What Villains Want

For me, antagonists are often the most fun characters to create. However, most of the usual rules apply and it’s especially important (as it is with all characters) that your antagonist’s motive and goals are clearly established in your mind. More often than not, these will form the whole basis for the conflict your protagonist has to deal with, so it’s vital you get this right.

If I was to boil it down to a single rule for antagonists, it would probably be something like this:

An antagonist’s motive can be anything at all, but their goal should bring them into direct conflict with the protagonist.

Let’s start by thinking about the first part of that rule: ‘An antagonist’s motive can be anything at all’. Motives are simply what drive a character from day to day. When it comes to your bad guy, this could be something sinister such as megalomania or it could be something far more ordinary– perhaps even laudable. For instance, in The Count of Monte Cristo, the antagonist, Fernand Mondego, is in love with the protagonist’s fiancee. As a result, he falsely accuses the protagonist of treason so that he can marry Dantès fiancee instead.

So, Mondego’s motive is that he is in love with Dantès fiancee. His goal (in the beginning, at least) is to get Dantès out of the way. Loving a woman is not a particularly evil or unusual thing, nor is it a motive common only to antagonists. Plenty of good guys in other stories (especially romances and romantic comedies) are driven by the exact same motive.

Ahh, but he was in love with the protagonist’s fiancee! I hear you cry. That’s bad!

Well, I agree it’s not an ideal situation, but in and of itself it doesn’t make him an antagonist or a ‘bad guy’. There are plenty of stories out there with characters who refuse to behave inappropriately when they’re in love with someone else’s partner. What made Mondego a bad guy was his goal, not his motive. His motive (which he arguably had in common with the protagonist) drove him to carry out a sinister plot against the protagonist. That’s what made him a villain and an antagonist. It is highly unlikely a good guy would act on this motive the same way Mondego does (though remember, not all protagonists are good guys; some protagonists are bad).

Which brings me neatly onto the second part of our working rule: ‘[the antagonist’s] goal should bring them into direct conflict with the protagonist’. It’s worth mentioning that this is not the same as saying their goals must be inherently immoral.

Oh sure, they can be. They often will be. Personally, I love it when an antagonist is really bad. Murdering the hero(es), stealing something valuable and violently taking over the world are just some of the more common goals antagonists sometimes strive for. But remember, an antagonist is not necessarily defined as a morally evil character; they are simply a character whose goals conflict with that of your protagonist. They can be morally evil, but even then, their function is to present the protagonist with a real and significant problem that cannot simply be ignored. They are, if you like, a walking, talking conflict for your character to face.

giphy

When you’re so evil you want to blow up all reality. Image source: http://gph.to/2AhoZVE

Take C.S. Lewis’ story The Screwtape Letters as a radical example. This story is written from the perspective of a senior devil (Screwtape) writing to his nephew (Wormwood), giving him advice on how to lead a human into eternal damnation– a morally objectionable goal to say the least. In it, Screwtape makes frequent references to their ‘Enemy’ — namely, God. In this story, Wormwood is the protagonist. His motive is his natural diabolical nature and his goal is to secure the damnation of his unsuspecting human ‘patient’. Even though God is clearly not portrayed as evil in this story (C.S. Lewis was a Christian), nevertheless he is still the antagonist because his goals are in direct conflict with those of the protagonist.

“He (God) wants servants who can finally become sons. We want to suck in, He wants to give out. We are empty and would be filled; He is full and flows over. Our war aim is a world in which Our Father Below has drawn all other beings into himself: the Enemy wants a world full of beings united to Him but still distinct.”

C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (parenthesis mine)

Which brings me neatly onto my third and final point: the audience’s sympathies. This can sometimes be a sticky issue when you try to create an antagonist of any real depths, as I previously discovered.

In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis presumably wanted us to sympathise with God’s goals instead of Wormwood’s, even though God is the antagonist. After all, The Screwtape Letters is as much as Christian Apologetic work as it is a story. Under most circumstances, however, you will want your audience to support the protagonist’s goals instead of the antagonist. I know of only two ways to do this effectively:

  1. Make your antagonist at least a little bit immoral (optional – but usually a good idea)
  2. Create a strong protagonist with goals and motives the audience really cares about (mandatory)

Remember, an antagonist might provide the vital point if conflict in a story, but he is not the sum total of the story. If all you have is a really complex antagonist who threatens to take over the world and some half-baked protagonist to fight him just because that’s what good guys do, you’ll not hold onto your audience for very long. Remember this rule:

Your story is about your protagonist, not the antagonist.

The antagonist is the point of conflict for your story, but he is not the story in and of himself. Take the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz. She is a persistent hindrance to Dorothy throughout the film. Without her, it would be a frankly boring film about a girl who gets a bit lost (okay, very lost) then goes home. But none of that would matter if it wasn’t for the fact that Dorothy wants to get home. If we didn’t care about Dorothy and her plight, the Witch would be pretty redundant.


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 twirls your moustache.

Authors: 

I’m thinking about doing author interviews here on Penstricken over the coming year, especially with new fiction authors. It will probably just take the form of a quick Q&A via private message or e-mail and, of course, a link to where we can all get a copy of your book. If you’re interested, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

Until next time!

Writing Child Characters

Whenever I write a ‘writing tips’ style of post here on Penstricken about how to deal with one problem or another, it’s often as a result of me having recently encountered and overcome that particular problem myself. Today is no different, so I hope you’ll bear with me while I share my limited insights into the challenge of writing child characters.

It can be tempting to approach child characters differently from adults. Don’t fall into this trap. A character is a character, regardless of age. They are all imaginary people made up of motivations, goals, backstories, dialogue and all that wonderful stuff. Therefore, the exact same rules and techniques apply to creating child characters as they do to making adult characters. The only real difference is how you apply these familiar principles to making a child character.

Let’s start with the basics. When you created your adult characters, you undoubtedly prepared a detailed biography of every character detailing everything from their name and address to their favourite invertebrates (didn’t you?).

Well, this may sound obvious to some of you but it’s too important to leave unsaid: Your child characters’ biographies should be every bit as detailed as your adult characters’ biographies.

A name, an age and a gender is not sufficient to create a rounded child character anymore than it is sufficient to an adult. Take my daughter for example. In addition to these things, she has a height, a weight, a hair colour, an ethnic group, a national identity, a citizenship, a place of birth, an eye colour, a whole bunch of associates who interact with her regularly, a social status, things she’s good at (e.g. saying ‘mum’), things she’s not quite mastered yet (e.g. saying ‘dad’), things she likes (Mr. Lion) and things she dislikes (mushed up banana). She has a physical appearance which can be described in objective terms and she has a backstory (that is, I can think of several key events in her short life so far which have had an impact on who she is now and who she will be in the future). She is being raised with particular beliefs and she has a distinctive personality.

And she’s not even one year old yet. Don’t cut corners. Give your child characters detailed biographies.

Moving on from there, it’s important to remember that children, like adults, vary in their complex natures and are capable of a wide range of feelings and ideas, just like adults are. They have beliefs and uncertainties; goals and motives and everything else besides. Some are thoughtful while others are impulsive. Some prefer imaginative play while others are interested in puzzles and games. Some are chatterboxes, some are painfully shy. Et cetera.

Therefore, when you come to write your child character, it is vital that you have clearly established his or her motivation, (what drives them to do what they do), goals (what they hope to achieve), conflict (what hinders them from achieving their goal) and epiphany (what they learn as a result of it), just like you would with an adult. I’ve written about this in more detail here, so I’ll assume you understand how this all works in general terms.

One of the worst mistakes you can make is assuming children don’t need all this stuff. They need it just as much as adult characters. The only difference is what motivates them, what they hope to achieve, what hinders them and what they will learn. Even so, when you boil these elements (especially the all-important motive) down to basics, you’ll find a lot of parallels. They may be driven by personal ambition, a noble cause, the desire for friendship or many other things besides. It’s only the particular details that will be significantly different. For example…

Motivation Amy (8 years old) wants to be accepted by her peers.
Goals To acquire the full range of Pogs and Tazos (because this story is set in the ’90s; ask your parents, kids).
Conflict Amy’s parents think Pogs and Tazos are a fantastic waste of money and absolutely refuses to indulge her.
Epiphany  If you have to acquire the all trendiest things to win somebody’s respect, their respect isn’t worth having coveting.

Amy’s motivation, you will agree, could just as easily be that of an adult character. However the goals, conflict and epiphany which derive from it are far more peculiar to children. It is, therefore, the particular details that separate adults’ goals and motives from childrens’.

One more important difference between adult and child characters is how they express themselves, whether in terms of what they say or what they do. For instance,

  • A shy adult at a party will make awkward small-talk, silently wishing he was somewhere else. A shy child will hide under a table and refuse to come out.
  • An adult at the buffet table might be quietly annoyed to discover the pigs-in-blankets have all gone before he got any– but won’t say anything. A child, on the other hand, might cry inconsolably over the empty plate, or try to beg someone else to share theirs. A more shrewd child (because believe me, children can be shrewd!) might even try to trade a sausage roll for it, even though there’s still plenty of sausage rolls available at the buffet table.

Dialogue is also important in this regard. There are two key things to note.

  1. Children generally don’t mince their words. They say what they mean and they mean what they say, even if it’s inappropriate or rude. Avoid innuendos, double entendres and euphemisms.
  2. Children may have insightful or complex ideas, without necessarily having the vocabulary to communicate them. What they say, therefore, should reflect their level of education. Use shorter words and shorter sentences. Avoid code switching or cultural references that a child is unlikely to understand.

I find the simplest way to write children’s dialogue is to begin by writing it normally and then simplifying it. Keep sentences short and to-the-point and use big words sparingly. Don’t fall into the trap of filling your dialogue with deliberate mistakes, however. Children are not stupid. They just have a more simple language than adults with which to communicate (or ‘they don’t know as many words as grown-ups’).


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 knocks your door.

Until next time!

What Do You Listen To While Writing?

When you write, do you find background noise distracting or helpful? As far as I can tell from my extensive research on the subject, there is no right or wrong answer to this question. Some writers can’t seem to put pen to paper until they’re in a soundproof environment while others insist that the only place they can write is on the sitting next to the machinery in a glass bottle factory, so you’ll be in good company whatever your aural writing preferences are.

Personally, I find that my needs change depending on what I’m writing and at what stage I’m at. Absolute silence, ambient background noise (though not quite at glass bottle factory levels) and music all have their place in my writing routine.

Absolute Silence

While perhaps not true of all writers, I think most of us would agree that there are at least some rare occasions when you need to focus your brain 100% on the task at hand; occasions when any kind of external stimulation, however small, can be distracting. I certainly find this to be true. When I’m struggling to perfect a tricky little piece of dialogue or weed out some of the holes in my plot, even the smallest sounds can prove to be a big distraction. When that happens, there’s nothing else for it but to retreat to a different room (or better still, a different building) from all other people and animals; close all windows and doors and turn off any central heating, washing machines or anything else that makes noise. If you have access to a soundproofed room, that’s even better.

But beware! As helpful as silence can sometimes be, it can also be deafening. Unless I’m trying to focus on a particularly sticky problem that requires every last iota of my brainpower, I tend to find absolute silence more of a hindrance than a help– not least of all because true silence can be very difficult to find. If you’re in a room that is absolutely silent except for the occasional dripping of a leaky tap or the gentle hum of your computer, that leaky tap or gentle humming can feel like someone taking a mallet to your head.

Ambient Background Noise

On most occasions, I find a bit of ordinary background noise can provide the perfect balance between silence and sound for everyday writing tasks, in much the same way that I find it easy to focus on my day job despite the constant hum of chattering colleagues and ringing telephones. It’s not so quiet that it becomes distracting, but neither is it interesting enough to draw my attention.

Lots of writers swear by writing in cafes for  this very reason. However, not all background noise is created equal. Finding a spot that guarantees you the right type and volume of background noise can be hard. Even if you do find a pleasant place to write in, it can all go a bit pear-shaped if somebody’s baby starts screaming or if a fire engine goes whizzing past. A good way to avoid this problem is by using apps like Noisli, which allow you to customise your own mix of background various ambient noises: trains, thunder, birdsong and so forth.

It will also save you a fortune in overpriced coffee.

Music

Music can be a great little motivator, especially if I’m engaged in a particularly long and gruelling writing session (Noisli doesn’t sound too repetitive in general but you will start to notice the pattern in the loops if you listen to it for hours on end).

However, interesting music can be unhelpful. For example, I like to listen to classic rock, but not when I’m writing, because catchy or complicated tunes tend to just distract me. Music with singing is the worst. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got a vast collection of music with vocals but if I try to listen to it while I’m writing, I end up just seeing a little silhouetto of a man and doing the fandango.

And there’s nothing worse than when that happens.

Easy listening is one option, but if you’re anything like me, you hate easy listening. I actually find video game soundtracks far more helpful to play (quietly!) while I’m in writing.  The Final Fantasy, Fable or Monkey Island soundtracks are my personal favourites. They are easy enough on the ear that you can listen to them for a long time but they aren’t so interesting that you get distracted by them. In fact, most gaming soundtracks have been specifically written to keep you focused on what you’re doing over a long period, so they’re maybe worth looking into, even if you don’t particularly like video games.

Sounds That Never Help. Ever.

  • People talking to you while you’re trying to write.
  • Your phone ringing/vibrating on the desk in front of you.
  • E-mail or social media notifications.
  • Your neighbours’ latest venture into DIY.
  • The sound of one or two others talking to each other but “politely” ignoring you. It’s not background noise if you can make out every word that’s spoken. Whispered conversation is no better.

What about you? What do you find helpful or unhelpful to listen to when you write?


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 rings your bell.

Until next time!

Can’t Afford Scrivener? Try yWriter.

Many years ago, when I decided to make my first serious attempt at writing a novel, I did what a lot of enthusiastic beginners probably do: I searched high and low for the perfect novel writing app. I didn’t know about Scrivener back then (in fact, I’m not even sure it was available for Windows at that time) but I did come across another app in a similar vein called yWriter by Spacejock Software. I attempted my first ever novel with it and I absolutely swore by it for a long time. Only the discovery of Scrivener for Windows really turned my head. However, in homage to auld lang syne, I’ve decided to download and review the most recent version of yWriter (specifically, yWriter6) for those of you who don’t want to spend any money (for there is no other good reason not to get Scrivener).

yWriter1

Fig. 1

yWriter’s main window (fig. 1) is, for the most part, fairly self-explanatory. Like Scrivener, it allows you to organise your various notes on characters, settings, etc. and, like Scrivener, it allows you to organise your work into separate chapters and scenes. You can either begin with a blank project or you can use the project wizard… which is basically the same as making a blank project, only you begin by specifying the title, author’s name and file directory you want to save it to before you begin, thereby saving yourself thirty seconds later on.

ywriter-editor

Fig. 2

The window which you use to actually write your scene is also pretty self-explanatory for anyone even remotely familiar with ordinary word processors. Unlike many modern word processors, however, you are essentially restricted to writing in a rich text box rather than on a virtual page. As such, there is no easy way to format your page layout (rulers, margins, etc). However, in addition to the features you would expect to find on any word processor, you also have the ability to hear your story read out to you by Microsoft David or Microsoft Zira (a feature which can be handy for helping you to edit a manuscript you’ve grown overly familiar with) and there’s a whole host of tabs on this window which allow you to edit all sorts of information pertaining to the scene you’re working on, if you find that sort of thing useful. You can also easily jump from one scene to another using the drop down menus at the bottom of the scene editing window.

Though this app is simple in many ways, and certainly lacks the flexibility of Scrivener, it does boast a plethora of handy little features which you can use or ignore as you see fit. I doubt if you’ll be inclined to use all of them and I don’t have nearly enough space here to mention them all, but suffice to say it seems pretty obvious to me that the developers have tried to appeal to a broad spectrum of novelists by adding a variety of tools.

ywriter-ratings

Fig. 3

Personally, I am rather fond of the word usage window, which shows you a list of every word used in your story and tells you how often you’ve used it; a handy feature if you’re given to tediously repeating certain turns of phrase over and over again. In addition, the help menu includes a ‘writing tips’ option, which brings up a simple message window containing a snippet of handy writing advice such as ‘take a 5-10 minute break every hour. Walk, exercise, make a drink’ and ‘sometimes it’s quicker to rewrite a short scene from scratch than to keep editing it’. You can also rate the relevance, tension, humour and quality of each scene you write and collate that information into a handy-dandy line-graph (fig. 3), which could be a potentially useful tool when you come to edit your drafts (assuming you can be honest with yourself about the quality of your work). The tools for developing characters, settings and items which appear in your story are simple enough to use, if a little basic and inflexible, although there’s plenty of room for writing whatever notes you want.

If there’s one major thing yWriter lacks, it is the ability to compile your manuscript into a suitable format for distribution. For instance, with Scrivener, you can easily compile your work into a variety of useful formats including (but not limited to) standard manuscript format, screenplay format or e-book format– and of course, if none of the presets appeal to you, you can customise your own format. You can’t do any of that with yWriter. It does allow you to export your project in a variety of ways, but if you’ve got any serious plans to submit your work for publication, you’ll need to transfer your exported project to a suitable word processor and format it yourself.

I realise I’ve unintentionally spent a lot of time here comparing yWriter to Scrivener but I hope you won’t misunderstand my intentions. I really like yWriter. Yes, there is room for further development but I do think it’s worth trying, especially for new authors who are just dipping their toe into novel writing for the first time. Nevertheless, bells and whistles not withstanding, it is quite limited when it is compared to more expensive tools like Scrivener. My advice would be to give it a go. You may find yWriter is more than sufficient for your own particular needs, in which case you should be able to get your novel written and save yourself a few bob into the bargain.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟


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 sharpens your pencil.

Until next time!

Fiction: Reality Refined

There are two kinds of story in this world. Those that are not at all true to life and therefore are completely unsatisfactory, and those that create the illusion of being true to life but, in fact, are not. Very few stories (even those meticulously and faithfully based on true events) accurately reflect real life once they’ve been structured in a way which allows them to be communicated, because real life is far too much of a jumble for that to be possible.

‘But wait just a minute here,’ I hear you cry. ‘I read a book/watched a film/attended a play/played a game just the other day there and it was the truest darn thing I’ve ever seen in my entire life!’

Well of course it’s true that if you’re writing a story, you’ll want it to be true to life in the sense that it must accurately reflect the human experience. A skilled author can (and should) attempt to communicate far more fundamental truths than this about life and death, war and peace, society, philosophy, religion or whatever it might be in their stories. And of course, stories based on true events must remain faithful to history. No one is denying any of that.

However, in real life, events are disjointed and random. Things happen for no reason. Reality must therefore be refined in order to turn it into a digestible and entertaining story. For instance, you might be writing a novel (based on the true story) about your holiday to France where you met your future wife and fought to win the respect of her disapproving father. Now while you were there, you also bumped into Mr. Donald, your former maths teacher. It turns out he’s there to attend the Fête de la Musique because (to your surprise) he’s ridiculously enthusiastic about music and will travel far and wide to attend music festivals all over the world. You make polite conversation about this for twenty minutes and then go your separate ways. You put the event out of your mind. Life goes on. It never comes up again. All that you have learned about Mr. Donald, his passion for music or that there is an all-day music festival that happens in Paris every June neither harms or benefits you in any way, at any point in your life, ever.

So… when you come to write the novel about how you went on holiday, met a girl and won the respect of her father, you’re not going to include that event, are you? Because in all story telling, everything happens for a reason. Meaningless events only serve to break up the flow, rhythm and pace of the story. Have you ever been watching a film and noticed that nobody ever says goodbye to anybody else, even on the telephone? Or that nobody ever walks into a room and forgets what they went there for, or forgets what they were about to say. And no one ever needs to go to the toilet, unless there’s a mad axe murderer in there already poised and waiting to kill them. This isn’t true to life at all! In real life, people always forget things, usually do say goodbye on the phone and, more often than not, have uneventful visits to the bathroom.

Not only that, but in all good stories (even those based on true events) there is a clear and identifiable structure, sometimes called the ‘story arc’ or ‘narrative arc’ (a simple definition and description is available here) and all the events in your story should contribute in some way towards its construction. This is not true to life, but it is good story telling. In real life, you meet new people all the time. They enter your life, do or say so many things and then leave your life, often without ceremony. Many different events happen all at once and are often never fully resolved. Good story telling isn’t like that. In good story telling, A leads to B which leads to C and in the end, all the loose ends are tied up. They might not necessarily all live happily ever after, but the story comes to a neat end. Our questions are answered and we are happy to assume that life goes on (at least for the survivors).

If all of this is teaching your granny to suck eggs, let me draw your attention to one more point: dialogue. In dialogue, you walk a fine line between creating a distinctive and believable voice which tells you something about the character and constructing your dialogue in a way which allows your narrative to flow.

It may be difficult to do because we’re all so used to verbal communication, but next time you’re having a verbal conversation with someone, listen to the words they use. Don’t just listen to their meaning. Pay careful attention to every utterance. You will notice that, more often than not, the rules of grammar go out the window. New sentences are often begun before the previous one is finished. People interrupt and talk over one another. Sometimes misunderstandings will derail a conversation (‘Do you like coffee?’ ‘Oh yes I’d love one, thank you!’). Words are often misused (for instance, when people say ‘pacific’ instead of ‘specific’). Sentences are often punctuated by non-sensible utterances (‘erm…’, ‘uhh…’). The list goes on.

Seriously, I encourage you to try it someday. Make a precise transcript of a real-life conversation in exactly the order it is spoken and read it back to yourself. You will marvel at the fact human beings are able to communicate at all when you see just how muddled up our verbal communication is.

In fiction, however, your dialogue can’t be like that. You can add dialects, accents and perhaps even the odd bit of bad grammar to your heart’s content but the flow of the conversation still has to be clear for the reader. Dialogue, just like the rest of your narrative, has a purpose. It drives the story on, and therefore it must accomplish its ends. Still, it must sound believable. You as the author, therefore, walk a fine line between making it sound so implausibly perfect that your characters seem wooden and so realistically imperfect that it reads like meaningless waffle and drags your story’s pace down to a crawl.

Not only that, but you also have to beware of making the content of a conversation sound too contrived. It can be all too tempting to use dialogue as a place to info-dump. E.g., ‘I visited my sister, Andrea McLaren, 24, who lives just around the corner from the butchers on Western Road’.

Real people don’t talk like that. If Andrea’s full name, age and address are important, they need to be worked in with subtlety and believably. There are many techniques you can use to lend credibility to your dialogue, but I’ll come back to that in a future post.


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 fries your bacon.

Until next time!

5 Sci-Fi Tropes I Could Live Without

Among the many styles and genres of fiction which I enjoy, I must unashamedly confess to a particular fondness for popular sci-fi and fantasy. Yes I know it’s all just unrealistic escapism into a nonsense world of space adventures, suspiciously human shaped aliens and humanity being conquered by the very robots we built to help us but still… it’s fun. And you know… fun’s allowed, even if you like serious literature.

All the same… there have to be limits. But for some reason, sci-fi is just chock full of certain clichéd tropes, some of which are so very ridiculous that it frankly beggars belief that they ever became clichés. The others are just plain done to death. What follows are some of my (least) favourites.

The Holographic Hook

You’ve got to write a space opera and are struggling to come up with an exciting opening scene to draw the audience in from the very beginning. Solution: an exciting space battle! Ships firing at one another, hand to hand combat between aliens and humans, lasers, explosions–

Then an admiral calmly walks onto the scene and ends the simulation. It was all just a holographic training exercise!

This kind of scene, made famous by the Kobayashi Maru scene in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (and then repeated time and time again in one form or another), gives the audience a burst of excitement that has very little bearing on the story which is to follow. The best it can do is foreshadow some internal conflict the protagonist may face later on in the story.

Please… it’s been done too often. Put some effort in and come up with a proper hook for your story.

Is That You Clive?

You’re alone on an abandoned space station or a spooky castle. Or maybe you’re just home alone, meticulously colouring in your colouring-in book on a dark and stormy night. Suddenly you hear something… something rattling, hissing, banging… perhaps even a sinister inhuman voice whispering your name.

You spin around wildly.

‘Is that you Clive?’

No. No, it’s not Clive. It’s never Clive. And really, ask yourself, is this the sort of thing Clive normally does? If it is… you need to dump Clive and get yourself some nicer friends. Just saying.

Just once I’d like to read or watch something where the victim doesn’t automatically assume that the scary noise is their friend pulling a cruel prank on them. Or better still, just once, I’d like it to really be Clive pulling a cruel trick. At least I’d be surprised.

Hey Clive, Are Those New Horns?

Something terrible has happened to Clive. He’s being controlled by an alien or replaced with a robot duplicate. His behaviour is erratic. His speech has become strange. His eyes have turned luminous green and he has grown horns.

And no one really notices until it’s too late.

My personal favourite example of this occurs in the Doctor Who episode, Rose. Rose returns to her boyfriend’s car to find he is now made entirely of plastic and is talking funny. And what does she do?

Goes out for dinner with him. She suspects nothing until the Doctor fires a corkscrew straight through his skull without injuring him. And she’s supposed to be his girlfriend.

Sigh. 

We, The People of Earth…

So it finally happened. Aliens have made contact with humanity. They may have come in peace or they may have come laser guns blazing, but one way or another, it’s first contact day for the people of Earth.

You know Earth, don’t you? Seven-point-four billion different versions of the truth, spread across one hundred and ninety five independent sovereign states (to say nothing of those who want to break away and start their own nation or conquer others) all gathered together on one planet, unable to agree on even the most trifling of matters?

A whole host of different political ideologies, systems of government, international treaties and religious beliefs, and yet when the aliens finally come, humanity all rallies around a single leader, or at the very least, sets aside all their differences. Usually it’s the President of the USA, except in Doctor Who where it can be just about anyone except the President. In any event, I have a sneaking suspicion that if aliens did make themselves known to us today, humanity would not respond with a single unified voice, or even two or three differing voices. Call me cynical but I think it would probably be chaos.

Ask yourself this. If aliens landed on Earth today:

How would Donald Trump respond?
What about Kim Jong-Un?
What about Angela Merkel?
What about ISIS?
What about the Pope?
What about the World Health Organisation?
The Scottish National Party?
The British National Party?
Richard Branson?
Kim Kardashian?
The writers of Doctor Who?
The guy that sells the Big Issue in the town centre?

You get the idea.

Magical Alien Artefacts

I don’t really have a problem with functioning magical artefacts if you’re writing a fantasy, set in a world of magic and myth, rather than a sci-fi set in space and/or the future. At its core, sci-fi (even silly popular sci-fi) tends to speculate on the advancement of technology and science, rather than the possibility that magic might actually work. If we are assuming that magic is not real, as sci-fi tends to do, we have to ask some serious questions about why it would work on an alien planet.

‘Ah, but, you see, it’s not really magic!’ I hear you cry. ‘It’s just technology that seems like magic!

But if it’s just technology… why dress it up like magic? Star Trek is very guilty of this. Whether it’s the legend of the Tox Uthat (a quantum phase inhibitor which appeared in TNG: Captain’s Holiday), or Vulcan mythology concerning the psionic resonator (TNG: Gambit), there just seems to be no end of magical artefacts in space which are actually just very clever technology. Technology made of stone. Stone technology that does magic. Heck, some even involve meditating and muttering incantations.

Dishonourable Mentions:

  • Everybody knows how to fly every kind of spaceship in the universe, even if it is of completely alien design.
  • Everybody knows everything about science.
  • Rough alien taverns. Just once, give me a classy alien wine bar.
  • With just a slight modification to the engine/shields/BBQ grill, we can do some sci-fi magic to save the day!
  • The bad guys believe emotion is a weakness and that is their Achille’s heel.
  • Love conquers all (exemplified in the Doctor Who episode Closing Time, where Craig is turned into a Cyberman then somehow manages to turn himself back into a human simply because he hears his baby son crying… as if he was the first parent the Cybermen ever upgraded. Seriously, I preferred it when the Cybermen’s greatest weakness was gold).
  • Universal translators.
  • Legendary technology, planets or lifeforms which really do exist.
  • Having a weapon of mass destruction called ‘The Weapon’. By all means call it the Super Zappy Death Ray, but don’t call it The Weapon. Use your imagination and give it a name.
  • Shooting the control panel/monitor shuts down everything on the entire spaceship, unlocks every locked door and/or disarms the Weapon.
  • Snippets of news reporters telling the general public how to survive the alien invasion. I repeat, do this to survive the alien invasion!
  • Jeanie who works at the shop is actually THE PROPHESIED CHOSEN WARRIOR QUEEN OF ALL THE MULTIVERSE and she doesn’t even realise it.

Well that was a far from exhaustive list but I’m glad to have got it off my chest anyway. Thanks for taking the time to read this post. Be sure to leave us a wee comment below 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 reverses your polarity.

Until next time!

100 Word Story: Little Thieves Are Hanged

You may recall that a couple of weeks ago, I published a 100 word story entitled The Monster which I had previously entered (unsuccessfully) into the National Association of Writers’ Groups 100 Word Mini-Tales competition. Well, I’ve since decided to publish just one more of my entries here, mainly because I’ve already made reference to this particular story on previous posts and it seemed only apropos to let you read the thing.

As ever, what follows here is entirely my own work and has not been published anywhere else in the world, whether on print or online, nor do I expect it to be. And so, without further ado, I give you…

LITTLE THIEVES ARE HANGED

by. A Ferguson

Based on a true story

The junkie was talking before he reached the bus stop. Coming toe-to-toe with another gentleman who was waiting there, the junkie recounted his entire life story, occasionally tapping the gentleman’s stomach; a genial ‘wait-until-you-hear-this’ gesture.

The gentleman put his hands in his pockets. He glanced desperately towards me. I smiled, trying to reassure him.

An eternity passed before a bus finally spirited the junkie away, still talking as he embarked. The gentleman relaxed.

‘I’ve no idea who that was!’ He confided to me as my bus arrived.

I laughed and boarded the bus, fingering his wallet, safe in my pocket.

THE END


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 pigeon.

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How Many Drafts Should I Write?

I remember when I first came across the concept of writing in drafts. I was in primary school doing some piece of written work (I forget what about) when my teacher told us all to write a rough draft first, then to write a second draft.

Well that’s just silly, I thought (I couldn’t have been more than seven years old). Why don’t I just write it properly the first time?

Because, as Ernest Hemingway (one of the greatest writers of the modern age) pointed out, ‘the first draft of anything is s***’. Now if Ernest Hemingway couldn’t knock out a high quality novel on the first go, what chance have the rest of us got?

‘Okay, okay, I know that already!’ I hear you cry. ‘But how many drafts should I write?’

Ah, well, now you’re asking. The short and somewhat glib answer is, ‘as many as it takes’. In my experience, three would be the bare minimum but no two writers work in quite the same way so if you’re looking for a hard and fast rule, look elsewhere because I ain’t got one to give you. I can only give you the benefit of my limited experience. So, this is what works for me. Feel free to try it out and if it doesn’t work for you, well… don’t shout at me.

Zero Draft (or the ‘Not Technically a Draft, Draft’)

Before I even attempt to write a first draft, I write a zero draft.

‘Well, that just sounds like a load of pretentious nonsense to me!’ I hear you cry.

Well a lot of writers of both fiction and non-fiction use zero drafts and I don’t know whether or not they use the term in exactly the same way I do, but for me a zero draft sits somewhere between free-writing and drafting. I’ll write maybe half a dozen (often more) of these individual, disjointed portions of narrative, without worrying too much about whether it’s any good or not, to help me invent settings, audition characters and generally breathe a bit of life into my ideas and research without worrying about if they will fit into my final project.

This kind of writing is not structured enough to be considered a true first draft but it is more focused than free-writing, which simply involves typing whatever comes into your head even if it’s nothing to do with anything (click here for an example of what free-writing looks like).

Not all writers use zero drafts. They work well for me because, as a half-planner/half-pantser, I need a chapter outline to help me write a draft… but I can’t easily imagine what my characters might do and think unless I’ve already written them into existence. Thus I write a zero draft to help me plan. Then I use the plan to help me write my first draft.

First Draft (or the ‘Tell Yourself the Story Draft’)

This is where I make my first serious attempt at writing my novel/novella/short story/etc in all its fullness. After I’ve completed my chapter outline, story beats, character profiles and all that boring stuff, I should have a pretty clear idea in my mind as to what events should happen and in what order. I know where my story begins, where it ends and the journey it takes to get there. All I have to do is write it, starting with chapter one and ending with the ending.

What I don’t worry about at this stage is my writing style: word choice, figurative language, or even more basic things spelling and grammar. I try to stick to a rough word count, but even then, I don’t let it hinder me. The point of this stage is simply to get the story out in all its fullness, no matter how badly written it may be. Or, as Terry Pratchett put it, ‘the first draft is just you telling yourself the story’.

Write it quickly. Don’t edit it. It can be rubbish, as long as it’s complete (note: it should still make sense, however, assuming you’ve done the planning bit properly!).

Second Draft (or the ‘Make Your Story Better’ draft)

Congratulations! You’ve completed your first draft. Now go away and do something else for a few days at least.

Done that? Alright, now print off your first draft and read it with a dispassionate eye.

Rubbish right? That’s okay, it’s meant to be. At this stage, I grab my red pen and go through the whole thing picking out everything in the story itself that needs fixing or improving. Shallow characters, unconvincing dialogue, plot holes (though there shouldn’t be too many of those if I planned well in the beginning) and all that sort of stuff. I still don’t waste too much time at this stage thinking about language or style; what matters is the plot, the people and the places that make up my story. Once I’ve worked out everything that needs improved, it’s time to start writing that second draft, slower this time, taking care to apply all the improvements I’ve decided to make.

Note: by ‘writing that second draft’ I do mean writing the whole story all over again from scratch, not simply tidying up the first draft. Keep the first draft safe so you can refer back to it.

Third Draft (or the ‘Make Your Story Beautiful’ draft)

For me, this is the final essential stage of drafting any story I write, although it is entirely possible that I might need to write more if my first ones weren’t up to scratch.

Once I’ve completed my second draft I again set it aside for a little. This time when I come back, I print it off and, using my Red Pen of Editing, go through it with a fine tooth comb working out all stylistic issues. This is without a doubt the slowest draft to create. Every word counts, every sentence matters. By now, I should be fully satisfied with my story (if I’m not, I need to go back and repeat an earlier stage) and am focused purely on turning my story into a work of art. Word choice, turns of phrase, figurative language and all those other subtle things that turns a story into something beautiful.

What you’re trying to say should already be well and truly established. For me, the third draft is all about how you say 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 pickles your onions.

Until next time!

Ink and Pixel: Writers’ Edition

Last year, I wrote a post about the pros and cons of e-book readers compared to traditional paper books. Well that’s all well and good for reading, but what about for writing fiction? How do you write? On paper or with a computer? These days, it’s not really much of a choice. You’ll have a hard time getting anything published if you don’t at least type up your drafts before you send them to anyone who edits or publishes for a living and (as I recently discovered) manual typewriters are hard to come by these days.

But what about in those glorious early stages, when you’re still figuring out character profiles, chapter outlines and scribbling out rough zero drafts?

My first order of business tends to be to grab my notebook and Bic four-colour ballpoint pen and get brainstorming, (click here for more on how I like to do this). I’ve tried to use the same brainstorming technique on my computer before but… it’s not the same. It’s too tempting to press that ‘delete’ key if I don’t like things and typing doesn’t allow me the same freedom to scribble small notes to myself in spare corners of the page. Scapple by Literature and Latte certainly allows me more freedom to order my ideas any way I like but for me, Scapple comes into its own later on in the planning stage, when I’m ready to start organising my ideas, as opposed to simply coming up with them. Using a lined paper notebook allows me to vomit my ideas out in an orderly but unrestricted fashion. There’s something about working on paper that gives free reign to my imagination in a way which, for some reason, seems to be lacking when I work on computer. Perhaps it’s because coming up with new ideas is so closely related to daydreaming, and they are yet to build an app which does anything to enhance a human’s ability to dream. There’s also something quite natural and pleasant about writing on paper. It feels less like work and more like playing, perhaps because that’s how I used to write when I was a wee boy scribbling out stories in my bedroom with crayons without worrying about how neat or clever it is.

However, once I get past the brainstorming stage, into the slightly more formal side of planning, I find myself far more drawn to my computer and tend to use a combination of the two: organising my thoughts on computer, but still relying on my notepad to help me work my way through any problems I might encounter. I have already commented on my love for Scapple. Once the basic ideas are in place and I know roughly what I want to do, Scapple allows me to organise and structure all my ideas (and identify potential problems) in one place without having to buy my own body weight in post-it notes or scribble all over my bedroom wall. In the same way, Scrivener, also by Literature and Latte (I promise they’ve not paid me to write this, I genuinely just love their stuff) helps me to stay organised by keeping together all my drafts, character profiles, plot outlines and my whole story bible in one neat and tidy place. No loose bits of paper, no losing things, no jumping from notebook to notebook or indeed app to app.

I never fully abandon my paper notebook, however, until I get to the stage of writing an actual first draft (not to be confused with a zero draft; more on that in weeks to come). Once all the planning is done and I feel confident that I can make the story work, there really shouldn’t be much call to come up with any new ideas unless I hit a serious problem– and I shouldn’t hit a problem that can seriously undermine my story if I’ve done the planning stage thoroughly. The bulk of the work is done on Scrivener, although I also use the Hemingway Editor to help me at the editing stage and I will also occasionally use FocusWriter to help me get into the swing of things if I’m having a hard day getting started (though whatever I produce still gets transferred to Scrivener). As a rule, the further I progress with a project, the more I find myself using Scrivener to the exclusion of all other apps (including Scapple), as well as paper stationary.

In a word, then, I tend to begin the story-writing process exclusively on paper and become more dependant on my computer as I progress. Paper is great for helping me come up with ideas. I’m yet to find a substitute for it. It’s the only way I know to record my imaginings in a way which is pure and complete and there’s a great joy to be had in the process of doing it. But when it comes to organising, producing and editing a written work, that’s when the computer/tablet (and the whole plethora of apps for writing that are available) really come into their own. There’s no substitute for the ease with which I can edit my work, the orderliness it brings to my life or indeed the fact that a grown-up publisher might actually read my manuscript when it’s finally 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’ and share 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 boils your egg.

Until next time!

5 Useful Posts on Fiction Writing

Sometimes, I just can’t say it better than my fellow bloggers. I’ve decided, therefore, that it is time for another exciting instalment of 5 Useful Posts on Fiction Writing, where I share some of the most useful, enjoyable and insightful posts on fiction writing I’ve seen from other bloggers in recent weeks.

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:

Emily Herring Dunn – [writing] dry spells can be natural (a little encouragement for when your writing-mojo grinds to a halt)

Melanie Mole – Let’s Have More Writer Love (writing is hard and although we writers are solitary by nature, this post is an encouragement to give each other a bit of support)

Rachel Poli – How To Give Your Short Stories A Neat Ending (practical advice on writing the hardest part of any short story — the ending. I’ve been struggling to come up with an ending for something I’m working on just now myself, so this was a very timely post for me)

JR Creaden – Four Ways to Write Through the Fog (when you get completely stuck with your writing project and it feels like driving through a fog… give a few of these simple tips a try)

Marie Christopher – “Write Something Every Day” (‘Just write something every day’ isn’t always the best advice, as Marie Christopher explains)


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 curdles your custard.

Until next time!