6 Things I’ve Learned About Writing Fiction

Writing is an art. Like any art form, it’s something you learn as you go. Even those rare child prodigies who are born excellent writers will still undoubtedly pick up a few nuggets of wisdom as they practice and hone their craft. It’s only natural. The longer you do a thing, the better you get at it.

Most of the writing tips I’ve shared on this website over the last few years have been things I have simply learned by experience, and so today I’ve decided to share a brief selection of some of the lessons I’ve learned over the years which I think have helped to make me a better writer. And so without further ado and in no particular order:

Lesson #1: You Can’t edit a blank page

Although it may go against the grain, the best way to write is to write boldly without stopping to worry about how good or bad it is. In fact, even if you know it sucks, you should still just plough on with your story until it’s finished and come back to fix it later. Heck, you’re going to do a few drafts anyway (aren’t you?).

This is no new commandment but an old one. Although it can be tempting to fix bits you’re unsatisfied with (or worse still, refuse to write them in the first place), editing as you go is ultimately crippling. You will not get anything finished writing that way.

lesson #2: Characters are the beating heart of any good story

Regular readers of this blog (God bless you kind people) will know I’ve said this a billion times before so it’s only right that I say it again: characters can make or break any story. I don’t care how clever, imaginative or well researched the rest of your story is, half-baked characters will ruin your story while excellent characters can make even the most simple of stories a joy to read.

Moreover a plot can emerge from a good cast of characters in a way which feels natural (to the reader at least; writers must sweat blood no matter what). After all, in real life events happen to people; people don’t happen to events. So too, it is better to make your characters the focus of your story and ask what happens to them, rather than creating a plot first and then populating it with characters whom you have contrived to suit it.

lesson #3: CONSISTENCY and Persistence are essential

It can be tempting for inexperienced writers to imagine inspiration is the key to being a good story writer. Such writers will only be inclined to write when they are overcome with a wave of inspiration or when they are feeling particularly ‘in the zone.’

Experienced writers know what folly that is. It might sound less exciting (in fact, it often is less exciting) but the real secret to producing a steady flow of work is to be consistent with your writing routine, regardless of how you feel and to persist with your story even when you hate it.

lesson #4: There Are No Bad Ideas; Only Bad Executions

Whenever you have an idea for a story, it can be tempting to immediately judge it in one of two ways:

  • This is the best idea ever! I can’t wait to sit down and write this masterpiece!
  • That’s a terrible idea. I’ll just pretend I didn’t have it…

In my experience, judging the quality of an idea in this way is a mistake. The fact is, ideas are a pound a dozen and have very little bearing on the quality of the final story. Even the stupidest ideas can yield a good story, if the story is well planned with characters whose goals and motives we care about; and the reverse is also true.

Lesson #5: In the early stages, only handwriting will do

Maybe this doesn’t apply to you, but I find that when I’m trying to come up with new material, I just can’t seem to get the creative juices flowing using a computer, tablet or phone. It has to be pen and paper. I have to be able to scribble freely. Even Scapple is a poor substitute for pen and paper at the earliest stages of brainstorming new ideas.

Once I have a rough idea of my basic plot and who the main players in my story will be, I quickly transfer to working with apps like Scapple, Scrivener or FocusWriter but until I reach that stage, it’s paper and pen all the way. Nothing else works. While this might not be the case for you, I still think it’s worthwhile having a think about what helps you to work most effectively at each stage.

Lesson #6: Like It Or Lump It, Your Intended Audience Matters

No story, no matter how well written, appeals to everybody. However, most reasonably well written stories will appeal to somebody. If you try to please everyone, you are doomed to fail but knowing your intended audience in advance will allow you to determine exactly what kind of themes, characters and adult elements are appropriate for your story. Discussed in more detail here.

What about you? What nuggets of writerly wisdom have you picked up over the years? Be sure to share them in the comments below so we can all benefit from your wisdom!


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 sautés your onions.

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. 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/Pinterest.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Sharleen Nelson, Author of The Time Tourists [2]

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Why Your Fantastic Story Idea Has To Die

So you’ve had a fantastic idea for a new story: something really original, really clever and just plain brilliant. Well, bully for you, I say! It’s a wonderful feeling not only knowing what you’re next story is going to be about, but actually knowing that it’s a real cracker of an idea.

Enjoy your good feelings while you can but don’t fall in love with your idea. If you do, you’ll only end up languishing in Inspiration Hell the moment you try to put your idea into action. If you want my advice, you’ll treat your idea as a profane thing from the very moment it’s conceived. It is not sacred. It is not too beautiful to die. Frankly, it’s probably not as clever as you thought. Unless you’ve laid a real golden egg of an idea, you’ll probably have to kill it– and the sooner the better.

‘Now wait a minute there, old bean!’ I hear you cry. ‘That seems a bit harsh!’

Maybe it is, but I still think it will save you a lot of heartache in the long run if you take it to heart now. No element of your story should ever be safe from being tweaked, twisted or downright axed. This includes the original premise of your story, however clever it might be.

This is no new commandment. We all know how important it is to ‘kill your darlings’ when you write. You know what I mean: those glorious, beautiful little bits of narrative you’ve written that you think are so wonderful, but they ultimately do nothing for your story and have to go.

However, unlike most darlings on the headsman’s block, the original idea is not something you can simply come back to at the editing stage. If you write a dodgy sentence, an unnecessary scene or even several chapters of pointless drivel, you can still plod along quite the thing until you finish the draft. Not so with your original idea! If you fall too hard in love with it, you’ll never make it past the first draft (assuming you ever get the first draft started), because you will be unprepared to take whatever ruthless steps are required to fix the glaring weaknesses in your plot. If your original idea isn’t working, you must be prepared to kill it without mercy.

‘But if I kill my original idea, won’t I be right back at square one, with no idea whatsoever?’ I hear you cry.

No, of course not. Your original idea still serves a purpose: a new idea will be born from its ashes. Almost every story idea has at least a million possible alternative directions you can work in and I would encourage you to experiment with all of these (Scapple is my app of choice for organising my thoughts in this regard, though a good old fashioned pen and paper also does the trick). Perhaps your love interest should really be the protagonist? Perhaps your protagonist should be a pixie instead of a wizard? Heck, perhaps we should forget about pixies and wizards and go for cowboys instead? One of the best decisions I ever made in one of my old fantasy stories was to change from a medieval fantasy setting to a post-industrial fantasy. The basic themes, conflict and characters were essentially the same but by letting go of my determination to have knights on horses, my mind suddenly exploded with a whole bunch of material that yielded a much better story.

Even if your original idea is working, you will still need to be prepared to develop it, and that involves making changes, both big and small, so even if you stick with the same core idea, it will still require painful surgery to make it function. It is better, therefore, to simply have the attitude that your idea is profane and eligible for the chop from the very beginning. The fact is, no story idea ever comes to you fully formed. Ideas are like clumps of marble used in sculpting. Some clumps might be easier to work with than others and some might be utterly useless, but none of them can become Discobolus or David until someone first takes a hammer and chisel to it.


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 chisels your marble.

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. 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 Edition (vol. 2)

SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers, anyone who has not read Monkey Puzzle by Julia Donaldson, Little Miss Inventor by Adam Hargreaves, Elmer in the Snow by David McKee, Perky the Pukeko by Michelle Osment or The Gruffalo’s Child by Julia Donaldson is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

Believe it or not, the last edition of Super Snappy Speed Reviews was way back in October, just before series 11 of Doctor Who started, so I decided it was time for another exciting instalment. This time (though not for the first time) I’m looking at children’s books. Just to be clear, my daughter is not quite two years old yet, and so, when I say ‘children’s books’, I am talking about books aimed at very young children, rather than children’s novels.

You know the drill by now. These reviews reflect nothing but my own personal opinions and impressions, sliced, diced and shredded into a few short sentences. The books I have selected have nothing in common, save the fact that they are all fictional stories for very young children. They are not necessarily books I particularly liked or disliked, nor are they sorted into any particular order. So, here we go.

Monkey Puzzle by Julia Donaldson

My daughter loves this book and so do I. The narrative is uncomplicated, written in rhyme (always a plus for small children) and with a goodly dash of humour which does not seem to be lost on my one year old. It’s also not without its educational value, giving descriptions of a whole bunch of different types of animals.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

Little Miss Inventor by Adam Hargreaves

I think this is my daughter’s favourite at the moment, judging by the fact I have to read it to her at least fifty times per hour. Little Miss Inventor is a fun character, intelligent and not to be deterred from making Mr Rude a birthday present he’ll really love despite him being one of the most unpleasant individuals in all Mr Men lore. If I’m really picking nits, I think the writing style was a bit clumsy at points, with sentence breaks in places I would not have expected them, for example: ‘She made a back-pack-snack-attack fridge for Mr Greedy. For snacks on the go.’

I’m pretty sure that could have been one sentence.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟

Elmer in the Snow by David McKee

My daughter’s got a few Elmer books and she seems to enjoy them. Personally, I find this one a bit of a drag. The narrative lacks the snappy rhythm required to hold a toddler’s interest and the plot is frankly boring. Even toddler’s books should have a little bit of safe, inoffensive conflict to make the story worth reading (e.g.: Little Miss Inventor couldn’t think of a good invention for Mr Rude; Monkey lost his mum and his only helper is completely useless; etc). All in all, on the rare occasions my daughter asks for this one, I tend to sigh inwardly (though outwardly I’m enthusiastic for her sake) and hope she won’t want me to read it over and over too many times.

My rating: 🌟🌟

Perky the Pukeko by Michelle Osment

This story is okay. My daughter likes it, perhaps not with the same enthusiasm as Little Miss Inventor, but she asks for it now and again.

It’s written in rhyme, which is a plus for toddler’s stories, though I find the rhythm of narrative is a little off beat at times, often, I fear, because the author was trying a bit too hard to be clever. It is the only toddler’s book I have ever read which actually featured a glossary at the back.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟

The Gruffalo’s Child by Julia Donaldson

This book is, by all accounts, a sequel to The Gruffalo so it probably helps to be familiar with that story before you read this one. It’s not really necessary though. The story makes perfect sense on its own merits. In Donaldson’s usual masterful style, this story ticks all the boxes for repetition, rhythm and rhyme. Young children can easily relate to the protagonist who initially ignores her father’s instructions, designed to keep her safe, only to quickly realise her mistake and return to the safety of her father’s cave.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟

Don’t forget to check out all the previous editions of Super Snappy Speed Reviews
Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Doctor Who Edition Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Children’s Books Edition (vol 1)
Super Snappy Speed Reviews: TV Edition (vol. 2)Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Writing Apps for Android
Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Books (vol. 3)Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Games Edition
Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Star Trek EditionSuper Snappy Speed Reviews: Books (vol. 2)
8 Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Film5 Super Snappy Speed Reviews: TV Edition
8 Super Snappy Speed Reviews

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 tickles your toes.

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. 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]

5 Useful Fiction and Writing Blogs

We writers have got to support each other. That’s why every now and again I’ll do a post showcasing the work of other fiction and writing bloggers besides my own. This week is such a week.

Previously I’ve shared specific posts that I’ve found particularly useful or entertaining but I’m doing it a bit different this week. Instead of sharing individual posts, I’m sharing links to whole blog sites that I find myself returning to again and again, either because they’re full of useful tips and resources or because they’re just plain enjoyable to read.

As ever, this is simply a selection of my favourites, not an exhaustive list; and as ever, this list is in no particular order.

A Writer’s Perspective – If you’re a writer of historical fiction set in the 14th century or even just mildly curious about how people lived back then, this blog is definitely worth a look. It’s full of interesting little articles about everything from castles to medieval cuisine written by historical romance author April Munday.

TurtleWriters – ‘A Community for Slow Writers’. This is a great little blog site to find help and support if you’re the sort of writer who feels like they’re wading through treacle whenever they try to write. The blog is updated pretty sparingly, but it’s just such a useful breath of fresh air to us ordinary folk who want to write that I had to include it.

Rebecca Alasdair – Useful and enjoyable writing tips, general author updates and reflections on reading and writing. Also as an aside, this blog is much easier on the eye than a lot of blog sites.

Now Novel – In addition to a plethora of other resources (writing courses, groups, story idea finder, etc.), Now Novel boasts a blog with a motherload of writing tips for would-be novelists. I’ve never used any of its paid services but it’s blog alone is a tremendous resource for anyone who wants to write a novel and doesn’t know where to begin.

Morgan Hazelwood – Like her tagline says, Morgan’s blog is full of writing tips and writerly musings – with plenty of video for those too lazy to read.


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 squeezes your lemons.

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. 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]

How to Help Your Audience Suspend Disbelief

Before I begin, let me ask you a question: what is the hardest thing to believe about Superman? Is it the fact he can fly, deflect bullets and shoot heat rays from eyes? Is it the fact he is faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than… you know? Or is it something else?

As you may be aware, if you’ve been following this blog regularly, I’m cooking up an original superhero story, which I plan to publish in regular instalments here on Penstricken. Now all writing has its challenges, but if there is one thing that I’ve found difficult to get right with this particular story, it is the willing suspension of disbelief.

‘The willing suspension of disbelief?’ I hear you cry. ‘What the heck is that?’

I’m glad you asked. Basically, whenever an audience sits down to read a book or watch a play, they make a subconscious decision to accept the truthfulness of what is happening despite knowing it to be a work of fiction. If the audience does not suspend their disbelief, they will never be able to enjoy the story, because they’ll spend the whole time pointing out all the obvious contrived and plain ridiculous elements that are required to make a good story. While it is ultimately something the audience can decide to do or not to do, you as the writer have a responsibility to write a story which makes it easy for the audience to suspend their disbelief.

Does this mean magic, goblins and (in my case) superheroes are out? Certainly not. People have been telling stories about magic, goblins and yes, even super-powered humans doing incredible things since ancient times. If the current trend in Marvel and DC films is anything to go by, humanity’s taste for the impossible has not dwindled much in the last few millennia. It’s also true that there are plenty of non-fantasy/speculative stories which can utterly fail to inspire the willing suspension of disbelief. The issue is not one of what is possible. The issue is of what is likely.

The hardest thing to believe about Superman isn’t the fact he comes from another planet, nor is it the fact he has incredible powers. Those things are perfectly acceptable within the rules of the Superman universe. The most ridiculous thing about Superman* is the fact that Lois Lane (and everyone else) is actually fooled by a pair of glasses. I started wearing glasses for the first time back in 2014, and when I went into work the next day my colleagues didn’t all demand to see my ID badge, nor did my boss phone me up and ask me why I wasn’t at work. They knew it was me. That’s because glasses really don’t obscure a face that well.

But as much as everybody loves you there is one question that keeps coming up: “How dumb was she?” Here, I’ll show you what I mean. Look (puts glasses on). I’m Clark Kent (glasses off). No, I’m Superman (glasses on). Mild-mannered reporter (glasses off). Superhero. Hello? Clark Kent is Superman. Well, that was worth the whole trip. To actually meet the most galactically stupid woman who ever lived.

Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, s. 2 ep. 18 ‘Tempus Fugitive’ 

Source: https://www.springfieldspringfield.co.uk/view_episode_scripts.php?tv-show=lois-and-clark-the-new-adventures-of-superman&episode=s02e18 (parentheses mine)

At this point, there is something very important to point out: in order to function, almost every story you ever write will feature a little unlikely element here or there. That’s okay, as long as you don’t push the audience’s ability to suspend their disbelief too far. Think of these things like using selloptape to wrap a Christmas present. You need a little, but too much spoils the whole thing. The audience will put up with one very small ‘oh come on, that wouldn’t happen!’ moment provided it helps your story along and isn’t the beating heart of your story in and of itself. For instance, Superman wouldn’t work without the glasses ‘disguise’, but its not fundamental to who he is or what he does. It’s just a simple trick to allow him to lead a double life and it’s unobtrusive enough for the audience to forgive, assuming the audience wants to enjoy the story (a determined audience can and will find the joins in even the most perfect stories; don’t let them get you down).

Having said all of that, you still need to take care when you are constructing fantastic elements for your story too. You can’t just have a dragon pop up and save the day in the last few pages of your story when previously you had no dragons. You can make your fantasy world as ridiculous and as imaginative as you like (have you read The Colour of Magic?) but there are still a few important things to remember if you want the audience to fully suspend their disbelief. I’ll rattle through them quickly.

Every fantasy world has rules. These can be almost anything you want, but you can’t deviate from the rules of your fantasy world any more than you can deviate from the laws of physics in real life.

Consider your genre and your audience. You’ll get away with elves in a fantasy. You won’t get away with them so easily in a space opera. Your audience will almost certainly approach your story with certain expectations, so think long and hard before you deviate from them.

Foreshadow. Don’t introduce fantastic elements as and when they’re needed. If Superman only flew when he had a missile to catch but got the train everywhere else, we would find this sudden introduction in the story’s climax a little jarring (might even read like a deus ex machina). If he can fly, he can fly– so let him fly! Don’t have him climbing ladders to change light-bulbs. He can fly! He’s not going to forget he can fly!

Avoid making things too easy for your characters. Whether it’s a personal code of morality, a price for casting magic or some other Achilles heel, if all your hero has to do is snap his fingers and save the day with his powers, you’ll have created an anticlimax. Nothing in life is ever as easy as simply magicking your problems away, and no matter how much your audience might enjoy magic or reversing the polarity, a good story reflects this. Your hero has to face a challenge to overcome using their head, their heart and their hands. There’s a reason Superman always winds up a cage made of Kryptonite. The bit where he escapes the Kryptonite using nothing more than his wits, his natural human strength and his burning passion to save the day is always more satisfying than the bit immediately after where he catches and disarms the missile in midair and actually serves to make the final ‘magical’ rescue all the more exciting.

*Okay, there’s also the fact of his impeccable moral purity, but that’s a deeper issue of character writing that I’ll talk about some other time. In fact, I already have.


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 suspends your disbelief.

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. 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]

What Should I Spend My Waterstones Vouchers On?

There’s never a Christmas goes past where I don’t get at least a couple of Waterstones vouchers from somebody. It’s one of the highlights of my year, every year! Free books and lots of them!

This year has been no exception, so I’m calling on you, dear reader, to help me decide what to buy from Waterstones this year (while reserving the right to ignore all your suggestions if I don’t like them). I have only one rule: it must be fiction; not that I’ve got a problem with non-fiction but… I’ve got plenty of non-fiction I’ve still not read. I’m fresh out of new fictional material and besides, this blog is all about fiction so fiction it is!

To help, I have compiled a list of all the books on my shelf which I liked at least a little bit. I’ve not included books I hated, books I never finished, books I never started or books I no longer own, so if it’s on this list I still own it and have derived at least some small modicum of pleasure from reading it.

I also tried to sort them into order of how much I enjoyed them, starting with the one I enjoyed the most and ending with the one I enjoyed the least. That proved to be a heck of a lot more difficult. The fact is, books are hard to compare in such a black-and-white fashion, especially when they are of different genres, so I’ve probably not given a very accurate reflection of how I feel about these books but I’ve done my best. I’ve tried to avoid thinking about which ones were technically better, and have focused simply on which ones I enjoyed the most; thus, this list says more about my tastes and moods than it does about the actual quality of the writing. So don’t get cross if you’re favourite is at the bottom. I’m not sure if the order of this list makes as much sense as I’d hoped anyway.

So anyway, here goes nothing:

  • Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
  • Cannery Row by John Steinbeck
  • Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck
  • The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson
  • Madness by Roald Dahl
  • The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  • The Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson
  • Ben Hur by Lew Wallace
  • The Acts of King Arthur and his Noble Knights by John Steinbeck
  • The Green Mile by Stephen King
  • The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett (click here for my review)
  • Hero of Ages by Brandon Sanderson
  • Doctor Faustus (The ‘A’ Text) by Christopher Marlowe
  • The Wayward Bus by John Steinbeck
  • The Pearl by John Steinbeck
  • Deception by Roald Dahl
  • Cup of Gold by John Steinbeck
  • The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie
  • Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde with The Merry Men & Other Stories by Robert Louis Stevenson
  • The Edge of Eternity by Isaac Asimov
  • The Red Pony by John Steinbeck
  • Sweet Thursday by John Steinbeck
  • East of Eden by John Steinbeck
  • The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz
  • Hercule Poirot’s Christmas by Agatha Christie
  • Different Seasons by Stephen King
  • The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas
  • The Vagrant by Peter Newman
  • Curtain by Agatha Christie
  • Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
  • Five Little Pigs by Agatha Christie
  • The Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie
  • Moriarty by Anthony Horowitz
  • The Seven by Peter Newman
  • The Malice by Peter Newman (click here for my review)
  • The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie
  • Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis
  • The Final Act of Mr Shakespeare by Robert Winder
  • Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (click here for my review)
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  • The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie
  • The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi (click here for my review)
  • The Gospel of Loki by Joanne Harris
  • The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • A Touch of Frost by R.D. Wingfield
  • Frost at Christmas by R.D. Wingfield
  • Winter Frost by R.D. Wingfield
  • Hard Frost by R.D. Wingfield
  • A Killing Frost by R.D. Wingfield (noticing a pattern here? One Frost novel is pretty much like another!)
  • Night Frost by R.D. Wingfield
  • The Time Tourists by Sharleen Nelson (click here for my interview with the author [2])
  • A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin
  • I, Robot by Isaac Asimov
  • Perelandra by C.S. Lewis
  • Men Without Women by Ernest Hemingway
  • The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien
  • That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis
  • The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • Emperor: The Gates of Rome by Conn Iggulden
  • Uncommon Type: Some Stories by Tom Hanks
  • The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck
  • The Afrika Reich by Guy Saville
  • Arena by Karen Hancock
  • The Great Dune Trilogy by Frank Herbert
  • The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
  • Hard Times by Charles Dickens

And that’s a wrap! Good golly Miss Molly, that is one mixed up list. I don’t even think it comes close to capturing how I truly feel about some of these books but meh… hopefully it will give you a vague notion of my tastes at least and help you come up with good book suggestions for me. Ready, set, go!


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 waters your stones.

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. 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]

Christmas Clichés and How to Avoid Them

Well it just wouldn’t be Christmas without a good Christmas movie/Christmas special of your favourite TV show; and so, since I’ve just come to the end of my series on genre clichés and how to avoid them, I thought: what better thing to post about this Christmas than Christmas movie clichés?

So here we go ho ho! (Sorry).

Film Ends; Snow Begins

Question: how do you know when a Christmas story is nearly finished?

Answer: it starts snowing and everybody’s amazed. It seems to be the only ending anyone has has been able to come up with for a Christmas flick.

There’s a really clever trick to avoiding this particular cliché. Basically, you just end it any other way you like! Kissy endings are fine, violent deaths are fine, I’ll even put up with riding off into the sunset but please, if you have any sense of compassion, don’t make me sit through another inevitable snow ending!

Christmas Miracles

These little deus ex machinas appear in an alarming number of Christmas films. They don’t tend to solve the main conflict of the story (though they sometimes do, and should be doubly ashamed of themselves) but usually involve small miracles at the very end of the story to instantly undo any lingering sadness that might remain from the struggle that has gone before. For instance, just after the main conflict of the story has been resolved and the film appears to be over, the boy’s puppy who got flattened by a monster truck in the in the first half hour of the film comes running down the road to meet him. Then the snow starts. The end.

The rules about how to write a good ending don’t just change because it’s Christmas. Your protagonists have struggled throughout the story; even if they haven’t lost anything substantial, they’ve had a rough time. There was a bad guy who wanted to hurt them. There was a real danger that Christmas might be cancelled. Your characters have developed and learned things from their strife as much as from their victory; don’t rob them of that by making everything magically fall into place for them in the last few minutes.

The Conversion of Scrooge

Yeah, Dickens I’m blaming you for this one. In this trope, there’s always a bitter and miserable old git who hates Christmas and wants to spoil it for everyone but in the climax of the story they learn the true meaning of Christmas (note: it’s seldom the true, true meaning of Christmas but usually some woolly notion about love and fuzziness) and become a nice person who decides to join the Christmas party, give all their money to the poor and generally become a real life Santa Claus (double cliché points if the real life Santa Claus is the one who teaches your miser the true meaning of Christmas). 

I mean… depending on exactly what your bad guy did, I’m inclined to give you a bit of leeway on this one. After all, it is Christmas: good will to men and all that jazz. But if your antagonist has deliberately tried to ruin Christmas for everyone (especially if it involved committing a serious atrocity), a little bit of comeuppance wouldn’t go amiss… would it? 

I know you want to be nice to your bad guys but come on… if you think he deserves it, then just be brave and do what my favourite Christmas movie hero always does: blow him up and say ‘yippee ki yay’. Your audience will respect you for it. They probably hate your bad guy’s guts too.


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 jingles your bells.

Merry Christmas!

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

I’m still looking for more authors to interview here on Penstricken, especially 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]

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]