8 Super Snappy Speed Reviews

Spoiler Alert

While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers, anyone who has not read: The Count of Monte Cristo by A. Dumas, The Afrika Reich by G. Saville, The Final Act of Mr. Shakespeare by R. Winder, The House of Silk by A. Horowitz, The Gospel of Loki by J.M. Harris, I, Robot by I. Asimov, Deception by R. Dahl or Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

Well this might be a great idea or it might not be, but I thought it might be fun to knock together a couple of two or three sentence book reviews based on a selection from my bookshelf. Who knows, if it’s a hit, I’ll maybe do it again… maybe with movies or TV shows. But for today, it’s books.

I selected the books for review entirely at random. They are not necessarily of the same genre, nor are they necessarily books I particularly liked or disliked, nor are they sorted into any particular order.

What I have written about them are my entirely own impressions and opinions, compressed, squeezed and crammed into a few short sentences. So, without further ado…

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

Justifiably a classic of the genre; a good wholesome historical adventure story and love story rolled into one. It helps to know a thing or two about the period of the Bourbon Restoration to fully appreciate everything that’s going on but don’t let it put you off if you don’t have any knowledge of that period. Oh, and make sure you read the unabridged version translated by Robin Buss. It is the best.

My rating: 5 stars

The Afrika Reich by Guy Saville

If alternative histories and non-stop heart-pounding thrill-rides are your thing, you’ll probably enjoy this. Personally, I can’t help feeling the protagonist should have died from his injuries- or at least been slowed down enough to be caught and executed by the Nazis but I suppose that’s what we have suspension of disbelief for.

 My rating: 3 stars

The Final Act of Mr. Shakespeare by Robert  Winder

Historical fiction featuring William Shakespeare as the protagonist. This novel is set shortly after the Gunpowder Plot and tells the fictional story of the last play Shakespeare (never actually) wrote: Henry VII. In some respects, the story is quite exciting; filled with personal danger for Shakespeare and his troupe. While the narrative does drag at some points, it is beautifully written in a way which brings many of the real historical characters to life and is kept afloat by its interesting premise and a goodly dash of humour. It also includes the full script for the fictional play this novel focuses on.

My rating: 4 stars

The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz

Many have tried to capture the magic of Sherlock Holmes in books and films throughout the years. Few have done it as well as Anthony Horowitz does it in The House of Silk, balancing fidelity to the original creation of Arthur Conan Doyle with a fresh and exciting new plot for modern readers. It has everything in it you ever wanted from a Sherlock Holmes story; mystery, excitement, a dark secret to uncover and a quality of narrative which draws you right into the heart of Holmes’ London. Parental advisory: the ending is a lot darker and more disturbing than anything A.C.D. might have written.

My rating: 5 stars

The Gospel of Loki by Joanne M. Harris

This novel is an imaginative reexamination of Norse mythology, given from the unique perspective of one of its central villains: Loki, the god of mischief. This novel is full of sharp and occasionally dark humour and a very compelling antihero. Downsides? The first few chapters felt more like a list of cosmic anecdotes forming a backstory, which made it a slow read at first but it does pick up. I also found the narrative voice of Loki a little irksome, but then again, the Loki character is probably supposed to be irksome so I suppose that’s a good thing.

My rating: 3 stars

I, Robot by Isaac Asimov

What can I say about I, Robot that hasn’t already been said? Almost every robot character that has ever appeared in sci-fi since owes something to this collection of short stories which are set at different points in the lifetime of robopsychologist, Dr. Calvin (though she is not a character in every story, the stories are largely told from her perspective). Each story is generally centred around the Three Laws of Robotics (Google it) and the problems caused by human and robot interpretations of these laws. I found the pacing a bit slow occasionally, but all in all it’s a good read and an essential addition to any sci-fi buff’s bookshelf. This book sets the standard for everything modern sci-fi readers expect from a robot story.

My rating: 4.5 stars

Deception by Roald Dahl

As a child, I loved almost everything Roald Dahl ever wrote. Deception is certainly not for children but it is an excellent collection of short stories all dealing with theme of lies and deceit. Some of the stories are quite dark (for instance, ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’ deals with a woman who murders her husband with a frozen leg of lamb then feeds it to the police) while others are a little more lighthearted. I loved it. I think you will, too.

My rating: 4 stars

Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis

Lewis is probably more famous for the The Chronicles of Narnia and his assorted theological texts but this book (the first in ‘The Cosmic Trilogy’) is well worth a look anyway. Hard sci-fi fans, don’t waste your time. This is a story about a man who travels to Mars, but Lewis’ idea of space is clearly grounded in his interest in mythology rather than modern cosmology. Treat it as a fairy-tale rather than a sci-fi, though, and it’s a darn good read.

My rating: 4 stars


Phew! Well, that was different!

Until next time!

A Few Words About Magic in Fiction

I’ve recently been reading The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson and am so far loving everything about it. I love the characters, I love the world-building, I love Sanderson’s use of language, but more than anything I love the magic system he has created for his fantasy world.

Magic (as I’m loosely defining it here) features heavily in fantasy. The forms magic can take from one fantasy story to another, however, greatly vary. If you think I’m going to give you an exhaustive break-down of all the kinds of magic that appear in fantasy fiction, you’re sadly mistaken because I have neither the time nor the inclination do so, but I do want to try and break down what it takes to construct a good one as Sanderson has.

Let’s begin by highlighting an important pitfall we need to avoid. I am of course talking about the dreaded deus ex machina. For those of you who don’t know this term, deus ex machina (literally, ‘God in the machine’) is a literary device by which the problem faced by your characters is miraculously solved in an implausible or unexpected way which tends to be profoundly disappointing for the audience. If you’re including magic in your fantasy, there is a real temptation to endow your characters with a kind of practical omnipotence whereby they can rescue themselves from any situation simply by performing the right magic trick but doing this will suck all of the excitement out of your story.

I don’t want to harp on about Sanderson’s magic system in The Final Empire too much (mainly because I haven’t finished reading it yet and I might get things wrong) but it does serve as a good example of how to avoid this. This magic system (called Allomancy) involves ingesting and ‘burning’ certain key metals. Each metal endows the user with a particular ability. There are, however, only so many metals which can be used in Allomancy, which therefore puts a limit on the kinds of magic that can be used. Characters cannot randomly breathe fire or travel back in time but they can enhance all their physical attributes if they burn pewter, for instance. Allomancy is further limited by who can use it (Mistborns, who can burn all the metals and Mistings who can burn only one kind). There are many other limitations on this system too, but I hope you get the point: by creating limitations on magic, deus ex machina can be avoided because even the most powerful Allomancers can only act within the boundaries of what that world’s magic system allows them to do.

Another thing to bear in mind is that your magic system is inseparable from world-building. Indeed, creating your magic system is part of your world-building process. You need to ask yourself, therefore, where the magic comes from and how it works, even if you don’t make this explicit in the text itself. For instance, is it something inherent to certain creatures or people-groups in your world (fairies, wizards, dragons, women, children, the rich, the poor, etc) or is it something that can be learned or even purchased? Is it perceived as something natural or supernatural (in the same way we might perceive a difference between the science of medicine and miraculous spiritual healing)? In short, you need to ask yourself exactly what magic is, who has it, where it comes from and why.

Incidentally, it’s also worth remembering that the longer your fictional world has existed, the further your society’s understanding of magic is likely to have developed, in much the same way in the real world our knowledge about the universe has steadily increased – and we have developed technology which exploits that knowledge. If your characters are still crawling around in caves, they probably are barely aware of the intricacies of magic (even if they are aware of it at a primal or superstitious level), but if they are already flying around in spaceships, it’s likely that their understanding of your magical system will also be more advanced and this will be reflected in how they use (or avoid using) it.

Also remember that no matter what kind of system and history you create for magic in your world, it will affect the rest of the world and the characters in it, even if they cannot all perform magic themselves. It is not possible, for instance, to write a story set in a world just like our own except that all the children are telekinetic. Believe me, if a world ‘just like ours’ featured telekinetic children, we would have a very different society indeed; perhaps even a paedarchy. Certainly family life and systems of education would be drastically different from anything we have in the real world.

This is why it is so important to also ask yourself, why your story needs magic and what kind of magic it needs to make the story work. Having magic in your fictional world will fundamentally redefine that world and can undermine your story. Therefore, do not include magic just for the sake of having it. Like everything else in any good story, it must serve some function. And please, do not fall into the trap of thinking that magical abilities are your story. They are not. You can write a story which features telekinetic children if you like, but that’s not a plot or a cast of characters. That’s just a premise. Even in a magical fantasy, characters and the situations they find themselves in are always, always, always the beating heart of your story. The audience doesn’t really care about what your characters can do. The audience cares about what your characters need to do.

 

The Malice Restored My Faith In Sci-Fi/Fantasy Trilogies

SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been taken to avoid spoilers, anyone who has not read The Malice or The Vagrant by Peter Newman is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

I was rather reluctant to write a post reviewing Peter Newman’s The Malice (the second book in Newman’s The Vagrant trilogy) for the simple reason that I seem to be constantly bigging up Peter Newman on this site, as well as on Twitter. Frankly, if I keep this up, there’s a very real danger of Penstricken turning into The Peter Newman Appreciation Society (I may have raved about The Vagrant once, twice, or thrice before).

However, a few days ago someone very kindly (but not entirely accurately) referred to Penstricken as a ‘writing tips blog’ when really I intended this site to be for both story writers and their audiences. So, I decided it was time to write a post for those of you who have put up with me rambling about writing week in and week out when all you really want is a book recommendation. And since I have recently finished The Malice, it seemed a logical choice to review it on this week’s post.

Naturally I will try to give a fair, balanced and critical review but you know…

The Vagrant trilogy is arguably the best sci-fi/fantasy series I’ve come across in a long time!* It has made me believe in sci-fi/fantasy trilogies again! I wish the third book would just hurry up and COME OUT already!

… and relax.

Okay, now that I’ve got that out of my system, let’s get down to business.

The Malice is the second book in the Vagrant trilogy, based several years after the events of The Vagrant. When I read the first book a year or so ago, I did so believing that it was a stand-alone novel. You see, over the years, I have grown cautious about reading novel series (especially sci-fi/fantasy) from authors I don’t know because I have often found myself getting bored with them by the second or third book. As we know, some series just go on and on and on and on and on forever. Therefore, since there’s nothing worse than abandoning a story halfway through, I tend to think long and hard before picking up a new series. As much as I loved the originality, the poetic language and the vivid world-building I found in The Vagrant, when I learned that it was part of a trilogy I was a little anxious that it might go the way of so many other series I’ve started but never finished.

I was wrong. I devoured The Malice with as much proverbial** relish as I did The Vagrant. I think the reason it works so well as a sequel is because Newman has managed to strike that difficult balance between continuity with the first book and not rehashing the same story all over again. For example, there is a definite continuity in the style of story-telling. Newman’s distinctive voice has carried on into the sequel and draws us easily back into the same vivid and original world he has created. However, the characters are, as always, where Newman really works his magic.

As with the previous book, we have the protagonist who leads the adventure; the protagonist’s companion who supports and defends her and a capra aegagrus hircus (in this case, a kid), who serves in a comedy relief kind of capacity. However, Newman hasn’t relied on reusing the same (or virtually identical) group of heroes as before. The protagonist, Vesper, for example, is a young girl; chatty, a little unsure of herself, optimistic to the point of naivety and with an iron core of purity and unhindered free-thinking that suits her age and background. This is quite the opposite of her father and protagonist from the previous book: the strong and silent Vagrant who pushed his way relentlessly through whatever adversity he encountered.

Her companion, Duet, brings a similarly refreshing spin on the familiar role she plays. She is a Harmonised; an single entity made up of two joined individuals (as far as I could tell). Having been forced to kill her other self in the early chapters of the book, Duet grows increasingly bitter and cynical throughout the story as her health begins to fail her. Again, this contrasts sharply with the companion from the previous book, who served mainly as a very positive influence to encourage the Vagrant on his journey.

It was also good to get something more of the origins and inner-politics (if you can call it that) of the infernals who feature heavily in both books.

This book (both of them, in fact) also beautifully accomplishes something which very few other sci-fi novels do. It draws the reader into a dark and dangerous dystopian world while yet retaining a sense of optimism and even fun; exploring important themes of friendship, compassion (especially in the character of Vesper, who often resolves to help and heal others even at great risk to herself and her mission) and duty. For me, this sets it apart from many other sci-fi stories which are often either unremittingly depressing from the get-go or else are a little too fun to have any realism or tension about them (not that I’m knocking that. I like fun). This gives it a sense of believably, even though it is set in a world that is so completely different from our own.

If I must criticise something about this book (and I really would rather not), it would be that the pacing of the last few chapters could possibly have benefited from a little tightening up. I don’t want to give away what happens, but it did feel a little bit like having dramatically saved the day, Vesper then goes back home via the long and not-terribly-thrilling route which left me thinking ‘I hope something good happens to justify all this excess narrative that’s been stuck on the end’. Well, I don’t want to give away what it is but trust me: something good does happen. It is definitely worth reading on, especially if you’ve got any plans (as I do) to read the third instalment, The Seven, when it comes out in April.

All in all, The Malice was every bit as excellent a story as its predecessor; perhaps even better. While it remains firmly rooted in its predecessor, it carries the story forward in great strides, opening up the possibilities for the next instalment and leaving the reader feeling both fully satisfied and eager for the next one. Go get it!


*Having said that, I have just started The Mistborn series. It’s off to a promising start too.

**Don’t put literal relish on your book. It leaves a stain. LFMF.

Using Dialogue to Bring Your Characters to Life

They say we all smile in the same language*. Fortunately for us writers, just about everything else we say, we say in our own unique way. It doesn’t matter if everybody in the room speaks the same language (English, for instance); accent, dialect and all the different words and idioms we tend to use have given each one of us a way of speaking which is almost as peculiar to ourselves as our fingerprints. For us story tellers, understanding and harnessing this knowledge can be the difference between writing a good story and creating a masterpiece.

No, I really don’t think I’m overstating it at all. I think they’ll probably put this on my gravestone but I’ll say it again anyway: characters are always the beating heart of a good story. You can plot until you’re blue in the face, but if all your story has in the end is a good plot and shallow characters, your story will feel abstract, flat and difficult to relate to; in a word, boring. And how are you characters manifested in your story? To some extent it is by what they do, but I would argue that to a greater extent it is by what they say, and more importantly, how they say even the most mundane things. For example, in Star Trek: The Next Generation, the character Data frequently irritates other characters by giving time intervals to the nearest second.

BORG QUEEN: How long has it been since you’ve used them?
DATA: Eight years, seven months, sixteen days, one minutes, twenty-two…
BORG QUEEN: Far too long.

(Star Trek: First Contact, source: http://www.chakoteya.net/movies/movie8.html)

This is more than just a recurring joke. This absurdly precise approach to calculating time is a constant reminder to the audience that Data is an android. At a fundamental level, his mind works like a computer and we can see that in the way he speaks. He doesn’t have to say ‘I’m an android!’ in every single episode to remind us that that is what he is. It’s made obvious by the kind of expressions he uses.

The way a character speaks will tell your audience buckets of information about that character without it being explicitly stated at all. The kindly, elderly member of the local parish church in a quaint middle-class village is unlikely to replace all her commas with strong profanities. Again, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot frequently code-switches into French, signifying his Belgian origins. In addition, a character’s accent will also tell you something about their origins and you can communicate this accent to the reader through how you spell and punctuate your character’s dialogue (this little article I found might prove useful if you’re planning on giving it a go). In short, a character’s register and accent tells you something about their social and geographical background without it being explicitly stated.

Of course, I’m sure that’s obvious to you. But if you really want to harness the power of dialogue to build your character, it’s time to start thinking about your character as an individual. Go back to your character profile and consider his needs, wants, fears and goals, as well as his personal history. Bring it out in everything they say. For example:

Character A: Oh dear, I missed my bus! C’est la vie! I’ll catch the next one. If I’m late, I’m late!

Character B: Sake! See these #$@&%*ing buses! I think they just print the #$@&%*!ing timetable to noise us up; some kind of sick #$@&%*!ing joke on the stupid little commuters! They’re never here when they say they will! Now I’m going to be late again!

Character C: Oh no! I think I’ve missed my bus… ohh, what do I do? I’m going to get the sack for sure! Oh no, no, no, no, I can’t be late again! Oh please, why is this happening to me?

In all three situations, our characters have missed a bus and are late for work. In all three, our characters are miffed to be in this situation but they all express their disquiet very differently and this tells us something about their personalities. One of them is a bitter and twisted man who has had a few hard knocks in his life and is convinced the world is out to get him. One of them is a worrier, constantly nervous and assuming the worst. The other is a carefree optimist. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out which is which based on the above dialogue.

There are two reasons these characters personalities come out so clearly in their dialogue. The first is what they said. Character A easily laughs off the inconvenience with a pithy little c’est la vie, while character B’s bitterness is immediately evidenced by the fact he not only blames the bus service for his trouble, but goes as far as to suggest they have deliberately conspired against him.

But if we go a little deeper, we can also glean the personality of each character by how they said what they said. Character B is the only one who uses bad language, for instance (I’m afraid you’ll need to use your imagination as to exactly what he said, I’m determined to keep this website family friendly). He could have just as easily said, ‘These buses are always late! I think the timetables are just there for fun!’ but that would not have communicated the same kind of pent up angst this character obviously has. Indeed, if he had said it that way, it might have even sounded jocular, even though it communicates exactly the same idea. The audience would simply have no way of knowing for sure what this character was like, or even how he really felt. The original version, on the other hand, leaves the audience in no doubt that Character B is one angry man. In the same way, Character C’s repetition of the word ‘no’ brings out the growing sense of dread he feels that his life is going more horribly wrong than he ever dared to imagine. He could have just said ‘Oh no, I can’t be late again!’ but… it just doesn’t communicate his barely suppressed panic in quite the same way.

If you’re a writer of fiction, it would be well worth your while investing some more time in studying this. I can only scratch the surface of this in a 1,000ish word post but if you master this, dear writer, you will have taken an important step forward in becoming a better story teller. Your characters will have been endowed with a personality that really shines through and makes them stand out as unique individuals. It also goes a long way towards mastering the art of subtext in your dialogue but… alas, that is a subject for another time.


*Although it might be more accurate to say, we all speak the Universal Language of Smiling, which arguably has a vocabulary all of its own. After all, we all know that a sneer, a grin, a grimace and a chuckle all mean quite different things, don’t we?

What Do Your Characters Think of Each Other?

Think about someone you know well. Anyone. A friend, a relative, a colleague, anyone. I bet if I asked you what that person was like, you would be able to easily give me your opinion on what sort of person they are.

John? Oh, he’s loud-mouthed, arrogant and opinionated. He’s not a bad person but he’s a real pain to be around…

Jeanie? She’s the most beautiful creature I’ve ever laid eyes on but she’s a liar and a thief. I wouldn’t turn my back on her. 

Willy? Nice guy I suppose, doesn’t say much (but let me tell you, he’s got the sharpest wit you’ve ever come across).

Now ask yourself… would that person’s own mother sum them up the same way you did? What about their spouse? Their boss? Their arch-nemesis? Even though you see John as loud-mouthed, the chances are his mother would focus on some other, more positive qualities, such as how kind-hearted he is. If John has a wife, she would be more likely to emphasis his physical attractiveness than his mother would (or, perhaps, she thinks he’s a lazy good-for-nothing and she can’t believe she married him).

As we all know, characters are the beating heart of any good story. However, no character is an island. How they respond to other characters is often essential in making your plot work (indeed, this arguably is your plot), so don’t be fooled into thinking it’s obvious how your characters will respond to one another. Just because you would respond in a particular way to Character A doesn’t mean that Character B will respond to Character A in the same way you would. Even though you, as the author, know all the facts about all of your characters, you’ll still have your own narrow opinion about what sort of person they are just the same as anyone else. That is why it is vital to know what every character thinks about every other character if you want to create a rich, vibrant and believable story.

Fortunately, it’s easy to do this. Here’s how I like to do it:

Start with a nice blank page. For me, it’s a separate document in my Scrivener project, but whatever floats your boat is fine (if you’re writing on paper, I would strongly recommend having plenty to spare; this could take up a few pages, especially if you’ve got a lot of characters). Now we make a table, as I’ve illustrated below, with as many rows as you have characters and two columns. Only the top row should have a single column, as this will act as a header. In this header, we write the name of the character we are wanting to find out about; Mr. Protagonist, for instance. In the cells below this, we ask every other character in the story for their opinion on Mr Protagonist. I find the easiest way to do this is to write out the answer in their voice, as if they were speaking to me. Even though I’ve only included two other characters to show you how it works, I would recommend you have a much larger table which includes every character in your story so that you get the most out of it.

Mr. Protagonist
Baron Antagonist Mr. Protagonist is a meddler and a constant thorn in my side. We were friends growing up but it is clear now he does not understand the great work I am doing here. His table manners are appalling but he has great taste in single malts.
Lady Loveinterest Mr. Protagonist is ruggedly handsome. His personality is quite charming, if a little brash and uncouth. He has a fiercely righteous (if misguided) streak which almost makes up for his poor breeding. Unfortunately, he drinks a little too much.

Once you’ve done it, repeat the process for all of your other characters.

Baron Antagonist
Mr. Protagonist Baron Antagonist is a snake-in-the-grass. He acts all sophisticated and like he’s everybody’s friend so that he’s got the whole world wrapped around his finger. How do you expose a guy like that? Even the king’s daughter has agreed to marry him. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he beat her.
Lady Loveinterest Baron Antagonist is a great man; a real visionary and a man who knows how to get things done. He’s got the patience of a saint too. I can see Mr. Protagonist irks him sometimes but he has never lost his temper with him, not once. Mr. Protagonist is fortunate to have a friend like the Baron.

Do you see how this can help you to gain a much deeper and fuller understanding of all your characters and the threads of friendship, enmity, mistrust and devotion which bind them together in an elaborate web which I like to call a “Story”?

If you really want to go the extra mile, why not throw in an extra row on each table telling us what each character thinks about themselves?

Mr. Protagonist
Mr. Protagonist I’m a cook and an employee of my former friend, Baron Antagonist. I have to say, I feel a bit out of place living in such a splendid house. The other servants don’t talk to me ’cause I don’t live in the servants quarters. I think that’s why anyway. But I’m more a man of their stripe than the Baron’s. I wish they could see that.
Lady Loveinterest Mr. Protagonist is ruggedly handsome….

Not only is all of this an effective means of fleshing out your story, it can actually be a pretty darn effective means of coming up with a story idea, similar to (in fact, arguably better than) auditioning characters. The above example, for instance, is only that: an example. I made it up as I was going along purely for your benefit. And yet, without intending it, I actually found myself getting quite involved in the story – a story which did not exist before I started filling in those tables. The embryo of a plot began to form in my mind as I learned more and more about each character from the lips of those people who knew them best. Who are these three people? What is the Baron’s ‘great work’ and why is Mr. Protagonist so distrustful of him? Will Mr. Protagonist ever get together with the slightly snobby Lady Loveinterest?

Give it a bash. I think you’ll find it helpful.

Our Daily Ray Bradbury Diet

“Just write every day of your life. Read intensely. Then see what happens. Most of my friends who are put on that diet have very pleasant careers.” –Ray Bradbury

Makes it sound simple, doesn’t it? It’s quite another thing entirely when you’ve got a headache, a family to look after, a day job which drains every iota of energy and the will to live from you and a gas engineer in your kitchen drilling and hammering so loudly that you think the whole house may collapse from the noise alone. Just finding the time, never mind the motivation, to write and to read every day can be a challenge for those of us who live in the real world. Throw in a few unavoidable distractions from external sources and you’ve got a recipe for accomplishing nothing at all. Nevertheless, Mr Bradbury was quite correct in saying that the best way to be a writer is to read with gusto and write without ceasing. In fact, I do not believe that it is possible to succeed as a writer if you do not read widely and I am convinced that it is impossible to be a writer if you do not write often.

If you’re anything like me, however, you might find that it’s easier said than done on both counts. Reading and writing both require a certain level of time and freedom to do them effectively and real life doesn’t half get in the way sometimes. I wish I could give you some magic words to try and make it easier. Unfortunately I can’t. They do not exist.

What I can do is make a few suggestions to try and help you along the way. Take or leave them as you see fit. As with most writing tips I’ve come across, what works for me may or may not work for you.

The first and most important step is to prioritise the things you have to do in life generally (reading, writing and everything besides) and organise your schedule accordingly. Think of everything you are likely to do regularly  – even trivial things like time spent watching TV – and list them all in order of importance with things you are unwilling to compromise on at all at the top and things you would be willing to sacrifice altogether at the bottom. Some people would have you believe reading and writing absolutely must be at the very top of this list. I’m not sure I agree with that personally (if, for instance, my wife goes into labour at the start of my writing time, I fully intend to get no writing done that day. Sue me), but I do think the closer you have it to the top, the easier you will find it to make the kind of time you need to read and write.

Once you’ve done this, the next step is to figure out exactly when you’re going to do each thing, affording more time to the items higher on your priority list. This means, of course, that things lower on your list may be afforded only a very small amount of your time – or may have to be sacrificed altogether. But I would argue that more important than how much time you afford to reading/writing is what time you decide to do it.

Not all hours are created equal. If you can only afford to write for a few short hours every week, you want to make sure you do it at a time where you are the most likely to produce your best work. Exactly what time this will be depends on a great deal on your personality and your circumstances. For me, it’s usually between 8-11am on Wednesdays-Saturdays. Here’s why:

  • I have a part-time office job to be at on Mondays and Tuesdays so can’t write then
  • Sunday is my weekly day off. I write only for as long as it brings me pleasure
  • Before 8am, I tend to still be a little too groggy (what can I say, I’m not a morning person) to focus on what I’m doing
  • After 11am, I am distracted by hunger and since I tend to do most of the cooking in my house, I am usually thinking about what to make for lunch.
  • For some reason (explained here) I turn into a Proctrasinationasaurus after lunch.

That’s not to say I only write at those times. But those are the best times for me write, and therefore I am particularly strict about using those times for nothing but writing, especially on weeks where I have lots of unusual distractions (like this week, I’m having a new heating system installed).

Reading, like writing, also requires a decent amount of time and concentration. You will occasionally hear people boasting that they read thirty books a week and other such nonsense, and maybe they do, but I would question how effectively they’re reading them in such a short space of time (assuming they have all the other demands on their time we normal people have). Don’t get me wrong; it certainly is possible to skim read a book, understand it and enjoy it if you’re just reading for casual entertainment, but if you’re wanting to grow as a writer, you’ll want to take a bit more time to appreciate the way the story has been crafted. That means recognising and understanding figurative language, character acts, story beats and the like so that you can see for yourself what turns a nice story into a quality work of literature. Even if you don’t know the technical jargon, you should still be able to recognise the structure, literary techniques and why they work when you see them.

Personally, I’ve got the attention span of a goldfish, so I find the best way to read is in frequent short bursts throughout the day: early in the morning, during my lunch break at work, last thing at night, during my writing breaks and whenever else I get more than five minutes to myself. It might not be the quickest way to get through a book. It won’t help you win any ‘Read 100 Books Challenge!’es but I do think that when it comes to reading, quality beats quantity every time. If you’re strapped for time, don’t waste the little time you do have trying to power your way through your whole library in less than a month.

 

5 Different Kinds of Writing Prompt

Sometimes when you’re stuck trying to come up with a story, it helps to have a little nudge to spark off your creativity. The internet is, of course, bursting at the seams with all kinds of writing prompts and other creative stimuli and it can be difficult to know where to begin. So, today I’ve listed a selection of prompts for fiction writers (please, use them and abuse them; maybe even show us your efforts in the comments section below) but what I really want to do is explain how I like to use these kinds of prompts and what I feel their relative strengths and weaknesses are. So, without further ado…

Opening lines

The idea behind opening line prompts is simple. You can write any story you like, as long as you use the prompt as your opening line. These can be great if you’re writing a short story or are just wanting to let your imagination run wild for a bit. Opening lines are good for this because the whole point of an opening line in any story is to grab the reader’s attention and flood them with curiosity about what happens next in a single sentence. Well, as the writer, you get to decide what happens next; thus, you have your prompt. I would generally shy away from using opening line prompts for a novel or other large and complicated project, because they usually require a lot more planning. You can rest assured Dickens did not come up with A Tale of Two Cities because someone asked him to write a story which opened with the words ‘It was the best of times’.

Anyway, why not try one of these?

  • David was not what he appeared to be. By day he was a humble civil servant but by night… 
  • Pat was the first human to set foot in [your place here] for more than thousand years.
  • We’d never had any trouble from the family next door until… 

Writing by Theme

This is my preferred kind of writing prompt for writing lengthier or more involved stories such as novels. You are given a single theme to work with but apart from that, your story can be just about anything. This gives you wide scope and still requires quite a bit of imagination on your part, but I sometimes find that more useful than the restriction you get with other kinds of prompts. Try a few of these:

  • Write a story about experiencing new things
  • Write a story about obsession
  • Write a story about ageing
  • Write a story about fathers and sons
  • Write a story about war

Characters

Another common writing prompt is to be given a rough description of a character you can work with. As I’ve probably mentioned before, all the best stories are character driven rather than plot driven, and from that point of view, having a character as your stimulus – before you’ve even thought of a plot – can prove very rewarding indeed. The main difficulty with this approach is quite simply knowing what to do with your character. S/he has to be brought out of her comfort zone to make a story happen so this certainly doesn’t let you off the hook when it comes to making up a plot. It just gives you somewhere to begin that you might not have thought of yourself. Have a bash at writing a story about…

  • An intellectual 34 year old bus driver who dislikes enclosed spaces.
  • A hot-tempered 17 year old female singer who tends to talk too much.
  • A bigoted 84 year old man who works as a gas engineer and absolutely refuses to retire for anything. 
  • A kind-hearted 49 year old woman police officer whose worst nightmare is about to come true.
  • A talkative 5 year old girl who dreams of becoming a vet.

Titles

These work in a similar way to opening lines. You are given the story title; you have to write the story. This can be very helpful or very unhelpful, depending on the title. Something more obscure gives greater freedom but if you’re struggling with writers’ block, you might benefit more from something a little bit more specific. There are plenty of random title generators out there, some of which are nothing more than random adjective and noun generators. Others are a little bit more sophisticated than that. On the plus side, you can use titles as prompts for almost any kind of story. I’ve made up a few of both kinds for you to play with:

  • Jude, Patron of Hopeless Causes
  • The Broken Sky
  • The Midnight Oil
  • The Wandering Cobbler
  • Rest for the Wicked
  • Jimmy Jones, Space Cadet!
  • The Madness Method
  • A Girl Named Grace

Pictures

Sometimes being told what to write isn’t what you need at all. You need to visualise something new to help you create new ideas, and for that, a picture might just be the answer. I don’t really find pictures much use for stimulating plot ideas particularly (though I have occasionally used them; for instance, my regular readers will testify to the fact I use the pictures on Story Dice to help me write my six word stories) but I do find them very useful indeed for coming up with new characters or settings. Photographs of people you don’t know or places you’ve never been instantly spark the imagination by forcing you to wonder, ‘who is this person?’; ‘what happens in that building?’; ‘what does that uniform s/he’s wearing represent?’ and so forth. A huge number of the characters and settings I’ve written have been based on making up things about random people and places I don’t know.

Not being much of a photographer, I haven’t got any pictures for you to use as writing prompts but I can highly recommend visiting websites like Pixabay for free images that you can use. Alternatively, try using some purpose built tools like Story Dice.

This is, of course, all just a taster. There are about a squillion other kinds of stimuli out there, from the ridiculously obscure (Oblique Strategies…) to others which aim to spoon-feed the author by almost writing the story for you. What matters is that if you use a stimulus, that you choose the right kind of stimulus for your project. This can be the difference between getting something out of it and not getting anything out of it so choose carefully. Writing with prompts can be a great way to train the writers’ imagination and it’s a healthy habit to get into – just as long as the prompt you choose doesn’t leave you more stuck than when you began!

What To Do When You Hate Your Story

The worst possible thing that can happen to any writer is for them to look at their work (especially their half finished work) and decide that it’s rubbish. Any idiot can overcome writer’s block with just a little bit of perseverance, but despairing over your story can be crippling. Not only will it halt you in your tracks, but it will probably make you want to give up writing altogether. Well, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:

Quitting is NOT an option!

That includes quitting your current story, as well as quitting writing altogether.

There is a way out of this situation. The first thing you need to remember is that the despair you’re feeling over your current story is almost certainly all in your mind. If you’re anything like me, you can quite easily flit between thinking your story is the most important piece of literature in the history of the world ever to being downright ashamed of it in the space of a few hours. So the first step is to refuse to give up. You were once pleased with the shape your story was taking; you will be pleased again in the future if you persevere. So, once you’ve resolved to carry on writing no matter how bad things get, it’s time for some positive actions. These are a few tried and tested techniques that I find work for me.

Take a Break

Seriously, sometimes all you need is to do something other than writing for a little while. However the important thing to remember here is that you’re trying to clear away some cobwebs, so I would recommend against vegging out on the sofa brooding about what a terrible author you are. Trust me, that doesn’t help.

Instead, do something stimulating – as long as it’s not writing. The goal here is to release some happy hormones, so read a book, take a walk or whatever it is that makes you feel revitalised. Better yet, do something that makes you feel good about yourself. Something that makes you feel like you don’t suck at life. Maybe you play a mean pinball. Go beat your high score, do a celebratory run around the living room then come back to your story.

Oh that reminds me, you also want to make sure your break ends at some point. Either set a time limit or make sure that your chosen recreational activity has a clearly defined finishing point so that you don’t forget to write altogether. I’ve done that before myself…

A Change is as Good as a Rest

If you don’t quite trust yourself to withdraw completely from writing your story but still feel like you could use a break… write something else.

To clarify, I do not mean give up on the story that’s giving you trouble. I simply mean spend half an hour or so writing something else, then come back to your story.

If it’s only your current project that’s getting you down, but you still feel like a perfectly capable story teller, then try your hand at some flash fiction or even poetry. Something completely different to get the juices flowing, but not so long that it swallows up your time working on your main project. Heck, it doesn’t even need to be fiction you write. Personally, I find writing this blog every week gives me a real shot in the arm.

If, on the other hand, you feel like such a failure at writing that you’re just about ready to quit and go back to the day job, try keeping a writer’s journal. Don’t try to be clever here. You’re not writing this to have it published, or even read by other human eyes. This is simply a constructive way of getting out all of those horrible, self-depreciating feelings that you have as well as tracking your progress and analysing where you might be going wrong.

Break Your Problem Down OR Draft Like Crazy

If you’re absolutely determined that a rest is not what you need, then try a change of approach. Broadly speaking there are two ways to go about this, depending on what stage of the writing process you’re at and how you like to go about writing a story.

If you feel like you’re up to your armpits in disjointed or poorly written scenes, it would be wise to go back to the old drawing board and consider where your story might be going wrong. Perhaps you need to flesh out your character profiles. Perhaps your protagonist lacks a satisfying character arc. Perhaps the pacing of your story is all off. Either way, it’s time to set aside the manuscript and get into the nitty gritty of your plan. If you already have a plan set out, this is a sensible place to start. If not, it’s maybe time you thought about putting one together.

If, on the other hand, you are working on a detailed plan when despair strikes, it might be that you’re overthinking the matter. If you find yourself lamenting how implausible your story is or how ‘it’s been done before!’ then this probably applies to you. The truth is, fiction is nearly always implausible; that’s why it hasn’t really happened. And fiction has nearly always been done before; there is, after all, nothing new under the sun. Put your plan to one side for a while and try to write a draft of your story as freely as you can. Don’t edit (you might find Typewriter handy for that) and don’t worry about where it’s going. Be led by your muse and write whatever comes to you. Doing this can sometimes help you to imagine possibilities that never would have occurred to you simply by staring at charts and tables.

Whether any of this helps or not, remember Ernest Hemingway’s advice: ‘Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now’. If you are despairing of your writing, remember that this is only a temporary setback. You cannot run out of ‘author-juice’, nor can the same story idea be good one day then bad the next. It is only a mindset that is holding you back, so persevere and win!

A Quick Review of Hemingway Editor v.3.0

You may recall (if you’ve got a photographic memory) that I published a post last year reviewing the Hemingway Editor. This snazzy little app analyses and grades the simplicity of your writing style and I’ve used it plenty over the last year to help edit my own writing. Well, it so happens that I got an e-mail this week informing me that v.3.0 is now available with a whole bunch of new features. These include:
  • The ability to publish or save drafts to WordPress or Medium from the Hemingway App
  • More choice of what you can import and export from Hemingway. This includes, among other things, the ability to export PDF files with all Hemingway’s highlights intact)
  • Distraction free writing and editing
  • The ability to have many documents open at once
  • A pretty new splash screen
  • Various bug fixes
Like its predecessor, Hemingway 3 aims to help you write in the most clear and simple style you can by highlighting any instances of adverbs, passive voice, complex language or cumbersome sentences. It will also give details of readability, word count, letter count, approximate reading time and so forth. In this sense, nothing much has changed (though the new version seems to be far more willing to suggest specific corrections, which is a big plus) . It uses the same system of colour coding, grading and gives exactly the same information. There have only been a few minor changes to the layout of the sidebar. I won’t waste too much time here reviewing features that are common to both versions. You can read the old post for that. Instead, let’s have a look at some of the new features.
 
Being a WordPress user, the ability to save your work to WordPress or Medium caught my attention straight away. I don’t use Medium so I haven’t been able to test it, but I did have a go at saving to WordPress. See this post that you’re reading now? This is it; this is the test. I wrote and edited this using Hemingway Editor 3.0. And my verdict is this: it would be great if I could only get it to work. The window that appears when you click ‘Publish on WordPress’ is very clear and easy to use, but whenever I clicked ‘save’ this kept happening:
error1
 
Do let me know if you think I’m doing something wrong. I’ve spent the last fifteen minutes trying to figure it out and it’s still not working.
 
So, let’s move on to look at exporting and importing. In the old version, you could only import Word documents and export Word or Markdown documents. Hemingway 3 gives you much more choice. Now you can import:
  • Plain text (.txt)
  • Markdown (.md)
  • Web pages (.html)
  • Word documents (.doc)
And you can export:
  • Plain text
  • Markdown
  • Web pages
  • Word documents
  • PDF documents (.pdf)
  • PDF documents with all Hemingway’s highlights included.
unabletoconnectThis is all a massive improvement, but the last item on that list is the most exciting for me. This allows you to quickly and easily share edits with colleagues. The only downside? Nowhere on the PDF file does it tell you what each coloured highlight means. Unless our hypothetical colleague has the Hemingway Editor himself, you will need to provide him with details of the colour code. Still, it’s a handy feature to have.
 
The distraction free environment is one of my favourite new features in Hemingway. The previous version included a bulky toolbar along the top of the screen and an even bulkier sidebar if you were on ‘edit’ mode. The new version allows you to hide the sidebar even in ‘edit’ mode. It also has a ‘full screen’ function which hides your taskbar. It’s not a completely distraction free environment, as it does still have the toolbar at the top (which, to be fair, is now much less intrusive). On balance, though, I would still call it a big step in the right direction.
 
One thing I was particularly curious about was the spellchecker. You may recall from my previous post that I was none too impressed with the spellchecker in the old version.
 
‘Have they improved it!?’ I hear you cry.
 
I suppose, technically… no, not really. They’ve cured the disease by killing the patient. There is now no spellchecker whatsoever as far as I can see.
 
Another thing I was curious about was a particular bug I had discovered in the previous version, which I mentioned in the last post. Text I had copied from other apps overlapped with pre-existing text making the document unreadable. I’m pleased to say this is now resolved.
 
All in all, I would have to say version 3 is definitely an improvement. The new features are useful and they work well (publishing to WordPress notwithstanding). Things that didn’t work before, now do work, while things that worked well before now work even better. There is still room for further development, of course. It would be nice to have a functioning spellchecker for instance and the toolbar could be even more discreet than it is now but all in all, Hemingway Editor 3.0 gets a thumbs up from me. Go get it!

Dear Authors, Size Does Matter

These days, there is almost no limit (in either direction) on how long a story you can write. There is an audience out there for epic fantasy sagas consisting of seven or eight 300,000 word books; there is an audience for stories consisting of only a single, short sentence and there is an audience out there for almost everything in between. How and where you can publish these stories varies, but thanks to the magic of the internet, there’s always a way to get them out there to be read by millions.

Best of all, you’ve had a story idea! A superb story idea that you’re sure other people are going to love too! Well isn’t that just fabulous? I’m made up for you. Really. You won’t see the verdant steam of jealousy billowing from my ears at all. In fact, I’m so happy for you that I’m going to help you make sure you don’t ruin it.

‘Ruin it?!’ You cry, aghast and perturbed. ‘What could possibly ruin this little gem of mine?!’

Lots of things, but what I’m really thinking about today is the length of your story: writing a novel that should be a novella; a novella that should be a short story; a short story that should be a one hundred word story; a one hundred word story that should be fifty… or indeed, writing a fifty word story that should be a 550,000 word trilogy with a spin-off stage musical.

It’s important to decide well in advance what length of story you want to write for two reasons:

  1. It’s all part of knowing your target audience, especially if you’ve got any inclination to ever get your story published. Casual browsers of Twitter can read your six word story in no time; only dedicated bookworms and fans of your genre are likely to look at a seven book series.
  2. (and this is the reason I want to focus on the most today) Poorly chosen length can have a devastating effect on the pace of your story.

Pacing is important. A well paced story will both excite your audience at the appropriate times and make them feel involved in your character’s situation. I don’t want to get too technical in this post about the intricacies of pacing (perhaps I’ll write a post about it in the future), but suffice it to say that all good stories are made up of slow bits and fast bits, and it is this balance of slow against fast which creates the desired reaction in your reader. In the case of written fiction, the slow bits will be very detailed and will probably (although not necessarily) feature a lot of key dialogue. They are there to draw your reader into the character’s situation; to let your reader know exactly what’s going on for your character and to enable your reader to care about them. The fast bits are less detailed; it’s all about the action.

This is a difficult art to master at the best of times. You’ve probably read many a published novel or watched many a film even in which the pacing ruined it for you. Personally, I felt that the pacing in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire caused the story to drag a little too much for my liking. It’s not because it’s a bad story, or even because it’s poorly written. It’s a very good story in a lot of ways so please don’t shout at me. But by the time I got about half way through the second book, my boredom was complete. A story of that kind of pace really can’t afford to be seven books long. If he had stopped at one or two books… things could have been so very different.

It works the other way too, of course. While I’m focusing mainly on written fiction today, I want to briefly mention the film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune, because it makes the point so well. Dune is a great book. It’s very long but that’s okay, because the story is well paced. The film adaption of Dune is reasonably faithful to the book and yet… I almost got dizzy watching it. There was too much story crammed into a much-too-short film and it made the whole thing feel a bit rushed (there were also too many voice-overs to let us hear the characters’ thoughts, but I’ll save that rant for another day). If only it had been a bit longer (even if it meant breaking it up into a series of films), it could have been a really great retelling of that classic sci-fi novel.

Do you feel breathless just reading your story because the pace is so darn fast, or that you are struggling to cram everything you need to say into a restrictive word limit? Maybe it’s time to consider turning that short story into a novella or even a full length novel. Or do you feel that your narrative is dragging despite all your best efforts? Ask yourself seriously if your novel wouldn’t benefit more from being a short story or flash fiction instead.

I recently wrote a story entitled Little Thieves Are Hanged, which started out life as a 2,000-3,000 word short story. I was really convinced the story idea had potential and I was very pleased with the characters and sequence of events I had created but… try as I might, I couldn’t seem to make it interesting. It was about as much fun to read as a phone book but I couldn’t shake the idea that this was a good story.

I decided to start from scratch. Exactly the same plot but this time with a word limit of only 100 words. Let me tell you, I had some serious darling killing to do but within days I had a story I was proud to submit for entry to the National Association of Writers’ Groups’ 100 Word Mini-Tales Competition (which is why I haven’t published the story here; it’s still waiting to be judged).

Ideally, you want to settle on the right length of story before you write. You’ll save yourself an awful lot of time and energy if you do but the truth is, knowing exactly what length your story should be is often a matter of experience. Chances are you will occasionally find yourself getting it wrong the first time, like I did with Little Thieves Are Hanged. If that happens, don’t let it discourage you. Be brave and start again with a more appropriate word limit. I know it’s a drag, but you will probably find that it pays dividends.