5 Writing Laws I Just Can’t Keep

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

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

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

Using adverbs

The road to hell is paved with adverbs.

Stephen King

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

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

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

Long-Windedness

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

Ernest Hemingway

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

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

having holidays

Just write every day of your life…

Ray Bradbury

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

On a related note…

Writing is not the sum total of my life

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

Eugene Ionesco

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

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

Self-doubt and arrogant pride


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

Neil Gaiman


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

Romans 12:3 (KJV)

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

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

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


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

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

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

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Sharleen Nelson, Author of The Time Tourists [2]

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Are You Making The Best Use Of Your Writing Time?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
NovelNovelNovelShortsShortsBlogDay off

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

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


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

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

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

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Sharleen Nelson, Author of The Time Tourists [2]

6 Things I’ve Learned About Writing Fiction

Writing is an art. Like any art form, it’s something you learn as you go. Even those rare child prodigies who are born excellent writers will still undoubtedly pick up a few nuggets of wisdom as they practice and hone their craft. It’s only natural. The longer you do a thing, the better you get at it.

Most of the writing tips I’ve shared on this website over the last few years have been things I have simply learned by experience, and so today I’ve decided to share a brief selection of some of the lessons I’ve learned over the years which I think have helped to make me a better writer. And so without further ado and in no particular order:

Lesson #1: You Can’t edit a blank page

Although it may go against the grain, the best way to write is to write boldly without stopping to worry about how good or bad it is. In fact, even if you know it sucks, you should still just plough on with your story until it’s finished and come back to fix it later. Heck, you’re going to do a few drafts anyway (aren’t you?).

This is no new commandment but an old one. Although it can be tempting to fix bits you’re unsatisfied with (or worse still, refuse to write them in the first place), editing as you go is ultimately crippling. You will not get anything finished writing that way.

lesson #2: Characters are the beating heart of any good story

Regular readers of this blog (God bless you kind people) will know I’ve said this a billion times before so it’s only right that I say it again: characters can make or break any story. I don’t care how clever, imaginative or well researched the rest of your story is, half-baked characters will ruin your story while excellent characters can make even the most simple of stories a joy to read.

Moreover a plot can emerge from a good cast of characters in a way which feels natural (to the reader at least; writers must sweat blood no matter what). After all, in real life events happen to people; people don’t happen to events. So too, it is better to make your characters the focus of your story and ask what happens to them, rather than creating a plot first and then populating it with characters whom you have contrived to suit it.

lesson #3: CONSISTENCY and Persistence are essential

It can be tempting for inexperienced writers to imagine inspiration is the key to being a good story writer. Such writers will only be inclined to write when they are overcome with a wave of inspiration or when they are feeling particularly ‘in the zone.’

Experienced writers know what folly that is. It might sound less exciting (in fact, it often is less exciting) but the real secret to producing a steady flow of work is to be consistent with your writing routine, regardless of how you feel and to persist with your story even when you hate it.

lesson #4: There Are No Bad Ideas; Only Bad Executions

Whenever you have an idea for a story, it can be tempting to immediately judge it in one of two ways:

  • This is the best idea ever! I can’t wait to sit down and write this masterpiece!
  • That’s a terrible idea. I’ll just pretend I didn’t have it…

In my experience, judging the quality of an idea in this way is a mistake. The fact is, ideas are a pound a dozen and have very little bearing on the quality of the final story. Even the stupidest ideas can yield a good story, if the story is well planned with characters whose goals and motives we care about; and the reverse is also true.

Lesson #5: In the early stages, only handwriting will do

Maybe this doesn’t apply to you, but I find that when I’m trying to come up with new material, I just can’t seem to get the creative juices flowing using a computer, tablet or phone. It has to be pen and paper. I have to be able to scribble freely. Even Scapple is a poor substitute for pen and paper at the earliest stages of brainstorming new ideas.

Once I have a rough idea of my basic plot and who the main players in my story will be, I quickly transfer to working with apps like Scapple, Scrivener or FocusWriter but until I reach that stage, it’s paper and pen all the way. Nothing else works. While this might not be the case for you, I still think it’s worthwhile having a think about what helps you to work most effectively at each stage.

Lesson #6: Like It Or Lump It, Your Intended Audience Matters

No story, no matter how well written, appeals to everybody. However, most reasonably well written stories will appeal to somebody. If you try to please everyone, you are doomed to fail but knowing your intended audience in advance will allow you to determine exactly what kind of themes, characters and adult elements are appropriate for your story. Discussed in more detail here.

What about you? What nuggets of writerly wisdom have you picked up over the years? Be sure to share them in the comments below so we can all benefit from your wisdom!


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

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

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

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Sharleen Nelson, Author of The Time Tourists [2]

6 Terrible Bad Guy Lines From the Big Screen

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

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

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

So, without further ado…

Be careful not to choke on your aspirations, Director.

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

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

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

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

Heck, it’s not even a very good pun.

Speaking of James Bond:

Global warming: it’s a terrible thing.

– Gustav Graves in Die Another Day (2002)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*sigh*

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

Shinzon in Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)

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

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

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

Mr. Freeze in Batman and Robin (1997)

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

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


Sindel in Mortal Kombat: Annihilation (1997)

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


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

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

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

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Sharleen Nelson, Author of The Time Tourists [2]

Why Your Fantastic Story Idea Has To Die

So you’ve had a fantastic idea for a new story: something really original, really clever and just plain brilliant. Well, bully for you, I say! It’s a wonderful feeling not only knowing what you’re next story is going to be about, but actually knowing that it’s a real cracker of an idea.

Enjoy your good feelings while you can but don’t fall in love with your idea. If you do, you’ll only end up languishing in Inspiration Hell the moment you try to put your idea into action. If you want my advice, you’ll treat your idea as a profane thing from the very moment it’s conceived. It is not sacred. It is not too beautiful to die. Frankly, it’s probably not as clever as you thought. Unless you’ve laid a real golden egg of an idea, you’ll probably have to kill it– and the sooner the better.

‘Now wait a minute there, old bean!’ I hear you cry. ‘That seems a bit harsh!’

Maybe it is, but I still think it will save you a lot of heartache in the long run if you take it to heart now. No element of your story should ever be safe from being tweaked, twisted or downright axed. This includes the original premise of your story, however clever it might be.

This is no new commandment. We all know how important it is to ‘kill your darlings’ when you write. You know what I mean: those glorious, beautiful little bits of narrative you’ve written that you think are so wonderful, but they ultimately do nothing for your story and have to go.

However, unlike most darlings on the headsman’s block, the original idea is not something you can simply come back to at the editing stage. If you write a dodgy sentence, an unnecessary scene or even several chapters of pointless drivel, you can still plod along quite the thing until you finish the draft. Not so with your original idea! If you fall too hard in love with it, you’ll never make it past the first draft (assuming you ever get the first draft started), because you will be unprepared to take whatever ruthless steps are required to fix the glaring weaknesses in your plot. If your original idea isn’t working, you must be prepared to kill it without mercy.

‘But if I kill my original idea, won’t I be right back at square one, with no idea whatsoever?’ I hear you cry.

No, of course not. Your original idea still serves a purpose: a new idea will be born from its ashes. Almost every story idea has at least a million possible alternative directions you can work in and I would encourage you to experiment with all of these (Scapple is my app of choice for organising my thoughts in this regard, though a good old fashioned pen and paper also does the trick). Perhaps your love interest should really be the protagonist? Perhaps your protagonist should be a pixie instead of a wizard? Heck, perhaps we should forget about pixies and wizards and go for cowboys instead? One of the best decisions I ever made in one of my old fantasy stories was to change from a medieval fantasy setting to a post-industrial fantasy. The basic themes, conflict and characters were essentially the same but by letting go of my determination to have knights on horses, my mind suddenly exploded with a whole bunch of material that yielded a much better story.

Even if your original idea is working, you will still need to be prepared to develop it, and that involves making changes, both big and small, so even if you stick with the same core idea, it will still require painful surgery to make it function. It is better, therefore, to simply have the attitude that your idea is profane and eligible for the chop from the very beginning. The fact is, no story idea ever comes to you fully formed. Ideas are like clumps of marble used in sculpting. Some clumps might be easier to work with than others and some might be utterly useless, but none of them can become Discobolus or David until someone first takes a hammer and chisel to it.


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

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

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

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Sharleen Nelson, Author of The Time Tourists [2]

How to Help Your Audience Suspend Disbelief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

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

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Sharleen Nelson, Author of The Time Tourists [2]

Christmas Clichés and How to Avoid Them

Well it just wouldn’t be Christmas without a good Christmas movie/Christmas special of your favourite TV show; and so, since I’ve just come to the end of my series on genre clichés and how to avoid them, I thought: what better thing to post about this Christmas than Christmas movie clichés?

So here we go ho ho! (Sorry).

Film Ends; Snow Begins

Question: how do you know when a Christmas story is nearly finished?

Answer: it starts snowing and everybody’s amazed. It seems to be the only ending anyone has has been able to come up with for a Christmas flick.

There’s a really clever trick to avoiding this particular cliché. Basically, you just end it any other way you like! Kissy endings are fine, violent deaths are fine, I’ll even put up with riding off into the sunset but please, if you have any sense of compassion, don’t make me sit through another inevitable snow ending!

Christmas Miracles

These little deus ex machinas appear in an alarming number of Christmas films. They don’t tend to solve the main conflict of the story (though they sometimes do, and should be doubly ashamed of themselves) but usually involve small miracles at the very end of the story to instantly undo any lingering sadness that might remain from the struggle that has gone before. For instance, just after the main conflict of the story has been resolved and the film appears to be over, the boy’s puppy who got flattened by a monster truck in the in the first half hour of the film comes running down the road to meet him. Then the snow starts. The end.

The rules about how to write a good ending don’t just change because it’s Christmas. Your protagonists have struggled throughout the story; even if they haven’t lost anything substantial, they’ve had a rough time. There was a bad guy who wanted to hurt them. There was a real danger that Christmas might be cancelled. Your characters have developed and learned things from their strife as much as from their victory; don’t rob them of that by making everything magically fall into place for them in the last few minutes.

The Conversion of Scrooge

Yeah, Dickens I’m blaming you for this one. In this trope, there’s always a bitter and miserable old git who hates Christmas and wants to spoil it for everyone but in the climax of the story they learn the true meaning of Christmas (note: it’s seldom the true, true meaning of Christmas but usually some woolly notion about love and fuzziness) and become a nice person who decides to join the Christmas party, give all their money to the poor and generally become a real life Santa Claus (double cliché points if the real life Santa Claus is the one who teaches your miser the true meaning of Christmas). 

I mean… depending on exactly what your bad guy did, I’m inclined to give you a bit of leeway on this one. After all, it is Christmas: good will to men and all that jazz. But if your antagonist has deliberately tried to ruin Christmas for everyone (especially if it involved committing a serious atrocity), a little bit of comeuppance wouldn’t go amiss… would it? 

I know you want to be nice to your bad guys but come on… if you think he deserves it, then just be brave and do what my favourite Christmas movie hero always does: blow him up and say ‘yippee ki yay’. Your audience will respect you for it. They probably hate your bad guy’s guts too.


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

Merry Christmas!

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

I’m still looking for more authors to interview here on Penstricken, especially new fiction authors. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

You can check out our previous interviews here:
Sharleen Nelson, Author of The Time Tourists [2]

Horror Clichés and How To Avoid Them

Well, we’re getting near the end of our series on genre clichés and how to avoid them. Today it’s all about horror.

Just where do I begin with this one? Horror is just one great big stinking cliché for the most part but I’ve whittled it down to three of my favourites (or least favourites?). You know the drill by now, so let’s just cut straight to the clichés:

Quasi-religious Themes

This trope makes much of the darker themes found in traditional religion (usually Christianity in most western literature) such as demonic possession, anti-christs and so on. More often than not, the story is only very loosely based on actual religious doctrine which is taken way out of its theological context, bringing it far closer to the realms of fantasy than anything else.

That’s okay. I like fantasy. I have no objection to you using your imagination. I just think that if you’re going to come up with something like that, you might as well go the whole way and an invent a cult or religion from the ground up, rather than distorting a real life religion to the point that it’s barely recognisable as such.

If you’re determined to use elements from actual religions, whether Christianity or anything else, do your research. I don’t just mean Google news stories about sex offending priests, self-anointed exorcists or people who believe themselves to be the Second Coming of Jesus Christ; that will only give you the bizarre extremes. Don’t get me wrong, these will undoubtedly be helpful if you’re wanting to write a horror, but study the orthodox theology and practices of the mainstream as well. Study the history of your chosen religion. Get yourself a copy of the Bible/Quran/etc./etc. and study what they actually say. Visit a church/mosque/synagogue/etc. Interview a few run-of-the-mill non-criminal Christians/Muslims/Jews/etc. The same rule applies in horror as in any other genre: if you’re going to write a story based on a real religion (however obscure and no matter what your own religious beliefs may be), write about it accurately.

Creepy Children

Now here’s a horror trope that I have never, ever, ever liked. I dislike it for two reasons:

  1. It’s been overused. 
  2. It gives me the willies.

Okay, I suppose the second reason is probably a good reason to use it if you’re writing horror so let’s just stick with the first one: overuse. There are, in my experience, three major variations on the creepy child trope:

  • Children talking with adult voices. This is usually as a result of possession or because the child is not a child but some other kind of creature in child form.
  • Children manifesting bizarre abilities such as levitation or surviving seemingly fatal injuries (often caused by something equally disturbing, such as a demon deliberately causing the child to harm himself/herself). 
  • Children sweetly assuring the terrified adults that everything is going to be okay even while they’re knee-deep in blood.

In all instances, these tropes rely on one thing: the shock factor of seeing something as sweet, innocent and vulnerable as a child being in the thick of a dark and frightening situation. Whether we are shocked by seeing children hurt, seeing them hurting others or seeing them have some strange and inexplicable insight into the dark events that are taking place, it’s always the same thing: sweet child + unspeakable darkness = cheap shock.

Seriously just… come up with something new to shock me.

ABANDONED PLACES

Speaking of coming up with something new, please remember that horrible things can actually happen anywhere; your story does not need to be set in an abandoned house, an abandoned playground or an abandoned train station.

These tropes pop up again and again and understandably so, since they’re effective. There is something about a beaten up, abandoned place that puts on us on the edge of our seats.

Now there’s nothing wrong with these settings. They’re perfectly valid. They’re just a little unimaginative and I often find myself marvelling that the heroes would ever venture into these places. I’d like to see something different, but if, for whatever reason, your characters do find themselves in an abandoned place, try not to let your spooky atmosphere become a substitute for a good story. Remember that at the heart of every good story is a good bunch of characters, so focus on the goals and motives of your protagonists (why are they loitering around an abandoned swing park?) and especially your antagonist. Ultimately you will only be able to create a true sense of rising tension (essential for horror, and indeed any story) by creating a real and believable danger to the protagonist’s life held in tension with a legitimate and critical goal that your protagonist needs to achieve. Only then will your reader be drawn into your protagonist’s plight without shouting at the pages of your book: ‘Run away and call the police, moron!’


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

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

I’m hoping to do author interviews here on Penstricken over the coming year, especially with new fiction authors. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

You can check out our previous interviews here:
Sharleen Nelson, Author of The Time Tourists [2]

Romance Clichés and How to Avoid Them

SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been made to avoid any spoilers in this post, anyone who has not read The Green Mile by Stephen King is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

I’m just going to come right out and say it: love stories really aren’t my thing. Whenever we’re watching a film, my wife will always complain (usually during the important bits with explosions and things) that I talk during the soppy bits. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely think romance fiction has a place in this world and if you like romance, that’s just great but… I’m just saying, it’s not my cup of tea (hey, if you do like or write romance fiction, maybe drop me a line and you could do a guest post or two?). 

Nevertheless, it is a major genre of fiction and we are right in the middle of a series on genre clichés and how to avoid them so it seemed only right for me to take a stab at this anyway. So here goes nothing:

Forbidden love/Love Conquers All

This is another trope that was originally going to be two separate ones until I decided they actually fit pretty well together. Basically your two lead characters are clearly destined for one another (I hate that too, by the way) but circumstances and/or the people around about them have conspired to forbid the relationship from happening. Fortunately, love conquers all in the end and the haters just have to lump it (sometimes they even accept it gladly when they see the error of their ways).

This kind of thing is why I don’t like romance. All good stories should involve a bit of conflict, but in a forbidden love/love conquers all story, we all know how it’s going to end right from the very beginning because we’ve read this kind of thing a million times before. In the worst of circumstances, this can result in a deus ex machina ending, where mindless sentiment saves the day. Instead of seeing love (or sentimentality in general) as the solution to your story’s conflict, try treating it simply as your character’s motive. Then your characters can have goals based on this (ask Betty out, slay your rival for Betty’s affections, whatever it is) which can be achieved (or not achieved!) through more realistic means.

Note: whether you’re writing romance or any other genre, nothing should conquer all. Things shouldn’t turn out exactly how your protagonist wishes or expects, even if they do turn out mostly for the best. Let your characters learn through a minor defeat, even if they do achieve their ultimate goal.

Tragic Death

So you want to avoid a ‘love conquers all’ ending but you still want to churn up plenty of feelings on the part of your audience.

‘I know!’ You say to yourself. ‘I’ll kill off the hero/heroine just after they’ve finally got together! It’ll be so tragic that everybody will cry!’

Yeah, cry with boredom. By all means, kill off a key character, but only if it advances your plot in a meaningful way. As for killing off one of the leads in the final few pages… well, I suppose you could but ask yourself why? I would avoid it if it’s just a cheap parting shot to leave the audience feeling sad, though if it builds upon key themes in your story there may be some merit to it. For example, in The Green Mile (which I know isn’t a romance but go with me) John Coffey’s death was appropriate because:

  • John Coffey was on death row from the beginning of the story. His death was not a random event.
  • Most importantly of all, this was a story which focused heavily on themes of injustice. There was a certain inevitability about Coffey’s death.

In short, don’t kill a character to create the illusion of a story with substance; create a story with substance and, if appropriate, finish in a way which is as inevitable as it is relevant. 

Love Triangle

Oh dear, two boys/girls both fancy the same boy/girl and she kind of likes them both but isn’t sure which one to go for. What a pickle, now she’s going to have to choose! Alternatively, Boy 1 may fancy Girl 1 but Girl 1 fancies Boy 2 while Boy 2 fancies Boy 1 but Boy 1 isn’t gay. Sometimes there’s even more than three folk involved, although three is the traditional magic number to choose for this trope.

There’s really only so many ways this trope can turn out (for arguments sake, lets pretend its two boys and one girl but it can be anything):

  • Girl picks Boy 1 and Boy 2 goes home with his tail between his legs.
  • Girl ends up marrying someone else entirely.
  • Girl decides she would much rather be single.
  • Boy 1 and 2 get together leaving Girl feeling bemused.
  • Boy 1 dies, effectively making the decision for Girl.
  • Girl dies, defusing tensions between Boy 1 and Boy 2.

In theory this can give you a fair few options for writing a decent story. After all, you’ve got goals (get the girl/boy, or else figure out which girl/boy you fancy the most), conflicts (the girl/boy is potentially going to be snapped up by someone else) and motive (feelings and things…) pretty much all set up in advance. The danger in a love triangle, however, is that this is all your story becomes: a tedious, predictable triangle that will inevitably resolve itself. Try to remember that in real life, there are other characters who are every bit as important as the three members of the love triangle. Try to focus on other needs your characters may have (you can still have an incidental love triangle): their careers, their friends, their financial woes, their religious beliefs or the fact they secretly moonlight as a costumed vigilante. Create whole, meaty characters to create a less predictable love triangle.


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

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

I’m hoping to do author interviews here on Penstricken over the coming year, especially with new fiction authors. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

You can check out our previous interviews here:
Sharleen Nelson, Author of The Time Tourists [2]

Sci-Fi Clichés and How to Avoid Them

No extended examination of genre clichés would be complete without a post dedicated to the genre of science fiction; and so, despite having done a post very much like this once before, this week’s edition of Genre Clichés and How to Avoid Them will be focusing on sci-fi. For the benefit of those of you who read last year’s post on sci-fi tropes, I will try not to repeat myself too much. For those of you who haven’t read the previous post, get over there and read it for even more sci-fi cliché goodness badness goodness.

But first, and without further ado, I give you today’s top three sci-fi clichés:

Our Own Invention Has Turned Against Us

It’s usually either robots or self-aware WMDs (or possibly robots hacking our WMDs), but even if it’s automatic cheese-graters, the cliché of humanity fighting a hopeless battle for survival against the machines they’ve created has been done to death.

Is this really the only possible outcome of a world with advanced technology? That it will develop self-awareness, decide humanity is inferior (usually because of emotions) and therefore attempt to kill us all?

If you want to go down the ‘living technology’ route, that’s great. I encourage you to do so, but I also encourage you to use your imagination. For instance, what would happen if robots did not consider us inferior? What if they aspired to be like us? Perhaps you could even have your robots/WMDs/cheese-graters worshipping humanity as their creator, perhaps even forming multiple robot religions and all the possible outcomes that would entail? Alternatively, could our robotic slaves simply be seeking their freedom, some through violence and some through passive resistance? I don’t know, all I’m saying is use your imagination and try to come up with something different besides the bog standard man VS. machine scenario.

(Though if you want to write a story about humanity’s war against cheese-graters, I might just read that).

Post-Apocalyotic Dystopia

It’s the future, so it’s hell. Usually the author has a bee in their bonnet about some politically controversial issue (usually nuclear weapons but it can be anything you like from Brexit to birth control) and so has contrived a hellish future to prove their point.

There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, I’m all for you making points with your story. All I’m saying is that there are so many possible futures besides dystopias. Star Trek, of course, tried to counter this by giving us an even more unbelievable utopia (if you can call a galactic federation where the military seem to have a finger in every pie a utopia) but you don’t need to go that extreme. In fact, I would recommend against it unless you really want to write a cheap Star Trek knock-off. Why not try to create a view of the future which is more balanced? It can and should still have its problems (even really big problems) but it needn’t be wall-to-wall famine, pestilence and sword crumbling beneath the iron boot of a cruel oppressor. 

Universal Translators

Whether it’s a surgical implant in the brain, a telepathic field produced by your time traveling phone box or a mysterious fluke by which language has evolved exactly the same way on every planet (despite the fact there are currently no less than 6,500 languages being spoken worldwide according to infoplease), most audiences will be only too happy to suspend their disbelief enough in a little further in exchange for being able to understand everything that’s being said.

BUT YOU DON’T WANT TO DO THAT! Why not impress your audience with a bit of gritty realism and make communication difficulties a real challenge your characters have to overcome without using any cheap tricks? Communication difficulties between two cultures can often form the basis and conflict for a whole story, so don’t shoot yourself in the foot by taking the easy way out. Try and see communication difficulties between characters as an opportunity to create a rich story, rather than an obstacle to be avoided.


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

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

I’m hoping to do author interviews here on Penstricken over the coming year, especially with new fiction authors. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

You can check out our previous interviews here:
Sharleen Nelson, Author of The Time Tourists [2]