What’s On Your Writer’s Utility Belt?

You might have seen that Batman has been trending on Twitter lately. Naturally when I saw it, I thought the time was ripe to do Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Batman Edition... Until I remembered I still haven’t seen Batman v. Superman and so, couldn’t possibly offer a complete review of all the Batman flicks. Not content to let the Batman theme pass me by, however, I decided instead to write about my Writer’s Utility Belt.

‘Your writer’s… what?’ I hear you cry, somewhat bemused.

You know! My writer’s utility belt! Just like Batman has a utility belt which is loaded with all deus ex machina gadgets he needs to help him save the day, so we writers all have our (figurative) utility belts loaded with all the tools (mostly apps, these days) we rely on to help us whenever we sit down to write.

… Don’t we? 😶

… No?

Well… just humour me for a couple of minutes while I tell you what I keep on mine anyway:

Physical Notebooks and a Bic Four-Colour Ballpoint Pen

It all starts with paper and pen for me. Specifically a generously sized notebook with plenty of space for scribbles, doodles and general nonsense and a Bic Four-Colour Ballpoint Pen for effective brainstorming.

I usually move onto the computer pretty quickly once I get past the initial stages of coming up with and refining ideas but in the early days of a new story, physical honest-to-goodness paper and pen are a must for me.

Jotterpad

I’ve got to be honest here: despite the fact I’ve written manifold positive reviews about various mobile writing apps, I don’t actually use them very much for writing. Don’t ask me why, but I just find them really awkward to write with, no matter how good they might be.

That being said, if you’re sitting on the bus, on your way into work with no hope of getting home to your precious notebooks, you might want a quick and easy way to write down ideas (or whole chapters) that suddenly pop into your head. For me, Jotterpad for Android does the job nicely.

Scapple

For me, one of the toughest parts of writing a story is bringing order to the chaos of my original ideas. Even once I’ve got my basic plot and characters figured out, there were still be a lot of plot holes and other loose ends to tie up before I can create a functioning chapter outline.

When I’m deep in the throes of figuring all this out, I can easily lose track of where I am. There is often too much material to sift through for me to simply write it out in a linear fashion. That’s when Scapple by Literature and Latte, the virtual corkboard comes into its own. You can spread out all your thoughts in whatever order you like, linking them together (or not) as you see fit. Ideal for mind-mapping and general idea sifting, it’s helped me out of more than one bout of writers’ block and plays a key role in all my writing projects.

Typewriter

I’ve spoken before about free writing; a pre-writing technique in which the writer takes a few minutes to write anything and everything that comes to mind without pausing to edit. It’s a technique I swear by to get me started in the morning, and yet it’s also a technique I found almost impossible to master given my tendency to edit as I go…

Until I discovered Typewriter – Minimal Text Editor. This simple ASCII text editor has no editing functionality whatsoever. No deleting, no copying, no pasting, nothing. All you can do is add text and once you’ve added it, you’re stuck with it. It can probably serve quite a few functions, but for me, it’s my go-to app for free writing.

Scrivener

Well of course, it had to be here. Scrivener is the app that I, along with many of my writer colleagues, use to create my story bibles and to write my actual manuscript. I also use it to keep my daily writer’s journal.

It’s powerful. It’s popular. It’s surprisingly affordable. I can’t remember the last time I ever considered writing a manuscript with any other app and I doubt I ever will.

What about you? What’s on your writer’s utility belt? Are there any particular apps or tools you rely on to help you write? Share it with us 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 Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what reaches your utility belt.

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

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

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Sharleen Nelson, Author of The Time Tourists [2]

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App Review: Character Story Planner 2

Search for ‘writing apps’ on Google Play Store and you will be spoilt for choice by the results. Everyone and their granny seems to have produced an app to help writers draft or plan their stories, most of which I personally don’t find very helpful. Nevertheless there are a few diamonds in the rough to be found and today I want to tell you all about another one I recently discovered: Character Story Planner 2 for Android by Ifantasia.

In fact, the name of the app is somewhat misleading. This app is much more then a simple character planner. You can use it to work out pretty much all of the little details that go into creating a world for your story: characters, settings, magic systems, scenes, timelines, the works. Everything short of actually drafting your story.

One of the best things about this app is the generous supply of preset templates for creating character bios, relationships, settings, groups, objects etc. Most of these are pretty detailed and, with a bit of work, can help you to knock together all the essential details you need to build your world and your characters. You can also easily download templates created by other users. While none of these templates can be customised, you can create and modify your own templates from scratch. This can be time consuming, but is probably worth the effort if you’re not satisfied with the default templates.

At first glance, the timeline function may appear to be a good way to plan out your chapter outline, but don’t be deceived. Whenever you create a scene on this app, you include the date the events take place on. So far, so good. This information is then used to automatically compile a timeline, which also includes key dates from character bios etc, such as characters’ birthdays. However there is no way to organise what order scenes will be actually presented in, making it a pretty poor substitute for a proper chapter outline. It works best simply as a means of organising the history of your fictional world (as I suspect it was really intended for),

If you really, really, really want to use this app to draft your story, there is a ‘script’ function tucked away under the ‘story’ tab of your project. Each script you create is essentially just a block of free text without any bells or whistles whatsoever, which could possibly suffice as a place to draft your story if it weren’t for one glaring problem: there is no obvious way to export the text or to compile it into a single manuscript. Personally, I only use the script function for taking notes, not for writing my actual story.

The general layout seems to assume the author is writing fantasy. Under the ‘world’ tab of each project, there are specific sections for detailing magic systems, deities, creatures, flora and so forth. Of course, if these are irrelevant to your story, you can just ignore them and use the other sections to write any genre you like so it’s not really a problem.

There are ads, though these can be easily avoided by turning off your data/WiFi when you use the app. I haven’t personally found any obvious bugs so far, though I feel compelled to point out that there are a lot of reviews on Play Store by other users complaining about some pretty annoying sounding bugs, including ones which delete most of your work. Perhaps these bugs have been fixed or perhaps I’m yet to encounter them. Only time will tell (I’ll maybe let you know!).

All in all, a useful tool with bucket loads of potential. There is, perhaps, a bit of scope for development but when it comes to world building, this app is still well worth a look.

My rating:🌟🌟🌟🌟


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what builds your world.

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

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

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Sharleen Nelson, Author of The Time Tourists [2]

App Review: Storywriter

It’s the holy grail of writers app: a perfect palm-sized place where you can both plan and write your entire novel from beginning to end. All the fun of Scrivener on your phone. If you’re an Android user, you’re probably beginning to despair of the hope you’ll ever find an app like it, especially if you’re looking for one that won’t break the bank*.

Well, dear writer, here’s the good news: you’re not strange. I, too, despair of the hope of ever finding such an app. It was in this context that I downloaded Storywriter by Raindrop for Android but the question is: did it deliver? 

Anyone who has ever tried to write a novel with a mobile app knows that many apps boast functionality but are fiddly to use, especially on a phone. There’s often just too much stuff crammed in and it makes the app untidy and complicated. Not so with Storywriter. This app is so neat and tidy that you can jump straight in to using it without a moment’s fuss. That alone makes it worth paying attention to in my book. Even an idiot can open it and intuitively know exactly how to use it in about ten seconds flat. I simply haven’t got the words to describe how ridiculously intuitive this app is. You just make a new project by giving it a name and then boom! A nice, easy way to write chapters, storylines, character bios and general ideas all in one place. I can’t fault it for it’s layout or ease of use.

Each project is divided into four sections: Chapters, storylines, characters and ideas. These all work in exactly the same way. You add a new chapter or character by tapping the button at the bottom and you’re given a blank document to write on. There’s no meta-data or anything like that (for example, if you create a new character, you won’t be prompted to type in names, DOBs, genders, etc). In fact the only differences I’ve been able to find between the four different document types is that smart enter only seems to work on chapters. Apart from that, you could just as easily write your chapters in the character screen or write your characters in the ideas screen. They’re pretty much exactly the same in every way that matters.

So far, I’ve made much of the simplicity of this app. Of course, if we dig a little deeper we will discover that this app does boast a few additional features, such as night-mode; the ability to alter the font and line spacing; ‘smart enter’, which automatically provides you with inverted commas** for a line of dialogue and a similar feature which automatically closes any parentheses you might use (for example, if you type an open bracket ‘(‘, Storywriter will automatically provide the closed ‘)’ one).

Most of these functions are obviously cosmetic and can be toggled on or off from the app’s settings menu. Like most things in this app, the menu is clear and simple to use. I have only got one problem with it: you have to return to the home screen to access the menu. That means if you’re halfway through writing a chapter and decide you would really like to turn off smart enter or change the font size, you have to save your chapter, press ‘back’ to come out of your chapter, press ‘back’ again to come out of your list of chapters and then press ‘back’ a third time to come out of your story altogether. Only then can you access the menu. And then, once you’ve done whatever you wanted to do, you have to re-open your story, re-open the ‘chapters’ list and re-open the chapter you were working on. It’s needlessly time-consuming. 

There is an ‘upload’ function, which I’m guessing is for backing up your work(?) but it’s honestly not clear to me where my work has been uploaded to or why. You need to log in with your Google account to use it and then to sit through an advert so I don’t know how much it’s worth wasting time with this function but it exists and apparently works.

This app does have ads, though they sit unobtrusively down at the bottom of the screen for the most part. There are a few infrequent full-screen ads but you can skip these (unless you try to ‘upload’ a chapter; then you’ll be forced to sit through a full screen video-ad before it will let you upload anything). And of course, if you really can’t bear to look at a little advert at the bottom of your screen, you can always use this app offline and save your work to your device.

All in all, a decidedly okay app but with buckets of unrealised potential. As it stands, it’s pretty decent for a freebie but not quite the miracle I was hoping for. I hope the developers will continue to work on it because with just a few improvements here and there, this could be really a wonderful app.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟

*The yWriter Android app looks alright but I ain’t spending £4.19 on app I can get for free on my PC.

**British English writers take note: smart enter automatically provides the double inverted-commas (“”) more commonly used in American English.


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. Be sure to leave us a wee comment if you enjoyed it and don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what peels your tatties.

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

I’m hoping to do author interviews here on Penstricken over the coming year, especially with new fiction authors. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

You can check out our previous interviews here:
Sharleen Nelson, Author of The Time Tourists [2]

On Character Traits

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: characters are the beating heart of every good story. Show me a good story with bad characters and I’ll show you a liar. There is a direct correlation between the quality of a story and the quality of its characters. Good characters are not optional. They are essential.

Are we all agreed on that?

Good. Go to the back of the class if you said ‘no’.

Now I know what you’re thinking: what makes a good character? Well, there’s quite a few things, but if you really want to write a character of substance, you’ll need to give him a few key traits. At their most basic level, a character’s traits can be defined simply as a list of a few critical adjectives which describe the sort of person your character is; for example, cowardly, obliging, sarcastic, compassionate, devout, holier-than-thou, etc. We’re not interested in physical descriptions here, nor are we interested in their thoughts or feelings at any particular point. We want to know what sort of person they are. If you don’t know what I mean, just think about someone you know well; a friend, relative or colleague. Ask yourself what sort of person they are.

‘John is really obnoxious.’

‘Susan is kindhearted.’

‘Peter is fly.’

These are all traits. They are fundamental to a character’s personality and will usually remain consistent throughout the story (with perhaps just a little wiggle room for growth). If you’re struggling, just Google ‘list of character traits’, you’ll find that the internet is simply teeming with lists of character traits that you can easily pick up and apply to your characters. It’s entirely up to you how many you choose, but I tend to go for nine traits for each major character: three positive traits (e.g.: generous), three neutral traits (e.g.: whimsical) and three negative traits (e.g.: censorious).

‘Sounds simple enough… ‘ I hear you cry, with a note of caution in your voice. And you’re right! It is simple. But there’s a way to do it and there’s a way not to do it.

Detailing your entire plot (or worse, writing an entire draft) and then deciding on your characters traits based on what happens to your character throughout your story is how not to do it. This will result in flat, predictable characters around whom the whole world seems to revolve.

Real people aren’t like that. The sun shines on the righteous and the wicked– and on the zealous, the pious, the pitiable and the proud. Life happens to people regardless of what sort of people they are, and we all deal with each situation in our own way, based on the sort of person we are. Therefore, if you take my advice, you’ll sketch out your characters’ key traits before you begin any detailed plotting or drafting, even if you’re a pantser. And stick to the traits you decide on, no matter what events befall your character. These traits will help to define every choice your character makes, everything they say and, perhaps more importantly, how and why they do/say it.

Try to be adventurous when it comes to selecting character traits. Even pick a few traits entirely at random (yep, there are places online you can do that too) and work with whatever you end up with. Don’t worry if the traits you end up with seem contradictory. Real people are full of contradiction too! This will only enrich your character and you can always smooth out any rough edges that seriously impinge upon your story later if you absolutely have to.

When you finally do come to draft your story, be sure to keep your characters’ traits in mind at all times but do not explicitly state your characters’ traits in the narrative (e.g.: ‘Dave was an evasive and brusque man’). Let your reader get to know Dave by experiencing Dave, not simply being told about Dave. Portraying a character’s traits is a subtle balancing act, where you drip feed your reader just the right quantities of each trait at the right time. You don’t need to bring them all out in equal measure all the time, however I would advise making a character’s fundamental traits fairly clear from the get-go. Even shifty, unreliable characters can be portrayed as such through voice and body language. Let’s think about Dave again. Dave’s a bit of an enigmatic fellow. No one really quite knows what he’s planning, whose side he’s on or what his true intentions are. You can portray this to the reader simply by making him guarded or abrupt in his dialogue.

‘Up to much this weekend?’ Pete asked, pulling on his coat and switching off the office lamp.

‘Nothing much.’ Dave sniffed.

‘Why don’t you come over on Sunday? Susie’s doing Sunday dinner and she always makes enough for ten–‘

‘Sorry Pete,’ Dave interrupted. ‘Maybe another week, I can’t this week.’

‘We never seem to see you anymore, is everything okay?’

‘Fine. Just busy that’s all.’

Thus the mystery is not only preserved, but it is also enhanced, because it makes the reader want to know more. Is Dave out killing people at the weekend? Has he got some illicit love affair on the go somewhere? Does he simply dread socialising? We don’t know. One thing we do know: Dave is evasive and Dave is brusque. The narrative doesn’t say it. Dave just is evasive and brusque. Experiment with using characters’ actions and dialogue and especially body language and voice to portray your characters’ traits and you’ll have a vibrant and distinctive bunch of characters before you know it.


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. Be sure to leave us a wee comment if you enjoyed it and don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what mashes your spuds.

Until next time!

ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

I’m looking for authors (especially, but not limited to, new and/or indie authors) whose work I can feature here on Penstricken over the coming year. It will simply take the form of a quick Q&A about yourself and your work via private message or e-mail and, of course, a link to where we can all get a copy of your work.

I’m open to interviewing authors of almost any kind of story, provided your work is complete, original and of course, fictional. I will not consider individual short stories/micro-fictions, however I am happy to feature published anthologies or entire blog-sites of micro-fiction, provided you are the sole author.

If you’re interested, or want to know more, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

Pants, Plants and Plans: A Beginner’s Guide

If you’re the sort of person who spends a lot of time reading up on story writing, you’ve probably heard myself or other writing bloggers talk about the differences between planners, pantsers and plantsers. It’s a spectrum we writers are all spread out across, separating those on the one extreme who plan everything before they write from those who pants their way through their story (that is, they write ‘by the seat of their pants’, making up the story as they go along with absolutely no forward planning whatsoever). And of course, slap bang in the middle of the spectrum, we have Plantsers (because it’s a combination of the words ‘planner’ and ‘pantser’, see?).

We all naturally gravitate to one side or another on this spectrum. However that doesn’t mean we can’t choose to plan, pant or plant even if it doesn’t come naturally to us. After all, we might be tempted to think that one method is inherently better than the others, and that we should try this.

We might even be right. For my money, I think there are some situations where planning is more appropriate and others where pantsing is more appropriate. I’m not going to tell you categorically that any one method is better than another* but there are pros and cons to each. If you’re struggling with whatever method comes naturally to you, it may be time to try a different approach. And so, what follows is my own short and ill-informed concise analysis of each approach, comparing pros and cons as evenly as I can.

Planning

Strengths: Planning everything in advance saves buckets of time. If you already know exactly what is going to happen, how it’s going to happen and who it’s going to happen to, all neatly ordered into chapters and scenes, you won’t waste time writing lengthy portions of narrative you won’t use. You can also rest easy in the knowledge that your first draft won’t have too many large plot holes to sort out.

This makes it easy to work to a schedule. If you know you can knock out 1000 words a day, you can reasonably well estimate that it will take you about three months to complete a draft, especially in those first drafts, because you won’t get stuck about what to write.

Weaknesses: it’s easily the most strict approach to writing. The writer must be disciplined enough 1) not to begin writing a draft too earlier and 2) not to deviate from the plan when he does start drafting. This does not suit everybody. Many authors find it sucks the pleasure out of writing and stifles the imagination, as new ideas insist on being heard throughout the writing process.

Tips for Planning: Be disciplined. Plan everything and resist the urge to draft until you have completed all your chapter outlines, character biographies, the lot. When you finally do begin to draft, don’t deviate from the plan. Add nothing, change nothing, remove nothing. Write it exactly as you planned it. Remember, dear planner, you’re not making art. You’re constructing an intricate machine.

Pantsing

Strengths: This approach to writing allows the imagination to run wild. Most people who write stories tend to do it because they’re people who like to dream, to create and to give artist form to their flights of fancy. Pantsing lets you do just that. I often find that, while pantsing can produce a lot of excess material, some of it can even be later recycled to create a whole new story. Many of my story ideas have come from material I rejected while pantsing an earlier work.

Weaknesses: If you’re serious about writing for any reason other than as a hobby, you will probably find this approach seriously undermines your productivity and success, especially if you’re writing anything longer than a short story. Pantsing out a novel length story in a couple of months is easy in theory but it is doomed to be full of half baked themes, plot holes and other inconsistencies that will need to be fixed before they can pass over any agent or publisher’s desk. You may find yourself virtually starting from scratch when you come to do your second draft, assuming you ever reach the second draft stage.

Tips for Pantsing: Don’t get too attached to your work. A draft that has been fully pantsed will require a lot more editing than a meticulously planned draft. While killing your darlings is always good advice for any writer, pantsers will probably find themselves producing a lot more darlings (because their imagination has been given unlimited credit in the sweetie shop) that have to be killed (because their story will be full of things that simply don’t work).

Plantsing

Strengths: Plantsers have the best of both worlds. They are anchored to a plan but they are not enslaved to it. If the author wants to make changes halfway through writing their draft, or if they identify problems with their story, they can simply adjust the plan as they go along. The imagination is thereby given space to work but is also kept under a tight leash.

Weaknesses: It’s probably the hardest method to strike the correct balance with, even if you do find yourself naturally gravitating towards it. Planners know to write nothing until their story is fully planned out and pantsers don’t give a rip if their story doesn’t make sense in the first draft, but plantsers must learn to bring these two extremes together and make them work in harmony. It is difficult to create a systematic approach to plantsing and will be largely figured out by trial and error. This can be time consuming and frustrating.

Tips for Plantsing: Plantsing is not creating a plan then disregarding it, nor is it writing a draft then making a plan around it. Both of these are a waste of time. Plantsing involves blending these two seeming opposites in a way which allows you to work to your strengths, while still enjoying the benefits of both extremes. For example, you might pants out a few zero drafts to stimulate your imagination while you plan. Alternatively you might create a very loose-fitting plan (story beats for example, but no chapter outlines) and pants out your novel within the boundaries of that limited plan. You might also decide to forsake character biographies in favour of conducting several ‘interviews’ or ‘auditions’ with your characters to help you get to know them better. The possibilities are truly endless when it comes to plantsing. My best advice is to spend a little time finding an approach which works for you.

Footnotes:

*I know what you’re thinking: ‘if he’s going to be so unbiased in his approach, why has he only got pants in the featured image and nothing else?’ Well the short answer is I just couldn’t find a single picture on the internet which depicted a plan, a pair of pants and a potted plant so I had to pick one. I picked pants because pants are funnier. Sue me.


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. Be sure to leave us a wee comment if you enjoyed it and don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what tickles your toes.

Until next time!

ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

I’m looking for authors (especially, but not limited to, new and/or indie authors) whose work I can feature here on Penstricken over the coming year. It will simply take the form of a quick Q&A about yourself and your work via private message or e-mail and, of course, a link to where we can all get a copy of your work.

I’m open to interviewing authors of almost any kind of story, provided your work is complete, original and of course, fictional. I will not consider individual short stories/micro-fictions, however I am happy to feature published anthologies or entire blog-sites of micro-fiction, provided you are the sole author.

If you’re interested, or want to know more, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.