What Do You Listen To While Writing?

When you write, do you find background noise distracting or helpful? As far as I can tell from my extensive research on the subject, there is no right or wrong answer to this question. Some writers can’t seem to put pen to paper until they’re in a soundproof environment while others insist that the only place they can write is on the sitting next to the machinery in a glass bottle factory, so you’ll be in good company whatever your aural writing preferences are.

Personally, I find that my needs change depending on what I’m writing and at what stage I’m at. Absolute silence, ambient background noise (though not quite at glass bottle factory levels) and music all have their place in my writing routine.

Absolute Silence

While perhaps not true of all writers, I think most of us would agree that there are at least some rare occasions when you need to focus your brain 100% on the task at hand; occasions when any kind of external stimulation, however small, can be distracting. I certainly find this to be true. When I’m struggling to perfect a tricky little piece of dialogue or weed out some of the holes in my plot, even the smallest sounds can prove to be a big distraction. When that happens, there’s nothing else for it but to retreat to a different room (or better still, a different building) from all other people and animals; close all windows and doors and turn off any central heating, washing machines or anything else that makes noise. If you have access to a soundproofed room, that’s even better.

But beware! As helpful as silence can sometimes be, it can also be deafening. Unless I’m trying to focus on a particularly sticky problem that requires every last iota of my brainpower, I tend to find absolute silence more of a hindrance than a help– not least of all because true silence can be very difficult to find. If you’re in a room that is absolutely silent except for the occasional dripping of a leaky tap or the gentle hum of your computer, that leaky tap or gentle humming can feel like someone taking a mallet to your head.

Ambient Background Noise

On most occasions, I find a bit of ordinary background noise can provide the perfect balance between silence and sound for everyday writing tasks, in much the same way that I find it easy to focus on my day job despite the constant hum of chattering colleagues and ringing telephones. It’s not so quiet that it becomes distracting, but neither is it interesting enough to draw my attention.

Lots of writers swear by writing in cafes for  this very reason. However, not all background noise is created equal. Finding a spot that guarantees you the right type and volume of background noise can be hard. Even if you do find a pleasant place to write in, it can all go a bit pear-shaped if somebody’s baby starts screaming or if a fire engine goes whizzing past. A good way to avoid this problem is by using apps like Noisli, which allow you to customise your own mix of background various ambient noises: trains, thunder, birdsong and so forth.

It will also save you a fortune in overpriced coffee.

Music

Music can be a great little motivator, especially if I’m engaged in a particularly long and gruelling writing session (Noisli doesn’t sound too repetitive in general but you will start to notice the pattern in the loops if you listen to it for hours on end).

However, interesting music can be unhelpful. For example, I like to listen to classic rock, but not when I’m writing, because catchy or complicated tunes tend to just distract me. Music with singing is the worst. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got a vast collection of music with vocals but if I try to listen to it while I’m writing, I end up just seeing a little silhouetto of a man and doing the fandango.

And there’s nothing worse than when that happens.

Easy listening is one option, but if you’re anything like me, you hate easy listening. I actually find video game soundtracks far more helpful to play (quietly!) while I’m in writing.  The Final Fantasy, Fable or Monkey Island soundtracks are my personal favourites. They are easy enough on the ear that you can listen to them for a long time but they aren’t so interesting that you get distracted by them. In fact, most gaming soundtracks have been specifically written to keep you focused on what you’re doing over a long period, so they’re maybe worth looking into, even if you don’t particularly like video games.

Sounds That Never Help. Ever.

  • People talking to you while you’re trying to write.
  • Your phone ringing/vibrating on the desk in front of you.
  • E-mail or social media notifications.
  • Your neighbours’ latest venture into DIY.
  • The sound of one or two others talking to each other but “politely” ignoring you. It’s not background noise if you can make out every word that’s spoken. Whispered conversation is no better.

What about you? What do you find helpful or unhelpful to listen to when you write?


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Until next time!

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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Super Snappy Speed Reviews – Games Edition

SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers, anyone who has not played Batman: Arkham OriginsFable IIITenchu 2: Birth of the Stealth AssassinsGolden AxeMetal Gear SolidTime Commando or The Secret of Monkey Island is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

More than two years ago, when I first started Penstricken, I had this big idea that I was going to blog about all forms of story telling: books, films, plays and even computer games. If I’m being honest, however, there has been an accidental but undeniable bias in favour of posts about TV, films and books. When it comes to Super Snappy Speed Reviews, we’ve already done books (twice, in fact), TV shows, films and even Star Trek.

And so, for this edition of Super Snappy Speed Reviews, I’m going to give you seven mini-reviews focusing on the stories found in computer games (mostly retro games, because I’m an old dinosaur like that). As usual, the games I have reviewed here have been selected entirely at random from my own collection of dusty relics and do not necessarily have anything in common apart from the fact that they are all games (although you’ll be lucky if any of them are less than ten years old!). They are not necessarily games that I particularly liked or disliked, nor are they sorted into any particular order. I should also add I am focusing my reviews solely on the quality of the story, not graphics, audio or general game play.

As always, these reviews only reflect my own personal opinions and impressionsblitzed, pureed and truncated into a few short sentences. So without further ado…

Batman: Arkham Origins (2013)

Superhero games are often naff. This one is not.

The plot is simple but bold: there’s a price on Batman’s head and everyone from Gotham’s criminal element right through to the City’s corrupt police force intend to collect it while Alfred drives Batman to distraction by acting like a mother hen. The story telling is excellent and well-paced. The characters (and there are plenty of them) are well developed. The dialogue is excellent.

I love this game.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

Fable III (2010)

At first, the story of this game seems pretty straight-forward. You’re the brother/sister of a king who has recently begun abusing his power and so you set out to find allies to help you lead a revolution. Suddenly, just when you think it all makes sense and you’ve nearly won the game it turns out that there’s a weird semi-corporeal army of darkness coming to destroy everything and the whole reason the King was being so cruel was to help raise funds to fight in the coming war.

It’s not a bad story. A little simplistic, perhaps and the antagonists who appear at the end of the story feel a bit under-developed but it basically works. My main complaint is that the protagonist never seems to really develop, despite (perhaps even because of) the fact that game largely centres around making moral decisions that will influence your future.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟

Tenchu 2: Birth of the Stealth Assassins (2000)

This story is set in feudal Japan and focuses on a small clan of ninja fighting against another ninja clan who have decided they’ve had enough of being stealthy and want to establish a world ruled by ninja.

I’m not sure how historically accurate it is, but I suspect the answer is ‘not very’. The story is quite simple to the point of even being a little bit silly but it is reasonably paced and the dialogue is… meh… okay. Character development is limited but it’s there. One of its big selling points is the fact that the three playable characters allow you to see the story from three unique perspectives (including the perspective of the bad guys).

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟

Golden Axe (1989)

Death Adder has taken over the kingdom and has kidnapped the King and Princess. He has no redeeming qualities. The good guys are noble and heroic. Also some guy called Alex is murdered by Death Adder before the game begins and is never mentioned again.

That’s pretty much it. No characterisation, plot twists or anything at all really… just a good old fashioned find the bad guy, kill the bad guy, save the kingdom.

My rating: 🌟🌟

Metal Gear Solid (1998)

Most computer games have half-baked or altogether non-existent stories. Metal Gear Solid is not like that. It’s got drama, it’s got conspiracy, it’s got plenty of characterisation and even alternative endings. It’s well paced with a strong balance of action scenes and softer, emotional scenes. Frankly, it often feels more like a movie than a game thanks to the sheer complexity of the plot and characters.

My only gripe with it is that it is a little overwritten and as a result, features quite a bit of info-dumping during some of the video sequences.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟

Time Commando (1996)

Does anyone else remember this game apart from me? Well… basically it’s a classic ‘slay the dragon/save the princess’ sort of story– but much more ridiculous. Instead of a dragon, we have a computer virus (who resembles a giant fish) which creates a giant time vortex which threatens to consume the entire world. Stanley, the protagonist, very foolishly enters the vortex and battles his way through eight different time zones before finally fighting the virus itself in the strange world of ‘beyond time’.

Not only is this story ridiculous, but the game features ZERO dialogue of any kind (except for ‘oh yeah!’ whenever you find a secret) making it almost impossible to understand the plot without reading the game’s manual.

A fun game to play but the story frankly feels a little unfinished.

My rating: 🌟

The Secret of Monkey Island (1990)

I knew I was going to love this game from the very first moment I turned it on and saw this scrawny, blonde haired wimp politely inform a blind watchman, ‘Hi. My name’s Guybrush Threepwood and I want to be a pirate’.

When it comes to story telling, this game has it all: an unlikely hero driven by a strong motivation to become a pirate; a dastardly ghost-pirate antagonist; a strong, independent love-interest who turns out to be anything but a damsel in distress and buckets of humour. Even the supporting characters are vibrant, distinctive and hard not to love.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟


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50 Quotes About Fiction

  1. “I like telling stories.” — Hunter Parrish
  2. “All fiction has to have a certain amount of truth in it to be powerful.” — George R.R. Martin
  3. “Literature is a luxury; fiction is a necessity.” — GK Chesterton
  4. “The best fiction is geared towards conflict. We learn most about our characters through tension, when they are put up against insurmountable obstacles. This is true in real life.” — Sufjan Stevens
  5. “Truth is so hard to tell, it sometimes needs fiction to make it plausible.” — Francis Bacon
  6. “The power of historical fiction for bad and for good can be immense in shaping consciousness of the past.” — Antony Beevor
  7. “The nature of good fiction is that it dwells in ambiguity.” — E.L. Doctorow
  8. “It’s no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.” — Mark Twain
  9. “Fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so slightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners. Often the attachment is scarcely perceptible.” — Virginia Wolf
  10. “Imagination and fiction make up more than three quarters of our real life.” — Simon Weil
  11. “Science fiction is any idea that occurs in the head and doesn’t exist yet, but soon will, and will change everything for everybody, and nothing will ever be the same again. As soon as you have an idea that changes some small part of the world you are writing science fiction. It is always the art of the possible, never the impossible.” — Ray Bradbury
  12. “Human kind has been telling stories forever and will be telling stories forever.” — Jim Crace
  13. “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.” — Albert Camus
  14. “I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which ‘Escape’ is now so often used. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?” ― J.R.R. Tolkien
  15. “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.” — Oscar Wilde
  16. “There is no doubt fiction makes a better job of the truth.” — Doris Lessing
  17. “Life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent.” — Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  18. “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” — Albert Einstein
  19. “Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
  20. “While we read a novel, we are insane—bonkers. We believe in the existence of people who aren’t there, we hear their voices… Sanity returns (in most cases) when the book is closed.” — Ursula K. Le Guin
  21.  “It’s the truth even if it didn’t happen.” — Ken Kesey
  22. “Fiction wouldn’t be much fun without its fair share of scoundrels, and they have to live somewhere.” —  Jasper Fforde
  23. “General fiction is pretty much about ways that people get into problems and screw their lives up. Science fiction is about everything else” — Marvin Minsky
  24. “Fiction just makes it all more interesting. Truth is so boring.” — Charlaine Harris
  25. “The story you are about to read is a work of fiction. Nothing – and everything – about it is real.” — Todd Strasser
  26. “Fantasy is storytelling with the beguiling power to transform the impossible into the imaginable, and to reveal our own “real” world in a fresh and truth-bearing light.” — Leonard S. Marcus
  27. “[Characters] are the beating heart of any story that’s worth reading. All my favourite stories, whether they be books, films, TV shows, comics, computer games, or any other kind of story you care to mention, feature compelling characters. Characters who are not just believable people (though that is vitally important), but who are intriguing, unusual, captivating and – most importantly – unique. Their distinctive qualities makes them memorable, interesting and appealing (even if they are the most sinister villains) and they don’t slot too neatly into cliched archetypes – damsels in distress, moustache twirling villains, reluctant heroes or any other such thing.” — A. Ferguson
  28. “Stories of imagination tend to upset those without one.” — Terry Pratchett
  29. “Fiction is the only way to redeem the formlessness of life” — Martin Amis
  30. “History has its truth, and so has legend. Legendary truth is of another nature than historical truth. Legendary truth is invention whose result is reality. Furthermore, history and legend have the same goal; to depict eternal man beneath momentary man.” — Victor Hugo
  31. “Even in the world of make-believe there have to be rules. The parts have to be consistent and belong together.” — Daniel Keyes
  32. “A well-thought-out story doesn’t need to resemble real life. Life itself tries with all its might to resemble a well-crafted story.” — Isaac Babel
  33. “There is no society that does not highly value fictional storytelling. Ever.” — Orson Scott Card
  34. “The best fiction is true.” — Kinky Friedman
  35. “To write something out of one’s own mind, worth reading for its own sake, is an arduous contrivance only to be achieved in fortunate moments, few and far in between. Personally, I would sooner have written Alice in Wonderland than the whole Encyclopedia Britannica.” — Stephen Leacock
  36. “Just as pilots gain practice with flight simulators, people might acquire social experience by reading fiction.” — Raymond A. Mar
  37. “It’s never too late – in fiction or in life – to revise.” — Nancy Thayer
  38. “All fiction is about people, unless it’s about rabbits pretending to be people. It’s all essentially characters in action, which means characters moving through time and changes taking place, and that’s what we call ‘the plot.'” — Margaret Atwood
  39. “I love fiction because in fiction you go into the thoughts of people, the little people, the people who were defeated, the poor, the women, the children that are never in history books.” — Isabel Allende
  40. “I mostly associated video game storytelling with unforgivable clumsiness, irredeemable incompetence – and suddenly, I was finding the aesthetic and formal concerns I’d always associated with fiction: storytelling, form, the medium, character. That kind of shocked me.” — Tom Bissell
  41. “When a writer is already stretching the bounds of reality by writing within a science fiction or fantasy setting, that writer must realise that excessive coincidence makes the fictional reality the writer is creating less ‘real.'” — Jane Lindskold
  42. “In the best works of fiction, there’s no moustache-twirling villain. I try to write shows where even the bad guy’s got his reasons.” — Lin-Manuel Miranda
  43. “I just had a crazy, wild imagination all my life, and science fiction is the greatest outlet for me.” — Steven Spielberg
  44. “The most watched programme on the BBC, after the news, is probably ‘Doctor Who.’ What has happened is that science fiction has been subsumed into modern literature. There are grandparents out there who speak Klingon, who are quite capable of holding down a job. No one would think twice now about a parallel universe.” — Terry Pratchett
  45. “I write essays to clear my mind. I write fiction to open my heart.” — Taiye Selasi
  46. “A play is fiction– and fiction is fact distilled into truth.” — Edward Albee
  47. “All my fiction starts from a feeling of unique perception, the pressure of a secret, a story that needs to be told.” — Barry Unsworth
  48. “Politicians should read science fiction, not westerns and detective stories.” — Arthur C. Clarke
  49. “Fiction is too beautiful to be about just one thing. It should be about everything.” — Arundhati Roy
  50.  “I can make up stories with the best of them. I’ve been telling stories since I was a little kid” — Rabih Alameddine

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 hammers your nail.

Until next time!

Fiction: Reality Refined

There are two kinds of story in this world. Those that are not at all true to life and therefore are completely unsatisfactory, and those that create the illusion of being true to life but, in fact, are not. Very few stories (even those meticulously and faithfully based on true events) accurately reflect real life once they’ve been structured in a way which allows them to be communicated, because real life is far too much of a jumble for that to be possible.

‘But wait just a minute here,’ I hear you cry. ‘I read a book/watched a film/attended a play/played a game just the other day there and it was the truest darn thing I’ve ever seen in my entire life!’

Well of course it’s true that if you’re writing a story, you’ll want it to be true to life in the sense that it must accurately reflect the human experience. A skilled author can (and should) attempt to communicate far more fundamental truths than this about life and death, war and peace, society, philosophy, religion or whatever it might be in their stories. And of course, stories based on true events must remain faithful to history. No one is denying any of that.

However, in real life, events are disjointed and random. Things happen for no reason. Reality must therefore be refined in order to turn it into a digestible and entertaining story. For instance, you might be writing a novel (based on the true story) about your holiday to France where you met your future wife and fought to win the respect of her disapproving father. Now while you were there, you also bumped into Mr. Donald, your former maths teacher. It turns out he’s there to attend the Fête de la Musique because (to your surprise) he’s ridiculously enthusiastic about music and will travel far and wide to attend music festivals all over the world. You make polite conversation about this for twenty minutes and then go your separate ways. You put the event out of your mind. Life goes on. It never comes up again. All that you have learned about Mr. Donald, his passion for music or that there is an all-day music festival that happens in Paris every June neither harms or benefits you in any way, at any point in your life, ever.

So… when you come to write the novel about how you went on holiday, met a girl and won the respect of her father, you’re not going to include that event, are you? Because in all story telling, everything happens for a reason. Meaningless events only serve to break up the flow, rhythm and pace of the story. Have you ever been watching a film and noticed that nobody ever says goodbye to anybody else, even on the telephone? Or that nobody ever walks into a room and forgets what they went there for, or forgets what they were about to say. And no one ever needs to go to the toilet, unless there’s a mad axe murderer in there already poised and waiting to kill them. This isn’t true to life at all! In real life, people always forget things, usually do say goodbye on the phone and, more often than not, have uneventful visits to the bathroom.

Not only that, but in all good stories (even those based on true events) there is a clear and identifiable structure, sometimes called the ‘story arc’ or ‘narrative arc’ (a simple definition and description is available here) and all the events in your story should contribute in some way towards its construction. This is not true to life, but it is good story telling. In real life, you meet new people all the time. They enter your life, do or say so many things and then leave your life, often without ceremony. Many different events happen all at once and are often never fully resolved. Good story telling isn’t like that. In good story telling, A leads to B which leads to C and in the end, all the loose ends are tied up. They might not necessarily all live happily ever after, but the story comes to a neat end. Our questions are answered and we are happy to assume that life goes on (at least for the survivors).

If all of this is teaching your granny to suck eggs, let me draw your attention to one more point: dialogue. In dialogue, you walk a fine line between creating a distinctive and believable voice which tells you something about the character and constructing your dialogue in a way which allows your narrative to flow.

It may be difficult to do because we’re all so used to verbal communication, but next time you’re having a verbal conversation with someone, listen to the words they use. Don’t just listen to their meaning. Pay careful attention to every utterance. You will notice that, more often than not, the rules of grammar go out the window. New sentences are often begun before the previous one is finished. People interrupt and talk over one another. Sometimes misunderstandings will derail a conversation (‘Do you like coffee?’ ‘Oh yes I’d love one, thank you!’). Words are often misused (for instance, when people say ‘pacific’ instead of ‘specific’). Sentences are often punctuated by non-sensible utterances (‘erm…’, ‘uhh…’). The list goes on.

Seriously, I encourage you to try it someday. Make a precise transcript of a real-life conversation in exactly the order it is spoken and read it back to yourself. You will marvel at the fact human beings are able to communicate at all when you see just how muddled up our verbal communication is.

In fiction, however, your dialogue can’t be like that. You can add dialects, accents and perhaps even the odd bit of bad grammar to your heart’s content but the flow of the conversation still has to be clear for the reader. Dialogue, just like the rest of your narrative, has a purpose. It drives the story on, and therefore it must accomplish its ends. Still, it must sound believable. You as the author, therefore, walk a fine line between making it sound so implausibly perfect that your characters seem wooden and so realistically imperfect that it reads like meaningless waffle and drags your story’s pace down to a crawl.

Not only that, but you also have to beware of making the content of a conversation sound too contrived. It can be all too tempting to use dialogue as a place to info-dump. E.g., ‘I visited my sister, Andrea McLaren, 24, who lives just around the corner from the butchers on Western Road’.

Real people don’t talk like that. If Andrea’s full name, age and address are important, they need to be worked in with subtlety and believably. There are many techniques you can use to lend credibility to your dialogue, but I’ll come back to that in a future post.


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 fries your bacon.

Until next time!

100 Word Story: Little Thieves Are Hanged

You may recall that a couple of weeks ago, I published a 100 word story entitled The Monster which I had previously entered (unsuccessfully) into the National Association of Writers’ Groups 100 Word Mini-Tales competition. Well, I’ve since decided to publish just one more of my entries here, mainly because I’ve already made reference to this particular story on previous posts and it seemed only apropos to let you read the thing.

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

LITTLE THIEVES ARE HANGED

by. A Ferguson

Based on a true story

The junkie was talking before he reached the bus stop. Coming toe-to-toe with another gentleman who was waiting there, the junkie recounted his entire life story, occasionally tapping the gentleman’s stomach; a genial ‘wait-until-you-hear-this’ gesture.

The gentleman put his hands in his pockets. He glanced desperately towards me. I smiled, trying to reassure him.

An eternity passed before a bus finally spirited the junkie away, still talking as he embarked. The gentleman relaxed.

‘I’ve no idea who that was!’ He confided to me as my bus arrived.

I laughed and boarded the bus, fingering his wallet, safe in my pocket.

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 plucks your pigeon.

Until next time!

How Many Drafts Should I Write?

I remember when I first came across the concept of writing in drafts. I was in primary school doing some piece of written work (I forget what about) when my teacher told us all to write a rough draft first, then to write a second draft.

Well that’s just silly, I thought (I couldn’t have been more than seven years old). Why don’t I just write it properly the first time?

Because, as Ernest Hemingway (one of the greatest writers of the modern age) pointed out, ‘the first draft of anything is s***’. Now if Ernest Hemingway couldn’t knock out a high quality novel on the first go, what chance have the rest of us got?

‘Okay, okay, I know that already!’ I hear you cry. ‘But how many drafts should I write?’

Ah, well, now you’re asking. The short and somewhat glib answer is, ‘as many as it takes’. In my experience, three would be the bare minimum but no two writers work in quite the same way so if you’re looking for a hard and fast rule, look elsewhere because I ain’t got one to give you. I can only give you the benefit of my limited experience. So, this is what works for me. Feel free to try it out and if it doesn’t work for you, well… don’t shout at me.

Zero Draft (or the ‘Not Technically a Draft, Draft’)

Before I even attempt to write a first draft, I write a zero draft.

‘Well, that just sounds like a load of pretentious nonsense to me!’ I hear you cry.

Well a lot of writers of both fiction and non-fiction use zero drafts and I don’t know whether or not they use the term in exactly the same way I do, but for me a zero draft sits somewhere between free-writing and drafting. I’ll write maybe half a dozen (often more) of these individual, disjointed portions of narrative, without worrying too much about whether it’s any good or not, to help me invent settings, audition characters and generally breathe a bit of life into my ideas and research without worrying about if they will fit into my final project.

This kind of writing is not structured enough to be considered a true first draft but it is more focused than free-writing, which simply involves typing whatever comes into your head even if it’s nothing to do with anything (click here for an example of what free-writing looks like).

Not all writers use zero drafts. They work well for me because, as a half-planner/half-pantser, I need a chapter outline to help me write a draft… but I can’t easily imagine what my characters might do and think unless I’ve already written them into existence. Thus I write a zero draft to help me plan. Then I use the plan to help me write my first draft.

First Draft (or the ‘Tell Yourself the Story Draft’)

This is where I make my first serious attempt at writing my novel/novella/short story/etc in all its fullness. After I’ve completed my chapter outline, story beats, character profiles and all that boring stuff, I should have a pretty clear idea in my mind as to what events should happen and in what order. I know where my story begins, where it ends and the journey it takes to get there. All I have to do is write it, starting with chapter one and ending with the ending.

What I don’t worry about at this stage is my writing style: word choice, figurative language, or even more basic things spelling and grammar. I try to stick to a rough word count, but even then, I don’t let it hinder me. The point of this stage is simply to get the story out in all its fullness, no matter how badly written it may be. Or, as Terry Pratchett put it, ‘the first draft is just you telling yourself the story’.

Write it quickly. Don’t edit it. It can be rubbish, as long as it’s complete (note: it should still make sense, however, assuming you’ve done the planning bit properly!).

Second Draft (or the ‘Make Your Story Better’ draft)

Congratulations! You’ve completed your first draft. Now go away and do something else for a few days at least.

Done that? Alright, now print off your first draft and read it with a dispassionate eye.

Rubbish right? That’s okay, it’s meant to be. At this stage, I grab my red pen and go through the whole thing picking out everything in the story itself that needs fixing or improving. Shallow characters, unconvincing dialogue, plot holes (though there shouldn’t be too many of those if I planned well in the beginning) and all that sort of stuff. I still don’t waste too much time at this stage thinking about language or style; what matters is the plot, the people and the places that make up my story. Once I’ve worked out everything that needs improved, it’s time to start writing that second draft, slower this time, taking care to apply all the improvements I’ve decided to make.

Note: by ‘writing that second draft’ I do mean writing the whole story all over again from scratch, not simply tidying up the first draft. Keep the first draft safe so you can refer back to it.

Third Draft (or the ‘Make Your Story Beautiful’ draft)

For me, this is the final essential stage of drafting any story I write, although it is entirely possible that I might need to write more if my first ones weren’t up to scratch.

Once I’ve completed my second draft I again set it aside for a little. This time when I come back, I print it off and, using my Red Pen of Editing, go through it with a fine tooth comb working out all stylistic issues. This is without a doubt the slowest draft to create. Every word counts, every sentence matters. By now, I should be fully satisfied with my story (if I’m not, I need to go back and repeat an earlier stage) and am focused purely on turning my story into a work of art. Word choice, turns of phrase, figurative language and all those other subtle things that turns a story into something beautiful.

What you’re trying to say should already be well and truly established. For me, the third draft is all about how you say it.


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

Until next time!

Ink and Pixel: Writers’ Edition

Last year, I wrote a post about the pros and cons of e-book readers compared to traditional paper books. Well that’s all well and good for reading, but what about for writing fiction? How do you write? On paper or with a computer? These days, it’s not really much of a choice. You’ll have a hard time getting anything published if you don’t at least type up your drafts before you send them to anyone who edits or publishes for a living and (as I recently discovered) manual typewriters are hard to come by these days.

But what about in those glorious early stages, when you’re still figuring out character profiles, chapter outlines and scribbling out rough zero drafts?

My first order of business tends to be to grab my notebook and Bic four-colour ballpoint pen and get brainstorming, (click here for more on how I like to do this). I’ve tried to use the same brainstorming technique on my computer before but… it’s not the same. It’s too tempting to press that ‘delete’ key if I don’t like things and typing doesn’t allow me the same freedom to scribble small notes to myself in spare corners of the page. Scapple by Literature and Latte certainly allows me more freedom to order my ideas any way I like but for me, Scapple comes into its own later on in the planning stage, when I’m ready to start organising my ideas, as opposed to simply coming up with them. Using a lined paper notebook allows me to vomit my ideas out in an orderly but unrestricted fashion. There’s something about working on paper that gives free reign to my imagination in a way which, for some reason, seems to be lacking when I work on computer. Perhaps it’s because coming up with new ideas is so closely related to daydreaming, and they are yet to build an app which does anything to enhance a human’s ability to dream. There’s also something quite natural and pleasant about writing on paper. It feels less like work and more like playing, perhaps because that’s how I used to write when I was a wee boy scribbling out stories in my bedroom with crayons without worrying about how neat or clever it is.

However, once I get past the brainstorming stage, into the slightly more formal side of planning, I find myself far more drawn to my computer and tend to use a combination of the two: organising my thoughts on computer, but still relying on my notepad to help me work my way through any problems I might encounter. I have already commented on my love for Scapple. Once the basic ideas are in place and I know roughly what I want to do, Scapple allows me to organise and structure all my ideas (and identify potential problems) in one place without having to buy my own body weight in post-it notes or scribble all over my bedroom wall. In the same way, Scrivener, also by Literature and Latte (I promise they’ve not paid me to write this, I genuinely just love their stuff) helps me to stay organised by keeping together all my drafts, character profiles, plot outlines and my whole story bible in one neat and tidy place. No loose bits of paper, no losing things, no jumping from notebook to notebook or indeed app to app.

I never fully abandon my paper notebook, however, until I get to the stage of writing an actual first draft (not to be confused with a zero draft; more on that in weeks to come). Once all the planning is done and I feel confident that I can make the story work, there really shouldn’t be much call to come up with any new ideas unless I hit a serious problem– and I shouldn’t hit a problem that can seriously undermine my story if I’ve done the planning stage thoroughly. The bulk of the work is done on Scrivener, although I also use the Hemingway Editor to help me at the editing stage and I will also occasionally use FocusWriter to help me get into the swing of things if I’m having a hard day getting started (though whatever I produce still gets transferred to Scrivener). As a rule, the further I progress with a project, the more I find myself using Scrivener to the exclusion of all other apps (including Scapple), as well as paper stationary.

In a word, then, I tend to begin the story-writing process exclusively on paper and become more dependant on my computer as I progress. Paper is great for helping me come up with ideas. I’m yet to find a substitute for it. It’s the only way I know to record my imaginings in a way which is pure and complete and there’s a great joy to be had in the process of doing it. But when it comes to organising, producing and editing a written work, that’s when the computer/tablet (and the whole plethora of apps for writing that are available) really come into their own. There’s no substitute for the ease with which I can edit my work, the orderliness it brings to my life or indeed the fact that a grown-up publisher might actually read my manuscript when it’s finally done.


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’ and share 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 boils your egg.

Until next time!

5 Useful Posts on Fiction Writing

Sometimes, I just can’t say it better than my fellow bloggers. I’ve decided, therefore, that it is time for another exciting instalment of 5 Useful Posts on Fiction Writing, where I share some of the most useful, enjoyable and insightful posts on fiction writing I’ve seen from other bloggers in recent weeks.

As ever, there have been numerous posts I’ve read lately that I could include in this list. I read a wide variety of blogs on fiction and writing and could not even begin to list them all. This is just a selection of some that I have recently found particularly useful or enjoyable.

So, without further ado and in no particular order:

Emily Herring Dunn – [writing] dry spells can be natural (a little encouragement for when your writing-mojo grinds to a halt)

Melanie Mole – Let’s Have More Writer Love (writing is hard and although we writers are solitary by nature, this post is an encouragement to give each other a bit of support)

Rachel Poli – How To Give Your Short Stories A Neat Ending (practical advice on writing the hardest part of any short story — the ending. I’ve been struggling to come up with an ending for something I’m working on just now myself, so this was a very timely post for me)

JR Creaden – Four Ways to Write Through the Fog (when you get completely stuck with your writing project and it feels like driving through a fog… give a few of these simple tips a try)

Marie Christopher – “Write Something Every Day” (‘Just write something every day’ isn’t always the best advice, as Marie Christopher explains)


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 curdles your custard.

Until next time!

Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Star Trek Edition

SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers in this post, anyone who has not seen all of the films in the Star Trek franchise is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

The day we’ve all been waiting for with a combination of both hope and dread is finally here. Star Trek: Discovery premieres in America today, and so, in honour of this momentous occasion (and since we Brits won’t be getting it until tomorrow), I am pleased to present Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Star Trek Edition!

We’ve already had super snappy speed reviews for books (twice, in fact), TV shows and films but today it’s going to be a bit different. Today I’ll be reviewing all thirteen Star Trek films in order of release. As ever, these reviews only reflect my own personal opinions and impressionsphasered, disruptored and bat’lethed into just two or three sentences. So without further ado…

Star Trek: The Motion Picture

While it has a lot of the elements we might look for in a good Star Trek episode, The Motion Picture is spoiled by ridiculously slow pacing.  Buckets of atmosphere but not much else to say in its favour.

My rating: 🖖🖖

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

This film’s got it all: a familiar antagonist with a score to settle, exciting space battles and plenty of sub-plot. Arguably the best film in the entire franchise.

My rating: 🖖🖖🖖🖖🖖

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

I can’t say much about this without giving away spoilers galore but suffice to say it’s a good popcorn muncher and is integral to the overall Star Trek canon. Its main let-down is the half-baked antagonist: a random Klingon with no redeeming qualities trying to steal a technology which he thinks will make a good weapon of mass destruction.

My rating: 🖖🖖🖖🖖

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

Definitely the most light-hearted of the Star Trek movies. Plenty of humour, a casual ecological moral and no real antagonist to speak of (okay, there is a giant probe thing threatening to destroy Earth, but only because it wants to make friends with some humpback whales and earth doesn’t have any them any more)

My rating: 🖖🖖🖖

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier

The rest of the world seems to hate this film but I quite enjoyed it. Sybok was a particularly interesting antagonist, in that he seemed to be well-meaning, if badly misguided. It probably could have benefited from unpacking some of the more important themes, however.

My rating: 🖖🖖🖖

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

My favourite Star Trek films and episodes are always those which focus on interstellar politics, particularly the Federation’s tense relations with the Klingon Empire. If that’s your flavour too then this film’s got it all: conspiracies, interstellar peace talks and even a Klingon courtroom scene.

My rating: 🖖🖖🖖🖖🖖

Star Trek: Generations

This film has a great bad guy (although I could have done without the Duras sisters…), strong themes and apart from being a little on the slow side at points, is generally well paced. The (mostly humorous) subplot concerns the previously emotionless android, Data, now fully equipped with emotions he can’t control, which is funny at first, then gets serious before kind of just fizzling out and resolving itself without explanation.

My rating: 🖖🖖🖖🖖

Star Trek: First Contact

If Wrath of Khan isn’t my favourite in the franchise, this one is. Excellent acting, strong writing and well paced. The Borg Queen in particular provides the previously faceless Borg Collective with a leader who is as subtle and seductive as she is evil. Unfortunately, this film does also include my least favourite line of dialogue in all of Star Trek history: ‘You people, you’re all astronauts on… some kind of star trek?’

As an aside, non-Trekkies should not begin here; this film is full of important references to the TV series.

My rating: 🖖🖖🖖🖖🖖

Star Trek: Insurrection

This might’ve worked as a TV episode, but as a film it’s just boring, boring, boring with extra boring on top. Some dude we’ve never heard of (with a simply appalling plastic surgeon), from a race of aliens we’ve never heard of wants to chase some helpless innocent people we’ve never heard of away from their planet and Picard doesn’t like it and… zzzzzzzzz…

My rating:  🖖🖖

Star Trek: Nemesis

Tom Hardy and Patrick Stewart’s acting as Shinzon and Captain Picard respectively are about the only things this film really has going for it. In theory, the premise had lots of potential but it turned out to be a bit of a poorly written non-story about a disgruntled clone who decides to kill everybody with a particularly nasty WMD, only to be thwarted by an inevitable act of self-sacrifice from one of the heroes.

My rating:  🖖

Star Trek

As reboots (especially prequels) go, this was a zillion times better than I thought it was going to be. It features, quite simply, some of the best plotting, characterisation and pacing I’ve seen in a Star Trek film. There are a few inconsistencies with prime universe that are not explained by the time travel story but nothing anyone but the most knit-picky of fans would worry about.

My rating: 🖖🖖🖖🖖

Star Trek Into Darkness

Take all your favourite scenes from Wrath of Khan, mix them up a bit and boom! You’ve got Star Trek Into Darkness! Even so, with its strong plot, superb acting (especially from Benedict Cumberbatch) and plenty of excitement, this remains my favourite Star Trek film since First Contact.

My rating:  🖖🖖🖖🖖🖖

Star Trek Beyond

After Insurrection and Nemesis, Star Trek Beyond is my least favourite Star Trek film. The writers clearly decided to forget about pacing, characterisation and all that boring stuff and created a non-stop heart-pumping thrill ride instead. Great acting though, I’ll give it that. Click here for a more detailed review on this film.

My rating: 🖖


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. Be sure to leave us a wee comment if you enjoyed it and don’t forget to ‘like’ and share 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 crystallises  your dilithium.

Live long and prosper.