Happy New Year

I’m on holiday from blogging this week (because holidays are healthy things, even for writers) so for now I’ll just wish you all a–


I’ve got a few thoughts in mind for how I might give Penstricken a much needed shot in the arm in 2018 but more on that later.

See you next week!

50 Quotes About Fiction

  1. “I like telling stories.” — Hunter Parrish
  2. “All fiction has to have a certain amount of truth in it to be powerful.” — George R.R. Martin
  3. “Literature is a luxury; fiction is a necessity.” — GK Chesterton
  4. “The best fiction is geared towards conflict. We learn most about our characters through tension, when they are put up against insurmountable obstacles. This is true in real life.” — Sufjan Stevens
  5. “Truth is so hard to tell, it sometimes needs fiction to make it plausible.” — Francis Bacon
  6. “The power of historical fiction for bad and for good can be immense in shaping consciousness of the past.” — Antony Beevor
  7. “The nature of good fiction is that it dwells in ambiguity.” — E.L. Doctorow
  8. “It’s no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.” — Mark Twain
  9. “Fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so slightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners. Often the attachment is scarcely perceptible.” — Virginia Wolf
  10. “Imagination and fiction make up more than three quarters of our real life.” — Simon Weil
  11. “Science fiction is any idea that occurs in the head and doesn’t exist yet, but soon will, and will change everything for everybody, and nothing will ever be the same again. As soon as you have an idea that changes some small part of the world you are writing science fiction. It is always the art of the possible, never the impossible.” — Ray Bradbury
  12. “Human kind has been telling stories forever and will be telling stories forever.” — Jim Crace
  13. “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.” — Albert Camus
  14. “I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which ‘Escape’ is now so often used. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?” ― J.R.R. Tolkien
  15. “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.” — Oscar Wilde
  16. “There is no doubt fiction makes a better job of the truth.” — Doris Lessing
  17. “Life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent.” — Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  18. “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” — Albert Einstein
  19. “Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
  20. “While we read a novel, we are insane—bonkers. We believe in the existence of people who aren’t there, we hear their voices… Sanity returns (in most cases) when the book is closed.” — Ursula K. Le Guin
  21.  “It’s the truth even if it didn’t happen.” — Ken Kesey
  22. “Fiction wouldn’t be much fun without its fair share of scoundrels, and they have to live somewhere.” —  Jasper Fforde
  23. “General fiction is pretty much about ways that people get into problems and screw their lives up. Science fiction is about everything else” — Marvin Minsky
  24. “Fiction just makes it all more interesting. Truth is so boring.” — Charlaine Harris
  25. “The story you are about to read is a work of fiction. Nothing – and everything – about it is real.” — Todd Strasser
  26. “Fantasy is storytelling with the beguiling power to transform the impossible into the imaginable, and to reveal our own “real” world in a fresh and truth-bearing light.” — Leonard S. Marcus
  27. “[Characters] are the beating heart of any story that’s worth reading. All my favourite stories, whether they be books, films, TV shows, comics, computer games, or any other kind of story you care to mention, feature compelling characters. Characters who are not just believable people (though that is vitally important), but who are intriguing, unusual, captivating and – most importantly – unique. Their distinctive qualities makes them memorable, interesting and appealing (even if they are the most sinister villains) and they don’t slot too neatly into cliched archetypes – damsels in distress, moustache twirling villains, reluctant heroes or any other such thing.” — A. Ferguson
  28. “Stories of imagination tend to upset those without one.” — Terry Pratchett
  29. “Fiction is the only way to redeem the formlessness of life” — Martin Amis
  30. “History has its truth, and so has legend. Legendary truth is of another nature than historical truth. Legendary truth is invention whose result is reality. Furthermore, history and legend have the same goal; to depict eternal man beneath momentary man.” — Victor Hugo
  31. “Even in the world of make-believe there have to be rules. The parts have to be consistent and belong together.” — Daniel Keyes
  32. “A well-thought-out story doesn’t need to resemble real life. Life itself tries with all its might to resemble a well-crafted story.” — Isaac Babel
  33. “There is no society that does not highly value fictional storytelling. Ever.” — Orson Scott Card
  34. “The best fiction is true.” — Kinky Friedman
  35. “To write something out of one’s own mind, worth reading for its own sake, is an arduous contrivance only to be achieved in fortunate moments, few and far in between. Personally, I would sooner have written Alice in Wonderland than the whole Encyclopedia Britannica.” — Stephen Leacock
  36. “Just as pilots gain practice with flight simulators, people might acquire social experience by reading fiction.” — Raymond A. Mar
  37. “It’s never too late – in fiction or in life – to revise.” — Nancy Thayer
  38. “All fiction is about people, unless it’s about rabbits pretending to be people. It’s all essentially characters in action, which means characters moving through time and changes taking place, and that’s what we call ‘the plot.'” — Margaret Atwood
  39. “I love fiction because in fiction you go into the thoughts of people, the little people, the people who were defeated, the poor, the women, the children that are never in history books.” — Isabel Allende
  40. “I mostly associated video game storytelling with unforgivable clumsiness, irredeemable incompetence – and suddenly, I was finding the aesthetic and formal concerns I’d always associated with fiction: storytelling, form, the medium, character. That kind of shocked me.” — Tom Bissell
  41. “When a writer is already stretching the bounds of reality by writing within a science fiction or fantasy setting, that writer must realise that excessive coincidence makes the fictional reality the writer is creating less ‘real.'” — Jane Lindskold
  42. “In the best works of fiction, there’s no moustache-twirling villain. I try to write shows where even the bad guy’s got his reasons.” — Lin-Manuel Miranda
  43. “I just had a crazy, wild imagination all my life, and science fiction is the greatest outlet for me.” — Steven Spielberg
  44. “The most watched programme on the BBC, after the news, is probably ‘Doctor Who.’ What has happened is that science fiction has been subsumed into modern literature. There are grandparents out there who speak Klingon, who are quite capable of holding down a job. No one would think twice now about a parallel universe.” — Terry Pratchett
  45. “I write essays to clear my mind. I write fiction to open my heart.” — Taiye Selasi
  46. “A play is fiction– and fiction is fact distilled into truth.” — Edward Albee
  47. “All my fiction starts from a feeling of unique perception, the pressure of a secret, a story that needs to be told.” — Barry Unsworth
  48. “Politicians should read science fiction, not westerns and detective stories.” — Arthur C. Clarke
  49. “Fiction is too beautiful to be about just one thing. It should be about everything.” — Arundhati Roy
  50.  “I can make up stories with the best of them. I’ve been telling stories since I was a little kid” — Rabih Alameddine

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. Be sure to leave us a wee comment if you enjoyed it and don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what hammers your nail.

Until next time!

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!


Site News

As you might have noticed, I do occasionally publish my own stories on this site, instead of simply writing about fiction. Well, if you look under the ‘Contact’ menu on this site, you will see that there is now a form available which you can use to send in your own original and unpublished works of fiction for me to read. If I like them, I might just publish some of them on the site instead. Any stories I do use will probably include a short foreword written by myself, giving my thoughts on why it stood out for me.

Tu licet incipias inundatio.

If You Don’t Like Mysteries, You’ll Love Mr. Holmes


Although every effort has been made to prevent spoilers, anyone who has not yet seen the film Mr. Holmes (2015) or read the novel A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullin is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

Last year, I was standing waiting for a bus when one passed by (not the one I was waiting for) with a poster on the side, advertising a new film that was about to be released. The poster was plain white apart from a very well dressed and sour faced Ian McKellen. The title of the film was Mr. Holmes.

‘Oh, a new Sherlock Holmes film.’ I thought, my interest piqued. ‘I must remember to make time to go and see that.’

Suffice it to say I did not remember and, whether it was because of my own poor fortune or because the film was inadequately publicised, I did not see hide nor hair of that film again until this very year when I was perusing Amazon for something to watch and it recommended this little gem to me. The reviews on Amazon were generally good but there were also enough negative reviews to give me doubts. However, being a big fan of Sherlock Holmes and knowing that Ian McKellen’s acting is always a joy to watch (no matter how bad the rest of the film is) I decided to give it a chance.

In this film, Sherlock Holmes is now in his nineties and is struggling with his failing memory. He has long since retired to a farmhouse in Sussex where he lives in relative solitude apart from his housekeeper, her son and the bees he now keeps. Because of his failing memory, he cannot precisely remember how his last case as a private detective ended; however, he is certain that the now deceased Watson’s novelisation of it cannot be correct because it portrays Sherlock as having solved the case triumphantly, as he always does. Sherlock cannot accept that he would have retired except after a terrible failure, and so, with the encouragement of his housekeeper’s son and consumed with guilt over something he cannot fully recall, he tries to write the story of the case as it truly happened. Meanwhile, his housekeeper is growing increasingly restless with her role as Sherlock’s housekeeper-come-nurse and resolves to move to Portsmouth with her son, who has grown very attached to Sherlock. There is also a sub-plot concerning a Japanese man who lures Sherlock to Japan in order to confront him about the disappearance of his father, for which he blames Sherlock.

If you’re looking for a ‘who dunnit’ or another exciting instalment of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, you’ve come to the wrong place. Sherlock goes on no adventure in this story, nor is there a particularly mystery to be solved (unless you count his attempt to remember what he has forgotten). Unlike more traditional Sherlock Holmes stories, Mr. Holmes is gently paced and driven by its key themes: regret, ageing, death and senility. I know that probably makes it sound like quite a miserable film, but in reality I found this film to be surprisingly light-hearted and sweetened with a light dusting of humour and sentimentality.

This film is particularly concerned with giving us a glimpse at the real Sherlock Holmes, as opposed to the ‘character out of a pantomime’ he feels he has become through the novelisations and dramatisations of his various cases. Indeed, Sherlock himself appears keen to distance himself from that character. For example, there is a reference at one point to the fact he does not have his deerstalker or pipe. The reason for this, he claims, is that the deerstalker was a mere embellishment and that he prefers a cigar to a pipe; especially now that the pipe has become nothing more than a ‘prop’. It is also revealed to us that 221B Baker Street was, in fact, not his actual address but a deliberate attempt to mislead fans and tourists who were intent on visiting him.

As well as his obvious trademarks, his own personality is also very different from the character we are used to. The writers (and, I should add, McKellen himself) have done a fantastic job here of showing us the other side of Sherlock, without making him a different person altogether. His paternal feelings towards his housekeeper’s son, for example, seem to be a far cry from the cold hearted mystery solving machine that we are all so familiar with. In spite of this, he still retains his uncanny ability to tell everything a person has done simply by looking at them and his philosophy that the truth will always be uncovered by careful analysis of the facts. While he does retain a certain bluntness and an apparent cold heartedness, this seems to be little more than veneer (a thin one at that) which he uses to distance himself from difficult feelings. His warmth towards his housekeeper’s son, the empathy he shows towards his client’s wife and his regret over her death and the deaths of his friends make him seem altogether more human.

His attitudes towards death strikes me as particularly important. He approaches his own looming demise with an apparent nonchalance and claims never to have mourned the dead – bearing in mind that this is set after the death of John Watson, Mycroft Holmes and Mrs Hudson, all of whom were key figures in Sherlock’s life.

I can’t say that I’ve ever mourned the dead, bees or otherwise. I concentrate on circumstances. How did it die? Who was responsible? Death, grieving, mourning; they’re all commonplace. Logic is rare (Mr. Holmes 2015).

This air of indifference is typical of the traditional Sherlock; in Mr. Holmes, however, it sounds quite hollow. The fact that he was powerless to prevent his client’s wife from killing herself, despite recognising all the facts, has affected him deeply – to such an extent that it drove him to retirement. He also regrets that, after breaking off contact with Watson, he never had a chance to say goodbye to him before he died. When his housekeeper’s son is nearly killed by a swarm of wasps, he sees all the evidence of what has happened and, uncharacteristically, assumes it must have been his bees that were to blame (at least at first) rather than notice that the evidence clearly implicates a nearby nest of wasps. While most of us might consider this a normal reaction to finding a boy lying bruised and unconscious next to a hive of bees, it is rather atypical of Sherlock Holmes. The film also ends with him setting up memorial stones for everyone he has lost (or at least, everyone we have heard of anyway)

All in all, this is a enjoyable and easy to watch film but I would certainly caution any lifelong Sherlock Holmes fan that Mr. Holmes is best enjoyed if you approach it with absolutely no preconceptions about what a Sherlock Holmes film should be. It is a very good piece of cinema but it is not a typical Sherlock Holmes film by any stretch of the imagination, nor does it try to be. It’s not a mystery. It’s not an adventure. It’s a drama and a pretty decent one at that. Approach it as such and you will probably come away satisfied.

6 Six-Word Stories

Flash fiction doesn’t come much flashier than six words long. I mean, it took me more than six words just to make that single point!

I must confess, the shorter than short short story, shot with a shrink-ray from Shortland is not my forte. In fact, I’ve only ever done it once before today for a competition which I did not win (a recurring motif, I hear you think). So this week I’ve challenged myself to write six six-word stories using Thinkamingo’s Story Dice as stimuli. The Story Dice is an app for Android OS which allows you to roll anything between one to ten dice with various pictures on each face. The idea is that you use these pictures to develop a story. Since I’m only writing six-word stories today, I decided to only use one die per story.

So here goes nothing…

Alea iacta est.

Now let’s see what I can come up with based on that starting from the top left and working my way down to the bottom right. All of the following are my own work:

  1. Oxygen, heat, fuel and marshmallows.
  2. ‘Apparently his lordship opposes finger food!’
  3. ‘Impressive. A long piece of fabric.’
  4. Forsaking arms, we agreed to disagree.*
  5. Found the weapon inside the book.
  6.  Remembered iPhone; wish I’d remembered iToiletRoll!

Gosh, that was harder than I expected it would be! Maybe you should give it a bash yourself! Roll the dice and see what you come up with or just make up a six word story about anything and share in the comments below.

*I confess, I actually wrote this one a few years ago for the aforementioned competition. What can I say? It came to mind immediately when I saw stimulus number 4 and I struggled to think of anything better but what you gonna do?

5 Simple Brain Unblockers

There is no blacker void than writer’s block. You might have the best intentions in the world of sitting down with a giant mug of tea for a few hours and resisting all your usual distractions but for some reason… nothing. You draw a blank. An hour ago you had so many ideas you thought they might start to leak out your ears but now… nothing. You think you may never write another word. We all know it happens to the best of us but that just doesn’t make it any easier.

I won’t lie to you; this post is pretty much the result of an afternoon spent swimming in the ocean of writer’s block, clinging on to the driftwood of terrible ideas. There are millions of different websites and books out there offering various suggestions on how to beat writer’s block and I’ve concluded that there is simply no ‘one size fits all’ method of getting back into the groove but here are a few techniques that I find myself employing on a regular basis.

Audition a Character

Characters, as I may have suggested previously, are the beating heart of any good story. If your story is still in the planning stage where it lacks a definite plot you might benefit from scribbling a few disjointed scenes featuring various different characters. Don’t worry too much about whether or not they are going to make the final cut of your story. That’s not the point. In fact, if you’re suffering from a truly chronic case of writer’s block, you’ll probably find it easier to write a very simple scene featuring only one or two characters doing something very every day, such as making the breakfast. This is a great way to get your creative juices flowing. With a little patience, your characters can take on a life of their own (and if they don’t, you’ve lost nothing!) and  the scenes you write will often help to develop your plot (or come up with a brand new story idea!) more than you might imagine.

Enjoy a Different Kind Of Story

If you’re like me, you probably enjoy stories of all kinds of different genres and mediums. If you’ve got the time to spare, leave your writing for a little while and immerse yourself in a story utterly different to anything you’ve been enjoying recently.

Have you been watching a lot of Star Wars recently? Maybe it’s time to try The Bucket List instead.

But perhaps you’ve just been watching too many films in general. In that case, ditch Star Wars and go and read Dune.

Better yet, ditch both genre and medium and instead find a production of Hamlet and go and watch it. Or, if you need something more interactive, find a computer game with a compelling story. Or perhaps it’s time for a true story. Or maybe you need something that will make you laugh instead of cry or something that will disturb you instead of amuse you. There are no rules. Find a brand new kind of story to love and let its different moods and textures inspire you.

Writing Exercises

It really depends what’s causing your writer’s block, but sometimes all you need is something to give you a little nudge. Ask the internet for writing exercises and you’ll find plenty of useful websites and apps which offer all kinds of different springboards to productivity. WritingExercises.co.uk is a personal favourite of mine which includes a whole plethora of tools to spark the imagination such as name generators, plot generators, word games and random first lines but there are many, many more.

Better yet, if you know roughly what sort of thing you’re interested in writing, do a Google Image search and pick one of the results as a stimulus. This works best if you search for an abstract term. So, if you’re wanting to write a medical drama (for instance) you’ll probably find it a more effective exercise if you search for ‘health’ rather than ‘doctors’, since the latter is likely to only bring up a million pictures of folk wearing stethoscopes.

(I couldn’t resist Googling these things to see what happened. I was quite right; lots of people with stethoscopes and white coats appeared when I searched for ‘doctors’. When I searched for ‘health’ I got the odd stethoscope, but I also got a variety of other images such as a cartoon heart lifting weights, a little boy dressed as a superhero and an x-ray of a man running).

The Fear

Anyone who has ever been in any kind of education is probably very familiar with The Fear. The Fear is a severe but good-hearted non-corporeal taskmistress who enters your life about a day or two before your dissertation is due to be handed in and tortures you into producing some of your best work.

If you’re struggling to write your story, it’s time to give the old crone a call by imposing a deadline upon yourself. The best way to do this is to tell someone else who will hold you accountable (my wife usually is more than adequate to the task) that you have planned to write so many words by such-and-such a day and if you meet that goal… we can order a pizza!

Now my marriage and tomorrow’s dinner rest on whether or not I get another 1,000 words written by tomorrow.

Ding-a-ling. The Fear is on line one for you!

Visit Your Bathroom

Don’t ask me why this works but it does. Maybe it’s something in the tiles or perhaps it’s the added moisture in the athmosphere. I don’t know. All I know is I’ve had most of my best ideas in the bathroom.

If all this doesn’t work, then you’re probably working too hard at it. Take a break. Do something else. Come back the next day. It is ultimately better to delay productivity than to drive yourself to hate a hobby or career you once loved…

… Unless, of course, you’ve got a genuine deadline coming up in the next day or two. In that case, you’d better give The Fear a call and find out what the heck’s keeping her!