App Review: Storywriter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟

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

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


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

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]

On Character Traits

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: characters are the beating heart of every good story. Show me a good story with bad characters and I’ll show you a liar. There is a direct correlation between the quality of a story and the quality of its characters. Good characters are not optional. They are essential.

Are we all agreed on that?

Good. Go to the back of the class if you said ‘no’.

Now I know what you’re thinking: what makes a good character? Well, there’s quite a few things, but if you really want to write a character of substance, you’ll need to give him a few key traits. At their most basic level, a character’s traits can be defined simply as a list of a few critical adjectives which describe the sort of person your character is; for example, cowardly, obliging, sarcastic, compassionate, devout, holier-than-thou, etc. We’re not interested in physical descriptions here, nor are we interested in their thoughts or feelings at any particular point. We want to know what sort of person they are. If you don’t know what I mean, just think about someone you know well; a friend, relative or colleague. Ask yourself what sort of person they are.

‘John is really obnoxious.’

‘Susan is kindhearted.’

‘Peter is fly.’

These are all traits. They are fundamental to a character’s personality and will usually remain consistent throughout the story (with perhaps just a little wiggle room for growth). If you’re struggling, just Google ‘list of character traits’, you’ll find that the internet is simply teeming with lists of character traits that you can easily pick up and apply to your characters. It’s entirely up to you how many you choose, but I tend to go for nine traits for each major character: three positive traits (e.g.: generous), three neutral traits (e.g.: whimsical) and three negative traits (e.g.: censorious).

‘Sounds simple enough… ‘ I hear you cry, with a note of caution in your voice. And you’re right! It is simple. But there’s a way to do it and there’s a way not to do it.

Detailing your entire plot (or worse, writing an entire draft) and then deciding on your characters traits based on what happens to your character throughout your story is how not to do it. This will result in flat, predictable characters around whom the whole world seems to revolve.

Real people aren’t like that. The sun shines on the righteous and the wicked– and on the zealous, the pious, the pitiable and the proud. Life happens to people regardless of what sort of people they are, and we all deal with each situation in our own way, based on the sort of person we are. Therefore, if you take my advice, you’ll sketch out your characters’ key traits before you begin any detailed plotting or drafting, even if you’re a pantser. And stick to the traits you decide on, no matter what events befall your character. These traits will help to define every choice your character makes, everything they say and, perhaps more importantly, how and why they do/say it.

Try to be adventurous when it comes to selecting character traits. Even pick a few traits entirely at random (yep, there are places online you can do that too) and work with whatever you end up with. Don’t worry if the traits you end up with seem contradictory. Real people are full of contradiction too! This will only enrich your character and you can always smooth out any rough edges that seriously impinge upon your story later if you absolutely have to.

When you finally do come to draft your story, be sure to keep your characters’ traits in mind at all times but do not explicitly state your characters’ traits in the narrative (e.g.: ‘Dave was an evasive and brusque man’). Let your reader get to know Dave by experiencing Dave, not simply being told about Dave. Portraying a character’s traits is a subtle balancing act, where you drip feed your reader just the right quantities of each trait at the right time. You don’t need to bring them all out in equal measure all the time, however I would advise making a character’s fundamental traits fairly clear from the get-go. Even shifty, unreliable characters can be portrayed as such through voice and body language. Let’s think about Dave again. Dave’s a bit of an enigmatic fellow. No one really quite knows what he’s planning, whose side he’s on or what his true intentions are. You can portray this to the reader simply by making him guarded or abrupt in his dialogue.

‘Up to much this weekend?’ Pete asked, pulling on his coat and switching off the office lamp.

‘Nothing much.’ Dave sniffed.

‘Why don’t you come over on Sunday? Susie’s doing Sunday dinner and she always makes enough for ten–‘

‘Sorry Pete,’ Dave interrupted. ‘Maybe another week, I can’t this week.’

‘We never seem to see you anymore, is everything okay?’

‘Fine. Just busy that’s all.’

Thus the mystery is not only preserved, but it is also enhanced, because it makes the reader want to know more. Is Dave out killing people at the weekend? Has he got some illicit love affair on the go somewhere? Does he simply dread socialising? We don’t know. One thing we do know: Dave is evasive and Dave is brusque. The narrative doesn’t say it. Dave just is evasive and brusque. Experiment with using characters’ actions and dialogue and especially body language and voice to portray your characters’ traits and you’ll have a vibrant and distinctive bunch of characters before you know it.


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

Until next time!

ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

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

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

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

Juggling Multiple Writing Projects

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

Plod, plod… plod…

But then suddenly:

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

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

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

But will it?

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Until next time!

ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

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

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

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

Pants, Plants and Plans: A Beginner’s Guide

If you’re the sort of person who spends a lot of time reading up on story writing, you’ve probably heard myself or other writing bloggers talk about the differences between planners, pantsers and plantsers. It’s a spectrum we writers are all spread out across, separating those on the one extreme who plan everything before they write from those who pants their way through their story (that is, they write ‘by the seat of their pants’, making up the story as they go along with absolutely no forward planning whatsoever). And of course, slap bang in the middle of the spectrum, we have Plantsers (because it’s a combination of the words ‘planner’ and ‘pantser’, see?).

We all naturally gravitate to one side or another on this spectrum. However that doesn’t mean we can’t choose to plan, pant or plant even if it doesn’t come naturally to us. After all, we might be tempted to think that one method is inherently better than the others, and that we should try this.

We might even be right. For my money, I think there are some situations where planning is more appropriate and others where pantsing is more appropriate. I’m not going to tell you categorically that any one method is better than another* but there are pros and cons to each. If you’re struggling with whatever method comes naturally to you, it may be time to try a different approach. And so, what follows is my own short and ill-informed concise analysis of each approach, comparing pros and cons as evenly as I can.

Planning

Strengths: Planning everything in advance saves buckets of time. If you already know exactly what is going to happen, how it’s going to happen and who it’s going to happen to, all neatly ordered into chapters and scenes, you won’t waste time writing lengthy portions of narrative you won’t use. You can also rest easy in the knowledge that your first draft won’t have too many large plot holes to sort out.

This makes it easy to work to a schedule. If you know you can knock out 1000 words a day, you can reasonably well estimate that it will take you about three months to complete a draft, especially in those first drafts, because you won’t get stuck about what to write.

Weaknesses: it’s easily the most strict approach to writing. The writer must be disciplined enough 1) not to begin writing a draft too earlier and 2) not to deviate from the plan when he does start drafting. This does not suit everybody. Many authors find it sucks the pleasure out of writing and stifles the imagination, as new ideas insist on being heard throughout the writing process.

Tips for Planning: Be disciplined. Plan everything and resist the urge to draft until you have completed all your chapter outlines, character biographies, the lot. When you finally do begin to draft, don’t deviate from the plan. Add nothing, change nothing, remove nothing. Write it exactly as you planned it. Remember, dear planner, you’re not making art. You’re constructing an intricate machine.

Pantsing

Strengths: This approach to writing allows the imagination to run wild. Most people who write stories tend to do it because they’re people who like to dream, to create and to give artist form to their flights of fancy. Pantsing lets you do just that. I often find that, while pantsing can produce a lot of excess material, some of it can even be later recycled to create a whole new story. Many of my story ideas have come from material I rejected while pantsing an earlier work.

Weaknesses: If you’re serious about writing for any reason other than as a hobby, you will probably find this approach seriously undermines your productivity and success, especially if you’re writing anything longer than a short story. Pantsing out a novel length story in a couple of months is easy in theory but it is doomed to be full of half baked themes, plot holes and other inconsistencies that will need to be fixed before they can pass over any agent or publisher’s desk. You may find yourself virtually starting from scratch when you come to do your second draft, assuming you ever reach the second draft stage.

Tips for Pantsing: Don’t get too attached to your work. A draft that has been fully pantsed will require a lot more editing than a meticulously planned draft. While killing your darlings is always good advice for any writer, pantsers will probably find themselves producing a lot more darlings (because their imagination has been given unlimited credit in the sweetie shop) that have to be killed (because their story will be full of things that simply don’t work).

Plantsing

Strengths: Plantsers have the best of both worlds. They are anchored to a plan but they are not enslaved to it. If the author wants to make changes halfway through writing their draft, or if they identify problems with their story, they can simply adjust the plan as they go along. The imagination is thereby given space to work but is also kept under a tight leash.

Weaknesses: It’s probably the hardest method to strike the correct balance with, even if you do find yourself naturally gravitating towards it. Planners know to write nothing until their story is fully planned out and pantsers don’t give a rip if their story doesn’t make sense in the first draft, but plantsers must learn to bring these two extremes together and make them work in harmony. It is difficult to create a systematic approach to plantsing and will be largely figured out by trial and error. This can be time consuming and frustrating.

Tips for Plantsing: Plantsing is not creating a plan then disregarding it, nor is it writing a draft then making a plan around it. Both of these are a waste of time. Plantsing involves blending these two seeming opposites in a way which allows you to work to your strengths, while still enjoying the benefits of both extremes. For example, you might pants out a few zero drafts to stimulate your imagination while you plan. Alternatively you might create a very loose-fitting plan (story beats for example, but no chapter outlines) and pants out your novel within the boundaries of that limited plan. You might also decide to forsake character biographies in favour of conducting several ‘interviews’ or ‘auditions’ with your characters to help you get to know them better. The possibilities are truly endless when it comes to plantsing. My best advice is to spend a little time finding an approach which works for you.

Footnotes:

*I know what you’re thinking: ‘if he’s going to be so unbiased in his approach, why has he only got pants in the featured image and nothing else?’ Well the short answer is I just couldn’t find a single picture on the internet which depicted a plan, a pair of pants and a potted plant so I had to pick one. I picked pants because pants are funnier. Sue me.


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

Until next time!

ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

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

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

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

Writing a Second Draft When You’re a Plantser

‘But how many drafts should I write?’ … The short and somewhat glib answer is, ‘as many as it takes’

(A. Ferguson 2017, ‘How Many Drafts Should I Write?’).

About a year ago, I had this great idea for a novel which I was really excited about. In fact, I was so excited about it and the idea worked so well that I produced a first draft in virtually no time. Seriously, I’ve never known productivity like it.

Of course, it wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t supposed to be; it was only a first draft. That’s why we have second drafts. They give us an opportunity to take our original, crumby story and turn it into a good story by fixing all the problems with characters, plot, theme, world-building and all that sort of stuff, so I wasn’t worried. In fact, I was downright enthusiastic. Even before I sat down to study my first draft, my head was already bursting with ideas for how I was going to improve upon my initial effort. Oh yes, this second draft was going to be a doozy alright.

Well that was about six months ago; and let me tell you, it’s been a tough six months for writing. I haven’t even come close to finishing this second draft yet, and I now know why. It hadn’t been for a lack of trying. I’d been diligently working to wheedle out all the little problems with my story before launching in to the writing stage and, for the most part, I had been successful but… I just couldn’t seem to fix some of the problems I perceived with my magic system (I’m writing a fantasy). The one I had in my first draft worked, but I didn’t think its origin story made a lot of sense. However, whenever I tried to fix it, I found myself undermining my actual plot. It just seemed that the more I tried to fix it, the more problems I ended up creating. Sometimes I even feared that I had completely ruined my story beyond all redemption all because I couldn’t make sense of this blasted magic system (that’s why you should never delete anything pertaining to your story, no matter how useless it may seem). Let me tell you, I came up with a lot of different variations on that magic system but I was just tying myself in knots. I was accomplishing very little and growing frustrated with my wonderful novel.

It was my wife who finally reminded me: I’m a plantser. I begin with a rough plan, but it’s only when I write and let my imagination run wild that my plan starts to grow a bit of flesh and take on a life of its own. Why was it, then, that when I came to write my second draft that I felt so compelled to have a perfect plan in place before writing anything? After all, all those wonderful ideas I had for improvements in my second draft only came about as a result of having written and then re-read the first draft. And so she encouraged me to keep my original magic system for now (which worked anyway) and just write my second draft. If I’m still not satisfied when that’s done, it doesn’t matter. I can always write a second second draft (‘draft 2.1’, you might say). For the plantser (and, arguably, for all writers), redrafting is a process of refinement. You take a terrible story and make it better. You take your better story and make it quite good. You take your quite good story and make it excellent.

And how do you, as a plantser, accomplish this? Exactly the same way you wrote your first draft. Plan it out as best you can and figure out the rest as you write. For me, the origins of my magic system were the only kink I hadn’t been able to figure out using Scapple. I’d managed to fix just about everything else. So instead of being forever held back by this one trifling point, I decided to sit down with my more-or-less complete plan and write the second draft, knowing full well that a second second draft, and perhaps even a third second draft, will be necessary.

‘But that will take ages!’ I hear you cry.

Not if you get your head down and get on with it. You can knock out a novel length piece of work in a few short months if your diligent enough about it. Spending six months banging your head against your desk and whimpering to yourself about your lousy magic system and how you’re a failure at writing: that’s a waste of time.

Learn from my failure. If you’re a plantser, then plant yourself on that seat and write your second draft with occasional reference to a half-baked second draft plan. It’s foolishness to the planners and a stumbling block to the pantsers, but for we plantsers, it’s the only way to get anything done.


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

Until next time!

ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

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

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

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

Writing a Good Character Description

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

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

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

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

(John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men).

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

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

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

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

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


ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

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

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

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

Figuring Out Foil Characters

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

The OED defines a foil in this way:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Luke: I’ll never join you!

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

Star Wars (ep. 6): Return of the Jedi

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


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

Until next time!

ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

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

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

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

Gleaning Ideas from Other Stories

Every story, good or bad, starts with an idea. Before you can have a plot, characters or any of that other wonderful stuff, you must have an idea. This we know. We also know that plot bunnies can sometimes pop up at the darnedest times and provide you with a wealth of truly original material with which to create your masterpiece.

But what do you do when the Idea Tree stops putting out its juicy fruit?

Easy.

Glean ideas from someone else’s story.

No, don’t look at me like that! I’m not for one second advocating plagiarism. That’s illegal and rightly so. But reading other people’s books and watching other people’s films can be a great place to find ideas. In fact, you’ll never read/watch/listen to a story of any kind that doesn’t contain at least a few ideas. Even really bad stories still have ideas embedded within their pages which can be used, reused and used again without any risk of plagiarism, so it’s worthwhile learning how to find them and make them work for you.

It’s also worth being clear on what you absolutely shouldn’t do. It’s all very well watching Star Trek and deciding you want to write a novel about space exploration, but it is not okay to write a story about a pointy eared, emotionless man from the planet Vulcan’t who explores the galaxy on the Confederate Starship USS Business. CBS would have every right to hunt you down and pinch your neck sue your face off if you try that. Moreover, it’s okay to read a Batman comic and decide you want to write about a masked vigilante, but I would think twice about making it a millionaire who operates from a secret cave and wears black rubber and a cape. The line between originally and plagiarism can sometimes be fuzzy, so the best advice I can give is to stay far, far away from this kind of obvious idea stealing. Remember, the goal is to get inspired, not to copy. And there’s an art to it.

Think about the last story you read/saw/heard, whether good or bad. For me, it was the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode ‘The Most Toys’. Not my favourite episode by any stretch of the imagination, but that doesn’t matter. We’re going to break it down and squeeze it for every last juicy idea droplets we can and turn those into something good and original. Begin deconstructing the story by asking yourself some basic questions about the plot, characters and themes. Simple stuff like:

Q: Who are some of the key characters?
A: Data, an emotionless android Starfleet officer; Fajo, a cruel and irreverent collector of rare items; Varria, Fajo’s long-suffering slave-come-mistress.

Q: What was the basic plot?
A: Data is kidnapped by Fajo and forced to perform as his latest museum piece. Data refuses to perform and, recognising how Varria has come to loathe Fajo, enlists her help in escaping his captor.

Q: What are some of the key themes?
A: Greed, pacifism, physical and psychological violence against women/domestic abuse, deceitfulness

Q: Any other interesting facts about this story?
A: The title comes from the expression ‘he who dies with the most toys, wins’. This expression emphasises the ultimate futility of humanity’s obsession with accumulating things in the face of our inevitable mortality.

And that’s just for starters. I haven’t even begun to consider settings, minor characters, motives/goals/conflicts or some of the more subtle themes buried throughout the story but I used the questions above just as a demonstration. Your aim here is to deconstruct the story to the nth degree, thus drawing out as much raw material as you can.

Don’t worry about whether or not the themes or character motives are “really” in the story or not. All that matters is that you amass as much raw material as you can and take a note of it. If you’re like me, you’ll probably find it helpful to pool all this material together into one place (in my case, a Scrivener project in which I dump all my loose bits of idea).

Now all you need to do is take some of those individual idea bits and try to turn them into something new. Do a bit of zero drafting or free writing based on what you’ve come up with. For example, the material I gleaned from The Most Toys’ could inspire me to write a story about:

  • A slave trying to escape his owner who sees him only as property.
  • A woman trying to escape an abusive relationship.
  • A woman who, perhaps fearing for her own life, murders her abusive partner.
  • A robot trying to establish his rights as a sentient being.
  • Capital punishment. Is it ever morally justifiable to kill?
  • A robot judge in a criminal court.
  • A museum where the exhibitions include living people (perhaps from a particular culture or race which that particular society views as inferior?), forced to perform for paying clientele.

Furthermore, by pooling these ideas together with ideas you have extracted from other places, you can mix and match ideas to come up with even more original and interesting stories. Ultimately, no idea is truly original. When you break them down, you’ll find common themes and recurring motifs in almost every story you ever come across. So be sure to pick up all the gleanings from every story you come across. Before long, you’ll have an endless supply of raw material that you can work into something original.


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

Until next time!

ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

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

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

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

Can’t Afford Scrivener? Try yWriter.

Many years ago, when I decided to make my first serious attempt at writing a novel, I did what a lot of enthusiastic beginners probably do: I searched high and low for the perfect novel writing app. I didn’t know about Scrivener back then (in fact, I’m not even sure it was available for Windows at that time) but I did come across another app in a similar vein called yWriter by Spacejock Software. I attempted my first ever novel with it and I absolutely swore by it for a long time. Only the discovery of Scrivener for Windows really turned my head. However, in homage to auld lang syne, I’ve decided to download and review the most recent version of yWriter (specifically, yWriter6) for those of you who don’t want to spend any money (for there is no other good reason not to get Scrivener).

yWriter1
Fig. 1

yWriter’s main window (fig. 1) is, for the most part, fairly self-explanatory. Like Scrivener, it allows you to organise your various notes on characters, settings, etc. and, like Scrivener, it allows you to organise your work into separate chapters and scenes. You can either begin with a blank project or you can use the project wizard… which is basically the same as making a blank project, only you begin by specifying the title, author’s name and file directory you want to save it to before you begin, thereby saving yourself thirty seconds later on.

ywriter-editor
Fig. 2

The window which you use to actually write your scene is also pretty self-explanatory for anyone even remotely familiar with ordinary word processors. Unlike many modern word processors, however, you are essentially restricted to writing in a rich text box rather than on a virtual page. As such, there is no easy way to format your page layout (rulers, margins, etc). However, in addition to the features you would expect to find on any word processor, you also have the ability to hear your story read out to you by Microsoft David or Microsoft Zira (a feature which can be handy for helping you to edit a manuscript you’ve grown overly familiar with) and there’s a whole host of tabs on this window which allow you to edit all sorts of information pertaining to the scene you’re working on, if you find that sort of thing useful. You can also easily jump from one scene to another using the drop down menus at the bottom of the scene editing window.

Though this app is simple in many ways, and certainly lacks the flexibility of Scrivener, it does boast a plethora of handy little features which you can use or ignore as you see fit. I doubt if you’ll be inclined to use all of them and I don’t have nearly enough space here to mention them all, but suffice to say it seems pretty obvious to me that the developers have tried to appeal to a broad spectrum of novelists by adding a variety of tools.

ywriter-ratings
Fig. 3

Personally, I am rather fond of the word usage window, which shows you a list of every word used in your story and tells you how often you’ve used it; a handy feature if you’re given to tediously repeating certain turns of phrase over and over again. In addition, the help menu includes a ‘writing tips’ option, which brings up a simple message window containing a snippet of handy writing advice such as ‘take a 5-10 minute break every hour. Walk, exercise, make a drink’ and ‘sometimes it’s quicker to rewrite a short scene from scratch than to keep editing it’. You can also rate the relevance, tension, humour and quality of each scene you write and collate that information into a handy-dandy line-graph (fig. 3), which could be a potentially useful tool when you come to edit your drafts (assuming you can be honest with yourself about the quality of your work). The tools for developing characters, settings and items which appear in your story are simple enough to use, if a little basic and inflexible, although there’s plenty of room for writing whatever notes you want.

If there’s one major thing yWriter lacks, it is the ability to compile your manuscript into a suitable format for distribution. For instance, with Scrivener, you can easily compile your work into a variety of useful formats including (but not limited to) standard manuscript format, screenplay format or e-book format– and of course, if none of the presets appeal to you, you can customise your own format. You can’t do any of that with yWriter. It does allow you to export your project in a variety of ways, but if you’ve got any serious plans to submit your work for publication, you’ll need to transfer your exported project to a suitable word processor and format it yourself.

I realise I’ve unintentionally spent a lot of time here comparing yWriter to Scrivener but I hope you won’t misunderstand my intentions. I really like yWriter. Yes, there is room for further development but I do think it’s worth trying, especially for new authors who are just dipping their toe into novel writing for the first time. Nevertheless, bells and whistles not withstanding, it is quite limited when it is compared to more expensive tools like Scrivener. My advice would be to give it a go. You may find yWriter is more than sufficient for your own particular needs, in which case you should be able to get your novel written and save yourself a few bob into the bargain.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟


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

Until next time!

5 Sci-Fi Tropes I Could Live Without

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

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

The Holographic Hook

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

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

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

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

Is That You Clive?

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

You spin around wildly.

‘Is that you Clive?’

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

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

Hey Clive, Are Those New Horns?

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

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

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

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

Sigh. 

We, The People of Earth…

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

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

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

Ask yourself this. If aliens landed on Earth today:

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

You get the idea.

Magical Alien Artefacts

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

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

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

Dishonourable Mentions:

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

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

Until next time!