Fiction: Reality Refined

There are two kinds of story in this world. Those that are not at all true to life and therefore are completely unsatisfactory, and those that create the illusion of being true to life but, in fact, are not. Very few stories (even those meticulously and faithfully based on true events) accurately reflect real life once they’ve been structured in a way which allows them to be communicated, because real life is far too much of a jumble for that to be possible.

‘But wait just a minute here,’ I hear you cry. ‘I read a book/watched a film/attended a play/played a game just the other day there and it was the truest darn thing I’ve ever seen in my entire life!’

Well of course it’s true that if you’re writing a story, you’ll want it to be true to life in the sense that it must accurately reflect the human experience. A skilled author can (and should) attempt to communicate far more fundamental truths than this about life and death, war and peace, society, philosophy, religion or whatever it might be in their stories. And of course, stories based on true events must remain faithful to history. No one is denying any of that.

However, in real life, events are disjointed and random. Things happen for no reason. Reality must therefore be refined in order to turn it into a digestible and entertaining story. For instance, you might be writing a novel (based on the true story) about your holiday to France where you met your future wife and fought to win the respect of her disapproving father. Now while you were there, you also bumped into Mr. Donald, your former maths teacher. It turns out he’s there to attend the Fête de la Musique because (to your surprise) he’s ridiculously enthusiastic about music and will travel far and wide to attend music festivals all over the world. You make polite conversation about this for twenty minutes and then go your separate ways. You put the event out of your mind. Life goes on. It never comes up again. All that you have learned about Mr. Donald, his passion for music or that there is an all-day music festival that happens in Paris every June neither harms or benefits you in any way, at any point in your life, ever.

So… when you come to write the novel about how you went on holiday, met a girl and won the respect of her father, you’re not going to include that event, are you? Because in all story telling, everything happens for a reason. Meaningless events only serve to break up the flow, rhythm and pace of the story. Have you ever been watching a film and noticed that nobody ever says goodbye to anybody else, even on the telephone? Or that nobody ever walks into a room and forgets what they went there for, or forgets what they were about to say. And no one ever needs to go to the toilet, unless there’s a mad axe murderer in there already poised and waiting to kill them. This isn’t true to life at all! In real life, people always forget things, usually do say goodbye on the phone and, more often than not, have uneventful visits to the bathroom.

Not only that, but in all good stories (even those based on true events) there is a clear and identifiable structure, sometimes called the ‘story arc’ or ‘narrative arc’ (a simple definition and description is available here) and all the events in your story should contribute in some way towards its construction. This is not true to life, but it is good story telling. In real life, you meet new people all the time. They enter your life, do or say so many things and then leave your life, often without ceremony. Many different events happen all at once and are often never fully resolved. Good story telling isn’t like that. In good story telling, A leads to B which leads to C and in the end, all the loose ends are tied up. They might not necessarily all live happily ever after, but the story comes to a neat end. Our questions are answered and we are happy to assume that life goes on (at least for the survivors).

If all of this is teaching your granny to suck eggs, let me draw your attention to one more point: dialogue. In dialogue, you walk a fine line between creating a distinctive and believable voice which tells you something about the character and constructing your dialogue in a way which allows your narrative to flow.

It may be difficult to do because we’re all so used to verbal communication, but next time you’re having a verbal conversation with someone, listen to the words they use. Don’t just listen to their meaning. Pay careful attention to every utterance. You will notice that, more often than not, the rules of grammar go out the window. New sentences are often begun before the previous one is finished. People interrupt and talk over one another. Sometimes misunderstandings will derail a conversation (‘Do you like coffee?’ ‘Oh yes I’d love one, thank you!’). Words are often misused (for instance, when people say ‘pacific’ instead of ‘specific’). Sentences are often punctuated by non-sensible utterances (‘erm…’, ‘uhh…’). The list goes on.

Seriously, I encourage you to try it someday. Make a precise transcript of a real-life conversation in exactly the order it is spoken and read it back to yourself. You will marvel at the fact human beings are able to communicate at all when you see just how muddled up our verbal communication is.

In fiction, however, your dialogue can’t be like that. You can add dialects, accents and perhaps even the odd bit of bad grammar to your heart’s content but the flow of the conversation still has to be clear for the reader. Dialogue, just like the rest of your narrative, has a purpose. It drives the story on, and therefore it must accomplish its ends. Still, it must sound believable. You as the author, therefore, walk a fine line between making it sound so implausibly perfect that your characters seem wooden and so realistically imperfect that it reads like meaningless waffle and drags your story’s pace down to a crawl.

Not only that, but you also have to beware of making the content of a conversation sound too contrived. It can be all too tempting to use dialogue as a place to info-dump. E.g., ‘I visited my sister, Andrea McLaren, 24, who lives just around the corner from the butchers on Western Road’.

Real people don’t talk like that. If Andrea’s full name, age and address are important, they need to be worked in with subtlety and believably. There are many techniques you can use to lend credibility to your dialogue, but I’ll come back to that in a future post.


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 fries your bacon.

Until next time!

Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Star Trek Edition

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: 🖖


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’ and share 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 crystallises  your dilithium.

Live long and prosper.

Being a ‘Real’ Writer

There seems to be a notion in a lot of folks’ minds that while lots of people may wish to be authors, and may even actually sit down and try to thrash out an original work of fiction, not all of these are real writers. If you look around the internet or other public forums where writers gather, you’ll see what I mean. People will say things like ‘if you don’t write something every day, you’re not a real writer,’ or ‘real writers read at least twenty books a year– oh and newspapers as well!’

These are just examples but you get the idea. Many try to be writers, but only those who do this-this-and-that are real writers. But wait just a minute. What does it even mean to be a ‘real writer’?

Oxford Dictionaries has a rather lengthy definition of ‘real’ you can view here, but let me draw your attention to the important bits:

Adjective

2. (of a thing) not imitation or artificial; genuine.

2.2 [attributive] Rightly so called; proper.
‘he’s my idea of a real man’

I would suggest that when people talk about being a ‘real’ writer, they are referring to something akin to this: ‘[attributive] Rightly so called; proper’. So, a ‘real writer’ is someone who displays certain key attributes we might expect a writer to possess, and is therefore justly called a writer. In other words, ‘real writers’ are people who do a certain thing, behave a certain way, drink a certain brand of coffee or write in a particular genre (or who spit out the word ‘genre’ are if it were an insult); something which separates them from other unreal/pretend/bogus/inferior/impostor writers.

Well I think you can see where I’m going with this. I’m here to set the record straight. And I’m going to do it with a parable.

The Parable of the Real and Pretend Writers

by A. Ferguson

In a certain town there lived an Aspiring Author. This Aspiring Author religiously attended the local coffee shop every day with his laptop. He would arrive early in the morning and drink their most expensive coffee and diligently study blogs about how to be a writer (he was a particular fan of Penstricken.com). His mug said ‘WRITER AT WORK’, and his table was always littered with notepads (with snazzy writer slogans on the front) and pens. He had even scribbled out a few character profiles and he had a strong idea for a plot in his mind. He got to know the staff there and told them all about the novel he was writing and promised to give them all signed copies when it got published. He also had a Twitter page which he used to communicate with other Aspiring Authors, tell the world about the novel he was writing and to share inspirational quotes about writing.

This Aspiring Author also had a five year old daughter. She spent most of her time in her bedroom scribbling out stories in crayon (complete with illustrations) which she then sellotaped together into a book and sold to her long-suffering relatives. To date she has “published” seventeen such books and is now working on her eighteenth: The Day Mummy Took Me To The Zoo (We Saw Lions!).

So… the question is, who was the real writer: Aspiring Author or the daughter?

The answer is the one who displayed the attributes of a real writer. Specifically, the one who actually wrote stuff: the daughter!

Dear friends, writing stuff is the only truly defining attribute of a writer that I know of. If you’re writing stuff, you’re a writer. If you’re not writing stuff, you’re not a writer. If you publish ten thousand best sellers, all of which get made into films, then stop writing, you’re no longer a writer. You may be the author of Such-and-Such a Work but you’re no longer a writer. Similarly, if you are writing with any kind of regularity, you are a real writer. You might be a professional or only an amateur, but you are a writer. Really.

‘But you don’t understand…’ I hear you lament. ‘I only manage to write five days a week!’

That doesn’t invalidate the fact you write. I agree that you should write as often as possible, and certainly if you intend to become a professional writer you might want to do it as close to daily as possible, but I’ve found that writing regularly is far more beneficial than writing constantly. In any event, how often you write does not define you as a writer, as long as you write often.

‘But you don’t understand…’ I hear you lament. ‘I care about my husband/wife and kids more than I care about writing. Why, I even missed a deadline to attend my husband/wife while s/he was in hospital!’

That proves nothing except that you prioritise your family above your writing (a perfectly right and healthy thing, if you ask me). Believe it or not, I’ve actually heard it suggested that ‘real writers’ put their writing before their families, but I for one profoundly disagree. In any event, how you prioritise your life does not define you as a writer. When my daughter was born, I took the day off my day-job as a clerical officer to attend her birth. When I returned to work, no one questioned whether or not I was a ‘real clerical officer’, just because I had other things that mattered more to me. In the same way, whether writing is your life, your day-job or just a hobby: real writers are people who write.

‘But you don’t understand…’ I hear you lament. ‘I only seem to be able to write YA space operas!’

So what? You still wrote it, didn’t you? If you write, you’re a writer. Don’t let snobs get you down. No genre is any more valid than any other so write what you’re going to write. People that like your writing will read it and people that don’t, won’t, but the same is also true of people who write so-called ‘serious literature’.

There seems to be a strange mysticism surrounding writers, as if being a writer is something otherworldly; an awesome gift bestowed upon only the Chosen Few. Worst of all, I fear it has perhaps gone to some of our heads; that we may be tempted to believe we really are somehow supernatural or unusually gifted. But we’re not. Writers are people who write. Excellent writers practice their craft, yes, but ultimately they’re still just people who write. If you are in any way committed to writing, then I hereby acknowledge and publicly confess (for better or worse) that you are a real writer.


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 buckles your shoe.

Until next time!

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!

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!

8 Super Snappy Speed Reviews – Film

Spoiler Alert

While every effort has been taken to avoid spoilers, anyone who has not seen The Terminator (1984), The Green Mile (1999), Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016), Dune (1984), The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), Star Trek Beyond (2016), The Illusionist (2006) or Les Misérables (2013) is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

It’s that time again! We’ve already had super snappy speed reviews for books and TV shows and now it’s time for the film edition. As before, the films I have reviewed here have been selected entirely at random from my ever-growing movie collection and do not necessarily have anything in common (apart from the fact they’re all films), nor are they necessarily films that I particularly liked or disliked, nor are they sorted into any particular order.

As always, these reviews only reflect my own personal opinions and impressions, squeezed, whisked and flattened into a few short sentences. So without further ado…

The Terminator

Arnold Schwarzenegger plays the title antagonist in this movie: a cyborg sent back in time from the future to kill the woman whose unborn son will one day lead the rebellion against the Machines of Skynet. It’s a real popcorn muncher, full of cheesy humour, senseless violence, time travelling robots and a guy travelling back in time to sleep with his best friend’s mum (who he’s always fancied) so that he can become his own best friend’s dad…

Still, it’s justifiably a cult classic. Very ’80s but I defy you not to enjoy it at least a little bit.

My rating: 3.5 stars

The Green Mile

Tom Hanks portrays the protagonist in this heart-wrenching, fantasy(ish) film set on death row in the 1930s. It’s definitely not a family film but it is arguably one of the most excellent movies I have ever seen in my life. If you like a film which really draws you in and stirs every emotion from the outset and leaves you with Mega Feels for hours after then this is definitely the film for you.

My rating: 5 stars + 

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Who doesn’t love Star Wars? This film is set in between the prequel trilogy and the original trilogy and follows the story of a group of rebels who have joined together to steal the plans for the Death Star. While the tone is somewhat darker than in traditional Star Wars movies, I didn’t find it nearly as outrageously different as some had led me to believe it was. For me, it stood comfortably alongside the other films in the Star Wars canon and was at least a thousand times better than the prequel trilogy.

My rating: 4 stars

Dune

The original Dune novels by Frank Herbert are as long as they are complex and I get the impression that that David Lynch (writer and director) was trying really hard to faithfully capture the beautiful complexity of Herbert’s creation in this movie. Unfortunately, the end result was a film which was poorly paced, unclear and frankly… a bit of a mess. It also includes one of my pet peeves: voice overs, allowing us to hear characters’ thoughts. On the plus side, it boasts a stellar cast including Sean Young, Patrick Stewart, Virginia Madsen, Max Von Sydow and Sting.

My rating: 1.5 stars

The Greatest Story Ever Told

In true 1960s Hollywood style, The Greatest Story Ever Told was a big budget and reverently embellished retelling of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Max Von Sydow… again). If you’re looking for a film which is entertaining or exciting, you’ve come to the wrong place. Most of the characters do just seem to kind of stand and gawp unless they’ve got a line to read, though I must admit to a certain fondness for this film all the same. Also if you thought Dune had a famous cast, it is nothing compared to the legion of names you’ll see in the credits of this biblical epic.

My rating: 2.5 stars

Star Trek Beyond

It’s not quite as bad a Star Trek film as, say, Star Trek: Nemesis but still… it was pretty disappointing. The plot and the characters actually had a lot of potential (I really thought we were going to finally see some proper Bones/Spock banter), but this was unfortunately wasted by the poor pacing. The end result was nothing more than a non-stop, heart-thumping, thrill-ride that never really gave the audience an opportunity to be drawn into the story in any significant way.

My rating: 2.5 stars

The Illusionist

The Illusionist is a period drama about a stage magician (Edward Norton) from a humble background caught up in a love triangle/class war with his aristocratic love-interest (Jessica Biel) and her equally blue blooded but abusive fiance (Rufus Sewell).

The pacing was beautiful. The acting was delightful. The twist at the end was marvellous.

My rating: 4.5 stars

Les Misérables

I don’t think I’m the sort of guy to scrunch my nose up at a film just because it’s a musical, and everyone else tells me this adaptation of Les Misérables is the best thing since sliced bread but…

You asked for my opinion so I’m just gonna say it: I hated this film. I can’t think of anything less satisfying than watching Russell Crowe singing for two and a half hours. My wife enjoyed it though, if that means anything to you.

My rating: 1 star

My wife’s rating: 4 stars


And that’s a wrap! No doubt we’ll do it all again soon with a different selection of stories.

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 #4: Mythical Creatures

Well you’ll be relieved to hear that this will be the last week of my impromptu series on writing non-human characters. We’ve already covered animals, aliens and robots so this week we’re going to finish up with what I’ve very broadly defined as mythical creatures.

When I Googled ‘mythical creatures’ to help me prepare for this post, I was presented with a very helpful list of about thirty different kinds of mythical creature. Gods-and-Monsters.com managed a much longer list of about 72 distinct creatures from mythology. And so writing a single 1,000  word post on how to write any mythical creature is going to be quite a challenge so I hope you’ll bear with me while I go over a few very general principles.

You all know how this works by now. The secret to creating a good non-human character of any kind is to remember that your audience is made up entirely of humans. Therefore, if you want to make your character relatable to humans, you need to endow your character with the right amount and kind of human qualities. You won’t be surprised to learn that the same is true of mythical creatures. I don’t want to harp on too much about that in this post, since most of what I covered in the first and second posts especially applies here too. Protagonists and other relatable characters need more human qualities (while not compromising on the mythical qualities that make them recognisable; don’t have your vampire going outside in the daylight, for example) while there may be some benefit to deliberately dehumanising characters who you want to serve as terrifying monsters rather than relatable characters.

This is where it is vital to know a thing or two about the kind of creature you’re using. There are, broadly speaking, two kinds of mythical creatures you might use: “real” mythical creatures (that is, creatures from actual myths and legends, such as dragons, minotaurs and or fairies) and ones you made up for the sake of your story. In both cases, research is vital. You need to familiarise yourself with all the variations that exist on your creature in different myths, legends and even modern fantasies around the world (because believe me, there are often significant variations) and pick out all the differences and similarities you can find. In the case of creatures you’ve made up from scratch, or if you’re writing a piece of high fantasy, this involves researching their place in the history/mythology of your fictional world (click here for more on world-building and research).

For instance, suppose you wanted to create a dragon. You might already have an idea in your head as to what that means. But it only takes a quick peruse of internet to find that dragons come in many shapes and sizes both in terms of their physical appearance and their personalities. Dragons are often portrayed both as ferocious beasts, more animal than person but perhaps more often they are portrayed as being intelligent, rational and even quite wise or calculating creatures. Sometimes they can speak, sometimes they can’t. Sometimes they have a lizard-like appearance, sometimes they have feathers. In most cases, there will be myths about their origins you can explore and what function they serve.

Of course, in your own story you can have a little bit of flexibility. I personally have no qualms about making a small number of minor changes to the appearance or behaviour of mythical creatures for my stories, but on the whole you want to be aware of the common defining characteristics of your chosen creature. What makes a centaur a centaur? Is it simply having four legs? Or is there something more that a centaur is simply not a centaur without? Remember, if you’re using a creature that already exists in folklore then you’re not only borrowing someone else’s work; you’re actually building upon centuries of tradition, so don’t go mad when you come to put your own stamp on it.

If you feel more creative (especially if you’re writing a piece of high fantasy), you might want to try and invent your own creature. This certainly gives you more freedom to do whatever you please, but you need to be aware that your audience will have no prior knowledge of your creature and will need to have it spoon-fed to them in a way they wouldn’t with a dragon or mermaid. Try to keep it simple. Combining body parts from unrelated animals is often a good approach and is easy to describe (the body of a lion with the wings of a bee for instance). Also you might find it helpful to weave them in with mythology surrounding big questions such as the origins of the world, birth, death, and so forth.

Once you have established these things, you will find it much easier to anthropomorphise your creature in a way which is appropriate. Remember, the goal in anthropomorphising your non-human characters is not to turn them into humans (noun) but to make them human (adjective) enough so that the audience will be able to relate to them and care about what happens to them. Exactly which human qualities you choose to add will depend entirely on which kind of creature you’re creating, so I’m afraid I can’t give you any specific advice on that. You’ll need to do your research. The important thing is that you correctly balance making your creature human enough to be related to by your human audience but still have enough of those key defining characteristics that make your mythical creature recognisable as what it is supposed to be.

And that’s it for the non-human characters series! Phew! Next week I’ll be getting back into writing my usual sort of weekly individual posts (unless of course I’m inundated with complaints that I forgot a particular type of non-human creature, but I don’t think I did and frankly, I’m sure you’re sick of hearing me banging on about them).

Until next time!

Writing Non-Human Characters #3: Robots

Well, it’s week three on my impromptu series of posts on creating non-human characters for your stories. We’ve already done animals and aliens, so this week, I want to focus on creating robots. Now I don’t want to waste too much time getting bogged down on the technical differences between robots, androids, cyborgs and so on, so for the sake of this post, I’m using the word ‘robot’ simply as an umbrella term for any kind of mechanical or artificial person. Suffice it to say there are important differences between robots, androids and cyborgs and you would be well advised to understand them before attempting to create one for your story.

If you’ve been keeping up to date on the last few posts, you will have noticed a common theme running through them: the idea of anthropomorphising (that is, giving human traits to) your non-human characters to to make them more relatable to your audience. However, as we have also seen, the extent to which you anthropomorphise your character and how you go about anthropomorphising your character will vary greatly depending on the kind of character you’re trying to create and what their purpose is in your story.

One of the first things to consider in creating your robotic character is a bit of the history of the character and the history of robotics for your fictional world in general. Of course, backstory is important in all character building, but for robots there are a few other important questions you will need to answer first. For example (and this is by no means an exhaustive list):

  • Are robots commonplace in this society or are they a new invention?
  • What is the function of robots in this society (e.g., slaves, free and equal citizens, problem-solving machines, childrens’ toys, etc)?
  • Are robots in general/your robot in particular built with fail-safes, such as Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics? If not, how are they kept from running amok? Indeed, are they under control? Many stories about robots revolve around this very theme.

Depending on your answer to these and similar questions, you may want to make your robot characters seem very human or very mechanical. However, if you’ve got any intention of making your robot a main character in your story, you will probably want to give them at least some human traits to make them relatable to your entirely human audience. This is a fairly absolute rule for all non-human characters (as we’ve seen in previous weeks), so you should consider giving your robot some or all of the following:

  • The ability to think, learn and reason independently. You’ll have a hard time creating a full-blown independent character without this.
  • Self-awareness and consciousness of its surroundings. Again, I think it would be exceptionally difficult (though not impossible) to create a proper robotic character without this human quality.
  • Emotions, dreams, empathy, and other such non-logical thoughts to motivate their actions etc. This of course, is certainly optional; many robots in science fiction tend to be very logical and emotionless but why not break with tradition?
  • Recognisable physical body parts. Of course, ‘recognisable’ does not necessarily mean that they have to be human-shaped. K-9 from the Doctor Who franchise is shaped like a dog and one episode of Star Trek: Voyager even featured a sentient WMD. K-9 is the more relatable of the two, of course, because we humans are used to relating to dogs. Dogs that we can talk to and play chess with, therefore, are highly relatable. On the other hand, when was the last time you tried to interact with a WMD? (Don’t answer that).

The difference with robots is that your audience will already have quite particular ideas about how a robot “should” behave. This is, in part, due to the influence of sci-fi authors like Asimov, but is also due to the fact that robots and computers do exist in real life (though in a more limited fashion than you would expect in a sci-fi novel)We know, for example, that computers are logical to a fault and it’s important that your character reflects that peculiarly robotic quality if you want your audience to accept them. Abstract thinking, imagination and personal ambition is something beyond the grasp of most computers and robots. The trouble is, if you want your audience to care about your character, they’ll probably need to be capable of at least some of the above.

How you balance this contradiction will depend largely on the story you’re writing and the kind of character you’re trying to create but one of the best ways around this problem is how you use voice. Often you can create the illusion of a highly logical, robotic mind simply by the way your character speaks. Let’s consider two androids from the Star Trek: The Next Generation franchise: Lore and Data.

Both androids are physically identical and were built by the same person. Only Lore, however, was capable of emotion and with this came a whole host of other human traits such as ambition, passion, deceitfulness and even megalomania. Lore’s human qualities were what made him such a great villain and were central to his role as a bad guy in Star Trek. Therefore, it is perfectly appropriate that he also talks like a human.

Haven’t you noticed how easily I handle human speech? I use their contractions. For example, I say can’t or isn’t, and you say cannot or is not.

Lore in Star Trek: The Next Generation, ‘Datalore’, source: http://www.chakoteya.net/NextGen/114.htm

Data, on the other hand, lacks emotion and the other human qualities which turned Lore into a bad guy. In spite of this, he remains one of Star Trek‘s most beloved characters. How is it that such an emotionless, logical, robotic character became so relatable (and far more likeable than his more human brother)?

Simple.

He’s not nearly as logical and robotic as he appears. It’s a trick, based largely on dialogue (and the occasional scene where he casually removes a body part) to make the audience believe that he is emotionless and logical because — after all — all robots are. He speaks in a “robotic” manner, such as calculating time intervals to the nearest second and not using verbal contractions, and so the audience believes that he is a machine and yet his goals and motivations are often very human indeed. For example, in ‘Pen Pals’, what motivated him to disobey Starfleet regulations and his captain’s orders if not compassion for the frightened child he had met? So, the writers have given Data a human quality (e.g., compassion) but have essentially tricked the audience into believing that they did not, because he appears robotic and makes the occasional claim that he is incapable of such traits. So, while is very important to strike the correct balance of human/robotic traits, the real trick with robots is how you portray them and thus convince your audience that the relatable and sympathetic character they are witnessing is, in fact, a machine.

I’m afraid that’s all I’ve got time for this week! But be sure to come back next when I’ll be continuing the series on non-human characters, this time focusing on mythical creatures.

Until next time!