Throwback Thursday: Persevere With Your Idea

Originally published 17/04/2016

I never started writing with a bad idea. In fact, I’m not even entirely convinced there is such a thing as bad story ideas or good story ideas. There are just ideas, some of which are well executed, some of which are badly executed and some of which are never executed because the would-be writer cannot decide the best way to do it, or is unwilling to try (though I feel that in the interests of public safety, I should point out that this only applies to story ideas; other kinds of ideas, like deciding to use Tabasco sauce as an eye-drop, really are bad ideas).

So, why do the marvellous ideas we start with so quickly turn into half-finished manuscripts that we are unable to finish and are ashamed to have even begun?

I’m beginning to learn that it comes down to perseverance (or a lack thereof) and perfectionism. We are discouraged because our super fantastic brilliant idea doesn’t instantly sprout into the super fantastic brilliant story we hoped it would and so we give up. It’s a rubbish story. I was stupid to think it was a good idea but the next one will be better.

This is actually nonsense when you think about it. The problem is probably not your idea; the problem is your lack of willingness to persevere with your idea. Most ideas, when boiled down to their basic elements, are not too dissimilar. Someone is trying to do something; something hinders them; someone overcomes or fails to overcome what hinders them; someone hopefully grows in some way.

Perfectionism is the enemy of the author. It causes you to freeze up and stop writing the moment you start noticing all the difficulties and outright flaws in your idea but if you let this stop you, you’ll never finish anything. So the first and most important rule is this:

Quitting is NOT an option!

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with wanting your story to be perfect. Who wants to write a second-rate story? But it will never be perfect if you aren’t able to finish it so don’t give up on a story you’ve begun, no matter how badly you feel it is going. You must finish your story before you can truly make it perfect. This boils down simple motivation; ignoring the urge to quit when you see a bad story appearing and pressing on towards the end, knowing you can make it perfect afterwards.

I find deadlines and daily word counts to be invaluable to this end. Anyone who has ever written an essay for school or university will be able to testify that when you’ve got no choice but to finish your essay, you always can. It doesn’t matter how hard it is, how little you’re enjoying writing it or even how much you deplore everything you have said; if you are determined to get that essay handed in on time, you can jolly well do it. It might mean deleting some words, paragraphs or even whole chapters that you felt were very good. It might even mean handing in something that doesn’t meet your impossibly high standards if you haven’t made enough time to edit your work. But it gets finished and the same is absolutely true of story writing.

Deadlines force you to persevere, because you haven’t got time to start from scratch whenever you get stuck or to spend months inspecting the minutiae of your idea before you even begin writing. I’m certain this is why NaNoWriMo is so popular. If you have been commissioned by a publisher then you will almost certainly have a deadline (usually a very tight one!) but if not, it’s a good idea to set one for yourself. Promise to treat yourself to something you enjoy if you reach your goal. Better still, get a friend to hold you accountable to the deadline you set. Make sure you have got a completed draft to show them for the date and time you have agreed, come hell or high water.

If you’re writing a very long project like a novel (and you don’t have a publisher breathing down your neck), you may find it difficult to judge when a realistic deadline should be, especially if it’s your first novel. In that case, a daily word count (say, 1,000 words per day, or whatever you can realistically manage) or even setting yourself deadlines per chapter is a good way to persevere. And remember, you are not allowed to quit under any circumstances. Stick to the story you are on until it’s finished. No matter how awful the story you are producing is turning out to be, keep producing it. You can fix it later.

‘But what if I can’t fix it later?!’ I hear you cry. ‘What if it’s so very terrible that it is beyond redemption?!’

You can fix it. If you are dog-with-a-bone stubborn and refuse to abandon your story until it’s done to your satisfaction, you will fix it, even if it means a complete redraft. You have only failed to fix it when you give up.

This is all very well and good if you’re not working to a deadline set by a publisher or for a competition. Under these circumstances, a little time management is obviously advised. You will need to allow yourself time to edit. The more time you make for editing and redrafting, the more likely you are to submit a good story. But there is one thing you must not allow: do not allow yourself to just miss the deadline. Make sure you have a completed manuscript by the deadline and hand it in. Maybe it will get rejected; maybe it won’t. You might be pleasantly surprised. But one thing is for sure: nothing you write will ever be accepted, critiqued or even read by anyone unless you finish what you started.

And what is the point of writing anything unless someone eventually gets to read your finished work? Persevere and win!

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

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AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

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Throwback Thursday: Are Idea Generators Ever Any Use?

Originally published 12/05/2019 under the title ‘Idea Generators: Are They Any Use?’

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

But wait a minute…

Do these little miracle makers really deliver the goods?

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

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

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


Story Plot Generator Pro

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

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Throwback Thursday: Should You Use Profanity in Your Story?

Originally published 21/01/2018

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

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

Well… it depends.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

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You can check out our previous interviews here:

Throwback Thursday: The Overwhelming Art of World-Building

Originally published 19/06/2016

Research is, undeniably, one of the most important stages of writing a story. Understanding the time and place your story is set in will enable you to make that story more true to life, and therefore, more compelling. But what if you are writing a fantasy, set in an imaginary world? Make no mistake: research is just as important in fantasy as it is in non-fantasy, perhaps even more so since you are creating a world from scratch. If you’re writing a historical fiction set during the Spanish Civil War, you probably won’t need to research whether or not gravity existed in Spain or what colour the grass was. We can take these things for granted in non-fantasy, but in fantasy you need to become an expert on your entire world… and still make time to actually write the story!

I find that a good place to start is by learning a little about the real world; historical events, religious beliefs, foreign cultures, you name it. Anything that interests you. Sooner or later, you’re going to need to be able to create a bit of everything for your world anyway, so read as widely as you can bear to. If you’re still not sure exactly what you want to write about, my advice would be to read up on anything which grabs your attention and inspires you. For example, the inspiration for the novel I am currently working on came about as a result of me reading about a variety of unrelated real life subjects which I found interesting (specifically, the Beer Hall Putsch, the concept of extra-terrestrial real estate and the mythology of various ancient cultures). Even if you already do have an idea in your head about what you want to write about, it would still pay to try and expand on your idea by researching related real life subjects.

The more you read about the real world, the more you’ll come to realise that a believable world is replete with all kinds of different stuff; different races, religions, creeds and philosophies; different wars, treaties, governments and despots; different guilds, parties and organisations both legitimate and otherwise; different traditions and dissents of science, history, philosophy and art; different forms of vegetable, animal and mineral; different languages, dialects and accents; different laws, crimes and systems of justice; different myths, legends and parables… you get the idea. The natural world is a complex and intricate machine, interacting with the equally complex and often contradictory machines of human society. As if that weren’t complicated enough, what happens in one generation invariably affects the next, so history also matters. If you’re creating a fantasy world, you need to understand how all of this works within your world without falling into the trap of spending so much time world-building that you never actually write the story. Personally,  I feel that there are at least three key parts of any fantasy world that are vital for the author to understand.

The first thing to consider is the basic natural laws of your fantasy world, because this is the skeleton on which everything else in your story will hang. Is it spherical like our world? Terry Pratchett’s world wasn’t: his world was a disc supported on the backs of four elephants standing on top of a giant space-faring turtle. What about plant and animal life? Are there dragons, elves or something else entirely? Do the natural laws of your world include magic? If so, how does this magic work? Do supernatural beings influence your world? You can probably be as imaginative as you like but remember there are two basic rules I like to stick to:

  1. There must be some form of natural law to bring order to your world and to allow it to function in a rational, if strange, way. In short, it must make sense.
  2. Avoid superimposing fanciful things on a world which is otherwise identical to our own. Our society would not have developed as it has done if there were wizards running around the place with the power to magically engineer personal, social or political changes and nor will yours.

The next thing to consider is how society functions. This will undoubtedly be rooted in the rules you established for your natural world. For example, if your characters live among natural predators, you can bet your life that would impact their laws and values regarding the rights of animals. Better yet, what if their natural predators had a highly developed society of their own? For example, Zebrapeople and Lionpeople living on the same world. Would there be war? Would treaties be signed to keep the peace? What would such a treaty mean for the Lionpeople?

If your world is governed by gods, this will probably be reflected in your society’s religion and philosophy. If your world is not governed by gods, religion and philosophy will still exist and within each belief system, there are likely to be numerous denominations and splinter-groups to consider, each with their own individual opinions on how things are and how things should be. For every traditional belief or practice, there will probably be dissenters. You also need to consider if there are many empires, nations and tribal societies, how does each one of these function? What are their own particular customs, fashions, taboos, mannerisms, languages and so forth? As with the natural world, these things must function in a logical fashion but you should also make room for conflict: this will undoubtedly be the cornerstone of your story.

Finally and closely related to both of these is history. How did society get to where it is now? For example, let’s say the King of the Lionpeople has signed an agreement with the King of Zebrapeople saying that they won’t eat the Zebrapeople any more. The common Lionpeople take umbrage and revolt. That the premise for your story. The question we must now ask is why was this agreement signed? Was it to end a long running and costly war? If that is the case, who started the war and why? No society pops out of thin air; society is the way it is because of what happened previously to lead us to this point. To create a believable world, this must also be the case with your fantasy world. Go back into your world’s history, as far back as you feel you need to, in order to understand what brought us to this point, where your story begins.

Finally and most importantly, you must know when it’s time to stop nit-picking and start writing your story. You almost certainly won’t be able to please everybody nor is it a realistic ambition to try and determine every single last thing that ever happened everywhere on the surface of your world. Decide on the scope of what you are trying to accomplish in advance. Ask yourself what is the most relevant to your story and focus on that. J.R.R Tolkien probably had no idea what Gandalf’s great grandfather’s cousin’s pet budgie was called, but that didn’t stop him writing The Lord of the Rings.

Don’t let it stop you either. Write your story.


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

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AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

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

You can check out our previous interviews here: