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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The End…?

Originally published 30/10/2016

SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers in this post, anyone who has not seen the ITV TV series Doc Martin, the 2002 film Star Trek: Nemesis, or the ABC TV series Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (season 4) is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

It can be tough knowing when to call it a day with your fictional creations. Knowing exactly where and how to end your story in a way which is both memorable and satisfying is hard enough (though if you’re a novelist, you probably long for the day you can gather all your friends and neighbours around your desk to set off party-poppers while you write ‘THE END’ at the bottom of your manuscript), but if you’ve created characters and a world you’re proud of, you might never want to stop. You might feel like there’s a sequel, a trilogy or a whole saga of novels/films/TV series still to be written. Sooner or later, however, it has to come to an end – as all good things must.

‘But when?!’ I hear you cry.

It depends very much on your story. Some stories naturally lend themselves to a certain number of sequels. For example, if J.K. Rowling had stopped writing Harry Potter books after Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, her readers might have reasonably felt a little cheated. True, that particular story was complete (as it should be; every book in a series should still work as a self-contained story) but the premise of the story – a boy who discovers he’s a wizard and goes to a special school to learn magic – was still left very much open. After all, he still had several years of magic schooling to complete. There was plenty of scope for the character to go on another five or six magical adventures.

On the other hand, the ITV series Doc Martin – one of my favourite TV shows, I should add – is apparently due to have an eighth series in 2017. While I’m looking forward to it, I am, nevertheless, a little concerned that series 7 should have been the last one – and I’ll tell you why.

For those of you who don’t know, Doc Martin is a fish-out-of-water type story about Dr. Martin Ellingham; a grumpy and socially inept surgeon from London who develops haemophobia and is forced to become a GP in the seaside village of Portwenn. Most of the first few series focused on his awkwardly developing romance between himself and a local school teacher, Louisa. For the first four series or so, it worked quite naturally. In the dramatic finale to series 4, Martin and Louisa’s child is born and they resolve to give their relationship another go. It seems like a neat and tidy ending to the story…

But then, a 5th series was announced.

Is this necessary? I wondered. Hasn’t this story now finished?

Fortunately, I was pleasantly surprised by what followed. Martin and Louisa’s baby added a new dynamic to their on-off relationship and series 5 worked as well as the rest. Then there was a 6th series, which focused on their new and swiftly failing marriage. That also worked. Then there was yet another series which focused on the two characters trying to save their marriage – and another happy ending! Mr and Mrs Ellingham were again reconciled and life goes on. Once again, we have a neat and tidy ending to the story. They’ve got together, fallen out, had their baby, got together again, got married, split up and once again reconciled. I’m finding it difficult to imagine what more there is for Martin and Louisa to do that justifies another series that they haven’t done already – much as I love the show and wish it could last forever (and I do hope they prove me wrong once again).

So… when you feel the urge to write a sequel to your story, there is one very important question you should yourself before you write anything: ‘do I need to write more?’

There are three possible answers to this question:

  1. No, the story is complete and there is no conceivable way to expand the story without spoiling it (e.g., Star Trek: Nemesis — the final film in the Star Trek: The Next Generation series — ended with most of the series’ cast leaving the Enterprise for one reason or another. Since the series is so focused on the lives of that particular crew of that particular starship, further sequels would have been impossible).
  2. Yes, because there are still some glaringly obvious loose threads that need tied up (e.g., at the end of Doc Martin series 6, Martin and Louisa were still separated and Louisa was planning on moving to Spain. Is this the end for them? We needed another series to find out).
  3. Maybe. The original story has a satisfying ending, but there is no reason that our favourite characters cannot go on brand new adventures based on the same basic premise (e.g., the aforementioned series 4 of Doc Martin could have been a satisfying way to end it forever, but as it turned out, there was still some life left in the old dog after all).

If the answer is no, then it should be obvious what you must do – or not do, rather. It will all end in tears if you try to expand the inexpandable. The best you could hope for is a spin-off, and spin-offs are seldom any good.

If the answer is yes, then by all means, you absolutely must write that sequel! The last ever episode of Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman ended with a baby wrapped in a House of El blanket, being left on Lois and Clark’s doorstep! That was it! No more Lois and Clark after that! I mean, what are they trying to do to us!?

If, however, the answer is maybe… then think, long and hard, before you write. To carry on a series, your newest offering must be both old (that is, the premise must be unchanged) and it must be new (no rehashing the same old adventures). The reason Harry Potter worked so well as a lengthy series of novels was that by using a school as the main setting and making each novel last roughly one academic year, Rowling was able to write seven very different stories based on exactly the same premise (though I can’t help feeling that more recent offerings, no matter how good they may be, are causing the saga to drag on beyond its natural lifespan). That’s what you need to be able to do, if you plan on writing additional stories for your fictional world. Identify the natural lifespan of your story and work within it. Don’t bombard your audience with extra waffle. I might enjoy a pizza, but if I was fed it non-stop, I would eventually vomit. A good story should end like a good meal; leaving the audience with a big feeling of satisfaction and only a small tinge of regret that it’s over.

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Typewriter: An Old-Fashioned Solution for Modern Writers

Originally published 02/10/2016

We writers all know (or if we don’t know, we soon will learn) that perfectionism is the enemy of the writer. Of course, we all want our novel/play/movie/TV script/comic to be as close to perfection as it is possible to get. There’s nothing wrong with thatSome might even say that it is our sworn duty as story tellers to create the best story we are capable of and to present it in the most pleasing way possible. That’s all very commendable.

However, anyone who has been writing for any length of time will be able to tell you that you will almost never be able to simply sit down and produce a perfect first draft. It is almost guaranteed to be full of errors, typos, weak metaphors, poor dialogue and perhaps even gaping plot holes. An experienced writer knows this to be the case and therefore also knows that the only solution is to write a bad first draft, attack it with the Red Pen of Editing and then write a slightly better second draft. Repeat until you have attained perfection.

Back in the old days, there was no other choice. One could not simply hit the delete key and erase the last couple of words, much less copy and paste whole paragraphs. These days, however, it is tempting to just edit that first draft as you go along and make it perfect. After all, we have the technology. A typo can be easily fixed. Something you forgot can be easily inserted in the middle of the document. Words can be chopped, changed, pasted and tinkered with until it’s just right. The trouble is, nothing ever actually gets finished that way. As we have said before, a bad first draft can lead to a good second draft; a non-existent or unfinished first draft won’t ever amount to anything.

Unfortunately, I speak from personal experience. I am a perfectionist, and as such, I often found it all too easy to use modern technology to help me agonise over the same paragraph for hours or days at a time. Knowing that writing first and editing afterwards is the best way to work did very little to change this (because I’m contrary like that). Until one day…

I had a brainwave.

I’ll buy a typewriter! I thought. I’ll write my first few drafts on a good old fashioned typewriter and only do my final draft on the computer! Oh boy, this is going to be going swell!

For those of you born any later than the mid ’90s, a typewriter was a primitive (usually unpowered) machine with a QWERTY keyboard which printed directly onto physical paper as you typed. Since typewriters don’t have delete keys, copy and pastes or anything like that, the writer is forced to wait until the second draft to make any major changes. I therefore thought it might be the cure for my perfectionism. Unfortunately, the only way I was going to lay hands on a typewriter these days was to break into a museum and even then, I would be spending the rest of my life trying to find increasingly hard-to-find replacement ribbons. It was going to be a lot of trouble and expense when all I really needed was the discipline to not edit while I wrote.

Not to be deterred, however, I decided to search the internet for an app which does the same thing. Since I’m a Windows man and still loathe writing on tablets, I was quite specifically hunting for a typewriter app I could use on my Windows PC.

There aren’t many. I guess there’s not that much demand for word processors with virtually no functionality whatsoever. I found a grand total of three that ran on my PC plus one for Mac called Rough Draft (I don’t have a Mac so I cannot tell you if it’s any good or not. Let me know if you’ve reviewed it on your blog and I’ll maybe reblog it for you). Of those three, one appears to no longer be available except as a fifteen day trial version and the other was a very clunky web-based app that I found needlessly complicated to use. The other problem with both of these apps was that they emphasised the look and feel of a typewriter more than the simple functionality — which is what I really wanted.

Then I found it.

Typewriter – Minimal Text Editor: a very simple ASCII text editor which runs on Java (and thus, will run on just about any computer) and includes absolutely zero editing functionality. Unlike a lot of typewriter apps which waste time by mimicking the sound effects and ugly fonts of physical typewriters, this app still looks and sounds like any other distraction-free plain text editor. The only difference is that you can’t edit.

Delete key? Forget about it. If you make a typo, you’ve just got to like that typo.

Copy and paste? No way hosay. If you want to make text appear on that screen, you’ve got to type it in yourself; and once it’s there, it ain’t going anywhere.

The only functions (besides typing plain text) available to you in this app are:

  • Colour scheme switching (you can have green text on a black background or black text on an off-white background. Whichever one you choose, it will not affect the appearance of your document when you print it, since *.txt is the only file type available to you)
  • Full screen switching (full screen is good for creating a distraction free environment but you might find it more convenient to have this off if you’re doing other things simultaneously… like writing a blog about the app in question)
  • Open file
  • Save file
  • Save file as
  • New file
  • Print
  • View key mappings
  • Quit

That’s it. That’s all the help this baby is going to give you. Heck, you can’t even use your mouse to navigate around these options, since there are no buttons or menus of any kind. All of these functions are only available to you via keyboard shortcuts (i.e., ctrl+O to open file).

This app is not for the faint-hearted. It will show your writing to you in all its unedited ugliness. But if you can swallow your pride and ignore all your mistakes, it will keep you writing right up until you’re ready to print off your work and attack it with that all important Red Pen of Editing.

It’s exactly what I’ve been looking for.

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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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Ten Writing Commandments

Originally published 18/09/2016

I’m in a cliché sort of mood today and since I don’t want to burden the novel I intend to work on this afternoon with clichés, I’m afraid I’m going to burden you with them instead. Behold, my Ten Writing Commandments, predictably humorously written in a crude approximation of ‘King James English’ and with helpful expositions of each rule.

Most of these rules are as old as the hills and are probably familiar to you. I am not, for one second, claiming to have invented any of these rules. However, this is a compilation of ten writing precepts, from a variety of sources, that I have found to be particularly useful to me. I should add that the expositions I have included are all my own.

So, without further ado…

1. Thou shalt show; thou shalt not tell.

This is what separates quality prose from a technical manual. Allow me to demonstrate with an excerpt from John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men:

‘They sat by the fire and filled their mouths with beans…’ (emphasis mine).

This is a well written line. Rather than telling you what happened, it uses imagery to allow the reader to experience for themselves the sight of two men, stuffing their faces with beans.

Here is what that exact same passage might look like if it was all telling and no showing:

‘They sat by the fire and ate lots of beans.’

Exactly the same thing is happening here but it fails to capture the gluttony of the ravening men. The reader is not transported to the fireside to witness the feast of beans. We are simply informed. Boring!

2. Thou shalt not make unto thee unrealistic goals.

Be honest with yourself about what it is possible to achieve. A thousand words a day seems like a small goal, but after only one year, you will have 365,000 words; that’s a trilogy of novels, all because you succeeded in reaching your daily goal. But if you set yourself a goal of 10,000 words a day and fail to meet it, you will never complete anything.

Slow and steady wins the race (I haven’t got these clichés out of my system just yet)!

3. Thou shalt remove all distractions.

I’m looking at you, Facebook. Get rid of anything that might distract your attention. TV, internet, chattering relatives, the lot. Focus solely on achieving the goal you have set for yourself that day. If you find yourself prone to a wandering mind, allow yourself regular but carefully timed breaks to do all the other little things you need/want to do… but when it’s writing time, it’s writing time.

4. Thou shalt not use words in vain.

Waffle is no fun to read… so why it write it?

Oh, I see… you want to ‘pad out’ your story to reach your word limit, so you’re thinking of adding in lots of unnecessary words to make your sentences longer? Well, don’t. All that does is breaks up the flow of your story. Take this phrase for example: ‘The brightly shining sun…’

There are four words in that phrase, two of which (‘brightly’ and ‘shining’) are superfluous. The reader doesn’t need you to tell them that the sun is shining brightly, because the sun always shines brightly by its very nature. It’s never dull or dark. The noun ‘sun’ naturally conjures images of bright shininess all by itself. If the sun was shining dimly for some reason, then an adverb might just come in handy!

If in doubt, remember the rule that every word and sentence you write ought to help the story to progress. Don’t tell the reader what they already know or do not need to know.

5. Thou shalt know thine audience.

Even if you’re the sort of person who doesn’t like to think about the commercial side of writing, knowing your intended audience is the only way to know exactly what to write. No story, no matter how well written, will suit everybody; therefore, it must suit somebody. It is only possible to reliably accomplish this if you know in advance who that somebody is.

6. Thou shalt write regularly and often.

Some say you have to write every single day or you are doomed to fail. I think that’s a slight exaggeration but the principle is sound. Depending on your circumstances, it might be more appropriate to write seven, six or five days a week but what really matters is that you get into a habit of writing often (because believe me, good writers practice their craft) and at regular set times to help you avoid distraction. Not only this, but having a regular writing time means you will also have a regular ‘clocking off’ time – because writing every hour God sends is no healthier than being at any other job 24/7.

7. Thou shalt write swiftly…

Planner or pantser, the same applies to both of you: when it comes to writing, the best thing you can do is to make sure words are constantly appearing on the page without stopping to improve (or worse, delete) what you’ve just written. This is not the time for editing or second-guessing yourself. Get your story down in all its dreadful badness. A bad story can become a good story, but nothing won’t become anything. If you really can’t bring yourself to do it, join an archaeology expedition and try to dig up an old typewriter and write your story on that instead.

8. … and thou shalt edit slowly.

Having said that, you still want your story to be perfect. So, once you’ve got your story written down, go over it with a fine tooth comb. Analyse it carefully and in detail; word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph. Find whatever stylistic or grammatical problems there may be and do not rest until they have all been resolved to your satisfaction.

9. Thou shalt retain professional detachment from everything you write.

What I mean by this is that no part of your story – words, sentences, metaphors, word-play, characters, plot twists or anything else – should be safe from being changed or completely deleted as necessary. What matters is the story. This is especially important for writers of speculative fiction who feel the need to explain every intricate detail of how their fantasy world functions. You as the writer might be very excited about what you’ve created, but the truth is, the reader is not. The reader is looking for a story, so don’t go off on long tangents.

The same is true, however, even in non-speculative fiction. Perhaps you have written some really powerful dialogue or the perfect fight scene… but they have no real function in your story. They will need to go. Therefore, do not become overly attached to anything you have create or else when you come to edit, it will be like having one hand tied behind your back.

10. Thou shalt break these commandments as ye see fit.

I mentioned at the beginning that these were ten rules that I have found to be useful to me personally. The truth is, I’ve come across dozens of books and websites claiming that ‘this, that or the other’ is the most important rule to follow in writing but really… there are successful writers who follow one set of rules and there are those who do the exact opposite. Some write daily; some do not. Some plan; some pants. I remember once on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, a particular character commented that you can only write about what you have experienced… which got me wondering what planet (literally) the writers of Star Trek were living on. I’ve said it several times today and I’ll say it again: what matters is your story.

If the only way you know to get words on the page is to do the opposite of everything I’ve written here, then do it with my blessing. Rules are made to be broken.

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A Fight Scene Worth Reading

Originally published 11/09/2016

We all know (instinctively at least) that conflict, of one kind or another, is at the core of every good story. Whatever the protagonist’s goal may be– to get the girl/boy, to vanquish evil or simply to get through the day in one piece –there is always something or someone who will seek to prevent it from happening. In fiction, as in life, conflict between two characters often leads to fisticuffs. It can be an exciting moment in your story where the tension finally erupts and your audience are beside themselves with anticipation of what the outcome will be… Or it can be tedious, pedestrian, predictable and downright boring.

I am thinking particularly of fight scenes in novels, short stories and other forms of written fiction, since fight scenes in film and theatre are (at least to some extent) more a matter of choreography than writing. As a reader, I often find that even in the best books, it is badly written fight scenes that can really ruin my enjoyment of the story, whether it’s a quick wrestling match between two minor characters or an epic battle between ten vast armies of elves, dragons, wizards and goblins. It’s not that I think fight scenes are unimportant (sometimes they’re necessary) or unexciting (well-written ones can be thrilling); they’re just difficult to get right.

So, first things first. Ask yourself if you really need a fight scene. If it doesn’t help the story to move forward in some concrete way then the answer is probably ‘no’. Some reasons you might want to include a fight scene include:

  • You need to kill off a character (‘need’ being the operative word; only kill a character off if it is necessary to help the story progress)
  • You need to release tension between two characters and create a turning point in their relationship. Although it might not be a good philosophy to live your real life by, physical altercations in fiction often help to clear the air between two characters. In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, ‘Family’, Captain Picard and his brother have a constant simmering tension between the two of them until they have a good old punch-up in the middle of the vineyard. Alternatively, a fight could change your characters’ relationship from restrained dislike to open enmity.
  • Organised violence might be a central part of the story. For example, The Hunger Games centres around an annual televised battle to the death; thus, characters are expected to fight. War and spy novels are also likely to include such fights where violence is ‘just part of the job’, rather than personal.

If you’ve decided that you’ve got no choice and that you must include a fight scene, there’s a few things you should be aware of. You probably know the first commandment of writing: ‘Thou shalt show; thou shalt not tell’. Well, if you’ve ever tried to write a fight scene for a novel or short story, you probably know that it is blooming difficult to write a fight scene and fully observe this rule. Even in written fiction, a good fight still needs to be ‘choreographed’: each character moving to attack, defend and respond to the other characters movements. It’s difficult to accomplish this in words without resorting to a simple description of who attacked who and how, and for this reason I would be inclined to keep it as short as possible and keep the technical details to an absolute minimum. Even though it might lack the details of who struck who and how, this will help to preserve the excitement and pace of your fight scene. What you really want to capture is the sense of chaos and brutality involved. Which of these do you think is the most exciting?

Enough was enough. Willy had really done it this time and John was going to teach him a lesson he would never forget. He reached back with his right hand and punched Willy squarely in the nose, drawing blood from his nostrils. Willy said, ‘Ow! Why did you do that man?’ and clumsily karate chopped John’s left shoulder with his right hand.

or

Something snapped inside John. His hand flew towards Willy and touched his nose with a crunch. Blood was on his hand and all over Willy’s shirt. Spluttering with fury, Willy launched himself towards John, his hands launching out aimlessly.

Another thing to consider is the thoughts the protagonist who is involved in this fight. Internal dialogue allows you to maintain that character-driven quality which separates a good story from a boring one and it also helps to break up tedious descriptions. However, beware! In a fight, it is unlikely that characters have time for long drawn out and complex thoughts. The pace of the scene must still be maintained. For example,

John laughed inwardly at Willy’s pathetic retaliation. A karate chop? Really? What did he think this was, a ’60s TV drama? Doesn’t he realise that in the battle for life and death, one must keep a cool head or else they will be overcome by their rage and will surely be defeated? This is just like that time in high school when I got into a fight with Tom over some girl we both fancied. Gosh, what was her name again? I can’t even remember, I just remember how embarrassed I felt for him, even as we were fighting.

That’s too much internal dialogue for a fight scene. I don’t care if your character is the most introspective and reflective of all God’s creatures; there is supposed to be a fight happening while he’s having these thoughts. Writing lengthy internal dialogue like this makes it seem like either 1) the fight has been temporarily postponed for a moment of reflection or 2) John has become so consumed by his own thoughts that he doesn’t realise Willy is now bludgeoning him to death with a hammer. Instead, something like this would be more appropriate:

John laughed inwardly at Willy’s pathetic retaliation. His rage was his weakness.

See how much shorter that is – and yet it communicates almost exactly the same idea: John’s confidence that he will triumph over Willy because Willy is ruled by his emotions.

Ultimately, a fight scene is like any other part of your story: it is there to move the plot along by what your characters do and think and say. The reason fight scenes are so tricky is that they are such complicated physical acts with very little rational thinking or dialogue involved and it is easy to make them boring. The bottom line, then, is that fight scenes should be used as sparingly as possible and be sure to keep them snappy. Only include what is necessary and as far as possible, focus on the characters as people rather than a technical blow-by-blow account of the action itself. A good fight scene should be like a pressure valve; quickly and decisively releasing the tension which has already been building up for a long time. Get it right and your reader won’t be able to put your book down, at least for a few more pages.

 

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Presenting Your Characters’ Backstories

Originally published 04/09/2016

I was recently sitting at home with my wife when it occurred to me that if one of my schoolmates (whom I haven’t seen in years) hadn’t gone on holiday to Spain in 2002, I would never have got married more than a decade later. You see, he went on holiday with his family in 2002 and befriended a girl there (not my wife) and some time after this, he introduced me to her. A few years later, I got a job in town and started going out with the girl my friend met on holiday. I would often go to see her straight from work, using a shortcut which took me past a particular college (I didn’t know this college existed before then). I eventually split up with the girl my friend met on holiday so many years before, but a while after this I decided to study at the aforementioned college that I had discovered while taking the shortcut to see my now ex-girlfriend. At that college, I met another girl who was working in the canteen: she who is now my wife.

A leads to B which leads to C, all the way up to Z and beyond. This is what happens in real life. In fiction, this needs to be compressed into a backstory. Where did your character come from? Who influenced them as he was growing up and throughout his life up until this point? And most importantly of all: what is that defining moment in their past that made them who they are today?

For example, like most superheroes, Spider-Man’s goal is to stop the bad guy(s), protect the innocent and generally save the day. He is motivated to do this by the belief that ‘with great power comes great responsibility’. However, this belief didn’t just pop into his head. He learnt this lesson in his very first comic book appearance in Amazing Fantasy #15 (and subsequent re-imaginings of the same story), when he refused to use his powers to stop a criminal — only for that same criminal to murder his uncle. This single event lies behind everything Spider-Man does from that moment on, even if it is not explicitly mentioned. It is a defining moment in Spider-Man’s life that changed him from a selfish lad who was only interested in using his powers to make money into the crime-fighting hero he became.

The same goes for bad guys. Something made them who they are today. Darth Vader, for instance, wasn’t always a heavy-breathing, Force-choking Sith. Even before the prequel trilogy came out, it is stated that at one point he was a Jedi who was ‘seduced by the Dark Side’ (Return of the Jedi). The prequel trilogy shows us several events in his life which arguably contributed to his conversion into the Sith Lord we know and love from the original trilogy, but the key moment comes in Revenge of the Sith, when he has a vision of his wife dying in childbirth and is convinced by Darth Sidious that he can ‘cheat death’ by joining the Dark Side. However, even if the prequel trilogy had never happened (I’m sure there are many who wish that it were so), there would still remain this implied critical moment in Darth Vader’s life when he became the man in the shiny black helmet (in fact, the very fact that he has to wear all that cybernetic equipment just to keep him alive implies an exciting backstory by itself).

So, backstories clearly are vital parts of characterisation. But now that we (as authors) know them, how do we present them to the reader?

Give It To Us Straight

I think some authors get so excited about the character they’ve created that they just can’t bear to only show you a single portion of their life. Not when they’ve created such a great backstory! And so, instead of implying a backstory, they will give you the full biography of the character they’ve created from the day they were born. Everything is made explicit. Every. Tedious. Detail.

If you must do this, the best approach is probably to try to limit yourself to that key event (for instance, the death of Spider-Man’s uncle) and do not try to cram it all into the first page. Give it to us in dribs and drabs and only as much as is absolutely necessary. For instance, let’s pretend I was writing a Spider-Man story (I’m not, by the way!). My first couple of pages could be devoted to explaining in some detail how Peter Parker got bitten by a radioactive spider, gained super powers, used his powers selfishly at first, let a crook escape, lost his uncle as a result and decided to become a superhero as a result… but I wouldn’t hold my reader’s attention for long. It would suffice in the opening pages to hint at a tragedy and maybe a sense of guilt felt by the protagonist but nothing more until later.

If the backstory is very complicated and really needs a long-winded narrative, then I suppose you could always tell it in the form of flashbacks scattered throughout the narrative, but personally, I hate excessive flashbacking. If the backstory is that important and that complicated that you are considering flashbacks, you might want to consider…

Prequels

Prequels are all the rage. Gotham, Hannibal Rising, Legends of Dune, The Magician’s Nephew, Endeavour, the aforementioned Star Wars prequel and the last few offerings from the Star Trek franchise all give us detailed backstories in the form of a completely separate book/film/show/etc.

The benefits to doing this are obvious: you can present your character’s backstory in all its glorious splendour with the full narrative form that it deserves.

The downside is that if you’re writing an entirely separate narrative, you’ll still need backstories for your backstory, since your prequel is a story in its own right. Darth Vader (or Anakin Skywalker, as he was then known) might have only been nine years old in The Phantom Menace, but even at that stage, he had a backstory; he and his mother were slaves of Watto and that he was believed to have been conceived by the Force. It is also worth remembering that just because you plan to tell the backstory in the form of a separate prequel, that backstory must still exist and be implied within the main story itself. Writing a prequel is no replacement for a detailed and well presented backstory in the main story.

Imply Your Backstory (The Best Way)

We return, then, to the age old adage of good writing: show; don’t tell. Don’t write anywhere in your Spider-Man novel (note: please do not write a Spider-Man novel) that he once let a criminal escape and that criminal shot his uncle. Instead, show me a tragic hero who is climbing walls and spinning webs to try and make up for a mistake he made years ago; a mistake that is gnawing away at his insides; a regret so profound that it would drive him insane if he didn’t wear a mask and risk his life every day to wage a one-man war on crime. Keep me turning pages in the hopes that I might glean the backstory based on what is still haunting his thoughts and influencing his actions today. The more you reveal without stating it explicitly, the better your writing will be.

If you ask me, this is nearly always the best way to present a backstory effectively. Giving explicit descriptions of what happened in a character’s past is not only cumbersome, it also answers most of the reader’s questions too quickly. Writing a prequel might be fun (some of them are even very good), but if you don’t know your protagonist’s backstory when you come to write your main story, you’ll still end up with a shallow and lifeless character, because real people don’t just pop out of the ground fully formed. The circumstances of their lives are defined by what has happened before. Therefore, you as the author must know – and show that you know – what has happened to bring your character to this point if you want to create a believable person.

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Preventing Phantom Protagonist Syndrome

Originally published 21/08/2017

Have you ever had a really great idea for a story that somehow seemed to die a little more with each word you tried to write? Ever had a thrilling plot with no obvious holes in it that you just couldn’t seem to get off the ground? Perhaps, in addition to your thrilling and seamless plot, you also constructed a world so detailed, so complex and so marvellous that it would give Terry Pratchett and J.R.R Tolkien a run for their money; an antagonist whose diabolical scheme is sure to keep the reader on the edge of their seats; you’ve even managed to weave in a romantic subplot (which admittedly still seems a little half-baked, but it’s showing real potential)… and yet still, you just can’t seem to really ignite all that hard work into a half decent manuscript.

If any of this sounds familiar, there’s a good chance that your story is suffering from a chronic case of what I have dubbed Phantom Protagonist Syndrome (PPS). PPS is a condition which occurs in stories where the protagonist (that is, the main character) has not fully developed into a believable person but is only ‘half there’. Other symptoms of PPS may include excessive backstory in your manuscript (especially in the opening pages) giving complex details of the social, economic and political situation for the last thousand years of your fiction world; numerous failed attempts to audition your protagonist; feelings of despair and frustration (in the author) and an overwhelming urge on the part of the author to delete the whole story and work on another project (knitting, or some other non-literary pursuit). Symptoms of PPS usually become apparent in the mid-late planning stage of development (although it has been documented at all stages, including several untreated cases in published works) and typically affects almost every other part of the story.

‘Is it serious!?’ I hear you cry.

Why, yes it is. Terminal, in fact. Remember, your protagonist is the driving force behind your story. Think about the busiest place you know; your office, your living room or your kid’s school playground. What do you think happens when there is nobody there?

That’s right. Nothing happens. The same is true in fiction. No protagonist, no story. Your story hangs on your protagonist’s every thought (because this affects what he does) and his every action (because this affects what actually happens), so the more he seems like a real person, the better.

‘How is PPS diagnosed?’

PPS, by its very definition, is caused by having a half finished (or even non-existent) protagonist. Therefore, it is the protagonist himself we must put to the test. Begin by consulting your protagonist’s character profile and ensure that it is complete. At the absolute bare minimum it should include:

  • The character’s full name (including aliases)
  • Age and D.O.B
  • Place of birth
  • Gender
  • Religion (be specific about this. Even atheists believe something to be true; for instance, they might believe religion is the scourge of humanity to be actively opposed or they might have a more ‘live and let live’ approach to religion, while still rejecting it for themselves. When answering the question of your character’s religious beliefs, be sure to know what he believes, rather than simply what he does not believe).
  • Sexual orientation
  • Nationality (if you can whittle this down to a particular town, street and house number, so much the better)
  • Physical description (including dress)
  • Family (spouse, children, siblings and parents at least)
  • Career (both their actual career and their dream career) and hobbies
  • A little back story on how he or she got to where they are now
  • A list of personality traits
  • A list of likes, dislikes, hopes and fears.

If any of these are missing or incomplete then your character is still a mere phantom, not a fully formed person. I’m very sorry, but it’s PPS.

If, however, you’re satisfied that you’ve got all the basics in place, then we need to perform a more invasive test on your protagonist. We need to get right inside his mind and find out what our protagonist’s motivation, goals, conflict and epiphany will be. These not only add substance to your protagonist, but they also form the backbone of your plot. Each of these four things follow on, one from the other: motivation influences goals, goals determine the conflict, which in turn determines what the outcome of your story will be and, consequently, what your protagonist will learn (the epiphany).

For instance, Johnny swears by his morning cup of coffee to get him through the day. He’s often late for work and his boss has told him if he is late one more time, he’ll get the sack. One morning, Johnny wakes up and – oh no! – his bus leaves in ten minutes! He quickly decides not to have the cup of coffee he swears by but jumps into the first set of clothes he can find and runs to the bus stop. He makes it to work just in time where he does such a good days work that he gets a promotion. And I did it all without a single drop of coffee, he reflects on his way home.

This story (simple though it is) works, because we have all four of the above elements feeding in to each other:

Motivation John wants to hold down his job
Goals To this end, he aims to drink a cup of coffee and get to work on time. He believes both are needed to satisfy his motives.
Conflict Time (an abstract sort of antagonist, if you like) has conspired to make him lose his job by forcing him to choose between his two goals.
Epiphany Having got to work on time, he realises he can live without coffee after all.

Johnny had two goals in this story: to have his morning cup of coffee and to get to work on time. His motivation, however, is to hold down his job and this determines his every action, including his decision to abandon one goal in favour of another. A common cause of PPS is giving your protagonist plenty of goals (i.e., get to the bus stop at all costs) but no motivation. Johnny would never have reacted in such haste if he wasn’t motivated to keep his job. He might not even have bothered about the coffee. He would have stayed in bed and learned nothing. How much more unlikely is it that your protagonist is going to try to assassinate Hitler or propose to his friend’s sister unless they are motivated? Johnny had goals because he was motivated. Conflict arose because the ‘antagonist’ (time, in this case) forced him to choose between his two goals. The choice he made, based on his motivation, determined the outcome of the story and, in the end, taught him a valuable lesson that made him a better person (but why not click here for the alternate ending?).

That, dear reader, is a character driven story and the most powerful vaccination I know against PPS.

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6 More Six-Word Stories

Originally published 14/08/2016

If you’ve been following Penstricken since it started in 2015, you may recall that on one occasion I set myself the challenge of writing 6 six-word stories using Thinkamingo’s Story Dice as stimuli. Since I am in an unoriginal sort of mood today, I’ve decided to do it again. The only difference is that this time, in addition to taking my cue from the story dice, I also intend to make each story a different genre, i.e. sci-fi, historical fiction, etc.

As before, I am using one die per story.

Alea iacta est (again!).

Now let’s see what I can come up with based on that starting from the top left and working my way down to the bottom right. As ever, the following are all my own work and have not been published anywhere else before:

  1. KING FELIX DEAD: Nine assassins executed (fantasy).
  2. ‘I shall avenge thee!’ Bambi vowed. (fan fiction)
  3. Rose wrote to Henry: ‘Dear John…’ (romance).
  4. ‘Butler dunnit’, written in Butler’s blood. (murder/mystery)
  5. MARTIANS: No spacesuits on the beach! (sci/fi)
  6. Sword drawn, Julius crossed the Rubicon (historical)

That was even harder than last time! Without a shadow of a doubt, the most difficult one was the cat (though I will admit, I was scraping the bottom of the barrel a bit including a Bambi fan fiction as well). I didn’t have the foggiest idea what to do with it and I’m not even all that sure that I pulled it off terribly well but never mind. It was always meant to be a challenge.

Why not grab some story dice (or use the images I’ve posted here; I am certain you can come up with much better stories than I have) and give it a bash yourself? And remember to share your efforts with the rest of us by posting them in the comments section below!

 

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Why I Quit Camp NaNoWriMo

Originally published 31/07/2016

Before anyone gets cross with me, I want to say that NaNoWriMo is a great idea and there is no doubt in my mind it works for a lot of people. If you’ve had a positive experience with NaNoWriMo, good for you! If you happen to be one of the brains behind NaNoWriMo, I want to offer my sincere congratulations and thanks to you for providing an approach to writing that obviously benefits thousands (or maybe even zillions) of writers and helps them get their novels written. If you’re planning on ever using NaNoWriMo or anything like it in the future, please, do not let me discourage you. That’s the last thing I want to do. NaNoWriMo is just fab!  You should try it!

Now that that’s out of the way…

I signed up for Camp NaNoWriMo this year, full of enthusiasm and the certain hope that it would propel me towards my goal of furthering (if not necessarily completing) my novel. I’d heard about NaNoWriMo from various folks but this was the first time I’d ever actually got around to trying it out for myself. It was a bit of a spur of the moment decision, I will admit. My novel was going nowhere (although he’s feeling much better now, thanks) and I noticed someone on Twitter remarking that they had just signed up for Camp NaNoWriMo.

Ah-ha! I thought, Now’s as good a time as any to give this whole NaNoWriMo lark a bash. Maybe it will help me complete my novel…

I was very excited about it. I was going to make progress and lots of it! I joined a cabin so that I could compare notes with other like-minded writers; I read all the useful ‘camp care packages’ that were sent to my inbox, full of useful advice to help me make the most of Camp NaNoWriMo; I perused the forums and all the articles full of helpful writing tips…

The one thing I did not do was write my novel. Sure, I had been stuck in a serious rut before I started Camp NaNoWriMo but at least I was sitting at my computer with Scrivener open for my appointed writing times, even if I was just writing things like ‘I suck at writing :-‘ all over my manuscript. For that first week or so of Camp NaNoWriMo, I didn’t even do that. I spent large chunks of my allotted writing time perusing the forums, checking my inbox and chilling with my cabin mates. Wonderful though all of these things are, the truth is that when you’re struggling to write your novel (and everybody does at some point), there is only one solution: write it anyway. Write it badly and fix it later if you have to, but you must write it. I often find that when I’m not having any success at writing something I’m proud of, it is tempting to either give up or else to try to find (usually on the internet) some clever ‘get out of writer’s block free card’.  The former is obviously unacceptable; the latter is just the former in disguise.

Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of websites, books and other resources which can really help to improve your writing style, get you some constructive critiques of your work or simply motivate you towards greater productivity (like NaNoWriMo). If I thought those kinds of resources weren’t useful, I wouldn’t waste your time by writing this blog week after week! But if, like me, you are struggling to think of what to write, I’m afraid to say I know of no quick fix except to write anyway, even if what you write is rubbish (you can — and should — always come back and edit it later). Resources like NaNoWriMo, no matter how good they may be, can’t make you write, nor can it tell you what to write. That’s not what it’s supposed to do. That’s what you, the author, is supposed to do.

So I quit. Just over a week into it, I resolved not to go back to the Camp NaNoWriMo website for the remainder of the month. I was going to sit down in front of Scrivener with the biggest mug of tea I could and I was going to put words on that page even if it meant drawing blood.

I won’t lie to you. It was like drawing blood at first – from the proverbial stone. A lot of what I wrote was rubbish. But any farmer will tell you that to produce a healthy crop, you need to spread plenty of manure on your land and writing is no different. The more proverbial manure you produce, the better your ideas will grow and before you know it, you’ll have a story you can really be proud of. No one will be able to help you write your story if you’re not willing to actually sit down and write. I definitely want to encourage anyone who is thinking of using NaNoWriMo to give it a bash because it’s a great idea; just don’t make the same mistake I did of using it as an excuse to procrastinate. That’s the complete opposite of what it was designed for.

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