Throwback Thursday: Popping Off

It’s Thursday, and time, therefore, for another quick trip down memory lane. Of all the flash fictions I’ve published on Penstricken over the years, I think this one is my personal favourite. I was originally inspired to write this story by the quote from Plato: ‘I am about to die, and that is the hour in which men are gifted with prophetic power’, but it quickly turned into a story about greed, family and how people face their own mortality. A little grimmer than what I usually go for, but I was pleased with it.

I hope you like it too.

100 Word Story: Popping Off

First published 11/02/2018

It’s time I subjected you all to another one of my under-performing flash fictions I nevertheless believe in. I actually had quite high hopes for this one and submitted it to a couple of places in hopes of publication but no cigar as they say in Cuba. But that’s what blogs are for!

As ever, what follows here is entirely my own work and has not been published anywhere else in the world, whether on print or online, nor do I expect it to be. And so, without further ado, I give you…

POPPING OFF

by A. Ferguson

My family have a curse. One hour before death, we become omniscient. Foreknowledge, insight, everything. Can you imagine?

I’m at the office and it’s happening to me now. I’m only thirty-one.

Imagine that.

I should phone Janice, but when I think how she badgered dad with questions at his Hour…

Stuff it. I’ll write her. Might as well use up the office stationary.

‘Jan,

Saturday’s lotto numbers:  4, 7, 12, 22, 34, 36, 5.

You’re welcome.

Nick’

I need to post this quick. I’ll be out of time soon.

‘Kate, family emergency.’ I call to my supervisor. ‘Can I pop off early?’

THE END


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Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Books (vol. 4)

SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers in this post, anyone who has not read: Lust by Roald Dahl, Dune by Frank Herbert, Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, The Mystery of the Blue Train by Agatha Christie or The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler is hereby advised that this point may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

Well, it’s been a while since I’ve done one of these things so I thought it was time for another exciting ‘books’ edition of Super Snappy Speed Reviews. You know how it all works by now: I review a bunch of books in a few short sentences and give a rating out of five stars for each. As ever, these reviews reflect nothing but my own personal opinions and impressions, condensed, crushed and deflated into a few short sentences. The books I have selected have nothing in common, save that they are all fictional. They are not necessarily books I particularly liked or disliked, nor are they sorted into any particular order. So, here we go.

Lust by Roald Dahl

Yes, the author of the B.F.G and James and the Giant Peach also wrote a few short stories about two friends who swap wives for the night, leper-loving-ladykillers and the devastating effects of combining politics with powerful aphrodisiacs. In true Roald Dahl style, this collection of short stories is often strange, occasionally dark and profoundly compelling. An excellent book.

Just not for children.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

Dune by Frank Herbert

An absolute classic of the sci-fi genre: Dune is a complex, multifaceted and inventive. It is full of detailed world building, a well written cast of characters and undeniably forms part of the bedrock of the modern space opera genre.

Unfortunately, I did find it a bit of a drag at points. It feels needlessly wordy at times, has an increasingly grim tone from start to finish (and beyond if you read the whole series) and often sacrifices entertainment value to make way for its own cleverness. The dialogue was a bit dry at points too.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

If you ask me what my favourite book of all time is, there’s a very good chance I’ll say ‘Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck.’

Where do I begin? Rich characters, a simple but compelling plot, vivid description, excellent use of figurative language, excellent narrative voice, carefully explored themes and a tragic ending. I can’t sing its praises highly enough.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟 + ∞

The Mystery of the Blue True by Agatha Christie

Reading a Poirot novel has become like putting on a pair of comfortable slippers to me. You expect a similar blend of 1920s well-to-do types, scandal, bridge games, drawing rooms/steam trains and so forth while Poirot confidently pursues the truth all the while being patronised by those who think they know better. If that’s all you’re looking for, The Mystery of the Blue Train will not disappoint. It’s everything a Poirot novel should be (Oh, and I didn’t figure out ‘who dunnit’ prematurely which is always a plus).

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

I read this book for one simple reason: I didn’t have enough hard boiled detective fiction in my life and Raymond Chandler’s work is widely and justifiably considered to be the daddy of them all. The dialogue and narrative voice are both rich and striking (a little too rich at points; my ’30s American slang is a little rusty and I didn’t always understand it), the mood is dark without being depressing and the mystery is complex enough to keep the reader trying to figure out ‘who dunnit’ from cover to cover.

In spite of that, I personally found it a bit of a slog to read and, at times, a little difficult to understand, perhaps because the 1930’s American language and culture was so foreign to me. A very well written novel to be sure but not my cup of tea.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟

DON’T FORGET TO CHECK OUT ALL THE PREVIOUS EDITIONS OF SUPER SNAPPY SPEED REVIEWS
Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Children’s Edition (Vol. 2) 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 Edition
Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Books (vol. 2) 8 Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Film
5 Super Snappy Speed Reviews: TV Edition 8 Super Snappy Speed Reviews

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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:

Book Review: Mark of the Raven

SPOILER ALERT:

Anyone who has not read Mark of the Raven by Morgan L. Busse is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

I love a good old fashioned high fantasy set in faintly medieval inspired magical worlds and Christian fantasy Mark of the Raven by Morgan L. Busse promised to be exactly that. The protagonist, Lady Selene of House Ravenwood, has the ability to enter and even manipulate the dreams of other people and stands to become the head of her royal house. As she learns, under the cold instruction of her mother, to use her gift to spy upon and even assassinate the enemies of her house she becomes torn between the dark destiny set before her and the dream of a more peaceful way of life.

In general, an enjoyable book. I liked it. It didn’t knock my socks off but it was okay.

Most of the drama in this story focuses on Selene’s own internal conflict. Oh, yes, there’s an apparent threat to the Great Houses from the encroaching Dominia Empire but this never really matures into any direct conflict for any of the main characters. Instead, the main characters are simply squabbling about how best to deal with the threat of invasion, or indeed, if such a threat even exists. That side of things, however, is fairly by-the-by, for which I was immensely grateful as it could have become incredibly boring otherwise. Selene’s internal conflict about her own destiny and whether or not she can (or even should) carry out her mother’s instructions for the sake their house and their people is far more interesting, and the author very wisely focuses on this throughout and it is this particular arc which is concluded by the end of the novel. As part of a series, the conflict with the Dominia Empire and the break-down of relations between the great houses is left very much open and will, I trust, be fulfilled in the following instalments.

The world-building was strong, if not particularly mould breaking. It was easy to imagine the sights, sounds and smells of Rook Castle and the Magyr Mountains and the history of the world is also well developed and feeds directly into the story in a way which seems natural and believable. I did feel like the religions practised by the main players (in particular the followers of the Light and of the Dark Lady) were a little underdeveloped, which seemed like an especially odd thing to leave so half cooked in a Christian fantasy. On the plus side, this prevented the story from feeling obviously preachy. Indeed, I have a sneaking suspicion that the true allegory lies in the inter-house politics and the Dominia threat, where I suspect the different houses possibly represent church denominations and the Dominia represent all the forces of hell or something along those lines. If that is the case, however, it is not delivered in a way which ruins the story or makes the reader feel preached at. The author clearly knows how to incorporate theme effectively.

My only major criticism of this novel is that it was a little predictable, especially the outcome of the relationship between Selene and Damien. Pretty much from the first moment we saw the noble and true Damien, servant of the Light and all round good guy (who certainly wouldn’t ever dream of marrying a lady of Ravenwood!), I knew he was going to end up marrying Selene. I was not remotely surprised by this and I frankly got a little fed up waiting for it to happen, especially given Selene’s obvious attraction to his soul and Damien’s fascination (though certainly not love or desire, no sir-ee!) with her. I will say this however: exactly how the two characters got from ‘stranger’ to ‘husband and wife’ stage wasn’t quite how I expected it to happen and it was, therefore, still worth reading.

Speaking of characters, the main players in this story (specifically: Selene, Damien, Selene’s Mother and, to a lesser extent, her father) are fairly well developed, if a little unremarkable. They are all distinctive enough and driven by clear motives to accomplish specific goals. There are loads of other characters (twenty four if the ‘character list’ at the start of the book is to be believed), each distinctive enough in their own ways, however some of them feel a little superfluous, as if they are only there to make up the numbers at the summit.

All in all, an easy enough read with jut enough excitement and intrigue to keep me going, but a little predictable at points and slow to begin with. If you like Christian fantasy, you’ll probably enjoy it in a ‘no fuss’ sort of way. Even if you’re not particularly interested in religious fiction, you’ll probably still enjoy this book well enough without feeling like its intruding on your beliefs. A nice, safe bit of easy reading fantasy.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟


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 marks your raven.

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:

Author Interview: D. Wallace Peach (Part 2 of 2)

SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers in this post, anyone who has not read Soul Swallowers or Legacy of Souls by D. Wallace Peach is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

Diana Wallace Peach is an accomplished author of quality fantasy with seventeen books to her name. Her most recent offering, the ‘Shattered Sea’ duology consisting of The Soul Swallowers and Legacy of Souls, is another masterpiece filled with rich characters, political intrigue, and top notch world building.

I had the pleasure of chatting with D. Wallace Peach, whose books, including the ‘Shattered Sea’ duology, are available to buy now on Amazon.

This is part two of that interview. If you missed part one, you can still view it by clicking here.


I was quite struck by some of the big themes this story explored. The distinction between slavery and bonded labour (if there is one) seems to crop up time and again in this story. Was that a theme you were keen to explore?

I’m a political monster, and like exploring these issues. To support the book, I did a bit of research on the ‘justifications for slavery’ that were shared around the time of the American Civil War. I incorporated those into the characters’ arguments about slavery as well as Raze’s arguments for freedom.

Obviously in a high fantasy series like this, building a world like the Shattered Sea is no mean feat. Any world-building tips for prospective fantasy writers?

Just like I write bios for the characters before I start a book, I write a complete “bio” for the world, including maps. I go back about 300 years into the world’s history. I write about gender roles, politics, religion, societal norms, geography, world view, relationships with other nations/provinces, technology or the lack thereof, clothing, even the shape of their roofs! I try to take a couple real-life norms and turn them on their heads if I can. Some things develop as I write and some change, but I usually start with a good sense of the world and how the character meshes or rebels against it. In a way, the world is another character in the book.

Looking through your blog I noticed you’ve done a bit of flash fiction. How do you find writing shorter fiction compares with novel writing?

I rarely write short stories, but I enjoy flash fiction. The big difference for me is that I don’t need to think about what came before or what comes after. It’s a slice of time, a glimpse, versus a novel that has a history and a future. An interesting tidbit. The opening scene of ‘Shattered Sea’ duology started as a flash fiction piece in response to a prompt. So you never know where those flashes will lead!

What’s next for you then? Can we look forward to more books in the near future?

I’m working on a trilogy (as yet untitled). I’m obsessive about the cohesion of my stories and therefore write the entire series at once, holding up the first book until the last is ready to publish. This trilogy is daunting and the first draft is taking me forever to complete. I’m probably a year away from publishing. When they’re done, I’ll have 20 books, and hopefully, number 21 brewing in the back of my mind.

MISSED PART 1 OF THIS INTERVIEW? CLICK HERE TO READ IT.

Soul Swallowers and Legacy of Souls by D. Wallace Peach are available to buy now from Amazon.
CLICK HERE TO VISIT D. WALLACE PEACH’S AUTHOR PAGE.

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 swallows your soul.

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:

Author Interview: D. Wallace Peach (Part 1 of 2)

SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers in this post, anyone who has not read Soul Swallowers or Legacy of Souls by D. Wallace Peach is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

Diana Wallace Peach is an accomplished author of quality fantasy with seventeen books to her name. Her most recent offering, the ‘Shattered Sea’ duology consisting of The Soul Swallowers and Legacy of Souls, is another masterpiece filled with rich characters, political intrigue, and top notch world building.

I had the pleasure of chatting with D. Wallace Peach, whose books, including the ‘Shattered Sea’ duology, are available to buy now on Amazon.

This is part one of our interview. Don’t forget to check back next week for part two!


What made you decide to become an author?

I never really planned on being an author, though I always enjoyed writing. A decade ago, my husband and I made a temporary move for his job. Our planned stay was too short a time frame for me to find work. He suggested that I write a book, and I said, ‘Okay.’

Well, that was that. I was hooked and I’m still writing.

I’ve been reading The Shattered Sea duology, Soul Swallowers and Legacy of Souls; two thoroughly enjoyable books. There’s plenty going on in them both; family conflicts, slave trading, imperial politics and, of course, a fantasy world where people consume the souls of the dead. I wonder, how did this story first come about? What was your original inspiration for writing?

I’m curious about the invisible world and the nature of the soul. I think there is a lot more to this world than we can possibly imagine. Just think of the inventions in the last one hundred years that would have seemed impossible or magical. Do souls exist beyond death? Is reincarnation possible? Is possession a real thing? I simply took those questions and applied a ‘what if’ question. Then I added the rules that would bind this practice – physically, mentally, and through social norms. The rest simply fell into place as a rough outline that took further shape as I wrote.

Is that your preferred way of writing, planning while you write (‘plantsing’)? Or are you normally more of a planner or a ‘pantser’?

I always have a rough outline. Otherwise, I’m filled with writer-anxiety. That and I have no problem wandering off on tangents for hundreds of pages, which then need to be edited! Outlines keep me on track, but they’re loose enough that my characters can be themselves, and I will readily change a plan if my characters can convince me that it makes good sense.

I’m glad you mentioned your characters because the meaty characters you’ve created were one one of my favourite things about this series. The protagonist, Raze, for instance. I really liked the way this chap developed as an individual over the two books. How did you go about developing him?

I love reading books with strong characters, and so I strive to write the same. My background is in mental health, and I’m fascinated by the incredible depth behind every human face. Prior to writing, I pen each character’s biography in quite a bit of detail. I understand how their lives were shaped, their fears, weaknesses, and strengths, how they compensate, what they hide even from themselves, what they need to learn about themselves to grow. A significant part of my plotting a story takes into account the characters’ arcs.

I suppose that must be doubly important when you come to write a character who is a practised liar, like Benjmur? He weaves such an intricate web of deceit around all the other characters– how do you keep track of it all?

I wanted to write a different kind of character than I have in the past– one who is extremely duplicitous and able to keep the other characters off kilter. The biggest challenge was to make his lies believable without the other characters coming off as naive (except perhaps for his daughter who simply doesn’t want to think ill of her father). I don’t like books where the characters are ridiculously stupid simply to serve the plot. I kept track of it by writing twenty drafts. Ha ha.

COME BACK NEXT WEEK FOR PART 2.

CLICK HERE TO VISIT D. WALLACE PEACH’S AUTHOR PAGE.
Soul Swallowers and Legacy of Souls by D. Wallace Peach are available to buy now from Amazon.

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 swallows your soul.

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:

Book Review: Steelheart

SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers in this post, anyone who has not read Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

There are two things I really like: Brandon Sanderson and superhero stories, so when I heard that Sanderson had written a series of superhero stories, I knew I had found my next book. I was so confident that I would like it that I even bought the first two books at the same time, despite normally being wary of blowing money on serialised novels in case they’re rubbish (I would’ve bought the whole series but my Waterstones vouchers didn’t stretch that far on top of everything else I wanted to buy).

This story is set in a not-too-distant post-apocalyptic dystopia where a mysterious stellar event, known as Calamity, has gifted certain people with super powers. These individuals, known as Epics (Sanderson consistently shies away from the word superheroes/super villains), have taken over the world, oppressing ordinary humans and imposing their own despotic rule on whatever territory they deem to be their own. The main antagonist in this story is one such Epic: Steelheart, a seemingly invulnerable man who kills David’s (the protagonist) father in front of him. However, the boy David also saw something impossible at the same time: he saw Steelheart bleed, and swore he would make it happen again to avenge his father. As an adult, David joins a group of anti-Epic resistance fighters known as Reckoners and together they hatch a daring plan to kill Steelheart and put an end to his ruthless reign over Newcago (formerly Chicago).

There are a lot of things I like about this novel, and I am looking forward to reading the next instalment, but I won’t lie to you: it was a bit of a disappointment compared to Mistborn.

Let’s get down to brass tacks.

In a similar way to the The Final Empire, Steelheart features a young protagonist who joins a group of rebels (the other ‘good guys’) with the primary goal of taking down a seemingly indestructible despot who barely appears in the narrative until the story’s climax. The characters all have their own little distinctive quirks and are, for the most part, likeable. My only criticism is that they were, perhaps, a little half-baked by Sanderson’s usual standards. For instance, David, the protagonist, was okay in general but he seemed little too ridiculous to believe insofar as things seemed to fall into place a little too easily for him despite impossible odds, especially in the beginning.

Oh, and while I’m complaining about my least favourite characters, can I mention Megan? Apart from being one of only two major female characters and the only one with a clear personal tie to the protagonist, she doesn’t even come across as a particularly well written character, at least before the last few chapters. She’s beautiful, feisty, with a hidden vulnerability and (you guessed it!), she’s the obvious love interest. David thinks she’s hot but doesn’t know if she likes him or not because she seems to be sending him mixed signals. I will admit that I wasn’t prepared for what happened to her and who she turned out to be, so it’s maybe worth persevering with Megan until the end of the book but it took me quite a lot of chapters to actually like her as a character.

The plot worked, although I felt there was a certain inevitability about it. David wanted to join the Reckoners, so he did. He talked them into killing Steelheart. They planned to do it. Executed plan. Did it. End. It lacked that all important sense of rising action, conflict, tension, greater conflict, greater tension and final climax when it came down to the main story of David’s quest for revenge and the Reckoners’ plan to kill Steelheart. On the plus side, there were a few interesting twists regarding the identities of characters like Megan and Prof. I won’t spoil what they were, but I will only say that I had my suspicions about Prof from fairly early on; I wasn’t ready for what happened with Megan at all, however. That was glorious and her only saving grace.

As usual, Sanderson’s writing style was a joy to read: clear, straight-forward and written in a solid 1st person voice from David’s point of view. In keeping with that character’s tendency to use lousy metaphors in his speech, the narrative itself was also replete with eccentric figurative language which was appropriate (though perhaps not always quite as funny as Sanderson intended it to be).

I did find the profanities used by the characters a little odd. Don’t get me wrong, I tend to have a ‘less is more’ attitude towards profanity in fiction, but it seems that all but the mildest of swear words we use in the real world have been replaced by made up swear words including ‘sparks’ , ‘slontze’ and ‘Calamity’. Depending how far in the future this book is set, I suppose its possible we’ll chuck out all the old curses and invent brand new ones, but I get the impression this book is set in a period relatively close to our own. As much as I dislike bad language, I personally found this stuff a bit jarring.

I know what you’re thinking. I sound like I hated this book. I did not hate this book. In fact, I really liked this book. It’s a great bit of highly enjoyable, action packed, funny-in-places escapism. If I sound like I’ve been hard on it, it’s only because Sanderson has set the bar so high with all his other books that it’s hard not to compare them. This is not my favourite Brandon Sanderson book, not by a long way; but it is a great book. You should definitely read it.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟


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 steals your heart (you see what I did there?).

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]

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]

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]

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]

5 Basic Star Trek Plots

Back when I was still a kid writing Star Trek fan fiction, there were only four Star Trek TV series and ten movies. No Discovery, no Kelvin universe or any of that other snazzier, slightly darker stuff we’ve been getting served recently. And now I hear that they’re expanding the franchise even further, with more shows and films, including a new Captain Picard show.

Now… I don’t want to knock the new stuff. Most of it is quite good in its own way. But if I have one criticism for them all, its that they lack that cheese, that optimism, that je ne sais quoi that made Star Trek, Star Trek. They’re just a bit to grim. Too serious. Dare I say, too cool. And for that reason, I’ve got my doubts about this new Picard show. I’m fearful that it’s going to take one of the franchises’ most beloved characters and ruin him. And so, for the benefit of any would-be Star Trek writers, I have compiled this list of five basic Star Trek plots to help you on your way to writing a traditional, cheesy Star Trek story.

A Disasterous Transporter Malfunction

transoprter.gif
Source: http://gph.is/2mm5hol

In Star Trek, the transporter is a ‘completely safe’ device which breaks an object or person down at the molecular level and re-materialises them on another ship or planet.

What could possibly go wrong?

Lots, apparently. It turns out that a dicky transporter can leave you with stones embedded in your body (ENT: “Strange New World”); separate your ‘good side’ from your ‘evil side’ so that you become two separate people (TOS: “The Enemy Within”); beam you up naked (VOY: “In The Flesh”) and re-materialise you as a child (TNG: “Rascals”). Remember, would-be Trek-writer, the transporter is a treasure trove of light-hearted nonsense with which you can easily fill up an hour with.

Going Faster Than Fast And Ending Up Somewhere Crazy

Sometimes, perhaps due to an alien seizing control of the ship, because we entered a wormhole or because somebody accidentally broke the ship’s engines, we’re now moving even faster than we ever thought possible.

The burst of speed only lasts for a moment, and naturally the first thing to do is figure out where we are.

But wait… this must be a sensor malfunction. But it’s not! You’re three or four galaxies away from where you started (TNG: “Where No One Has Gone Before”)! You’ve ended up in front of a terrifying new antagonist (TNG: “Q Who?”)! You’ve mutated into an amphibian and had amphibian babies with your amphibian captain (VOY: “Threshold”)!

How will we ever resist the mind-altering properties of this weird place?!

How will we escape the terrifying aliens?!

How will we ever look Captain Janeway in the eye again!?

There you go. There’s your story.

We’ve Been Unwittingly Killing/Enslaving Intelligent Lifeforms!

It’s life Jim, but not as we know it. And that’s our lame excuse for hunting it like vermin (TOS: “The Devil in the Dark”), destroying its natural habitat (TNG: “Home Soil”) and forcing it to carry out dangerous or degrading tasks for us (TNG: “The Quality of Life”).

However, nobody but the regular cast seems to realise that this poor creature is clearly an intelligent life-form and any suggestion that it might be will be met with great hostility. This kind of story usually goes one of two ways:

  1. The creatures declare war on humanity and almost destroys the ship. The climax consists of a stand-off between humanity and the new lifeform in which only a last ditch attempt at diplomacy can save the day.
  2. A few frightened/unbelieving humans (usually guest stars) propose a course of action which will destroy the new lifeforms, resulting in a conflict between themselves and the regular cast, who are more enlightened and realise that killing is wrong.

The Inevitable Time-Travel Episode

No Star Trek series is complete without at least one time-travel episode. The crew’s odyssey through time is often (though not always) involuntary and, more often than not, it will involve correcting a significant change in established historical events. Sometimes this change will have been brought about by a malevolent force who is deliberately interfering in history (e.g.: DS9: “Trials and Tribble-ations”; VOY: “Relativity”) while other times it will be the regular cast themselves who have accidentally changed by history simply by being there (e.g.: TOS: “The City on the Edge of Forever”; DS9: “Past Tense”).

There are exceptions, of course. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home paid precious little attention to the continuity of the time-line (the crew invented transparent aluminium early, took a native back to the 23rd century and regrew a woman’s kidney without a second thought). So by all means, have fun with time-travel.

The Inevitable Court-Room Episode

Budget drying up? Try writing a court-room episode. These feature hardly any flashy effects and are mostly dialogue-driven. It’s nearly always a member of the regular cast who has either been wrongly accused of some offence (TOS: “The Wolf in the Fold”, TNG: “A Matter of Perspective”, DS9: “Inquisition”) or else is fighting for their basic rights (TNG: “The Measure of a Man”, VOY: “Author, Author”). However, there are exceptions. Sometimes its a guest character who’s on trial with the emphasis being placed on the character’s main advocate, who is usually a member of the regular cast (TNG: “The Drumhead”, VOY: “Distant Origin”).

Honourable Mentions:
  • Someone Is Violating the Prime Directive!
  • A God-like Alien Is Bullying Us
  • A Regular Character Falls in Love and Gets Dumped in One Episode
  • The Whole Crew is Going Mad!
  • The Whole Crew has Caught a Plague!
  • There’s Klingons/Romulans/Jem’Hadar/Borg on the Starboard Bow!

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.