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.

Taking a Holiday From My Novel

Last week, I mentioned that I always take Sundays off from writing. However, even with that regular rest, it’s easy to become jaded when you’re working on a big project like a novel. Right now I’m at the most difficult bit of the novel-writing process (in my opinion): that dreaded second draft where I have to fix all the problems I created in the first draft. Let me tell you, it’s painstaking work. Despite the fact I fully believe in the potential of this particular project, I don’t mind telling you that I’ve found the last few days among some of the most discouraging since I started work on it at the end of last year.

And so I’m taking a holiday. Yes sirree, I’ve packed up my troubles and I’m off to spend seven days and seven nights at the Short Story Seaside* Resort.

You see, it’s not that I need a break from writing. I don’t. I love writing and I am perfectly happy with my writing/life balance (in fact, I could do with a little more writing time). All I really need is a break from this novel. It’s not that it’s a bad novel. It’s quite a good novel (even if I do say so myself), but after working solidly on it for the last few months, I’m just getting a little fed up of the sight of it. And so the solution is to set aside a short time to work on other short writing projects, allowing me to return to my novel in a few days with a fresh pair of eyes and a renewed zeal for a project I know I really love.

‘I want a holiday at the Short  Story Seaside Resort too!’ I hear you cry.

Well if you plan to take such a break, be sure to set yourself a time limit. And I mean a precise time limit. Decide in advance exactly when this holiday will start and when it will end, down to the minute if necessary.  During the holiday period, you must not work on your novel. It is forbidden. However you can and should work on other projects, preferably new projects that you wouldn’t normally have the time for. Short stories, poetry or perhaps just catching up on your blog. Whatever you feel like. The idea is to boost your confidence in your own writing ability by working on something fresh and exciting.

To that end, it’s also a good idea to keep your holiday-projects fairly simple. Simple but with clear, achievable goals. Don’t use your holiday to start work on another novel. One of the reasons it’s so easy to get discouraged working on a long project like a novel is because it can often feel like you’re never, ever, ever going to get it finished. So make sure your holiday project is something very simple that you can finish in the time allotted. At the very least, be sure to set yourself an achievable goal. There’s nothing quite like seeing a long list of scheduled posts on your blog or submitting a short story for publication to make you think: ‘Oh yes, I really can write things’ so allow yourself the satisfaction of seeing results at the end of your holiday.

‘But wait, wait, wait just a minute here!’ I hear you myself cry. ‘You don’t know how undisciplined I am. If I start taking holidays from my novel, I’ll end up spending my whole life on that figurative seaside and my novel will never get finished.’

Yes, taking breaks like this can be a very slippery slope. You don’t want to fall into the trap of jumping from project to project to project and never finishing anything. Moreover if you’re like me, you’ll rely heavily on your routine to keep the words coming day by day, week by week and month by month. You know that if you don’t treat writing like a day job which you have to turn up for every day whether you like it or not, you’ll hardly ever write.

I hear you brother. But tell me: if you have a day job, do you not have an annual leave entitlement? I know I do. Every year in my day job I get given the same allowance of so many days of paid leave which I can take whenever I want (as long as there’s someone to cover for me). I also get certain public holidays such as Christmas and Easter. So if you’re a writer who relies on that kind of routine but still like the idea of having the odd holiday, why not give yourself an annual leave entitlement? Decide in advance to allow yourself so many days a year where you can take a break from your novel. Decide in advance any public holidays you also want to take.

It works for me anyway.

*The seaside is figurative. If you want to go that extra mile, cover the floor around your desk with sand and salt water. Maybe even a jellyfish or two for added excitement.


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.

5 Writing Rules I Like To Ignore

If you Google ‘writing rules’, you’ll find that there’s no shortage of writing-gurus out there telling you their top 5, 10, 25 or 100 rules for how to write a killer story. All very useful stuff. I definitely recommend taking their advice on board. In fact, I’ve been known to write a few posts like that myself (though I am not a writing-guru by any stretch of the imagination).

Sometimes, however, you just need to rebel and write according to your own darn rules. So what follows are my top five common story-writing rules and wise sayings which I frequently bend, break and flat-out disagree with.

1. You Must Write Every Day

This is often put forward by some writers as the golden rule all serious writers simply must follow. The idea goes that if you want to be a real writer, the only way to do it is by writing every single day for the rest of your natural life. Personally, I find that rule more of a hindrance than a help.

Don’t misunderstand me. I do believe it’s fundamental to write often and especially to write regularly. I write every weekday evening (I have a day job) and I write all day on Saturdays. But on Sundays? Nope, no writing for me on Sundays. Sunday is my day off. Come hell or high water, Sunday is a no-writing day, except for scribbling down any ideas that pop into my head so I don’t forget them.

When Monday comes around, I’m invariably the better for having rested.

2. When You’re Not Writing, You Must Be Thinking About Writing

Yes, you got me. I’m paraphrasing Eugene Ionesco who said, ‘For a writer, life consists of either writing or thinking about writing’. And while what Ionesco said wasn’t exactly a rule, many would-be writing-gurus like to turn it into a rule. And understandably so, because it’s a catchy soundbite with that wonderful absolutist quality that we writers love to use, because it makes us sound just a little bit supernatural. It creates a nice little distinction between Writers and Lesser Mortals.

Now I can only imagine what it must have been like to be Eugene Ionesco. Maybe he really did spend his entire life in a perpetual state of writing or thinking about writing without a moment of interruption. Maybe lots of writers are like that. I don’t know. If so, good for them. Far be it from me to comment on the lives of others.

But for me personally, writing is only part of my life. It’s a huge part, but only a part. I’ve got a wife and daughter. The day I got married and the day my daughter was born, my story didn’t get a look-in all day. I’ve also got a part time job. When I’m there, I’m not allowed to write and the job requires too much of my concentration for me to spend the whole afternoon daydreaming about my story.

And you know what? I think it’s perfectly healthy (vital, even!) for a writer to have room in his life for other things. There. I said it.

3. You Must Only Write About What You Know

Writing what you know is great. It’s hard to go wrong writing stories based on real jobs, relationships or experiences you’ve had. I’m all for that. If you read through my stories (especially my flash fictions that I post on here), you’ll find a lot of them seem to be set on public transport. That’s because I spend an average of ten hours a week travelling by bus. But I also like to write about spaceships, wizards and fantastic worlds of my own invention. You may recall I once wrote about what it is like to be a mouse. These are things I simply can’t experience — and so, I imagine.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s important to check out your facts before publishing anything and a good way to research your facts is through gaining firsthand experience. I’m not saying you should write in ignorance. But a writer is nothing if he can’t use his imagination to fill in the blanks.

4. You Must Write First and Edit Later

‘But we’ve heard you preaching this rule before!’ I hear you cry.

Yes, you’re right. In general, I absolutely believe that if you want to get anything done, you need to resist the urge to edit until the draft is complete. But on very rare occasions, when I’m discouraged with the draft I’m working on and thinking about giving up… I do find doing a cheeky little edit perks me up and gets me back in the zone.

Still, it’s a nasty habit. Don’t do it.

5. You Must Ignore The Rules

An alarming proportion of the ‘writing rules’ you’ll come across on the internet (including mine) conclude with this altogether unoriginal rule: ‘ignore the rules’.

The idea behind this ‘rule’ is simply this: since there aren’t really any rules for writing, it doesn’t really matter how you write. Just as long as you do write.

Well… sometimes (not always, but sometimes) I like to ignore the ‘ignore the rules’ rule, especially if I’m having a bad writing day. After all, these rules exist because they work, right? So if you get stuck (and we all do from time to time), there’s no shame in taking a bit of instruction from those who know better. Only a fool would spurn their wisdom out of hand.


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 bends your rules.

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.

Want to Add Handwritten Notes to your Scrivener Project? Try Notebloc.

If you’re anything like me, the bulk of your writing projects will be done on computer, probably using a purpose-built piece of novel-writing software like Scrivener. Nevertheless, as I’ve mentioned before, there are some stages of the writing process (especially in the early days of planning) where I find the only way to make any progress is to sit down with a physical notebook and pen and scribble all my thoughts down. You might also be the sort of author who, like me, feels the need to keep a writer’s journal. Finally, if you’re like me, you’ll also be the sort of person who likes to hold on to every scrap of work you produce (including your brainstorm-scribbles) and keep it all neatly organised in one place.

Which is a pain. After all, you can’t add your handwritten notes to your Scrivener project.

OR CAN YOU?

Let me introduce you to Notebloc for Android and iPhone. This handy little app not only uses your smartphone’s camera to capture images, but it also automatically adjusts the colour and angle of your image(s) before easily exporting them as jpg or pdf files, making adding your handwritten notes to Scrivener (or wherever it is you keep your project files) a breeze. I should note, I’ve only tested the Android version of this app. If anyone has used the iPhone version and found it to be different from what I describe here, do let us know in the comments.

The first thing you have to do when you use this app is add images of your handwritten notes either by using your phone’s camera to capture an image or by importing a pre-existing image from your phone’s storage. Once you’ve done that, you will find yourself faced with an intuitive little screen (fig. 1) which allows you to adjust where the borders of your image should be. You can also rotate your image from this screen. So far, however, I’ve never had to actually do any manual adjusting; Notebloc does it automatically and with remarkable accuracy. However, in the unlikely event that it does not accurately identify the borders of your page, it’s a cinch to fix by simply long-pressing and dragging the borders to wherever you want them to be.

Once you’ve done that, Notebloc will then automatically adjust the shape and colours for you to create an image which favours readability. As you can see from fig. 2, the image it produces is pretty darn decent. The text is still clearly legible (poor handwriting notwithstanding; it’s a smartphone app, not a magic wand) and the colours have been reasonably well preserved. It even handles pencil with surprising ease. If, however, you’re not satisfied with the way it adjusts the colours, there are a few other colour adjustment styles you can choose from (see the menu along the top of fig. 2).

Once you’re happy with how the image looks, it gets added to your Notebloc document file (fig. 3). You can add as many pages to a document as you see fit and re-order the pages simply by long-pressing and dragging each page to wherever you want it to go (they will appear in the order in which you added them by default). From there you can print your document, share it online or copy your pages to another document if you so desire. Alternatively, you can do what I do and convert the document into a pdf or jpg format to be easily imported into your Scrivener project (fig. 4). I should add that if you opt for a jpg file, you will actually end up with numerous jpg files; specifically, one for each page. If, however, you opt for a pdf file, all the pages will be compiled into a single document, which makes it the best option for my money if you’re planning on adding it to Scrivener.

I’m pleased to say I haven’t found any glaringly obvious bugs in this app and it does what it says on the tin to a fairly impressive standard. It doesn’t have much in the way of bells and whistles and while I generally think that’s a good thing (too many superfluous features make an app cumbersome), I do think it would benefit from a few additional features; character recognition being the most obvious. The tools for manually adjusting the shape and colours of your image could also be more flexible; as it is, your options are quite limited if you don’t like the adjustments it makes automatically.

Oh and before you ask, this app is completely free and, best of all, it contains no ads. Go and get 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 digitises your handwriting.

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.

Who’s Narrating Your Story?

Broadly speaking, the text of a piece of prose can be divided into two parts: the dialogue (the words the characters say to each other) and the narrative (the other words which describe all the stuff that’s happening). I’ll maybe talk about dialogue another day (in fact, I already have) but for now I want to talk about narration; or, to be more precise, the narrator. Just who is it that’s telling your story?

‘Well…’ I hear you tentatively cry. ‘It is I, the author, who tells the story… right?’

Sort of.

When we talk about the narrator, what we are referring to the perspective from which the story is being told. This may be a character in the story or it may be a nameless outsider. But whenever we read a portion of narrative, we’re hearing somebody’s voice, even if it is just a voice you, the author, have chosen for yourself.

Choosing the right narrative voice for your story is no marginal issue. It deserves serious consideration. An omniscient narrator, who knows everything but has no personal interest in the events described will tell a story in an entirely different way from one of the central characters.

So, how do you choose? As the author, you can (and probably should) experiment with a few different styles of narration to see what works, but let’s have a look at a few of your options to get you started:

First Person Narrative

This is a story in which the narrator is a specific character (not necessarily the protagonist) who tells the story from their own perspective, using pronouns like ‘me’ and ‘I’ to describe this character. For instance, Stephen King’s The Green Mile is told from the perspective of the protagonist, Paul Edgecomb.

Benefits: It’s a great way to garner the audience’s sympathy for a particular character, especially if you’re wanting the audience to sympathise heavily with a character besides the protagonist.

Drawbacks: A first person narrator cannot give us first-hand information about events they did not personally witness. You have to work within the confines of that one characters perceptions from start to finish.

Tip: When using first person, voice is more important than ever. Be sure to write using only the kinds of vocabulary and turns of phrase you would expect that character to use. Also be sure to let that character’s beliefs, biases and interpretations of events shine through in the narrative.

Second Person Narrative

This is a story in which you, the reader, are referred to as a character in the story. This is quite rare in prose, though not unheard of. For instance: “With his head cocked on the pillow and his hair combed just so, you couldn’t see where his brother conked him, and Eric, for his part, went easy, even came to the funeral in irons and his Sunday suit” (Stewart O’Nan, A Prayer for the Dying, emphasis mine).

Benefits: It has the potential to draw your reader into the story in an unusual and interesting way.

Drawbacks: Unless you’re writing a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ style story, it has the potential to seem pretentious if it is not executed with skill. Additionally, if the “you” character behaves differently to how your audience is inclined behave, you may end up undermining the effect you seek to create.

Tip: Ask yourself honestly why you’re using this. If it makes your story work, great. Do it with my blessing. But if you’re just doing it to be a smart Alec, reconsider.

Third Person (Omniscient)

The story is told from the point of view of an all-knowing, all-seeing outside observer, referring to characters only by name or with pronouns like ‘he’, ‘she’ or ‘they’; never ‘I’, ‘you’ or ‘we’. In this style of narration, the narrator knows everything there is to know about the story, and the audience can therefore be made privy to the thoughts, actions and feelings of every character.

Benefits: You can share whatever facts with your audience that you see fit. We can see the villains, scheming in their lair in one scene and in the next, see the protagonist flirting with the love-interest, all the while being privy to both characters’ thoughts.

Drawbacks: Too much information can rob a story of intrigue. In addition, this style of narration will not easily draw the reader into the plight of a particular character, since the action is all observed from a safe distance.

Tip: Try not to go overboard with the internal dialogues describing each character’s thoughts. These can become cumbersome, especially if they’re happening parallel to proper dialogue. Also, be sure to favour those characters you want your audience to sympathise with. Just because a narrator knows everything doesn’t mean they have to share everything.

Third Person (Limited)

The story is told by an outside observer but unlike ‘third person (omniscient)’, the narrator does not know everything. Instead they follow the comings and goings of one character in particular (usually the protagonist) and are privy only to his/her thoughts and feelings.

Benefits: This style of narrative allows you the freedom of a third person narrator while still garnering a lot of the audience sympathy you can generate using first person narrative. It also allows you to protect the audience from learning too much information too quickly (this is especially useful in mysteries, etc).

Drawbacks: It can be tempting to let slip something a second character is thinking.

Tip: A third person limited narrator is like a little stalker, following your protagonist around and reporting everything he does, thinks and feels. He’s too busy stalking your protagonist to stalk anyone else.

Unreliable Narrator

An unreliable narrator is one whose credibility is in doubt. It may be that they are being deliberately deceptive or it may be that they are simply mistaken in their interpretation of the facts. They may be trying to impose their own particular biases on the audiences. The narrator could also be a young child trying to explain complex, adult scenarios they they have become involved in but don’t fully understand. Whatever the reason, the story is conveyed in such a way that the audience has to think twice about taking the narrator’s every word as gospel. These are usually first person narratives.

Benefits: This style of narrative can be thoroughly engrossing and can leave your audience pondering the events of your story long after they’ve stopped reading it.

Drawbacks: It can also confuse your reader to death if the truth of your story is kept too obscure. Furthermore if the audience never suspects the unreliability of your narrator, they might end up believing something you had intended them to doubt.

Tip: Don’t have the narrator telling a pack of bald-faced lies only to confess the truth on the last page. That will just annoy the audience. Instead, subtly introduce the audience to the narrator’s biases, incapacities, delusions or errors early on, thus sowing doubt in the audience’s mind.


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 narrates your story.

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.

Novelist: A Handy App for Planning Your Novel

I have always said that to write a novel, or any significantly sized piece of writing, a writer must be willing to park himself down at his computer and write. There is no quick fix for writing. No easy button you can tap on your phone and make a high quality novel pop out.

I still believe that. But that’s not to say mobile apps can’t help you in your quest to write a story, especially when you’re on the go and need a simple, orderly means of gathering together all those little plot bunnies that jump into your head at the worst possible moments. For that reason, I’ve been trying out a nice little app I discovered on Google Play called Novelist by Alessandro Riperi.

novelist (4)

the home page

Is it a good app? Yeah, I would say it is. It won’t make your breakfast for you and it certainly won’t make you the next John Steinbeck, but it has all the basic functionality needed to help you get you from a plot bunny to a complete chapter outline with little fuss.

Let’s look at a few of its features.

The first thing you will get when you open the app for the first time is a little spiel explaining how to use the app. After that, you go straight to the home page and — as far as I can tell — you never get the little introductory lecture again. The home page itself is a pretty self-explanatory window displaying all of your projects (which you can illustrate with an image from your device’s memory, if you’re that way inclined), including a pre-loaded ‘tutorial’ project which you can edit and tinker with to your heart’s content (don’t worry! If you make a total mess of the tutorial project, it’s easy to generate a new one from the menu on the home screen).

Once you create a project, the app takes you through three stages: ‘plotting’, ‘outlining’ and ‘organising’, apparently with the idea that you work through these three stages in order.

LordDeathmetadata

An example character profile using metadata.

Under ‘plotting’, we have a space to create all those elements which are fundamental to story-writing: characters, locations (settings), themes, key events and so forth. These are referred to as ‘items’ in this app, which are easy to customise with a title, synopsis, text and images as you see fit. All of these items can be tagged, duplicated and shifted from one category to another. Best of all, each of these items comes with the option of including metadata, allowing you to quickly list all the vital details of your character, setting or theme. You can also add ‘notes’ and ‘text’ to each item, though I must admit I’m a little fuzzy on why these are separate features.

Under the ‘planning’ tab, you are invited to organise your story into scenes. You create new scenes in a similar way to how you create items in the plotting section, with a title and a synopsis. As before, you have the ability to add text or notes to each scene, however you do not have the ability to add images or metadata. What you can do is tag your scenes with the items you created in the plotting stage; not a feature I personally find useful because that’s just not the way my brain works but I know it will suit plenty of other writers down to the ground.

Finally, the ‘organising’ section allows you to organise the scenes you have created into chapters/sections as you see fit. The order of these scenes and sections can be easily jiggled about until you are happy that you have a full-blown chapter layout. The only real drawback here is that you can’t see any of the details about the scenes you created in this section apart from their titles and synopses. Apart from that, it makes it an absolute joy to organise and re-organise the order of your sections, chapters and scenes.

 

There’s something else I love about this app: it’s free. Okay, I know that’s not technically a feature but still… it’s an actual, truly, honestly to goodness full version that’s absolutely free. Not ‘free, but hey, we’ve got a better version that’s not free’; not ‘free for the first thirty days’; not even ‘free as long as you tell us where you live and watch a bunch of ads’. In fact, I haven’t even seen any ads! It’s just FREE. I am so happy I could weep.

In summery, if you’re looking for an app to write your manuscript on, this isn’t it. I don’t think it was ever meant to be used for that purpose. But if you own an Android device and are looking for a clean and simple way to develop an idea into a fully fledged chapter outline, including character profiles and all that other marvellous stuff that planners love so much, this app is definitely worth a look. It’s free, easy to use and covers all the story-planning essentials without forcing you to watch any pesky little ads. Go and get it!

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 outlines your novel.

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.