What Do Your Characters Think of Each Other?

Originally published 19/02/2017

Think about someone you know well. Anyone. A friend, a relative, a colleague, anyone. I bet if I asked you what that person was like, you would be able to easily give me your opinion on what sort of person they are.

John? Oh, he’s loud-mouthed, arrogant and opinionated. He’s not a bad person but he’s a real pain to be around…

Jeanie? She’s the most beautiful creature I’ve ever laid eyes on but she’s a liar and a thief. I wouldn’t turn my back on her. 

Willy? Nice guy I suppose, doesn’t say much (but let me tell you, he’s got the sharpest wit you’ve ever come across).

Now ask yourself… would that person’s own mother sum them up the same way you did? What about their spouse? Their boss? Their arch-nemesis? Even though you see John as loud-mouthed, the chances are his mother would focus on some other, more positive qualities, such as how kind-hearted he is. If John has a wife, she would be more likely to emphasis his physical attractiveness than his mother would (or, perhaps, she thinks he’s a lazy good-for-nothing and she can’t believe she married him).

As we all know, characters are the beating heart of any good story. However, no character is an island. How they respond to other characters is often essential in making your plot work (indeed, this arguably is your plot), so don’t be fooled into thinking it’s obvious how your characters will respond to one another. Just because you would respond in a particular way to Character A doesn’t mean that Character B will respond to Character A in the same way you would. Even though you, as the author, know all the facts about all of your characters, you’ll still have your own narrow opinion about what sort of person they are just the same as anyone else. That is why it is vital to know what every character thinks about every other character if you want to create a rich, vibrant and believable story.

Fortunately, it’s easy to do this. Here’s how I like to do it:

Start with a nice blank page. For me, it’s a separate document in my Scrivener project, but whatever floats your boat is fine (if you’re writing on paper, I would strongly recommend having plenty to spare; this could take up a few pages, especially if you’ve got a lot of characters). Now we make a table, as I’ve illustrated below, with as many rows as you have characters and two columns. Only the top row should have a single column, as this will act as a header. In this header, we write the name of the character we are wanting to find out about; Mr. Protagonist, for instance. In the cells below this, we ask every other character in the story for their opinion on Mr Protagonist. I find the easiest way to do this is to write out the answer in their voice, as if they were speaking to me. Even though I’ve only included two other characters to show you how it works, I would recommend you have a much larger table which includes every character in your story so that you get the most out of it.

Mr. Protagonist
Baron Antagonist Mr. Protagonist is a meddler and a constant thorn in my side. We were friends growing up but it is clear now he does not understand the great work I am doing here. His table manners are appalling but he has great taste in single malts.
Lady Loveinterest Mr. Protagonist is ruggedly handsome. His personality is quite charming, if a little brash and uncouth. He has a fiercely righteous (if misguided) streak which almost makes up for his poor breeding. Unfortunately, he drinks a little too much.

Once you’ve done it, repeat the process for all of your other characters.

Baron Antagonist
Mr. Protagonist Baron Antagonist is a snake-in-the-grass. He acts all sophisticated and like he’s everybody’s friend so that he’s got the whole world wrapped around his finger. How do you expose a guy like that? Even the king’s daughter has agreed to marry him. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he beat her.
Lady Loveinterest Baron Antagonist is a great man; a real visionary and a man who knows how to get things done. He’s got the patience of a saint too. I can see Mr. Protagonist irks him sometimes but he has never lost his temper with him, not once. Mr. Protagonist is fortunate to have a friend like the Baron.

Do you see how this can help you to gain a much deeper and fuller understanding of all your characters and the threads of friendship, enmity, mistrust and devotion which bind them together in an elaborate web which I like to call a “Story”?

If you really want to go the extra mile, why not throw in an extra row on each table telling us what each character thinks about themselves?

Mr. Protagonist
Mr. Protagonist I’m a cook and an employee of my former friend, Baron Antagonist. I have to say, I feel a bit out of place living in such a splendid house. The other servants don’t talk to me ’cause I don’t live in the servants quarters. I think that’s why anyway. But I’m more a man of their stripe than the Baron’s. I wish they could see that.
Lady Loveinterest Mr. Protagonist is ruggedly handsome….

Not only is all of this an effective means of fleshing out your story, it can actually be a pretty darn effective means of coming up with a story idea, similar to (in fact, arguably better than) auditioning characters. The above example, for instance, is only that: an example. I made it up as I was going along purely for your benefit. And yet, without intending it, I actually found myself getting quite involved in the story – a story which did not exist before I started filling in those tables. The embryo of a plot began to form in my mind as I learned more and more about each character from the lips of those people who knew them best. Who are these three people? What is the Baron’s ‘great work’ and why is Mr. Protagonist so distrustful of him? Will Mr. Protagonist ever get together with the slightly snobby Lady Loveinterest?

Give it a bash. I think you’ll find it helpful.

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What To Do When You Hate Your Story

Originally published 29/01/2017

The worst possible thing that can happen to any writer is for them to look at their work (especially their half finished work) and decide that it’s rubbish. Any idiot can overcome writer’s block with just a little bit of perseverance, but despairing over your story can be crippling. Not only will it halt you in your tracks, but it will probably make you want to give up writing altogether. Well, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:

Quitting is NOT an option!

That includes quitting your current story, as well as quitting writing altogether.

There is a way out of this situation. The first thing you need to remember is that the despair you’re feeling over your current story is almost certainly all in your mind. If you’re anything like me, you can quite easily flit between thinking your story is the most important piece of literature in the history of the world ever to being downright ashamed of it in the space of a few hours. So the first step is to refuse to give up. You were once pleased with the shape your story was taking; you will be pleased again in the future if you persevere. So, once you’ve resolved to carry on writing no matter how bad things get, it’s time for some positive actions. These are a few tried and tested techniques that I find work for me.

Take a Break

Seriously, sometimes all you need is to do something other than writing for a little while. However the important thing to remember here is that you’re trying to clear away some cobwebs, so I would recommend against vegging out on the sofa brooding about what a terrible author you are. Trust me, that doesn’t help.

Instead, do something stimulating – as long as it’s not writing. The goal here is to release some happy hormones, so read a book, take a walk or whatever it is that makes you feel revitalised. Better yet, do something that makes you feel good about yourself. Something that makes you feel like you don’t suck at life. Maybe you play a mean pinball. Go beat your high score, do a celebratory run around the living room then come back to your story.

Oh that reminds me, you also want to make sure your break ends at some point. Either set a time limit or make sure that your chosen recreational activity has a clearly defined finishing point so that you don’t forget to write altogether. I’ve done that before myself…

A Change is as Good as a Rest

If you don’t quite trust yourself to withdraw completely from writing your story but still feel like you could use a break… write something else.

To clarify, I do not mean give up on the story that’s giving you trouble. I simply mean spend half an hour or so writing something else, then come back to your story.

If it’s only your current project that’s getting you down, but you still feel like a perfectly capable story teller, then try your hand at some flash fiction or even poetry. Something completely different to get the juices flowing, but not so long that it swallows up your time working on your main project. Heck, it doesn’t even need to be fiction you write. Personally, I find writing this blog every week gives me a real shot in the arm.

If, on the other hand, you feel like such a failure at writing that you’re just about ready to quit and go back to the day job, try keeping a writer’s journal. Don’t try to be clever here. You’re not writing this to have it published, or even read by other human eyes. This is simply a constructive way of getting out all of those horrible, self-depreciating feelings that you have as well as tracking your progress and analysing where you might be going wrong.

Break Your Problem Down OR Draft Like Crazy

If you’re absolutely determined that a rest is not what you need, then try a change of approach. Broadly speaking there are two ways to go about this, depending on what stage of the writing process you’re at and how you like to go about writing a story.

If you feel like you’re up to your armpits in disjointed or poorly written scenes, it would be wise to go back to the old drawing board and consider where your story might be going wrong. Perhaps you need to flesh out your character profiles. Perhaps your protagonist lacks a satisfying character arc. Perhaps the pacing of your story is all off. Either way, it’s time to set aside the manuscript and get into the nitty gritty of your plan. If you already have a plan set out, this is a sensible place to start. If not, it’s maybe time you thought about putting one together.

If, on the other hand, you are working on a detailed plan when despair strikes, it might be that you’re overthinking the matter. If you find yourself lamenting how implausible your story is or how ‘it’s been done before!’ then this probably applies to you. The truth is, fiction is nearly always implausible; that’s why it hasn’t really happened. And fiction has nearly always been done before; there is, after all, nothing new under the sun. Put your plan to one side for a while and try to write a draft of your story as freely as you can. Don’t edit (you might find Typewriter handy for that) and don’t worry about where it’s going. Be led by your muse and write whatever comes to you. Doing this can sometimes help you to imagine possibilities that never would have occurred to you simply by staring at charts and tables.

Whether any of this helps or not, remember Ernest Hemingway’s advice: ‘Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now’. If you are despairing of your writing, remember that this is only a temporary setback. You cannot run out of ‘author-juice’, nor can the same story idea be good one day then bad the next. It is only a mindset that is holding you back, so persevere and win!

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A Quick Review of Hemingway Editor v.3.0

Originally published 22/01/2017

You may recall (if you’ve got a photographic memory) that I published a post last year reviewing the Hemingway Editor. This snazzy little app analyses and grades the simplicity of your writing style and I’ve used it plenty over the last year to help edit my own writing. Well, it so happens that I got an e-mail this week informing me that v.3.0 is now available with a whole bunch of new features. These include:
  • The ability to publish or save drafts to WordPress or Medium from the Hemingway App
  • More choice of what you can import and export from Hemingway. This includes, among other things, the ability to export PDF files with all Hemingway’s highlights intact)
  • Distraction free writing and editing
  • The ability to have many documents open at once
  • A pretty new splash screen
  • Various bug fixes
Like its predecessor, Hemingway 3 aims to help you write in the most clear and simple style you can by highlighting any instances of adverbs, passive voice, complex language or cumbersome sentences. It will also give details of readability, word count, letter count, approximate reading time and so forth. In this sense, nothing much has changed (though the new version seems to be far more willing to suggest specific corrections, which is a big plus) . It uses the same system of colour coding, grading and gives exactly the same information. There have only been a few minor changes to the layout of the sidebar. I won’t waste too much time here reviewing features that are common to both versions. You can read the old post for that. Instead, let’s have a look at some of the new features.
 
Being a WordPress user, the ability to save your work to WordPress or Medium caught my attention straight away. I don’t use Medium so I haven’t been able to test it, but I did have a go at saving to WordPress. See this post that you’re reading now? This is it; this is the test. I wrote and edited this using Hemingway Editor 3.0. And my verdict is this: it would be great if I could only get it to work. The window that appears when you click ‘Publish on WordPress’ is very clear and easy to use, but whenever I clicked ‘save’ this kept happening:
error1
 
Do let me know if you think I’m doing something wrong. I’ve spent the last fifteen minutes trying to figure it out and it’s still not working.
 
So, let’s move on to look at exporting and importing. In the old version, you could only import Word documents and export Word or Markdown documents. Hemingway 3 gives you much more choice. Now you can import:
  • Plain text (.txt)
  • Markdown (.md)
  • Web pages (.html)
  • Word documents (.doc)
And you can export:
  • Plain text
  • Markdown
  • Web pages
  • Word documents
  • PDF documents (.pdf)
  • PDF documents with all Hemingway’s highlights included.
unabletoconnectThis is all a massive improvement, but the last item on that list is the most exciting for me. This allows you to quickly and easily share edits with colleagues. The only downside? Nowhere on the PDF file does it tell you what each coloured highlight means. Unless our hypothetical colleague has the Hemingway Editor himself, you will need to provide him with details of the colour code. Still, it’s a handy feature to have.
 
The distraction free environment is one of my favourite new features in Hemingway. The previous version included a bulky toolbar along the top of the screen and an even bulkier sidebar if you were on ‘edit’ mode. The new version allows you to hide the sidebar even in ‘edit’ mode. It also has a ‘full screen’ function which hides your taskbar. It’s not a completely distraction free environment, as it does still have the toolbar at the top (which, to be fair, is now much less intrusive). On balance, though, I would still call it a big step in the right direction.
 
One thing I was particularly curious about was the spellchecker. You may recall from my previous post that I was none too impressed with the spellchecker in the old version.
 
‘Have they improved it!?’ I hear you cry.
 
I suppose, technically… no, not really. They’ve cured the disease by killing the patient. There is now no spellchecker whatsoever as far as I can see.
 
Another thing I was curious about was a particular bug I had discovered in the previous version, which I mentioned in the last post. Text I had copied from other apps overlapped with pre-existing text making the document unreadable. I’m pleased to say this is now resolved.
 
All in all, I would have to say version 3 is definitely an improvement. The new features are useful and they work well (publishing to WordPress notwithstanding). Things that didn’t work before, now do work, while things that worked well before now work even better. There is still room for further development, of course. It would be nice to have a functioning spellchecker for instance and the toolbar could be even more discreet than it is now but all in all, Hemingway Editor 3.0 gets a thumbs up from me. Go get it!

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Dear Authors, Size Does Matter

Originally published 15/01/2017

These days, there is almost no limit (in either direction) on how long a story you can write. There is an audience out there for epic fantasy sagas consisting of seven or eight 300,000 word books; there is an audience for stories consisting of only a single, short sentence and there is an audience out there for almost everything in between. How and where you can publish these stories varies, but thanks to the magic of the internet, there’s always a way to get them out there to be read by millions.

Best of all, you’ve had a story idea! A superb story idea that you’re sure other people are going to love too! Well isn’t that just fabulous? I’m made up for you. Really. You won’t see the verdant steam of jealousy billowing from my ears at all. In fact, I’m so happy for you that I’m going to help you make sure you don’t ruin it.

‘Ruin it?!’ You cry, aghast and perturbed. ‘What could possibly ruin this little gem of mine?!’

Lots of things, but what I’m really thinking about today is the length of your story: writing a novel that should be a novella; a novella that should be a short story; a short story that should be a one hundred word story; a one hundred word story that should be fifty… or indeed, writing a fifty word story that should be a 550,000 word trilogy with a spin-off stage musical.

It’s important to decide well in advance what length of story you want to write for two reasons:

  1. It’s all part of knowing your target audience, especially if you’ve got any inclination to ever get your story published. Casual browsers of Twitter can read your six word story in no time; only dedicated bookworms and fans of your genre are likely to look at a seven book series.
  2. (and this is the reason I want to focus on the most today) Poorly chosen length can have a devastating effect on the pace of your story.

Pacing is important. A well paced story will both excite your audience at the appropriate times and make them feel involved in your character’s situation. I don’t want to get too technical in this post about the intricacies of pacing (perhaps I’ll write a post about it in the future), but suffice it to say that all good stories are made up of slow bits and fast bits, and it is this balance of slow against fast which creates the desired reaction in your reader. In the case of written fiction, the slow bits will be very detailed and will probably (although not necessarily) feature a lot of key dialogue. They are there to draw your reader into the character’s situation; to let your reader know exactly what’s going on for your character and to enable your reader to care about them. The fast bits are less detailed; it’s all about the action.

This is a difficult art to master at the best of times. You’ve probably read many a published novel or watched many a film even in which the pacing ruined it for you. Personally, I felt that the pacing in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire caused the story to drag a little too much for my liking. It’s not because it’s a bad story, or even because it’s poorly written. It’s a very good story in a lot of ways so please don’t shout at me. But by the time I got about half way through the second book, my boredom was complete. A story of that kind of pace really can’t afford to be seven books long. If he had stopped at one or two books… things could have been so very different.

It works the other way too, of course. While I’m focusing mainly on written fiction today, I want to briefly mention the film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune, because it makes the point so well. Dune is a great book. It’s very long but that’s okay, because the story is well paced. The film adaption of Dune is reasonably faithful to the book and yet… I almost got dizzy watching it. There was too much story crammed into a much-too-short film and it made the whole thing feel a bit rushed (there were also too many voice-overs to let us hear the characters’ thoughts, but I’ll save that rant for another day). If only it had been a bit longer (even if it meant breaking it up into a series of films), it could have been a really great retelling of that classic sci-fi novel.

Do you feel breathless just reading your story because the pace is so darn fast, or that you are struggling to cram everything you need to say into a restrictive word limit? Maybe it’s time to consider turning that short story into a novella or even a full length novel. Or do you feel that your narrative is dragging despite all your best efforts? Ask yourself seriously if your novel wouldn’t benefit more from being a short story or flash fiction instead.

I recently wrote a story entitled Little Thieves Are Hanged, which started out life as a 2,000-3,000 word short story. I was really convinced the story idea had potential and I was very pleased with the characters and sequence of events I had created but… try as I might, I couldn’t seem to make it interesting. It was about as much fun to read as a phone book but I couldn’t shake the idea that this was a good story.

I decided to start from scratch. Exactly the same plot but this time with a word limit of only 100 words. Let me tell you, I had some serious darling killing to do but within days I had a story I was proud to submit for entry to the National Association of Writers’ Groups’ 100 Word Mini-Tales Competition (which is why I haven’t published the story here; it’s still waiting to be judged).

Ideally, you want to settle on the right length of story before you write. You’ll save yourself an awful lot of time and energy if you do but the truth is, knowing exactly what length your story should be is often a matter of experience. Chances are you will occasionally find yourself getting it wrong the first time, like I did with Little Thieves Are Hanged. If that happens, don’t let it discourage you. Be brave and start again with a more appropriate word limit. I know it’s a drag, but you will probably find that it pays dividends.

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My Dead Darlings

Originally published 18/12/2016

In his book On Writing, Stephen King famously quipped ‘Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings’. What that basically means is that a good writer must be able to look at his or her manuscript with a dispassionate eye and exorcise any superfluous passages, even if it is some of the most beautiful prose you have ever written.

If you haven’t had this problem yet as a writer, you will. Oh, brother, you will. It might be a clever turn of phrase, a vivid metaphor, a piercing line of dialogue or even an entire chapter (or more!) of narrative which you are immensely proud of… but it does nothing to advance the story and therefore, it has to go.

None of us are immune to this phenomenon. I, myself, find myself doing it on almost everything I try to write. So for your enjoyment, I have preserved a few dead darlings from the last few Penstricken posts here, in the hopes that I might also encourage you to kill your darlings without mercy. Your story will thank you for it.

Dead Darlings from ‘How to Make a Spin-Off That Doesn’t Suck‘ (27/11/16):

The biggest change I made in this post was removing a hypothetical Doctor Who spin-off about the life of the Doctor’s archenemy, Davros, which I dubbed The Davros Diaries. I replaced this with Roses Are (Presumed) Dead, not because I thought that was a cleverer idea (because it’s not), but because it allowed me to make my point better.

…perhaps as a tragedy following the events which led him to the insane creator of the Daleks he eventually became (kind of similar to the Star Wars prequels which followed the early life of Darth Vader).

* * *

You may also recall that in this post, I made reference to Wikipedia’s list of TV spin-offs. Well, I had originally included the following paragraph to clarify that my post only related to fiction related spin-offs, even though the list included non-fictional programs too. Really, this whole paragraph was superfluous; it doesn’t take a genius to figure out I never write about non-fiction anywhere on this website. The only reason I wanted to keep this paragraph in was because I was proud of my little Strictly Come Dancing quip but as we all know, even our little quips must be there for a reason. This one, however, clearly served no purpose whatsoever.

Now, if you’ve looked through the list (and I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t; it’s a long and tedious read. Believe me, I’ve read it), you will notice that lots of the TV shows on there are actually reality TV, game shows, or other such non-fictional nonsense that we’re not interested in. Whatever I say here only applies to spin-offs of televised fiction so don’t shout at me if you think Strictly Come Dancing is the best darn spin-off you’ve ever seen.

Dead Darlings from ‘A Colourful Approach to Brainstorming‘ (03/12/16)

This post really started out life as a post about low-tech writing tools, and I had planned to write an introductory paragraph about some post-apocalyptic era where our technology will fail us and we will all return to a simpler, purer form of writing. Then I realised I was talking rubbish, and besides, I couldn’t think of more than one or two low-tech writing tools I really wanted to blog about so… these paragraphs became pretty darn useless.

But what about when there is a sudden and total blackout of all power across the entire world? When I finally take my place as rightful Ruler of the Post-Technological Kingdom of Penstrickopia, we won’t have any need for silly little things like the internet, electricity or mobile iThings. No sirree, it will just be you, the great outdoors, your story idea and a bunch of other things, most of which either made of paper or else apply pigment to paper.

* * *

This paragraph was just long winded.

As I’m sure you’re aware, there are millions of fancy apps out there these days that you can get for planning, drafting and editing your novel, your play, your recipe collection or whatever else you feel like writing. They’re brilliant. I love them. In fact, I often blog about a few of my favourites (here, here, here, here and here, for instance). But the tool from my writer’s arsenal which I’m going to talk to you about today isn’t an app for your PC or tablet. It’s a very humble little item which you’re probably already quite familiar with. I know I’ve always had one, though only recently have I come to appreciate the sheer usefulness of it to us writers – particularly when it comes to trying to brainstorm story ideas.

Dead Darlings from ‘On Titles‘ (10/12/16)

You may recall that in this post, I made reference to the ‘Confession of a [optional adjective] [noun]’ style of title that I despise. Well, this was originally going to be a much longer rant. Here’s the excess rant that I was forced to delete (truth be known, I could have probably deleted the whole point but my hatred for this style of title got the better of me):

However, somebody out there clearly disagrees with me. When I searched for ‘Confessions of a’ on the website of a well known chain of book shops, it gave me no less than 113 results, so somebody must think it works as a title: Confessions of a Wild Child, Confessions of a Conjurer, Confessions of a Sociopath, Confessions of a Cartel Hit Man, Confessions of a Tinderella, Confessions of a Teenage Hollywood Star, Confessions of a Rugby Mercenary, Confessions of a Murder Suspect, Confessions of a Sinner, Confessions of a Working Girl, Confessions of a Barrister, Confessions of a Heretic, Confessions of a School Nurse, Confessions of… you get the idea.

* * *

This paragraph was just plain vague. Even I’m not sure exactly where I was going with it. I just liked my quip about Porkies but that is not a good enough reason to keep this otherwise useless paragraph.

One more point on single-world titles: make it a strong word. Something the reader can’t fail to understand. Avoid euphemisms and similar such soft language. Deception is a much better title than Porkies would have been because it’s such an offensive and accusatory word. Porkies, on the other hand, implies telling small, unimportant lies.

Dead Darlings from ‘My Dead Darlings’ (18/12/16)

Get me, I’m so knowledgeable. Goodbye irrelevant William Faulkner reference.

…Stephen King (paraphrasing William Faulkner, it should be noted) famously quipped…

* * *

Feels like I’m repeating myself a bit in this paragraph, doesn’t it?

So I thought, for your enjoyment, I would put a few of my dead darlings on display for you here. Most of these (though not all of them) were written for specific Penstricken posts but ultimately, served no purpose. They had to go. However, I’ve preserved a few of them from the last couple of posts here in the hopes that I might also encourage you, dear writer, of the importance of killing your darlings without mercy. Your story will thank you for it, believe me.

* * *

Alliteration can be used to great effect in writing, but if you’ve already made it clear what you’re planning to do, there’s no need to add in superfluous sentences just to show off your grasp of this relatively simple technique. That’s why this sentence had to go:

Call it a cyber cemetery of dead darlings.

* * *

And yes, I really did commit the very sin I was in the middle of preaching against… 

Alliteration is amazing. It can be used to great effect…

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On Titles

Originally published 11/12/2016

Titles are possibly one of the hardest things to get right when it comes to writing your story, no matter what it’s genre and format. Not only are they hard to come up with, but they (like most things) tend to be a matter of taste. If there’s one thing I personally hate, it’s when writers (or perhaps more likely, their publishers) feel the need to give their book an agonisingly tedious title like ‘Confessions of a [optional adjective] [noun]’. That’s a great way to stop me ever reading your book, watching your film, attending your play or partaking of anything else you might produce. Writers and publishers everywhere, take note: I really hate that kind of title with an indomitable passion.

But I digress.

Titles are hard but you can’t very well avoid giving your story one. Most depressingly of all, there’s a good chance your publisher will throw out your snazzy title that you agonised over and replace it with some other, more marketable title (Confessions of a Philistine Publisher, or something like that). Still, they won’t even look at your story if you don’t give it a title first so there’s nothing else for it, I’m afraid. Your story needs a title.

So, let’s start by defining exactly what a title ought to be. First and foremost, the title must be relevant. Please don’t call your story The Swashbuckling Adventures of Captain Bloodbeard if you’ve written a cozy mystery novel set in some English country estate. If your title promises swashbuckling adventures, your story had better deliver swashbuckling adventures; and the only people I know who swash their buckles are pirates. Don’t get me wrong. A good title can be a little bit more cryptic than the one I’ve just made up, but there’s a big difference between cryptic and downright misleading.

Your title is a promise to your audience. Like any good advert, it should tantalise the audience with the promise of a good story without giving too much away. The reason Peter Newman’s The Vagrant caught my eye (among all the other fantasy novels on the same shelf) was because it promised me something that I always look for in a story: a compelling protagonist. I did not know for sure at this stage if the protagonist was actually going to be any good, but as soon as I saw that title, I was willing to give it a chance because I needed to know who the Vagrant was. If, on the other hand, Newman had simply entitled his novel ‘The Bloke’, I probably would have shrugged my shoulders (in fact, with a title like that, I wouldn’t have really expected to find it under fantasy at all, but never mind).

Some titles are phrases borrowed from the text of the story itself. The title A Game of Thrones for instance is a phrase which is used in the actual text of the story. Personally, I’m always a little bit cautious about doing this. It works with A Game of Thrones for two reasons:

  1. It’s a really snazzy phrase
  2. It encapsulates what the story is about, without giving away any spoilers.

You really need both of these in place to make a title like this work. If it’s not a snazzy phrase, it won’t catch anyone’s attention and if it doesn’t give some indication as to what the story might be about, you will only end up with disappointed readers. The phrase, ‘Alas! Earwax!’ is found in the first Harry Potter book, but let’s be honest: if you saw a book in a shop entitled Alas! Earwax! you wouldn’t expect it to be a story about wizards. Oh, and while I’m on the subject, please, please, please, never come up with your title and then try to incorporate it into the text of your story… otherwise you’ll end up with something horrible like:

And you people, you’re all astronauts on some kind of star trek?

– Zefram Cochrane in Star Trek: First Contact

Seriously, just don’t do that.

Another possibility is to use well known expressions and sayings as titles (as long as they’re relevant. Always keep it relevant). For example, the title of Jeffery Archer’s Cometh the Hour is clearly derived from the expression ‘cometh the hour, cometh the man’. We all know that expression and what it means, and therefore, when we see the title of Archer’s book, we get a certain idea in our head of what kind of story it might be (without it really giving anything away). If, however, you can’t find an expression that conveys the kind of ideas you want it to convey, why not try distorting a popular idiom as Ian Fleming does in Live and Let Die. Not only does that title tell you something about the story itself, but it is also eye-catching because it flies in the face of popular wisdom.

Alternatively, if you’re really feeling brave, you might want to use a single word as your title. If you’re going to do this, I would generally use a word that sums up the main theme of your story. While it is certainly possible to name your story after the main character (e.g. Ben-Hur by Lewis Wallace) or the main setting of your story (e.g. Dune by Frank Herbert), it’s unlikely that these kinds of titles will catch anyone’s attention if we’ve never heard of the people or places in question before now. Why should I care about who Ben-Hur is or what happens on Dune (not that I’m knocking Dune or Ben-Hur; they are, in fact, two of my favourite books)? On the other hand, Roald Dahl’s short-story collection, Deception, has a very effective title because it sums up the main theme of every story therein. We all know what it is to deceive and be deceived. It’s a theme we all understand and care about; therefore, it becomes interesting to us.

I hope some of this helps. Also, remember that while it is important to come up with a good title, try not to lose any sleep over it either. What really matters is that you tell a great story. You can have the best darn title in the world, but the story is what your audience will really care about. Some of my favourite books have rubbish titles and there’s a good chance your publisher will change the title anyway, so it’s not worth getting overly attached to anyway. But don’t let that stop you from coming up with the best title you can. After all, it’s the first thing your would-be publisher will see so give it your best shot. If your story has to get rejected, make sure that it gets rejected because for the story – not because it’s got boring title.

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A Colourful Approach to Brainstorming

Originally published 04/12/2016

One of the most effective ways to generate ideas, in almost any creative sphere, is to get together with a bunch of other folk and brainstorm together. It’s a time honoured tradition of mixing creative, imaginative, rational, critical minds together and coming with and developing a truly unique and superior idea. Unfortunately, writing is a pretty solitary business most of the time. But today, I want to introduce you to one of the most valuable tools I have in my writer’s utility belt; a tool which has allowed me to single handily harness (at least some of) the magic of brainstorming with others:

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you, The Bic 4-Colour Ballpoint Pen*.

Four colours in one pen!

I know what you’re thinking. Ancient technology. Humble. Boring. Run of the mill. You’ve probably got one yourself that you never use. Your kids have probably got one too. But trust me on this, it’s proven a great help to me whenever I’ve been trying to come up with new story ideas on my own (and you can use it during a power cut!).

It’s quite a simple technique really. First, grab a notebook that you don’t mind scribbling all your loose ideas into (seriously, we are not interested in presentation here). Second, grab your Pen of Many Colours. From now on, each colour represents a person in your ‘group’, and these will interact with one another. There are four members in my imaginary group because there are four colours on my pen (although if your pen has more colours, I suppose you could have more. Whatever works for you). In my case, they are organised something like this:

Black – Chairman (doesn’t really serve a creative function; I just use it for headers etc. although you might find another use for it).
Green – Creator
Blue – Questioner
Red – Critic

Now, since there’s not really a group of four people involved in this process, it’s important to remember one thing: you must write down everything that occurs to you. No matter how good or bad it is, you must write down everything or this won’t work.

So we begin by bringing the meeting to order. This is the main time I use the black tip. I write a header, which specifically establishes what it is I am trying to accomplish, to give some kind of focus to the session. I also include the date, but that’s just to make it easier to find again. If I’m brainstorming a brand new story idea, I might also write down other details such as intended audience etc. For instance, my most recent one reads:

‘Untitled Sci-fi Novel – Minor Antagonist Ideas – 30/11/16’

Great! I now know what it is I’m trying to create: a minor antagonist (though you could use it to generate ideas for anything, even a whole new story). Now the other three colours come into play. I tend to flick between the three of them frequently throughout the process (that just means it’s working) so what order they get used in is both unpredictable and ultimately, not relevant. All that matters is that they are all used to their fullest capacity.

For instance, whenever I have a creative idea – good or bad – it gets written down in green. Every single idea without exception, even if I know it is never going to work in a month of Sundays. It gets written down in green. The reason for this is that I usually have multiple ideas and it’s not always clear which ones will work the best, or if any of them will work at all. That doesn’t matter for Mr. Green Tip, however. Mr. Green Tip’s sole function in life is to record every single idea that pops into my head, no matter how awful.

The blue tip has a related, though somewhat different function. It asks questions of my previous ideas and prompts me to come up with new ones. For example, in my most recent session, I had the idea that ‘the minor antagonist could be a friend of the protagonist who betrays him’. Written underneath it says, ‘Why would he do this?’. After all, there’s nothing wrong with the idea but in order to function within my story, this question really needs to be answered. If I can’t answer it at this stage, you can bet your life my readers will be wondering about it too.

Asking this question then prompted further ideas, such as conflicting political beliefs or that he might see the protagonist as a rival for the affections of his love-interest. This prompted even more questions and more ideas.

Another use for the blue tip is to ask ‘what if?’ style questions, again, to provoke ideas. This is a really great thing to do if you’re stuck in a rut. ‘What if the antagonist were agoraphobic?’ for instance or ‘what if the protagonist were thirty years older?’. Asking these kinds of questions pushes your imagination in directions it might not otherwise go.

Of course, with all these ideas flying around, we really need someone to separate the wheat from the chaff. This is where the red tip comes into its own. It is used to judge every idea and decide what can and should be used. If there are any problems to be found with any of my ideas, no matter how insurmountable or minor these problems may be, they get noted in red. The result of this is that I will either come up with a new and improved version of the original idea or that I will abandon the idea altogether and come up with a brand new one. For instance, underneath my aforementioned idea that the antagonist could be a rival for a love-interests affections, it says in red ‘We’re trying to write a YA sci-fi/thriller, not a soap opera’. I therefore abandoned that idea and went along with a better one I’d had.

I don’t know how likely it is that you will find this exact process useful. I hope you will at least find the basic premise of it useful. Goodness knows I’ve read up on countless approaches to brainstorming, planning, writing and everything else besides and if there’s one  thing I’ve discovered, it’s that no two authors approach writing in quite the same way, so I strongly encourage you to tinker with it until you get the approach that works for you. Maybe you need more colours. Maybe the whole thing is of no use to you. I don’t know. But this works for me, and I hope, dear reader, that you will be at least able to glean something from it to aid in the creative process.

*other multi-coloured ballpoints are available.

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3 Types of Distinctive Characters

Originally published 20/11/2016

Just about every story has characters. They are the beating heart of any story that’s worth reading. All my favourite stories, whether they be books, films, TV shows, comics, computer games, or any other kind of story you care to mention, feature compelling characters. Characters who are not just believable people (though that is vitally important), but who are intriguing, unusual, captivating and – most importantly – unique. Their distinctive qualities makes them memorable, interesting and appealing (even if they are the most sinister villains) and they don’t slot too neatly into cliched archetypes – damsels in distress, moustache twirling villains, reluctant heroes or any other such thing.

It is, therefore, naturally quite difficult to capture the formula for creating such a character. After all, any examples I can highlight (and I’ve highlighted a couple of my favourites) would only serve to be examples of unique characters who have already been written. You, dear writer, need to think of something new! But I have tried, as best I can, to sort them into three more general categories of the kind of thing you can use to add that distinctive sparkle to your character. Here they are, in no particular order:

1- Man or Woman of Mystery

For me, there’s nothing like a character who doesn’t show you his whole hand. You know there’s more to him than meets the eye because the things he does and says are peculiar. There seems to be method to his madness but you just don’t know what it is. In the opening chapters of The Vagrant by Peter Newman (arguably my favourite fantasy novel of 2015), we are introduced to a nameless and speechless protagonist, journeying to through a hellish fantasy world with a baby, a living sword and a goat.

Who is he? Where does he come from? What does he want? Why does he want it? Who does the baby belong to? Why can’t he speak (or does he simply  choose not to?)? What’s the deal with the funky sword? And where did he get that goat? So many questions!

Of course, the only danger with this approach is that you might make your story boring if the audience feels like they don’t understand anything that’s going on for too long. Fortunately, in The Vagrant Newman manages to keep that compelling spark of mystery alive by tossing us only tiny scraps of disjointed information, little by little. Just enough to keep us interested, but it is only as the story nears its end that we begin to really learn who this Vagrant is, where he comes from and why he’s doing what he’s doing. That’s the trick to making this kind of character work: a steady diet of gleanings of revelation. Each chapter should tell us something, but not everything.

2- Not Your Average Pirate/Priest/Cowboy/Wizard/Secret Agent/Space Cadet/etc…

This type of character is especially useful if you’re trying to create a lighthearted story, though it can be used in all kinds of fiction. Basically, you think of all the typical attributes you might expect your character to have and you reverse them. For instance, the Monkey Island saga is a series of games which follow the adventures of ‘mighty pirate’, Guybrush Threepwood: a slim, blond, mild-mannered, goofy young man who is, nevertheless, a bona fide (even legendary) pirate who sails the Caribbean vanquishing sword-masters, searching for treasure and battling hellspawned demon pirates. Of all the pirates to appear in fiction throughout the years – Jack Sparrow, Captain Hook, Long John Silver and anyone else you care to name – Guybrush Threepwood stands out as unique because he is so not your average pirate. His utter unsuitability to be a pirate is what makes him and his story so unique.

In Monkey Island, this is used to comic effect, but a skilled writer can use it to create non-humorous characters too. In Pale Rider, the otherwise unnamed protagonist is a preacher who rides into town wearing a clerical collar – but this being a western movie with Clint Eastwood playing the role of the preacher, you can be sure he’s more prone towards solving that town’s problems with violence than your stereotypical man of the cloth. Of all the gun-toting ‘shoot-first-and-ask-them-if-they’re-feeling-lucky-later’ characters that Clint Eastwood has ever played, the Preacher stands out as unique because he defies the usual character profile of your average travelling preacher.

3- Me and My “Thing”

I don’t want to rabbit on about Things too much, since I’ve already blogged about it before, but some characters stand out as unique because of a particular Thing they have with them which serves as a kind of trademark. As I mentioned in the previous post, there are many books, films and TV shows out there which include time travellers who use time machines to travel back and forth through eternity, but only the Doctor from Doctor Who travels through time in a British police box. And so, the Doctor is instantly recognisable by the TARDIS (as it is called), which is his Thing. In fact, the Doctor is a prime example of the power of a Thing, because that character often changes both his physical appearance and personality (we’re currently on our thirteenth incarnation of the Doctor, assuming we count the War Doctor) and yet he is always recognisable as the Doctor so long as he is travelling through time and space in a police box shaped TARDIS. If he ever permanently ditches the TARDIS for a time machine shaped like anything else, he won’t be the Doctor anymore.

The one thing you do need to be careful of is that your character’s Thing doesn’t turn out to be nothing more than a cheap gimmick which adds nothing to the story. Remember, everything must help the story to progress. The TARDIS works just fine as a Thing, because it also serves a more primary function – as the Doctor’s only means to travelling from time to time. It doesn’t just add a distinctive trademark to the Doctor’s character; it also plays a vital role in making the story work.

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Your Character’s “Thing”

Originally published 09/10/2016

SPOILER ALERT:

Anyone who still has not seen up to series 8 of the BBC sci-fi/drama, Doctor Who (the series 8 from 1971 one, not 2014), is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

My wife and I are Whovians. Recently we’ve been watching all of Doctor Who from the very beginning (the very, very beginning with William Hartnell) and we’re now on series 8. The Doctor (by now on his third incarnation, portrayed by Jon Pertwee) has been exiled to Earth by the Time Lords. He still has his TARDIS – the space/time capsule by which he can travel anywhere, anywhen – but it has been sabotaged by the Time Lords, who have also put a block on the Doctor’s memory so he is unable to fix it. As such, he’s spent the majority of this series as a scientific adviser to the human organisation, UNIT. The TARDIS is barely seen or mentioned at all in the first couple of episodes.

As much as I’ve enjoyed this series as a show and think Pertwee is arguably one of my favourite Doctors, he seems odd without his TARDIS. The TARDIS is, after all, the Doctor’s ‘Thing’. It’s what makes him stand out as a truly unique character. Many characters in fiction have travelled through time and space; many are aliens; many speak in BBC English but no one else has a space/time capsule disguised as a British police box. If anyone did, we would all cry ‘Plagiarism! A space/time travelling police box is the Doctor’s Thing!’

Almost all of the most memorable characters in fiction have a Thing. It might be a physical object they carry, something they wear or perhaps even something they simply say. When one thinks of James Bond, we imagine a man who carries a Beretta 418 (though in reality, he did occasionally use other weapons) and drinks vodka martinis, shaken not stirred. Batman dresses like bat, drives a Batmobile and operates from a Batcave; no prizes for guessing what his thing is. Even characters from history are often assigned Things that make them recognisable when they are portrayed on stage or on film today. For example, one of the first plays I recall ever seeing included a portrayal of Henry VIII, who spent most of the play munching a turkey leg. Whether or not the real Henry VIII ever had an affinity for turkey is neither here nor there; today, it’s become that character’s Thing. A Thing might even be another character; a constant companion (or nemesis?) whom he is lost without. Sherlock Holmes for example is almost always portrayed with John Watson. On the rare occasions where Watson is not present, he is still almost always referred to by Holmes who is clearly suffering for a lack of ‘his Watson’; even if he is loathe to admit it.

And here it is that I miss my Watson. By cunning questions and ejaculations of wonder he could elevate my simple art, which is but systematised common sense, into a prodigy.

– Doyal, A.C. The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier

In a short, a Thing can be anything but it must be unique.

So, does your character need a Thing? Not necessarily. A well-written character can function just fine within an excellent story without a Thing. What a Thing will do for your character is make them seem more distinctive and memorable. Therefore, it is probably only necessary to give them to your protagonist and maybe your main antagonist; characters you want to make stand out. However, as we have said before, it is important that every element of your story – characters, objects, dialogue, the lot – serves a function in progressing the story. Pointless gimmicks are… well… pointless. I would, therefore, think very, very, very carefully before giving your character a Thing which does not also serve some practical function to move the story along, especially in written fiction where the narrative will be disrupted by your description of the Thing. (You can get away with a little bit more on stage or film. For example, Henry VIII’s turkey leg might serve no practical function, but the story is not interrupted since he simply has to be seen holding it; in written fiction, however, the reader’s attention must be drawn to it with superfluous narrative).

So, before you even think about Things, think about this: what does my character actually need?

In other words, what is required to make the story work? In the case of Doctor Who, a space/time capsule was obviously required, because the whole premise of Doctor Who revolves around an alien who has a variety of adventures travelling to different planets and different points in history. Clearly, he would need some means of transportation, especially if he is bringing human companions with him, as he always does. However, it doesn’t need to be disguised as a British police box. It could be disguised as anything – or not be disguised at all. At this stage, it’s not really distinctive enough to be a Thing, since plenty of sci-fi includes time machines. We’re only interested at this stage in giving our character what he needs to make the story work.

Only once the essentials are in place can we start adding the dressing needed to create a Thing for our character. Remember, that if your story was a five course meal and you were a chef, your characters’ Things would be garnish; not appropriate for every course, and even then, only to be used in tiny quantities as a kind of ‘finishing touch’.

Like all good garnishes, a Thing should discreetly compliment and enhance the character you have already created. The Doctor’s TARDIS, for example, is perpetually disguised as a British police box, regardless of what planet or time it travels to. The fact it travels through time and space is your meat and potatoes, because it is essential to make the story work. The fact it is humorously disguised as a police box is the garnish; passively turning the Doctor’s time machine into something unique, without hindering the pace of the story in any way. It’s unusual enough to make the Doctor (and indeed, the entire Doctor Who franchise) stand out as unique without taking any of the glory away from the story itself. It is everything a character’s Thing should be.

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Typewriter: An Old-Fashioned Solution for Modern Writers

Originally published 02/10/2016

We writers all know (or if we don’t know, we soon will learn) that perfectionism is the enemy of the writer. Of course, we all want our novel/play/movie/TV script/comic to be as close to perfection as it is possible to get. There’s nothing wrong with thatSome might even say that it is our sworn duty as story tellers to create the best story we are capable of and to present it in the most pleasing way possible. That’s all very commendable.

However, anyone who has been writing for any length of time will be able to tell you that you will almost never be able to simply sit down and produce a perfect first draft. It is almost guaranteed to be full of errors, typos, weak metaphors, poor dialogue and perhaps even gaping plot holes. An experienced writer knows this to be the case and therefore also knows that the only solution is to write a bad first draft, attack it with the Red Pen of Editing and then write a slightly better second draft. Repeat until you have attained perfection.

Back in the old days, there was no other choice. One could not simply hit the delete key and erase the last couple of words, much less copy and paste whole paragraphs. These days, however, it is tempting to just edit that first draft as you go along and make it perfect. After all, we have the technology. A typo can be easily fixed. Something you forgot can be easily inserted in the middle of the document. Words can be chopped, changed, pasted and tinkered with until it’s just right. The trouble is, nothing ever actually gets finished that way. As we have said before, a bad first draft can lead to a good second draft; a non-existent or unfinished first draft won’t ever amount to anything.

Unfortunately, I speak from personal experience. I am a perfectionist, and as such, I often found it all too easy to use modern technology to help me agonise over the same paragraph for hours or days at a time. Knowing that writing first and editing afterwards is the best way to work did very little to change this (because I’m contrary like that). Until one day…

I had a brainwave.

I’ll buy a typewriter! I thought. I’ll write my first few drafts on a good old fashioned typewriter and only do my final draft on the computer! Oh boy, this is going to be going swell!

For those of you born any later than the mid ’90s, a typewriter was a primitive (usually unpowered) machine with a QWERTY keyboard which printed directly onto physical paper as you typed. Since typewriters don’t have delete keys, copy and pastes or anything like that, the writer is forced to wait until the second draft to make any major changes. I therefore thought it might be the cure for my perfectionism. Unfortunately, the only way I was going to lay hands on a typewriter these days was to break into a museum and even then, I would be spending the rest of my life trying to find increasingly hard-to-find replacement ribbons. It was going to be a lot of trouble and expense when all I really needed was the discipline to not edit while I wrote.

Not to be deterred, however, I decided to search the internet for an app which does the same thing. Since I’m a Windows man and still loathe writing on tablets, I was quite specifically hunting for a typewriter app I could use on my Windows PC.

There aren’t many. I guess there’s not that much demand for word processors with virtually no functionality whatsoever. I found a grand total of three that ran on my PC plus one for Mac called Rough Draft (I don’t have a Mac so I cannot tell you if it’s any good or not. Let me know if you’ve reviewed it on your blog and I’ll maybe reblog it for you). Of those three, one appears to no longer be available except as a fifteen day trial version and the other was a very clunky web-based app that I found needlessly complicated to use. The other problem with both of these apps was that they emphasised the look and feel of a typewriter more than the simple functionality — which is what I really wanted.

Then I found it.

Typewriter – Minimal Text Editor: a very simple ASCII text editor which runs on Java (and thus, will run on just about any computer) and includes absolutely zero editing functionality. Unlike a lot of typewriter apps which waste time by mimicking the sound effects and ugly fonts of physical typewriters, this app still looks and sounds like any other distraction-free plain text editor. The only difference is that you can’t edit.

Delete key? Forget about it. If you make a typo, you’ve just got to like that typo.

Copy and paste? No way hosay. If you want to make text appear on that screen, you’ve got to type it in yourself; and once it’s there, it ain’t going anywhere.

The only functions (besides typing plain text) available to you in this app are:

  • Colour scheme switching (you can have green text on a black background or black text on an off-white background. Whichever one you choose, it will not affect the appearance of your document when you print it, since *.txt is the only file type available to you)
  • Full screen switching (full screen is good for creating a distraction free environment but you might find it more convenient to have this off if you’re doing other things simultaneously… like writing a blog about the app in question)
  • Open file
  • Save file
  • Save file as
  • New file
  • Print
  • View key mappings
  • Quit

That’s it. That’s all the help this baby is going to give you. Heck, you can’t even use your mouse to navigate around these options, since there are no buttons or menus of any kind. All of these functions are only available to you via keyboard shortcuts (i.e., ctrl+O to open file).

This app is not for the faint-hearted. It will show your writing to you in all its unedited ugliness. But if you can swallow your pride and ignore all your mistakes, it will keep you writing right up until you’re ready to print off your work and attack it with that all important Red Pen of Editing.

It’s exactly what I’ve been looking for.

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