A Quick Review of Hemingway Editor v.3.0

Originally published 22/01/2017

You may recall (if you’ve got a photographic memory) that I published a post last year reviewing the Hemingway Editor. This snazzy little app analyses and grades the simplicity of your writing style and I’ve used it plenty over the last year to help edit my own writing. Well, it so happens that I got an e-mail this week informing me that v.3.0 is now available with a whole bunch of new features. These include:
  • The ability to publish or save drafts to WordPress or Medium from the Hemingway App
  • More choice of what you can import and export from Hemingway. This includes, among other things, the ability to export PDF files with all Hemingway’s highlights intact)
  • Distraction free writing and editing
  • The ability to have many documents open at once
  • A pretty new splash screen
  • Various bug fixes
Like its predecessor, Hemingway 3 aims to help you write in the most clear and simple style you can by highlighting any instances of adverbs, passive voice, complex language or cumbersome sentences. It will also give details of readability, word count, letter count, approximate reading time and so forth. In this sense, nothing much has changed (though the new version seems to be far more willing to suggest specific corrections, which is a big plus) . It uses the same system of colour coding, grading and gives exactly the same information. There have only been a few minor changes to the layout of the sidebar. I won’t waste too much time here reviewing features that are common to both versions. You can read the old post for that. Instead, let’s have a look at some of the new features.
 
Being a WordPress user, the ability to save your work to WordPress or Medium caught my attention straight away. I don’t use Medium so I haven’t been able to test it, but I did have a go at saving to WordPress. See this post that you’re reading now? This is it; this is the test. I wrote and edited this using Hemingway Editor 3.0. And my verdict is this: it would be great if I could only get it to work. The window that appears when you click ‘Publish on WordPress’ is very clear and easy to use, but whenever I clicked ‘save’ this kept happening:
error1
 
Do let me know if you think I’m doing something wrong. I’ve spent the last fifteen minutes trying to figure it out and it’s still not working.
 
So, let’s move on to look at exporting and importing. In the old version, you could only import Word documents and export Word or Markdown documents. Hemingway 3 gives you much more choice. Now you can import:
  • Plain text (.txt)
  • Markdown (.md)
  • Web pages (.html)
  • Word documents (.doc)
And you can export:
  • Plain text
  • Markdown
  • Web pages
  • Word documents
  • PDF documents (.pdf)
  • PDF documents with all Hemingway’s highlights included.
unabletoconnectThis is all a massive improvement, but the last item on that list is the most exciting for me. This allows you to quickly and easily share edits with colleagues. The only downside? Nowhere on the PDF file does it tell you what each coloured highlight means. Unless our hypothetical colleague has the Hemingway Editor himself, you will need to provide him with details of the colour code. Still, it’s a handy feature to have.
 
The distraction free environment is one of my favourite new features in Hemingway. The previous version included a bulky toolbar along the top of the screen and an even bulkier sidebar if you were on ‘edit’ mode. The new version allows you to hide the sidebar even in ‘edit’ mode. It also has a ‘full screen’ function which hides your taskbar. It’s not a completely distraction free environment, as it does still have the toolbar at the top (which, to be fair, is now much less intrusive). On balance, though, I would still call it a big step in the right direction.
 
One thing I was particularly curious about was the spellchecker. You may recall from my previous post that I was none too impressed with the spellchecker in the old version.
 
‘Have they improved it!?’ I hear you cry.
 
I suppose, technically… no, not really. They’ve cured the disease by killing the patient. There is now no spellchecker whatsoever as far as I can see.
 
Another thing I was curious about was a particular bug I had discovered in the previous version, which I mentioned in the last post. Text I had copied from other apps overlapped with pre-existing text making the document unreadable. I’m pleased to say this is now resolved.
 
All in all, I would have to say version 3 is definitely an improvement. The new features are useful and they work well (publishing to WordPress notwithstanding). Things that didn’t work before, now do work, while things that worked well before now work even better. There is still room for further development, of course. It would be nice to have a functioning spellchecker for instance and the toolbar could be even more discreet than it is now but all in all, Hemingway Editor 3.0 gets a thumbs up from me. Go get it!

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My Dead Darlings

Originally published 18/12/2016

In his book On Writing, Stephen King famously quipped ‘Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings’. What that basically means is that a good writer must be able to look at his or her manuscript with a dispassionate eye and exorcise any superfluous passages, even if it is some of the most beautiful prose you have ever written.

If you haven’t had this problem yet as a writer, you will. Oh, brother, you will. It might be a clever turn of phrase, a vivid metaphor, a piercing line of dialogue or even an entire chapter (or more!) of narrative which you are immensely proud of… but it does nothing to advance the story and therefore, it has to go.

None of us are immune to this phenomenon. I, myself, find myself doing it on almost everything I try to write. So for your enjoyment, I have preserved a few dead darlings from the last few Penstricken posts here, in the hopes that I might also encourage you to kill your darlings without mercy. Your story will thank you for it.

Dead Darlings from ‘How to Make a Spin-Off That Doesn’t Suck‘ (27/11/16):

The biggest change I made in this post was removing a hypothetical Doctor Who spin-off about the life of the Doctor’s archenemy, Davros, which I dubbed The Davros Diaries. I replaced this with Roses Are (Presumed) Dead, not because I thought that was a cleverer idea (because it’s not), but because it allowed me to make my point better.

…perhaps as a tragedy following the events which led him to the insane creator of the Daleks he eventually became (kind of similar to the Star Wars prequels which followed the early life of Darth Vader).

* * *

You may also recall that in this post, I made reference to Wikipedia’s list of TV spin-offs. Well, I had originally included the following paragraph to clarify that my post only related to fiction related spin-offs, even though the list included non-fictional programs too. Really, this whole paragraph was superfluous; it doesn’t take a genius to figure out I never write about non-fiction anywhere on this website. The only reason I wanted to keep this paragraph in was because I was proud of my little Strictly Come Dancing quip but as we all know, even our little quips must be there for a reason. This one, however, clearly served no purpose whatsoever.

Now, if you’ve looked through the list (and I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t; it’s a long and tedious read. Believe me, I’ve read it), you will notice that lots of the TV shows on there are actually reality TV, game shows, or other such non-fictional nonsense that we’re not interested in. Whatever I say here only applies to spin-offs of televised fiction so don’t shout at me if you think Strictly Come Dancing is the best darn spin-off you’ve ever seen.

Dead Darlings from ‘A Colourful Approach to Brainstorming‘ (03/12/16)

This post really started out life as a post about low-tech writing tools, and I had planned to write an introductory paragraph about some post-apocalyptic era where our technology will fail us and we will all return to a simpler, purer form of writing. Then I realised I was talking rubbish, and besides, I couldn’t think of more than one or two low-tech writing tools I really wanted to blog about so… these paragraphs became pretty darn useless.

But what about when there is a sudden and total blackout of all power across the entire world? When I finally take my place as rightful Ruler of the Post-Technological Kingdom of Penstrickopia, we won’t have any need for silly little things like the internet, electricity or mobile iThings. No sirree, it will just be you, the great outdoors, your story idea and a bunch of other things, most of which either made of paper or else apply pigment to paper.

* * *

This paragraph was just long winded.

As I’m sure you’re aware, there are millions of fancy apps out there these days that you can get for planning, drafting and editing your novel, your play, your recipe collection or whatever else you feel like writing. They’re brilliant. I love them. In fact, I often blog about a few of my favourites (here, here, here, here and here, for instance). But the tool from my writer’s arsenal which I’m going to talk to you about today isn’t an app for your PC or tablet. It’s a very humble little item which you’re probably already quite familiar with. I know I’ve always had one, though only recently have I come to appreciate the sheer usefulness of it to us writers – particularly when it comes to trying to brainstorm story ideas.

Dead Darlings from ‘On Titles‘ (10/12/16)

You may recall that in this post, I made reference to the ‘Confession of a [optional adjective] [noun]’ style of title that I despise. Well, this was originally going to be a much longer rant. Here’s the excess rant that I was forced to delete (truth be known, I could have probably deleted the whole point but my hatred for this style of title got the better of me):

However, somebody out there clearly disagrees with me. When I searched for ‘Confessions of a’ on the website of a well known chain of book shops, it gave me no less than 113 results, so somebody must think it works as a title: Confessions of a Wild Child, Confessions of a Conjurer, Confessions of a Sociopath, Confessions of a Cartel Hit Man, Confessions of a Tinderella, Confessions of a Teenage Hollywood Star, Confessions of a Rugby Mercenary, Confessions of a Murder Suspect, Confessions of a Sinner, Confessions of a Working Girl, Confessions of a Barrister, Confessions of a Heretic, Confessions of a School Nurse, Confessions of… you get the idea.

* * *

This paragraph was just plain vague. Even I’m not sure exactly where I was going with it. I just liked my quip about Porkies but that is not a good enough reason to keep this otherwise useless paragraph.

One more point on single-world titles: make it a strong word. Something the reader can’t fail to understand. Avoid euphemisms and similar such soft language. Deception is a much better title than Porkies would have been because it’s such an offensive and accusatory word. Porkies, on the other hand, implies telling small, unimportant lies.

Dead Darlings from ‘My Dead Darlings’ (18/12/16)

Get me, I’m so knowledgeable. Goodbye irrelevant William Faulkner reference.

…Stephen King (paraphrasing William Faulkner, it should be noted) famously quipped…

* * *

Feels like I’m repeating myself a bit in this paragraph, doesn’t it?

So I thought, for your enjoyment, I would put a few of my dead darlings on display for you here. Most of these (though not all of them) were written for specific Penstricken posts but ultimately, served no purpose. They had to go. However, I’ve preserved a few of them from the last couple of posts here in the hopes that I might also encourage you, dear writer, of the importance of killing your darlings without mercy. Your story will thank you for it, believe me.

* * *

Alliteration can be used to great effect in writing, but if you’ve already made it clear what you’re planning to do, there’s no need to add in superfluous sentences just to show off your grasp of this relatively simple technique. That’s why this sentence had to go:

Call it a cyber cemetery of dead darlings.

* * *

And yes, I really did commit the very sin I was in the middle of preaching against… 

Alliteration is amazing. It can be used to great effect…

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A Colourful Approach to Brainstorming

Originally published 04/12/2016

One of the most effective ways to generate ideas, in almost any creative sphere, is to get together with a bunch of other folk and brainstorm together. It’s a time honoured tradition of mixing creative, imaginative, rational, critical minds together and coming with and developing a truly unique and superior idea. Unfortunately, writing is a pretty solitary business most of the time. But today, I want to introduce you to one of the most valuable tools I have in my writer’s utility belt; a tool which has allowed me to single handily harness (at least some of) the magic of brainstorming with others:

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you, The Bic 4-Colour Ballpoint Pen*.

Four colours in one pen!

I know what you’re thinking. Ancient technology. Humble. Boring. Run of the mill. You’ve probably got one yourself that you never use. Your kids have probably got one too. But trust me on this, it’s proven a great help to me whenever I’ve been trying to come up with new story ideas on my own (and you can use it during a power cut!).

It’s quite a simple technique really. First, grab a notebook that you don’t mind scribbling all your loose ideas into (seriously, we are not interested in presentation here). Second, grab your Pen of Many Colours. From now on, each colour represents a person in your ‘group’, and these will interact with one another. There are four members in my imaginary group because there are four colours on my pen (although if your pen has more colours, I suppose you could have more. Whatever works for you). In my case, they are organised something like this:

Black – Chairman (doesn’t really serve a creative function; I just use it for headers etc. although you might find another use for it).
Green – Creator
Blue – Questioner
Red – Critic

Now, since there’s not really a group of four people involved in this process, it’s important to remember one thing: you must write down everything that occurs to you. No matter how good or bad it is, you must write down everything or this won’t work.

So we begin by bringing the meeting to order. This is the main time I use the black tip. I write a header, which specifically establishes what it is I am trying to accomplish, to give some kind of focus to the session. I also include the date, but that’s just to make it easier to find again. If I’m brainstorming a brand new story idea, I might also write down other details such as intended audience etc. For instance, my most recent one reads:

‘Untitled Sci-fi Novel – Minor Antagonist Ideas – 30/11/16’

Great! I now know what it is I’m trying to create: a minor antagonist (though you could use it to generate ideas for anything, even a whole new story). Now the other three colours come into play. I tend to flick between the three of them frequently throughout the process (that just means it’s working) so what order they get used in is both unpredictable and ultimately, not relevant. All that matters is that they are all used to their fullest capacity.

For instance, whenever I have a creative idea – good or bad – it gets written down in green. Every single idea without exception, even if I know it is never going to work in a month of Sundays. It gets written down in green. The reason for this is that I usually have multiple ideas and it’s not always clear which ones will work the best, or if any of them will work at all. That doesn’t matter for Mr. Green Tip, however. Mr. Green Tip’s sole function in life is to record every single idea that pops into my head, no matter how awful.

The blue tip has a related, though somewhat different function. It asks questions of my previous ideas and prompts me to come up with new ones. For example, in my most recent session, I had the idea that ‘the minor antagonist could be a friend of the protagonist who betrays him’. Written underneath it says, ‘Why would he do this?’. After all, there’s nothing wrong with the idea but in order to function within my story, this question really needs to be answered. If I can’t answer it at this stage, you can bet your life my readers will be wondering about it too.

Asking this question then prompted further ideas, such as conflicting political beliefs or that he might see the protagonist as a rival for the affections of his love-interest. This prompted even more questions and more ideas.

Another use for the blue tip is to ask ‘what if?’ style questions, again, to provoke ideas. This is a really great thing to do if you’re stuck in a rut. ‘What if the antagonist were agoraphobic?’ for instance or ‘what if the protagonist were thirty years older?’. Asking these kinds of questions pushes your imagination in directions it might not otherwise go.

Of course, with all these ideas flying around, we really need someone to separate the wheat from the chaff. This is where the red tip comes into its own. It is used to judge every idea and decide what can and should be used. If there are any problems to be found with any of my ideas, no matter how insurmountable or minor these problems may be, they get noted in red. The result of this is that I will either come up with a new and improved version of the original idea or that I will abandon the idea altogether and come up with a brand new one. For instance, underneath my aforementioned idea that the antagonist could be a rival for a love-interests affections, it says in red ‘We’re trying to write a YA sci-fi/thriller, not a soap opera’. I therefore abandoned that idea and went along with a better one I’d had.

I don’t know how likely it is that you will find this exact process useful. I hope you will at least find the basic premise of it useful. Goodness knows I’ve read up on countless approaches to brainstorming, planning, writing and everything else besides and if there’s one  thing I’ve discovered, it’s that no two authors approach writing in quite the same way, so I strongly encourage you to tinker with it until you get the approach that works for you. Maybe you need more colours. Maybe the whole thing is of no use to you. I don’t know. But this works for me, and I hope, dear reader, that you will be at least able to glean something from it to aid in the creative process.

*other multi-coloured ballpoints are available.

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3 Types of Distinctive Characters

Originally published 20/11/2016

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

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

1- Man or Woman of Mystery

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

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

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

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

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

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

3- Me and My “Thing”

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

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

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Typewriter: An Old-Fashioned Solution for Modern Writers

Originally published 02/10/2016

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

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

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

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

I had a brainwave.

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

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

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

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

Then I found it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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8 Useful Posts on Fiction Writing

Originally published 25/09/2016

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

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

So, without further ado…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Few Thoughts on Star Trek Beyond

Originally published 31/07/2016

SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers, anyone who has not yet seen the film Star Trek Beyond is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

I’m a Trekkie, so naturally I’ve already been to see the latest offering of the franchise, written by Simon Pegg and Doug Jung: Star Trek Beyond. I’ll resist the urge to pull up the writers for the various inconsistencies there were with the original Star Trek universe (suffice it to say, there were some and we’re all very cross about it but let’s be honest, there’s always something isn’t there?) and, as ever, I’ll leave any analyses of the cinematics to those better qualified than I to make any kind of judgement about them (although I will quickly say that Chris Pine is doing a much better Kirk impression these days than he used to). What I want to talk about today is the story-writing in this specific film.

So, first things first: did I like Star Trek Beyond?

It was alright. It was better than Star Trek: Nemesis, for instance, but it wasn’t a patch on Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan or even Star Trek Into Darkness. If visually spectacular space battles and non-stop action, excitement and danger are your thing then you will probably enjoy it. When boiled down to its basic elements, the plot was a little bit unremarkable: an angry alien (who is actually a human! Dun-dun-duun!) wants to unleash an extra-deadly bio-weapon into the ventilation system of the new Federation starbase Yorktown, which is home to thousands of innocent civilians from different Federation worlds (which is not entirely dissimilar to the plot of Nemesis, where an angry Reman  — who is actually a human clone! Dun-dun-duun! — wants to unleash an extra-deadly form of radiation into Earth’s atmosphere, but I’ll not say anything more about that).

In and of itself, there’s really nothing wrong with that kind of plot if it’s executed well. My main problem with Beyond was the pacing of the plot. It was fast and exciting almost from the outset, but as any good writer will tell you, speed and excitement cannot make a good story alone. Slower scenes, rich in dialogue and other details are important to allow for a build-up in suspense and to keep the audience abreast of what is actually going on. In particular, these slow scenes are essential for adding substance and meaning to a story. I felt like Star Trek Beyond was all action and excitement for the first two thirds of the film and then crammed most of the major plot developments into the final scenes, where it is suddenly revealed that Krall is actually a human who got stranded on that alien planet before the Federation was founded and kept himself alive using alien technology to sap something from the native beings on that planet and now he’s out for revenge – and it’s a real shame, because I think this film definitely did have something to say which was in keeping with the original spirit of Star Trek. Unfortunately, it was hard to hear over the noise of all the explosions, phaser fire and motorbikes.

I think what would have really improved this film would have been more slow scenes featuring Krall himself to give the audience some inkling into what was driving him. After Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness, poor Krall had a lot to live up to as a bad guy. He needed to be complicated and I think he had that potential, but unfortunately the pacing of the story was such that he came across as very two dimensional indeed. Perhaps if he had a right-hand man whom he could dialogue with (similar to the way scenes between Shinzon and his Viceroy in Nemesis foreshadowed the revelations which were still to come), it might have made the revelation of his human origins and his desire to avenge himself on the Federation seem a little less random and there would have also been an opportunity for some of his more complex thoughts and feelings to surface.

Speaking of under-cooked characterisation, there is also a subplot concerning Kirk and Spock’s friendship with each other and their respective futures in Starfleet, which is sadly lost amid all the excitement of the main plot. Having said that, I was very pleased to see that the relationship between Spock and Bones was allowed a little bit more room to develop in this film than it did in the previous two. Anyone who has ever watched the original Star Trek series featuring the late Leonard Nimoy and DeForrest Kelley in the aforementioned roles will tell you that their on-screen rivalry was the best in Star Trek history and it is good to see these two characters having time alone together to interact once again (although I did think that their dialogues with each other could have benefited from a few more scathing insults and sharp-witted jibes; it turned into a bit of a ‘bromance’ here and there, which isn’t really the kind of relationship you would expect from Spock and Bones).

All in all… it’s not a bad film. It’s not even a terrible Star Trek film, although it’s certainly not the best one I’ve ever seen. Even if you’re not a Trekkie, go and see it with some popcorn and a large drink in a paper cup and enjoy it for the entertaining escapism that it is.

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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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To Judge a Book (Not By its Cover)

Originally published 27/03/2016

I was tidying up my desk yesterday (a roughly biennial event, so it’s sort of a big deal) when I struck gold: two vouchers for a well-established chain of bookshops. One was worth a whopping £30 and the other, £27. That’s almost £60 worth of book voucher just waiting to be spent.

Naturally I fired up the website of this well-established chain of bookshops as soon as I had completed the excavation of my desk and immediately hit a snag. I didn’t actually know what I wanted. I just wanted new books. Exciting stories, riveting stories, poetically crafted and well researched works of fiction. Unfortunately, that’s a little too vague for the average search engine to reliably cope with. I know what I like when I read it but… how do I know I like it until I read it? I’ve always had this problem with choosing new books, films or other forms of fiction.

It is wise, of course, to begin by whittling the choice down to include only your favourite genres. Most bookshops are organised this way anyway, regardless of whether you are looking online or in a physical shop. Unfortunately, if you’re like me, there’s a good chance that you’ll want to peruse almost all of the genres, which doesn’t really help much. You could, of course, always fall back on that age-old game of literary roulette called ‘Judge a Book by its Cover’. Alternatively, you could do what I do and ignore the categories the shop gives you and make up your own categories instead. Here’s a couple I like to use:

Authors I’m Ashamed Never to Have Read

This category usually gets first priority when I’m trying to find something new to read. It includes all those authors that I, as a self-proclaimed bookworm, know I should have read but haven’t. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a firm believer that you can dislike anything you wish (even if everyone else loves it) but you just can’t know until you’ve tried… and some authors are just too popular to ignore completely.

For example, I claimed earlier in this post that I love the fantasy genre. Indeed, I do love the fantasy genre. I’ve read loads of fantasy and I nearly always enjoy it but in spite of this… I’m ashamed to say I’ve never read any Terry Pratchett. Naturally, therefore, when I had my surprise bookish windfall, I decided that I would address the lack of Pratchett on my bookshelf, instead of picking a fantasy novel at random. Since it is the first book in his ever-popular Discworld series, it wasn’t long before I had added The Colour of Magic to my basket.

Authors I Read Once Before and Liked

As well as fantasy, I am also a big fan of fantasy’s dour-faced brother, science-fiction. A couple of years ago, Isaac Asimov belonged in my ‘Authors I’m Ashamed Never to Have Read’ category until I finally read The End of Eternity, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Now that I’ve read one of his books, I have a golden opportunity to decide whether or not to write-off Asimov as overrated or to invite him back for a second audition. After all, the last book was maybe a fluke. Maybe Asimov is a one trick pony. Maybe I just won’t like anything else he has written. The first book I read filled me with optimism but caution is still advised in buying books from this category. There’s only one way to know for sure if you can ever truly become a fully-fledged fan of a particular author like Asimov: buy I, Robot and see if it’s half as good as The End of Eternity.

Authors I Can’t Get Enough Of

There are a few very special authors out there who can do no wrong. Every book they publish, I devour and enjoy. Part of it is undoubtedly down to the skill of the writer; a lot of it is perhaps also a matter of personal taste. For me, John Steinbeck is such an author. I first came across him at school when we read Of Mice and Men. I was hooked. Since then I’ve read The Grapes of Wrath, The Pearl, The Wayward Bus, East of Eden, Cup of Gold, The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, Tortilla Flat and probably a whole bunch of others besides.

This is a great category if, like me, you’re in credit with book vouchers and want to be sure that at least some of the books you order will be ones you know you’ll love. Just search for the author’s name and pick any old one. Joy is guaranteed.

Incidentally, I settled on The Red Pony for those of you who are interested.

Variations on a Theme

Sometimes the idea behind a story is more important than who wrote it. A couple of years ago, I read The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick, which is an alternate history in which the Allies lost the Second World War. It wasn’t the most exciting book I’d ever read, but I still enjoyed it and the idea behind it made for a stimulating (if horrifying) fictional universe. Perhaps a different author might be able to put a different (or even better) spin on the same idea…?

Fortunately, most online shops include ‘more books like this’ recommendations. It didn’t take more than a few clicks for me to find and purchase The Afrika Reich by Guy Saville.

Gamble!

Some books do just have very compelling covers, don’t they? You’ve never heard of the novel or the author but still, something about it catches your eye. If you’re feeling brave, why not roll the dice on a brand new author who you’ve never heard of?

Of course, just because you’re taking a gamble doesn’t mean you can’t stack the odds of finding an enjoyable read in your favour. Do your homework before you spend any money. I remember I once overheard some horse-racing enthusiasts discussing at considerable length how they intended to bet and why. You should have this kind of mindset when taking a chance on a new author. Don’t just impulsively buy one based on the pretty cover alone; do your research. The internet and the newspapers alike are bursting with reviews on all kinds of fiction. Websites like Goodreads are especially useful for getting an idea of what hundreds of different readers individually thought about particular books and they will usually provide an average star rating as well.

Ultimately, every purchase is a gamble. Sometimes your favourite genre will disappoint you; sometimes the best-selling authors are over-rated; sometimes you will find a gem from an author or genre you normally hate. But just because every purchase is a gamble doesn’t mean every purchase must be a guess. With a well trained gut and a little bit of research, there’s no reason why you can’t find something worth reading every single time.

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Different Seasons

Originally published 21/02/2016

SPOILER ALERT:

Although every effort has been made to avoid spoilers, anyone who has not read Different Seasons by Stephen King is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

I’ve never been a fan of horror stories (but power to you if you like them) and for that reason, I’ve avoided the work of Stephen King for far longer than is healthy for someone who claims to love a good story. However, on my birthday at the end of last year, I unwrapped not one but two Stephen King books: Different Seasons and The Green Mile (I also unwrapped Cup of Gold by John Steinbeck and a 9 book collection of Poirot novels by Agatha Christie, but that’s not important just now). I haven’t got around to reading The Green Mile yet but if it’s half as good as Different Seasons then I might have just become a Stephen King fan. It’s a fantastic book.

I would offer one word of caution to anyone who, like me, does not usually like horror but is curious about Stephen King: Different Seasons may(!) not accurately reflect the kind of stories King normally writes. As I read through Different Seasons, I was surprised by how relatively mild the horror elements were until I got to the afterword, in which King (1982, p. 672) comments,

I write true to type … at least, most of the time. But is horror all I write? If you’ve read the foregoing stories, you know it’s not … but the elements of horror can be found in all of the tales, not just in The Breathing Method – that business with the slugs in The Body is pretty gruesome, as is much of the dream imagery in Apt Pupil. Sooner or later, my mind always seems to turn back in that direction.

It’s this little afterword which leaves me wondering exactly how King’s other novels compare to this collection. That being said, the four novellas contained in this collection (Rita Hayworth and Shawkshank Redemption; Apt Pupil; The Body; The Breathing Method) certainly have their own dark threads running through them.

I don’t really want to rabbit on about Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption too much since I’ve already raved about it in a previous post but it bears mentioning. It tells the story of a friendship which develops between two prisoners in the Shawshank Penitentiary and of the final dramatic exit of both men from that prison. It features pretty much nothing in the way of supernatural horror elements but neither is it shy about giving a gritty account of life in the Shawshank Penitentiary, where most of the story is set. There are, for example, a few brutal scenes of violence including rape, though these are not overdone in a way which would make the narrative needlessly crude. In fact, I found there to be something strangely heart-warming about the main plot and the way the story ends. What really made this story stand out for me, however, was King’s superb use of narrative voice, as mentioned previously.

Like ShawshankApt Pupil is a story that does not really contain any traditional horror elements. However, it is very dark; the darkest of the four in my opinion. It is set in the fictional Californian suburb of Santo Donato and focuses on a mutually destructive relationship between an elderly Nazi war criminal, Kurt Dussander (a.k.a Arthur Denker) and Todd Bowden, an ‘all American kid’ with an unhealthy fixation on the Holocaust. Unlike the other three, Apt Pupil is narrated in the third person.

The story opens with the protagonist, Todd, appearing quite uninvited on Dussander’s doorstep, having already learned of Dussander’s previous life as a Nazi and his specific role in the Holocaust. Todd begins by blackmailing Dussander, threatening to expose him unless Dussander tells him gruesome and detailed stories about the Holocaust. The relationship brings out the worst qualities in both characters, eventually leading both to actual acts of murder while their mutual fear of each other forces them to continue their toxic relationship. While this is a little darker than the type of story I would normally go for, I must say that the two main characters are a master-class in constructing complex relationships between characters. Each character is unique, memorable and serves a vital function in the story (as all characters should), yet their relationships are a complex and intricately crafted web of obsession, hatred and interdependency the like of which very few other authors could hope to equal. Despite being darker than the type of thing I would normally read, it is so well written that I would have to say that, along with ShawshankApt Pupil is probably my joint-favourite story from Different Seasons.

The Body, on the other hand, was probably my least favourite of the four. It is written from the perspective of Gordon Lachance; an author, writing about an incident in his youth when he and a group of his friends, all of whom come from dysfunctional families, learned of a dead body which one of their brothers had discovered but not reported to the authorities. Lachance and his friends set out in secret to search for this body so they can ‘discover’ it and become famous. Personally, I found the narrative a little on the slow side compared to the other three novellas and while King’s use of narrative voice in this story was very good, it doesn’t come close to Red’s narration in Shawshank. The ending was also a bit of a let down. On the plus side (if you don’t like anything too dark), it is comparatively light on the physical and psychological violence found in the previous two stories.

The Breathing Method is a story within a story and is probably the closest thing to a supernatural horror to be found in the collection, though any supernatural or fantastic aspects to this story are only hinted at. The story opens with David, the protagonist of the frame narrative, being invited along to a mysterious men’s club by his boss where the members mostly read, tell stories and play pool. The rest of the novella takes the form of another character, Edward McCarron, telling David and everyone else at the club a story about an unmarried pregnant woman he once treated who was determined to have her baby despite the social and financial difficulties this would have caused her. He also tells them about an unconventional method of controlled breathing which he teaches her to use when she goes into labour, which allows him to save the baby’s life when the woman is involved in a fatal traffic accident.

All in all, Different Seasons is an excellent collection and is probably a great place for a first time reader of Stephen King to begin, especially if you’re not wild on horror. More importantly than that, the quality of the writing in all four of these stories testifies to the fact that – no matter how famous he might be for writing horror – Stephen King is no one-trick pony. Different Seasons may be a little on the dark side at points but I would still highly recommend it to even the most avid of horror-dodgers.

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

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