Hey Author, Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

‘Oh, so you’re an author then? Where do you get all your story ideas from?’

Ughhhh! Stop asking me that! I don’t know! If I knew the answer to that, I’d probably have more ideas!

Er-hem.

Okay, so for reasons best known to yourself, you want to know where to find the House of the Magical Idea Wizard and think that perhaps I, or one of my author colleagues (you know, the ones that have actually got a few novels published), might have the answers you seek. I know I’m not alone in having people ask me about this. Writers’ blogs seem to be replete with authors whining and complaining about how often their family, friends and fans (those of you who have fans) ask them this same question.

Well… today, O seeker of insight, I am going to attempt to answer this singularly annoying and misguided question in the only way I can: from my own narrow experience.

The first thing you need to know is that there is no Magical Idea Wizard. Or at least, if there is, I’ve never met him. Plot bunnies are certainly real enough, but they are not bred by any one person whom you can purchase one from, nor do they grow on a special tree. In fact, between you and me, I’m not even sure plot bunnies are all that useful. They’re certainly not to be relied upon if you plan on making a career out of story writing.

‘Hold the bus for just a minute!’ I hear you cry. ‘What on earth’s a plot bunny when it’s at home?’

I’m glad you asked. A plot bunny is a story idea that pops into your head and won’t go away. They tend to appear out of the blue. For example, I recall on one particular occasion I was sitting on the upper deck of a bus coming home from the hospital where I work. At one point, while we were stopped at traffic lights, I noticed a Chinese takeaway and I was struck by exactly two thoughts:

  1. Mmm… salt and chilli chips…
  2.  If I ever figure out how to invent a time machine, I’m definitely going to keep it a secret. Then I’ll open a takeaway and be able to trump all the competition by travelling back in time to get all my orders to my customers mere moments after they make the order.

The first thought was mere gluttony. I ordered a takeaway when I got home and that was that. But the second thought was a plot bunny par excellence. For months I turned that strange little notion over in my mind, convinced that there was a story in it (for in itself, it was not a story but just a premise) but I just couldn’t make it work. Nevertheless it was a persistent nuisance in my brain, demanding to be written but it was a whole year before I was able to actually turn it into a story. More often than not, however, I find most plot bunnies come to nothing.

So… it is possible to be struck with sudden waves of inspiration, but they’re often unproductive in the long run and — more importantly — there’s absolutely no way to simply snap your fingers and make plot bunnies come to you on demand. In a word, plot bunnies are utterly unreliable.

Wise authors know that if you want to be able to write stories on demand, you need to be deliberate and methodical in developing your idea from the tiniest seed. That ‘seed’ could be anything. For me it’s usually either a theme I want to write about (e.g., my current novel started as a simple desire to write a story about rebellion) or else it’s a character looking for a story to belong to. But where does that ‘seed’ come from?

It’s not magic. All you need to do (boring though this sounds) is to make a deliberate point of setting aside time to sit down and be proactive in developing an idea from scratch. I don’t just hope for ideas to come to me on the bus, on the toilet or anywhere else (though I certainly write down any that do pop out of the blue). I set aside regular time to sit down at my desk and produce as many ideas as I can. Coming up with story ideas is not a supernatural gift that strikes without warning; it is a discipline which can be learned through practice and patience. I can play the trumpet, not because every now and again musical talent strikes me, but because I have devoted time and effort to regularly practising my skill. I started off rubbish. Over time, through regular practice, I became an accomplished (perhaps even good) trumpet player. If I stop practising for any length of time, my ‘talent’ gets noticeably rusty. The same is true of coming up with story ideas.

For me, I find the best way to come up with ideas is to brainstorm. I sit down with a notepad and give free reign to my thoughts, omitting nothing that comes to mind. Often I will find myself inventing characters who I can then audition or ‘interview’ in different settings and situations (the main antagonist in my current novel came about this way). Journaling can also be helpful. Scribbling down all my thoughts, feelings and opinions about politics, family, philosophy, religion, humour, music and whatever else comes to mind can often help me to discover new themes to explore in a fictional setting. I then question and experiment with whatever comes to mind. From there, it’s a simple matter of taking the time to refine my ideas. If I really, really, really can’t think of anything, there are plenty of prompts available online which you can use as a springboard into creativity; however, I tend to rely on these only as a last resort.

You asked me earlier whence ideas come. The simple, boring and profoundly mysterious answer is that they come from your own mind. There is no magic, but the everyday magic of that lump of slimy grey matter in your skull which, by some inexplicable design, is able to invent entire worlds and people from nothing and to use those inventions to communicate all manner of beliefs and philosophies. If you have a brain, you have ideas. You have all manner of ideas every day, both good ideas and bad ideas. You’ve probably had dozens of ideas already today, about a whole range of subjects. Turning these ideas into stories is simply a matter of practice and patience.

5 Ways to Write a Terrible Novel

You might recall, if you’ve been putting up with this blog long enough, that I once wrote a post on how to avoid becoming a writer. Of course, if you are a writer, you’ll know how insistent that little Inner-Writer’s voice can be, constantly banging on about the different ideas he’s come up with that you absolutely have to write. You might find it simply impossible not to write.

But fear not, ye who are enslaved by the urge to write. Your salvation is at hand. If you dread becoming a full time author, but cannot resist the urge to write, there is another solution: write badly.

It’s easy to do. Just follow these simple steps.

1. Use Dry Descriptions; Avoid Figurative Language

How you describe things can often be the difference between an excellent story and a terrible one. I can’t labour this point enough. Using metaphors, personifications and other forms of figurative language can turn even the most unexciting passages of narrative into a thing of sheer beauty, whereas dry descriptions can make even the most intense scenes seem duller than the Phone Book. Allow me to demonstrate using the first few lines of John Steinbeck’s Cup of Gold:

All afternoon the wind sifted out of the black Welsh glens, crying notice that Winter was come sliding down over the world from the Pole; and riverward there was the faint moaning of new ice. It was a sad day, a day of gray unrest, of discontent.

Steinbeck, J. (2000), Cup of Gold, Penguin Classics, UK. p. 1

This is what you want to avoid. All Steinbeck is doing here is describing the weather, yet it’s so chock full of figurative and poetic language that it’s an absolute joy to read. It flows beautifully and really makes you feel like you’re there, in the Welsh glens, feeling the cold of winter rolling in from the Pole. If you write like that, everybody will want to read your novel. Instead, aim for something like this:

It had been windy all afternoon in the black Welsh glens. You could tell it was nearly winter. In fact, the river was starting to freeze. The sky was grey and the mood was sad. There was a bit of a breeze and a bad feeling in the air.

Considering the above paragraph is only two and a bit lines long, you’ve got to admit… it’s a tedious read. I got bored writing it! You can be sure your reader will get bored if you write your whole novel that way.

2. Use Stock Characters

You know how I’m always saying that characters are people, and should therefore have all the wonderful complexity and contradiction that make up a real person? Well… forget all that. If you want to write a bad story, you’ve got to make sure your characters are as flat, predictable and stereotypical as possible. So, you might have characters like this:

Johnny Famous (our dashing hero). He’s strong, noble and righteous in all things. He neither smokes nor drinks, has no skeletons in his closet and knows neither fear nor selfishness.

Emperor Zorg (dark lord of all). Wears a black cape and wants to conquer the universe. Thinks love is a weakness. Lives in a black castle, or maybe an underground base.

Daisy Divine (love interest). Stunningly beautiful and serves no function in the story except to be rescued by and fall in love with Johnny. If you must give her a back story, don’t let it be anything that might interfere with her living happily ever after with Johnny.

3. Use ‘deus ex machina’

Even the most well written story can be ruined at the last minute by deus ex machina (‘God in the machine’). This is a technique writers sometimes use (usually when they can’t figure out how to progress the story in a way which is believable and satisfying) which essentially involves a random, improbable or otherwise unsatisfying solution to your story.

Just the other day I was watching an episode of Star Trek: Voyager called ‘Twisted’ in which a spacial implosion ring is slowly twisting and crushing the entire ship from the outside in. Eventually the regular cast find themselves trapped in the one and only unaffected room on the ship and are desperately trying to come up with a solution to save themselves before that room also implodes. Finally, they accept that they can do nothing but accept their fate. The implosion ring enters the room and begins to crush the remaining crew…

Then it suddenly disappears and everything is fine. Turns out the implosion ring wasn’t nearly as deadly as it seemed. In fact, it was trying to communicate.

I wasted an hour of my life watching that. Take note: deus ex machina is a great way to make your readers hate you forever.

4. Employ Numerous Cliches

Actually, just between you and me, you can sometimes include a tiny amount of small, carefully camouflaged cliches in a story and still end up with a good story… but as a rule of thumb, the more cliches you have and the more obvious they are, the more terrible your story will be.

There’s an almost endless list of possible cliches you could use to make your story extra-awful, but a few examples include:

  • The Chosen One: Our hero thinks he’s just an ordinary guy but it turns out he is actually the fulfilment of an ancient prophesy and must save the world because it’s his destiny (in a good story, the protagonist will act in a way which is in keeping with their own motivations and desires).
  • Love conquers all: Just when all seems lost and the world is doomed, the bad guy’s evil plans are utterly thwarted because someone performs some great act of love (usually either involving sacrificing oneself for another or just plain old fashioned snogging).
  • The Final Battle: The whole story culminates in final dramatic fisticuffs between the noble hero and the evil dark lord in which, after a bit of a wobbly start which is supposed to make the reader think all is lost, the noble hero inevitably wins.

5. Info Dump

To understand what is going on in your story, your reader must be aware of certain facts. Characters’ backstories or particulars about how your fictional world works, for instance. Good writers feed this information to their readers in small doses and, where possible, will subtly weave it into the narrative so as not to drag the pace of their story down to a tedious belly-crawl.

But you don’t want to be a good writer! You want to write a terrible novel, so make sure your novel reads like a textbook of facts and figures about the history of your characters and the world they inhabit. Ideally, if you can devote the first chapter or two entirely to providing facts and backstory without getting down to telling the actual story, you can be sure your reader will put your book down without finishing it. If that seems too hard, try to info-dump in a character’s dialogue instead. For example,

‘I was born on the 29th of May 1982 at the Queen Mary Maternity Hospital to Jean and Philip Jones.’ said Peter Jones. ‘I lived with them in the leafy suburbs of Anytown all my life until I met Miss Backstory who broke my heart and now I can’t handle adult relationships at all…’

Follow even just some of these steps and I can guarantee you, you’ll never write a good story in your puff. No matter how many manuscripts you complete and submit for publication, you can still return to your tedious office job day after day, secure in the knowledge that you’ll die at that grindstone before you ever have to take the plunge to become a professional, full time author.

My Thoughts on FocusWriter

There’s an old saying I tend to adhere to: you need to use the right tool for the right job. For me as a writer, that means I have lots of different writing tools depending on the kind of writing I’m doing and what stage of the writing process I’m at. For instance, I use Scrivener to write my novel and other large projects; Hemingway Editor for times of editing; Jotterpad to scribble notes and song lyrics on the go (you didn’t know I wrote music too, did you?) and FocusWriter for short and flash fiction, which is the subject for today’s little review.

There are, of course, plenty of “distraction free writing environments” out there. In fact, even the other apps I mentioned at the start of this post boast distraction free modes which hide most or all of the toolbars to allow you to focus exclusively on your words. What sets apart FocusWriter from these, however, is how highly customisable that environment is and how many features of a typical word processor are still available without being intrusive. Personally, I sometimes find that even the best distraction free interfaces can be a little too sterile when it’s just you and the blinking cursor on a blank screen, daring you to write a word. With FocusWriter, that’s not a problem. You can make the interface as pretty or as sterile as you see fit.

When you first download the app (for free, I might add, though you can give a “tip”), you will find it is already preloaded with a selection of themes. Some, such as the ‘old school’ theme are very plain featuring nothing but plain text on a plain background. Others include background images and coloured pages for your text to appear on (as you can see from the screenshots below). If none of these themes are to your liking, you can customise them by changing the font; margins; line-spacing; text background colour and opacity and much more besides. You can also create, save and export your own themes using (or not, if you prefer) images from your own library.

There is a traditional toolbar and a selection of menus at the top of the screen which includes all the basic features you would expect from a word processor; however, this is all invisible except when you hover the cursor over it, thus giving you easy access to all the basic features without getting in the way while you are trying to write.

There is also an option to grey out all text save the sentence, sentences or paragraph you are working on. Personally, I have not found much use for this feature but I suppose I can see why it might help you to focus on a particularly troublesome few sentences, especially if you decide to edit your work with FocusWriter. And of course, there is also the option to make FocusWriter full screen.

For those of us who like to keep careful track of our progress or who find it helpful to time ourselves as we write, FocusWriter also includes features for setting yourself daily word count or minutes-spent-writing goals. Again, this is not visible on the screen unless you hover your cursor over the very bottom of the window, where a tiny little bar will appear and tell you your exact word count and how close you are to achieving your daily goal. If you wish, you can also record your progress so you can see how often you are reaching or exceeding your goals over a longer period of time.

If you wanted to, you could probably easily use this application to write almost anything, including novels and other long and complicated works. However, I personally find it most useful for writing shorter works, such as short stories or flash fiction. It’s easy to create a different theme for every day and every mood so that your productivity is never hindered by niggling distractions or the pure white horror of a completely blank screen, no matter what kind of person you are and no matter how you feel. The main reason I don’t use it to write novels is because, unlike Scrivener, it is not so easy to gather together your notes and story bible all in the one place. In general, you will be focusing on one document at a time, but sometimes, that’s all you need. Personally, I don’t really like using Scrivener for short stories or microfiction because I find it can be a bit too cluttered, when all I really need is space to write.

Other features include (but are not necessarily limited to) a spell checker, ‘smart quotes’ which manages how you use quotation marks throughout the document (personally I’m yet to find a use for that) and ‘sessions’; an interesting little feature which remembers which document(s) you had opened and which theme you were using so that they’re already opened and waiting for you the next time you open FocusWriter.

All in all, I think it’s a fantastic app and well worth a look for anyone who’s serious about writing. It’s a real favourite of mine which I use often; far more often than some of the other apps I’ve given written positive reviews about in the past. And did I mention it’s free?

Well it is. So go have a look. I think you’ll be pleased.

Until next time!

Writing Non-Human Characters #4: Mythical Creatures

Well you’ll be relieved to hear that this will be the last week of my impromptu series on writing non-human characters. We’ve already covered animals, aliens and robots so this week we’re going to finish up with what I’ve very broadly defined as mythical creatures.

When I Googled ‘mythical creatures’ to help me prepare for this post, I was presented with a very helpful list of about thirty different kinds of mythical creature. Gods-and-Monsters.com managed a much longer list of about 72 distinct creatures from mythology. And so writing a single 1,000  word post on how to write any mythical creature is going to be quite a challenge so I hope you’ll bear with me while I go over a few very general principles.

You all know how this works by now. The secret to creating a good non-human character of any kind is to remember that your audience is made up entirely of humans. Therefore, if you want to make your character relatable to humans, you need to endow your character with the right amount and kind of human qualities. You won’t be surprised to learn that the same is true of mythical creatures. I don’t want to harp on too much about that in this post, since most of what I covered in the first and second posts especially applies here too. Protagonists and other relatable characters need more human qualities (while not compromising on the mythical qualities that make them recognisable; don’t have your vampire going outside in the daylight, for example) while there may be some benefit to deliberately dehumanising characters who you want to serve as terrifying monsters rather than relatable characters.

This is where it is vital to know a thing or two about the kind of creature you’re using. There are, broadly speaking, two kinds of mythical creatures you might use: “real” mythical creatures (that is, creatures from actual myths and legends, such as dragons, minotaurs and or fairies) and ones you made up for the sake of your story. In both cases, research is vital. You need to familiarise yourself with all the variations that exist on your creature in different myths, legends and even modern fantasies around the world (because believe me, there are often significant variations) and pick out all the differences and similarities you can find. In the case of creatures you’ve made up from scratch, or if you’re writing a piece of high fantasy, this involves researching their place in the history/mythology of your fictional world (click here for more on world-building and research).

For instance, suppose you wanted to create a dragon. You might already have an idea in your head as to what that means. But it only takes a quick peruse of internet to find that dragons come in many shapes and sizes both in terms of their physical appearance and their personalities. Dragons are often portrayed both as ferocious beasts, more animal than person but perhaps more often they are portrayed as being intelligent, rational and even quite wise or calculating creatures. Sometimes they can speak, sometimes they can’t. Sometimes they have a lizard-like appearance, sometimes they have feathers. In most cases, there will be myths about their origins you can explore and what function they serve.

Of course, in your own story you can have a little bit of flexibility. I personally have no qualms about making a small number of minor changes to the appearance or behaviour of mythical creatures for my stories, but on the whole you want to be aware of the common defining characteristics of your chosen creature. What makes a centaur a centaur? Is it simply having four legs? Or is there something more that a centaur is simply not a centaur without? Remember, if you’re using a creature that already exists in folklore then you’re not only borrowing someone else’s work; you’re actually building upon centuries of tradition, so don’t go mad when you come to put your own stamp on it.

If you feel more creative (especially if you’re writing a piece of high fantasy), you might want to try and invent your own creature. This certainly gives you more freedom to do whatever you please, but you need to be aware that your audience will have no prior knowledge of your creature and will need to have it spoon-fed to them in a way they wouldn’t with a dragon or mermaid. Try to keep it simple. Combining body parts from unrelated animals is often a good approach and is easy to describe (the body of a lion with the wings of a bee for instance). Also you might find it helpful to weave them in with mythology surrounding big questions such as the origins of the world, birth, death, and so forth.

Once you have established these things, you will find it much easier to anthropomorphise your creature in a way which is appropriate. Remember, the goal in anthropomorphising your non-human characters is not to turn them into humans (noun) but to make them human (adjective) enough so that the audience will be able to relate to them and care about what happens to them. Exactly which human qualities you choose to add will depend entirely on which kind of creature you’re creating, so I’m afraid I can’t give you any specific advice on that. You’ll need to do your research. The important thing is that you correctly balance making your creature human enough to be related to by your human audience but still have enough of those key defining characteristics that make your mythical creature recognisable as what it is supposed to be.

And that’s it for the non-human characters series! Phew! Next week I’ll be getting back into writing my usual sort of weekly individual posts (unless of course I’m inundated with complaints that I forgot a particular type of non-human creature, but I don’t think I did and frankly, I’m sure you’re sick of hearing me banging on about them).

Until next time!

Writing Non-Human Characters #3: Robots

Well, it’s week three on my impromptu series of posts on creating non-human characters for your stories. We’ve already done animals and aliens, so this week, I want to focus on creating robots. Now I don’t want to waste too much time getting bogged down on the technical differences between robots, androids, cyborgs and so on, so for the sake of this post, I’m using the word ‘robot’ simply as an umbrella term for any kind of mechanical or artificial person. Suffice it to say there are important differences between robots, androids and cyborgs and you would be well advised to understand them before attempting to create one for your story.

If you’ve been keeping up to date on the last few posts, you will have noticed a common theme running through them: the idea of anthropomorphising (that is, giving human traits to) your non-human characters to to make them more relatable to your audience. However, as we have also seen, the extent to which you anthropomorphise your character and how you go about anthropomorphising your character will vary greatly depending on the kind of character you’re trying to create and what their purpose is in your story.

One of the first things to consider in creating your robotic character is a bit of the history of the character and the history of robotics for your fictional world in general. Of course, backstory is important in all character building, but for robots there are a few other important questions you will need to answer first. For example (and this is by no means an exhaustive list):

  • Are robots commonplace in this society or are they a new invention?
  • What is the function of robots in this society (e.g., slaves, free and equal citizens, problem-solving machines, childrens’ toys, etc)?
  • Are robots in general/your robot in particular built with fail-safes, such as Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics? If not, how are they kept from running amok? Indeed, are they under control? Many stories about robots revolve around this very theme.

Depending on your answer to these and similar questions, you may want to make your robot characters seem very human or very mechanical. However, if you’ve got any intention of making your robot a main character in your story, you will probably want to give them at least some human traits to make them relatable to your entirely human audience. This is a fairly absolute rule for all non-human characters (as we’ve seen in previous weeks), so you should consider giving your robot some or all of the following:

  • The ability to think, learn and reason independently. You’ll have a hard time creating a full-blown independent character without this.
  • Self-awareness and consciousness of its surroundings. Again, I think it would be exceptionally difficult (though not impossible) to create a proper robotic character without this human quality.
  • Emotions, dreams, empathy, and other such non-logical thoughts to motivate their actions etc. This of course, is certainly optional; many robots in science fiction tend to be very logical and emotionless but why not break with tradition?
  • Recognisable physical body parts. Of course, ‘recognisable’ does not necessarily mean that they have to be human-shaped. K-9 from the Doctor Who franchise is shaped like a dog and one episode of Star Trek: Voyager even featured a sentient WMD. K-9 is the more relatable of the two, of course, because we humans are used to relating to dogs. Dogs that we can talk to and play chess with, therefore, are highly relatable. On the other hand, when was the last time you tried to interact with a WMD? (Don’t answer that).

The difference with robots is that your audience will already have quite particular ideas about how a robot “should” behave. This is, in part, due to the influence of sci-fi authors like Asimov, but is also due to the fact that robots and computers do exist in real life (though in a more limited fashion than you would expect in a sci-fi novel)We know, for example, that computers are logical to a fault and it’s important that your character reflects that peculiarly robotic quality if you want your audience to accept them. Abstract thinking, imagination and personal ambition is something beyond the grasp of most computers and robots. The trouble is, if you want your audience to care about your character, they’ll probably need to be capable of at least some of the above.

How you balance this contradiction will depend largely on the story you’re writing and the kind of character you’re trying to create but one of the best ways around this problem is how you use voice. Often you can create the illusion of a highly logical, robotic mind simply by the way your character speaks. Let’s consider two androids from the Star Trek: The Next Generation franchise: Lore and Data.

Both androids are physically identical and were built by the same person. Only Lore, however, was capable of emotion and with this came a whole host of other human traits such as ambition, passion, deceitfulness and even megalomania. Lore’s human qualities were what made him such a great villain and were central to his role as a bad guy in Star Trek. Therefore, it is perfectly appropriate that he also talks like a human.

Haven’t you noticed how easily I handle human speech? I use their contractions. For example, I say can’t or isn’t, and you say cannot or is not.

Lore in Star Trek: The Next Generation, ‘Datalore’, source: http://www.chakoteya.net/NextGen/114.htm

Data, on the other hand, lacks emotion and the other human qualities which turned Lore into a bad guy. In spite of this, he remains one of Star Trek‘s most beloved characters. How is it that such an emotionless, logical, robotic character became so relatable (and far more likeable than his more human brother)?

Simple.

He’s not nearly as logical and robotic as he appears. It’s a trick, based largely on dialogue (and the occasional scene where he casually removes a body part) to make the audience believe that he is emotionless and logical because — after all — all robots are. He speaks in a “robotic” manner, such as calculating time intervals to the nearest second and not using verbal contractions, and so the audience believes that he is a machine and yet his goals and motivations are often very human indeed. For example, in ‘Pen Pals’, what motivated him to disobey Starfleet regulations and his captain’s orders if not compassion for the frightened child he had met? So, the writers have given Data a human quality (e.g., compassion) but have essentially tricked the audience into believing that they did not, because he appears robotic and makes the occasional claim that he is incapable of such traits. So, while is very important to strike the correct balance of human/robotic traits, the real trick with robots is how you portray them and thus convince your audience that the relatable and sympathetic character they are witnessing is, in fact, a machine.

I’m afraid that’s all I’ve got time for this week! But be sure to come back next when I’ll be continuing the series on non-human characters, this time focusing on mythical creatures.

Until next time!

Writing Non-Human Characters #2: Aliens

Last week, I had planned to write a single post talking about how to write non-human characters, such as animals, aliens, mythical creatures and so forth. Unfortunately, it turned into such a long post that I decided to chop it up into a series of posts instead. This week’s post is the second instalment on writing non-human characters and today I’m going to focus on how to write aliens from other other worlds. If it’s animal characters you’re interested in, that was covered in last week’s post, which you can see by clicking here. If, on the other hand, it’s robots or mythical creatures you’re after… well, you’ll just have to wait.

Before we begin, let’s take a moment to remind ourselves of the golden rule for writing non-human characters:

Your audience is made up entirely of human beings; therefore, your audience must be able to sympathise with your characters as human beings.

In other words, if you want your audience to sympathise with your character, you need to give them certain human qualities. In doing this, you anthropomorphise your character; that is, you humanise them in the minds of your audience. The more human they are, the more easily they can be related to. So, with that in mind, let’s have a think about aliens.

Unlike animals which are very common and familiar things in real life that science has taught us a great deal about, we know nothing about real sentient alien life. We can’t even be certain that it exists at all. However, if it ever turned out that sentient alien life actually did exist, it would almost certainly have very little in common with us Earthlings. There’s absolutely no reason to believe that they would share human values and culture (or even understand concepts such as ‘values’ and ‘culture’), walk on two legs, communicate with spoken language, listen to music or do any of the other things humans do. Culturally, socially, philosophically, anatomically and in every other way, they would almost certainly seem bizarre to us in the extreme. After all, we humans often find it hard enough to relate to other human cultures, never mind alien ones!

It is, of course, certainly possible to create “realistic” aliens like this for your story. Unlike with animal characters (who you probably will want your audience to relate to), it can sometimes be beneficial to have aliens who are bizarre and impossible to relate to, depending on the kind of story you’re writing. Many have done it already to great effect. However, it is worth remembering that there is a reason these “realistic” aliens are very seldom portrayed as good guys. They’re not even usually portrayed in the same way as traditional bad guys, who will usually still have goals and motives that we can relate to and sympathise with (even if we don’t approve). Instead, such aliens are usually portrayed as destructive (or at the very least, strange and frightening) forces of nature. The aliens in War of the Worlds or Alien are good examples. These characters, while believably alien, are more of a danger to be overcome or escaped than a character to be related to. Because your audience cannot sympathise with them as people, it makes it an almost(!) impossible task to create aliens of this type who fit into any traditional role for a character to play. Remember, the weirder your alien is, the less your audience will sympathise with or even understand them. This can be a great boon to authors who want to create terrifying monsters, but not to authors who are trying to create relatable people.

Contrast this with the types of aliens you are perhaps more used to seeing in popular science fiction such as Star Trek or Doctor Who. They sit somewhere in the middle of the alien-human spectrum. They might have one or two physical features that make them look alien, such as blue skin, pointy ears or strangely shaped foreheads, but they still basically look human-ish with mostly recognisable human body parts in roughly the correct place. They will usually have one or two cultural or social quirks to keep them from seeming too human (for instance, the Vulcans in Star Trek are famous for their logical and stoic minds) but nothing so bizarre that it defies understanding. After all, humans often do appreciate logic; the only difference is that Vulcans have founded their entire culture upon it whereas we have not. This makes them seem exotic, but relatable. Such aliens are not terribly realistic when you analyse them closely, but they’re sufficiently different from humans that the average audience will accept them as aliens while still being able to sympathise with them as people, rather than monsters.

Beware, however, that you do not go too far in trying to make your aliens relatable. Aliens are, by their very nature, foreign in the extreme. Your audience, then, will expect your alien characters to be at least a little bit unusual. If they seem too human, you will have utterly failed in your goal to create an alien character. For example, one of the biggest things that irks me about Supergirl (the TV series) is the character of Mon-El who, having only just arrived on Earth from the planet Daxam, is utterly indistinguishable from the average American millennial in the way he talks, behaves and relates to other characters. This level of anthropomorphising goes too far and robs the audience of their ability to believe that the character they’re witnessing is really from another world at all. Sure, he’s a relatable character but remember, it’s important when writing sci-fi to suspend your audiences’ disbelief. Your audience will not be able to believe in an alien who seems more human than their own family do.

Creating alien characters, then, is all about balance and purpose. Before you begin, ask yourself: what is the purpose of this alien to be in my story? Are they a protagonist, antagonist, love-interest, etc.? Why exactly are there aliens in this story? This will determine to what extent your audience (and indeed, your other characters) will need to be able to understand and relate to them, and consequently, will help you to determine how alien or human they should appear. However, let’s be clear on one thing: this is not the same as creating a balance between how good and how evil your character is. Rather, it’s a balance between the familiar and the strange. Very human characters can still be bad guys. Very alien characters might even be good guys, although it’s unlikely that the audience will relate to them and so I would be very careful about how you go about doing this.

That’s all I’ve got time for this week I’m afraid, but be sure to come back next week when I’ll be continuing the series on creating non-human characters, this time focusing on robots and cyborgs. 

Until next time!

Writing Non-Human Characters #1: Animals

If you’re serious about writing stories, you need to be serious about writing characters. No story is complete without them. This we know. We also know that your characters can make or break your story depending on how well they’ve been constructed. Apart from that, of course, your characters can be anybody you want them to be (in fact, the more variety the better, I find). You can make them male or female; black or white; rich or poor; gay or straight; nasty or nice or even human or non-human. It’s the non-human characters (particularly animals – I’ll come to the others next week) I want to talk about today.

Non-human characters are nothing new. They’re everywhere. We’ve all seen more dog or cat movies than we can care to remember, right? Meanwhile fans of shows like Doctor Who will be all too familiar with the concept of an alien protagonist. C.S. Lewis loved writing stories which featured talking animals, while his friend J.R.R. Tolkien is perhaps best known for Lord of the Rings, which follows the adventures, not of a human, but of a Hobbit. And in short fiction? Why, only last week, my regular readers were subjected to a story with a certain rodent protagonist.

I’ll be spending most of this week dealing with how to write animals in particular (because it’s ever so slightly more complicated), however, no matter what non-human species your protagonist may be, there is one golden rule you absolutely must keep in mind at all times. Ready? This is it:

Your audience is made up entirely of human beings; therefore, your audience must be able to sympathise with your characters as human beings.

In other words, you need to anthropomorphise your character to one extent or another. Perhaps only a little, perhaps a lot, but to some extent, you need to give your non-human character certain human traits to make them relatable. At the very least, they will probably need to be able to think like humans in order to work through their goals, conflicts, epiphanies, etc. and possibly will need to speak like humans too (though there are numerous examples of strong animal characters who do not speak).

Of all the non-human characters you might create, animals are arguably the hardest. Unlike aliens or mythical creatures, animals are something we all see every day and science has studied them all from almost every angle, in terms of how they think, how they’re physically built and how they relate to others. While this might seem like a boon for us authors (after all, it should make research easier… right?) it can also be a bit of a pain if you’re remotely concerned about realism.

For example, in The Church Mouse, my protagonist was (you’ve guessed it) a mouse. In real life, mice have incredibly poor eyesight and find their way using their whiskers. Unfortunately, my story would not have actually worked quite as well if the mouse had been blind (for instance, he is seen examining a mouse trap in the second chapter to make sure it’s not potentially lethal). The easiest way around this is to do what I did — give him the five basic senses of a human. We can easily write that off as artistic licence. Apart from that, I left him physically as a normal mouse; walking on four legs, leaving his mess just lying around about him and having a strong sense of smell.

The larger problem, of course, was in the mind. Mice do not think the way humans do. I don’t for one second claim to be an expert on the psychology of rodents, but I’m pretty confident they don’t have goals, plans and motives like Mr. Mouse did – and even if they do, they certainly don’t think about them conceptualise them in rational terms like Mr. Mouse does. However, in order for your audience to relate to your animal character, you need to give them a mind which is close enough to being human for a human audience to relate to them. In the case of Mr. Mouse, the only truly rodentian quality I preserved was the way the smell of chocolate worked him up into a frenzy of instinctive, primal desire. This provided him with a motive. Beyond that, his thinking (his goals and epiphany; his opinions of the ‘idiot’ Landlord and even his concept of God) was quite human. It needed to be so for the audience to care about him.

Take a moth for instance, instinctively flying towards a flame. In all probability, moths cannot explain to themselves or anyone else why they are drawn to something as deadly as fire (do they even have a concept of what mortality is?). It’s pure instinct. But give a moth the rational mind of a human and suddenly you have a story about forbidden desires; about lust, danger, temptation and death. They know it’s not allowed. They know it’s bad for them but they just can’t resist. Suddenly we’re in Moth-Eden and the Moth-Devil is whispering in Moth-Eve’s ear,

‘You shall not surely die, for God knows if you go near the flame, you will be like God understanding good and evil… ‘ 

A word of warning, however. There is a danger in going too far with all of this. Too much anthropomorphism can lead to your character becoming a bit ridiculous, which will be disastrous for your story unless you happen to be writing a comic, cartoon or lighthearted family movie. Mr. Mouse, for example, never actually spoke. could have given him the ability to speak, but it was unnecessary. He never once interacted with another character (whether human or mouse) so it made more sense to simply write what he was thinking from one moment to the next. If I had him sitting on a little sofa in his mouse hole, reading the Sunday paper and sipping a cup of tea, it would have all got a little bit too Tom and Jerry... which is fine if that’s what you’re wanting to create but the more serious your story, the more understated I recommend you keep this. Remember, you only want to anthropomorphise them enough for the audience to understand and care about what happens to them. Think carefully, therefore, about how far along the anthropomorphic spectrum you place your character to avoid any unfortunate comic side-effects (or, if you are trying to write a cartoon, make sure you don’t underdo it and potentially create a boring character).

Phew!

Well, it had been my plan to write about other non-human characters such as aliens, robots and mythical creatures as well but I’m afraid that’s perhaps going to need another post! Be sure to swing back next week for that! In the meantime, why not get your notepad out and try your hand at knocking together an animal character or share your own insights in the comments section below.

Until next time!

The Church Mouse

My original plan for today had been to blog about works of fiction that are nevertheless based on true events but I also had a niggling feeling that it’s been ages since I’ve put any of my own stories on Penstricken.

I know what I’ll do! I thought. I’ll write a story based on true events! I just need to decide what true story to base it on…

At about the same time as I was thinking all this, I found evidence that a mouse had taken up residence in my house and that gave me just the idea I was looking for. So without further ado, I give you…

The Church Mouse

by. A Ferguson

Based on a true story

[1]

The Landlord and Landlady were busy today, pulling out the furniture and hoovering behind every nook and cranny where I’d been, or even might’ve been. They even shoved their infernal vacuum nozzle into my room. I wasn’t in at the time, praise God. I was out scavenging, but they’ve definitely been here. They’ve cleaned up all my business, sure, the bits they could reach anyhow. They’ve settled down now. Their telly’s been on for hours.

Ah, that’s it off now. Finally. They’ll be going to bed soon, I can hear them moving about. He’s washing the dishes, like he usually does just before bed. She’ll be upstairs already then. I’ll give them an hour, once I’m sure they’re asleep and then I’ll–

Wait. Snifffffffff. What’s that?!

Sniff, sniff?

Chocolate and.. sniff?… raisins and caramel by goodness! Ohh, mamma mia… sniffffffffff! Oh yes! A Cadbury’s Picnic if I’m not very much mistaken! Ohh, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, I’m eating well tonight! 

No! No… no, no, I mustn’t yet, he’s still out there… gotta wait… gaagh! Hurry up and leave, already!

I think… yes, he’s gone. I can hear him on the stairs. I should wait but… oooh, I have to have that Picnic! Maybe, I’ll just have a peak… he won’t be back now till morning anyway… and that smell, it’s so strong… it must be…

Yes! There it is, right outside my door! That idiot’s left a whole chunk of the stuff just lying around in this little plastic box for me. I’ll just pop in, grab the choccie and…

Ow! The door just fell on me! It’s not very heavy, though, that’s something. If I just back-peddle like this I can pull out the choccie and… yes! I’m free! Haha! Oooh, my precious little Picnic, I can’t wait to get you back to my room… ! Hehehe!

[2]

Ooh! Another day, another Picnic! Maybe I’ve got the Landlord and Landlady all wrong. Maybe they really like me and want me to stay? Eh? Nah, don’t be silly. I’ve had all night to think about this and I don’t think that door closed on me accidentally last night! It’s just dumb luck, really, that my bum was still hanging out the back or who knows what might’ve happened…

I should leave it, I know. I’ve still got plenty left over from last night but… ooooooh, that smell just drives me wild! I got out okay last night, I’ll probably be okay again just as long as I’m careful. I know it can be done and… oh mercy, I won’t be able to think straight with that sitting outside my front door all night long.

Just need to watch. Make sure, take care, always beware. Don’t let them outsmart you. You can do this, just… take care. Beware. Don’t let carnal passions cloud your judgement. Use your brain, take your time, claim the prize.

Good… good, it’s the same kind of trap as before. Nothing that’s gonna snap my back or open my skull. I’ll just do what I did last night, leave my bum in the doorway and… gagh, the choccie’s a bit smaller tonight though… tucked right away up at the back it is, I can’t quite reach… ooooh, but it’s right there, I can almost taste it! Just another half inch…

Woosh! Rats, rats, ratty-rats! The door’s closed! Ohh, no, no, no, no, no, no, please God, let me out! Let me out! Ooh, God forgive me, I know it’s my fault, I… I got greedy and I’m sorry! Please, God, let me out! Please… I’m sorry, I’m sorry… please!

[3]

Ngh! What? I must’ve fallen asleep. But it wasn’t a dream. I’m still here, in the stupid box with the stupid choccie. I don’t fancy it quite the same anymore. I feel sick. I can’t move. They’re here. The Landlady, she sees me. She’s calling to her husband. They’re so… big! 

Aaaagh! He’s picking up the box! What’s he doing with me? Where’s he taking me? To eat me? I hear humans burn up smaller animals before they eat them! Maybe he’ll leave me if I just sit very still but… oh no, it’s a forlorn hope! What else can I do?

Please, please, please, please, Lord God Almighty, rescue me from the hand of this monster! I know it’s my fault, I promise I won’t ever be greedy again I’ll… oh, Lord, please have mercy on me a sinner!

Agh! The light! He’s taking me outdoors, into their car… where are we going?

I wish I could move. I’m so afraid, every part of my body feels like it’s turned to stone. All except my bowels; they’re working overtime. Whatever he’s doing, oh Lord, let it be over soon. To die in terror, trapped in this dungeon, tiny even by my standards and drowning in my own business…

He’s stopped the car.

Oh… rats.

This is it.

Here it comes. He’s picking me up and taking me outside and opening the box… he’s shaking it at the ground. In one sudden motion my petrified body and the choccie fall to the ground and land among the long grass on the roadside. I’m out! I’m free! I’m out of here! Oh thank you, thank you, thank you, God! Thank you kind Landlord! I’m free!

* * *

Mr. Mouse fled through the grass and the bushes for hours. He swore never to succumb to gluttony again.

In the winter of 2017 he became a church mouse. He devoted his life to the ministry and service of the church and was ordained as a minister in 2018.

He died peacefully at the age of three in 2019 and was buried on the grounds of his parish along with the piece of Picnic which he had preserved as a memento of the day his life was spared.

THE END

Keeping a Writer’s Journal

There are a some folk out there who will tell you that if you don’t keep a journal, you are doomed to never, ever be a writer of any kind. In fact, you will probably fail miserably at everything you ever set your hand to, both in business and at home. Others just get very snooty about the ‘right’ way to keep a journal (as if writing something simple like ‘I ate chips for my tea. That’s all I can think of to write’ means you have failed at journaling, and therefore, failed at life).

Obviously, that’s a load of poppycock.

However, even if you’re not the sort of person who normally bothers to keep a journal, you might find it useful as a writer to at least keep a writer’s journal— especially if you’re working on a large writing project such as a novel.

‘Oh nooo!’ I hear you cry. ‘That sounds too hard/time-consuming/pointless’ (delete as appropriate).

It needn’t be. You don’t need to fill it with epiphanies written in flawless iambic pentameter, you don’t need to handcraft your own leather bound volume to write in and you don’t need to write ten thousand words a day (having already written ten thousand words in your actual story). In fact (just between you and me), you don’t need to keep a journal at all if you don’t find it helpful, though I would recommend giving it a bash for a week or two to be sure that it’s not for you.

All that matters is that you do what helps you to write, and in my experience, journaling can be profoundly helpful. How you do it, however, is entirely up to you! You can write in it as often as suits you; it can be long or short; handwritten or digital; illustrated or not; written in all, some or none of the colours of the rainbow and best of all, it can be as messy as you like. No one’s going to mark it. No editor will ever read/watch/listen to it. No publisher will ever publish it. All that matters is that it helps you to write.

For me, I like to keep a written note of how many words I write each day. It’s encouraging to have evidence of daily progress when you feel like you’ve been writing forever and getting nowhere. More than that, however, I find it helpful to express all my thoughts, feelings, ideas and problems relating to my story in some way. Externalising all that stuff once a week, or thereabouts, usually suffices and it helps me to think through it all in a way that sitting staring at my manuscript does not.  If I don’t write it down, I tend to end up boring my wife to tears by talking at length to her about my characters, my setting, my story arc, my word count or whatever else it might be.

If you’ve got a thick skin and are not too worried about who gets to read your journal, you might even find it useful to start a blog (or Twitter account, if you agree the brevity is the soul of wit). While it isn’t why I started Penstricken, my regular readers (God bless you patient and forbearing people) will be able to testify that I frequently do use my blog as a place to rant and rave about things I’ve learned and the problems I’ve encountered and solved while writing. Often the posts I categorise as ‘writing tips’ are aimed at myself as much as they are at anyone else. Another big perk to this kind of public journaling is that you get a little bit of feedback (hopefully from people who care about you, your story or creative writing in general) and it will hopefully serve to motivate you to journal regularly if you have regular readers who will be expecting you to post something every day/week/month/decade.

If you’ve never tried it before, why not start now? To make sure you get the most out of it, take a little time to ask yourself a few questions such as:

What should I write in my journal? Are you wanting to keep a detailed log of your progress (i.e., daily word counts, problems encountered, feedback received and so forth) or would you prefer to use it to express the enjoyment/fear/doubt/despair you experience while writing? Perhaps you might even find it a helpful place to scribble down plot bunnies for future reference.

How often can I commit to keeping a journal? It needn’t be excessively frequent. However in my experience, it is far easier and more enjoyable to keep a journal if you do it on a regular basis. Daily, weekly or even monthly- whatever you can stick to.

What format should my journal take? It’s your journal, for expressing and exploring what’s going on in your own writer-brain. Will it be kept private or will it be online for the great unwashed to view? Will it be in written, audio or video form? Try to use a format that allows you to express yourself as freely as possible – and most importantly, which compliments your writing.

What do I hope to get out of this? There are many possible benefits to journaling: catharsis; developing your skills; tracking your progress; etc. What you are hoping to get out of journaling will probably impact on how you do it. For instance, if you’re using it mainly as an outlet for your self-doubt and frustration with your novel, you probably won’t want to publish it online. It’s not likely to improve your sales figures if ever you do publish your novel.

Do you keep a writer’s journal? Do you find it helps you to write or do you just find it a big old slog keeping it up to date? Share your insights with the rest of us in the comments section below and we can all benefit from each other’s wisdom!

Until next time!

Ready, Steady, Write!

According to my wife, I am a creature of habit. I do the same things, at the same times, in the same way every week like clockwork. I think she’s right. However, every now and again things happen in such a way so as to interfere with even the most meticulously organised daily routine. It was just such an occurrence which led to me discovering a new and effective means of making progress with my novel (new and effective for me at any rate).

A week or so ago, we had my parents over to help with a little bit of decorating. They were bringing the brushes and rollers etc. with them, so it was not possible for us to start without them. We arranged for them to come over at about 10am and I, anticipating a busy day, decided to set aside the entire day for decorating. However, by 9:30, I was already dressed and the house as prepared to be decorated as it could be. I was at a loose end.

Thirty minutes to kill, I mused. What can I do in thirty minutes? 

Since I wasn’t expecting to get any writing done that day, I decided to use the time to work on my novel. Under normal circumstances, I like to set aside at least two or three hours to write (with breaks) so this was an unusually short burst of writing for me. Imagine my surprise when I managed to write as many words in that half hour than I often manage devoting an entire afternoon to writing. With such a tight deadline hanging over me, there was no time to procrastinate; no time to read and re-read my notes, no time to edit as I wrote (a cardinal sin when drafting a novel), no time to shove notes around on Scapple or “research” my novel by Googling every trifling detail. There was even less time to waste on Facebook, Twitter, WordPress or studying for my exams (the ultimate waste of time). For that miserly thirty minutes I produced words like my life depended on it and let me tell you, I finished drafting that chapter.

I couldn’t believe it. After months of straining out the tiniest little strands of text and getting nowhere, suddenly my word count grew wings and flew!

Over the next few days, I began to change my novel-writing routine. Instead of allotting entire afternoons to drafting my novel, I have looked for the small gaps in my day — the half hour my dinner is in the oven, or the one hour window in which I expect my Tesco delivery to arrive — and have devoted these to writing. It has paid dividends. If you feel like you’re flogging a dead horse, sitting and staring at your manuscript for hours without accomplishing anything, I would strongly recommend giving this a go.

Write often and in short bursts. Don’t allow yourself the luxury of going overtime (unless you’re really into the flow I suppose, but should that flow dry up, stop immediately). Even if you manage 500 words a day, it will still bring you up to an 80,000 word draft in less than a year.

If you have been taking part in Camp NaNoWriMo this last few weeks (alas, after my experience last year, I personally decided to give it a miss) you might know what I’m talking about. Part of NaNoWriMo’s charm is that it forces you to write fast. You might even take part in a “sprint” or two, which is a brief, timed writing session where you basically try to write as much as you can in the little time available.

Are you going to produce excellent words this way? Certainly not. Creating excellent words takes effort. You have to craft and mould them to give them exactly the kind of punch you want them to have (to say nothing of ensuring your spelling and grammar are above reproach).

It doesn’t matter. There is an editing stage (dear writer, you know this already) where we will tidy up the mess we’ve made and that truly is meant to be a slow and painstaking process. I am not for one second endorsing speed-editing. Speed-editing will result in a permanently bad story. But as I’ve said once or twice before and now say again, even with tears: you cannot edit a blank manuscript. Nor is it wise to edit your manuscript as you go along. If your first draft is appalling, let it be appalling. Better an appalling first draft than no first draft. You must write your appalling first draft in all its awful terribleness and then you can bring it to perfection when you come to edit and redraft later.

I’m curious to know if this works as well for others as it did for me, so why not give it a go yourself now? You don’t need to wait until you’ve got a roast in the oven. Grab a timer and time yourself half an hour or so and write. See how you go, and be sure to let us know in the comments section.

Until next time!