Theme: The Truth Behind the Tale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Until next time!

ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

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

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

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

Author Interview: Sharleen Nelson (part 2 of 2)

SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers in this post, anyone who has not read The Time Tourists by Sharleen Nelson is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

31949641_10103880103049296_8630631606152855552_n

If there’s one thing I love, it’s a truly imaginative story. As a story about a time travelling private detective, The Time Tourists by Sharleen Nelson definitely fits that category!

I had the pleasure of interviewing Sharleen, whose debut novel The Time Tourists is available to buy on Amazon and other retail outlets. This is the second half of that interview. Click here to read the first half.


Let’s talk some more about your characters. Teddy is probably one of the most messed up characters I’ve ever come across. He’s absolutely vile in many respects and guilty of some pretty awful crimes yet there is also something pitiable about him. How do you go about developing a character like that?

He started out being just this borderline sociopathic neighbourhood bully with a kooky mother. We do feel sorry for him at times because, after all, he is this sort of confused teenage boy who wants to be good–he is envious of Imogen’s family. He would like more than anything to be their boy and have a normal life. But on the other hand, his mother has been doing unspeakably vile things to him since he was a child. He knows he will never be able to recapture that innocence and he also doesn’t feel like he deserves to be loved and he takes all that rage and pent-up anger and directs it at Tiffany. But just when he was beginning to feel better about his life, she shows up with the news that she is pregnant. He liked his job. Niles was mentoring him. He was thinking about a career. But Tiffany ruined everything. His reaction was obviously to get rid of her. In developing Teddy, I read up on sociopathic behaviours– antisocial behaviour, deceitfulness, hostility, irresponsibility, manipulativeness, risk taking behaviours, aggression, impulsivity, irritability, lack of restraint–and combined that with a narcissistic, abusive mother–and voila! Teddy.

timetouristsYou mentioned earlier that Imogen had her own opinions about things. Throughout The Time Tourists, the audience is privy to a lot of Imogen’s strongly-held beliefs about a whole range of controversial subjects from abortion to Darwinism. Do you think it’s important for authors to use their protagonists to make points on important real-life subjects?

I think every author’s approach is different. Each author has their own story to tell. I don’t know that it’s necessarily important, but for me personally, I think addressing real-world topics makes my characters more believable. I read something the other day about the movie Dirty Dancing. Everyone loves that film and it always feels like this very light, entertaining outing about dancing. However, the entire premise for Baby and Johnny getting together at all is because she is called upon to fill in for his usual dance partner after she falls victim to a botched, illegal abortion. I also think that if my characters are going back in time I have a responsibility to provide context and comparison.

If they ever make a film adaptation of The Time Tourists, who would you choose to play the lead characters? 

Haha, I actually have thought about this–what author hasn’t? I sort of envision Jennifer Lawrence (Katniss in The Hunger Games) or maybe Emma Watson (Hermoine Granger from Harry Potter)– both seem like strong, feminist-type women. For Herbert Doran– Michael Shannon. He is so intense and awesome. Simon was actually based on a sort of Robert Downey, Jr. prototype, but I think we’d need someone a bit younger for the role. Not sure about Teddy– a method actor, for sure!

The Time Tourists is, of course, the first book in the Dead Relatives Inc. series. Now I know you won’t want to give too much away but I have to ask: what’s next for Imogen? 

Imogen will have more adventures in time, of course, but there are a number of loose ends– her mother and father are still lost in time and we may never know what happened to Tiffany, or will we? I envision Mimi Pinky playing a larger role in this second book. Simon will have to also become acclimated to living 100 years in the future and as the new guy in Imogen’s life, I envision some conflict between he and her ex-boyfriend Fletcher. There will be a few other surprises that I’ll keep under wraps. I also see some danger ahead.

Final question: do you have any advice for anyone out there who might be thinking about writing their first novel? 

Forget an audience. Write for yourself and don’t censure yourself. What do you like to read about? When I was a little girl, I enjoyed it so much because I was basically telling myself a story. Enjoy the journey. Just like the reader, as the writer I keep going so I can find out what happens next. Say what you want to say and write what you yourself would like to read.

The Time Tourists by Sharleen Nelson is available to buy now on Amazon and other retail outlets.
Click here to visit Sharleen Nelson’s author page.

MISSED PART 1 OF THIS INTERVIEW? CLICK HERE TO READ 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 interviews your author.

ATTENTION AUTHORS: 

I’m hoping to do author interviews here on Penstricken over the coming year, especially with new fiction authors. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

Until next time!

Author Interview: Sharleen Nelson (part 1 of 2)

SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers in this post, anyone who has not read The Time Tourists by Sharleen Nelson is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

31949641_10103880103049296_8630631606152855552_n

If there’s one thing I love, it’s a truly imaginative story. As a story about a time travelling private detective, The Time Tourists by Sharleen Nelson definitely fits that category!

I had the pleasure of interviewing Sharleen Nelson, whose debut novel The Time Tourists is available to buy on Amazon and other retail outlets. What follows is part one of that interview. Be sure to check back next week for part two!


You’ve been a journalist and an award-winning photographer for over twenty years. What made you decide to write a novel?

I have always been a writer, ever since I was a little girl. I used to spin stories in my head, complete with an array of characters and dialogue. I started one novel and got about 40,000 words into it, but then couldn’t figure out what to do with the characters, so abandoned it. This particular story started percolating about 10 years ago. My father had died recently and I was pretty devastated. I thought that getting lost in a nice little fantasy might be good therapy.

What was the main inspiration behind The Time Tourists?timetourists

Well at the time I was working as a magazine editor/writer at this place called Marathon Coach– they build these million dollar luxury buses. Anyway, in the bathroom were framed prints of local street scenes from around the turn of the century– people walking, doing things, cars and buggies. I remember looking at those and thinking, ‘how cool would it be to just be able to walk into that picture, into that scene and be a part of it.’ I love history. I’m a photographer, and if time travel was real, I would totally do it! The combination of things just sort of meshed and I started forming the story. I didn’t want to deal with the tech part of having a time machine; I wanted it to be more of a magical thing, so that when my character arrived somewhere in time, the universe just filled in everything for her.

Did you find anything particularly difficult about writing this novel?

Yes, I wanted it to be more character-driven, less science fiction. I guess you could say it’s more of a fantasy, but it doesn’t really fit neatly into either genre. I guess you’d call it ‘speculative fiction’. The most difficult part of writing it for me was letting myself get bogged down with plot structure. I knew the story. I never have writer’s block at all, but I wasted a good deal of time organising and reorganising and moving chapters around–should I weave in the backstory? Should it be chronological? Finally, I just decided that I needed to write the damn thing and worry about that later. Once I did that, it all sort of fell into place.

When I first read the synopsis I thought I might be getting a sort of sci-fi/cozy mystery combination but there are actually a lot of different and sometimes very dark themes running through this story making it quite hard to categorise (definitely not a cozy, however!). What would you say was your central theme(s)?

That is a great question! You’re right, it isn’t the cozy tale that one might expect. Of course, as every writer does, I drew things from my own life and I wanted Imogen to be this very real, complex person with opinions about things. I didn’t want to just send her off on adventures without the audience knowing what motivates her. So much of it evolved as I was going along. It’s true what people say, that sometimes characters seem to have minds of their own. Teddy is a very dark and twisted character. He came about from an experience I had when I was 19. I was majoring in psychology and for a time, I volunteered on a crisis line. The phone calls were routed to my home phone and I had a list of resources to recommend to people who called in. One night, a 16-year-old boy called. I wasn’t supposed to counsel anyone, just refer them, but he started telling me this horrible story about how his mother was abusing him sexually and that she would let him use the car if he slept with her. Of course, that stuck with me and not only did it make the reader feel more sympathetic to the Teddy character, he wasn’t all pure evil, but also showed that abuse comes in many forms. It’s not always male perpetrators. I also wanted to explore themes like religion, misogyny, feminism, or what it’s like being a gay person in another time. So I’m not sure that there is a central theme. I just wanted to create characters that the reader could maybe identify with, who have real motivations and real flaws.

COME BACK NEXT WEEK FOR PART 2.

The Time Tourists by Sharleen Nelson is available to buy now on Amazon and other retail outlets.
Click here to visit Sharleen Nelson’s author page.

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 snaps your photo.

ATTENTION AUTHORS: 

I’m hoping to do author interviews here on Penstricken over the coming year, especially with new fiction authors. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

Until next time!

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.

The Collapsing Empire: A Review

SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers in this post, anyone who has not read The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

As ever this review reflects only my own personal opinions and impressions.

When I first heard about John Scalzi’s The Collapsing Empire, I thought ‘that sounds like my kind of book’. I love a good space opera and the manifold positive reviews I read all suggested that was exactly what I was going to get, so I thought it was a safe bet. But I’ll be perfectly honest. I have mixed feelings about this book. Don’t get me wrong, there was a lot of stuff I absolutely loved about it, but there was also plenty of stuff I wasn’t so keen on.

First let me say that Scalzi’s world-building is top-notch. It’s hard to be original, interesting and scientifically not-too-ridiculous when writing a space opera but I think Scalzi has done an excellent job balancing these three. There is a certain homage paid to the tropes found in classic space operas like Star Trek, Star Wars and especially Dune but this is by no means a cheap knock off of any of those. In this story, Earth has long since been abandoned and humanity now lives in a galactic empire called the Interdependency. The various worlds of the Interdependency are thinly spread across the galaxy and joined together by the Flow (this story’s answer to hyperspace; a naturally occurring network through which vessels may travel from one place to another, kind of like a space-subway) and have been carefully organised so as to be interdependent on one another for resources. Trade in the Interdependency is controlled by various Guilds who each have their own government sanctioned monopolies. And now, horror of horrors, the Flow is beginning to collapse and society as we know it is about to end. I love all that stuff. That stuff’s brilliant.

Not only do I like what Scalzi has created, but I also like how accessible it is for the reader. Sometimes when you read sci-fi, you have to take notes to figure out just how the heck everything works when all you really want to do is enjoy the story, but that’s not the case here (although I thought the scene where the guy at the university lectures a group of school children on how the Flow works was a bit of a cheap trick). However, apart from the accessibility of the speculative elements, I found myself a little but underwhelmed by the overall writing style. Don’t misunderstand me, it was okay but all the reviews I had read suggested it was going to knock my socks off. I thought it was decidedly alright. The narrative is fast paced but not in a way that is dizzying or confusing. There are generous dollops of humour in his narrative which, although not entirely to my taste (when I read ‘explody bits of metal’, a grimace the closest thing to mirth I could manage), nevertheless make the book a pleasant enough read.

The characters are, in some respects, very good indeed. Each one has clearly established goals which derive from their individual motives and these shine through consistently, making it easy to get to know who’s who, what they want and why we should care about them; whether it’s the slippery Nohamapetans, the potty-mouthed Kiva or the reluctant but faithful Emperox– all these well researched characters form the foundation of this story and drive the story along in a way which is both believable, compelling and satisfying. I do think he could have improved these, however, by working a little bit harder to create distinctive voices for each character to bring out their individual backgrounds and personalities more fully. As it is, the characters’ voices can be divided into two categories: the ones who don’t swear much and the ones who swear like a sailor who just stood on a Lego brick.

My biggest complaint about this story is the ending. Or, to be more precise, the distinct lack of ending. It’s a ‘buy the next book!’ ending. And that makes me never want to buy the next book. Yes, yes, I know it’s the first in a series and I know we need to have something to look forward to in the next book, but I nevertheless would have liked a bit more resolution on some of the main issues in this first instalment.

All in all, a strong enough piece of work if space operas are your thing and you don’t mind excessive profanity. Just make sure you’re prepared to buy the next instalment before you go spending any money because this is most definitely not a book which can stand alone and apart from the rest of the series.

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 collapses your Flow.

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.

Super Snappy Speed Reviews – Books (Vol. 3)

SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers in this post, anyone who has not read: Uncommon Type: Some Stories by Tom Hanks, The Seven by Peter Newman, Goldfinger by Ian Fleming, A Touch of Frost by R.D. Wingfield, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace or The Green Mile by Stephen King is hereby advised that this point may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

You know the rules by now! After all, we’ve already had super snappy speed reviews for books [2], TV showsfilmscomputer games and even the Star Trek movies. And so today we’re back for a third dose of super snappy book reviews. As before, the books I have reviewed here have been selected entirely at random from my ever-growing book collection and do not necessarily have anything in common apart from the fact that they are all books. They are not necessarily books that I particularly liked or disliked, nor are they sorted into any particular order.

As always, these reviews only reflect my own personal opinions and impressions, sliced, diced and minced into a few short sentences. So without further ado…

Uncommon Type: Some Stories by Tom Hanks

Yes, that Tom Hanks. His debut collection of short stories was decidedly okay. He almost lost me in the first story Three Exhausting Weeks when he used emojis, and the overall flow of the narrative was a little clumsy at points throughout the collection (too many unnecessary profanities for my taste) but there was enough high quality material in there to keep me reading until the end. For me, his writing demonstrated a wonderful creativity but was just slightly deficient in the subtle use of language which can turn an excellent story into a beautiful work of art.

I expected worse but I hoped for better.

My rating: 🌟🌟

The Seven by Peter Newman

I swore I would never review this book; not because I don’t like it, but because there is just so much Peter Newman love on this website [2] [3] [4] [5] and on my Twitter account [2] [3] [4] [5] [6], I was getting scared he might think I was some kind of weirdo stalker and call the police on me. But what can I say? These books were chosen at random and this is what came up so, here we go. A nice, measured, critical review of The Seven:

I LOVE THE SEVEN. It is an excellent conclusion to an excellent series filled with sharp characters, a vividly imagined dystopian setting, nicely seasoned with just the right amount of comedy relief. I don’t know if I love it quite as much as the first book but I still love its socks off.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟

Goldfinger by Ian Fleming

The original novels upon which the James Bond movies are based tend to be quite hit or miss. Some of them are unputdownable thrill rides which have you on the edge of your seat from cover to cover. Unfortunately, Goldfinger features waaaaaay too much golf for my liking.

I’m not knocking golf. But this is a spy-thriller for goodness’ sake and my main memory of it is Bond playing golf with Goldfinger. Fleming devoted not one, but several chapters to describing this single round of golf in considerable detail. I won’t lie to you, I started skipping whole paragraphs after a while. It’s not often I say this, but just watch the film instead.

Bored, James Bored.

My rating: 🌟

A Touch of Frost by R.D. Wingfield

There are some things I loved about this novel and there are some things I did not love about this novel.

I loved the useless, bumbling and irreverant Frost character and, to a lesser extent, the Mullett character and the interplay between them. The overall plot was good and reasonably well paced.

I did not love the poorly handled third person omniscient narrative which told us almost everything every character was thinking. Nor did I love the crude and at times downright sleazy humour Wingfield invoked. The female characters are all presented as cheap sex objects and the males without exception are chauvinists at best, often making crude jokes about rape and other sensitive topics.

My rating: 🌟🌟

Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace

If only all Christian fiction was as excellent as Ben-Hur; for Christian fiction it is, though it is so far removed from the modern genre that it is barely recognisable as such. This novel’s got it all: conspiracy, revenge, romance, adventure and even chariot racing. Themes of family, friendship, gender, slavery and life-after-death are all explored in a way that leaves the reader thinking long after the book has been finished. The characters are excellent, especially the protagonist (Judah Ben-Hur) and his childhood friend turned arch-nemesis, Messalla. I should warn you that there is quite a lot of theo-philosophical discourse between various characters. Fortunately, I like theo-philosophical discourse and it is executed in such a way that it does not seriously harm the pacing of the story.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟+ ∞

The Green Mile by Stephen King

When I reviewed the film adaptation of this novel, I gave it a glorious 5 stars +∞; a rating I give only to those stories which (in my opinion) set the standards for their particular genre. But a good film adaptation will never be born of a bad novel and the same is true here. The Green Mile is an excellent novel; by far my favourite by Stephen King. It might be something to do with the fact I’m not a particular lover of horror but I don’t think so. This novel has vibrant characters, detailed settings and a beautiful first person narrative in which the protagonist describes events that happened in his past as well as events that are happening to him now, as he writes the story decades later.

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 reviews your books.

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.

The Joy of Re-Reading

“I can’t imagine a man really enjoying a book and reading it only once.” — C.S. Lewis

Good old Jack. He was a wise man.

But you know, the funny thing is that until recently, I hardly ever re-read books. I watched my favourite TV shows and films over and over and over again (seriously, my Star Trek DVDs are going to catch fire if I keep re-watching them the way I do); I listened to my favourite music over and over again; why, I even laugh at the same jokes more times than I really should. And in spite of the fact I consider myself to be a bookworm who prefers books to all of the other pleasures listed above, somehow I had gotten into a habit of never re-reading anything, no matter how much I liked it.

I didn’t really start to think about all this until recently, when I ran out of unread books. I had just finished Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde with The Merry Men & Other Stories for the first time and suddenly found myself without anything new to read. I had a look around online to see if I could find a new book but I was struggling to decide what I fancied and… well, frankly, I didn’t have time to wait. I needed something to read now. So I returned to my bookshelf and picked up The Final Act of Mr. Shakespeare by Robert Winder; a book I had read once before.

I will admit, I was reluctant to open it again. It’s not that it was a bad book. I remembered really enjoying it the first time I read it. I just didn’t expect it to thrill me the way a good book should, since I had already read it once before and knew everything that was going to happen. Imagine my surprise when now, halfway through re-reading it, I find myself every bit as enthralled by it as before.

I had forgotten, you see, that the thrill of reading a story is not simply finding out what happens. I would argue that it is not even predominantly in finding out what happens, though it is obviously an important part of reading a story. There is a certain ineffable pleasure to be had in reading a good book, watching a good film or even listening to a good song which far transcends simply memorising how it goes. It’s the whole experience of the voice of each character, the clever turns of phrase and the poetic weaving of language which transports the reader from their own life into the life of the protagonist. Literature is an art-form that makes you think, makes you feel and — perhaps more than any other art-form — puts you right in the shoes of another person. That’s stimulating, no matter how familiar you are with the plot. As cake does not cease to be delicious simply because you’ve had it once or twice before, a good book does not cease to be a good book simply because you’ve read it once or twice before.

Now that I’ve had some time to think about it, I think I can tell you exactly why I stopped re-reading things. I had succumbed to the very thing I so despise in others: reading, not for the joy of it, but so that I could show off to my friends, family and all of you who read my blog just how widely read I was.

When I was a child, I didn’t have this problem. I used to read and re-read a strange combination of Roald Dahl, Enid Blyton and Star Trek novels. An unlikely and somewhat narrow jumble, perhaps, but it was my jumble. I didn’t read so that I could tick off all the books I’d read on those horrible blog posts you get with titles like ‘100 Books All SERIOUS Bookworms Will Read Before They Die’, nor did I read so that I would have something impressive to tweet about on #BookLoversDay. It didn’t even occur to me to try to read a certain number of books in a single month or year. I read for the sheer joy of it, and as a result, I naturally  found myself re-reading those things that brought me the most pleasure. If I concentrate, I can probably still quote you a few passages verbatim from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or the B.F.G., for the simple reason that I just couldn’t get enough of those stories.

Am I advocating wilful narrow reading? Of course not. The wider you cast your net book vouchers, the more good books you’re likely to discover; books that you’ll really want to read again and again. You’ll find that different authors and different genres all have their own unique flavours to enjoy which you can mix and match however you like, so I definitely encourage you to explore what’s out there and fill your head with a wide variety of books. But for goodness’ sake, don’t let snobbishness towards what kinds of things you read, how widely you read or how fast you read rob you of the joy of reading. Read widely. If you find something you like, don’t deny yourself the pleasure of reading it again and again for as long as it pleases you to do so.

I hope you enjoyed this post. Be sure to leave us a wee comment if you did 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 your flavour.

Until next time!

6 Mental Cobweb Shakers for Writers

Ever sat down to write and found your imagination covered in so many cobwebs that you can’t even remember how to pick up your pen? Ever sat staring at a blank screen for hours without even the faintest idea where to begin? Ever wasted your set writing time reading patronising articles on the internet telling you writers’ block doesn’t exist (when you know better) because you just can’t quite seem to get settled into your day’s work?

No?

Well I have, and whenever that happens to me I need something to quickly shake away the cobwebs to help me get off the starting block. Therefore, I am going to commend a few of my favourite cobweb shakers to you today. I don’t know if these will work for you or not but they work for me so… you might as well give them a go, eh?

Write Urgently

I’ve blogged about this before, but it has so revolutionised my whole writing life that it bears saying again. If you find yourself staring at a blank page for hours and have little or nothing to show for it when you’re done, try resolving to write for no more than thirty minutes, twenty minutes or even less all day. Better yet, start your writing session at a time when you know you’ll have no choice but to stop very soon; i.e., while your dinner is in the oven or in that spare twenty minutes before you have to catch a bus to get to work on time. It sounds crazy, but I find that writing in short bursts creates a sense of urgency which forces me not to procrastinate or edit as I write.

Background Noise

Silence may be golden, but it can also be as distracting as having someone talking in your ear. The solution? Get yourself some background noise. You could always do this by seeking out a noisier location, but assuming you don’t particularly want to move anywhere, I can highly recommend Noisli to you as a free tool which allows you to customise your own blend of ambient background noises including (but not limited to) thunder, a crackling fire, a train moving and a coffee shop. These sounds loop indefinitely, so you can turn it on and let it lull you into a false sense of sitting in a coffee shop on a rainy day or listening to birds singing beside a crackling fire.

I know lots of writers enjoy listening to music while they write, although personally, I still find that a bit too distracting, especially if it involves complicated melodies or (worst of all) vocal parts with lyrics. If you must listen to music while writing, I recommend keeping it gentle and instrumental. Video game music is particularly useful as it is designed to be incidental and keep you focused on the task at hand.

Play a Game

Speaking of games, I also find playing a computer game a good cobweb shaker. Nothing too mind-numbing, of course. Avoid anything that involves decimating sweets or throwing helpless animals (actually, just stay away from mobile gaming altogether). I find it far more effective to play a game I need to use my brain for and preferably something with a story of its own. I’m a big fan of retro gaming, so classic adventure games such as Grim Fandango and Monkey Island often fit the bill for me but anything you need to use your brain for should do.

The danger with this, of course, is that you can waste all day gaming. If you’re going to game away the cobwebs, be sure to set yourself a strict time-limit.

Indulge A Different Creative Interest

Like gaming, this approach will also require a strict time-limit but if you’re feeling too lackadaisical to get started with your writing project, you might find pursuing another creative endeavour will give you the spark of enthusiasm you need. Of course, you’ll know better than I do what turns you on apart from writing. It could be singing, dancing, painting, conducting bizarre scientific experiments* or something else entirely. Whatever it is, set aside a little(!) time to immerse yourself in something that makes you feel alive and gets your mental juices flowing. You’ll come back to writing feeling able and rejuvenated.

Go For a Walk/Exercise

Though I’m loath to admit it a bit of fresh air and exercise is a great way to shake away the mental cobwebs. Even just a five minute walk and a change of scenery can work wonders. Just don’t wander so far that you don’t have time to write!

Free-write
freewrite
Here’s what my free-writing session looked like. Pretty dismal, right?

Free-writing is ideal for when you just don’t have the time to waste gaming, exercising or cloning your budgie. Simply set a timer for a minute, five minutes, ten minutes or whatever you feel is necessary and write WITHOUT CEASING for that whole time. You don’t need to think about structure, plot or anything. Just write. It doesn’t matter if you have typos. It doesn’t matter if you write piles of meaningless rubbish with all the orderliness of a pig’s regurgitated dinner. It doesn’t even matter if all you manage to write is ‘I don’t know what to write, I don’t know what to write, I don’t know what to write…’

What matters is that you pick up your pen and write!

Sometimes it can even help you to come up with ideas, but even if it doesn’t, don’t worry about it. The most important thing is that you stop doing nothing and start writing something. Anything. As long as it’s something.

I hope you found some of these tips useful. Do let us know if you did by commenting below, and also if you’ve got any mental cobweb clearing tips of your own, why not comment below so we can all benefit from your wisdom and experience? And if you enjoyed this post, be sure to follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if you feel so inclined.

Until next time!


*This website does not in any way endorse dangerous, unethical, illegal or otherwise ill-advised scientific experiments. Any suggestions to the contrary in this post were meant only as a joke and should not be taken seriously.

7 Things I Hate In Fiction

No matter what genre of fiction or medium of story-telling you’re into (even if you’re into nearly all of them, like me!), we all have our own little things in fiction that we don’t like. Sometimes it’s the little things that can absolutely ruin an otherwise potentially good story for us and make us seriously think about leaving it unread/unwatched/unlistened to.

For your enjoyment, therefore, I have compiled a list of my own fiction bugbears with expositions. Maybe you won’t agree with them all. That’s okay. I’m not for one second suggesting any of these are hard and fast rules about what constitutes a bad story. These are just things that, for me, are a bit of a turn-off. So without further ado and in no particular order…

Obvious Morals

Don’t get me wrong. I definitely think it’s a good thing for stories to say something meaningful about real life. I’m not knocking stories that have morals to them. I’m not even knocking controversial morals. Quite the reverse, a good story definitely should have true and important morals or observations about life. But there’s nothing that puts me off reading a book or watching a film/TV show/play quite like that horrible sinking feeling you get in the first five minutes when you think to yourself: ‘I think I know where this is going…’

Even if it’s something I profoundly agree with, that’s not the point. I don’t read stories to be preached at, whether I agree with the message or not. Entertain me, and by all means make me think, but don’t preach at me.

Excessive and/or Long Fight Scenes

On TV and film, I can just about(!) put up with drawn out fight scenes, but in novels… boy, I find them tedious. They’re often either too detailed (and so, the pace is dragged right down at what should be the most exciting part) or else they’re not detailed enough and I lose the thread of what’s going on entirely. If you’re going to write a fight scene, I want it to be described in such a way that I feel like I’m really there witnessing it, which must by necessity include experiencing the danger and urgency of being in a battle. It can be done with words, but only a few writers seem to be able to do it in a way I find truly enjoyable.

More on fight scenes here.

Unnecessary Profanities

Sometimes in adult fiction, a little profanity may be justified, if it becomes the character (remember boys and girls, a character’s voice can have a profound impact on their identity). After all, in real life, people do sometimes use foul language. However, I find that in fiction, it loses its effectiveness very quickly and can come across as a fairly amateurish attempt at generating tension. Therefore, use it sparingly. If you’re struggling, watch the soaps for some inspiration: Eastenders, Coronation Street, Emmerdale and so forth.

No, really, hear me out. I don’t have a lot of good things to say about soaps, but I’ll give them this: because they’re usually on before the watershed, the writers of these shows are forced to generate tension and outright screaming matches between characters without using a single profanity. Study these carefully if you’re really struggling to write tense dialogue without the potty-mouth.

Flashbacks

As a rule of thumb, I find that flashbacks tend to interrupt the pace of the narrative too much. In addition, I often find that they are simply used as a way to info dump the backstory and as we all know, info dumping is bad, bad, bad. I might, possibly, maybe let you away with them if the story absolutely requires that one character tells another character a lengthy, detailed story about something that happened in the past (Agatha Christie’s Poirot novels, for example, frequently include flash back style chapters where one witness is telling Poirot their version of events) but on the whole, I find flashbacks a bit of a drag.

All Action; No Substance

If I wanted a meaningless thrill ride, I’d just go to Alton Towers. Don’t get me wrong, a bit of excitement is needed to keep up the momentum of your story, but if the protagonist is doing nothing but jumping over walls, dodging bullets and crashing helicopters from the outset, I won’t have any opportunity to get under the his skin enough to sympathise with him or understand his goals and motives.

All Substance; No Action

The opposite is also true. I know I want to understand the characters’ goals and motives, and I know I want the odd profound or emotional scene but I don’t want to be bored to tears either. Sooner or later, we need a bit of excitement.

Call Your Story Confessions of an [Optional Adjective] [Noun]

This will make me hate your story before I’ve even read it. See my previous post On Titles.


Well that was cathartic for me at any rate.

Did any of that ring true for anyone else? Or maybe you actually love flashbacks, lengthy fight scenes and tedious titles? Maybe I’m alone in disliking these things…

I know! Why not leave a comment below and share your own fiction pet-hates with the rest of the world? You might feel better if you get it off your chest. And if you enjoyed this post, be sure to follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if you feel so inclined.

Until next time!

Hey Author, Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

‘Oh, so you’re an author then? Where do you get all your story ideas from?’

Ughhhh! Stop asking me that! I don’t know! If I knew the answer to that, I’d probably have more ideas!

Er-hem.

Okay, so for reasons best known to yourself, you want to know where to find the House of the Magical Idea Wizard and think that perhaps I, or one of my author colleagues (you know, the ones that have actually got a few novels published), might have the answers you seek. I know I’m not alone in having people ask me about this. Writers’ blogs seem to be replete with authors whining and complaining about how often their family, friends and fans (those of you who have fans) ask them this same question.

Well… today, O seeker of insight, I am going to attempt to answer this singularly annoying and misguided question in the only way I can: from my own narrow experience.

The first thing you need to know is that there is no Magical Idea Wizard. Or at least, if there is, I’ve never met him. Plot bunnies are certainly real enough, but they are not bred by any one person whom you can purchase one from, nor do they grow on a special tree. In fact, between you and me, I’m not even sure plot bunnies are all that useful. They’re certainly not to be relied upon if you plan on making a career out of story writing.

‘Hold the bus for just a minute!’ I hear you cry. ‘What on earth’s a plot bunny when it’s at home?’

I’m glad you asked. A plot bunny is a story idea that pops into your head and won’t go away. They tend to appear out of the blue. For example, I recall on one particular occasion I was sitting on the upper deck of a bus coming home from the hospital where I work. At one point, while we were stopped at traffic lights, I noticed a Chinese takeaway and I was struck by exactly two thoughts:

  1. Mmm… salt and chilli chips…
  2.  If I ever figure out how to invent a time machine, I’m definitely going to keep it a secret. Then I’ll open a takeaway and be able to trump all the competition by travelling back in time to get all my orders to my customers mere moments after they make the order.

The first thought was mere gluttony. I ordered a takeaway when I got home and that was that. But the second thought was a plot bunny par excellence. For months I turned that strange little notion over in my mind, convinced that there was a story in it (for in itself, it was not a story but just a premise) but I just couldn’t make it work. Nevertheless it was a persistent nuisance in my brain, demanding to be written but it was a whole year before I was able to actually turn it into a story. More often than not, however, I find most plot bunnies come to nothing.

So… it is possible to be struck with sudden waves of inspiration, but they’re often unproductive in the long run and — more importantly — there’s absolutely no way to simply snap your fingers and make plot bunnies come to you on demand. In a word, plot bunnies are utterly unreliable.

Wise authors know that if you want to be able to write stories on demand, you need to be deliberate and methodical in developing your idea from the tiniest seed. That ‘seed’ could be anything. For me it’s usually either a theme I want to write about (e.g., my current novel started as a simple desire to write a story about rebellion) or else it’s a character looking for a story to belong to. But where does that ‘seed’ come from?

It’s not magic. All you need to do (boring though this sounds) is to make a deliberate point of setting aside time to sit down and be proactive in developing an idea from scratch. I don’t just hope for ideas to come to me on the bus, on the toilet or anywhere else (though I certainly write down any that do pop out of the blue). I set aside regular time to sit down at my desk and produce as many ideas as I can. Coming up with story ideas is not a supernatural gift that strikes without warning; it is a discipline which can be learned through practice and patience. I can play the trumpet, not because every now and again musical talent strikes me, but because I have devoted time and effort to regularly practising my skill. I started off rubbish. Over time, through regular practice, I became an accomplished (perhaps even good) trumpet player. If I stop practising for any length of time, my ‘talent’ gets noticeably rusty. The same is true of coming up with story ideas.

For me, I find the best way to come up with ideas is to brainstorm. I sit down with a notepad and give free reign to my thoughts, omitting nothing that comes to mind. Often I will find myself inventing characters who I can then audition or ‘interview’ in different settings and situations (the main antagonist in my current novel came about this way). Journaling can also be helpful. Scribbling down all my thoughts, feelings and opinions about politics, family, philosophy, religion, humour, music and whatever else comes to mind can often help me to discover new themes to explore in a fictional setting. I then question and experiment with whatever comes to mind. From there, it’s a simple matter of taking the time to refine my ideas. If I really, really, really can’t think of anything, there are plenty of prompts available online which you can use as a springboard into creativity; however, I tend to rely on these only as a last resort.

You asked me earlier whence ideas come. The simple, boring and profoundly mysterious answer is that they come from your own mind. There is no magic, but the everyday magic of that lump of slimy grey matter in your skull which, by some inexplicable design, is able to invent entire worlds and people from nothing and to use those inventions to communicate all manner of beliefs and philosophies. If you have a brain, you have ideas. You have all manner of ideas every day, both good ideas and bad ideas. You’ve probably had dozens of ideas already today, about a whole range of subjects. Turning these ideas into stories is simply a matter of practice and patience.