#NowWithAdded…Horror

Back in September last year, the blog had its third birthday.  We’d themed the month around an off-the-cuff comment made by James Pailly, and he very kindly delivered on our request to write a short piece on how his life and his writing intersect – and #NowWithAdded was born!  This month we’ve asked Stu Nager to do the honours. We met Stu via the #AprilA2Z challenge (check out our article on surviving the challenge here).  Stu’s Abysmal Dollhouse is a master class in writing horror as far as I am concerned, and whilst Stu does dip his toe into other genre’s I particularly think of him as a Horror writer.  I can’t wait for the Dollhouse to be unleashed as a complete book – I think people will be talking about Stu in the same breath as Stephen King.  But enough introduction!  Over to the man himself…

 

I always wanted to know how you came up with all of those delightfully creepy horror stories!

Good question. Most of it is my mood. I enjoy dark things: humor, movies, books. I grew up watching the classic Universal and B-grade shlock on TV: Chiller Theater, Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Zachary, Elvira, and more.

I lived around the corner from The Earl Theater on 161st Street in the Bronx, NY. Their matinees were full of the horror/scifi films from the late ‘40s through the early ‘60s, then the Hammer and Troma films. You’d find me there just about every first show on a Saturday. Insert Rocky Horror’s opening song “Science Fiction/Double Feature,” and you’ll have my childhood.

I really don’t like the in-your-face slasher and gore movies. They are one jump scare after another. Give me subtle horror, one that weaves from a type of normalcy that lures you in and then won’t let go. The 1963 “The Haunting” still gets to me. Forget the movie remake or the Netflix mini. Claire Bloom. Black & White. I’ve never looked at a house without thinking something scary or evil since my first viewing.

Guess I just figured out why I have never wanted to live in a house.

I started doing Flash Fiction without knowing that was what I was doing in 2011 with my blog Tale Spinning. I enjoyed a challenge, and having the freedom to write what I want was exhilarating. I meander IRL, so it fit. The more I wrote, the more my writing condensed. I took on a lot of 100 word or 50-word challenges that honed my editing skills. Just about everything on Tale Spinning was first draft. I found Grammarly. That helped me a lot: there were many grammatical mistakes before that. Because I am an Improv actor/teacher, brevity and getting to the point helps. A lot of my posts were written in a Writer’s Group. We’re given anywhere from a half hour to an hour to write off of a prompt/generative writing. The last post, Encased, went from writing by hand to typing it in Word, pass through Grammarly, and then copy/paste into Tale Spinning. Only a few grammatical changes. I definitely feel my Improv background helps me the most.

Some possible tips that have helped me:

  • Join at least one generative Writer’s Group. You work off prompts. Two different (or more, schedule permitting) would be best. You can find some in your area through Meetup, local libraries, FB or Twitter groups. Plenty of other places to search for them.
  • Write every single day. Set a time limit. Later set # of words.
  • Do NOT edit as you go. First drafts, in the words of Hemmingway, are shit. Get the words down. Take a breath or 20 and then edit.
  • Do not make any judgement calls on what you produce. See #3.
  • Do not compare what you write to any other writer.
  • If you are an organizer, then outlines & research are your friends.
  • If you write off the cuff, as I do, then let the story & characters take you where they want to go. This is how I write. We’re called Pantsers: writing by the seat of our pants.

#1 is really important, in my opinion. Support. Feedback. Connections. Rinse. Repeat.

If you’d like to read my work, visit Tale Spinning at www.stuartnager.wordpress.com

The AtoZ Blog Challenge is coming soon. 26 posts in a month. Sundays off. No idea what I’ll write this year. Come check it out.

Stu

Thanks Stu, much appreciated.  For the record, Debs and I agree with your tips, but whilst #2 is important, it’s not always possible.  Squeezing in time when you can is always great, but don’t do it if it is going to cause problems elsewhere/when!  #4 comes into play here – don’t compare your writing practice to anyone else’s!

©Stu Nager, 2020 (Article)

©Fiction Can Be Fun, 2020 (Introduction, Closing Thought)

How to choose character names: A #SecondThoughts list

The name is the thing, and the true name is the true thing.

Ursula K. LeGuin, The Rule of Names, 

Some stories dealing with a rite of passage will show a character shedding a ‘child name’ and choosing their adult name.  Some have characters who are ‘named’, they are champions, with an appropriate nickname which is as much a part of them as anything else.  Others, speak to the need to hide your true name, as this can give a wizard control over you…

Choosing a name can be a minefield.

I suppose really this post should be called ‘How I choose character names’, really, but since I’ve seen a couple of writers talking about how difficult they find this process, I thought it might be worth while putting my thoughts down in one place for future use – and to remind myself when I’m in the same position, at a later date, because no matter how easy you find it on one project, you never know when the anti-muse will strike…

So here we go, seven methods for naming your characters:

  1. What do they think they’re called?  Or, the Olivander Method

“The wand chooses the wizard, Mr Potter.  It is not always clear why.”

– Garrick Ollivander

Okay, perhaps a bit of a cheat to start off with this one, but bear with me.  Sometimes the character has the most perfect name and it appears in your head and that shapes the whole story to some extent.  But sometimes it doesn’t and that’s what this article is about. The character might just be being coy in not telling you what their name is, or perhaps their name is the least important thing about them.  Don’t give up though, because maybe you just aren’t listening.  There are various things that you could do to help with this.  Leave it alone, it will come in due course.  Or perhaps you could take a more direct approach and try lucid dreaming.  Or sit down and have a conversation with them.

2) Name them after a friend (or enemy) or relation.  Or, the Haven’t I met you somewhere before? method.

This one needs some care: there are all sorts of stories about writers putting people they know into stories, one way or the other.  And the aftermath when said person finds out and confronts the writer… But there is lots of great inspiration to be had just looking around.

3) Keep a notebook, just for names. Or, the Saving This for A Rainy Day method

“Watching people is a good hobby, but you have to be careful about it. You can’t let people catch you staring at them. If people catch you, they treat you like a first-class criminal. And maybe they’re right to do that. Maybe it should be a crime to try to see things about people they don’t want you to see.”

Carol Rifka Brunt, Tell the Wolves I’m Home

Building on (2), whenever you are out and about, keep your ears open and note down any interesting names that you come across.  Coffee shops are particularly good places for this, because you’ll probably hear a few orders called out, and one or two might be sufficiently unusual to provide inspiration.  Names also crop up on the news, and so on, or you could do a JK and look out for unusual place names.  I’ve driven past Flitwick several times.

4) Consult a baby book.  Or, the Hit the Books method.

It’s not just expectant parents that delve into baby naming books or websites, and you shouldn’t feel weird borrowing a book from the library for reference purposes.  My go to is actually a website though.  I can’t remember when I first came across Behind The Name, but it has been a stalwart over the years.  The advantage to a web based resource, and my focus here is very much on BTN, is that it is extremely easy to search if you are looking for something particular, such as an Afrikaan’s girl’s name, or to browse if you’re just looking for inspiration.  You can also look at the stats and find out what were popular names in any given year and indeed to some extent by country.

5) Choose a name based on a hidden meaning.  Or, the ‘Your Fate Lies Before You’ method.

“Jason scratched his head. “You named him Festus? You know that in Latin, ‘festus’ means ‘happy’? You want us to ride off to save the world on Happy the Dragon?”
Rick Riordan, The Lost Hero

I will be honest, and say that this is actually one of my favourite methods.  I love thinking about where names come from and what they mean, with the name being a hidden clue or Easter egg as the story unfolds.  I find Behind The Name very useful for this, because you can both check out the meaning of a particular name and search based on a desired definition (which will give you options from different cultures.

6) Look around the room you’re in and pick something. Or, the ‘What Would a Superstar Do?’ method.

Actually, that’s perhaps a little harsh, but it is certainly true that there are some…interesting…erm…non-traditional names that have been bestowed on the off-spring of the rich and famous – although perhaps it is just that we notice these more because the rich and famous make the news and the poor and unknown do not…

7) What are their parents like? Or, the ‘Blood is thicker than water’ method.

For some this might be a level of background story that you are unwilling to get into, especially if this a short piece, but why not think about what the characters’ parents are like?  What sort of name would they choose?  In ‘The Great Gilly Hopkins’, Gilly is actually short for Galadriel, because Gilly’s mother was a more than a bit of a hippy.  Similarly, in Good Omens, the Them have a range of names that map to what their parents are like.  Adam is the one that is perhaps the most obvious example in some respects (and is someone with significant meaning  in his name, although this is not so much hidden in plain sight as used to beat the reader round the head with), but Pepper (Pippin Galadriel Moonchild – Gilly on steroids, although Pepper’s Mother gave up on the lifestyle fairly quickly and returned to live with Pepper’s grandparents), Brian, and Wensleydale are very much the products of their parents.

In Andrew Cartmel’s Vinyl Detective series, one of the main characters is Nevada Warren.  There is a running joke of people asking her if she’s named for where she was conceived á la Brooklyn Beckham, but she is at pains to point out that it means ‘snow, and is one of  the most beautiful words in any language’.  (Apologies if that quote isn’t quite right.  The sentiment is correct, but I don’t have the book to hand).

So there you go.  Choosing the right name for your characters is important, and not always the easiest of tasks.  I’ve been very restrained and not given you my thoughts on naming characters in F&SF settings, but I hope you’ll find this of use next time you’ve got a character to find a name for.

©David Jesson, 2020

#Secondthoughts: Covers – or what goes into making sure your Book doesn’t go under (cover)

Sorry – that was a truly awful pun. I promise to leave them to David in the future 🙂

We’ve all heard that saying “You never get a second chance to make a great first impression” and if it’s true that we make up our minds about the people we meet in under 60 seconds, imagine then how much time a book has to make a good impression.

How’s a writer to make a good impression – especially a new writer? Putting aside all the work they’ll have to do to publicise their book, how are they going to sell it to someone who’s going to see it on a shelf – be that virtual or real? Most people know the type of book they like, and only rarely choose to go outside of those restrictions. That means the first thing your cover must do is tell your reader what type of book you’ve written – more specifically, what genre it is. When a reader knows the type of book they like to read, they’ll head for that section in their preferred bookstore and browse there. Let’s say you’ve written a thriller, but selected a cover design that is more akin to chick-lit, your book is unlikely to appear on the shelves in the thriller section (for a bookseller is unlikely to be checking the blurb of every book before shelving them).  But, even if it does, the thriller reader is likely to be mystified, and assume it’s been misfiled.

Maybe they’re a reader who likes to wander through the crowded book displays in a bookshop (or online listing), unrestrained by genre – I know I do. As a reader, I know what I like – and while that’s primarily literary, mainstream and women’s fiction, I also read thrillers and science fiction, self-help and personal development, biography and memoirs – so I’m a bit of a magpie in that I find all manner of book – and therefore their covers – to be attractive and shiny 🙂

But, in my experience, most readers like to read what they know they’ll like. I’ve been a member of a book group for 10+ years where each member’s reading preferences are writ large upon their recommendations. For most of those 10 years, members were happy to read outside of their preferences but, slowly and inexorably, that has changed. When the time you have available for reading is limited, being able to reliably select reading matter you know you’ll like becomes increasingly important. And whilst reviews are a useful tool, reading – like much else in life – is in the eye of the beholder. This means having a method of choosing what you know you’ll like really matters … and that’s where covers play their important role.

Let’s return to the question of what draws a reader to pick up any one book from that crowded display or listing. You may not even be aware of the nuances in cover art – it’s certainly not something I gave much through to before I became a writer.

Check the predominant colours across certain genres: thrillers have darker toned backgrounds with lettering in sharply contrasting primary colours, while chick-lit tends towards pastel hues or bright, cheerful colours, with the titles appearing in a more funky font, often akin to styles of handwriting. Literary fiction seems to focus on the mid tones of the colour spectrum, but what’s especially noticeable is the fonts are decidedly straightforward; they’re simple & clear to read, much like Arial, Times New Roman or Courier in appearance. Mainstream fiction is influenced by the genre it leans towards and you’ll get touches of that genre’s cover style incorporated – sinister overtones incorporate darker backgrounds and stronger contrasts, a more human story will tend towards the mid tones, while a pale background and the title in flowing script indicates a strong lean towards women’s fiction. Mystery tales are much like literary fiction, with cover styles showing the direction in which the tale leans.

This is all before you consider the actual content of the image for the cover. Works of fantasy and science fiction are similar as background colours are unrestricted across the spectrum. The fonts selected between the two do differ in that those used for science fiction are almost uniformly simple and clean, while works of fantasy come in as wide a range of fonts as colours. But, with both these genres, the image is what’s key. There’s a notable difference in style – like the fonts selected, images on the covers of science fiction novels are simple, sparse and minimalist, while figures fill the covers of fantasy novels, often crowding into the title and author’s name.

Covers matter to a writer … because covers matters to a reader. The cover sets the tone and the expectation of the novel – its genre, its intended market, what the reader can expect to find within. Remember, it only takes seconds for a potential reader to reach out for your book. It can still get put back – if the cover is misleading, or they don’t like the sound of the blurb – but getting it picked up in the first place is more than half the battle.

Do I hear you ask if a beautiful cover sell a book? It certainly can … Or is it more likely to be a recommendation from a trusted source? For me, the latter happens more frequently that the former.

When you take into account everything else that an author has to do to get their book seen by the public – the PR & Marketing, seeking out reviews from the book blogging community & publications, attending speaking & signing events just to name a few – really how important is the cover? I can’t offer you statistics in answer to that, but as your book has to have a cover, you might as well make an effort to get it right anyway.

I started along this road in a moment of idle dreaming – what would our co-written project November Deadline look like in print? What colour, what font, what image do we choose for a post-war, spy/thriller with fantasy elements …?


© Debra Carey, 2020

 

#FF Prompt : The Continuity Index

Dougal delivers

The newspapers had been full of it – unusually so for something scientific. A couple of them had even managed to write a decent piece, proving they’d not just read the press release but the accompanying documents as well. Most hadn’t of course but, although a tad repetitious for Clarissa to plough through them all, at least she could report they weren’t going off piste and making a hash of things.

When she’d left work to bring up the children, she’d known she would miss the stimulation of the lab. But they’d both been absolutely determined that one of them would be a full-time parent and, after a trial period when Dougal gave it a go, she’d quickly decided her need for order and routine simply wouldn’t survive his laid back ways. It had worked out surprisingly well. Her organisational skills meant she’d kept up with her reading faithfully, helped along by Dougal bringing home all the relevant periodicals for her to catch up on whenever she had a quiet moment. She hadn’t read a work of fiction in quite a while, but something always had to give, and fiction had been it for Clarissa.

It was shortly after the littlest had started school when she spotted it. With a little more time on her hands, she’d contacted friends in the lab to get a copy of the full paper after seeing mention in the broadsheets. Reading the paper she spotted what appeared to be a glaring a inconsistency, except it couldn’t be. Had she somehow misread the newspaper article? It took a while for Clarissa to check, for the paper had long been recycled. But once the archive copy arrived yes, there was a mistake in the newspaper’s piece. A pretty big one actually.

She told Dougal, who told his line manager, who told … well, it went rather rapidly up the chain. Turned out they were paying an agency to check this sort of thing. Problem was, the person at the agency simply didn’t have the specialist knowledge and hadn’t realised that the paper had got things back-to-front. All the right words were there, they were simply in the wrong order – and that made a total nonsense of it.

A few weeks later, Dougal had come home with a smile on his face. They’d been delighted, if surprised, to learn how Clarissa had kept up to speed. Talks with with HR had followed, and Dougal had an invitation for Clarissa to discuss taking over this task from the agency. They’d wanted her to work freelance so they only paid her when they needed to, and while she’d thought that was rather mean, it had allowed her to develop a nice little business working for a number of others in the scientific community. For Clarissa was good at her job. She was assiduous in doing her research, always following up with the full reports of work she was specifically being paid to monitor.

That was how she came to be in Miranda’s office that fateful day. Loaded down with a bundle of reports being returned to the library now she’d completed the last task, she’d spotted Miranda looking less than her usually composed self. There was an ink streak across her cheek, a really bad run in her tights, and her hair was standing up at an odd angle. When the phone rang, it became clear that was because she kept running her hand through it as she listened.

Saying not one word on the phone, Miranda sighed before heading for the department kitchenette. Pointing to the crowded meeting room, she beckoned Clarissa to join her.

“What’s going on in there? ”
“They’ve been closeted away for an absolute age! I’ve been stuck out here, unable to leave my desk or they get all stressed and tetchy if I’m not here when they ring for something. I’ve been running back & forth with reports & reference materials from the library. Worse, they keep calling for coffee and tea, a constant stream of biscuits, then sandwiches, then fruit, then coffee and tea, and biscuits again. I keep saying I need to take a break, but they’re in one of their excited states and aren’t listening to me. Typical that this happens as soon as Genevieve goes on her honeymoon!”

The phone started ringing again and Miranda rushed to get it, before returning muttering under her breath.

“I asked what did they want first – the coffee and teas or the research materials – and they just said both, then hung up! I’m getting fed up with it. I can’t get any of my own work done and there’ll be hell to pay if this goes on much longer.”
“Give me the list of research materials, I’ll pull it together while you do the coffee & tea stuff. Once we’ve watered the geese, you can tell me where everything is and I’ll spell you for a short while so you can grab a breath of fresh air and a loo break.”

Once Miranda had left, expressing her grateful thanks breathlessly, Clarissa sat down to look at the second copies of the research materials she’d put casually onto a shelf. She had a quick flick through, then went more slowly. She couldn’t gain much from the reference books, but the reports were interesting. She was just wondering whether there’d been some form of breakthrough, when the phone rang again. Answering automatically with her name, she head a surprised silence at the other end. Explaining quickly that she was spelling Miranda, and what did they need, she was not thrilled to hear the phone’s receiver being replaced.

The meeting room door flew open and Dougal appeared clutching a sheet of paper.

“Hello darling, sorry – I’ve got another list. Are you OK doing this? Kids alright?”
“It’s fine Dougal, give me your list, I’ll wheel them in in a minute.”

Planting a quick peck on his wife’s cheek, Dougal returned to the meeting room, relieved that she’d not pounced on him for details. He hated not being able to talk to her about work stuff when it was still confidential, but … this was one of those times. Still, he’d not be surprised if she worked out where it was all going after seeing the latest list.

Repeating her previous action of taking out duplicate copies, Clarissa pushed the trolley containing the first set of items into the meeting room before returning to Miranda’s office. She felt the frustration of needing to switch into Mummy-mode soon, but school pick-up time was in no way flexible. She was surprised when Miranda assumed the pile she had beside her was the reading material for her latest project and signed it all out to her. Borrowing a trolley, Clarissa wheeled the substantive pile out to her car. She’d not have time till after the kids went to bed to take more than a passing look but, if she was reading things in the meeting room right, Dougal would be calling later to let her know he was pulling an all-nighter.

Dougal appeared the next morning when she returned from the school drop off. Looking bleary eyed, he headed off for a shower and clothes change after accepting her offer of a cooked breakfast with a look of pathetic gratitude. Clarissa had made sure the pile of papers she’d brought home was well out of sight before going to bed – for it wouldn’t do to get Miranda into trouble over this. Waving Dougal off with a wifely kiss on the cheek and a cheery “have a good day darling” she returned rapidly to her reading.

There was another phone call and another all-nighter but, by then, Clarissa knew what they’d cracked even if she didn’t know how. When Dougal appeared bleary-eyed and hungry again, she’d been overcome and greeted him with a teary hug. Later, over a cooked breakfast, she told him …

“I’m so proud of you Dougal darling. I don’t need to know how yet, but the papers you asked for let me work out what, and it truly is an amazing achievement. Can you tell me what you’re calling it yet?”
“We decided on The Continuity Index.”

The Continuity Index had made it into the headline of the broadsheets – Clarissa couldn’t have been prouder of Dougal.

© Debra Carey, 2020

The Continuity Index

The agent, typical of the kind, stood, hands clasped behind their back.  Behind them, bright light spilled out through large windows which revealed very little except rat-runs of cubicles and the occasional conference room.  In front of them, an even larger window ran the length of the hallway-cum-viewing platform.  For some, the view would be less than interesting.  It looked like a load of machinery, badly lit by bright lights that were too few and far between to fight back all the darkness that threatened to engulf the cavernous space.  But those who had made a study of the device – or rather the interlinked devices – could lose hours contemplating the engineering marvels that were contained there.  If you knew where to look, for example, you could spot the tenth iteration of the Antikythera Mechanism.  It had been rebuilt many times over the years of course, tweaked, refined, and was considerably more complex than the prototype that had gone down in a shipwreck.  The coverup for that, when the lost architype had been rescued from the sea-bed, had been ingenious, although it was difficult to believe that anyone could really believe that it was a glorified alarm clock for the ancient Olympic Games.

No, the Mechanism, was a part, not even the oldest part, of the Continuity Index.  The agent was one of a handful who combined an interest in the scholarship of the Index, and its operation, with the hands-on application of the knowledge it provided.  Not everyone who worked for the Institute would see this view, see the

Pipe-work was traced and mentally reviewed against memorised diagrams.  Other key features were observed.  Hairs on the back of the neck began to prickle as the air became charged.  The agent recognised the signs and stirred a split second before the Index began to change.

Away in the distance a steam whistle sounded.  Nearer, but off to the right, a mirror moved just as small hatch opened in the ceiling and beam of sunlight descended as from heaven.  Its progress to the floor was arrested by the mirror and diverted towards a prism which split the light into a rainbow, before other glassware split and reconstituted the light in different ways, sending it off into the interior of the Index.  Flywheels whirred.  Gears turned.  Belts transferred motion from one place to another.

The cavern was flooded with anticipation as the Index ponderously roused itself.  Technically, the agglomeration of glass, silver, the finest milled brass, and of course cold iron, was merely a unique calculation engine, designed to make the measurements and perform the complex mathematics required to determine a deviation from normality.  To determine the current Continuity.  But everyone called the vast enterprise the continuity index  If Charles Babbage had applied himself then he might have come close to emulating perhaps ten percent of the contents of this hall, but of course he had been easily distractible.  Thankfully.

There was an entire team that were looking into replacement materials, but none had yet been deemed stable enough by the Chief Artificer.  All in due course.  The one concession to modern technology, in the name of reducing the time that it took to turn a calculation into an order, was that the punchcards that the device outputted were automatically fed into a scanner, and consequently translated into machine-code to be sent to waiting analysts using the closed network.  The agent watched as the cards were spat out of the device at high speed, passed in front of the scanner and away to be double checked and archived.

What would it be? The agent mused?  Incursion from another dimension?  Renegade monster from the old world?  Not another time-traveller, the agent prayed silently.  For three thousand years, this device and its predecessors had attempted to keep the Continuity of the world intact and on course.  There were those who felt that perhaps the Earth was big enough and ugly enough to deal with any issues that arose.  They viewed the Directors of the Continuity Index Institute as just another group of NIMBYs – so what if an alien species decided it wanted to take over the Earth?  Let us welcome our new overlords, they said.  How could it be worse than what we have now?  Well, they would say that if they didn’t cause severe problems with the index…

The flow of cards stopped.  An amber light above the scanner started blinking and then stopped. A minute later a door opened from one of the cubicle packed offices.  An analyst stepped out, shirt sleeves rolled up.  The agent glanced over and mentally rolled their eyes at the waist-coat, left open to reveal a t-shirt with and ironically cool motif.  The analyst held out a piece of paper and the agent took it, scanning the message it contained.

The intensity of their focus on the message increased and the paper began to wrinkle under the agent’s grip.  Suddenly they started running off down the hall.   The analyst gaped.

“Summon the Directors” the agent called, not bothering to turn around.  “Tell them it’s a code red!”

©David Jesson, 2020

#FF Prompt – The Continuity Index

I have no idea what the Continuity Index is, what it is used for, nor who by – but that’s half the fun!  So, this month’s prompt can be applied to your favourite genre, or a genre that you’d like to trial.  For bonus points, you could try and write in the style of one of your favourite authors.  Double bonus points if you take that style and place it into a different genre.  So for example Steve Shovel could be on the hunt for a McGuffin known as the Mondretti Cylinder (bonus points) and this turns out to be a cthonic entity (double bonus points).

 

I think you need a bit of play for this one, so 1000-2500 words – on your marks, get set go!
Deadline: 8 am on Sunday, 8th March 2020.

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’.

 

How to survive #AprilA2Z: A #SecondThoughts list

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 …?

a-z

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

#WritersResources: Hemingway Editor

Last month we kicked off a new series of posts looking at some of the resources that we’ve gathered together in one place here.  The inaugural post looked at the process of using text to create a word cloud, with the added benefit that you could look at the list to see if there are any ‘crutch’ words that are over used.  It’s a nice tool: it has a functional, if slightly focused, role in support of editing AND allows you to produce some fun graphics that are tailored to your work in progress (WIP).

Today though, I thought we’d continue with the editing theme but get a bit more fundamental with Hemingway Editor.  There is a paid for version (which I have not used) that can sit on your computer, and apparently it had the ability to import and export to Word etc, and you can publish direct to WordPress and Medium.  One of these days I might shell out the $20 (less a cent) that it costs, but as there is a free version that is available via the web, I haven’t splurged yet.

I don’t use Hemingway for everything, and I have some issues with a few things – which we’ll come to in a minute – but I do use it frequently (and have it in a pinned tab on browsers on both my home and work computers), and in my day job I frequently recommend it to students.

So what is it? And how does it work?

Hemingway Editor is a bit like having Jiminy Cricket sitting on your shoulder, but this conscience is only interested in making sure that you use clear English.  In terms of the programming that underpins, I can’t tell you how it works, but it flags difficult and very difficult to understand sentences, adverbs, and use of the passive voice.  Lets see what I’ve written so looks like:

HA_1

Eeek!  That’s a lot of red!  If we look at the right hand side, we can see the stats: 15 sentences, over half of which have been flagged as problematic, and I’ve used too many adverbs.  On the plus side, the passive voice index is happy.  Also worth noting, it reckons the whole piece is at Grade 9 – this is a piece of software coming out of the US.  I don’t have a firm idea of what the Grade level indicates, but I do know from using the software that a lower number indicates work that is easier to read.  Personally I take some of this with a pinch of salt.  I quite like adverbs for example, and I think that people have taken the anti-adverb rhetoric to an extreme.  That said, there are a couple that I could edit, and the shading of the text has helped me to see that I used frequently twice in the space of a couple of sentences.  Oops.

What’s to like

This is an easy to use piece of software which you can just dump a chunk of text into and it automatically highlights the various issues.  I haven’t stress-tested it with a big lump of text, but I’ve edited chunks of a few thousand words with no problem.  I like the colour map produced and I think that it forces you to look at what you’ve written in a slightly different way.  Simply breaking up the text can highlight things that you missed when it  was a uniform block of black and white.

What’s not to like

There’s really very little not to like about this piece of software – as I’ve said, I recommend it to students regularly.  The caveats that I give when using it are that passive voice is not necessarily a bid thing in academic writing (I’d quite like to be able to turn that feature off from time to time, and that you need to use your critical faculties when you are revising – it would be handy if the app came with a health warning in this regard.  This is the downside of having something relatively simple – the software does not suggest any changes (which is probably for the best) but neither does it give very much detail as to what is wrong.  Why is that a hard to read sentence?  Is it just that it is very long?  It should also be noted that Hemingway Editor will not pick up typos (such as if you were to forget to close parentheses) so you do still need to do some careful proof reading.

All in all a useful tool in your writing toolbox, but one that needs to be used with discretion and as an active rather than passive mindset.  But what do you think?  Have you used Hemingway before?  What did you think?

 


© David Jesson, 2020