Pants, Plants and Plans: A Beginner’s Guide

If you’re the sort of person who spends a lot of time reading up on story writing, you’ve probably heard myself or other writing bloggers talk about the differences between planners, pantsers and plantsers. It’s a spectrum we writers are all spread out across, separating those on the one extreme who plan everything before they write from those who pants their way through their story (that is, they write ‘by the seat of their pants’, making up the story as they go along with absolutely no forward planning whatsoever). And of course, slap bang in the middle of the spectrum, we have Plantsers (because it’s a combination of the words ‘planner’ and ‘pantser’, see?).

We all naturally gravitate to one side or another on this spectrum. However that doesn’t mean we can’t choose to plan, pant or plant even if it doesn’t come naturally to us. After all, we might be tempted to think that one method is inherently better than the others, and that we should try this.

We might even be right. For my money, I think there are some situations where planning is more appropriate and others where pantsing is more appropriate. I’m not going to tell you categorically that any one method is better than another* but there are pros and cons to each. If you’re struggling with whatever method comes naturally to you, it may be time to try a different approach. And so, what follows is my own short and ill-informed concise analysis of each approach, comparing pros and cons as evenly as I can.

Planning

Strengths: Planning everything in advance saves buckets of time. If you already know exactly what is going to happen, how it’s going to happen and who it’s going to happen to, all neatly ordered into chapters and scenes, you won’t waste time writing lengthy portions of narrative you won’t use. You can also rest easy in the knowledge that your first draft won’t have too many large plot holes to sort out.

This makes it easy to work to a schedule. If you know you can knock out 1000 words a day, you can reasonably well estimate that it will take you about three months to complete a draft, especially in those first drafts, because you won’t get stuck about what to write.

Weaknesses: it’s easily the most strict approach to writing. The writer must be disciplined enough 1) not to begin writing a draft too earlier and 2) not to deviate from the plan when he does start drafting. This does not suit everybody. Many authors find it sucks the pleasure out of writing and stifles the imagination, as new ideas insist on being heard throughout the writing process.

Tips for Planning: Be disciplined. Plan everything and resist the urge to draft until you have completed all your chapter outlines, character biographies, the lot. When you finally do begin to draft, don’t deviate from the plan. Add nothing, change nothing, remove nothing. Write it exactly as you planned it. Remember, dear planner, you’re not making art. You’re constructing an intricate machine.

Pantsing

Strengths: This approach to writing allows the imagination to run wild. Most people who write stories tend to do it because they’re people who like to dream, to create and to give artist form to their flights of fancy. Pantsing lets you do just that. I often find that, while pantsing can produce a lot of excess material, some of it can even be later recycled to create a whole new story. Many of my story ideas have come from material I rejected while pantsing an earlier work.

Weaknesses: If you’re serious about writing for any reason other than as a hobby, you will probably find this approach seriously undermines your productivity and success, especially if you’re writing anything longer than a short story. Pantsing out a novel length story in a couple of months is easy in theory but it is doomed to be full of half baked themes, plot holes and other inconsistencies that will need to be fixed before they can pass over any agent or publisher’s desk. You may find yourself virtually starting from scratch when you come to do your second draft, assuming you ever reach the second draft stage.

Tips for Pantsing: Don’t get too attached to your work. A draft that has been fully pantsed will require a lot more editing than a meticulously planned draft. While killing your darlings is always good advice for any writer, pantsers will probably find themselves producing a lot more darlings (because their imagination has been given unlimited credit in the sweetie shop) that have to be killed (because their story will be full of things that simply don’t work).

Plantsing

Strengths: Plantsers have the best of both worlds. They are anchored to a plan but they are not enslaved to it. If the author wants to make changes halfway through writing their draft, or if they identify problems with their story, they can simply adjust the plan as they go along. The imagination is thereby given space to work but is also kept under a tight leash.

Weaknesses: It’s probably the hardest method to strike the correct balance with, even if you do find yourself naturally gravitating towards it. Planners know to write nothing until their story is fully planned out and pantsers don’t give a rip if their story doesn’t make sense in the first draft, but plantsers must learn to bring these two extremes together and make them work in harmony. It is difficult to create a systematic approach to plantsing and will be largely figured out by trial and error. This can be time consuming and frustrating.

Tips for Plantsing: Plantsing is not creating a plan then disregarding it, nor is it writing a draft then making a plan around it. Both of these are a waste of time. Plantsing involves blending these two seeming opposites in a way which allows you to work to your strengths, while still enjoying the benefits of both extremes. For example, you might pants out a few zero drafts to stimulate your imagination while you plan. Alternatively you might create a very loose-fitting plan (story beats for example, but no chapter outlines) and pants out your novel within the boundaries of that limited plan. You might also decide to forsake character biographies in favour of conducting several ‘interviews’ or ‘auditions’ with your characters to help you get to know them better. The possibilities are truly endless when it comes to plantsing. My best advice is to spend a little time finding an approach which works for you.

Footnotes:

*I know what you’re thinking: ‘if he’s going to be so unbiased in his approach, why has he only got pants in the featured image and nothing else?’ Well the short answer is I just couldn’t find a single picture on the internet which depicted a plan, a pair of pants and a potted plant so I had to pick one. I picked pants because pants are funnier. Sue me.


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 tickles your toes.

Until next time!

ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

I’m looking for authors (especially, but not limited to, new and/or indie authors) whose work I can feature here on Penstricken over the coming year. It will simply take the form of a quick Q&A about yourself and your work via private message or e-mail and, of course, a link to where we can all get a copy of your work.

I’m open to interviewing authors of almost any kind of story, provided your work is complete, original and of course, fictional. I will not consider individual short stories/micro-fictions, however I am happy to feature published anthologies or entire blog-sites of micro-fiction, provided you are the sole author.

If you’re interested, or want to know more, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

Not Sure Where To Begin With Your Story? Try Free Writing.

Fact: it is absolutely impossible to write a novel, a script, a screenplay or even a six word story without starting somewhere. There must come a point, somewhere in the journey of your life, when you put pen to paper, so to speak. Not only that, but starting must be the first thing you do. You can’t begin working halfway through the process, nor at the end. You need to start at the very beginning. It’s not just a very good place to start. It’s the only place to start.

We know this to be true and self-evident. And yet getting started is often one of the hardest parts. In fact, the whole reason this week’s post came about is because I spent the last hour and all of my blog-writing time last week being completely unable to start. So I’m writing from personal experience. Friends, let me assure you that there is a reliable way to get those juices flowing on demand: it’s called free writing.

Free writing is a time honoured prewriting technique which works by encouraging the writer to write without fear of criticism or failure for a set period of time. Of all the manifold techniques that exist for helping writers to get into the zone, this is easily the one I find the most useful.

Anyone can free write. All you do is set yourself a time limit and then write anything and everything that comes to mind as fast as you can without stopping. And when I say ‘without stopping’, I mean without stopping. You don’t stop to correct spelling or grammatical errors, nor do you stop to delete something you’ve changed your mind about. You don’t even stop to think about what to write next. You may find yourself writing nonsense. You will almost certainly be appalled by your own spelling and grammar. That’s all okay. If you’re anything like me, you will probably find your page is punctuated with little passages bemoaning how difficult it is to write: ‘yes, anyway, right, what will I write now? i don’k know, I can’t think what to write now. I’ll think of something in a minute. I hope. Maybe’.

freewrite
Here’s one I made earlier.

That’s all okay. That only means you’re doing it properly. The point of free writing is not to write something good. It’s not even necessarily about coming up with ideas for proper writing (though you often will). It’s simply about getting out of that lazy, defeated-before-you’ve-even-started zone and into the writing zone.

Want to give it a go yourself? Here’s a few tips:

Make It The Very First Thing You Do

Think about it: when do you usually write? After you’ve done other stuff, obviously. It might’ve been work, it might’ve been recreation, it might’ve been sleeping, it might’ve been shopping but one thing is certain: before you started writing, you were doing something else. And now you come to your story unmolested by writers’ block and with a head full of life-things; and all life-things are potential sources of ideas. If, on the other hand, you decide to free write only after you’ve been staring a blank page for three hours, you’ll only have a head full of writers’ block and a gnawing feeling of self-doubt. While it doesn’t matter what you write, you’ll probably find it a more rewarding and enjoyable experience if you write something other than ‘I suck at writing’ a million times over.

Keep The Time Limit Brief

How long you need will depend on your own abilities as a writer, but I find ten-fifteen minutes usually works well for me. You don’t want it to be so short you  barely have time to get started, but you also don’t want to drag it out so long that you run out of things to write. Give yourself just enough time to vomit every last drop of consciousness onto the page.

Use Typewriter or Something Similar

Remember, you are not allowed to edit at all. However, knowing this does not always remove the temptation to hit that delete key, just once. We’ve grown so accustomed to quickly correcting our spelling errors and tidying up as we go along that we don’t even realise we’re doing it. If that applies to you, grab yourself a free copy of Typewriter – Minimal Text Editor. It’s a simple ASCII text editor with absolutely no editing functionality whatsoever. The delete key does nothing. You cannot copy and paste. You can only make words appear. If you’re feeling really hardcore, there are also apps out there like Write or Die which will punish you in cruel and unusual ways for writing too slowly.

Make It A Habit

You’ll probably feel a bit silly the first time you free write. Stick with it until it becomes a regular part of your prewriting routine. If nothing else, it’s a good way to signal an official ‘beginning’ to your daily writing session, like clocking in at the day job. Before long, you’ll look forward to turning on that timer every day for the easiest part of your writing session.


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 blows your nose.

Until next time!

ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

I’m looking for authors (especially, but not limited to, new and/or indie authors) whose work I can feature here on Penstricken over the coming year. It will simply take the form of a quick Q&A about yourself and your work via private message or e-mail and, of course, a link to where we can all get a copy of your work.

I’m open to interviewing authors of almost any kind of story, provided your work is complete, original and of course, fictional. I will not consider individual short stories/micro-fictions, however I am happy to feature published anthologies or entire blog-sites of micro-fiction, provided you are the sole author.

If you’re interested, or want to know more, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

6 Useful Posts on Fiction and Writing

I couldn’t think of anything clever to write this week, so I decided it was time for another exciting instalment of Useful Posts on Fiction and Writing, where I share other people’s clever fiction-related posts.

The posts I’ve selected for this week are bit of a mish-mash of flash fictions, book reviews and writing tips. They only have two things in common. 1) They’re all fiction-related and 2) they are all posts that I personally found to be useful, insightful or just plain enjoyable.

So, without further ado and in no particular order:

Book 29 Review: Lost in the shadows by Eunice (an honest and enjoyable review of Lost in the Shadows by J.S. Green).

A Teaser of my Upcoming Novel by Lucie Guerre (the title kind of says it all. A short and tantalising excerpt from Lucie Guerre’s novel).

Noodle Philosophy by Freewritesnshorts (an unedited, free-written short story about a guy getting philosophical about his instant noodles. Remarkably good considering it was apparently written in under an hour and hasn’t been planned or edited in any way).

How To Come Up With Good Ideas for Your Novels by Edward Mullen (a refreshingly clinical approach to coming up with novel ideas. Arguably one of the most useful posts of it’s kind I’ve ever come across).

Blank Page by Ajourneyintome (the internet is full of semi-autobiographical flash fictions where struggling authors write about the pain of writers block and for the most part, they’re all a bit samey. Not so with this one. This 333 word flashfic is dark, imaginative and bursting with an important theme).

Book Review: The Orphan’s Wish by Myliterarymusingsblog (a straightforward and thoroughly enjoyable review of The Orphan’s Wish by Melanie Dickerson)


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 blows your nose.

Until next time!

ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

I’m looking for authors (especially, but not limited to, new and/or indie authors) whose work I can feature here on Penstricken over the coming year. It will simply take the form of a quick Q&A about yourself and your work via private message or e-mail and, of course, a link to where we can all get a copy of your work.

I’m open to interviewing authors of almost any kind of story, provided your work is complete, original and of course, fictional. I will not consider individual short stories/micro-fictions, however I am happy to feature published anthologies or entire blog-sites of micro-fiction, provided you are the sole author.

If you’re interested, or want to know more, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

Theme: The Truth Behind the Tale

I once read somewhere (and I do wish I could remember where so I could give proper credit) that we story-writers are in the entertainment industry; that the primary goal of the story-writer is to entertain. While I basically agree with this statement, I think it’s also true that the best stories all have something real to say.

This is where theme comes into play. The term can be a little bit broad sometimes so just to be clear, when I talk about a story’s theme, I am referring to the meaning(s) or dare I say, the message(s) of the story. What fundamental truth(s) are you conveying in your idle fantasy? What aspects of real life are you exploring? And equally as important, how are you conveying that truth?

Let’s look at the easy(ish) bit first: identifying your theme (we’ll come back to how to convey your theme later). Themes can take many forms: it can be a moral lesson (e.g., ‘don’t do drugs, kids’), a particular idea or belief (‘the meaning of life is such-and-such’, ‘God is like this’, ‘socialism/capitalism is destructive in this way’, etc.)  or it can be a general portrait of a particular subject (friendship, poverty, religion, etc.). Depending on how you write, you may have decided on a theme before anything else (that is to say, your initial idea was something like ‘I want to write a story about domestic violence’) or the theme may have come about as a natural byproduct of your story. If it’s the latter, you might be tempted to ask yourself: ‘do I really need to identify my theme(s), since they occurred purely by happenstance after I began writing the story?’.

Answer: yes, you do. After all, whether it was your intention to write a story about lies, sex and/or murder or not, your audience will pick up on these themes if they’re there. And believe me, if you’ve written a half-decent story, there will be at least a couple of naturally occuring themes. It’s unavoidable. Has one of your characters been pursuing a love interest who doesn’t reciprocate his feelings? Then your theme is unrequited love. You may not have intended it, but it’s there, growing wild in the tulip patch that is your story. Depending on how your characters behave, it may also become a story about obsession, harassment or rejection. Therefore, since it’s almost impossible to write a good story without a theme or two popping out of the mix, it’s worthwhile identifying your theme so that you can make it work for you. Themes may be naturally occurring, but they shouldn’t be allowed to grow wild. Once you’ve identified them, you can use them to really enrich your story.

How you convey your theme is something else entirely, and will depend largely on the kind of story you’re writing, but the best advice I can give you is this: avoid sounding preachy. That’s not what people want from a story and it will certainly annoy your reader, even if they agree with you. Don’t misunderstand me, you should be bold in communicating your ideas, but there’s a way to do it and a way not to do it. The chances are your readers came to your book quite comfortable in their own opinions. If you want to change their opinions, you’ll need to do it with tact and subtly. Show them the truth by the events of your story.

In the same way, avoid soapboxing (yes, I just made that term up). This is when you turn your characters into a soapbox from which you casually throw out your opinions on controversial subjects, usually in the form of internal or external dialogue. e.g.:

Pro-abortion soapboxing: There was a small group of nuns standing outside the hospital, clutching pictures of the Madonna and Child. Isobel shook her head. Didn’t these outdated old crones realise that a woman has the right to make decisions about her own body?

Anti-abortion soapboxing: There was a small group of nuns standing outside the hospital, clutching pictures of the Madonna and Child. Isobel shook her head. It saddened and amazed her to think that in this day and age, there was still any need to protest what was clearly the legally sanctioned murder of unborn babies.

Soapboxing won’t only annoy your reader, it will actually undermine your story. Remember stories and characters must develop. A story never ends where it began, because the characters therein must develop (even if that ‘development’ involves a downward spiral of self-destruction). If a character’s strongly-held beliefs are relevant to the story, they ought to be challenged throughout that story (and probably, although not necessarily, altered in some way by the end). Therefore, if you begin with absolute statements (‘such-and-such is evil!‘) you’ve nowhere to go but contradiction or compromise (‘such-and-such isn’t so bad after all’ or ‘I’m not sure what I think about such-and-such now’). You could, of course, end with an absolute statement (‘Jeanie thought such-and-such was okay, but now she knew it was evil!‘) but that is a very lazy way to write. If your audience was truly drawn into Jeanie’s plight throughout the story, they’ve probably already come to the conclusion that such-and-such is evil. They don’t need you to lecture them.

If, on the other hand, your character’s opinions are not not relevant to the overall story, ask yourself why you’ve included them. There may be a legitimate reason to include them (e.g., characterisation), but if it’s nothing more than an opportunity to soapbox, chop it out. Air your controversial opinions on Twitter if you must, but don’t let it ruin your story.

Remember, your audience didn’t come here to learn your opinions. Your audience doesn’t give a rip about your opinions, even if they happen to share them. Instead, focus on telling the story. Make it as true as you can and fill it with believable, sympathetic characters to whom your reader can relate. They’ll start to understand what it’s like to be in that position and will begin to think. And that’s all you can hope to accomplish as a writer: provoke thought. You cannot force someone to believe something. You can only offer them the truth as you see it.


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 plucks your eyebrows.

Until next time!

ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

I’m looking for authors (especially, but not limited to, new and/or indie authors) whose work I can feature here on Penstricken over the coming year. It will simply take the form of a quick Q&A about yourself and your work via private message or e-mail and, of course, a link to where we can all get a copy of your work.

I’m open to interviewing authors of almost any kind of story, provided your work is complete, original and of course, fictional. I will not consider individual short stories/micro-fictions, however I am happy to feature published anthologies or entire blog-sites of micro-fiction, provided you are the sole author.

If you’re interested, or want to know more, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

Writing a Second Draft When You’re a Plantser

‘But how many drafts should I write?’ … The short and somewhat glib answer is, ‘as many as it takes’

(A. Ferguson 2017, ‘How Many Drafts Should I Write?’).

About a year ago, I had this great idea for a novel which I was really excited about. In fact, I was so excited about it and the idea worked so well that I produced a first draft in virtually no time. Seriously, I’ve never known productivity like it.

Of course, it wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t supposed to be; it was only a first draft. That’s why we have second drafts. They give us an opportunity to take our original, crumby story and turn it into a good story by fixing all the problems with characters, plot, theme, world-building and all that sort of stuff, so I wasn’t worried. In fact, I was downright enthusiastic. Even before I sat down to study my first draft, my head was already bursting with ideas for how I was going to improve upon my initial effort. Oh yes, this second draft was going to be a doozy alright.

Well that was about six months ago; and let me tell you, it’s been a tough six months for writing. I haven’t even come close to finishing this second draft yet, and I now know why. It hadn’t been for a lack of trying. I’d been diligently working to wheedle out all the little problems with my story before launching in to the writing stage and, for the most part, I had been successful but… I just couldn’t seem to fix some of the problems I perceived with my magic system (I’m writing a fantasy). The one I had in my first draft worked, but I didn’t think its origin story made a lot of sense. However, whenever I tried to fix it, I found myself undermining my actual plot. It just seemed that the more I tried to fix it, the more problems I ended up creating. Sometimes I even feared that I had completely ruined my story beyond all redemption all because I couldn’t make sense of this blasted magic system (that’s why you should never delete anything pertaining to your story, no matter how useless it may seem). Let me tell you, I came up with a lot of different variations on that magic system but I was just tying myself in knots. I was accomplishing very little and growing frustrated with my wonderful novel.

It was my wife who finally reminded me: I’m a plantser. I begin with a rough plan, but it’s only when I write and let my imagination run wild that my plan starts to grow a bit of flesh and take on a life of its own. Why was it, then, that when I came to write my second draft that I felt so compelled to have a perfect plan in place before writing anything? After all, all those wonderful ideas I had for improvements in my second draft only came about as a result of having written and then re-read the first draft. And so she encouraged me to keep my original magic system for now (which worked anyway) and just write my second draft. If I’m still not satisfied when that’s done, it doesn’t matter. I can always write a second second draft (‘draft 2.1’, you might say). For the plantser (and, arguably, for all writers), redrafting is a process of refinement. You take a terrible story and make it better. You take your better story and make it quite good. You take your quite good story and make it excellent.

And how do you, as a plantser, accomplish this? Exactly the same way you wrote your first draft. Plan it out as best you can and figure out the rest as you write. For me, the origins of my magic system were the only kink I hadn’t been able to figure out using Scapple. I’d managed to fix just about everything else. So instead of being forever held back by this one trifling point, I decided to sit down with my more-or-less complete plan and write the second draft, knowing full well that a second second draft, and perhaps even a third second draft, will be necessary.

‘But that will take ages!’ I hear you cry.

Not if you get your head down and get on with it. You can knock out a novel length piece of work in a few short months if your diligent enough about it. Spending six months banging your head against your desk and whimpering to yourself about your lousy magic system and how you’re a failure at writing: that’s a waste of time.

Learn from my failure. If you’re a plantser, then plant yourself on that seat and write your second draft with occasional reference to a half-baked second draft plan. It’s foolishness to the planners and a stumbling block to the pantsers, but for we plantsers, it’s the only way to get anything done.


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 floats your boat.

Until next time!

ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

I’m looking for authors (especially, but not limited to, new and/or indie authors) whose work I can feature here on Penstricken over the coming year. It will simply take the form of a quick Q&A about yourself and your work via private message or e-mail and, of course, a link to where we can all get a copy of your work.

I’m open to interviewing authors of almost any kind of story, provided your work is complete, original and of course, fictional. I will not consider individual short stories/micro-fictions, however I am happy to feature published anthologies or entire blog-sites of micro-fiction, provided you are the sole author.

If you’re interested, or want to know more, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

Writing a Good Character Description

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: characters are the beating heart of every good story. Good characters, more often than not, make for a good story. That means you need to write a character with strong goals, strong motives and a clear problem to overcome. We know this. Nevertheless, it also goes without saying that your characters must all have a physical appearance, which you can describe to the reader (unless, of course, you’re writing some highly ambitious piece of supernatural fiction where all your characters are non-corporeal beings who never interact with physical reality as we know it).

Let me tell you right now, there’s an art to describing characters. Do it right and your audience will have such a vivid image in their minds that they’ll swear they’ve actually met your character. Do it wrong and you might just produce one of the most pedestrian scenes in your entire story. Nothing drags the pace of a narrative down quite like a long winded description of Jimmy’s hair colour, eye colour and whatever unremarkable clothes he might be wearing. I say it’s better to have no physical description than a bad one.

If you give a simple description of height, weight, hair colour, eye colour and so on you will not only bore the reader to tears but you will also, in the most long-winded way possible, tell us nothing significant about the character. Instead, focus on distinguishing features and other details which help us to really get to know the character. Let us refer, once more, to the master, John Steinbeck. He described his character, Lennie Small, in this way:

A huge man, shapeless of face, with large, pale eyes, with wide, sloping shoulders; and he walked heavily, dragging his feet a little, the way a bear drags his paws. His arms did not swing at his sides, but hung loosely and only moved because the heavy hands were pendula.

(John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men).

If you’ve read Of Mice and Men, you’ll know there are two essential things to know about Lennie Small: 1) he’s a large and strong man and 2) he has a childlike mind. These two facts form the basis for his entire plotline from start to finish. Is it any surprise, then, that Steinbeck’s description emphasises these qualities? Just look at the adjectives/adverbs: ‘huge’, ‘large’, ‘wide’, ‘heavily’, ‘heavy’. All these words signify bigness. Notice, incidentally, that Steinbeck never says ‘tall’, nor does he give a specific height. After all, Steinbeck’s purpose is to emphasise how physically imposing Lennie is but not all tall people are imposing. Whether Lennie is tall or not is unimportant. What matters is that he is huge.

Similarly words like ‘shapeless’, ‘pale’ and ‘hung loosely’, used to describe his face, eyes and body language all have a certain vacant quality to them. The bear metaphor is especially powerful, as bears are animals which are known to be physically imposing but not frightfully intellectual. Nothing in this description is superfluous. It tells us everything we need to know about Lennie. We can imagine unimportant details like his hair colour for ourselves.

Another important thing to consider is how subjective/objective your word choice is. Objective language sticks to the facts. For example: ‘Johnny had brown eyes’. Subjective language is based on one’s personal impressions: ‘Johnny had eyes of the richest chocolate’. Or alternatively, ‘Johnny had eyes like a pair of dirty brown pebbles’. Striking the right subjective/objective balance can be hard and will be largely dependent on your narrative POV. As a rule, First Person and Third Person (Limited) narratives can and should include a generous dose of subjective language, since we are being given the personal impressions of a particular character. We want to know whether or not the narrator is attracted to or repelled by the character in question. Third Person (Omniscient), on the other hand, should be more reserved with its use of subjective language. But that’s only a guideline.

One last tip: use vivid but precise language. Consider again Steinbeck’s description of Lennie. The word ‘pendula’, used to describe the movements of Lennie’s arms, creates a very sharp image in the reader’s mind. After all, we’ve all seen the lazy, mindless but unceasing swing of a pendulum that hangs from a clock, powered by nothing but simple physics. We can imagine that motion so clearly that it is easy to picture Lennie’s arms as they swing in a way that more bland language might not have been able to convey. Beware, however. Don’t let clever sounding words get in the way of a description which is also precise. Steinbeck is a master of description not only because of the vivid imagery he employs, but also because the imagery is so very appropriate. If simple language creates desired effect, use it. Don’t bamboozle your reader with peripheral unnecessary purple prose, especially not if it is less precise than simple language. You will lose your reader’s attention if you do. Instead, aim to use words and metaphors which convey an accurate and vivid image in the most direct way possible.

Remember, your reader doesn’t really care what your character looks like. They care about who your character is. So when you describe your character’s looks, cut to the chase. Keep it snappy, keep it sharp and most importantly of all, keep it relevant.


ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

I’m looking for authors (especially, but not limited to, new and/or indie authors) whose work I can feature here on Penstricken over the coming year. It will simply take the form of a quick Q&A about yourself and your work via private message or e-mail and, of course, a link to where we can all get a copy of your work.

I’m open to interviewing authors of almost any kind of story, provided your work is complete, original and of course, fictional. I will not consider individual short stories/micro-fictions, however I am happy to feature published anthologies or entire blog-sites of micro-fiction, provided you are the sole author.

If you’re interested, or want to know more, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

Figuring Out Foil Characters

We’re all familiar with some of the traditional character types you find in most fiction: protagonists, antagonists, love interests and so forth. But there is another common type of character out there; one which can sometimes be harder to define, though we know them when we see them (intuitively at least). I am talking about foils.

The OED defines a foil in this way:

A person or thing that contrasts with and so emphasizes and enhances the qualities of another.

Source: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/foil

In fiction, therefore, a foil is a character (or sometimes an object or idea) who highlights the traits of another character (usually the protagonist) by contrasting with them. But apart from that, these characters can play just about any role in your story you like. They can even (and often do) fulfil other key roles in your story, such the main antagonist or love interest (actually, as an aside, I often think love interests make great foils; opposites do so often attract, especially in fiction).

There’s a lot of good reasons to include a foil in your story. They can be an excellent tool for emphasising qualities in your protagonist which you might wish to draw out without stating explicitly. They can also go horribly wrong if executed poorly or needlessly.

As is so often the case, I have one particularly important rule I like to stick to whenever I write a foil (though you can apply this rule to any of your characters). Ready? Here it is:

No character should exist solely for the benefit of another.
robin
No one wants to only be a sidekick.
Image source: http://gph.is/257jTXn

Yes, a foil character must, by definition, contrast with another, but if that’s their only function in your story, watch out! All people in real life have their own motives, goals and problems and so should your characters. A good story can get along just fine without a foil character, but a character who serves as a foil and nothing else will be nothing but a burden on your narrative. At best they will read like a two-dimensional sidekick.

I would therefore strongly advise against sitting down to ‘write a foil character’. Figure out who the main players are in your story first. Ask yourself what they all want, what’s preventing them from getting it and why they are necessary for your story. You may well find that your story will benefit from having a foil and it will probably become pretty obvious who should assume that role once you’ve finished most of your planning.

Take Star Wars for instance. Power and its ability to corrupt is a central theme in these movies. Every Jedi, trained in the Force, faces the temptation to be seduced and corrupted by their power. In the original trilogy, the protagonist, Luke Skywalker, faces this very issue in the form of his foil and antagonist, Darth Vader. Both of these characters come from humble backgrounds, both were trained by Jedi Masters and became powerful Jedi themselves. Yet only Darth Vader was seduced by the Dark Side; Luke resists the same temptation and his life takes a completely different path. Cosmetic contrasts such as differently coloured lightsabres also add to the effect.

Darth Vader works as a foil for Luke, because it feeds right in to one of the story’s key themes and draws out Luke’s inner struggles against the Dark Side. Indeed, Darth Vader serves very much as a personification of Luke’s inner struggles. He represents the course of life Luke can but must not choose.

Darth Vader: You’ve only begun to discover your power. Join me and I will complete your training! With our combined strength, we can end this destructive conflict and bring order to the galaxy.

Luke: I’ll never join you!

Darth Vader:  It is your destiny. Join me, and together, we can rule the galaxy as father and son!

Star Wars (ep. 6): Return of the Jedi

Of course, not all foils are antagonists. They don’t even need to be central characters (I’ve even heard it argued that they really shouldn’t be, though I don’t personally agree with that). All a character really needs to be a foil is to draw out your protagonist’s key traits by contrasting with them. But for my money, a good foil should be a fully-fledged secondary character, antagonist, love-interest, etc. in their own right first and a foil second. Perhaps a better way to think of it is to say that a foil is not so much a character type as it is a literary technique; one which just happens to often be associated with one character in particular.


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 kicks your side.

Until next time!

ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

I’m looking for authors (especially, but not limited to, new and/or indie authors) whose work I can feature here on Penstricken over the coming year. It will simply take the form of a quick Q&A about yourself and your work via private message or e-mail and, of course, a link to where we can all get a copy of your work.

I’m open to interviewing authors of almost any kind of story, provided your work is complete, original and of course, fictional. I will not consider individual short stories/micro-fictions, however I am happy to feature published anthologies or entire blog-sites of micro-fiction, provided you are the sole author.

If you’re interested, or want to know more, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

6 Useful Posts on Fiction and Writing

Well, it’s been a while since I last shared anyone else’s fiction related blogs, so here we have it: another exciting instalment of Useful Posts on Fiction and Writing, where I share some of the most useful, insightful or just downright enjoyable posts on fiction writing that I’ve found on WordPress in the last week.

As ever, there have been numerous posts I’ve read lately that I could include in this list. I read a wide variety of blogs on fiction and writing and could not even begin to list them all. This is just a selection of some that I have recently found particularly useful or enjoyable. So, without further ado and in no particular order:

My pen My Ally by Attentionseeker16 (a poetic little post about writing).

I GIVE UP by Julia Moellers (I could just relate to this, being a bit of a perfectionist myself).

Romance Writers are Today’s Casanovas by Layla Stone (A useful little post about what works and what doesn’t work when writing romance fiction, with a particular focus on characters).

Three Joys of Writing Evil Characters by Death (because baddies really are more fun to write).

Types of Christian YA Fiction by Christianyafiction (a breakdown of Christian YA Fiction sub-genres).

Becoming a Writer by Roger (a more cerebral ‘writing rules’ post than any I’ve come across, including my own [2]).


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 shares your post.

Until next time!

ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

I’m looking for authors (especially, but not limited to, new and/or indie authors) whose work I can feature here on Penstricken over the coming year. It will simply take the form of a quick Q&A about yourself and your work via private message or e-mail and, of course, a link to where we can all get a copy of your work.

I’m open to interviewing authors of almost any kind of story, provided your work is complete, original and of course, fictional. I will not consider individual short stories/micro-fictions, however I am happy to feature published anthologies or entire blog-sites of micro-fiction, provided you are the sole author.

If you’re interested, or want to know more, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

Gleaning Ideas from Other Stories

Every story, good or bad, starts with an idea. Before you can have a plot, characters or any of that other wonderful stuff, you must have an idea. This we know. We also know that plot bunnies can sometimes pop up at the darnedest times and provide you with a wealth of truly original material with which to create your masterpiece.

But what do you do when the Idea Tree stops putting out its juicy fruit?

Easy.

Glean ideas from someone else’s story.

No, don’t look at me like that! I’m not for one second advocating plagiarism. That’s illegal and rightly so. But reading other people’s books and watching other people’s films can be a great place to find ideas. In fact, you’ll never read/watch/listen to a story of any kind that doesn’t contain at least a few ideas. Even really bad stories still have ideas embedded within their pages which can be used, reused and used again without any risk of plagiarism, so it’s worthwhile learning how to find them and make them work for you.

It’s also worth being clear on what you absolutely shouldn’t do. It’s all very well watching Star Trek and deciding you want to write a novel about space exploration, but it is not okay to write a story about a pointy eared, emotionless man from the planet Vulcan’t who explores the galaxy on the Confederate Starship USS Business. CBS would have every right to hunt you down and pinch your neck sue your face off if you try that. Moreover, it’s okay to read a Batman comic and decide you want to write about a masked vigilante, but I would think twice about making it a millionaire who operates from a secret cave and wears black rubber and a cape. The line between originally and plagiarism can sometimes be fuzzy, so the best advice I can give is to stay far, far away from this kind of obvious idea stealing. Remember, the goal is to get inspired, not to copy. And there’s an art to it.

Think about the last story you read/saw/heard, whether good or bad. For me, it was the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode ‘The Most Toys’. Not my favourite episode by any stretch of the imagination, but that doesn’t matter. We’re going to break it down and squeeze it for every last juicy idea droplets we can and turn those into something good and original. Begin deconstructing the story by asking yourself some basic questions about the plot, characters and themes. Simple stuff like:

Q: Who are some of the key characters?
A: Data, an emotionless android Starfleet officer; Fajo, a cruel and irreverent collector of rare items; Varria, Fajo’s long-suffering slave-come-mistress.

Q: What was the basic plot?
A: Data is kidnapped by Fajo and forced to perform as his latest museum piece. Data refuses to perform and, recognising how Varria has come to loathe Fajo, enlists her help in escaping his captor.

Q: What are some of the key themes?
A: Greed, pacifism, physical and psychological violence against women/domestic abuse, deceitfulness

Q: Any other interesting facts about this story?
A: The title comes from the expression ‘he who dies with the most toys, wins’. This expression emphasises the ultimate futility of humanity’s obsession with accumulating things in the face of our inevitable mortality.

And that’s just for starters. I haven’t even begun to consider settings, minor characters, motives/goals/conflicts or some of the more subtle themes buried throughout the story but I used the questions above just as a demonstration. Your aim here is to deconstruct the story to the nth degree, thus drawing out as much raw material as you can.

Don’t worry about whether or not the themes or character motives are “really” in the story or not. All that matters is that you amass as much raw material as you can and take a note of it. If you’re like me, you’ll probably find it helpful to pool all this material together into one place (in my case, a Scrivener project in which I dump all my loose bits of idea).

Now all you need to do is take some of those individual idea bits and try to turn them into something new. Do a bit of zero drafting or free writing based on what you’ve come up with. For example, the material I gleaned from The Most Toys’ could inspire me to write a story about:

  • A slave trying to escape his owner who sees him only as property.
  • A woman trying to escape an abusive relationship.
  • A woman who, perhaps fearing for her own life, murders her abusive partner.
  • A robot trying to establish his rights as a sentient being.
  • Capital punishment. Is it ever morally justifiable to kill?
  • A robot judge in a criminal court.
  • A museum where the exhibitions include living people (perhaps from a particular culture or race which that particular society views as inferior?), forced to perform for paying clientele.

Furthermore, by pooling these ideas together with ideas you have extracted from other places, you can mix and match ideas to come up with even more original and interesting stories. Ultimately, no idea is truly original. When you break them down, you’ll find common themes and recurring motifs in almost every story you ever come across. So be sure to pick up all the gleanings from every story you come across. Before long, you’ll have an endless supply of raw material that you can work into something original.


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 steals your android.

Until next time!

ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

I’m looking for authors (especially, but not limited to, new and/or indie authors) whose work I can feature here on Penstricken over the coming year. It will simply take the form of a quick Q&A about yourself and your work via private message or e-mail and, of course, a link to where we can all get a copy of your work.

I’m open to interviewing authors of almost any kind of story, provided your work is complete, original and of course, fictional. I will not consider individual short stories/micro-fictions, however I am happy to feature published anthologies or entire blog-sites of micro-fiction, provided you are the sole author.

If you’re interested, or want to know more, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

Daydreaming: An Essential Exercise for Writers

One of the main things I remember my school teachers complaining about in my report cards was that I spent too much time daydreaming. I guess they thought I should’ve been doing something more important like figuring out maths problems or some other such nonsense. I don’t know.

In any event, I found that as I got older, daydreaming came a lot less naturally. I don’t know if it’s because adult life puts too many demands on our time or if it’s because I had one too many report cards telling me to stop daydreaming, but for whatever reason, daydreaming is a habit I’ve had to make a conscious effort to get back into.

Yes boys and girls, you heard me right. Daydreaming is a habit you should definitely get back into, especially if you plan on being a story-writer. After all, stories begin in the imagination and the imagination is just like a muscle, which needs to be exercised on a regular basis to keep it strong. Fortunately, you don’t need to pump irons to keep this muscle strong. You need to daydream.

Now before I go any further, I just want to clarify exactly what I mean by daydreaming. I don’t mean staring vacantly into space. I mean tapping back into that wealth of creativity that as children we used in imaginative play which allowed us to spontaneously imagine ourselves to be anyone, anywhere, anytime doing anything. For children, it’s effortless (almost unavoidable in fact). The rest of us, alas, need to work at it.

Make Time For It

I don’t think my teachers objected to me daydreaming per se. I suspect their real problem was with when I did it. It’s really not polite to daydream while someone is trying to teach you about something “important” like mathematics. Children don’t understand this, of course, and they just daydream whenever they feel like it. They also have buckets of time specifically set aside for imaginative play. As adults, however, we have constant demands on our time, none of which are imaginative play time: jobs, family, marriage, divorce, births, deaths, dishes, mortgages, cooking, driving, social events, hospital visits, court summons, insurance claims, driving, dating, washing, buying furniture, grocery shopping, taxes, hoovering and a myriad of other “important” things.

To be sure, some of these things are important. But if you want to tell stories of your own invention, you need imagination as active and as vibrant as that of a child. So be sure to set aside time in your busy schedule to daydream.

Be Proactive

True daydreaming, where the mind simply wanders into the realms of fantasy without stopping to plan, edit or revise, is not easy to do on demand. As adults, we tend to over-complicate things and so when we come to our daydreaming time, it’s easy for us to fall into the trap of sitting there simply thinking ‘Right, I must try and come up with some flight of fancy now. Let me think, what shall I dream about? Hmmm, no, that wouldn’t work. I’m thinking, thinking…. Gagh, I feel silly just sitting here doing nothing. This is hard. I can’t do it. I have no imagination. I’m a failure’. Worse still, we might end up just thinking about all the “more important” things we have to do.

tip1So what’s the solution? Simple. Consider again what children do. They don’t just sit there daydreaming all day. They draw, they role play, sometimes they even write. In short, they express all that raw imagination soup in their head by giving it some kind of form. Why not try it yourself? Try free-writing, or buy yourself a cheap drawing pad to doodle in. Get some of your friends together for some imaginative role play. Play with finger puppets if you have to! Whatever it takes to really exercise that imagination.

Anything Goes

This isn’t writing. It isn’t even planning. It is simply exercising that part of your brain which spontaneously generates possibilities, however bizarre they might be. Therefore there is absolutely no need to edit. Plot holes, structure, and even plagiarism count for nothing in your daydreams.

Daydream about being Batman if you like. It’s not plagiarism if all you’re doing is fantasising, so allow yourself to wonder what it might be like driving a batmobile, fighting crime in Gotham’s seedy underbelly or changing your clothes while simultaneously sliding down a fireman’s pole. Try and put into words, if you can, how it feels to drive the batmobile. What does Gotham’s seedy underbelly smell like? Does that fireman’s pole chafe on the way down?

And what would happen if Batman encountered the villain from your story? How would Batman handle that? Yes, I know it’s silly. So what? Have fun with it. No one is going to edit, mark or even see your daydreams so let your imagination do whatever it wants. All that matters is that you imagine widely and imagine often, so that when you do come to work on creating proper works of fiction, you’ve got a strong enough imagination to do it.


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 builds your sandcastle.

Until next time!

ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

I’m looking for authors (especially, but not limited to, new and/or indie authors) whose work I can feature here on Penstricken over the coming year. It will simply take the form of a quick Q&A about yourself and your work via private message or e-mail and, of course, a link to where we can all get a copy of your work.

I’m open to interviewing authors of almost any kind of story, provided your work is complete, original and of course, fictional. I will not consider individual short stories/micro-fictions, however I am happy to feature published anthologies or entire blog-sites of micro-fiction, provided you are the sole author.

If you’re interested, or want to know more, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.