Happy New Year from the Inkpunks!

To help us all get 2015 started off right, the 2015 Tools for Writers workbook is now available. This year’s includes the ever-popular Word Count Tracker (with an updated color scheme and inspirational quotes!), the Career Bingo card, and Stories tracker. Please feel free to save a copy of the workbook for yourself, modify and distribute as you like, no attribution needed. (If you make cool versions of it that you’d like to share, though, please feel free to post them in the comments!)

From all of the Inkpunks to all of you, we wish you a year of love, health, creativity, productivity, and prosperity.

Happy New Year!

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Guilt is a Useless Emotion

Write every day! Keep your butt in the chair! Reach your word count! Write, write, write! We’re writers and writers write, but occasionally something comes up that prevents us from writing. Even if there’s a good reason for it, we still can feel guilty for not following the writer’s creed.


Wayne Dyer first introduced me to the idea of guilt as a useless emotion in his best selling books, self-help guru. Clearly I’m not the only one with this issue, since he sold a lot of those books. As a personal trainer, I’ve passed the mantra on to my clients that there’s nothing useful about feeling guilty for messing up their health and fitness plan. Don’t let one missed workout or eating something you know you shouldn’t have sabotage the rest of your efforts, I tell them. Most commonly, we think, “Heck, I already messed up today, I might as well throw the day away and eat whatever I want.” Then your one mistake turns into a much bigger one. “I already missed one workout this week, might as well miss the rest and start again next week.” We know how this goes. You’re feeling awful about yourself so when next week comes you don’t feel like getting back on the program and before you know it, you completely fall off your plan.

Either that, or we try and overcompensate. “I ate that food I wasn’t supposed to, I’m going to eat nothing but vegetables tomorrow.” That never works out and isn’t good for you. “I missed a workout, I’m going to do two workouts tomorrow!” If you actually do both workouts in one day, you end up over trained, extremely tired or injured and that interferes with continuing to your goals. The same thing applies to our creative endeavours.


Here’s what happens. You feel the guilt, you feel terrible about yourself. You feel like you failed. You get down on yourself and sometimes give up, permanently.

I have one of the best excuses right now with a newborn in the house, yet I still feel guilty for not editing my current WIP or writing any new words. I’m sure no one reading this will be surprised that my time has been occupied with a brand new baby, but as he gets older, (a big ten weeks old now) I feel like I could squeeze some time in for editing. The lingering guilt of having been away from it for so long, however, weighs heavily and wants to keep me from taking on the task at all.

What are we supposed to do when we miss a day of writing with or without a good reason? Get over it! Move on! Dust yourself off and just get right back on the wagon you fell off of. Don’t use it as an excuse to let everything slide. There’s NO NEED to beat yourself up over it. Everyone takes breaks, everyone needs a break once and a while.

What we need to do is shake off the guilt and focus on what’s to come, not what has been. There is nothing to be gained by feeling guilty. In my case, I’m going to make a plan with small goals to begin with and start it right away! Well, after December 25th. It is baby’s first Christmas after all.



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What’s Your Work Count?

My early Christmas present!

My early Christmas present!

There’s a lot of attention paid these days to personal metrics. I’m talking about the practice of recording the numbers of our daily lives and measuring progress towards our goals by examining those numbers. Diet and exercise are probably the most common metrics people measure: maybe we’re counting calories towards a desired weight loss. We might be tracking miles biked or run in preparation for a race or just to beat last year’s record.

There’re apps for all kinds of metric tracking now, from fitness to calorie counters to custom-made spreadsheets. We have access to unprecedented ways to record and track “how’re we’re doing,” and the Getting Things Done (GTD) crowd is coming up with dozens of new ways every day, it seems. Of course, paper and pen works great for some folks, too.

As writers, the goal we’re often most concerned with is measuring word count (for some of us, page count, especially when we’re editing). Still others may set aside time — 10 minutes of writing a day, 10 hours a week, etc. There are endless possibilities, and I find myself setting different goals based on the work I’m trying to get done. A busy day? Then I promise myself a half-hour to write, any word count is acceptable as long as I’m focused for that half-hour on telling the best story I can. Maybe my goal for the day is to strengthen  the voice in 3 chapters. I gleefully check it off my daily to-do list even if my Scrivener project doesn’t show a big net-change in overall word count.

(So maybe I should call it Work Count?)

I have to admit, I don’t tend to track my writing trends beyond what I need to finish that day, that week, that month. I’m not really a GTD’er. I make a lot of short and mid-range goals (and I’m usually great about nailing them). I’m planning to have this revision draft done on my novel by March, and I’m pretty much on track (holidays, help me…) My friend Jamie Todd Rubin tracks his writing trends in great and glorious detail. Inkpunks’ very own Christie Yant made this groovy spreadsheet so you, too, can see how you’re doing. (And I have it on good authority she’s working on a 2015 edition coming very soon!)

I have long term goals, too, of course. More words nearly every day. More time in the chair on the writing days. Maybe a more thorough examination of my own trends would help me get there faster, but for now, I’m content to inch along.

We’re sidling up to the New Year, and I’m sure many of you are starting to think about your writing goals for 2015. How do you set your goals? How do you track your progress?

What’s your Work Count?

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The Inkpunks Big Shopping Guide!

So you’re a writer. And you know writers. And you have to buy them gifts. Don’t worry: we’ve got you covered. There’s something for every kind of word-wrangler on our list, and even something for the normals. You do know people who aren’t writers, right? Hmmn. Maybe you should add that to your New Year’s Resolutions.

For the sophisticate:

You know the one—her stories all have those amazing metaphors that you’re not quite sure you get, or maybe it’s that guy whose newest book reads like the illicit love child of House of Leaves and something by Murikami. They’re classy and smart, and they’d be delighted by any of these delicious tasting sets from Master of Malts. If your budget allows, you might consider getting one for yourself.master of malt

For the dedicated horror writer:

Do I even need to tell you about Leslie Klinger’s The New Annotated H. P. Lovecraft? I’m sure you’ve already heard the hub-hub about this delightful new compilation—well, so has your friend who’s working on that great horror novel. They’re probably pining for the darn thing right now. Go help them out!

For the serious fantasist:

I admit: I haven’t seen this movie yet. But it’s by Toby Froud and Heather Henson, and it’s Froud-y puppetry in the finest spirit of Froudian production. Watching Lessons Learned is going to be a fun experience, and your fantasy-writing friend will enjoy falling into the sweet nostalgia of the puppets of their youth.

For the intense science fiction writer:

Everyone can use a mug, and the odds are good that if you’re writing hard science fiction, you’re probably going to need some caffeine. Here’ s a cute constellation mug that will hold their favorite tasty beverage and inspire them to keep their eyes on the sky!

If you are a science fiction type, looking for a little inspiration, here’s a little treat for yourself: these FREE wallpapers based on Daniel Dociu’s awesome cover for James S. A. Corey’s novel Abaddon’s Gate.


For the Sspectrum 21F/F/H writer looking for inspiration:

Any of the Spectrum Art books are going to rock that person’s world, because they’re filled with work from the best artists working in science fiction, fantasy, and horror today. I especially recommend Spectrum 20 and Spectrum 21, because our very own Galen Dara has pieces in them.

For the writer who needs a kick in the butt:

Every time they put on this Write Like a Motherfucker tee, they will feel your foot connecting with their bum. Consider yourself a muse.

Your editor:

Chances are that the editors in your world are tense. After all, editors live at the junction of two very weird worlds: the business world (where everyone wonders just how they’re going to make money) and the art world (where everyone wonders how they can get people to feeeeeel). You might consider a yoga DVD, such as this one for stress reduction, or maybe an anxiety-reducing aromatherapy spray for their office.

And what about those normal people? What should you get them?


Get them pizza. Because what the people in your life really want is more time with you. So take them out for a good time—or heck, have dinner delivered—and enjoy the moment.



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An Almost Old Guy Self-Publishes: a guest post from Matthew Sanborn Smith

Our guest post today comes from a terrific friend of the Inkpunks: Matthew Sanborn Smith. The voice behind the terrific Beware the Hairy Mango podcast, and a prolific short story writer, Matthew’s one of the hardest-working folks I know. Today he’ll tell us a little bit about self-publishing and the madness that goes along with it. Also, be sure to check his book’s amazing cover art, by our own Galen Dara!

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Hey, Folks! Matthew Sanborn Smith here. I’ve just released my first self-published short story collection, The Dritty Doesen, and Wendy offered me the chance to talk to you guys about why I decided to do such a thing. If you haven’t done it yourself, you may have considered it. You may have also talked yourself out of it. Let me tell you what went through my head. I have self-published a couple of short stories, so we’ll back up to before that happened.

 My biggest problem with self-publishing years ago was the legitimacy issue. I started submitting to mags in the early nineties when they didn’t do e-anything with the exception of e-lectricity. Self-publishing was confined to ink and paper and was looked upon with the same respect an animal might give to the bottom of its cage. It was proof the author wasn’t good enough to sell anything to a real publisher. It was an act of desperation. It was tacky. Everyone knew this save for the self-published writers themselves, and maybe a few of them knew it too.

 Although most people don’t engage in self-publishing, most do engage in self-contradiction. At the same time I was busy knowing all of those things at the end of the preceding paragraph, I was also knowing that Ani DiFranco was one of my heroes. It’s not that I was a super fan. I only knew a couple of her songs. She was a hero to me because she started her own record label at eighteen years old and released her debut album the following year. You can shut the biography right there. I don’t need to read another word; I respect the hell out of her.

 But self-publishing was for losers.

 It took years of steady evidence piling up in front of my eyes for me (and a lot of other people) to come around. Sixteen years earlier, Rush did what Ani did before they got picked up by a major label. That Sky Captain guy made a whole feature film on his computer. Youtube people got paying gigs. Scalzi sold a novel after blogging it. Then there were those novel podcasters.


 I met my doubts halfway and self-published a story that had already sold to a pro market. I did this in part because a publisher was releasing one of my stories as an e-book, and I wanted to have another thing available under my name in case a satisfied reader was looking for another fix. It also felt right because the story I was putting out there myself was no longer available online, as the original publisher was a webzine and only archived authors’ stories for about three months. And so I eased myself into the water.


 Know, oh prince(ss), that this story made a piddling amount of money as an e-book. Here are three reasons I think that’s so: 1) I am a piss-poor marketer, 2) People that sort of liked me had already read the story when it was free, and 3) I didn’t give it a village in which to thrive.

 Only that third one requires further explanation. I let my story sit next to the professionally published one and then left them both to die. There was no more reason, other than accidental, that readers would find it after the initial week or two that it was out. Had I been the type of guy to follow through on plans, I would have self-published another story every month (at least), to regularly give people a reason to look at my Amazon page. Then each title could advertise the others. (At the beginning or end of your own e-book, remember to mention your other available titles. Because you can always update an e-book, you can keep these pages up to date no matter how long the book has been out.)

 But I didn’t do squat, and let those titles sit there for a few years. I’d like to say that I smartened up on my own, but it was my sister who got me back on track. She’s had great success through Amazon and inspired me with something as base as numbers. I know going into this that I won’t see her kinds of numbers myself. She’s publishing romance novel trilogies and I’m publishing science fiction short stories. There’s a world of difference in demand for those two things. But I’m sitting on a hundred and fifty short stories that, whether I’ve sold them or not, are now hanging out on my hard drive with nothing to do. Even after culling all the bad ones, I have enough for six collections.

 And collections are important here. I started back in by thinking I was going to publish each story individually. I only got one more story out the door though, because I had another conversation with my sister.

 Because I misunderstood Amazon’s fine print, I didn’t realize an author could pick up 70% royalties by pricing his or her work between $2.99 and $9.99, as opposed to getting 35% royalties at another price (as of this writing). I’d planned to sell each story at $0.99. (Does anyone else remember that typewriters had a key for the cent sign?) Even I, the biggest fan of my own work, think that charging $2.99 for a single story is a rip-off. By collecting the stories, I feel okay charging more. Also, I think a variety of stories increases the chance the reader will be happy with their purchase.

 You may wonder if a lot of individual stories at a 35% royalty might net more than a few collections at 70%. Let me know.


 I write different types of stories, as I’m sure you do, and I initially planned on including a wide mix of stories in each collection. A little something for everyone. Soon I realized how awkward it might feel going from a story centering on a heart-breaking death to a silly piece of absurdism. I couldn’t find an order of contents that wasn’t jarring. It would probably be better to separate the collections by theme. Adventure, silliness, strangeness, so-dark-you-want-to-take-a-shower-afterward, melancholy, and teetering on the edge of comprehensibility. Not everything appeals to everyone. Among those choices, there are those collections a reader might seek out, and some he or she might avoid altogether.

 My art is my art and I make what I want, without a reader or a market in mind. Having said that, once a work is done, I’m going to try to make money from it and I’m going to try to be honest with the reader without sacrificing the work in either case. I have no problem telling someone I know, “This story probably isn’t for you, but you might like this other one.”

 One of the reasons I’m self-publishing is that I’m confident that some of my work does not have mass-appeal. It’s weird. It doesn’t always look like what you’d expect from a story. But I’m just as confident that someone will like it. My podcast, Beware the Hairy Mango, has only a very small following. Most people don’t care for it. But the ones who do care for it love the hell out of it. There are people out there, sprinkled amongst the general populace that are dying to read your work. You just have to reach them.

 In the past, I’ve done my own covers. I’m very risk-averse when it comes to laying out cash. But for the past year or two, I’ve been trying to stretch myself and try some new things. I realized when I reach the end of my life (assuming I know it’s happening), I’ll feel much better about the things that I tried and failed at than the things I never tried at all. For my current collection I decided to take a chance and pay a pro. I went to my Inkpunks friend, Galen Dara, because I knew she’d do something wonderful. She did.DrittyDoesenPromo

 You needn’t see the cover as an obstacle. As I said, you can always update an e-book. If you’re on the fence, you can create your own cover now and always change the cover in the future.

 So let’s boil this down. Why might you want to self-publish?

  1.   Whatever stigma there might have been in the past is largely non-existent now.

  2. You’ve got stories you believe in that aren’t what professional editors are looking for.

  3. You’ve got stories that have previously sold, the magazine’s period of exclusivity has expired, and you want more people to read this proven material.

  4. You now have the power to release whatever you want, however you want. You don’t have to worry about what’s in vogue. That’s pretty punk.

  5. You’ll reach people you never knew existed. And you’ll be someone’s favorite writer.

  6. You have nothing to lose. Although I did hire Galen to create the cover art for my current collection, I have done past covers myself by taking photos or using Amazon’s cover templates. You can always do the work yourself and not spend a dime.

 I’m halfway to ninety-one years old and I’ve been writing and submitting for twenty-three years. As I get older, I’m less afraid to try new things, because I’ve seen all the old things that don’t work for me. I hate to be the guy who says, “In this day and age . . . ,” but honestly, we’ve been given all the tools to steer our destinies in whatever direction we want. One less obstacle between you and your reader will only make things better for both of you.

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Eleven Pieces of NaNoWriMo Advice

We’re a third through November which means we’re a third through NaNoWriMo, for those of you who are participating. I’m sitting this year out (editing a book instead) but I went through it last year, finishing 50K in 24 days. And since it’s the eleventh day of the eleventh month I thought I would share with you eleven pieces advice. And bonus, this advice can be useful whether you’re doing NaNo or if you’re just working like usual.

One: Make a schedule. Stick to it.

Pick a time of day every day when you write. It is sacrosanct. Nobody can have you for this time. Your email cannot have your attention. Twitter, tumblr, and Facebook cannot have your attention. This time is for writing. Whether you say you are going to work for a certain amount of time or to a certain wordcount, treat this time as you would treat needing to get something done for a deadline for work or school.

The reason for this is that routine helps you write. The longer you stick with a writing routine, the easier it will be to start writing. That ‘windup time’ will shrink as you go. To help with this, consider what else you might be able to make part of the routine. Maybe you make a cup of tea before, or light a specific scented candle, or listen to the same music (my books have playlists I listen to when I work on them). When you incorporate these things into your routine, they help prime your brain for writing time, just as a wakeup routine primes you for the day and a bedtime routine primes you for sleep.

And here there’s always someone who says “I can’t write every day!” or “Not all writers write every day” which is true. “Every day” is potentially too demanding for some people with full time jobs and kids which take up a lot of time. If it’s not possible, it’s simply not possible. You have to find the balance between pushing yourself to get to work and pushing yourself into a breakdown. And that really comes down to the individual.

Two: Write, Don’t Edit.

If you’re doing NaNo, you’re going to have to learn to shut off your inner editor and simply get words on the page, even if they aren’t exactly what you want. Some writers edit as they go, and that’s what works for them. But being able to just put down words is a useful skill, regardless of what kind of writer you are.

What I did to quiet my inner editor is write comments to myself inline. I’d say “fix this later” or “research this” or “who talks like that?” Having these notes written down allows my inner editor to have its say without putting a halt on the writing process.

Three: Don’t Know It? Skip It.

Similar to the inner editor, sometimes when you’re writing you realize you don’t know the capital of a country or who is the editor of which paper or other random facts. Or maybe it’s something bigger, like how to build a house or sail a boat. Or, sometimes, you just forget something like your character’s eye color or last name. There are times when it’s good to take a step back and do some research, but when you have a good writing groove going, it may be better to just carry on and not let gaps in knowledge bring you to a grinding halt.

Research notes, like the editing notes, need to be flagged so you can find them quickly. To pull this off, type a series of characters (a “string” in technical terms) you wouldn’t normally use in your novel. I’ve seen “tk” suggested, but personally I use “%%” because you’ll never use it and it scans easier than “tk” does. And for those instances where you forget someone’s name or eye color you can say %%NAME_EYE_COLOR and when the time comes it’s just a quick search and replace on a string you can guarantee hasn’t been used anywhere else.

Four: To-Do Lists are Not Just for Chores.

Sometimes you find yourself ending with good momentum and you know where the scene is about to go. And sometimes you are able to just keep going and write out everything you’ve got figured out. But sometimes you don’t have the time. And sometimes even if you do, it isn’t the best idea because it can leave you too spent to write the next day. Remember that novels are not sprints, they’re marathons.

So a good way to carry that momentum into the next day is, at the end of each writing session, regardless of where you are and how you’re feeling, write down notes for the next little bit. Like “she confronts him about the broken vase” or “they start the chase, but are diverted away from the museum and into the library.” Whatever you need to have on hand so you remember what comes next. So that the following day, when you sit down to write, you know which direction you’re going in.

Five: Eliminate Distractions.

Twitter and Facebook are obvious, but we’re very good at inventing distractions when we don’t want to do something. Maybe you need a glass of water or some cookies, some socks because your toes are cold, maybe you should turn up the heat, oh but the air is so dry obviously you need a humidifier gotta go find one online… it’s not hard to keep from doing something difficult. And writing can be difficult on a brain that isn’t used to going for long stretches.

Part of eliminating distractions is removing temptation, but part is being vigilant over your focus and keeping yourself from inventing and chasing petty distractions to keep your mind from being still enough to do the hard work of writing.

Six: Pedaling Uphill vs Pedaling With the Brakes On.

But sometimes, when your brain is trying to take you away from your writing, it isn’t because it’s having a hard time. Sometimes it’s because something has gone wrong in the book and you simply haven’t figure it out yet. I describe this as pedaling uphill versus pedaling with the brakes on. They’re both hard to do, that’s for sure. But one is hard because you’ve hit a hard patch, and one is hard because something is wrong. The trick is to figure out which one it is.

Seven: Do the Dishes.

Get away from your writing. Stop thinking about it. Do something simple, repetitive, and finite, where your brain can idle. Do the dishes, clean the bathroom, something that doesn’t require creative thought or problem-solving skills. Let your brain rest and sometimes the solution to that tricky scene will simply come to you.

On a related note of solutions that suddenly surprise you, consider picking up some AquaNotes to hang in the shower. They’re waterproof notepads that you can write on with pencil so you don’t lose those ideas that hit you when you’re washing your hair.

Eight: Take Regular Backups.

Dropbox. You don’t really have an excuse at this point. Set up dropbox, and save all your writing in your Dropbox folder. You’ll have an automatic offsite backup for all your writing. (And make sure you set up two-step auth while you’re at it.)

Nine: Sit Up Straight.

So you’ve probably heard about how the way we sit (and the fact that we sit so much) is bad for our health. And you’ve probably heard about the long-term benefits of good posture, the reduced instances of repetitive motion injuries such as tendinitis and carpal tunnel. But for most people, thinking that far in the future is a little hard to do in the moment, especially when you’re trying to sort out what happens next in your novel. Well, did you know that good posture also helps your creativity and productivity? It helps with your focus and your mood which directly impacts how well you think and how much you can do. Unfortunately there is no One True Posture, but the good news is that just means you get to figure out what works best for you!

Ten: Try Cowriting.

Writing is a solitary and potentially lonely activity. Not only are the hours spent writing keeping you away from social interaction, but then there’s a lot of work to be done before you can really share what you’ve done with others. The long gap between work and recognition and the long hours spent alone can be psychologically taxing, even if you’re a wee introvert like me.

So to help combat this, I like to write with others around. It’s nice to have somebody there who’s going through the same crap you are. Every so often you can take breaks from writing (try 45 minutes of writing and 15 minutes of rest) and celebrate or vent what’s going on in your book, and nobody can sympathize with writers like other writers. It’s a great way to get out of your head and realize you’re not as on your own as your solitary work may lead you to believe.

Eleven: Butt In Chair.

Ultimately though, the only way to get a book done is to sit your ass down and do it. It’s not going to get written by just staring at the page and hoping words show up, and it’s never going to get written by puttering around doing things that look like writing but aren’t. And it’s easy to get sucked in by the things of writing that aren’t writing but still make you feel like you’re doing something writing. Tracking word count, futzing with your word processor settings, picking a font, even useful research, none of this is actually getting words on the page.

Even this blog post, as useful as it may be for me to write, is not actually getting my novel edited! So, beware the siren song of anything that keeps you from getting your book done. And good luck with NaNo!

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Templates for Drafting & Revision: a guest post by Laurel Amberdine

We’re so excited to welcome Laurel Amberdine to the blog today! I’ve had the wonderful fun of working with Laurel at Lightspeed and the special Women Destroy issues, and let me tell you: she’s awesome. Here’s some great advice to get you ready to kick some serious word count butt.

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Today, I will tell you about the scene template, a tool to defeat writer’s block, overcome literary weak spots, and make revision a breeze! Or at least a way to get your thoughts together and enjoy some pretty colors.

A few years ago, I went into NaNoWriMo with something beyond writer’s block—it was utter terrified paralysis. After coming back from a long break from writing, I’d spent a year planning a complicated science fiction epic. I’m a big planner. I’d outlined and mapped, designed the solar system and the ecosystem and consulted with scientists. I knew everything about this novel. In my head it was amazing. And I couldn’t write the first word.

But I knew everything! How could this be so hard? I knew I needed some kind of interim planning. I’d used notebooks in the past, but I was traveling constantly, and couldn’t lug all that around.

Finally, I developed a kind of worksheet, which included everything I needed to write the scene. Who was in it and what they wanted. Where it was set. What the conflict was. What I might foreshadow. What I wanted the reader to get out of the scene. And so on, all the way to an actual blow-by-blow list of how the scene should play out, including the opening and closing lines. I called it a Scene Template.

(My particular template uses a rainbow palette, because if it looks pretty I will have more fun filling it in. I like to make the process of writing as pleasant as possible.)

Prior to every scene, I would fill out one of these template sheets. Not the whole thing, necessarily, just enough so I felt comfortable starting. Most of the time I never even looked at them after I got going. Even the most intractable scenes fell before the scene template. Once I filled in all the blanks, I necessarily knew what happened in that scene. It worked great, I won NaNoWriMo, and I have used it ever since.

This is not to say I was suddenly a fantastic writer. Like everyone, I have weak spots, and some of them became more apparent through practice, feedback, and revision. In one case I kept forgetting to include unique emotions or personal quirks for characters. Thinking about how to improve, I realized: I could add an item to the scene template! And now I add a new entry whenever I notice something I need to pay particular attention to.

Most recently, when revising, I had to rewrite enough scenes from scratch that I pulled out the template again. But, a lot of the template entries weren’t so useful, and I couldn’t find a place to put some of the planning I wanted. So I wrote up a specific template just for revision, which focuses on what I need to change, rather than figuring out background information.

I’ve shared the template with a few people, and they’ve customized it or created their own. Turns out that everyone thinks about story and scenes differently, and it’s important to have your template suited to your personal narrative schema. I update my template a couple times a year. Sections get added or expanded or dropped, depending on what I’ve learned recently, or how I find myself using it.

So, if you find yourself struggling with your novel, consider trying some kind of structured planning tool, like a scene template! I’ve included the current versions below. Feel free to take and modify them, and let me know if you have any questions.

Scene Template — click to download (These are Word documents in .rtf format)

Revision Template — click to download

• • •

Laurel Amberdine was raised by cats in the suburbs of Chicago. She’s good at naps, begging for food, and turning ordinary objects into toys. She recently moved to San Francisco with her husband, and is enjoying its vastly superior weather. Between naps she writes SF/F and YA novels and works as an editorial assistant for Lightspeed Magazine. Find her on Twitter at @amberdine.

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Action Scenes 101 (or making things go boom real good): a guest post


I’m excited to share a fresh guest post from Jonathan Wood, author of No Hero and the brand-new Yesterday’s Hero, which is being released in only a few short days! Jonathan is a great writer, both funny and fun, and his first book read like a Weird Kurt Russell movie. Luckily for us, he’s got some pointers here that will give your next writing project some Kurtly verve.


From the beginning, the basic concept behind my Hero series has been to graft an urban fantasy story onto an action thriller backbone.  Basically I want to have magic and aliens, and zombie T-Rexes, and I also want things to blow up in the most impressive way possible.  It’s a standard having a cake and subsequently eating it scenario.  Obviously, I am not alone in this desire.  A few people have been kind enough to say nice things about my action scenes, so I thought I’d share a few pointers that I’ve learned along the way.

Watch trashy action movies
For better or worse, these days people see most of their action scenes at the movies. Your audience’s understanding of the language and grammar of violence will be strongly shaped by this influence. Therefore, you should be familiar with it too. So go on Netflix, get out your ladle, and start scraping the bottom of the barrel. Watch martial arts films, watch B movies, watch Hollywood blockbusters. Hell, Michael Bay may direct a shoddy movie, but the word “Bayhem” has entered the English language for a reason. That said, there are some action movies that may be more worth your time than others. For my money, both The Raid and The Raid 2 are master classes in cinematic violence, and well worth your time.

Read trashy action books
You’re writing, not directing a movie, so it’s also good to see how others have translated the cinematic language into the literary form. Well… with the books I’m talking about, literary might be stretching it. But there are a couple of authors who have already taken this model and run with it. Clive Cussler often gets top billing in this department, but personally I have found the top-line action thriller writers to be James Rollins, Andy McDermott, and Matt Reilley. Adrenaline junky pulp-tastic reads each and every one of them.

Make us care before we get there
Possibly the single most important thing to remember about action scenes: they mean nothing to us if we don’t care about the people involved. This is why so many action movies fail. Because they don’t make us give a damn before the fuse ignites. An action scene is a character struggling violently to get something they want. For us to care about the struggle we have to be invested in the character getting what they want.

Know the rough blocking of the scene
OK, once you’re ready to put pen to paper for your action scene, probably the most fundamental thing to know is where your characters are and when. Action scenes are frequently chaotic, and having a good basic sense for where everyone and everything is at any point in time can help you keep track of things. For example, Jack can’t get flipped over the leaping great white shark into the car’s windshield until Sally has detonated the oil barrels behind the car sending it flying into the air. Obviously. One word of warning, blocking is an area where I think it’s easy to get lost in the details. I’ve personally never needed to draw out a map (though I know that works for some people). I usually just like to have a rough sense for where and when as I go into the scene. But I also like to give myself some room to play as the scene develops.

Concentrate on the telling detail
Speaking of details… Action scenes often involve a lot of description. This is going on over here, therefore this goes on over here, but then this happens, which, etc, etc. Just as with any descriptive passage, less is more. Describe the general action and then throw in the detail that makes it real. “The car detonated with a massive whoomph,” gives you one impression. “The car detonated with a massive whoomph, catapulting Mrs Hodgkin’s flaming tabby cat through the windshield,” gives you quite another.

Keep yourself firmly within the POV character’s head
Not sure which detail to include? Again, stick with the basics – what matters to your POV character? It’s impossible for a character to pay attention to everything going on in an action scene. Rather, they are going to pay attention to what matters to them and their immediate survival. The fate of Mrs Hodgkin’s cat may be critical to them, or it may be an incidental bloody smear if what really matters is retrieving the original text of the Necronomicon from the back seat of the car. Your POV character’s experience is your route map through the chaos of your blocking, and they’ll point out the interesting stuff along the way.

As a side note, by focusing on POV and telling details, you should find that a lot of the pacing of the action scene will take care of itself.  Less important moments will speed by, while those that make a difference will get highlighted and take more time.

Throw in stuff because it’s cool
OK, this one’s a little dangerous, but if ever there was a time to throw stuff in because it’s cool, the action scene is it. These are your big show-stopper moments. So, indulge. Have the backflipping great white shark. Have the fire create a flaming arch that your protagonist has to drive her motorcycle through. Have some fun. Drop a few jaws.

Escalate, escalate, escalate
This is a basic macro-plot rule. Escalate the scale of the problem the characters face over the course of time. But it also works on a micro level for action scenes. And it’s a good guideline for throwing in “because it’s cool” elements. These frequently belong later in the scene once the scale of the conflict has escalated. A fight can start as two guys slugging it out in a bar. But then a guy with a gun shows up. And then a supporting column gives way. And then the fire starts. Which means the police are on their way. Which is how the running gun battle through the street starts. Which is sort of how they end having a massive hand-to-hand battle up on top of the racing L-train. Really where you stop is up to you.

And those are pretty much the basics.  As with every part of the writing toolbox, practice makes it easier, so I’ll end this with a writing prompt.  Your mission, should you choose to accept it: write a single action scene that starts in a bar and ends on top of an elevated train.  And for good measure, at some point you have to include a great white shark.  Now go have fun.


Thanks so much, Jonathan! And for all our friends and readers, go check out his books!

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What Stage Are YOU In?

I know this blog post (told in gifs–oh, you’ve got to go check it out!) is about first novels, but I think a lot of the feelings are the same, no matter how many books you’ve written.

Today I am SO:

The hearts of my word enemies! Bwa-ha-ha!

The hearts of my word enemies! Bwa-ha-ha!

But yesterday I was hiding under the couch.

These bad ideas are all out to get me.

These bad ideas are all out to get me.

How are your projects going?

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Periodization for Writers

Periodization is a principle used in may sports and I’ve discovered it also applies to writing. In the sports world, it involves planning your workout year into smaller segments to avoid overtraining while consistently making improvements. The goal is to use the principle of periodization in order to make continuous forward improvement while avoiding burn out.

This was a tough lesson for me to learn at first. I always want to be on the go, working hard, reaching for the next goal. Stepping back and taking a break was something I had to teach myself to do. Others find it hard to take their time getting into a fitness program, when they’d rather make the decision, jump in with both feet and go all out. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work. It leads to burn out, injury, muscle loss, sickness and other negative side effects.

Periodization for Fitness Programs and Writing

Example Periodization for Fitness Programs

The same thing applies to writing. You can burn yourself out just as easily as diving into a new workout program. When it comes to fitness, everyone is different and it really depends on the individual. My length of time is short, I can’t go more than four to five weeks of really intense training before I need a break. How did I learn that? By listening to my body over the years (and it took time!) and learning how much it could handle. I am still learning about my writing endurance and tolerance, but have discovered that it takes time for me to ease into novel first draft writing. After all that foundation work of world building, character profiling, plotting and planning, it’s a slow transition for me to then switch to writing the actual novel. If I try to force myself into a hight word count goal right away, I don’t reach it, then I get discouraged and it stops me from writing. Now, I let myself take it in baby steps. Once I get momentum, I can get up to 2000 words a day, 6 days a week.

Why not seven days a week, if I’m on such a roll? This is where the periodization comes into play. I take one day off a week, and usually have another day of the week that’s a “lighter” day, where I give myself a smaller goal, maybe only 1000 words. That way, I never burn out, I’m excited for my big days of writing and the words keep coming.

After completing a novel, I also take time off from writing, as long as I think I need to recharge. Too much time can lead to getting out of the habit, too little time can mean running straight into burn out. Find what works for you.

In fitness programs, periodization helps avoid the stops and starts associated with overtraining and will have you progressing steadily to higher and higher levels of fitness. The same thing applies to your writing. It may take time to find what works for you, but be patient with yourself. Don’t think that you’ve failed at writing because you’re burnt out. Schedule yourself some time off and the words will be there on days you need to write.

Good luck!

Wishing you happy and consistent writing sessions!

Wishing you happy and consistent writing sessions!



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