Book Review: Steelheart

SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers in this post, anyone who has not read Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

There are two things I really like: Brandon Sanderson and superhero stories, so when I heard that Sanderson had written a series of superhero stories, I knew I had found my next book. I was so confident that I would like it that I even bought the first two books at the same time, despite normally being wary of blowing money on serialised novels in case they’re rubbish (I would’ve bought the whole series but my Waterstones vouchers didn’t stretch that far on top of everything else I wanted to buy).

This story is set in a not-too-distant post-apocalyptic dystopia where a mysterious stellar event, known as Calamity, has gifted certain people with super powers. These individuals, known as Epics (Sanderson consistently shies away from the word superheroes/super villains), have taken over the world, oppressing ordinary humans and imposing their own despotic rule on whatever territory they deem to be their own. The main antagonist in this story is one such Epic: Steelheart, a seemingly invulnerable man who kills David’s (the protagonist) father in front of him. However, the boy David also saw something impossible at the same time: he saw Steelheart bleed, and swore he would make it happen again to avenge his father. As an adult, David joins a group of anti-Epic resistance fighters known as Reckoners and together they hatch a daring plan to kill Steelheart and put an end to his ruthless reign over Newcago (formerly Chicago).

There are a lot of things I like about this novel, and I am looking forward to reading the next instalment, but I won’t lie to you: it was a bit of a disappointment compared to Mistborn.

Let’s get down to brass tacks.

In a similar way to the The Final Empire, Steelheart features a young protagonist who joins a group of rebels (the other ‘good guys’) with the primary goal of taking down a seemingly indestructible despot who barely appears in the narrative until the story’s climax. The characters all have their own little distinctive quirks and are, for the most part, likeable. My only criticism is that they were, perhaps, a little half-baked by Sanderson’s usual standards. For instance, David, the protagonist, was okay in general but he seemed little too ridiculous to believe insofar as things seemed to fall into place a little too easily for him despite impossible odds, especially in the beginning.

Oh, and while I’m complaining about my least favourite characters, can I mention Megan? Apart from being one of only two major female characters and the only one with a clear personal tie to the protagonist, she doesn’t even come across as a particularly well written character, at least before the last few chapters. She’s beautiful, feisty, with a hidden vulnerability and (you guessed it!), she’s the obvious love interest. David thinks she’s hot but doesn’t know if she likes him or not because she seems to be sending him mixed signals. I will admit that I wasn’t prepared for what happened to her and who she turned out to be, so it’s maybe worth persevering with Megan until the end of the book but it took me quite a lot of chapters to actually like her as a character.

The plot worked, although I felt there was a certain inevitability about it. David wanted to join the Reckoners, so he did. He talked them into killing Steelheart. They planned to do it. Executed plan. Did it. End. It lacked that all important sense of rising action, conflict, tension, greater conflict, greater tension and final climax when it came down to the main story of David’s quest for revenge and the Reckoners’ plan to kill Steelheart. On the plus side, there were a few interesting twists regarding the identities of characters like Megan and Prof. I won’t spoil what they were, but I will only say that I had my suspicions about Prof from fairly early on; I wasn’t ready for what happened with Megan at all, however. That was glorious and her only saving grace.

As usual, Sanderson’s writing style was a joy to read: clear, straight-forward and written in a solid 1st person voice from David’s point of view. In keeping with that character’s tendency to use lousy metaphors in his speech, the narrative itself was also replete with eccentric figurative language which was appropriate (though perhaps not always quite as funny as Sanderson intended it to be).

I did find the profanities used by the characters a little odd. Don’t get me wrong, I tend to have a ‘less is more’ attitude towards profanity in fiction, but it seems that all but the mildest of swear words we use in the real world have been replaced by made up swear words including ‘sparks’ , ‘slontze’ and ‘Calamity’. Depending how far in the future this book is set, I suppose its possible we’ll chuck out all the old curses and invent brand new ones, but I get the impression this book is set in a period relatively close to our own. As much as I dislike bad language, I personally found this stuff a bit jarring.

I know what you’re thinking. I sound like I hated this book. I did not hate this book. In fact, I really liked this book. It’s a great bit of highly enjoyable, action packed, funny-in-places escapism. If I sound like I’ve been hard on it, it’s only because Sanderson has set the bar so high with all his other books that it’s hard not to compare them. This is not my favourite Brandon Sanderson book, not by a long way; but it is a great book. You should definitely read it.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟


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 steals your heart (you see what I did there?).

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

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

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Sharleen Nelson, Author of The Time Tourists [2]

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Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Children’s Edition (vol. 2)

SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers, anyone who has not read Monkey Puzzle by Julia Donaldson, Little Miss Inventor by Adam Hargreaves, Elmer in the Snow by David McKee, Perky the Pukeko by Michelle Osment or The Gruffalo’s Child by Julia Donaldson is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

Believe it or not, the last edition of Super Snappy Speed Reviews was way back in October, just before series 11 of Doctor Who started, so I decided it was time for another exciting instalment. This time (though not for the first time) I’m looking at children’s books. Just to be clear, my daughter is not quite two years old yet, and so, when I say ‘children’s books’, I am talking about books aimed at very young children, rather than children’s novels.

You know the drill by now. These reviews reflect nothing but my own personal opinions and impressions, sliced, diced and shredded into a few short sentences. The books I have selected have nothing in common, save the fact that they are all fictional stories for very young children. They are not necessarily books I particularly liked or disliked, nor are they sorted into any particular order. So, here we go.

Monkey Puzzle by Julia Donaldson

My daughter loves this book and so do I. The narrative is uncomplicated, written in rhyme (always a plus for small children) and with a goodly dash of humour which does not seem to be lost on my one year old. It’s also not without its educational value, giving descriptions of a whole bunch of different types of animals.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

Little Miss Inventor by Adam Hargreaves

I think this is my daughter’s favourite at the moment, judging by the fact I have to read it to her at least fifty times per hour. Little Miss Inventor is a fun character, intelligent and not to be deterred from making Mr Rude a birthday present he’ll really love despite him being one of the most unpleasant individuals in all Mr Men lore. If I’m really picking nits, I think the writing style was a bit clumsy at points, with sentence breaks in places I would not have expected them, for example: ‘She made a back-pack-snack-attack fridge for Mr Greedy. For snacks on the go.’

I’m pretty sure that could have been one sentence.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟

Elmer in the Snow by David McKee

My daughter’s got a few Elmer books and she seems to enjoy them. Personally, I find this one a bit of a drag. The narrative lacks the snappy rhythm required to hold a toddler’s interest and the plot is frankly boring. Even toddler’s books should have a little bit of safe, inoffensive conflict to make the story worth reading (e.g.: Little Miss Inventor couldn’t think of a good invention for Mr Rude; Monkey lost his mum and his only helper is completely useless; etc). All in all, on the rare occasions my daughter asks for this one, I tend to sigh inwardly (though outwardly I’m enthusiastic for her sake) and hope she won’t want me to read it over and over too many times.

My rating: 🌟🌟

Perky the Pukeko by Michelle Osment

This story is okay. My daughter likes it, perhaps not with the same enthusiasm as Little Miss Inventor, but she asks for it now and again.

It’s written in rhyme, which is a plus for toddler’s stories, though I find the rhythm of narrative is a little off beat at times, often, I fear, because the author was trying a bit too hard to be clever. It is the only toddler’s book I have ever read which actually featured a glossary at the back.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟

The Gruffalo’s Child by Julia Donaldson

This book is, by all accounts, a sequel to The Gruffalo so it probably helps to be familiar with that story before you read this one. It’s not really necessary though. The story makes perfect sense on its own merits. In Donaldson’s usual masterful style, this story ticks all the boxes for repetition, rhythm and rhyme. Young children can easily relate to the protagonist who initially ignores her father’s instructions, designed to keep her safe, only to quickly realise her mistake and return to the safety of her father’s cave.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟

Don’t forget to check out all the previous editions of Super Snappy Speed Reviews
Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Doctor Who Edition Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Children’s Books Edition (vol 1)
Super Snappy Speed Reviews: TV Edition (vol. 2)Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Writing Apps for Android
Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Books (vol. 3)Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Games Edition
Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Star Trek EditionSuper Snappy Speed Reviews: Books (vol. 2)
8 Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Film5 Super Snappy Speed Reviews: TV Edition
8 Super Snappy Speed Reviews

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]

5 Useful Fiction and Writing Blogs

We writers have got to support each other. That’s why every now and again I’ll do a post showcasing the work of other fiction and writing bloggers besides my own. This week is such a week.

Previously I’ve shared specific posts that I’ve found particularly useful or entertaining but I’m doing it a bit different this week. Instead of sharing individual posts, I’m sharing links to whole blog sites that I find myself returning to again and again, either because they’re full of useful tips and resources or because they’re just plain enjoyable to read.

As ever, this is simply a selection of my favourites, not an exhaustive list; and as ever, this list is in no particular order.

A Writer’s Perspective – If you’re a writer of historical fiction set in the 14th century or even just mildly curious about how people lived back then, this blog is definitely worth a look. It’s full of interesting little articles about everything from castles to medieval cuisine written by historical romance author April Munday.

TurtleWriters – ‘A Community for Slow Writers’. This is a great little blog site to find help and support if you’re the sort of writer who feels like they’re wading through treacle whenever they try to write. The blog is updated pretty sparingly, but it’s just such a useful breath of fresh air to us ordinary folk who want to write that I had to include it.

Rebecca Alasdair – Useful and enjoyable writing tips, general author updates and reflections on reading and writing. Also as an aside, this blog is much easier on the eye than a lot of blog sites.

Now Novel – In addition to a plethora of other resources (writing courses, groups, story idea finder, etc.), Now Novel boasts a blog with a motherload of writing tips for would-be novelists. I’ve never used any of its paid services but it’s blog alone is a tremendous resource for anyone who wants to write a novel and doesn’t know where to begin.

Morgan Hazelwood – Like her tagline says, Morgan’s blog is full of writing tips and writerly musings – with plenty of video for those too lazy to read.


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 squeezes your lemons.

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]

Book Review: Burning Bright

SPOILER ALERT

Anyone who has not read Burning Bright by John Steinbeck is hereby advised that this post contains spoilers.

Well, well, well, believe it or not, I’ve never reviewed a John Steinbeck book before, despite repeatedly implying that he’s one of my all time favourite authors. That changes today with this review of John Steinbeck’s tiny and much maligned little ‘play-novelette’, Burning Bright.

Steinbeck himself described this book as an experiment in writing a play in the form of a novelette, and it becomes immediately obvious what is meant by that when you read it. Unlike most novels which are split into numerous chapters, set in various locations with a wide cast of characters, Burning Bright is split into three acts, each set in a single room (a circus tent, a farmhouse, a ship and a hospital to be precise). There are only four characters and the action is entirely driven by Steinbeck’s masterful use of dialogue and, to a lesser extent, description of setting.

So, did this little ‘experiment’ pay off? Well, if the critics are to be believed, the answer is no. It seems everybody and their granny hates this book. But I’m not everybody’s granny and I do not hate this book! True, it’s not my favourite Steinbeck book and it could certainly stand a little constructive criticism (in fact, it’s just about to do so), but it’s definitely not my least favourite Steinbeck book either. So let’s get down to brass tacks and look at the story in more detail.

Joe Saul is our protagonist in this story: an everyman who desperately wants to have a child but alas, is sterile. He suspects it but refuses to acknowledge it, preferring to wallow in his misery. His younger wife, Mordeen, also suspects his sterility. She is so determined to produce a child for Joe that she is willing even to sleep with a man she frankly doesn’t care for, not because she desires another man but because she is desperate to give Joe a child.

Victor is the other man: an altogether arrogant, unlikable and ignorant little man who works as Joe’s right hand man in each act and who wants Mordeen for himself. Then there’s Friend Ed: supportive, protective and loyal towards Joe even if it means hurting him. None of the above are the deepest or most complex character’s Steinbeck has ever written, but they’re okay. I liked them well enough and it was pretty plain to see what they all needed and what stood in their way.

The plot itself is perfectly good in that it follows a natural and plausible progression, though there is a certain inevitability about it. Almost from the very start, we just know that Mordeen is going to try and get pregnant by Victor and pass it off as Joe’s, and we just know that Victor is going to become attached to Mordeen, and we just know that in his jealousy, Victor will threaten to tell Joe the truth and most inevitably of all, we just know that the story will climax with Joe finding out the child is not his. For most writers, this would be an express ticket to Rubbish Novel Land. Fortunately Steinbeck’s writing style is a joy to read even at the worst of times and beautifully carries this rather plain story along.

The action is heavily dialogue-driven, which is appropriate for a play. It is, however, less appropriate for a novel, and I think this is one key area in which the incompatibility of the play form and prose form is made obvious. The two forms just don’t blend, any more than clay blends with iron. However, while critics are often quick to bemoan Steinbeck’s use of lengthy and the unsuitably flowery language, I personally found that Steinbeck’s trademark artistry with words was sufficient that I still found the dialogue enjoyable (if a little jarring) to read.

There was one other very strange thing about this story, even within the experimental context of the story’s structure, and I’m not sure I liked it: the characters’ backgrounds change from one act to the next, yet the individual characters remain fundamentally the same people. For instance, in Act One, the characters are all circus performers, whereas in Act Two they live on neighbouring farms and in Act Three, they are sailors. They are all the same people, they all relate to each other in the same way and there is continuity with the key events of the plot, but their day-to-day situation is portrayed as variable and irrelevant.

My best guess is that this is an ambitious but uncharacteristically clumsy effort by Steinbeck to highlight the everyman quality of Joe and his fellow characters. By rendering the backdrop variable, and therefore irrelevant, the reader is focused exclusively on the naked humanity of their situation which could happen to any one of us. Be that as it may, it feels like Steinbeck was trying a bit too hard to be clever at the expense of writing a good story. It strikes me that by robbing Joe Saul and the others of their backgrounds, Steinbeck has effectively created shadow characters who exist purely as symbols of the idea he was trying to communicate. They don’t read like real people, as good characters should, because real people are defined, at least in part, by where they come from and what they do.

All in all, the critics are correct about one thing: this is not Steinbeck’s best work. However, in my experience, Steinbeck’s grocery list (probably) makes better reading than the average novel– and I say that as a bona fide bookworm. While not his most adventurous story in terms of plot and characters, its still a perfectly solid bit of fiction, and would perhaps serve as a useful case study for teaching the rudiments of quality story telling to the uninitiated. The experiment of bringing together the play format and the prose format was ambitious but, alas, the two things simply don’t mix. I don’t think this was because Steinbeck did it badly. I’m just not sure it’s possible to  effectively create a true mixture of the two styles, because they’re just too different and necessarily so. I did enjoy this book, but it was, without question, only Steinbeck’s trademark wizardry with language which held it together.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟


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 novelises your play.

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]

Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Children’s Books Edition

SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers, anyone who has not read Fish by Fiona Watt, Elmer by David McKee, A Squash and a Squeeze by Julia Donaldson, The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle or When I Am Big by Penny Johnson is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

I might have mentioned once or twice before that I have a little daughter. She’s only a toddler, but she loves playing with books (not always reading from start to finish, but carefully examining them at any rate) and she loves it when we read to her (read to your kids, guys). As a result, we’ve amassed quite a collection of childrens’ books in her short lifetime.

‘And so,’ my wife suggested, ‘why not write a Super Snappy Speed Reviews post about books for children?’

‘Good idea!’ I thought. After all, I’ve already speed-reviewed books [2] [3], TV shows [2], filmscomputer gameswriters’ apps and even the Star Trek movies, so this time it’s going to be all about books for small children. I’ve picked 5 of my daughter’s favourites and reviewed them all in only a few short sentences.

As ever, these reviews reflect nothing but my own personal opinion. The books I have selected have nothing in common, save the fact that they are all fictional stories for young children. They are not books I particularly liked or disliked, nor are they sorted into any particular order. These reviews reflect nothing but my own impressions and opinions, shrank, squished and flattened into a few short sentences. So without further ado…

Fish by Fiona Watt

It’s difficult to summarise this story without plagiarising it, since the whole story is only a couple of sentences long. Suffice it to say it’s a perfectly simple little story about a fish looking for his friend and finding him without any real difficulty. The book itself is also soft, like a pillow, though my daughter has shown no interest in this aspect of it. She just hands it to me and says ‘Again!’ before waiting expectantly for me to read it again… and again… and again. Ideal for children aged one year and under.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟

Elmer by David McKee

If you like your childrens’ books to be fun but still carry a message about diversity, you can’t go wrong with Elmer. It’s a little dated (I remember it from when I was little) but I enjoyed it then and I still like it now. The story takes a fairly heavy subject and makes it reasonably accessible and enjoyable for slightly older children, owing to its length and relatively complex narrative style.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟

A Squash and a Squeeze by Julia Donaldson

Another story with a lesson, this time about appreciating what you’ve got. The story is written in a simple rhyme with lots of repetition making it highly accessible and enjoyable for small children. Even as an adult, I can’t help but appreciate the humour in this story as the protagonist, following the advice of the slightly puckish wise man, tries to make more room in her house by filling it up with various farm animals, before her final glorious epiphany in the end. A great story to read to your toddler.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle

My daughter, like every other toddler I’ve ever come across, loves this book. Like A Squash and a Squeeze, there is a repetitive pattern to most of the story which makes it highly accessible for a child of her age and a goodly dash of humour. It also provides her with a sly introduction to numbers and days of the week. She tends to lose interest at the part where the caterpillar makes a cocoon, and I suspect this is due to the way the narrative suddenly loses its sense of rhythm and repetition. Frankly, even I find the narrative drags a bit there, but apart from that, this book is a must-have for any toddlers bookshelf.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟
When I Am Big by Penny Johnson

This is a sweet, if not terribly exciting, little story about a rabbit wistfully looking forward to all the fun things she’ll be able to do when she’s older. It is written with a simple ‘AABBCC’ rhyming system, though it perhaps lacks that repetitive quality which would make it even more accessible to a one year old. It’s a nice enough story although it doesn’t hold always manage to hold my daughter’s attention all the way through.

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 beams you up.

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.

Theme: The Truth Behind the Tale

I once read somewhere (and I do wish I could remember where so I could give proper credit) that we story-writers are in the entertainment industry; that the primary goal of the story-writer is to entertain. While I basically agree with this statement, I think it’s also true that the best stories all have something real to say.

This is where theme comes into play. The term can be a little bit broad sometimes so just to be clear, when I talk about a story’s theme, I am referring to the meaning(s) or dare I say, the message(s) of the story. What fundamental truth(s) are you conveying in your idle fantasy? What aspects of real life are you exploring? And equally as important, how are you conveying that truth?

Let’s look at the easy(ish) bit first: identifying your theme (we’ll come back to how to convey your theme later). Themes can take many forms: it can be a moral lesson (e.g., ‘don’t do drugs, kids’), a particular idea or belief (‘the meaning of life is such-and-such’, ‘God is like this’, ‘socialism/capitalism is destructive in this way’, etc.)  or it can be a general portrait of a particular subject (friendship, poverty, religion, etc.). Depending on how you write, you may have decided on a theme before anything else (that is to say, your initial idea was something like ‘I want to write a story about domestic violence’) or the theme may have come about as a natural byproduct of your story. If it’s the latter, you might be tempted to ask yourself: ‘do I really need to identify my theme(s), since they occurred purely by happenstance after I began writing the story?’.

Answer: yes, you do. After all, whether it was your intention to write a story about lies, sex and/or murder or not, your audience will pick up on these themes if they’re there. And believe me, if you’ve written a half-decent story, there will be at least a couple of naturally occuring themes. It’s unavoidable. Has one of your characters been pursuing a love interest who doesn’t reciprocate his feelings? Then your theme is unrequited love. You may not have intended it, but it’s there, growing wild in the tulip patch that is your story. Depending on how your characters behave, it may also become a story about obsession, harassment or rejection. Therefore, since it’s almost impossible to write a good story without a theme or two popping out of the mix, it’s worthwhile identifying your theme so that you can make it work for you. Themes may be naturally occurring, but they shouldn’t be allowed to grow wild. Once you’ve identified them, you can use them to really enrich your story.

How you convey your theme is something else entirely, and will depend largely on the kind of story you’re writing, but the best advice I can give you is this: avoid sounding preachy. That’s not what people want from a story and it will certainly annoy your reader, even if they agree with you. Don’t misunderstand me, you should be bold in communicating your ideas, but there’s a way to do it and a way not to do it. The chances are your readers came to your book quite comfortable in their own opinions. If you want to change their opinions, you’ll need to do it with tact and subtly. Show them the truth by the events of your story.

In the same way, avoid soapboxing (yes, I just made that term up). This is when you turn your characters into a soapbox from which you casually throw out your opinions on controversial subjects, usually in the form of internal or external dialogue. e.g.:

Pro-abortion soapboxing: There was a small group of nuns standing outside the hospital, clutching pictures of the Madonna and Child. Isobel shook her head. Didn’t these outdated old crones realise that a woman has the right to make decisions about her own body?

Anti-abortion soapboxing: There was a small group of nuns standing outside the hospital, clutching pictures of the Madonna and Child. Isobel shook her head. It saddened and amazed her to think that in this day and age, there was still any need to protest what was clearly the legally sanctioned murder of unborn babies.

Soapboxing won’t only annoy your reader, it will actually undermine your story. Remember stories and characters must develop. A story never ends where it began, because the characters therein must develop (even if that ‘development’ involves a downward spiral of self-destruction). If a character’s strongly-held beliefs are relevant to the story, they ought to be challenged throughout that story (and probably, although not necessarily, altered in some way by the end). Therefore, if you begin with absolute statements (‘such-and-such is evil!‘) you’ve nowhere to go but contradiction or compromise (‘such-and-such isn’t so bad after all’ or ‘I’m not sure what I think about such-and-such now’). You could, of course, end with an absolute statement (‘Jeanie thought such-and-such was okay, but now she knew it was evil!‘) but that is a very lazy way to write. If your audience was truly drawn into Jeanie’s plight throughout the story, they’ve probably already come to the conclusion that such-and-such is evil. They don’t need you to lecture them.

If, on the other hand, your character’s opinions are not not relevant to the overall story, ask yourself why you’ve included them. There may be a legitimate reason to include them (e.g., characterisation), but if it’s nothing more than an opportunity to soapbox, chop it out. Air your controversial opinions on Twitter if you must, but don’t let it ruin your story.

Remember, your audience didn’t come here to learn your opinions. Your audience doesn’t give a rip about your opinions, even if they happen to share them. Instead, focus on telling the story. Make it as true as you can and fill it with believable, sympathetic characters to whom your reader can relate. They’ll start to understand what it’s like to be in that position and will begin to think. And that’s all you can hope to accomplish as a writer: provoke thought. You cannot force someone to believe something. You can only offer them the truth as you see 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 plucks your eyebrows.

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.

6 ‘Six Word Stories’ for the 6th (vol. III)

Well can you believe it, it’s that time again already? Today is Sunday the 6th of May and that means it’s time for another exciting instalment [2] of 6 ‘Six Word Stories’ for the 6th!

You probably know the rules by now. I roll six Story Dice and I write a six word story loosely based upon whatever image is displayed on each die, starting from the top left. As ever, the following stories are entirely my own work.

So here we go.

Screenshot_2018-03-20-09-02-36

Alea iacta est.

  1. New Earth colony. Same old stories.
  2. The Englishman’s mortgage was his castle. 
  3. ‘Judas, take charge of the moneybag!’
  4. Final upstairs climb, borne by ambulancemen.
  5. Bit the coin. Not real gold.
  6. Old friends, old wine, old times.

Phew! It doesn’t get any easier! Why not give it a go yourself? Use the stimuli above to come up with six ‘six word stories’ of your own and share them in the comments below so we can all see how much better you are than me.

We’ll do it all over again on Sunday 6th January 2019.


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 numbers your beast.

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.