On Character Traits

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

Are we all agreed on that?

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

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

‘John is really obnoxious.’

‘Susan is kindhearted.’

‘Peter is fly.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Nothing much.’ Dave sniffed.

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

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

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

‘Fine. Just busy that’s all.’

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


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

Until next time!

ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

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

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

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

Pants, Plants and Plans: A Beginner’s Guide

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

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

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

Planning

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

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

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

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

Pantsing

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

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

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

Plantsing

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

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

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

Footnotes:

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


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

Until next time!

ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

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

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

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

Theme: The Truth Behind the Tale

I once read somewhere (and I do wish I could remember where so I could give proper credit) that we story-writers are in the entertainment industry; that the primary goal of the story-writer is to entertain. While I basically agree with this statement, I think it’s also true that the best stories all have something real to say.

This is where theme comes into play. The term can be a little bit broad sometimes so just to be clear, when I talk about a story’s theme, I am referring to the meaning(s) or dare I say, the message(s) of the story. What fundamental truth(s) are you conveying in your idle fantasy? What aspects of real life are you exploring? And equally as important, how are you conveying that truth?

Let’s look at the easy(ish) bit first: identifying your theme (we’ll come back to how to convey your theme later). Themes can take many forms: it can be a moral lesson (e.g., ‘don’t do drugs, kids’), a particular idea or belief (‘the meaning of life is such-and-such’, ‘God is like this’, ‘socialism/capitalism is destructive in this way’, etc.)  or it can be a general portrait of a particular subject (friendship, poverty, religion, etc.). Depending on how you write, you may have decided on a theme before anything else (that is to say, your initial idea was something like ‘I want to write a story about domestic violence’) or the theme may have come about as a natural byproduct of your story. If it’s the latter, you might be tempted to ask yourself: ‘do I really need to identify my theme(s), since they occurred purely by happenstance after I began writing the story?’.

Answer: yes, you do. After all, whether it was your intention to write a story about lies, sex and/or murder or not, your audience will pick up on these themes if they’re there. And believe me, if you’ve written a half-decent story, there will be at least a couple of naturally occuring themes. It’s unavoidable. Has one of your characters been pursuing a love interest who doesn’t reciprocate his feelings? Then your theme is unrequited love. You may not have intended it, but it’s there, growing wild in the tulip patch that is your story. Depending on how your characters behave, it may also become a story about obsession, harassment or rejection. Therefore, since it’s almost impossible to write a good story without a theme or two popping out of the mix, it’s worthwhile identifying your theme so that you can make it work for you. Themes may be naturally occurring, but they shouldn’t be allowed to grow wild. Once you’ve identified them, you can use them to really enrich your story.

How you convey your theme is something else entirely, and will depend largely on the kind of story you’re writing, but the best advice I can give you is this: avoid sounding preachy. That’s not what people want from a story and it will certainly annoy your reader, even if they agree with you. Don’t misunderstand me, you should be bold in communicating your ideas, but there’s a way to do it and a way not to do it. The chances are your readers came to your book quite comfortable in their own opinions. If you want to change their opinions, you’ll need to do it with tact and subtly. Show them the truth by the events of your story.

In the same way, avoid soapboxing (yes, I just made that term up). This is when you turn your characters into a soapbox from which you casually throw out your opinions on controversial subjects, usually in the form of internal or external dialogue. e.g.:

Pro-abortion soapboxing: There was a small group of nuns standing outside the hospital, clutching pictures of the Madonna and Child. Isobel shook her head. Didn’t these outdated old crones realise that a woman has the right to make decisions about her own body?

Anti-abortion soapboxing: There was a small group of nuns standing outside the hospital, clutching pictures of the Madonna and Child. Isobel shook her head. It saddened and amazed her to think that in this day and age, there was still any need to protest what was clearly the legally sanctioned murder of unborn babies.

Soapboxing won’t only annoy your reader, it will actually undermine your story. Remember stories and characters must develop. A story never ends where it began, because the characters therein must develop (even if that ‘development’ involves a downward spiral of self-destruction). If a character’s strongly-held beliefs are relevant to the story, they ought to be challenged throughout that story (and probably, although not necessarily, altered in some way by the end). Therefore, if you begin with absolute statements (‘such-and-such is evil!‘) you’ve nowhere to go but contradiction or compromise (‘such-and-such isn’t so bad after all’ or ‘I’m not sure what I think about such-and-such now’). You could, of course, end with an absolute statement (‘Jeanie thought such-and-such was okay, but now she knew it was evil!‘) but that is a very lazy way to write. If your audience was truly drawn into Jeanie’s plight throughout the story, they’ve probably already come to the conclusion that such-and-such is evil. They don’t need you to lecture them.

If, on the other hand, your character’s opinions are not not relevant to the overall story, ask yourself why you’ve included them. There may be a legitimate reason to include them (e.g., characterisation), but if it’s nothing more than an opportunity to soapbox, chop it out. Air your controversial opinions on Twitter if you must, but don’t let it ruin your story.

Remember, your audience didn’t come here to learn your opinions. Your audience doesn’t give a rip about your opinions, even if they happen to share them. Instead, focus on telling the story. Make it as true as you can and fill it with believable, sympathetic characters to whom your reader can relate. They’ll start to understand what it’s like to be in that position and will begin to think. And that’s all you can hope to accomplish as a writer: provoke thought. You cannot force someone to believe something. You can only offer them the truth as you see it.


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

Until next time!

ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

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

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

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

Writing a Second Draft When You’re a Plantser

‘But how many drafts should I write?’ … The short and somewhat glib answer is, ‘as many as it takes’

(A. Ferguson 2017, ‘How Many Drafts Should I Write?’).

About a year ago, I had this great idea for a novel which I was really excited about. In fact, I was so excited about it and the idea worked so well that I produced a first draft in virtually no time. Seriously, I’ve never known productivity like it.

Of course, it wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t supposed to be; it was only a first draft. That’s why we have second drafts. They give us an opportunity to take our original, crumby story and turn it into a good story by fixing all the problems with characters, plot, theme, world-building and all that sort of stuff, so I wasn’t worried. In fact, I was downright enthusiastic. Even before I sat down to study my first draft, my head was already bursting with ideas for how I was going to improve upon my initial effort. Oh yes, this second draft was going to be a doozy alright.

Well that was about six months ago; and let me tell you, it’s been a tough six months for writing. I haven’t even come close to finishing this second draft yet, and I now know why. It hadn’t been for a lack of trying. I’d been diligently working to wheedle out all the little problems with my story before launching in to the writing stage and, for the most part, I had been successful but… I just couldn’t seem to fix some of the problems I perceived with my magic system (I’m writing a fantasy). The one I had in my first draft worked, but I didn’t think its origin story made a lot of sense. However, whenever I tried to fix it, I found myself undermining my actual plot. It just seemed that the more I tried to fix it, the more problems I ended up creating. Sometimes I even feared that I had completely ruined my story beyond all redemption all because I couldn’t make sense of this blasted magic system (that’s why you should never delete anything pertaining to your story, no matter how useless it may seem). Let me tell you, I came up with a lot of different variations on that magic system but I was just tying myself in knots. I was accomplishing very little and growing frustrated with my wonderful novel.

It was my wife who finally reminded me: I’m a plantser. I begin with a rough plan, but it’s only when I write and let my imagination run wild that my plan starts to grow a bit of flesh and take on a life of its own. Why was it, then, that when I came to write my second draft that I felt so compelled to have a perfect plan in place before writing anything? After all, all those wonderful ideas I had for improvements in my second draft only came about as a result of having written and then re-read the first draft. And so she encouraged me to keep my original magic system for now (which worked anyway) and just write my second draft. If I’m still not satisfied when that’s done, it doesn’t matter. I can always write a second second draft (‘draft 2.1’, you might say). For the plantser (and, arguably, for all writers), redrafting is a process of refinement. You take a terrible story and make it better. You take your better story and make it quite good. You take your quite good story and make it excellent.

And how do you, as a plantser, accomplish this? Exactly the same way you wrote your first draft. Plan it out as best you can and figure out the rest as you write. For me, the origins of my magic system were the only kink I hadn’t been able to figure out using Scapple. I’d managed to fix just about everything else. So instead of being forever held back by this one trifling point, I decided to sit down with my more-or-less complete plan and write the second draft, knowing full well that a second second draft, and perhaps even a third second draft, will be necessary.

‘But that will take ages!’ I hear you cry.

Not if you get your head down and get on with it. You can knock out a novel length piece of work in a few short months if your diligent enough about it. Spending six months banging your head against your desk and whimpering to yourself about your lousy magic system and how you’re a failure at writing: that’s a waste of time.

Learn from my failure. If you’re a plantser, then plant yourself on that seat and write your second draft with occasional reference to a half-baked second draft plan. It’s foolishness to the planners and a stumbling block to the pantsers, but for we plantsers, it’s the only way to get anything done.


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!

ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

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

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

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

Super Snappy Speed Reviews – TV Edition (Vol. 2)

SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers, anyone who has not seen Star Trek: Discovery, Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, Hooten & The Lady, Endeavour or Doc Martin is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

Yes it’s another day and another instalment of Super Snappy Speed Reviews. So far we’ve reviewed books [2] [3], TV showsfilmscomputer games, writers’ apps and even the Star Trek movies, so this time it’s going to be all about TV shows. I’ve picked 5 TV shows entirely at random from my DVD rack/Now TV/Lovefilm/etc. accounts and reviewed them all in no more than four or five sentences.

As ever, these reviews reflect nothing but my own personal opinion. The TV shows I have selected have nothing in common, save the fact that they are all fictional stories. They are not necessarily stories of the same genre, nor are they necessarily TV shows that I particularly liked or disliked, nor are they sorted into any particular order. These reviews reflect nothing but my own impressions and opinions, reduced, powdered and decimated into a few short sentences. So without further ado…

Star Trek: Discovery

Star Trek: Discovery promised a lot more than it actually delivered. Roddenberry’s utopia has been replaced with a grim world where Starfleet personnel see nothing wrong with using living creatures to power their engines and the crew are all at each others’ throats. It’s also got far more bad language and other adult content than we’ve become used to after fifty years of Star Trek. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a top-notch TV space opera, almost as good as Star Trek… but it’s not Star Trek.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟

Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman

If you’re sick of the dark and gloomy superhero films/TV shows we’ve been getting served up recently, you might want to have a look at this ’90s gem. From a story writing point of view, it focuses far more on the developing relationship between Lois Lane and Clark Kent than on any superheroing (verb: using superpowers to rescue people while wearing impossibly tight spandex) and I think that is what makes it so compelling. It’s lighthearted, cheesey in the extreme and yet not entirely without substance. Be warned, it does end on an unresolved cliffhanger.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟

Hooten & the Lady

My wife and I were perusing Now TV one day when we stumbled across this ‘rip-off Indiana Jones meets rip-off Lara Croft’ type show. Don’t be put off by my use of the word ‘rip-off’, however. This is a thoroughly entertaining show, especially if you long for the days of feel-good adventures and light-hearted love triangles that don’t really come to anything. I should point out, however, that if you have even the most elementary knowledge of history, religion or archaeology, you might want to switch your brain off. It’s a fun show, but there’s a lot of nonsense in it.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟

Endeavour

Prequels are often rubbish; Endeavour is not. This show balances complex mysteries (a little too complex, if I’m being critical) with a rich cast of characters that can just as easily stand alone, apart from the original Morse canon. In addition to solving mysteries that his (rather lazy and/or inept) superior officers cannot, this show focuses heavily on the formative years of the Morse character and the personal issues he faces as he develops into the character portrayed by John Thaw. It’s intense, but not overwhelmingly so. Do yourself a favour and watch it.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

Doc Martin

I really like this show. It balances drama, comedy and a rich cast of distinctive, well-written characters in a way few modern prime time TV shows manage. Having said that, I feel like they should’ve probably axed it after series 7 or so. The story is clearly finished now and it is beginning to feel a little bit like ITV is flogging a dead horse.

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’ 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 teles your vision.

ATTENTION AUTHORS: 

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

Until next time!

Flash Fiction: The Girl & The Car

You know what? Sometimes, it’s murder coming up with a good title for your story. I wrote this little flash-fic ages ago, and although I don’t think it’s the best story I’ve ever written, I wanted to at least share it on the blog but… I just haven’t been able to come up with a decent title for it to this day; and believe me, it hasn’t been for a lack of trying. Still, it’s been sitting on my computer doing nothing for too long so for better or worse, here it is. Feel free to suggest better titles in the comments.

As always what follows is entirely my own work and has not been published anywhere else in the world, whether in print or online, nor do I expect or permit it to be. And so without further ado, I give you:

The Girl & The Car

by A. Ferguson

 

The car was mine. I found it, so it was mine.

I don’t know how it got there. I was just playing in the bushes at the bottom of the hill one day and there it was, in the clearing. It didn’t have any glass in the windows and two of the doors were missing. Also the steering wheel came off if you turned it too hard.

I couldn’t have been happier. My own car. A real one. I let Michael and Paul use it too, and sometimes I even let them drive it because it’s no fun on your own. That was okay because they knew it was mine because I found it. I didn’t tell Mum and Dad about it and I told Paul and Michael not to tell their mums and dads either. Adults have funny ideas about things like that. I knew they wouldn’t let me keep the car, even though I found it fair and square and it didn’t really go.

It was Sunday. Me and Michael were playing Batman in the car while we waited for Paul. His family went to a different church from me and Michael so we always met him after lunch. I was Batman (obviously, because it was my car) but it was Robin’s turn to drive.

When Paul arrived, he had a girl with him.

‘Girls aren’t allowed in the car!’ Michael objected. ‘Why’d you even bring her here? This is private property.’

‘Aw, c’mon Mikey, she’s my cousin!’ Paul whined. ‘Mum said I had to. It’s just for today. I swear I tried not to but they said I had to or I couldn’t come out. I swear I tried!’

‘Well, she’ll have to sit in the back!’ I decreed, thinking myself generous. I don’t know how old she was but she was younger than us. Too young. And a girl.

‘I want to drive!’ She cried with glee. ‘Please please please please, pretty, pretty please!’

‘No.’ I said. Enough was enough.

‘How not?’

‘Cause. It’s my car. Girls aren’t allowed.’

‘Come on, Haitch, let her have a go.’ Paul said. ‘It’s only for today.’

‘He’s siding with her!’ Michael jeered, gripping the wheel even though it had fallen off again.

‘I’m not! It’s just Mum said I had to or I couldn’t come out. It’s only for today. Come on!’

‘Your mum only said she had to come with you. She’s with you.’ I ruled. ‘She doesn’t even know about the car so that doesn’t count.’

‘Henry!’ Michael hissed, grabbing my arm. ‘What if she tells?’

‘I’m telling!’ The girl taunted us. ‘I’m telling, I’m telling!’

‘That was your fault!’ I said, punching Michael in the arm.

‘How’s it my fault? Paul brought her!’ He hit me back, though not hard. I guess he knew it was his fault.

‘I’m telling, I’m telling!’ The girl sang in words that didn’t rhyme. ‘Let me drive or I’m telling!’

‘Henry, just let her drive!’ Paul pleaded. ‘What’s the big deal? It’s only for one day.’

‘She’s a girl!’ I exploded. ‘And she’s too wee, she’ll tell!’

‘I’ll not tell if you let me have a go.’ She promised. I was about to argue but–

‘Alright.’ Michael said, opening the imaginary door and climbing out. ‘You can have a go, just a quick one mind! But you’d better not tell!’

Treachery!

‘That’s not how it works!’ I said, clambering across to the driver’s seat and grabbing the wheel. ‘It’s mine!’ I said, pointing to the place on the dash where I had scratched ‘HBS’ into the dashboard. That’s my initials: Henry Barrington-Smyth. ‘I found it, so it’s mine!’

‘Fine!’ The girl shouted. ‘It’s a stupid car anyway! I’ve got a better one at my bit, with proper doors and windows and everything! And it drives for real! And you’re not getting a go!’

Then she went away. Paul went after her.

‘Just let her go!’ I shouted after him. He turned to face us but kept walking backwards slowly.

‘I can’t! My mum, she said…’ He trailed off. Then he turned and ran after her.

‘Paul! Paul! Just let her go, Paul!’

He ignored me. Michael ran after him, leaving me alone in the car. I couldn’t move. It felt important to hold my ground in the car. The car was mine as long as my bottom was on the seat and my hands were on the wheel. Ahead, at the edge of the clearing, I saw Michael grab Paul by the arm to pull him back. Paul shrugged him off and shouted something at him. I don’t know what it was but his face was livid. He stormed off through the bushes, out of the clearing. Michael followed him, shouting after him but was back a few moments later. He came back to the car.

‘Henry, what if she tells?’ Michael asked again. His voice was quivering and his face was ashen.

‘She won’t tell.’ I said, fighting to ignore a hollow sensation in my stomach. ‘Paul won’t let her. She won’t tell. She was just saying that.’

* * *

Well, she told. Ten minutes later, Michael’s mum came down into our clearing where our car was parked. We were still sitting there, forcing ourselves to be Batman and Robin. Michael got such a blazing row off his mum that I didn’t know where to look. She gave me a good tongue lashing as well, then I went home and got more of the same from my own mum. I wasn’t surprised by that. Once one adult knows something, they all know it.

We never saw Paul again for weeks. He didn’t go to the same school as me and Michael and whenever we went in for him, we were told he couldn’t come out. I felt sick. What if he wasn’t talking to us any more, all because of some stupid burnt out car? Michael and me never spoke about it but I think he felt the same. Then one day Paul came in for me. Turned out his parents had just grounded him and never told us, not even when we went in for him.

We never saw the car again. In some ways, it was a relief. We went back to the clearing a while later (and I mean a long while later) but the car was gone. I don’t know where. We didn’t dare ask. It didn’t matter that it had my initials on it or that I found it. It wasn’t mine any more. I don’t think it ever had been.

THE END


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 crashes your car.

ATTENTION AUTHORS: 

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

Until next time!

Writing a Good Character Description

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: characters are the beating heart of every good story. Good characters, more often than not, make for a good story. That means you need to write a character with strong goals, strong motives and a clear problem to overcome. We know this. Nevertheless, it also goes without saying that your characters must all have a physical appearance, which you can describe to the reader (unless, of course, you’re writing some highly ambitious piece of supernatural fiction where all your characters are non-corporeal beings who never interact with physical reality as we know it).

Let me tell you right now, there’s an art to describing characters. Do it right and your audience will have such a vivid image in their minds that they’ll swear they’ve actually met your character. Do it wrong and you might just produce one of the most pedestrian scenes in your entire story. Nothing drags the pace of a narrative down quite like a long winded description of Jimmy’s hair colour, eye colour and whatever unremarkable clothes he might be wearing. I say it’s better to have no physical description than a bad one.

If you give a simple description of height, weight, hair colour, eye colour and so on you will not only bore the reader to tears but you will also, in the most long-winded way possible, tell us nothing significant about the character. Instead, focus on distinguishing features and other details which help us to really get to know the character. Let us refer, once more, to the master, John Steinbeck. He described his character, Lennie Small, in this way:

A huge man, shapeless of face, with large, pale eyes, with wide, sloping shoulders; and he walked heavily, dragging his feet a little, the way a bear drags his paws. His arms did not swing at his sides, but hung loosely and only moved because the heavy hands were pendula.

(John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men).

If you’ve read Of Mice and Men, you’ll know there are two essential things to know about Lennie Small: 1) he’s a large and strong man and 2) he has a childlike mind. These two facts form the basis for his entire plotline from start to finish. Is it any surprise, then, that Steinbeck’s description emphasises these qualities? Just look at the adjectives/adverbs: ‘huge’, ‘large’, ‘wide’, ‘heavily’, ‘heavy’. All these words signify bigness. Notice, incidentally, that Steinbeck never says ‘tall’, nor does he give a specific height. After all, Steinbeck’s purpose is to emphasise how physically imposing Lennie is but not all tall people are imposing. Whether Lennie is tall or not is unimportant. What matters is that he is huge.

Similarly words like ‘shapeless’, ‘pale’ and ‘hung loosely’, used to describe his face, eyes and body language all have a certain vacant quality to them. The bear metaphor is especially powerful, as bears are animals which are known to be physically imposing but not frightfully intellectual. Nothing in this description is superfluous. It tells us everything we need to know about Lennie. We can imagine unimportant details like his hair colour for ourselves.

Another important thing to consider is how subjective/objective your word choice is. Objective language sticks to the facts. For example: ‘Johnny had brown eyes’. Subjective language is based on one’s personal impressions: ‘Johnny had eyes of the richest chocolate’. Or alternatively, ‘Johnny had eyes like a pair of dirty brown pebbles’. Striking the right subjective/objective balance can be hard and will be largely dependent on your narrative POV. As a rule, First Person and Third Person (Limited) narratives can and should include a generous dose of subjective language, since we are being given the personal impressions of a particular character. We want to know whether or not the narrator is attracted to or repelled by the character in question. Third Person (Omniscient), on the other hand, should be more reserved with its use of subjective language. But that’s only a guideline.

One last tip: use vivid but precise language. Consider again Steinbeck’s description of Lennie. The word ‘pendula’, used to describe the movements of Lennie’s arms, creates a very sharp image in the reader’s mind. After all, we’ve all seen the lazy, mindless but unceasing swing of a pendulum that hangs from a clock, powered by nothing but simple physics. We can imagine that motion so clearly that it is easy to picture Lennie’s arms as they swing in a way that more bland language might not have been able to convey. Beware, however. Don’t let clever sounding words get in the way of a description which is also precise. Steinbeck is a master of description not only because of the vivid imagery he employs, but also because the imagery is so very appropriate. If simple language creates desired effect, use it. Don’t bamboozle your reader with peripheral unnecessary purple prose, especially not if it is less precise than simple language. You will lose your reader’s attention if you do. Instead, aim to use words and metaphors which convey an accurate and vivid image in the most direct way possible.

Remember, your reader doesn’t really care what your character looks like. They care about who your character is. So when you describe your character’s looks, cut to the chase. Keep it snappy, keep it sharp and most importantly of all, keep it relevant.


ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

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

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

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

6 ‘Six Word Stories’ for the 6th (vol. III)

Well can you believe it, it’s that time again already? Today is Sunday the 6th of May and that means it’s time for another exciting instalment [2] of 6 ‘Six Word Stories’ for the 6th!

You probably know the rules by now. I roll six Story Dice and I write a six word story loosely based upon whatever image is displayed on each die, starting from the top left. As ever, the following stories are entirely my own work.

So here we go.

Screenshot_2018-03-20-09-02-36

Alea iacta est.

  1. New Earth colony. Same old stories.
  2. The Englishman’s mortgage was his castle. 
  3. ‘Judas, take charge of the moneybag!’
  4. Final upstairs climb, borne by ambulancemen.
  5. Bit the coin. Not real gold.
  6. Old friends, old wine, old times.

Phew! It doesn’t get any easier! Why not give it a go yourself? Use the stimuli above to come up with six ‘six word stories’ of your own and share them in the comments below so we can all see how much better you are than me.

We’ll do it all over again on Sunday 6th January 2019.


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 numbers your beast.

Until next time!

ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

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

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

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

 

Taking a Holiday From My Novel

Last week, I mentioned that I always take Sundays off from writing. However, even with that regular rest, it’s easy to become jaded when you’re working on a big project like a novel. Right now I’m at the most difficult bit of the novel-writing process (in my opinion): that dreaded second draft where I have to fix all the problems I created in the first draft. Let me tell you, it’s painstaking work. Despite the fact I fully believe in the potential of this particular project, I don’t mind telling you that I’ve found the last few days among some of the most discouraging since I started work on it at the end of last year.

And so I’m taking a holiday. Yes sirree, I’ve packed up my troubles and I’m off to spend seven days and seven nights at the Short Story Seaside* Resort.

You see, it’s not that I need a break from writing. I don’t. I love writing and I am perfectly happy with my writing/life balance (in fact, I could do with a little more writing time). All I really need is a break from this novel. It’s not that it’s a bad novel. It’s quite a good novel (even if I do say so myself), but after working solidly on it for the last few months, I’m just getting a little fed up of the sight of it. And so the solution is to set aside a short time to work on other short writing projects, allowing me to return to my novel in a few days with a fresh pair of eyes and a renewed zeal for a project I know I really love.

‘I want a holiday at the Short  Story Seaside Resort too!’ I hear you cry.

Well if you plan to take such a break, be sure to set yourself a time limit. And I mean a precise time limit. Decide in advance exactly when this holiday will start and when it will end, down to the minute if necessary.  During the holiday period, you must not work on your novel. It is forbidden. However you can and should work on other projects, preferably new projects that you wouldn’t normally have the time for. Short stories, poetry or perhaps just catching up on your blog. Whatever you feel like. The idea is to boost your confidence in your own writing ability by working on something fresh and exciting.

To that end, it’s also a good idea to keep your holiday-projects fairly simple. Simple but with clear, achievable goals. Don’t use your holiday to start work on another novel. One of the reasons it’s so easy to get discouraged working on a long project like a novel is because it can often feel like you’re never, ever, ever going to get it finished. So make sure your holiday project is something very simple that you can finish in the time allotted. At the very least, be sure to set yourself an achievable goal. There’s nothing quite like seeing a long list of scheduled posts on your blog or submitting a short story for publication to make you think: ‘Oh yes, I really can write things’ so allow yourself the satisfaction of seeing results at the end of your holiday.

‘But wait, wait, wait just a minute here!’ I hear you myself cry. ‘You don’t know how undisciplined I am. If I start taking holidays from my novel, I’ll end up spending my whole life on that figurative seaside and my novel will never get finished.’

Yes, taking breaks like this can be a very slippery slope. You don’t want to fall into the trap of jumping from project to project to project and never finishing anything. Moreover if you’re like me, you’ll rely heavily on your routine to keep the words coming day by day, week by week and month by month. You know that if you don’t treat writing like a day job which you have to turn up for every day whether you like it or not, you’ll hardly ever write.

I hear you brother. But tell me: if you have a day job, do you not have an annual leave entitlement? I know I do. Every year in my day job I get given the same allowance of so many days of paid leave which I can take whenever I want (as long as there’s someone to cover for me). I also get certain public holidays such as Christmas and Easter. So if you’re a writer who relies on that kind of routine but still like the idea of having the odd holiday, why not give yourself an annual leave entitlement? Decide in advance to allow yourself so many days a year where you can take a break from your novel. Decide in advance any public holidays you also want to take.

It works for me anyway.

*The seaside is figurative. If you want to go that extra mile, cover the floor around your desk with sand and salt water. Maybe even a jellyfish or two for added excitement.


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 builds your sandcastle.

Until next time!

ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

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

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

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

Super Snappy Speed Reviews – Books (Vol. 3)

SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers in this post, anyone who has not read: Uncommon Type: Some Stories by Tom Hanks, The Seven by Peter Newman, Goldfinger by Ian Fleming, A Touch of Frost by R.D. Wingfield, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace or The Green Mile by Stephen King is hereby advised that this point may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

You know the rules by now! After all, we’ve already had super snappy speed reviews for books [2], TV showsfilmscomputer games and even the Star Trek movies. And so today we’re back for a third dose of super snappy book reviews. As before, the books I have reviewed here have been selected entirely at random from my ever-growing book collection and do not necessarily have anything in common apart from the fact that they are all books. They are not necessarily books 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, sliced, diced and minced into a few short sentences. So without further ado…

Uncommon Type: Some Stories by Tom Hanks

Yes, that Tom Hanks. His debut collection of short stories was decidedly okay. He almost lost me in the first story Three Exhausting Weeks when he used emojis, and the overall flow of the narrative was a little clumsy at points throughout the collection (too many unnecessary profanities for my taste) but there was enough high quality material in there to keep me reading until the end. For me, his writing demonstrated a wonderful creativity but was just slightly deficient in the subtle use of language which can turn an excellent story into a beautiful work of art.

I expected worse but I hoped for better.

My rating: 🌟🌟

The Seven by Peter Newman

I swore I would never review this book; not because I don’t like it, but because there is just so much Peter Newman love on this website [2] [3] [4] [5] and on my Twitter account [2] [3] [4] [5] [6], I was getting scared he might think I was some kind of weirdo stalker and call the police on me. But what can I say? These books were chosen at random and this is what came up so, here we go. A nice, measured, critical review of The Seven:

I LOVE THE SEVEN. It is an excellent conclusion to an excellent series filled with sharp characters, a vividly imagined dystopian setting, nicely seasoned with just the right amount of comedy relief. I don’t know if I love it quite as much as the first book but I still love its socks off.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟

Goldfinger by Ian Fleming

The original novels upon which the James Bond movies are based tend to be quite hit or miss. Some of them are unputdownable thrill rides which have you on the edge of your seat from cover to cover. Unfortunately, Goldfinger features waaaaaay too much golf for my liking.

I’m not knocking golf. But this is a spy-thriller for goodness’ sake and my main memory of it is Bond playing golf with Goldfinger. Fleming devoted not one, but several chapters to describing this single round of golf in considerable detail. I won’t lie to you, I started skipping whole paragraphs after a while. It’s not often I say this, but just watch the film instead.

Bored, James Bored.

My rating: 🌟

A Touch of Frost by R.D. Wingfield

There are some things I loved about this novel and there are some things I did not love about this novel.

I loved the useless, bumbling and irreverant Frost character and, to a lesser extent, the Mullett character and the interplay between them. The overall plot was good and reasonably well paced.

I did not love the poorly handled third person omniscient narrative which told us almost everything every character was thinking. Nor did I love the crude and at times downright sleazy humour Wingfield invoked. The female characters are all presented as cheap sex objects and the males without exception are chauvinists at best, often making crude jokes about rape and other sensitive topics.

My rating: 🌟🌟

Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace

If only all Christian fiction was as excellent as Ben-Hur; for Christian fiction it is, though it is so far removed from the modern genre that it is barely recognisable as such. This novel’s got it all: conspiracy, revenge, romance, adventure and even chariot racing. Themes of family, friendship, gender, slavery and life-after-death are all explored in a way that leaves the reader thinking long after the book has been finished. The characters are excellent, especially the protagonist (Judah Ben-Hur) and his childhood friend turned arch-nemesis, Messalla. I should warn you that there is quite a lot of theo-philosophical discourse between various characters. Fortunately, I like theo-philosophical discourse and it is executed in such a way that it does not seriously harm the pacing of the story.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟+ ∞

The Green Mile by Stephen King

When I reviewed the film adaptation of this novel, I gave it a glorious 5 stars +∞; a rating I give only to those stories which (in my opinion) set the standards for their particular genre. But a good film adaptation will never be born of a bad novel and the same is true here. The Green Mile is an excellent novel; by far my favourite by Stephen King. It might be something to do with the fact I’m not a particular lover of horror but I don’t think so. This novel has vibrant characters, detailed settings and a beautiful first person narrative in which the protagonist describes events that happened in his past as well as events that are happening to him now, as he writes the story decades later.

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’ 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 reviews your books.

Until next time!

ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

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

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

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