Idea Generators: Are They Any Use?

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

But wait a minute…

Do these little miracle makers really deliver the goods?

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

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

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


Story Plot Generator Pro

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what prompts your story.

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Sharleen Nelson, Author of The Time Tourists [2]

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10 Minute Story Challenge

In my experience, one of the hardest things about writing is coming up with a brand new story idea from scratch. I only know one way to force new story ideas on demand, and that is to sit down and write something. Anything. Maybe it’s different for all of you, but for me, a crumby little zero draft is the best and only way I know to stimulate brand new ideas from nothing. However the temptation to perfect those ideas as I go can be crippling. Ofttimes it can take ages to get started because I want to come up with a good idea before I start writing, which completely defeats the purpose of writing a zero draft.

And so today I thought I would try something new (new for the blog at least). I’ve picked a random writing prompt using Arc Apps’ Plot Gen Pro for Android and have given myself exactly ten minutes to write a zero draft based on it and post the results here, typos and all. I didn’t finish it on time (didn’t even come close to doing so) but that wasn’t the point. The point was to alarm myself into producing something that could conceivably grow into a full story. I’ve also filmed the whole thing so you know I didn’t cheat (the video is at the bottom of this post). So here goes nothing:

Untitled and Unfinished Zero Draft

by A. Ferguson

Prompt: You are living in an evil and corrupt city. Your character is reclusive and has no status in society. you have supernatural strength. You must bring someone back from the underworld.

The kettle on the stove began to whistle furiously. Tagan lifted it off with a curse. He had forgotten all about it.

There was a knock at the door. Tagan glowered suspiciously towards the door. The old man seldom ventured outside any more. He had no friends. He didn’t want any friends in this godless city. He wanted to be left alone.

Another knock at the door.

‘Go away’ Tagan growled. ‘I’ve nothing here for you.’

The door opened by itself and a man entered the hovel: tall, slender and dressed in the robes of a High Wizard. Tagan didn’t know the man’s face but he recognised his attire. One of many corrupt cults of magic that had come to the city in recent decades.

‘Get out of my house.’ Tagan spat.

‘I need you to come with me.’ The man said in a quiet but stern voice. ‘I’ve heard of your quests to the underworld–’

‘Many years ago.’ Tagan grumbled. ‘I don’t do that anymore. Not for anyone.’

‘I’m afraid you have no choice.’ The Wizard told him. ‘The Emperor’s son has died–’

‘So?’

‘So the emperor wishes him returned. You’re the last of the Heroes. No one else can make this voyage into–’

‘Then let him die.’ Tagan said firmly. ‘The whole nation’s corrupt. Everybody’s gone after black magic, despicable pagan practices and now they’re all liars and murderers and adulterers–’

‘I don’t see why–’

‘Everyone who dies is a rest for this world. Maybe soon the whole sorry generation will go the way of all the earth and I frankly don’t care. I’m not going down there, not for the emperor or anyone else.’

The Wizard looked Tagan dead in the eye and said dangerously: ‘You will go down and retrieve the emperor’s son. If you don’t, you will die.’

As he spoke, Tagan felt a curious crushing sensation grip him around the throat. He couldn’t breath. No hand touched him, but he felt as if this young wizard had both hands squeezing tightly on his throat, crushing his wind pipe.

‘Alright.’ He wheezed. ‘I’ll do it.’

The choking sensation immediately stopped and the Wizard appeared to relax.

‘The Emperor will be so pleased. You will leae

TIME UP!


Well that was a fun game. I didn’t manage to write a whole story: more like a really rubbish and half baked inciting incident but maybe I’ll do better next time. Why don’t you give it a go? Use the above prompt (or another of your choosing) and try to write a story based in on it in no more than 10 minutes and share it with us in the comments or on your own blog if you’re feeling brave. I can guarantee you you’ll not write a good one. If you’re like me, you probably won’t even manage to finish it unless you write a really tight flash fiction, but it’s still a good exercise for the imagination. After all, this crumby little scene I’ve written contains the seeds of a story, so maybe one day I’ll write it properly.

Anyway, here’s the video proof I promised you:

Music credits:

Wanderer by Alexander Nakarada |
https://www.serpentsoundstudios.com
Music promoted by https://www.free-stock-music.com
Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)
https://creativecommons.org/licenses/b
y/4.0/

Precious Life by Savfk |
https://www.youtube.com/savfkmusic
Music promoted by https://www.free-stock-music.com
Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)
https://creativecommons.org/licenses/b
y/4.0/


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what pickles your onions.

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Sharleen Nelson, Author of The Time Tourists [2]

5 Useful Fiction and Writing Blogs

We writers have got to support each other. That’s why every now and again I’ll do a post showcasing the work of other fiction and writing bloggers besides my own. This week is such a week.

Previously I’ve shared specific posts that I’ve found particularly useful or entertaining but I’m doing it a bit different this week. Instead of sharing individual posts, I’m sharing links to whole blog sites that I find myself returning to again and again, either because they’re full of useful tips and resources or because they’re just plain enjoyable to read.

As ever, this is simply a selection of my favourites, not an exhaustive list; and as ever, this list is in no particular order.

A Writer’s Perspective – If you’re a writer of historical fiction set in the 14th century or even just mildly curious about how people lived back then, this blog is definitely worth a look. It’s full of interesting little articles about everything from castles to medieval cuisine written by historical romance author April Munday.

TurtleWriters – ‘A Community for Slow Writers’. This is a great little blog site to find help and support if you’re the sort of writer who feels like they’re wading through treacle whenever they try to write. The blog is updated pretty sparingly, but it’s just such a useful breath of fresh air to us ordinary folk who want to write that I had to include it.

Rebecca Alasdair – Useful and enjoyable writing tips, general author updates and reflections on reading and writing. Also as an aside, this blog is much easier on the eye than a lot of blog sites.

Now Novel – In addition to a plethora of other resources (writing courses, groups, story idea finder, etc.), Now Novel boasts a blog with a motherload of writing tips for would-be novelists. I’ve never used any of its paid services but it’s blog alone is a tremendous resource for anyone who wants to write a novel and doesn’t know where to begin.

Morgan Hazelwood – Like her tagline says, Morgan’s blog is full of writing tips and writerly musings – with plenty of video for those too lazy to read.


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what squeezes your lemons.

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Sharleen Nelson, Author of The Time Tourists [2]

Super Snappy Speed Reviews – Writing Apps for Android

It occurred to me this week that we’ve had a lot of Super Snappy Speed Reviews here on Penstricken over the years. We’ve reviewed books [2] [3], TV showsfilmscomputer games and even the Star Trek movies. But we’ve never had speed reviews for writers’ apps. And so today I am proud to present Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Writing Apps for Android.

As ever, the apps I have reviewed here are not necessarily apps that I particularly liked or disliked, but are simply a random selection of writers’ apps that I have tried out at one point or another. As usual, these reviews only reflect my own personal opinions and impressions, squished, squashed and squeezed into a few short sentences. So without further ado…

JotterPad by Two App Studio Pte. Ltd.

I love Jotterpad. The writing environment is uncluttered yet with plenty of the features you want from a mobile text editor. It’s also a breeze to adjust the page layout to suit the kind of writing you do. The only real problem with it is that there doesn’t seem to be any way to adjust the layout of specific documents (so  for example, if you write screenplays and poetry, you have to simply accept the fact that all of your poems are going to look like screenplays).

Also if you take my advice, you’ll stick to the free version. The Creative add-ons are alright, but hardly worth the money.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟

Writeometer by Guavabot

Writeometer is a surprisingly useful tool to help you to track your progress day by day. You can add multiple projects and assign each one a specific word or character goal which you hope to achieve in total and per day. The app will also calculate how long it will take you to achieve this goal and suggest a finish date (though you can choose your own date). Additional features include a writing timer, a daily log, customisable “rewards” for a good writing session, an integrated dictionary/thesaurus (also something about salad that I don’t understand). I didn’t think I’d like this app but I like it a lot.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟

Story Dice by Thinkamingo

If you read this blog regularly, you’ll know I find Thinkamingo’s Story Dice an invaluable source of stimuli whenever I come to write six word stories [2] [3] [4] [5] but it works just as well for long stories, too. There are squillions of different images which appear on the dice and you can have anywhere between 1 and 10 dice on the screen at a time. My only criticism is that there is no way to save the image that appears. The moment you hide the app, tap the screen or do anything, BOOM! It rolls the dice again and the previous roll is lost forever.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟

Lore Forge Creator Resources by Total Danarchy

There are lots of idea generators out there. What sets Lore Forge apart is the kinds of ideas it generates. It’s the only idea generator I’ve ever come across, for instance, which generates character motives and conflicts (complete with a detailed explanation of each motive/conflict). For me, these are easily its best feature, but it also includes some more traditional generators (character names, city names, plots, etc) and an inspiring quote generator.

My rating: 🌟🌟

Story Plot Generator Pro (a.k.a Plot Gen Pro) by ARC Apps

A lot of plot generators often produce ideas so bizarre that they’re completely useless (e.g.: ‘a pole dancer and an Eskimo must travel back in time to stop the moon being eaten by sharks. Someone loses a credit card. It’s a story about marital fidelity’).

Not so with Plot Gen Pro! This app allows you to choose from a variety of genres and then throws up several random elements of a plot (characters, settings, etc), suitable to that genre. If you don’t like any of the elements it generates, you can ask it to produce another, without removing the ones you do like. The resulting ‘plot’ can then be e-mailed back to yourself so you don’t lose it.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟


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

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.

Gleaning Ideas from Other Stories

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

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

Easy.

Glean ideas from someone else’s story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Until next time!

ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

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

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

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

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!

The Church Mouse

My original plan for today had been to blog about works of fiction that are nevertheless based on true events but I also had a niggling feeling that it’s been ages since I’ve put any of my own stories on Penstricken.

I know what I’ll do! I thought. I’ll write a story based on true events! I just need to decide what true story to base it on…

At about the same time as I was thinking all this, I found evidence that a mouse had taken up residence in my house and that gave me just the idea I was looking for. So without further ado, I give you…

The Church Mouse

by. A Ferguson

Based on a true story

[1]

The Landlord and Landlady were busy today, pulling out the furniture and hoovering behind every nook and cranny where I’d been, or even might’ve been. They even shoved their infernal vacuum nozzle into my room. I wasn’t in at the time, praise God. I was out scavenging, but they’ve definitely been here. They’ve cleaned up all my business, sure, the bits they could reach anyhow. They’ve settled down now. Their telly’s been on for hours.

Ah, that’s it off now. Finally. They’ll be going to bed soon, I can hear them moving about. He’s washing the dishes, like he usually does just before bed. She’ll be upstairs already then. I’ll give them an hour, once I’m sure they’re asleep and then I’ll–

Wait. Snifffffffff. What’s that?!

Sniff, sniff?

Chocolate and.. sniff?… raisins and caramel by goodness! Ohh, mamma mia… sniffffffffff! Oh yes! A Cadbury’s Picnic if I’m not very much mistaken! Ohh, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, I’m eating well tonight! 

No! No… no, no, I mustn’t yet, he’s still out there… gotta wait… gaagh! Hurry up and leave, already!

I think… yes, he’s gone. I can hear him on the stairs. I should wait but… oooh, I have to have that Picnic! Maybe, I’ll just have a peak… he won’t be back now till morning anyway… and that smell, it’s so strong… it must be…

Yes! There it is, right outside my door! That idiot’s left a whole chunk of the stuff just lying around in this little plastic box for me. I’ll just pop in, grab the choccie and…

Ow! The door just fell on me! It’s not very heavy, though, that’s something. If I just back-peddle like this I can pull out the choccie and… yes! I’m free! Haha! Oooh, my precious little Picnic, I can’t wait to get you back to my room… ! Hehehe!

[2]

Ooh! Another day, another Picnic! Maybe I’ve got the Landlord and Landlady all wrong. Maybe they really like me and want me to stay? Eh? Nah, don’t be silly. I’ve had all night to think about this and I don’t think that door closed on me accidentally last night! It’s just dumb luck, really, that my bum was still hanging out the back or who knows what might’ve happened…

I should leave it, I know. I’ve still got plenty left over from last night but… ooooooh, that smell just drives me wild! I got out okay last night, I’ll probably be okay again just as long as I’m careful. I know it can be done and… oh mercy, I won’t be able to think straight with that sitting outside my front door all night long.

Just need to watch. Make sure, take care, always beware. Don’t let them outsmart you. You can do this, just… take care. Beware. Don’t let carnal passions cloud your judgement. Use your brain, take your time, claim the prize.

Good… good, it’s the same kind of trap as before. Nothing that’s gonna snap my back or open my skull. I’ll just do what I did last night, leave my bum in the doorway and… gagh, the choccie’s a bit smaller tonight though… tucked right away up at the back it is, I can’t quite reach… ooooh, but it’s right there, I can almost taste it! Just another half inch…

Woosh! Rats, rats, ratty-rats! The door’s closed! Ohh, no, no, no, no, no, no, please God, let me out! Let me out! Ooh, God forgive me, I know it’s my fault, I… I got greedy and I’m sorry! Please, God, let me out! Please… I’m sorry, I’m sorry… please!

[3]

Ngh! What? I must’ve fallen asleep. But it wasn’t a dream. I’m still here, in the stupid box with the stupid choccie. I don’t fancy it quite the same anymore. I feel sick. I can’t move. They’re here. The Landlady, she sees me. She’s calling to her husband. They’re so… big! 

Aaaagh! He’s picking up the box! What’s he doing with me? Where’s he taking me? To eat me? I hear humans burn up smaller animals before they eat them! Maybe he’ll leave me if I just sit very still but… oh no, it’s a forlorn hope! What else can I do?

Please, please, please, please, Lord God Almighty, rescue me from the hand of this monster! I know it’s my fault, I promise I won’t ever be greedy again I’ll… oh, Lord, please have mercy on me a sinner!

Agh! The light! He’s taking me outdoors, into their car… where are we going?

I wish I could move. I’m so afraid, every part of my body feels like it’s turned to stone. All except my bowels; they’re working overtime. Whatever he’s doing, oh Lord, let it be over soon. To die in terror, trapped in this dungeon, tiny even by my standards and drowning in my own business…

He’s stopped the car.

Oh… rats.

This is it.

Here it comes. He’s picking me up and taking me outside and opening the box… he’s shaking it at the ground. In one sudden motion my petrified body and the choccie fall to the ground and land among the long grass on the roadside. I’m out! I’m free! I’m out of here! Oh thank you, thank you, thank you, God! Thank you kind Landlord! I’m free!

* * *

Mr. Mouse fled through the grass and the bushes for hours. He swore never to succumb to gluttony again.

In the winter of 2017 he became a church mouse. He devoted his life to the ministry and service of the church and was ordained as a minister in 2018.

He died peacefully at the age of three in 2019 and was buried on the grounds of his parish along with the piece of Picnic which he had preserved as a memento of the day his life was spared.

THE END

5 Different Kinds of Writing Prompt

Sometimes when you’re stuck trying to come up with a story, it helps to have a little nudge to spark off your creativity. The internet is, of course, bursting at the seams with all kinds of writing prompts and other creative stimuli and it can be difficult to know where to begin. So, today I’ve listed a selection of prompts for fiction writers (please, use them and abuse them; maybe even show us your efforts in the comments section below) but what I really want to do is explain how I like to use these kinds of prompts and what I feel their relative strengths and weaknesses are. So, without further ado…

Opening lines

The idea behind opening line prompts is simple. You can write any story you like, as long as you use the prompt as your opening line. These can be great if you’re writing a short story or are just wanting to let your imagination run wild for a bit. Opening lines are good for this because the whole point of an opening line in any story is to grab the reader’s attention and flood them with curiosity about what happens next in a single sentence. Well, as the writer, you get to decide what happens next; thus, you have your prompt. I would generally shy away from using opening line prompts for a novel or other large and complicated project, because they usually require a lot more planning. You can rest assured Dickens did not come up with A Tale of Two Cities because someone asked him to write a story which opened with the words ‘It was the best of times’.

Anyway, why not try one of these?

  • David was not what he appeared to be. By day he was a humble civil servant but by night… 
  • Pat was the first human to set foot in [your place here] for more than thousand years.
  • We’d never had any trouble from the family next door until… 

Writing by Theme

This is my preferred kind of writing prompt for writing lengthier or more involved stories such as novels. You are given a single theme to work with but apart from that, your story can be just about anything. This gives you wide scope and still requires quite a bit of imagination on your part, but I sometimes find that more useful than the restriction you get with other kinds of prompts. Try a few of these:

  • Write a story about experiencing new things
  • Write a story about obsession
  • Write a story about ageing
  • Write a story about fathers and sons
  • Write a story about war

Characters

Another common writing prompt is to be given a rough description of a character you can work with. As I’ve probably mentioned before, all the best stories are character driven rather than plot driven, and from that point of view, having a character as your stimulus – before you’ve even thought of a plot – can prove very rewarding indeed. The main difficulty with this approach is quite simply knowing what to do with your character. S/he has to be brought out of her comfort zone to make a story happen so this certainly doesn’t let you off the hook when it comes to making up a plot. It just gives you somewhere to begin that you might not have thought of yourself. Have a bash at writing a story about…

  • An intellectual 34 year old bus driver who dislikes enclosed spaces.
  • A hot-tempered 17 year old female singer who tends to talk too much.
  • A bigoted 84 year old man who works as a gas engineer and absolutely refuses to retire for anything. 
  • A kind-hearted 49 year old woman police officer whose worst nightmare is about to come true.
  • A talkative 5 year old girl who dreams of becoming a vet.

Titles

These work in a similar way to opening lines. You are given the story title; you have to write the story. This can be very helpful or very unhelpful, depending on the title. Something more obscure gives greater freedom but if you’re struggling with writers’ block, you might benefit more from something a little bit more specific. There are plenty of random title generators out there, some of which are nothing more than random adjective and noun generators. Others are a little bit more sophisticated than that. On the plus side, you can use titles as prompts for almost any kind of story. I’ve made up a few of both kinds for you to play with:

  • Jude, Patron of Hopeless Causes
  • The Broken Sky
  • The Midnight Oil
  • The Wandering Cobbler
  • Rest for the Wicked
  • Jimmy Jones, Space Cadet!
  • The Madness Method
  • A Girl Named Grace

Pictures

Sometimes being told what to write isn’t what you need at all. You need to visualise something new to help you create new ideas, and for that, a picture might just be the answer. I don’t really find pictures much use for stimulating plot ideas particularly (though I have occasionally used them; for instance, my regular readers will testify to the fact I use the pictures on Story Dice to help me write my six word stories) but I do find them very useful indeed for coming up with new characters or settings. Photographs of people you don’t know or places you’ve never been instantly spark the imagination by forcing you to wonder, ‘who is this person?’; ‘what happens in that building?’; ‘what does that uniform s/he’s wearing represent?’ and so forth. A huge number of the characters and settings I’ve written have been based on making up things about random people and places I don’t know.

Not being much of a photographer, I haven’t got any pictures for you to use as writing prompts but I can highly recommend visiting websites like Pixabay for free images that you can use. Alternatively, try using some purpose built tools like Story Dice.

This is, of course, all just a taster. There are about a squillion other kinds of stimuli out there, from the ridiculously obscure (Oblique Strategies…) to others which aim to spoon-feed the author by almost writing the story for you. What matters is that if you use a stimulus, that you choose the right kind of stimulus for your project. This can be the difference between getting something out of it and not getting anything out of it so choose carefully. Writing with prompts can be a great way to train the writers’ imagination and it’s a healthy habit to get into – just as long as the prompt you choose doesn’t leave you more stuck than when you began!