5 Elements of a Great Story

Writing is like baking a cake. You need just the right ingredients in just the right measure, or else you’ll just end up with an unappetising mess. In the same way that a tasty cake should be soft but firm, sweet but not overly so, moist but not wet and covered in lots of chocolate tastefully decorated, so too, a good story will stimulate the audience emotionally and intellectually; it will thrill them as well as make them think; frighten them as well as make them laugh and it will take them on a journey which is both meaningful and enjoyable.

To accomplish this, there’s a few key ingredients you just can’t do without:

Characters

Stories don’t just have characters. Characters are the story. Therefore, well developed characters, each with their own motives and goals which the audience sympathise with and care about, are essential for a good story. A few key players you might want to include in your story are:

  • A protagonist [2]. This is your main character, that key individual whom the story is actually about and with whom the audience should sympathise the most deeply (this one is mandatory. You don’t have a story without a protagonist).
  • An antagonist [2]. This is your protagonist’s main opponent throughout the story. He’s not necessarily evil, or even plotting evil (though he can be). He might simply be a rival competitor in the World Tiddlywinks Championships that your protagonist needs to defeat to become the World Tiddlywink Champion. Just as long as there is a direct conflict between your antagonist and your protagonist; one which the audience cares about.
  • A love interest is another common feature in much fiction. Usually there is a bit of sexual tension between your love interest and your protagonist from the outset (alternatively, unrequited attraction is a common motif). The love interest may also have some chemistry with your antagonist, thus creating the ever popular love triangle (a common motif in romance fiction). But if you are creating a love interest, just remember: no character should exist solely for the benefit another. Make sure your love interest has goals and motives of their own and a purpose for existing beyond making the protagonist swoon.
Conflict

So you’ve got a strong protagonist with firmly established goals and motives. Good for you.

Now… what’s stopping him achieving his goals? Your story will largely pivot on this question. Your character wants to do something, realises he can’t for some reason (this is your conflict!), struggles to overcome whatever it is that’s hindering him and finally succeeds.

It may be an antagonist whose goals bring them into direct conflict with the protagonist (for instance, a murderer might deliberately hide evidence from a detective, thus making it difficult for your protagonist to solve the mystery) but it could also be an inner struggle with illness, crippling self-doubt or the natural forces of nature. Whatever it is, there must be something standing between your protagonist and his ultimate goal. That’s your conflict.

Plot

This is arguably the most frustrating part of writing a story (but also one of the most important). Your plot is your basic sequence of events which form the skeleton of your story. There are lots of different approaches to plot structuring which you can Google at your leisure and decide which approach works best for you and your story.

Nevertheless, all good plots have this in common: that they progress in a logical manner from beginning to end. Something happens early on in the story to disrupt the ordinary life of your character, forcing him to do something to achieve his goal(s). This action leads to another event, leading to another action, leading to another event, progressing in a rational, cause-and-effect manner which finally concludes in a final climactic crisis event which resolves the main conflict and allows life to return to normal (though it may not be the same ‘normal’ as at the beginning of the story. e.g.: Aladdin’s ‘normal’ life started out as a single poor boy; his new ‘normal’ at the end is being married to a princess as a logical conclusion of the events that went before).

Pacing

As the author, your job is to blend fast bits and slow bits to create just the right feel for your story. This will be largely dependant on your genre, but even the most fast paced stories will still need slow bits to give the audience a chance to fully assimilate what is going on and to build a sense of anticipation. Equally, fast paced scenes (such as a good fight) are important to give the audience a bit of excitement and to relieve some of that tension you’ve been building up in the slow bits.

Some scenes can be fast paced or slow paced, depending on the effect you’re trying to create and the purpose they serve in your story. Love scenes are a good example. Fast paced narrative would make a slow and sensual love scene seem rushed (‘Jim and Jane made slow passionate love’ doesn’t quite capture the feel you’re trying to create); equally if you’re writing a moment of wild abandon between two lovers, you don’t want to bog the pacing down with talk and introspection. Use language in such a way to make the audience feel the urgency (or lack thereof) of what is happening.

Theme

I’ve spoken at some length about theme before but at the risk of repeating myself let me just say this: that an awareness of your story’s key themes will allow you to create a story with a bit of substance. All stories contain themes. They’re a natural byproduct of fiction, but they grow wild like weeds, accomplishing nothing. As an author, you have the power to cultivate your themes, to structure them and to make a really clear statement about real life through your work of fiction.

Do so, and your work will echo in the minds and the hearts of audience, challenging them, troubling them, encouraging them and stirring up their feelings long after they’ve finished reading it.


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 Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what bakes your cake.

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. 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/Pinterest.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Sharleen Nelson, Author of The Time Tourists [2]

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Idea Generators: Are They Any Use?

If you’re struggling to come up with even the meanest idea for your story, you might be tempted to Google story idea generators to help you out. If you do, you’ll find there are bazillions out there: random plot generators, title generators, character generators, motive generators, setting generators, first line generators and everything else besides. If all that feels a bit too much like stealing, you can also use story dice, random image generators or random word generators or character trait generators to help lubricate the imagination.

But wait a minute…

Do these little miracle makers really deliver the goods?

Most of these random plot generators tend to work by simply throwing up a random selection of story elements, such as a random theme, a couple of randomly generated characters, a randomly generated setting and maybe a randomly generated conflict. Once in a while these might be helpful, but nine times out of ten, they tend to throw up results which are so completely random that I just end up despairing over my failure to write a story about drug addiction in which a pole dancer and an astronaut get locked in the Tower of London.

Story Plot Generator Pro (A.K.A Plot Gen Pro) by Arc Apps is probably the best random generator of this kind that I’ve come across. You have to pay for the full version but even the trial version is pretty decent and produces random elements within a chosen genre. Thus, the results are not quite as bizzare as they might otherwise have been. For instance, when I asked for sci-fi/space story I got:

Location: You are on a small civillian colony that shares the planet with a native species.
Complication: A ship of alien origin approaches: attempting to communicate proves challenging.
Character: Your character has taken someone else’s identity.
Detail: Cloning technology was recently perfected but has not been revealed to the public.


Story Plot Generator Pro

I mean, heck… with a bit of effort, that might actually be usable.

There are, of course, some idea generators out there which produce slightly more refined ideas. My personal favourite is the Story Idea Generator at thejohnfox.com. Instead of vomiting up a meaningless jumble of events, half-baked characters and opening lines, this little beauty presents you with a meaningful scenario and a relevant question to stimulate your own imagination. For example:


A heartbroken husband chases his cheating wife through a child’s playground at night. What does he keep shouting at her, and why doesn’t she want to be with him?


https://thejohnfox.com/2016/05/story-idea-generator/

If used correctly, this kind of prompt should make for a far richer story, as you are forced to think your way through the details of who your characters are and why they do what they do. Rather than giving you a pre-made story (or, to be more accurate, a sequence of meaningless events, as most generators give you), this generator essentially gives you suggestions for what to write about and a couple of questions to get you started but doesn’t actually attempt to write it for you. The specific events that happen, why they happen and the outcome of it all are left very much to the author’s imagination, as indeed, it should be.

Depending on how your brain works, I can see generators of this type working really well for a lot of people. For me personally, however, I find that I don’t usually need someone to tell me what to write about. I often think I do, but whenever I do use a plot generator which produces something sensible, I end up just feeling like I’ve been asked to finish writing someone else’s story. I seldom feel confident enough, or even interested enough, to write it. What I really need is simple stimulation, and usually the vaguer it is, the better. I am, in fact, quite capable of coming up with story ideas myself and a simple word, catchphrase or picture will usually be enough to stimulate my sleeping imagination whereas a plot generator (no matter how good it is) feels a little too restrictive. Thankfully, there are plenty of places on the internet where you can find nice vague stimuli too.

Title generators are my personal favourite. A simple adjective/noun style title generator like this one, will throw up all sorts of interesting concepts that you can take in almost direction. I just tried it out and I got The Incredible Flute, The Last Cottage and The Evil Crow. There is so much potential in those simple ideas that I bet most writers could come up with something unique for every one of them (in fact, please do! Write a story called The Incredible Flute and tell us all about it in the comments. I dares ya).

There are, of course, more complex title generators out there which are mostly tailored to specific genres. For instance, Fantasy Name Generators gave me some really interesting titles such as Wife of Dreams, Faith of Earth and Boy Without Flaws simply by pressing a button (I might actually try writing some of those myself). These can also be refined by genre and there is the option to specify key words you want to include (incidentally and in passing, Fantasy Name Generators boasts one of the largest collections of random generators I’ve ever seen on the internet; everything from story title generators to Quetzalcoatl name generators. Lose yourself on that website for a while).

Whatever kind of idea generator you like to use (including good old fashioned writing prompts), the important thing to remember is this: even the best prompts are no substitute for the imagination. By all means, let them stimulate your imagination (if you find them helpful) but don’t fall into the trap of thinking they’ll do the imagining for you. They cannot and they should not. This also means that you needn’t be enslaved to the details of whatever prompt you use. You might not be able to contrive a realistic scenario where a pole dancer and an astronaut end up in the Tower, but perhaps you can write a piece of historical fiction about someone else being locked in the Tower, or perhaps you can write about an astronaut who does a bit of pole dancing on the side. The possibilities are endless for a fertile imagination.


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 Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what prompts your story.

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. 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/Pinterest.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Sharleen Nelson, Author of The Time Tourists [2]

5 Writing Laws I Just Can’t Keep

Google it, and you’ll see that the internet (to say nothing of books and formal writing courses) is simply teeming with lists of rules on how to write fiction. I’ve been known to knock out a list of rules or two myself; rules I generally believe make for a better writer if they are carefully adhered to and applied with a little wisdom.

Nevertheless, it is human nature to rebel against the rules. If the Writing Police ever do raid my house at four in the morning and drag me before the Fiction Judge, I’m pretty sure the list of charges will be a long one and he’ll throw the book at me for every one of them.

And so, today I’m here to confess my crimes. I know that some of these things are wrong, and I am ashamed of them. Other laws, I break with pride. And so without further ado, here are my crimes:

Using adverbs

The road to hell is paved with adverbs.

Stephen King

I confess it ashamedly. Sometimes when I’m writing, especially when I’m writing dialogue, I use adverbs liberally to describe the way people said things.

And I will proudly confess that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with very occasional adverbs. My real crime is that I don’t just use them ‘very occasionally.’ I use them all over the place and wait until the editing process to come back and replace them all with stronger verbs.

It’s the only way I know to get anything done.

Long-Windedness

Write the best story that you can and write it as straight as you can.

Ernest Hemingway

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you might have already noticed that I have a tendency to say things in a verbose fashion; using an excess of words (with little side notes in brackets) to say even the simplest things and breaking it up with more commas and semi-colons than you can shake a stick at, when all I really need to say is something along the lines of: ‘I can be quite long-winded’ (or something like that).

It makes for a tedious narrative and a painstaking editing process.

having holidays

Just write every day of your life…

Ray Bradbury

I tried that, Ray. I really did. But I’m a firm believer that a regular day off is healthy and makes me a better writer, provided I am diligent about my writing schedule for the rest of the week. I also give myself a set amount of ‘annual leave’ (a maximum of 33 days per year, the exact same as my day job gives me) to allow for holidays and so forth.

On a related note…

Writing is not the sum total of my life

For a writer life consists of either writing or thinking about writing.

Eugene Ionesco

I know they’ll throw the book at me just for saying this, but my life consists of more than writing. I will go further: I believe that a life which consists of nothing but writing will produce very limited writing. I say that with the greatest of reverence to Ionesco, who was clearly a superior writer to myself. In fact, I have a sneaking suspicion Ionesco’s own life probably consisted of more than writing. After all, to quote another great writer, ‘in order to write about life, you must first live it’ (E. Hemingway). Believing things, doing things, experiencing things and feeling things, all fill your mind with the raw material to create good stories.

Don’t misunderstand me. Writing is very important to me. I write diligently every Monday-Saturday and I do spend an excessive amount of my non-writing time thinking about writing. But I also think about my wife and daughter. I think about God and I think about the state of the world. I think about my day job and I think about how I want to reward myself at the end of a hard day’s work. I think about tidying up my death-trap of a back garden and I think about what I want to read, watch or listen to. Writing is not my life, but all my life goes into writing.

Self-doubt and arrogant pride


The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like.

Neil Gaiman


For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly…

Romans 12:3 (KJV)

We writers walk a fine line between vain conceit and abject self-abasement: a line called ‘sober judgement’. Most of the time (though not always!), I tend to struggle with the latter rather than the former. I doubt my writing to such an extent that I shy away from boldly writing the things I want to write. As a result, my progress is slowed to a crawl as I sit at the computer and try to convince myself that what I’m writing isn’t a crime against literature.

However, I won’t lie to you. There have been some occasions where I’ve fallen down on the other side of ‘sober judgement’ and began to sing my own praises. This, too, is crippling, because (apart from being annoying to others) when the inevitable dry spell comes, where I struggle to write well, it makes that feeling of self-doubt all the more devastating.

What about you? What writing rules do you struggle (or outright refuse) to keep? Confession is good for the soul, so tell us all about it in the comments below!


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 Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what breaks your rules.

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. 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/Pinterest.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Sharleen Nelson, Author of The Time Tourists [2]

Are You Making The Best Use Of Your Writing Time?

Writing takes time. Lots of time, especially if you’re writing a novel. If you’re writing a novel and maintaining a weekly blog, you have to devote even more time to writing; and even then, you might still have that niggling feeling in the back of your mind that you should be writing a few short stories here and there.

That pretty much describes my situation, along with juggling a wife, a daughter and a full time job that has nothing to with writing. And so, I’ve recently made a few more changes to my weekly writing schedule which I hope will allow me to make better use of my limited time. I know I’ve spoken about this before [2], but I’m always trying to think of new ways to make the most efficient use of my limited writing time and while I’m sure your writing schedule won’t be exactly the same as mine, I thought I’d tell you about it anyway to provide you with a bit of food for thought.

On the average week, my writing time looks something like this:

MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
19:30 – 21:0019:30-21:0019:30-21:0019:30-21:0019:30-21:0007:00-11:30Day off

Note that the evening slots are very approximate, depending on how long it takes to get my toddler into bed. Also note that my Saturday session, while longer, is subject to regular interruptions and is therefore not always the best quality writing time.

I think you’ll agree, that’s not a huge amount of time, but it should be adequate. The big killer, as I mentioned in previous posts, is this blog. Because I publish a post every week (a deadline I don’t have with my novel), it seemed only natural to prioritise the blog. And so, I would sit down at 19:30 every Monday and write my blog. Once the blog was finished, I would use the rest of the week to work on my novel. If I managed to smash the blog on Monday, that gave me Tuesday-Saturday to write my novel. If I was still struggling with it on Friday, I probably wouldn’t get much novel done at all that week. While I had taken a few steps to try and redress the balance between my blog and story writing time, the fact remains that my fiction writing was still very much at the mercy of my blog. If the blog was going well, my novel got written. If progress on the blog was slow, the novel ground to a halt.

The thing is, as much as I love doing this blog, I only ever really considered it a kind of hobby. What I really want is to publish my novel and send a few more of my short stories to magazines and writing competitions (my output in that department has been shockingly low) but I just didn’t know how I could make better use of my time– until recently when I did a time management course at my work. Then my eyes were opened.

I don’t have time to go over all the particulars of the course, but one of the lessons I took away from it was the importance of organising tasks by order of importance and urgency, giving priority to important tasks (that is, the ones that mattered to me the most) first, then urgent ones (ones that were simply time sensitive) second. Since my blog is urgent (it needs to be done every week) but not as important to me as establishing a career as an author, it is clearly wrong for me to slave my novel to the progress of my blog. It’s also important to me to submit shorter works to magazines, but this is something that I’ve been completely neglecting as the blog has taken up so much of my time.

And so, I have reorganised my writing schedule. Now it looks like this:

MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
NovelNovelNovelShortsShortsBlogDay off

If you think about it, you’ll realise my novel now gets a guaranteed four and a half hours a week of my time with very few interruptions; short stories get three hours and my blog gets a still very generous four and a half hours (with more regular interruptions). This means that my blog has got just as much time as it always did, but now my novel is free of restrictions. It will get the same four and a half hours of quality time every week come hell or high water with the blog. Not only that, but I’ve even managed to make time to work on my short stories. In addition, by making Saturday my blog day, I remove the temptation to ‘borrow’ time from other days, as my blog is published on Sundays. Thus my novel and short story writing productivity is increased with little or no loss to my blog.

What about you? Do you struggle to make time to juggle life with multiple writing projects? How do you prioritise your time? Share your wisdom and experience with us in the comments below!


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 Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what manages your time.

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. 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/Pinterest.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Sharleen Nelson, Author of The Time Tourists [2]

5 Useful Fiction and Writing Blogs

We writers have got to support each other. That’s why every now and again I’ll do a post showcasing the work of other fiction and writing bloggers besides my own. This week is such a week.

Previously I’ve shared specific posts that I’ve found particularly useful or entertaining but I’m doing it a bit different this week. Instead of sharing individual posts, I’m sharing links to whole blog sites that I find myself returning to again and again, either because they’re full of useful tips and resources or because they’re just plain enjoyable to read.

As ever, this is simply a selection of my favourites, not an exhaustive list; and as ever, this list is in no particular order.

A Writer’s Perspective – If you’re a writer of historical fiction set in the 14th century or even just mildly curious about how people lived back then, this blog is definitely worth a look. It’s full of interesting little articles about everything from castles to medieval cuisine written by historical romance author April Munday.

TurtleWriters – ‘A Community for Slow Writers’. This is a great little blog site to find help and support if you’re the sort of writer who feels like they’re wading through treacle whenever they try to write. The blog is updated pretty sparingly, but it’s just such a useful breath of fresh air to us ordinary folk who want to write that I had to include it.

Rebecca Alasdair – Useful and enjoyable writing tips, general author updates and reflections on reading and writing. Also as an aside, this blog is much easier on the eye than a lot of blog sites.

Now Novel – In addition to a plethora of other resources (writing courses, groups, story idea finder, etc.), Now Novel boasts a blog with a motherload of writing tips for would-be novelists. I’ve never used any of its paid services but it’s blog alone is a tremendous resource for anyone who wants to write a novel and doesn’t know where to begin.

Morgan Hazelwood – Like her tagline says, Morgan’s blog is full of writing tips and writerly musings – with plenty of video for those too lazy to read.


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 Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what squeezes your lemons.

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. 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.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Sharleen Nelson, Author of The Time Tourists [2]

How To Write When Time Is Short

Dear writer, you know that writing takes a long time. There are some who claim to be able to knock out a novel in a couple of hours, and perhaps they can, but I’m pretty cynical that the average writer would be able to do that without cutting some major corners and coming away with a substandard novel as a result. Good writing takes time. That’s why it’s so important to write frequently and regularly.

‘Ah but you don’t understand!’ I hear you cry. I simply don’t have the time to write for hours on end, day after day!’

‘Really?’ Some writing-guru glibly cries back before I get a chance to answer. ‘Don’t you have the same twenty-four hour days; the same seven day weeks and the same fifty-two week years as Tolkien, Dickens, Twain and–‘

‘No, that’s not what I mean!’ I hear you cry back, somewhat irked by Mr. Writing-Guru’s superior attitude. ‘I mean, I’ve got so much other stuff that demands my attention! I’ve got a job, a spouse, a mortgage, a budgie, six kids and one more on the way! I can’t just renounce them for the sake of a few extra hours of writing time!’

‘Well then!’ Mr. Writing-Guru replies. ‘Maybe writing just isn’t for you if you care more about your family and–‘

But before Mr. Writing-Guru can finish this latest patronising utterance, you lunge across the table and begin attacking him with his own ceramic coffee flask while he tries to defend himself behind his trilby.

Leave him alone, friend. I understand your situation. There are some things (not many, but some) that simply matter more than writing; other things you simply have no choice but to prioritise, such as a day-job to pay the mortgage. That’s okay. All that matters is you make the best use of the time you do have for writing, no matter how little it is.

First, sit down with a planner (whether physical or mental). Start by working out those times you absolutely cannot write. For instance, I work a day-job from 9-5, Monday-Friday. This makes it absolutely impossible for me to write in those hours (though could you squeeze some juice out of your lunch break?). However, that does leave me evenings and weekends. Surely that’s plenty of time?

‘You don’t understand,’ I hear you cry, warily eyeing Mr. Writing-Guru to make sure he’s still unconscious. ‘I use that time to socialise with my family, to feed my baby, to play a little bit of that new Spider-Man PS4 game…’ 

Oh but I do understand. Some of these things are essential. Others are optional. Ask yourself honestly what things you can and should give up to make time for writing. You might still find that only leaves you a couple of hours every evening to write, but friend…  that’s all you need. You can easily knock out 500 words in an hour or two. I, myself (who am by no means the greatest of writers), wrote the first draft of this blog in just over an hour. Do a little bit of arithmetic with me (I know it’s hard) and you’ll soon see why the ‘little and often’ approach is so useful.

A bog-standard novel tends to be around about 80,000 words, give or take 10,000.

If, like me, you’ve only got evenings and all day Saturday to write, you might be tempted to think Saturday will be your Big Writing Day. Indeed, you certainly should take advantage of Saturday however:

If you write only 3,000* words one day a week, every week, you’ll have 156,000 words by the end of the year. Technically adequate, but I can’t recommend this approach for for these three reasons:

  • Your friends and family are more likely to want a piece of you during what they perceive as your ‘free-time’, even if you’ve not got any regular business on those days.
  • Writing only once a week can seriously bust up your rhythm, meaning you constantly have to get back into the flow every Saturday.
  • Large daily word count goals are hard to accomplish even without distractions. It is difficult to guarantee success.

However, if you allow yourself one hour to write only 500 words (half the length of this article) every evening, when the kids are tucked up in bed and your office is shut for the night, you’ll have 182,500 by the end of a year. That’s more words than you would’ve had writing in a single huge weekend burst and it’s a heck of a lot easier to accomplish. And let’s not forget, you can still take advantage of any weekends or holidays that do become available to you.

If you’re still struggling, however, here are a few more simple tips to make sure you make the best use of your precious minutes.

  • Disconnect your internet. No excuses. Every second you spend looking at Instagram, checking your e-mails or ‘researching’ your novel is a second you’re not spending writing.
  • Turn off your phone and put it somewhere you can’t reach it.
  • Make sure your family, friends or anyone else who depends on having a slice of your attention understands that you write between the hours of x and y every day, and that you cannot be disturbed for all but the most life-and-death reasons. No, not even for two minutes. They’ll probably be cool with that if they know you are available during your non-writing hours.
  • Stick to one writing project. You’ve no time to lose as it is, so don’t double or triple your workload with new projects.
  • Establish clear goals for each writing session. Aimless writing wastes time, so have a realistic goal in your mind for each particular session. E.g.: ‘Today I will write 500 words of my first draft’ or ‘today I will complete my chapter outline’. Keep your goals ambitious (after all, you want to accomplish as much as possible in the time available) but most importantly of all, keep them realistic.
  • If you have time, experiment with pre-writing techniques like free writing.
  • Write fast; edit slowly.

You can do this, dear writer. I believe in you.

*3,000 words is about the average output I tend to manage on a single Saturday session. It’s certainly possible to do more but it’s increasingly unlikely you’ll achieve it week after week, especially if you’ve got family and friends etc. clamouring for your attention.


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 organises your calendar.

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.

You can check out our previous interviews here:
Sharleen Nelson, Author of The Time Tourists [2]

5 Basic Star Trek Plots

Back when I was still a kid writing Star Trek fan fiction, there were only four Star Trek TV series and ten movies. No Discovery, no Kelvin universe or any of that other snazzier, slightly darker stuff we’ve been getting served recently. And now I hear that they’re expanding the franchise even further, with more shows and films, including a new Captain Picard show.

Now… I don’t want to knock the new stuff. Most of it is quite good in its own way. But if I have one criticism for them all, its that they lack that cheese, that optimism, that je ne sais quoi that made Star Trek, Star Trek. They’re just a bit to grim. Too serious. Dare I say, too cool. And for that reason, I’ve got my doubts about this new Picard show. I’m fearful that it’s going to take one of the franchises’ most beloved characters and ruin him. And so, for the benefit of any would-be Star Trek writers, I have compiled this list of five basic Star Trek plots to help you on your way to writing a traditional, cheesy Star Trek story.

A Disasterous Transporter Malfunction

transoprter.gif
Source: http://gph.is/2mm5hol

In Star Trek, the transporter is a ‘completely safe’ device which breaks an object or person down at the molecular level and re-materialises them on another ship or planet.

What could possibly go wrong?

Lots, apparently. It turns out that a dicky transporter can leave you with stones embedded in your body (ENT: “Strange New World”); separate your ‘good side’ from your ‘evil side’ so that you become two separate people (TOS: “The Enemy Within”); beam you up naked (VOY: “In The Flesh”) and re-materialise you as a child (TNG: “Rascals”). Remember, would-be Trek-writer, the transporter is a treasure trove of light-hearted nonsense with which you can easily fill up an hour with.

Going Faster Than Fast And Ending Up Somewhere Crazy

Sometimes, perhaps due to an alien seizing control of the ship, because we entered a wormhole or because somebody accidentally broke the ship’s engines, we’re now moving even faster than we ever thought possible.

The burst of speed only lasts for a moment, and naturally the first thing to do is figure out where we are.

But wait… this must be a sensor malfunction. But it’s not! You’re three or four galaxies away from where you started (TNG: “Where No One Has Gone Before”)! You’ve ended up in front of a terrifying new antagonist (TNG: “Q Who?”)! You’ve mutated into an amphibian and had amphibian babies with your amphibian captain (VOY: “Threshold”)!

How will we ever resist the mind-altering properties of this weird place?!

How will we escape the terrifying aliens?!

How will we ever look Captain Janeway in the eye again!?

There you go. There’s your story.

We’ve Been Unwittingly Killing/Enslaving Intelligent Lifeforms!

It’s life Jim, but not as we know it. And that’s our lame excuse for hunting it like vermin (TOS: “The Devil in the Dark”), destroying its natural habitat (TNG: “Home Soil”) and forcing it to carry out dangerous or degrading tasks for us (TNG: “The Quality of Life”).

However, nobody but the regular cast seems to realise that this poor creature is clearly an intelligent life-form and any suggestion that it might be will be met with great hostility. This kind of story usually goes one of two ways:

  1. The creatures declare war on humanity and almost destroys the ship. The climax consists of a stand-off between humanity and the new lifeform in which only a last ditch attempt at diplomacy can save the day.
  2. A few frightened/unbelieving humans (usually guest stars) propose a course of action which will destroy the new lifeforms, resulting in a conflict between themselves and the regular cast, who are more enlightened and realise that killing is wrong.

The Inevitable Time-Travel Episode

No Star Trek series is complete without at least one time-travel episode. The crew’s odyssey through time is often (though not always) involuntary and, more often than not, it will involve correcting a significant change in established historical events. Sometimes this change will have been brought about by a malevolent force who is deliberately interfering in history (e.g.: DS9: “Trials and Tribble-ations”; VOY: “Relativity”) while other times it will be the regular cast themselves who have accidentally changed by history simply by being there (e.g.: TOS: “The City on the Edge of Forever”; DS9: “Past Tense”).

There are exceptions, of course. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home paid precious little attention to the continuity of the time-line (the crew invented transparent aluminium early, took a native back to the 23rd century and regrew a woman’s kidney without a second thought). So by all means, have fun with time-travel.

The Inevitable Court-Room Episode

Budget drying up? Try writing a court-room episode. These feature hardly any flashy effects and are mostly dialogue-driven. It’s nearly always a member of the regular cast who has either been wrongly accused of some offence (TOS: “The Wolf in the Fold”, TNG: “A Matter of Perspective”, DS9: “Inquisition”) or else is fighting for their basic rights (TNG: “The Measure of a Man”, VOY: “Author, Author”). However, there are exceptions. Sometimes its a guest character who’s on trial with the emphasis being placed on the character’s main advocate, who is usually a member of the regular cast (TNG: “The Drumhead”, VOY: “Distant Origin”).

Honourable Mentions:
  • Someone Is Violating the Prime Directive!
  • A God-like Alien Is Bullying Us
  • A Regular Character Falls in Love and Gets Dumped in One Episode
  • The Whole Crew is Going Mad!
  • The Whole Crew has Caught a Plague!
  • There’s Klingons/Romulans/Jem’Hadar/Borg on the Starboard Bow!

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 beams you up.

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.

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.

App Review: Text Adventure

Many years ago, before we had fancy graphics and things, computer games were entirely text based. Scenes would be described and the player would navigate his way through the story by typing in basic commands such as ‘walk east’ or ‘open door’.

It was a simpler time. Harder games, but a simpler time. And if you long for the glory days of graphics-free interactive stories then let me introduce you to Text Fiction by Onyxbits.

This Z-machine interpreter for Android brings text based interactive stories straight to your phone, beautifully drawing together the simplicity of old fashioned text adventures with the crisp, modern layout of bubble-style text messaging. It’s not a single text based game, but ‘an interpreter for interactive fiction stories’ with a library of a whopping 183* different interactive stories to choose from, including the Z-machine’s crowning glory: Zork.

I have very few negative things to say about this app. It’s a thing of sheer beauty.

When you open the app, the first thing you will see is the library of stories you have on your device. Adding new stories is a piece of cake. You will notice on the library screen that there are three icons along the top: a little downward pointing arrow, a little collection of squares with a cross in the middle and three parallel dots. Tapping on the downward arrow will take you to the online story library where you can browse and download any of 183 text adventures by various authors, most of which are in the public domain and are therefore completely free. Once you’ve downloaded a story, you can then import it into Text Fiction by clicking the middle icon and choosing which story/stories you want to import. It’s a cinch to do. Even an educated idiot like me can do it in about two minutes flat (unless of course you find yourself completely overwhelmed by indecision in the face of so many free stories, all at your fingertips).

It also goes without saying that deleting a story from your library is as simple as clicking the little bin icon beside the story you’re finished with. Simple, simple, simple. Everything about this app is just so darn simple and intuitive.

Screenshot_2018-08-06-09-58-47.pngNowhere is this truer than with the actual gameplay itself. The screen is set up like a bubble-based messaging app, similar to most modern apps for text messaging. Information appears in bubbles from the left and you ‘reply’ in the same way you would if you were texting, by typing simple commands such as ‘walk north’ or ‘pick up key’. If even that all seems too much like hard work, there is a simple icon-based menu at the bottom allowing you to quickly issue basic verbs. You can also tap on certain key words in the text itself (directions for example) to instantly add that word to the command box, thus minimising the length of time you spend battling with your phone’s positive precocious postcard predictive text.

The app is also highly customisable for accessibility. There are a variety of colour themes to choose from (with strange names like Alice and Jason; you’ll just have to use trial and error to find your favourite I’m afraid) and you can also change the font and font size. There is also a ‘text to speech’ option which, according to Onyxbit’s website, makes the app ‘easy to handle for blind and visually impaired users’. This works okay, but I think it would’ve been nice to include audio input, as well as output, for users with especially poor eyesight. As it is, the blind and visually impaired user can easily hear the story (in fact, the ‘text to speech’ is a little bit on the shouty side) but there is no help to be had when it comes to inputting commands. Audio input, or even the ability to increase the size of the verb icons, would have probably been helpful in this regard.

In terms of how well the app runs, I have very few complaints. It goes easy on the battery and takes up very little of your phone’s memory. It’s fast, smooth, responsive and best of all, ad free! The app itself seems to be completely bug-free as far as I can tell; however I have experienced a bug with one game in particular (I don’t know if any others have this or not) where every time I tried to play the game, the app would crash and I’d get an ‘unfortunately Text Fiction has stopped’ message. I don’t know whether this is a fault with the game or with the app itself, however I have not found any other bugs like this with any of the other games I’ve played (note: I’ve only played 4 of the 183 games available) so I’m inclined to blame it on the game.

Oh one more thing: this app is completely free so you’ve got nothing to lose. Give it a go! I’m certain you’ll love it.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

FOOTNOTES:

*Correct at time of publication.


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 pickles your onions.

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.

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!