5 Writing Laws I Just Can’t Keep

Google it, and you’ll see that the internet (to say nothing of books and formal writing courses) is simply teeming with lists of rules on how to write fiction. I’ve been known to knock out a list of rules or two myself; rules I generally believe make for a better writer if they are carefully adhered to and applied with a little wisdom.

Nevertheless, it is human nature to rebel against the rules. If the Writing Police ever do raid my house at four in the morning and drag me before the Fiction Judge, I’m pretty sure the list of charges will be a long one and he’ll throw the book at me for every one of them.

And so, today I’m here to confess my crimes. I know that some of these things are wrong, and I am ashamed of them. Other laws, I break with pride. And so without further ado, here are my crimes:

Using adverbs

The road to hell is paved with adverbs.

Stephen King

I confess it ashamedly. Sometimes when I’m writing, especially when I’m writing dialogue, I use adverbs liberally to describe the way people said things.

And I will proudly confess that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with very occasional adverbs. My real crime is that I don’t just use them ‘very occasionally.’ I use them all over the place and wait until the editing process to come back and replace them all with stronger verbs.

It’s the only way I know to get anything done.

Long-Windedness

Write the best story that you can and write it as straight as you can.

Ernest Hemingway

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you might have already noticed that I have a tendency to say things in a verbose fashion; using an excess of words (with little side notes in brackets) to say even the simplest things and breaking it up with more commas and semi-colons than you can shake a stick at, when all I really need to say is something along the lines of: ‘I can be quite long-winded’ (or something like that).

It makes for a tedious narrative and a painstaking editing process.

having holidays

Just write every day of your life…

Ray Bradbury

I tried that, Ray. I really did. But I’m a firm believer that a regular day off is healthy and makes me a better writer, provided I am diligent about my writing schedule for the rest of the week. I also give myself a set amount of ‘annual leave’ (a maximum of 33 days per year, the exact same as my day job gives me) to allow for holidays and so forth.

On a related note…

Writing is not the sum total of my life

For a writer life consists of either writing or thinking about writing.

Eugene Ionesco

I know they’ll throw the book at me just for saying this, but my life consists of more than writing. I will go further: I believe that a life which consists of nothing but writing will produce very limited writing. I say that with the greatest of reverence to Ionesco, who was clearly a superior writer to myself. In fact, I have a sneaking suspicion Ionesco’s own life probably consisted of more than writing. After all, to quote another great writer, ‘in order to write about life, you must first live it’ (E. Hemingway). Believing things, doing things, experiencing things and feeling things, all fill your mind with the raw material to create good stories.

Don’t misunderstand me. Writing is very important to me. I write diligently every Monday-Saturday and I do spend an excessive amount of my non-writing time thinking about writing. But I also think about my wife and daughter. I think about God and I think about the state of the world. I think about my day job and I think about how I want to reward myself at the end of a hard day’s work. I think about tidying up my death-trap of a back garden and I think about what I want to read, watch or listen to. Writing is not my life, but all my life goes into writing.

Self-doubt and arrogant pride


The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like.

Neil Gaiman


For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly…

Romans 12:3 (KJV)

We writers walk a fine line between vain conceit and abject self-abasement: a line called ‘sober judgement’. Most of the time (though not always!), I tend to struggle with the latter rather than the former. I doubt my writing to such an extent that I shy away from boldly writing the things I want to write. As a result, my progress is slowed to a crawl as I sit at the computer and try to convince myself that what I’m writing isn’t a crime against literature.

However, I won’t lie to you. There have been some occasions where I’ve fallen down on the other side of ‘sober judgement’ and began to sing my own praises. This, too, is crippling, because (apart from being annoying to others) when the inevitable dry spell comes, where I struggle to write well, it makes that feeling of self-doubt all the more devastating.

What about you? What writing rules do you struggle (or outright refuse) to keep? Confession is good for the soul, so tell us all about it in the comments below!


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 breaks your rules.

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Sharleen Nelson, Author of The Time Tourists [2]

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10 Great Book Reviews

As you might have guessed by now, when I’m not writing, I’m reading; and when I’m not blogging, I’m reading other people’s blogs. One of my favourite things to read is book reviews (what better way to find new books to read?), and so today I’ve decided to share a few book reviews I’ve read from my fellow bloggers over the last few days.

None of these posts have necessarily got anything in common, save for the fact that they are all novel reviews I enjoyed reading. Some of these reviews are quite short; others longer and more detailed. They don’t necessarily deal with novels in the same genre or by the same author. As ever, this is simply a selection of my personal favourite reviews, not an exhaustive list; and as ever, this list is in no particular order.

And so, without further ado:

K DeMers Dowdall: ‘Book Review: Catling’s Bane’

Shalini’s Books and Reviews: ‘Book Review – Sleep by C. L. Taylor’

Stephanie’s Book Reviews: ‘Review: Summer by the Tides by Denise Hunter’

This Is My Truth Now: ‘Book Review: Endgame by Patrick Hodges’

FictionFan’s Book Reviews: ‘Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison’

Suzy Approved Book Reviews: ‘In The Neighborhood Of True by Susan Kaplan Carlton’

Keeper of Pages: ‘Book Review: The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides’

Lifesfinewhine: ‘The Dioramist by Eric Keegan (Book Review)’

KayCKay Book Reviews: ‘If Cats Disappeared from the World by Genki Kawamura ★★★★★ #BookReview’

Beetleypete: ‘Book Review: The Summer of Madness’


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 reviews your book.

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]

Are You Making The Best Use Of Your Writing Time?

Writing takes time. Lots of time, especially if you’re writing a novel. If you’re writing a novel and maintaining a weekly blog, you have to devote even more time to writing; and even then, you might still have that niggling feeling in the back of your mind that you should be writing a few short stories here and there.

That pretty much describes my situation, along with juggling a wife, a daughter and a full time job that has nothing to with writing. And so, I’ve recently made a few more changes to my weekly writing schedule which I hope will allow me to make better use of my limited time. I know I’ve spoken about this before [2], but I’m always trying to think of new ways to make the most efficient use of my limited writing time and while I’m sure your writing schedule won’t be exactly the same as mine, I thought I’d tell you about it anyway to provide you with a bit of food for thought.

On the average week, my writing time looks something like this:

MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
19:30 – 21:0019:30-21:0019:30-21:0019:30-21:0019:30-21:0007:00-11:30Day off

Note that the evening slots are very approximate, depending on how long it takes to get my toddler into bed. Also note that my Saturday session, while longer, is subject to regular interruptions and is therefore not always the best quality writing time.

I think you’ll agree, that’s not a huge amount of time, but it should be adequate. The big killer, as I mentioned in previous posts, is this blog. Because I publish a post every week (a deadline I don’t have with my novel), it seemed only natural to prioritise the blog. And so, I would sit down at 19:30 every Monday and write my blog. Once the blog was finished, I would use the rest of the week to work on my novel. If I managed to smash the blog on Monday, that gave me Tuesday-Saturday to write my novel. If I was still struggling with it on Friday, I probably wouldn’t get much novel done at all that week. While I had taken a few steps to try and redress the balance between my blog and story writing time, the fact remains that my fiction writing was still very much at the mercy of my blog. If the blog was going well, my novel got written. If progress on the blog was slow, the novel ground to a halt.

The thing is, as much as I love doing this blog, I only ever really considered it a kind of hobby. What I really want is to publish my novel and send a few more of my short stories to magazines and writing competitions (my output in that department has been shockingly low) but I just didn’t know how I could make better use of my time– until recently when I did a time management course at my work. Then my eyes were opened.

I don’t have time to go over all the particulars of the course, but one of the lessons I took away from it was the importance of organising tasks by order of importance and urgency, giving priority to important tasks (that is, the ones that mattered to me the most) first, then urgent ones (ones that were simply time sensitive) second. Since my blog is urgent (it needs to be done every week) but not as important to me as establishing a career as an author, it is clearly wrong for me to slave my novel to the progress of my blog. It’s also important to me to submit shorter works to magazines, but this is something that I’ve been completely neglecting as the blog has taken up so much of my time.

And so, I have reorganised my writing schedule. Now it looks like this:

MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
NovelNovelNovelShortsShortsBlogDay off

If you think about it, you’ll realise my novel now gets a guaranteed four and a half hours a week of my time with very few interruptions; short stories get three hours and my blog gets a still very generous four and a half hours (with more regular interruptions). This means that my blog has got just as much time as it always did, but now my novel is free of restrictions. It will get the same four and a half hours of quality time every week come hell or high water with the blog. Not only that, but I’ve even managed to make time to work on my short stories. In addition, by making Saturday my blog day, I remove the temptation to ‘borrow’ time from other days, as my blog is published on Sundays. Thus my novel and short story writing productivity is increased with little or no loss to my blog.

What about you? Do you struggle to make time to juggle life with multiple writing projects? How do you prioritise your time? Share your wisdom and experience with us in the comments below!


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 manages your time.

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]

6 Terrible Bad Guy Lines From the Big Screen

If you Google famous bad guy lines, you’ll find there’s a lot of blog posts out there devoted to cataloguing some of the coolest ones. Not surprising, since bad guys often have some of the most memorable lines of dialogue, especially in movies. However, there are plenty of bad guy lines out there that are really not all that good: cheesy ones, cringe-inducing ones and occasionally downright meaningless ones. This post catalogues a few bad guy lines that I personally love to hate.

Just to be clear, this isn’t a list of bad movies or bad characters (though it does feature more than its share of bad movies and bad characters). This is a list of lame lines of dialogue delivered by villains, irrespective of how good or bad the rest of the film was; lines that were probably meant to sound cool and sinister but failed to produce quite the right effect.

I’ve probably missed loads out, so please, feel free to comment below with any others you can think of that make you want to scrape your ears off with a fork every time you hear them.

So, without further ado…

Be careful not to choke on your aspirations, Director.

Darth Vader in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

Darth Vader is, of course, one of the most famous and widely loved villains of all time. He may even be the most popular villain of all time, and justifiably so. He’s my favourite too. He’s also got plenty of other genuinely cool bad guys lines in his back catalogue. There aren’t many characters who could pull off ‘we can rule the galaxy as father and son’ or ‘I am your father’ with quite the same flare Darth Vader does.

Nevertheless, this particular line is a disappointment. In this scene, Vader force chokes a dude, which is usually enough in and of itself to get the fans excited. Maybe it’ll be like that scene in Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope where he force chokes Motti and delivers the immortal line: ‘I find your lack of faith disturbing’.

But no, not in Rogue One. In Rogue One, we get a James Bond style pun about choking on aspirations.

Heck, it’s not even a very good pun.

Speaking of James Bond:

Global warming: it’s a terrible thing.

– Gustav Graves in Die Another Day (2002)

Yeah, Gustav, but not as terrible as that bad guy line.

The James Bond franchise has, of course, given us loads of memorable villains with really cool bad guy lines. Lines like: ‘Look after Mr. Bond. See that some harm comes to him’ (Drax in Moonraker) and of course, ‘No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die’ (Goldfinger in Goldfinger).

Unfortunately, Die Another Day did not live up to its predecessors, not by a long mile. It was a terrible movie, with a terrible bad guy and one of the worst bad guy lines I’ve ever had the misfortune of hearing. I wouldn’t have minded so much if Graves was a concerned environmental campaigner (global warming is a terrible thing) but he’s not. Graves smugly uttered this line after believing he had killed Bond by firing a big ray of solar energy from an orbiting satellite (pul-eez!) which, you know… isn’t the same thing as global warming. The worst part is, the dudes he’s trying to impress with Big Sunshine Space Gun respond respectfully to this cheesy line while he stands there with arms folded, an eyebrow raised and leaning slightly backwards as if he’s the cat’s pyjamas.

Don’t you know who I am? I’m the Juggernaut, b*tch!

Juggernaut in X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)

Even though I knew this quote was very unpopular, I wasn’t actually planning on including it here at first. That was before I learned the story of its origins.

I was aware, of course, that there were an awful lot of memes out there which included this line but I didn’t realise that the memes actually came before the movie. For those memes aren’t based on this (frankly disappointing) movie as I had supposed; no, they are a homage to this little parody video created by My Way Entertainment, which came out four months before The Last Stand (beware: bad language abounds). The movie was actually copying this, presumably because somebody thought it would be funny:

*sigh*

Come to dinner, just the two of us… Or should I say, ‘just the one of us?’

Shinzon in Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)

Star Trek: Nemesis is widely berated as one of the most disappointing films in the entire franchise, and I’m inclined to agree. This line, however, stands out as one which makes me shiver every time I hear Shinzon utter it.

And by that I mean it makes me shiver the same way I shiver if I accidentally rub my hands together when still they’re wrinkly from being in the bath, or perhaps the way I shiver whenever my fork accidentally scrapes against my plate with a high pitched shriek. It really hurts to listen to. Shinzon had already dropped about a billion subtle-as-a-brick hints to Picard that he is Picard’s clone, and this final ‘dramatic’ gambit only needed a ‘DUN-DUN-DUUUUUUN!‘ and the moment would’ve been complete.

Allow me to break the ice. My name is Freeze. Learn it well, for it’s the chilling sound of your doom.

Mr. Freeze in Batman and Robin (1997)

The moment I started to write this post, I knew Mr. Freeze was going to be in it somewhere but I didn’t know exactly which quote of his I was going to use. If you’ve not seen Batman and Robin, do yourself a favour and watch it if it’s ever on Netflix again and you’ll see why I was struggling (I can’t justify asking you to buy the DVD, but remember: piracy is stealing, no matter how bad the movie is).

EVERY line this bad guy utters is a really lame ice/cold related pun. He doesn’t deliver a single cool line (boom boom!). Most of them don’t even make much sense. I (ice-)picked this particular one because it feels like the most honest (but still failed) attempt he makes to deliver a genuinely GOOD bad guy line (I’m quite certain the rest were deliberately bad). It also gives you an overall flavour of what the rest of them are like, because they’re all in much the same vein. I’m not even sure this one is the worst.


Sindel in Mortal Kombat: Annihilation (1997)

Need I say more? You knew she was coming the moment you saw the title of this blog and you were right. Sindel’s first, ‘dramatic’ opening line in the sequel to Mortal Kombat will go down in history as one of the most cringe-inducing lame-o bad guy lines ever uttered on the big screen.


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 freeze chokes your global warming.

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]

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]

Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Children’s Edition (vol. 2)

SPOILER ALERT

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

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

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

Monkey Puzzle by Julia Donaldson

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

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

Little Miss Inventor by Adam Hargreaves

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

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

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟

Elmer in the Snow by David McKee

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

My rating: 🌟🌟

Perky the Pukeko by Michelle Osment

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

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

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟

The Gruffalo’s Child by Julia Donaldson

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

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟

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

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

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Sharleen Nelson, Author of The Time Tourists [2]

5 Useful Fiction and Writing Blogs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Sharleen Nelson, Author of The Time Tourists [2]

How to Help Your Audience Suspend Disbelief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Sharleen Nelson, Author of The Time Tourists [2]

Book Review: Burning Bright

SPOILER ALERT

Anyone who has not read Burning Bright by John Steinbeck is hereby advised that this post contains spoilers.

Well, well, well, believe it or not, I’ve never reviewed a John Steinbeck book before, despite repeatedly implying that he’s one of my all time favourite authors. That changes today with this review of John Steinbeck’s tiny and much maligned little ‘play-novelette’, Burning Bright.

Steinbeck himself described this book as an experiment in writing a play in the form of a novelette, and it becomes immediately obvious what is meant by that when you read it. Unlike most novels which are split into numerous chapters, set in various locations with a wide cast of characters, Burning Bright is split into three acts, each set in a single room (a circus tent, a farmhouse, a ship and a hospital to be precise). There are only four characters and the action is entirely driven by Steinbeck’s masterful use of dialogue and, to a lesser extent, description of setting.

So, did this little ‘experiment’ pay off? Well, if the critics are to be believed, the answer is no. It seems everybody and their granny hates this book. But I’m not everybody’s granny and I do not hate this book! True, it’s not my favourite Steinbeck book and it could certainly stand a little constructive criticism (in fact, it’s just about to do so), but it’s definitely not my least favourite Steinbeck book either. So let’s get down to brass tacks and look at the story in more detail.

Joe Saul is our protagonist in this story: an everyman who desperately wants to have a child but alas, is sterile. He suspects it but refuses to acknowledge it, preferring to wallow in his misery. His younger wife, Mordeen, also suspects his sterility. She is so determined to produce a child for Joe that she is willing even to sleep with a man she frankly doesn’t care for, not because she desires another man but because she is desperate to give Joe a child.

Victor is the other man: an altogether arrogant, unlikable and ignorant little man who works as Joe’s right hand man in each act and who wants Mordeen for himself. Then there’s Friend Ed: supportive, protective and loyal towards Joe even if it means hurting him. None of the above are the deepest or most complex character’s Steinbeck has ever written, but they’re okay. I liked them well enough and it was pretty plain to see what they all needed and what stood in their way.

The plot itself is perfectly good in that it follows a natural and plausible progression, though there is a certain inevitability about it. Almost from the very start, we just know that Mordeen is going to try and get pregnant by Victor and pass it off as Joe’s, and we just know that Victor is going to become attached to Mordeen, and we just know that in his jealousy, Victor will threaten to tell Joe the truth and most inevitably of all, we just know that the story will climax with Joe finding out the child is not his. For most writers, this would be an express ticket to Rubbish Novel Land. Fortunately Steinbeck’s writing style is a joy to read even at the worst of times and beautifully carries this rather plain story along.

The action is heavily dialogue-driven, which is appropriate for a play. It is, however, less appropriate for a novel, and I think this is one key area in which the incompatibility of the play form and prose form is made obvious. The two forms just don’t blend, any more than clay blends with iron. However, while critics are often quick to bemoan Steinbeck’s use of lengthy and the unsuitably flowery language, I personally found that Steinbeck’s trademark artistry with words was sufficient that I still found the dialogue enjoyable (if a little jarring) to read.

There was one other very strange thing about this story, even within the experimental context of the story’s structure, and I’m not sure I liked it: the characters’ backgrounds change from one act to the next, yet the individual characters remain fundamentally the same people. For instance, in Act One, the characters are all circus performers, whereas in Act Two they live on neighbouring farms and in Act Three, they are sailors. They are all the same people, they all relate to each other in the same way and there is continuity with the key events of the plot, but their day-to-day situation is portrayed as variable and irrelevant.

My best guess is that this is an ambitious but uncharacteristically clumsy effort by Steinbeck to highlight the everyman quality of Joe and his fellow characters. By rendering the backdrop variable, and therefore irrelevant, the reader is focused exclusively on the naked humanity of their situation which could happen to any one of us. Be that as it may, it feels like Steinbeck was trying a bit too hard to be clever at the expense of writing a good story. It strikes me that by robbing Joe Saul and the others of their backgrounds, Steinbeck has effectively created shadow characters who exist purely as symbols of the idea he was trying to communicate. They don’t read like real people, as good characters should, because real people are defined, at least in part, by where they come from and what they do.

All in all, the critics are correct about one thing: this is not Steinbeck’s best work. However, in my experience, Steinbeck’s grocery list (probably) makes better reading than the average novel– and I say that as a bona fide bookworm. While not his most adventurous story in terms of plot and characters, its still a perfectly solid bit of fiction, and would perhaps serve as a useful case study for teaching the rudiments of quality story telling to the uninitiated. The experiment of bringing together the play format and the prose format was ambitious but, alas, the two things simply don’t mix. I don’t think this was because Steinbeck did it badly. I’m just not sure it’s possible to  effectively create a true mixture of the two styles, because they’re just too different and necessarily so. I did enjoy this book, but it was, without question, only Steinbeck’s trademark wizardry with language which held it together.

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 novelises your play.

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]