Our Daily Ray Bradbury Diet

Originally published 12/02/2017

“Just write every day of your life. Read intensely. Then see what happens. Most of my friends who are put on that diet have very pleasant careers.” –Ray Bradbury

Makes it sound simple, doesn’t it? It’s quite another thing entirely when you’ve got a headache, a family to look after, a day job which drains every iota of energy and the will to live from you and a gas engineer in your kitchen drilling and hammering so loudly that you think the whole house may collapse from the noise alone. Just finding the time, never mind the motivation, to write and to read every day can be a challenge for those of us who live in the real world. Throw in a few unavoidable distractions from external sources and you’ve got a recipe for accomplishing nothing at all. Nevertheless, Mr Bradbury was quite correct in saying that the best way to be a writer is to read with gusto and write without ceasing. In fact, I do not believe that it is possible to succeed as a writer if you do not read widely and I am convinced that it is impossible to be a writer if you do not write often.

If you’re anything like me, however, you might find that it’s easier said than done on both counts. Reading and writing both require a certain level of time and freedom to do them effectively and real life doesn’t half get in the way sometimes. I wish I could give you some magic words to try and make it easier. Unfortunately I can’t. They do not exist.

What I can do is make a few suggestions to try and help you along the way. Take or leave them as you see fit. As with most writing tips I’ve come across, what works for me may or may not work for you.

The first and most important step is to prioritise the things you have to do in life generally (reading, writing and everything besides) and organise your schedule accordingly. Think of everything you are likely to do regularly  – even trivial things like time spent watching TV – and list them all in order of importance with things you are unwilling to compromise on at all at the top and things you would be willing to sacrifice altogether at the bottom. Some people would have you believe reading and writing absolutely must be at the very top of this list. I’m not sure I agree with that personally (if, for instance, my wife goes into labour at the start of my writing time, I fully intend to get no writing done that day. Sue me), but I do think the closer you have it to the top, the easier you will find it to make the kind of time you need to read and write.

Once you’ve done this, the next step is to figure out exactly when you’re going to do each thing, affording more time to the items higher on your priority list. This means, of course, that things lower on your list may be afforded only a very small amount of your time – or may have to be sacrificed altogether. But I would argue that more important than how much time you afford to reading/writing is what time you decide to do it.

Not all hours are created equal. If you can only afford to write for a few short hours every week, you want to make sure you do it at a time where you are the most likely to produce your best work. Exactly what time this will be depends on a great deal on your personality and your circumstances. For me, it’s usually between 8-11am on Wednesdays-Saturdays. Here’s why:

  • I have a part-time office job to be at on Mondays and Tuesdays so can’t write then
  • Sunday is my weekly day off. I write only for as long as it brings me pleasure
  • Before 8am, I tend to still be a little too groggy (what can I say, I’m not a morning person) to focus on what I’m doing
  • After 11am, I am distracted by hunger and since I tend to do most of the cooking in my house, I am usually thinking about what to make for lunch.
  • For some reason (explained here) I turn into a Proctrasinationasaurus after lunch.

That’s not to say I only write at those times. But those are the best times for me write, and therefore I am particularly strict about using those times for nothing but writing, especially on weeks where I have lots of unusual distractions (like this week, I’m having a new heating system installed).

Reading, like writing, also requires a decent amount of time and concentration. You will occasionally hear people boasting that they read thirty books a week and other such nonsense, and maybe they do, but I would question how effectively they’re reading them in such a short space of time (assuming they have all the other demands on their time we normal people have). Don’t get me wrong; it certainly is possible to skim read a book, understand it and enjoy it if you’re just reading for casual entertainment, but if you’re wanting to grow as a writer, you’ll want to take a bit more time to appreciate the way the story has been crafted. That means recognising and understanding figurative language, character acts, story beats and the like so that you can see for yourself what turns a nice story into a quality work of literature. Even if you don’t know the technical jargon, you should still be able to recognise the structure, literary techniques and why they work when you see them.

Personally, I’ve got the attention span of a goldfish, so I find the best way to read is in frequent short bursts throughout the day: early in the morning, during my lunch break at work, last thing at night, during my writing breaks and whenever else I get more than five minutes to myself. It might not be the quickest way to get through a book. It won’t help you win any ‘Read 100 Books Challenge!’es but I do think that when it comes to reading, quality beats quantity every time. If you’re strapped for time, don’t waste the little time you do have trying to power your way through your whole library in less than a month.

 

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5 Different Kinds of Writing Prompt

Originally published 05/02/2017

Sometimes when you’re stuck trying to come up with a story, it helps to have a little nudge to spark off your creativity. The internet is, of course, bursting at the seams with all kinds of writing prompts and other creative stimuli and it can be difficult to know where to begin. So, today I’ve listed a selection of prompts for fiction writers (please, use them and abuse them; maybe even show us your efforts in the comments section below) but what I really want to do is explain how I like to use these kinds of prompts and what I feel their relative strengths and weaknesses are. So, without further ado…

Opening lines

The idea behind opening line prompts is simple. You can write any story you like, as long as you use the prompt as your opening line. These can be great if you’re writing a short story or are just wanting to let your imagination run wild for a bit. Opening lines are good for this because the whole point of an opening line in any story is to grab the reader’s attention and flood them with curiosity about what happens next in a single sentence. Well, as the writer, you get to decide what happens next; thus, you have your prompt. I would generally shy away from using opening line prompts for a novel or other large and complicated project, because they usually require a lot more planning. You can rest assured Dickens did not come up with A Tale of Two Cities because someone asked him to write a story which opened with the words ‘It was the best of times’.

Anyway, why not try one of these?

  • David was not what he appeared to be. By day he was a humble civil servant but by night… 
  • Pat was the first human to set foot in [your place here] for more than thousand years.
  • We’d never had any trouble from the family next door until… 

Writing by Theme

This is my preferred kind of writing prompt for writing lengthier or more involved stories such as novels. You are given a single theme to work with but apart from that, your story can be just about anything. This gives you wide scope and still requires quite a bit of imagination on your part, but I sometimes find that more useful than the restriction you get with other kinds of prompts. Try a few of these:

  • Write a story about experiencing new things
  • Write a story about obsession
  • Write a story about ageing
  • Write a story about fathers and sons
  • Write a story about war

Characters

Another common writing prompt is to be given a rough description of a character you can work with. As I’ve probably mentioned before, all the best stories are character driven rather than plot driven, and from that point of view, having a character as your stimulus – before you’ve even thought of a plot – can prove very rewarding indeed. The main difficulty with this approach is quite simply knowing what to do with your character. S/he has to be brought out of her comfort zone to make a story happen so this certainly doesn’t let you off the hook when it comes to making up a plot. It just gives you somewhere to begin that you might not have thought of yourself. Have a bash at writing a story about…

  • An intellectual 34 year old bus driver who dislikes enclosed spaces.
  • A hot-tempered 17 year old female singer who tends to talk too much.
  • A bigoted 84 year old man who works as a gas engineer and absolutely refuses to retire for anything. 
  • A kind-hearted 49 year old woman police officer whose worst nightmare is about to come true.
  • A talkative 5 year old girl who dreams of becoming a vet.

Titles

These work in a similar way to opening lines. You are given the story title; you have to write the story. This can be very helpful or very unhelpful, depending on the title. Something more obscure gives greater freedom but if you’re struggling with writers’ block, you might benefit more from something a little bit more specific. There are plenty of random title generators out there, some of which are nothing more than random adjective and noun generators. Others are a little bit more sophisticated than that. On the plus side, you can use titles as prompts for almost any kind of story. I’ve made up a few of both kinds for you to play with:

  • Jude, Patron of Hopeless Causes
  • The Broken Sky
  • The Midnight Oil
  • The Wandering Cobbler
  • Rest for the Wicked
  • Jimmy Jones, Space Cadet!
  • The Madness Method
  • A Girl Named Grace

Pictures

Sometimes being told what to write isn’t what you need at all. You need to visualise something new to help you create new ideas, and for that, a picture might just be the answer. I don’t really find pictures much use for stimulating plot ideas particularly (though I have occasionally used them; for instance, my regular readers will testify to the fact I use the pictures on Story Dice to help me write my six word stories) but I do find them very useful indeed for coming up with new characters or settings. Photographs of people you don’t know or places you’ve never been instantly spark the imagination by forcing you to wonder, ‘who is this person?’; ‘what happens in that building?’; ‘what does that uniform s/he’s wearing represent?’ and so forth. A huge number of the characters and settings I’ve written have been based on making up things about random people and places I don’t know.

Not being much of a photographer, I haven’t got any pictures for you to use as writing prompts but I can highly recommend visiting websites like Pixabay for free images that you can use. Alternatively, try using some purpose built tools like Story Dice.

This is, of course, all just a taster. There are about a squillion other kinds of stimuli out there, from the ridiculously obscure (Oblique Strategies…) to others which aim to spoon-feed the author by almost writing the story for you. What matters is that if you use a stimulus, that you choose the right kind of stimulus for your project. This can be the difference between getting something out of it and not getting anything out of it so choose carefully. Writing with prompts can be a great way to train the writers’ imagination and it’s a healthy habit to get into – just as long as the prompt you choose doesn’t leave you more stuck than when you began!

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What To Do When You Hate Your Story

Originally published 29/01/2017

The worst possible thing that can happen to any writer is for them to look at their work (especially their half finished work) and decide that it’s rubbish. Any idiot can overcome writer’s block with just a little bit of perseverance, but despairing over your story can be crippling. Not only will it halt you in your tracks, but it will probably make you want to give up writing altogether. Well, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:

Quitting is NOT an option!

That includes quitting your current story, as well as quitting writing altogether.

There is a way out of this situation. The first thing you need to remember is that the despair you’re feeling over your current story is almost certainly all in your mind. If you’re anything like me, you can quite easily flit between thinking your story is the most important piece of literature in the history of the world ever to being downright ashamed of it in the space of a few hours. So the first step is to refuse to give up. You were once pleased with the shape your story was taking; you will be pleased again in the future if you persevere. So, once you’ve resolved to carry on writing no matter how bad things get, it’s time for some positive actions. These are a few tried and tested techniques that I find work for me.

Take a Break

Seriously, sometimes all you need is to do something other than writing for a little while. However the important thing to remember here is that you’re trying to clear away some cobwebs, so I would recommend against vegging out on the sofa brooding about what a terrible author you are. Trust me, that doesn’t help.

Instead, do something stimulating – as long as it’s not writing. The goal here is to release some happy hormones, so read a book, take a walk or whatever it is that makes you feel revitalised. Better yet, do something that makes you feel good about yourself. Something that makes you feel like you don’t suck at life. Maybe you play a mean pinball. Go beat your high score, do a celebratory run around the living room then come back to your story.

Oh that reminds me, you also want to make sure your break ends at some point. Either set a time limit or make sure that your chosen recreational activity has a clearly defined finishing point so that you don’t forget to write altogether. I’ve done that before myself…

A Change is as Good as a Rest

If you don’t quite trust yourself to withdraw completely from writing your story but still feel like you could use a break… write something else.

To clarify, I do not mean give up on the story that’s giving you trouble. I simply mean spend half an hour or so writing something else, then come back to your story.

If it’s only your current project that’s getting you down, but you still feel like a perfectly capable story teller, then try your hand at some flash fiction or even poetry. Something completely different to get the juices flowing, but not so long that it swallows up your time working on your main project. Heck, it doesn’t even need to be fiction you write. Personally, I find writing this blog every week gives me a real shot in the arm.

If, on the other hand, you feel like such a failure at writing that you’re just about ready to quit and go back to the day job, try keeping a writer’s journal. Don’t try to be clever here. You’re not writing this to have it published, or even read by other human eyes. This is simply a constructive way of getting out all of those horrible, self-depreciating feelings that you have as well as tracking your progress and analysing where you might be going wrong.

Break Your Problem Down OR Draft Like Crazy

If you’re absolutely determined that a rest is not what you need, then try a change of approach. Broadly speaking there are two ways to go about this, depending on what stage of the writing process you’re at and how you like to go about writing a story.

If you feel like you’re up to your armpits in disjointed or poorly written scenes, it would be wise to go back to the old drawing board and consider where your story might be going wrong. Perhaps you need to flesh out your character profiles. Perhaps your protagonist lacks a satisfying character arc. Perhaps the pacing of your story is all off. Either way, it’s time to set aside the manuscript and get into the nitty gritty of your plan. If you already have a plan set out, this is a sensible place to start. If not, it’s maybe time you thought about putting one together.

If, on the other hand, you are working on a detailed plan when despair strikes, it might be that you’re overthinking the matter. If you find yourself lamenting how implausible your story is or how ‘it’s been done before!’ then this probably applies to you. The truth is, fiction is nearly always implausible; that’s why it hasn’t really happened. And fiction has nearly always been done before; there is, after all, nothing new under the sun. Put your plan to one side for a while and try to write a draft of your story as freely as you can. Don’t edit (you might find Typewriter handy for that) and don’t worry about where it’s going. Be led by your muse and write whatever comes to you. Doing this can sometimes help you to imagine possibilities that never would have occurred to you simply by staring at charts and tables.

Whether any of this helps or not, remember Ernest Hemingway’s advice: ‘Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now’. If you are despairing of your writing, remember that this is only a temporary setback. You cannot run out of ‘author-juice’, nor can the same story idea be good one day then bad the next. It is only a mindset that is holding you back, so persevere and win!

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A Quick Review of Hemingway Editor v.3.0

Originally published 22/01/2017

You may recall (if you’ve got a photographic memory) that I published a post last year reviewing the Hemingway Editor. This snazzy little app analyses and grades the simplicity of your writing style and I’ve used it plenty over the last year to help edit my own writing. Well, it so happens that I got an e-mail this week informing me that v.3.0 is now available with a whole bunch of new features. These include:
  • The ability to publish or save drafts to WordPress or Medium from the Hemingway App
  • More choice of what you can import and export from Hemingway. This includes, among other things, the ability to export PDF files with all Hemingway’s highlights intact)
  • Distraction free writing and editing
  • The ability to have many documents open at once
  • A pretty new splash screen
  • Various bug fixes
Like its predecessor, Hemingway 3 aims to help you write in the most clear and simple style you can by highlighting any instances of adverbs, passive voice, complex language or cumbersome sentences. It will also give details of readability, word count, letter count, approximate reading time and so forth. In this sense, nothing much has changed (though the new version seems to be far more willing to suggest specific corrections, which is a big plus) . It uses the same system of colour coding, grading and gives exactly the same information. There have only been a few minor changes to the layout of the sidebar. I won’t waste too much time here reviewing features that are common to both versions. You can read the old post for that. Instead, let’s have a look at some of the new features.
 
Being a WordPress user, the ability to save your work to WordPress or Medium caught my attention straight away. I don’t use Medium so I haven’t been able to test it, but I did have a go at saving to WordPress. See this post that you’re reading now? This is it; this is the test. I wrote and edited this using Hemingway Editor 3.0. And my verdict is this: it would be great if I could only get it to work. The window that appears when you click ‘Publish on WordPress’ is very clear and easy to use, but whenever I clicked ‘save’ this kept happening:
error1
 
Do let me know if you think I’m doing something wrong. I’ve spent the last fifteen minutes trying to figure it out and it’s still not working.
 
So, let’s move on to look at exporting and importing. In the old version, you could only import Word documents and export Word or Markdown documents. Hemingway 3 gives you much more choice. Now you can import:
  • Plain text (.txt)
  • Markdown (.md)
  • Web pages (.html)
  • Word documents (.doc)
And you can export:
  • Plain text
  • Markdown
  • Web pages
  • Word documents
  • PDF documents (.pdf)
  • PDF documents with all Hemingway’s highlights included.
unabletoconnectThis is all a massive improvement, but the last item on that list is the most exciting for me. This allows you to quickly and easily share edits with colleagues. The only downside? Nowhere on the PDF file does it tell you what each coloured highlight means. Unless our hypothetical colleague has the Hemingway Editor himself, you will need to provide him with details of the colour code. Still, it’s a handy feature to have.
 
The distraction free environment is one of my favourite new features in Hemingway. The previous version included a bulky toolbar along the top of the screen and an even bulkier sidebar if you were on ‘edit’ mode. The new version allows you to hide the sidebar even in ‘edit’ mode. It also has a ‘full screen’ function which hides your taskbar. It’s not a completely distraction free environment, as it does still have the toolbar at the top (which, to be fair, is now much less intrusive). On balance, though, I would still call it a big step in the right direction.
 
One thing I was particularly curious about was the spellchecker. You may recall from my previous post that I was none too impressed with the spellchecker in the old version.
 
‘Have they improved it!?’ I hear you cry.
 
I suppose, technically… no, not really. They’ve cured the disease by killing the patient. There is now no spellchecker whatsoever as far as I can see.
 
Another thing I was curious about was a particular bug I had discovered in the previous version, which I mentioned in the last post. Text I had copied from other apps overlapped with pre-existing text making the document unreadable. I’m pleased to say this is now resolved.
 
All in all, I would have to say version 3 is definitely an improvement. The new features are useful and they work well (publishing to WordPress notwithstanding). Things that didn’t work before, now do work, while things that worked well before now work even better. There is still room for further development, of course. It would be nice to have a functioning spellchecker for instance and the toolbar could be even more discreet than it is now but all in all, Hemingway Editor 3.0 gets a thumbs up from me. Go get it!

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Penstricken: Collected Stories by Andrew Ferguson – Out Now!

‘Since brevity is the soul of wit, and tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes, I will be brief.’

There are short stories, there are very short stories and then there is flash fiction: the delicate and often tricky art of telling a story in as few words as possible.

The stories in this tiny little book (all originally published between 2015 and 2020 on the fiction blog, Penstricken) are deliberate exercises in brevity. In total, this book contains twelve flash fictions ranging from fifty to 2,000 words apiece, plus six collections of six word stories.

While these stories vary in mood and genre, you will find in many that the author’s tongue was firmly entrenched in his cheek; whether it be in the brief tale of a Martian liberating his ‘kin’ from the deep fat fryer of a Glasgow chip shop or the nightmarish tragedy of Santa Claus’ true genesis, Penstricken: Collected Stories is a brief snapshot of one writer’s meandering imagination.

When I stopped writing new posts for Penstricken, I promised I was going to release a short book on KDP of all the flash fictions I had ever published on this blog. Now it’s finally here in Kindle or paperback format, containing all the stories previously published on this blog in the last five years including Popping Off, The Fireplace Coppers and Christmas Eve.

At a mere 51 pages this is probably the skinniest anthology of short stories you’re ever likely to own making it easy to read in a single sitting.

Click here to buy Penstricken: Collected Stories on Amazon.

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, why not help support Penstricken by buying me a coffee? You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterTumblr, Pinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

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Dear Authors, Size Does Matter

Originally published 15/01/2017

These days, there is almost no limit (in either direction) on how long a story you can write. There is an audience out there for epic fantasy sagas consisting of seven or eight 300,000 word books; there is an audience for stories consisting of only a single, short sentence and there is an audience out there for almost everything in between. How and where you can publish these stories varies, but thanks to the magic of the internet, there’s always a way to get them out there to be read by millions.

Best of all, you’ve had a story idea! A superb story idea that you’re sure other people are going to love too! Well isn’t that just fabulous? I’m made up for you. Really. You won’t see the verdant steam of jealousy billowing from my ears at all. In fact, I’m so happy for you that I’m going to help you make sure you don’t ruin it.

‘Ruin it?!’ You cry, aghast and perturbed. ‘What could possibly ruin this little gem of mine?!’

Lots of things, but what I’m really thinking about today is the length of your story: writing a novel that should be a novella; a novella that should be a short story; a short story that should be a one hundred word story; a one hundred word story that should be fifty… or indeed, writing a fifty word story that should be a 550,000 word trilogy with a spin-off stage musical.

It’s important to decide well in advance what length of story you want to write for two reasons:

  1. It’s all part of knowing your target audience, especially if you’ve got any inclination to ever get your story published. Casual browsers of Twitter can read your six word story in no time; only dedicated bookworms and fans of your genre are likely to look at a seven book series.
  2. (and this is the reason I want to focus on the most today) Poorly chosen length can have a devastating effect on the pace of your story.

Pacing is important. A well paced story will both excite your audience at the appropriate times and make them feel involved in your character’s situation. I don’t want to get too technical in this post about the intricacies of pacing (perhaps I’ll write a post about it in the future), but suffice it to say that all good stories are made up of slow bits and fast bits, and it is this balance of slow against fast which creates the desired reaction in your reader. In the case of written fiction, the slow bits will be very detailed and will probably (although not necessarily) feature a lot of key dialogue. They are there to draw your reader into the character’s situation; to let your reader know exactly what’s going on for your character and to enable your reader to care about them. The fast bits are less detailed; it’s all about the action.

This is a difficult art to master at the best of times. You’ve probably read many a published novel or watched many a film even in which the pacing ruined it for you. Personally, I felt that the pacing in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire caused the story to drag a little too much for my liking. It’s not because it’s a bad story, or even because it’s poorly written. It’s a very good story in a lot of ways so please don’t shout at me. But by the time I got about half way through the second book, my boredom was complete. A story of that kind of pace really can’t afford to be seven books long. If he had stopped at one or two books… things could have been so very different.

It works the other way too, of course. While I’m focusing mainly on written fiction today, I want to briefly mention the film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune, because it makes the point so well. Dune is a great book. It’s very long but that’s okay, because the story is well paced. The film adaption of Dune is reasonably faithful to the book and yet… I almost got dizzy watching it. There was too much story crammed into a much-too-short film and it made the whole thing feel a bit rushed (there were also too many voice-overs to let us hear the characters’ thoughts, but I’ll save that rant for another day). If only it had been a bit longer (even if it meant breaking it up into a series of films), it could have been a really great retelling of that classic sci-fi novel.

Do you feel breathless just reading your story because the pace is so darn fast, or that you are struggling to cram everything you need to say into a restrictive word limit? Maybe it’s time to consider turning that short story into a novella or even a full length novel. Or do you feel that your narrative is dragging despite all your best efforts? Ask yourself seriously if your novel wouldn’t benefit more from being a short story or flash fiction instead.

I recently wrote a story entitled Little Thieves Are Hanged, which started out life as a 2,000-3,000 word short story. I was really convinced the story idea had potential and I was very pleased with the characters and sequence of events I had created but… try as I might, I couldn’t seem to make it interesting. It was about as much fun to read as a phone book but I couldn’t shake the idea that this was a good story.

I decided to start from scratch. Exactly the same plot but this time with a word limit of only 100 words. Let me tell you, I had some serious darling killing to do but within days I had a story I was proud to submit for entry to the National Association of Writers’ Groups’ 100 Word Mini-Tales Competition (which is why I haven’t published the story here; it’s still waiting to be judged).

Ideally, you want to settle on the right length of story before you write. You’ll save yourself an awful lot of time and energy if you do but the truth is, knowing exactly what length your story should be is often a matter of experience. Chances are you will occasionally find yourself getting it wrong the first time, like I did with Little Thieves Are Hanged. If that happens, don’t let it discourage you. Be brave and start again with a more appropriate word limit. I know it’s a drag, but you will probably find that it pays dividends.

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My Dead Darlings

Originally published 18/12/2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

This paragraph was just long winded.

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

* * *

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

Call it a cyber cemetery of dead darlings.

* * *

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

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

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On Titles

Originally published 11/12/2016

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

But I digress.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Zefram Cochrane in Star Trek: First Contact

Seriously, just don’t do that.

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

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

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

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A Colourful Approach to Brainstorming

Originally published 04/12/2016

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

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

Four colours in one pen!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*other multi-coloured ballpoints are available.

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How To Make a Spin-Off That Doesn’t Suck

Originally published 27/11/2016

This week, I had planned to write a blog about my favourite TV spin-offs; ‘5 Spin-Offs That Are Actually Worth Watching’, or something to that effect. I don’t know exactly what I would have called it. The whole idea was blown out the water when I realised I couldn’t think of many spin-off shows I actually liked; certainly nothing that I liked enough to devote several hundred words to raving about. A painstaking trawl through Wikipedia’s ever popular list of television spin-offs did nothing to inspire me. It only confirmed what I had already begun to suspect: most spin-offs suck.

‘Why is this so?!’ I hear you cry.

Good question. Difficult to answer in broad-sweeping general terms, but I think I’ve managed to identify a few pitfalls that a great many spin-offs fall into that makes them suck. Avoid these when writing your spin-off and you might stand a chance of coming up with something that doesn’t make me want to tear my eyeballs out or (worse yet) yawn loudly and start playing with my phone.

Pitfall #1: The Surprising Shift in Genre

In spite of what I said earlier, as a Trekkie I love both Star Trek: The Original Series and most of the subsequent spin-off shows and movies. One of the reasons for this is because you know where you are with a Star Trek show. Whether it’s the Original Series, The Next Generation or Voyager, you know you’re getting a reasonably family friendly sci-fi/drama. The main setting is nearly always a starship (except for Deep Space Nine where it was a space-station, but close enough). There’s always a captain, a first officer, an engineer, a doctor and so forth. There is continuity with the original show, and that appeals to the most important audience you should be targeting with your spin-off: fans of the original.

But believe it or not, there really have been other Star Trek spin-offs on the cards which were mercifully never produced; spin-offs which broke this rule. For example, Gene Roddenberry (Star Trek’s creator) did have short-lived plans for one Star Trek spin-off which was to be a sitcom about Lwaxanna Troi (the mother of one of the regular characters in The Next Generation). No seeking out new life, no starship, no boldly going… just extravagant dresses and canned laughter (in Star Trek, if you please).

Need I say more?

Pitfall #2: The Surprising Shift in Age Appropriateness 

I’m looking at you, Torchwood, Class, The Sarah Jane Adventures, K-9 and whatever other Doctor Who spin-offs there might ever be. If you’re going to do a spin-off of a successful show, the chances are your main audience is going to be people who already watch the original. Remember, knowing your target audience can make or break any kind of story, so if your original story is a dark psychological thriller about an axe-murderer, don’t make the spin-off a children’s show about the exciting adventures of the axe-murderer’s 12 year old nephew. Your new audience won’t be familiar with the backstory and the old audience is unlikely to be interested

And for the love of bacon, don’t do it the other way around either. You’ll only end up getting letters from angry parents.

Pitfall #3: The Protagonist is a Supporting Character from the Original Show

Now before I go any further, I want to say that there is nothing inherently wrong with supporting characters in one show becoming the protagonist of another. It can work very well. For instance, in spite of what I said earlier about the Doctor Who spin-offs, I do think Jack Harkness was just as good a protagonist in Torchwood as he was as a supporting character in Doctor Who. After all, characters are people. People make good protagonists. But if you want a supporting character to have the leading role in your spin-off, they need to evolve beyond that minor role and become full-blown protagonists in their own right.

If the original story has a well developed cast of characters, this might be quite easy to do. Torchwood worked because Jack Harkness was already such a rich character in his own right whether the Doctor is present or not, and so he made the transition to protagonist easily. But let’s pretend we were going to write a new Doctor Who spin-off… let’s call it… I don’t know… Roses Are (Presumed) Dead (see what I did there?); a spin-off about the Doctor’s companion Rose, after she got trapped in a parallel universe and was declared dead. In theory it could work quite well, but you would need to develop that character beyond what she is to begin with. Now living in the parallel universe without the Doctor, she needs to have motivations and goals of her own that the viewer can relate to and care about.

Pitfall #4: Writing a New but Inferior Protagonist to the Original

In some ways, writing a brand new character to be the protagonist is probably far easier to do well, since you’re just creating a brand new protagonist from scratch instead of trying to augment a supporting character

However, you must make sure that your new protagonist lives up to the vibrancy of the original one. Remember, your original audience are the main folk you should try to appeal to. Sorry to keep banging on about Doctor Who spin-offs (there’s just so many of them), but one of the many things I hated about Class was that the protagonist(s?) was so rubbish. Boring, often annoying and quite forgettable. Nothing compared to the Doctor, Jack Harkness or even K-9 in my opinion! The best thing about Class was when the Doctor appeared in the first episode (I don’t know if it was any good after that; I couldn’t bring myself to watch another episode), and for ten marvellous minutes, we had a protagonist worth watching.

The only trouble is, the Doctor isn’t supposed to be the protagonist of this show! Don’t just rely on your popular fictional universe to make your story good. Characters, especially the protagonist, are the beating heart of a good story every single time.

Pitfall #5 – The Protagonist is the Same Protagonist as in the Original Show

Once again, there’s nothing really wrong with this. It can work. Just ask yourself, if the protagonist’s story is finished, why are you still writing about him? It can be tempting to drag out a story beyond it’s natural lifespan, especially if it’s been popular, but if your protagonist has done all he needs to do, just let him live happily ever after. If, on the other hand, the protagonist’s story is not finished, why does it need a brand new spin-off? Why not do another series of the original?

A spin-off must require a brand new premise to truly stand on its own, especially if it has the same protagonist as the original. The British sitcom Porridge and its spin-off Going Straight both feature the same protagonist, but it works because the protagonist, who was originally a prisoner of HMP Slade in Porridge, has now been released in Going Straight and is trying to live a crime-free life. Same character; different premise. It’s a brand new story with the potential to be interesting in its own right. That’s what you’re going for with a spin-off, no matter what format it takes. Something that’s both new enough to be stand alone and familiar enough to draw in your original fans.

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