Merry Christmas

It’s Christmas and I’ve just moved house this week so I have to come clean and say I haven’t had a chance to do any writing whatsoever this week; not even the usual weekly blog, but as it’s Christmas, I hope you’ll forgive me. Normal service should hopefully be resumed next week, but in the mean time, I wish you all a very MERRY CHRISTMAS!


My Dead Darlings

In his book On Writing, Stephen King famously quipped ‘Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings’. What that basically means is that a good writer must be able to look at his or her manuscript with a dispassionate eye and exorcise any superfluous passages, even if it is some of the most beautiful prose you have ever written.

If you haven’t had this problem yet as a writer, you will. Oh, brother, you will. It might be a clever turn of phrase, a vivid metaphor, a piercing line of dialogue or even an entire chapter (or more!) of narrative which you are immensely proud of… but it does nothing to advance the story and therefore, it has to go.

None of us are immune to this phenomenon. I, myself, find myself doing it on almost everything I try to write. So for your enjoyment, I have preserved a few dead darlings from the last few Penstricken posts here, in the hopes that I might also encourage you to kill your darlings without mercy. Your story will thank you for it.

Dead Darlings from ‘How to Make a Spin-Off That Doesn’t Suck‘ (27/11/16):

The biggest change I made in this post was removing a hypothetical Doctor Who spin-off about the life of the Doctor’s archenemy, Davros, which I dubbed The Davros Diaries. I replaced this with Roses Are (Presumed) Dead, not because I thought that was a cleverer idea (because it’s not), but because it allowed me to make my point better.

…perhaps as a tragedy following the events which led him to the insane creator of the Daleks he eventually became (kind of similar to the Star Wars prequels which followed the early life of Darth Vader).

* * *

You may also recall that in this post, I made reference to Wikipedia’s list of TV spin-offs. Well, I had originally included the following paragraph to clarify that my post only related to fiction related spin-offs, even though the list included non-fictional programs too. Really, this whole paragraph was superfluous; it doesn’t take a genius to figure out I never write about non-fiction anywhere on this website. The only reason I wanted to keep this paragraph in was because I was proud of my little Strictly Come Dancing quip but as we all know, even our little quips must be there for a reason. This one, however, clearly served no purpose whatsoever.

Now, if you’ve looked through the list (and I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t; it’s a long and tedious read. Believe me, I’ve read it), you will notice that lots of the TV shows on there are actually reality TV, game shows, or other such non-fictional nonsense that we’re not interested in. Whatever I say here only applies to spin-offs of televised fiction so don’t shout at me if you think Strictly Come Dancing is the best darn spin-off you’ve ever seen.

Dead Darlings from ‘A Colourful Approach to Brainstorming‘ (03/12/16)

This post really started out life as a post about low-tech writing tools, and I had planned to write an introductory paragraph about some post-apocalyptic era where our technology will fail us and we will all return to a simpler, purer form of writing. Then I realised I was talking rubbish, and besides, I couldn’t think of more than one or two low-tech writing tools I really wanted to blog about so… these paragraphs became pretty darn useless.

But what about when there is a sudden and total blackout of all power across the entire world? When I finally take my place as rightful Ruler of the Post-Technological Kingdom of Penstrickopia, we won’t have any need for silly little things like the internet, electricity or mobile iThings. No sirree, it will just be you, the great outdoors, your story idea and a bunch of other things, most of which either made of paper or else apply pigment to paper.

* * *

This paragraph was just long winded.

As I’m sure you’re aware, there are millions of fancy apps out there these days that you can get for planning, drafting and editing your novel, your play, your recipe collection or whatever else you feel like writing. They’re brilliant. I love them. In fact, I often blog about a few of my favourites (here, here, here, here and here, for instance). But the tool from my writer’s arsenal which I’m going to talk to you about today isn’t an app for your PC or tablet. It’s a very humble little item which you’re probably already quite familiar with. I know I’ve always had one, though only recently have I come to appreciate the sheer usefulness of it to us writers – particularly when it comes to trying to brainstorm story ideas.

Dead Darlings from ‘On Titles‘ (10/12/16)

You may recall that in this post, I made reference to the ‘Confession of a [optional adjective] [noun]’ style of title that I despise. Well, this was originally going to be a much longer rant. Here’s the excess rant that I was forced to delete (truth be known, I could have probably deleted the whole point but my hatred for this style of title got the better of me):

However, somebody out there clearly disagrees with me. When I searched for ‘Confessions of a’ on the website of a well known chain of book shops, it gave me no less than 113 results, so somebody must think it works as a title: Confessions of a Wild Child, Confessions of a Conjurer, Confessions of a Sociopath, Confessions of a Cartel Hit Man, Confessions of a Tinderella, Confessions of a Teenage Hollywood Star, Confessions of a Rugby Mercenary, Confessions of a Murder Suspect, Confessions of a Sinner, Confessions of a Working Girl, Confessions of a Barrister, Confessions of a Heretic, Confessions of a School Nurse, Confessions of… you get the idea.

* * *

This paragraph was just plain vague. Even I’m not sure exactly where I was going with it. I just liked my quip about Porkies but that is not a good enough reason to keep this otherwise useless paragraph.

One more point on single-world titles: make it a strong word. Something the reader can’t fail to understand. Avoid euphemisms and similar such soft language. Deception is a much better title than Porkies would have been because it’s such an offensive and accusatory word. Porkies, on the other hand, implies telling small, unimportant lies.

Dead Darlings from ‘My Dead Darlings’ (18/12/16)

Get me, I’m so knowledgeable. Goodbye irrelevant William Faulkner reference.

…Stephen King (paraphrasing William Faulkner, it should be noted) famously quipped…

* * *

Feels like I’m repeating myself a bit in this paragraph, doesn’t it?

So I thought, for your enjoyment, I would put a few of my dead darlings on display for you here. Most of these (though not all of them) were written for specific Penstricken posts but ultimately, served no purpose. They had to go. However, I’ve preserved a few of them from the last couple of posts here in the hopes that I might also encourage you, dear writer, of the importance of killing your darlings without mercy. Your story will thank you for it, believe me.

* * *

Alliteration can be used to great effect in writing, but if you’ve already made it clear what you’re planning to do, there’s no need to add in superfluous sentences just to show off your grasp of this relatively simple technique. That’s why this sentence had to go:

Call it a cyber cemetery of dead darlings.

* * *

And yes, I really did commit the very sin I was in the middle of preaching against… 

Alliteration is amazing. It can be used to great effect…

On Titles

Titles are possibly one of the hardest things to get right when it comes to writing your story, no matter what it’s genre and format. Not only are they hard to come up with, but they (like most things) tend to be a matter of taste. If there’s one thing I personally hate, it’s when writers (or perhaps more likely, their publishers) feel the need to give their book an agonisingly tedious title like ‘Confessions of a [optional adjective] [noun]’. That’s a great way to stop me ever reading your book, watching your film, attending your play or partaking of anything else you might produce. Writers and publishers everywhere, take note: I really hate that kind of title with an indomitable passion.

But I digress.

Titles are hard but you can’t very well avoid giving your story one. Most depressingly of all, there’s a good chance your publisher will throw out your snazzy title that you agonised over and replace it with some other, more marketable title (Confessions of a Philistine Publisher, or something like that). Still, they won’t even look at your story if you don’t give it a title first so there’s nothing else for it, I’m afraid. Your story needs a title.

So, let’s start by defining exactly what a title ought to be. First and foremost, the title must be relevant. Please don’t call your story The Swashbuckling Adventures of Captain Bloodbeard if you’ve written a cozy mystery novel set in some English country estate. If your title promises swashbuckling adventures, your story had better deliver swashbuckling adventures; and the only people I know who swash their buckles are pirates. Don’t get me wrong. A good title can be a little bit more cryptic than the one I’ve just made up, but there’s a big difference between cryptic and downright misleading.

Your title is a promise to your audience. Like any good advert, it should tantalise the audience with the promise of a good story without giving too much away. The reason Peter Newman’s The Vagrant caught my eye (among all the other fantasy novels on the same shelf) was because it promised me something that I always look for in a story: a compelling protagonist. I did not know for sure at this stage if the protagonist was actually going to be any good, but as soon as I saw that title, I was willing to give it a chance because I needed to know who the Vagrant was. If, on the other hand, Newman had simply entitled his novel ‘The Bloke’, I probably would have shrugged my shoulders (in fact, with a title like that, I wouldn’t have really expected to find it under fantasy at all, but never mind).

Some titles are phrases borrowed from the text of the story itself. The title A Game of Thrones for instance is a phrase which is used in the actual text of the story. Personally, I’m always a little bit cautious about doing this. It works with A Game of Thrones for two reasons:

  1. It’s a really snazzy phrase
  2. It encapsulates what the story is about, without giving away any spoilers.

You really need both of these in place to make a title like this work. If it’s not a snazzy phrase, it won’t catch anyone’s attention and if it doesn’t give some indication as to what the story might be about, you will only end up with disappointed readers. The phrase, ‘Alas! Earwax!’ is found in the first Harry Potter book, but let’s be honest: if you saw a book in a shop entitled Alas! Earwax! you wouldn’t expect it to be a story about wizards. Oh, and while I’m on the subject, please, please, please, never come up with your title and then try to incorporate it into the text of your story… otherwise you’ll end up with something horrible like:

And you people, you’re all astronauts on some kind of star trek?

– Zefram Cochrane in Star Trek: First Contact

Seriously, just don’t do that.

Another possibility is to use well known expressions and sayings as titles (as long as they’re relevant. Always keep it relevant). For example, the title of Jeffery Archer’s Cometh the Hour is clearly derived from the expression ‘cometh the hour, cometh the man’. We all know that expression and what it means, and therefore, when we see the title of Archer’s book, we get a certain idea in our head of what kind of story it might be (without it really giving anything away). If, however, you can’t find an expression that conveys the kind of ideas you want it to convey, why not try distorting a popular idiom as Ian Fleming does in Live and Let Die. Not only does that title tell you something about the story itself, but it is also eye-catching because it flies in the face of popular wisdom.

Alternatively, if you’re really feeling brave, you might want to use a single word as your title. If you’re going to do this, I would generally use a word that sums up the main theme of your story. While it is certainly possible to name your story after the main character (e.g. Ben-Hur by Lewis Wallace) or the main setting of your story (e.g. Dune by Frank Herbert), it’s unlikely that these kinds of titles will catch anyone’s attention if we’ve never heard of the people or places in question before now. Why should I care about who Ben-Hur is or what happens on Dune (not that I’m knocking Dune or Ben-Hur; they are, in fact, two of my favourite books)? On the other hand, Roald Dahl’s short-story collection, Deception, has a very effective title because it sums up the main theme of every story therein. We all know what it is to deceive and be deceived. It’s a theme we all understand and care about; therefore, it becomes interesting to us.

I hope some of this helps. Also, remember that while it is important to come up with a good title, try not to lose any sleep over it either. What really matters is that you tell a great story. You can have the best darn title in the world, but the story is what your audience will really care about. Some of my favourite books have rubbish titles and there’s a good chance your publisher will change the title anyway, so it’s not worth getting overly attached to anyway. But don’t let that stop you from coming up with the best title you can. After all, it’s the first thing your would-be publisher will see so give it your best shot. If your story has to get rejected, make sure that it gets rejected because for the story – not because it’s got boring title.

A Colourful Approach to Brainstorming

One of the most effective ways to generate ideas, in almost any creative sphere, is to get together with a bunch of other folk and brainstorm together. It’s a time honoured tradition of mixing creative, imaginative, rational, critical minds together and coming with and developing a truly unique and superior idea. Unfortunately, writing is a pretty solitary business most of the time. But today, I want to introduce you to one of the most valuable tools I have in my writer’s utility belt; a tool which has allowed me to single handily harness (at least some of) the magic of brainstorming with others:

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you, The Bic 4-Colour Ballpoint Pen*.

Four colours in one pen!

I know what you’re thinking. Ancient technology. Humble. Boring. Run of the mill. You’ve probably got one yourself that you never use. Your kids have probably got one too. But trust me on this, it’s proven a great help to me whenever I’ve been trying to come up with new story ideas on my own (and you can use it during a power cut!).

It’s quite a simple technique really. First, grab a notebook that you don’t mind scribbling all your loose ideas into (seriously, we are not interested in presentation here). Second, grab your Pen of Many Colours. From now on, each colour represents a person in your ‘group’, and these will interact with one another. There are four members in my imaginary group because there are four colours on my pen (although if your pen has more colours, I suppose you could have more. Whatever works for you). In my case, they are organised something like this:

Black – Chairman (doesn’t really serve a creative function; I just use it for headers etc. although you might find another use for it).
Green – Creator
Blue – Questioner
Red – Critic

Now, since there’s not really a group of four people involved in this process, it’s important to remember one thing: you must write down everything that occurs to you. No matter how good or bad it is, you must write down everything or this won’t work.

So we begin by bringing the meeting to order. This is the main time I use the black tip. I write a header, which specifically establishes what it is I am trying to accomplish, to give some kind of focus to the session. I also include the date, but that’s just to make it easier to find again. If I’m brainstorming a brand new story idea, I might also write down other details such as intended audience etc. For instance, my most recent one reads:

‘Untitled Sci-fi Novel – Minor Antagonist Ideas – 30/11/16’

Great! I now know what it is I’m trying to create: a minor antagonist (though you could use it to generate ideas for anything, even a whole new story). Now the other three colours come into play. I tend to flick between the three of them frequently throughout the process (that just means it’s working) so what order they get used in is both unpredictable and ultimately, not relevant. All that matters is that they are all used to their fullest capacity.

For instance, whenever I have a creative idea – good or bad – it gets written down in green. Every single idea without exception, even if I know it is never going to work in a month of Sundays. It gets written down in green. The reason for this is that I usually have multiple ideas and it’s not always clear which ones will work the best, or if any of them will work at all. That doesn’t matter for Mr. Green Tip, however. Mr. Green Tip’s sole function in life is to record every single idea that pops into my head, no matter how awful.

The blue tip has a related, though somewhat different function. It asks questions of my previous ideas and prompts me to come up with new ones. For example, in my most recent session, I had the idea that ‘the minor antagonist could be a friend of the protagonist who betrays him’. Written underneath it says, ‘Why would he do this?’. After all, there’s nothing wrong with the idea but in order to function within my story, this question really needs to be answered. If I can’t answer it at this stage, you can bet your life my readers will be wondering about it too.

Asking this question then prompted further ideas, such as conflicting political beliefs or that he might see the protagonist as a rival for the affections of his love-interest. This prompted even more questions and more ideas.

Another use for the blue tip is to ask ‘what if?’ style questions, again, to provoke ideas. This is a really great thing to do if you’re stuck in a rut. ‘What if the antagonist were agoraphobic?’ for instance or ‘what if the protagonist were thirty years older?’. Asking these kinds of questions pushes your imagination in directions it might not otherwise go.

Of course, with all these ideas flying around, we really need someone to separate the wheat from the chaff. This is where the red tip comes into its own. It is used to judge every idea and decide what can and should be used. If there are any problems to be found with any of my ideas, no matter how insurmountable or minor these problems may be, they get noted in red. The result of this is that I will either come up with a new and improved version of the original idea or that I will abandon the idea altogether and come up with a brand new one. For instance, underneath my aforementioned idea that the antagonist could be a rival for a love-interests affections, it says in red ‘We’re trying to write a YA sci-fi/thriller, not a soap opera’. I therefore abandoned that idea and went along with a better one I’d had.

I don’t know how likely it is that you will find this exact process useful. I hope you will at least find the basic premise of it useful. Goodness knows I’ve read up on countless approaches to brainstorming, planning, writing and everything else besides and if there’s one  thing I’ve discovered, it’s that no two authors approach writing in quite the same way, so I strongly encourage you to tinker with it until you get the approach that works for you. Maybe you need more colours. Maybe the whole thing is of no use to you. I don’t know. But this works for me, and I hope, dear reader, that you will be at least able to glean something from it to aid in the creative process.

*other multi-coloured ballpoints are available.