Throwback Thursday: Take a First Draft and Make it Better

Originally published 24/04/2016

I recently finished the first draft of a novella I’ve been working on for far too long already. It’s been a bit of a slog getting it done, let me tell you. There were numerous times I was tempted to give up. But after much sweating of blood and ignoring the gnawing feeling of ‘THIS IS THE WORST STORY I HAVE EVER WRITTEN’, I finally produced a completed first draft.

It was still the worst story I had ever written. But that didn’t matter. It was a completed draft; a full blown story with a beginning, a middle and an end which more or less made sense. The difficult bit was now at hand: writing a redraft.

After the initial excitement of finishing the first draft wore off, I quickly found myself less than enthusiastic about the second draft. It can feel a little bit like you’re starting from scratch with something you’ve already spent weeks on. However, you’ll find it a whole lot more rewarding and enjoyable to do if you remember that the point of a redraft is to make your story better. In other words, it’s about taking a little time to identify and fix the problems with the first draft, rather than starting all over again (though you should do it as a complete redraft).

If you followed my advice from last week, you’ll probably have realised that this is a lot easier to do now than it would have been if you tried to edit as you went along. The bare bones of the story are already there: beginning, middle and end. So the best thing to do now is print off your draft and sit down with a pen or a few highlighters (or whatever floats your boat) and mark what you have done. Personally, I find it a lot easier to wait a day or two before I do this so that I can look at it with a fresh and hopefully objective perspective. Then I read through the whole manuscript, scribbling notes in the margins and highlighting relevant parts which need to be improved in some way. The idea at this stage is to identify what it is about your first draft that needs to be changed, improved or removed (be ruthless with this; if it doesn’t work, get rid of it no matter how much you like it). Perhaps your dialogue is too rigid and unconvincing; perhaps there are a few loose ends in the plot or things that don’t quite make sense; perhaps you rabbit on too much about the back story before getting down to the actual action. Whatever it is that made your first draft suck, try to specifically identify it. Don’t settle for simply saying ‘It’s boring’ or ‘It’s not very good’. That’s too vague. Why is it boring? What makes it not very good? That’s what you want to figure out just now.

Once you’ve done that, it should be fairly straight-forward to redraft your story. If the main problem with your first draft was something as simple as unconvincing dialogue or sloppy grammar, this shouldn’t be too difficult. If you’re a human being, however, you’ll probably find your first draft has a lot more wrong with it, especially if you didn’t plan it out in too much detail before you started. That’s okay, as long as you can identify and fix these problems.

The biggest problem I found in my first draft was my vague back story. Fortunately, I was also a couple of hundred words shy of the word count I was aiming for, so all in all I consider those two problems to be quite complimentary. However, I soon realised that I couldn’t simply sit down with my old manuscript and change the odd line here and there. When you start tinkering with something as fundamental as the back story, you soon find that your main plot develops a few problems too.

So, do we give up now? We most certainly do not! We persevere, just like we did last week.

Having identified where I went wrong in the first draft, I grabbed a nice clean notebook and sat out in the back garden with an ice lolly (summer happened on the 21st of April in Scotland this year) and began to address these problems. The process I used is very simple; all it requires is patience and perseverance. I began by writing down my basic story in no more than a paragraph or two. Then I wrote down all the problems I had identified with it in the form of questions. For example, one of the first questions I came up with was, ‘Why would a pirate be an expert in Ren-Zyti antiquity?’ (yes, I’m writing a space fantasy about magic space pirates).

Now this question (along with the various others I came up with) demands an answer, because it pertains to something in my plot which does not make sense. So I came up with an answer: ‘He used to be a lecturer in Ren-Zyti antiquities before his home-world was destroyed’.

Great! However, doing this raised a few new questions that also had to be answered. As I said, it is a process which requires patience and perseverance but by the end of it, I had a back story which really worked. Not only did it work (without really changing the bare bones of my plot too much), it had also added new depths to my characters and to my fantasy universe almost accidentally. To be certain it worked, I again summed up my story from start to finish in a few sentences, again picking out any remaining questions or problems and fixing them.

Then and only then was I truly equipped to sit down and write up a redraft which I could be sure would be better than the first one. Even if you’re not much of a planner (I know I’m not!), you will find it pays dividends at this stage to take a little time to really pick out all the specific problems with your first draft and decide how you are going to fix them before you write up the second draft. That’s the whole point of a redraft; to transform your silly little story into a good story.

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AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

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10 Reasons Why I Still Love Scrivener

Please note this post is about Scrivener version 1.9.16 for Windows.

When I made my first serious attempt to write a novel, many moons ago, I did what a lot of young and inexperienced writers probably do: I roamed the internet looking for the perfect piece of writing software (we didn’t call them apps back then) that would make my novel fall together with ease and grace while I sipped tea with one hand and typed airily with the other.

Needless to say, such a miracle app does not exist, but after a few false starts I did find something that came pretty close: Scrivener by Literature and Latte.

I don’t know how long I’ve been using Scrivener for. Years, anyway. Occasionally I’ll look around to see what else is out there (mainly so I can review it here!) but I always come back to Scrivener for any writing project that matters to me. Here’s why:

Scrivener is very flexible

While marketed for novelists, it’s easy to use Scrivener to organise and write just about anything including essays, plays, poetry, song-writing, sermon prep, recipes, blogs and just about anything else you can think of.

Scrivener’s got your novel covered from the cradel to the publisher’s desk

Seriously, you don’t need to use any other apps or have other files stored anywhere else. You can accomplish everything you need to write a novel write here in one single project file. From brainstorming your original ideas; to plotting, outlining and creating character profiles; to maintaining a story bible; to writing out that first, second and third draft and finally compiling your completed manuscript. I even like to keep my writing journal in the same project file.

With just a little work, you can create a template that perfectly suits your own method of writing which you can use again and again.

Scrivener is easily accessible for new users

If you’ve just downloaded it for the first time and want to get stuck right into your novel without having to do a PhD in how to use the app, Scrivener makes it easy for you to do just that with a selection of easy to use default templates.

it’s easy to keep track of your progress

This is a biggie for me. With an app as powerful and complex as Scrivener, it is easy to lose track of how much writing you’re actually getting done and if you’re anywhere near achieving your goals. Fortunately, Scrivener makes it easy to see how many words or characters you’ve added to your manuscript each day (with the option to include or not include other documents in the count) and how close you are to achieving your overall target. Scrivener also keeps a word count on individual documents if (like me) you’re someone who likes to keep each chapter to roughly the same length.

Scrivener’s Virtual corkboard makes storyboarding simple

Each scene can be displayed on a virtual corkboard, making storyboarding easy. The individual scenes are displayed with little cards showing their titles and a synopsis of each scene.

Scrivener is affordable

You’ll get the full package for a one-off payment of £47 (correct at time of writing). No nasty subscriptions, no having to fork out again every time the software is updated. For my money, it’s the best value you’re going to get on a writing app.

Scrivener lets you Import files from anywhere

It’s a doddle to import files and web pages from other places. Very handy for research or if you want to include images (click here to see what I use this feature for!).

Scrivener’s Binder helps you keep stay organised

Scrivener’s virtual binder makes it easy to never lose a single page of notes or manuscript ever again, no matter how bloated your project becomes.

Scrivener’s scratchpad is ideal for jotting down quick notes

The scratchpad is a thing of beauty in its simplicity. A small notepad that you can easily pop up whenever you have a sudden brainwave, without having to come out of whatever chapter or character profile you happened to be working on at the time.

Compiling your work is a breeze

When you’re finished writing, it’s easy to compile your work into just about any format you like using pre-defined formats (e.g.: e-book, paperback novel, proof copy, standard manuscript) or, if you don’t like any of those, you can make your own.

And of course, all your favourite file types are available at the compiling stage as well, including but not limited to pdf, rtf, epub, mobi, markdown– even ODF (for me and my fellow Open Office users).

Please note this post is about the Windows version of Scrivener. Different versions of Scrivener are also available for MacOS and iOS.

Click here to buy Scrivener from Literature and Latte.

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:

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Throwback Thursday: 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.

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AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

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Establishing a Daily Writing Routine

I don’t know about you, but for me the only way to get anything written is to work to a very strict routine. If I only write when I feel like I have the energy or, worse yet, the inspiration, I will almost certainly never write. Not only am I unlikely to ever write, but in whenever I do write, I will give up almost straight away because I ‘just wasn’t getting into The Zone today.’

Dear reader, I am not for one second refuting the value of getting into the so-called Zone. There’s nothing quite like that feeling of easily knocking out a couple of thousand really good words words in less than an hour. But for most mortals, that doesn’t really happen every day and that’s why we need to do something about it.

The answer lies, at least partly, in establishing a strong writing routine. By that I mean having both a long-term routine (that is, your regular established writing times) and a short-term one (how do you make the best use of your time each session). I’m not going to harp on too much about the importance of having a long-term routine since I’m pretty sure I’ve already written about it several times. Instead lets talk about what we do when we actually sit down to write.

I often find it tempting to cold start each writing session, especially since I have so very little writing time available between juggling a full time job and a three year old daughter (not to mention this blog) but nine times out of ten, I find cold starting is the single biggest mistake you can make. If you’re coming to your novel tired, uninspired and distracted by other things, you’re not going to suddenly knock out a work of genius in a single hour session. You’ll just end up faffing. You might even catch yourself visiting some of my favourite websites for procrastination (I recommend the Monkey Island sword-fighting game). So even if you find time is short, I would strongly recommend starting off each session with a pre-writing technique.

There are quite a few of these you could try, though free writing is one I find particularly effective (I’ve written about that too!). Try free writing, even just for five or ten minutes about whatever comes to mind, or better yet, free write about your story, even if all you can think to write is ‘I have no idea what I’m doing with this story,’ over and over. You don’t necessarily have to come up with new ideas for your story (although if you do, great). This is just a technique for getting you focused on what you’re about to do, so you could use it to rave about how wonderful your book is going to be or you could write a little story about your antagonist buying his groceries or you could write down your own feelings about writing. It doesn’t matter. The most important thing is that you write, without stopping, about whatever comes to mind. Trust me, it’ll get your juices flowing.

Once you’ve done your pre-writing, it’s time to start work properly. Again, your time is precious. Don’t waste it by just opening up your project and waiting for something to happen. Go to work with a clear and specific goal for this session. If you’re well into the drafting stage, this could be as simple as establishing how many words you have to write in that session, or if you’re still at the planning stage you might decide that you need to complete a chapter outline. Whatever your goal, make sure it is crystal clear in your mind so you aren’t distracted by anything else (such as editing chapter 1 when you should be drafting chapter 2) and also make sure your goal is realistic. If you’ve only got one hour to write, don’t ask yourself to write 100,000 words. You will fail and become despondent. Be realistic about what you can accomplish- then accomplish it.

When you’ve accomplished your goal for the day, allow yourself to save your work and go grab a nice cold drink and put your feet up. It is often tempting to write ourselves into oblivion, until we completely dry up and become despondent because we’ve wasted the last three hours of our day trying to keep up the momentum we established early on in the day. But that is not necessary or helpful. If you have accomplished your daily goal, turn off your computer, feel good about what you’ve accomplished and enjoy the rest of your life. You won’t feel like a failure then because you are establishing and meeting your writing goals every day– and before long, you’ll be holding a completed novel in your hands.


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterPinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

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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:

Throwback Thursday: The Overwhelming Art of World-Building

Originally published 19/06/2016

Research is, undeniably, one of the most important stages of writing a story. Understanding the time and place your story is set in will enable you to make that story more true to life, and therefore, more compelling. But what if you are writing a fantasy, set in an imaginary world? Make no mistake: research is just as important in fantasy as it is in non-fantasy, perhaps even more so since you are creating a world from scratch. If you’re writing a historical fiction set during the Spanish Civil War, you probably won’t need to research whether or not gravity existed in Spain or what colour the grass was. We can take these things for granted in non-fantasy, but in fantasy you need to become an expert on your entire world… and still make time to actually write the story!

I find that a good place to start is by learning a little about the real world; historical events, religious beliefs, foreign cultures, you name it. Anything that interests you. Sooner or later, you’re going to need to be able to create a bit of everything for your world anyway, so read as widely as you can bear to. If you’re still not sure exactly what you want to write about, my advice would be to read up on anything which grabs your attention and inspires you. For example, the inspiration for the novel I am currently working on came about as a result of me reading about a variety of unrelated real life subjects which I found interesting (specifically, the Beer Hall Putsch, the concept of extra-terrestrial real estate and the mythology of various ancient cultures). Even if you already do have an idea in your head about what you want to write about, it would still pay to try and expand on your idea by researching related real life subjects.

The more you read about the real world, the more you’ll come to realise that a believable world is replete with all kinds of different stuff; different races, religions, creeds and philosophies; different wars, treaties, governments and despots; different guilds, parties and organisations both legitimate and otherwise; different traditions and dissents of science, history, philosophy and art; different forms of vegetable, animal and mineral; different languages, dialects and accents; different laws, crimes and systems of justice; different myths, legends and parables… you get the idea. The natural world is a complex and intricate machine, interacting with the equally complex and often contradictory machines of human society. As if that weren’t complicated enough, what happens in one generation invariably affects the next, so history also matters. If you’re creating a fantasy world, you need to understand how all of this works within your world without falling into the trap of spending so much time world-building that you never actually write the story. Personally,  I feel that there are at least three key parts of any fantasy world that are vital for the author to understand.

The first thing to consider is the basic natural laws of your fantasy world, because this is the skeleton on which everything else in your story will hang. Is it spherical like our world? Terry Pratchett’s world wasn’t: his world was a disc supported on the backs of four elephants standing on top of a giant space-faring turtle. What about plant and animal life? Are there dragons, elves or something else entirely? Do the natural laws of your world include magic? If so, how does this magic work? Do supernatural beings influence your world? You can probably be as imaginative as you like but remember there are two basic rules I like to stick to:

  1. There must be some form of natural law to bring order to your world and to allow it to function in a rational, if strange, way. In short, it must make sense.
  2. Avoid superimposing fanciful things on a world which is otherwise identical to our own. Our society would not have developed as it has done if there were wizards running around the place with the power to magically engineer personal, social or political changes and nor will yours.

The next thing to consider is how society functions. This will undoubtedly be rooted in the rules you established for your natural world. For example, if your characters live among natural predators, you can bet your life that would impact their laws and values regarding the rights of animals. Better yet, what if their natural predators had a highly developed society of their own? For example, Zebrapeople and Lionpeople living on the same world. Would there be war? Would treaties be signed to keep the peace? What would such a treaty mean for the Lionpeople?

If your world is governed by gods, this will probably be reflected in your society’s religion and philosophy. If your world is not governed by gods, religion and philosophy will still exist and within each belief system, there are likely to be numerous denominations and splinter-groups to consider, each with their own individual opinions on how things are and how things should be. For every traditional belief or practice, there will probably be dissenters. You also need to consider if there are many empires, nations and tribal societies, how does each one of these function? What are their own particular customs, fashions, taboos, mannerisms, languages and so forth? As with the natural world, these things must function in a logical fashion but you should also make room for conflict: this will undoubtedly be the cornerstone of your story.

Finally and closely related to both of these is history. How did society get to where it is now? For example, let’s say the King of the Lionpeople has signed an agreement with the King of Zebrapeople saying that they won’t eat the Zebrapeople any more. The common Lionpeople take umbrage and revolt. That the premise for your story. The question we must now ask is why was this agreement signed? Was it to end a long running and costly war? If that is the case, who started the war and why? No society pops out of thin air; society is the way it is because of what happened previously to lead us to this point. To create a believable world, this must also be the case with your fantasy world. Go back into your world’s history, as far back as you feel you need to, in order to understand what brought us to this point, where your story begins.

Finally and most importantly, you must know when it’s time to stop nit-picking and start writing your story. You almost certainly won’t be able to please everybody nor is it a realistic ambition to try and determine every single last thing that ever happened everywhere on the surface of your world. Decide on the scope of what you are trying to accomplish in advance. Ask yourself what is the most relevant to your story and focus on that. J.R.R Tolkien probably had no idea what Gandalf’s great grandfather’s cousin’s pet budgie was called, but that didn’t stop him writing The Lord of the Rings.

Don’t let it stop you either. Write your story.


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterPinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

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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:

Throwback Thursday: Using Magic in Fiction

Originally published 12/03/2017 under the title ‘A Few Words About Using Magic in Fiction’

I’ve recently been reading The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson and am so far loving everything about it. I love the characters, I love the world-building, I love Sanderson’s use of language, but more than anything I love the magic system he has created for his fantasy world.

Magic (as I’m loosely defining it here) features heavily in fantasy. The forms magic can take from one fantasy story to another, however, greatly vary. If you think I’m going to give you an exhaustive break-down of all the kinds of magic that appear in fantasy fiction, you’re sadly mistaken because I have neither the time nor the inclination do so, but I do want to try and break down what it takes to construct a good one as Sanderson has.

Let’s begin by highlighting an important pitfall we need to avoid. I am of course talking about the dreaded deus ex machina. For those of you who don’t know this term, deus ex machina (literally, ‘God in the machine’) is a literary device by which the problem faced by your characters is miraculously solved in an implausible or unexpected way which tends to be profoundly disappointing for the audience. If you’re including magic in your fantasy, there is a real temptation to endow your characters with a kind of practical omnipotence whereby they can rescue themselves from any situation simply by performing the right magic trick but doing this will suck all of the excitement out of your story.

I don’t want to harp on about Sanderson’s magic system in The Final Empire too much (mainly because I haven’t finished reading it yet and I might get things wrong) but it does serve as a good example of how to avoid this. This magic system (called Allomancy) involves ingesting and ‘burning’ certain key metals. Each metal endows the user with a particular ability. There are, however, only so many metals which can be used in Allomancy, which therefore puts a limit on the kinds of magic that can be used. Characters cannot randomly breathe fire or travel back in time but they can enhance all their physical attributes if they burn pewter, for instance. Allomancy is further limited by who can use it (Mistborns, who can burn all the metals and Mistings who can burn only one kind). There are many other limitations on this system too, but I hope you get the point: by creating limitations on magic, deus ex machina can be avoided because even the most powerful Allomancers can only act within the boundaries of what that world’s magic system allows them to do.

Another thing to bear in mind is that your magic system is inseparable from world-building. Indeed, creating your magic system is part of your world-building process. You need to ask yourself, therefore, where the magic comes from and how it works, even if you don’t make this explicit in the text itself. For instance, is it something inherent to certain creatures or people-groups in your world (fairies, wizards, dragons, women, children, the rich, the poor, etc) or is it something that can be learned or even purchased? Is it perceived as something natural or supernatural (in the same way we might perceive a difference between the science of medicine and miraculous spiritual healing)? In short, you need to ask yourself exactly what magic is, who has it, where it comes from and why.

Incidentally, it’s also worth remembering that the longer your fictional world has existed, the further your society’s understanding of magic is likely to have developed, in much the same way in the real world our knowledge about the universe has steadily increased – and we have developed technology which exploits that knowledge. If your characters are still crawling around in caves, they probably are barely aware of the intricacies of magic (even if they are aware of it at a primal or superstitious level), but if they are already flying around in spaceships, it’s likely that their understanding of your magical system will also be more advanced and this will be reflected in how they use (or avoid using) it.

Also remember that no matter what kind of system and history you create for magic in your world, it will affect the rest of the world and the characters in it, even if they cannot all perform magic themselves. It is not possible, for instance, to write a story set in a world just like our own except that all the children are telekinetic. Believe me, if a world ‘just like ours’ featured telekinetic children, we would have a very different society indeed; perhaps even a paedarchy. Certainly family life and systems of education would be drastically different from anything we have in the real world.

This is why it is so important to also ask yourself, why your story needs magic and what kind of magic it needs to make the story work. Having magic in your fictional world will fundamentally redefine that world and can undermine your story. Therefore, do not include magic just for the sake of having it. Like everything else in any good story, it must serve some function. And please, do not fall into the trap of thinking that magical abilities are your story. They are not. You can write a story which features telekinetic children if you like, but that’s not a plot or a cast of characters. That’s just a premise. Even in a magical fantasy, characters and the situations they find themselves in are always, always, always the beating heart of your story. The audience doesn’t really care about what your characters can do. The audience cares about what your characters need to do.


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterPinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

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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:

Throwback Thursday: Using Google Docs for Writing Fiction

Originally published 01/12/2019

I’ve resisted using Google Docs for writing fiction for a long time. It’s not that I think there’s anything wrong with Google Docs. Lots of people swear by it and I had no reason to doubt the good reports I was hearing, however I’m already pretty well established in the apps I like to use (Scrivener for long works like novels and Focus Writer for shorter pieces). Besides, in spite of all the good things I’d heard about Google Docs, it sounded a bit too much like a plain old fashioned word processor, without any peculiar functionality that might make it stand out to a fiction writer such as myself.

However, Christmas is coming. And here on Penstricken, Christmas can only ever mean one thing: the Penstricken Christmas Special. That meant I had only a few weeks to write, edit and publish a 1,000 word Christmas story and – to be perfectly frank – I don’t have a lot of time on my hands for starting a brand new story from scratch. I have a full time job, a toddler and (lest we forget) a novel I’m supposed to be writing. Most days I’m lucky to get half an hour to write, and I can’t possibly devote it all to the Penstricken Christmas Special. Then I had a brainwave:

Google Docs stores your work online so you can continue writing on the go!

My plan was to use a set portion of my normal writing time to work on the Christmas story using Google Docs on my PC, while using the Google Docs Android app on my phone to continue writing whenever I had a spare five minutes in my day (when I’m on the bus, during lunch breaks, etc).

Seeing no alternative to this plan, I swallowed my pride and began writing my first draft on Google Docs, starting with the browser version. The first thing to do is choose a template for your document. There are loads to choose from and not one of them has anything to do with fiction writing. Unwilling to be deterred, however (I mean, really, you don’t particularly need a fancy template for writing short works of fiction), I decided to start with a blank template.

So far, my thoughts on the subject had been proven absolutely right. At first glance, Google Docs really is just another word processor. In some respects, this was a good thing. It took absolutely no time to learn how to use, since everything is very familiar to anyone who has ever used a bog-standard word processor before. Another major selling point was the fact it automatically saved your work to Google Drive and instantly made it available to you anywhere in the world. You can also make your work available offline.

Perhaps its most obvious selling point is the fact you can share your work with other users who can edit your work or add comments. This is handy if you’re writing collaboratively or are looking for someone to give feedback on your work. Comments appear in small boxes to the side of your work which are anchored to particular portions of the document. You can reply to each comment, allowing for easy discussion with your fellow editors and, once you’re happy the issue has been resolved, you just click the button labelled ‘resolve’ to hide the comment. Personally, I like to write alone but I do find the comments function a useful tool for getting feedback on my writing.

Another key feature I found useful as a story writer was the outline function. It took me a little while to figure out just how to use this, but essentially the outline feature allows you quickly navigate around your document using headers, which is essential if you’re creating a lengthy piece of work and don’t have the benefit of Scrivener’s binder for separating your work into chapters and scenes. Alas, you can’t do too much to customise your outline. It’s basically just a list of links to every portion of text you’ve formatted as a heading, but you can’t use it for actually outlining or planning your story in any meaningful way.

My one big concern with using Docs to write my Christmas story was the mobile app. My plan relied pretty heavily on being able to seamlessly transition between the PC browser and the mobile app, but in my experience, mobile writing apps are often clunky, cluttered and have limited functionality. Fortunately, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I feared. There’s a small menu bar at the top and bottom of the screen as you write, allowing you to easily access to basic functionality such as formatting your text, adding comments or undoing and redoing. Everything else is discreetly tucked away in a menu you can access by tapping the button on the top right hand corner of the screen.

In short, Google Docs is a good online word processor and is has more than adequately served my needs when it comes to writing this Christmas flash fiction. I don’t think it would be much use in the planning stages of any story and I certainly wouldn’t fancy writing a longer piece of work on it, but for every day short story writing on the go, it’s more than equal to the task.

And hey, it’s free.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterPinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

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ATTENTION AUTHORS:

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

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

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

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Throwback Thursday: Like It or Lump It, Your Intended Audience Matters

Originally published 24/07/2016

The Parable of the Audience

by A. Ferguson

The stadium was a sea of overpriced band tees and elaborate haircuts. Heavy metal music was being played, inappropriately, as quiet background music over the speaker system. Suddenly and without warning, the lights went out and the music abruptly ended. The hubbub of chatter and the friendly jostling of the crowd was replaced with an almighty roar as every eye turned to the stage. People pushed and shoved their way to the front, clapping and screaming to be heard above the crowd. A plastic cup filled with beer flew towards the front, showering the ravening crowd as it passed by but no one paid any attention. There was yet another almighty roar as the band ran out on stage and struck the first chord of their opening number: Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major.

*   *   *

A great number of the posts I’ve written on this site giving writing advice have come about as the result of me learning these lessons the hard way first. This week is no exception.

Every now and again I  hear authors, publishers and other would-be writing gurus all saying the same thing: it is very important to know exactly who your audience is before you write. I don’t mind telling you that every time I hear that, I groan. I don’t like to be restricted by boring things like that; I just wanted to write my story. Let the publisher worry about how they’re going to market my story: I am creating a work of art, darling!

Believe me, if you ever feel that way, you’re not alone. But lately I’ve learned that knowing who your audience is is just as important to the artistic side of writing (the most important part, surely?) as it is to the boring business side of things.

Allow me to explain. I like to write because I like to read. The type of things I write tend to reflect my reading preferences – which is hardly surprising, I’m sure you’ll agree. Now for me personally, there are a few things I like and dislike. For example, I like speculative fiction in various forms especially if it is based on mythology or history, but I also enjoy historical fiction, murder/mysteries and literary fiction. I like a little bit of action and tension in my fiction, but I do not enjoy thrillers which tend to maximise action at the expense of substance. I like the narrative to flow with all the rhythm and expressiveness of poetry while still maintaining believable and natural sounding dialogue. I like complex characters. I don’t mind a little bad language in my dialogue (as far as it is necessary) but I do not like stories which overdo the foul language as a cheap attempt to add grit and I especially despise the use of profanity in the narrative itself except on very rare occasions (and almost all of those occasions involve a first person narrative). In short, I have a bit of a mishmash of preferences. When I finish a book (even one I really enjoyed) I will say something like ‘it was very exciting, but the characters lacked substance’ or ‘it was very thought provoking but needlessly heavy on the bad language’.

Unsurprisingly, when I started trying to write my novel, I brought these and all my other likes and dislikes to the table with me. You won’t find any profanity in my narrative, for example, and only the absolute minimum that is required in my dialogue. But I also wanted to write a story which would appeal to everyone, and needless to say as I continued to work on this story, I found that I was growing increasingly frustrated with it. I just couldn’t seem to make it good although I was having difficulty putting my finger on why… until it hit me:

Nothing appeals to everyone. It is not possible to write a story that will appeal to everyone and trying to bring together elements that would appeal to all audiences only serves to create a mixed up and inconsistent story that won’t appeal to anybody. In tone, my story would have primarily appealed to a YA audience but there were too many elements which didn’t fit to classify it as such. The biggest problem was the protagonist: a bitter ex-soldier in his mid-forties who was struggling to pay his taxes. There were bits of my story that would appeal to some audiences and bits of my story which would appeal to other audiences. Even I, as the author, only liked bits of it. In trying to create a work of art for every audience, I created something that wouldn’t really appeal to anyone, because nothing appeals to everyone.

So I went back to the old drawing board and asked myself just who did I want to write for?

I tackled this question artistically (after all, business and marketing are not my forte. If anything has the power to put me off being an author, it’s the thought of all that stuff but I digress). I asked myself what kind of thoughts I was trying to provoke and what kinds of feelings I wanted to stimulate. How gritty did I want my story to be? How funny? How violent? How sensual? How family-friendly? The more I did this, the more I came to realise what I had already begun to suspect: I wanted to write (this particular story, at least) for a young adult audience.

It came as quite a surprise to me, I can tell you, but nevertheless, I made a decision to go through my story with a fine tooth-comb and make it conform to standards which would suit a YA audience. For example, my protagonist is no longer an angry ex-soldier; he’s the seventeen year old son of an angry ex-soldier. I was a little nervous that if I started to fully young adultify my story, I would ruin it but in actual fact it’s had the opposite effect. Suddenly it works. It flows from point to point with a certain consistency that was missing before and it has made for a better story; not because I made it into a young adult story specifically, but because I decided who my audience was and constructed a story which would fully appeal from beginning to end to that audience. I could have probably done the same for any audience (within reason).

By writing your story for a particular audience, you aren’t stopping other potential audiences from also reading and enjoying your story, any more than being a Mozart fan prevents you from also being a Black Sabbath or Alice Cooper fan (I’ve been known to listen to all of the above myself). All you are doing is adding a consistency to your story which allows it to work and flow in a way which makes sense. Besides, nothing in this life appeals to everybody; therefore, be sure to make your story appeal to somebody… And if the result of all this effort is a more marketable novel then so much the better!


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterPinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

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

WordPress.com Jetpack WooCommerce

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

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

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

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

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Throwback Thursday: 50 Character Motives For Your Story

Originally published 18/08/2019

If you’ve been looking around my blog for any length of time, you’ll have noticed that I often bang on about giving characters strong motives. That’s because it is very important to do so. Motives are what get your character up in the morning and form the basis for all the specific things your character is trying to achieve. For this reason, they are essential for making your audience understand and care about your character’s goals.

Often your character’s motive will be a deep seated hunger, or longing, which your character hopes to satiate by achieving their goals. Alternatively, they may be driven by some chronic fear, past trauma or intense feelings towards another person or persons. Some motives will have obviously dark overtones, while others may appear more positive or neutral. Don’t let that restrict you though. ‘Positive’ motives can still be turned to darkness in the hands of a well written bad guy and the reverse is also true. For instance, a man motivated by love for his family might murder his teenage daughter’s boyfriend. That’s a positive motive gone bad.

I’ve listed a few possible character motives in the image below and I would encourage you to play around with different ways of interpreting and applying them. Most motives (including those not on this list) can be used in a variety of ways, giving you an almost limitless pool of material from which to create character after character, and therefore, story after story.

Have you tried experimenting with any of these motives? What gets your characters out of bed in the morning? Share your own insights and experiences in the comments below!


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterPinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

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

WordPress.com Jetpack WooCommerce

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

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

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

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

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Throwback Thursday: Writing Non-Human Characters #3: Robots

Originally published: 28/05/2017

Well, it’s week three on my impromptu series of posts on creating non-human characters for your stories. We’ve already done animals and aliens, so this week, I want to focus on creating robots. Now I don’t want to waste too much time getting bogged down on the technical differences between robots, androids, cyborgs and so on, so for the sake of this post, I’m using the word ‘robot’ simply as an umbrella term for any kind of mechanical or artificial person. Suffice it to say there are important differences between robots, androids and cyborgs and you would be well advised to understand them before attempting to create one for your story.

If you’ve been keeping up to date on the last few posts, you will have noticed a common theme running through them: the idea of anthropomorphising (that is, giving human traits to) your non-human characters to to make them more relatable to your audience. However, as we have also seen, the extent to which you anthropomorphise your character and how you go about anthropomorphising your character will vary greatly depending on the kind of character you’re trying to create and what their purpose is in your story.

One of the first things to consider in creating your robotic character is a bit of the history of the character and the history of robotics for your fictional world in general. Of course, backstory is important in all character building, but for robots there are a few other important questions you will need to answer first. For example (and this is by no means an exhaustive list):

  • Are robots commonplace in this society or are they a new invention?
  • What is the function of robots in this society (e.g., slaves, free and equal citizens, problem-solving machines, childrens’ toys, etc)?
  • Are robots in general/your robot in particular built with fail-safes, such as Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics? If not, how are they kept from running amok? Indeed, are they under control? Many stories about robots revolve around this very theme.

Depending on your answer to these and similar questions, you may want to make your robot characters seem very human or very mechanical. However, if you’ve got any intention of making your robot a main character in your story, you will probably want to give them at least some human traits to make them relatable to your entirely human audience. This is a fairly absolute rule for all non-human characters (as we’ve seen in previous weeks), so you should consider giving your robot some or all of the following:

  • The ability to think, learn and reason independently. You’ll have a hard time creating a full-blown independent character without this.
  • Self-awareness and consciousness of its surroundings. Again, I think it would be exceptionally difficult (though not impossible) to create a proper robotic character without this human quality.
  • Emotions, dreams, empathy, and other such non-logical thoughts to motivate their actions etc. This of course, is certainly optional; many robots in science fiction tend to be very logical and emotionless but why not break with tradition?
  • Recognisable physical body parts. Of course, ‘recognisable’ does not necessarily mean that they have to be human-shaped. K-9 from the Doctor Who franchise is shaped like a dog and one episode of Star Trek: Voyager even featured a sentient WMD. K-9 is the more relatable of the two, of course, because we humans are used to relating to dogs. Dogs that we can talk to and play chess with, therefore, are highly relatable. On the other hand, when was the last time you tried to interact with a WMD? (Don’t answer that).

The difference with robots is that your audience will already have quite particular ideas about how a robot “should” behave. This is, in part, due to the influence of sci-fi authors like Asimov, but is also due to the fact that robots and computers do exist in real life (though in a more limited fashion than you would expect in a sci-fi novel)We know, for example, that computers are logical to a fault and it’s important that your character reflects that peculiarly robotic quality if you want your audience to accept them. Abstract thinking, imagination and personal ambition is something beyond the grasp of most computers and robots. The trouble is, if you want your audience to care about your character, they’ll probably need to be capable of at least some of the above.

How you balance this contradiction will depend largely on the story you’re writing and the kind of character you’re trying to create but one of the best ways around this problem is how you use voice. Often you can create the illusion of a highly logical, robotic mind simply by the way your character speaks. Let’s consider two androids from the Star Trek: The Next Generation franchise: Lore and Data.

Both androids are physically identical and were built by the same person. Only Lore, however, was capable of emotion and with this came a whole host of other human traits such as ambition, passion, deceitfulness and even megalomania. Lore’s human qualities were what made him such a great villain and were central to his role as a bad guy in Star Trek. Therefore, it is perfectly appropriate that he also talks like a human.

Haven’t you noticed how easily I handle human speech? I use their contractions. For example, I say can’t or isn’t, and you say cannot or is not.

Lore in Star Trek: The Next Generation, ‘Datalore’, source: http://www.chakoteya.net/NextGen/114.htm

Data, on the other hand, lacks emotion and the other human qualities which turned Lore into a bad guy. In spite of this, he remains one of Star Trek‘s most beloved characters. How is it that such an emotionless, logical, robotic character became so relatable (and far more likeable than his more human brother)?

Simple.

He’s not nearly as logical and robotic as he appears. It’s a trick, based largely on dialogue (and the occasional scene where he casually removes a body part) to make the audience believe that he is emotionless and logical because — after all — all robots are. He speaks in a “robotic” manner, such as calculating time intervals to the nearest second and not using verbal contractions, and so the audience believes that he is a machine and yet his goals and motivations are often very human indeed. For example, in ‘Pen Pals’, what motivated him to disobey Starfleet regulations and his captain’s orders if not compassion for the frightened child he had met? So, the writers have given Data a human quality (e.g., compassion) but have essentially tricked the audience into believing that they did not, because he appears robotic and makes the occasional claim that he is incapable of such traits. So, while is very important to strike the correct balance of human/robotic traits, the real trick with robots is how you portray them and thus convince your audience that the relatable and sympathetic character they are witnessing is, in fact, a machine.

I’m afraid that’s all I’ve got time for this week! But be sure to come back next when I’ll be continuing the series on non-human characters, this time focusing on mythical creatures.

Until next time!


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterPinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

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

WordPress.com Jetpack WooCommerce

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

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

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

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

You can check out our previous interviews here: