Writing a Good Character Description

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: characters are the beating heart of every good story. Good characters, more often than not, make for a good story. That means you need to write a character with strong goals, strong motives and a clear problem to overcome. We know this. Nevertheless, it also goes without saying that your characters must all have a physical appearance, which you can describe to the reader (unless, of course, you’re writing some highly ambitious piece of supernatural fiction where all your characters are non-corporeal beings who never interact with physical reality as we know it).

Let me tell you right now, there’s an art to describing characters. Do it right and your audience will have such a vivid image in their minds that they’ll swear they’ve actually met your character. Do it wrong and you might just produce one of the most pedestrian scenes in your entire story. Nothing drags the pace of a narrative down quite like a long winded description of Jimmy’s hair colour, eye colour and whatever unremarkable clothes he might be wearing. I say it’s better to have no physical description than a bad one.

If you give a simple description of height, weight, hair colour, eye colour and so on you will not only bore the reader to tears but you will also, in the most long-winded way possible, tell us nothing significant about the character. Instead, focus on distinguishing features and other details which help us to really get to know the character. Let us refer, once more, to the master, John Steinbeck. He described his character, Lennie Small, in this way:

A huge man, shapeless of face, with large, pale eyes, with wide, sloping shoulders; and he walked heavily, dragging his feet a little, the way a bear drags his paws. His arms did not swing at his sides, but hung loosely and only moved because the heavy hands were pendula.

(John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men).

If you’ve read Of Mice and Men, you’ll know there are two essential things to know about Lennie Small: 1) he’s a large and strong man and 2) he has a childlike mind. These two facts form the basis for his entire plotline from start to finish. Is it any surprise, then, that Steinbeck’s description emphasises these qualities? Just look at the adjectives/adverbs: ‘huge’, ‘large’, ‘wide’, ‘heavily’, ‘heavy’. All these words signify bigness. Notice, incidentally, that Steinbeck never says ‘tall’, nor does he give a specific height. After all, Steinbeck’s purpose is to emphasise how physically imposing Lennie is but not all tall people are imposing. Whether Lennie is tall or not is unimportant. What matters is that he is huge.

Similarly words like ‘shapeless’, ‘pale’ and ‘hung loosely’, used to describe his face, eyes and body language all have a certain vacant quality to them. The bear metaphor is especially powerful, as bears are animals which are known to be physically imposing but not frightfully intellectual. Nothing in this description is superfluous. It tells us everything we need to know about Lennie. We can imagine unimportant details like his hair colour for ourselves.

Another important thing to consider is how subjective/objective your word choice is. Objective language sticks to the facts. For example: ‘Johnny had brown eyes’. Subjective language is based on one’s personal impressions: ‘Johnny had eyes of the richest chocolate’. Or alternatively, ‘Johnny had eyes like a pair of dirty brown pebbles’. Striking the right subjective/objective balance can be hard and will be largely dependent on your narrative POV. As a rule, First Person and Third Person (Limited) narratives can and should include a generous dose of subjective language, since we are being given the personal impressions of a particular character. We want to know whether or not the narrator is attracted to or repelled by the character in question. Third Person (Omniscient), on the other hand, should be more reserved with its use of subjective language. But that’s only a guideline.

One last tip: use vivid but precise language. Consider again Steinbeck’s description of Lennie. The word ‘pendula’, used to describe the movements of Lennie’s arms, creates a very sharp image in the reader’s mind. After all, we’ve all seen the lazy, mindless but unceasing swing of a pendulum that hangs from a clock, powered by nothing but simple physics. We can imagine that motion so clearly that it is easy to picture Lennie’s arms as they swing in a way that more bland language might not have been able to convey. Beware, however. Don’t let clever sounding words get in the way of a description which is also precise. Steinbeck is a master of description not only because of the vivid imagery he employs, but also because the imagery is so very appropriate. If simple language creates desired effect, use it. Don’t bamboozle your reader with peripheral unnecessary purple prose, especially not if it is less precise than simple language. You will lose your reader’s attention if you do. Instead, aim to use words and metaphors which convey an accurate and vivid image in the most direct way possible.

Remember, your reader doesn’t really care what your character looks like. They care about who your character is. So when you describe your character’s looks, cut to the chase. Keep it snappy, keep it sharp and most importantly of all, keep it relevant.


ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

I’m looking for authors (especially, but not limited to, new and/or indie authors) whose work I can feature here on Penstricken over the coming year. It will simply take the form of a quick Q&A about yourself and your work via private message or e-mail and, of course, a link to where we can all get a copy of your work.

I’m open to interviewing authors of almost any kind of story, provided your work is complete, original and of course, fictional. I will not consider individual short stories/micro-fictions, however I am happy to feature published anthologies or entire blog-sites of micro-fiction, provided you are the sole author.

If you’re interested, or want to know more, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

Gleaning Ideas from Other Stories

Every story, good or bad, starts with an idea. Before you can have a plot, characters or any of that other wonderful stuff, you must have an idea. This we know. We also know that plot bunnies can sometimes pop up at the darnedest times and provide you with a wealth of truly original material with which to create your masterpiece.

But what do you do when the Idea Tree stops putting out its juicy fruit?

Easy.

Glean ideas from someone else’s story.

No, don’t look at me like that! I’m not for one second advocating plagiarism. That’s illegal and rightly so. But reading other people’s books and watching other people’s films can be a great place to find ideas. In fact, you’ll never read/watch/listen to a story of any kind that doesn’t contain at least a few ideas. Even really bad stories still have ideas embedded within their pages which can be used, reused and used again without any risk of plagiarism, so it’s worthwhile learning how to find them and make them work for you.

It’s also worth being clear on what you absolutely shouldn’t do. It’s all very well watching Star Trek and deciding you want to write a novel about space exploration, but it is not okay to write a story about a pointy eared, emotionless man from the planet Vulcan’t who explores the galaxy on the Confederate Starship USS Business. CBS would have every right to hunt you down and pinch your neck sue your face off if you try that. Moreover, it’s okay to read a Batman comic and decide you want to write about a masked vigilante, but I would think twice about making it a millionaire who operates from a secret cave and wears black rubber and a cape. The line between originally and plagiarism can sometimes be fuzzy, so the best advice I can give is to stay far, far away from this kind of obvious idea stealing. Remember, the goal is to get inspired, not to copy. And there’s an art to it.

Think about the last story you read/saw/heard, whether good or bad. For me, it was the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode ‘The Most Toys’. Not my favourite episode by any stretch of the imagination, but that doesn’t matter. We’re going to break it down and squeeze it for every last juicy idea droplets we can and turn those into something good and original. Begin deconstructing the story by asking yourself some basic questions about the plot, characters and themes. Simple stuff like:

Q: Who are some of the key characters?
A: Data, an emotionless android Starfleet officer; Fajo, a cruel and irreverent collector of rare items; Varria, Fajo’s long-suffering slave-come-mistress.

Q: What was the basic plot?
A: Data is kidnapped by Fajo and forced to perform as his latest museum piece. Data refuses to perform and, recognising how Varria has come to loathe Fajo, enlists her help in escaping his captor.

Q: What are some of the key themes?
A: Greed, pacifism, physical and psychological violence against women/domestic abuse, deceitfulness

Q: Any other interesting facts about this story?
A: The title comes from the expression ‘he who dies with the most toys, wins’. This expression emphasises the ultimate futility of humanity’s obsession with accumulating things in the face of our inevitable mortality.

And that’s just for starters. I haven’t even begun to consider settings, minor characters, motives/goals/conflicts or some of the more subtle themes buried throughout the story but I used the questions above just as a demonstration. Your aim here is to deconstruct the story to the nth degree, thus drawing out as much raw material as you can.

Don’t worry about whether or not the themes or character motives are “really” in the story or not. All that matters is that you amass as much raw material as you can and take a note of it. If you’re like me, you’ll probably find it helpful to pool all this material together into one place (in my case, a Scrivener project in which I dump all my loose bits of idea).

Now all you need to do is take some of those individual idea bits and try to turn them into something new. Do a bit of zero drafting or free writing based on what you’ve come up with. For example, the material I gleaned from The Most Toys’ could inspire me to write a story about:

  • A slave trying to escape his owner who sees him only as property.
  • A woman trying to escape an abusive relationship.
  • A woman who, perhaps fearing for her own life, murders her abusive partner.
  • A robot trying to establish his rights as a sentient being.
  • Capital punishment. Is it ever morally justifiable to kill?
  • A robot judge in a criminal court.
  • A museum where the exhibitions include living people (perhaps from a particular culture or race which that particular society views as inferior?), forced to perform for paying clientele.

Furthermore, by pooling these ideas together with ideas you have extracted from other places, you can mix and match ideas to come up with even more original and interesting stories. Ultimately, no idea is truly original. When you break them down, you’ll find common themes and recurring motifs in almost every story you ever come across. So be sure to pick up all the gleanings from every story you come across. Before long, you’ll have an endless supply of raw material that you can work into something original.


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. Be sure to leave us a wee comment if you enjoyed it and don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what steals your android.

Until next time!

ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

I’m looking for authors (especially, but not limited to, new and/or indie authors) whose work I can feature here on Penstricken over the coming year. It will simply take the form of a quick Q&A about yourself and your work via private message or e-mail and, of course, a link to where we can all get a copy of your work.

I’m open to interviewing authors of almost any kind of story, provided your work is complete, original and of course, fictional. I will not consider individual short stories/micro-fictions, however I am happy to feature published anthologies or entire blog-sites of micro-fiction, provided you are the sole author.

If you’re interested, or want to know more, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

5 Writing Rules I Like To Ignore

If you Google ‘writing rules’, you’ll find that there’s no shortage of writing-gurus out there telling you their top 5, 10, 25 or 100 rules for how to write a killer story. All very useful stuff. I definitely recommend taking their advice on board. In fact, I’ve been known to write a few posts like that myself (though I am not a writing-guru by any stretch of the imagination).

Sometimes, however, you just need to rebel and write according to your own darn rules. So what follows are my top five common story-writing rules and wise sayings which I frequently bend, break and flat-out disagree with.

1. You Must Write Every Day

This is often put forward by some writers as the golden rule all serious writers simply must follow. The idea goes that if you want to be a real writer, the only way to do it is by writing every single day for the rest of your natural life. Personally, I find that rule more of a hindrance than a help.

Don’t misunderstand me. I do believe it’s fundamental to write often and especially to write regularly. I write every weekday evening (I have a day job) and I write all day on Saturdays. But on Sundays? Nope, no writing for me on Sundays. Sunday is my day off. Come hell or high water, Sunday is a no-writing day, except for scribbling down any ideas that pop into my head so I don’t forget them.

When Monday comes around, I’m invariably the better for having rested.

2. When You’re Not Writing, You Must Be Thinking About Writing

Yes, you got me. I’m paraphrasing Eugene Ionesco who said, ‘For a writer, life consists of either writing or thinking about writing’. And while what Ionesco said wasn’t exactly a rule, many would-be writing-gurus like to turn it into a rule. And understandably so, because it’s a catchy soundbite with that wonderful absolutist quality that we writers love to use, because it makes us sound just a little bit supernatural. It creates a nice little distinction between Writers and Lesser Mortals.

Now I can only imagine what it must have been like to be Eugene Ionesco. Maybe he really did spend his entire life in a perpetual state of writing or thinking about writing without a moment of interruption. Maybe lots of writers are like that. I don’t know. If so, good for them. Far be it from me to comment on the lives of others.

But for me personally, writing is only part of my life. It’s a huge part, but only a part. I’ve got a wife and daughter. The day I got married and the day my daughter was born, my story didn’t get a look-in all day. I’ve also got a part time job. When I’m there, I’m not allowed to write and the job requires too much of my concentration for me to spend the whole afternoon daydreaming about my story.

And you know what? I think it’s perfectly healthy (vital, even!) for a writer to have room in his life for other things. There. I said it.

3. You Must Only Write About What You Know

Writing what you know is great. It’s hard to go wrong writing stories based on real jobs, relationships or experiences you’ve had. I’m all for that. If you read through my stories (especially my flash fictions that I post on here), you’ll find a lot of them seem to be set on public transport. That’s because I spend an average of ten hours a week travelling by bus. But I also like to write about spaceships, wizards and fantastic worlds of my own invention. You may recall I once wrote about what it is like to be a mouse. These are things I simply can’t experience — and so, I imagine.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s important to check out your facts before publishing anything and a good way to research your facts is through gaining firsthand experience. I’m not saying you should write in ignorance. But a writer is nothing if he can’t use his imagination to fill in the blanks.

4. You Must Write First and Edit Later

‘But we’ve heard you preaching this rule before!’ I hear you cry.

Yes, you’re right. In general, I absolutely believe that if you want to get anything done, you need to resist the urge to edit until the draft is complete. But on very rare occasions, when I’m discouraged with the draft I’m working on and thinking about giving up… I do find doing a cheeky little edit perks me up and gets me back in the zone.

Still, it’s a nasty habit. Don’t do it.

5. You Must Ignore The Rules

An alarming proportion of the ‘writing rules’ you’ll come across on the internet (including mine) conclude with this altogether unoriginal rule: ‘ignore the rules’.

The idea behind this ‘rule’ is simply this: since there aren’t really any rules for writing, it doesn’t really matter how you write. Just as long as you do write.

Well… sometimes (not always, but sometimes) I like to ignore the ‘ignore the rules’ rule, especially if I’m having a bad writing day. After all, these rules exist because they work, right? So if you get stuck (and we all do from time to time), there’s no shame in taking a bit of instruction from those who know better. Only a fool would spurn their wisdom out of hand.


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. Be sure to leave us a wee comment if you enjoyed it and don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what bends your rules.

Until next time!

ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

I’m looking for authors (especially, but not limited to, new and/or indie authors) whose work I can feature here on Penstricken over the coming year. It will simply take the form of a quick Q&A about yourself and your work via private message or e-mail and, of course, a link to where we can all get a copy of your work.

I’m open to interviewing authors of almost any kind of story, provided your work is complete, original and of course, fictional. I will not consider individual short stories/micro-fictions, however I am happy to feature published anthologies or entire blog-sites of micro-fiction, provided you are the sole author.

If you’re interested, or want to know more, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

Want to Add Handwritten Notes to your Scrivener Project? Try Notebloc.

If you’re anything like me, the bulk of your writing projects will be done on computer, probably using a purpose-built piece of novel-writing software like Scrivener. Nevertheless, as I’ve mentioned before, there are some stages of the writing process (especially in the early days of planning) where I find the only way to make any progress is to sit down with a physical notebook and pen and scribble all my thoughts down. You might also be the sort of author who, like me, feels the need to keep a writer’s journal. Finally, if you’re like me, you’ll also be the sort of person who likes to hold on to every scrap of work you produce (including your brainstorm-scribbles) and keep it all neatly organised in one place.

Which is a pain. After all, you can’t add your handwritten notes to your Scrivener project.

OR CAN YOU?

Let me introduce you to Notebloc for Android and iPhone. This handy little app not only uses your smartphone’s camera to capture images, but it also automatically adjusts the colour and angle of your image(s) before easily exporting them as jpg or pdf files, making adding your handwritten notes to Scrivener (or wherever it is you keep your project files) a breeze. I should note, I’ve only tested the Android version of this app. If anyone has used the iPhone version and found it to be different from what I describe here, do let us know in the comments.

The first thing you have to do when you use this app is add images of your handwritten notes either by using your phone’s camera to capture an image or by importing a pre-existing image from your phone’s storage. Once you’ve done that, you will find yourself faced with an intuitive little screen (fig. 1) which allows you to adjust where the borders of your image should be. You can also rotate your image from this screen. So far, however, I’ve never had to actually do any manual adjusting; Notebloc does it automatically and with remarkable accuracy. However, in the unlikely event that it does not accurately identify the borders of your page, it’s a cinch to fix by simply long-pressing and dragging the borders to wherever you want them to be.

Once you’ve done that, Notebloc will then automatically adjust the shape and colours for you to create an image which favours readability. As you can see from fig. 2, the image it produces is pretty darn decent. The text is still clearly legible (poor handwriting notwithstanding; it’s a smartphone app, not a magic wand) and the colours have been reasonably well preserved. It even handles pencil with surprising ease. If, however, you’re not satisfied with the way it adjusts the colours, there are a few other colour adjustment styles you can choose from (see the menu along the top of fig. 2).

Once you’re happy with how the image looks, it gets added to your Notebloc document file (fig. 3). You can add as many pages to a document as you see fit and re-order the pages simply by long-pressing and dragging each page to wherever you want it to go (they will appear in the order in which you added them by default). From there you can print your document, share it online or copy your pages to another document if you so desire. Alternatively, you can do what I do and convert the document into a pdf or jpg format to be easily imported into your Scrivener project (fig. 4). I should add that if you opt for a jpg file, you will actually end up with numerous jpg files; specifically, one for each page. If, however, you opt for a pdf file, all the pages will be compiled into a single document, which makes it the best option for my money if you’re planning on adding it to Scrivener.

I’m pleased to say I haven’t found any glaringly obvious bugs in this app and it does what it says on the tin to a fairly impressive standard. It doesn’t have much in the way of bells and whistles and while I generally think that’s a good thing (too many superfluous features make an app cumbersome), I do think it would benefit from a few additional features; character recognition being the most obvious. The tools for manually adjusting the shape and colours of your image could also be more flexible; as it is, your options are quite limited if you don’t like the adjustments it makes automatically.

Oh and before you ask, this app is completely free and, best of all, it contains no ads. Go and get it!


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. Be sure to leave us a wee comment if you enjoyed it and don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what digitises your handwriting.

Until next time!

ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

I’m looking for authors (especially, but not limited to, new and/or indie authors) whose work I can feature here on Penstricken over the coming year. It will simply take the form of a quick Q&A about yourself and your work via private message or e-mail and, of course, a link to where we can all get a copy of your work.

I’m open to interviewing authors of almost any kind of story, provided your work is complete, original and of course, fictional. I will not consider individual short stories/micro-fictions, however I am happy to feature published anthologies or entire blog-sites of micro-fiction, provided you are the sole author.

If you’re interested, or want to know more, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

50 Quotes About Writing

Well, we’ve already had fifty quotes about fiction in general so today it’s time for another fifty quotes, this time providing advice, encouragement and general reflections on the process of writing. So without further ado…

  1. ‘I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.’ — Douglas Adams
  2. ‘There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.’ — Maya Angelou
  3. ‘There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.’ — Ernest Hemingway
  4. ‘Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words.’ — Mark Twain
  5. ‘If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.’ — Stephen King
  6. ‘It’s hell writing and it’s hell not writing. The only tolerable state is having just written.’ — Robert Hass
  7. ‘We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.’ — Anaïs Nin
  8. ‘Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go.’ — E.L. Doctorow
  9. ‘A writer, I think, is someone who pays attention to the world.’ — Susan Sontag
  10. ‘You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.’ — Madeleine L’Engle
  11. ‘If a story is in you it has got to come out.’ — William Faulkner
  12. ‘You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write.’ — Saul Bellow
  13. ‘I’m not a very good writer but I’m an excellent rewriter.’ — James Michener
  14. ‘You only learn to be a better writer by actually writing.’ — Doris Lessing
  15. ‘It is a very cool thing to be a writer.’ — Bryan Hutchinson
  16. ‘You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.’ — Ray Bradburry
  17. ‘If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.’ – Toni Morrison
  18. ‘Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.’ — Louis L’Amour
  19. ‘Substitute “damn” every time you’re inclined to write “very”; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.’ — Mark Twain
  20. ‘The only writer to whom you should compare yourself is the writer you were yesterday.’ — David Schlosser
  21. ‘Step into a scene and let it drip from your fingertips.’ — M.J. Bush
  22. ‘Growing up is highly overrrated. Just be an author.’ — Neil Gaiman
  23. ‘Be ruthless about protecting writing days, i.e., do not cave in to endless requests to have “essential” and “long overdue” meetings on those days.’ — J.K. Rowling
  24. ‘What doesn’t kill us gives us something to write about.’ — Julie Wright
  25. ‘There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.’ — W. Somerset Maugham
  26. ‘When asked “how do you write?” I invariably answer “one word at a time.”‘ — Stephen King
  27. ‘Writing, to me, is simply thinking through my fingers.’ — Isaac Asimov
  28. ‘Writing is show business for shy people.’ — Lee Child
  29. ‘It is perfectly okay to write garbage –as long as you edit brilliantly.’ — C.J. Cherryh
  30. ‘If you’re writing stuff, you’re a writer. If you’re not writing stuff, you’re not a writer. If you publish ten thousand best sellers, all of which get made into films, then stop writing, you’re no longer a writer… Similarly, if you are writing with any kind of regularity, you are a real writer. You might be a professional or only an amateur, but you are a writer. Really.’ — A. Ferguson
  31. ‘If you want to change the world, pick up your pen and write.’ — Martin Luther
  32. ‘Write about what really interests you, whether it is real things or imaginary things, and nothing else.’ — C.S. Lewis
  33. ‘Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.’ — William Wordsworth
  34. ‘Imagination is like a muscle. I found out that the more I wrote, the bigger it got.’ — Philip José Farmer
  35. ‘I write to find out what I’m talking about.’ — Edward Albee
  36. ‘Throw up into your typewriter every morning. Clean up every noon.’ — Raymond Chandler
  37. ‘You should write because you love the shape of stories and sentences and the creation of different words on a page. Writing comes from reading, and reading is the finest teacher of how to write.’ — Annie Proulx
  38. ‘Don’t be a writer. Be writing.’ — William Faulkner
  39. ‘Writing is like giving yourself homework, really hard homework, every day, for the rest of your life. You want glamorous? Throw glitter at the computer screen.’ — Katrina Monroe
  40. ‘Write what disturbs you, what you fear, what you have not been willing to speak about. Be willing to be split open.’ — Natalie Goldberg
  41. ‘To write well, express yourself like the common people, but think like a wise man.’ — Aristotle
  42. ‘You can make anything by writing.’ — C.S. Lewis
  43. ‘I write to give myself strength. I write to be the characters that I am not. I write to explore all the things I’m afraid of.’ — Joss Whedon
  44. ‘I need solitude for my writing; not “like a hermit” — that wouldn’t be enough — but like a dead man.’ — Franz Kafka
  45. ‘Writers don’t make any money at all. We make about a dollar. It is terrible. But then again we don’t work either. We sit around in our underwear until noon then go downstairs and make coffee, fry some eggs, read the paper, read part of a book, smell the book, wonder if perhaps we ourselves should work on our book, smell the book again, throw the book across the room because we are quite jealous that any other person wrote a book, feel terribly guilty about throwing the schmuck’s book across the room because we secretly wonder if God in heaven noticed our evil jealousy, or worse, our laziness. We then lie across the couch facedown and mumble to God to forgive us because we are secretly afraid He is going to dry up all our words because we envied another man’s stupid words. And for this, as I said, we are paid a dollar. We are worth so much more.’ — Donald Miller
  46. ‘Some writers enjoy writing, I am told. Not me. I enjoy having written.’ — George R.R. Martin
  47. ‘A word after a word after a word is power.’ — Margaret Atwood
  48. ‘A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.’ — Thomas Mann
  49. ‘Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly. That’s why it’s so hard.’ — David McCullough
  50. ‘Serious writers write, inspired or not. Over time they discover that routine is a better friend than inspiration.’ — Ralph Keyes

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. Be sure to leave us a wee comment if you enjoyed it and don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what inverts your commas.

Until next time!

ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

I’m looking for authors (especially, but not limited to, new and/or indie authors) whose work I can feature here on Penstricken over the coming year. It will simply take the form of a quick Q&A about yourself and your work via private message or e-mail and, of course, a link to where we can all get a copy of your work.

I’m open to interviewing authors of almost any kind of story, provided your work is complete, original and of course, fictional. I will not consider individual short stories/micro-fictions, however I am happy to feature published anthologies or entire blog-sites of micro-fiction, provided you are the sole author.

If you’re interested, or want to know more, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

Should You Use Profanity in Your Story?

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.


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. Be sure to leave us a wee comment if you enjoyed it and don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what #!$@*!!’s your &#@%!!!.

Until next time!

ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

I’m looking for authors (especially, but not limited to, new and/or indie authors) whose work I can feature here on Penstricken over the coming year. It will simply take the form of a quick Q&A about yourself and your work via private message or e-mail and, of course, a link to where we can all get a copy of your work.

I’m open to interviewing authors of almost any kind of story, provided your work is complete, original and of course, fictional. I will not consider individual short stories/micro-fictions, however I am happy to feature published anthologies or entire blog-sites of micro-fiction, provided you are the sole author.

If you’re interested, or want to know more, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

Writing Child Characters

Whenever I write a ‘writing tips’ style of post here on Penstricken about how to deal with one problem or another, it’s often as a result of me having recently encountered and overcome that particular problem myself. Today is no different, so I hope you’ll bear with me while I share my limited insights into the challenge of writing child characters.

It can be tempting to approach child characters differently from adults. Don’t fall into this trap. A character is a character, regardless of age. They are all imaginary people made up of motivations, goals, backstories, dialogue and all that wonderful stuff. Therefore, the exact same rules and techniques apply to creating child characters as they do to making adult characters. The only real difference is how you apply these familiar principles to making a child character.

Let’s start with the basics. When you created your adult characters, you undoubtedly prepared a detailed biography of every character detailing everything from their name and address to their favourite invertebrates (didn’t you?).

Well, this may sound obvious to some of you but it’s too important to leave unsaid: Your child characters’ biographies should be every bit as detailed as your adult characters’ biographies.

A name, an age and a gender is not sufficient to create a rounded child character anymore than it is sufficient to an adult. Take my daughter for example. In addition to these things, she has a height, a weight, a hair colour, an ethnic group, a national identity, a citizenship, a place of birth, an eye colour, a whole bunch of associates who interact with her regularly, a social status, things she’s good at (e.g. saying ‘mum’), things she’s not quite mastered yet (e.g. saying ‘dad’), things she likes (Mr. Lion) and things she dislikes (mushed up banana). She has a physical appearance which can be described in objective terms and she has a backstory (that is, I can think of several key events in her short life so far which have had an impact on who she is now and who she will be in the future). She is being raised with particular beliefs and she has a distinctive personality.

And she’s not even one year old yet. Don’t cut corners. Give your child characters detailed biographies.

Moving on from there, it’s important to remember that children, like adults, vary in their complex natures and are capable of a wide range of feelings and ideas, just like adults are. They have beliefs and uncertainties; goals and motives and everything else besides. Some are thoughtful while others are impulsive. Some prefer imaginative play while others are interested in puzzles and games. Some are chatterboxes, some are painfully shy. Et cetera.

Therefore, when you come to write your child character, it is vital that you have clearly established his or her motivation, (what drives them to do what they do), goals (what they hope to achieve), conflict (what hinders them from achieving their goal) and epiphany (what they learn as a result of it), just like you would with an adult. I’ve written about this in more detail here, so I’ll assume you understand how this all works in general terms.

One of the worst mistakes you can make is assuming children don’t need all this stuff. They need it just as much as adult characters. The only difference is what motivates them, what they hope to achieve, what hinders them and what they will learn. Even so, when you boil these elements (especially the all-important motive) down to basics, you’ll find a lot of parallels. They may be driven by personal ambition, a noble cause, the desire for friendship or many other things besides. It’s only the particular details that will be significantly different. For example…

Motivation Amy (8 years old) wants to be accepted by her peers.
Goals To acquire the full range of Pogs and Tazos (because this story is set in the ’90s; ask your parents, kids).
Conflict Amy’s parents think Pogs and Tazos are a fantastic waste of money and absolutely refuses to indulge her.
Epiphany  If you have to acquire the all trendiest things to win somebody’s respect, their respect isn’t worth having coveting.

Amy’s motivation, you will agree, could just as easily be that of an adult character. However the goals, conflict and epiphany which derive from it are far more peculiar to children. It is, therefore, the particular details that separate adults’ goals and motives from childrens’.

One more important difference between adult and child characters is how they express themselves, whether in terms of what they say or what they do. For instance,

  • A shy adult at a party will make awkward small-talk, silently wishing he was somewhere else. A shy child will hide under a table and refuse to come out.
  • An adult at the buffet table might be quietly annoyed to discover the pigs-in-blankets have all gone before he got any– but won’t say anything. A child, on the other hand, might cry inconsolably over the empty plate, or try to beg someone else to share theirs. A more shrewd child (because believe me, children can be shrewd!) might even try to trade a sausage roll for it, even though there’s still plenty of sausage rolls available at the buffet table.

Dialogue is also important in this regard. There are two key things to note.

  1. Children generally don’t mince their words. They say what they mean and they mean what they say, even if it’s inappropriate or rude. Avoid innuendos, double entendres and euphemisms.
  2. Children may have insightful or complex ideas, without necessarily having the vocabulary to communicate them. What they say, therefore, should reflect their level of education. Use shorter words and shorter sentences. Avoid code switching or cultural references that a child is unlikely to understand.

I find the simplest way to write children’s dialogue is to begin by writing it normally and then simplifying it. Keep sentences short and to-the-point and use big words sparingly. Don’t fall into the trap of filling your dialogue with deliberate mistakes, however. Children are not stupid. They just have a more simple language than adults with which to communicate (or ‘they don’t know as many words as grown-ups’).


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. Be sure to leave us a wee comment if you enjoyed it and don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what knocks your door.

Until next time!

What Do You Listen To While Writing?

When you write, do you find background noise distracting or helpful? As far as I can tell from my extensive research on the subject, there is no right or wrong answer to this question. Some writers can’t seem to put pen to paper until they’re in a soundproof environment while others insist that the only place they can write is on the sitting next to the machinery in a glass bottle factory, so you’ll be in good company whatever your aural writing preferences are.

Personally, I find that my needs change depending on what I’m writing and at what stage I’m at. Absolute silence, ambient background noise (though not quite at glass bottle factory levels) and music all have their place in my writing routine.

Absolute Silence

While perhaps not true of all writers, I think most of us would agree that there are at least some rare occasions when you need to focus your brain 100% on the task at hand; occasions when any kind of external stimulation, however small, can be distracting. I certainly find this to be true. When I’m struggling to perfect a tricky little piece of dialogue or weed out some of the holes in my plot, even the smallest sounds can prove to be a big distraction. When that happens, there’s nothing else for it but to retreat to a different room (or better still, a different building) from all other people and animals; close all windows and doors and turn off any central heating, washing machines or anything else that makes noise. If you have access to a soundproofed room, that’s even better.

But beware! As helpful as silence can sometimes be, it can also be deafening. Unless I’m trying to focus on a particularly sticky problem that requires every last iota of my brainpower, I tend to find absolute silence more of a hindrance than a help– not least of all because true silence can be very difficult to find. If you’re in a room that is absolutely silent except for the occasional dripping of a leaky tap or the gentle hum of your computer, that leaky tap or gentle humming can feel like someone taking a mallet to your head.

Ambient Background Noise

On most occasions, I find a bit of ordinary background noise can provide the perfect balance between silence and sound for everyday writing tasks, in much the same way that I find it easy to focus on my day job despite the constant hum of chattering colleagues and ringing telephones. It’s not so quiet that it becomes distracting, but neither is it interesting enough to draw my attention.

Lots of writers swear by writing in cafes for  this very reason. However, not all background noise is created equal. Finding a spot that guarantees you the right type and volume of background noise can be hard. Even if you do find a pleasant place to write in, it can all go a bit pear-shaped if somebody’s baby starts screaming or if a fire engine goes whizzing past. A good way to avoid this problem is by using apps like Noisli, which allow you to customise your own mix of background various ambient noises: trains, thunder, birdsong and so forth.

It will also save you a fortune in overpriced coffee.

Music

Music can be a great little motivator, especially if I’m engaged in a particularly long and gruelling writing session (Noisli doesn’t sound too repetitive in general but you will start to notice the pattern in the loops if you listen to it for hours on end).

However, interesting music can be unhelpful. For example, I like to listen to classic rock, but not when I’m writing, because catchy or complicated tunes tend to just distract me. Music with singing is the worst. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got a vast collection of music with vocals but if I try to listen to it while I’m writing, I end up just seeing a little silhouetto of a man and doing the fandango.

And there’s nothing worse than when that happens.

Easy listening is one option, but if you’re anything like me, you hate easy listening. I actually find video game soundtracks far more helpful to play (quietly!) while I’m in writing.  The Final Fantasy, Fable or Monkey Island soundtracks are my personal favourites. They are easy enough on the ear that you can listen to them for a long time but they aren’t so interesting that you get distracted by them. In fact, most gaming soundtracks have been specifically written to keep you focused on what you’re doing over a long period, so they’re maybe worth looking into, even if you don’t particularly like video games.

Sounds That Never Help. Ever.

  • People talking to you while you’re trying to write.
  • Your phone ringing/vibrating on the desk in front of you.
  • E-mail or social media notifications.
  • Your neighbours’ latest venture into DIY.
  • The sound of one or two others talking to each other but “politely” ignoring you. It’s not background noise if you can make out every word that’s spoken. Whispered conversation is no better.

What about you? What do you find helpful or unhelpful to listen to when you write?


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. Be sure to leave us a wee comment if you enjoyed it and don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what rings your bell.

Until next time!

Can’t Afford Scrivener? Try yWriter.

Many years ago, when I decided to make my first serious attempt at writing a novel, I did what a lot of enthusiastic beginners probably do: I searched high and low for the perfect novel writing app. I didn’t know about Scrivener back then (in fact, I’m not even sure it was available for Windows at that time) but I did come across another app in a similar vein called yWriter by Spacejock Software. I attempted my first ever novel with it and I absolutely swore by it for a long time. Only the discovery of Scrivener for Windows really turned my head. However, in homage to auld lang syne, I’ve decided to download and review the most recent version of yWriter (specifically, yWriter6) for those of you who don’t want to spend any money (for there is no other good reason not to get Scrivener).

yWriter1
Fig. 1

yWriter’s main window (fig. 1) is, for the most part, fairly self-explanatory. Like Scrivener, it allows you to organise your various notes on characters, settings, etc. and, like Scrivener, it allows you to organise your work into separate chapters and scenes. You can either begin with a blank project or you can use the project wizard… which is basically the same as making a blank project, only you begin by specifying the title, author’s name and file directory you want to save it to before you begin, thereby saving yourself thirty seconds later on.

ywriter-editor
Fig. 2

The window which you use to actually write your scene is also pretty self-explanatory for anyone even remotely familiar with ordinary word processors. Unlike many modern word processors, however, you are essentially restricted to writing in a rich text box rather than on a virtual page. As such, there is no easy way to format your page layout (rulers, margins, etc). However, in addition to the features you would expect to find on any word processor, you also have the ability to hear your story read out to you by Microsoft David or Microsoft Zira (a feature which can be handy for helping you to edit a manuscript you’ve grown overly familiar with) and there’s a whole host of tabs on this window which allow you to edit all sorts of information pertaining to the scene you’re working on, if you find that sort of thing useful. You can also easily jump from one scene to another using the drop down menus at the bottom of the scene editing window.

Though this app is simple in many ways, and certainly lacks the flexibility of Scrivener, it does boast a plethora of handy little features which you can use or ignore as you see fit. I doubt if you’ll be inclined to use all of them and I don’t have nearly enough space here to mention them all, but suffice to say it seems pretty obvious to me that the developers have tried to appeal to a broad spectrum of novelists by adding a variety of tools.

ywriter-ratings
Fig. 3

Personally, I am rather fond of the word usage window, which shows you a list of every word used in your story and tells you how often you’ve used it; a handy feature if you’re given to tediously repeating certain turns of phrase over and over again. In addition, the help menu includes a ‘writing tips’ option, which brings up a simple message window containing a snippet of handy writing advice such as ‘take a 5-10 minute break every hour. Walk, exercise, make a drink’ and ‘sometimes it’s quicker to rewrite a short scene from scratch than to keep editing it’. You can also rate the relevance, tension, humour and quality of each scene you write and collate that information into a handy-dandy line-graph (fig. 3), which could be a potentially useful tool when you come to edit your drafts (assuming you can be honest with yourself about the quality of your work). The tools for developing characters, settings and items which appear in your story are simple enough to use, if a little basic and inflexible, although there’s plenty of room for writing whatever notes you want.

If there’s one major thing yWriter lacks, it is the ability to compile your manuscript into a suitable format for distribution. For instance, with Scrivener, you can easily compile your work into a variety of useful formats including (but not limited to) standard manuscript format, screenplay format or e-book format– and of course, if none of the presets appeal to you, you can customise your own format. You can’t do any of that with yWriter. It does allow you to export your project in a variety of ways, but if you’ve got any serious plans to submit your work for publication, you’ll need to transfer your exported project to a suitable word processor and format it yourself.

I realise I’ve unintentionally spent a lot of time here comparing yWriter to Scrivener but I hope you won’t misunderstand my intentions. I really like yWriter. Yes, there is room for further development but I do think it’s worth trying, especially for new authors who are just dipping their toe into novel writing for the first time. Nevertheless, bells and whistles not withstanding, it is quite limited when it is compared to more expensive tools like Scrivener. My advice would be to give it a go. You may find yWriter is more than sufficient for your own particular needs, in which case you should be able to get your novel written and save yourself a few bob into the bargain.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. Be sure to leave us a wee comment if you enjoyed it and don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what sharpens your pencil.

Until next time!

Ink and Pixel: Writers’ Edition

Last year, I wrote a post about the pros and cons of e-book readers compared to traditional paper books. Well that’s all well and good for reading, but what about for writing fiction? How do you write? On paper or with a computer? These days, it’s not really much of a choice. You’ll have a hard time getting anything published if you don’t at least type up your drafts before you send them to anyone who edits or publishes for a living and (as I recently discovered) manual typewriters are hard to come by these days.

But what about in those glorious early stages, when you’re still figuring out character profiles, chapter outlines and scribbling out rough zero drafts?

My first order of business tends to be to grab my notebook and Bic four-colour ballpoint pen and get brainstorming, (click here for more on how I like to do this). I’ve tried to use the same brainstorming technique on my computer before but… it’s not the same. It’s too tempting to press that ‘delete’ key if I don’t like things and typing doesn’t allow me the same freedom to scribble small notes to myself in spare corners of the page. Scapple by Literature and Latte certainly allows me more freedom to order my ideas any way I like but for me, Scapple comes into its own later on in the planning stage, when I’m ready to start organising my ideas, as opposed to simply coming up with them. Using a lined paper notebook allows me to vomit my ideas out in an orderly but unrestricted fashion. There’s something about working on paper that gives free reign to my imagination in a way which, for some reason, seems to be lacking when I work on computer. Perhaps it’s because coming up with new ideas is so closely related to daydreaming, and they are yet to build an app which does anything to enhance a human’s ability to dream. There’s also something quite natural and pleasant about writing on paper. It feels less like work and more like playing, perhaps because that’s how I used to write when I was a wee boy scribbling out stories in my bedroom with crayons without worrying about how neat or clever it is.

However, once I get past the brainstorming stage, into the slightly more formal side of planning, I find myself far more drawn to my computer and tend to use a combination of the two: organising my thoughts on computer, but still relying on my notepad to help me work my way through any problems I might encounter. I have already commented on my love for Scapple. Once the basic ideas are in place and I know roughly what I want to do, Scapple allows me to organise and structure all my ideas (and identify potential problems) in one place without having to buy my own body weight in post-it notes or scribble all over my bedroom wall. In the same way, Scrivener, also by Literature and Latte (I promise they’ve not paid me to write this, I genuinely just love their stuff) helps me to stay organised by keeping together all my drafts, character profiles, plot outlines and my whole story bible in one neat and tidy place. No loose bits of paper, no losing things, no jumping from notebook to notebook or indeed app to app.

I never fully abandon my paper notebook, however, until I get to the stage of writing an actual first draft (not to be confused with a zero draft; more on that in weeks to come). Once all the planning is done and I feel confident that I can make the story work, there really shouldn’t be much call to come up with any new ideas unless I hit a serious problem– and I shouldn’t hit a problem that can seriously undermine my story if I’ve done the planning stage thoroughly. The bulk of the work is done on Scrivener, although I also use the Hemingway Editor to help me at the editing stage and I will also occasionally use FocusWriter to help me get into the swing of things if I’m having a hard day getting started (though whatever I produce still gets transferred to Scrivener). As a rule, the further I progress with a project, the more I find myself using Scrivener to the exclusion of all other apps (including Scapple), as well as paper stationary.

In a word, then, I tend to begin the story-writing process exclusively on paper and become more dependant on my computer as I progress. Paper is great for helping me come up with ideas. I’m yet to find a substitute for it. It’s the only way I know to record my imaginings in a way which is pure and complete and there’s a great joy to be had in the process of doing it. But when it comes to organising, producing and editing a written work, that’s when the computer/tablet (and the whole plethora of apps for writing that are available) really come into their own. There’s no substitute for the ease with which I can edit my work, the orderliness it brings to my life or indeed the fact that a grown-up publisher might actually read my manuscript when it’s finally done.


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. Be sure to leave us a wee comment if you enjoyed it and don’t forget to ‘like’ and share this post and follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what boils your egg.

Until next time!