5 Different Kinds of Writing Prompt

Originally published 05/02/2017

Sometimes when you’re stuck trying to come up with a story, it helps to have a little nudge to spark off your creativity. The internet is, of course, bursting at the seams with all kinds of writing prompts and other creative stimuli and it can be difficult to know where to begin. So, today I’ve listed a selection of prompts for fiction writers (please, use them and abuse them; maybe even show us your efforts in the comments section below) but what I really want to do is explain how I like to use these kinds of prompts and what I feel their relative strengths and weaknesses are. So, without further ado…

Opening lines

The idea behind opening line prompts is simple. You can write any story you like, as long as you use the prompt as your opening line. These can be great if you’re writing a short story or are just wanting to let your imagination run wild for a bit. Opening lines are good for this because the whole point of an opening line in any story is to grab the reader’s attention and flood them with curiosity about what happens next in a single sentence. Well, as the writer, you get to decide what happens next; thus, you have your prompt. I would generally shy away from using opening line prompts for a novel or other large and complicated project, because they usually require a lot more planning. You can rest assured Dickens did not come up with A Tale of Two Cities because someone asked him to write a story which opened with the words ‘It was the best of times’.

Anyway, why not try one of these?

  • David was not what he appeared to be. By day he was a humble civil servant but by night… 
  • Pat was the first human to set foot in [your place here] for more than thousand years.
  • We’d never had any trouble from the family next door until… 

Writing by Theme

This is my preferred kind of writing prompt for writing lengthier or more involved stories such as novels. You are given a single theme to work with but apart from that, your story can be just about anything. This gives you wide scope and still requires quite a bit of imagination on your part, but I sometimes find that more useful than the restriction you get with other kinds of prompts. Try a few of these:

  • Write a story about experiencing new things
  • Write a story about obsession
  • Write a story about ageing
  • Write a story about fathers and sons
  • Write a story about war

Characters

Another common writing prompt is to be given a rough description of a character you can work with. As I’ve probably mentioned before, all the best stories are character driven rather than plot driven, and from that point of view, having a character as your stimulus – before you’ve even thought of a plot – can prove very rewarding indeed. The main difficulty with this approach is quite simply knowing what to do with your character. S/he has to be brought out of her comfort zone to make a story happen so this certainly doesn’t let you off the hook when it comes to making up a plot. It just gives you somewhere to begin that you might not have thought of yourself. Have a bash at writing a story about…

  • An intellectual 34 year old bus driver who dislikes enclosed spaces.
  • A hot-tempered 17 year old female singer who tends to talk too much.
  • A bigoted 84 year old man who works as a gas engineer and absolutely refuses to retire for anything. 
  • A kind-hearted 49 year old woman police officer whose worst nightmare is about to come true.
  • A talkative 5 year old girl who dreams of becoming a vet.

Titles

These work in a similar way to opening lines. You are given the story title; you have to write the story. This can be very helpful or very unhelpful, depending on the title. Something more obscure gives greater freedom but if you’re struggling with writers’ block, you might benefit more from something a little bit more specific. There are plenty of random title generators out there, some of which are nothing more than random adjective and noun generators. Others are a little bit more sophisticated than that. On the plus side, you can use titles as prompts for almost any kind of story. I’ve made up a few of both kinds for you to play with:

  • Jude, Patron of Hopeless Causes
  • The Broken Sky
  • The Midnight Oil
  • The Wandering Cobbler
  • Rest for the Wicked
  • Jimmy Jones, Space Cadet!
  • The Madness Method
  • A Girl Named Grace

Pictures

Sometimes being told what to write isn’t what you need at all. You need to visualise something new to help you create new ideas, and for that, a picture might just be the answer. I don’t really find pictures much use for stimulating plot ideas particularly (though I have occasionally used them; for instance, my regular readers will testify to the fact I use the pictures on Story Dice to help me write my six word stories) but I do find them very useful indeed for coming up with new characters or settings. Photographs of people you don’t know or places you’ve never been instantly spark the imagination by forcing you to wonder, ‘who is this person?’; ‘what happens in that building?’; ‘what does that uniform s/he’s wearing represent?’ and so forth. A huge number of the characters and settings I’ve written have been based on making up things about random people and places I don’t know.

Not being much of a photographer, I haven’t got any pictures for you to use as writing prompts but I can highly recommend visiting websites like Pixabay for free images that you can use. Alternatively, try using some purpose built tools like Story Dice.

This is, of course, all just a taster. There are about a squillion other kinds of stimuli out there, from the ridiculously obscure (Oblique Strategies…) to others which aim to spoon-feed the author by almost writing the story for you. What matters is that if you use a stimulus, that you choose the right kind of stimulus for your project. This can be the difference between getting something out of it and not getting anything out of it so choose carefully. Writing with prompts can be a great way to train the writers’ imagination and it’s a healthy habit to get into – just as long as the prompt you choose doesn’t leave you more stuck than when you began!

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What To Do When You Hate Your Story

Originally published 29/01/2017

The worst possible thing that can happen to any writer is for them to look at their work (especially their half finished work) and decide that it’s rubbish. Any idiot can overcome writer’s block with just a little bit of perseverance, but despairing over your story can be crippling. Not only will it halt you in your tracks, but it will probably make you want to give up writing altogether. Well, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:

Quitting is NOT an option!

That includes quitting your current story, as well as quitting writing altogether.

There is a way out of this situation. The first thing you need to remember is that the despair you’re feeling over your current story is almost certainly all in your mind. If you’re anything like me, you can quite easily flit between thinking your story is the most important piece of literature in the history of the world ever to being downright ashamed of it in the space of a few hours. So the first step is to refuse to give up. You were once pleased with the shape your story was taking; you will be pleased again in the future if you persevere. So, once you’ve resolved to carry on writing no matter how bad things get, it’s time for some positive actions. These are a few tried and tested techniques that I find work for me.

Take a Break

Seriously, sometimes all you need is to do something other than writing for a little while. However the important thing to remember here is that you’re trying to clear away some cobwebs, so I would recommend against vegging out on the sofa brooding about what a terrible author you are. Trust me, that doesn’t help.

Instead, do something stimulating – as long as it’s not writing. The goal here is to release some happy hormones, so read a book, take a walk or whatever it is that makes you feel revitalised. Better yet, do something that makes you feel good about yourself. Something that makes you feel like you don’t suck at life. Maybe you play a mean pinball. Go beat your high score, do a celebratory run around the living room then come back to your story.

Oh that reminds me, you also want to make sure your break ends at some point. Either set a time limit or make sure that your chosen recreational activity has a clearly defined finishing point so that you don’t forget to write altogether. I’ve done that before myself…

A Change is as Good as a Rest

If you don’t quite trust yourself to withdraw completely from writing your story but still feel like you could use a break… write something else.

To clarify, I do not mean give up on the story that’s giving you trouble. I simply mean spend half an hour or so writing something else, then come back to your story.

If it’s only your current project that’s getting you down, but you still feel like a perfectly capable story teller, then try your hand at some flash fiction or even poetry. Something completely different to get the juices flowing, but not so long that it swallows up your time working on your main project. Heck, it doesn’t even need to be fiction you write. Personally, I find writing this blog every week gives me a real shot in the arm.

If, on the other hand, you feel like such a failure at writing that you’re just about ready to quit and go back to the day job, try keeping a writer’s journal. Don’t try to be clever here. You’re not writing this to have it published, or even read by other human eyes. This is simply a constructive way of getting out all of those horrible, self-depreciating feelings that you have as well as tracking your progress and analysing where you might be going wrong.

Break Your Problem Down OR Draft Like Crazy

If you’re absolutely determined that a rest is not what you need, then try a change of approach. Broadly speaking there are two ways to go about this, depending on what stage of the writing process you’re at and how you like to go about writing a story.

If you feel like you’re up to your armpits in disjointed or poorly written scenes, it would be wise to go back to the old drawing board and consider where your story might be going wrong. Perhaps you need to flesh out your character profiles. Perhaps your protagonist lacks a satisfying character arc. Perhaps the pacing of your story is all off. Either way, it’s time to set aside the manuscript and get into the nitty gritty of your plan. If you already have a plan set out, this is a sensible place to start. If not, it’s maybe time you thought about putting one together.

If, on the other hand, you are working on a detailed plan when despair strikes, it might be that you’re overthinking the matter. If you find yourself lamenting how implausible your story is or how ‘it’s been done before!’ then this probably applies to you. The truth is, fiction is nearly always implausible; that’s why it hasn’t really happened. And fiction has nearly always been done before; there is, after all, nothing new under the sun. Put your plan to one side for a while and try to write a draft of your story as freely as you can. Don’t edit (you might find Typewriter handy for that) and don’t worry about where it’s going. Be led by your muse and write whatever comes to you. Doing this can sometimes help you to imagine possibilities that never would have occurred to you simply by staring at charts and tables.

Whether any of this helps or not, remember Ernest Hemingway’s advice: ‘Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now’. If you are despairing of your writing, remember that this is only a temporary setback. You cannot run out of ‘author-juice’, nor can the same story idea be good one day then bad the next. It is only a mindset that is holding you back, so persevere and win!

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Dear Authors, Size Does Matter

Originally published 15/01/2017

These days, there is almost no limit (in either direction) on how long a story you can write. There is an audience out there for epic fantasy sagas consisting of seven or eight 300,000 word books; there is an audience for stories consisting of only a single, short sentence and there is an audience out there for almost everything in between. How and where you can publish these stories varies, but thanks to the magic of the internet, there’s always a way to get them out there to be read by millions.

Best of all, you’ve had a story idea! A superb story idea that you’re sure other people are going to love too! Well isn’t that just fabulous? I’m made up for you. Really. You won’t see the verdant steam of jealousy billowing from my ears at all. In fact, I’m so happy for you that I’m going to help you make sure you don’t ruin it.

‘Ruin it?!’ You cry, aghast and perturbed. ‘What could possibly ruin this little gem of mine?!’

Lots of things, but what I’m really thinking about today is the length of your story: writing a novel that should be a novella; a novella that should be a short story; a short story that should be a one hundred word story; a one hundred word story that should be fifty… or indeed, writing a fifty word story that should be a 550,000 word trilogy with a spin-off stage musical.

It’s important to decide well in advance what length of story you want to write for two reasons:

  1. It’s all part of knowing your target audience, especially if you’ve got any inclination to ever get your story published. Casual browsers of Twitter can read your six word story in no time; only dedicated bookworms and fans of your genre are likely to look at a seven book series.
  2. (and this is the reason I want to focus on the most today) Poorly chosen length can have a devastating effect on the pace of your story.

Pacing is important. A well paced story will both excite your audience at the appropriate times and make them feel involved in your character’s situation. I don’t want to get too technical in this post about the intricacies of pacing (perhaps I’ll write a post about it in the future), but suffice it to say that all good stories are made up of slow bits and fast bits, and it is this balance of slow against fast which creates the desired reaction in your reader. In the case of written fiction, the slow bits will be very detailed and will probably (although not necessarily) feature a lot of key dialogue. They are there to draw your reader into the character’s situation; to let your reader know exactly what’s going on for your character and to enable your reader to care about them. The fast bits are less detailed; it’s all about the action.

This is a difficult art to master at the best of times. You’ve probably read many a published novel or watched many a film even in which the pacing ruined it for you. Personally, I felt that the pacing in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire caused the story to drag a little too much for my liking. It’s not because it’s a bad story, or even because it’s poorly written. It’s a very good story in a lot of ways so please don’t shout at me. But by the time I got about half way through the second book, my boredom was complete. A story of that kind of pace really can’t afford to be seven books long. If he had stopped at one or two books… things could have been so very different.

It works the other way too, of course. While I’m focusing mainly on written fiction today, I want to briefly mention the film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune, because it makes the point so well. Dune is a great book. It’s very long but that’s okay, because the story is well paced. The film adaption of Dune is reasonably faithful to the book and yet… I almost got dizzy watching it. There was too much story crammed into a much-too-short film and it made the whole thing feel a bit rushed (there were also too many voice-overs to let us hear the characters’ thoughts, but I’ll save that rant for another day). If only it had been a bit longer (even if it meant breaking it up into a series of films), it could have been a really great retelling of that classic sci-fi novel.

Do you feel breathless just reading your story because the pace is so darn fast, or that you are struggling to cram everything you need to say into a restrictive word limit? Maybe it’s time to consider turning that short story into a novella or even a full length novel. Or do you feel that your narrative is dragging despite all your best efforts? Ask yourself seriously if your novel wouldn’t benefit more from being a short story or flash fiction instead.

I recently wrote a story entitled Little Thieves Are Hanged, which started out life as a 2,000-3,000 word short story. I was really convinced the story idea had potential and I was very pleased with the characters and sequence of events I had created but… try as I might, I couldn’t seem to make it interesting. It was about as much fun to read as a phone book but I couldn’t shake the idea that this was a good story.

I decided to start from scratch. Exactly the same plot but this time with a word limit of only 100 words. Let me tell you, I had some serious darling killing to do but within days I had a story I was proud to submit for entry to the National Association of Writers’ Groups’ 100 Word Mini-Tales Competition (which is why I haven’t published the story here; it’s still waiting to be judged).

Ideally, you want to settle on the right length of story before you write. You’ll save yourself an awful lot of time and energy if you do but the truth is, knowing exactly what length your story should be is often a matter of experience. Chances are you will occasionally find yourself getting it wrong the first time, like I did with Little Thieves Are Hanged. If that happens, don’t let it discourage you. Be brave and start again with a more appropriate word limit. I know it’s a drag, but you will probably find that it pays dividends.

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On Titles

Originally published 11/12/2016

Titles are possibly one of the hardest things to get right when it comes to writing your story, no matter what it’s genre and format. Not only are they hard to come up with, but they (like most things) tend to be a matter of taste. If there’s one thing I personally hate, it’s when writers (or perhaps more likely, their publishers) feel the need to give their book an agonisingly tedious title like ‘Confessions of a [optional adjective] [noun]’. That’s a great way to stop me ever reading your book, watching your film, attending your play or partaking of anything else you might produce. Writers and publishers everywhere, take note: I really hate that kind of title with an indomitable passion.

But I digress.

Titles are hard but you can’t very well avoid giving your story one. Most depressingly of all, there’s a good chance your publisher will throw out your snazzy title that you agonised over and replace it with some other, more marketable title (Confessions of a Philistine Publisher, or something like that). Still, they won’t even look at your story if you don’t give it a title first so there’s nothing else for it, I’m afraid. Your story needs a title.

So, let’s start by defining exactly what a title ought to be. First and foremost, the title must be relevant. Please don’t call your story The Swashbuckling Adventures of Captain Bloodbeard if you’ve written a cozy mystery novel set in some English country estate. If your title promises swashbuckling adventures, your story had better deliver swashbuckling adventures; and the only people I know who swash their buckles are pirates. Don’t get me wrong. A good title can be a little bit more cryptic than the one I’ve just made up, but there’s a big difference between cryptic and downright misleading.

Your title is a promise to your audience. Like any good advert, it should tantalise the audience with the promise of a good story without giving too much away. The reason Peter Newman’s The Vagrant caught my eye (among all the other fantasy novels on the same shelf) was because it promised me something that I always look for in a story: a compelling protagonist. I did not know for sure at this stage if the protagonist was actually going to be any good, but as soon as I saw that title, I was willing to give it a chance because I needed to know who the Vagrant was. If, on the other hand, Newman had simply entitled his novel ‘The Bloke’, I probably would have shrugged my shoulders (in fact, with a title like that, I wouldn’t have really expected to find it under fantasy at all, but never mind).

Some titles are phrases borrowed from the text of the story itself. The title A Game of Thrones for instance is a phrase which is used in the actual text of the story. Personally, I’m always a little bit cautious about doing this. It works with A Game of Thrones for two reasons:

  1. It’s a really snazzy phrase
  2. It encapsulates what the story is about, without giving away any spoilers.

You really need both of these in place to make a title like this work. If it’s not a snazzy phrase, it won’t catch anyone’s attention and if it doesn’t give some indication as to what the story might be about, you will only end up with disappointed readers. The phrase, ‘Alas! Earwax!’ is found in the first Harry Potter book, but let’s be honest: if you saw a book in a shop entitled Alas! Earwax! you wouldn’t expect it to be a story about wizards. Oh, and while I’m on the subject, please, please, please, never come up with your title and then try to incorporate it into the text of your story… otherwise you’ll end up with something horrible like:

And you people, you’re all astronauts on some kind of star trek?

– Zefram Cochrane in Star Trek: First Contact

Seriously, just don’t do that.

Another possibility is to use well known expressions and sayings as titles (as long as they’re relevant. Always keep it relevant). For example, the title of Jeffery Archer’s Cometh the Hour is clearly derived from the expression ‘cometh the hour, cometh the man’. We all know that expression and what it means, and therefore, when we see the title of Archer’s book, we get a certain idea in our head of what kind of story it might be (without it really giving anything away). If, however, you can’t find an expression that conveys the kind of ideas you want it to convey, why not try distorting a popular idiom as Ian Fleming does in Live and Let Die. Not only does that title tell you something about the story itself, but it is also eye-catching because it flies in the face of popular wisdom.

Alternatively, if you’re really feeling brave, you might want to use a single word as your title. If you’re going to do this, I would generally use a word that sums up the main theme of your story. While it is certainly possible to name your story after the main character (e.g. Ben-Hur by Lewis Wallace) or the main setting of your story (e.g. Dune by Frank Herbert), it’s unlikely that these kinds of titles will catch anyone’s attention if we’ve never heard of the people or places in question before now. Why should I care about who Ben-Hur is or what happens on Dune (not that I’m knocking Dune or Ben-Hur; they are, in fact, two of my favourite books)? On the other hand, Roald Dahl’s short-story collection, Deception, has a very effective title because it sums up the main theme of every story therein. We all know what it is to deceive and be deceived. It’s a theme we all understand and care about; therefore, it becomes interesting to us.

I hope some of this helps. Also, remember that while it is important to come up with a good title, try not to lose any sleep over it either. What really matters is that you tell a great story. You can have the best darn title in the world, but the story is what your audience will really care about. Some of my favourite books have rubbish titles and there’s a good chance your publisher will change the title anyway, so it’s not worth getting overly attached to anyway. But don’t let that stop you from coming up with the best title you can. After all, it’s the first thing your would-be publisher will see so give it your best shot. If your story has to get rejected, make sure that it gets rejected because for the story – not because it’s got boring title.

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3 Types of Distinctive Characters

Originally published 20/11/2016

Just about every story has characters. They are the beating heart of any story that’s worth reading. All my favourite stories, whether they be books, films, TV shows, comics, computer games, or any other kind of story you care to mention, feature compelling characters. Characters who are not just believable people (though that is vitally important), but who are intriguing, unusual, captivating and – most importantly – unique. Their distinctive qualities makes them memorable, interesting and appealing (even if they are the most sinister villains) and they don’t slot too neatly into cliched archetypes – damsels in distress, moustache twirling villains, reluctant heroes or any other such thing.

It is, therefore, naturally quite difficult to capture the formula for creating such a character. After all, any examples I can highlight (and I’ve highlighted a couple of my favourites) would only serve to be examples of unique characters who have already been written. You, dear writer, need to think of something new! But I have tried, as best I can, to sort them into three more general categories of the kind of thing you can use to add that distinctive sparkle to your character. Here they are, in no particular order:

1- Man or Woman of Mystery

For me, there’s nothing like a character who doesn’t show you his whole hand. You know there’s more to him than meets the eye because the things he does and says are peculiar. There seems to be method to his madness but you just don’t know what it is. In the opening chapters of The Vagrant by Peter Newman (arguably my favourite fantasy novel of 2015), we are introduced to a nameless and speechless protagonist, journeying to through a hellish fantasy world with a baby, a living sword and a goat.

Who is he? Where does he come from? What does he want? Why does he want it? Who does the baby belong to? Why can’t he speak (or does he simply  choose not to?)? What’s the deal with the funky sword? And where did he get that goat? So many questions!

Of course, the only danger with this approach is that you might make your story boring if the audience feels like they don’t understand anything that’s going on for too long. Fortunately, in The Vagrant Newman manages to keep that compelling spark of mystery alive by tossing us only tiny scraps of disjointed information, little by little. Just enough to keep us interested, but it is only as the story nears its end that we begin to really learn who this Vagrant is, where he comes from and why he’s doing what he’s doing. That’s the trick to making this kind of character work: a steady diet of gleanings of revelation. Each chapter should tell us something, but not everything.

2- Not Your Average Pirate/Priest/Cowboy/Wizard/Secret Agent/Space Cadet/etc…

This type of character is especially useful if you’re trying to create a lighthearted story, though it can be used in all kinds of fiction. Basically, you think of all the typical attributes you might expect your character to have and you reverse them. For instance, the Monkey Island saga is a series of games which follow the adventures of ‘mighty pirate’, Guybrush Threepwood: a slim, blond, mild-mannered, goofy young man who is, nevertheless, a bona fide (even legendary) pirate who sails the Caribbean vanquishing sword-masters, searching for treasure and battling hellspawned demon pirates. Of all the pirates to appear in fiction throughout the years – Jack Sparrow, Captain Hook, Long John Silver and anyone else you care to name – Guybrush Threepwood stands out as unique because he is so not your average pirate. His utter unsuitability to be a pirate is what makes him and his story so unique.

In Monkey Island, this is used to comic effect, but a skilled writer can use it to create non-humorous characters too. In Pale Rider, the otherwise unnamed protagonist is a preacher who rides into town wearing a clerical collar – but this being a western movie with Clint Eastwood playing the role of the preacher, you can be sure he’s more prone towards solving that town’s problems with violence than your stereotypical man of the cloth. Of all the gun-toting ‘shoot-first-and-ask-them-if-they’re-feeling-lucky-later’ characters that Clint Eastwood has ever played, the Preacher stands out as unique because he defies the usual character profile of your average travelling preacher.

3- Me and My “Thing”

I don’t want to rabbit on about Things too much, since I’ve already blogged about it before, but some characters stand out as unique because of a particular Thing they have with them which serves as a kind of trademark. As I mentioned in the previous post, there are many books, films and TV shows out there which include time travellers who use time machines to travel back and forth through eternity, but only the Doctor from Doctor Who travels through time in a British police box. And so, the Doctor is instantly recognisable by the TARDIS (as it is called), which is his Thing. In fact, the Doctor is a prime example of the power of a Thing, because that character often changes both his physical appearance and personality (we’re currently on our thirteenth incarnation of the Doctor, assuming we count the War Doctor) and yet he is always recognisable as the Doctor so long as he is travelling through time and space in a police box shaped TARDIS. If he ever permanently ditches the TARDIS for a time machine shaped like anything else, he won’t be the Doctor anymore.

The one thing you do need to be careful of is that your character’s Thing doesn’t turn out to be nothing more than a cheap gimmick which adds nothing to the story. Remember, everything must help the story to progress. The TARDIS works just fine as a Thing, because it also serves a more primary function – as the Doctor’s only means to travelling from time to time. It doesn’t just add a distinctive trademark to the Doctor’s character; it also plays a vital role in making the story work.

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The End…?

Originally published 30/10/2016

SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers in this post, anyone who has not seen the ITV TV series Doc Martin, the 2002 film Star Trek: Nemesis, or the ABC TV series Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (season 4) is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

It can be tough knowing when to call it a day with your fictional creations. Knowing exactly where and how to end your story in a way which is both memorable and satisfying is hard enough (though if you’re a novelist, you probably long for the day you can gather all your friends and neighbours around your desk to set off party-poppers while you write ‘THE END’ at the bottom of your manuscript), but if you’ve created characters and a world you’re proud of, you might never want to stop. You might feel like there’s a sequel, a trilogy or a whole saga of novels/films/TV series still to be written. Sooner or later, however, it has to come to an end – as all good things must.

‘But when?!’ I hear you cry.

It depends very much on your story. Some stories naturally lend themselves to a certain number of sequels. For example, if J.K. Rowling had stopped writing Harry Potter books after Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, her readers might have reasonably felt a little cheated. True, that particular story was complete (as it should be; every book in a series should still work as a self-contained story) but the premise of the story – a boy who discovers he’s a wizard and goes to a special school to learn magic – was still left very much open. After all, he still had several years of magic schooling to complete. There was plenty of scope for the character to go on another five or six magical adventures.

On the other hand, the ITV series Doc Martin – one of my favourite TV shows, I should add – is apparently due to have an eighth series in 2017. While I’m looking forward to it, I am, nevertheless, a little concerned that series 7 should have been the last one – and I’ll tell you why.

For those of you who don’t know, Doc Martin is a fish-out-of-water type story about Dr. Martin Ellingham; a grumpy and socially inept surgeon from London who develops haemophobia and is forced to become a GP in the seaside village of Portwenn. Most of the first few series focused on his awkwardly developing romance between himself and a local school teacher, Louisa. For the first four series or so, it worked quite naturally. In the dramatic finale to series 4, Martin and Louisa’s child is born and they resolve to give their relationship another go. It seems like a neat and tidy ending to the story…

But then, a 5th series was announced.

Is this necessary? I wondered. Hasn’t this story now finished?

Fortunately, I was pleasantly surprised by what followed. Martin and Louisa’s baby added a new dynamic to their on-off relationship and series 5 worked as well as the rest. Then there was a 6th series, which focused on their new and swiftly failing marriage. That also worked. Then there was yet another series which focused on the two characters trying to save their marriage – and another happy ending! Mr and Mrs Ellingham were again reconciled and life goes on. Once again, we have a neat and tidy ending to the story. They’ve got together, fallen out, had their baby, got together again, got married, split up and once again reconciled. I’m finding it difficult to imagine what more there is for Martin and Louisa to do that justifies another series that they haven’t done already – much as I love the show and wish it could last forever (and I do hope they prove me wrong once again).

So… when you feel the urge to write a sequel to your story, there is one very important question you should yourself before you write anything: ‘do I need to write more?’

There are three possible answers to this question:

  1. No, the story is complete and there is no conceivable way to expand the story without spoiling it (e.g., Star Trek: Nemesis — the final film in the Star Trek: The Next Generation series — ended with most of the series’ cast leaving the Enterprise for one reason or another. Since the series is so focused on the lives of that particular crew of that particular starship, further sequels would have been impossible).
  2. Yes, because there are still some glaringly obvious loose threads that need tied up (e.g., at the end of Doc Martin series 6, Martin and Louisa were still separated and Louisa was planning on moving to Spain. Is this the end for them? We needed another series to find out).
  3. Maybe. The original story has a satisfying ending, but there is no reason that our favourite characters cannot go on brand new adventures based on the same basic premise (e.g., the aforementioned series 4 of Doc Martin could have been a satisfying way to end it forever, but as it turned out, there was still some life left in the old dog after all).

If the answer is no, then it should be obvious what you must do – or not do, rather. It will all end in tears if you try to expand the inexpandable. The best you could hope for is a spin-off, and spin-offs are seldom any good.

If the answer is yes, then by all means, you absolutely must write that sequel! The last ever episode of Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman ended with a baby wrapped in a House of El blanket, being left on Lois and Clark’s doorstep! That was it! No more Lois and Clark after that! I mean, what are they trying to do to us!?

If, however, the answer is maybe… then think, long and hard, before you write. To carry on a series, your newest offering must be both old (that is, the premise must be unchanged) and it must be new (no rehashing the same old adventures). The reason Harry Potter worked so well as a lengthy series of novels was that by using a school as the main setting and making each novel last roughly one academic year, Rowling was able to write seven very different stories based on exactly the same premise (though I can’t help feeling that more recent offerings, no matter how good they may be, are causing the saga to drag on beyond its natural lifespan). That’s what you need to be able to do, if you plan on writing additional stories for your fictional world. Identify the natural lifespan of your story and work within it. Don’t bombard your audience with extra waffle. I might enjoy a pizza, but if I was fed it non-stop, I would eventually vomit. A good story should end like a good meal; leaving the audience with a big feeling of satisfaction and only a small tinge of regret that it’s over.

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Your Character’s “Thing”

Originally published 09/10/2016

SPOILER ALERT:

Anyone who still has not seen up to series 8 of the BBC sci-fi/drama, Doctor Who (the series 8 from 1971 one, not 2014), is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

My wife and I are Whovians. Recently we’ve been watching all of Doctor Who from the very beginning (the very, very beginning with William Hartnell) and we’re now on series 8. The Doctor (by now on his third incarnation, portrayed by Jon Pertwee) has been exiled to Earth by the Time Lords. He still has his TARDIS – the space/time capsule by which he can travel anywhere, anywhen – but it has been sabotaged by the Time Lords, who have also put a block on the Doctor’s memory so he is unable to fix it. As such, he’s spent the majority of this series as a scientific adviser to the human organisation, UNIT. The TARDIS is barely seen or mentioned at all in the first couple of episodes.

As much as I’ve enjoyed this series as a show and think Pertwee is arguably one of my favourite Doctors, he seems odd without his TARDIS. The TARDIS is, after all, the Doctor’s ‘Thing’. It’s what makes him stand out as a truly unique character. Many characters in fiction have travelled through time and space; many are aliens; many speak in BBC English but no one else has a space/time capsule disguised as a British police box. If anyone did, we would all cry ‘Plagiarism! A space/time travelling police box is the Doctor’s Thing!’

Almost all of the most memorable characters in fiction have a Thing. It might be a physical object they carry, something they wear or perhaps even something they simply say. When one thinks of James Bond, we imagine a man who carries a Beretta 418 (though in reality, he did occasionally use other weapons) and drinks vodka martinis, shaken not stirred. Batman dresses like bat, drives a Batmobile and operates from a Batcave; no prizes for guessing what his thing is. Even characters from history are often assigned Things that make them recognisable when they are portrayed on stage or on film today. For example, one of the first plays I recall ever seeing included a portrayal of Henry VIII, who spent most of the play munching a turkey leg. Whether or not the real Henry VIII ever had an affinity for turkey is neither here nor there; today, it’s become that character’s Thing. A Thing might even be another character; a constant companion (or nemesis?) whom he is lost without. Sherlock Holmes for example is almost always portrayed with John Watson. On the rare occasions where Watson is not present, he is still almost always referred to by Holmes who is clearly suffering for a lack of ‘his Watson’; even if he is loathe to admit it.

And here it is that I miss my Watson. By cunning questions and ejaculations of wonder he could elevate my simple art, which is but systematised common sense, into a prodigy.

– Doyal, A.C. The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier

In a short, a Thing can be anything but it must be unique.

So, does your character need a Thing? Not necessarily. A well-written character can function just fine within an excellent story without a Thing. What a Thing will do for your character is make them seem more distinctive and memorable. Therefore, it is probably only necessary to give them to your protagonist and maybe your main antagonist; characters you want to make stand out. However, as we have said before, it is important that every element of your story – characters, objects, dialogue, the lot – serves a function in progressing the story. Pointless gimmicks are… well… pointless. I would, therefore, think very, very, very carefully before giving your character a Thing which does not also serve some practical function to move the story along, especially in written fiction where the narrative will be disrupted by your description of the Thing. (You can get away with a little bit more on stage or film. For example, Henry VIII’s turkey leg might serve no practical function, but the story is not interrupted since he simply has to be seen holding it; in written fiction, however, the reader’s attention must be drawn to it with superfluous narrative).

So, before you even think about Things, think about this: what does my character actually need?

In other words, what is required to make the story work? In the case of Doctor Who, a space/time capsule was obviously required, because the whole premise of Doctor Who revolves around an alien who has a variety of adventures travelling to different planets and different points in history. Clearly, he would need some means of transportation, especially if he is bringing human companions with him, as he always does. However, it doesn’t need to be disguised as a British police box. It could be disguised as anything – or not be disguised at all. At this stage, it’s not really distinctive enough to be a Thing, since plenty of sci-fi includes time machines. We’re only interested at this stage in giving our character what he needs to make the story work.

Only once the essentials are in place can we start adding the dressing needed to create a Thing for our character. Remember, that if your story was a five course meal and you were a chef, your characters’ Things would be garnish; not appropriate for every course, and even then, only to be used in tiny quantities as a kind of ‘finishing touch’.

Like all good garnishes, a Thing should discreetly compliment and enhance the character you have already created. The Doctor’s TARDIS, for example, is perpetually disguised as a British police box, regardless of what planet or time it travels to. The fact it travels through time and space is your meat and potatoes, because it is essential to make the story work. The fact it is humorously disguised as a police box is the garnish; passively turning the Doctor’s time machine into something unique, without hindering the pace of the story in any way. It’s unusual enough to make the Doctor (and indeed, the entire Doctor Who franchise) stand out as unique without taking any of the glory away from the story itself. It is everything a character’s Thing should be.

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Typewriter: An Old-Fashioned Solution for Modern Writers

Originally published 02/10/2016

We writers all know (or if we don’t know, we soon will learn) that perfectionism is the enemy of the writer. Of course, we all want our novel/play/movie/TV script/comic to be as close to perfection as it is possible to get. There’s nothing wrong with thatSome might even say that it is our sworn duty as story tellers to create the best story we are capable of and to present it in the most pleasing way possible. That’s all very commendable.

However, anyone who has been writing for any length of time will be able to tell you that you will almost never be able to simply sit down and produce a perfect first draft. It is almost guaranteed to be full of errors, typos, weak metaphors, poor dialogue and perhaps even gaping plot holes. An experienced writer knows this to be the case and therefore also knows that the only solution is to write a bad first draft, attack it with the Red Pen of Editing and then write a slightly better second draft. Repeat until you have attained perfection.

Back in the old days, there was no other choice. One could not simply hit the delete key and erase the last couple of words, much less copy and paste whole paragraphs. These days, however, it is tempting to just edit that first draft as you go along and make it perfect. After all, we have the technology. A typo can be easily fixed. Something you forgot can be easily inserted in the middle of the document. Words can be chopped, changed, pasted and tinkered with until it’s just right. The trouble is, nothing ever actually gets finished that way. As we have said before, a bad first draft can lead to a good second draft; a non-existent or unfinished first draft won’t ever amount to anything.

Unfortunately, I speak from personal experience. I am a perfectionist, and as such, I often found it all too easy to use modern technology to help me agonise over the same paragraph for hours or days at a time. Knowing that writing first and editing afterwards is the best way to work did very little to change this (because I’m contrary like that). Until one day…

I had a brainwave.

I’ll buy a typewriter! I thought. I’ll write my first few drafts on a good old fashioned typewriter and only do my final draft on the computer! Oh boy, this is going to be going swell!

For those of you born any later than the mid ’90s, a typewriter was a primitive (usually unpowered) machine with a QWERTY keyboard which printed directly onto physical paper as you typed. Since typewriters don’t have delete keys, copy and pastes or anything like that, the writer is forced to wait until the second draft to make any major changes. I therefore thought it might be the cure for my perfectionism. Unfortunately, the only way I was going to lay hands on a typewriter these days was to break into a museum and even then, I would be spending the rest of my life trying to find increasingly hard-to-find replacement ribbons. It was going to be a lot of trouble and expense when all I really needed was the discipline to not edit while I wrote.

Not to be deterred, however, I decided to search the internet for an app which does the same thing. Since I’m a Windows man and still loathe writing on tablets, I was quite specifically hunting for a typewriter app I could use on my Windows PC.

There aren’t many. I guess there’s not that much demand for word processors with virtually no functionality whatsoever. I found a grand total of three that ran on my PC plus one for Mac called Rough Draft (I don’t have a Mac so I cannot tell you if it’s any good or not. Let me know if you’ve reviewed it on your blog and I’ll maybe reblog it for you). Of those three, one appears to no longer be available except as a fifteen day trial version and the other was a very clunky web-based app that I found needlessly complicated to use. The other problem with both of these apps was that they emphasised the look and feel of a typewriter more than the simple functionality — which is what I really wanted.

Then I found it.

Typewriter – Minimal Text Editor: a very simple ASCII text editor which runs on Java (and thus, will run on just about any computer) and includes absolutely zero editing functionality. Unlike a lot of typewriter apps which waste time by mimicking the sound effects and ugly fonts of physical typewriters, this app still looks and sounds like any other distraction-free plain text editor. The only difference is that you can’t edit.

Delete key? Forget about it. If you make a typo, you’ve just got to like that typo.

Copy and paste? No way hosay. If you want to make text appear on that screen, you’ve got to type it in yourself; and once it’s there, it ain’t going anywhere.

The only functions (besides typing plain text) available to you in this app are:

  • Colour scheme switching (you can have green text on a black background or black text on an off-white background. Whichever one you choose, it will not affect the appearance of your document when you print it, since *.txt is the only file type available to you)
  • Full screen switching (full screen is good for creating a distraction free environment but you might find it more convenient to have this off if you’re doing other things simultaneously… like writing a blog about the app in question)
  • Open file
  • Save file
  • Save file as
  • New file
  • Print
  • View key mappings
  • Quit

That’s it. That’s all the help this baby is going to give you. Heck, you can’t even use your mouse to navigate around these options, since there are no buttons or menus of any kind. All of these functions are only available to you via keyboard shortcuts (i.e., ctrl+O to open file).

This app is not for the faint-hearted. It will show your writing to you in all its unedited ugliness. But if you can swallow your pride and ignore all your mistakes, it will keep you writing right up until you’re ready to print off your work and attack it with that all important Red Pen of Editing.

It’s exactly what I’ve been looking for.

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8 Useful Posts on Fiction Writing

Originally published 25/09/2016

Sometimes, I just can’t say it better than my fellow bloggers, and since it’s been a while since I’ve compiled a ‘list of things I like’ kind of post (in fact, I don’t think I’ve done it since the very first post I ever wrote for Penstricken; sigh) I decided that it was about time I did another one. And what better thing to list than some of the best story-writing related posts from other blog sites that I have found particularly useful or insightful in recent weeks.

In reality, there’s dozens of writing and fiction related blogs I like to read on a regular basis and there have been numerous posts I’ve read lately that I could include in this list. I could not even begin to list them all. This is just a selection of some that I have recently come across (not necessarily ones that were written recently) which proved invaluable to me.

So, without further ado…

C.S. Wilde – Free Basic Scene Planner (especially handy for ‘pantsers’ like me who are working hard to become ‘planners’).

Rachel Poli – Why Fan Fiction is Important to Me (I had to include this, because to be frank, fan fiction was pretty much where I also started writing and I have a sneaking suspicion that a great number of writers today can probably relate to this refreshingly unashamed, reflective little post).

Larry Kahaner – How To Screw Up Your Novel: The Series Cheat (because I want to poke novelists who do this in the eye with a chopstick, too).

Tobias Mastgrave – World Building Part 5: How To Build a People Group – Custom and Tradition (this post deals with one of the most important aspects of world building and is full of really insightful points that most people over look. Yes, I know it’s a couple of years old now but I don’t care; it’s got some important stuff in it. Essential reading for the speculative fiction author).

Kristen Twardowski – The Curse of Rewrites: How Many is Too Many? (useful insights for those of us who suffer from perfectionism).

Jean M. Cogdell – Are your adjectives in the right order? (by all accounts, this is more of a language related post, rather than a fiction specific one, but I think it is especially useful for us writers).

Bridget McNulty – Novel plot mistakes: 7 don’ts for how to plot a novel (actually, there are about a hundred posts on NowNovel’s blog that I could have linked to. The blog at that site is just one of the really useful services they offer to novelists, no matter what their level of experience. I just keep coming back and reading this site again and again… but this was the one I read the most recently about how not to plot your novel).

K.M. Weiland – The #1 Key to Relatable Characters: Backstory (remember that post I did recently about writing a backstory for your protagonist? Well… forget it. This one by K.M. Weiland is better).

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Preventing Phantom Protagonist Syndrome

Originally published 21/08/2017

Have you ever had a really great idea for a story that somehow seemed to die a little more with each word you tried to write? Ever had a thrilling plot with no obvious holes in it that you just couldn’t seem to get off the ground? Perhaps, in addition to your thrilling and seamless plot, you also constructed a world so detailed, so complex and so marvellous that it would give Terry Pratchett and J.R.R Tolkien a run for their money; an antagonist whose diabolical scheme is sure to keep the reader on the edge of their seats; you’ve even managed to weave in a romantic subplot (which admittedly still seems a little half-baked, but it’s showing real potential)… and yet still, you just can’t seem to really ignite all that hard work into a half decent manuscript.

If any of this sounds familiar, there’s a good chance that your story is suffering from a chronic case of what I have dubbed Phantom Protagonist Syndrome (PPS). PPS is a condition which occurs in stories where the protagonist (that is, the main character) has not fully developed into a believable person but is only ‘half there’. Other symptoms of PPS may include excessive backstory in your manuscript (especially in the opening pages) giving complex details of the social, economic and political situation for the last thousand years of your fiction world; numerous failed attempts to audition your protagonist; feelings of despair and frustration (in the author) and an overwhelming urge on the part of the author to delete the whole story and work on another project (knitting, or some other non-literary pursuit). Symptoms of PPS usually become apparent in the mid-late planning stage of development (although it has been documented at all stages, including several untreated cases in published works) and typically affects almost every other part of the story.

‘Is it serious!?’ I hear you cry.

Why, yes it is. Terminal, in fact. Remember, your protagonist is the driving force behind your story. Think about the busiest place you know; your office, your living room or your kid’s school playground. What do you think happens when there is nobody there?

That’s right. Nothing happens. The same is true in fiction. No protagonist, no story. Your story hangs on your protagonist’s every thought (because this affects what he does) and his every action (because this affects what actually happens), so the more he seems like a real person, the better.

‘How is PPS diagnosed?’

PPS, by its very definition, is caused by having a half finished (or even non-existent) protagonist. Therefore, it is the protagonist himself we must put to the test. Begin by consulting your protagonist’s character profile and ensure that it is complete. At the absolute bare minimum it should include:

  • The character’s full name (including aliases)
  • Age and D.O.B
  • Place of birth
  • Gender
  • Religion (be specific about this. Even atheists believe something to be true; for instance, they might believe religion is the scourge of humanity to be actively opposed or they might have a more ‘live and let live’ approach to religion, while still rejecting it for themselves. When answering the question of your character’s religious beliefs, be sure to know what he believes, rather than simply what he does not believe).
  • Sexual orientation
  • Nationality (if you can whittle this down to a particular town, street and house number, so much the better)
  • Physical description (including dress)
  • Family (spouse, children, siblings and parents at least)
  • Career (both their actual career and their dream career) and hobbies
  • A little back story on how he or she got to where they are now
  • A list of personality traits
  • A list of likes, dislikes, hopes and fears.

If any of these are missing or incomplete then your character is still a mere phantom, not a fully formed person. I’m very sorry, but it’s PPS.

If, however, you’re satisfied that you’ve got all the basics in place, then we need to perform a more invasive test on your protagonist. We need to get right inside his mind and find out what our protagonist’s motivation, goals, conflict and epiphany will be. These not only add substance to your protagonist, but they also form the backbone of your plot. Each of these four things follow on, one from the other: motivation influences goals, goals determine the conflict, which in turn determines what the outcome of your story will be and, consequently, what your protagonist will learn (the epiphany).

For instance, Johnny swears by his morning cup of coffee to get him through the day. He’s often late for work and his boss has told him if he is late one more time, he’ll get the sack. One morning, Johnny wakes up and – oh no! – his bus leaves in ten minutes! He quickly decides not to have the cup of coffee he swears by but jumps into the first set of clothes he can find and runs to the bus stop. He makes it to work just in time where he does such a good days work that he gets a promotion. And I did it all without a single drop of coffee, he reflects on his way home.

This story (simple though it is) works, because we have all four of the above elements feeding in to each other:

Motivation John wants to hold down his job
Goals To this end, he aims to drink a cup of coffee and get to work on time. He believes both are needed to satisfy his motives.
Conflict Time (an abstract sort of antagonist, if you like) has conspired to make him lose his job by forcing him to choose between his two goals.
Epiphany Having got to work on time, he realises he can live without coffee after all.

Johnny had two goals in this story: to have his morning cup of coffee and to get to work on time. His motivation, however, is to hold down his job and this determines his every action, including his decision to abandon one goal in favour of another. A common cause of PPS is giving your protagonist plenty of goals (i.e., get to the bus stop at all costs) but no motivation. Johnny would never have reacted in such haste if he wasn’t motivated to keep his job. He might not even have bothered about the coffee. He would have stayed in bed and learned nothing. How much more unlikely is it that your protagonist is going to try to assassinate Hitler or propose to his friend’s sister unless they are motivated? Johnny had goals because he was motivated. Conflict arose because the ‘antagonist’ (time, in this case) forced him to choose between his two goals. The choice he made, based on his motivation, determined the outcome of the story and, in the end, taught him a valuable lesson that made him a better person (but why not click here for the alternate ending?).

That, dear reader, is a character driven story and the most powerful vaccination I know against PPS.

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