Throwback Thursday: Using Magic in Fiction

Originally published 12/03/2017 under the title ‘A Few Words About Using Magic in Fiction’

I’ve recently been reading The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson and am so far loving everything about it. I love the characters, I love the world-building, I love Sanderson’s use of language, but more than anything I love the magic system he has created for his fantasy world.

Magic (as I’m loosely defining it here) features heavily in fantasy. The forms magic can take from one fantasy story to another, however, greatly vary. If you think I’m going to give you an exhaustive break-down of all the kinds of magic that appear in fantasy fiction, you’re sadly mistaken because I have neither the time nor the inclination do so, but I do want to try and break down what it takes to construct a good one as Sanderson has.

Let’s begin by highlighting an important pitfall we need to avoid. I am of course talking about the dreaded deus ex machina. For those of you who don’t know this term, deus ex machina (literally, ‘God in the machine’) is a literary device by which the problem faced by your characters is miraculously solved in an implausible or unexpected way which tends to be profoundly disappointing for the audience. If you’re including magic in your fantasy, there is a real temptation to endow your characters with a kind of practical omnipotence whereby they can rescue themselves from any situation simply by performing the right magic trick but doing this will suck all of the excitement out of your story.

I don’t want to harp on about Sanderson’s magic system in The Final Empire too much (mainly because I haven’t finished reading it yet and I might get things wrong) but it does serve as a good example of how to avoid this. This magic system (called Allomancy) involves ingesting and ‘burning’ certain key metals. Each metal endows the user with a particular ability. There are, however, only so many metals which can be used in Allomancy, which therefore puts a limit on the kinds of magic that can be used. Characters cannot randomly breathe fire or travel back in time but they can enhance all their physical attributes if they burn pewter, for instance. Allomancy is further limited by who can use it (Mistborns, who can burn all the metals and Mistings who can burn only one kind). There are many other limitations on this system too, but I hope you get the point: by creating limitations on magic, deus ex machina can be avoided because even the most powerful Allomancers can only act within the boundaries of what that world’s magic system allows them to do.

Another thing to bear in mind is that your magic system is inseparable from world-building. Indeed, creating your magic system is part of your world-building process. You need to ask yourself, therefore, where the magic comes from and how it works, even if you don’t make this explicit in the text itself. For instance, is it something inherent to certain creatures or people-groups in your world (fairies, wizards, dragons, women, children, the rich, the poor, etc) or is it something that can be learned or even purchased? Is it perceived as something natural or supernatural (in the same way we might perceive a difference between the science of medicine and miraculous spiritual healing)? In short, you need to ask yourself exactly what magic is, who has it, where it comes from and why.

Incidentally, it’s also worth remembering that the longer your fictional world has existed, the further your society’s understanding of magic is likely to have developed, in much the same way in the real world our knowledge about the universe has steadily increased – and we have developed technology which exploits that knowledge. If your characters are still crawling around in caves, they probably are barely aware of the intricacies of magic (even if they are aware of it at a primal or superstitious level), but if they are already flying around in spaceships, it’s likely that their understanding of your magical system will also be more advanced and this will be reflected in how they use (or avoid using) it.

Also remember that no matter what kind of system and history you create for magic in your world, it will affect the rest of the world and the characters in it, even if they cannot all perform magic themselves. It is not possible, for instance, to write a story set in a world just like our own except that all the children are telekinetic. Believe me, if a world ‘just like ours’ featured telekinetic children, we would have a very different society indeed; perhaps even a paedarchy. Certainly family life and systems of education would be drastically different from anything we have in the real world.

This is why it is so important to also ask yourself, why your story needs magic and what kind of magic it needs to make the story work. Having magic in your fictional world will fundamentally redefine that world and can undermine your story. Therefore, do not include magic just for the sake of having it. Like everything else in any good story, it must serve some function. And please, do not fall into the trap of thinking that magical abilities are your story. They are not. You can write a story which features telekinetic children if you like, but that’s not a plot or a cast of characters. That’s just a premise. Even in a magical fantasy, characters and the situations they find themselves in are always, always, always the beating heart of your story. The audience doesn’t really care about what your characters can do. The audience cares about what your characters need to do.


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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:

Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Cbeebies Edition

It’s time for another exciting edition of Super Snappy Speed Reviews. This week, I’m focusing exclusively on children’s TV from the Cbeebies channel, so roll up, parents of toddlers, as I review this small selection of my own little girl’s favourite TV shows.

You all know how these things work by now. I’ve selected five random children’s shows from the Cbeebies channel and written tiny little reviews of each of them. As ever these reviews reflect nothing more than my own personal opinions and impressions, squished, squeezed and diminished into just a few short sentences. The shows I have selected have nothing in common, save the fact that they are all fictional stories for very young children and are all found on Cbeebies. They are not necessarily TV shows that I or my daughter particularly liked or disliked, nor are they sorted into any particular order. So, here we go.

Raa Raa The Noisey Lion

A young lion has fun playing with other animals (including some who really ought to be his natural prey) in the Jingly Jangley Jungle. In the first series the show’s format is a little ill-defined, but by series 3 this insufferably self-absorbed little lion hears a different sound which he goes off to investigate and learns an important lesson along the way. Not bad, I suppose but I find the protagonist a bit of a pain (and I suspect his animal friends do too).

⭐⭐⭐

Postman Pat: Special Delivery Service

Postman Pat sure has evolved since my day. There’s a lot more excitement as Pat races against a ticking clock and insurmountable odds to deliver a particular item to the right place. Even as a grown-up, I do find it mildly entertaining and my daughter loves it. A firm favourite of both myself and my daughter.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Woolly and Tig

Right from the heart of my native Glasgow, Woolly and Tig follows the every day adventures of a little girl called Tig and her toy spider, Woolly, who occasionally springs to life to impart some pearl of wisdom whenever Tig encounters something new or confusing. This show has a cheap and cheerful feel to it but is nice to watch all the same. Another firm favourite of my daughter.

⭐⭐⭐⭐

The Twirlywoos

At first glance, this is a bizarre little program about a family of faintly bird-like creatures who live on a boat under the benevolent dictatorship of the faceless ‘hooter.’ Every now and again their boat will land and the hooter will send the Twirlywoos off into the real world to learn some new concept. Apart from being a little strange on the surface, it’s actually pretty good for teaching young kids some very basic concepts. My own daughter is a bit too old for it now and hasn’t really watched it for a good year or two but she loved it when she was still very little.

And in a weird way… so did I.

⭐⭐⭐⭐

Bitz and Bob

Ah yes, my daughter’s latest obsession. Bitz and Bob is about a girl and her little brother playing imaginative games with their toys and using science to solve problems. Entertaining and educational (though I don’t understand why Bob’s robot costume is the only ‘toy’ that doesn’t function in their imaginative games; it’s almost like Bitz has a pathological need to be the hero every single time). However, be warned, gentle parents: the music may drive adults to drink.

⭐⭐⭐

DON’T FORGET TO CHECK OUT ALL THE PREVIOUS EDITIONS OF SUPER SNAPPY SPEED REVIEWS
Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Children’s Edition (Vol. 4)Super Snappy Speed Reviews: TV Edition (Vol. 3)
Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Books (Vol. 4)Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Children’s Edition (Vol. 2)
Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Doctor Who EditionSuper 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

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ATTENTION AUTHORS:

Every Tuesday, I post a new edition of Spotlight: a short post which shines a proverbial spotlight on a published novel or collection of short fiction. If you would like to have your book considered for a future edition of Spotlightdrop us an e-mail including a short synopsis of your book and a link to where we can buy it. Better yet, send me a copy of your book and I can include a mini-review.

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.

Please be advised that 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:

TV Review: Norsemen

Spoiler Alert

Anyone who has not seen series 1-3 of the NRK TV series Norsemen is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

My wife and I were, once again, looking for something new and light-hearted to watch on Netflix when we stumbled upon a curious little number which we affectionately dubbed ‘silly Vikings.’ Norsemen is a Norwegian historical comedy which chronicles the silly, base and often senselessly violent comings and goings of a group of Vikings living in the village of Norheim in 790 AD.

I’ll be perfectly honest and say it took a long time for us to decide if we actually liked this program. Normally when we watch a new thing on TV we have a strict ‘turn it off if you don’t like it’ policy and this show took a good two or three episodes to really get going. Nevertheless there was something compelling about it even then and we stuck with it until the very end.

But was it any good?‘ I hear you cry.

There’s something in me that says this map will create a lot of problems for many people for several seasons.

Jarl Varg breaks the fourth wall in, s.3, e.6 ‘Scrotum Whipping’

In spite of the fact this show is sold as a comedy (and with its off-beat style, low-brow gags and occasional winks at the fourth wall, it unmistakably should be defined as such), I didn’t actually find it that funny. It had its moments, sure, but I hardly cracked a rib watching it either. But let me tell you why I enjoyed it anyway.

Unlike a lot of comedies which focus on an individual character getting into funny situations, this show actually had quite a few main players, all with well defined motives, goals and conflicts which the viewer could easily sympathise with. I don’t have time to list every one but a few that stood out include:

  • Arvid (Nils Jørgen Kaalstad) – torn between settling down in the village with a wife and his love of raiding and just a little sensitive about his weight, Arvid is hand picked by the chiefton on his deathbed to be his successor though he is not the next in line.
  • Orm (Kåre Conradi) – cowardly, lonely and with a fondness for spying on people as they defecate, this slipperly little man is next in line to be chiefton though no one wants him around.
  • Frøya (Silje Torp) – this muscle-bound female warrior loves to go on raids (including raping men). She also has the misfortune of being married to Orm, whom she despises.
  • Liv (Kristine Riis) – gold-digger and nagging wife par excellence.
  • Jarl Varg (Jon Øigarden) – one of the nicest guys you could ever hope to meet turned murderous tyrant because his friends made fun of his hair loss, Varg is obsessed with procuring a map to the West where he believes he will find endless plunder.

The character driven nature of the plot and the interplay of the various subplots was frankly excellent for a comedy series.

A little word of warning: while not especially graphic, there are some pretty adults themes referred to in this show. There’s a fair bit of casual violence and bad language, as well as jokes about sexual violence and a small number of mild/non-graphic depictions of the same.

All in all, a bizarre little show, undeniably low-brow in some respects and with off-beat humour that only managed to tickle me slightly. It took a little while to get started, but once it finally did get going, I found myself quickly starting to love it. Well written, well acted, full of rich characters and perfectly rounded off plot. If you can stomach a few adult themes and don’t mind the odd nod to the fourth wall then give it a 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 TwitterPinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

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ATTENTION AUTHORS:

Every Tuesday, I post a new edition of Spotlight: a short post which shines a proverbial spotlight on a published novel or collection of short fiction. If you would like to have your book considered for a future edition of Spotlightdrop us an e-mail including a short synopsis of your book and a link to where we can buy it. Better yet, send me a copy of your book and I can include a mini-review.

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.

Please be advised that 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:

Throwback Thursday: The 5 Circles of Inspiration Hell

Originally published: 20/08/2017

It was an ordinary day like any other. The sky was grey and the bus was late. Suddenly, the tiniest green shoot of an idea sprouted in your head. It was small, but healthy and full of promise and you knew — you just knew — that it was going to be the novel/play/film that you would be remembered for in generations to come. Today was the day it finally happened. You got inspired.

Of course, experienced, wise and learned authors know that before you can sign that publication deal and pick up all those awards, you’ve got to actually do something with your wave of inspiration to turn it into a fully fledged story. Initial ideas (especially plot bunnies which unexpectedly pop into your head) are always full of holes, not all of which can be easily plugged. It takes effort to craft it into something that really works.

Those experienced and wise authors I mentioned will know exactly how to handle their ideas and will churn out a good story in no time at all. The rest of us, however, if we’re not careful, might find ourselves languishing somewhere in INSPIRATION HELL.

Abandon hope ye who enter here. Wanderers in this dismal place may find themselves endlessly going around and around the same circle for weeks, months or even years before moving onto another or, worse yet, back to one they’ve already been on. They are damned to be forever inspired without completing a single draft. As a former inmate, it is my sorrowful privilege to shew unto thee the Five Circles of Inspiration Hell.

I: The Burrow of the Plotbunny

If you ever find yourself walking along one day, minding your own business when a wonderful and more-or-less fully fledged story idea suddenly pops into your head with little or no effort, beware! You are in danger of wandering into the Burrow of the Plotbunny. On the surface, it is a paradise where the ecstasy of inspiration fills even the most self-doubting writer with confidence that they will one day become the next Shakespeare, but in the end, nothing ever gets written lest the euphoria be broken. Those who find themselves in the Burrow of the Plotbunny are forever doomed to think about the wonderful idea they’ve had and dream of the day they publish it for all the world to enjoy… but they never actually begin to write it.

II: The Drawing Board of Despair

After spending untold days, weeks or months wandering in the futile bliss of the Plotbunny’s Burrow, you may decide it’s finally time to make your idea really happen. And so you conclude, quite correctly, that if you’re ever going to break free of Plotbunny’s Burrow, you’ll need to sit down and plan out your story. So far, so good. No good idea ever became a story without much toil.

However, beware! It won’t take more than a couple of minutes attempting to bring some structure to your idea that you begin to realise this idea isn’t nearly as good as you thought it was. It’s full of holes and is going to take way more effort than you ever dared to imagine. In fact, you’re not even sure if it ever can be crafted into a good story. The longer you spend, scratching away at the old drawing board, the more you tie yourself in seemingly impossible knots and sink, ever deeper, into a pit of despair. You’re no author. You’re ashamed to have ever thought you were.

III: The Pants of Denial

You wake up one morning after a good night’s sleep and remember that idea you had… that idea that was so wonderful until you tried to plan it.

‘Yes…’ you say to yourself, ‘it was planning that ruined my story…’

So you decide to throw away all notions of planning and simply ‘pants’ it instead. You convince yourself that if you just make it up as you go along, you’ll have a finished draft in no time. The trouble is, all those holes and problems you discovered with your idea at the Drawing Board of Despair weren’t caused by planning. They were simply discovered through planning. And so you spend eternity churning out disjointed narrative after disjointed narrative until you’re up to your armpits in random scenes and character auditions that serve no purpose. You convince yourself you’re making progress but the problems you faced at the Drawing Board of Despair remain unresolved. Your idea is still full of holes.

IV: The Fires of Refinement

Your enthusiasm has taken a few bruises now but you’ve accepted that your idea will never become a true story unless you sit down and plan it properly, even if that means making drastic changes to your initial idea. And so you decide to try planning again, only this time, with a more realistic attitude.

Your idea sucks. You know it to be true. But that’s okay, because all ideas suck until you turn them into a story. So you plan diligently, ruthlessly, killing whatever darlings stand in your way. You twist and mould and sculpt your initial idea until it’s no longer recognisable. But it’s taking shape. It’s getting better. It’s becoming a story. In fact, you even manage to produce a first draft. It’s hard graft and it hurts like blazes but you’re finally beginning to make real progress as you put your precious idea through the fires of refinement.

If you’re thinking this is a great opportunity to break free from Inspiration Hell, you’re absolutely right. In fact, you’re within spitting distance of The Pearly Gates of Authors’ Heaven. But beware! There is a trapped door beneath your feet which leads to…

V: The Pit of Capitulation

It was all going so well. You endured the pain of true planning and clawed your way to the very brink of completing your novel. You might have even produced a draft.

But it sucks. Your plan sucks. Your first draft sucks. You suck. And so you fall upon your own sword. You refuse to work on that idea any longer. The whole idea is dead to you.

What you failed to realise is that first drafts are meant to suck. Bringing a good idea to fruition requires perseverance. Planning, drafting and redrafting are all vital stages in producing anything even remotely good but it can be so difficult to keep going when your momentum starts to falter. You must persevere to succeed. The truth is, your initial idea really did have potential; potential it was perhaps even starting to realise. But potential alone does not make for a good story. It must be refined and polished again and again before it will truly shine as a story.

So… is there a way out of Inspiration Hell?’ I hear you cry.

Yes, there is.

First, you must actually begin working on your story idea. Second, you must remember that no story idea is perfect. It may have potential, but it will require serious effort and darling-killing if you’re to refine it into something worthwhile. Finally, no matter how hard it gets and no matter how awful your plans and drafts appear to be, remember and keep the Golden Rule:

Quitting is NOT an option!


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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ATTENTION AUTHORS:

Every Tuesday, I post a new edition of Spotlight: a short post which shines a proverbial spotlight on a published novel or collection of short fiction. If you would like to have your book considered for a future edition of Spotlightdrop us an e-mail including a short synopsis of your book and a link to where we can buy it. Better yet, send me a copy of your book and I can include a mini-review.

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.

Please be advised that 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:

TV Review: Stranger Things

SPOILER ALERT

Anyone who has not seen series 1-3 of the Netflix TV show Stranger Things is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

There’s a very popular show on Netflix that I had resisted watching for a long time. Don’t ask me why but I get all cynical when everyone and their granny tells me how mind-bendingly fantastic a TV show is, especially when it sounds frankly lame, as this show did. Not only did it sound lame but it was also a genre I generally don’t have much interest in so all in all, I was pretty convinced this show couldn’t have been nearly as good as people told me it was. I am talking, of course, about Stranger Things.

In spite of that, my wife and I were struggling to find something to watch one night (isn’t that always the way?) so we decided to take a pop at it.

Set in the 1980s, this story focuses on a sleepy little town in Indiana where nothing much happens– until, of course, a young boy vanishes without a trace, a gateway to another dimension (‘the Upside-Down’) filled with terrifying monsters is opened up and a young girl with psychokinetic abilities escapes from a top secret laboratory which is conducting paranormal experiments and only a small group of nerdy school-friends, a teenage girl who can’t decide which boy she likes best, a local police officer with a tragic past and the missing boy’s mother can save the day.

If you’re thinking this sounds like a bit of a kitchen sink show, you’re absolutely right. The Duffer brothers who created the show seem to have painstakingly pieced together every single last light-hearted ’80s American sci-fi/horror trope they could think of and mashed them together to create this show. But you know… it’s not nearly as bad as it sounds.

In many respects, it has a bit of a Spielberg vibe to it, and I guess I say that as a compliment. It doesn’t just feel like it’s set in the ’80s. It feels like it was made in the ’80s. The use of classic tropes, cheesy synth music and so on take you right back in time to 1980s Indiana and in doing so pays homage to classic 1980s cinema in a way which just feels right.

However, a good vibe will only take a TV show so far. As is so often the case with good stories, the thing that really makes this show work is its rich cast of characters. Each and every one of them boasts a clear and distinctive set of motives and goals and well rounded personalities. The relationships between the main players develops in a way which is natural and interesting and the main characters’ arcs are all resolved neatly by the end of each season.

I think the thing that surprised me the most is how entertaining I found this show. A good film or TV show will have you laughing, crying and biting your nails all at the same time and Stranger Things accomplishes this in a way most shows and films of this genre usually fail to do. It kept me on the edge of my seat yet it didn’t stress me out the way some sci-fi/horror shows do which lack any sort of sentimental scenes or comedy relief. Stranger Things has it all. It is, perhaps, a little tropey and with frankly ridiculous monsters whose existence is never fully explained except that they come from a parallel dimension which looks like a scarier version of the real world with monsters but it’s still a great bit of TV if you can swallow the silliness.

All in all, a much more entertaining show than I was expecting. Give it a 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 TwitterPinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

Want a blog of your own? Start writing today with WordPress.com!

WordPress.com Jetpack WooCommerce

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

Every Tuesday, I post a new edition of Spotlight: a short post which shines a proverbial spotlight on a published novel or collection of short fiction. If you would like to have your book considered for a future edition of Spotlightdrop us an e-mail including a short synopsis of your book and a link to where we can buy it. Better yet, send me a copy of your book and I can include a mini-review.

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.

Please be advised that 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:

Throwback Thursday: 6 Mental Cobweb Shakers for Writers

Originally published 23/07/2017

Ever sat down to write and found your imagination covered in so many cobwebs that you can’t even remember how to pick up your pen? Ever sat staring at a blank screen for hours without even the faintest idea where to begin? Ever wasted your set writing time reading patronising articles on the internet telling you writers’ block doesn’t exist (when you know better) because you just can’t quite seem to get settled into your day’s work?

No?

Well I have, and whenever that happens to me I need something to quickly shake away the cobwebs to help me get off the starting block. Therefore, I am going to commend a few of my favourite cobweb shakers to you today. I don’t know if these will work for you or not but they work for me so… you might as well give them a go, eh?

Write Urgently

I’ve blogged about this before, but it has so revolutionised my whole writing life that it bears saying again. If you find yourself staring at a blank page for hours and have little or nothing to show for it when you’re done, try resolving to write for no more than thirty minutes, twenty minutes or even less all day. Better yet, start your writing session at a time when you know you’ll have no choice but to stop very soon; i.e., while your dinner is in the oven or in that spare twenty minutes before you have to catch a bus to get to work on time. It sounds crazy, but I find that writing in short bursts creates a sense of urgency which forces me not to procrastinate or edit as I write.

Background Noise

Silence may be golden, but it can also be as distracting as having someone talking in your ear. The solution? Get yourself some background noise. You could always do this by seeking out a noisier location, but assuming you don’t particularly want to move anywhere, I can highly recommend Noisli to you as a free tool which allows you to customise your own blend of ambient background noises including (but not limited to) thunder, a crackling fire, a train moving and a coffee shop. These sounds loop indefinitely, so you can turn it on and let it lull you into a false sense of sitting in a coffee shop on a rainy day or listening to birds singing beside a crackling fire.

I know lots of writers enjoy listening to music while they write, although personally, I still find that a bit too distracting, especially if it involves complicated melodies or (worst of all) vocal parts with lyrics. If you must listen to music while writing, I recommend keeping it gentle and instrumental. Video game music is particularly useful as it is designed to be incidental and keep you focused on the task at hand.

Play a Game

Speaking of games, I also find playing a computer game a good cobweb shaker. Nothing too mind-numbing, of course. Avoid anything that involves decimating sweets or throwing helpless animals (actually, just stay away from mobile gaming altogether). I find it far more effective to play a game I need to use my brain for and preferably something with a story of its own. I’m a big fan of retro gaming, so classic adventure games such as Grim Fandango and Monkey Island often fit the bill for me but anything you need to use your brain for should do.

The danger with this, of course, is that you can waste all day gaming. If you’re going to game away the cobwebs, be sure to set yourself a strict time-limit.

Indulge A Different Creative Interest

Like gaming, this approach will also require a strict time-limit but if you’re feeling too lackadaisical to get started with your writing project, you might find pursuing another creative endeavour will give you the spark of enthusiasm you need. Of course, you’ll know better than I do what turns you on apart from writing. It could be singing, dancing, painting, conducting bizarre scientific experiments* or something else entirely. Whatever it is, set aside a little(!) time to immerse yourself in something that makes you feel alive and gets your mental juices flowing. You’ll come back to writing feeling able and rejuvenated.

Go For a Walk/Exercise

Though I’m loath to admit it a bit of fresh air and exercise is a great way to shake away the mental cobwebs. Even just a five minute walk and a change of scenery can work wonders. Just don’t wander so far that you don’t have time to write!

Free-write
freewrite
Example free-writing session.

Free-writing is ideal for when you just don’t have the time to waste gaming, exercising or cloning your budgie. Simply set a timer for a minute, five minutes, ten minutes or whatever you feel is necessary and write WITHOUT CEASING for that whole time. You don’t need to think about structure, plot or anything. Just write. It doesn’t matter if you have typos. It doesn’t matter if you write piles of meaningless rubbish with all the orderliness of a pig’s regurgitated dinner. It doesn’t even matter if all you manage to write is ‘I don’t know what to write, I don’t know what to write, I don’t know what to write…’

What matters is that you pick up your pen and write!

Sometimes it can even help you to come up with ideas, but even if it doesn’t, don’t worry about it. The most important thing is that you stop doing nothing and start writing something. Anything. As long as it’s something.

I hope you found some of these tips useful. Do let us know if you did by commenting below, and also if you’ve got any mental cobweb clearing tips of your own, why not comment below so we can all benefit from your wisdom and experience?

Until next time!

*This website does not in any way endorse dangerous, unethical, illegal or otherwise ill-advised scientific experiments. Any suggestions to the contrary in this post were meant only as a joke and should not be taken seriously.


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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ATTENTION AUTHORS:

Every Tuesday, I post a new edition of Spotlight: a short post which shines a proverbial spotlight on a published novel or collection of short fiction. If you would like to have your book considered for a future edition of Spotlightdrop us an e-mail including a short synopsis of your book and a link to where we can buy it. Better yet, send me a copy of your book and I can include a mini-review.

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.

Please be advised that 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:

Throwback Thursday: Fiction- Reality Refined

Originally published: 05/11/2017

There are two kinds of story in this world. Those that are not at all true to life and therefore are completely unsatisfactory, and those that create the illusion of being true to life but, in fact, are not. Very few stories (even those meticulously and faithfully based on true events) accurately reflect real life once they’ve been structured in a way which allows them to be communicated, because real life is far too much of a jumble for that to be possible.

‘But wait just a minute here,’ I hear you cry. ‘I read a book/watched a film/attended a play/played a game just the other day there and it was the truest darn thing I’ve ever seen in my entire life!’

Well of course it’s true that if you’re writing a story, you’ll want it to be true to life in the sense that it must accurately reflect the human experience. A skilled author can (and should) attempt to communicate far more fundamental truths than this about life and death, war and peace, society, philosophy, religion or whatever it might be in their stories. And of course, stories based on true events must remain faithful to history. No one is denying any of that.

However, in real life, events are disjointed and random. Things happen for no reason. Reality must therefore be refined in order to turn it into a digestible and entertaining story. For instance, you might be writing a novel (based on the true story) about your holiday to France where you met your future wife and fought to win the respect of her disapproving father. Now while you were there, you also bumped into Mr. Donald, your former maths teacher. It turns out he’s there to attend the Fête de la Musique because (to your surprise) he’s ridiculously enthusiastic about music and will travel far and wide to attend music festivals all over the world. You make polite conversation about this for twenty minutes and then go your separate ways. You put the event out of your mind. Life goes on. It never comes up again. All that you have learned about Mr. Donald, his passion for music or that there is an all-day music festival that happens in Paris every June neither harms or benefits you in any way, at any point in your life, ever.

So… when you come to write the novel about how you went on holiday, met a girl and won the respect of her father, you’re not going to include that event, are you? Because in all story telling, everything happens for a reason. Meaningless events only serve to break up the flow, rhythm and pace of the story. Have you ever been watching a film and noticed that nobody ever says goodbye to anybody else, even on the telephone? Or that nobody ever walks into a room and forgets what they went there for, or forgets what they were about to say. And no one ever needs to go to the toilet, unless there’s a mad axe murderer in there already poised and waiting to kill them. This isn’t true to life at all! In real life, people always forget things, usually do say goodbye on the phone and, more often than not, have uneventful visits to the bathroom.

Not only that, but in all good stories (even those based on true events) there is a clear and identifiable structure, sometimes called the ‘story arc’ or ‘narrative arc’ (a simple definition and description is available here) and all the events in your story should contribute in some way towards its construction. This is not true to life, but it is good story telling. In real life, you meet new people all the time. They enter your life, do or say so many things and then leave your life, often without ceremony. Many different events happen all at once and are often never fully resolved. Good story telling isn’t like that. In good story telling, A leads to B which leads to C and in the end, all the loose ends are tied up. They might not necessarily all live happily ever after, but the story comes to a neat end. Our questions are answered and we are happy to assume that life goes on (at least for the survivors).

If all of this is teaching your granny to suck eggs, let me draw your attention to one more point: dialogue. In dialogue, you walk a fine line between creating a distinctive and believable voice which tells you something about the character and constructing your dialogue in a way which allows your narrative to flow.

It may be difficult to do because we’re all so used to verbal communication, but next time you’re having a verbal conversation with someone, listen to the words they use. Don’t just listen to their meaning. Pay careful attention to every utterance. You will notice that, more often than not, the rules of grammar go out the window. New sentences are often begun before the previous one is finished. People interrupt and talk over one another. Sometimes misunderstandings will derail a conversation (‘Do you like coffee?’ ‘Oh yes I’d love one, thank you!’). Words are often misused (for instance, when people say ‘pacific’ instead of ‘specific’). Sentences are often punctuated by non-sensible utterances (‘erm…’, ‘uhh…’). The list goes on.

Seriously, I encourage you to try it someday. Make a precise transcript of a real-life conversation in exactly the order it is spoken and read it back to yourself. You will marvel at the fact human beings are able to communicate at all when you see just how muddled up our verbal communication is.

In fiction, however, your dialogue can’t be like that. You can add dialects, accents and perhaps even the odd bit of bad grammar to your heart’s content but the flow of the conversation still has to be clear for the reader. Dialogue, just like the rest of your narrative, has a purpose. It drives the story on, and therefore it must accomplish its ends. Still, it must sound believable. You as the author, therefore, walk a fine line between making it sound so implausibly perfect that your characters seem wooden and so realistically imperfect that it reads like meaningless waffle and drags your story’s pace down to a crawl.

Not only that, but you also have to beware of making the content of a conversation sound too contrived. It can be all too tempting to use dialogue as a place to info-dump. E.g., ‘I visited my sister, Andrea McLaren, 24, who lives just around the corner from the butchers on Western Road’.

Real people don’t talk like that. If Andrea’s full name, age and address are important, they need to be worked in with subtlety and believably. There are many techniques you can use to lend credibility to your dialogue, but I’ll come back to that in a future post.


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.

Want a blog of your own? Start writing today with WordPress.com!

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ATTENTION AUTHORS:

Every Tuesday, I post a new edition of Spotlight: a short post which shines a proverbial spotlight on a published novel or collection of short fiction. If you would like to have your book considered for a future edition of Spotlightdrop us an e-mail including a short synopsis of your book and a link to where we can buy it. Better yet, send me a copy of your book and I can include a mini-review.

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.

Please be advised that 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:

TV Review: Life on Mars

SPOILER ALERT

Anyone who has not seen the BBC comedy/drama series Life on Mars is hereby advised that this review may contain spoilers.

If you told me that you liked your police procedural dramas with a generous dollop of humour, possible time travel and the occasional psychological scene, I would take that to mean you’re a fan of the British police comedy/drama, Life on Mars— because that’s the only program I know that fits the bill (except the sequel, Ashes to Ashes, but I’ll talk about that another time).

DCI Sam Tyler (John Simm) is a British police officer who gets hit by a car in 2006 and wakes up in 1973. The rest of the series catalogues his continual clashes with his new colleagues as he tries to navigate the unfamiliar world of the early ’70s and figure out how to return to the present day. There is also a fairly bog-standard will-they/won’t-they style romantic subplot with WPC Annie Cartwright (Liz White); one of the few characters who doesn’t continually mock and obstruct Tyler, despite her disbelief that he is truly from the future.

So, let’s start with the good things about this program.

For a start, it has got a superb bunch of regular characters. The desperate but righteous Sam; the quiet but strong and intelligent Annie; the blustering, boisterous but ultimately well-meaning Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister); the dim-witted but diligent Chris Skelton (Marshall Lancaster) and Ray Carling (Dean Andrews), who serves as something of a foil and rival to Sam throughout the show. The main players are all developed to perfection with good solid character arcs which resolve themselves neatly by the end of the last series. The supporting characters are also well developed but keep their place as supporting characters.

The pacing of this show is also excellent, blending together humour and darkness, mystery and sentiment and, of course, the lingering threat of insanity in a way which feels perfectly natural and leaves the viewer feeling fully entertained.

The overall story arc is also very satisfying. While each episode can more or less stand alone, insofar as there is usually a particular crime which is discovered and solved in each episode, Sam’s confusion about how he ended up in the past and what he needs to do to get home are never far from the fore and the events of each episode lead neatly to the climax at the end of the series.

I don’t have many negative things to say about this show. The romantic subplot between Sam and Annie was a fairly tedious tableau: Annie meets Sam in the first episode, there’s a bit of chemistry. He trusts her with the truth about what he’s going to; she thinks he’s mad but kind of likes him anyway, even though she’s a little hurt that he wants to get back to 2006 when it’s probably not real anyway. That’s pretty much how their relationship goes in every episode until they finally get together at the end of the very last episode. There’s not a whole lot in between. In most episodes he just has a disturbing experience with the Test Card Girl (Rafaella Hutchinson/Harriet Rogers), confides in Annie, Annie is concerned and whines a little that he doesn’t want to stay with her but ultimately tries her best to support him. Repeat.

Apart from that, it was a truly excellent bit of telly. Go and watch it with my blessing.

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 TwitterPinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

Want a blog of your own? Start writing today with WordPress.com!

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ATTENTION AUTHORS:

Every Tuesday, I post a new edition of Spotlight: a short post which shines a proverbial spotlight on a published novel or collection of short fiction. If you would like to have your book considered for a future edition of Spotlightdrop us an e-mail including a short synopsis of your book and a link to where we can buy it. Better yet, send me a copy of your book and I can include a mini-review.

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.

Please be advised that 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:

TV Review: Another Life

SPOILER ALERT

Anyone who has not seen season 1 of the sci-fi/drama TV show Another Life is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

My wife and I are seldom happy unless we’re watching at least one TV program with space ships in it and having recently completed Star Trek: Enterprise, we were very much in the market for another space opera. And so we did the only thing we could: dipped our hand into the televisual nest of vipers that is Netflix, only to get bitten by Another Life.

I was cautiously optimistic about this show. In the opening scenes, a mysterious alien object crash-lands on earth and grows into an enormous crystalline monolith (dubbed ‘the Artifact’) which begins sending transmissions to a distant world. Niko Breckinridge (Katee Sackhoff), captain of the Salvare, is ordered to travel to this planet to learn what the aliens are doing, while her husband, Erik (Justin Chatwin) remains on earth to study the Artifact while trying to raise their young daughter.

Sounds good, right?

Yeah. That’s what I thought too.

However, if we ever do have to send a manned spacecraft out on a dangerous mission to make first contact with aliens who may or may not mean us harm, I seriously hope we send a slightly more seasoned (or at least, trained) crew than this mob. These guys seemed to see no problem in eating alien plant-life, taking off their helmets while mining on alien planets or (my personal favourite) vaping alien narcotics, nor did they ever once learn from their mistakes. Their idiocy finally culminated in them deliberately installing a mind-altering alien implant, which they knew virtually nothing about, into a sick colleague’s brain. And as if being stupid weren’t bad enough, this crew, who presumably represent the crème de la crème of America’s astronauts, lost their heads every single time one tiny little thing went wrong– when they weren’t having sex, of course.

The sexual elements in this show (I refuse to exalt them to the level of ‘romantic subplots’, for they were neither romantic nor were they developed enough to be called subplots) lacked any substance or purpose whatsoever. All of the characters were pairing (or tripling) off in ways which seemed forced and unconvincing, finally fizzling out in the episode ‘How the Light Gets Lost’ where they all get high and have sex. Only the chemistry between Niko and the holographic William (Samuel Anderson– easily the best character in this show, by the way) seemed remotely natural or like it was contributing to the overall story in any way, only to be spoilt when Niko and William have really weird ‘hologram-pretending-to-be-my-husband’ sex and then it all went wrong for them too.

‘Big Brother in Space’ is how my wife described this ship and its crew and I am forced to agree.

Anyway, let’s look at some characters.

Niko: One of the few competent people aboard the ship. A bit of a control freak and a hard-nosed no-nonsense space captain who was anxious to protect her family back on Earth. Fairly well written.

William: Best character in this show and easily the most likeable until the ‘Lame Sci-Fi Trope Monster’ got him too and he started to malfunction because he fell in love with someone who treated him badly.

Erik (Justin Chatwin): Your bog-standard American dad trying to raise his daughter all by himself even though he’s also got a really important job to do. Lots of potential but a little too superficial for my taste.

Sasha (Jake Abel): I liked him better after he became a bad guy. He made my skin crawl, which I think was the effect the writers were going for.

Cas (Elizabeth Ludlow): A little preoccupied with her own issues which were never fully explored in this season but generally likeable. Cooler in a crisis than most of the crew.

Michelle: Swears like a trooper but apart from that, she seemed to serve no function whatsoever aboard the Salvare, (I just checked back to see what her job was, turns out she was the communications expert. Ha!) and I was downright glad when she died because she was just such a torn-faced, potty-mouthed pain in the fundament who dragged down both the pace and the tone of the show with her shrill dialogue.

All in all, Another Life failed to live up to its potential. This first season (which ends on a cliffhanger, by the way) was a sloppy mish-mash of sci-fi/horror cliches, pointless sexual tension and a bunch of characters who, for the most part, were as irritating as they were incompetent.

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 TwitterPinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

Want a blog of your own? Start writing today with WordPress.com!

WordPress.com Jetpack WooCommerce

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

Every Tuesday, I post a new edition of Spotlight: a short post which shines a proverbial spotlight on a published novel or collection of short fiction. If you would like to have your book considered for a future edition of Spotlightdrop us an e-mail including a short synopsis of your book and a link to where we can buy it. Better yet, send me a copy of your book and I can include a mini-review.

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.

Please be advised that 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:

Throwback Thursday: Maigret (TV Review)

Originally published: 10/04/2016 under the title ‘To Catch a Killer (A Little Too Easily)’
SPOILER ALERT

Although every effort has been made to avoid spoilers, anyone who has not seen the ITV television-movie Maigret or read the Georges Simenon novel Maigret Sets a Trap is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

I’m normally quite fussy about reading the original of any story before I watch the film/TV adaptation. It’s not that I favour one over the other; I just like to get a feel for the original author’s unique angle on his/her story before sampling other people’s homages to it. That being said, when I heard that Rowan Atkinson was going to be starring as the main character in ITV’s television adaptation of Georges Simenon’s detective novel Maigret Sets a Trap, my curiosity got the better of me.

There are a couple of reasons I was so keen to see it but what really piqued my curiosity and what caused me to break with my usual tradition of reading the book first was the fact that the main character (a fairly sour-faced French detective called Jules Maigret), was being portrayed by Rowan Atkinson; a British actor best known for playing fairly silly comedy roles such as Mr Bean, Johnny English and Edmund Blackadder.

I will admit that it took a couple of minutes to get used to Atkinson’s face being so serious. His features are very striking and he has made a career out of comical facial expressions, not least of all in Mr Bean, where he has made an art of telling jokes without uttering a word. My disorientation only lasted a minute however. Atkinson’s acting and the general mood of the film were more than adequate to create the serious and mysterious ambiance needed for a good, solid detective story.

I do love a good detective story. I think secretly we all do. Mystery is very compelling. It’s what makes a detective story so captivating; something puzzling has happened and we simply can’t go to bed until we’ve had all our questions answered! That means, of course, that it is important that the reader/viewer of a detective story never knows for certain who committed the crime until the last moment (that was always my biggest objection to Columbo!). Those unanswered questions are what keep us on the edge of our seat. Without them, there’s no mystery and no story worth telling. Those detailed conversations you have with your family during the ad-breaks about who you think the killer might be and why are half the fun of watching a detective drama in my book.

And that, dear reader, is the main thing that ruined this first episode of Maigret for me.

The episode opens midway through an investigation conducted by Jules Maigret into four similarly styled murders. The victims have nothing in common except the colour of their hair and Maigret is, frankly, utterly failing to catch the perpetrator. And so he sets a trap, using female police officers as bait. At first, this seems to have all the makings of a good TV detective story; a compelling hard-nosed detective; pressure being applied to remove the detective from the case because of his failure to solve it; a series of mysterious murders that cause my wife and I to exchange numerous increasingly wild theories about ‘who dunnit’; the looming threat of more deaths; a dangerous plan to force the killer to reveal himself…

But then the plan goes ahead fairly early in the story, nobody gets killed as a result of Maigret’s risky move and someone is arrested against whom a truck-load of evidence is immediately forthcoming.

‘It can’t be him.’ I say to my wife. ‘It definitely, definitely, definitely can’t be him. It’s too obvious. It’s never the first guy they arrest, especially not when they find so much evidence against him so easily.’

So we carry on watching it for another half hour or so, quietly confident in our individual theories about who the real killer is while Maigret continues to hold and interrogate someone who we assume is an innocent man…

Only it turns out it was him after all and the person who I thought maybe was the killer is actually never actually seen again. Oh sure, they try to throw us off the scent by having another murder committed while the killer is in jail but by that point it’s painfully obvious that it was the killer’s wife who committed this last murder just to protect her husband and so we are not fooled and neither is Maigret.

I was prepared for the possibility that I wouldn’t be able to take Rowan Atkinson seriously as a serious detective and was pleasantly surprised to find that I thoroughly enjoyed his performance. If I was giving out prizes for acting or creating the right ambiance, I would have nothing but praise for Maigret but when it comes to that all important story, I must admit to feeling like I had been robbed of a good mystery and I am not nearly as enthusiastic about the second episode (due to be aired later in the UK later this year) as I was about the first.

My most sincere congratulations to Rowan Atkinson (and indeed, all the cast!) on a very good and very non-comical performance. Hopefully the plot for the next episode, Maigret’s Dead Man, will do greater justice to the acting and ambiance of the first episode.


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.

Want a blog of your own? Start writing today with WordPress.com!

WordPress.com Jetpack WooCommerce

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

Every Tuesday, I post a new edition of Spotlight: a short post which shines a proverbial spotlight on a published novel or collection of short fiction. If you would like to have your book considered for a future edition of Spotlightdrop us an e-mail including a short synopsis of your book and a link to where we can buy it. Better yet, send me a copy of your book and I can include a mini-review.

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.

Please be advised that 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: