#Writers Resources: A pondering on polders, or Location, Location, Location…

Back in 2016, I was lucky enough to be involved with a book sprint – the goal being to write a book in a weekend.  There were a dozen or so of us, gathered together in a computer suite at the University of Salford, a fringe event at a Science Festival.  It was great fun, and I would absolutely do it again, given the opportunity.  Not only was it a nice chunk of time to concentrate on writing, but there were some great conversations, one of which sort of has relevance to today’s post.  The thrust of the conversation was that scientists like lists, especially if we can produce some sort of graph to go with it…

Before we get to the list, I should probably explain what a polder is.  No, it’s not a pebble sized boulder.  A polder, by dictionary definition, is a low lying tract of land that has been reclaimed from the water – it’s perhaps unsurprising that the word polder is derived from the Dutch. But in literary terms, especially, but not exclusively, fantasy fiction, a polder represents a bordered piece of land which in some way exists apart. It has some of the characteristics of a Potterverse building that cannot be seen by muggles, or those who are not privy to the secret. Of itself, it is not a portal to somewhere else, but it may well protect a portal, or a portal may be required to reach it. A lot of polders are gardens, such as Tom Bombadil’s in the Lord of the Rings (but it is worth noting that Rivendell is not – a discussion for another day, perhaps). A polder could be a single room in a house or, as mentioned, a garden, or it could be a whole building, or a forest, a whole world, or a pocket dimension. The defining characteristic of a polder is that it is unchanging, except if it comes under attack from without… The creation of polders can be attributed, or not: for example in Good Omens, the Just William-esque juvenile lead creates a polder over a good chunk of the countryside. The angel Aziraphale (technically a Principality, “but people made jokes about that these days”) notes that “someone really loves this place”. Sometimes, a polder just is, such as Avalon.

One of the reasons that I like SF&F is that generally speaking it gives me license to make up the setting.  This can add some complexity to the world building (which can be both good and bad) but gives us the opportunity to create the landscape we want/need for the story.  The geography or, as it were, the ‘set’ for the story can give us an insight into the characters (221B Baker Street, for example) or can almost represent a character in its own right (Castle Gormenghast, perhaps, or the London of J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World). 

Which brings us to the list…when it comes to writing, I think there are five kinds of setting, whether macro or micro, that we can think of:

  1. A real place.  I really struggle with this, because I worry that the locals are going to take offence, especially if you mention someone living at a particular, real address, or that there is going to be some kind of mistake, such as describing a character driving the wrong way down a one-way road.  This is perhaps less of an issue with an historical setting.
  2. A deliberate reimagining of a real landscape (see e.g. Carola Dunn’s Cornish Mysteries series, with an upfront statement that the stories, set in the 1970s, are set in a Cornwall remembered from youth, and adjusted to fit the narrative).
  3. A polder – a wrinkle in the landscape holding an entire setting for a story.  The Rotherweird Series, by Andrew Caldecott, incorporates almost a small county in such a wrinkle; a non-fantasy version arises in Simon Brett’s Feathering detective series – named for the village which sits in a polder on the South Coast of England just down (or perhaps up) the road from the very real Tarring.
  4. A real place, but a universe or two over. Arguably this describes any fictional setting, but this is perhaps a distinguishing feature of speculative fiction in general if not science fiction and fantasy specifically, and there are books such as “The Handmaid’s Tale” which are incredibly feasible, but aren’t our timeline.
  5. A completely made up setting. This could be another planet, or a country wedged into a familiar geography, such as with the Ruritanian Romances (exemplified by “The Prisoner of Zenda”). You might suggest that there is little difference between Ruritania and Fethering, at least in ‘a wedged into the local geography’ sense, and you may even be right.

So where does this get us? At the very least, it gives us an opportunity to order our thoughts, and that is never to be sneezed at. I think there are at least two other benefits though. Firstly, looking back over what other people have done, it gives us permission to play with the landscape as we wish to tell the story that we want to tell. If our story is contemporary then we may want to give the reader fair warning that we have made up the locale, or that we have taken liberties and that the setting is not to be found on an A-Z or OS map; sometimes this is even built into the story, and you can include the geography in the ‘names have been changed to protect the guilty’ rubric at the beginning of the book. Secondly, it gives us an opportunity to make a decision, and to act accordingly. Is the setting as much of a character as any of the protagonists? Do we need to develop the landscape and give it an arc, or will a simple pen-sketch suffice to get the message across? This my be an ongoing decision, depending upon where the story takes us, and of course not all stories take place in a single setting. The Brownstone of Nero Wolfe, 221b Baker Street, Castle Gormenghast – all these are integral to the story, in some cases an extension of the main character themselves. Other locations are less important – a meeting in diner, or a library, or a mad dash through a train station, probably don’t need a high level of detail.

Not everywhere needs to be a polder, mystical or otherwise, but they can be helpful, and aren’t restricted to Fantasy or Science Fiction genres.

So, do you have a favorite polder? Are there times when you’ve been frustrated when a writer got the the geography ‘wrong’? Who gets the evocation of the setting perfect every time?

#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

#WritersResources: Creating an Avatar of your Ideal Reader

When an entrepreneur looks to market their business, they’re encouraged to create an Avatar of their Ideal Client, and I thought it might be interesting to look at doing the same thing to identify my Ideal Reader.

It wouldn’t be fair to do this for our co-written work without David’s participation, so I’m going to answer some questions from the perspective of my memoir/family history WIP.

What’s their name? You don’t have to give your ideal reader a name, but I went with the dual-gendered option of Jo/Joe.
Are they mostly women or men, or mixed? Statistically speaking, women predominantly read fiction, men predominantly read non-fiction. This is one genre where that doesn’t hold true, so I’d expect my ideal reader to be a woman. Jo it is then 🙂
How old are they? Older, probably 40+.
Are they married? Single? Any children? Any, or all, so long as they have access to a disposable income.
How do their earn a living? If married with children, they’re either non-working or have a part-time/lower income role. If single or without children, they’ll be a professional, but employed. In the oldest age group, it’s likely they’ll be retired.
Where do they live? They’re most likely to now live in the UK, but it’s probable that they’ve either lived overseas themselves, or had friends/family who did – in particular, in India or Africa.
What do they do for fun? Eat out, spend time with family/friends, travel, attend cultural events (art, music, literature).
What are their hobbies? Reading, gardening, walking, cinema, galleries.
Where do they eat out? Most often in local restaurants – the better chains or small independent, sometimes somewhere fancier (in a nearby city), somewhere special for a big event.
What do they drink? Tea, coffee, wine, beer, standard mixed drinks such as Gin & Tonic, Champagne for celebration.
What TV shows or films do they watch? TV – the current costume drama and/or thriller series, Great British Bake Off, Call the Midwife, Grand Designs, David Attenborough; films – current mainstream releases, adaptations of popular books.
Are they close to their families? Yes.
Where do they shop? For food in Sainsburys, Waitrose or M&S, also maybe a local butcher, delicatessen and/or farm shop. Clothes – from higher quality High Street and/or department stores. Quality materials and cut probably more important than fast fashion, but with cheaper fun pieces mixed in. The same mix of quality and fun for accessories.
What car do they drive? Practical and reliable rather than flash, German or Japanese brands predominate, probably bigger than they need. An SUV/estate car, especially if there’s children and dogs. If there’s no children, possibly a little fast indulgence.
Do they like materials things or experiences? They most likely have most of the material things they need, so there’s now a preference for experiences.
What are their core values? What’s important to them? Financial security, family, lovely home, friends.
What are the top apps they use on their phone? Kindle (or other eReader platform), Pinterest, Facebook, Instagram. Twitter feels like a place to find other writers rather than readers (who are not also writers). 
What platforms do they use on social media? Facebook  to keep in touch with family and friends -especially those overseas. Possibly Instagram – I recently came across the concept of #bookstagram, so that’s something to be investigated. 
Who or what is their news provider of choice? Mainstream UK TV news channels, possibly CNN for a non-UK take. The choice of newspaper was a tricky one, as I don’t know how much people still read them. As a result, I’m only nominating The Times because I know of the lively and excellent quality Facebook group which sprung from the paper.
Do they listen to podcasts, read blogs, magazines? Which ones? This is the big question and one I’m going to need to take time to research. The magazines will be relatively easy to establish, but the blogs and podcasts could be quite the rabbit hole. 
Where do they get their
 coffee? I know this question was more intended to be about where they buy their coffee presuming they brew at home, but I feel what’s of greater relevance for me is where they drink their coffee? I see them enjoying individual coffee shops where they can meet with friends, or simply stop for a coffee and/or a book when out for a walk (maybe with the dog). They’d probably also enjoy a proper afternoon tea. 
When do they buy books? When it’s their birthday and Christmas (or they’ve been given gift cards), if they only read a few books a year. When it’s the book nominated by their book club. All the time, if they’re passionate and regular readers. 
Are they of a certain affluence/disposable income? Yes, without a disposable income you cannot afford to buy books.  
Does the cost impact on their decision? It isn’t the primary factor, but it must be fairly priced. 

Answering these questions has been surprisingly helpful. I know have a fairly good idea of who Jo is likely to be and the life she’s likely to lead. I still have homework to do as I’ll need to figure out where her interests mean she might hang out, and make sure that she’ll get a chance to see and hear about my book when it’s available for purchase. 

I used a mix of questions gleaned from various online sources, selecting between and repurposing ‘ideal customer’ type questions. 

Do you have an Avatar of your Ideal Reader? If not, is it something you might consider trying?

© Debra Carey, 2022

How to edit: Some #SecondThoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©David Jesson, 2021


Writers resources: Managing Submissions

Last year, Debs and I had a bit of a shakeup here at Fiction Can Be Fun.  Fewer stories, more #SecondThoughts, and we’ve introduced a new series on resources for writers and another with guest posts investigating the intersections between writers and their daily lives.  In part, this has all been in keeping with the blog’s reason for being: from the beginning we’ve always wanted the blog to help writers, as much as it’s been about our own writing.  The other reason why we’ve been cutting back on the new stories, is that we’re trying to place more stories with magazines, most of which require that the story not have been published elsewhere, including on personal blogs.

As of today, I’m still only one story to the good, magazine wise, but I’m also aware of the number of people who have racked up a significant number of rejections before getting a story published – short story writers and novelists both.  So, I’ve got a little portfolio of stories that have each been rejected multiple times.  I still think they’re good, and friends have told me that they like them.  I just need to find the right home for them.  The thing is, there are lot of potential homes, and a lot of potential rejection letters.  How do you keep track of them all? 

I started off with an excel sheet, which sort of worked. Sort of. I made a couple of tweaks, but it was starting to get a bit messy and wasn’t really working the way I wanted it to. And quite bluntly, I didn’t have the time or energy to overhaul it. Then I started hearing about Submission Grinder, and later on Literarium and Duotrope; I’ve added links to all three on the Resources page. In some ways they are all much the same: an online tool for keeping track of your stories and rejections. Actually, all three are much more than that, although the focus and the mechanisms are a function of the founders’ ethos.

Submission Grinder is a spin-out from Diabolical Plots: they track 10,000+ markets (magazines, anthologies, etc), and more than 7000 users have wracked up over 330,000 submissions – some of these have even been accepted for publication. (One of the nice features is that every successful application is acknowledged and the author given a shout out). The presentation feels a bit old fashioned somehow, and that can be a bit off-putting, Having dabbled with The Grinder, I didn’t find it particularly intuitive, although I probably didn’t give it a fair try.

Literarium is similar to The Grinder, but I found it more useful in that it does what I expect in the way that I expect it to – I find it easier to understand. I’ve not delved far enough into the Submission Grinder to know if this is possible there, but Literarium will help generate an editable cover letter, based on key information about the specific story and anything that you’ve uploaded about yourself. It will also keep track of specific feedback, if you choose to add this. There are two health warnings, one useful right now, and one more of a long term thing. The other day I logged a piece which I had written for a specific market, and to begin with it wouldn’t let me register a submission. The problem, I think, was that the record for the market didn’t include the specific type of submission that I was talking about – this was actually a factual piece, an essay on a particular topic, that I’d written for a magazine that accepts both fiction and fact based submissions. I managed to get around the issue in the end, but worth noting. Longer term, the site explicitly states that whilst it is free to use at the moment, the developers are looking to make it a paid for service at some point. It’s not clear how far ahead that will be, nor what the tariff might be at that point.

Duotrope is already a paid for service, so I can’t tell you very much about it how it operates under the hood, so to speak, but it does also support artists and photographers as well as writers. It also seems to be a bit more connected across the industry, and offers a submission management process for publishers, similar to Moksha, Submittable, and the like. At £4.25/month or £42.50/year, the cost of the service seems reasonable, but when payments for stories can run from free copies of books/magazines to perhaps 10 cents/word, the cost could seem impossible to effectively ‘one story’. If you were selling a story a day, then it might be reasonable, but I suspect if I were selling stories at that rate then I might not be using this kind of service. Looking at the testimonials, I think that perhaps the tracker is a bonus, and what you are really paying for is some of the other features; that, and being a paid for service, the information is kept a little more up-to-date, and the statistics delved into a little more.

So there you go: three ways that you can keep track of your submissions, look for new markets, and hopefully get your stories published more easily than trying to keep track of a bunch of emails, scraps of paper, or an excel database.

But what’s your experience? Have you tried these sites before? Do you have a sure-fire method for keeping track of all those words?

© David Jesson, 2021

#WritersResources: Interviewing your Characters

When David & I first wrote November Deadline, our bad guy Bunty was little more than a cipher. The idea of doing a chapter or two from his perspective was tossed back & forth, but with four main characters (as well as a couple of vocal minor ones) already telling the story, we decided to leave well alone during the Challenge itself.

Those particular time restrictions now behind us, we’re filling out the story, and there’s now room for Bunty to have a voice. I did the initial rough draft of those chapters in a telling rather than showing manner, but when I came to re-draft them, I realised with something akin to horror that, even though he’s my creation, I’d no clear idea who Bunty was. While existing chapters already deliver a comprehensive picture of his looks and his political views, that was it … for he was that stereotypical baddie – all darkness, with no depth or nuance.

As a first step, I went through the original manuscript, pulling out every reference to Bunty, to ensure I didn’t contradict what’s already there – at least, not without intent and in the full knowledge of what needed re-writing. In so doing, I came across an exchange of dialogue with Jack I’d totally forgotten about (probably because David wrote it), which helpfully answered a couple of questions I was asking myself about his manner of speech (whether it was old-style and formal, or if he used a more modern selection of vocabulary), but I knew I was still missing the essence of Bunty.

David recommended Mind Mapping, but while procrastinating, inspiration struck! Deep from the recesses of my mind, I dragged up a memory of the multitude of “interview your character” questionnaires I’d saved on Pinterest absolutely ages ago, for Pinterest is yet another of those places I stockpile potentially “useful stuff”, only to forget all about it …

Two immediately jumped out of the mass – the first being a blog post from the pen of the wonderful K M Welland, which contained questions from her book Outlining Your Novel. I’m ashamed to say this book not only sits on my shelf, but has been read from cover-to-cover – clearly the old synapses weren’t firing properly, for I did not recall the terrific resource I had right to hand. The second was another blog post, this time from the team at The Write Practice, and forms a set of questions attributed to Marcel Proust. If these two don’t float your boat, there are plenty more to be found here.

I sat at my keyboard with a fresh cup of tea to work my way through both questionnaires. Much to my surprise, I was able to answer each question quickly and with little thought – so it turns out Bunty wasn’t such an unknown character after all, I Just needed to dig him out of the deep recesses of my mind via some well-thought out questions.

Mind Mapping ended up being a bit messy and didn’t give me any particular insights, so I turned instead to a Word Cloud … and the result was delightfully unexpected. Just so you know, whenever I produce a word cloud for inspiration, I don’t apply any weighting to the words as I like to see what the fates may offer me in the form of insights. The only word in the list I entered with a capital letter was Nazi (yup, my inner grammar – ahem – Nazi was at work there), otherwise all were lower case and in the same font.

Please accept my apologies for the dreadful quality of the image which follows – it was a snapshot taken of my PC screen (for yes, I did have technical issues during lock-down, but am sure I wasn’t alone in that), and also for the horrendous typo – but, you see, I couldn’t not include the result …


For yes, buried among the obviously unpleasant aspects of Bunty’s character, those questions I’d answered revealed he was an unloved child – lonely, needy and unhappy. And suddenly, Bunty wasn’t a cipher anymore. Yes he’s a bully, but being writers who study human behaviour, we know that particular path is filled with those who’ve followed it in order to divert attention away from their own perceived weaknesses.

Although I can now see the unhappy child behind the man, the following saying plays an even more significant part in my overall assessment of Bunty …

It is our choices that show us what we truly are ...

I still don’t like Bunty, even though I think his character is more rounded and has depth. All I need to do now is to re-write those chapters …

© Debra Carey, 2020



#WritersResources: Edit Out Loud

One of many discussions I’ve had with David is the subject of audio books and their narrators. Personally, I’m a massive fan of Stephen Fry’s reading of the Harry Potter books, and David has spoken in glowing terms of Kobna Holdbrook-Smith’s reading of Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series.

But …

I’ve given up my subscription to Audible more times that I can count, for I struggle to find books which translate as well to being heard as being read. I’m absolutely certain this isn’t just a one way street of pointing the finger at the narrator, especially after completing Hilary Mantel’s final part of the Thomas Cromwell trilogy The Mirror and the Light, where I struggled tremendously during earlier chapters to figure out what piece of dialogue was being spoken by which character. As a narrator, I guess it could be possible to save the listener from that confusion, or it might prove just as confusing a process to figure out as to a reader.

That said, this is about writers editing, rather than readers listening, so …

One thing which struck me when listening to the audio of a couple of Cormoran Strike books (from J K Rowling’s nom de plume, Robert Galbraith) was how many times I heard “he said” and “she said”. I did manage to read past, for the characters were well crafted and the story line interesting enough, but it proved to be a most helpful learning around the whole subject of dialogue tags.

That experience added extra weight to the advice given to writers of reading our work out loud – a practice I now generally follow. The problem is, I know where I intend the inflection to be … so I place it there when reading aloud. Whereas, having tested the Edit Out Loud app, it’s clear the matter at hand is whether I’ve used the correct punctuation and sentence structure for that to be clear to my reader.

The Edit Out Loud app was one of those things I fell across somewhere, made a note of on my phone, having every intention of trying it out when I had time. At the end of 2019, I rummaged through the notes on my phone, after accepting it it was high time I made the time to do something about all the ideas I’d stored there. It became pretty clear that a number of the items had been time sensitive … and that certain ships had long sailed. One good clear-out later, and my note to check out Edit Out Loud shot right up the list.

Edit Out Loud Trial

The software is available to download for use on your desktop – be that an Apple or Windows platform. For mobile devices, it’s currently only available for Apple, but an Android app is currently in development. I chose to download the software to both my Windows desktop and my iPad. As my writing is done on the desktop, it’s easier to upload it from there, but I listen to the app on the iPad for the purposes of editing.

There are four levels of membership – for the purpose of this trial, I used the Free version, and in all honesty, cannot see from the features listed, that I’d either need or want to upgrade.


You can select from a number of computer generated voices – there are three UK English options – 2 male, & 1 female. Similar is available for US English, and there are a vast range of other languages to choose from. It’s also possible to alter the voice’s speed.

So, what did I learn? The major learnings did turn out to be around my use of punctuation. The first observation is that either the software doesn’t cope with dialogue, or I’m not doing it right. Sadly, I suspect the latter is correct, for I have issues with punctuation marks appearing inside of quotation marks AND outside; I’ll no doubt be put straight by a professional editor on that subject in due course 🙂 I’m also not using commas correctly for indicating where a reader should pause for breath, and the app also made obvious when a sentence of mine has gone on for WAY TOO LONG. But I was absolutely delighted to discover the app copes well with hyphens and with my favourite ellipses, as none of the other options I tried did.

While you’re being read to, a highlighted block moves across the text, and you have the option to add a comment, or to “mark” the text with the following notations :

  • Make Shorter
  • Add Details
  • Redundant
  • Grammar

To review the marked up manuscript, simply tap on the little fin-like markers in the left-hand margin, and a new window opens to let you know which of the listed options above you selected to mark the text (for multiple markers in the same paragraph, just tap the fin again for a second/third etc window to open).


In order for this to be an entirely fair trial, I decided I needed to compare it with other free options available. My first attempt was with the Narrator feature available in Windows. Unfortunately, it read aloud Every.Single.Thing as you try to set it up, meaning I quickly decided it would drive me totally nuts before I got anything useful out of it. While there’s also a similar feature within Microsoft Word, since Microsoft Office decided adopted the subscription model, I no longer have a copy and so cannot comment. Adobe Reader also has a ‘Speak Out Loud’ feature, but it is horrendously slow and, as I could find no option to amend the speed, it was also rejected. Finally, I tested the ‘Read Aloud’ extension to Google Chrome using the ‘Simple Text to Speech’ option, and it wasn’t at all bad. The major drawback being once that it starts to read, there’s no option to pause or annotate the file as you go.

The only other software option I found worthy of further note was Natural Reader. Like Edit Out Loud, it has a number of membership options, including an entirely free version. Of note, one of the premium membership options offers natural voices, and the sample readings provided do sound a lot easier on the ear when compared with the digital voice options available in Edit Out Loud. The cost for the natural voice option was $19/month or $119 annually at the time of writing. One drawback for me, is that Natural Reader didn’t cope well with hyphens, and my favourite ellipses absolutely mystifies it. However, if computer-generated voices drive you to distraction, this option may be worth considering, if your budget will stretch to it.

The outcome of my trial is that I’ve deleted all the trialled options, with the sole exception of Edit Out Loud. At the ideal price-point (free), there were enough learnings gained for me to decide it’s worthwhile using as a quick and easy editing tool.

I hope you find this helpful – please do share you experience with this (or similar) software, or add your own suggestions below in the comments.

© Debra Carey, 2020


#WritersResources: How to format a manuscript

I’ve been trying to get more of my short-form fiction into (paying) magazines, which is one of the drivers for the changes to the blog that have been happening recently.  One of the key tenets for the magazines is, it doesn’t matter how low-key your blog, once it’s out there, it’s published.  So whilst I still want to share my writing, from my perspective it’s going to be much more of the micro/flash fiction and the experimental stuff.  And I’m using ‘Flash Fiction’ here in both senses – stuff that is written on a short deadline (no time to over-think things!) and stuff that is quick to read, typically 1000 words and under.  Anything over this is going to be heading to a magazine, probably.

As with everything to do with writing, there is a learning curve.  The publishing industry has been around for a while, and despite the digital revolution there tends to be not just a way of doing things, but THE way of doing things.  Some of these date back to the time when you would have sent a type-written manuscript in the post to the editor.  If they didn’t like it, they’d send you the manuscript back and you could hawk it elsewhere.  If they did like it, then they might scribble some changes they wanted, perhaps to fit with a house style, perhaps because they had it in for the Oxford comma, and send it back for changes, or agreement to the changes.  They might simply scribble on it and send it downstairs to the typesetter.

Cutting to the chase because, for reasons that will be self-evident in a moment, I want to keep this post brief, there is a standard format for manuscripts.  This is not to say that all magazines conform rigidly to this standard, nor that all magazines follow it at all.  However, having been less successful than I might have liked, and having had to submit certain stories to successive magazines, I have noticed that many editors direct prospective authors to one or other of two key  articles on formatting.  These are worth a read (links below), but not when you are in the process of trying to re-format your work ready for submission.  All the information is given, but not in a nice succinct way to make your life easier.  What I have done here is to pull out the key points for easy reference.

DISCLAIMER AND HEALTH WARNING: Always check what the magazine wants first.  These points are to help if someone refers you to either Shunn’s style guide or McIntyre’s, but it’s up to you to make sure that your document is formatted correctly – Fiction Can Be Fun cannot be held liable if your story gets rejected out of hand because it’s in the wrong format.  My opinion of the features of the standard format doesn’t matter, so I’m not going to give it.  It’s what’s been asked for, and that, as they say, is that.

All of that said, the two style guides mentioned are written as essays, with the formatting discussed.  This is a great visual reference, but a complete pain if you are frantically trying to sort things out so:

  • Courier or Times New Roman fonts.  Nothing else.
  • 1″/25 mm margins on all sides.
  • Double spaced.  Not 1.5, not 3, definitely not single.  Double.
  • Do not justify the text, leave it left aligned, with a ‘ragged’ right edge.
  • Do not leave lines between paragraphs.
  • Indent the start of a new paragraph.
  • If you have a section break (in the sense of the narrative, rather than with respect to formatting) mark it with a single #, centered.
  • If your text requires italics for emphasis, then italicized words should be underlined.
  • Mark dialogue with speech marks and remember what Shunn says:

“When a new person speaks, start a new line.”

  • As a header, place Surname/Key word/ page number in the top right corner.
  • Some people want a cover page, in which case the header starts on the first MS page.
  • Start the MS half way down the first MS page.  Just above this, put the document title, then your byline.  Top right, your name, your address, email. Top left, ~ word count (rounded to the nearest hundred for a short story and 500 for a novella).
  • If you are doing a cover page, put the title about a third of the way down, byline underneath this.  Your name, address etc goes a further third down the page, on the left, and the approximate word count goes to the right.
  • Some people end the document with ‘End’, to indicate the end.

Hope that helps.  If you’ve got some top tips, stick them in the comments!


ZotA: A reflection on our A-Z Journey

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As we may have mentioned once or twice ;), we’re both great fans of April’s A-Z Blogging Challenge. Set up by Arlee Bird back in 2009, it’s grown like topsy since that time.

It would probably be fair to say that 2020 has been a strange year.  The zeitgeist can be summed up by the conversation between 2019 and 2020:

2019:  I can’t believe I managed to out-do the last few years!

2020: Wait until you see what I’ve got in store! [Waggles eyebrows]

We started the month by saying neither of us were able to participate this year.  There were a number of excellent reasons for this, not all related to the implications of lives affected by the implications of Covid-19.  Both of us prefer to have a linking theme to work with, and both of us are haunted by the behemoth that our 2018 challenge ended up becoming… But we did want to do our bit. We decided instead to highlight one (or more) blogs each day, to encourage people who visit us to visit, to make new friends, and to find some entertainment during the current crazy world we’re in.  As we noted in our A2ZChallenge Survival Guide:

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 Challenge could be used as a modern day update for the parable of the seeds: some blogs, despite signing up well in advance, never actually post during April; some start strong then fizzle out after perhaps a week or so; some are just not of interest to certain readers…But some make it through the entire month with entertaining content.  Surprisingly, in one sense, this last group is the majority.

Surprising to us, was that we managed to get through the month with a daily instalment of a blog or two that spoke to us in some way, inspired us to be better writers, entertained and delighted us.  Surprising not because of the wealth of excellent blogs (I’ve already said that they are there for the looking for), but because we were able to find a link to the letter of the day, and even some of the tricky ones are not that tenuous!

Some of our highlights are old friends, made during previous challenges, but some are new, and we’re looking forward to keeping up with these new friends moving forward.  We’re only sorry that we couldn’t visit more blogs, give more shout-outs.

Thus ends another challenge, and we’re delighted to be in the survivors club, given that we didn’t think we’d be doing the challenge this year!


© Fiction Can Be Fun, 2020

An A-Z Journey through the Challenge: L

As we may have mentioned once or twice ;), we’re both great fans of April’s A-Z Blogging Challenge. Set up by Arlee Bird back in 2009, it’s grown like topsy since that time. As neither David nor I are able to participate again this year, we decided instead to highlight one (or more) blogs each day, to encourage you to visit, to make new friends, and to find some entertainment during the current crazy world we’re in.

Some of these highlights will be old friends we’ve made during previous challenges, but some will be new. We don’t plan to stick to any theme other than maintaining a (possibly tenuous) connection to the letter of the day.


On to today’s letter – L


You can find participants via the Master List, but in order not to miss any of April’s blogging riches, you may also seek participants via the hashtags #AtoZChallenge and #A2ZChallenge on Twitter. For today, I’d like to add:

Literacious: With a theme of pairing spices and kid’s literature, what’s not to like?  Each day, Laura presents a spice or herb (or occasionally a blend) and then goes on to present a recipe where you can use said spice, and links it to a children’s story.  I’m looking forward to chasing up the references on both counts.

Labanan: I’ll be honest and say I’m not entirely sure how the web-name marries up with the title of the blog, or the name of the writer, but Jan Morrison’s A2Z posts on the subject of revising your #WIP are on point and well worth a read.

If you’re catching up, here’s our previous highlights …

The letter A
The letter B
The letter C
The letter D
The letter E
The letter F
The letter G
The letter H
The letter I
The letter J
The letter K

Let us know of other blogs connected to the letter L which we should read.

© David Jesson, 2020