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!

How Many Drafts Should I Write?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Until next time!

Ink and Pixel: Writers’ Edition

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Until next time!

5 Types of Story Ending

SPOILER ALERT

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.

bean-plant-2348098_1920

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.


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 lights your fire.

Until next time!

Writing Six Word Stories

“Brevity is the soul of wit” — W. Shakespeare

If you’ve been following Penstricken for any length of time, you’ll know that I appreciate the delicate art of the six word story (don’t worry though, today’s post isn’t going to be another instalment of 6 Six Word Stories). When I first encountered this phenomenon several years ago, I wasn’t sure it was possible to cram any meaningful kind of narrative into so restrictive a word limit. Even if it could be done, I wasn’t convinced of its artistic or literary value.

I was wrong. And really, I should’ve known better. Ernest Hemingway’s(?) six word story about the death of a baby and the subsequent sale of his/her clothing proves that you can pack a mighty punch with very few words indeed. It’s no small task, however. Some of the traditional rules of writing need to be bent or artfully re-imagined to make it work.

I’ve said before that all good stories, no matter how short, must have a beginning, a middle and an end. This is also true of six word stories, however unlike in longer prose (even 50 or 100 word stories), it’s almost impossible to make each stage of the story arc explicit. Instead, you need to do what Hemingway(?) did and imply the beginning, middle and end.

Let’s take one of my own six word stories for example: ‘KING FELIX DEAD: Nine assassins executed.’

This story takes the form of a newspaper headline. It includes only two specific statements:

  1. The king is dead.
  2. All nine of his assassins have been executed for the crime.

However, from these words, we can glean a whole lot more. For a start, this story is set in a felinocracy (a world ruled by cats). Not only that, but there is a whiff of revolution in the air. Nine people have conspired together to end the king’s life (that’s our beginning). They succeeded (middle), but were finally caught and executed (the end).

Unsurprisingly, the format in which you decide to write your six words will be pivotal in determining whether or not you succeed in implying a full story arc. In King Felix Dead, I decided to write in the style of a newspaper headline for two reasons.

  1. When world-leaders get assassinated, it tends to make the news. It therefore seemed an obvious way to draw my readers into my feline fantasy world.
  2. Newspaper headlines, by their very nature, are designed to imply a story in a few short words.

This second reason was the most important. Real newspaper headlines grab a prospective reader’s attention by making them say to themselves, ‘Surely they don’t mean such-and-such has happened…?!’. In short, the reader instantaneously makes up a story based on the headline, then reads the actual story to find out if they were correct. It implies a big story in a small way; the very thing we six word story writers hope to accomplish.

Of course, the newspaper headline is only one possible format. It is certainly not always the best option. The Hemingway(?) story we referred to earlier takes the form of an advertisement. Alternatively, you might opt for something more simple, such as a single line of dialogue as I did in ‘”I shall avenge thee!” Bambi vowed.’ or a single line of narrative, such as ‘Remembered and avenged every unicycle “performance”’. It’s worth spending time trying out a few different formats to see what works best.

For example, if Hemingway(?) had decided to write his story in dialogue format (instead of as a newspaper advert) he might have written something like “I’m selling these unused baby shoes”. However, it wouldn’t have been nearly as effective. It’s still six words long and it communicates the same explicit information (someone is selling brand new baby shoes), but it doesn’t imply anything beyond that. While technically, it could be the words of a bereaved parent, the matter-of-fact conversational tone makes it sound more like a door-to-door salesman who is trying to make a quick quid selling baby clothes. But a short advert, probably published in a local rag somewhere… that sounds far more specific. There is one person out there with one pair of unused baby shoes they want to get rid of as efficiently as possible (but perhaps can’t bear to simply throw them in the bin). All the grief of bereavement is implied by this simple choice of formatting.

The other thing you need to think more creatively about than usual is characters. Under normal circumstances, your story would have a handful of characters (each with their own biographies), who would gradually be developed throughout the story (your so-called ‘character arc’). You might give a little description of their physical appearance but most of their personality and backstory will be revealed by what the characters do and say. But – uh oh! – we’ve not got nearly enough words for all that!

If you want characters of substance (and who wouldn’t?), less is definitely more. It’s highly unlikely (though not impossible) that you’ll create excellent characters if you have more than one character in a six word story. Even so, six words still doesn’t give you much scope. Formatting your story as a line of dialogue or first-person narrative will certainly make it easier for the reader to encounter your character directly, and therefore, get to know them better (if that’s the effect you’re going for, of course). For example, here’s two six word stories about a man enquiring about his evening meal:

  • John asked what was for dinner.
  • ‘Woman! What’ve you made for tea?’

The first one tells us sod all about John except that he’s curious about dinner. The second one may not tell us John’s name, but it it implies much more important information about him: specifically that he’s a chauvinist pig who expects his dinner on the table when he gets home (or else!) and that he’s curious about dinner. Not only is he curious about dinner, but there’s an implied threat in his question. What if he doesn’t like the answer? We can only imagine, but that’s the point: we can imagine. In six words, we’ve created a bad guy. But as for the guy in the first story… we don’t know anything about him. He’s just a name and a question without substance.


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 tickles your toes.

Until next time!

Being a ‘Real’ Writer

There seems to be a notion in a lot of folks’ minds that while lots of people may wish to be authors, and may even actually sit down and try to thrash out an original work of fiction, not all of these are real writers. If you look around the internet or other public forums where writers gather, you’ll see what I mean. People will say things like ‘if you don’t write something every day, you’re not a real writer,’ or ‘real writers read at least twenty books a year– oh and newspapers as well!’

These are just examples but you get the idea. Many try to be writers, but only those who do this-this-and-that are real writers. But wait just a minute. What does it even mean to be a ‘real writer’?

Oxford Dictionaries has a rather lengthy definition of ‘real’ you can view here, but let me draw your attention to the important bits:

Adjective

2. (of a thing) not imitation or artificial; genuine.

2.2 [attributive] Rightly so called; proper.
‘he’s my idea of a real man’

I would suggest that when people talk about being a ‘real’ writer, they are referring to something akin to this: ‘[attributive] Rightly so called; proper’. So, a ‘real writer’ is someone who displays certain key attributes we might expect a writer to possess, and is therefore justly called a writer. In other words, ‘real writers’ are people who do a certain thing, behave a certain way, drink a certain brand of coffee or write in a particular genre (or who spit out the word ‘genre’ are if it were an insult); something which separates them from other unreal/pretend/bogus/inferior/impostor writers.

Well I think you can see where I’m going with this. I’m here to set the record straight. And I’m going to do it with a parable.

The Parable of the Real and Pretend Writers

by A. Ferguson

In a certain town there lived an Aspiring Author. This Aspiring Author religiously attended the local coffee shop every day with his laptop. He would arrive early in the morning and drink their most expensive coffee and diligently study blogs about how to be a writer (he was a particular fan of Penstricken.com). His mug said ‘WRITER AT WORK’, and his table was always littered with notepads (with snazzy writer slogans on the front) and pens. He had even scribbled out a few character profiles and he had a strong idea for a plot in his mind. He got to know the staff there and told them all about the novel he was writing and promised to give them all signed copies when it got published. He also had a Twitter page which he used to communicate with other Aspiring Authors, tell the world about the novel he was writing and to share inspirational quotes about writing.

This Aspiring Author also had a five year old daughter. She spent most of her time in her bedroom scribbling out stories in crayon (complete with illustrations) which she then sellotaped together into a book and sold to her long-suffering relatives. To date she has “published” seventeen such books and is now working on her eighteenth: The Day Mummy Took Me To The Zoo (We Saw Lions!).

So… the question is, who was the real writer: Aspiring Author or the daughter?

The answer is the one who displayed the attributes of a real writer. Specifically, the one who actually wrote stuff: the daughter!

Dear friends, writing stuff is the only truly defining attribute of a writer that I know of. 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. You may be the author of Such-and-Such a Work but 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.

‘But you don’t understand…’ I hear you lament. ‘I only manage to write five days a week!’

That doesn’t invalidate the fact you write. I agree that you should write as often as possible, and certainly if you intend to become a professional writer you might want to do it as close to daily as possible, but I’ve found that writing regularly is far more beneficial than writing constantly. In any event, how often you write does not define you as a writer, as long as you write often.

‘But you don’t understand…’ I hear you lament. ‘I care about my husband/wife and kids more than I care about writing. Why, I even missed a deadline to attend my husband/wife while s/he was in hospital!’

That proves nothing except that you prioritise your family above your writing (a perfectly right and healthy thing, if you ask me). Believe it or not, I’ve actually heard it suggested that ‘real writers’ put their writing before their families, but I for one profoundly disagree. In any event, how you prioritise your life does not define you as a writer. When my daughter was born, I took the day off my day-job as a clerical officer to attend her birth. When I returned to work, no one questioned whether or not I was a ‘real clerical officer’, just because I had other things that mattered more to me. In the same way, whether writing is your life, your day-job or just a hobby: real writers are people who write.

‘But you don’t understand…’ I hear you lament. ‘I only seem to be able to write YA space operas!’

So what? You still wrote it, didn’t you? If you write, you’re a writer. Don’t let snobs get you down. No genre is any more valid than any other so write what you’re going to write. People that like your writing will read it and people that don’t, won’t, but the same is also true of people who write so-called ‘serious literature’.

There seems to be a strange mysticism surrounding writers, as if being a writer is something otherworldly; an awesome gift bestowed upon only the Chosen Few. Worst of all, I fear it has perhaps gone to some of our heads; that we may be tempted to believe we really are somehow supernatural or unusually gifted. But we’re not. Writers are people who write. Excellent writers practice their craft, yes, but ultimately they’re still just people who write. If you are in any way committed to writing, then I hereby acknowledge and publicly confess (for better or worse) that you are a real writer.


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 buckles your shoe.

Until next time!

The 5 Circles of Inspiration Hell

It was an ordinary day like any other. The sky was grey and the bus was late. Suddenly, the tiniest green shoot of an idea sprouted in your head. It was small, but healthy and full of promise and you knew — you just knew — that it was going to be the novel/play/film that you would be remembered for in generations to come. Today was the day it finally happened. You got inspired.

Of course, experienced, wise and learned authors know that before you can sign that publication deal and pick up all those awards, you’ve got to actually do something with your wave of inspiration to turn it into a fully fledged story. Initial ideas (especially plot bunnies which unexpectedly pop into your head) are always full of holes, not all of which can be easily plugged. It takes effort to craft it into something that really works.

Those experienced and wise authors I mentioned will know exactly how to handle their ideas and will churn out a good story in no time at all. The rest of us, however, if we’re not careful, might find ourselves languishing somewhere in INSPIRATION HELL.

Abandon hope ye who enter here. Wanderers in this dismal place may find themselves endlessly going around and around the same circle for weeks, months or even years before moving onto another or, worse yet, back to one they’ve already been on. They are damned to be forever inspired without completing a single draft. As a former inmate, it is my sorrowful privilege to shew unto thee the Five Circles of Inspiration Hell.

I: The Burrow of the Plotbunny

If you ever find yourself walking along one day, minding your own business when a wonderful and more-or-less fully fledged story idea suddenly pops into your head with little or no effort, beware! You are in danger of wandering into the Burrow of the Plotbunny. On the surface, it is a paradise where the ecstasy of inspiration fills even the most self-doubting writer with confidence that they will one day become the next Shakespeare, but in the end, nothing ever gets written lest the euphoria be broken. Those who find themselves in the Burrow of the Plotbunny are forever doomed to think about the wonderful idea they’ve had and dream of the day they publish it for all the world to enjoy… but they never actually begin to write it.

II: The Drawing Board of Despair

After spending untold days, weeks or months wandering in the futile bliss of the Plotbunny’s Burrow, you may decide it’s finally time to make your idea really happen. And so you conclude, quite correctly, that if you’re ever going to break free of Plotbunny’s Burrow, you’ll need to sit down and plan out your story. So far, so good. No good idea ever became a story without much toil.

However, beware! It won’t take more than a couple of minutes attempting to bring some structure to your idea that you begin to realise this idea isn’t nearly as good as you thought it was. It’s full of holes and is going to take way more effort than you ever dared to imagine. In fact, you’re not even sure if it ever can be crafted into a good story. The longer you spend, scratching away at the old drawing board, the more you tie yourself in seemingly impossible knots and sink, ever deeper, into a pit of despair. You’re no author. You’re ashamed to have ever thought you were.

III: The Pants of Denial

You wake up one morning after a good night’s sleep and remember that idea you had… that idea that was so wonderful until you tried to plan it.

‘Yes…’ you say to yourself, ‘it was planning that ruined my story…’

So you decide to throw away all notions of planning and simply ‘pants’ it instead. You convince yourself that if you just make it up as you go along, you’ll have a finished draft in no time. The trouble is, all those holes and problems you discovered with your idea at the Drawing Board of Despair weren’t caused by planning. They were simply discovered through planning. And so you spend eternity churning out disjointed narrative after disjointed narrative until you’re up to your armpits in random scenes and character auditions that serve no purpose. You convince yourself you’re making progress but the problems you faced at the Drawing Board of Despair remain unresolved. Your idea is still full of holes.

IV: The Fires of Refinement

Your enthusiasm has taken a few bruises now but you’ve accepted that your idea will never become a true story unless you sit down and plan it properly, even if that means making drastic changes to your initial idea. And so you decide to try planning again, only this time, with a more realistic attitude.

Your idea sucks. You know it to be true. But that’s okay, because all ideas suck until you turn them into a story. So you plan diligently, ruthlessly, killing whatever darlings stand in your way. You twist and mould and sculpt your initial idea until it’s no longer recognisable. But it’s taking shape. It’s getting better. It’s becoming a story. In fact, you even manage to produce a first draft. It’s hard graft and it hurts like blazes but you’re finally beginning to make real progress as you put your precious idea through the fires of refinement.

If you’re thinking this is a great opportunity to break free from Inspiration Hell, you’re absolutely right. In fact, you’re within spitting distance of The Pearly Gates of Authors’ Heaven. But beware! There is a trapped door beneath your feet which leads to…

V: The Pit of Capitulation

It was all going so well. You endured the pain of true planning and clawed your way to the very brink of completing your novel. You might have even produced a draft.

But it sucks. Your plan sucks. Your first draft sucks. You suck. And so you fall upon your own sword. You refuse to work on that idea any longer. The whole idea is dead to you.

What you failed to realise is that first drafts are meant to suck. Bringing a good idea to fruition requires perseverance. Planning, drafting and redrafting are all vital stages in producing anything even remotely good but it can be so difficult to keep going when your momentum starts to falter. You must persevere to succeed. The truth is, your initial idea really did have potential; potential it was perhaps even starting to realise. But potential alone does not make for a good story. It must be refined and polished again and again before it will truly shine as a story.

So… is there a way out of Inspiration Hell?’ I hear you cry.

Yes, there is.

First, you must actually begin working on your story idea. Second, you must remember that no story idea is perfect. It may have potential, but it will require serious effort and darling-killing if you’re to refine it into something worthwhile. Finally, no matter how hard it gets and no matter how awful your plans and drafts appear to be, remember and keep the Golden Rule:

Quitting is NOT an option!


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 floats your boat.

Until next time!

6 Mental Cobweb Shakers for Writers

Ever sat down to write and found your imagination covered in so many cobwebs that you can’t even remember how to pick up your pen? Ever sat staring at a blank screen for hours without even the faintest idea where to begin? Ever wasted your set writing time reading patronising articles on the internet telling you writers’ block doesn’t exist (when you know better) because you just can’t quite seem to get settled into your day’s work?

No?

Well I have, and whenever that happens to me I need something to quickly shake away the cobwebs to help me get off the starting block. Therefore, I am going to commend a few of my favourite cobweb shakers to you today. I don’t know if these will work for you or not but they work for me so… you might as well give them a go, eh?

Write Urgently

I’ve blogged about this before, but it has so revolutionised my whole writing life that it bears saying again. If you find yourself staring at a blank page for hours and have little or nothing to show for it when you’re done, try resolving to write for no more than thirty minutes, twenty minutes or even less all day. Better yet, start your writing session at a time when you know you’ll have no choice but to stop very soon; i.e., while your dinner is in the oven or in that spare twenty minutes before you have to catch a bus to get to work on time. It sounds crazy, but I find that writing in short bursts creates a sense of urgency which forces me not to procrastinate or edit as I write.

Background Noise

Silence may be golden, but it can also be as distracting as having someone talking in your ear. The solution? Get yourself some background noise. You could always do this by seeking out a noisier location, but assuming you don’t particularly want to move anywhere, I can highly recommend Noisli to you as a free tool which allows you to customise your own blend of ambient background noises including (but not limited to) thunder, a crackling fire, a train moving and a coffee shop. These sounds loop indefinitely, so you can turn it on and let it lull you into a false sense of sitting in a coffee shop on a rainy day or listening to birds singing beside a crackling fire.

I know lots of writers enjoy listening to music while they write, although personally, I still find that a bit too distracting, especially if it involves complicated melodies or (worst of all) vocal parts with lyrics. If you must listen to music while writing, I recommend keeping it gentle and instrumental. Video game music is particularly useful as it is designed to be incidental and keep you focused on the task at hand.

Play a Game

Speaking of games, I also find playing a computer game a good cobweb shaker. Nothing too mind-numbing, of course. Avoid anything that involves decimating sweets or throwing helpless animals (actually, just stay away from mobile gaming altogether). I find it far more effective to play a game I need to use my brain for and preferably something with a story of its own. I’m a big fan of retro gaming, so classic adventure games such as Grim Fandango and Monkey Island often fit the bill for me but anything you need to use your brain for should do.

The danger with this, of course, is that you can waste all day gaming. If you’re going to game away the cobwebs, be sure to set yourself a strict time-limit.

Indulge A Different Creative Interest

Like gaming, this approach will also require a strict time-limit but if you’re feeling too lackadaisical to get started with your writing project, you might find pursuing another creative endeavour will give you the spark of enthusiasm you need. Of course, you’ll know better than I do what turns you on apart from writing. It could be singing, dancing, painting, conducting bizarre scientific experiments* or something else entirely. Whatever it is, set aside a little(!) time to immerse yourself in something that makes you feel alive and gets your mental juices flowing. You’ll come back to writing feeling able and rejuvenated.

Go For a Walk/Exercise

Though I’m loath to admit it a bit of fresh air and exercise is a great way to shake away the mental cobwebs. Even just a five minute walk and a change of scenery can work wonders. Just don’t wander so far that you don’t have time to write!

Free-write
freewrite

Here’s what my free-writing session looked like. Pretty dismal, right?

Free-writing is ideal for when you just don’t have the time to waste gaming, exercising or cloning your budgie. Simply set a timer for a minute, five minutes, ten minutes or whatever you feel is necessary and write WITHOUT CEASING for that whole time. You don’t need to think about structure, plot or anything. Just write. It doesn’t matter if you have typos. It doesn’t matter if you write piles of meaningless rubbish with all the orderliness of a pig’s regurgitated dinner. It doesn’t even matter if all you manage to write is ‘I don’t know what to write, I don’t know what to write, I don’t know what to write…’

What matters is that you pick up your pen and write!

Sometimes it can even help you to come up with ideas, but even if it doesn’t, don’t worry about it. The most important thing is that you stop doing nothing and start writing something. Anything. As long as it’s something.

I hope you found some of these tips useful. Do let us know if you did by commenting below, and also if you’ve got any mental cobweb clearing tips of your own, why not comment below so we can all benefit from your wisdom and experience? And if you enjoyed this post, be sure to follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if you feel so inclined.

Until next time!


*This website does not in any way endorse dangerous, unethical, illegal or otherwise ill-advised scientific experiments. Any suggestions to the contrary in this post were meant only as a joke and should not be taken seriously.

7 Things I Hate In Fiction

No matter what genre of fiction or medium of story-telling you’re into (even if you’re into nearly all of them, like me!), we all have our own little things in fiction that we don’t like. Sometimes it’s the little things that can absolutely ruin an otherwise potentially good story for us and make us seriously think about leaving it unread/unwatched/unlistened to.

For your enjoyment, therefore, I have compiled a list of my own fiction bugbears with expositions. Maybe you won’t agree with them all. That’s okay. I’m not for one second suggesting any of these are hard and fast rules about what constitutes a bad story. These are just things that, for me, are a bit of a turn-off. So without further ado and in no particular order…

Obvious Morals

Don’t get me wrong. I definitely think it’s a good thing for stories to say something meaningful about real life. I’m not knocking stories that have morals to them. I’m not even knocking controversial morals. Quite the reverse, a good story definitely should have true and important morals or observations about life. But there’s nothing that puts me off reading a book or watching a film/TV show/play quite like that horrible sinking feeling you get in the first five minutes when you think to yourself: ‘I think I know where this is going…’

Even if it’s something I profoundly agree with, that’s not the point. I don’t read stories to be preached at, whether I agree with the message or not. Entertain me, and by all means make me think, but don’t preach at me.

Excessive and/or Long Fight Scenes

On TV and film, I can just about(!) put up with drawn out fight scenes, but in novels… boy, I find them tedious. They’re often either too detailed (and so, the pace is dragged right down at what should be the most exciting part) or else they’re not detailed enough and I lose the thread of what’s going on entirely. If you’re going to write a fight scene, I want it to be described in such a way that I feel like I’m really there witnessing it, which must by necessity include experiencing the danger and urgency of being in a battle. It can be done with words, but only a few writers seem to be able to do it in a way I find truly enjoyable.

More on fight scenes here.

Unnecessary Profanities

Sometimes in adult fiction, a little profanity may be justified, if it becomes the character (remember boys and girls, a character’s voice can have a profound impact on their identity). After all, in real life, people do sometimes use foul language. However, I find that in fiction, it loses its effectiveness very quickly and can come across as a fairly amateurish attempt at generating tension. Therefore, use it sparingly. If you’re struggling, watch the soaps for some inspiration: Eastenders, Coronation Street, Emmerdale and so forth.

No, really, hear me out. I don’t have a lot of good things to say about soaps, but I’ll give them this: because they’re usually on before the watershed, the writers of these shows are forced to generate tension and outright screaming matches between characters without using a single profanity. Study these carefully if you’re really struggling to write tense dialogue without the potty-mouth.

Flashbacks

As a rule of thumb, I find that flashbacks tend to interrupt the pace of the narrative too much. In addition, I often find that they are simply used as a way to info dump the backstory and as we all know, info dumping is bad, bad, bad. I might, possibly, maybe let you away with them if the story absolutely requires that one character tells another character a lengthy, detailed story about something that happened in the past (Agatha Christie’s Poirot novels, for example, frequently include flash back style chapters where one witness is telling Poirot their version of events) but on the whole, I find flashbacks a bit of a drag.

All Action; No Substance

If I wanted a meaningless thrill ride, I’d just go to Alton Towers. Don’t get me wrong, a bit of excitement is needed to keep up the momentum of your story, but if the protagonist is doing nothing but jumping over walls, dodging bullets and crashing helicopters from the outset, I won’t have any opportunity to get under the his skin enough to sympathise with him or understand his goals and motives.

All Substance; No Action

The opposite is also true. I know I want to understand the characters’ goals and motives, and I know I want the odd profound or emotional scene but I don’t want to be bored to tears either. Sooner or later, we need a bit of excitement.

Call Your Story Confessions of an [Optional Adjective] [Noun]

This will make me hate your story before I’ve even read it. See my previous post On Titles.


Well that was cathartic for me at any rate.

Did any of that ring true for anyone else? Or maybe you actually love flashbacks, lengthy fight scenes and tedious titles? Maybe I’m alone in disliking these things…

I know! Why not leave a comment below and share your own fiction pet-hates with the rest of the world? You might feel better if you get it off your chest. And if you enjoyed this post, be sure to follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if you feel so inclined.

Until next time!