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.

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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!

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!

5 Useful Posts on Fiction Writing

Sometimes, I just can’t say it better than my fellow bloggers. I’ve decided, therefore, that it is time for another exciting instalment of 5 Useful Posts on Fiction Writing, where I share some of the most useful, enjoyable and insightful posts on fiction writing I’ve seen from other bloggers in recent weeks.

As ever, there have been numerous posts I’ve read lately that I could include in this list. I read a wide variety of blogs on fiction and writing and could not even begin to list them all. This is just a selection of some that I have recently found particularly useful or enjoyable.

So, without further ado and in no particular order:

Emily Herring Dunn – [writing] dry spells can be natural (a little encouragement for when your writing-mojo grinds to a halt)

Melanie Mole – Let’s Have More Writer Love (writing is hard and although we writers are solitary by nature, this post is an encouragement to give each other a bit of support)

Rachel Poli – How To Give Your Short Stories A Neat Ending (practical advice on writing the hardest part of any short story — the ending. I’ve been struggling to come up with an ending for something I’m working on just now myself, so this was a very timely post for me)

JR Creaden – Four Ways to Write Through the Fog (when you get completely stuck with your writing project and it feels like driving through a fog… give a few of these simple tips a try)

Marie Christopher – “Write Something Every Day” (‘Just write something every day’ isn’t always the best advice, as Marie Christopher explains)


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 curdles your custard.

Until next time!

The 5 Circles of Inspiration Hell

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. 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 floats your boat.

Until next time!

6 Mental Cobweb Shakers for Writers

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
Here’s what my free-writing session looked like. Pretty dismal, right?

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? And if you enjoyed this post, be sure to follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if you feel so inclined.

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.

Hey Author, Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

‘Oh, so you’re an author then? Where do you get all your story ideas from?’

Ughhhh! Stop asking me that! I don’t know! If I knew the answer to that, I’d probably have more ideas!

Er-hem.

Okay, so for reasons best known to yourself, you want to know where to find the House of the Magical Idea Wizard and think that perhaps I, or one of my author colleagues (you know, the ones that have actually got a few novels published), might have the answers you seek. I know I’m not alone in having people ask me about this. Writers’ blogs seem to be replete with authors whining and complaining about how often their family, friends and fans (those of you who have fans) ask them this same question.

Well… today, O seeker of insight, I am going to attempt to answer this singularly annoying and misguided question in the only way I can: from my own narrow experience.

The first thing you need to know is that there is no Magical Idea Wizard. Or at least, if there is, I’ve never met him. Plot bunnies are certainly real enough, but they are not bred by any one person whom you can purchase one from, nor do they grow on a special tree. In fact, between you and me, I’m not even sure plot bunnies are all that useful. They’re certainly not to be relied upon if you plan on making a career out of story writing.

‘Hold the bus for just a minute!’ I hear you cry. ‘What on earth’s a plot bunny when it’s at home?’

I’m glad you asked. A plot bunny is a story idea that pops into your head and won’t go away. They tend to appear out of the blue. For example, I recall on one particular occasion I was sitting on the upper deck of a bus coming home from the hospital where I work. At one point, while we were stopped at traffic lights, I noticed a Chinese takeaway and I was struck by exactly two thoughts:

  1. Mmm… salt and chilli chips…
  2.  If I ever figure out how to invent a time machine, I’m definitely going to keep it a secret. Then I’ll open a takeaway and be able to trump all the competition by travelling back in time to get all my orders to my customers mere moments after they make the order.

The first thought was mere gluttony. I ordered a takeaway when I got home and that was that. But the second thought was a plot bunny par excellence. For months I turned that strange little notion over in my mind, convinced that there was a story in it (for in itself, it was not a story but just a premise) but I just couldn’t make it work. Nevertheless it was a persistent nuisance in my brain, demanding to be written but it was a whole year before I was able to actually turn it into a story. More often than not, however, I find most plot bunnies come to nothing.

So… it is possible to be struck with sudden waves of inspiration, but they’re often unproductive in the long run and — more importantly — there’s absolutely no way to simply snap your fingers and make plot bunnies come to you on demand. In a word, plot bunnies are utterly unreliable.

Wise authors know that if you want to be able to write stories on demand, you need to be deliberate and methodical in developing your idea from the tiniest seed. That ‘seed’ could be anything. For me it’s usually either a theme I want to write about (e.g., my current novel started as a simple desire to write a story about rebellion) or else it’s a character looking for a story to belong to. But where does that ‘seed’ come from?

It’s not magic. All you need to do (boring though this sounds) is to make a deliberate point of setting aside time to sit down and be proactive in developing an idea from scratch. I don’t just hope for ideas to come to me on the bus, on the toilet or anywhere else (though I certainly write down any that do pop out of the blue). I set aside regular time to sit down at my desk and produce as many ideas as I can. Coming up with story ideas is not a supernatural gift that strikes without warning; it is a discipline which can be learned through practice and patience. I can play the trumpet, not because every now and again musical talent strikes me, but because I have devoted time and effort to regularly practising my skill. I started off rubbish. Over time, through regular practice, I became an accomplished (perhaps even good) trumpet player. If I stop practising for any length of time, my ‘talent’ gets noticeably rusty. The same is true of coming up with story ideas.

For me, I find the best way to come up with ideas is to brainstorm. I sit down with a notepad and give free reign to my thoughts, omitting nothing that comes to mind. Often I will find myself inventing characters who I can then audition or ‘interview’ in different settings and situations (the main antagonist in my current novel came about this way). Journaling can also be helpful. Scribbling down all my thoughts, feelings and opinions about politics, family, philosophy, religion, humour, music and whatever else comes to mind can often help me to discover new themes to explore in a fictional setting. I then question and experiment with whatever comes to mind. From there, it’s a simple matter of taking the time to refine my ideas. If I really, really, really can’t think of anything, there are plenty of prompts available online which you can use as a springboard into creativity; however, I tend to rely on these only as a last resort.

You asked me earlier whence ideas come. The simple, boring and profoundly mysterious answer is that they come from your own mind. There is no magic, but the everyday magic of that lump of slimy grey matter in your skull which, by some inexplicable design, is able to invent entire worlds and people from nothing and to use those inventions to communicate all manner of beliefs and philosophies. If you have a brain, you have ideas. You have all manner of ideas every day, both good ideas and bad ideas. You’ve probably had dozens of ideas already today, about a whole range of subjects. Turning these ideas into stories is simply a matter of practice and patience.

My Thoughts on FocusWriter

There’s an old saying I tend to adhere to: you need to use the right tool for the right job. For me as a writer, that means I have lots of different writing tools depending on the kind of writing I’m doing and what stage of the writing process I’m at. For instance, I use Scrivener to write my novel and other large projects; Hemingway Editor for times of editing; Jotterpad to scribble notes and song lyrics on the go (you didn’t know I wrote music too, did you?) and FocusWriter for short and flash fiction, which is the subject for today’s little review.

There are, of course, plenty of “distraction free writing environments” out there. In fact, even the other apps I mentioned at the start of this post boast distraction free modes which hide most or all of the toolbars to allow you to focus exclusively on your words. What sets apart FocusWriter from these, however, is how highly customisable that environment is and how many features of a typical word processor are still available without being intrusive. Personally, I sometimes find that even the best distraction free interfaces can be a little too sterile when it’s just you and the blinking cursor on a blank screen, daring you to write a word. With FocusWriter, that’s not a problem. You can make the interface as pretty or as sterile as you see fit.

When you first download the app (for free, I might add, though you can give a “tip”), you will find it is already preloaded with a selection of themes. Some, such as the ‘old school’ theme are very plain featuring nothing but plain text on a plain background. Others include background images and coloured pages for your text to appear on (as you can see from the screenshots below). If none of these themes are to your liking, you can customise them by changing the font; margins; line-spacing; text background colour and opacity and much more besides. You can also create, save and export your own themes using (or not, if you prefer) images from your own library.

There is a traditional toolbar and a selection of menus at the top of the screen which includes all the basic features you would expect from a word processor; however, this is all invisible except when you hover the cursor over it, thus giving you easy access to all the basic features without getting in the way while you are trying to write.

There is also an option to grey out all text save the sentence, sentences or paragraph you are working on. Personally, I have not found much use for this feature but I suppose I can see why it might help you to focus on a particularly troublesome few sentences, especially if you decide to edit your work with FocusWriter. And of course, there is also the option to make FocusWriter full screen.

For those of us who like to keep careful track of our progress or who find it helpful to time ourselves as we write, FocusWriter also includes features for setting yourself daily word count or minutes-spent-writing goals. Again, this is not visible on the screen unless you hover your cursor over the very bottom of the window, where a tiny little bar will appear and tell you your exact word count and how close you are to achieving your daily goal. If you wish, you can also record your progress so you can see how often you are reaching or exceeding your goals over a longer period of time.

If you wanted to, you could probably easily use this application to write almost anything, including novels and other long and complicated works. However, I personally find it most useful for writing shorter works, such as short stories or flash fiction. It’s easy to create a different theme for every day and every mood so that your productivity is never hindered by niggling distractions or the pure white horror of a completely blank screen, no matter what kind of person you are and no matter how you feel. The main reason I don’t use it to write novels is because, unlike Scrivener, it is not so easy to gather together your notes and story bible all in the one place. In general, you will be focusing on one document at a time, but sometimes, that’s all you need. Personally, I don’t really like using Scrivener for short stories or microfiction because I find it can be a bit too cluttered, when all I really need is space to write.

Other features include (but are not necessarily limited to) a spell checker, ‘smart quotes’ which manages how you use quotation marks throughout the document (personally I’m yet to find a use for that) and ‘sessions’; an interesting little feature which remembers which document(s) you had opened and which theme you were using so that they’re already opened and waiting for you the next time you open FocusWriter.

All in all, I think it’s a fantastic app and well worth a look for anyone who’s serious about writing. It’s a real favourite of mine which I use often; far more often than some of the other apps I’ve given written positive reviews about in the past. And did I mention it’s free?

Well it is. So go have a look. I think you’ll be pleased.

Until next time!

Keeping a Writer’s Journal

There are a some folk out there who will tell you that if you don’t keep a journal, you are doomed to never, ever be a writer of any kind. In fact, you will probably fail miserably at everything you ever set your hand to, both in business and at home. Others just get very snooty about the ‘right’ way to keep a journal (as if writing something simple like ‘I ate chips for my tea. That’s all I can think of to write’ means you have failed at journaling, and therefore, failed at life).

Obviously, that’s a load of poppycock.

However, even if you’re not the sort of person who normally bothers to keep a journal, you might find it useful as a writer to at least keep a writer’s journal— especially if you’re working on a large writing project such as a novel.

‘Oh nooo!’ I hear you cry. ‘That sounds too hard/time-consuming/pointless’ (delete as appropriate).

It needn’t be. You don’t need to fill it with epiphanies written in flawless iambic pentameter, you don’t need to handcraft your own leather bound volume to write in and you don’t need to write ten thousand words a day (having already written ten thousand words in your actual story). In fact (just between you and me), you don’t need to keep a journal at all if you don’t find it helpful, though I would recommend giving it a bash for a week or two to be sure that it’s not for you.

All that matters is that you do what helps you to write, and in my experience, journaling can be profoundly helpful. How you do it, however, is entirely up to you! You can write in it as often as suits you; it can be long or short; handwritten or digital; illustrated or not; written in all, some or none of the colours of the rainbow and best of all, it can be as messy as you like. No one’s going to mark it. No editor will ever read/watch/listen to it. No publisher will ever publish it. All that matters is that it helps you to write.

For me, I like to keep a written note of how many words I write each day. It’s encouraging to have evidence of daily progress when you feel like you’ve been writing forever and getting nowhere. More than that, however, I find it helpful to express all my thoughts, feelings, ideas and problems relating to my story in some way. Externalising all that stuff once a week, or thereabouts, usually suffices and it helps me to think through it all in a way that sitting staring at my manuscript does not.  If I don’t write it down, I tend to end up boring my wife to tears by talking at length to her about my characters, my setting, my story arc, my word count or whatever else it might be.

If you’ve got a thick skin and are not too worried about who gets to read your journal, you might even find it useful to start a blog (or Twitter account, if you agree the brevity is the soul of wit). While it isn’t why I started Penstricken, my regular readers (God bless you patient and forbearing people) will be able to testify that I frequently do use my blog as a place to rant and rave about things I’ve learned and the problems I’ve encountered and solved while writing. Often the posts I categorise as ‘writing tips’ are aimed at myself as much as they are at anyone else. Another big perk to this kind of public journaling is that you get a little bit of feedback (hopefully from people who care about you, your story or creative writing in general) and it will hopefully serve to motivate you to journal regularly if you have regular readers who will be expecting you to post something every day/week/month/decade.

If you’ve never tried it before, why not start now? To make sure you get the most out of it, take a little time to ask yourself a few questions such as:

What should I write in my journal? Are you wanting to keep a detailed log of your progress (i.e., daily word counts, problems encountered, feedback received and so forth) or would you prefer to use it to express the enjoyment/fear/doubt/despair you experience while writing? Perhaps you might even find it a helpful place to scribble down plot bunnies for future reference.

How often can I commit to keeping a journal? It needn’t be excessively frequent. However in my experience, it is far easier and more enjoyable to keep a journal if you do it on a regular basis. Daily, weekly or even monthly- whatever you can stick to.

What format should my journal take? It’s your journal, for expressing and exploring what’s going on in your own writer-brain. Will it be kept private or will it be online for the great unwashed to view? Will it be in written, audio or video form? Try to use a format that allows you to express yourself as freely as possible – and most importantly, which compliments your writing.

What do I hope to get out of this? There are many possible benefits to journaling: catharsis; developing your skills; tracking your progress; etc. What you are hoping to get out of journaling will probably impact on how you do it. For instance, if you’re using it mainly as an outlet for your self-doubt and frustration with your novel, you probably won’t want to publish it online. It’s not likely to improve your sales figures if ever you do publish your novel.

Do you keep a writer’s journal? Do you find it helps you to write or do you just find it a big old slog keeping it up to date? Share your insights with the rest of us in the comments section below and we can all benefit from each other’s wisdom!

Until next time!

Ready, Steady, Write!

According to my wife, I am a creature of habit. I do the same things, at the same times, in the same way every week like clockwork. I think she’s right. However, every now and again things happen in such a way so as to interfere with even the most meticulously organised daily routine. It was just such an occurrence which led to me discovering a new and effective means of making progress with my novel (new and effective for me at any rate).

A week or so ago, we had my parents over to help with a little bit of decorating. They were bringing the brushes and rollers etc. with them, so it was not possible for us to start without them. We arranged for them to come over at about 10am and I, anticipating a busy day, decided to set aside the entire day for decorating. However, by 9:30, I was already dressed and the house as prepared to be decorated as it could be. I was at a loose end.

Thirty minutes to kill, I mused. What can I do in thirty minutes? 

Since I wasn’t expecting to get any writing done that day, I decided to use the time to work on my novel. Under normal circumstances, I like to set aside at least two or three hours to write (with breaks) so this was an unusually short burst of writing for me. Imagine my surprise when I managed to write as many words in that half hour than I often manage devoting an entire afternoon to writing. With such a tight deadline hanging over me, there was no time to procrastinate; no time to read and re-read my notes, no time to edit as I wrote (a cardinal sin when drafting a novel), no time to shove notes around on Scapple or “research” my novel by Googling every trifling detail. There was even less time to waste on Facebook, Twitter, WordPress or studying for my exams (the ultimate waste of time). For that miserly thirty minutes I produced words like my life depended on it and let me tell you, I finished drafting that chapter.

I couldn’t believe it. After months of straining out the tiniest little strands of text and getting nowhere, suddenly my word count grew wings and flew!

Over the next few days, I began to change my novel-writing routine. Instead of allotting entire afternoons to drafting my novel, I have looked for the small gaps in my day — the half hour my dinner is in the oven, or the one hour window in which I expect my Tesco delivery to arrive — and have devoted these to writing. It has paid dividends. If you feel like you’re flogging a dead horse, sitting and staring at your manuscript for hours without accomplishing anything, I would strongly recommend giving this a go.

Write often and in short bursts. Don’t allow yourself the luxury of going overtime (unless you’re really into the flow I suppose, but should that flow dry up, stop immediately). Even if you manage 500 words a day, it will still bring you up to an 80,000 word draft in less than a year.

If you have been taking part in Camp NaNoWriMo this last few weeks (alas, after my experience last year, I personally decided to give it a miss) you might know what I’m talking about. Part of NaNoWriMo’s charm is that it forces you to write fast. You might even take part in a “sprint” or two, which is a brief, timed writing session where you basically try to write as much as you can in the little time available.

Are you going to produce excellent words this way? Certainly not. Creating excellent words takes effort. You have to craft and mould them to give them exactly the kind of punch you want them to have (to say nothing of ensuring your spelling and grammar are above reproach).

It doesn’t matter. There is an editing stage (dear writer, you know this already) where we will tidy up the mess we’ve made and that truly is meant to be a slow and painstaking process. I am not for one second endorsing speed-editing. Speed-editing will result in a permanently bad story. But as I’ve said once or twice before and now say again, even with tears: you cannot edit a blank manuscript. Nor is it wise to edit your manuscript as you go along. If your first draft is appalling, let it be appalling. Better an appalling first draft than no first draft. You must write your appalling first draft in all its awful terribleness and then you can bring it to perfection when you come to edit and redraft later.

I’m curious to know if this works as well for others as it did for me, so why not give it a go yourself now? You don’t need to wait until you’ve got a roast in the oven. Grab a timer and time yourself half an hour or so and write. See how you go, and be sure to let us know in the comments section.

Until next time!