and packed them into the garage. “It absolutely bloody stinks in there now – of that scent of hers that made you feel sick, you remember. I know you’ll think I’ve gone mad, but….”

Millie told him of her experiences and of Trev’s suggestion. “Sounds bloody weird, but I think he’s right” agreed Malc. “Might be time I get rid, not only of those pictures and the frames, but all her fancy clothes in that trunk too” and as Millie spoke, she felt the scent overwhelm her, even though she had no pictures in the kitchen. Malc took one look at her face and shut the kitchen door firmly. “I’ll do it” he said, “you give Trev a call to come help me, and we’ll go do Bob and Janet’s place too.”

They’d all six of them made the trip to local charity shops in the area, handing over the rich pickings of Mum’s stuff and her fancy photo frames. Then they repaired to Janet and Bob’s back garden, where Bob’s teenage boys had got the fire pit blazing nicely. Each and every one of Mum’s photos were dropped into it, and the boys kept poking at the ashes to make sure they burnt all the way through. “Handy skills they learn at Scouts!” Bob had laughed, hugging them both to him.

Looking up from her phone, Janet said “I’ve found this site which suggests that old adage of photographs stealing a bit of your soul may have some truth to it. Apparently spirits can use those photos to travel between to stay away from whatever’s waiting for them in the hereafter.” “Sounds about right love” Bob said as he gave her a hug, before popping another champagne cork.

It was exactly the sort of party Mum loved being at the centre of. And she was – in a way – just not how she’d have chosen to be. Bob raised his glass before draining it in one go “Bye Mum” and we each of us followed suit.

© Debra Carey, 2022

#FlashFiction Prompt: Make Mine a Mystery!

For this month’s prompt, I’m going genre specific – it’s time to write a mystery. What a lot of different types of mystery you could write. You could make it cosy, dark, comical, investigative, procedural, paranormal, thriller, true crime – have I missed any? The only restriction – as ever – is that it mustn’t be NSFW for us to publish it here.

Word count: 500 upwards
Deadline: 8am GMT on Sunday 13th March 2022

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’.