Juggling Multiple Writing Projects

Originally published 19/08/2018

So you’re writing a novel. Good for you! Not only that, but it’s going really, really well. You’ve been at it for some time now and though the end is still far off, you’ve made good headway and know it’s only a matter of time. This story is the One. It’s getting written. It’s getting published. It’s going to make you a mint. At the very least, it’s going to make you a minor celebrity on Goodreads. You’ve just got to keep on plodding. You’re committed. Dedicated. Come what may, you’re getting this novel done, just by plodding along one word at a time.

Plod, plod… plod…

But then suddenly:

‘I say! Who’s that smokin’ hot piece of brand new idea?’

Before long you can’t get her out of your mind. Even when you’re supposed to be working hard on your work-in-progress, all you can think about is that idea you had for a completely different story. You might have your work-in-progress open in front of you, but in your mind you’re imagining yourself working on that new idea…

‘Maybe I’ll just make a start on it now,’ you say to yourself. ‘I can tinker around with this new idea and still finish my work-in-progress. It’ll be fine…’

But will it?

Well… it probably depends. Personally, I think working on two big projects simultaneously is ill-advised but it probably depends a lot on how much time you’ve got available and how organised you can be. Personally, I find it a herculean task simply juggling this blog and the novel I’m currently working on; but then I have other things on my mind, not least of all my wife, daughter and full time job (which is nothing to do with writing). You might well be able to write two or more novels simultaneously, and if so good for you, but I find whenever I do that I either 1) fail miserably at writing them both or else 2) gradually lose interest in one while the other takes over completely.

And yet those plot bunnies just won’t stay away. And some of them are just so darn good. What do you do? Here are a few possibilities for you to cherry-pick from:

Carefully organise your time so you can work on two novels simultaneously. I say again, this approach is not for everyone, but if you’ve got the time and discipline, it may be possible to divide up your time rigidly enough that you can make progress on two projects simultaneously (e.g., I’ll work on Johnny’s Big Adventure Monday-Wednesday AM and I’ll work on Jeannie’s Excellent Voyage from Wednesday PM-Friday). However, be warned: even this will still slow progress down. You cannot make time for one project without sacrificing time for another, but it is theoretically possible to make gradual progress on both.

Turn your inter-draft ‘breaks’ into an opportunity to work on another project. We all know that you should take at least a few weeks off between drafts anyway so that you can regain some objectivity before editing. Why not put that time to good use? Instead of twiddling your thumbs during those weeks, write the first draft of your first  project then set it aside and immediately begin to write the first draft of your second project. Once that’s done, you can go back to your first project and repeat the process for your second drafts, third drafts and so on.

Jot down any and every idea you ever have. Personally, I find this good practice anyway. If you find multiple projects just isn’t for you, try keeping a notebook on hand where you can scribble down random characters, settings, titles, disjointed little scenes and whatever else pops into your head. If a new story idea is developing in your brain, it might be worthwhile setting aside a dedicated notebook just for writing down ideas for that story as and when they crop up, but don’t go out of your way to work on the story. Just keep a note of all your thoughts so that you can get straight down to business when you finally do finish that work-in-progress.

‘Can’t I just postpone my work-in-progress and come back to it once I’ve published this new and more exciting idea I’ve had?’ I hear you cry. Technically, yes, it is possible to do that, but I strongly advise against it. Writing a novel is a bit like a relationship. The first few weeks are thrilling without trying, but if you want to make it last, you’ve got to be deliberately and wilfully committed to that project for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health until publishing do you part. That new project might look like all your wildest dreams come true, but if you can’t write without that ‘new project feeling’, you’ll never finish a novel because all novel ideas are thrilling at first and hard work after. You’ll just keep on chasing new ideas and before you know it, you’ll have a hundred half-finished novels sitting there gathering dust. Remember, you once felt that same buzz about your work-in-progress, so don’t leave her now! Stick with it. Whether you write one, two or even three(!) projects at a time, don’t let anything stop you once you get started.

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Pants, Plants and Plans: A Beginner’s Guide

Originally published 05/08/2018

If you’re the sort of person who spends a lot of time reading up on story writing, you’ve probably heard myself or other writing bloggers talk about the differences between planners, pantsers and plantsers. It’s a spectrum we writers are all spread out across, separating those on the one extreme who plan everything before they write from those who pants their way through their story (that is, they write ‘by the seat of their pants’, making up the story as they go along with absolutely no forward planning whatsoever). And of course, slap bang in the middle of the spectrum, we have Plantsers (because it’s a combination of the words ‘planner’ and ‘pantser’, see?).

We all naturally gravitate to one side or another on this spectrum. However that doesn’t mean we can’t choose to plan, pant or plant even if it doesn’t come naturally to us. After all, we might be tempted to think that one method is inherently better than the others, and that we should try this.

We might even be right. For my money, I think there are some situations where planning is more appropriate and others where pantsing is more appropriate. I’m not going to tell you categorically that any one method is better than another* but there are pros and cons to each. If you’re struggling with whatever method comes naturally to you, it may be time to try a different approach. And so, what follows is my own short and ill-informed concise analysis of each approach, comparing pros and cons as evenly as I can.

Planning

Strengths: Planning everything in advance saves buckets of time. If you already know exactly what is going to happen, how it’s going to happen and who it’s going to happen to, all neatly ordered into chapters and scenes, you won’t waste time writing lengthy portions of narrative you won’t use. You can also rest easy in the knowledge that your first draft won’t have too many large plot holes to sort out.

This makes it easy to work to a schedule. If you know you can knock out 1000 words a day, you can reasonably well estimate that it will take you about three months to complete a draft, especially in those first drafts, because you won’t get stuck about what to write.

Weaknesses: it’s easily the most strict approach to writing. The writer must be disciplined enough 1) not to begin writing a draft too earlier and 2) not to deviate from the plan when he does start drafting. This does not suit everybody. Many authors find it sucks the pleasure out of writing and stifles the imagination, as new ideas insist on being heard throughout the writing process.

Tips for Planning: Be disciplined. Plan everything and resist the urge to draft until you have completed all your chapter outlines, character biographies, the lot. When you finally do begin to draft, don’t deviate from the plan. Add nothing, change nothing, remove nothing. Write it exactly as you planned it. Remember, dear planner, you’re not making art. You’re constructing an intricate machine.

Pantsing

Strengths: This approach to writing allows the imagination to run wild. Most people who write stories tend to do it because they’re people who like to dream, to create and to give artist form to their flights of fancy. Pantsing lets you do just that. I often find that, while pantsing can produce a lot of excess material, some of it can even be later recycled to create a whole new story. Many of my story ideas have come from material I rejected while pantsing an earlier work.

Weaknesses: If you’re serious about writing for any reason other than as a hobby, you will probably find this approach seriously undermines your productivity and success, especially if you’re writing anything longer than a short story. Pantsing out a novel length story in a couple of months is easy in theory but it is doomed to be full of half baked themes, plot holes and other inconsistencies that will need to be fixed before they can pass over any agent or publisher’s desk. You may find yourself virtually starting from scratch when you come to do your second draft, assuming you ever reach the second draft stage.

Tips for Pantsing: Don’t get too attached to your work. A draft that has been fully pantsed will require a lot more editing than a meticulously planned draft. While killing your darlings is always good advice for any writer, pantsers will probably find themselves producing a lot more darlings (because their imagination has been given unlimited credit in the sweetie shop) that have to be killed (because their story will be full of things that simply don’t work).

Plantsing

Strengths: Plantsers have the best of both worlds. They are anchored to a plan but they are not enslaved to it. If the author wants to make changes halfway through writing their draft, or if they identify problems with their story, they can simply adjust the plan as they go along. The imagination is thereby given space to work but is also kept under a tight leash.

Weaknesses: It’s probably the hardest method to strike the correct balance with, even if you do find yourself naturally gravitating towards it. Planners know to write nothing until their story is fully planned out and pantsers don’t give a rip if their story doesn’t make sense in the first draft, but plantsers must learn to bring these two extremes together and make them work in harmony. It is difficult to create a systematic approach to plantsing and will be largely figured out by trial and error. This can be time consuming and frustrating.

Tips for Plantsing: Plantsing is not creating a plan then disregarding it, nor is it writing a draft then making a plan around it. Both of these are a waste of time. Plantsing involves blending these two seeming opposites in a way which allows you to work to your strengths, while still enjoying the benefits of both extremes. For example, you might pants out a few zero drafts to stimulate your imagination while you plan. Alternatively you might create a very loose-fitting plan (story beats for example, but no chapter outlines) and pants out your novel within the boundaries of that limited plan. You might also decide to forsake character biographies in favour of conducting several ‘interviews’ or ‘auditions’ with your characters to help you get to know them better. The possibilities are truly endless when it comes to plantsing. My best advice is to spend a little time finding an approach which works for you.

Footnotes:

*I know what you’re thinking: ‘if he’s going to be so unbiased in his approach, why has he only got pants in the featured image and nothing else?’ Well the short answer is I just couldn’t find a single picture on the internet which depicted a plan, a pair of pants and a potted plant so I had to pick one. I picked pants because pants are funnier. Sue me.

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Not Sure Where To Begin With Your Story? Try Free Writing.

Originally published 15/07/2018

Fact: it is absolutely impossible to write a novel, a script, a screenplay or even a six word story without starting somewhere. There must come a point, somewhere in the journey of your life, when you put pen to paper, so to speak. Not only that, but starting must be the first thing you do. You can’t begin working halfway through the process, nor at the end. You need to start at the very beginning. It’s not just a very good place to start. It’s the only place to start.

We know this to be true and self-evident. And yet getting started is often one of the hardest parts. In fact, the whole reason this week’s post came about is because I spent the last hour and all of my blog-writing time last week being completely unable to start. So I’m writing from personal experience. Friends, let me assure you that there is a reliable way to get those juices flowing on demand: it’s called free writing.

Free writing is a time honoured prewriting technique which works by encouraging the writer to write without fear of criticism or failure for a set period of time. Of all the manifold techniques that exist for helping writers to get into the zone, this is easily the one I find the most useful.

Anyone can free write. All you do is set yourself a time limit and then write anything and everything that comes to mind as fast as you can without stopping. And when I say ‘without stopping’, I mean without stopping. You don’t stop to correct spelling or grammatical errors, nor do you stop to delete something you’ve changed your mind about. You don’t even stop to think about what to write next. You may find yourself writing nonsense. You will almost certainly be appalled by your own spelling and grammar. That’s all okay. If you’re anything like me, you will probably find your page is punctuated with little passages bemoaning how difficult it is to write: ‘yes, anyway, right, what will I write now? i don’k know, I can’t think what to write now. I’ll think of something in a minute. I hope. Maybe’.

freewrite
Here’s one I made earlier.

That’s all okay. That only means you’re doing it properly. The point of free writing is not to write something good. It’s not even necessarily about coming up with ideas for proper writing (though you often will). It’s simply about getting out of that lazy, defeated-before-you’ve-even-started zone and into the writing zone.

Want to give it a go yourself? Here’s a few tips:

Make It The Very First Thing You Do

Think about it: when do you usually write? After you’ve done other stuff, obviously. It might’ve been work, it might’ve been recreation, it might’ve been sleeping, it might’ve been shopping but one thing is certain: before you started writing, you were doing something else. And now you come to your story unmolested by writers’ block and with a head full of life-things; and all life-things are potential sources of ideas. If, on the other hand, you decide to free write only after you’ve been staring a blank page for three hours, you’ll only have a head full of writers’ block and a gnawing feeling of self-doubt. While it doesn’t matter what you write, you’ll probably find it a more rewarding and enjoyable experience if you write something other than ‘I suck at writing’ a million times over.

Keep The Time Limit Brief

How long you need will depend on your own abilities as a writer, but I find ten-fifteen minutes usually works well for me. You don’t want it to be so short you  barely have time to get started, but you also don’t want to drag it out so long that you run out of things to write. Give yourself just enough time to vomit every last drop of consciousness onto the page.

Use Typewriter or Something Similar

Remember, you are not allowed to edit at all. However, knowing this does not always remove the temptation to hit that delete key, just once. We’ve grown so accustomed to quickly correcting our spelling errors and tidying up as we go along that we don’t even realise we’re doing it. If that applies to you, grab yourself a free copy of Typewriter – Minimal Text Editor. It’s a simple ASCII text editor with absolutely no editing functionality whatsoever. The delete key does nothing. You cannot copy and paste. You can only make words appear. If you’re feeling really hardcore, there are also apps out there like Write or Die which will punish you in cruel and unusual ways for writing too slowly.

Make It A Habit

You’ll probably feel a bit silly the first time you free write. Stick with it until it becomes a regular part of your prewriting routine. If nothing else, it’s a good way to signal an official ‘beginning’ to your daily writing session, like clocking in at the day job. Before long, you’ll look forward to turning on that timer every day for the easiest part of your writing session.

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Writing a Good Character Description

Originally published 20/05/2018

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

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

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

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

(John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men).

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

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

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

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

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

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Super Snappy Speed Reviews – Writing Apps for Android

Originally published 13/05/2018

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: 🌟🌟🌟

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Figuring Out Foil Characters

Originally published 29/04/2018

We’re all familiar with some of the traditional character types you find in most fiction: protagonists, antagonists, love interests and so forth. But there is another common type of character out there; one which can sometimes be harder to define, though we know them when we see them (intuitively at least). I am talking about foils.

The OED defines a foil in this way:

A person or thing that contrasts with and so emphasizes and enhances the qualities of another.

Source: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/foil

In fiction, therefore, a foil is a character (or sometimes an object or idea) who highlights the traits of another character (usually the protagonist) by contrasting with them. But apart from that, these characters can play just about any role in your story you like. They can even (and often do) fulfil other key roles in your story, such the main antagonist or love interest (actually, as an aside, I often think love interests make great foils; opposites do so often attract, especially in fiction).

There’s a lot of good reasons to include a foil in your story. They can be an excellent tool for emphasising qualities in your protagonist which you might wish to draw out without stating explicitly. They can also go horribly wrong if executed poorly or needlessly.

As is so often the case, I have one particularly important rule I like to stick to whenever I write a foil (though you can apply this rule to any of your characters). Ready? Here it is:

No character should exist solely for the benefit of another.
robin
No one wants to only be a sidekick.
Image source: http://gph.is/257jTXn

Yes, a foil character must, by definition, contrast with another, but if that’s their only function in your story, watch out! All people in real life have their own motives, goals and problems and so should your characters. A good story can get along just fine without a foil character, but a character who serves as a foil and nothing else will be nothing but a burden on your narrative. At best they will read like a two-dimensional sidekick.

I would therefore strongly advise against sitting down to ‘write a foil character’. Figure out who the main players are in your story first. Ask yourself what they all want, what’s preventing them from getting it and why they are necessary for your story. You may well find that your story will benefit from having a foil and it will probably become pretty obvious who should assume that role once you’ve finished most of your planning.

Take Star Wars for instance. Power and its ability to corrupt is a central theme in these movies. Every Jedi, trained in the Force, faces the temptation to be seduced and corrupted by their power. In the original trilogy, the protagonist, Luke Skywalker, faces this very issue in the form of his foil and antagonist, Darth Vader. Both of these characters come from humble backgrounds, both were trained by Jedi Masters and became powerful Jedi themselves. Yet only Darth Vader was seduced by the Dark Side; Luke resists the same temptation and his life takes a completely different path. Cosmetic contrasts such as differently coloured lightsabres also add to the effect.

Darth Vader works as a foil for Luke, because it feeds right in to one of the story’s key themes and draws out Luke’s inner struggles against the Dark Side. Indeed, Darth Vader serves very much as a personification of Luke’s inner struggles. He represents the course of life Luke can but must not choose.

Darth Vader: You’ve only begun to discover your power. Join me and I will complete your training! With our combined strength, we can end this destructive conflict and bring order to the galaxy.

Luke: I’ll never join you!

Darth Vader:  It is your destiny. Join me, and together, we can rule the galaxy as father and son!

Star Wars (ep. 6): Return of the Jedi

Of course, not all foils are antagonists. They don’t even need to be central characters (I’ve even heard it argued that they really shouldn’t be, though I don’t personally agree with that). All a character really needs to be a foil is to draw out your protagonist’s key traits by contrasting with them. But for my money, a good foil should be a fully-fledged secondary character, antagonist, love-interest, etc. in their own right first and a foil second. Perhaps a better way to think of it is to say that a foil is not so much a character type as it is a literary technique; one which just happens to often be associated with one character in particular.

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Gleaning Ideas from Other Stories

Originally published 15/04/2018

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.

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Daydreaming: An Essential Exercise for Writers

Originally published 01/04/2018

One of the main things I remember my school teachers complaining about in my report cards was that I spent too much time daydreaming. I guess they thought I should’ve been doing something more important like figuring out maths problems or some other such nonsense. I don’t know.

In any event, I found that as I got older, daydreaming came a lot less naturally. I don’t know if it’s because adult life puts too many demands on our time or if it’s because I had one too many report cards telling me to stop daydreaming, but for whatever reason, daydreaming is a habit I’ve had to make a conscious effort to get back into.

Yes boys and girls, you heard me right. Daydreaming is a habit you should definitely get back into, especially if you plan on being a story-writer. After all, stories begin in the imagination and the imagination is just like a muscle, which needs to be exercised on a regular basis to keep it strong. Fortunately, you don’t need to pump irons to keep this muscle strong. You need to daydream.

Now before I go any further, I just want to clarify exactly what I mean by daydreaming. I don’t mean staring vacantly into space. I mean tapping back into that wealth of creativity that as children we used in imaginative play which allowed us to spontaneously imagine ourselves to be anyone, anywhere, anytime doing anything. For children, it’s effortless (almost unavoidable in fact). The rest of us, alas, need to work at it.

Make Time For It

I don’t think my teachers objected to me daydreaming per se. I suspect their real problem was with when I did it. It’s really not polite to daydream while someone is trying to teach you about something “important” like mathematics. Children don’t understand this, of course, and they just daydream whenever they feel like it. They also have buckets of time specifically set aside for imaginative play. As adults, however, we have constant demands on our time, none of which are imaginative play time: jobs, family, marriage, divorce, births, deaths, dishes, mortgages, cooking, driving, social events, hospital visits, court summons, insurance claims, driving, dating, washing, buying furniture, grocery shopping, taxes, hoovering and a myriad of other “important” things.

To be sure, some of these things are important. But if you want to tell stories of your own invention, you need imagination as active and as vibrant as that of a child. So be sure to set aside time in your busy schedule to daydream.

Be Proactive

True daydreaming, where the mind simply wanders into the realms of fantasy without stopping to plan, edit or revise, is not easy to do on demand. As adults, we tend to over-complicate things and so when we come to our daydreaming time, it’s easy for us to fall into the trap of sitting there simply thinking ‘Right, I must try and come up with some flight of fancy now. Let me think, what shall I dream about? Hmmm, no, that wouldn’t work. I’m thinking, thinking…. Gagh, I feel silly just sitting here doing nothing. This is hard. I can’t do it. I have no imagination. I’m a failure’. Worse still, we might end up just thinking about all the “more important” things we have to do.

tip1So what’s the solution? Simple. Consider again what children do. They don’t just sit there daydreaming all day. They draw, they role play, sometimes they even write. In short, they express all that raw imagination soup in their head by giving it some kind of form. Why not try it yourself? Try free-writing, or buy yourself a cheap drawing pad to doodle in. Get some of your friends together for some imaginative role play. Play with finger puppets if you have to! Whatever it takes to really exercise that imagination.

Anything Goes

This isn’t writing. It isn’t even planning. It is simply exercising that part of your brain which spontaneously generates possibilities, however bizarre they might be. Therefore there is absolutely no need to edit. Plot holes, structure, and even plagiarism count for nothing in your daydreams.

Daydream about being Batman if you like. It’s not plagiarism if all you’re doing is fantasising, so allow yourself to wonder what it might be like driving a batmobile, fighting crime in Gotham’s seedy underbelly or changing your clothes while simultaneously sliding down a fireman’s pole. Try and put into words, if you can, how it feels to drive the batmobile. What does Gotham’s seedy underbelly smell like? Does that fireman’s pole chafe on the way down?

And what would happen if Batman encountered the villain from your story? How would Batman handle that? Yes, I know it’s silly. So what? Have fun with it. No one is going to edit, mark or even see your daydreams so let your imagination do whatever it wants. All that matters is that you imagine widely and imagine often, so that when you do come to work on creating proper works of fiction, you’ve got a strong enough imagination to do it.

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Spotlight: Chino & The Boy Scouts by Nancet Marques

Chino and the Boy Scouts introduces the mysterious world of Summerhill, a western island state with high immigration from the world over and a mysterious connection to India, the most outstanding feature of which, being its unusual schooling system, taught through the medium of Scouting. Chino is talented, ambitious and eager to prove his excellence to his father. It’s the final year of school and Chino learns of the existence of a map, through which he might unfold the legend of the G.W., an item long speculated to be a myth and highly coveted at Eden Gardens Grammar School. On their way to the school’s annual camp, they set off on what they think is a suitable adventure, to find their treasure and gain acclaim. Little does he know, he is not the only one bold enough to embark on this quest. What at first seems like a fun, if academically hazardous venture, spirals more and more into a world of danger and magic, as the school’s hidden past and depths reveal themselves to the ironically unprepared scouts.


Have you read Chino & The Boy Scouts? Why not leave a wee comment below and let us know what you thought of it.

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Penstricken: Collected Stories by Andrew Ferguson – Out Now!

‘Since brevity is the soul of wit, and tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes, I will be brief.’

There are short stories, there are very short stories and then there is flash fiction: the delicate and often tricky art of telling a story in as few words as possible.

The stories in this tiny little book (all originally published between 2015 and 2020 on the fiction blog, Penstricken) are deliberate exercises in brevity. In total, this book contains twelve flash fictions ranging from fifty to 2,000 words apiece, plus six collections of six word stories.

While these stories vary in mood and genre, you will find in many that the author’s tongue was firmly entrenched in his cheek; whether it be in the brief tale of a Martian liberating his ‘kin’ from the deep fat fryer of a Glasgow chip shop or the nightmarish tragedy of Santa Claus’ true genesis, Penstricken: Collected Stories is a brief snapshot of one writer’s meandering imagination.

When I stopped writing new posts for Penstricken, I promised I was going to release a short book on KDP of all the flash fictions I had ever published on this blog. Now it’s finally here in Kindle or paperback format, containing all the stories previously published on this blog in the last five years including Popping Off, The Fireplace Coppers and Christmas Eve.

At a mere 51 pages this is probably the skinniest anthology of short stories you’re ever likely to own making it easy to read in a single sitting.

Click here to buy Penstricken: Collected Stories on Amazon.

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

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AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

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

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