100 Word Story: The Secret of Sig. Pieroni’s Pizza

Those of you who have been floating around Penstricken for a while may recall that I once mentioned a particular plot bunny that assailed me when I was travelling home from work. As my bus passed by a Chinese takeaway, it occurred to me that a takeaway restaurant could make a lot of money if only the owner had exclusive and discreet access to a time machine, thus allowing him to deliver food promptly no matter how busy a night he was having. However, I neglected to actually show you the story that came about as a result of that plot bunny.

And so… here it is. As always, what follows here is entirely my own work and has not been published anywhere else in the world, whether in print or online nor do I expect it to be.

THE SECRET OF SIG. PIERONI’S PIZZA

by A. Ferguson

‘What if we’re caught?’ Derek whispered.

‘It’s our customers Pieroni’s stealing with his “piping hot pizza delivered in under five minutes.”’ Sandra hissed. The lock gave. They were in. ‘No way he’s doing that single-handed, whatever he says. It’s a tax thing, gotta be. Try find his ledger.’

‘What’s this?’ Derek whispered, fiddling with an unlabelled control panel beside the pantry. Something inside the pantry began to hum. Derek stepped inside.

‘Found it!’ Sandra called. ‘Let’s go!’

No reply.

‘Derek!’ She whispered, following him into the pantry. ‘Quickl-’

They were outdoors.

In the distance, herds of dinosaurs fled an erupting volcano.

THE END


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Until next time!

5 Sci-Fi Tropes I Could Live Without

Among the many styles and genres of fiction which I enjoy, I must unashamedly confess to a particular fondness for popular sci-fi and fantasy. Yes I know it’s all just unrealistic escapism into a nonsense world of space adventures, suspiciously human shaped aliens and humanity being conquered by the very robots we built to help us but still… it’s fun. And you know… fun’s allowed, even if you like serious literature.

All the same… there have to be limits. But for some reason, sci-fi is just chock full of certain clichéd tropes, some of which are so very ridiculous that it frankly beggars belief that they ever became clichés. The others are just plain done to death. What follows are some of my (least) favourites.

The Holographic Hook

You’ve got to write a space opera and are struggling to come up with an exciting opening scene to draw the audience in from the very beginning. Solution: an exciting space battle! Ships firing at one another, hand to hand combat between aliens and humans, lasers, explosions–

Then an admiral calmly walks onto the scene and ends the simulation. It was all just a holographic training exercise!

This kind of scene, made famous by the Kobayashi Maru scene in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (and then repeated time and time again in one form or another), gives the audience a burst of excitement that has very little bearing on the story which is to follow. The best it can do is foreshadow some internal conflict the protagonist may face later on in the story.

Please… it’s been done too often. Put some effort in and come up with a proper hook for your story.

Is That You Clive?

You’re alone on an abandoned space station or a spooky castle. Or maybe you’re just home alone, meticulously colouring in your colouring-in book on a dark and stormy night. Suddenly you hear something… something rattling, hissing, banging… perhaps even a sinister inhuman voice whispering your name.

You spin around wildly.

‘Is that you Clive?’

No. No, it’s not Clive. It’s never Clive. And really, ask yourself, is this the sort of thing Clive normally does? If it is… you need to dump Clive and get yourself some nicer friends. Just saying.

Just once I’d like to read or watch something where the victim doesn’t automatically assume that the scary noise is their friend pulling a cruel prank on them. Or better still, just once, I’d like it to really be Clive pulling a cruel trick. At least I’d be surprised.

Hey Clive, Are Those New Horns?

Something terrible has happened to Clive. He’s being controlled by an alien or replaced with a robot duplicate. His behaviour is erratic. His speech has become strange. His eyes have turned luminous green and he has grown horns.

And no one really notices until it’s too late.

My personal favourite example of this occurs in the Doctor Who episode, Rose. Rose returns to her boyfriend’s car to find he is now made entirely of plastic and is talking funny. And what does she do?

Goes out for dinner with him. She suspects nothing until the Doctor fires a corkscrew straight through his skull without injuring him. And she’s supposed to be his girlfriend.

Sigh. 

We, The People of Earth…

So it finally happened. Aliens have made contact with humanity. They may have come in peace or they may have come laser guns blazing, but one way or another, it’s first contact day for the people of Earth.

You know Earth, don’t you? Seven-point-four billion different versions of the truth, spread across one hundred and ninety five independent sovereign states (to say nothing of those who want to break away and start their own nation or conquer others) all gathered together on one planet, unable to agree on even the most trifling of matters?

A whole host of different political ideologies, systems of government, international treaties and religious beliefs, and yet when the aliens finally come, humanity all rallies around a single leader, or at the very least, sets aside all their differences. Usually it’s the President of the USA, except in Doctor Who where it can be just about anyone except the President. In any event, I have a sneaking suspicion that if aliens did make themselves known to us today, humanity would not respond with a single unified voice, or even two or three differing voices. Call me cynical but I think it would probably be chaos.

Ask yourself this. If aliens landed on Earth today:

How would Donald Trump respond?
What about Kim Jong-Un?
What about Angela Merkel?
What about ISIS?
What about the Pope?
What about the World Health Organisation?
The Scottish National Party?
The British National Party?
Richard Branson?
Kim Kardashian?
The writers of Doctor Who?
The guy that sells the Big Issue in the town centre?

You get the idea.

Magical Alien Artefacts

I don’t really have a problem with functioning magical artefacts if you’re writing a fantasy, set in a world of magic and myth, rather than a sci-fi set in space and/or the future. At its core, sci-fi (even silly popular sci-fi) tends to speculate on the advancement of technology and science, rather than the possibility that magic might actually work. If we are assuming that magic is not real, as sci-fi tends to do, we have to ask some serious questions about why it would work on an alien planet.

‘Ah, but, you see, it’s not really magic!’ I hear you cry. ‘It’s just technology that seems like magic!

But if it’s just technology… why dress it up like magic? Star Trek is very guilty of this. Whether it’s the legend of the Tox Uthat (a quantum phase inhibitor which appeared in TNG: Captain’s Holiday), or Vulcan mythology concerning the psionic resonator (TNG: Gambit), there just seems to be no end of magical artefacts in space which are actually just very clever technology. Technology made of stone. Stone technology that does magic. Heck, some even involve meditating and muttering incantations.

Dishonourable Mentions:

  • Everybody knows how to fly every kind of spaceship in the universe, even if it is of completely alien design.
  • Everybody knows everything about science.
  • Rough alien taverns. Just once, give me a classy alien wine bar.
  • With just a slight modification to the engine/shields/BBQ grill, we can do some sci-fi magic to save the day!
  • The bad guys believe emotion is a weakness and that is their Achille’s heel.
  • Love conquers all (exemplified in the Doctor Who episode Closing Time, where Craig is turned into a Cyberman then somehow manages to turn himself back into a human simply because he hears his baby son crying… as if he was the first parent the Cybermen ever upgraded. Seriously, I preferred it when the Cybermen’s greatest weakness was gold).
  • Universal translators.
  • Legendary technology, planets or lifeforms which really do exist.
  • Having a weapon of mass destruction called ‘The Weapon’. By all means call it the Super Zappy Death Ray, but don’t call it The Weapon. Use your imagination and give it a name.
  • Shooting the control panel/monitor shuts down everything on the entire spaceship, unlocks every locked door and/or disarms the Weapon.
  • Snippets of news reporters telling the general public how to survive the alien invasion. I repeat, do this to survive the alien invasion!
  • Jeanie who works at the shop is actually THE PROPHESIED CHOSEN WARRIOR QUEEN OF ALL THE MULTIVERSE and she doesn’t even realise it.

Well that was a far from exhaustive list but I’m glad to have got it off my chest anyway. Thanks for taking the time to read this post. Be sure to leave us a wee comment below 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 reverses your polarity.

Until next time!

100 Word Story: The Monster

I recently entered a couple of stories into the National Association of Writers’ Groups 100 Word Mini-Tales competition. Suffice it to say I didn’t win, but since I believed in the potential of every one of the stories I entered, it seemed only fitting to try to publish them elsewhere. I selected this one to publish here on Penstricken after the winners of the competition were announced. I’ve made a few small improvements so it’s probably not exactly 100 words anymore but hey… At least it’s a better story now. The rest, I’ve since submitted to other places.

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 since the competition winners have already been announced. So, without further ado, I give you…

THE MONSTER

by. A Ferguson

Captain Harold of Earth’s Space Navy had met his share of bizarre alien cultures, but nothing like these. These were monsters.

One of the Creatures stood over Harold, injecting him with chemicals and mutilating him with ferocious tools. The Creature had cold blue hands, shining black eyes and no mouth (yet it spoke). A human female observed nearby, desensitised to the atrocity she was witnessing.

The Creature stepped back.

‘There, that wasn’t so bad,’ it smiled.

‘What do you say to the dentist, Harry?’ the human (code name: MUM) goaded.

They had practiced this before they left the house. Thank you Mr. Riley. Harold’s mouth was still numb but he had to try…

‘Yeour a monsther!’ he screamed.

THE END


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 butters your toast.

Until next time!

Super Snappy Speed Reviews – Books (vol. 2)

SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers in this post, anyone who has not read: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson, The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett, A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin, The Moon is Down by John Steinbeck, Different Seasons by Stephen King, Curtain by Agatha Christie or Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde with The Merry Men & Other Stories by Robert Louis Stevenson is hereby advised that this point may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

It’s that time again! We’ve already had super snappy speed reviews for books, TV shows and films, and now it’s time to return for a second helping of super snappy book reviewsAs before, the books I have reviewed here have been selected entirely at random from my ever-growing book collection and do not necessarily have anything in common apart from the fact that they are all books. They are not necessarily books that I particularly liked or disliked, nor are they sorted into any particular order.

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

The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson

As much as I like fantasy, I’m also picky about it. Fortunately, this book (the first instalment of the Mistborn series) has it all: a richly imagined fantasy world, compelling characters, an excellent magic system and a plot which kept me glued to its pages from beginning to end. Best of all, Sanderson has obviously understood that while good world building and detailed magic systems are important elements of fantasy, it is characters that really count when it comes to writing a good story.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett

Speaking of fantasy, this book (the first instalment of Pratchett’s Discworld series) is arguably one of the most imaginative books I have ever come across. The characters are compelling and there is a goodly dash of wit spread throughout this rather dream-like narrative. My only complaint is that while the world building does demonstrate something of Pratchett’s superhuman imagination, the time spent he spends explaining the minute details of his world (and the additional time required for the reader to assimilate it all) does drag the pace down to a crawl at certain points.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟

A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

At the risk of being flamed to death… I found A Game of Thrones a bit of a drag. No, wait, hear me out! It’s got a lot going for it! There’s a lot of different characters’ points of view represented in the book which made it more true to life (though a bit more difficult to follow; just who is the protagonist in this story?), strong world-building, a good plot it’s just… I don’t know. I found myself getting bored as I read it. I’ve not been able to bring myself to read the next six books yet. Maybe I’ll watch the TV show one day and see what all the fuss is about.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟

The Moon is Down by John Steinbeck

Steinbeck can do no wrong. This little novel is about a small but tactically important coal mining town which is taken over by a battalion from a non-specific nation (reminiscent of Nazi Germany) who are at war with England and Russia. It is essentially a story about freedom, democracy and oppression, crafted with the kind of fineness of style that only Steinbeck can produce. Read it now.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

Different Seasons by Stephen King

This collection of stories by Stephen King includes, among others, the classic Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. In true King style, most of these stories have a dark tone to them, although I wouldn’t really have described any of them as horrors or fantasies in the truest sense of the word (although The Breathing Method does include certain fantasy elements, I suppose). I loved, loved, loved Shawshank. The Body and The Breathing Method were alright too. Apt Pupil was also very well written, however it did focus on a young boy with an unhealthy obsession with violence and his toxic relationship with a Nazi surgeon. Personally, I found it a little too dark for my tastes.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟

Curtain by Agatha Christie

In this, the final adventure for Christie’s famous Belgian detective, we see a Hercule Poirot (now very frail and elderly) who has been drawn back to the scene of his first adventure to solve one last crime before it even takes place. The mood is somewhat more melancholy than in earlier Poirot novels and I must admit… I found the ending just a little bit ridiculous, given the otherwise serious tone of the book. It feels a bit like Christie came up with a compelling mystery but then was unable to imagine a good way to resolve it. In a word, an okay read until you get to the end.

My rating: 🌟🌟

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde with The Merry Men & Other Stories by Robert Louis Stevenson

I thoroughly enjoyed most of the stories in this little volume. Jekyll and Hyde is, of course, a classic tale which has justifiably earned a familiar spot in modern culture, even among those who haven’t read it. The Merry Men was okay, although I found Stevenson’s rendering of the Scottish accent difficult to follow (and I’m a Scottish person myself!). Markheim and Olalla were both enjoyable enough little reads with (not too) dark undertones. Janet Thrawn was decidedly tedious. The Treasure of Franchard, with its larger than life characters, was easily my favourite.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟

Well, I hope you enjoyed these itzy-witzy book reviews. No doubt we’ll do it all again soon! Why not comment your own thoughts on these books below? Or maybe you could give us a short review of something else that you’re reading? And if you enjoyed this post, be sure to ‘like’ it and follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if you fancy it.

Oh, and be sure to come back next week for the next instalment of 6 ‘SIX WORD STORIES’ FOR THE 6TH.

Writing Non-Human Characters #2: Aliens

Last week, I had planned to write a single post talking about how to write non-human characters, such as animals, aliens, mythical creatures and so forth. Unfortunately, it turned into such a long post that I decided to chop it up into a series of posts instead. This week’s post is the second instalment on writing non-human characters and today I’m going to focus on how to write aliens from other other worlds. If it’s animal characters you’re interested in, that was covered in last week’s post, which you can see by clicking here. If, on the other hand, it’s robots or mythical creatures you’re after… well, you’ll just have to wait.

Before we begin, let’s take a moment to remind ourselves of the golden rule for writing non-human characters:

Your audience is made up entirely of human beings; therefore, your audience must be able to sympathise with your characters as human beings.

In other words, if you want your audience to sympathise with your character, you need to give them certain human qualities. In doing this, you anthropomorphise your character; that is, you humanise them in the minds of your audience. The more human they are, the more easily they can be related to. So, with that in mind, let’s have a think about aliens.

Unlike animals which are very common and familiar things in real life that science has taught us a great deal about, we know nothing about real sentient alien life. We can’t even be certain that it exists at all. However, if it ever turned out that sentient alien life actually did exist, it would almost certainly have very little in common with us Earthlings. There’s absolutely no reason to believe that they would share human values and culture (or even understand concepts such as ‘values’ and ‘culture’), walk on two legs, communicate with spoken language, listen to music or do any of the other things humans do. Culturally, socially, philosophically, anatomically and in every other way, they would almost certainly seem bizarre to us in the extreme. After all, we humans often find it hard enough to relate to other human cultures, never mind alien ones!

It is, of course, certainly possible to create “realistic” aliens like this for your story. Unlike with animal characters (who you probably will want your audience to relate to), it can sometimes be beneficial to have aliens who are bizarre and impossible to relate to, depending on the kind of story you’re writing. Many have done it already to great effect. However, it is worth remembering that there is a reason these “realistic” aliens are very seldom portrayed as good guys. They’re not even usually portrayed in the same way as traditional bad guys, who will usually still have goals and motives that we can relate to and sympathise with (even if we don’t approve). Instead, such aliens are usually portrayed as destructive (or at the very least, strange and frightening) forces of nature. The aliens in War of the Worlds or Alien are good examples. These characters, while believably alien, are more of a danger to be overcome or escaped than a character to be related to. Because your audience cannot sympathise with them as people, it makes it an almost(!) impossible task to create aliens of this type who fit into any traditional role for a character to play. Remember, the weirder your alien is, the less your audience will sympathise with or even understand them. This can be a great boon to authors who want to create terrifying monsters, but not to authors who are trying to create relatable people.

Contrast this with the types of aliens you are perhaps more used to seeing in popular science fiction such as Star Trek or Doctor Who. They sit somewhere in the middle of the alien-human spectrum. They might have one or two physical features that make them look alien, such as blue skin, pointy ears or strangely shaped foreheads, but they still basically look human-ish with mostly recognisable human body parts in roughly the correct place. They will usually have one or two cultural or social quirks to keep them from seeming too human (for instance, the Vulcans in Star Trek are famous for their logical and stoic minds) but nothing so bizarre that it defies understanding. After all, humans often do appreciate logic; the only difference is that Vulcans have founded their entire culture upon it whereas we have not. This makes them seem exotic, but relatable. Such aliens are not terribly realistic when you analyse them closely, but they’re sufficiently different from humans that the average audience will accept them as aliens while still being able to sympathise with them as people, rather than monsters.

Beware, however, that you do not go too far in trying to make your aliens relatable. Aliens are, by their very nature, foreign in the extreme. Your audience, then, will expect your alien characters to be at least a little bit unusual. If they seem too human, you will have utterly failed in your goal to create an alien character. For example, one of the biggest things that irks me about Supergirl (the TV series) is the character of Mon-El who, having only just arrived on Earth from the planet Daxam, is utterly indistinguishable from the average American millennial in the way he talks, behaves and relates to other characters. This level of anthropomorphising goes too far and robs the audience of their ability to believe that the character they’re witnessing is really from another world at all. Sure, he’s a relatable character but remember, it’s important when writing sci-fi to suspend your audiences’ disbelief. Your audience will not be able to believe in an alien who seems more human than their own family do.

Creating alien characters, then, is all about balance and purpose. Before you begin, ask yourself: what is the purpose of this alien to be in my story? Are they a protagonist, antagonist, love-interest, etc.? Why exactly are there aliens in this story? This will determine to what extent your audience (and indeed, your other characters) will need to be able to understand and relate to them, and consequently, will help you to determine how alien or human they should appear. However, let’s be clear on one thing: this is not the same as creating a balance between how good and how evil your character is. Rather, it’s a balance between the familiar and the strange. Very human characters can still be bad guys. Very alien characters might even be good guys, although it’s unlikely that the audience will relate to them and so I would be very careful about how you go about doing this.

That’s all I’ve got time for this week I’m afraid, but be sure to come back next week when I’ll be continuing the series on creating non-human characters, this time focusing on robots and cyborgs. 

Until next time!

A Few Words About Magic in Fiction

I’ve recently been reading The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson and am so far loving everything about it. I love the characters, I love the world-building, I love Sanderson’s use of language, but more than anything I love the magic system he has created for his fantasy world.

Magic (as I’m loosely defining it here) features heavily in fantasy. The forms magic can take from one fantasy story to another, however, greatly vary. If you think I’m going to give you an exhaustive break-down of all the kinds of magic that appear in fantasy fiction, you’re sadly mistaken because I have neither the time nor the inclination do so, but I do want to try and break down what it takes to construct a good one as Sanderson has.

Let’s begin by highlighting an important pitfall we need to avoid. I am of course talking about the dreaded deus ex machina. For those of you who don’t know this term, deus ex machina (literally, ‘God in the machine’) is a literary device by which the problem faced by your characters is miraculously solved in an implausible or unexpected way which tends to be profoundly disappointing for the audience. If you’re including magic in your fantasy, there is a real temptation to endow your characters with a kind of practical omnipotence whereby they can rescue themselves from any situation simply by performing the right magic trick but doing this will suck all of the excitement out of your story.

I don’t want to harp on about Sanderson’s magic system in The Final Empire too much (mainly because I haven’t finished reading it yet and I might get things wrong) but it does serve as a good example of how to avoid this. This magic system (called Allomancy) involves ingesting and ‘burning’ certain key metals. Each metal endows the user with a particular ability. There are, however, only so many metals which can be used in Allomancy, which therefore puts a limit on the kinds of magic that can be used. Characters cannot randomly breathe fire or travel back in time but they can enhance all their physical attributes if they burn pewter, for instance. Allomancy is further limited by who can use it (Mistborns, who can burn all the metals and Mistings who can burn only one kind). There are many other limitations on this system too, but I hope you get the point: by creating limitations on magic, deus ex machina can be avoided because even the most powerful Allomancers can only act within the boundaries of what that world’s magic system allows them to do.

Another thing to bear in mind is that your magic system is inseparable from world-building. Indeed, creating your magic system is part of your world-building process. You need to ask yourself, therefore, where the magic comes from and how it works, even if you don’t make this explicit in the text itself. For instance, is it something inherent to certain creatures or people-groups in your world (fairies, wizards, dragons, women, children, the rich, the poor, etc) or is it something that can be learned or even purchased? Is it perceived as something natural or supernatural (in the same way we might perceive a difference between the science of medicine and miraculous spiritual healing)? In short, you need to ask yourself exactly what magic is, who has it, where it comes from and why.

Incidentally, it’s also worth remembering that the longer your fictional world has existed, the further your society’s understanding of magic is likely to have developed, in much the same way in the real world our knowledge about the universe has steadily increased – and we have developed technology which exploits that knowledge. If your characters are still crawling around in caves, they probably are barely aware of the intricacies of magic (even if they are aware of it at a primal or superstitious level), but if they are already flying around in spaceships, it’s likely that their understanding of your magical system will also be more advanced and this will be reflected in how they use (or avoid using) it.

Also remember that no matter what kind of system and history you create for magic in your world, it will affect the rest of the world and the characters in it, even if they cannot all perform magic themselves. It is not possible, for instance, to write a story set in a world just like our own except that all the children are telekinetic. Believe me, if a world ‘just like ours’ featured telekinetic children, we would have a very different society indeed; perhaps even a paedarchy. Certainly family life and systems of education would be drastically different from anything we have in the real world.

This is why it is so important to also ask yourself, why your story needs magic and what kind of magic it needs to make the story work. Having magic in your fictional world will fundamentally redefine that world and can undermine your story. Therefore, do not include magic just for the sake of having it. Like everything else in any good story, it must serve some function. And please, do not fall into the trap of thinking that magical abilities are your story. They are not. You can write a story which features telekinetic children if you like, but that’s not a plot or a cast of characters. That’s just a premise. Even in a magical fantasy, characters and the situations they find themselves in are always, always, always the beating heart of your story. The audience doesn’t really care about what your characters can do. The audience cares about what your characters need to do.

 

The Malice Restored My Faith In Sci-Fi/Fantasy Trilogies

SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been taken to avoid spoilers, anyone who has not read The Malice or The Vagrant by Peter Newman is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

I was rather reluctant to write a post reviewing Peter Newman’s The Malice (the second book in Newman’s The Vagrant trilogy) for the simple reason that I seem to be constantly bigging up Peter Newman on this site, as well as on Twitter. Frankly, if I keep this up, there’s a very real danger of Penstricken turning into The Peter Newman Appreciation Society (I may have raved about The Vagrant once, twice, or thrice before).

However, a few days ago someone very kindly (but not entirely accurately) referred to Penstricken as a ‘writing tips blog’ when really I intended this site to be for both story writers and their audiences. So, I decided it was time to write a post for those of you who have put up with me rambling about writing week in and week out when all you really want is a book recommendation. And since I have recently finished The Malice, it seemed a logical choice to review it on this week’s post.

Naturally I will try to give a fair, balanced and critical review but you know…

The Vagrant trilogy is arguably the best sci-fi/fantasy series I’ve come across in a long time!* It has made me believe in sci-fi/fantasy trilogies again! I wish the third book would just hurry up and COME OUT already!

… and relax.

Okay, now that I’ve got that out of my system, let’s get down to business.

The Malice is the second book in the Vagrant trilogy, based several years after the events of The Vagrant. When I read the first book a year or so ago, I did so believing that it was a stand-alone novel. You see, over the years, I have grown cautious about reading novel series (especially sci-fi/fantasy) from authors I don’t know because I have often found myself getting bored with them by the second or third book. As we know, some series just go on and on and on and on and on forever. Therefore, since there’s nothing worse than abandoning a story halfway through, I tend to think long and hard before picking up a new series. As much as I loved the originality, the poetic language and the vivid world-building I found in The Vagrant, when I learned that it was part of a trilogy I was a little anxious that it might go the way of so many other series I’ve started but never finished.

I was wrong. I devoured The Malice with as much proverbial** relish as I did The Vagrant. I think the reason it works so well as a sequel is because Newman has managed to strike that difficult balance between continuity with the first book and not rehashing the same story all over again. For example, there is a definite continuity in the style of story-telling. Newman’s distinctive voice has carried on into the sequel and draws us easily back into the same vivid and original world he has created. However, the characters are, as always, where Newman really works his magic.

As with the previous book, we have the protagonist who leads the adventure; the protagonist’s companion who supports and defends her and a capra aegagrus hircus (in this case, a kid), who serves in a comedy relief kind of capacity. However, Newman hasn’t relied on reusing the same (or virtually identical) group of heroes as before. The protagonist, Vesper, for example, is a young girl; chatty, a little unsure of herself, optimistic to the point of naivety and with an iron core of purity and unhindered free-thinking that suits her age and background. This is quite the opposite of her father and protagonist from the previous book: the strong and silent Vagrant who pushed his way relentlessly through whatever adversity he encountered.

Her companion, Duet, brings a similarly refreshing spin on the familiar role she plays. She is a Harmonised; an single entity made up of two joined individuals (as far as I could tell). Having been forced to kill her other self in the early chapters of the book, Duet grows increasingly bitter and cynical throughout the story as her health begins to fail her. Again, this contrasts sharply with the companion from the previous book, who served mainly as a very positive influence to encourage the Vagrant on his journey.

It was also good to get something more of the origins and inner-politics (if you can call it that) of the infernals who feature heavily in both books.

This book (both of them, in fact) also beautifully accomplishes something which very few other sci-fi novels do. It draws the reader into a dark and dangerous dystopian world while yet retaining a sense of optimism and even fun; exploring important themes of friendship, compassion (especially in the character of Vesper, who often resolves to help and heal others even at great risk to herself and her mission) and duty. For me, this sets it apart from many other sci-fi stories which are often either unremittingly depressing from the get-go or else are a little too fun to have any realism or tension about them (not that I’m knocking that. I like fun). This gives it a sense of believably, even though it is set in a world that is so completely different from our own.

If I must criticise something about this book (and I really would rather not), it would be that the pacing of the last few chapters could possibly have benefited from a little tightening up. I don’t want to give away what happens, but it did feel a little bit like having dramatically saved the day, Vesper then goes back home via the long and not-terribly-thrilling route which left me thinking ‘I hope something good happens to justify all this excess narrative that’s been stuck on the end’. Well, I don’t want to give away what it is but trust me: something good does happen. It is definitely worth reading on, especially if you’ve got any plans (as I do) to read the third instalment, The Seven, when it comes out in April.

All in all, The Malice was every bit as excellent a story as its predecessor; perhaps even better. While it remains firmly rooted in its predecessor, it carries the story forward in great strides, opening up the possibilities for the next instalment and leaving the reader feeling both fully satisfied and eager for the next one. Go get it!


*Having said that, I have just started The Mistborn series. It’s off to a promising start too.

**Don’t put literal relish on your book. It leaves a stain. LFMF.

Your Character’s “Thing”

SPOILER ALERT:

Anyone who still has not seen up to series 8 of the BBC sci-fi/drama, Doctor Who (the series 8 from 1971 one, not 2014), is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

My wife and I are Whovians. Recently we’ve been watching all of Doctor Who from the very beginning (the very, very beginning with William Hartnell) and we’re now on series 8. The Doctor (by now on his third incarnation, portrayed by Jon Pertwee) has been exiled to Earth by the Time Lords. He still has his TARDIS – the space/time capsule by which he can travel anywhere, anywhen – but it has been sabotaged by the Time Lords, who have also put a block on the Doctor’s memory so he is unable to fix it. As such, he’s spent the majority of this series as a scientific adviser to the human organisation, UNIT. The TARDIS is barely seen or mentioned at all in the first couple of episodes.

As much as I’ve enjoyed this series as a show and think Pertwee is arguably one of my favourite Doctors, he seems odd without his TARDIS. The TARDIS is, after all, the Doctor’s ‘Thing’. It’s what makes him stand out as a truly unique character. Many characters in fiction have travelled through time and space; many are aliens; many speak in BBC English but no one else has a space/time capsule disguised as a British police box. If anyone did, we would all cry ‘Plagiarism! A space/time travelling police box is the Doctor’s Thing!’

Almost all of the most memorable characters in fiction have a Thing. It might be a physical object they carry, something they wear or perhaps even something they simply say. When one thinks of James Bond, we imagine a man who carries a Beretta 418 (though in reality, he did occasionally use other weapons) and drinks vodka martinis, shaken not stirred. Batman dresses like bat, drives a Batmobile and operates from a Batcave; no prizes for guessing what his thing is. Even characters from history are often assigned Things that make them recognisable when they are portrayed on stage or on film today. For example, one of the first plays I recall ever seeing included a portrayal of Henry VIII, who spent most of the play munching a turkey leg. Whether or not the real Henry VIII ever had an affinity for turkey is neither here nor there; today, it’s become that character’s Thing. A Thing might even be another character; a constant companion (or nemesis?) whom he is lost without. Sherlock Holmes for example is almost always portrayed with John Watson. On the rare occasions where Watson is not present, he is still almost always referred to by Holmes who is clearly suffering for a lack of ‘his Watson’; even if he is loathe to admit it.

And here it is that I miss my Watson. By cunning questions and ejaculations of wonder he could elevate my simple art, which is but systematised common sense, into a prodigy.

– Doyal, A.C. The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier

In a short, a Thing can be anything but it must be unique.

So, does your character need a Thing? Not necessarily. A well-written character can function just fine within an excellent story without a Thing. What a Thing will do for your character is make them seem more distinctive and memorable. Therefore, it is probably only necessary to give them to your protagonist and maybe your main antagonist; characters you want to make stand out. However, as we have said before, it is important that every element of your story – characters, objects, dialogue, the lot – serves a function in progressing the story. Pointless gimmicks are… well… pointless. I would, therefore, think very, very, very carefully before giving your character a Thing which does not also serve some practical function to move the story along, especially in written fiction where the narrative will be disrupted by your description of the Thing. (You can get away with a little bit more on stage or film. For example, Henry VIII’s turkey leg might serve no practical function, but the story is not interrupted since he simply has to be seen holding it; in written fiction, however, the reader’s attention must be drawn to it with superfluous narrative).

So, before you even think about Things, think about this: what does my character actually need?

In other words, what is required to make the story work? In the case of Doctor Who, a space/time capsule was obviously required, because the whole premise of Doctor Who revolves around an alien who has a variety of adventures travelling to different planets and different points in history. Clearly, he would need some means of transportation, especially if he is bringing human companions with him, as he always does. However, it doesn’t need to be disguised as a British police box. It could be disguised as anything – or not be disguised at all. At this stage, it’s not really distinctive enough to be a Thing, since plenty of sci-fi includes time machines. We’re only interested at this stage in giving our character what he needs to make the story work.

Only once the essentials are in place can we start adding the dressing needed to create a Thing for our character. Remember, that if your story was a five course meal and you were a chef, your characters’ Things would be garnish; not appropriate for every course, and even then, only to be used in tiny quantities as a kind of ‘finishing touch’.

Like all good garnishes, a Thing should discreetly compliment and enhance the character you have already created. The Doctor’s TARDIS, for example, is perpetually disguised as a British police box, regardless of what planet or time it travels to. The fact it travels through time and space is your meat and potatoes, because it is essential to make the story work. The fact it is humorously disguised as a police box is the garnish; passively turning the Doctor’s time machine into something unique, without hindering the pace of the story in any way. It’s unusual enough to make the Doctor (and indeed, the entire Doctor Who franchise) stand out as unique without taking any of the glory away from the story itself. It is everything a character’s Thing should be.

8 Useful Posts on Fiction Writing

Sometimes, I just can’t say it better than my fellow bloggers, and since it’s been a while since I’ve compiled a ‘list of things I like’ kind of post (in fact, I don’t think I’ve done it since the very first post I ever wrote for Penstricken; sigh) I decided that it was about time I did another one. And what better thing to list than some of the best story-writing related posts from other blog sites that I have found particularly useful or insightful in recent weeks.

In reality, there’s dozens of writing and fiction related blogs I like to read on a regular basis and there have been numerous posts I’ve read lately that I could include in this list. I could not even begin to list them all. This is just a selection of some that I have recently come across (not necessarily ones that were written recently) which proved invaluable to me.

So, without further ado…

C.S. Wilde – Free Basic Scene Planner (especially handy for ‘pantsers’ like me who are working hard to become ‘planners’).

Rachel Poli – Why Fan Fiction is Important to Me (I had to include this, because to be frank, fan fiction was pretty much where I also started writing and I have a sneaking suspicion that a great number of writers today can probably relate to this refreshingly unashamed, reflective little post).

Larry Kahaner – How To Screw Up Your Novel: The Series Cheat (because I want to poke novelists who do this in the eye with a chopstick, too).

Tobias Mastgrave – World Building Part 5: How To Build a People Group – Custom and Tradition (this post deals with one of the most important aspects of world building and is full of really insightful points that most people over look. Yes, I know it’s a couple of years old now but I don’t care; it’s got some important stuff in it. Essential reading for the speculative fiction author).

Kristen Twardowski – The Curse of Rewrites: How Many is Too Many? (useful insights for those of us who suffer from perfectionism).

Jean M. Cogdell – Are your adjectives in the right order? (by all accounts, this is more of a language related post, rather than a fiction specific one, but I think it is especially useful for us writers).

Bridget McNulty – Novel plot mistakes: 7 don’ts for how to plot a novel (actually, there are about a hundred posts on NowNovel’s blog that I could have linked to. The blog at that site is just one of the really useful services they offer to novelists, no matter what their level of experience. I just keep coming back and reading this site again and again… but this was the one I read the most recently about how not to plot your novel).

K.M. Weiland – The #1 Key to Relatable Characters: Backstory (remember that post I did recently about writing a backstory for your protagonist? Well… forget it. This one by K.M. Weiland is better).

Keeping Focused With Scrivener

Don’t you just love Scrivener? I certainly do. I was a little wary of spending money on another glorified word processor but years later, I still think Scrivener is the best thirty quid I’ve ever spent.

However, simply having the right tools for the job does not an author, make. While Scrivener did provide the resources to easily research, plan and write my novel in an organised way, I was not getting the most out of it at first because I wasn’t bothering to do any proper planning. I was just writing mountains of narrative; something I could have done for free on OpenOffice. However, not to be deterred from my dream of finishing that novel, I (a natural ‘pantser’) decided that I had to become a ‘planner’ to take my writing to the next level.

It was the right decision but it was still an unnatural transition for someone used to the freedom of ‘pantsing’. I decided in advance, therefore, to stick to a simple three-staged approach:

1- Research everything I needed to know in order to write my story; history, science or even good old fashioned people watching. For fantasy stories, this stage would also include ‘researching’ everything I needed to know about my fantasy world (i.e., world building). No actual writing happens at this stage.

2- Plan the specifics of my story. This is when I plan out my plot and flesh out my characters.

3- Write a draft. Assuming the first two stages are complete, this should involve no plotting or research. I should already have the fully fledged story in my mind; it is now a simple(!) matter of bringing that story to life in pleasing language.

This is where Scrivener came into its own. Useful though the pre-loaded templates on Scrivener were, I needed a template that would make it easy for me to remain focused on what I was supposed to be doing at each stage. Fortunately, it’s a doddle to make your own templates on Scrivener, so that’s exactly what I did; one based on the above structure.

scr1I began by creating a blank Scrivener project. By default, a blank project on Scrivener still includes three folders: ‘Draft’, ‘Research’ and  ‘Trash’. I added two more, which I labelled ‘The Old Drawing Board’ and ‘Stage 2 – Plan’. I also renamed the ‘Research’ folder as ‘Stage 1 – Research’ and the ‘Draft’ folder ‘Stage 3 – Draft’ and shuffled them into numerical order. These would form the basis for my ‘born again planner’ approach to writing.

The Old Drawing Board

‘The Old Drawing Board’ isn’t, strictly speaking, a stage in the process. This folder contains three documents which I have dipped in and out of throughout the whole process:

Initial Idea(s) – a small document in which I keep all the little flights of fancy I have which will eventually give rise to an actual story. I began by writing down my first idea in here, but quickly realised that I would need to keep coming back to it whenever a new idea occurred that might tempt me to skip research or planning.

Timetable – This document consists of a table recording what I intend to do each day and what I actually accomplished. This helped me to stay focused on whatever task I had set myself for that day because it provided me with realistic goals that could be achieved each day. It was also rewarding to see evidence that my work was heading in some direction. The only difficulty I had with this approach, as a natural ‘pantser’, was deciding in advance what I would need to do each day.

timetable

Jotter – I used this document to scribble down any notes I wanted to write to myself (all headed and dated, so I could keep track of them); plot ideas, character auditions and whatever other odds and ends came to mind at inappropriate times. I also found it useful to begin work every day by setting aside twenty-five minutes to write anything that came to mind. It got the urge to ‘pants’ out of my system and allowed me to focus on what I was supposed to be doing that day.

1 – Research

Anything that I needed to know to help me write my story went in here. Anticipating the likelihood that I would have to research a variety of subjects, I divided my research folder into several sub-folders that I was likely to need: ‘Religions/Philosophies’, ‘Historical Events’, ‘Locations’, etc. In most cases, these folders would contain documents, images and webpages of relevant factual information.

However, the novel I was working on at the time was a fantasy novel. This meant that factsresearch and world-building went hand in hand. I decided, therefore, that for fantasy stories, I would have a ‘Factual’ sub-folder, in which I would keep all the factual information that inspired my fantasy world but the other sub-folders would be used to hold all the ‘research’ about how my fantasy world worked. This allowed me to keep all my factual research and world building separate yet together.

2 – Planning

There were two related goals that I wanted to realise in the planning stage: plotting and creating characters. It was natural, therefore, to divide this folder into two sub-folders for characters and plot respectively.

The plotting folder contains a variety of self-explanatory documents such as ‘synopsis’, ‘timeline’ (doubly-essential in my story, since I’m using a fantasy calendar) and a chapter-by-chapter outline of events that occur in my story.

charactersThe character sub-folder is more complicated. It contains a further two sub-folders for the ‘Good Guys’ and ‘Bad Guys’, as well as an individual document which deals with how each of the characters relates to one another.

The ‘Good Guys’ and ‘Bad Guys’ folders work the same way. Each one contains a profile of every character in the story (names, ages, etc.). Thanks to the magic of Scrivener, these profiles also double-up as ‘folders’, which contain a variety of other folders and documents such as ‘auditions‘ (short bursts of narrative which I write to flesh my characters out) and ‘gallery’ (a fairly self-explanatory folder of images). This allows me to produce a large amount of information about each character while keeping them all separate and orderly.

The aforementioned ‘Relationships’ document is not attached to any one character. Instead, it is a single document which I use to map out in a few sentences how each character relates to all the other characters in the story.

relationships

3 – Draft

Last but not least, we have the drafting stage. I don’t have very much to say about this section which won’t be painfully obvious to you, especially if you use Scrivener yourself. I have left the drafting folder exactly the way Scrivener gave it to us: each folder is a chapter, each document within that folder is a single scene. Scrivener even formats each document for us into a suitable manuscript format, so there was very little in the way of customisation required here. All I needed was the discipline not to touch this folder until I had finished my research and planning.

And there you have it! A simple three-staged approach to planning for ‘pansters’ made easy by Scrivener, Literature and Latte‘s glorious contribution to the world of writing.