The 5 Circles of Inspiration Hell

It was an ordinary day like any other. The sky was grey and the bus was late. Suddenly, the tiniest green shoot of an idea sprouted in your head. It was small, but healthy and full of promise and you knew — you just knew — that it was going to be the novel/play/film that you would be remembered for in generations to come. Today was the day it finally happened. You got inspired.

Of course, experienced, wise and learned authors know that before you can sign that publication deal and pick up all those awards, you’ve got to actually do something with your wave of inspiration to turn it into a fully fledged story. Initial ideas (especially plot bunnies which unexpectedly pop into your head) are always full of holes, not all of which can be easily plugged. It takes effort to craft it into something that really works.

Those experienced and wise authors I mentioned will know exactly how to handle their ideas and will churn out a good story in no time at all. The rest of us, however, if we’re not careful, might find ourselves languishing somewhere in INSPIRATION HELL.

Abandon hope ye who enter here. Wanderers in this dismal place may find themselves endlessly going around and around the same circle for weeks, months or even years before moving onto another or, worse yet, back to one they’ve already been on. They are damned to be forever inspired without completing a single draft. As a former inmate, it is my sorrowful privilege to shew unto thee the Five Circles of Inspiration Hell.

I: The Burrow of the Plotbunny

If you ever find yourself walking along one day, minding your own business when a wonderful and more-or-less fully fledged story idea suddenly pops into your head with little or no effort, beware! You are in danger of wandering into the Burrow of the Plotbunny. On the surface, it is a paradise where the ecstasy of inspiration fills even the most self-doubting writer with confidence that they will one day become the next Shakespeare, but in the end, nothing ever gets written lest the euphoria be broken. Those who find themselves in the Burrow of the Plotbunny are forever doomed to think about the wonderful idea they’ve had and dream of the day they publish it for all the world to enjoy… but they never actually begin to write it.

II: The Drawing Board of Despair

After spending untold days, weeks or months wandering in the futile bliss of the Plotbunny’s Burrow, you may decide it’s finally time to make your idea really happen. And so you conclude, quite correctly, that if you’re ever going to break free of Plotbunny’s Burrow, you’ll need to sit down and plan out your story. So far, so good. No good idea ever became a story without much toil.

However, beware! It won’t take more than a couple of minutes attempting to bring some structure to your idea that you begin to realise this idea isn’t nearly as good as you thought it was. It’s full of holes and is going to take way more effort than you ever dared to imagine. In fact, you’re not even sure if it ever can be crafted into a good story. The longer you spend, scratching away at the old drawing board, the more you tie yourself in seemingly impossible knots and sink, ever deeper, into a pit of despair. You’re no author. You’re ashamed to have ever thought you were.

III: The Pants of Denial

You wake up one morning after a good night’s sleep and remember that idea you had… that idea that was so wonderful until you tried to plan it.

‘Yes…’ you say to yourself, ‘it was planning that ruined my story…’

So you decide to throw away all notions of planning and simply ‘pants’ it instead. You convince yourself that if you just make it up as you go along, you’ll have a finished draft in no time. The trouble is, all those holes and problems you discovered with your idea at the Drawing Board of Despair weren’t caused by planning. They were simply discovered through planning. And so you spend eternity churning out disjointed narrative after disjointed narrative until you’re up to your armpits in random scenes and character auditions that serve no purpose. You convince yourself you’re making progress but the problems you faced at the Drawing Board of Despair remain unresolved. Your idea is still full of holes.

IV: The Fires of Refinement

Your enthusiasm has taken a few bruises now but you’ve accepted that your idea will never become a true story unless you sit down and plan it properly, even if that means making drastic changes to your initial idea. And so you decide to try planning again, only this time, with a more realistic attitude.

Your idea sucks. You know it to be true. But that’s okay, because all ideas suck until you turn them into a story. So you plan diligently, ruthlessly, killing whatever darlings stand in your way. You twist and mould and sculpt your initial idea until it’s no longer recognisable. But it’s taking shape. It’s getting better. It’s becoming a story. In fact, you even manage to produce a first draft. It’s hard graft and it hurts like blazes but you’re finally beginning to make real progress as you put your precious idea through the fires of refinement.

If you’re thinking this is a great opportunity to break free from Inspiration Hell, you’re absolutely right. In fact, you’re within spitting distance of The Pearly Gates of Authors’ Heaven. But beware! There is a trapped door beneath your feet which leads to…

V: The Pit of Capitulation

It was all going so well. You endured the pain of true planning and clawed your way to the very brink of completing your novel. You might have even produced a draft.

But it sucks. Your plan sucks. Your first draft sucks. You suck. And so you fall upon your own sword. You refuse to work on that idea any longer. The whole idea is dead to you.

What you failed to realise is that first drafts are meant to suck. Bringing a good idea to fruition requires perseverance. Planning, drafting and redrafting are all vital stages in producing anything even remotely good but it can be so difficult to keep going when your momentum starts to falter. You must persevere to succeed. The truth is, your initial idea really did have potential; potential it was perhaps even starting to realise. But potential alone does not make for a good story. It must be refined and polished again and again before it will truly shine as a story.

So… is there a way out of Inspiration Hell?’ I hear you cry.

Yes, there is.

First, you must actually begin working on your story idea. Second, you must remember that no story idea is perfect. It may have potential, but it will require serious effort and darling-killing if you’re to refine it into something worthwhile. Finally, no matter how hard it gets and no matter how awful your plans and drafts appear to be, remember and keep the Golden Rule:

Quitting is NOT an option!


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

Until next time!

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6 Mental Cobweb Shakers for Writers

Ever sat down to write and found your imagination covered in so many cobwebs that you can’t even remember how to pick up your pen? Ever sat staring at a blank screen for hours without even the faintest idea where to begin? Ever wasted your set writing time reading patronising articles on the internet telling you writers’ block doesn’t exist (when you know better) because you just can’t quite seem to get settled into your day’s work?

No?

Well I have, and whenever that happens to me I need something to quickly shake away the cobwebs to help me get off the starting block. Therefore, I am going to commend a few of my favourite cobweb shakers to you today. I don’t know if these will work for you or not but they work for me so… you might as well give them a go, eh?

Write Urgently

I’ve blogged about this before, but it has so revolutionised my whole writing life that it bears saying again. If you find yourself staring at a blank page for hours and have little or nothing to show for it when you’re done, try resolving to write for no more than thirty minutes, twenty minutes or even less all day. Better yet, start your writing session at a time when you know you’ll have no choice but to stop very soon; i.e., while your dinner is in the oven or in that spare twenty minutes before you have to catch a bus to get to work on time. It sounds crazy, but I find that writing in short bursts creates a sense of urgency which forces me not to procrastinate or edit as I write.

Background Noise

Silence may be golden, but it can also be as distracting as having someone talking in your ear. The solution? Get yourself some background noise. You could always do this by seeking out a noisier location, but assuming you don’t particularly want to move anywhere, I can highly recommend Noisli to you as a free tool which allows you to customise your own blend of ambient background noises including (but not limited to) thunder, a crackling fire, a train moving and a coffee shop. These sounds loop indefinitely, so you can turn it on and let it lull you into a false sense of sitting in a coffee shop on a rainy day or listening to birds singing beside a crackling fire.

I know lots of writers enjoy listening to music while they write, although personally, I still find that a bit too distracting, especially if it involves complicated melodies or (worst of all) vocal parts with lyrics. If you must listen to music while writing, I recommend keeping it gentle and instrumental. Video game music is particularly useful as it is designed to be incidental and keep you focused on the task at hand.

Play a Game

Speaking of games, I also find playing a computer game a good cobweb shaker. Nothing too mind-numbing, of course. Avoid anything that involves decimating sweets or throwing helpless animals (actually, just stay away from mobile gaming altogether). I find it far more effective to play a game I need to use my brain for and preferably something with a story of its own. I’m a big fan of retro gaming, so classic adventure games such as Grim Fandango and Monkey Island often fit the bill for me but anything you need to use your brain for should do.

The danger with this, of course, is that you can waste all day gaming. If you’re going to game away the cobwebs, be sure to set yourself a strict time-limit.

Indulge A Different Creative Interest

Like gaming, this approach will also require a strict time-limit but if you’re feeling too lackadaisical to get started with your writing project, you might find pursuing another creative endeavour will give you the spark of enthusiasm you need. Of course, you’ll know better than I do what turns you on apart from writing. It could be singing, dancing, painting, conducting bizarre scientific experiments* or something else entirely. Whatever it is, set aside a little(!) time to immerse yourself in something that makes you feel alive and gets your mental juices flowing. You’ll come back to writing feeling able and rejuvenated.

Go For a Walk/Exercise

Though I’m loath to admit it a bit of fresh air and exercise is a great way to shake away the mental cobwebs. Even just a five minute walk and a change of scenery can work wonders. Just don’t wander so far that you don’t have time to write!

Free-write
freewrite
Here’s what my free-writing session looked like. Pretty dismal, right?

Free-writing is ideal for when you just don’t have the time to waste gaming, exercising or cloning your budgie. Simply set a timer for a minute, five minutes, ten minutes or whatever you feel is necessary and write WITHOUT CEASING for that whole time. You don’t need to think about structure, plot or anything. Just write. It doesn’t matter if you have typos. It doesn’t matter if you write piles of meaningless rubbish with all the orderliness of a pig’s regurgitated dinner. It doesn’t even matter if all you manage to write is ‘I don’t know what to write, I don’t know what to write, I don’t know what to write…’

What matters is that you pick up your pen and write!

Sometimes it can even help you to come up with ideas, but even if it doesn’t, don’t worry about it. The most important thing is that you stop doing nothing and start writing something. Anything. As long as it’s something.

I hope you found some of these tips useful. Do let us know if you did by commenting below, and also if you’ve got any mental cobweb clearing tips of your own, why not comment below so we can all benefit from your wisdom and experience? And if you enjoyed this post, be sure to follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if you feel so inclined.

Until next time!


*This website does not in any way endorse dangerous, unethical, illegal or otherwise ill-advised scientific experiments. Any suggestions to the contrary in this post were meant only as a joke and should not be taken seriously.

7 Things I Hate In Fiction

No matter what genre of fiction or medium of story-telling you’re into (even if you’re into nearly all of them, like me!), we all have our own little things in fiction that we don’t like. Sometimes it’s the little things that can absolutely ruin an otherwise potentially good story for us and make us seriously think about leaving it unread/unwatched/unlistened to.

For your enjoyment, therefore, I have compiled a list of my own fiction bugbears with expositions. Maybe you won’t agree with them all. That’s okay. I’m not for one second suggesting any of these are hard and fast rules about what constitutes a bad story. These are just things that, for me, are a bit of a turn-off. So without further ado and in no particular order…

Obvious Morals

Don’t get me wrong. I definitely think it’s a good thing for stories to say something meaningful about real life. I’m not knocking stories that have morals to them. I’m not even knocking controversial morals. Quite the reverse, a good story definitely should have true and important morals or observations about life. But there’s nothing that puts me off reading a book or watching a film/TV show/play quite like that horrible sinking feeling you get in the first five minutes when you think to yourself: ‘I think I know where this is going…’

Even if it’s something I profoundly agree with, that’s not the point. I don’t read stories to be preached at, whether I agree with the message or not. Entertain me, and by all means make me think, but don’t preach at me.

Excessive and/or Long Fight Scenes

On TV and film, I can just about(!) put up with drawn out fight scenes, but in novels… boy, I find them tedious. They’re often either too detailed (and so, the pace is dragged right down at what should be the most exciting part) or else they’re not detailed enough and I lose the thread of what’s going on entirely. If you’re going to write a fight scene, I want it to be described in such a way that I feel like I’m really there witnessing it, which must by necessity include experiencing the danger and urgency of being in a battle. It can be done with words, but only a few writers seem to be able to do it in a way I find truly enjoyable.

More on fight scenes here.

Unnecessary Profanities

Sometimes in adult fiction, a little profanity may be justified, if it becomes the character (remember boys and girls, a character’s voice can have a profound impact on their identity). After all, in real life, people do sometimes use foul language. However, I find that in fiction, it loses its effectiveness very quickly and can come across as a fairly amateurish attempt at generating tension. Therefore, use it sparingly. If you’re struggling, watch the soaps for some inspiration: Eastenders, Coronation Street, Emmerdale and so forth.

No, really, hear me out. I don’t have a lot of good things to say about soaps, but I’ll give them this: because they’re usually on before the watershed, the writers of these shows are forced to generate tension and outright screaming matches between characters without using a single profanity. Study these carefully if you’re really struggling to write tense dialogue without the potty-mouth.

Flashbacks

As a rule of thumb, I find that flashbacks tend to interrupt the pace of the narrative too much. In addition, I often find that they are simply used as a way to info dump the backstory and as we all know, info dumping is bad, bad, bad. I might, possibly, maybe let you away with them if the story absolutely requires that one character tells another character a lengthy, detailed story about something that happened in the past (Agatha Christie’s Poirot novels, for example, frequently include flash back style chapters where one witness is telling Poirot their version of events) but on the whole, I find flashbacks a bit of a drag.

All Action; No Substance

If I wanted a meaningless thrill ride, I’d just go to Alton Towers. Don’t get me wrong, a bit of excitement is needed to keep up the momentum of your story, but if the protagonist is doing nothing but jumping over walls, dodging bullets and crashing helicopters from the outset, I won’t have any opportunity to get under the his skin enough to sympathise with him or understand his goals and motives.

All Substance; No Action

The opposite is also true. I know I want to understand the characters’ goals and motives, and I know I want the odd profound or emotional scene but I don’t want to be bored to tears either. Sooner or later, we need a bit of excitement.

Call Your Story Confessions of an [Optional Adjective] [Noun]

This will make me hate your story before I’ve even read it. See my previous post On Titles.


Well that was cathartic for me at any rate.

Did any of that ring true for anyone else? Or maybe you actually love flashbacks, lengthy fight scenes and tedious titles? Maybe I’m alone in disliking these things…

I know! Why not leave a comment below and share your own fiction pet-hates with the rest of the world? You might feel better if you get it off your chest. And if you enjoyed this post, be sure to follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if you feel so inclined.

Until next time!

Hey Author, Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

‘Oh, so you’re an author then? Where do you get all your story ideas from?’

Ughhhh! Stop asking me that! I don’t know! If I knew the answer to that, I’d probably have more ideas!

Er-hem.

Okay, so for reasons best known to yourself, you want to know where to find the House of the Magical Idea Wizard and think that perhaps I, or one of my author colleagues (you know, the ones that have actually got a few novels published), might have the answers you seek. I know I’m not alone in having people ask me about this. Writers’ blogs seem to be replete with authors whining and complaining about how often their family, friends and fans (those of you who have fans) ask them this same question.

Well… today, O seeker of insight, I am going to attempt to answer this singularly annoying and misguided question in the only way I can: from my own narrow experience.

The first thing you need to know is that there is no Magical Idea Wizard. Or at least, if there is, I’ve never met him. Plot bunnies are certainly real enough, but they are not bred by any one person whom you can purchase one from, nor do they grow on a special tree. In fact, between you and me, I’m not even sure plot bunnies are all that useful. They’re certainly not to be relied upon if you plan on making a career out of story writing.

‘Hold the bus for just a minute!’ I hear you cry. ‘What on earth’s a plot bunny when it’s at home?’

I’m glad you asked. A plot bunny is a story idea that pops into your head and won’t go away. They tend to appear out of the blue. For example, I recall on one particular occasion I was sitting on the upper deck of a bus coming home from the hospital where I work. At one point, while we were stopped at traffic lights, I noticed a Chinese takeaway and I was struck by exactly two thoughts:

  1. Mmm… salt and chilli chips…
  2.  If I ever figure out how to invent a time machine, I’m definitely going to keep it a secret. Then I’ll open a takeaway and be able to trump all the competition by travelling back in time to get all my orders to my customers mere moments after they make the order.

The first thought was mere gluttony. I ordered a takeaway when I got home and that was that. But the second thought was a plot bunny par excellence. For months I turned that strange little notion over in my mind, convinced that there was a story in it (for in itself, it was not a story but just a premise) but I just couldn’t make it work. Nevertheless it was a persistent nuisance in my brain, demanding to be written but it was a whole year before I was able to actually turn it into a story. More often than not, however, I find most plot bunnies come to nothing.

So… it is possible to be struck with sudden waves of inspiration, but they’re often unproductive in the long run and — more importantly — there’s absolutely no way to simply snap your fingers and make plot bunnies come to you on demand. In a word, plot bunnies are utterly unreliable.

Wise authors know that if you want to be able to write stories on demand, you need to be deliberate and methodical in developing your idea from the tiniest seed. That ‘seed’ could be anything. For me it’s usually either a theme I want to write about (e.g., my current novel started as a simple desire to write a story about rebellion) or else it’s a character looking for a story to belong to. But where does that ‘seed’ come from?

It’s not magic. All you need to do (boring though this sounds) is to make a deliberate point of setting aside time to sit down and be proactive in developing an idea from scratch. I don’t just hope for ideas to come to me on the bus, on the toilet or anywhere else (though I certainly write down any that do pop out of the blue). I set aside regular time to sit down at my desk and produce as many ideas as I can. Coming up with story ideas is not a supernatural gift that strikes without warning; it is a discipline which can be learned through practice and patience. I can play the trumpet, not because every now and again musical talent strikes me, but because I have devoted time and effort to regularly practising my skill. I started off rubbish. Over time, through regular practice, I became an accomplished (perhaps even good) trumpet player. If I stop practising for any length of time, my ‘talent’ gets noticeably rusty. The same is true of coming up with story ideas.

For me, I find the best way to come up with ideas is to brainstorm. I sit down with a notepad and give free reign to my thoughts, omitting nothing that comes to mind. Often I will find myself inventing characters who I can then audition or ‘interview’ in different settings and situations (the main antagonist in my current novel came about this way). Journaling can also be helpful. Scribbling down all my thoughts, feelings and opinions about politics, family, philosophy, religion, humour, music and whatever else comes to mind can often help me to discover new themes to explore in a fictional setting. I then question and experiment with whatever comes to mind. From there, it’s a simple matter of taking the time to refine my ideas. If I really, really, really can’t think of anything, there are plenty of prompts available online which you can use as a springboard into creativity; however, I tend to rely on these only as a last resort.

You asked me earlier whence ideas come. The simple, boring and profoundly mysterious answer is that they come from your own mind. There is no magic, but the everyday magic of that lump of slimy grey matter in your skull which, by some inexplicable design, is able to invent entire worlds and people from nothing and to use those inventions to communicate all manner of beliefs and philosophies. If you have a brain, you have ideas. You have all manner of ideas every day, both good ideas and bad ideas. You’ve probably had dozens of ideas already today, about a whole range of subjects. Turning these ideas into stories is simply a matter of practice and patience.

Writing Non-Human Characters #2: Aliens

Last week, I had planned to write a single post talking about how to write non-human characters, such as animals, aliens, mythical creatures and so forth. Unfortunately, it turned into such a long post that I decided to chop it up into a series of posts instead. This week’s post is the second instalment on writing non-human characters and today I’m going to focus on how to write aliens from other other worlds. If it’s animal characters you’re interested in, that was covered in last week’s post, which you can see by clicking here. If, on the other hand, it’s robots or mythical creatures you’re after… well, you’ll just have to wait.

Before we begin, let’s take a moment to remind ourselves of the golden rule for writing non-human characters:

Your audience is made up entirely of human beings; therefore, your audience must be able to sympathise with your characters as human beings.

In other words, if you want your audience to sympathise with your character, you need to give them certain human qualities. In doing this, you anthropomorphise your character; that is, you humanise them in the minds of your audience. The more human they are, the more easily they can be related to. So, with that in mind, let’s have a think about aliens.

Unlike animals which are very common and familiar things in real life that science has taught us a great deal about, we know nothing about real sentient alien life. We can’t even be certain that it exists at all. However, if it ever turned out that sentient alien life actually did exist, it would almost certainly have very little in common with us Earthlings. There’s absolutely no reason to believe that they would share human values and culture (or even understand concepts such as ‘values’ and ‘culture’), walk on two legs, communicate with spoken language, listen to music or do any of the other things humans do. Culturally, socially, philosophically, anatomically and in every other way, they would almost certainly seem bizarre to us in the extreme. After all, we humans often find it hard enough to relate to other human cultures, never mind alien ones!

It is, of course, certainly possible to create “realistic” aliens like this for your story. Unlike with animal characters (who you probably will want your audience to relate to), it can sometimes be beneficial to have aliens who are bizarre and impossible to relate to, depending on the kind of story you’re writing. Many have done it already to great effect. However, it is worth remembering that there is a reason these “realistic” aliens are very seldom portrayed as good guys. They’re not even usually portrayed in the same way as traditional bad guys, who will usually still have goals and motives that we can relate to and sympathise with (even if we don’t approve). Instead, such aliens are usually portrayed as destructive (or at the very least, strange and frightening) forces of nature. The aliens in War of the Worlds or Alien are good examples. These characters, while believably alien, are more of a danger to be overcome or escaped than a character to be related to. Because your audience cannot sympathise with them as people, it makes it an almost(!) impossible task to create aliens of this type who fit into any traditional role for a character to play. Remember, the weirder your alien is, the less your audience will sympathise with or even understand them. This can be a great boon to authors who want to create terrifying monsters, but not to authors who are trying to create relatable people.

Contrast this with the types of aliens you are perhaps more used to seeing in popular science fiction such as Star Trek or Doctor Who. They sit somewhere in the middle of the alien-human spectrum. They might have one or two physical features that make them look alien, such as blue skin, pointy ears or strangely shaped foreheads, but they still basically look human-ish with mostly recognisable human body parts in roughly the correct place. They will usually have one or two cultural or social quirks to keep them from seeming too human (for instance, the Vulcans in Star Trek are famous for their logical and stoic minds) but nothing so bizarre that it defies understanding. After all, humans often do appreciate logic; the only difference is that Vulcans have founded their entire culture upon it whereas we have not. This makes them seem exotic, but relatable. Such aliens are not terribly realistic when you analyse them closely, but they’re sufficiently different from humans that the average audience will accept them as aliens while still being able to sympathise with them as people, rather than monsters.

Beware, however, that you do not go too far in trying to make your aliens relatable. Aliens are, by their very nature, foreign in the extreme. Your audience, then, will expect your alien characters to be at least a little bit unusual. If they seem too human, you will have utterly failed in your goal to create an alien character. For example, one of the biggest things that irks me about Supergirl (the TV series) is the character of Mon-El who, having only just arrived on Earth from the planet Daxam, is utterly indistinguishable from the average American millennial in the way he talks, behaves and relates to other characters. This level of anthropomorphising goes too far and robs the audience of their ability to believe that the character they’re witnessing is really from another world at all. Sure, he’s a relatable character but remember, it’s important when writing sci-fi to suspend your audiences’ disbelief. Your audience will not be able to believe in an alien who seems more human than their own family do.

Creating alien characters, then, is all about balance and purpose. Before you begin, ask yourself: what is the purpose of this alien to be in my story? Are they a protagonist, antagonist, love-interest, etc.? Why exactly are there aliens in this story? This will determine to what extent your audience (and indeed, your other characters) will need to be able to understand and relate to them, and consequently, will help you to determine how alien or human they should appear. However, let’s be clear on one thing: this is not the same as creating a balance between how good and how evil your character is. Rather, it’s a balance between the familiar and the strange. Very human characters can still be bad guys. Very alien characters might even be good guys, although it’s unlikely that the audience will relate to them and so I would be very careful about how you go about doing this.

That’s all I’ve got time for this week I’m afraid, but be sure to come back next week when I’ll be continuing the series on creating non-human characters, this time focusing on robots and cyborgs. 

Until next time!

Writing Non-Human Characters #1: Animals

If you’re serious about writing stories, you need to be serious about writing characters. No story is complete without them. This we know. We also know that your characters can make or break your story depending on how well they’ve been constructed. Apart from that, of course, your characters can be anybody you want them to be (in fact, the more variety the better, I find). You can make them male or female; black or white; rich or poor; gay or straight; nasty or nice or even human or non-human. It’s the non-human characters (particularly animals – I’ll come to the others next week) I want to talk about today.

Non-human characters are nothing new. They’re everywhere. We’ve all seen more dog or cat movies than we can care to remember, right? Meanwhile fans of shows like Doctor Who will be all too familiar with the concept of an alien protagonist. C.S. Lewis loved writing stories which featured talking animals, while his friend J.R.R. Tolkien is perhaps best known for Lord of the Rings, which follows the adventures, not of a human, but of a Hobbit. And in short fiction? Why, only last week, my regular readers were subjected to a story with a certain rodent protagonist.

I’ll be spending most of this week dealing with how to write animals in particular (because it’s ever so slightly more complicated), however, no matter what non-human species your protagonist may be, there is one golden rule you absolutely must keep in mind at all times. Ready? This is it:

Your audience is made up entirely of human beings; therefore, your audience must be able to sympathise with your characters as human beings.

In other words, you need to anthropomorphise your character to one extent or another. Perhaps only a little, perhaps a lot, but to some extent, you need to give your non-human character certain human traits to make them relatable. At the very least, they will probably need to be able to think like humans in order to work through their goals, conflicts, epiphanies, etc. and possibly will need to speak like humans too (though there are numerous examples of strong animal characters who do not speak).

Of all the non-human characters you might create, animals are arguably the hardest. Unlike aliens or mythical creatures, animals are something we all see every day and science has studied them all from almost every angle, in terms of how they think, how they’re physically built and how they relate to others. While this might seem like a boon for us authors (after all, it should make research easier… right?) it can also be a bit of a pain if you’re remotely concerned about realism.

For example, in The Church Mouse, my protagonist was (you’ve guessed it) a mouse. In real life, mice have incredibly poor eyesight and find their way using their whiskers. Unfortunately, my story would not have actually worked quite as well if the mouse had been blind (for instance, he is seen examining a mouse trap in the second chapter to make sure it’s not potentially lethal). The easiest way around this is to do what I did — give him the five basic senses of a human. We can easily write that off as artistic licence. Apart from that, I left him physically as a normal mouse; walking on four legs, leaving his mess just lying around about him and having a strong sense of smell.

The larger problem, of course, was in the mind. Mice do not think the way humans do. I don’t for one second claim to be an expert on the psychology of rodents, but I’m pretty confident they don’t have goals, plans and motives like Mr. Mouse did – and even if they do, they certainly don’t think about them conceptualise them in rational terms like Mr. Mouse does. However, in order for your audience to relate to your animal character, you need to give them a mind which is close enough to being human for a human audience to relate to them. In the case of Mr. Mouse, the only truly rodentian quality I preserved was the way the smell of chocolate worked him up into a frenzy of instinctive, primal desire. This provided him with a motive. Beyond that, his thinking (his goals and epiphany; his opinions of the ‘idiot’ Landlord and even his concept of God) was quite human. It needed to be so for the audience to care about him.

Take a moth for instance, instinctively flying towards a flame. In all probability, moths cannot explain to themselves or anyone else why they are drawn to something as deadly as fire (do they even have a concept of what mortality is?). It’s pure instinct. But give a moth the rational mind of a human and suddenly you have a story about forbidden desires; about lust, danger, temptation and death. They know it’s not allowed. They know it’s bad for them but they just can’t resist. Suddenly we’re in Moth-Eden and the Moth-Devil is whispering in Moth-Eve’s ear,

‘You shall not surely die, for God knows if you go near the flame, you will be like God understanding good and evil… ‘ 

A word of warning, however. There is a danger in going too far with all of this. Too much anthropomorphism can lead to your character becoming a bit ridiculous, which will be disastrous for your story unless you happen to be writing a comic, cartoon or lighthearted family movie. Mr. Mouse, for example, never actually spoke. could have given him the ability to speak, but it was unnecessary. He never once interacted with another character (whether human or mouse) so it made more sense to simply write what he was thinking from one moment to the next. If I had him sitting on a little sofa in his mouse hole, reading the Sunday paper and sipping a cup of tea, it would have all got a little bit too Tom and Jerry... which is fine if that’s what you’re wanting to create but the more serious your story, the more understated I recommend you keep this. Remember, you only want to anthropomorphise them enough for the audience to understand and care about what happens to them. Think carefully, therefore, about how far along the anthropomorphic spectrum you place your character to avoid any unfortunate comic side-effects (or, if you are trying to write a cartoon, make sure you don’t underdo it and potentially create a boring character).

Phew!

Well, it had been my plan to write about other non-human characters such as aliens, robots and mythical creatures as well but I’m afraid that’s perhaps going to need another post! Be sure to swing back next week for that! In the meantime, why not get your notepad out and try your hand at knocking together an animal character or share your own insights in the comments section below.

Until next time!

A Few Words About 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.

 

Using Dialogue to Bring Your Characters to Life

They say we all smile in the same language*. Fortunately for us writers, just about everything else we say, we say in our own unique way. It doesn’t matter if everybody in the room speaks the same language (English, for instance); accent, dialect and all the different words and idioms we tend to use have given each one of us a way of speaking which is almost as peculiar to ourselves as our fingerprints. For us story tellers, understanding and harnessing this knowledge can be the difference between writing a good story and creating a masterpiece.

No, I really don’t think I’m overstating it at all. I think they’ll probably put this on my gravestone but I’ll say it again anyway: characters are always the beating heart of a good story. You can plot until you’re blue in the face, but if all your story has in the end is a good plot and shallow characters, your story will feel abstract, flat and difficult to relate to; in a word, boring. And how are you characters manifested in your story? To some extent it is by what they do, but I would argue that to a greater extent it is by what they say, and more importantly, how they say even the most mundane things. For example, in Star Trek: The Next Generation, the character Data frequently irritates other characters by giving time intervals to the nearest second.

BORG QUEEN: How long has it been since you’ve used them?
DATA: Eight years, seven months, sixteen days, one minutes, twenty-two…
BORG QUEEN: Far too long.

(Star Trek: First Contact, source: http://www.chakoteya.net/movies/movie8.html)

This is more than just a recurring joke. This absurdly precise approach to calculating time is a constant reminder to the audience that Data is an android. At a fundamental level, his mind works like a computer and we can see that in the way he speaks. He doesn’t have to say ‘I’m an android!’ in every single episode to remind us that that is what he is. It’s made obvious by the kind of expressions he uses.

The way a character speaks will tell your audience buckets of information about that character without it being explicitly stated at all. The kindly, elderly member of the local parish church in a quaint middle-class village is unlikely to replace all her commas with strong profanities. Again, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot frequently code-switches into French, signifying his Belgian origins. In addition, a character’s accent will also tell you something about their origins and you can communicate this accent to the reader through how you spell and punctuate your character’s dialogue (this little article I found might prove useful if you’re planning on giving it a go). In short, a character’s register and accent tells you something about their social and geographical background without it being explicitly stated.

Of course, I’m sure that’s obvious to you. But if you really want to harness the power of dialogue to build your character, it’s time to start thinking about your character as an individual. Go back to your character profile and consider his needs, wants, fears and goals, as well as his personal history. Bring it out in everything they say. For example:

Character A: Oh dear, I missed my bus! C’est la vie! I’ll catch the next one. If I’m late, I’m late!

Character B: Sake! See these #$@&%*ing buses! I think they just print the #$@&%*!ing timetable to noise us up; some kind of sick #$@&%*!ing joke on the stupid little commuters! They’re never here when they say they will! Now I’m going to be late again!

Character C: Oh no! I think I’ve missed my bus… ohh, what do I do? I’m going to get the sack for sure! Oh no, no, no, no, I can’t be late again! Oh please, why is this happening to me?

In all three situations, our characters have missed a bus and are late for work. In all three, our characters are miffed to be in this situation but they all express their disquiet very differently and this tells us something about their personalities. One of them is a bitter and twisted man who has had a few hard knocks in his life and is convinced the world is out to get him. One of them is a worrier, constantly nervous and assuming the worst. The other is a carefree optimist. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out which is which based on the above dialogue.

There are two reasons these characters personalities come out so clearly in their dialogue. The first is what they said. Character A easily laughs off the inconvenience with a pithy little c’est la vie, while character B’s bitterness is immediately evidenced by the fact he not only blames the bus service for his trouble, but goes as far as to suggest they have deliberately conspired against him.

But if we go a little deeper, we can also glean the personality of each character by how they said what they said. Character B is the only one who uses bad language, for instance (I’m afraid you’ll need to use your imagination as to exactly what he said, I’m determined to keep this website family friendly). He could have just as easily said, ‘These buses are always late! I think the timetables are just there for fun!’ but that would not have communicated the same kind of pent up angst this character obviously has. Indeed, if he had said it that way, it might have even sounded jocular, even though it communicates exactly the same idea. The audience would simply have no way of knowing for sure what this character was like, or even how he really felt. The original version, on the other hand, leaves the audience in no doubt that Character B is one angry man. In the same way, Character C’s repetition of the word ‘no’ brings out the growing sense of dread he feels that his life is going more horribly wrong than he ever dared to imagine. He could have just said ‘Oh no, I can’t be late again!’ but… it just doesn’t communicate his barely suppressed panic in quite the same way.

If you’re a writer of fiction, it would be well worth your while investing some more time in studying this. I can only scratch the surface of this in a 1,000ish word post but if you master this, dear writer, you will have taken an important step forward in becoming a better story teller. Your characters will have been endowed with a personality that really shines through and makes them stand out as unique individuals. It also goes a long way towards mastering the art of subtext in your dialogue but… alas, that is a subject for another time.


*Although it might be more accurate to say, we all speak the Universal Language of Smiling, which arguably has a vocabulary all of its own. After all, we all know that a sneer, a grin, a grimace and a chuckle all mean quite different things, don’t we?

I Love Scapple; You Should Too!

Sometimes when you’re in the planning stage of constructing your story, it can be difficult to keep track of all of your ideas – especially if you’re still undecided about what ideas you’re going to use and what ideas you’re going to discard. Figuring out timelines of individual characters, their relationships to one another or the history of your fictional world (particularly for us fantasy/sci-fi types) can be a complex process. I spoke before about how I like to brainstorm in a notebook, but notebooks have one major weakness when it comes to refining your story: they’re a bit on the small side. Even if they have a million pages, you still can’t spread out all your ideas in front of you at once; much less easily organise and rearrange them.

Corkboards or spreading out your notes on your kitchen table is one way around this, but they have limited room too (they can also get really untidy and that can leave you feeling more confused than ever). There is plenty of mind-mapping software out there, of course, but its usefulness can be limited if you’re experimenting with many different ideas at once, because they force you to make logical connections between each note. Thankfully, the good people who gave us Scrivener have done it for us again.

At first glance, Scapple by Literature and Latte might appear to be just another piece mind-mapping software claiming to possess the secret of eternal creativity but in actual fact, it is quite different in a few important ways; ways which make it the ideal tool for those of us who have a million different ideas they need to organise and have been unable to find a large enough whiteboard or a thick enough packet of post-its.

weescapple1‘Freedom’ is the word that comes to mind when I think about Scapple. Freedom to organise all your thoughts (however many, and however big or small) into whatever order you want, in whatever style you want and with remarkable ease. One of the main freedom-endowing features Scapple has is that it allows you to place notes anywhere on the board, which you may choose to connect or not connect to other notes as you see fit. If you want to link your notes together, you can do it using arrows, two-way arrows or dotted lines. You are also not bound to work from a single central note as you are in mind-maps (though you certainly could do this if you wanted to). Each and every note you add to your board will be a free and independent note, which you can connect to or disconnect from as many other notes as you wish – assuming you choose to join any of your notes together at all. You can also easily surround some or all of your notes with a ‘background shape’, which keeps them together. All of this makes it ideal for experimenting with many different ideas at once.

weescapple2If you’re like me, you probably find that colour-coding your notes is a big help when you’re coming up with new ideas. Fortunately, it’s easy to customise the style of your notes to make them look exactly how you like them. The bulk of the customisation Scapple offers is available through the non-intrusive ‘Inspector’, which includes two tabs: one for customising the note style of whatever note you have selected at the time, and another for customising the format of the overall board (background colour/image, default font, etc). By default, Scapple comes with a few pre-made note styles that you can easily select by simply right-clicking the note(s) you want but you will probably find yourself quickly wanting to create your own note styles that you can re-use. Fortunately, it’s easy to create re-usable note styles by simply creating one bubble in the style you want and then choosing ‘New Note Style from Selection’ in the Format->Note Style menu. Not only that, but you can also redefine pre-existing note styles and even import note styles from another Scapple board (saving you the hassle of re-creating your custom note styles every time you start a new board).weescaple4 You can also add images as notes simply by dragging the file from your File Explorer directly onto the board and of course, as this little gem was indeed conceived by the same minds which gave us Scrivener, you can easily import notes from Scapple into Scrivener simply by dragging them into Scrivener’s Binder.

For me, however, Scapple’s usefulness doesn’t end once I’ve refined my basic idea. Once I’ve decided what story I am going to write, Scapple can be of further use for creating useful diagrams such as timelines. For the novel I’m currently working on, I used Scapple to create a timeline which allowed me to mark off where individual story beats came in and how this related to the progress of the protagonist’s character arc. This allowed me to see the whole functioning skeleton of my story, with all its individual elements working together in a format which was very clear and easy to work with. Additionally, the freedom Scapple gives you to add notes anywhere on your board meant that I could still easily add notes-to-self on any points which I was concerned about (of which there were a few!).

I really would like to come up with a few negative points for the sake of giving a balanced review of this product, but its simplicity, ease of use and freedom to do what you want with it makes it a really great product with very few cons that I can think of (incidentally, I’ve also found a few other non-fiction related uses for it). It’s available for Mac and PC and is also available as a 30-day free trial (that’s 30 days of use, so you don’t need to feel under pressure to use it every day for a whole month) so why not give it a go? If it’s a way to organise and plan your novel that you’re looking for, I’m sure that Scapple won’t disappoint you.

On Titles

Titles are possibly one of the hardest things to get right when it comes to writing your story, no matter what it’s genre and format. Not only are they hard to come up with, but they (like most things) tend to be a matter of taste. If there’s one thing I personally hate, it’s when writers (or perhaps more likely, their publishers) feel the need to give their book an agonisingly tedious title like ‘Confessions of a [optional adjective] [noun]’. That’s a great way to stop me ever reading your book, watching your film, attending your play or partaking of anything else you might produce. Writers and publishers everywhere, take note: I really hate that kind of title with an indomitable passion.

But I digress.

Titles are hard but you can’t very well avoid giving your story one. Most depressingly of all, there’s a good chance your publisher will throw out your snazzy title that you agonised over and replace it with some other, more marketable title (Confessions of a Philistine Publisher, or something like that). Still, they won’t even look at your story if you don’t give it a title first so there’s nothing else for it, I’m afraid. Your story needs a title.

So, let’s start by defining exactly what a title ought to be. First and foremost, the title must be relevant. Please don’t call your story The Swashbuckling Adventures of Captain Bloodbeard if you’ve written a cozy mystery novel set in some English country estate. If your title promises swashbuckling adventures, your story had better deliver swashbuckling adventures; and the only people I know who swash their buckles are pirates. Don’t get me wrong. A good title can be a little bit more cryptic than the one I’ve just made up, but there’s a big difference between cryptic and downright misleading.

Your title is a promise to your audience. Like any good advert, it should tantalise the audience with the promise of a good story without giving too much away. The reason Peter Newman’s The Vagrant caught my eye (among all the other fantasy novels on the same shelf) was because it promised me something that I always look for in a story: a compelling protagonist. I did not know for sure at this stage if the protagonist was actually going to be any good, but as soon as I saw that title, I was willing to give it a chance because I needed to know who the Vagrant was. If, on the other hand, Newman had simply entitled his novel ‘The Bloke’, I probably would have shrugged my shoulders (in fact, with a title like that, I wouldn’t have really expected to find it under fantasy at all, but never mind).

Some titles are phrases borrowed from the text of the story itself. The title A Game of Thrones for instance is a phrase which is used in the actual text of the story. Personally, I’m always a little bit cautious about doing this. It works with A Game of Thrones for two reasons:

  1. It’s a really snazzy phrase
  2. It encapsulates what the story is about, without giving away any spoilers.

You really need both of these in place to make a title like this work. If it’s not a snazzy phrase, it won’t catch anyone’s attention and if it doesn’t give some indication as to what the story might be about, you will only end up with disappointed readers. The phrase, ‘Alas! Earwax!’ is found in the first Harry Potter book, but let’s be honest: if you saw a book in a shop entitled Alas! Earwax! you wouldn’t expect it to be a story about wizards. Oh, and while I’m on the subject, please, please, please, never come up with your title and then try to incorporate it into the text of your story… otherwise you’ll end up with something horrible like:

And you people, you’re all astronauts on some kind of star trek?

– Zefram Cochrane in Star Trek: First Contact

Seriously, just don’t do that.

Another possibility is to use well known expressions and sayings as titles (as long as they’re relevant. Always keep it relevant). For example, the title of Jeffery Archer’s Cometh the Hour is clearly derived from the expression ‘cometh the hour, cometh the man’. We all know that expression and what it means, and therefore, when we see the title of Archer’s book, we get a certain idea in our head of what kind of story it might be (without it really giving anything away). If, however, you can’t find an expression that conveys the kind of ideas you want it to convey, why not try distorting a popular idiom as Ian Fleming does in Live and Let Die. Not only does that title tell you something about the story itself, but it is also eye-catching because it flies in the face of popular wisdom.

Alternatively, if you’re really feeling brave, you might want to use a single word as your title. If you’re going to do this, I would generally use a word that sums up the main theme of your story. While it is certainly possible to name your story after the main character (e.g. Ben-Hur by Lewis Wallace) or the main setting of your story (e.g. Dune by Frank Herbert), it’s unlikely that these kinds of titles will catch anyone’s attention if we’ve never heard of the people or places in question before now. Why should I care about who Ben-Hur is or what happens on Dune (not that I’m knocking Dune or Ben-Hur; they are, in fact, two of my favourite books)? On the other hand, Roald Dahl’s short-story collection, Deception, has a very effective title because it sums up the main theme of every story therein. We all know what it is to deceive and be deceived. It’s a theme we all understand and care about; therefore, it becomes interesting to us.

I hope some of this helps. Also, remember that while it is important to come up with a good title, try not to lose any sleep over it either. What really matters is that you tell a great story. You can have the best darn title in the world, but the story is what your audience will really care about. Some of my favourite books have rubbish titles and there’s a good chance your publisher will change the title anyway, so it’s not worth getting overly attached to anyway. But don’t let that stop you from coming up with the best title you can. After all, it’s the first thing your would-be publisher will see so give it your best shot. If your story has to get rejected, make sure that it gets rejected because for the story – not because it’s got boring title.