Throwback Thursday: What Do Your Characters Think of Each Other?

Originally published 19/02/2017

Think about someone you know well. Anyone. A friend, a relative, a colleague, anyone. I bet if I asked you what that person was like, you would be able to easily give me your opinion on what sort of person they are.

John? Oh, he’s loud-mouthed, arrogant and opinionated. He’s not a bad person but he’s a real pain to be around…

Jeanie? She’s the most beautiful creature I’ve ever laid eyes on but she’s a liar and a thief. I wouldn’t turn my back on her. 

Willy? Nice guy I suppose, doesn’t say much (but let me tell you, he’s got the sharpest wit you’ve ever come across).

Now ask yourself… would that person’s own mother sum them up the same way you did? What about their spouse? Their boss? Their arch-nemesis? Even though you see John as loud-mouthed, the chances are his mother would focus on some other, more positive qualities, such as how kind-hearted he is. If John has a wife, she would be more likely to emphasis his physical attractiveness than his mother would (or, perhaps, she thinks he’s a lazy good-for-nothing and she can’t believe she married him).

As we all know, characters are the beating heart of any good story. However, no character is an island. How they respond to other characters is often essential in making your plot work (indeed, this arguably is your plot), so don’t be fooled into thinking it’s obvious how your characters will respond to one another. Just because you would respond in a particular way to Character A doesn’t mean that Character B will respond to Character A in the same way you would. Even though you, as the author, know all the facts about all of your characters, you’ll still have your own narrow opinion about what sort of person they are just the same as anyone else. That is why it is vital to know what every character thinks about every other character if you want to create a rich, vibrant and believable story.

Fortunately, it’s easy to do this. Here’s how I like to do it:

Start with a nice blank page. For me, it’s a separate document in my Scrivener project, but whatever floats your boat is fine (if you’re writing on paper, I would strongly recommend having plenty to spare; this could take up a few pages, especially if you’ve got a lot of characters). Now we make a table, as I’ve illustrated below, with as many rows as you have characters and two columns. Only the top row should have a single column, as this will act as a header. In this header, we write the name of the character we are wanting to find out about; Mr. Protagonist, for instance. In the cells below this, we ask every other character in the story for their opinion on Mr Protagonist. I find the easiest way to do this is to write out the answer in their voice, as if they were speaking to me. Even though I’ve only included two other characters to show you how it works, I would recommend you have a much larger table which includes every character in your story so that you get the most out of it.

Mr. Protagonist
Baron Antagonist Mr. Protagonist is a meddler and a constant thorn in my side. We were friends growing up but it is clear now he does not understand the great work I am doing here. His table manners are appalling but he has great taste in single malts.
Lady Loveinterest Mr. Protagonist is ruggedly handsome. His personality is quite charming, if a little brash and uncouth. He has a fiercely righteous (if misguided) streak which almost makes up for his poor breeding. Unfortunately, he drinks a little too much.

Once you’ve done it, repeat the process for all of your other characters.

Baron Antagonist
Mr. Protagonist Baron Antagonist is a snake-in-the-grass. He acts all sophisticated and like he’s everybody’s friend so that he’s got the whole world wrapped around his finger. How do you expose a guy like that? Even the king’s daughter has agreed to marry him. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he beat her.
Lady Loveinterest Baron Antagonist is a great man; a real visionary and a man who knows how to get things done. He’s got the patience of a saint too. I can see Mr. Protagonist irks him sometimes but he has never lost his temper with him, not once. Mr. Protagonist is fortunate to have a friend like the Baron.

Do you see how this can help you to gain a much deeper and fuller understanding of all your characters and the threads of friendship, enmity, mistrust and devotion which bind them together in an elaborate web which I like to call a “Story”?

If you really want to go the extra mile, why not throw in an extra row on each table telling us what each character thinks about themselves?

Mr. Protagonist
Mr. Protagonist I’m a cook and an employee of my former friend, Baron Antagonist. I have to say, I feel a bit out of place living in such a splendid house. The other servants don’t talk to me ’cause I don’t live in the servants quarters. I think that’s why anyway. But I’m more a man of their stripe than the Baron’s. I wish they could see that.
Lady Loveinterest Mr. Protagonist is ruggedly handsome….

Not only is all of this an effective means of fleshing out your story, it can actually be a pretty darn effective means of coming up with a story idea, similar to (in fact, arguably better than) auditioning characters. The above example, for instance, is only that: an example. I made it up as I was going along purely for your benefit. And yet, without intending it, I actually found myself getting quite involved in the story – a story which did not exist before I started filling in those tables. The embryo of a plot began to form in my mind as I learned more and more about each character from the lips of those people who knew them best. Who are these three people? What is the Baron’s ‘great work’ and why is Mr. Protagonist so distrustful of him? Will Mr. Protagonist ever get together with the slightly snobby Lady Loveinterest?

Give it a bash. I think you’ll find it helpful.


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 TwitterPinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

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ATTENTION AUTHORS:

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

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

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

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Christmas Eve: A Short Story

Well it’s Christmas on Wednesday so that can only mean one thing: it’s time for a Christmas themed short story! I’m not overly thrilled with how this turned out but as it’s now the last Sunday before Christmas, we’ll just have to make do.

As ever, the following story is entirely my own work and has never been previously published anywhere else in the world, whether in print or online, nor do I ever expect it to be. It’s a little bit longer than my usual posts but what the heck.

And so without further ado, I give you:


Christmas Eve

by A. Ferguson

Karen inhaled a sharp drag on her cigarette, holding the burning toxic fumes in her chest for as long as she could before letting them out in one shuddering breath on the snowy rooftops below.

It was freezing. Karen had sworn she’d never do another Christmas Eve again but that man… that stupid idiot man.

‘I wish you wouldn’t smoke, dear. What if someone sees?’

‘It’s your fault I’m here at all.’

‘The little children, dearest, they look up to me; to us.’

She chanced a glance at Santa. His brilliant red jacket was now a patchwork of soot stains and there was a fresh tear in the shoulder.

‘Yeah.’ Karen grunted, stealing one last drag before stamping the cigarette underfoot. ‘Well. Can I go now?’

‘Ah, well, I wonder…’

‘What?’ Karen grunted.

‘It’s just the old knee, my dear. Dr. Jones said I should rest it but when you pulled me out–‘

‘I told you not to use the chimneys this year!’ Karen snapped. ‘I don’t know why I waste my breath talking to you.’

‘I’ve only got Glasgow and Falkirk to go, you’ll be home in an hour.’

‘Am I just free labour to you, is that why you married me? Dragging me out of bed on Christmas Eve–‘

‘Please Karen, it’s for the children. They’ll be so disappointed on Christmas morning if Santa hasn’t been.’ He implored.

‘Like I’ve been every Christmas I’ve had since I met you.’ She muttered, trying to seem indifferent to what the children wanted.

Santa didn’t say anything, but she could see he was hurt.

‘Fine, whatever.’ She huffed, climbing into his sleigh and taking the reins. ‘Are you able to get home in my sleigh okay?’

‘I’ll manage.’ He said. 

‘Well mind and call if you can’t–’

‘I’ll be fine. See you when you get back.’

‘Please yourself.’ Karen snapped and with a sharp crack on the reigns she took off into the snowy night sky.

🎅 🎅 🎅

Karen muttered profanities to herself as she stuffed yet another oversized stocking (this one belonging to someone called Adam Forrester) with gifts and chocolates.

That man! This was what her life had become. Stockings, presents, Christmas trees and clambering up and down chimneys. It was all he cared about.

Exhausted from her work, she sat down on a nearby armchair. A plastic, cartoon portrait of her good-for-nothing husband grinned back at her from the opposite wall. On the coffee table, a small plate of mince pies sat beside a raw carrot and a glass of milk. Karen shuddered. How long had it been sitting there?

She looked at the clock on the mantle. Half past four. Enough time for a quick one.

Rummaging around in her pocket, she pulled out her cigarettes and lit one, trying to relax on the unfamiliar armchair, taking the mince pies off the plate and lifting the plate onto her lap to use as an ashtray.

Seventeen years of her life she’d wasted, married to a man who cared more about other people’s children than about her and about their children, not that they had any. He’d swept her off her feet that fateful morning seventeen years ago, when she interrupted him filling her stocking. He whisked her away for a midnight journey around the world in his sleigh and she helped deliver presents to all the children in the world. Afterward they returned to her place and shared a mince pie before he suddenly announced the sun was rising and he had to leave.

She couldn’t let him. She was young, starstruck and there was such an obvious and irresistible chemistry between them that she went with him. She married him and, for a while, life was one big festive adventure but now… now she was trapped in the dwindling hours of an everlasting Christmas evening, when the presents are all unwrapped and the turkey is all gone and the tree doesn’t seem to sparkle quite as brightly as it did a few hours before. That was her life, all year round with him locked up in his workshop most of the year then expecting everyone to jump to his command come December. The sleigh was just a mode of transport now. Giving gifts to other people’s children was nice but it wasn’t quite enough and whenever she tried to talk about starting their own family, he would find some excuse to change the subject or–

‘Who are you?’ 

Karen nearly fell off the armchair as she smashed the cigarette furiously into the plate. There was a man in the doorway, presumably Adam Forrester. He was a little younger than Karen, perhaps, but not by much, maybe early thirties. He didn’t look particularly bothered to find a stranger in his living room.

Of course not. He was expecting one.

‘The first openly female Santa.’ Karen grunted.

‘Are you Mrs. Claus?’ 

‘Karen.’ She grunted. ‘Karen Claus. You’re supposed to be sleeping.’

‘Couldn’t sleep.’ Adam said, matter-of-factly. ‘Too excited. I love Christmas.’

Karen snorted. ‘You’re worse than my husband.’

‘Don’t you like Christmas?’

‘Every day is Christmas with us.’ Karen snorted. ‘This is just work. His work. Only reason I’m here is he got stuck in a chimney earlier and hurt himself.’

‘Oh, so you get lumbered with it whenever he’s not well?’

‘I don’t mind doing it.’ Karen said. ‘It’s great giving gifts to all the children and everything, it’s just…’ Karen paused, hunting for the right word.

‘Christmas isn’t Christmas anymore.’ Adam finished for her. ‘Like you said, it’s work. His work.’

‘Yeah. Exactly.’

‘You wanna talk about it? I know we don’t know each other but if you want to let off steam or…’

Karen sighed. ‘That’s very kind but there’s nothing to tell. I’ll tell you this though, one day you’re gonna meet someone and you’ll think to yourself, “that’s it, this is the One for me!”, ‘cause there’s so much chemistry between you and you think he’ll make all your wildest dreams come true. But you can’t live like that…’ Karen looked in her cigarette box. It was empty. ‘You marry someone like that and you realise what’s really important to you. Not the sleigh rides or the presents or the fact he can do magic. Boring stuff, like raising a family and knowing he cares about you more than all that other stuff; Christmas, or whatever it is makes him feel good about himself.’

‘I guess being married to Santa must be a bit like being married to a celebrity.’ Adam mused. ‘Christmas is what he is and everyone loves him for it, expects it from him. And you just get absorbed into all that whether you like it or not.’

‘Yeah.’ Karen said. ‘Yeah, exactly. So now it’s all just Christmas this, Christmas that, all year round. It’s not magical anymore, but it’s not quite a proper life either. And that’s what I want, a proper life. I love Santa but I want a normal life too. I want to get excited about Christmas like a normal person and and see my own children getting excited about it every year instead of just standing in the background making Christmas fun for strangers

‘You know, we had this big fight last Christmas. Something that was important to me but he didn’t want to know. After that he spent all year locked up in his workshop, hardly came out at all, just says he’s gotta get ready for Christmas.’

Karen exhaled sharply through her nose. She looked down at her hands and tugged at the fingers of her gloves.

‘You know what? No, I don’t like Christmas, not any more.’

Adam didn’t say anything. She looked up to see him, focusing intently on her with genuine concern on his face. He seemed like a kind man.

‘Look, never mind about me.’ Karen said, rising to her feet slightly embarrassed by her own catharsis. ‘Tell you what, since you love Christmas so much, why don’t I give you a quick ride in the sleigh? Just to say thank you.’

Adam’s eyes lit up. ‘Really? Well… yes! Oh, I’d love that.’

Karen smiled, feeling a whole lot lighter than she did half an hour ago. ‘Get your coat. It’s chilly out.’

🎅 🎅 🎅

The sleigh ride did not last long. It was too close to daybreak to take Adam beyond his own city. There was a tiny chink of light on the farthest point of the horizon when Karen and Adam landed back on Adam’s rooftop and Karen couldn’t help feeling disappointed it was over.

‘Well,’ Adam said without rising up from the sleigh. ‘Thanks for a wonderful night.’

‘No, thank you for listening to me. For understanding.’ Karen said.

Adam smiled and Karen felt her heart skip a beat.

‘Well,’ She said, business-like. ‘You’d better get to bed or Santa won’t come.’

Adam took a long time to clamber out of the sleigh. When he finally did get out, he walked around the sleigh to be as close to her as possible.

‘You want to come in for a coffee or something?’ He asked.

Yes. Yes, I do.

‘I can’t, Adam.’ She said, feeling sick. ‘The sun’s coming up, I have to get back.’

‘Before you turn into a pumpkin?’

‘Something like that.’ She grimaced.

‘Alright.’ He said, taking a single, very small step back from the sleigh.

‘Goodnight, Adam.’ She said, cracking the reigns hard to return to Santa.

🎅 🎅 🎅

The sun was just beginning to rise over the snowy Korvatunturian landscape when Karen landed the sleigh in front of the quaint log cabin which was their private residence. Smoke puffed happily from the chimney and a warm glow from the windows gently illumined the snowy ground but she felt more miserable than ever. Two serious faced elves met the sleigh as soon as she arrived, taking charge of the reindeer, allowing her to go immediately to the house.

Inside it was quiet, though the hallway was warm. He was up, but she just wanted to go to bed and forget about the last twenty-four hours.

‘Is that you dearest?’ 

Karen swore under he breath.

‘I’m going to bed.’ She called back. 

‘But it’s Christmas!’ He called back. Karen heard his heavy footfalls coming towards the hall. A moment later, he appeared in the living room door, wearing those ridiculous red and white pyjamas. ‘Maybe Santa’s been!’

‘I live with Santa. It’s nothing new.’ She grunted, walking past him to the stairs but he gently took her hand and stopped her.

‘Karen, please.’ He said in a softer voice. ‘Come and see.’

‘Can I have a fag?’

Santa winced.

‘Fine.’ Karen sighed. ‘But then I’m going to bed.’

Santa stepped back from the living room door, making a grand gesture of inviting her into the room. ‘Of course.’ He said solemnly.

Karen entered the living room, a little surprised and even a touch disappointed to find it unchanged. Warm, cozy, with a fire blazing in the hearth and the same small bundle of presents under the oversized Christmas tree. Instead of going to the presents, however, Santa crossed the living room towards his workshop and stood beside the door.

‘In here.’ He said, gesturing to the closed door. ‘Merry Christmas.’

Karen regarded him suspiciously and felt an unwanted smile begin to force itself upon the corners of her mouth. ‘What is it?’ She asked, as disdainfully as she could.

‘Your main present,’ he said. ‘From your husband.’

Karen approached the workshop and pushed the door open. She seldom ventured here herself. It was always full of mess and business as Santa and his elves worked furiously preparing all the toys and gifts for the following Christmas. Something she had lost all interest in.

She could hardly believe her eyes when she opened the door. All of the workbenches, machinery and magical paraphernalia were gone. There were no elves and no mess. The entire room had been redecorated from top to bottom in soft pastel shades. On one side of the room, there was a white chest of drawers with soft edges and bulbous, rubbery handles. A similarly styled wardrobe stood directly beside it. There was a large selection of soft toys populating the top of the drawers. The windows were covered with pastel blue blackout curtains which prevented any sunlight from getting into the room. There was a white lampshade with tiny little reindeers dangling from the light, casting reindeer shaped shadows all around the room. On the far side of the room, there was a simple white wooden cot and a baby changing station. Karen was speechless.

‘Like it?’

‘Where’s the workshop?’ Karen gasped.

‘Dismantled.’ Santa said. ‘I’ve decided to advertise for someone else to take over. They can have it all. I thought about what you said last Christmas and you were right.’

Karen looked up at her husband, his face uncharacteristically serious though not stern.

‘I’ve been too absorbed in my work. I’ve just been doing it so long, it’s become my life. So it’s time to retire. To focus on our family.’ He nodded into the workshop-turned-nursery. ‘I know this doesn’t make up for everything but-’

‘But it’s a start.’ Karen said, nodding. ‘And I’m sorry. For everything.’

‘So…’ Santa said. ‘Not a disappointing Christmas this year, then?’

‘No.’ She said. ‘I think this is going to be the best Christmas ever.’

THE END

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 TwitterPinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

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ATTENTION AUTHORS:

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

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

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Throwback Thursday: The Martian's Revenge

Originally published: 06/12/2015

I may have previously mentioned that there are few things stimulate creativity in writing quite like a deadline. If you’re like me, you’ll probably have multiple competitions and other deadlines on the go at once and will be heavily reliant on your calendar to keep you on track.

Of course, that only works if you put the correct date in your calendar. What follows is a story I had written for a 50-word story competition which had to be set in my native Scotland. I was never very happy with this story, but being keen to meet the deadline I persevered with it anyway and was just about to submit it when… disaster! I had put the wrong date in my calendar! I have missed the deadline!

Not wanting to waste all the effort and frustration I went to, I’ve decided to post it here instead. I wanted to make it stand out from the other competition entries and given that it had to be set in Scotland I thought perhaps a  Scottish sci-fi/murder mystery might be the way to go. Just to give you a little context if you’re not Scottish, the chip shops here sell deep-fried Mars bars. Bear that in mind.

The Martian’s Revenge
by A. Ferguson

DCI Mcleod had never seen anything like it. The chippie’s owner lay dead, his head submerged in the fryer. Witnesses claimed they saw a tall green man burst from the chippie carrying armfuls of Mars bars, who fled the scene in a strange car which literally flew into the night.


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 TwitterPinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

Want a blog of your own? Start writing today with WordPress.com!

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ATTENTION AUTHORS:

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

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

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Throwback Thursday: A Colourful Approach to Brainstorming

Originally published: 04/12/2016

One of the most effective ways to generate ideas, in almost any creative sphere, is to get together with a bunch of other folk and brainstorm together. It’s a time honoured tradition of mixing creative, imaginative, rational, critical minds together and coming with and developing a truly unique and superior idea. Unfortunately, writing is a pretty solitary business most of the time. But today, I want to introduce you to one of the most valuable tools I have in my writer’s utility belt; a tool which has allowed me to single handily harness (at least some of) the magic of brainstorming with others:

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you, The Bic 4-Colour Ballpoint Pen*.

Four colours in one pen!

I know what you’re thinking. Ancient technology. Humble. Boring. Run of the mill. You’ve probably got one yourself that you never use. Your kids have probably got one too. But trust me on this, it’s proven a great help to me whenever I’ve been trying to come up with new story ideas on my own (and you can use it during a power cut!).

It’s quite a simple technique really. First, grab a notebook that you don’t mind scribbling all your loose ideas into (seriously, we are not interested in presentation here). Second, grab your Pen of Many Colours. From now on, each colour represents a person in your ‘group’, and these will interact with one another. There are four members in my imaginary group because there are four colours on my pen (although if your pen has more colours, I suppose you could have more. Whatever works for you). In my case, they are organised something like this:

Black – Chairman (doesn’t really serve a creative function; I just use it for headers etc. although you might find another use for it).
Green – Creator
Blue – Questioner
Red – Critic

Now, since there’s not really a group of four people involved in this process, it’s important to remember one thing: you must write down everything that occurs to you. No matter how good or bad it is, you must write down everything or this won’t work.

So we begin by bringing the meeting to order. This is the main time I use the black tip. I write a header, which specifically establishes what it is I am trying to accomplish, to give some kind of focus to the session. I also include the date, but that’s just to make it easier to find again. If I’m brainstorming a brand new story idea, I might also write down other details such as intended audience etc. For instance, my most recent one reads:

‘Untitled Sci-fi Novel – Minor Antagonist Ideas – 30/11/16’

Great! I now know what it is I’m trying to create: a minor antagonist (though you could use it to generate ideas for anything, even a whole new story). Now the other three colours come into play. I tend to flick between the three of them frequently throughout the process (that just means it’s working) so what order they get used in is both unpredictable and ultimately, not relevant. All that matters is that they are all used to their fullest capacity.

For instance, whenever I have a creative idea – good or bad – it gets written down in green. Every single idea without exception, even if I know it is never going to work in a month of Sundays. It gets written down in green. The reason for this is that I usually have multiple ideas and it’s not always clear which ones will work the best, or if any of them will work at all. That doesn’t matter for Mr. Green Tip, however. Mr. Green Tip’s sole function in life is to record every single idea that pops into my head, no matter how awful.

The blue tip has a related, though somewhat different function. It asks questions of my previous ideas and prompts me to come up with new ones. For example, in my most recent session, I had the idea that ‘the minor antagonist could be a friend of the protagonist who betrays him’. Written underneath it says, ‘Why would he do this?’. After all, there’s nothing wrong with the idea but in order to function within my story, this question really needs to be answered. If I can’t answer it at this stage, you can bet your life my readers will be wondering about it too.

Asking this question then prompted further ideas, such as conflicting political beliefs or that he might see the protagonist as a rival for the affections of his love-interest. This prompted even more questions and more ideas.

Another use for the blue tip is to ask ‘what if?’ style questions, again, to provoke ideas. This is a really great thing to do if you’re stuck in a rut. ‘What if the antagonist were agoraphobic?’ for instance or ‘what if the protagonist were thirty years older?’. Asking these kinds of questions pushes your imagination in directions it might not otherwise go.

Of course, with all these ideas flying around, we really need someone to separate the wheat from the chaff. This is where the red tip comes into its own. It is used to judge every idea and decide what can and should be used. If there are any problems to be found with any of my ideas, no matter how insurmountable or minor these problems may be, they get noted in red. The result of this is that I will either come up with a new and improved version of the original idea or that I will abandon the idea altogether and come up with a brand new one. For instance, underneath my aforementioned idea that the antagonist could be a rival for a love-interests affections, it says in red ‘We’re trying to write a YA sci-fi/thriller, not a soap opera’. I therefore abandoned that idea and went along with a better one I’d had.

I don’t know how likely it is that you will find this exact process useful. I hope you will at least find the basic premise of it useful. Goodness knows I’ve read up on countless approaches to brainstorming, planning, writing and everything else besides and if there’s one  thing I’ve discovered, it’s that no two authors approach writing in quite the same way, so I strongly encourage you to tinker with it until you get the approach that works for you. Maybe you need more colours. Maybe the whole thing is of no use to you. I don’t know. But this works for me, and I hope, dear reader, that you will be at least able to glean something from it to aid in the creative process.

*other multi-coloured ballpoints are available.


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 TwitterPinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

Want a blog of your own? Start writing today with WordPress.com!

WordPress.com Jetpack WooCommerce

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

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

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

You can check out our previous interviews here:

6 ‘Six Word Stories’ for the 6th (Vol. V)

Well, it’s Sunday the 6th of October 2019 and that can only mean one thing: another thrilling instalment [2] [3] [4] of 6 ‘Six Word Stories’ for the 6th.

You all know the rules by now. I roll six story dice and I use these to inspire six stories, all exactly six words long, then you guys come along and post your far superior efforts in the comments section. So here goes nothing:

Iacta ālea est.

  • Caught the lifebouy. Saved the dog.
  • Removed the prickles. Lost the cactus.
  • I was dead and am alive.
  • Reading ‘Final Demand’, eating final breakfast.
  • Halloween: masked thief escaped into crowd.
  • FAULTY HAT COMMENCES 823bn RABBIT APOCALYPSE.

Phew! That turned out to be trickier than I thought (especially that ruddy cactus, didn’t have a clue what to do with that one).

Here’s an idea. Since I know you’re all better writers than I am, why don’t you try coming up with your own six word stories based on the above stimuli (or based on something else, I’m easy) and share in the comments below so we can all see how it’s really done?

Until next time!


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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:

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]

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]

6 ‘Six Word Stories’ for the 6th (Vol. IV)

It’s that time again! Sunday the 6th only ever means one thing here at Penstricken: another exciting instalment [2] [3] of 6 ‘Six Word Stories’ for the 6th.

You all know the rules by now. I roll six story dice and I use these to inspire six stories, all exactly six words long, then you guys come along and post your far superior efforts in the comments section. So here goes nothing:

Mad Axe Murderer Exonerated Post Execution

Mushroom cloud, nuclear winter, the end.

Slew the sheriff, saved the maiden.

‘Sorry I missed you.
– The Cat’

Downloaded Treasure Island for free.

… … What?

‘I was tired of giving in.’


Well, that one was even tougher than usual but I’m sure you’ll do better!
Just use the stimuli above to come up with six ‘six word stories’ of your own and share them in the comments below.

We’ll do it all again on the 6th of October!


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 tickles your toes.

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]

7 Useful Posts on Fiction and Writing

Some weeks you just can’t think of anything clever or interesting to blog about the internet is just teeming with so many useful blog posts about fiction and writing that I just have to share some of them with you.

Well, this has been one of those weeks, so it’s time for another exciting instalment of ‘Useful Posts on Fiction and Writing’ [2] [3] [4] [5] [6]. I have scoured WordPress for the last few days, searching out some of the most useful, entertaining or insightful posts on the subject of story writing and have compiled them here for your enjoyment.

And so, without further ado and in no particular order– here they are:

‘NaNo or Nah?’ by TGM.admin

‘How I Conquered Writer’s Block: A Return to Writing, Fiction, and Fun’ by Cococatani

‘Fast Fiction by Mason Hawker

‘Unlock the Muse – October 24, 2018’ by TAwrites

‘5 More Outlining Methods for Your Novel’ by Rachel Poli

‘Captain’s Log – Personal Update’ by Robin Sarty

‘#NaNoWriMo Prep: Setting Up Your Story Bible | #amwriting #NaNo2018’ by Kaye Dacus


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you’ve any more suggestions for good time-wasting websites, I’m sure there’s many a bored or frustrated writer out there would love to hear about it, so why not post some of your favourites in the comments 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 roasts your pig.

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]