6 Things I’ve Learned About Writing Fiction

Writing is an art. Like any art form, it’s something you learn as you go. Even those rare child prodigies who are born excellent writers will still undoubtedly pick up a few nuggets of wisdom as they practice and hone their craft. It’s only natural. The longer you do a thing, the better you get at it.

Most of the writing tips I’ve shared on this website over the last few years have been things I have simply learned by experience, and so today I’ve decided to share a brief selection of some of the lessons I’ve learned over the years which I think have helped to make me a better writer. And so without further ado and in no particular order:

Lesson #1: You Can’t edit a blank page

Although it may go against the grain, the best way to write is to write boldly without stopping to worry about how good or bad it is. In fact, even if you know it sucks, you should still just plough on with your story until it’s finished and come back to fix it later. Heck, you’re going to do a few drafts anyway (aren’t you?).

This is no new commandment but an old one. Although it can be tempting to fix bits you’re unsatisfied with (or worse still, refuse to write them in the first place), editing as you go is ultimately crippling. You will not get anything finished writing that way.

lesson #2: Characters are the beating heart of any good story

Regular readers of this blog (God bless you kind people) will know I’ve said this a billion times before so it’s only right that I say it again: characters can make or break any story. I don’t care how clever, imaginative or well researched the rest of your story is, half-baked characters will ruin your story while excellent characters can make even the most simple of stories a joy to read.

Moreover a plot can emerge from a good cast of characters in a way which feels natural (to the reader at least; writers must sweat blood no matter what). After all, in real life events happen to people; people don’t happen to events. So too, it is better to make your characters the focus of your story and ask what happens to them, rather than creating a plot first and then populating it with characters whom you have contrived to suit it.

lesson #3: CONSISTENCY and Persistence are essential

It can be tempting for inexperienced writers to imagine inspiration is the key to being a good story writer. Such writers will only be inclined to write when they are overcome with a wave of inspiration or when they are feeling particularly ‘in the zone.’

Experienced writers know what folly that is. It might sound less exciting (in fact, it often is less exciting) but the real secret to producing a steady flow of work is to be consistent with your writing routine, regardless of how you feel and to persist with your story even when you hate it.

lesson #4: There Are No Bad Ideas; Only Bad Executions

Whenever you have an idea for a story, it can be tempting to immediately judge it in one of two ways:

  • This is the best idea ever! I can’t wait to sit down and write this masterpiece!
  • That’s a terrible idea. I’ll just pretend I didn’t have it…

In my experience, judging the quality of an idea in this way is a mistake. The fact is, ideas are a pound a dozen and have very little bearing on the quality of the final story. Even the stupidest ideas can yield a good story, if the story is well planned with characters whose goals and motives we care about; and the reverse is also true.

Lesson #5: In the early stages, only handwriting will do

Maybe this doesn’t apply to you, but I find that when I’m trying to come up with new material, I just can’t seem to get the creative juices flowing using a computer, tablet or phone. It has to be pen and paper. I have to be able to scribble freely. Even Scapple is a poor substitute for pen and paper at the earliest stages of brainstorming new ideas.

Once I have a rough idea of my basic plot and who the main players in my story will be, I quickly transfer to working with apps like Scapple, Scrivener or FocusWriter but until I reach that stage, it’s paper and pen all the way. Nothing else works. While this might not be the case for you, I still think it’s worthwhile having a think about what helps you to work most effectively at each stage.

Lesson #6: Like It Or Lump It, Your Intended Audience Matters

No story, no matter how well written, appeals to everybody. However, most reasonably well written stories will appeal to somebody. If you try to please everyone, you are doomed to fail but knowing your intended audience in advance will allow you to determine exactly what kind of themes, characters and adult elements are appropriate for your story. Discussed in more detail here.

What about you? What nuggets of writerly wisdom have you picked up over the years? Be sure to share them in the comments below so we can all benefit from your wisdom!


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 sautés your onions.

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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Movie Review: Spider-Man Homecoming

SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers in this post, anyone who has not seen Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

I’ve always liked Spider-Man. I used to collect the comics quite diligently when I was younger and I thoroughly enjoyed the movies too. Nevertheless, when I heard they were rebooting the franchise for a second time with Spider-Man: Homecoming, I was a bit jaded. I was frankly getting fed up with new re-tellings of the same story over and over: Great power, great responsibility; don’t care about that; Uncle Ben dies; it’s all my fault; aaah! bad guy trying to kill the girl I fancy; accidentally kill bad guy; the end. It’s for this very reason that I did not go and see Spider-Man: Homecoming when it first came out. Even after I learned it wasn’t another origins story, I was still feeling all Spidered out.

Well, the loss was mine. I finally did see Homecoming at the end of 2018 when my wife got me the DVD and it was just the breath of fresh air I needed to make me love Spider-Man again. Without a shadow of a doubt, this is one of my favourite Spider-Man movies of them all. The main thing that sets this film apart from the other Spider-Man movies is how much fun it is. The others had their share of humour, sure, but the humour in this film felt more natural in this film and was a great relief after so many dark superhero movies. If I was being hyper critical, I would say that the humour sometimes overshadowed the actual story just a little bit, but not enough to turn it into a farce. I just remember a lot more of the funny bits than I do about the actual plot if truth be told.

In many respects, this film is more like an American high school film than a typical superhero film. There is none of the mysticism or grittiness about it that’s become so popular in recent years, nor is Parker consumed with anxious thoughts about power and justice. No, in this movie Peter Parker character is portrayed very much as real teenager, full of enthusiasm about being a superhero, eager to be accepted by the more mature Avengers, while still trying to navigate the complicated high school life of parties, studies, friends and the girl he fancies. Incidentally, not being an American myself, I often find American high school movies a bit hard to relate to (high school in the UK is quite a different kettle of fish from the USA) but I didn’t find that to be the case here. The emphasise lies more heavily on Peter Parker as a character, rather than on the setting and anyone who has ever been a teenager will find it easy to sympathise with this enthusiastic and impatient young man.

The Vulture character is one of my favourite things about this movie. Previous Spider-Man villains have all lacked depth and especially relatability. Vulture is different. This is a man who is concerned for his family (he gave me a few good ideas for how to handle my daughter’s future boyfriends!) and trying to make a better life for himself and his family by doing a bit of bank robbing with the help of some alien technology he managed to procure. The final battle between he and Spider-Man was a bit of a disappointment, lacking the sense of tension that we’ve seen in previous movies (I mean heck, he never even got to choose between saving his girlfriend or saving a bus load of school kids!) but not to such an extent I didn’t enjoy it. It perhaps just felt a little like the story was ultimately finished already, and now Peter just had to have a fight with Vulture just to dot the ‘i’s and cross the ‘t’s so to speak.

All in all, a great film that has reinvigorated my love for Spider-Man. While it is part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it also works perfectly well as a stand-alone film for those of you who can’t be bothered watching all the Avengers films and is great fun to watch with a box of popcorn. I commend it to your enjoyment.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟


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 spins your web.

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]

Book Review: Steelheart

SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers in this post, anyone who has not read Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

There are two things I really like: Brandon Sanderson and superhero stories, so when I heard that Sanderson had written a series of superhero stories, I knew I had found my next book. I was so confident that I would like it that I even bought the first two books at the same time, despite normally being wary of blowing money on serialised novels in case they’re rubbish (I would’ve bought the whole series but my Waterstones vouchers didn’t stretch that far on top of everything else I wanted to buy).

This story is set in a not-too-distant post-apocalyptic dystopia where a mysterious stellar event, known as Calamity, has gifted certain people with super powers. These individuals, known as Epics (Sanderson consistently shies away from the word superheroes/super villains), have taken over the world, oppressing ordinary humans and imposing their own despotic rule on whatever territory they deem to be their own. The main antagonist in this story is one such Epic: Steelheart, a seemingly invulnerable man who kills David’s (the protagonist) father in front of him. However, the boy David also saw something impossible at the same time: he saw Steelheart bleed, and swore he would make it happen again to avenge his father. As an adult, David joins a group of anti-Epic resistance fighters known as Reckoners and together they hatch a daring plan to kill Steelheart and put an end to his ruthless reign over Newcago (formerly Chicago).

There are a lot of things I like about this novel, and I am looking forward to reading the next instalment, but I won’t lie to you: it was a bit of a disappointment compared to Mistborn.

Let’s get down to brass tacks.

In a similar way to the The Final Empire, Steelheart features a young protagonist who joins a group of rebels (the other ‘good guys’) with the primary goal of taking down a seemingly indestructible despot who barely appears in the narrative until the story’s climax. The characters all have their own little distinctive quirks and are, for the most part, likeable. My only criticism is that they were, perhaps, a little half-baked by Sanderson’s usual standards. For instance, David, the protagonist, was okay in general but he seemed little too ridiculous to believe insofar as things seemed to fall into place a little too easily for him despite impossible odds, especially in the beginning.

Oh, and while I’m complaining about my least favourite characters, can I mention Megan? Apart from being one of only two major female characters and the only one with a clear personal tie to the protagonist, she doesn’t even come across as a particularly well written character, at least before the last few chapters. She’s beautiful, feisty, with a hidden vulnerability and (you guessed it!), she’s the obvious love interest. David thinks she’s hot but doesn’t know if she likes him or not because she seems to be sending him mixed signals. I will admit that I wasn’t prepared for what happened to her and who she turned out to be, so it’s maybe worth persevering with Megan until the end of the book but it took me quite a lot of chapters to actually like her as a character.

The plot worked, although I felt there was a certain inevitability about it. David wanted to join the Reckoners, so he did. He talked them into killing Steelheart. They planned to do it. Executed plan. Did it. End. It lacked that all important sense of rising action, conflict, tension, greater conflict, greater tension and final climax when it came down to the main story of David’s quest for revenge and the Reckoners’ plan to kill Steelheart. On the plus side, there were a few interesting twists regarding the identities of characters like Megan and Prof. I won’t spoil what they were, but I will only say that I had my suspicions about Prof from fairly early on; I wasn’t ready for what happened with Megan at all, however. That was glorious and her only saving grace.

As usual, Sanderson’s writing style was a joy to read: clear, straight-forward and written in a solid 1st person voice from David’s point of view. In keeping with that character’s tendency to use lousy metaphors in his speech, the narrative itself was also replete with eccentric figurative language which was appropriate (though perhaps not always quite as funny as Sanderson intended it to be).

I did find the profanities used by the characters a little odd. Don’t get me wrong, I tend to have a ‘less is more’ attitude towards profanity in fiction, but it seems that all but the mildest of swear words we use in the real world have been replaced by made up swear words including ‘sparks’ , ‘slontze’ and ‘Calamity’. Depending how far in the future this book is set, I suppose its possible we’ll chuck out all the old curses and invent brand new ones, but I get the impression this book is set in a period relatively close to our own. As much as I dislike bad language, I personally found this stuff a bit jarring.

I know what you’re thinking. I sound like I hated this book. I did not hate this book. In fact, I really liked this book. It’s a great bit of highly enjoyable, action packed, funny-in-places escapism. If I sound like I’ve been hard on it, it’s only because Sanderson has set the bar so high with all his other books that it’s hard not to compare them. This is not my favourite Brandon Sanderson book, not by a long way; but it is a great book. You should definitely read it.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟


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 steals your heart (you see what I did there?).

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]

Why Your Fantastic Story Idea Has To Die

So you’ve had a fantastic idea for a new story: something really original, really clever and just plain brilliant. Well, bully for you, I say! It’s a wonderful feeling not only knowing what you’re next story is going to be about, but actually knowing that it’s a real cracker of an idea.

Enjoy your good feelings while you can but don’t fall in love with your idea. If you do, you’ll only end up languishing in Inspiration Hell the moment you try to put your idea into action. If you want my advice, you’ll treat your idea as a profane thing from the very moment it’s conceived. It is not sacred. It is not too beautiful to die. Frankly, it’s probably not as clever as you thought. Unless you’ve laid a real golden egg of an idea, you’ll probably have to kill it– and the sooner the better.

‘Now wait a minute there, old bean!’ I hear you cry. ‘That seems a bit harsh!’

Maybe it is, but I still think it will save you a lot of heartache in the long run if you take it to heart now. No element of your story should ever be safe from being tweaked, twisted or downright axed. This includes the original premise of your story, however clever it might be.

This is no new commandment. We all know how important it is to ‘kill your darlings’ when you write. You know what I mean: those glorious, beautiful little bits of narrative you’ve written that you think are so wonderful, but they ultimately do nothing for your story and have to go.

However, unlike most darlings on the headsman’s block, the original idea is not something you can simply come back to at the editing stage. If you write a dodgy sentence, an unnecessary scene or even several chapters of pointless drivel, you can still plod along quite the thing until you finish the draft. Not so with your original idea! If you fall too hard in love with it, you’ll never make it past the first draft (assuming you ever get the first draft started), because you will be unprepared to take whatever ruthless steps are required to fix the glaring weaknesses in your plot. If your original idea isn’t working, you must be prepared to kill it without mercy.

‘But if I kill my original idea, won’t I be right back at square one, with no idea whatsoever?’ I hear you cry.

No, of course not. Your original idea still serves a purpose: a new idea will be born from its ashes. Almost every story idea has at least a million possible alternative directions you can work in and I would encourage you to experiment with all of these (Scapple is my app of choice for organising my thoughts in this regard, though a good old fashioned pen and paper also does the trick). Perhaps your love interest should really be the protagonist? Perhaps your protagonist should be a pixie instead of a wizard? Heck, perhaps we should forget about pixies and wizards and go for cowboys instead? One of the best decisions I ever made in one of my old fantasy stories was to change from a medieval fantasy setting to a post-industrial fantasy. The basic themes, conflict and characters were essentially the same but by letting go of my determination to have knights on horses, my mind suddenly exploded with a whole bunch of material that yielded a much better story.

Even if your original idea is working, you will still need to be prepared to develop it, and that involves making changes, both big and small, so even if you stick with the same core idea, it will still require painful surgery to make it function. It is better, therefore, to simply have the attitude that your idea is profane and eligible for the chop from the very beginning. The fact is, no story idea ever comes to you fully formed. Ideas are like clumps of marble used in sculpting. Some clumps might be easier to work with than others and some might be utterly useless, but none of them can become Discobolus or David until someone first takes a hammer and chisel to 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 chisels your marble.

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]

Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Children’s Edition (vol. 2)

SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers, anyone who has not read Monkey Puzzle by Julia Donaldson, Little Miss Inventor by Adam Hargreaves, Elmer in the Snow by David McKee, Perky the Pukeko by Michelle Osment or The Gruffalo’s Child by Julia Donaldson is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

Believe it or not, the last edition of Super Snappy Speed Reviews was way back in October, just before series 11 of Doctor Who started, so I decided it was time for another exciting instalment. This time (though not for the first time) I’m looking at children’s books. Just to be clear, my daughter is not quite two years old yet, and so, when I say ‘children’s books’, I am talking about books aimed at very young children, rather than children’s novels.

You know the drill by now. These reviews reflect nothing but my own personal opinions and impressions, sliced, diced and shredded into a few short sentences. The books I have selected have nothing in common, save the fact that they are all fictional stories for very young children. They are not necessarily books I particularly liked or disliked, nor are they sorted into any particular order. So, here we go.

Monkey Puzzle by Julia Donaldson

My daughter loves this book and so do I. The narrative is uncomplicated, written in rhyme (always a plus for small children) and with a goodly dash of humour which does not seem to be lost on my one year old. It’s also not without its educational value, giving descriptions of a whole bunch of different types of animals.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

Little Miss Inventor by Adam Hargreaves

I think this is my daughter’s favourite at the moment, judging by the fact I have to read it to her at least fifty times per hour. Little Miss Inventor is a fun character, intelligent and not to be deterred from making Mr Rude a birthday present he’ll really love despite him being one of the most unpleasant individuals in all Mr Men lore. If I’m really picking nits, I think the writing style was a bit clumsy at points, with sentence breaks in places I would not have expected them, for example: ‘She made a back-pack-snack-attack fridge for Mr Greedy. For snacks on the go.’

I’m pretty sure that could have been one sentence.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟

Elmer in the Snow by David McKee

My daughter’s got a few Elmer books and she seems to enjoy them. Personally, I find this one a bit of a drag. The narrative lacks the snappy rhythm required to hold a toddler’s interest and the plot is frankly boring. Even toddler’s books should have a little bit of safe, inoffensive conflict to make the story worth reading (e.g.: Little Miss Inventor couldn’t think of a good invention for Mr Rude; Monkey lost his mum and his only helper is completely useless; etc). All in all, on the rare occasions my daughter asks for this one, I tend to sigh inwardly (though outwardly I’m enthusiastic for her sake) and hope she won’t want me to read it over and over too many times.

My rating: 🌟🌟

Perky the Pukeko by Michelle Osment

This story is okay. My daughter likes it, perhaps not with the same enthusiasm as Little Miss Inventor, but she asks for it now and again.

It’s written in rhyme, which is a plus for toddler’s stories, though I find the rhythm of narrative is a little off beat at times, often, I fear, because the author was trying a bit too hard to be clever. It is the only toddler’s book I have ever read which actually featured a glossary at the back.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟

The Gruffalo’s Child by Julia Donaldson

This book is, by all accounts, a sequel to The Gruffalo so it probably helps to be familiar with that story before you read this one. It’s not really necessary though. The story makes perfect sense on its own merits. In Donaldson’s usual masterful style, this story ticks all the boxes for repetition, rhythm and rhyme. Young children can easily relate to the protagonist who initially ignores her father’s instructions, designed to keep her safe, only to quickly realise her mistake and return to the safety of her father’s cave.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟

Don’t forget to check out all the previous editions of Super Snappy Speed Reviews
Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Doctor Who Edition Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Children’s Books Edition (vol 1)
Super Snappy Speed Reviews: TV Edition (vol. 2)Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Writing Apps for Android
Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Books (vol. 3)Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Games Edition
Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Star Trek EditionSuper Snappy Speed Reviews: Books (vol. 2)
8 Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Film5 Super Snappy Speed Reviews: TV Edition
8 Super Snappy Speed Reviews

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 tickles your toes.

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]

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 Help Your Audience Suspend Disbelief

Before I begin, let me ask you a question: what is the hardest thing to believe about Superman? Is it the fact he can fly, deflect bullets and shoot heat rays from eyes? Is it the fact he is faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than… you know? Or is it something else?

As you may be aware, if you’ve been following this blog regularly, I’m cooking up an original superhero story, which I plan to publish in regular instalments here on Penstricken. Now all writing has its challenges, but if there is one thing that I’ve found difficult to get right with this particular story, it is the willing suspension of disbelief.

‘The willing suspension of disbelief?’ I hear you cry. ‘What the heck is that?’

I’m glad you asked. Basically, whenever an audience sits down to read a book or watch a play, they make a subconscious decision to accept the truthfulness of what is happening despite knowing it to be a work of fiction. If the audience does not suspend their disbelief, they will never be able to enjoy the story, because they’ll spend the whole time pointing out all the obvious contrived and plain ridiculous elements that are required to make a good story. While it is ultimately something the audience can decide to do or not to do, you as the writer have a responsibility to write a story which makes it easy for the audience to suspend their disbelief.

Does this mean magic, goblins and (in my case) superheroes are out? Certainly not. People have been telling stories about magic, goblins and yes, even super-powered humans doing incredible things since ancient times. If the current trend in Marvel and DC films is anything to go by, humanity’s taste for the impossible has not dwindled much in the last few millennia. It’s also true that there are plenty of non-fantasy/speculative stories which can utterly fail to inspire the willing suspension of disbelief. The issue is not one of what is possible. The issue is of what is likely.

The hardest thing to believe about Superman isn’t the fact he comes from another planet, nor is it the fact he has incredible powers. Those things are perfectly acceptable within the rules of the Superman universe. The most ridiculous thing about Superman* is the fact that Lois Lane (and everyone else) is actually fooled by a pair of glasses. I started wearing glasses for the first time back in 2014, and when I went into work the next day my colleagues didn’t all demand to see my ID badge, nor did my boss phone me up and ask me why I wasn’t at work. They knew it was me. That’s because glasses really don’t obscure a face that well.

But as much as everybody loves you there is one question that keeps coming up: “How dumb was she?” Here, I’ll show you what I mean. Look (puts glasses on). I’m Clark Kent (glasses off). No, I’m Superman (glasses on). Mild-mannered reporter (glasses off). Superhero. Hello? Clark Kent is Superman. Well, that was worth the whole trip. To actually meet the most galactically stupid woman who ever lived.

Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, s. 2 ep. 18 ‘Tempus Fugitive’ 

Source: https://www.springfieldspringfield.co.uk/view_episode_scripts.php?tv-show=lois-and-clark-the-new-adventures-of-superman&episode=s02e18 (parentheses mine)

At this point, there is something very important to point out: in order to function, almost every story you ever write will feature a little unlikely element here or there. That’s okay, as long as you don’t push the audience’s ability to suspend their disbelief too far. Think of these things like using selloptape to wrap a Christmas present. You need a little, but too much spoils the whole thing. The audience will put up with one very small ‘oh come on, that wouldn’t happen!’ moment provided it helps your story along and isn’t the beating heart of your story in and of itself. For instance, Superman wouldn’t work without the glasses ‘disguise’, but its not fundamental to who he is or what he does. It’s just a simple trick to allow him to lead a double life and it’s unobtrusive enough for the audience to forgive, assuming the audience wants to enjoy the story (a determined audience can and will find the joins in even the most perfect stories; don’t let them get you down).

Having said all of that, you still need to take care when you are constructing fantastic elements for your story too. You can’t just have a dragon pop up and save the day in the last few pages of your story when previously you had no dragons. You can make your fantasy world as ridiculous and as imaginative as you like (have you read The Colour of Magic?) but there are still a few important things to remember if you want the audience to fully suspend their disbelief. I’ll rattle through them quickly.

Every fantasy world has rules. These can be almost anything you want, but you can’t deviate from the rules of your fantasy world any more than you can deviate from the laws of physics in real life.

Consider your genre and your audience. You’ll get away with elves in a fantasy. You won’t get away with them so easily in a space opera. Your audience will almost certainly approach your story with certain expectations, so think long and hard before you deviate from them.

Foreshadow. Don’t introduce fantastic elements as and when they’re needed. If Superman only flew when he had a missile to catch but got the train everywhere else, we would find this sudden introduction in the story’s climax a little jarring (might even read like a deus ex machina). If he can fly, he can fly– so let him fly! Don’t have him climbing ladders to change light-bulbs. He can fly! He’s not going to forget he can fly!

Avoid making things too easy for your characters. Whether it’s a personal code of morality, a price for casting magic or some other Achilles heel, if all your hero has to do is snap his fingers and save the day with his powers, you’ll have created an anticlimax. Nothing in life is ever as easy as simply magicking your problems away, and no matter how much your audience might enjoy magic or reversing the polarity, a good story reflects this. Your hero has to face a challenge to overcome using their head, their heart and their hands. There’s a reason Superman always winds up a cage made of Kryptonite. The bit where he escapes the Kryptonite using nothing more than his wits, his natural human strength and his burning passion to save the day is always more satisfying than the bit immediately after where he catches and disarms the missile in midair and actually serves to make the final ‘magical’ rescue all the more exciting.

*Okay, there’s also the fact of his impeccable moral purity, but that’s a deeper issue of character writing that I’ll talk about some other time. In fact, I already have.


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 suspends your disbelief.

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]

Book Review: Burning Bright

SPOILER ALERT

Anyone who has not read Burning Bright by John Steinbeck is hereby advised that this post contains spoilers.

Well, well, well, believe it or not, I’ve never reviewed a John Steinbeck book before, despite repeatedly implying that he’s one of my all time favourite authors. That changes today with this review of John Steinbeck’s tiny and much maligned little ‘play-novelette’, Burning Bright.

Steinbeck himself described this book as an experiment in writing a play in the form of a novelette, and it becomes immediately obvious what is meant by that when you read it. Unlike most novels which are split into numerous chapters, set in various locations with a wide cast of characters, Burning Bright is split into three acts, each set in a single room (a circus tent, a farmhouse, a ship and a hospital to be precise). There are only four characters and the action is entirely driven by Steinbeck’s masterful use of dialogue and, to a lesser extent, description of setting.

So, did this little ‘experiment’ pay off? Well, if the critics are to be believed, the answer is no. It seems everybody and their granny hates this book. But I’m not everybody’s granny and I do not hate this book! True, it’s not my favourite Steinbeck book and it could certainly stand a little constructive criticism (in fact, it’s just about to do so), but it’s definitely not my least favourite Steinbeck book either. So let’s get down to brass tacks and look at the story in more detail.

Joe Saul is our protagonist in this story: an everyman who desperately wants to have a child but alas, is sterile. He suspects it but refuses to acknowledge it, preferring to wallow in his misery. His younger wife, Mordeen, also suspects his sterility. She is so determined to produce a child for Joe that she is willing even to sleep with a man she frankly doesn’t care for, not because she desires another man but because she is desperate to give Joe a child.

Victor is the other man: an altogether arrogant, unlikable and ignorant little man who works as Joe’s right hand man in each act and who wants Mordeen for himself. Then there’s Friend Ed: supportive, protective and loyal towards Joe even if it means hurting him. None of the above are the deepest or most complex character’s Steinbeck has ever written, but they’re okay. I liked them well enough and it was pretty plain to see what they all needed and what stood in their way.

The plot itself is perfectly good in that it follows a natural and plausible progression, though there is a certain inevitability about it. Almost from the very start, we just know that Mordeen is going to try and get pregnant by Victor and pass it off as Joe’s, and we just know that Victor is going to become attached to Mordeen, and we just know that in his jealousy, Victor will threaten to tell Joe the truth and most inevitably of all, we just know that the story will climax with Joe finding out the child is not his. For most writers, this would be an express ticket to Rubbish Novel Land. Fortunately Steinbeck’s writing style is a joy to read even at the worst of times and beautifully carries this rather plain story along.

The action is heavily dialogue-driven, which is appropriate for a play. It is, however, less appropriate for a novel, and I think this is one key area in which the incompatibility of the play form and prose form is made obvious. The two forms just don’t blend, any more than clay blends with iron. However, while critics are often quick to bemoan Steinbeck’s use of lengthy and the unsuitably flowery language, I personally found that Steinbeck’s trademark artistry with words was sufficient that I still found the dialogue enjoyable (if a little jarring) to read.

There was one other very strange thing about this story, even within the experimental context of the story’s structure, and I’m not sure I liked it: the characters’ backgrounds change from one act to the next, yet the individual characters remain fundamentally the same people. For instance, in Act One, the characters are all circus performers, whereas in Act Two they live on neighbouring farms and in Act Three, they are sailors. They are all the same people, they all relate to each other in the same way and there is continuity with the key events of the plot, but their day-to-day situation is portrayed as variable and irrelevant.

My best guess is that this is an ambitious but uncharacteristically clumsy effort by Steinbeck to highlight the everyman quality of Joe and his fellow characters. By rendering the backdrop variable, and therefore irrelevant, the reader is focused exclusively on the naked humanity of their situation which could happen to any one of us. Be that as it may, it feels like Steinbeck was trying a bit too hard to be clever at the expense of writing a good story. It strikes me that by robbing Joe Saul and the others of their backgrounds, Steinbeck has effectively created shadow characters who exist purely as symbols of the idea he was trying to communicate. They don’t read like real people, as good characters should, because real people are defined, at least in part, by where they come from and what they do.

All in all, the critics are correct about one thing: this is not Steinbeck’s best work. However, in my experience, Steinbeck’s grocery list (probably) makes better reading than the average novel– and I say that as a bona fide bookworm. While not his most adventurous story in terms of plot and characters, its still a perfectly solid bit of fiction, and would perhaps serve as a useful case study for teaching the rudiments of quality story telling to the uninitiated. The experiment of bringing together the play format and the prose format was ambitious but, alas, the two things simply don’t mix. I don’t think this was because Steinbeck did it badly. I’m just not sure it’s possible to  effectively create a true mixture of the two styles, because they’re just too different and necessarily so. I did enjoy this book, but it was, without question, only Steinbeck’s trademark wizardry with language which held it together.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟


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 novelises your play.

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]

What Should I Spend My Waterstones Vouchers On?

There’s never a Christmas goes past where I don’t get at least a couple of Waterstones vouchers from somebody. It’s one of the highlights of my year, every year! Free books and lots of them!

This year has been no exception, so I’m calling on you, dear reader, to help me decide what to buy from Waterstones this year (while reserving the right to ignore all your suggestions if I don’t like them). I have only one rule: it must be fiction; not that I’ve got a problem with non-fiction but… I’ve got plenty of non-fiction I’ve still not read. I’m fresh out of new fictional material and besides, this blog is all about fiction so fiction it is!

To help, I have compiled a list of all the books on my shelf which I liked at least a little bit. I’ve not included books I hated, books I never finished, books I never started or books I no longer own, so if it’s on this list I still own it and have derived at least some small modicum of pleasure from reading it.

I also tried to sort them into order of how much I enjoyed them, starting with the one I enjoyed the most and ending with the one I enjoyed the least. That proved to be a heck of a lot more difficult. The fact is, books are hard to compare in such a black-and-white fashion, especially when they are of different genres, so I’ve probably not given a very accurate reflection of how I feel about these books but I’ve done my best. I’ve tried to avoid thinking about which ones were technically better, and have focused simply on which ones I enjoyed the most; thus, this list says more about my tastes and moods than it does about the actual quality of the writing. So don’t get cross if you’re favourite is at the bottom. I’m not sure if the order of this list makes as much sense as I’d hoped anyway.

So anyway, here goes nothing:

  • Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
  • Cannery Row by John Steinbeck
  • Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck
  • The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson
  • Madness by Roald Dahl
  • The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  • The Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson
  • Ben Hur by Lew Wallace
  • The Acts of King Arthur and his Noble Knights by John Steinbeck
  • The Green Mile by Stephen King
  • The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett (click here for my review)
  • Hero of Ages by Brandon Sanderson
  • Doctor Faustus (The ‘A’ Text) by Christopher Marlowe
  • The Wayward Bus by John Steinbeck
  • The Pearl by John Steinbeck
  • Deception by Roald Dahl
  • Cup of Gold by John Steinbeck
  • The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie
  • Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde with The Merry Men & Other Stories by Robert Louis Stevenson
  • The Edge of Eternity by Isaac Asimov
  • The Red Pony by John Steinbeck
  • Sweet Thursday by John Steinbeck
  • East of Eden by John Steinbeck
  • The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz
  • Hercule Poirot’s Christmas by Agatha Christie
  • Different Seasons by Stephen King
  • The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas
  • The Vagrant by Peter Newman
  • Curtain by Agatha Christie
  • Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
  • Five Little Pigs by Agatha Christie
  • The Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie
  • Moriarty by Anthony Horowitz
  • The Seven by Peter Newman
  • The Malice by Peter Newman (click here for my review)
  • The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie
  • Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis
  • The Final Act of Mr Shakespeare by Robert Winder
  • Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (click here for my review)
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  • The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie
  • The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi (click here for my review)
  • The Gospel of Loki by Joanne Harris
  • The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • A Touch of Frost by R.D. Wingfield
  • Frost at Christmas by R.D. Wingfield
  • Winter Frost by R.D. Wingfield
  • Hard Frost by R.D. Wingfield
  • A Killing Frost by R.D. Wingfield (noticing a pattern here? One Frost novel is pretty much like another!)
  • Night Frost by R.D. Wingfield
  • The Time Tourists by Sharleen Nelson (click here for my interview with the author [2])
  • A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin
  • I, Robot by Isaac Asimov
  • Perelandra by C.S. Lewis
  • Men Without Women by Ernest Hemingway
  • The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien
  • That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis
  • The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • Emperor: The Gates of Rome by Conn Iggulden
  • Uncommon Type: Some Stories by Tom Hanks
  • The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck
  • The Afrika Reich by Guy Saville
  • Arena by Karen Hancock
  • The Great Dune Trilogy by Frank Herbert
  • The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
  • Hard Times by Charles Dickens

And that’s a wrap! Good golly Miss Molly, that is one mixed up list. I don’t even think it comes close to capturing how I truly feel about some of these books but meh… hopefully it will give you a vague notion of my tastes at least and help you come up with good book suggestions for me. Ready, set, go!


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 waters your stones.

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]

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

It’s that time again! Sunday the 6th only ever means one thing here at Penstricken: another exciting instalment [2] [3] of 6 ‘Six Word Stories’ for the 6th.

You all know the rules by now. I roll six story dice and I use these to inspire six stories, all exactly six words long, then you guys come along and post your far superior efforts in the comments section. So here goes nothing:

Mad Axe Murderer Exonerated Post Execution

Mushroom cloud, nuclear winter, the end.

Slew the sheriff, saved the maiden.

‘Sorry I missed you.
– The Cat’

Downloaded Treasure Island for free.

… … What?

‘I was tired of giving in.’


Well, that one was even tougher than usual but I’m sure you’ll do better!
Just use the stimuli above to come up with six ‘six word stories’ of your own and share them in the comments below.

We’ll do it all again on the 6th of October!


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 tickles your toes.

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]