App Review: Tomato Typewriter

Originally published 30/06/2019

They say there’s nothing like a deadline to increase productivity; a notion I, personally, have always found to be true. So, if you’re the sort of writer who enjoys writing on your Android tablet or smartphone but need the threat of a deadline to get you going, Tomato Typewriter by Zest Works might just be the app for you. This elegant little app encourages non-stop writing by punishing you whenever you stop writing, either by deleting your words (gradually or all at once) or playing an annoying sound.

You begin each session by customising the session’s rules: specifically, whether or not you want a timed session, your session targets and what kind of threat you want for stopping. Then, as soon you hit that ‘start’ button, you just write like fury until your time elapses or you reach your target word count, depending on whether or not you opted for a timed session. If you pause while writing, a clock will appear on the screen to warn you that you’re about to be punished. If you don’t continue writing immediately, you will indeed be punished. When you successfully complete a session, you will be given the option to carry on writing with or without threat of punishment. Your work is then saved to the app for you to share, copy to clipboard or delete as you see fit (you won’t be able to edit a session once you have closed it, however).

So, let’s have a closer look.

The first thing I would say is that this app is very easy on the eye and highly intuitive to use (this alone makes it stand head and shoulders above more famous tools of this type, like Write or Die). Even a dafty like me can download it and immediately start using it to its fullest potential without wasting any time trying to figure out where everything is or how to use it. There are also no ugly adverts popping up all over the place.

Like most writing apps these days, it boasts a choice of ‘light’ or ‘dark’ themes and the font size and style are also adjustable to suit your preferences. You can also choose to enable or disable a visible word count, time remaining and threat warnings. All very useful, though I would point out that the visible time remaining/word count actually appears as a very thin gauge at the bottom of your screen, just above the keyboard. It doesn’t give you a specific count with numbers you can clearly understand. In fact, it’s so subtle that when I first tried it out, I thought the feature wasn’t working at all; but it is working. It’s just very discreet.

One more big selling point for this app is that it’s free. Truly, honestly, free. Not ‘free but with locked features you need to pay for’ or ‘free as long as you watch twenty minutes of adverts’. It’s completely and utterly free!

I have only one real criticism of this app(and it’s certainly not a major deal breaker): there is no obvious way to directly export your work into a standard text format which you can use on other apps. All you can do is ‘share’ your work on another app and save it from there. Apart from being a clumsy approach to exporting your work, I also found that many of the apps I use for creating text files weren’t actually compatible with the Tomato Typewriter. I got an error whenever I tried to share my work to JotterPad, Polaris, and even Google Docs. It did, however, work like a charm with Writer Plus.

All in all, this is a beautiful little app. It does what it says on the tin with no fuss and just enough bells and whistles to make it do everything you might want it to. If you’re looking for a timed writing app which punishes you for not writing and doesn’t break the bank then look no further. This is the one.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟

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What’s On Your Writer’s Utility Belt?

Originally published 02/06/2019

You might have seen that Batman has been trending on Twitter lately. Naturally when I saw it, I thought the time was ripe to do Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Batman Edition... Until I remembered I still haven’t seen Batman v. Superman and so, couldn’t possibly offer a complete review of all the Batman flicks. Not content to let the Batman theme pass me by, however, I decided instead to write about my Writer’s Utility Belt.

‘Your writer’s… what?’ I hear you cry, somewhat bemused.

You know! My writer’s utility belt! Just like Batman has a utility belt which is loaded with all deus ex machina gadgets he needs to help him save the day, so we writers all have our (figurative) utility belts loaded with all the tools (mostly apps, these days) we rely on to help us whenever we sit down to write.

… Don’t we? 😶

… No?

Well… just humour me for a couple of minutes while I tell you what I keep on mine anyway:

Physical Notebooks and a Bic Four-Colour Ballpoint Pen

It all starts with paper and pen for me. Specifically a generously sized notebook with plenty of space for scribbles, doodles and general nonsense and a Bic Four-Colour Ballpoint Pen for effective brainstorming.

I usually move onto the computer pretty quickly once I get past the initial stages of coming up with and refining ideas but in the early days of a new story, physical honest-to-goodness paper and pen are a must for me.


I’ve got to be honest here: despite the fact I’ve written manifold positive reviews about various mobile writing apps, I don’t actually use them very much for writing. Don’t ask me why, but I just find them really awkward to write with, no matter how good they might be.

That being said, if you’re sitting on the bus, on your way into work with no hope of getting home to your precious notebooks, you might want a quick and easy way to write down ideas (or whole chapters) that suddenly pop into your head. For me, Jotterpad for Android does the job nicely.


For me, one of the toughest parts of writing a story is bringing order to the chaos of my original ideas. Even once I’ve got my basic plot and characters figured out, there were still be a lot of plot holes and other loose ends to tie up before I can create a functioning chapter outline.

When I’m deep in the throes of figuring all this out, I can easily lose track of where I am. There is often too much material to sift through for me to simply write it out in a linear fashion. That’s when Scapple by Literature and Latte, the virtual corkboard comes into its own. You can spread out all your thoughts in whatever order you like, linking them together (or not) as you see fit. Ideal for mind-mapping and general idea sifting, it’s helped me out of more than one bout of writers’ block and plays a key role in all my writing projects.


I’ve spoken before about free writing; a pre-writing technique in which the writer takes a few minutes to write anything and everything that comes to mind without pausing to edit. It’s a technique I swear by to get me started in the morning, and yet it’s also a technique I found almost impossible to master given my tendency to edit as I go…

Until I discovered Typewriter – Minimal Text Editor. This simple ASCII text editor has no editing functionality whatsoever. No deleting, no copying, no pasting, nothing. All you can do is add text and once you’ve added it, you’re stuck with it. It can probably serve quite a few functions, but for me, it’s my go-to app for free writing.


Well of course, it had to be here. Scrivener is the app that I, along with many of my writer colleagues, use to create my story bibles and to write my actual manuscript. I also use it to keep my daily writer’s journal.

It’s powerful. It’s popular. It’s surprisingly affordable. I can’t remember the last time I ever considered writing a manuscript with any other app and I doubt I ever will.

What about you? What’s on your writer’s utility belt? Are there any particular apps or tools you rely on to help you write? Share it with us in the comments below!

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App Review: Character Story Planner 2

Originally published 05/05/2019

Search for ‘writing apps’ on Google Play Store and you will be spoilt for choice by the results. Everyone and their granny seems to have produced an app to help writers draft or plan their stories, most of which I personally don’t find very helpful. Nevertheless there are a few diamonds in the rough to be found and today I want to tell you all about another one I recently discovered: Character Story Planner 2 for Android by Ifantasia.

In fact, the name of the app is somewhat misleading. This app is much more then a simple character planner. You can use it to work out pretty much all of the little details that go into creating a world for your story: characters, settings, magic systems, scenes, timelines, the works. Everything short of actually drafting your story.

One of the best things about this app is the generous supply of preset templates for creating character bios, relationships, settings, groups, objects etc. Most of these are pretty detailed and, with a bit of work, can help you to knock together all the essential details you need to build your world and your characters. You can also easily download templates created by other users. While none of these templates can be customised, you can create and modify your own templates from scratch. This can be time consuming, but is probably worth the effort if you’re not satisfied with the default templates.

At first glance, the timeline function may appear to be a good way to plan out your chapter outline, but don’t be deceived. Whenever you create a scene on this app, you include the date the events take place on. So far, so good. This information is then used to automatically compile a timeline, which also includes key dates from character bios etc, such as characters’ birthdays. However there is no way to organise what order scenes will be actually presented in, making it a pretty poor substitute for a proper chapter outline. It works best simply as a means of organising the history of your fictional world (as I suspect it was really intended for),

If you really, really, really want to use this app to draft your story, there is a ‘script’ function tucked away under the ‘story’ tab of your project. Each script you create is essentially just a block of free text without any bells or whistles whatsoever, which could possibly suffice as a place to draft your story if it weren’t for one glaring problem: there is no obvious way to export the text or to compile it into a single manuscript. Personally, I only use the script function for taking notes, not for writing my actual story.

The general layout seems to assume the author is writing fantasy. Under the ‘world’ tab of each project, there are specific sections for detailing magic systems, deities, creatures, flora and so forth. Of course, if these are irrelevant to your story, you can just ignore them and use the other sections to write any genre you like so it’s not really a problem.

There are ads, though these can be easily avoided by turning off your data/WiFi when you use the app. I haven’t personally found any obvious bugs so far, though I feel compelled to point out that there are a lot of reviews on Play Store by other users complaining about some pretty annoying sounding bugs, including ones which delete most of your work. Perhaps these bugs have been fixed or perhaps I’m yet to encounter them. Only time will tell (I’ll maybe let you know!).

All in all, a useful tool with bucket loads of potential. There is, perhaps, a bit of scope for development but when it comes to world building, this app is still well worth a look.

My rating:🌟🌟🌟🌟

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Why Your Fantastic Story Idea Has To Die

Originally published 03/03/2019

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.

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How to Help Your Audience Suspend Disbelief

Originally published 02/02/2019

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: (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.

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App Review: Storywriter

Originally published 30/09/2018

It’s the holy grail of writers app: a perfect palm-sized place where you can both plan and write your entire novel from beginning to end. All the fun of Scrivener on your phone. If you’re an Android user, you’re probably beginning to despair of the hope you’ll ever find an app like it, especially if you’re looking for one that won’t break the bank*.

Well, dear writer, here’s the good news: you’re not strange. I, too, despair of the hope of ever finding such an app. It was in this context that I downloaded Storywriter by Raindrop for Android but the question is: did it deliver? 

Anyone who has ever tried to write a novel with a mobile app knows that many apps boast functionality but are fiddly to use, especially on a phone. There’s often just too much stuff crammed in and it makes the app untidy and complicated. Not so with Storywriter. This app is so neat and tidy that you can jump straight in to using it without a moment’s fuss. That alone makes it worth paying attention to in my book. Even an idiot can open it and intuitively know exactly how to use it in about ten seconds flat. I simply haven’t got the words to describe how ridiculously intuitive this app is. You just make a new project by giving it a name and then boom! A nice, easy way to write chapters, storylines, character bios and general ideas all in one place. I can’t fault it for it’s layout or ease of use.

Each project is divided into four sections: Chapters, storylines, characters and ideas. These all work in exactly the same way. You add a new chapter or character by tapping the button at the bottom and you’re given a blank document to write on. There’s no meta-data or anything like that (for example, if you create a new character, you won’t be prompted to type in names, DOBs, genders, etc). In fact the only differences I’ve been able to find between the four different document types is that smart enter only seems to work on chapters. Apart from that, you could just as easily write your chapters in the character screen or write your characters in the ideas screen. They’re pretty much exactly the same in every way that matters.

So far, I’ve made much of the simplicity of this app. Of course, if we dig a little deeper we will discover that this app does boast a few additional features, such as night-mode; the ability to alter the font and line spacing; ‘smart enter’, which automatically provides you with inverted commas** for a line of dialogue and a similar feature which automatically closes any parentheses you might use (for example, if you type an open bracket ‘(‘, Storywriter will automatically provide the closed ‘)’ one).

Most of these functions are obviously cosmetic and can be toggled on or off from the app’s settings menu. Like most things in this app, the menu is clear and simple to use. I have only got one problem with it: you have to return to the home screen to access the menu. That means if you’re halfway through writing a chapter and decide you would really like to turn off smart enter or change the font size, you have to save your chapter, press ‘back’ to come out of your chapter, press ‘back’ again to come out of your list of chapters and then press ‘back’ a third time to come out of your story altogether. Only then can you access the menu. And then, once you’ve done whatever you wanted to do, you have to re-open your story, re-open the ‘chapters’ list and re-open the chapter you were working on. It’s needlessly time-consuming. 

There is an ‘upload’ function, which I’m guessing is for backing up your work(?) but it’s honestly not clear to me where my work has been uploaded to or why. You need to log in with your Google account to use it and then to sit through an advert so I don’t know how much it’s worth wasting time with this function but it exists and apparently works.

This app does have ads, though they sit unobtrusively down at the bottom of the screen for the most part. There are a few infrequent full-screen ads but you can skip these (unless you try to ‘upload’ a chapter; then you’ll be forced to sit through a full screen video-ad before it will let you upload anything). And of course, if you really can’t bear to look at a little advert at the bottom of your screen, you can always use this app offline and save your work to your device.

All in all, a decidedly okay app but with buckets of unrealised potential. As it stands, it’s pretty decent for a freebie but not quite the miracle I was hoping for. I hope the developers will continue to work on it because with just a few improvements here and there, this could be really a wonderful app.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟

*The yWriter Android app looks alright but I ain’t spending £4.19 on app I can get for free on my PC.

**British English writers take note: smart enter automatically provides the double inverted-commas (“”) more commonly used in American English.

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Juggling Multiple Writing Projects

Originally published 19/08/2018

So you’re writing a novel. Good for you! Not only that, but it’s going really, really well. You’ve been at it for some time now and though the end is still far off, you’ve made good headway and know it’s only a matter of time. This story is the One. It’s getting written. It’s getting published. It’s going to make you a mint. At the very least, it’s going to make you a minor celebrity on Goodreads. You’ve just got to keep on plodding. You’re committed. Dedicated. Come what may, you’re getting this novel done, just by plodding along one word at a time.

Plod, plod… plod…

But then suddenly:

‘I say! Who’s that smokin’ hot piece of brand new idea?’

Before long you can’t get her out of your mind. Even when you’re supposed to be working hard on your work-in-progress, all you can think about is that idea you had for a completely different story. You might have your work-in-progress open in front of you, but in your mind you’re imagining yourself working on that new idea…

‘Maybe I’ll just make a start on it now,’ you say to yourself. ‘I can tinker around with this new idea and still finish my work-in-progress. It’ll be fine…’

But will it?

Well… it probably depends. Personally, I think working on two big projects simultaneously is ill-advised but it probably depends a lot on how much time you’ve got available and how organised you can be. Personally, I find it a herculean task simply juggling this blog and the novel I’m currently working on; but then I have other things on my mind, not least of all my wife, daughter and full time job (which is nothing to do with writing). You might well be able to write two or more novels simultaneously, and if so good for you, but I find whenever I do that I either 1) fail miserably at writing them both or else 2) gradually lose interest in one while the other takes over completely.

And yet those plot bunnies just won’t stay away. And some of them are just so darn good. What do you do? Here are a few possibilities for you to cherry-pick from:

Carefully organise your time so you can work on two novels simultaneously. I say again, this approach is not for everyone, but if you’ve got the time and discipline, it may be possible to divide up your time rigidly enough that you can make progress on two projects simultaneously (e.g., I’ll work on Johnny’s Big Adventure Monday-Wednesday AM and I’ll work on Jeannie’s Excellent Voyage from Wednesday PM-Friday). However, be warned: even this will still slow progress down. You cannot make time for one project without sacrificing time for another, but it is theoretically possible to make gradual progress on both.

Turn your inter-draft ‘breaks’ into an opportunity to work on another project. We all know that you should take at least a few weeks off between drafts anyway so that you can regain some objectivity before editing. Why not put that time to good use? Instead of twiddling your thumbs during those weeks, write the first draft of your first  project then set it aside and immediately begin to write the first draft of your second project. Once that’s done, you can go back to your first project and repeat the process for your second drafts, third drafts and so on.

Jot down any and every idea you ever have. Personally, I find this good practice anyway. If you find multiple projects just isn’t for you, try keeping a notebook on hand where you can scribble down random characters, settings, titles, disjointed little scenes and whatever else pops into your head. If a new story idea is developing in your brain, it might be worthwhile setting aside a dedicated notebook just for writing down ideas for that story as and when they crop up, but don’t go out of your way to work on the story. Just keep a note of all your thoughts so that you can get straight down to business when you finally do finish that work-in-progress.

‘Can’t I just postpone my work-in-progress and come back to it once I’ve published this new and more exciting idea I’ve had?’ I hear you cry. Technically, yes, it is possible to do that, but I strongly advise against it. Writing a novel is a bit like a relationship. The first few weeks are thrilling without trying, but if you want to make it last, you’ve got to be deliberately and wilfully committed to that project for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health until publishing do you part. That new project might look like all your wildest dreams come true, but if you can’t write without that ‘new project feeling’, you’ll never finish a novel because all novel ideas are thrilling at first and hard work after. You’ll just keep on chasing new ideas and before you know it, you’ll have a hundred half-finished novels sitting there gathering dust. Remember, you once felt that same buzz about your work-in-progress, so don’t leave her now! Stick with it. Whether you write one, two or even three(!) projects at a time, don’t let anything stop you once you get started.

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5 Types of Story Ending

Originally published 17/09/2017


While every effort has been taken to avoid spoilers in this post, anyone who has not read Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck or seen the Doctor Who (2017) episode ‘World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls’ is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

Don’t you just hate endings? For me, they’re one of the hardest bits of the story to write, but they’re also one of the most important. Your audience will (usually) put up with a fair amount of uncertainty in the middle of a story but by the time they reach the end, they want their ‘i’s dotted, their ‘t’s crossed and all their questions answered. And who can blame them? They’ve devoted a considerable portion of their valuable time to reading/watching/listening to your story. The least we owe them is a good ending that doesn’t leave them scratching their heads (or worse, venting their hatred for you on Twitter). And so, it is my pleasure to present you with a whistle stop tour of the pros and cons of five common ways to end a story.

They All Lived Happily Ever After

Let’s begin with the classic. It’s been a rough old ride but evil has finally been vanquished, the hero has married the love interest and all is right with the world. In short, the story is over. There is nothing left but a fuzzy feeling that our heroes will now live forever in a kind of literary heaven where nothing ever goes wrong for them.

Pros: It leaves the audience feeling good about the fact that all conflicts have been resolved and all questions answered. The story is undeniably finished and the audience can get on with their own lives.

Cons: It’s not terribly true to life. I can’t think of a single instance in my life, nor the life of anyone I know, where all problems have been resolved in one neat little package leaving not a single cloud on the horizon. It also downplays the significance of any tragedies that have occurred during the story (unless of course your protagonist has lost nothing throughout the story… in which case, I’m afraid you’ve written a guff story).

Word of Warning: ‘Happily ever after’ is the most implausibly clean cut way I know of for a good writer to end a story, so beware you don’t accidentally leave some questions unanswered. Sure, your bad guy has fallen into his own pool of sharks but… what about his armies of darkness, for example? If they really believed in their Leader’s cause, is the world really safe?

To Be Continued…

This ‘ending’ (I use the word loosely), involves deliberately leaving unanswered questions. The story is not completely over. Evil is not quite vanquished forever. A sequel is certain to follow.

Pros: If you’ve done your job right, you’ll probably find your sequel will fly off the shelves a heck of a lot quicker than the first instalment did.

Cons: It runs the risk of also having the opposite effect if your audience wasn’t completely in love with your story. Remember, sequels cost money to buy and time to consume. If they feel like your first instalment was a waste of time and money, they might not want to put themselves through the same ordeal again. I’ve left many a series unfinished because the first book left me feeling underwhelmed.

Word of Warning: Whether you wrote a wonderful story or a terrible one, your audience won’t thank you for an ending that’s all cliffhanger and nothing else. The first instalment of a series should still be a complete instalment. While danger may yet loom on the horizon, hinting at the sequel to come, this instalment is finished. Be sure to complete your narrative and character arcs to give your reader a sense of satisfaction.

What Have We Learned?

This ending focuses more on drawing your central theme or moral to a conclusion, rather than the events themselves. Such endings can involve the protagonist succeeding in their goals, failing in their goals or something else entirely. The point is not so much what happens as what is learned.

Pros: It’s truer to life than most endings, insofar as in real life, one event always leads to another without a neat ending (even deaths lead to funerals, lawyers meetings, grief and the buying/selling of property). It can also leave your readers pondering your story for months.

Cons: It’s not easy to pull off. If you don’t pack a strong enough punch with it, your readers will feel like the story is unfinished and they’ve been left with nothing but a glib moral platitude.

Word of Warning: This one’s not for you, genre fiction. Literary fiction might just get away with it, if the author is skilled enough, but genre fiction tends to be far too reliant on questions such as ‘will good triumph over evil?’, ‘will the hero get the love interest?’, and generally ‘however will they get out of this pickle?’.

Deus Ex Machina

Just when it seems like all is lost and there is no chance for good to triumph over evil… BOOM! God appears and makes everything better, or the protagonist wakes up and it was all just a bad dream or the water lady from the first episode shows up out of the blue and saves the day with Moffat Magic. This is the ending for the writer who wants a ‘happily ever after’ ending, but can’t be annoyed fixing all the problems in his or her narrative that make a happy ending impossible.

Fig. 1

Pros: It’s easy to do. Just add magic.

Cons: Instead of resolving the problems and answering the questions that make the story worth reading/watching/listening to, all you’ve done is shrugged them off. It’s bad writing and it will make your audience hate you.

Word of Warning: See fig. 1

They All Lived Sorrowfully Ever After

Sometimes a happy ending just isn’t what you want at all. In John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, the two protagonists (Lennie and George) had big plans to set up their own ranch one day. However, in the end, George is forced to shoot Lennie in order to save him the more arduous death he was about to suffer at the hands of a lynch mob. The story ends with the death of one protagonist, and the other has survived only to be consumed (presumably) with regret over his actions and the unravelling of his dream.

Pros: It’s good for creating feels and driving your central theme/moral home in a powerful way.

Cons: Sad endings, by definition, must leave your audience feeling a bit sad. If your audience cares about your protagonists (and they should), they’ll probably have been hoping that they would achieve at least some of their goals.

Word of Warning: In the right hands, a sad ending can be profound. Of Mice and Men is one of my favourite novels. But in the wrong hands, it can be an extra-terrible form of deus ex machina, in that it resolves problems simply by sweeping them aside, only without the warm fuzzy feeling you get with a happy ending. At least the last series of Doctor Who ended with a happy deus ex machina ending but for goodness sake, don’t kill everybody just for effect.

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10 Reasons Why I Still Love Scrivener

Please note this post is about Scrivener version 1.9.16 for Windows.

When I made my first serious attempt to write a novel, many moons ago, I did what a lot of young and inexperienced writers probably do: I roamed the internet looking for the perfect piece of writing software (we didn’t call them apps back then) that would make my novel fall together with ease and grace while I sipped tea with one hand and typed airily with the other.

Needless to say, such a miracle app does not exist, but after a few false starts I did find something that came pretty close: Scrivener by Literature and Latte.

I don’t know how long I’ve been using Scrivener for. Years, anyway. Occasionally I’ll look around to see what else is out there (mainly so I can review it here!) but I always come back to Scrivener for any writing project that matters to me. Here’s why:

Scrivener is very flexible

While marketed for novelists, it’s easy to use Scrivener to organise and write just about anything including essays, plays, poetry, song-writing, sermon prep, recipes, blogs and just about anything else you can think of.

Scrivener’s got your novel covered from the cradel to the publisher’s desk

Seriously, you don’t need to use any other apps or have other files stored anywhere else. You can accomplish everything you need to write a novel write here in one single project file. From brainstorming your original ideas; to plotting, outlining and creating character profiles; to maintaining a story bible; to writing out that first, second and third draft and finally compiling your completed manuscript. I even like to keep my writing journal in the same project file.

With just a little work, you can create a template that perfectly suits your own method of writing which you can use again and again.

Scrivener is easily accessible for new users

If you’ve just downloaded it for the first time and want to get stuck right into your novel without having to do a PhD in how to use the app, Scrivener makes it easy for you to do just that with a selection of easy to use default templates.

it’s easy to keep track of your progress

This is a biggie for me. With an app as powerful and complex as Scrivener, it is easy to lose track of how much writing you’re actually getting done and if you’re anywhere near achieving your goals. Fortunately, Scrivener makes it easy to see how many words or characters you’ve added to your manuscript each day (with the option to include or not include other documents in the count) and how close you are to achieving your overall target. Scrivener also keeps a word count on individual documents if (like me) you’re someone who likes to keep each chapter to roughly the same length.

Scrivener’s Virtual corkboard makes storyboarding simple

Each scene can be displayed on a virtual corkboard, making storyboarding easy. The individual scenes are displayed with little cards showing their titles and a synopsis of each scene.

Scrivener is affordable

You’ll get the full package for a one-off payment of £47 (correct at time of writing). No nasty subscriptions, no having to fork out again every time the software is updated. For my money, it’s the best value you’re going to get on a writing app.

Scrivener lets you Import files from anywhere

It’s a doddle to import files and web pages from other places. Very handy for research or if you want to include images (click here to see what I use this feature for!).

Scrivener’s Binder helps you keep stay organised

Scrivener’s virtual binder makes it easy to never lose a single page of notes or manuscript ever again, no matter how bloated your project becomes.

Scrivener’s scratchpad is ideal for jotting down quick notes

The scratchpad is a thing of beauty in its simplicity. A small notepad that you can easily pop up whenever you have a sudden brainwave, without having to come out of whatever chapter or character profile you happened to be working on at the time.

Compiling your work is a breeze

When you’re finished writing, it’s easy to compile your work into just about any format you like using pre-defined formats (e.g.: e-book, paperback novel, proof copy, standard manuscript) or, if you don’t like any of those, you can make your own.

And of course, all your favourite file types are available at the compiling stage as well, including but not limited to pdf, rtf, epub, mobi, markdown– even ODF (for me and my fellow Open Office users).

Please note this post is about the Windows version of Scrivener. Different versions of Scrivener are also available for MacOS and iOS.

Click here to buy Scrivener from Literature and Latte.

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Due to a recent surge in interest, I am presently committed to a significant number of reviews/interviews over the next couple of months. If you would like an interview or review, I would still love to hear from you, though it is unlikely that I will be able to begin work immediately.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Throwback Thursday: Using Google Docs for Writing Fiction

Originally published 01/12/2019

I’ve resisted using Google Docs for writing fiction for a long time. It’s not that I think there’s anything wrong with Google Docs. Lots of people swear by it and I had no reason to doubt the good reports I was hearing, however I’m already pretty well established in the apps I like to use (Scrivener for long works like novels and Focus Writer for shorter pieces). Besides, in spite of all the good things I’d heard about Google Docs, it sounded a bit too much like a plain old fashioned word processor, without any peculiar functionality that might make it stand out to a fiction writer such as myself.

However, Christmas is coming. And here on Penstricken, Christmas can only ever mean one thing: the Penstricken Christmas Special. That meant I had only a few weeks to write, edit and publish a 1,000 word Christmas story and – to be perfectly frank – I don’t have a lot of time on my hands for starting a brand new story from scratch. I have a full time job, a toddler and (lest we forget) a novel I’m supposed to be writing. Most days I’m lucky to get half an hour to write, and I can’t possibly devote it all to the Penstricken Christmas Special. Then I had a brainwave:

Google Docs stores your work online so you can continue writing on the go!

My plan was to use a set portion of my normal writing time to work on the Christmas story using Google Docs on my PC, while using the Google Docs Android app on my phone to continue writing whenever I had a spare five minutes in my day (when I’m on the bus, during lunch breaks, etc).

Seeing no alternative to this plan, I swallowed my pride and began writing my first draft on Google Docs, starting with the browser version. The first thing to do is choose a template for your document. There are loads to choose from and not one of them has anything to do with fiction writing. Unwilling to be deterred, however (I mean, really, you don’t particularly need a fancy template for writing short works of fiction), I decided to start with a blank template.

So far, my thoughts on the subject had been proven absolutely right. At first glance, Google Docs really is just another word processor. In some respects, this was a good thing. It took absolutely no time to learn how to use, since everything is very familiar to anyone who has ever used a bog-standard word processor before. Another major selling point was the fact it automatically saved your work to Google Drive and instantly made it available to you anywhere in the world. You can also make your work available offline.

Perhaps its most obvious selling point is the fact you can share your work with other users who can edit your work or add comments. This is handy if you’re writing collaboratively or are looking for someone to give feedback on your work. Comments appear in small boxes to the side of your work which are anchored to particular portions of the document. You can reply to each comment, allowing for easy discussion with your fellow editors and, once you’re happy the issue has been resolved, you just click the button labelled ‘resolve’ to hide the comment. Personally, I like to write alone but I do find the comments function a useful tool for getting feedback on my writing.

Another key feature I found useful as a story writer was the outline function. It took me a little while to figure out just how to use this, but essentially the outline feature allows you quickly navigate around your document using headers, which is essential if you’re creating a lengthy piece of work and don’t have the benefit of Scrivener’s binder for separating your work into chapters and scenes. Alas, you can’t do too much to customise your outline. It’s basically just a list of links to every portion of text you’ve formatted as a heading, but you can’t use it for actually outlining or planning your story in any meaningful way.

My one big concern with using Docs to write my Christmas story was the mobile app. My plan relied pretty heavily on being able to seamlessly transition between the PC browser and the mobile app, but in my experience, mobile writing apps are often clunky, cluttered and have limited functionality. Fortunately, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I feared. There’s a small menu bar at the top and bottom of the screen as you write, allowing you to easily access to basic functionality such as formatting your text, adding comments or undoing and redoing. Everything else is discreetly tucked away in a menu you can access by tapping the button on the top right hand corner of the screen.

In short, Google Docs is a good online word processor and is has more than adequately served my needs when it comes to writing this Christmas flash fiction. I don’t think it would be much use in the planning stages of any story and I certainly wouldn’t fancy writing a longer piece of work on it, but for every day short story writing on the go, it’s more than equal to the task.

And hey, it’s free.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟

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Every Tuesday, I post a new edition of Spotlight: a short post which shines a proverbial spotlight on a published novel or collection of short fiction. If you would like to have your book considered for a future edition of Spotlightdrop us an e-mail including a short synopsis of your book and a link to where we can buy it. Better yet, send me a copy of your book and I can include a mini-review.

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.

Please be advised that due to a recent surge in interest, I am presently committed to a significant number of reviews/interviews over the next couple of months. If you would like an interview or review, I would still love to hear from you, though it is unlikely that I will be able to begin work immediately.

You can check out our previous interviews here: