Ten Writing Commandments

Originally published 18/09/2016

I’m in a cliché sort of mood today and since I don’t want to burden the novel I intend to work on this afternoon with clichés, I’m afraid I’m going to burden you with them instead. Behold, my Ten Writing Commandments, predictably humorously written in a crude approximation of ‘King James English’ and with helpful expositions of each rule.

Most of these rules are as old as the hills and are probably familiar to you. I am not, for one second, claiming to have invented any of these rules. However, this is a compilation of ten writing precepts, from a variety of sources, that I have found to be particularly useful to me. I should add that the expositions I have included are all my own.

So, without further ado…

1. Thou shalt show; thou shalt not tell.

This is what separates quality prose from a technical manual. Allow me to demonstrate with an excerpt from John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men:

‘They sat by the fire and filled their mouths with beans…’ (emphasis mine).

This is a well written line. Rather than telling you what happened, it uses imagery to allow the reader to experience for themselves the sight of two men, stuffing their faces with beans.

Here is what that exact same passage might look like if it was all telling and no showing:

‘They sat by the fire and ate lots of beans.’

Exactly the same thing is happening here but it fails to capture the gluttony of the ravening men. The reader is not transported to the fireside to witness the feast of beans. We are simply informed. Boring!

2. Thou shalt not make unto thee unrealistic goals.

Be honest with yourself about what it is possible to achieve. A thousand words a day seems like a small goal, but after only one year, you will have 365,000 words; that’s a trilogy of novels, all because you succeeded in reaching your daily goal. But if you set yourself a goal of 10,000 words a day and fail to meet it, you will never complete anything.

Slow and steady wins the race (I haven’t got these clichés out of my system just yet)!

3. Thou shalt remove all distractions.

I’m looking at you, Facebook. Get rid of anything that might distract your attention. TV, internet, chattering relatives, the lot. Focus solely on achieving the goal you have set for yourself that day. If you find yourself prone to a wandering mind, allow yourself regular but carefully timed breaks to do all the other little things you need/want to do… but when it’s writing time, it’s writing time.

4. Thou shalt not use words in vain.

Waffle is no fun to read… so why it write it?

Oh, I see… you want to ‘pad out’ your story to reach your word limit, so you’re thinking of adding in lots of unnecessary words to make your sentences longer? Well, don’t. All that does is breaks up the flow of your story. Take this phrase for example: ‘The brightly shining sun…’

There are four words in that phrase, two of which (‘brightly’ and ‘shining’) are superfluous. The reader doesn’t need you to tell them that the sun is shining brightly, because the sun always shines brightly by its very nature. It’s never dull or dark. The noun ‘sun’ naturally conjures images of bright shininess all by itself. If the sun was shining dimly for some reason, then an adverb might just come in handy!

If in doubt, remember the rule that every word and sentence you write ought to help the story to progress. Don’t tell the reader what they already know or do not need to know.

5. Thou shalt know thine audience.

Even if you’re the sort of person who doesn’t like to think about the commercial side of writing, knowing your intended audience is the only way to know exactly what to write. No story, no matter how well written, will suit everybody; therefore, it must suit somebody. It is only possible to reliably accomplish this if you know in advance who that somebody is.

6. Thou shalt write regularly and often.

Some say you have to write every single day or you are doomed to fail. I think that’s a slight exaggeration but the principle is sound. Depending on your circumstances, it might be more appropriate to write seven, six or five days a week but what really matters is that you get into a habit of writing often (because believe me, good writers practice their craft) and at regular set times to help you avoid distraction. Not only this, but having a regular writing time means you will also have a regular ‘clocking off’ time – because writing every hour God sends is no healthier than being at any other job 24/7.

7. Thou shalt write swiftly…

Planner or pantser, the same applies to both of you: when it comes to writing, the best thing you can do is to make sure words are constantly appearing on the page without stopping to improve (or worse, delete) what you’ve just written. This is not the time for editing or second-guessing yourself. Get your story down in all its dreadful badness. A bad story can become a good story, but nothing won’t become anything. If you really can’t bring yourself to do it, join an archaeology expedition and try to dig up an old typewriter and write your story on that instead.

8. … and thou shalt edit slowly.

Having said that, you still want your story to be perfect. So, once you’ve got your story written down, go over it with a fine tooth comb. Analyse it carefully and in detail; word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph. Find whatever stylistic or grammatical problems there may be and do not rest until they have all been resolved to your satisfaction.

9. Thou shalt retain professional detachment from everything you write.

What I mean by this is that no part of your story – words, sentences, metaphors, word-play, characters, plot twists or anything else – should be safe from being changed or completely deleted as necessary. What matters is the story. This is especially important for writers of speculative fiction who feel the need to explain every intricate detail of how their fantasy world functions. You as the writer might be very excited about what you’ve created, but the truth is, the reader is not. The reader is looking for a story, so don’t go off on long tangents.

The same is true, however, even in non-speculative fiction. Perhaps you have written some really powerful dialogue or the perfect fight scene… but they have no real function in your story. They will need to go. Therefore, do not become overly attached to anything you have create or else when you come to edit, it will be like having one hand tied behind your back.

10. Thou shalt break these commandments as ye see fit.

I mentioned at the beginning that these were ten rules that I have found to be useful to me personally. The truth is, I’ve come across dozens of books and websites claiming that ‘this, that or the other’ is the most important rule to follow in writing but really… there are successful writers who follow one set of rules and there are those who do the exact opposite. Some write daily; some do not. Some plan; some pants. I remember once on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, a particular character commented that you can only write about what you have experienced… which got me wondering what planet (literally) the writers of Star Trek were living on. I’ve said it several times today and I’ll say it again: what matters is your story.

If the only way you know to get words on the page is to do the opposite of everything I’ve written here, then do it with my blessing. Rules are made to be broken.

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A Fight Scene Worth Reading

Originally published 11/09/2016

We all know (instinctively at least) that conflict, of one kind or another, is at the core of every good story. Whatever the protagonist’s goal may be– to get the girl/boy, to vanquish evil or simply to get through the day in one piece –there is always something or someone who will seek to prevent it from happening. In fiction, as in life, conflict between two characters often leads to fisticuffs. It can be an exciting moment in your story where the tension finally erupts and your audience are beside themselves with anticipation of what the outcome will be… Or it can be tedious, pedestrian, predictable and downright boring.

I am thinking particularly of fight scenes in novels, short stories and other forms of written fiction, since fight scenes in film and theatre are (at least to some extent) more a matter of choreography than writing. As a reader, I often find that even in the best books, it is badly written fight scenes that can really ruin my enjoyment of the story, whether it’s a quick wrestling match between two minor characters or an epic battle between ten vast armies of elves, dragons, wizards and goblins. It’s not that I think fight scenes are unimportant (sometimes they’re necessary) or unexciting (well-written ones can be thrilling); they’re just difficult to get right.

So, first things first. Ask yourself if you really need a fight scene. If it doesn’t help the story to move forward in some concrete way then the answer is probably ‘no’. Some reasons you might want to include a fight scene include:

  • You need to kill off a character (‘need’ being the operative word; only kill a character off if it is necessary to help the story progress)
  • You need to release tension between two characters and create a turning point in their relationship. Although it might not be a good philosophy to live your real life by, physical altercations in fiction often help to clear the air between two characters. In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, ‘Family’, Captain Picard and his brother have a constant simmering tension between the two of them until they have a good old punch-up in the middle of the vineyard. Alternatively, a fight could change your characters’ relationship from restrained dislike to open enmity.
  • Organised violence might be a central part of the story. For example, The Hunger Games centres around an annual televised battle to the death; thus, characters are expected to fight. War and spy novels are also likely to include such fights where violence is ‘just part of the job’, rather than personal.

If you’ve decided that you’ve got no choice and that you must include a fight scene, there’s a few things you should be aware of. You probably know the first commandment of writing: ‘Thou shalt show; thou shalt not tell’. Well, if you’ve ever tried to write a fight scene for a novel or short story, you probably know that it is blooming difficult to write a fight scene and fully observe this rule. Even in written fiction, a good fight still needs to be ‘choreographed’: each character moving to attack, defend and respond to the other characters movements. It’s difficult to accomplish this in words without resorting to a simple description of who attacked who and how, and for this reason I would be inclined to keep it as short as possible and keep the technical details to an absolute minimum. Even though it might lack the details of who struck who and how, this will help to preserve the excitement and pace of your fight scene. What you really want to capture is the sense of chaos and brutality involved. Which of these do you think is the most exciting?

Enough was enough. Willy had really done it this time and John was going to teach him a lesson he would never forget. He reached back with his right hand and punched Willy squarely in the nose, drawing blood from his nostrils. Willy said, ‘Ow! Why did you do that man?’ and clumsily karate chopped John’s left shoulder with his right hand.

or

Something snapped inside John. His hand flew towards Willy and touched his nose with a crunch. Blood was on his hand and all over Willy’s shirt. Spluttering with fury, Willy launched himself towards John, his hands launching out aimlessly.

Another thing to consider is the thoughts the protagonist who is involved in this fight. Internal dialogue allows you to maintain that character-driven quality which separates a good story from a boring one and it also helps to break up tedious descriptions. However, beware! In a fight, it is unlikely that characters have time for long drawn out and complex thoughts. The pace of the scene must still be maintained. For example,

John laughed inwardly at Willy’s pathetic retaliation. A karate chop? Really? What did he think this was, a ’60s TV drama? Doesn’t he realise that in the battle for life and death, one must keep a cool head or else they will be overcome by their rage and will surely be defeated? This is just like that time in high school when I got into a fight with Tom over some girl we both fancied. Gosh, what was her name again? I can’t even remember, I just remember how embarrassed I felt for him, even as we were fighting.

That’s too much internal dialogue for a fight scene. I don’t care if your character is the most introspective and reflective of all God’s creatures; there is supposed to be a fight happening while he’s having these thoughts. Writing lengthy internal dialogue like this makes it seem like either 1) the fight has been temporarily postponed for a moment of reflection or 2) John has become so consumed by his own thoughts that he doesn’t realise Willy is now bludgeoning him to death with a hammer. Instead, something like this would be more appropriate:

John laughed inwardly at Willy’s pathetic retaliation. His rage was his weakness.

See how much shorter that is – and yet it communicates almost exactly the same idea: John’s confidence that he will triumph over Willy because Willy is ruled by his emotions.

Ultimately, a fight scene is like any other part of your story: it is there to move the plot along by what your characters do and think and say. The reason fight scenes are so tricky is that they are such complicated physical acts with very little rational thinking or dialogue involved and it is easy to make them boring. The bottom line, then, is that fight scenes should be used as sparingly as possible and be sure to keep them snappy. Only include what is necessary and as far as possible, focus on the characters as people rather than a technical blow-by-blow account of the action itself. A good fight scene should be like a pressure valve; quickly and decisively releasing the tension which has already been building up for a long time. Get it right and your reader won’t be able to put your book down, at least for a few more pages.

 

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Presenting Your Characters’ Backstories

Originally published 04/09/2016

I was recently sitting at home with my wife when it occurred to me that if one of my schoolmates (whom I haven’t seen in years) hadn’t gone on holiday to Spain in 2002, I would never have got married more than a decade later. You see, he went on holiday with his family in 2002 and befriended a girl there (not my wife) and some time after this, he introduced me to her. A few years later, I got a job in town and started going out with the girl my friend met on holiday. I would often go to see her straight from work, using a shortcut which took me past a particular college (I didn’t know this college existed before then). I eventually split up with the girl my friend met on holiday so many years before, but a while after this I decided to study at the aforementioned college that I had discovered while taking the shortcut to see my now ex-girlfriend. At that college, I met another girl who was working in the canteen: she who is now my wife.

A leads to B which leads to C, all the way up to Z and beyond. This is what happens in real life. In fiction, this needs to be compressed into a backstory. Where did your character come from? Who influenced them as he was growing up and throughout his life up until this point? And most importantly of all: what is that defining moment in their past that made them who they are today?

For example, like most superheroes, Spider-Man’s goal is to stop the bad guy(s), protect the innocent and generally save the day. He is motivated to do this by the belief that ‘with great power comes great responsibility’. However, this belief didn’t just pop into his head. He learnt this lesson in his very first comic book appearance in Amazing Fantasy #15 (and subsequent re-imaginings of the same story), when he refused to use his powers to stop a criminal — only for that same criminal to murder his uncle. This single event lies behind everything Spider-Man does from that moment on, even if it is not explicitly mentioned. It is a defining moment in Spider-Man’s life that changed him from a selfish lad who was only interested in using his powers to make money into the crime-fighting hero he became.

The same goes for bad guys. Something made them who they are today. Darth Vader, for instance, wasn’t always a heavy-breathing, Force-choking Sith. Even before the prequel trilogy came out, it is stated that at one point he was a Jedi who was ‘seduced by the Dark Side’ (Return of the Jedi). The prequel trilogy shows us several events in his life which arguably contributed to his conversion into the Sith Lord we know and love from the original trilogy, but the key moment comes in Revenge of the Sith, when he has a vision of his wife dying in childbirth and is convinced by Darth Sidious that he can ‘cheat death’ by joining the Dark Side. However, even if the prequel trilogy had never happened (I’m sure there are many who wish that it were so), there would still remain this implied critical moment in Darth Vader’s life when he became the man in the shiny black helmet (in fact, the very fact that he has to wear all that cybernetic equipment just to keep him alive implies an exciting backstory by itself).

So, backstories clearly are vital parts of characterisation. But now that we (as authors) know them, how do we present them to the reader?

Give It To Us Straight

I think some authors get so excited about the character they’ve created that they just can’t bear to only show you a single portion of their life. Not when they’ve created such a great backstory! And so, instead of implying a backstory, they will give you the full biography of the character they’ve created from the day they were born. Everything is made explicit. Every. Tedious. Detail.

If you must do this, the best approach is probably to try to limit yourself to that key event (for instance, the death of Spider-Man’s uncle) and do not try to cram it all into the first page. Give it to us in dribs and drabs and only as much as is absolutely necessary. For instance, let’s pretend I was writing a Spider-Man story (I’m not, by the way!). My first couple of pages could be devoted to explaining in some detail how Peter Parker got bitten by a radioactive spider, gained super powers, used his powers selfishly at first, let a crook escape, lost his uncle as a result and decided to become a superhero as a result… but I wouldn’t hold my reader’s attention for long. It would suffice in the opening pages to hint at a tragedy and maybe a sense of guilt felt by the protagonist but nothing more until later.

If the backstory is very complicated and really needs a long-winded narrative, then I suppose you could always tell it in the form of flashbacks scattered throughout the narrative, but personally, I hate excessive flashbacking. If the backstory is that important and that complicated that you are considering flashbacks, you might want to consider…

Prequels

Prequels are all the rage. Gotham, Hannibal Rising, Legends of Dune, The Magician’s Nephew, Endeavour, the aforementioned Star Wars prequel and the last few offerings from the Star Trek franchise all give us detailed backstories in the form of a completely separate book/film/show/etc.

The benefits to doing this are obvious: you can present your character’s backstory in all its glorious splendour with the full narrative form that it deserves.

The downside is that if you’re writing an entirely separate narrative, you’ll still need backstories for your backstory, since your prequel is a story in its own right. Darth Vader (or Anakin Skywalker, as he was then known) might have only been nine years old in The Phantom Menace, but even at that stage, he had a backstory; he and his mother were slaves of Watto and that he was believed to have been conceived by the Force. It is also worth remembering that just because you plan to tell the backstory in the form of a separate prequel, that backstory must still exist and be implied within the main story itself. Writing a prequel is no replacement for a detailed and well presented backstory in the main story.

Imply Your Backstory (The Best Way)

We return, then, to the age old adage of good writing: show; don’t tell. Don’t write anywhere in your Spider-Man novel (note: please do not write a Spider-Man novel) that he once let a criminal escape and that criminal shot his uncle. Instead, show me a tragic hero who is climbing walls and spinning webs to try and make up for a mistake he made years ago; a mistake that is gnawing away at his insides; a regret so profound that it would drive him insane if he didn’t wear a mask and risk his life every day to wage a one-man war on crime. Keep me turning pages in the hopes that I might glean the backstory based on what is still haunting his thoughts and influencing his actions today. The more you reveal without stating it explicitly, the better your writing will be.

If you ask me, this is nearly always the best way to present a backstory effectively. Giving explicit descriptions of what happened in a character’s past is not only cumbersome, it also answers most of the reader’s questions too quickly. Writing a prequel might be fun (some of them are even very good), but if you don’t know your protagonist’s backstory when you come to write your main story, you’ll still end up with a shallow and lifeless character, because real people don’t just pop out of the ground fully formed. The circumstances of their lives are defined by what has happened before. Therefore, you as the author must know – and show that you know – what has happened to bring your character to this point if you want to create a believable person.

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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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Why I Quit Camp NaNoWriMo

Originally published 31/07/2016

Before anyone gets cross with me, I want to say that NaNoWriMo is a great idea and there is no doubt in my mind it works for a lot of people. If you’ve had a positive experience with NaNoWriMo, good for you! If you happen to be one of the brains behind NaNoWriMo, I want to offer my sincere congratulations and thanks to you for providing an approach to writing that obviously benefits thousands (or maybe even zillions) of writers and helps them get their novels written. If you’re planning on ever using NaNoWriMo or anything like it in the future, please, do not let me discourage you. That’s the last thing I want to do. NaNoWriMo is just fab!  You should try it!

Now that that’s out of the way…

I signed up for Camp NaNoWriMo this year, full of enthusiasm and the certain hope that it would propel me towards my goal of furthering (if not necessarily completing) my novel. I’d heard about NaNoWriMo from various folks but this was the first time I’d ever actually got around to trying it out for myself. It was a bit of a spur of the moment decision, I will admit. My novel was going nowhere (although he’s feeling much better now, thanks) and I noticed someone on Twitter remarking that they had just signed up for Camp NaNoWriMo.

Ah-ha! I thought, Now’s as good a time as any to give this whole NaNoWriMo lark a bash. Maybe it will help me complete my novel…

I was very excited about it. I was going to make progress and lots of it! I joined a cabin so that I could compare notes with other like-minded writers; I read all the useful ‘camp care packages’ that were sent to my inbox, full of useful advice to help me make the most of Camp NaNoWriMo; I perused the forums and all the articles full of helpful writing tips…

The one thing I did not do was write my novel. Sure, I had been stuck in a serious rut before I started Camp NaNoWriMo but at least I was sitting at my computer with Scrivener open for my appointed writing times, even if I was just writing things like ‘I suck at writing :-‘ all over my manuscript. For that first week or so of Camp NaNoWriMo, I didn’t even do that. I spent large chunks of my allotted writing time perusing the forums, checking my inbox and chilling with my cabin mates. Wonderful though all of these things are, the truth is that when you’re struggling to write your novel (and everybody does at some point), there is only one solution: write it anyway. Write it badly and fix it later if you have to, but you must write it. I often find that when I’m not having any success at writing something I’m proud of, it is tempting to either give up or else to try to find (usually on the internet) some clever ‘get out of writer’s block free card’.  The former is obviously unacceptable; the latter is just the former in disguise.

Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of websites, books and other resources which can really help to improve your writing style, get you some constructive critiques of your work or simply motivate you towards greater productivity (like NaNoWriMo). If I thought those kinds of resources weren’t useful, I wouldn’t waste your time by writing this blog week after week! But if, like me, you are struggling to think of what to write, I’m afraid to say I know of no quick fix except to write anyway, even if what you write is rubbish (you can — and should — always come back and edit it later). Resources like NaNoWriMo, no matter how good they may be, can’t make you write, nor can it tell you what to write. That’s not what it’s supposed to do. That’s what you, the author, is supposed to do.

So I quit. Just over a week into it, I resolved not to go back to the Camp NaNoWriMo website for the remainder of the month. I was going to sit down in front of Scrivener with the biggest mug of tea I could and I was going to put words on that page even if it meant drawing blood.

I won’t lie to you. It was like drawing blood at first – from the proverbial stone. A lot of what I wrote was rubbish. But any farmer will tell you that to produce a healthy crop, you need to spread plenty of manure on your land and writing is no different. The more proverbial manure you produce, the better your ideas will grow and before you know it, you’ll have a story you can really be proud of. No one will be able to help you write your story if you’re not willing to actually sit down and write. I definitely want to encourage anyone who is thinking of using NaNoWriMo to give it a bash because it’s a great idea; just don’t make the same mistake I did of using it as an excuse to procrastinate. That’s the complete opposite of what it was designed for.

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Like It or Lump It, Your Intended Audience Matters

Originally published 24/06/2016

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!

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Adversity: A Leaf Out Of Peter Newman’s Book

Originally published 03/07/2016

SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been made to avoid any spoilers, those of you who have not yet read Peter Newman’s novel, The Vagrant, are hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

If you’re the kind of person who wants to read a truly engaging and imaginative piece of post-apocalyptic sci-fi/fantasy, you could do a lot worse than reading The Vagrant by Peter Newman. This gripping tale of our hero’s journey to the Shining City is set in a world where all hell has quite literally broken loose and has almost completely taken over the world. The winged swords (current holder of the My Most Favouritest Fantasy Weapon Ever Award) are alive and singing, the dead have been reanimated by demons and – most mercifully of all – Newman’s fantasy world has been mapped out with beautiful clear writing instead of forcing me to refer to an actual map on the front page every five minutes. It was such a joy to read that even the constant flash-backs (a pet peeve of mine) couldn’t put me off reading it.

You may be thinking I’m about to give you a review of The Vagrant. In fact, that was my original plan but instead I’ve decided to write about something important that I think we authors can learn from The Vagrant, whatever style and genre we write. While there are plenty of things in this book that make it stand out among its peers, one thing in particular that got my attention was that the protagonist (the otherwise nameless ‘Vagrant’) is, in fact, mute. He cannot speak. In all my years of reading, I have never yet come across a protagonist who could not speak and the further into the book I went, the more tempting it was to believe that Newman would sooner or later have to give up and make his protagonist say something. After all, surely it’s unrealistic to have him constantly communicating with looks and gestures or having to rely on his friends speak for him, right? Surely you cannot create a fully fledged character without him having some dialogue… right?

Wrong on both counts.

In writing The Vagrant, Newman has demonstrated (whether deliberately or not, I cannot say; I do not know the man) a keen appreciation for an important fact that we can easily forget: in real life, there are some obstacles which cannot simply be removed; they just have to be coped with. Think about it. In the real world, today as you read this humble blog, there are men, women and children out there who cannot speak, just as there are those who cannot hear or see or walk. These people have no choice but to live with their disability. They speak in sign language, they get a guide dog or they move around in a wheelchair – for necessity truly is the mother of invention. Therefore, why not have a mute protagonist, or a blind protagonist or a deaf protagonist? Real life is not always convenient; neither should your fictional world be. Even if you decide not to give your character a physical disability, it is worthwhile adding a little something to them to make their quest all the more difficult: an addiction, a phobia, O.C.D., anything. Very rarely in life are people naturally gifted with everything they need to accomplish all their goals easily and showing the reader how your character deals with (or avoids dealing with?) their own limitations will tell us a lot more about the kind of person your character is than anything they  can say. After all, we know the good guy’s probably going to win; what matters is how they get there.

Another closely related thing to consider are the complications other characters can present to your character. By that I mean all other people, not just your antagonist (it goes without saying that your bad guy should be making your protagonist’s life as difficult as possible). For example, have you ever read a spy thriller in which the protagonist’s mother or father is suffering from severe dementia?

Neither have I. After all, it’s not convenient for secret agents to have to visit their parents numerous times in the day to make sure they’re eating properly while still holding down their job as an international man or woman of mystery. Or what about children? I’m yet to watch the Bond flick in which 007 has to be home early enough to pick his son up from school because his son’s mother (probably a Russian double-agent) is dead and Bond is now the boy’s sole guardian. But in real life, people do have responsibilities to other people and that’s why thrillers seldom amount to more than mindless escapism, no matter how much we might enjoy them.

Peter Newman’s The Vagrant is a different story altogether. In this, our hero must juggle his mission to reach the Shining City by way of a demon infested land (a perfectly good story in itself) along with his responsibility to protect and sustain the orphaned baby he adopted before the story began. The very fact that the Vagrant is willing to take on this extra inconvenience adds substance to the character, because it shows us exactly what kind of man the Vagrant is without him having to utter a single word. I can’t help but wonder how Bond would handle life as a single parent. Would he take his son on his missions with him? Would he quit MI6 and get a quiet office job so he could support his son? Would he give the boy up for adoption? Whatever decision he makes will automatically define him as a character in the mind of the reader. There’s nothing really wrong with giving your protagonists no other people who depend on them or care about them, but unless it’s mindless escapism you’re writing (there is plenty of room in this life for mindless escapism), you might want to think twice about that (unless, of course, the protagonist’s isolated lifestyle is the very obstacle he or she needs to overcome, but that’s just a suggestion).

The bottom line is this: in real life, things are rarely handed out to us just as we need them to be and life is seldom easy. In the same way, make sure your fictional world does not revolve around your protagonist. Take a leaf out of Newman’s book and force your character to adapt. That’s what will turn your character made of words into a person with substance – dare I say, a soul. Albert Einstein said “adversity introduces a man to himself”; but in fiction, adversity is what introduces the reader to the man.

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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.

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Writing with a Wandering Mind

Originally published 12/06/2016

When I was at school, one of the main criticisms I remember my teachers putting in my report cards was that I tended to daydream. They were right. I still do it. In fact, I generally consider it a bit of a boon as a story writer and especially as a pantser (that is, someone who prefers to write with little or no pre-set plan; in other words, someone who writes ‘by the seat of their pants’) because I just write whatever I dream up.

The trouble is, while this might be a more enjoyable way to write (at least for me), it’s not a terribly efficient way to write anything much larger than a couple of thousand words because the vast majority of what you write gets wasted. I know it works for some people (it certainly comes more naturally to me) but in reality, I find I only end up expending a lot of effort creating something very poorly organised at best. I decided, therefore, to stop complaining about how much more painstaking it would be and start trying to plan my large projects properly (I still pants the shorter things – like this blog!); beginning with research, then planning out the particulars of my story and finally, when all that was done, writing up the story as I planned it.

I immediately hit an obstacle; my own easily distracted, wandering mind. Sometimes, as I was researching my story, I got bored and ended up daydreaming about the writing (or even publishing – ha!) stage. Other times I would go too far the other way; I would find the research so interesting that I would forget what it was I was actually researching for and would begin perusing the internet for increasingly irrelevant things (for instance, I was recently researching the so called ‘Beer Hall Putsch’ for a novel I’m working on. Before I knew it, I had spent half an hour reading a fascinating but entirely irrelevant article about the German Imperial Army). Try as I might, I could not resist the pull of distraction. At least in school, daydreaming was the only thing I had to distract me. When I’m trying to write at home, without a teacher breathing down my neck, there’s about a million other things that can distract me in addition to daydreaming; the internet, books, TV and plain old fashioned staring out the window, for instance.

However, not willing to be deterred from my recent conversion to planner, I decided to try a new approach. Instead of trying to force myself to focus on the task, I decided to try and reach a compromise with myself which I am pleased to say, appears to be paying off. It’s quite simple really.

I give myself half an hour to work on my writing and not a second longer. As soon as that alarm rings to tell me my half hour is up, I set another alarm for a short break of five or ten minutes in which I can do anything but writing. Once that five minutes is up, I go back to writing for another half hour and repeat the process over and over. Thus, my day is divided into many half hour writing segments, punctuated by many short breaks. I tend to spend the first half hour writing whatever random scribblings I want to (just to get it out of my system) but after that, I focus resolutely on the researching/planning/writing I am supposed to be doing.

The reason I’ve found this helpful is that even someone as easily distracted as me finds it relatively easy to stay focused in half hour bursts. My little breaks give me ample opportunity to read other things, daydream or whatever else it is I feel like doing while still affording the majority of my time to the actual work I’ve got to do. In the unlikely event that I do become distracted when I’m supposed to be working, I don’t lose more than a few minutes since my little break is usually sufficient to get me back on track with what I’m supposed to be doing. It also makes the whole process altogether more enjoyable. After all, I do happen to love writing and even the research stage can often be very interesting since it probably involves learning about something I’m at least half-interested in (if you’re not interested in the subject matter of your own novel, drop it and do something else; if you’re not interested in it, why should anyone else be?). What I do find frustrating about meticulously researching and planning my novel before I write it is how difficult I find it to restrain my wandering, distracted, daydreaming mind that gets fed up doing the same chore for hours on end. When that happens, discouragement quickly follows and it’s all too easy to yield to the temptation to play a game or read a book instead. Breaking up my day with lots of microbreaks keeps me refreshed and allows me to reach a compromise with my urge to stare out the window.

It works for me, at any rate. If you’re a chronic window-starer-outter, you might want to give it a bash – and be sure to comment and let us all know if you’re aware of any other good ways to keep your mind from wandering!

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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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