Writing a Good Character Description

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: characters are the beating heart of every good story. Good characters, more often than not, make for a good story. That means you need to write a character with strong goals, strong motives and a clear problem to overcome. We know this. Nevertheless, it also goes without saying that your characters must all have a physical appearance, which you can describe to the reader (unless, of course, you’re writing some highly ambitious piece of supernatural fiction where all your characters are non-corporeal beings who never interact with physical reality as we know it).

Let me tell you right now, there’s an art to describing characters. Do it right and your audience will have such a vivid image in their minds that they’ll swear they’ve actually met your character. Do it wrong and you might just produce one of the most pedestrian scenes in your entire story. Nothing drags the pace of a narrative down quite like a long winded description of Jimmy’s hair colour, eye colour and whatever unremarkable clothes he might be wearing. I say it’s better to have no physical description than a bad one.

If you give a simple description of height, weight, hair colour, eye colour and so on you will not only bore the reader to tears but you will also, in the most long-winded way possible, tell us nothing significant about the character. Instead, focus on distinguishing features and other details which help us to really get to know the character. Let us refer, once more, to the master, John Steinbeck. He described his character, Lennie Small, in this way:

A huge man, shapeless of face, with large, pale eyes, with wide, sloping shoulders; and he walked heavily, dragging his feet a little, the way a bear drags his paws. His arms did not swing at his sides, but hung loosely and only moved because the heavy hands were pendula.

(John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men).

If you’ve read Of Mice and Men, you’ll know there are two essential things to know about Lennie Small: 1) he’s a large and strong man and 2) he has a childlike mind. These two facts form the basis for his entire plotline from start to finish. Is it any surprise, then, that Steinbeck’s description emphasises these qualities? Just look at the adjectives/adverbs: ‘huge’, ‘large’, ‘wide’, ‘heavily’, ‘heavy’. All these words signify bigness. Notice, incidentally, that Steinbeck never says ‘tall’, nor does he give a specific height. After all, Steinbeck’s purpose is to emphasise how physically imposing Lennie is but not all tall people are imposing. Whether Lennie is tall or not is unimportant. What matters is that he is huge.

Similarly words like ‘shapeless’, ‘pale’ and ‘hung loosely’, used to describe his face, eyes and body language all have a certain vacant quality to them. The bear metaphor is especially powerful, as bears are animals which are known to be physically imposing but not frightfully intellectual. Nothing in this description is superfluous. It tells us everything we need to know about Lennie. We can imagine unimportant details like his hair colour for ourselves.

Another important thing to consider is how subjective/objective your word choice is. Objective language sticks to the facts. For example: ‘Johnny had brown eyes’. Subjective language is based on one’s personal impressions: ‘Johnny had eyes of the richest chocolate’. Or alternatively, ‘Johnny had eyes like a pair of dirty brown pebbles’. Striking the right subjective/objective balance can be hard and will be largely dependent on your narrative POV. As a rule, First Person and Third Person (Limited) narratives can and should include a generous dose of subjective language, since we are being given the personal impressions of a particular character. We want to know whether or not the narrator is attracted to or repelled by the character in question. Third Person (Omniscient), on the other hand, should be more reserved with its use of subjective language. But that’s only a guideline.

One last tip: use vivid but precise language. Consider again Steinbeck’s description of Lennie. The word ‘pendula’, used to describe the movements of Lennie’s arms, creates a very sharp image in the reader’s mind. After all, we’ve all seen the lazy, mindless but unceasing swing of a pendulum that hangs from a clock, powered by nothing but simple physics. We can imagine that motion so clearly that it is easy to picture Lennie’s arms as they swing in a way that more bland language might not have been able to convey. Beware, however. Don’t let clever sounding words get in the way of a description which is also precise. Steinbeck is a master of description not only because of the vivid imagery he employs, but also because the imagery is so very appropriate. If simple language creates desired effect, use it. Don’t bamboozle your reader with peripheral unnecessary purple prose, especially not if it is less precise than simple language. You will lose your reader’s attention if you do. Instead, aim to use words and metaphors which convey an accurate and vivid image in the most direct way possible.

Remember, your reader doesn’t really care what your character looks like. They care about who your character is. So when you describe your character’s looks, cut to the chase. Keep it snappy, keep it sharp and most importantly of all, keep it relevant.


ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

I’m looking for authors (especially, but not limited to, new and/or indie authors) whose work I can feature here on Penstricken over the coming year. It will simply take the form of a quick Q&A about yourself and your work via private message or e-mail and, of course, a link to where we can all get a copy of your work.

I’m open to interviewing authors of almost any kind of story, provided your work is complete, original and of course, fictional. I will not consider individual short stories/micro-fictions, however I am happy to feature published anthologies or entire blog-sites of micro-fiction, provided you are the sole author.

If you’re interested, or want to know more, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

Figuring Out Foil Characters

We’re all familiar with some of the traditional character types you find in most fiction: protagonists, antagonists, love interests and so forth. But there is another common type of character out there; one which can sometimes be harder to define, though we know them when we see them (intuitively at least). I am talking about foils.

The OED defines a foil in this way:

A person or thing that contrasts with and so emphasizes and enhances the qualities of another.

Source: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/foil

In fiction, therefore, a foil is a character (or sometimes an object or idea) who highlights the traits of another character (usually the protagonist) by contrasting with them. But apart from that, these characters can play just about any role in your story you like. They can even (and often do) fulfil other key roles in your story, such the main antagonist or love interest (actually, as an aside, I often think love interests make great foils; opposites do so often attract, especially in fiction).

There’s a lot of good reasons to include a foil in your story. They can be an excellent tool for emphasising qualities in your protagonist which you might wish to draw out without stating explicitly. They can also go horribly wrong if executed poorly or needlessly.

As is so often the case, I have one particularly important rule I like to stick to whenever I write a foil (though you can apply this rule to any of your characters). Ready? Here it is:

No character should exist solely for the benefit of another.
robin
No one wants to only be a sidekick.
Image source: http://gph.is/257jTXn

Yes, a foil character must, by definition, contrast with another, but if that’s their only function in your story, watch out! All people in real life have their own motives, goals and problems and so should your characters. A good story can get along just fine without a foil character, but a character who serves as a foil and nothing else will be nothing but a burden on your narrative. At best they will read like a two-dimensional sidekick.

I would therefore strongly advise against sitting down to ‘write a foil character’. Figure out who the main players are in your story first. Ask yourself what they all want, what’s preventing them from getting it and why they are necessary for your story. You may well find that your story will benefit from having a foil and it will probably become pretty obvious who should assume that role once you’ve finished most of your planning.

Take Star Wars for instance. Power and its ability to corrupt is a central theme in these movies. Every Jedi, trained in the Force, faces the temptation to be seduced and corrupted by their power. In the original trilogy, the protagonist, Luke Skywalker, faces this very issue in the form of his foil and antagonist, Darth Vader. Both of these characters come from humble backgrounds, both were trained by Jedi Masters and became powerful Jedi themselves. Yet only Darth Vader was seduced by the Dark Side; Luke resists the same temptation and his life takes a completely different path. Cosmetic contrasts such as differently coloured lightsabres also add to the effect.

Darth Vader works as a foil for Luke, because it feeds right in to one of the story’s key themes and draws out Luke’s inner struggles against the Dark Side. Indeed, Darth Vader serves very much as a personification of Luke’s inner struggles. He represents the course of life Luke can but must not choose.

Darth Vader: You’ve only begun to discover your power. Join me and I will complete your training! With our combined strength, we can end this destructive conflict and bring order to the galaxy.

Luke: I’ll never join you!

Darth Vader:  It is your destiny. Join me, and together, we can rule the galaxy as father and son!

Star Wars (ep. 6): Return of the Jedi

Of course, not all foils are antagonists. They don’t even need to be central characters (I’ve even heard it argued that they really shouldn’t be, though I don’t personally agree with that). All a character really needs to be a foil is to draw out your protagonist’s key traits by contrasting with them. But for my money, a good foil should be a fully-fledged secondary character, antagonist, love-interest, etc. in their own right first and a foil second. Perhaps a better way to think of it is to say that a foil is not so much a character type as it is a literary technique; one which just happens to often be associated with one character in particular.


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 kicks your side.

Until next time!

ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

I’m looking for authors (especially, but not limited to, new and/or indie authors) whose work I can feature here on Penstricken over the coming year. It will simply take the form of a quick Q&A about yourself and your work via private message or e-mail and, of course, a link to where we can all get a copy of your work.

I’m open to interviewing authors of almost any kind of story, provided your work is complete, original and of course, fictional. I will not consider individual short stories/micro-fictions, however I am happy to feature published anthologies or entire blog-sites of micro-fiction, provided you are the sole author.

If you’re interested, or want to know more, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

6 Useful Posts on Fiction and Writing

Well, it’s been a while since I last shared anyone else’s fiction related blogs, so here we have it: another exciting instalment of Useful Posts on Fiction and Writing, where I share some of the most useful, insightful or just downright enjoyable posts on fiction writing that I’ve found on WordPress in the last week.

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:

My pen My Ally by Attentionseeker16 (a poetic little post about writing).

I GIVE UP by Julia Moellers (I could just relate to this, being a bit of a perfectionist myself).

Romance Writers are Today’s Casanovas by Layla Stone (A useful little post about what works and what doesn’t work when writing romance fiction, with a particular focus on characters).

Three Joys of Writing Evil Characters by Death (because baddies really are more fun to write).

Types of Christian YA Fiction by Christianyafiction (a breakdown of Christian YA Fiction sub-genres).

Becoming a Writer by Roger (a more cerebral ‘writing rules’ post than any I’ve come across, including my own [2]).


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 shares your post.

Until next time!

ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

I’m looking for authors (especially, but not limited to, new and/or indie authors) whose work I can feature here on Penstricken over the coming year. It will simply take the form of a quick Q&A about yourself and your work via private message or e-mail and, of course, a link to where we can all get a copy of your work.

I’m open to interviewing authors of almost any kind of story, provided your work is complete, original and of course, fictional. I will not consider individual short stories/micro-fictions, however I am happy to feature published anthologies or entire blog-sites of micro-fiction, provided you are the sole author.

If you’re interested, or want to know more, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

Taking a Holiday From My Novel

Last week, I mentioned that I always take Sundays off from writing. However, even with that regular rest, it’s easy to become jaded when you’re working on a big project like a novel. Right now I’m at the most difficult bit of the novel-writing process (in my opinion): that dreaded second draft where I have to fix all the problems I created in the first draft. Let me tell you, it’s painstaking work. Despite the fact I fully believe in the potential of this particular project, I don’t mind telling you that I’ve found the last few days among some of the most discouraging since I started work on it at the end of last year.

And so I’m taking a holiday. Yes sirree, I’ve packed up my troubles and I’m off to spend seven days and seven nights at the Short Story Seaside* Resort.

You see, it’s not that I need a break from writing. I don’t. I love writing and I am perfectly happy with my writing/life balance (in fact, I could do with a little more writing time). All I really need is a break from this novel. It’s not that it’s a bad novel. It’s quite a good novel (even if I do say so myself), but after working solidly on it for the last few months, I’m just getting a little fed up of the sight of it. And so the solution is to set aside a short time to work on other short writing projects, allowing me to return to my novel in a few days with a fresh pair of eyes and a renewed zeal for a project I know I really love.

‘I want a holiday at the Short  Story Seaside Resort too!’ I hear you cry.

Well if you plan to take such a break, be sure to set yourself a time limit. And I mean a precise time limit. Decide in advance exactly when this holiday will start and when it will end, down to the minute if necessary.  During the holiday period, you must not work on your novel. It is forbidden. However you can and should work on other projects, preferably new projects that you wouldn’t normally have the time for. Short stories, poetry or perhaps just catching up on your blog. Whatever you feel like. The idea is to boost your confidence in your own writing ability by working on something fresh and exciting.

To that end, it’s also a good idea to keep your holiday-projects fairly simple. Simple but with clear, achievable goals. Don’t use your holiday to start work on another novel. One of the reasons it’s so easy to get discouraged working on a long project like a novel is because it can often feel like you’re never, ever, ever going to get it finished. So make sure your holiday project is something very simple that you can finish in the time allotted. At the very least, be sure to set yourself an achievable goal. There’s nothing quite like seeing a long list of scheduled posts on your blog or submitting a short story for publication to make you think: ‘Oh yes, I really can write things’ so allow yourself the satisfaction of seeing results at the end of your holiday.

‘But wait, wait, wait just a minute here!’ I hear you myself cry. ‘You don’t know how undisciplined I am. If I start taking holidays from my novel, I’ll end up spending my whole life on that figurative seaside and my novel will never get finished.’

Yes, taking breaks like this can be a very slippery slope. You don’t want to fall into the trap of jumping from project to project to project and never finishing anything. Moreover if you’re like me, you’ll rely heavily on your routine to keep the words coming day by day, week by week and month by month. You know that if you don’t treat writing like a day job which you have to turn up for every day whether you like it or not, you’ll hardly ever write.

I hear you brother. But tell me: if you have a day job, do you not have an annual leave entitlement? I know I do. Every year in my day job I get given the same allowance of so many days of paid leave which I can take whenever I want (as long as there’s someone to cover for me). I also get certain public holidays such as Christmas and Easter. So if you’re a writer who relies on that kind of routine but still like the idea of having the odd holiday, why not give yourself an annual leave entitlement? Decide in advance to allow yourself so many days a year where you can take a break from your novel. Decide in advance any public holidays you also want to take.

It works for me anyway.

*The seaside is figurative. If you want to go that extra mile, cover the floor around your desk with sand and salt water. Maybe even a jellyfish or two for added excitement.


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 builds your sandcastle.

Until next time!

ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

I’m looking for authors (especially, but not limited to, new and/or indie authors) whose work I can feature here on Penstricken over the coming year. It will simply take the form of a quick Q&A about yourself and your work via private message or e-mail and, of course, a link to where we can all get a copy of your work.

I’m open to interviewing authors of almost any kind of story, provided your work is complete, original and of course, fictional. I will not consider individual short stories/micro-fictions, however I am happy to feature published anthologies or entire blog-sites of micro-fiction, provided you are the sole author.

If you’re interested, or want to know more, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

5 Writing Rules I Like To Ignore

If you Google ‘writing rules’, you’ll find that there’s no shortage of writing-gurus out there telling you their top 5, 10, 25 or 100 rules for how to write a killer story. All very useful stuff. I definitely recommend taking their advice on board. In fact, I’ve been known to write a few posts like that myself (though I am not a writing-guru by any stretch of the imagination).

Sometimes, however, you just need to rebel and write according to your own darn rules. So what follows are my top five common story-writing rules and wise sayings which I frequently bend, break and flat-out disagree with.

1. You Must Write Every Day

This is often put forward by some writers as the golden rule all serious writers simply must follow. The idea goes that if you want to be a real writer, the only way to do it is by writing every single day for the rest of your natural life. Personally, I find that rule more of a hindrance than a help.

Don’t misunderstand me. I do believe it’s fundamental to write often and especially to write regularly. I write every weekday evening (I have a day job) and I write all day on Saturdays. But on Sundays? Nope, no writing for me on Sundays. Sunday is my day off. Come hell or high water, Sunday is a no-writing day, except for scribbling down any ideas that pop into my head so I don’t forget them.

When Monday comes around, I’m invariably the better for having rested.

2. When You’re Not Writing, You Must Be Thinking About Writing

Yes, you got me. I’m paraphrasing Eugene Ionesco who said, ‘For a writer, life consists of either writing or thinking about writing’. And while what Ionesco said wasn’t exactly a rule, many would-be writing-gurus like to turn it into a rule. And understandably so, because it’s a catchy soundbite with that wonderful absolutist quality that we writers love to use, because it makes us sound just a little bit supernatural. It creates a nice little distinction between Writers and Lesser Mortals.

Now I can only imagine what it must have been like to be Eugene Ionesco. Maybe he really did spend his entire life in a perpetual state of writing or thinking about writing without a moment of interruption. Maybe lots of writers are like that. I don’t know. If so, good for them. Far be it from me to comment on the lives of others.

But for me personally, writing is only part of my life. It’s a huge part, but only a part. I’ve got a wife and daughter. The day I got married and the day my daughter was born, my story didn’t get a look-in all day. I’ve also got a part time job. When I’m there, I’m not allowed to write and the job requires too much of my concentration for me to spend the whole afternoon daydreaming about my story.

And you know what? I think it’s perfectly healthy (vital, even!) for a writer to have room in his life for other things. There. I said it.

3. You Must Only Write About What You Know

Writing what you know is great. It’s hard to go wrong writing stories based on real jobs, relationships or experiences you’ve had. I’m all for that. If you read through my stories (especially my flash fictions that I post on here), you’ll find a lot of them seem to be set on public transport. That’s because I spend an average of ten hours a week travelling by bus. But I also like to write about spaceships, wizards and fantastic worlds of my own invention. You may recall I once wrote about what it is like to be a mouse. These are things I simply can’t experience — and so, I imagine.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s important to check out your facts before publishing anything and a good way to research your facts is through gaining firsthand experience. I’m not saying you should write in ignorance. But a writer is nothing if he can’t use his imagination to fill in the blanks.

4. You Must Write First and Edit Later

‘But we’ve heard you preaching this rule before!’ I hear you cry.

Yes, you’re right. In general, I absolutely believe that if you want to get anything done, you need to resist the urge to edit until the draft is complete. But on very rare occasions, when I’m discouraged with the draft I’m working on and thinking about giving up… I do find doing a cheeky little edit perks me up and gets me back in the zone.

Still, it’s a nasty habit. Don’t do it.

5. You Must Ignore The Rules

An alarming proportion of the ‘writing rules’ you’ll come across on the internet (including mine) conclude with this altogether unoriginal rule: ‘ignore the rules’.

The idea behind this ‘rule’ is simply this: since there aren’t really any rules for writing, it doesn’t really matter how you write. Just as long as you do write.

Well… sometimes (not always, but sometimes) I like to ignore the ‘ignore the rules’ rule, especially if I’m having a bad writing day. After all, these rules exist because they work, right? So if you get stuck (and we all do from time to time), there’s no shame in taking a bit of instruction from those who know better. Only a fool would spurn their wisdom out of hand.


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 bends your rules.

Until next time!

ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

I’m looking for authors (especially, but not limited to, new and/or indie authors) whose work I can feature here on Penstricken over the coming year. It will simply take the form of a quick Q&A about yourself and your work via private message or e-mail and, of course, a link to where we can all get a copy of your work.

I’m open to interviewing authors of almost any kind of story, provided your work is complete, original and of course, fictional. I will not consider individual short stories/micro-fictions, however I am happy to feature published anthologies or entire blog-sites of micro-fiction, provided you are the sole author.

If you’re interested, or want to know more, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

Want to Add Handwritten Notes to your Scrivener Project? Try Notebloc.

If you’re anything like me, the bulk of your writing projects will be done on computer, probably using a purpose-built piece of novel-writing software like Scrivener. Nevertheless, as I’ve mentioned before, there are some stages of the writing process (especially in the early days of planning) where I find the only way to make any progress is to sit down with a physical notebook and pen and scribble all my thoughts down. You might also be the sort of author who, like me, feels the need to keep a writer’s journal. Finally, if you’re like me, you’ll also be the sort of person who likes to hold on to every scrap of work you produce (including your brainstorm-scribbles) and keep it all neatly organised in one place.

Which is a pain. After all, you can’t add your handwritten notes to your Scrivener project.

OR CAN YOU?

Let me introduce you to Notebloc for Android and iPhone. This handy little app not only uses your smartphone’s camera to capture images, but it also automatically adjusts the colour and angle of your image(s) before easily exporting them as jpg or pdf files, making adding your handwritten notes to Scrivener (or wherever it is you keep your project files) a breeze. I should note, I’ve only tested the Android version of this app. If anyone has used the iPhone version and found it to be different from what I describe here, do let us know in the comments.

The first thing you have to do when you use this app is add images of your handwritten notes either by using your phone’s camera to capture an image or by importing a pre-existing image from your phone’s storage. Once you’ve done that, you will find yourself faced with an intuitive little screen (fig. 1) which allows you to adjust where the borders of your image should be. You can also rotate your image from this screen. So far, however, I’ve never had to actually do any manual adjusting; Notebloc does it automatically and with remarkable accuracy. However, in the unlikely event that it does not accurately identify the borders of your page, it’s a cinch to fix by simply long-pressing and dragging the borders to wherever you want them to be.

Once you’ve done that, Notebloc will then automatically adjust the shape and colours for you to create an image which favours readability. As you can see from fig. 2, the image it produces is pretty darn decent. The text is still clearly legible (poor handwriting notwithstanding; it’s a smartphone app, not a magic wand) and the colours have been reasonably well preserved. It even handles pencil with surprising ease. If, however, you’re not satisfied with the way it adjusts the colours, there are a few other colour adjustment styles you can choose from (see the menu along the top of fig. 2).

Once you’re happy with how the image looks, it gets added to your Notebloc document file (fig. 3). You can add as many pages to a document as you see fit and re-order the pages simply by long-pressing and dragging each page to wherever you want it to go (they will appear in the order in which you added them by default). From there you can print your document, share it online or copy your pages to another document if you so desire. Alternatively, you can do what I do and convert the document into a pdf or jpg format to be easily imported into your Scrivener project (fig. 4). I should add that if you opt for a jpg file, you will actually end up with numerous jpg files; specifically, one for each page. If, however, you opt for a pdf file, all the pages will be compiled into a single document, which makes it the best option for my money if you’re planning on adding it to Scrivener.

I’m pleased to say I haven’t found any glaringly obvious bugs in this app and it does what it says on the tin to a fairly impressive standard. It doesn’t have much in the way of bells and whistles and while I generally think that’s a good thing (too many superfluous features make an app cumbersome), I do think it would benefit from a few additional features; character recognition being the most obvious. The tools for manually adjusting the shape and colours of your image could also be more flexible; as it is, your options are quite limited if you don’t like the adjustments it makes automatically.

Oh and before you ask, this app is completely free and, best of all, it contains no ads. Go and get 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 digitises your handwriting.

Until next time!

ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

I’m looking for authors (especially, but not limited to, new and/or indie authors) whose work I can feature here on Penstricken over the coming year. It will simply take the form of a quick Q&A about yourself and your work via private message or e-mail and, of course, a link to where we can all get a copy of your work.

I’m open to interviewing authors of almost any kind of story, provided your work is complete, original and of course, fictional. I will not consider individual short stories/micro-fictions, however I am happy to feature published anthologies or entire blog-sites of micro-fiction, provided you are the sole author.

If you’re interested, or want to know more, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

50 Quotes About Writing

Well, we’ve already had fifty quotes about fiction in general so today it’s time for another fifty quotes, this time providing advice, encouragement and general reflections on the process of writing. So without further ado…

  1. ‘I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.’ — Douglas Adams
  2. ‘There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.’ — Maya Angelou
  3. ‘There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.’ — Ernest Hemingway
  4. ‘Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words.’ — Mark Twain
  5. ‘If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.’ — Stephen King
  6. ‘It’s hell writing and it’s hell not writing. The only tolerable state is having just written.’ — Robert Hass
  7. ‘We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.’ — Anaïs Nin
  8. ‘Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go.’ — E.L. Doctorow
  9. ‘A writer, I think, is someone who pays attention to the world.’ — Susan Sontag
  10. ‘You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.’ — Madeleine L’Engle
  11. ‘If a story is in you it has got to come out.’ — William Faulkner
  12. ‘You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write.’ — Saul Bellow
  13. ‘I’m not a very good writer but I’m an excellent rewriter.’ — James Michener
  14. ‘You only learn to be a better writer by actually writing.’ — Doris Lessing
  15. ‘It is a very cool thing to be a writer.’ — Bryan Hutchinson
  16. ‘You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.’ — Ray Bradburry
  17. ‘If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.’ – Toni Morrison
  18. ‘Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.’ — Louis L’Amour
  19. ‘Substitute “damn” every time you’re inclined to write “very”; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.’ — Mark Twain
  20. ‘The only writer to whom you should compare yourself is the writer you were yesterday.’ — David Schlosser
  21. ‘Step into a scene and let it drip from your fingertips.’ — M.J. Bush
  22. ‘Growing up is highly overrrated. Just be an author.’ — Neil Gaiman
  23. ‘Be ruthless about protecting writing days, i.e., do not cave in to endless requests to have “essential” and “long overdue” meetings on those days.’ — J.K. Rowling
  24. ‘What doesn’t kill us gives us something to write about.’ — Julie Wright
  25. ‘There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.’ — W. Somerset Maugham
  26. ‘When asked “how do you write?” I invariably answer “one word at a time.”‘ — Stephen King
  27. ‘Writing, to me, is simply thinking through my fingers.’ — Isaac Asimov
  28. ‘Writing is show business for shy people.’ — Lee Child
  29. ‘It is perfectly okay to write garbage –as long as you edit brilliantly.’ — C.J. Cherryh
  30. ‘If you’re writing stuff, you’re a writer. If you’re not writing stuff, you’re not a writer. If you publish ten thousand best sellers, all of which get made into films, then stop writing, you’re no longer a writer… Similarly, if you are writing with any kind of regularity, you are a real writer. You might be a professional or only an amateur, but you are a writer. Really.’ — A. Ferguson
  31. ‘If you want to change the world, pick up your pen and write.’ — Martin Luther
  32. ‘Write about what really interests you, whether it is real things or imaginary things, and nothing else.’ — C.S. Lewis
  33. ‘Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.’ — William Wordsworth
  34. ‘Imagination is like a muscle. I found out that the more I wrote, the bigger it got.’ — Philip José Farmer
  35. ‘I write to find out what I’m talking about.’ — Edward Albee
  36. ‘Throw up into your typewriter every morning. Clean up every noon.’ — Raymond Chandler
  37. ‘You should write because you love the shape of stories and sentences and the creation of different words on a page. Writing comes from reading, and reading is the finest teacher of how to write.’ — Annie Proulx
  38. ‘Don’t be a writer. Be writing.’ — William Faulkner
  39. ‘Writing is like giving yourself homework, really hard homework, every day, for the rest of your life. You want glamorous? Throw glitter at the computer screen.’ — Katrina Monroe
  40. ‘Write what disturbs you, what you fear, what you have not been willing to speak about. Be willing to be split open.’ — Natalie Goldberg
  41. ‘To write well, express yourself like the common people, but think like a wise man.’ — Aristotle
  42. ‘You can make anything by writing.’ — C.S. Lewis
  43. ‘I write to give myself strength. I write to be the characters that I am not. I write to explore all the things I’m afraid of.’ — Joss Whedon
  44. ‘I need solitude for my writing; not “like a hermit” — that wouldn’t be enough — but like a dead man.’ — Franz Kafka
  45. ‘Writers don’t make any money at all. We make about a dollar. It is terrible. But then again we don’t work either. We sit around in our underwear until noon then go downstairs and make coffee, fry some eggs, read the paper, read part of a book, smell the book, wonder if perhaps we ourselves should work on our book, smell the book again, throw the book across the room because we are quite jealous that any other person wrote a book, feel terribly guilty about throwing the schmuck’s book across the room because we secretly wonder if God in heaven noticed our evil jealousy, or worse, our laziness. We then lie across the couch facedown and mumble to God to forgive us because we are secretly afraid He is going to dry up all our words because we envied another man’s stupid words. And for this, as I said, we are paid a dollar. We are worth so much more.’ — Donald Miller
  46. ‘Some writers enjoy writing, I am told. Not me. I enjoy having written.’ — George R.R. Martin
  47. ‘A word after a word after a word is power.’ — Margaret Atwood
  48. ‘A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.’ — Thomas Mann
  49. ‘Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly. That’s why it’s so hard.’ — David McCullough
  50. ‘Serious writers write, inspired or not. Over time they discover that routine is a better friend than inspiration.’ — Ralph Keyes

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 inverts your commas.

Until next time!

ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

I’m looking for authors (especially, but not limited to, new and/or indie authors) whose work I can feature here on Penstricken over the coming year. It will simply take the form of a quick Q&A about yourself and your work via private message or e-mail and, of course, a link to where we can all get a copy of your work.

I’m open to interviewing authors of almost any kind of story, provided your work is complete, original and of course, fictional. I will not consider individual short stories/micro-fictions, however I am happy to feature published anthologies or entire blog-sites of micro-fiction, provided you are the sole author.

If you’re interested, or want to know more, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

Should You Use Profanity in Your Story?

I’ve been reading Tom Hanks’ Uncommon Type: Some Stories. It’s not really my intention to review it here today (not least of all because I haven’t read it all yet), but I will say I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the quality of his writing. It doesn’t read like an actor trying to make a few extra quid by writing a book. It reads like something written by a professional author who knows a thing or two about writing quality stories. In short, I’m enjoying it. But something else about it surprised me: the language. There’s a lot of profanity in there and for some reason, I expected Tom Hanks’ work to be a little bit more family friendly. Don’t ask me why. Maybe it’s just because I’m hearing it in Woody the Cowboy’s voice.

Anyway, this all got me thinking about the use of profanity in fiction. We authors walk a fine line between realism and rudeness, especially when it comes to writing dialogue. Where do you draw the line?

Well… it depends.

The first and most obvious thing is to consider your audience and what they expect from your story. Certain audiences tend to go for certain genres, and as such, the level of profanity in your work will often be largely dependent on your genre. If you have a real aversion to using any profanity whatsoever in your writing, the simplest way around this is to stick to those genres which tend to have less profanity in them. Alternatively, you can always sit down and watch the soaps for inspiration. Really, I’m serious. Emmerdale, Eastenders and Coronation Street are simply chock full of characters having heated arguments about adultery, betrayal, crime and all sorts of other grim subjects without a single f-bomb being dropped.

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Image source: http://gph.is/1c3k48L

However, let’s assume you are willing to use some profanity in your story. There might be lots of reasons why you use bad language in your story. In Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Spock makes frequent (mis)use of mild profanity in a vain attempt to fit in with 20th century human society. Here it serves a very simple function: comedy relief (even though The Voyage Home is pretty light-hearted anyway). It also works, because it’s done in a fairly subtle way. Bad language is also often used to add a sense of anger or urgency to a character’s dialogue. It is, therefore, an undeniably useful tool for some authors.

A word of warning, however: profanity has the power to augment your story or to utterly ruin it, perhaps more than any other technique you might use. A measure of bad language may or may not be appropriate if you’re writing for adults, but bad language is not the defining characteristic of a good adult story. It is simply a tool that you may decide to use or not use as you see fit. Overusing it, as with any other literary technique, can destroy your story. The fact is, profanity loses its power very quickly. The more often bad language is used, the more desensitised the reader becomes to it. What began as a striking technique with which to shock or amuse the audience quickly becomes nothing more than a few pointless extra words which ruin the flow of the narrative.

‘But in real life, some people do swear ten times in a single sentence!’ I hear you cry. ‘How can I make my dialogue realistic if I water it down?’

It can be tempting to think this. On the surface it seems perfectly rational. However, any seasoned author knows that dialogue in fiction is actually very different from the way real people talk from day to day. Dialogue flows. Dialogue makes sense. Dialogue is to-the-point. Even when sub-text is used, what is said remains clear and advances the story in a very definite direction. For this reason, profanity may sometimes be necessary but it should be carefully measured, lest it lost its power.

In real life, people talk rubbish. They say things they don’t mean. They’ll change the subject. They’ll utterly misunderstand the subject and, you know, they’ll like… how can I put it? They’ll, I don’t know, they’ll– respond in inappropriate ways. You know, like, you’ll say something and they’ll say something back and it’s obvious they’ve not understood you because what they’ve said back doesn’t make any sense. Like that time I was talking to Sandra about fly fishing and she… [insert long winded, irrelevant anecdote here]. They’ll misuse pacific words, mishandle slang and make such a mess of their utterances that it frankly beggars belief that humans are able to communicate verbally at all.

In the same way a real person might swear twenty times per sentence, but if you want to fictionalise that person, you’ll probably want to tone down his language lest it ruin the flow of your narrative.

One last thing to bear in mind: You’re never going to please everyone. What matters, therefore, is you, your story and your intended audience (not necessarily in that order). Ask yourself, why am I using profanity here? Is it really necessary to make my story work? Am I comfortable using it? Will it produce the correct response in my intended audience (forget your ‘unintended’ audience; you can’t possibly please everyone), or will it bore/offend them? Ultimately, you have to decide for yourself what’s appropriate. Personally, I find less is usually more when it comes to profanity, but maybe that’s just me.


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 #!$@*!!’s your &#@%!!!.

Until next time!

ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

I’m looking for authors (especially, but not limited to, new and/or indie authors) whose work I can feature here on Penstricken over the coming year. It will simply take the form of a quick Q&A about yourself and your work via private message or e-mail and, of course, a link to where we can all get a copy of your work.

I’m open to interviewing authors of almost any kind of story, provided your work is complete, original and of course, fictional. I will not consider individual short stories/micro-fictions, however I am happy to feature published anthologies or entire blog-sites of micro-fiction, provided you are the sole author.

If you’re interested, or want to know more, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

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?


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 rings your bell.

Until next time!

5 Sci-Fi Tropes I Could Live Without

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

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

The Holographic Hook

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

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

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

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

Is That You Clive?

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

You spin around wildly.

‘Is that you Clive?’

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

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

Hey Clive, Are Those New Horns?

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

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

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

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

Sigh. 

We, The People of Earth…

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

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

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

Ask yourself this. If aliens landed on Earth today:

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

You get the idea.

Magical Alien Artefacts

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

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

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

Dishonourable Mentions:

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

Well that was a far from exhaustive list but I’m glad to have got it off my chest anyway. Thanks for taking the time to read this post. Be sure to leave us a wee comment below and don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what reverses your polarity.

Until next time!