Penstricken: Collected Stories by Andrew Ferguson – Out Now!

‘Since brevity is the soul of wit, and tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes, I will be brief.’

There are short stories, there are very short stories and then there is flash fiction: the delicate and often tricky art of telling a story in as few words as possible.

The stories in this tiny little book (all originally published between 2015 and 2020 on the fiction blog, Penstricken) are deliberate exercises in brevity. In total, this book contains twelve flash fictions ranging from fifty to 2,000 words apiece, plus six collections of six word stories.

While these stories vary in mood and genre, you will find in many that the author’s tongue was firmly entrenched in his cheek; whether it be in the brief tale of a Martian liberating his ‘kin’ from the deep fat fryer of a Glasgow chip shop or the nightmarish tragedy of Santa Claus’ true genesis, Penstricken: Collected Stories is a brief snapshot of one writer’s meandering imagination.

When I stopped writing new posts for Penstricken, I promised I was going to release a short book on KDP of all the flash fictions I had ever published on this blog. Now it’s finally here in Kindle or paperback format, containing all the stories previously published on this blog in the last five years including Popping Off, The Fireplace Coppers and Christmas Eve.

At a mere 51 pages this is probably the skinniest anthology of short stories you’re ever likely to own making it easy to read in a single sitting.

Click here to buy Penstricken: Collected Stories on Amazon.

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, why not help support Penstricken by buying me a coffee? You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterTumblr, Pinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

Looking for a gift for the author or fiction lover in your life?
Check out the Penstricken Zazzle store!

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

WordPress.com Jetpack WooCommerce

AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

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

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Penstricken: Collected Stories by Andrew Ferguson – Out Now!

‘Since brevity is the soul of wit, and tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes, I will be brief.’

There are short stories, there are very short stories and then there is flash fiction: the delicate and often tricky art of telling a story in as few words as possible.

The stories in this tiny little book (all originally published between 2015 and 2020 on the fiction blog, Penstricken) are deliberate exercises in brevity. In total, this book contains twelve flash fictions ranging from fifty to 2,000 words apiece, plus six collections of six word stories.

While these stories vary in mood and genre, you will find in many that the author’s tongue was firmly entrenched in his cheek; whether it be in the brief tale of a Martian liberating his ‘kin’ from the deep fat fryer of a Glasgow chip shop or the nightmarish tragedy of Santa Claus’ true genesis, Penstricken: Collected Stories is a brief snapshot of one writer’s meandering imagination.

When I stopped writing new posts for Penstricken, I promised I was going to release a short book on KDP of all the flash fictions I had ever published on this blog. Now it’s finally here in Kindle or paperback format, containing all the stories previously published on this blog in the last five years including Popping Off, The Fireplace Coppers and Christmas Eve.

At a mere 51 pages this is probably the skinniest anthology of short stories you’re ever likely to own making it easy to read in a single sitting.

Click here to buy Penstricken: Collected Stories on Amazon.

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, why not help support Penstricken by buying me a coffee? You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterTumblr, Pinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

Looking for a gift for the author or fiction lover in your life?
Check out the Penstricken Zazzle store!

A scrivener using Scrivener

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

WordPress.com Jetpack WooCommerce

AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

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

You can check out our previous interviews here:

PENSTRICKEN: COLLECTED STORIES – OUT NOW!

‘Since brevity is the soul of wit, and tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes, I will be brief.’

There are short stories, there are very short stories and then there is flash fiction: the delicate and often tricky art of telling a story in as few words as possible.

The stories in this tiny little book (all originally published between 2015 and 2020 on the fiction blog, Penstricken) are deliberate exercises in brevity. In total, this book contains twelve flash fictions ranging from fifty to 2,000 words apiece, plus six collections of six word stories.

While these stories vary in mood and genre, you will find in many that the author’s tongue was firmly entrenched in his cheek; whether it be in the brief tale of a Martian liberating his ‘kin’ from the deep fat fryer of a Glasgow chip shop or the nightmarish tragedy of Santa Claus’ true genesis, Penstricken: Collected Stories is a brief snapshot of one writer’s meandering imagination.

When I stopped writing new posts for Penstricken, I promised I was going to release a short book on KDP of all the flash fictions I had ever published on this blog. Now it’s finally here in Kindle or paperback format, containing all the stories previously published on this blog in the last five years including Popping Off, The Fireplace Coppers and Christmas Eve.

At a mere 51 pages this is probably the skinniest anthology of short stories you’re ever likely to own, making it a nice little stocking filler and easy to read in a single sitting.

Click here to buy Penstricken: Collected Stories on Amazon.

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, why not help support Penstricken by buying me a coffee? You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterTumblr, Pinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

Looking for a gift for the author or fiction lover in your life?
Check out the Penstricken Zazzle store!

A scrivener using Scrivener

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

WordPress.com Jetpack WooCommerce

AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

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

You can check out our previous interviews here:

What’s Your Story About?

Originally published 06/03/2016

Some would have you believe that there are two kinds of writers in this world: those who plan their whole story out in advance and those who make it up as they go along. To some extent that’s undoubtedly true. In fact, I personally identify far more with the latter. In fact, I haven’t planned this very post out in too much detail at all. But there is one thing I am sure of: what this post is actually about.

There’s a particular quotation we non-planning writers like to throw around to justify ourselves sometimes:

E.L. Doctorow said once said that ‘Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice on writing, or life, I have ever heard.

(Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life)

Personally, I think this needs a little refining (I will admit I have taken it slightly out of context but I suspect a lot of non-planning writers have done the same!). Here’s my version:

‘Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way if you know where it is you hope to end up!’

Think about it: suppose you’re a successful author who lives in Glasgow and you want to go to a book shop in York to autograph copies of your book (dream big, guys!). You might well be able to successfully get there using only your wits and following the road signs. Even if you get lost, you could probably still find your way again if you keep your head. But what if all you knew was that you were attending a book shop somewhere in the British Isles, with a vague notion that it might possibly be somewhere in the north of England? You’d be driving forever, that’s what! It doesn’t how many people you ask for directions, how many maps you buy or what you punch into your sat-nav; you will never find the place you’re looking for in a month of Sundays.

One of the biggest dangers we non-planning writers face is that you can easily end up writing screeds and screeds of excellent work, only to realise you can’t finish because you don’t know what it is you’re actually hoping to accomplish by writing. This is a recipe for another unfinished manuscript. So, before you write forty odd chapters and suddenly hit an insurmountable wall, ask yourself this question: What is my story about?

You can probably get away without drawing up a detailed plan of what is going to happen in each chapter and all of the other stuff we non-planning writers like to do to convince ourselves we’re writing when we’re really just wasting time but if you can’t answer that simple question, I doubt very much that you will ever finish your story.

My advice would be to refine your answer to that question to make it as simple as possible. Albert Einstein once said, ‘if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough’. Granted, he wasn’t talking about writing a story but I think the basic principle can still be applied here. If you can’t come up with a simple answer straight away, then it’s probably a good idea to start off with a working synopsis (it doesn’t matter if you need to change it later; that’s just how we non-planning types roll) but ideally, you should be able to whittle this down to one or two short sentences which form the backbone of your story. If you’re struggling to do this, ask yourself a few key questions like these:

  • What is the protagonist trying to accomplish?
  • Why is s/he trying to do this?
  • What’s stopping him/her?
  • You might also find it useful at this stage to ask who the protagonist is, but if you’re a hardcore non-planner you might prefer to just see who pops up when you start writing.

Once you have the answers, you should find it a fairly simple task to summarise what you are trying to write about in a single sentence, or  two at the most. For example, the whole Lord of the Rings trilogy (which is a very lengthy and involved narrative, I’m sure you’ll agree!) can be reduced to something like: ‘A young hobbit must make the dangerous journey to Mordor to destroy a magical ring’.

I think you’ll agree that this little micro-synopsis (as I hereby define it) gives only the meanest description of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. It is the backbone of the plot and nothing more. That’s a good thing! It allows the non-planning writer to have a clear idea of what s/he is trying to accomplish without having to restrict their inner artistic flare. If you were trying to write the Lord of the Rings trilogy (which would be plagiarism by the way, so don’t do it!) using this as your only “plan”, you would probably produce something very different from the original Tolkien narrative. If we continue our driving metaphor, your micro-synopsis ideally should not be a map or even a list of directions; it should be an old scrap of paper with the address of the place you’re trying to get to written on it. But how you get there is entirely up to you. The more simple it is, the less restrictive your Muse will find it when you’re writing.

Once you’ve got your micro-synopsis, write it down and keep it close at hand while you’re writing. If you find yourself getting lost as you make your treacherous midnight journey towards Completed Manuscript Land, refer back to your micro-synopsis and ask yourself if you’re still going in the right direction. Like I said, we non-planning types frequently get lost. That’s okay. If you keep in mind where you’re trying to end up, you’ll soon find your way again.

So… what’s your story about?

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, why not help support Penstricken by buying me a coffee? You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterTumblr, Pinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

Looking for a gift for the author or fiction lover in your life?
Check out the Penstricken Zazzle store!

A scrivener using Scrivener

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

WordPress.com Jetpack WooCommerce

AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

Unfortunately, I am unable to take on any more author interviews or solicited book reviews at this time.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Stories Are Read (Clichés Are Too)

Originally published 14/02/2016

Since it’s Valentine’s Day, I thought today was as good a day as any to write a post about the tricky business of creating a half-decent love interest for your story. Even if you’re not writing a full-blown ‘romance’, there’s still a good chance you’ll want to include one. Oxford Dictionaries defines love interest this way:

An actor whose main role in a story or film is that of a lover of the central character.
1.1 [MASS NOUN] A theme or subsidiary plot in a story or film in which the main element is the affection of lovers.

For the purposes of this post, by ‘love interest’, I am referring mainly to the first definition given above; that is, a character whose main role is to be the lover (or would-be lover) of the protagonist.

The biggest danger in creating your romantic (sub-)plot is clichés . Clichés are something all good writers should strive to avoid (though rules are made to be broken, as one cliché clearly states) and in my opinion, there is no time in the story writing process where you are more in danger of creating a cliché than when you come to create your romantic sub-plot. Naturally, this also means that writing a full blown romance story is a minefield of cliché (you never wondered why rom-coms are so often lame?). Perhaps the most important thing to remember when creating your love interest is this:

YOUR LOVE INTEREST MUST BE A FULLY-FLEDGED CHARACTER IN THEIR OWN RIGHT.

If his or her sole purpose in the story is to be a love interest, then you have just created a shallow and worthless character. Being a love interest should only be a part of their role in your story, but it should not be their whole reason for being.

Have you ever seen the original Spider-Man movies? Mary-Jane served absolutely no purpose in those stories whatsoever except to be someone that would reject Spider-Man’s initial advances then swoon when he rescued her from whatever tall building she was about to be thrown off.

Real life ain’t like that. Real people are individuals; the protagonist of their own story. Simply giving them a back-story isn’t sufficient either, though it is important. They must have a reason to get out of bed in the morning (in this case, directly related to your story) besides being involved with your protagonist. I find the best way to construct a good love interest is to first develop a full cast of characters without creating any kind of romantic sub-plot at all. Make sure all your characters have both substance and independent roles within the story and then, and only then, if you believe your plot would really benefit from a romantic sub-plot, you can start to add this dimension to your characters.

Ask yourself: what is the purpose in creating this love interest? Does it fit with the overall theme or plot of your story, or are you just putting it there as a cheap way to end on a ‘happily ever after’ note? I would be cautious about doing this because it is simply not true to life, even in the most successful of relationships. In The Count of Monte Christo, by contrast, the love interest was essential because it formed the catalyst for the whole story. The protagonist, Dantès, is falsely accused of being a Bonapartist traitor. Why? Because his accuser is also in love with Dantès’ fiancée. There you have it: a plot, a theme and a love interest all working together in perfect harmony to create one of the finest novels I have ever read.

Another thing to avoid is making your love interest the most beautiful of all God’s creatures, not least of all because it’s not terribly realistic. If you’re wanting to write a story with any substance, your narrative really should reflect the fact that beauty is (to use another cliché) in the eye of the beholder. Rightly or wrongly, in every generation there is always a certain ‘type’ of man and a certain ‘type’ of woman which is deemed to be more attractive than others. Certain body shapes, hairstyles, clothing and so on are deemed to be attractive, while others are not. If you make your love interest read like something you saw on the cover of a magazine, it cheapens the whole plot because we all know that real people just aren’t that polished and makes your protagonist’s affections seem a little shallow.

If, however, you do decide to make your love interest fit whatever your society tells you is physical perfection (and even if you don’t!) you absolutely must not break the golden rule of writing: SHOW, DON’T TELL. Words like ‘beautiful’ or ‘attractive’ are all very subjective terms. It’s okay to tell us that John thought Jane was beautiful, but that’s his opinion. Instead, describe all your characters using objective terms: tall, short, fat, skinny, blonde, brunette and so forth. In particular, tell us what is is about the love interest that your protagonist finds attractive. Maybe John is attracted to Jane because, despite of her plain features and dour countenance, she paints every one of her nails a different colour and he finds that indicative of a well concealed vibrant and eccentric personality. Often it is the distinguishing features which make a person stand out so try to focus your protagonist’s affections on these, rather than nice eyes (a subjective term, by the way!) and a dazzling smile.

This is, of course, all just food for thought (with a candle on the table!). It’s a notoriously difficult thing to get right and it depends very much on what you’re writing. I mentioned earlier, for example, that you should be wary of creating a ‘happily ever after’ style of ending, but if you’ve been commissioned to write a film by Disney, you might want to think twice about that. The two main things to remember is that while each character in the story has their own role to play, no character should be fully defined by their relationship to another and that your love interest must exist for a purpose. The best stories all reflect the fact that life is full of millions of different people who are compatible in some ways and who chaff in others. If you can work that into your narrative in a way which compliments the main plot and theme, you probably won’t go too far wrong.

 

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, why not help support Penstricken by buying me a coffee? You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterTumblr, Pinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

Looking for a gift for the author or fiction lover in your life?
Check out the Penstricken Zazzle store!

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AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

Unfortunately, I am unable to take on any more author interviews or solicited book reviews at this time.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

The Nightmare After Christmas

Originally published 10/01/2016

SPOILER ALERT:
Although every effort has been made to avoid spoilers, anyone who has still not watched the Sherlock New Year special, ‘The Abominable Bride’ is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

You have been warned.


I really hate dream sequences.

I can count on one thumb the amount of dream sequences I’ve seen or read in any story that I’ve truly enjoyed and felt like they added something to the story1. They’re usually only there as a cheap attempt to make a clever point or as a lame excuse to make the protagonist do something he otherwise would never do. At their worst extreme, they are the primordial slime of deus ex machina. Yes, I know I always say that it is a matter of personal taste what we like and if dream sequences are your thing then… well, I suppose I just have to accept that. But I hate them.

That is what ruined this year’s New Year Special of the BBC drama, Sherlock for me. When Sherlock first started in 2010, I was quite sure I was going to hate it. I had already read and enjoyed most of the original stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and I wasn’t sure if a weird modern spin on it was really going to work (I mean, just look at Elementary. It’s an outrage!).

But I was wrong! I love Sherlock! I’ve got all the DVDs and have watched them often. It was also my first real encounter with Benedict Cumberbatch, who has quickly become one of my favourite actors. Given how long we’ve had to wait since the end of series 3, I was bursting with anticipation about the New Year special, The Abominable Bride (in spite of the fact I was led to believe they were going to give us a purely Victorian one; whatever I may have said about Sherlock already, Jeremy Brett is the real Sherlock Holmes in my opinion).

At first, it seemed promising. The mystery was suitably mysterious for anything that claims to be Sherlock Holmes (a woman shoots herself, is positively identified and declared to be dead and yet she still manages to go about killing people) and it was entertaining enough to watch… That is, until Sherlock wakes up on an aeroplane and we realise that what we’ve been seeing is a drug-induced dream state. Then it all goes to pot, if you’ll forgive the expression. Because it’s a dream, anything goes; and (I suspect) because it was co-written by Steven Moffat, pretty much everything does go.

Fan service? You got it. Here, have a random fight scene between Sherlock and Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls.

‘Big exciting uncertainty’ about what is a dream and what is reality? You got it. 

My wife (being something of a Whovian) often quips that if dreams were written by man, Stephen Moffat would probably write some cracking ones, in that his stories are nearly always very entertaining to watch, interesting to look at and feel like they’re making sense at the time but when you think about it rationally later on, you realise they didn’t make a whole lot of sense at all and broke most of the rules of their own fictional universe.

But that’s the trouble with dreams. They don’t need to make sense. In fact, the less sense they make, the more dream-like they are. Fiction doesn’t work that way; it has to make sense. Therefore, the dream sequences have to make sense (like in Spider-Man when Harry Osborne has dreams and hallucinations of his dead father saying ‘Avenge me!’ and he dutifully tries to obey. A dream about his dead father taking a banana out for a walk just wouldn’t have allowed the story to progress in quite the same way).

In some ways, that is one thing that set the dream in ‘The Abdominal Bride’ apart from other dream sequences for me. It was almost believable as a dream, which is what ruined it for me. The plot became too confused and fell apart.

Most dreams, such as in Spider-Man, are completely implausible as dreams because they make so much sense. Worse yet, they tend to dictate the actions of the characters in the waking world far too heavily.

Then, of course, there’s the worst kind of dream. It appears in many different forms, but I think you’ll know the one I’m talking about if I simply refer to it as The Dallas Dream. You know the one: the character suddenly wakes up and realises the last hour/week/year has all been a dream. This is deus ex machina at its very finest. The writer has realised he can write no further unless he comes up with some magical excuse to erase some unchangeable events that have already occurred in the story… so he just decides it was all a dream.

Phe-ew(!).

Don’t do drugs, kids.

Endnotes

1 I did rather enjoy Data’s dream in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, ‘Birthright’. The reason I thought this worked was because it served to add a new facet of humanity to the android (who is something of a Pinocchio archetype). The fact he was having dreams at all was what was remarkable. Therefore, the content of the dream could have the suitable blend of random and meaningful elements a good dream needs without becoming a weak catalyst for some reckless action or a ‘thank goodness it was all a dream’ moment. He also has dreams in the episode, ‘Phantasms’, which I was not nearly as keen on because in this instance, the dreams are his subconscious telling him what to do.

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, why not help support Penstricken by buying me a coffee? You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterTumblr, Pinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

Looking for a gift for the author or fiction lover in your life?
Check out the Penstricken Zazzle store!

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AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

Unfortunately, I am unable to take on any more author interviews or solicited book reviews at this time.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

The Essential Voice of Red

Originally published 27/12/15

I may have previously given the impression that I generally don’t like it when good stories get adapted to suit another medium, such as when a book is adapted for film. If that is the case, I owe you an apology because that is not exactly what I meant and it is certainly not true. Remakes and adaptations often can be very good if they are made by someone who knows exactly what they are doing.

The Shawshank Redemption (written and directed by Frank Darabont) is, in my opinion, one of the most splendid films I have ever had the privilege of watching, based on the equally splendid Stephen King novella, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. I don’t want to give away too much of what happens (though really, you should have either read it or watched it by now; everyone should have) but suffice it to say that it is set in the Shawshank State Penitentiary and follows the story of a man called Andy (portrayed in the film by Tim Robbins) who befriends a fellow convict called Red (Morgan Freeman) while serving a life sentence for murder. In both the book and the film, Red also acts as the narrator. There are lots of good things about the film adaptation I could focus on, but it’s the narrative voice in the film and the book I want to focus on just now, because it is a prime example of a director demonstrating that he knew exactly what he was doing.

At first, Morgan Freeman might seem like an odd choice to play a character who the book describes as a middle-aged Irish man with greying red hair. A less skilled director may have been tempted to simply cast a good actor who more or less fitted the physical description. Wonderful an actor though he is, this would clearly not be Morgan Freeman. No accent he could put on would change the fact that he simply does not look like a middle-aged Irish man with greying red hair. But when you read Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, it is hard not to hear Morgan Freeman’s distinctive voice on almost every word.

Narrative voice is always important in fiction but especially in Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. The narrative is more reflective than descriptive, giving us only snapshots of how Red remembers the specific events that occurred in Shawshank during the twenty-seven years of Andy’s incarceration, woven together in such a way as to create a fully fledged description of how Andy arrived at Shawshank, protected himself while there and eventually made his dramatic exit, rather than giving us a blow-by-blow account of everything that happened to Andy or to Red.

It is this, the narrative voice in the book, that makes this role so right for Morgan Freeman. Other very famous and very excellent actors were considered and they might have even been able to do the character justice to some extent but I doubt if anyone else could have pulled off the voice-over narration quite the way Morgan Freeman did. There was a worldly-wisdom about Red in the novella which suits the type of character Morgan Freeman typically plays so well. He observes what is going on around him and he evaluates his own relationship with Andy in that philosophical and darkly humorous way that we have come to expect from Morgan Freeman. Given that the novella is written in the form of Red’s own reflections on his relationship with Andy through-out the course of his sentence, I think it was probably essential that this narrative voice, created by Stephen King in the novella, was maintained for  Darabont’s film adaptation.

I suppose it could be because I’ve seen the film that I imagine it in Freeman’s voice but I don’t think so. I’ve seen Live and Let Die more times than I care to number, but when I read the book, the 007 I encountered there was more like Daniel Craig’s Bond than Roger Moore’s. It wasn’t just what he said; it was how he said it. James Bond in the novels is a far colder man the somewhat playful character Roger Moore portrayed, no matter how alike the basic plots may be. Craig’s crisp, masculine voice delivers each short, bitey line in a way which fits the cruel persona we find in the books. The same is true of Red in Shawshank, though Bond gets away with using a wider variety of actors far more than Shawshank would have because the different kind of narrative voice it employs made voice-over narration unnecessary in the Bond films.

Of course, Morgan Freeman does not single-handedly make The Shawshank Redemption the movie it is. There are a million other good reasons to watch this film and all of the actors give a top-notch performance but for me, the actor Darabont cast to play Red was a make-or-break decision for this adaptation on account of that magnificent narrative voice employed in the novella and I’m pleased to say that when it came to casting for The Shawshank Redemption, Darabont chose well.

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, why not help support Penstricken by buying me a coffee? You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterTumblr, Pinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

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Check out the Penstricken Zazzle store!

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AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

Unfortunately, I am unable to take on any more author interviews or solicited book reviews at this time.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Learning From Rejection

Originally published 20/12/2015

I hadn’t really intended to post another one of my own stories this year. I know you probably don’t come here just to read my rejected competition entries and to be honest, I always intended (and still do intend) for Penstricken to be a blog about fiction as an art-form, rather than a dumping ground for my odds and sods. The reason I have decided to post just one more of my own stories this year is because it’s nearly Christmas and this story does have a bit of a Christmas theme going on in it. However, rather than just giving you the story to read and expecting you to like it, I’m going use this story as an example of how writers can (and should) use their rejected stories to help them develop as writers, by analysing their own work to see how they might improve upon it.

So, without further ado, here is the story I submitted (originally without a title) for the Scottish Book Trust’s fifty word story competition (Dec 2015). Since it did not win, it was an ideal choice as a seasonal story for our study in self-improvement.

Cold Brass
By A. Ferguson

My trumpet’s mouthpiece was as cold as ice, almost painful to play. But the supermarket’s manager had offered us all free mince pies if we stood outside in the snow for an hour and played a few carols.

Easy.

Now if only I could get this thing off my face…


This is a tale about a gluttonous musician who sees an easy opportunity for free mince pies (traditionally eaten in the UK during Christmas time), only to end up with his trumpet stuck to his mouth because of the cold. Anyone who has ever played the trumpet outdoors in winter (like me!) will tell you that the mouthpiece can be excruciatingly cold if the temperature is low enough (though I admit, I don’t know for sure if anyone has ever actually become stuck to their trumpet in this way or not).

The first thing I considered in coming up with this story was the competition instructions. The story had to include the phrase ‘cold as ice’ somewhere in the body of the text and with an upper limit of only fifty words, you can’t afford not to make those three words count. For me, this was the biggest stumbling block to constructing a story I was proud of. I allowed those rules to restrict my imagination, insofar as when I read the instructions, I immediately began trying to imagine physical objects which might be accurately described as being ‘as cold as ice’, with a view to constructing a story around them. Having read the winning entry to this competition (available from the Scottish Book Trust’s website), I noticed that the author of that story took a very different approach, incorporating the phrase ‘cold as ice’ into the dialogue of an altogether more original and imaginative story than the one I produced. The end result was a story with a profound theme running through it, which very likely stood out from what I imagine to have been a crowd of stories dealing with Christmas and winter in general.

In short, a better approach for me might have been to write a good story and make it fit the given instructions, rather than allow the instruction to stifle my imagination.

However, sticking with the plot I’ve got, I think there are still a few things that could be done to improve the basic flow of the narrative. For example, I feel like the second sentence starting where it does creates an uncomfortable pause and would perhaps have worked better if it were joined with the sentence that went before, like so…

My trumpet’s mouthpiece was as cold as ice, almost painful to play, but the supermarket’s manager had offered…

Better? Maybe?

I’m not sure about the parenthesis (‘almost painful to play’). Rather than constructing a sentence which basically says, ‘The mouthpiece was cold and I didn’t like it’, it might do better to do something like this:

My trumpet’s mouthpiece was as cold as ice on my lips but the supermarket’s manager had offered…

Most of us can probably imagine what it feels like to have ice pressing against our lips, even if we’ve never actually experienced it. Perhaps if you’re a writer, you’ll have heard the old axiom about showing, rather than telling. Well, that’s what this is. Now the simile is used to help the reader feel for themselves what it is like to blow a trumpet on a snowy day, rather than to give fairly bland technical descriptions of a cold mouthpiece and a nondescript sensation which is almost-but-not-quite pain. It also brings our word-count down a single word, allowing us to use that word somewhere else! Yay!

Removing superfluous words is always a worthwhile exercise, especially in flash fiction. If it’s not vital, chop it. So, to further improve this sentence, I chopped and swapped a few words and with a bit of shuffling was even able to add words which I feel made the narrative a little clearer:

The trumpet’s mouthpiece was as cold as ice on my lips but the supermarket’s manager had promised the band free mince pies if we stood out in the snow and played a few carols to the shoppers.

The main thing I have removed here is the fact that the band played for an hour. Who cares how long the band played for? That’s really not the point of this story. The point of this story is that a glutton did something that should have been nice and Christmassy for selfish motives and got his just desserts at the end of it. So I chopped that bit out and replaced it with more detail of what he was doing, rather than for how long. I also replaced the words ‘us all’ with ‘the band’, in order to make it clearer exactly who the narrator is talking about.

Incidentally, I’ve still got a word to spare after all this.

I hope this is giving you an idea of what a useful thing it is to analyse and try to improve upon your own work. It can be tempting not to bother doing any of this, especially for flash fiction which you only spent a few days working on and are not likely to ever look at again. But even if you don’t have any further plans for your rejected work, it is still worth doing something like this. Taking a little time to honestly and critically consider things you might have done to improve upon your ideas and your use of language will help you to develop your skills and prevent you from making the same mistakes in any future writing project you embark upon, whether you are an enthusiastic amateur or a well established multi-award winning author.

 

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5 Simple Brain Unblockers

Originally published 29/11/2015

There is no blacker void than writer’s block. You might have the best intentions in the world of sitting down with a giant mug of tea for a few hours and resisting all your usual distractions but for some reason… nothing. You draw a blank. An hour ago you had so many ideas you thought they might start to leak out your ears but now… nothing. You think you may never write another word. We all know it happens to the best of us but that just doesn’t make it any easier.

I won’t lie to you; this post is pretty much the result of an afternoon spent swimming in the ocean of writer’s block, clinging on to the driftwood of terrible ideas. There are millions of different websites and books out there offering various suggestions on how to beat writer’s block and I’ve concluded that there is simply no ‘one size fits all’ method of getting back into the groove but here are a few techniques that I find myself employing on a regular basis.

Audition a Character

Characters, as I may have suggested previously, are the beating heart of any good story. If your story is still in the planning stage where it lacks a definite plot you might benefit from scribbling a few disjointed scenes featuring various different characters. Don’t worry too much about whether or not they are going to make the final cut of your story. That’s not the point. In fact, if you’re suffering from a truly chronic case of writer’s block, you’ll probably find it easier to write a very simple scene featuring only one or two characters doing something very every day, such as making the breakfast. This is a great way to get your creative juices flowing. With a little patience, your characters can take on a life of their own (and if they don’t, you’ve lost nothing!) and  the scenes you write will often help to develop your plot (or come up with a brand new story idea!) more than you might imagine.

Enjoy a Different Kind Of Story

If you’re like me, you probably enjoy stories of all kinds of different genres and mediums. If you’ve got the time to spare, leave your writing for a little while and immerse yourself in a story utterly different to anything you’ve been enjoying recently.

Have you been watching a lot of Star Wars recently? Maybe it’s time to try The Bucket List instead.

But perhaps you’ve just been watching too many films in general. In that case, ditch Star Wars and go and read Dune.

Better yet, ditch both genre and medium and instead find a production of Hamlet and go and watch it. Or, if you need something more interactive, find a computer game with a compelling story. Or perhaps it’s time for a true story. Or maybe you need something that will make you laugh instead of cry or something that will disturb you instead of amuse you. There are no rules. Find a brand new kind of story to love and let its different moods and textures inspire you.

Writing Exercises

It really depends what’s causing your writer’s block, but sometimes all you need is something to give you a little nudge. Ask the internet for writing exercises and you’ll find plenty of useful websites and apps which offer all kinds of different springboards to productivity. WritingExercises.co.uk is a personal favourite of mine which includes a whole plethora of tools to spark the imagination such as name generators, plot generators, word games and random first lines but there are many, many more.

Better yet, if you know roughly what sort of thing you’re interested in writing, do a Google Image search and pick one of the results as a stimulus. This works best if you search for an abstract term. So, if you’re wanting to write a medical drama (for instance) you’ll probably find it a more effective exercise if you search for ‘health’ rather than ‘doctors’, since the latter is likely to only bring up a million pictures of folk wearing stethoscopes.

(I couldn’t resist Googling these things to see what happened. I was quite right; lots of people with stethoscopes and white coats appeared when I searched for ‘doctors’. When I searched for ‘health’ I got the odd stethoscope, but I also got a variety of other images such as a cartoon heart lifting weights, a little boy dressed as a superhero and an x-ray of a man running).

The Fear

Anyone who has ever been in any kind of education is probably very familiar with The Fear. The Fear is a severe but good-hearted non-corporeal taskmistress who enters your life about a day or two before your dissertation is due to be handed in and tortures you into producing some of your best work.

If you’re struggling to write your story, it’s time to give the old crone a call by imposing a deadline upon yourself. The best way to do this is to tell someone else who will hold you accountable (my wife usually is more than adequate to the task) that you have planned to write so many words by such-and-such a day and if you meet that goal… we can order a pizza!

Now my marriage and tomorrow’s dinner rest on whether or not I get another 1,000 words written by tomorrow.

Ding-a-ling. The Fear is on line one for you!

Visit Your Bathroom

Don’t ask me why this works but it does. Maybe it’s something in the tiles or perhaps it’s the added moisture in the athmosphere. I don’t know. All I know is I’ve had most of my best ideas in the bathroom.

If all this doesn’t work, then you’re probably working too hard at it. Take a break. Do something else. Come back the next day. It is ultimately better to delay productivity than to drive yourself to hate a hobby or career you once loved…

… Unless, of course, you’ve got a genuine deadline coming up in the next day or two. In that case, you’d better give The Fear a call and find out what the heck’s keeping her!

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, why not help support Penstricken by buying me a coffee? You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterTumblr, Pinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

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Auditioning Characters

Originally published 22/11/2015

There are more genres of fiction than there is sand on the shore; more mediums for telling your story than there are stars in the sky; more stories to be told than there are clichés in a blog; but if there is one thing that nearly all fiction has, it’s characters. 

Characters really matter. No matter what kind of fiction you’re writing, characters really, really matter. You’ve got make them as lifelike as possible but you’ve also got to create them in such a way that the reader responds in the way you want them to. We don’t want them to reach the end of your story and feel disappointed that the good guys won but we also don’t want to make them two dimensional, so it’s worthwhile spending a bit of time refining your characters. I like to do this by ‘auditioning’ characters, which I tend to do this in two stages: the Dull Stage and the Fun Stage.

The Dull Stage

Before I begin ‘auditions’, I need to know a thing or two about the kind of characters I’m hoping to create. If I was writing a piece of historical fiction set in the First World War, for instance, it would hardly do to have a cyborg for an antagonist. So at this stage, the main thing I try to do is write a simple character profile which includes all the non-negotiable elements. This will almost certainly include key details such as their name, age, gender, religion and nationality as well as any other relevant or essential detail (distinguishing features, superpowers, etc.). What I would not worry about too much at this stage is personality, physical appearance or behaviour unless it is directly relevant to the story. For example, let’s pretend I’m writing a fantasy novel about a prince who decides to live as a commoner. It’s important that he has a name befitting his royal position and his family background is clearly important also. Is he the eldest son of the reigning monarch or not? This is surely relevant, since in most monarchies the eldest would become king. How does he feel about this? This is also essential because it would have a fundamental impact on the plot and is probably directly related to why he abandoned his royal position in the first place. Perhaps he wants to marry a common woman or perhaps he dreads the responsibility of being king. Heck, since it’s a fantasy, he might abandon the throne because he wants to become a dragon-jockey instead. So, let’s see…

Name: His Royal Highness, Prince Lawrence II

Age: 19

Family: Eldest son of the king. Two brothers.

Likes: Dragons and adrenaline rushes.

Obviously my character profile would normally contain much more information than the example I’ve given above. The more details I have about the character I’m wanting to create, the easier it will be to create a character I’m proud of. I know I’ve called it the ‘Dull Stage’ but I can’t stress enough how important this stage is. The more you know about the character you want to create, the easier it will be to create a character who seems real to you.

The Fun Stage

So, we know what we’re looking for: a dragon riding youth of royal blood. Now we can get down to the serious business of turning that profile into a person. After all, there’s far more to a person than their vital details. Think about your friends on your favourite social networking sites. No doubt they all have various personal details on their profiles; a million different photographs from different stages of their life and a thousand-million status updates telling you everything about their average day, their (least) favourite foods, books they’ve read and everything else besides. But no matter how much stuff they put on their timelines, you just don’t get the flavours of each moment or the sensation of what it’s like to be around that person unless you actually spend time with them in real life.

Obviously it’s not possible to actually spend quality time with a figment of my imagination so what I do instead is open up a new document and write a scene with my character as the protagonist. It doesn’t matter if they’re the actual protagonist of my story or if the scene even makes the final cut. What matters is that they be given a scenario to act out where I can play about with their overall persona until I get it just right. Let’s take HRH Lawrence II for example:

‘I say!’ Lawrence declared, his voice quaking only slightly as the beast raised him higher and higher from the ground. It was hard to believe they were not flying already. He gripped the reigns tightly. ‘He’s a good deal taller from up here than he was from down there!’

‘Adan’s a girl.’ Hakan corrected him. ‘Actually, she’s a mean spirited old crone, but she can fly an’ she’s not too bad with strangers. Long as you don’t make her mad.’ He added, slapping the dragon’s feathery side. It snorted loudly. ‘Well, let’s see what you can do. Try do a lap of the field.’

Lawrence grinned widely in spite of himself and cracked the reigns as hard as he could. ‘Ha!’ Immediately, Adan was up on her hind legs, screeching angrily and spewing out flames into the sky so that Lawrence would have been thrown off had he let go off the reigns. Hakan was at her side, trying to soothe her.

‘No, no, no, stubborn, arrogant, stupid boy!’ He called up angrily to the young prince, continuing to rub the dragon’s side. ‘What do you think you’re doing? Fool! Idiot! Do you think this is just another ass that you have to beat and flog or it won’t move? Imbecile! You told me you knew how to ride, you thick headed half-wit! Get down from there at once!’

Lawrence was speechless. Hakan’s naked anger continued to break out against him in a way he had never witnessed before. How could he speak to him like that? How dare he?

As before, the above example is much too short short and I haven’t put nearly as much time and effort into it as I would if I were doing it for real but I hope you can see how this would help to develop Lawrence as a character. Notice for instance how he attempts (and fails) to handle the dragon. Clearly he has no knowledge of how to pacify such a powerful creature, yet he assumes that he can just wing it. This shows a certain character trait that we did not include in his profile: arrogance. Also consider how outraged he is when Hakan voices his anger towards him. Clearly, he is not accustomed to having people speak their minds to him like this. He might have fled his royal position but certainly hasn’t left behind his expectation that everyone must revere him.

Is this all strictly necessary for creating a character? Technically, no, I don’t suppose it is. You could probably just as easily develop a complex and substantial character simply by writing out a lengthy biography but frankly, it’s more fun this way. Not only that, but I also find it helps to get the creative juices flowing for other parts of my story. For instance, in writing this little audition for Lawrence, I had to give him somebody else to talk to. Thus, Hakan was born with a personality all of his own. I also found myself developing my own idea of what kind of animal a dragon might be; not ‘just another ass you have to beat and flog’ but a creature with a certain level of intelligence and dignity which demands respect. Auditioning characters not only makes the planning stage more enjoyable, it also unlocks a whole host of other avenues your imagination can wander down to see what might be there.

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, why not help support Penstricken by buying me a coffee? You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterTumblr, Pinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

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AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

Unfortunately, I am unable to take on any more author interviews or solicited book reviews at this time.

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