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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6 More Six-Word Stories

Originally published 14/08/2016

If you’ve been following Penstricken since it started in 2015, you may recall that on one occasion I set myself the challenge of writing 6 six-word stories using Thinkamingo’s Story Dice as stimuli. Since I am in an unoriginal sort of mood today, I’ve decided to do it again. The only difference is that this time, in addition to taking my cue from the story dice, I also intend to make each story a different genre, i.e. sci-fi, historical fiction, etc.

As before, I am using one die per story.

Alea iacta est (again!).

Now let’s see what I can come up with based on that starting from the top left and working my way down to the bottom right. As ever, the following are all my own work and have not been published anywhere else before:

  1. KING FELIX DEAD: Nine assassins executed (fantasy).
  2. ‘I shall avenge thee!’ Bambi vowed. (fan fiction)
  3. Rose wrote to Henry: ‘Dear John…’ (romance).
  4. ‘Butler dunnit’, written in Butler’s blood. (murder/mystery)
  5. MARTIANS: No spacesuits on the beach! (sci/fi)
  6. Sword drawn, Julius crossed the Rubicon (historical)

That was even harder than last time! Without a shadow of a doubt, the most difficult one was the cat (though I will admit, I was scraping the bottom of the barrel a bit including a Bambi fan fiction as well). I didn’t have the foggiest idea what to do with it and I’m not even all that sure that I pulled it off terribly well but never mind. It was always meant to be a challenge.

Why not grab some story dice (or use the images I’ve posted here; I am certain you can come up with much better stories than I have) and give it a bash yourself? And remember to share your efforts with the rest of us by posting them in the comments section below!

 

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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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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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A Beginners’ Guide to Making Up Fantasy Names

Originally published 03/04/2016

How do you go about naming characters in your story? If you’re writing a sci-fi or fantasy story, you are certain to come up against this question, not only for your characters but also fantasy organisations, races, religions, philosophies, nations, planets, galaxies and just about anything else you invent!

After all, it’s no small job creating a world!

Well, for what it’s worth I’ve decided to share with you a little bit about how I like to go about naming fantasy things in this handy-dandy beginners’ guide to naming fantasy things. Obviously I can’t cover every possible fantasy thing you might invent, so I have narrowed it down to cover the three things I personally have struggled with the most: naming characters, naming places and naming concepts.

Let’s start with characters. If your characters are human beings from the actual planet Earth then there’s really no reason you couldn’t use a normal every day name like John or Mary, as long as they are suitable for that character. Indeed, if I’m writing a fantasy set in another world which humans nevertheless are a part of (for example, there are Men inhabiting Middle Earth in The Lord of the Rings), I often like to stick to recognisable human names anyway, because they’re far easier to remember. You need to weigh up carefully whether or not that’s appropriate for your story. A good way to worm your way out of this is to simply change one or two letters of a real name to create something new which is still recognisable. For example, the name Jonathan could be Jolothan; Sarah could because Saral and so forth.

More often than not, however, you’ll probably find that completely made-up names are far more appropriate for characters in sci-fi/fantasy. You can get away with almost anything in this but there are a few things to bear in mind.

First, you need to remember that names are usually deeply rooted in the culture and language they come from. For instance, you will often find that Scottish names begin with the prefix, ‘Mac’, which means ‘son of…’. Even if you aren’t interested in inventing a language for your story (that’s a herculean task in itself!), it is certainly worth trying to come up with a few common prefixes or suffixes to sprinkle in there and add meaning to your names. For example, you might decide to use the suffix ‘pam’, to mean ‘son of’. Therefore, the name Erpam could mean something like ‘Son of Er.’

Another thing to consider is the prevailing philosophical and religious beliefs of the character you are naming. In certain Christian traditions, for example, children are often named after various saints such as Paul, Matthew or Helen and many Hebrew names often include the letters ‘jah’ or ‘yah’, which is a reference to the Hebrew name for God. For example, the name Elijah means ‘Yahweh is [my] God’. It should be fairly straightforward for you to adapt this idea to suit whatever religion (or irreligion!) your fantasy characters practice. For instance, let’s pretend your characters all practice a form of polytheism, and believe in a god of thunder called Tom, a god of sunshine called Dick and a god of snow called Harry. If your character was born on a particularly snowy day, he might be named something like Harpam: ‘Son of Snow’.

If, however, your character is an artificial being such as a robot, he may not have a culturally derived name at all. Code-names indicating his creator’s intentions might be more appropriate (for example, in Star Trek: Voyager, the chief medical officer is a holographic doctor; his creator gave him no name except for Emergency Medical Hologram. His ship mates refer to him only as ‘Doctor’) or even a simple number such as R2-D2 (Star Wars) or Third of Five (Star Trek: TNG).

Now, let’s move on to naming places.

In some respects, naming of places works along a very similar principle to naming people. A great many places are named after important people from history or religion: for example, San Francisco is named after Saint Francis. It is also common for places to be named after people who built it or important people who visited it at one time. This is especially true of (but not restricted to) public buildings.

On the other hand, some place names are purely descriptive. For example, prefixes and suffixes such as ‘castle’, ‘kirk’, ‘church’ or ‘abbey’ will often be making reference to important landmarks in the area. Ask yourself what kind of landmarks might be important to your fictional culture. For example, your fictional town might include an army barracks and a church. If the people in this fictional world are not very religious but are fiercely proud of their armed forces, they might prefer to name their town something like Delbarrack rather than Delkirk.

Finally, you may wish to invent a new concept for your fantasy world. For the most part, you can usually get away with using every day words for this and I would strongly recommend you stick to that as far as possible, since it makes your story much easier to follow. For example, I was working on a story once in which I invented a system of government which had three ‘crowns’, each with different functions but who all exercised the supreme authority of kingship equally. Because of this, I decided not to call any of them kings, since I wanted their differences to be clear. After a great deal of changing things about, I finally designated them Imperator, Justicair and Archbishop. These are not made up words, as I’m sure you are aware. They are real words with real meanings in real life; I simply borrowed the terminology and changed their meanings ever so slightly to suit my needs.

There are, of course, some things that you just have to make up new words for. In the Harry Potter series, for example, JK Rowling coined the term ‘muggle’ for anyone who is not a wizard. Personally, I would be inclined to be very, very, very sparing in creating brand new terminology like this unless you absolutely need it. I do understand why Rowling needed a word for ‘muggle’ in the Harry Potter series, since no such word exists in real life. What I don’t understand why she felt the need to invent a special currency for wizards to use. It does not add anything to the story (which is, ultimately, still set on modern day earth; therefore, normal money would surely suffice) apart from a couple of unnecessary concepts for the reader to remember.

So, there you have it! A beginner’s guide to naming fantasy things. I will admit, that it barely scratches the surface of this topic but hopefully it’s given you a few ideas at least. Ultimately, the challenge of creating any fantasy world is to balance imagination with understandability. You can invent almost any kind of person, place or concept you wish but the reader must be able to understand it. Try to avoid overburdening your reader with a hefty lexicon of new terminology that they have to memorise; it only makes your story that much harder to follow. If you take care to make your terminology as simple, meaningful and memorable as possible, it will make it that much easier for your reader to step into the imaginary world you have created.

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Throwback Thursday: The Overwhelming Art of World-Building

Originally published 19/06/2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

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Throwback Thursday: Super Snappy Speed Reviews (Star Trek Edition)

Originally published 24/09/2017
SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers in this post, anyone who has not seen all of the films in the Star Trek franchise is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

The day we’ve all been waiting for with a combination of both hope and dread is finally here. Star Trek: Discovery premieres in America today, and so, in honour of this momentous occasion (and since we Brits won’t be getting it until tomorrow), I am pleased to present Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Star Trek Edition!

We’ve already had super snappy speed reviews for books (twice, in fact), TV shows and films but today it’s going to be a bit different. Today I’ll be reviewing all thirteen Star Trek films in order of release. As ever, these reviews only reflect my own personal opinions and impressionsphasered, disruptored and bat’lethed into just two or three sentences. So without further ado…

Star Trek: The Motion Picture

While it has a lot of the elements we might look for in a good Star Trek episode, The Motion Picture is spoiled by ridiculously slow pacing.  Buckets of atmosphere but not much else to say in its favour.

My rating: 🖖🖖

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

This film’s got it all: a familiar antagonist with a score to settle, exciting space battles and plenty of sub-plot. Arguably the best film in the entire franchise.

My rating: 🖖🖖🖖🖖🖖

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

I can’t say much about this without giving away spoilers galore but suffice to say it’s a good popcorn muncher and is integral to the overall Star Trek canon. Its main let-down is the half-baked antagonist: a random Klingon with no redeeming qualities trying to steal a technology which he thinks will make a good weapon of mass destruction.

My rating: 🖖🖖🖖🖖

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

Definitely the most light-hearted of the Star Trek movies. Plenty of humour, a casual ecological moral and no real antagonist to speak of (okay, there is a giant probe thing threatening to destroy Earth, but only because it wants to make friends with some humpback whales and earth doesn’t have any them any more)

My rating: 🖖🖖🖖

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier

The rest of the world seems to hate this film but I quite enjoyed it. Sybok was a particularly interesting antagonist, in that he seemed to be well-meaning, if badly misguided. It probably could have benefited from unpacking some of the more important themes, however.

My rating: 🖖🖖🖖

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

My favourite Star Trek films and episodes are always those which focus on interstellar politics, particularly the Federation’s tense relations with the Klingon Empire. If that’s your flavour too then this film’s got it all: conspiracies, interstellar peace talks and even a Klingon courtroom scene.

My rating: 🖖🖖🖖🖖🖖

Star Trek: Generations

This film has a great bad guy (although I could have done without the Duras sisters…), strong themes and apart from being a little on the slow side at points, is generally well paced. The (mostly humorous) subplot concerns the previously emotionless android, Data, now fully equipped with emotions he can’t control, which is funny at first, then gets serious before kind of just fizzling out and resolving itself without explanation.

My rating: 🖖🖖🖖🖖

Star Trek: First Contact

If Wrath of Khan isn’t my favourite in the franchise, this one is. Excellent acting, strong writing and well paced. The Borg Queen in particular provides the previously faceless Borg Collective with a leader who is as subtle and seductive as she is evil. Unfortunately, this film does also include my least favourite line of dialogue in all of Star Trek history: ‘You people, you’re all astronauts on… some kind of star trek?’

As an aside, non-Trekkies should not begin here; this film is full of important references to the TV series.

My rating: 🖖🖖🖖🖖🖖

Star Trek: Insurrection

This might’ve worked as a TV episode, but as a film it’s just boring, boring, boring with extra boring on top. Some dude we’ve never heard of (with a simply appalling plastic surgeon), from a race of aliens we’ve never heard of wants to chase some helpless innocent people we’ve never heard of away from their planet and Picard doesn’t like it and… zzzzzzzzz…

My rating:  🖖🖖

Star Trek: Nemesis

Tom Hardy and Patrick Stewart’s acting as Shinzon and Captain Picard respectively are about the only things this film really has going for it. In theory, the premise had lots of potential but it turned out to be a bit of a poorly written non-story about a disgruntled clone who decides to kill everybody with a particularly nasty WMD, only to be thwarted by an inevitable act of self-sacrifice from one of the heroes.

My rating:  🖖

Star Trek

As reboots (especially prequels) go, this was a zillion times better than I thought it was going to be. It features, quite simply, some of the best plotting, characterisation and pacing I’ve seen in a Star Trek film. There are a few inconsistencies with prime universe that are not explained by the time travel story but nothing anyone but the most knit-picky of fans would worry about.

My rating: 🖖🖖🖖🖖

Star Trek Into Darkness

Take all your favourite scenes from Wrath of Khan, mix them up a bit and boom! You’ve got Star Trek Into Darkness! Even so, with its strong plot, superb acting (especially from Benedict Cumberbatch) and plenty of excitement, this remains my favourite Star Trek film since First Contact.

My rating:  🖖🖖🖖🖖🖖

Star Trek Beyond

After Insurrection and Nemesis, Star Trek Beyond is my least favourite Star Trek film. The writers clearly decided to forget about pacing, characterisation and all that boring stuff and created a non-stop heart-pumping thrill ride instead. Great acting though, I’ll give it that. Click here for a more detailed review on this film.

My rating: 🖖


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AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

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

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Throwback Thursday: Using Magic in Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

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

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Throwback Thursday: The Monster

Originally published 27/08/2017

I recently entered a couple of stories into the National Association of Writers’ Groups 100 Word Mini-Tales competition. Suffice it to say I didn’t win, but since I believed in the potential of every one of the stories I entered, it seemed only fitting to try to publish them elsewhere. I selected this one to publish here on Penstricken after the winners of the competition were announced. I’ve made a few small improvements so it’s probably not exactly 100 words anymore but hey… At least it’s a better story now. The rest, I’ve since submitted to other places.

As ever, what follows here is entirely my own work and has not been published anywhere else in the world, whether on print or online, nor do I expect it to be since the competition winners have already been announced. So, without further ado, I give you…

THE MONSTER

by. A Ferguson

Captain Harold of Earth’s Space Navy had met his share of bizarre alien cultures, but nothing like these. These were monsters.

One of the Creatures stood over Harold, injecting him with chemicals and mutilating him with ferocious tools. The Creature had cold blue hands, shining black eyes and no mouth (yet it spoke). A human female observed nearby, desensitised to the atrocity she was witnessing.

The Creature stepped back.

‘There, that wasn’t so bad,’ it smiled.

‘What do you say to the dentist, Harry?’ the human (code name: MUM) goaded.

They had practised this before they left the house. Thank you Mr. Riley. Harold’s mouth was still numb but he had to try…

‘Yeou’re a monsther!’ he screamed.

THE END


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AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

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

You can check out our previous interviews here: