Monday Motivation

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Throwback Thursday: What’s Your Story About?

Originally published 06/03/2016

Some would have you believe that there are two kinds of writers in this world: those who plan their whole story out in advance and those who make it up as they go along. To some extent that’s undoubtedly true. In fact, I personally identify far more with the latter. In fact, I haven’t planned this very post out in too much detail at all. But there is one thing I am sure of: what this post is actually about.

There’s a particular quotation we non-planning writers like to throw around to justify ourselves sometimes:

E.L. Doctorow said once said that ‘Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice on writing, or life, I have ever heard.

(Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life)

Personally, I think this needs a little refining (I will admit I have taken it slightly out of context but I suspect a lot of non-planning writers have done the same!). Here’s my version:

‘Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way if you know where it is you hope to end up!’

Think about it: suppose you’re a successful author who lives in Glasgow and you want to go to a book shop in York to autograph copies of your book (dream big, guys!). You might well be able to successfully get there using only your wits and following the road signs. Even if you get lost, you could probably still find your way again if you keep your head. But what if all you knew was that you were attending a book shop somewhere in the British Isles, with a vague notion that it might possibly be somewhere in the north of England? You’d be driving forever, that’s what! It doesn’t how many people you ask for directions, how many maps you buy or what you punch into your sat-nav; you will never find the place you’re looking for in a month of Sundays.

One of the biggest dangers we non-planning writers face is that you can easily end up writing screeds and screeds of excellent work, only to realise you can’t finish because you don’t know what it is you’re actually hoping to accomplish by writing. This is a recipe for another unfinished manuscript. So, before you write forty odd chapters and suddenly hit an insurmountable wall, ask yourself this question: What is my story about?

You can probably get away without drawing up a detailed plan of what is going to happen in each chapter and all of the other stuff we non-planning writers like to do to convince ourselves we’re writing when we’re really just wasting time but if you can’t answer that simple question, I doubt very much that you will ever finish your story.

My advice would be to refine your answer to that question to make it as simple as possible. Albert Einstein once said, ‘if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough’. Granted, he wasn’t talking about writing a story but I think the basic principle can still be applied here. If you can’t come up with a simple answer straight away, then it’s probably a good idea to start off with a working synopsis (it doesn’t matter if you need to change it later; that’s just how we non-planning types roll) but ideally, you should be able to whittle this down to one or two short sentences which form the backbone of your story. If you’re struggling to do this, ask yourself a few key questions like these:

  • What is the protagonist trying to accomplish?
  • Why is s/he trying to do this?
  • What’s stopping him/her?
  • You might also find it useful at this stage to ask who the protagonist is, but if you’re a hardcore non-planner you might prefer to just see who pops up when you start writing.

Once you have the answers, you should find it a fairly simple task to summarise what you are trying to write about in a single sentence, or  two at the most. For example, the whole Lord of the Rings trilogy (which is a very lengthy and involved narrative, I’m sure you’ll agree!) can be reduced to something like: ‘A young hobbit must make the dangerous journey to Mordor to destroy a magical ring’.

I think you’ll agree that this little micro-synopsis (as I hereby define it) gives only the meanest description of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. It is the backbone of the plot and nothing more. That’s a good thing! It allows the non-planning writer to have a clear idea of what s/he is trying to accomplish without having to restrict their inner artistic flare. If you were trying to write the Lord of the Rings trilogy (which would be plagiarism by the way, so don’t do it!) using this as your only “plan”, you would probably produce something very different from the original Tolkien narrative. If we continue our driving metaphor, your micro-synopsis ideally should not be a map or even a list of directions; it should be an old scrap of paper with the address of the place you’re trying to get to written on it. But how you get there is entirely up to you. The more simple it is, the less restrictive your Muse will find it when you’re writing.

Once you’ve got your micro-synopsis, write it down and keep it close at hand while you’re writing. If you find yourself getting lost as you make your treacherous midnight journey towards Completed Manuscript Land, refer back to your micro-synopsis and ask yourself if you’re still going in the right direction. Like I said, we non-planning types frequently get lost. That’s okay. If you keep in mind where you’re trying to end up, you’ll soon find your way again.

So… what’s your story about?

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Monday Motivation

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:

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You can check out our previous interviews here:

30 Character Epiphanies

Well, we have finally come to the end of my impromptu series of lists of motives, goals, conflicts and epiphanies for your character, and so it wouldn’t take a genius to work out that today’s little list is all about epiphanies.

An epiphany is that key lesson which your character learns as a result of everything that has happened to him or her throughout the story which will change them forever. I don’t suppose it’s strictly necessary for your character to have one, and they certainly don’t need to be anything overly complicated, but they feel like a pretty natural way to bring a character arc to a satisfying ending when your character has finally rested from all their struggling and is now at peace.

In general, I think a good idea is to base your character’s epiphany on their motive. For instance, if your character been motivated by a lust for revenge, they might learn at the end of the story that revenge is not nearly as sweet as they imagined it to be, and so they learn to forgive. The story can end here leaving the audience feeling satisfied that the protagonist is now at peace, irrespective of whether or not he actually had his revenge.

The list I’ve prepared this week is by no means exhaustive and is loosely based on the list of motives I came up with a while ago (those of you who are paying attention will notice the list of motives was much longer than the list of epiphanies) but hopefully it will give you a few ideas. Perhaps even a few epiphanies.

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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You can check out our previous interviews here:

Monday Motivation

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.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

6 Types of Conflict (With Examples)

As anyone who hangs around this blog or who even knows the slightest thing about story writing will tell you, the key to writing a good story is to create a rich cast of characters with clear motives and goals which bring them into conflict with some kind of antagonist or problem.

Last week I shared a list of possible character goals as a (rather belated) follow-up to my earlier post on character motives. And so, in keeping with this theme, I have prepared a list of possible conflicts for your story. These are the problems your protagonist will have to overcome in order to accomplish their goals.

The six main categories of conflict are already pretty well established in writerly circles:

  1. Character VS. Character
  2. Character VS. Self.
  3. Character VS. Nature
  4. Character VS. Society
  5. Character VS. Supernatural
  6. Character VS. Technology

This way of categorising conflicts works pretty well and I saw no point in deviating from it; however, to help you along, I have also included three possible examples of each. This is by no means and exhaustive list and I have tried to keep it generalised, but I hope you find it useful.

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:

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You can check out our previous interviews here:

Throwback Thursday: Are Idea Generators Ever Any Use?

Originally published 12/05/2019 under the title ‘Idea Generators: Are They Any Use?’

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

But wait a minute…

Do these little miracle makers really deliver the goods?

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

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

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


Story Plot Generator Pro

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, 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.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Monday Motivation

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.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

16 Character Goals

A little while ago I published a post about character motives which included a fairly lengthy list of the kind of things that might motivate your characters actions. Of course, anyone who has been hanging around this blog for any length of time will know that I am always banging on about how a character’s motives, goals and conflict together form the basis of any good story.

And so, better late than never, I decided it was probably time for me to knock together a little list of character goals.

Unlike motives, a goal is a very specific thing your character has to accomplish (or fail to accomplish) before the story can be truly considered complete. Sometimes characters may have more than one goal, but more often than not there is usually at least one key thing that the protagonist absolutely has to accomplish. For instance, if you were writing a murder/mystery, your protagonist could be motivated by a sense of righteousness or because someone is paying him a lot of money to solve a crime, but his goal would be to find out ‘who dunnit.’

This list is a lot shorter than my list of motives, mainly because I’ve tried to keep these very general even though goals are usually very specific to the story, but I hope you’ll find it helpful.

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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Throwback Thursday: Should You Use Profanity in Your Story?

Originally published 21/01/2018

I’ve been reading Tom Hanks’ Uncommon Type: Some Stories. It’s not really my intention to review it here today (not least of all because I haven’t read it all yet), but I will say I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the quality of his writing. It doesn’t read like an actor trying to make a few extra quid by writing a book. It reads like something written by a professional author who knows a thing or two about writing quality stories. In short, I’m enjoying it. But something else about it surprised me: the language. There’s a lot of profanity in there and for some reason, I expected Tom Hanks’ work to be a little bit more family friendly. Don’t ask me why. Maybe it’s just because I’m hearing it in Woody the Cowboy’s voice.

Anyway, this all got me thinking about the use of profanity in fiction. We authors walk a fine line between realism and rudeness, especially when it comes to writing dialogue. Where do you draw the line?

Well… it depends.

The first and most obvious thing is to consider your audience and what they expect from your story. Certain audiences tend to go for certain genres, and as such, the level of profanity in your work will often be largely dependent on your genre. If you have a real aversion to using any profanity whatsoever in your writing, the simplest way around this is to stick to those genres which tend to have less profanity in them. Alternatively, you can always sit down and watch the soaps for inspiration. Really, I’m serious. Emmerdale, Eastenders and Coronation Street are simply chock full of characters having heated arguments about adultery, betrayal, crime and all sorts of other grim subjects without a single f-bomb being dropped.

giphy
Image source: http://gph.is/1c3k48L

However, let’s assume you are willing to use some profanity in your story. There might be lots of reasons why you use bad language in your story. In Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Spock makes frequent (mis)use of mild profanity in a vain attempt to fit in with 20th century human society. Here it serves a very simple function: comedy relief (even though The Voyage Home is pretty light-hearted anyway). It also works, because it’s done in a fairly subtle way. Bad language is also often used to add a sense of anger or urgency to a character’s dialogue. It is, therefore, an undeniably useful tool for some authors.

A word of warning, however: profanity has the power to augment your story or to utterly ruin it, perhaps more than any other technique you might use. A measure of bad language may or may not be appropriate if you’re writing for adults, but bad language is not the defining characteristic of a good adult story. It is simply a tool that you may decide to use or not use as you see fit. Overusing it, as with any other literary technique, can destroy your story. The fact is, profanity loses its power very quickly. The more often bad language is used, the more desensitised the reader becomes to it. What began as a striking technique with which to shock or amuse the audience quickly becomes nothing more than a few pointless extra words which ruin the flow of the narrative.

‘But in real life, some people do swear ten times in a single sentence!’ I hear you cry. ‘How can I make my dialogue realistic if I water it down?’

It can be tempting to think this. On the surface it seems perfectly rational. However, any seasoned author knows that dialogue in fiction is actually very different from the way real people talk from day to day. Dialogue flows. Dialogue makes sense. Dialogue is to-the-point. Even when sub-text is used, what is said remains clear and advances the story in a very definite direction. For this reason, profanity may sometimes be necessary but it should be carefully measured, lest it lost its power.

In real life, people talk rubbish. They say things they don’t mean. They’ll change the subject. They’ll utterly misunderstand the subject and, you know, they’ll like… how can I put it? They’ll, I don’t know, they’ll– respond in inappropriate ways. You know, like, you’ll say something and they’ll say something back and it’s obvious they’ve not understood you because what they’ve said back doesn’t make any sense. Like that time I was talking to Sandra about fly fishing and she… [insert long winded, irrelevant anecdote here]. They’ll misuse pacific words, mishandle slang and make such a mess of their utterances that it frankly beggars belief that humans are able to communicate verbally at all.

In the same way a real person might swear twenty times per sentence, but if you want to fictionalise that person, you’ll probably want to tone down his language lest it ruin the flow of your narrative.

One last thing to bear in mind: You’re never going to please everyone. What matters, therefore, is you, your story and your intended audience (not necessarily in that order). Ask yourself, why am I using profanity here? Is it really necessary to make my story work? Am I comfortable using it? Will it produce the correct response in my intended audience (forget your ‘unintended’ audience; you can’t possibly please everyone), or will it bore/offend them? Ultimately, you have to decide for yourself what’s appropriate. Personally, I find less is usually more when it comes to profanity, but maybe that’s just me.


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AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

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

You can check out our previous interviews here: