#SecondThoughts: Describing characters – the shallow stuff

I’ve recently read a number of discussions on general blogs about the type of books people prefer to read. While the split between character-driven and plot-driven plays a part in any such discussion I noticed that, even within the preference for character-driven, there appears to be a quite significant split between those who enjoy lots of rich detail and those who do not – with a surprising number preferring the “just get on with it” option.

Assuming, for now, that I’d be writing in third person or using a narrator, let’s talk about the shallow stuff – describing how my characters look.

How much detail to provide?

I started by asking myself what were the benefits of giving the full head-to-toe description? The obvious answer being that the mental picture my readers form will be the one I’ve drawn. From there I moved to how I might provide that description? A character such as like Pride & Prejudice‘s Mr Collins could prove a useful medium, being much inclined to dull discourses filled with mundane details. But as we don’t all have the sharp wit and deft touch of Miss Austen, there’s a need to remain mindful of the reader’s potential for being turned off by too long a descriptive passage. Clearly, this can be exacerbated where there’s a need to introduce a whole raft of characters at once as, if the same level of detailed description is applied to them all, I can see it proving overwhelming to the reader. And if I accept that many a reader is frustrated by being forced to wade through a lot of descriptive detail instead of getting on with the story, there’s a worry they may decide my book isn’t for them.

Perhaps then, a brief snapshot is the way to go? Enough to give my reader an idea of who everyone is, with more meat being put on the bones later, as and when it would be useful or relevant to the story or plot line.

Even though I struggle to see a scenario when this would be the case in a story I would write – I can see that if how the main character looks is vital to the story, opting for the head-to-toe descriptive option immediately they appear in the manuscript might be a good way forward (with other characters getting the brief snapshot treatment until otherwise necessary). One additional benefit of the single big brain dump when the character first appears, is I can then forget about the subject for the rest of the manuscript 😉

Returning to the concept that there’s a line to be drawn between enough and snooze in descriptive detail…. what other questions can I ask in order to ensure I stay the right side of that line?

When, why and where do you do it?

The first when question I had was whether to go for the full works immediately characters appear in the manuscript, or via drip-feed throughout. But, as I’ve already covered that under how above, I realised that further facts had to be established in order to decide my answer. Key to this is why the descriptive information is being provided -whether purely for background, or because it is relevant to the plotline. If the former, you can slip it in wherever it feels natural and comfortable but, if the latter, then the timing is key. To add one more question to this section, the where to do it could depend on whether it’s relevant to test my reader’s skills of observation. In most genres, I’d be inclined to leave it in plain sight, whereas with a crime/mystery/thriller tale, there could be a value (or simply just an inclination) to disguise it alongside a bright red herring or a shiny McGuffin or two.

What might you leave out…. and why?

Moving on from what distractions I might add, I’m wondering if what I might choose to leave out could be as relevant. As with everything, I guess the question remains, what would be my purpose?

My final question is what happens if I write in the first person? How does my reader get a description then? Do I remain the only character undescribed, or should I use some device to get the job done?

What do you advise?

© Debra Carey, 2022

#FF Prompt: The Story – Paranoia

The Long Straight Road

“I don’t wait to sit in here anymore. I don’t like being spied on by everyone going past.”

Two large red spots had appeared on Rebecca’s cheeks – yet Jim ploughed on.

“But it’s what we agreed. You’d have the front sun room, and I’d get the one at the back to use for my office.”

“No Jim, you agreed. The back room was the one you wanted, because it was quieter without the sound of traffic, and you could avoid interruptions from anyone coming to the door. You just assumed that I’d agree, because I always do. But I don’t like it, I really, really don’t. I hate it in fact! Why don’t you give it a try and see how you like living in the village fishbowl?”

This time, there’d been a worryingly high pitch in Rebecca’s voice, far higher than her normal register – yet all Jim gave in return was a sigh. Without another word, Rebecca left the room. Shortly afterwards, there was the muffled sound of a door’s bang somewhere upstairs.

Jim wondered what on earth was going on with Rebecca. Normally so calm and measured, this wasn’t like her at all. With a shrug, Jim went back to his office where he heard the extension give a reassuring “ting”. Thank goodness, he thought, she’d be calling one of her friends so he could get on with some work.

Rebecca had seemed better at dinner, and even checked the details of his next trip to the London office. They’d passed their usual evening in front of the TV, and Jim hoped it was just a blip in their otherwise quiet and peaceful life.

A week later, Rebecca dropped Jim at the station, where he caught the early train to London. Jim called out a farewell as he left: “See you at six!”

And at six, there she was, waiting in the usual spot. But as soon as they pulled into the driveway, Jim could see something was amiss. The front sun room was…. wrong. Going in, he’d gasped aloud, for Rebecca’s sun room was now filled with the furniture from his office. As he turned to rail at Rebecca, he saw instead her friend Jenny in the doorway, hands on her hips, and with a look that dared him to say the wrong thing. Seeing which way this was going, Jim decided to accept things for now, and prove to Rebecca that there was nothing wrong.

His desk faced out through the big picture windows, which gave him a nice view looking right down the long straight road that ran up to their house. That road then rounded the corner and on the village main street. Apart from the odd delivery, which Rebecca dealt with smoothly and swiftly, there were remarkably few disturbances in fact, so Jim thought he was going to win this disagreement hands down.

Except, whenever Jim looked up and out of the window, someone was walking towards their house and they would look right into his office. Jim didn’t know whether to ignore or acknowledge the walkers. He’d tried both, but never got any reaction – something he’d found odd to be honest. Unsettling even.

Summer and then Autumn came and went, and Winter was well on it’s way. The clocks having changed, it was dark more of the time, so Jim had the lights on in his office. Now the people walking along the road were hidden in the shadows and he couldn’t see who they were, but he knew his desk lamp put him into a spotlight. He started to pull the blinds, but it felt odd, not knowing who was out, yet knowing they would be looking in.

He stopped sleeping properly, and had taken to having an extra drink or two before bed to try and relax. Rebecca had tried to ask if anything was wrong, but he’d brushed her away. He decided to book an appointment to see a doctor in London, even though he felt foolish, but he didn’t want anyone in the village knowing his business. Hopefully he could get some sleeping pills and everything would return to normal. The problem he couldn’t avoid though was how much he was drinking – so much that the glass recycling box was positively overflowing, and he’d noticed that Rebecca barely touched a drop these days.

Unexpectedly, he’d broken down when describing what was happening to the doctor. He turned out to be someone who’d known Jim a long time – an old rugby friend in fact – so although it could’ve been awkward, he’d shown Jim genuine kindness. He’d sent him away with a prescription, and gave him the telephone number of a therapist. Jim had cried that night as he told Rebecca about it.

“My doctor said what I’d experienced was paranoia” she told him, “but it all stopped once I moved out of that sun room. I think we should regard that room as out of bounds for us both.”

“Or move house?” suggested Jim, surprised to realise that he meant it.

“Yes, let’s. It could explain why it was below market value.”

© Debra Carey, 2022

#IWSG: When a Book becomes a Film – who’s the Writer?

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.

This month, I’m skipping the optional question because I finally caught up with Greta Gerwig’s film Little Women over the Easter break, and it caused me to ask the question: when a book becomes a film – who’s the writer?

In the opening sequence of the film, I saw the words written by Greta Gerwig flash up on my screen – and I was startled. Having previously worked in the film industry, I’d always understood that when adapting a book for screen, one would be credited for either the screenplay, the script, an adaptation, even a treatment, while including a nod to the writer of the original book upon which you’d based your screenplay/script/adaptation/treatment.

I got a further surprise when seeing that IMDB also gives Gerwig not only Directorial accreditation, but lists her as Writer – ahead of Louisa May Alcott.

Now, Little Women is a book I’ve long loved and, while I won’t claim to know it word-for-word, I have recently listened to sections of the audio book, so can state that entire sections of the film’s dialogue were identical to Alcott’s novel. As what Gerwig did was to tell the story with a feminist twist, surely this is but a treatment of the original novel – clever, but still just a treatment? I would not hesitate to credit her for writing the screenplay, but it doesn’t sit well with me for her to cast herself, or be cast. as The Writer.

What say you my fellow writers? Have the rules about adaptations to novels changed? Is there something I’m missing?

The awesome co-hosts this month are Kim Elliott, Melissa Maygrove, Chemist Ken, Lee Lowery, and Nancy Gideon!– 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 Paranoia.

If you’re inspired to give this a go, you can get full details here.

© Debra Carey, 2022

#FlashFiction Prompt: Paranoia

You can take this in any direction you’d like. Make it a self-deprecating tale poking fun at yourself, a piece of political satire, something dark and trippy – whatever form the inspiration strikes (with the usual proviso of not being NSFW).

Word count: anything from 500
Deadline: 8am GMT on Sunday 8th May 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’.

#WritersResources: Interviewing Bartholomew (Bunty) Hargreaves

This year’s #bloganuary prompts from WordPress included the interviewing of a fictional character, which I thought might fit here rather well. So I decided to interview one of the secondary characters from November Deadline – initially thinking I’d focus on one of those who would have a place in the on-going series, when I remembered the work I’d done on the character of our bad guy Bunty.

In the first draft he was only seen through the eyes of others, without a voice of his own. When we came to expand the work, we decided to include a portion from Bunty’s point-of-view, which was when I really had to get to know Bunty properly. Using K M Weiland’s 100+ Questions to help you interview your Character and the 35 questions attributed to Proust, I came to understand in more depth the man who’d started out as as a shadowy cipher, and so to find his voice.

When I carried out my getting to know “interview”, I spoke of Bunty in the third person, so I decided to re-work it and to select questions which a society journalist may have asked a young man of money and property at the time. I hope these will give you a good idea of the Bunty we came to know – if not love.

J: Today I met Bartholomew Hargreaves. After the tragic death of first his older brother in the final stages of the war and, more recently, his father in a shooting accident, Mr Hargreaves inherited the family estate. He subsequently decided to make London his permanent base and agreed to meet me for tea at the Ritz, just around the corner from his offices in Piccadilly. He arrived, impeccably attired from head to toe in a made-to-measure grey wool Saville Row suit, pristine white shirt, pale blue silk tie with matching silk ‘kerchief, and immaculate black Oxfords. A pale blue woollen scarf and leather gloves were his only concessions to the chilly weather.

J: Mr Hargreaves, thank you for agreeing to meet me.
B: Bunty, please. Bartholomew makes me feel like a small boy in trouble.
J: Bunty it is, thank you.
J: May I ask, were your schooldays not happy then?
B: No, no – nothing like that at all. But even I was summoned once or twice to the headmaster’s office – if only for the most minor of transgressions.
J: Ah, I see.
J: We’ve not had the pleasure of your company much in London up to now. What made you decide to move here after you inherited your family estate?
B: Well, the estate all but runs itself and I have no real interest in countryside affairs. As to why London, I’ve long wanted to be here, especially now I am free to pursue my own interests without family interference.
J: You mentioned your offices are around the corner from here. What business are you engaged in?
B: Property. A significant number of people decided to get out of London after the war, so I’ve been able to pick up a lot of property well below its true value. Even those with bomb damage will get me a good price once things return to normal and people decide they want to return.
J: You’ve been seen about town of late with Lady Michaela. Are your families connected in some way?
B: We have a mutual friend – Robert Cavendish.
J: Ah yes, the Colonel. Many thought there would be wedding bells heard there – with him and her ladyship.
B: Really? I saw no sign of it. Indeed I thought Lady Michaela rather too high-handed with Robert for him to want her for a wife.
J: I see. What about wedding bells for Lady Michaela with you?
B: I think not.
J: How did you come to meet the Colonel?
B: He was assigned to my team in the later stages of the war. I suspect he found the cultural nature of the work not quite his thing. He was apt to seek out my company, what with the other team members being mostly academics, he’d have found them rather a bore. We met up again recently and he suggested Lady Michaela might introduce me to the right sort of people in London. What with attending University in Germany, my service during the war, and then home to support my father, I find I’m rather new to London society.
J: You chose a German University over those in this country – why was that?
B: Why ever not? Heidelberg has an excellent international reputation, and it was an opportunity to improve my German from fluency in conversation to written.
J: You speak German?
B: Fluently.
B: Of course my mother was German. During my childhood we had many wonderful holidays in Germany visiting her family home. It’s where I – where we all – made good friends. Some have suggested a degree of naivety about what was to come, but when you have family…
J: So have you found a use for that fluency?
B: It was certainly an asset during my service. I was working with a team tasked with tracking down missing art works, and most of my fellow team members had no such fluency.
J: Do you do business with Germany?
B: I do business with a number of countries.
J: But having served and seen what happened there, you don’t have any problems in working with Germans?
B: None at all.
B: What I mean to say is I have a different outlook having known Germans all my life. And – of course – the politicians insist we must move forward, and the country be re-assimilated.
J: Of course. May I ask, what are your preferred leisure pursuits?
B: I ski. I’m a decent enough shot, and I ride – of course.
J: Do you hunt?
B: If invited.
J: You mother was a keen rider and huntswoman. Your brother also?
B: Yes, yes. But I am not my brother.
J: What about cultural pursuits – do you have an interest in the arts?
B: I go to the theatre – a comedy, or a musical, not Shakespeare or its ilk.
J: Art galleries or music?
B: No galleries, no. And classical music – only Beethoven.
J: Do you intend to make London your permanent home or return to the country at some point?
B: For now, yes. As to the future, it depends what it brings.
J: Do you aim to marry – are you looking for a wife?
B: It isn’t foremost in my plans, but yes I’ve no doubt that is in my future.
J: If you were a young lady about town then, what qualities would you need to turn the head of Bunty Hargreaves?
B: I enjoy the company of many young ladies.
J: Yes, of course, but we’re talking of marriage now.
B: For marriage, let me think. Blond, pretty, feminine. Softly-spoken, prefers to be in the background, good with managing the household and children.
J: Old fashioned then?
B: A woman who holds traditional values.
J: Thank you Bunty, for a most enlightening afternoon.

With that my host rose, put on his gloves and scarf, and gave me a small bow and, if I’m not mistaken, almost a click of the heels and was gone. After he’d left, the waiter – somewhat embarassed – presented me with the bill.

PostScript: In our current re-drafting, Bunty’s chapters are being re-written with a changed POV, nevertheless I found this a really useful exercise which I’ll use again in the future.

© Debra Carey, 2022

#FF Prompt: The Story – Kitchen Witchery

Late on parade this month, but here it is….

A Witch’s gotta do what a Witch’s gotta do!

It had been another cold start to the day, her breath forming clouds in the air as soon as she poked her head above the cocoon of blankets under which Esther slept. She’d been tempted to stay there in that comfortable cocoon, but knew things wouldn’t start to improve until she got the range lit.

As always, she’d put out the fixings beside the range, so she simply had to rake it out before re-laying the fire and getting it going. As she’d need to heat some water before she was able to wash, Esther’s regular practice was to put on yesterday’s underthings under her clothes, while she busied herself with the morning’s cleaning – the physical labour would help her get warm before the range started to pump out heat. This morning, the windows needed scraping of ice – a little thicker than it had been so far this year, so Esther was glad she’d not planted out her herbs during that warm spell. She knew others had, but something told her winter wasn’t done with them yet this year. It made the inside of her small home very crowded, but those herbs were critical for her business, so it had to be borne.

The rest of the morning had gone as normal. With the regular cleaning chores finished, Esther had washed and dressed in fresh underthings, putting the previous days into a pot of hot water ready for her to wash, before hanging out to dry as soon as the sun – such as it was – hit her garden.

Earlier than usual, there was a knock at the door. Pushing aside her irritation at having to interrupt her final morning chores, Esther slid aside the small peephole in her door. On the other side stood a young girl she knew by sight, but had never seen at her door. The girl was crying, but – as was her practice – Esther wouldn’t allow her in. The girl spoke, telling her tale between sobs, until Esther confirmed she had what was wanted , and a price was a agreed. But something made Esther send her away, with instructions to meet later in the village marketplace.

Returning to her scrubbing, Esther marvelled at how many local women had been beguiled by the village blacksmith. You’d think the word would get around about his nature – but no. She’d always determined it wasn’t for her to judge, and she was careful to give each a stern warning that the effects would wear off after a period of time. She made sure to supply only enough for one draught, making clear it wasn’t effective after the first time. But each woman had decided to take the risk, convinced they’d be the one to keep him when he awoke from his dream state.

Hanging out her clothes a bit later than she’d liked, Esther was still pondering on that morning’s encounter. If only the local mayor wasn’t such an ass, she’d talk to him. This morning’s visitor was really too young, but Esther could not turn to her mother, for she knew her to be a silly woman, – one who’d previously bought the self-same love potion to use on the blacksmith herself. What other woman of good sense could she turn to?

When no candidate emerged, Esther determined she wouldn’t sell her love potion until the situation with the blacksmith was resolved, but knew she’d have to get rid of her current stock publicly to ensure no-one attempted to break into her home. Love was not only blind, but it could also turn people into crazed creatures – and her home was her sanctuary, she’d not stand for intruders.

Preparing for her trip into town, Esther loaded her cart up with the last of the love potion. It was a shame, but it had to be done – at least until the local menfolk developed a backbone. She had plans for a new tincture to add to the local well which should sort them out. But till then….

© Debra Carey, 2022

#IWSG: The making of an audio book

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.

April 6 question – Have any of your books been made into audio books? If so, what is the main challenge in producing an audiobook?

I have nothing published, so I can answer the first part of that question with a simple “no” 🙂

But I’d like to go on and answer the second part of that question by looking at the challenge of producing an audiobook of my co-authored WIP, The November Deadline.

We have four primary characters, with a couple of secondary ones (we’re still deciding how many of them will survive the next round of drafting). There’s a range of accents from upper class English, via cockney English, to west country English, to Welsh, with a mix of male and female characters. Chapters are all in first person point-of-view, with each character featuring, so mastering the accents enough to be authentic, but not so much that it becomes undecipherable, is the primary challenge. Of course, some of that would be down to our dialogue decisions, but an actor/narrator who can manage this tricky task well would certainly be worth every bit of their voice-over fee.

The awesome co-hosts for the April 6 posting of the IWSG are Joylene Nowell Butler, Jemima Pett, Patricia Josephine, Louise – Fundy Blue, and Kim Lajevardi – 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 a PhotoPrompt with a poster entitled Kitchen Witchery.

If you’re inspired to give this a go, you can get full details here.

© Debra Carey, 2022

#FlashFiction Photo Prompt

Gearsly Kitchen Witchery Poster

We haven’t had a photo prompt yet this year, so it seemed like a good time to chuck one in 🙂 I feel this one allows scope for a story to go in any number of directions – so, pick your genre and give it a go.

Word count: anything from a drabble upwards
Deadline: 8am GMT on Sunday 10th April 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’.

#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