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

Originally published 06/11/2016

If you’ve been following this site for a while, you will perhaps remember that I have occasionally written posts featuring 6 six word stories (you can view previous ones here and here). Since I happen to think it’s a great way to put the imagination through its paces (not to mention test my skills in brevity), I thought it would be a good idea if I made such a post whenever the 6th of a month happens to fall on a Sunday, since I only ever post on Sundays.

And… I’ll just check the calendar here and… yep, that’s OK. If we do it this way, you should still only have to put up with one or two of these kinds of posts a year at most. So it’s all good!

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

Alea iacta est.

  1. My treasure? Buried by my ex.
  2. Took the bait. Snap! Hard cheese…
  3. Rolled the dice; wrote six stories.
  4. While others cooled, our house burned.
  5. Nine parachutes; ten passengers casting lots.
  6. Turned up volume: ‘…will self-destruct.’

Well, I’m sure you can all do a better job of coming up with six word stories for those stimuli than I can so why not give it a bash yourself and pop your responses in the comments section below? Then we can do it all over again on the 6th of August 2017!

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8 Useful Posts on Fiction Writing

Originally published 25/09/2016

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

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

So, without further ado…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Like It or Lump It, Your Intended Audience Matters

Originally published 24/06/2016

The Parable of the Audience

by A. Ferguson

The stadium was a sea of overpriced band tees and elaborate haircuts. Heavy metal music was being played, inappropriately, as quiet background music over the speaker system. Suddenly and without warning, the lights went out and the music abruptly ended. The hubbub of chatter and the friendly jostling of the crowd was replaced with an almighty roar as every eye turned to the stage. People pushed and shoved their way to the front, clapping and screaming to be heard above the crowd. A plastic cup filled with beer flew towards the front, showering the ravening crowd as it passed by but no one paid any attention. There was yet another almighty roar as the band ran out on stage and struck the first chord of their opening number: Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major.

*   *   *

A great number of the posts I’ve written on this site giving writing advice have come about as the result of me learning these lessons the hard way first. This week is no exception.

Every now and again I  hear authors, publishers and other would-be writing gurus all saying the same thing: it is very important to know exactly who your audience is before you write. I don’t mind telling you that every time I hear that, I groan. I don’t like to be restricted by boring things like that; I just wanted to write my story. Let the publisher worry about how they’re going to market my story: I am creating a work of art, darling!

Believe me, if you ever feel that way, you’re not alone. But lately I’ve learned that knowing who your audience is is just as important to the artistic side of writing (the most important part, surely?) as it is to the boring business side of things.

Allow me to explain. I like to write because I like to read. The type of things I write tend to reflect my reading preferences – which is hardly surprising, I’m sure you’ll agree. Now for me personally, there are a few things I like and dislike. For example, I like speculative fiction in various forms especially if it is based on mythology or history, but I also enjoy historical fiction, murder/mysteries and literary fiction. I like a little bit of action and tension in my fiction, but I do not enjoy thrillers which tend to maximise action at the expense of substance. I like the narrative to flow with all the rhythm and expressiveness of poetry while still maintaining believable and natural sounding dialogue. I like complex characters. I don’t mind a little bad language in my dialogue (as far as it is necessary) but I do not like stories which overdo the foul language as a cheap attempt to add grit and I especially despise the use of profanity in the narrative itself except on very rare occasions (and almost all of those occasions involve a first person narrative). In short, I have a bit of a mishmash of preferences. When I finish a book (even one I really enjoyed) I will say something like ‘it was very exciting, but the characters lacked substance’ or ‘it was very thought provoking but needlessly heavy on the bad language’.

Unsurprisingly, when I started trying to write my novel, I brought these and all my other likes and dislikes to the table with me. You won’t find any profanity in my narrative, for example, and only the absolute minimum that is required in my dialogue. But I also wanted to write a story which would appeal to everyone, and needless to say as I continued to work on this story, I found that I was growing increasingly frustrated with it. I just couldn’t seem to make it good although I was having difficulty putting my finger on why… until it hit me:

Nothing appeals to everyone. It is not possible to write a story that will appeal to everyone and trying to bring together elements that would appeal to all audiences only serves to create a mixed up and inconsistent story that won’t appeal to anybody. In tone, my story would have primarily appealed to a YA audience but there were too many elements which didn’t fit to classify it as such. The biggest problem was the protagonist: a bitter ex-soldier in his mid-forties who was struggling to pay his taxes. There were bits of my story that would appeal to some audiences and bits of my story which would appeal to other audiences. Even I, as the author, only liked bits of it. In trying to create a work of art for every audience, I created something that wouldn’t really appeal to anyone, because nothing appeals to everyone.

So I went back to the old drawing board and asked myself just who did I want to write for?

I tackled this question artistically (after all, business and marketing are not my forte. If anything has the power to put me off being an author, it’s the thought of all that stuff but I digress). I asked myself what kind of thoughts I was trying to provoke and what kinds of feelings I wanted to stimulate. How gritty did I want my story to be? How funny? How violent? How sensual? How family-friendly? The more I did this, the more I came to realise what I had already begun to suspect: I wanted to write (this particular story, at least) for a young adult audience.

It came as quite a surprise to me, I can tell you, but nevertheless, I made a decision to go through my story with a fine tooth-comb and make it conform to standards which would suit a YA audience. For example, my protagonist is no longer an angry ex-soldier; he’s the seventeen year old son of an angry ex-soldier. I was a little nervous that if I started to fully young adultify my story, I would ruin it but in actual fact it’s had the opposite effect. Suddenly it works. It flows from point to point with a certain consistency that was missing before and it has made for a better story; not because I made it into a young adult story specifically, but because I decided who my audience was and constructed a story which would fully appeal from beginning to end to that audience. I could have probably done the same for any audience (within reason).

By writing your story for a particular audience, you aren’t stopping other potential audiences from also reading and enjoying your story, any more than being a Mozart fan prevents you from also being a Black Sabbath or Alice Cooper fan (I’ve been known to listen to all of the above myself). All you are doing is adding a consistency to your story which allows it to work and flow in a way which makes sense. Besides, nothing in this life appeals to everybody; therefore, be sure to make your story appeal to somebody… And if the result of all this effort is a more marketable novel then so much the better!

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Christmas Eve: A Short Story

Originally published 22/12/2019

Christmas Eve

by A. Ferguson

Karen inhaled a sharp drag on her cigarette, holding the burning toxic fumes in her chest for as long as she could before letting them out in one shuddering breath on the snowy rooftops below.

It was freezing. Karen had sworn she’d never do another Christmas Eve again but that man… that stupid idiot man.

‘I wish you wouldn’t smoke, dear. What if someone sees?’

‘It’s your fault I’m here at all.’

‘The little children, dearest, they look up to me; to us.’

She chanced a glance at Santa. His brilliant red jacket was now a patchwork of soot stains and there was a fresh tear in the shoulder.

‘Yeah.’ Karen grunted, stealing one last drag before stamping the cigarette underfoot. ‘Well. Can I go now?’

‘Ah, well, I wonder…’

‘What?’ Karen grunted.

‘It’s just the old knee, my dear. Dr. Jones said I should rest it but when you pulled me out–‘

‘I told you not to use the chimneys this year!’ Karen snapped. ‘I don’t know why I waste my breath talking to you.’

‘I’ve only got Glasgow and Falkirk to go, you’ll be home in an hour.’

‘Am I just free labour to you, is that why you married me? Dragging me out of bed on Christmas Eve–‘

‘Please Karen, it’s for the children. They’ll be so disappointed on Christmas morning if Santa hasn’t been.’ He implored.

‘Like I’ve been every Christmas I’ve had since I met you.’ She muttered, trying to seem indifferent to what the children wanted.

Santa didn’t say anything, but she could see he was hurt.

‘Fine, whatever.’ She huffed, climbing into his sleigh and taking the reins. ‘Are you able to get home in my sleigh okay?’

‘I’ll manage.’ He said. 

‘Well mind and call if you can’t–’

‘I’ll be fine. See you when you get back.’

‘Please yourself.’ Karen snapped and with a sharp crack on the reigns she took off into the snowy night sky.

🎅 🎅 🎅

Karen muttered profanities to herself as she stuffed yet another oversized stocking (this one belonging to someone called Adam Forrester) with gifts and chocolates.

That man! This was what her life had become. Stockings, presents, Christmas trees and clambering up and down chimneys. It was all he cared about.

Exhausted from her work, she sat down on a nearby armchair. A plastic, cartoon portrait of her good-for-nothing husband grinned back at her from the opposite wall. On the coffee table, a small plate of mince pies sat beside a raw carrot and a glass of milk. Karen shuddered. How long had it been sitting there?

She looked at the clock on the mantle. Half past four. Enough time for a quick one.

Rummaging around in her pocket, she pulled out her cigarettes and lit one, trying to relax on the unfamiliar armchair, taking the mince pies off the plate and lifting the plate onto her lap to use as an ashtray.

Seventeen years of her life she’d wasted, married to a man who cared more about other people’s children than about her and about their children, not that they had any. He’d swept her off her feet that fateful morning seventeen years ago, when she interrupted him filling her stocking. He whisked her away for a midnight journey around the world in his sleigh and she helped deliver presents to all the children in the world. Afterward they returned to her place and shared a mince pie before he suddenly announced the sun was rising and he had to leave.

She couldn’t let him. She was young, starstruck and there was such an obvious and irresistible chemistry between them that she went with him. She married him and, for a while, life was one big festive adventure but now… now she was trapped in the dwindling hours of an everlasting Christmas evening, when the presents are all unwrapped and the turkey is all gone and the tree doesn’t seem to sparkle quite as brightly as it did a few hours before. That was her life, all year round with him locked up in his workshop most of the year then expecting everyone to jump to his command come December. The sleigh was just a mode of transport now. Giving gifts to other people’s children was nice but it wasn’t quite enough and whenever she tried to talk about starting their own family, he would find some excuse to change the subject or–

‘Who are you?’ 

Karen nearly fell off the armchair as she smashed the cigarette furiously into the plate. There was a man in the doorway, presumably Adam Forrester. He was a little younger than Karen, perhaps, but not by much, maybe early thirties. He didn’t look particularly bothered to find a stranger in his living room.

Of course not. He was expecting one.

‘The first openly female Santa.’ Karen grunted.

‘Are you Mrs. Claus?’ 

‘Karen.’ She grunted. ‘Karen Claus. You’re supposed to be sleeping.’

‘Couldn’t sleep.’ Adam said, matter-of-factly. ‘Too excited. I love Christmas.’

Karen snorted. ‘You’re worse than my husband.’

‘Don’t you like Christmas?’

‘Every day is Christmas with us.’ Karen snorted. ‘This is just work. His work. Only reason I’m here is he got stuck in a chimney earlier and hurt himself.’

‘Oh, so you get lumbered with it whenever he’s not well?’

‘I don’t mind doing it.’ Karen said. ‘It’s great giving gifts to all the children and everything, it’s just…’ Karen paused, hunting for the right word.

‘Christmas isn’t Christmas anymore.’ Adam finished for her. ‘Like you said, it’s work. His work.’

‘Yeah. Exactly.’

‘You wanna talk about it? I know we don’t know each other but if you want to let off steam or…’

Karen sighed. ‘That’s very kind but there’s nothing to tell. I’ll tell you this though, one day you’re gonna meet someone and you’ll think to yourself, “that’s it, this is the One for me!”, ‘cause there’s so much chemistry between you and you think he’ll make all your wildest dreams come true. But you can’t live like that…’ Karen looked in her cigarette box. It was empty. ‘You marry someone like that and you realise what’s really important to you. Not the sleigh rides or the presents or the fact he can do magic. Boring stuff, like raising a family and knowing he cares about you more than all that other stuff; Christmas, or whatever it is makes him feel good about himself.’

‘I guess being married to Santa must be a bit like being married to a celebrity.’ Adam mused. ‘Christmas is what he is and everyone loves him for it, expects it from him. And you just get absorbed into all that whether you like it or not.’

‘Yeah.’ Karen said. ‘Yeah, exactly. So now it’s all just Christmas this, Christmas that, all year round. It’s not magical anymore, but it’s not quite a proper life either. And that’s what I want, a proper life. I love Santa but I want a normal life too. I want to get excited about Christmas like a normal person and and see my own children getting excited about it every year instead of just standing in the background making Christmas fun for strangers

‘You know, we had this big fight last Christmas. Something that was important to me but he didn’t want to know. After that he spent all year locked up in his workshop, hardly came out at all, just says he’s gotta get ready for Christmas.’

Karen exhaled sharply through her nose. She looked down at her hands and tugged at the fingers of her gloves.

‘You know what? No, I don’t like Christmas, not any more.’

Adam didn’t say anything. She looked up to see him, focusing intently on her with genuine concern on his face. He seemed like a kind man.

‘Look, never mind about me.’ Karen said, rising to her feet slightly embarrassed by her own catharsis. ‘Tell you what, since you love Christmas so much, why don’t I give you a quick ride in the sleigh? Just to say thank you.’

Adam’s eyes lit up. ‘Really? Well… yes! Oh, I’d love that.’

Karen smiled, feeling a whole lot lighter than she did half an hour ago. ‘Get your coat. It’s chilly out.’

🎅 🎅 🎅

The sleigh ride did not last long. It was too close to daybreak to take Adam beyond his own city. There was a tiny chink of light on the farthest point of the horizon when Karen and Adam landed back on Adam’s rooftop and Karen couldn’t help feeling disappointed it was over.

‘Well,’ Adam said without rising up from the sleigh. ‘Thanks for a wonderful night.’

‘No, thank you for listening to me. For understanding.’ Karen said.

Adam smiled and Karen felt her heart skip a beat.

‘Well,’ She said, business-like. ‘You’d better get to bed or Santa won’t come.’

Adam took a long time to clamber out of the sleigh. When he finally did get out, he walked around the sleigh to be as close to her as possible.

‘You want to come in for a coffee or something?’ He asked.

Yes. Yes, I do.

‘I can’t, Adam.’ She said, feeling sick. ‘The sun’s coming up, I have to get back.’

‘Before you turn into a pumpkin?’

‘Something like that.’ She grimaced.

‘Alright.’ He said, taking a single, very small step back from the sleigh.

‘Goodnight, Adam.’ She said, cracking the reigns hard to return to Santa.

🎅 🎅 🎅

The sun was just beginning to rise over the snowy Korvatunturian landscape when Karen landed the sleigh in front of the quaint log cabin which was their private residence. Smoke puffed happily from the chimney and a warm glow from the windows gently illumined the snowy ground but she felt more miserable than ever. Two serious faced elves met the sleigh as soon as she arrived, taking charge of the reindeer, allowing her to go immediately to the house.

Inside it was quiet, though the hallway was warm. He was up, but she just wanted to go to bed and forget about the last twenty-four hours.

‘Is that you dearest?’ 

Karen swore under he breath.

‘I’m going to bed.’ She called back. 

‘But it’s Christmas!’ He called back. Karen heard his heavy footfalls coming towards the hall. A moment later, he appeared in the living room door, wearing those ridiculous red and white pyjamas. ‘Maybe Santa’s been!’

‘I live with Santa. It’s nothing new.’ She grunted, walking past him to the stairs but he gently took her hand and stopped her.

‘Karen, please.’ He said in a softer voice. ‘Come and see.’

‘Can I have a fag?’

Santa winced.

‘Fine.’ Karen sighed. ‘But then I’m going to bed.’

Santa stepped back from the living room door, making a grand gesture of inviting her into the room. ‘Of course.’ He said solemnly.

Karen entered the living room, a little surprised and even a touch disappointed to find it unchanged. Warm, cozy, with a fire blazing in the hearth and the same small bundle of presents under the oversized Christmas tree. Instead of going to the presents, however, Santa crossed the living room towards his workshop and stood beside the door.

‘In here.’ He said, gesturing to the closed door. ‘Merry Christmas.’

Karen regarded him suspiciously and felt an unwanted smile begin to force itself upon the corners of her mouth. ‘What is it?’ She asked, as disdainfully as she could.

‘Your main present,’ he said. ‘From your husband.’

Karen approached the workshop and pushed the door open. She seldom ventured here herself. It was always full of mess and business as Santa and his elves worked furiously preparing all the toys and gifts for the following Christmas. Something she had lost all interest in.

She could hardly believe her eyes when she opened the door. All of the workbenches, machinery and magical paraphernalia were gone. There were no elves and no mess. The entire room had been redecorated from top to bottom in soft pastel shades. On one side of the room, there was a white chest of drawers with soft edges and bulbous, rubbery handles. A similarly styled wardrobe stood directly beside it. There was a large selection of soft toys populating the top of the drawers. The windows were covered with pastel blue blackout curtains which prevented any sunlight from getting into the room. There was a white lampshade with tiny little reindeers dangling from the light, casting reindeer shaped shadows all around the room. On the far side of the room, there was a simple white wooden cot and a baby changing station. Karen was speechless.

‘Like it?’

‘Where’s the workshop?’ Karen gasped.

‘Dismantled.’ Santa said. ‘I’ve decided to advertise for someone else to take over. They can have it all. I thought about what you said last Christmas and you were right.’

Karen looked up at her husband, his face uncharacteristically serious though not stern.

‘I’ve been too absorbed in my work. I’ve just been doing it so long, it’s become my life. So it’s time to retire. To focus on our family.’ He nodded into the workshop-turned-nursery. ‘I know this doesn’t make up for everything but-’

‘But it’s a start.’ Karen said, nodding. ‘And I’m sorry. For everything.’

‘So…’ Santa said. ‘Not a disappointing Christmas this year, then?’

‘No.’ She said. ‘I think this is going to be the best Christmas ever.’

THE END

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A Fanciful Tale of Heroes and Call Centres

Originally published 01/05/2016

It’s been a while since I posted one of my own humble stories, so I’ve quickly knocked together this little bit of nonsense for your enjoyment. Unlike a lot of the stories I’ve published on the site before, this is not a rejected competition entry. I wrote it for no purpose other than to amuse myself and hopefully, dear reader, to amuse you as well. I suppose it’s best described as a fantasy (since it features heroes guilds and all that kind of stuff) but it also draws heavily on some of my own less fantastic experiences. It also happens to be a little experiment in writing a story using minimal narration; it’s almost entirely dialogue. As ever, this story is entirely my own work and has never been published anywhere else, whether online or in print. I hope you enjoy it.

—-

I Need A Hero

by Andrew Ferguson

 

Brrp, brrp.

Brrp, brrp.

‘Good afternoon, you are through to the Free National Heroes Service. My name is Colin, how may I help you?’

‘Yes, good morning, I’d like to book a knight please, for three o’clock tomorrow.’

‘Oook, if you just give me a minute I’ll take some details off you…’

‘OK.’

‘Now you do understand I can’t guarantee it’ll be a knight because—’

‘Why not?’

‘Well you see—’

‘It really needs to be a knight, I always get one. If you check your records you’ll see, I always get a knight.’

‘Oook… well, let me just take your details then and I’ll have a look for you, OK? What’s your name please?’

‘Shona Forrester.’

‘And your date of birth?’

‘Age of Esfin, 03, 36.’

‘Aaaand your address?’

‘0/1 1236 Esclimber Way’

‘That’s great, thanks. Oook, you don’t seeeeem to be registered on our system just now but that’s OK, I’ll just add you on—’

‘Sorry, what do you mean I’m not registered? I’ve had heroes out here loads of times and I’ve always got a knight. It’s never been a problem before. Has it all changed now?’

‘No, madam, as I tried to explain before, we’ve only ever had three categories of hero available. You can have a warrior, a mage or a ranger. And you’re definitely not on our system either, but that’s no problem, I’ve just added you on now.’

‘Oh! So I can’t have a knight then?’

‘I’m afraid it’s out of my hands madam, the best I can do is put you down for a warrior and I’ll put it in your notes that you wanted a knight. That way Control will see that on their screens when they come to allocate heroes and will do what they can to accommodate you.’

‘So I should still get a knight then?’

‘I really wouldn’t like to make any promises, madam, but the Controllers will do their very best if there’s one available. You will definitely be able to get a warrior but that’s all I can say for certain until you’re assigned a hero in the morning.’

‘It’s never been a problem getting a knight before but right, whatever… well, OK. Can I go now?’

‘Nooo, not quite yet, I still need to take a few details off you first if you don’t mind. Now was it AM or PM tomorrow you wanted this for?’

‘PM, three o’clock please.’

‘OK, now because we’ve only got so many warriors on at one time, I obviously can’t give you a cast iron guarantee that it’ll be exactly three o’clock. It just depends what’s available. Normally what we’d do is book you in for an AM or PM slot just now and you’ll be assigned a time by the Controllers depending on when there’s a warrior available. So I’ll put you down for PM and put it in your notes that you’d prefer it for three, is that OK?’

‘Well what time is he likely to arrive then?’

‘I honestly couldn’t say for sure, madam, that’s entirely down to Control, I’m afraid. An afternoon booking could be any time between twelve o’clock and half eight.’

‘OK, make it AM then.’

‘Are you sure that’s OK? That would be any time then between nine o’clock and twelve.’

‘It’ll have to be, it’s no use him coming at all if he’s any later than three, half three at the latest, so I’ll go with AM. Can you let me know roughly what time that’s likely to be? I’ll be at work in the morning so I’ll need to ask my neighbour to let him in.’

‘Like I already said madam, I’ve no way of knowing until you’ve been allocated a hero what time it’ll be, except that it’ll be in the morning between nine and twelve. I can get Control to give you a call once you’ve been allocated if you like?’

‘Fine, thank you.’

‘Nooo problem, now I just need to check your eligibility to use this service—’

‘Why do you need to do that? I’ve had heroes out before, loads of times.’

‘I’m sorry madam, but there was definitely nothing at all on our system for you. Are you sure you didn’t use a private guild last time?’

‘No, I’ve always dialled this number. There must be something wrong with your system.’

‘Mmm, maybe but I need to check your eligibility anyway or my system won’t let me make the booking. Is that OK?’

‘How long do you think he’ll be anyway? I mean, I need to know when he’ll be back from his quest so I can make sure there’s someone in. I’ll be at work till two.’

‘Well, that really depends. I was actually just about to ask you exactly why you need a hero. I mean, is there any one else who can go for you?’

‘What difference does that make?’

‘Well, you see even though this as a free service, we don’t receive any government or lottery funding so it’s really only those who are completely unable to go on the quests themselves that we can provide this service for.’

‘Bu—!’

‘And there’s no way I could guess at how long your hero will take to complete his quest unless I know what it is. Also Control need to know in advance if he needs any special equipment; things like enchanted armour or really bulky things like rune stones or armoured horses might take a bit longer to arrange.’

‘Well, he won’t need any of that so there’s no problem.’

‘I’m sure there isn’t, but I need to ask you what his quest will be anyway or I can’t take your booking.’

‘I just need him to go to the supermarket for me. I need him to pick up some things for my son’s birthday and I can’t go ’cause I’ve got work!’

‘The supermarket?’

‘Yes. It’s never been a problem before today!’

‘I’m really sorry, you’ll need to go with a private guild for something like that.’

‘But—!’

‘I am really sorry, but there’s nothing I can do. This is a free service and we don’t receive any government or lottery funding so we really can only provide this service for extremely dangerous or difficult quests and to those with a household income of less than twelve-thousand quil per year. Is there anything else I can help you with today?’

‘…’

Click.

‘Bye then.’ Click. ‘Geeeeeez… Unbelievable!’

‘Let me guess,’ said Colin’s supervisor. ‘It’s young master Forrester’s birthday again?’

‘Yeah!’

‘Hmph! That’ll be his fifth birthday this year then!’

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The Martian’s Revenge

Originally published 06/12/2015

I may have previously mentioned that there are few things stimulate creativity in writing quite like a deadline. If you’re like me, you’ll probably have multiple competitions and other deadlines on the go at once and will be heavily reliant on your calender to keep you on track.

Of course, that only works if you put the correct date in your calender. What follows is a story I had written for a 50-word story competition which had to be set in my native Scotland. I was never very happy with this story, but being keen to meet the deadline I persevered with it anyway and was just about to submit it when… disaster! I had put the wrong date in my calender! I have missed the deadline!

Not wanting to waste all the effort and frustration I went to, I’ve decided to post it here instead. I wanted to make it stand out from the other competition entries and given that it had to be set in Scotland I thought perhaps a  Scottish sci-fi/murder mystery might be the way to go. Just to give you a little context if you’re not Scottish, the chip shops here sell deep-fried Mars bars. Bear that in mind.

The Martian’s Revenge
by A. Ferguson

DCI Mcleod had never seen anything like it. The chippie’s owner lay dead, his head submerged in the fryer. Witnesses claimed they saw a tall green man burst from the chippie carrying armfuls of Mars bars, who fled the scene in a strange car which literally flew into the night.

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

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AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

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Throwback Thursday: I Need a Hero

Originally published: 01/05/2016 under the title ‘A Fanciful Tale of Heroes and Call Centres’

It’s been a while since I posted one of my own humble stories, so I’ve quickly knocked together this little bit of nonsense for your enjoyment. Unlike a lot of the stories I’ve published on the site before, this is not a rejected competition entry. I wrote it for no purpose other than to amuse myself and hopefully, dear reader, to amuse you as well. I suppose it’s best described as a fantasy (since it features heroes guilds and all that kind of stuff) but it also draws heavily on some of my own less fantastic experiences. It also happens to be a little experiment in writing a story using minimal narration; it’s almost entirely dialogue. As ever, this story is entirely my own work and has never been published anywhere else, whether online or in print. I hope you enjoy it.

—-

I Need A Hero

by Andrew Ferguson

 

Brrp, brrp.

Brrp, brrp.

‘Good afternoon, you are through to the Free National Heroes Service. My name is Colin, how may I help you?’

‘Yes, good morning, I’d like to book a knight please, for three o’clock tomorrow.’

‘Oook, if you just give me a minute I’ll take some details off you…’

‘OK.’

‘Now you do understand I can’t guarantee it’ll be a knight because—’

‘Why not?’

‘Well you see—’

‘It really needs to be a knight, I always get one. If you check your records you’ll see, I always get a knight.’

‘Oook… well, let me just take your details then and I’ll have a look for you, OK? What’s your name please?’

‘Shona Forrester.’

‘And your date of birth?’

‘Age of Esfin, 03, 36.’

‘Aaaand your address?’

‘0/1 1236 Esclimber Way’

‘That’s great, thanks. Oook, you don’t seeeeem to be registered on our system just now but that’s OK, I’ll just add you on—’

‘Sorry, what do you mean I’m not registered? I’ve had heroes out here loads of times and I’ve always got a knight. It’s never been a problem before. Has it all changed now?’

‘No, madam, as I tried to explain before, we’ve only ever had three categories of hero available. You can have a warrior, a mage or a ranger. And you’re definitely not on our system either, but that’s no problem, I’ve just added you on now.’

‘Oh! So I can’t have a knight then?’

‘I’m afraid it’s out of my hands madam, the best I can do is put you down for a warrior and I’ll put it in your notes that you wanted a knight. That way Control will see that on their screens when they come to allocate heroes and will do what they can to accommodate you.’

‘So I should still get a knight then?’

‘I really wouldn’t like to make any promises, madam, but the Controllers will do their very best if there’s one available. You will definitely be able to get a warrior but that’s all I can say for certain until you’re assigned a hero in the morning.’

‘It’s never been a problem getting a knight before but right, whatever… well, OK. Can I go now?’

‘Nooo, not quite yet, I still need to take a few details off you first if you don’t mind. Now was it AM or PM tomorrow you wanted this for?’

‘PM, three o’clock please.’

‘OK, now because we’ve only got so many warriors on at one time, I obviously can’t give you a cast iron guarantee that it’ll be exactly three o’clock. It just depends what’s available. Normally what we’d do is book you in for an AM or PM slot just now and you’ll be assigned a time by the Controllers depending on when there’s a warrior available. So I’ll put you down for PM and put it in your notes that you’d prefer it for three, is that OK?’

‘Well what time is he likely to arrive then?’

‘I honestly couldn’t say for sure, madam, that’s entirely down to Control, I’m afraid. An afternoon booking could be any time between twelve o’clock and half eight.’

‘OK, make it AM then.’

‘Are you sure that’s OK? That would be any time then between nine o’clock and twelve.’

‘It’ll have to be, it’s no use him coming at all if he’s any later than three, half three at the latest, so I’ll go with AM. Can you let me know roughly what time that’s likely to be? I’ll be at work in the morning so I’ll need to ask my neighbour to let him in.’

‘Like I already said madam, I’ve no way of knowing until you’ve been allocated a hero what time it’ll be, except that it’ll be in the morning between nine and twelve. I can get Control to give you a call once you’ve been allocated if you like?’

‘Fine, thank you.’

‘Nooo problem, now I just need to check your eligibility to use this service—’

‘Why do you need to do that? I’ve had heroes out before, loads of times.’

‘I’m sorry madam, but there was definitely nothing at all on our system for you. Are you sure you didn’t use a private guild last time?’

‘No, I’ve always dialled this number. There must be something wrong with your system.’

‘Mmm, maybe but I need to check your eligibility anyway or my system won’t let me make the booking. Is that OK?’

‘How long do you think he’ll be anyway? I mean, I need to know when he’ll be back from his quest so I can make sure there’s someone in. I’ll be at work till two.’

‘Well, that really depends. I was actually just about to ask you exactly why you need a hero. I mean, is there any one else who can go for you?’

‘What difference does that make?’

‘Well, you see even though this as a free service, we don’t receive any government or lottery funding so it’s really only those who are completely unable to go on the quests themselves that we can provide this service for.’

‘Bu—!’

‘And there’s no way I could guess at how long your hero will take to complete his quest unless I know what it is. Also Control need to know in advance if he needs any special equipment; things like enchanted armour or really bulky things like rune stones or armoured horses might take a bit longer to arrange.’

‘Well, he won’t need any of that so there’s no problem.’

‘I’m sure there isn’t, but I need to ask you what his quest will be anyway or I can’t take your booking.’

‘I just need him to go to the supermarket for me. I need him to pick up some things for my son’s birthday and I can’t go ’cause I’ve got work!’

‘The supermarket?’

‘Yes. It’s never been a problem before today!’

‘I’m really sorry, you’ll need to go with a private guild for something like that.’

‘But—!’

‘I am really sorry, but there’s nothing I can do. This is a free service and we don’t receive any government or lottery funding so we really can only provide this service for extremely dangerous or difficult quests and to those with a household income of less than twelve-thousand quil per year. Is there anything else I can help you with today?’

‘…’

Click.

‘Bye then.’ Click. ‘Geeeeeez… Unbelievable!’

‘Let me guess,’ said Colin’s supervisor. ‘It’s young master Forrester’s birthday again?’

‘Yeah!’

‘Hmph! That’ll be his fifth birthday this year then!’

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

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AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

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

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Throwback Thursday: Should You Use Profanity in Your Story?

Originally published 21/01/2018

I’ve been reading Tom Hanks’ Uncommon Type: Some Stories. It’s not really my intention to review it here today (not least of all because I haven’t read it all yet), but I will say I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the quality of his writing. It doesn’t read like an actor trying to make a few extra quid by writing a book. It reads like something written by a professional author who knows a thing or two about writing quality stories. In short, I’m enjoying it. But something else about it surprised me: the language. There’s a lot of profanity in there and for some reason, I expected Tom Hanks’ work to be a little bit more family friendly. Don’t ask me why. Maybe it’s just because I’m hearing it in Woody the Cowboy’s voice.

Anyway, this all got me thinking about the use of profanity in fiction. We authors walk a fine line between realism and rudeness, especially when it comes to writing dialogue. Where do you draw the line?

Well… it depends.

The first and most obvious thing is to consider your audience and what they expect from your story. Certain audiences tend to go for certain genres, and as such, the level of profanity in your work will often be largely dependent on your genre. If you have a real aversion to using any profanity whatsoever in your writing, the simplest way around this is to stick to those genres which tend to have less profanity in them. Alternatively, you can always sit down and watch the soaps for inspiration. Really, I’m serious. Emmerdale, Eastenders and Coronation Street are simply chock full of characters having heated arguments about adultery, betrayal, crime and all sorts of other grim subjects without a single f-bomb being dropped.

giphy
Image source: http://gph.is/1c3k48L

However, let’s assume you are willing to use some profanity in your story. There might be lots of reasons why you use bad language in your story. In Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Spock makes frequent (mis)use of mild profanity in a vain attempt to fit in with 20th century human society. Here it serves a very simple function: comedy relief (even though The Voyage Home is pretty light-hearted anyway). It also works, because it’s done in a fairly subtle way. Bad language is also often used to add a sense of anger or urgency to a character’s dialogue. It is, therefore, an undeniably useful tool for some authors.

A word of warning, however: profanity has the power to augment your story or to utterly ruin it, perhaps more than any other technique you might use. A measure of bad language may or may not be appropriate if you’re writing for adults, but bad language is not the defining characteristic of a good adult story. It is simply a tool that you may decide to use or not use as you see fit. Overusing it, as with any other literary technique, can destroy your story. The fact is, profanity loses its power very quickly. The more often bad language is used, the more desensitised the reader becomes to it. What began as a striking technique with which to shock or amuse the audience quickly becomes nothing more than a few pointless extra words which ruin the flow of the narrative.

‘But in real life, some people do swear ten times in a single sentence!’ I hear you cry. ‘How can I make my dialogue realistic if I water it down?’

It can be tempting to think this. On the surface it seems perfectly rational. However, any seasoned author knows that dialogue in fiction is actually very different from the way real people talk from day to day. Dialogue flows. Dialogue makes sense. Dialogue is to-the-point. Even when sub-text is used, what is said remains clear and advances the story in a very definite direction. For this reason, profanity may sometimes be necessary but it should be carefully measured, lest it lost its power.

In real life, people talk rubbish. They say things they don’t mean. They’ll change the subject. They’ll utterly misunderstand the subject and, you know, they’ll like… how can I put it? They’ll, I don’t know, they’ll– respond in inappropriate ways. You know, like, you’ll say something and they’ll say something back and it’s obvious they’ve not understood you because what they’ve said back doesn’t make any sense. Like that time I was talking to Sandra about fly fishing and she… [insert long winded, irrelevant anecdote here]. They’ll misuse pacific words, mishandle slang and make such a mess of their utterances that it frankly beggars belief that humans are able to communicate verbally at all.

In the same way a real person might swear twenty times per sentence, but if you want to fictionalise that person, you’ll probably want to tone down his language lest it ruin the flow of your narrative.

One last thing to bear in mind: You’re never going to please everyone. What matters, therefore, is you, your story and your intended audience (not necessarily in that order). Ask yourself, why am I using profanity here? Is it really necessary to make my story work? Am I comfortable using it? Will it produce the correct response in my intended audience (forget your ‘unintended’ audience; you can’t possibly please everyone), or will it bore/offend them? Ultimately, you have to decide for yourself what’s appropriate. Personally, I find less is usually more when it comes to profanity, but maybe that’s just me.


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AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

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

You can check out our previous interviews here:

6 ‘Six Word Stories’ for the 6th (Vol. VI)

It’s Sunday and it’s the 6th day of the month and that can only ever mean one thing here on Penstricken: another exciting instalment of ‘6 “Six Word Stories” for the 6th’!

You probably all know how this works by now. I roll six story dice on Zuidsoft’s ‘Story Dice’ app and I write six tiny little stories, exactly six words in length, based on whatever stimuli the dice gives me. I feel quite pleased with myself for a minute or two until you guys come along and share your superior efforts in the comments section below.

So here we go:

Iacta ālea est.
  1. BEETHOVEN CLONE DEMANDS ROYALTIES BACK PAY
  2. Beautiful dress, perfect makeup, impure intentions.
  3. CLONE LAB ARSON ATTACK: NO SURVIVORS
  4. Hello? Is anybody else out there?
  5. Lost a bet– and my taste-buds!
  6. Wished for love. Got a dog.

Well, that was a mind stretching experience as always. I never for one second imagined the flame would turn out to be a sequel to the musical notes, but that’s all part of the fun of these little challenges. Why don’t you give it a go yourself? Try and come up with six word stories based on the stimuli above and share them in the comments below so we can all see how much better you are at this than I am.


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterPinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

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AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

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

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Throwback Thursday: Being a ‘Real’ Writer

Originally published: 03/09/2017

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. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterPinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

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Want a blog of your own? Start writing today with WordPress.com!

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AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

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

You can check out our previous interviews here: