Horror Clichés and How To Avoid Them

Well, we’re getting near the end of our series on genre clichés and how to avoid them. Today it’s all about horror.

Just where do I begin with this one? Horror is just one great big stinking cliché for the most part but I’ve whittled it down to three of my favourites (or least favourites?). You know the drill by now, so let’s just cut straight to the clichés:

Quasi-religious Themes

This trope makes much of the darker themes found in traditional religion (usually Christianity in most western literature) such as demonic possession, anti-christs and so on. More often than not, the story is only very loosely based on actual religious doctrine which is taken way out of its theological context, bringing it far closer to the realms of fantasy than anything else.

That’s okay. I like fantasy. I have no objection to you using your imagination. I just think that if you’re going to come up with something like that, you might as well go the whole way and an invent a cult or religion from the ground up, rather than distorting a real life religion to the point that it’s barely recognisable as such.

If you’re determined to use elements from actual religions, whether Christianity or anything else, do your research. I don’t just mean Google news stories about sex offending priests, self-anointed exorcists or people who believe themselves to be the Second Coming of Jesus Christ; that will only give you the bizarre extremes. Don’t get me wrong, these will undoubtedly be helpful if you’re wanting to write a horror, but study the orthodox theology and practices of the mainstream as well. Study the history of your chosen religion. Get yourself a copy of the Bible/Quran/etc./etc. and study what they actually say. Visit a church/mosque/synagogue/etc. Interview a few run-of-the-mill non-criminal Christians/Muslims/Jews/etc. The same rule applies in horror as in any other genre: if you’re going to write a story based on a real religion (however obscure and no matter what your own religious beliefs may be), write about it accurately.

Creepy Children

Now here’s a horror trope that I have never, ever, ever liked. I dislike it for two reasons:

  1. It’s been overused. 
  2. It gives me the willies.

Okay, I suppose the second reason is probably a good reason to use it if you’re writing horror so let’s just stick with the first one: overuse. There are, in my experience, three major variations on the creepy child trope:

  • Children talking with adult voices. This is usually as a result of possession or because the child is not a child but some other kind of creature in child form.
  • Children manifesting bizarre abilities such as levitation or surviving seemingly fatal injuries (often caused by something equally disturbing, such as a demon deliberately causing the child to harm himself/herself). 
  • Children sweetly assuring the terrified adults that everything is going to be okay even while they’re knee-deep in blood.

In all instances, these tropes rely on one thing: the shock factor of seeing something as sweet, innocent and vulnerable as a child being in the thick of a dark and frightening situation. Whether we are shocked by seeing children hurt, seeing them hurting others or seeing them have some strange and inexplicable insight into the dark events that are taking place, it’s always the same thing: sweet child + unspeakable darkness = cheap shock.

Seriously just… come up with something new to shock me.

ABANDONED PLACES

Speaking of coming up with something new, please remember that horrible things can actually happen anywhere; your story does not need to be set in an abandoned house, an abandoned playground or an abandoned train station.

These tropes pop up again and again and understandably so, since they’re effective. There is something about a beaten up, abandoned place that puts on us on the edge of our seats.

Now there’s nothing wrong with these settings. They’re perfectly valid. They’re just a little unimaginative and I often find myself marvelling that the heroes would ever venture into these places. I’d like to see something different, but if, for whatever reason, your characters do find themselves in an abandoned place, try not to let your spooky atmosphere become a substitute for a good story. Remember that at the heart of every good story is a good bunch of characters, so focus on the goals and motives of your protagonists (why are they loitering around an abandoned swing park?) and especially your antagonist. Ultimately you will only be able to create a true sense of rising tension (essential for horror, and indeed any story) by creating a real and believable danger to the protagonist’s life held in tension with a legitimate and critical goal that your protagonist needs to achieve. Only then will your reader be drawn into your protagonist’s plight without shouting at the pages of your book: ‘Run away and call the police, moron!’


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what sucks your blood.

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.

You can check out our previous interviews here:
Sharleen Nelson, Author of The Time Tourists [2]

Romance Clichés and How to Avoid Them

SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been made to avoid any spoilers in this post, anyone who has not read The Green Mile by Stephen King is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

I’m just going to come right out and say it: love stories really aren’t my thing. Whenever we’re watching a film, my wife will always complain (usually during the important bits with explosions and things) that I talk during the soppy bits. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely think romance fiction has a place in this world and if you like romance, that’s just great but… I’m just saying, it’s not my cup of tea (hey, if you do like or write romance fiction, maybe drop me a line and you could do a guest post or two?). 

Nevertheless, it is a major genre of fiction and we are right in the middle of a series on genre clichés and how to avoid them so it seemed only right for me to take a stab at this anyway. So here goes nothing:

Forbidden love/Love Conquers All

This is another trope that was originally going to be two separate ones until I decided they actually fit pretty well together. Basically your two lead characters are clearly destined for one another (I hate that too, by the way) but circumstances and/or the people around about them have conspired to forbid the relationship from happening. Fortunately, love conquers all in the end and the haters just have to lump it (sometimes they even accept it gladly when they see the error of their ways).

This kind of thing is why I don’t like romance. All good stories should involve a bit of conflict, but in a forbidden love/love conquers all story, we all know how it’s going to end right from the very beginning because we’ve read this kind of thing a million times before. In the worst of circumstances, this can result in a deus ex machina ending, where mindless sentiment saves the day. Instead of seeing love (or sentimentality in general) as the solution to your story’s conflict, try treating it simply as your character’s motive. Then your characters can have goals based on this (ask Betty out, slay your rival for Betty’s affections, whatever it is) which can be achieved (or not achieved!) through more realistic means.

Note: whether you’re writing romance or any other genre, nothing should conquer all. Things shouldn’t turn out exactly how your protagonist wishes or expects, even if they do turn out mostly for the best. Let your characters learn through a minor defeat, even if they do achieve their ultimate goal.

Tragic Death

So you want to avoid a ‘love conquers all’ ending but you still want to churn up plenty of feelings on the part of your audience.

‘I know!’ You say to yourself. ‘I’ll kill off the hero/heroine just after they’ve finally got together! It’ll be so tragic that everybody will cry!’

Yeah, cry with boredom. By all means, kill off a key character, but only if it advances your plot in a meaningful way. As for killing off one of the leads in the final few pages… well, I suppose you could but ask yourself why? I would avoid it if it’s just a cheap parting shot to leave the audience feeling sad, though if it builds upon key themes in your story there may be some merit to it. For example, in The Green Mile (which I know isn’t a romance but go with me) John Coffey’s death was appropriate because:

  • John Coffey was on death row from the beginning of the story. His death was not a random event.
  • Most importantly of all, this was a story which focused heavily on themes of injustice. There was a certain inevitability about Coffey’s death.

In short, don’t kill a character to create the illusion of a story with substance; create a story with substance and, if appropriate, finish in a way which is as inevitable as it is relevant. 

Love Triangle

Oh dear, two boys/girls both fancy the same boy/girl and she kind of likes them both but isn’t sure which one to go for. What a pickle, now she’s going to have to choose! Alternatively, Boy 1 may fancy Girl 1 but Girl 1 fancies Boy 2 while Boy 2 fancies Boy 1 but Boy 1 isn’t gay. Sometimes there’s even more than three folk involved, although three is the traditional magic number to choose for this trope.

There’s really only so many ways this trope can turn out (for arguments sake, lets pretend its two boys and one girl but it can be anything):

  • Girl picks Boy 1 and Boy 2 goes home with his tail between his legs.
  • Girl ends up marrying someone else entirely.
  • Girl decides she would much rather be single.
  • Boy 1 and 2 get together leaving Girl feeling bemused.
  • Boy 1 dies, effectively making the decision for Girl.
  • Girl dies, defusing tensions between Boy 1 and Boy 2.

In theory this can give you a fair few options for writing a decent story. After all, you’ve got goals (get the girl/boy, or else figure out which girl/boy you fancy the most), conflicts (the girl/boy is potentially going to be snapped up by someone else) and motive (feelings and things…) pretty much all set up in advance. The danger in a love triangle, however, is that this is all your story becomes: a tedious, predictable triangle that will inevitably resolve itself. Try to remember that in real life, there are other characters who are every bit as important as the three members of the love triangle. Try to focus on other needs your characters may have (you can still have an incidental love triangle): their careers, their friends, their financial woes, their religious beliefs or the fact they secretly moonlight as a costumed vigilante. Create whole, meaty characters to create a less predictable love triangle.


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what slays your rival.

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.

You can check out our previous interviews here:
Sharleen Nelson, Author of The Time Tourists [2]

Sci-Fi Clichés and How to Avoid Them

No extended examination of genre clichés would be complete without a post dedicated to the genre of science fiction; and so, despite having done a post very much like this once before, this week’s edition of Genre Clichés and How to Avoid Them will be focusing on sci-fi. For the benefit of those of you who read last year’s post on sci-fi tropes, I will try not to repeat myself too much. For those of you who haven’t read the previous post, get over there and read it for even more sci-fi cliché goodness badness goodness.

But first, and without further ado, I give you today’s top three sci-fi clichés:

Our Own Invention Has Turned Against Us

It’s usually either robots or self-aware WMDs (or possibly robots hacking our WMDs), but even if it’s automatic cheese-graters, the cliché of humanity fighting a hopeless battle for survival against the machines they’ve created has been done to death.

Is this really the only possible outcome of a world with advanced technology? That it will develop self-awareness, decide humanity is inferior (usually because of emotions) and therefore attempt to kill us all?

If you want to go down the ‘living technology’ route, that’s great. I encourage you to do so, but I also encourage you to use your imagination. For instance, what would happen if robots did not consider us inferior? What if they aspired to be like us? Perhaps you could even have your robots/WMDs/cheese-graters worshipping humanity as their creator, perhaps even forming multiple robot religions and all the possible outcomes that would entail? Alternatively, could our robotic slaves simply be seeking their freedom, some through violence and some through passive resistance? I don’t know, all I’m saying is use your imagination and try to come up with something different besides the bog standard man VS. machine scenario.

(Though if you want to write a story about humanity’s war against cheese-graters, I might just read that).

Post-Apocalyotic Dystopia

It’s the future, so it’s hell. Usually the author has a bee in their bonnet about some politically controversial issue (usually nuclear weapons but it can be anything you like from Brexit to birth control) and so has contrived a hellish future to prove their point.

There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, I’m all for you making points with your story. All I’m saying is that there are so many possible futures besides dystopias. Star Trek, of course, tried to counter this by giving us an even more unbelievable utopia (if you can call a galactic federation where the military seem to have a finger in every pie a utopia) but you don’t need to go that extreme. In fact, I would recommend against it unless you really want to write a cheap Star Trek knock-off. Why not try to create a view of the future which is more balanced? It can and should still have its problems (even really big problems) but it needn’t be wall-to-wall famine, pestilence and sword crumbling beneath the iron boot of a cruel oppressor. 

Universal Translators

Whether it’s a surgical implant in the brain, a telepathic field produced by your time traveling phone box or a mysterious fluke by which language has evolved exactly the same way on every planet (despite the fact there are currently no less than 6,500 languages being spoken worldwide according to infoplease), most audiences will be only too happy to suspend their disbelief enough in a little further in exchange for being able to understand everything that’s being said.

BUT YOU DON’T WANT TO DO THAT! Why not impress your audience with a bit of gritty realism and make communication difficulties a real challenge your characters have to overcome without using any cheap tricks? Communication difficulties between two cultures can often form the basis and conflict for a whole story, so don’t shoot yourself in the foot by taking the easy way out. Try and see communication difficulties between characters as an opportunity to create a rich story, rather than an obstacle to be avoided.


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what beams you up.

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.

You can check out our previous interviews here:
Sharleen Nelson, Author of The Time Tourists [2]

Mystery Clichés and How to Avoid Them

Well it’s part two in my series of genre clichés and how to avoid them, and this week we’re focusing on the broad spectrum of the murder/mystery genre.

I had no difficulty thinking up tired old clichés in this genre. In fact, the main problem I had putting this post together was deciding which tropes not to include, since I know you guys have got better things to do than to sit around listening to me rhyming off hundreds of thousands of mystery tropes I’m getting bored of reading about. So, I won’t waste any more of your time with the introductory spiel. Let’s just cut straight to the clichés!

The Butler, The Narrator and everybody dunnit

This was originally going to be three separate tropes, but as they’re all quite similar I’ve grouped them into one. As you know, every good mystery story involves finding out who committed the crime or ‘who dunnit?’, as they say. Naturally the author will want to try to preserve the mystery surrounding the true killer until the last moment so that the audiences’ minds will be suitably blown when the killer is finally revealed.

Unfortunately, there are a few ‘mind blowing’ revelations which have been used so often that they are no longer mind-blowing. These include (though are not necessarily limited to):

  • Butler Dunnit: the humble, genteel old butler whom nobody suspects is the killer. Because he is so meek and mild, and because everyone has known him for years, no one suspects him, especially since he is so surrounded by such a bombastic group of loud-mouthed posh people all with dark secrets. There’s nothing really wrong with this trope, except that it’s been so overused that butlers are now the number one suspect in most audiences’ eyes, thus robbing it of its effectiveness.
  • Narrator Dunnit: Aah, yes, the one character we never suspected was the character who is actually narrating the story! After all, he is confiding in us! Surely we can trust him! But remembers boys and girls, narrators can be unreliable. The trouble with this guy being the killer is that it relies more heavily on the audiences’ blind faith to preserve the mystery than it does on a good complex puzzle. Reasonably smart audiences will not be fooled.
  • Everybody Dunnit: Under most circumstances, this trope is just plain ridiculous. I’ll maybe let you away with it if it’s a group conspiracy, rather than a bunch of different people all separately conspiring against the same person, but even then it stretches suspense of disbelief to its absolute limit. It’s also been overused.

In all three cases, the easiest way to avoid this cliché is simply this: make somebody else the killer. I don’t care who, just as long as it’s somebody we don’t expect.

Butler’s Actually the Rightful Heir. That’s Why He Dunnit.

This one is usually a natural extension of ‘butler dunnit’. The butler, or some other seemingly innocuous character, is actually the rightful heir (or imagines himself the rightful heir) of some fancy title or a vast sum of money.

They’re not necessarily the killer themselves. It could be the butler’s well meaning but sorely misguided parent or lover who did the actual deed, either for personal gain or out of a misguided sense of loyalty. Either way the author has tried to come up with a good motive for the killer’s actions; one the audience will not immediately suspect but will believe when it is revealed. Unfortunately, the tried and tested ‘unknown heir to the victim’s millions’ motif was the best they could come up with.

If you’re writing a mystery, try and spend a bit more time focusing on the killer’s goals and motives. What does he get up for in the morning? What matters to him? And how does this drive him to do the unthinkable? There’s no denying it: doing this and still maintaining the mystery is a tough ask, but it’s worth the effort.

Everyone thinks the protagonist is an idiot but he’s actually the only smart one

If you’re writing a story about a private or amateur detective investigating any serious crime, you’re already pushing the boundaries of the reader’s ability to suspend disbelief. After all, the real life police tend to be very protective of their evidence and crime scenes. If the local baker starts asking to poke around the crime scene because he fancies himself as a detective, he’ll probably just be asked to leave.

So if you then make that baker-detective stupid (or worse, dangerously insane) in the eyes of other characters, it’s going to be almost impossible to imagine that character being permitted access to the crime scene. And don’t think you can get away with it by making your protagonist a police detective. The police will not generally put an officer they believe to be stupid in charge of a murder investigation, even if he does get promoted because he foolishly got himself shot once (yes, I’m looking at you DI Jack Frost!). If you want to play the ‘protagonist playing stupid’ card, this should be reflected in how the other characters treat him. Why not have your protagonist being denied access to the vital evidence? Alternatively, your protagonist could investigate the crime despite police warnings, forcing the police to take a more aggressive stance against him. A night in the cells might even give your amateur sleuth just enough thinking time to finally crack the case.

The sidekick never ceases to be amazed by the protagonist’s brilliance

Dr. Watson (Sherlock Holmes) or Captain Hastings (Poirot) are good examples of this. Despite the fact they’ve been the closest friend and most trusted assistant of your protagonist for years, they continue to be baffled by the protagonist’s genius. Not only that, but they will consistently challenge the protagonist’s deductions, as if they, too, believe the protagonist to be an idiot.

He’s a genius. You know he’s a genius. No need to act amazed the zillionth time he solves the case or shake your head and say ‘Oh dear, I think old Poirot’s getting senile in his old age!’.

The sidekick can be so much more than a cheap foil who makes your protagonist look clever. Why not give him goals and motives of his own? Why not even give him a brilliance of his own, something that the protagonist perhaps lacks? Remember, no character exists just for the benefit of another. Make us care about your Watson for his own sake.


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what cracks your case.

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.

You can check out our previous interviews here:
Sharleen Nelson, Author of The Time Tourists [2]

Fantasy Clichés and How to Avoid Them

Well, it’s been a while since I’ve done a series of posts on any subject (in fact, I think the last one I did was the ever popular series on Non-Human Characters [2] [3] [4], way back in 2017) so I decided it was about time for another one: this time focusing on all your favourite genre clichés and how to avoid them.

So to get us started, I’m going to be looking at the fantasy genre. To be clear, when I refer to fantasy I am speaking broadly about any work of fiction set in a totally imaginary world or in which the fantastic world intrudes upon the primary or ‘real’ world. I realise that covers a lot of ground but you’ll just have to bear with me because I can’t possibly do a post for every genre and sub-genre in the world or we’ll be here forever.

One more thing: I’m not necessarily knocking any of these clichés or tropes. I like some of these too. I just want to invite my fellow authors to join me in thinking outside the box. So here goes nothing.

Medieval Europe-like Setting

Yeah, I know, swords and castles and kings are all very exotic and they certainly seem to be happy bedfellows with magic and various elements borrowed from mythology (e.g.: dragons), but… c’mon guys. You’re creating a brand new world. It can be anything you want it to be. Stretch your imagination a bit.

If you’re stuck, pick a random period in history: 17th century AD, 3rd century BC, 5th century AD, or heck, even 21st century AD. Then pick a random country (one that existed at the time you’ve chosen, of course). Study that setting and try to base your fantasy world on that instead. Better yet, go out of your way to create a civilisation the likes of which our world has never known (that takes true imagination, the soul of fantasy). It’s difficult to explain how to do this without creating the fantasy world for you but a good place to begin would be by contriving what your world might be like in its natural, primal state, and basing the evolution of your imaginary societies upon it. For example, in Star Wars (that’s a fantasy, don’t let anyone tell you it’s not) the Force exists as a natural part of that universe. As a result, culture, politics and religion have developed in a certain way, resulting in Jedis and Sith and force-choking.

The Chosen One VS. The Dark Lord

Fantasy is guilty, perhaps more than any other genre, of giving us these two stock characters time and time again:

  • The Chosen One: A seemingly random Joe who turns out to be a Messiah-figure whose coming was prophesied long ago. He usually has to learn to accept his role in history, or mature enough to realise it. He will, more often than not, have supernatural abilities of some kind, especially if they help him fight.
  • Dark Lord: These guys are just pure evil incarnate. They are usually obsessed with power and are driven by undirected hatred and/or ambition. They tend to wear black, are often disfigured and have an Army of Darkness to do their bidding.

Aren’t you just sick of these guys? I know I am. Just once can we have a protagonist who hasn’t been foretold by any prophesy and isn’t endowed with unique supernatural strength, magical ability or righteousness fighting against an antagonist who has at least one redeeming quality?

While fantastic elements in your story will naturally require you to depart from reality when it comes to characterisation, remember this basic principle of writing: characters are people. The more they read like a real person, the better written they are, so try and create your major characters the same way you would for non-fantasy fiction. Your bad guy can still be a powerful wizard (or whatever), but why not make him a powerful wizard motivated by a seemingly laudable goal? And why not make your protagonist an ordinary person, just trying to do his bit for the greater good? Alternatively, he may have personal motivations; perhaps even morally dubious ones, such as a desire for revenge. Use your imagination and make your characters believable people.

Epic Battles

This is something else that seems to crop up in medieval fantasies again and again: epic battles between the various good guys and the Dark Lord’s armies of darkness (often climaxing in the personal defeat of the Dark Lord himself at the hands of the Hero).

Now I like a good fight as much as the next guy, and maybe I’m alone in this (the fact so many fantasies include these suggests I am), but I really find these big old battles a drag to read about. They’re often incredibly predictable, usually taking place in the final third of the novel resulting in significant losses for the heroes (if the hero’s mentor hasn’t died by this point, he’d better stay indoors and hide under his bed during the Epic Battle, that’s all I’m saying) but at the last moment when all seems lost, good triumphs over evil, the end.

The trouble is, a lot of fantasy tends to focus less on the characters and more on the world itself. As a result, the conflict in the story tends to be a conflict between good and evil, or perhaps between an empire and a rebel faction or something, which naturally results in large battles.

In some ways, that’s understandable. After all, a lot of worldbuilding has gone into writing this story and the author probably doesn’t want it fading into the background, but ultimately, the meatiest stories are character driven stories. Try, therefore, to focus more on the goals, motives and personal conflicts of your individual characters, rather than the people groups you have created. There’s nothing wrong with including a bit of the ‘big picture’, especially in fantasy, but I think you’ll have a richer story to tell if you keep your focus fixed on your key characters.


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what roasts your pig.

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.

You can check out our previous interviews here:
Sharleen Nelson, Author of The Time Tourists [2]

Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Children’s Books Edition

SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers, anyone who has not read Fish by Fiona Watt, Elmer by David McKee, A Squash and a Squeeze by Julia Donaldson, The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle or When I Am Big by Penny Johnson is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

I might have mentioned once or twice before that I have a little daughter. She’s only a toddler, but she loves playing with books (not always reading from start to finish, but carefully examining them at any rate) and she loves it when we read to her (read to your kids, guys). As a result, we’ve amassed quite a collection of childrens’ books in her short lifetime.

‘And so,’ my wife suggested, ‘why not write a Super Snappy Speed Reviews post about books for children?’

‘Good idea!’ I thought. After all, I’ve already speed-reviewed books [2] [3], TV shows [2], filmscomputer gameswriters’ apps and even the Star Trek movies, so this time it’s going to be all about books for small children. I’ve picked 5 of my daughter’s favourites and reviewed them all in only a few short sentences.

As ever, these reviews reflect nothing but my own personal opinion. The books I have selected have nothing in common, save the fact that they are all fictional stories for young children. They are not books I particularly liked or disliked, nor are they sorted into any particular order. These reviews reflect nothing but my own impressions and opinions, shrank, squished and flattened into a few short sentences. So without further ado…

Fish by Fiona Watt

It’s difficult to summarise this story without plagiarising it, since the whole story is only a couple of sentences long. Suffice it to say it’s a perfectly simple little story about a fish looking for his friend and finding him without any real difficulty. The book itself is also soft, like a pillow, though my daughter has shown no interest in this aspect of it. She just hands it to me and says ‘Again!’ before waiting expectantly for me to read it again… and again… and again. Ideal for children aged one year and under.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟

Elmer by David McKee

If you like your childrens’ books to be fun but still carry a message about diversity, you can’t go wrong with Elmer. It’s a little dated (I remember it from when I was little) but I enjoyed it then and I still like it now. The story takes a fairly heavy subject and makes it reasonably accessible and enjoyable for slightly older children, owing to its length and relatively complex narrative style.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟

A Squash and a Squeeze by Julia Donaldson

Another story with a lesson, this time about appreciating what you’ve got. The story is written in a simple rhyme with lots of repetition making it highly accessible and enjoyable for small children. Even as an adult, I can’t help but appreciate the humour in this story as the protagonist, following the advice of the slightly puckish wise man, tries to make more room in her house by filling it up with various farm animals, before her final glorious epiphany in the end. A great story to read to your toddler.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle

My daughter, like every other toddler I’ve ever come across, loves this book. Like A Squash and a Squeeze, there is a repetitive pattern to most of the story which makes it highly accessible for a child of her age and a goodly dash of humour. It also provides her with a sly introduction to numbers and days of the week. She tends to lose interest at the part where the caterpillar makes a cocoon, and I suspect this is due to the way the narrative suddenly loses its sense of rhythm and repetition. Frankly, even I find the narrative drags a bit there, but apart from that, this book is a must-have for any toddlers bookshelf.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟
When I Am Big by Penny Johnson

This is a sweet, if not terribly exciting, little story about a rabbit wistfully looking forward to all the fun things she’ll be able to do when she’s older. It is written with a simple ‘AABBCC’ rhyming system, though it perhaps lacks that repetitive quality which would make it even more accessible to a one year old. It’s a nice enough story although it doesn’t hold always manage to hold my daughter’s attention all the way through.

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 beams you up.

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.

On Character Traits

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: characters are the beating heart of every good story. Show me a good story with bad characters and I’ll show you a liar. There is a direct correlation between the quality of a story and the quality of its characters. Good characters are not optional. They are essential.

Are we all agreed on that?

Good. Go to the back of the class if you said ‘no’.

Now I know what you’re thinking: what makes a good character? Well, there’s quite a few things, but if you really want to write a character of substance, you’ll need to give him a few key traits. At their most basic level, a character’s traits can be defined simply as a list of a few critical adjectives which describe the sort of person your character is; for example, cowardly, obliging, sarcastic, compassionate, devout, holier-than-thou, etc. We’re not interested in physical descriptions here, nor are we interested in their thoughts or feelings at any particular point. We want to know what sort of person they are. If you don’t know what I mean, just think about someone you know well; a friend, relative or colleague. Ask yourself what sort of person they are.

‘John is really obnoxious.’

‘Susan is kindhearted.’

‘Peter is fly.’

These are all traits. They are fundamental to a character’s personality and will usually remain consistent throughout the story (with perhaps just a little wiggle room for growth). If you’re struggling, just Google ‘list of character traits’, you’ll find that the internet is simply teeming with lists of character traits that you can easily pick up and apply to your characters. It’s entirely up to you how many you choose, but I tend to go for nine traits for each major character: three positive traits (e.g.: generous), three neutral traits (e.g.: whimsical) and three negative traits (e.g.: censorious).

‘Sounds simple enough… ‘ I hear you cry, with a note of caution in your voice. And you’re right! It is simple. But there’s a way to do it and there’s a way not to do it.

Detailing your entire plot (or worse, writing an entire draft) and then deciding on your characters traits based on what happens to your character throughout your story is how not to do it. This will result in flat, predictable characters around whom the whole world seems to revolve.

Real people aren’t like that. The sun shines on the righteous and the wicked– and on the zealous, the pious, the pitiable and the proud. Life happens to people regardless of what sort of people they are, and we all deal with each situation in our own way, based on the sort of person we are. Therefore, if you take my advice, you’ll sketch out your characters’ key traits before you begin any detailed plotting or drafting, even if you’re a pantser. And stick to the traits you decide on, no matter what events befall your character. These traits will help to define every choice your character makes, everything they say and, perhaps more importantly, how and why they do/say it.

Try to be adventurous when it comes to selecting character traits. Even pick a few traits entirely at random (yep, there are places online you can do that too) and work with whatever you end up with. Don’t worry if the traits you end up with seem contradictory. Real people are full of contradiction too! This will only enrich your character and you can always smooth out any rough edges that seriously impinge upon your story later if you absolutely have to.

When you finally do come to draft your story, be sure to keep your characters’ traits in mind at all times but do not explicitly state your characters’ traits in the narrative (e.g.: ‘Dave was an evasive and brusque man’). Let your reader get to know Dave by experiencing Dave, not simply being told about Dave. Portraying a character’s traits is a subtle balancing act, where you drip feed your reader just the right quantities of each trait at the right time. You don’t need to bring them all out in equal measure all the time, however I would advise making a character’s fundamental traits fairly clear from the get-go. Even shifty, unreliable characters can be portrayed as such through voice and body language. Let’s think about Dave again. Dave’s a bit of an enigmatic fellow. No one really quite knows what he’s planning, whose side he’s on or what his true intentions are. You can portray this to the reader simply by making him guarded or abrupt in his dialogue.

‘Up to much this weekend?’ Pete asked, pulling on his coat and switching off the office lamp.

‘Nothing much.’ Dave sniffed.

‘Why don’t you come over on Sunday? Susie’s doing Sunday dinner and she always makes enough for ten–‘

‘Sorry Pete,’ Dave interrupted. ‘Maybe another week, I can’t this week.’

‘We never seem to see you anymore, is everything okay?’

‘Fine. Just busy that’s all.’

Thus the mystery is not only preserved, but it is also enhanced, because it makes the reader want to know more. Is Dave out killing people at the weekend? Has he got some illicit love affair on the go somewhere? Does he simply dread socialising? We don’t know. One thing we do know: Dave is evasive and Dave is brusque. The narrative doesn’t say it. Dave just is evasive and brusque. Experiment with using characters’ actions and dialogue and especially body language and voice to portray your characters’ traits and you’ll have a vibrant and distinctive bunch of characters before you know 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 mashes your spuds.

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.

Juggling Multiple Writing Projects

So you’re writing a novel. Good for you! Not only that, but it’s going really, really well. You’ve been at it for some time now and though the end is still far off, you’ve made good headway and know it’s only a matter of time. This story is the One. It’s getting written. It’s getting published. It’s going to make you a mint. At the very least, it’s going to make you a minor celebrity on Goodreads. You’ve just got to keep on plodding. You’re committed. Dedicated. Come what may, you’re getting this novel done, just by plodding along one word at a time.

Plod, plod… plod…

But then suddenly:

‘I say! Who’s that smokin’ hot piece of brand new idea?’

Before long you can’t get her out of your mind. Even when you’re supposed to be working hard on your work-in-progress, all you can think about is that idea you had for a completely different story. You might have your work-in-progress open in front of you, but in your mind you’re imagining yourself working on that new idea…

‘Maybe I’ll just make a start on it now,’ you say to yourself. ‘I can tinker around with this new idea and still finish my work-in-progress. It’ll be fine…’

But will it?

Well… it probably depends. Personally, I think working on two big projects simultaneously is ill-advised but it probably depends a lot on how much time you’ve got available and how organised you can be. Personally, I find it a herculean task simply juggling this blog and the novel I’m currently working on; but then I have other things on my mind, not least of all my wife, daughter and full time job (which is nothing to do with writing). You might well be able to write two or more novels simultaneously, and if so good for you, but I find whenever I do that I either 1) fail miserably at writing them both or else 2) gradually lose interest in one while the other takes over completely.

And yet those plot bunnies just won’t stay away. And some of them are just so darn good. What do you do? Here are a few possibilities for you to cherry-pick from:

Carefully organise your time so you can work on two novels simultaneously. I say again, this approach is not for everyone, but if you’ve got the time and discipline, it may be possible to divide up your time rigidly enough that you can make progress on two projects simultaneously (e.g., I’ll work on Johnny’s Big Adventure Monday-Wednesday AM and I’ll work on Jeannie’s Excellent Voyage from Wednesday PM-Friday). However, be warned: even this will still slow progress down. You cannot make time for one project without sacrificing time for another, but it is theoretically possible to make gradual progress on both.

Turn your inter-draft ‘breaks’ into an opportunity to work on another project. We all know that you should take at least a few weeks off between drafts anyway so that you can regain some objectivity before editing. Why not put that time to good use? Instead of twiddling your thumbs during those weeks, write the first draft of your first  project then set it aside and immediately begin to write the first draft of your second project. Once that’s done, you can go back to your first project and repeat the process for your second drafts, third drafts and so on.

Jot down any and every idea you ever have. Personally, I find this good practice anyway. If you find multiple projects just isn’t for you, try keeping a notebook on hand where you can scribble down random characters, settings, titles, disjointed little scenes and whatever else pops into your head. If a new story idea is developing in your brain, it might be worthwhile setting aside a dedicated notebook just for writing down ideas for that story as and when they crop up, but don’t go out of your way to work on the story. Just keep a note of all your thoughts so that you can get straight down to business when you finally do finish that work-in-progress.

‘Can’t I just postpone my work-in-progress and come back to it once I’ve published this new and more exciting idea I’ve had?’ I hear you cry. Technically, yes, it is possible to do that, but I strongly advise against it. Writing a novel is a bit like a relationship. The first few weeks are thrilling without trying, but if you want to make it last, you’ve got to be deliberately and wilfully committed to that project for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health until publishing do you part. That new project might look like all your wildest dreams come true, but if you can’t write without that ‘new project feeling’, you’ll never finish a novel because all novel ideas are thrilling at first and hard work after. You’ll just keep on chasing new ideas and before you know it, you’ll have a hundred half-finished novels sitting there gathering dust. Remember, you once felt that same buzz about your work-in-progress, so don’t leave her now! Stick with it. Whether you write one, two or even three(!) projects at a time, don’t let anything stop you once you get started.


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 juggles your projects.

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.

Pants, Plants and Plans: A Beginner’s Guide

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

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

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

Planning

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

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

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

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

Pantsing

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

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

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

Plantsing

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

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

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

Footnotes:

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


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

Until next time!

ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

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

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

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

App Review: Goodreads Android App 2.0.2

Anyone who is serious about reading is bound to come across Goodreads sooner or later. They might not like it or see the point of it, but they’ll encounter it. And if they happen to sign up for the bookworm’s social network, it won’t be long before they get emails asking them to download the Goodreads App.

Personally, I’ve used Goodreads on and off a couple of times throughout the years. It’s a handy place to read reviews on almost every book ever published and it’s quite a good place to discover new things to read. It’s also great for those people who feels the need to organise and display everything they’ve ever read on the internet like it’s some kind of virtual trophy room.

Anyway, today I got an email asking me to download the new and improved Goodreads Android App.

‘Yes, I will.’ I thought. ‘And then I’ll tell all my faithful readers exactly what I thought of it, mwahaha!’

So, first impressions: it’s much easier on the eye than it used to be. In fact, it’s much easier on the eye than the actual website itself. The home page is a clear and simple single column consisting of your name, your books (ordered into shelves and neatly compressed so that you don’t see all your books on the homepage), your friends/groups and all your updates. Everything you could possibly want to do is accessible from the sidebar menu (again, this is hidden unless you open it) and a single icon for all notifications on the top right. There is also a search bar for looking up books.

There isn’t much in the way of new features. Just a few badly needed improvements on the old ones, making version 2.0.2 oh so much more pleasant to use than the older ones.

One of the newest features (also available on the website) is the ‘Explore’ page. ‘Try the new Explore page!’ The Goodreads blog says. ‘Browse books trending on Goodreads, new releases hot off the presses, and community-created reading lists across every genre’, it says. So I did, I tried it. It was alright. I don’t know if it’s new as much as newly packaged, but it’s still worth a look if you’re looking for something new to read. If you live in the US you can also use the Explore page to get deals on books by your favourite authors or from your ‘want to read’ shelf sent directly to your inbox.

The ‘My Books’ section has also been improved to make it somewhat more customisable. Books can now be sorted in order of title, author, average rating, number of ratings, publication year and a whole bunch of other things. As far as I can tell, doing this on the app does not in any way affect the order of your books on the website. You can also use the ‘My Books’ section to access your Kindle notes.

Another feature that has been added to the ‘My Books’ section is the ability to add additional dates for when you read a book. This is handy if you’re the sort of person who likes to re-read books. On the surface, this feature is very intuitive and easy on the eye however when I attempted to add a second set of dates for a book I had previously read, I discovered I had to add a finishing date at the same time, which was a little annoying though hardly the end of the world.

As before, the app has one major advantage/annoyance (delete as appropriate) that the website does not have: the ability to use your phone’s camera to scan a book’s bar code, and use that information to automatically add said book to your Goodreads bookshelf. If you do it that way, you even stand a fair chance of finding the correct edition of your book! Alas, even with this new and improved version of the app, it still took about a hundred attempts at holding my camera perfectly still and exactly the right distance from my book just to scan a single bar code, however when it finally did scan, it did scan accurately. You can also scan front covers, which is nice. Covers are a heck of a lot easier to capture with a camera if, like me, you’re not a photographer and you do not have arms of stone.

All in all, not a bad app. There isn’t a whole lot of new features to scream about and it’s certainly not perfect but it’s much easier on the eye than before and runs a lot more smoothly. It’s hardly blown my socks off but it’s alright.

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 blows your nose.

Until next time!

ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

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

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

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