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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To Retweet or Not to Retweet: On Rebroadcasting Praise

Today we’re happy to welcome back guest blogger James Sutter with some thoughts on social media. Thanks for your contribution, James!

Here’s the scene: You’re fiddling around on your smartphone, maybe killing time in line at the grocery store, when suddenly—ding!—there’s a new message on your Twitter. Somebody liked your book! Not only did they like it, they’ve given it a glowing 140-character review! Your chest expands, and your finger heads for the “retweet” button.

And then you pause.

Should you rebroadcast that praise? On the one hand, you’re proud, and you also think that maybe it’s a good way to remind people that you, ya know, have a book out. But at the same time, you don’t want to come across as a braggart or a huckster.

This is an issue I’ve wrestled with since 2011, when I published my first novel, Death’s Heretic. I can still remember the tweet that first brought the dilemma to my attention: a mean-spirited quip by someone whose name I no longer remember, saying, “Hey people who retweet praise—your parents’ divorce is showing.”

Now, I think that statement is pretty shitty on several levels, but the basic sentiment came through loud and clear: that rebroadcasting praise on social media is a sign of insecurity. Since I didn’t want to appear desperate for validation—though really, what author isn’t?—I proceeded to be very careful about what sort of praise I retweeted, avoiding anything that wasn’t a review by an “official journalist.”

Over the last few years, though, I’ve been rethinking my position. I’ve watched several highly successful new authors like Chuck Wendig and Robert Jackson Bennett retweet casual fan reviews (tweets along the lines of “Was up all night reading so-and-so’s new book—what an awesome story!”). And I’ve begun to realize that maybe I’ve got things totally backward.

So here’s why I now think retweeting praise might not only okay, but advantageous.

It works. Here’s a secret that politicians have known for a long time: name recognition is powerful—like, really powerful. Ever wonder why people put up a million signs in election season that just have the candidate’s name, without so much as a slogan or key position? It’s because studies have shown again and again that, in the absence of other data, simple familiarity with a name can make you positively inclined toward a candidate. They don’t need to win your vote—they just need to stick in your brain.

That recognition works for authors, too. Given that your audience has an overwhelming number of books to choose from, even something as simple as a familiar-sounding name can make the difference between a reader clicking on your book or the one next to it. Moreover, since you’re retweeting praise from a variety of folks, you’re giving people the impression that everybody’s talking about you. I find myself responding to this effect all the time, buying books because my brain sees a bunch of tweets and says, “You keep hearing about this book—it must be pretty good!” That’s despite the fact that I know they’re only in my feed because the author’s retweeting them. That’s powerful mojo.

It rewards reviewers. This is the second great thing about retweeting praise: you incentivize its creation. When a fan knows you have a habit of responding to praise on twitter, they’re more likely to tweet about you—because who doesn’t get a thrill when their favorite author responds to them? Retweeting also rewards reviewers by introducing them to your audience, even if only for a moment. Given that those reviewers are probably scrambling for exposure as well, you’ve just turned a one-way transaction into a mutually beneficial one.

So now that we’ve explored—in coldly mercenary terms—why retweeting praise is good marketing, I want to throw out some potential caveats.

Don’t Be a Spammer. The cardinal rule of social media still stands. While I personally find retweeted praise less offensive than authors constantly pushing their books, that doesn’t mean it can’t go too far. If you’re filling my timeline with every nice comment anyone’s ever made about you (“James L. Sutter is a reasonably hygienic author”), I’m gonna reach for the mute button. The burden is still on all of us authors to be insightful, funny, educational—whatever it is that we think draws people to us in the first place. Endless, blatant self-promotion is rarely entertaining. Make sure that retweeted praise is the exception, not the rule.

Choose a Praise Threshold. Everyone is likely to draw their line in a different place, but personally, I feel that an important distinction is whether the comment was directed toward the internet at large or toward me personally—the latter feels too much like a one-on-one conversation for me to be comfortable using it as marketing. So if someone tweets, “I just finished @jameslsutter’s The Redemption Engine—I love his creepy-ass angels!”, that’s likely to get retweeted. But if someone tweets at me directly and says, “Hey, I liked your book!”, I would probably just respond with a thank-you. In the former case, the person is already intentionally endorsing you to a wider audience, which in my mind makes it okay to publicize the comment.

 So now that my second novel, The Redemption Engine, is finally out, I’m going to take the plunge and try to retweet praise more often. I won’t say that I’m not a little anxious about it—regardless of rationalizations, there are clearly people who find it gauche—but I feel like I owe it to my book, and to any awesome people who go out of their way to say nice things about it.

That’s my plan. What’s yours?


James L. Sutter is the Managing Editor of Paizo Publishing and a co-creator of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. He’s the author of the novels Death’s Heretic and The Redemption Engine, the former of which was #3 on Barnes & Noble’s Best Fantasy Releases of 2011 and a finalist for the Compton Crook Award for Best First Novel. In addition to numerous game books, James has written short stories for such publications as Escape Pod, Apex Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and the #1 Amazon bestseller Machine of Death. His anthology Before They Were Giants pairs the first published short stories of speculative fiction luminaries with new interviews and advice from the authors themselves. For more information, visit or find him on Twitter at @jameslsutter.

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Character Generators

While listening to a Writing Excuses episode called Engaging Characters, their guest Nancy Fulda, mentioned character generators. (Season 9 Episode 10 )

I’d never heard of such a thing!

Since I’m working on a new novel outline, I was curious enough to check it out. I do already use a name generator to help name my characters. Way back in May of 2011, I wrote a blog post about it called Naming Your Characters. I still use the Random Name Generator for almost every project I work on. (here’s that post if you’re interested)

On the podcast, while discussing character quirks and the pitfalls that can bring, Nancy says the character generators can be a “useful way to make sure your characters are not all homogenous” but, it’s then “even stronger if you then take that list of unusual elements of your character and look for causalities.”

I agree. While I wouldn’t take a character fully as it comes up in the generator, it does make you think about what you could use or what different directions you could go in. I found this character interests generator at I kept refreshing the generators until something popped out at me. Someone who loves to make birdhouses? Yes, please. I’ll give that to the person that’s my nurturing, true believer character.

Here are some generators I found:

 Ran Gen: Personality Generator: Has several generators including: Character Personality, Character Motivations, Character Skills, Character Flaws and Weaknesses, Character Secrets and more!

Writing Exercises: Random Character Traits Generator

 Fantasy Names Generator: Character Descriptions

 Character Generators for Writing Prompts?

I also thought these generators would make for some great story prompts and writing exercises. I’ve told myself that I’m going to do this. Here’s a few examples from the generators at Feel free to use them!

1. Your character’s interests include radios, crystal balls, and magnifying glasses.

2. Your character’s interests include country music, ferrets, and drawing.

3. Your character’s interests include stained glass art, old computer games, goldfish, and war memorabilia.

4. Your character’s interests include television mystery shows, yo-yos, and elves.

5. Your character is chronically ill, afraid of a common animal, and possessive of people.

6. Your character would do almost anything to create an unforgettable piece of art.

7. Few know that your character is having an affair with a spooky call center operator.

I hope you find the generators useful for practice or your current and future WIPs. Have fun and happy writing!


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Guest Post: Why Women and SF? by Tracie Welser

A few days ago, Women Destroy Science Fiction dropped on the internet like a lovebomb, and reactions are rolling in. It seems to have struck a chord!

Predictably, the publication’s release also prompted controversy and dialogue about the inclusiveness of the field of science fiction (examples of which can be seen in the #WDSF hashtag on Twitter).

I’m incredibly stoked to be a part of this project, and it’s got me thinking, why SF?

  1. Why does this genre, one that’s been fairly unfriendly to women, hold such appeal for us?
  2. Why do we want to write in this particular genre?

I asked four of the five editors (including two Inkpunks) these questions, and here’s what they had to say.

Christie Yant, Guest Editor:

1. Because the future is ours collectively. And maybe for women and other marginalized groups, the future holds even brighter promise, because there is more to be changed for the better.

2. Writing in SF was a gamble for me–I’d always been a fantasist until a few years ago. I had to be shown that the narrow definition of science fiction I’d grown up with (basically Heinlein and Asimov) was outdated. The first SF story I ever wrote was about a sentient suit of power armor, which is about as far from my usual fairy tales-and-folklore stuff as you can get. I tried it because I was asked to; now I continue to write SF because the ideas are more compelling to me, the “what if”s are about a future that could happen.

Wendy N. Wagner, Managing Editor for Lightspeed and Nonfiction Editor for WDSF:

1. Science fiction is fun! It’s completely about the what-if’s, but there’s a thin veneer of plausibility that lets me sink more deeply into the world than, say, something with a supernatural or a magical element. In that respect, it’s wonderfully escapist.

But SF is also intellectually stimulating. I find myself thinking about the scientific elements and looking up information and rationally evaluating the ideas. It can be very engaging.

I also really like the way human issues can be examined within SF. Sometimes a social issue is just too close to home to really look at in a realistic setting. But in SF, there’s a little bit of a remove that let’s us think about dangerous ideas in a way that feels somehow safe. Like in Stranger in a Strange Land, thinking about cannibalism is logical and really quite sweet, whereas in a story set in Detroit, it would just feel weird. Or look at The Handmaid’s Tale–just thinking about a patriarchal, repressive theocracy in America makes me want to smash things, but I can read about it in a future dystopia, and even discuss and analyze it, without my head exploding.

2. I like writing SF for the same reasons I like reading it. I think the best way to critique the present is to project it into the future and examine the natural outcomes of our culture and ways of living. I think that kind of critique is really important and very inspirational. There are a lot of philosophical and sociological ideas that have really been developed because of their appearance in SF–just think about Ray Bradbury and George Orwell and Shirley Jackson and Ursula K. Le Guin. Their books have given us so many great ways to talk about conformity and society and gender. I’m very proud to be a part of that tradition. And I just think it’s fun to try to build a world that obeys real-world physical laws but functions in very different ways! I find it really enjoyable.

Robyn Lupo, Flash Fiction Editor

1. Should I tell you about the time I cried when I realized I’d never go to space? I think I was 12 and watching a re-run of Star Trek. And it just hit me that I wasn’t born in the right time, that these strange new worlds would be for some other kids down the line. So, I read Allan Dean Foster’s Glory Lane, for the nth time (no cover, middle pages ready to wander off) and consoled myself with the fact that I might get picked up by an alien sometime maybe. SF was better than home, it was my place to be me. I wasn’t at all cognizant of women not being welcome in SF until around the time I realized I wouldn’t be going space – I wonder now if the two are connected. I didn’t feel put off by people not wanting my girlness there, sometimes I wasn’t sure I wanted my girlness, myself! I wasn’t about to be moved from my spot, though. Science fiction has always been first about hope, for me. Of alien abduction, of bombastic fantastic things happening, and it would have taken at least some sort of mechanized giant lizard to get me to stop living there.

2. It’s so broad. Huge. Zombies, aliens, mutants – I mean, perhaps they’re all versions of The Other for us and we shouldn’t be astonished by the breadth, and I feel like that breadth in plot points is reflected in the variety of the types of tales. And it’s such a rich environment for fresh mashups – I mean, space westerns. Right?

Rachel Swirsky, Reprints Editor

1. One of the anecdotes that gets passed around is that when people asked Octavia Butler why she wrote science fiction, she said, “Black people have a future, too.” So do women. And while there are many other iterations of science fiction, one of its modes has always been to project social problems into the future, either to imagine solutions, failures, or both. A lot of classic feminist SF especially falls into those categories with memorable examples like The Handmaid’s Tale and Woman on the Edge of Time. What are our problems now? How can we solve them? What will happen if we don’t? People whose embodied lives involve those social questions will naturally gravitate toward being interested in them.

2. I think it’s difficult for me to separate out the impulse to write from the impulse to read. Women have a future, too. I want to read it; I want to imagine it. And one really cool thing about being a writer is that when I share my writing, I’m entering a conversation with the people who’ve written earlier, and the ideas can get all mixed up and go back-and-forth in a way that is usually exciting, and occasionally frustrating, but definitely feeds into my desire to write.

My conclusions? Science fiction is a literature of ideas, and that means anyone’s ideas. It’s the literature of dreams and hopes for the future, and that’s inherently political. But it’s also a playground, and we want to play in the sandbox, too.

Tracie Welser is a graduate of the 2010 Clarion West Writers Workshop. Her recent publications include “A Body Without Fur” (May/June 2012 Interzone) and “Her Bones, Those of the Dead” (Outlaw Bodies), “A Flag Still Flies Over Sabor City,” (January/February 2013 Interzone), “A Doll is Not a Dumpling,” (March/April 2014 Interzone) and “‘The Status Quo Cannot Hold’”: A Few Words from Women who Wrote/Are Writing the Goddamn Book on Destroying Science Fiction,” in Women Destroy Science Fiction. You can find her online at This Is Not An Owl and twitter: @traciewelser.

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On Multi-Classing in Life

In this great RPG we call Life, I multi-classed Parent/Academic/Programmer/Manager/Writer. I lost my save vs Melancholic Pensiveness, and so, this post.

Parent (Cleric): I’ve poured a lot blood and spirit into the Parent class. It’s always been my default, the one that took priority before all others. Pouring points into it slowed my advancement in other classes (especially starting at 22), but my two compassionate, curious, self-aware kids are my greatest life successes and most precious treasures. I suppose that my leveling will slow way down once my youngest leaves for Swarthmore College in a few months.

Academic (Wizard): This was a dream through all of my twenties, but in retrospect it’s clear that a powerful geas was cast upon me. In my Poli Sci PhD program, I spent a bunch of points on the least useful skills, like Unfundable Interest and Absentee Advisor. Then I was distracted for a semester by the MBA specialization. Later I was accepted into the Stanford School of Graduate Wizardry, but my then spouse got into a competing school hundreds of miles away. Finally, family illness killed my consolation master’s thesis, sending me into depression and out of this class.

Programmer (Rogue): Pragmatist for hire. I took a lot of levels in this class (and many ranks in Databases) mainly so that I could support my advancement in the Parent and Academic classes. Eventually, my guild thought that I should invest in Manager.

Manager (Bard): My current career class. Jack of many trades, master of none, distributing points like I’m a dealer at a Texas hold’em table with a lot of players (to horribly mix multiple game metaphors). I have the least experience in the class I’m focusing in, and I feel insecure that any adventuring party will want to keep me or include me.

Writer (Sorcerer): Finally, the Writer. This is the class that brings me the most fulfillment. It’s in my blood. It’s how I define myself. Those nearest and dearest to me are consumed by similar creative powers and destructive tendencies. I dream of reaching epic class like Neil Gaiman, or deification, like Ursula K. Le Guin. In spite of all this, I assign experience first to Parent and Manager. Duty to others, and survival, right? My progress in Writer is frustrating in how slow it is. I’ve achieved Workshop Graduate but I wonder if I’ll ever reach SFWA Member, let alone I Make Enough From My Writing to Pay Rent.

Anyhow, I find it helpful, if not hopeful, to think about Writer as something in which I need to invest points, aka time and energy. Like any metaphor, it breaks down if examined too closely, but I realize that if I want to level up as a Writer, I need to pour more of myself into it.

Any thoughts?

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Be Your Own Sous Chef (or: Screw You, Burnout)

Ever have that experience where you just finished a project and you sit down to start another piece and … there’s nothing in there? There are no characters playing around in the back of your mind. No images floating around in your heart. No worlds waiting for you play in. Or maybe there is some small thing, but when you go to write about it, you realize that it’s barely a wisp of a notion, and no matter how much you brain storm or free write, it refuses to develop into anything serious?

Yeah. That’s burnout.

Frida Kahlo Diary Pages

A page from Frida Kahlo’s sketchbook, which included preliminary sketches, doodles, tests of ink, and personal thoughts.

I’ve suffered from more than my fair share of burnouts. I tend to write in jags, whipping out three or four stories in a short period of time and then finding myself hollowed out and brain dead. I also get it when I’ve finished a serious rewrite–there’s nothing like working my butt off to solve a billion plot problems to leave me a blithering idiot. But I think I might have burnout licked these days–which is a good thing, since writing is now  my primary source of income.

Here’s the secret about burnout: you’re not broken. You’re not blocked. There’s nothing wrong with you. Burnout is what your brain gets when you’ve been really focused on one particular creative activity and when you get done, your brain is locked in that gear. You feel hollowed out and worthless, but you’re not. It’s just that your inner spotlight is set to one particular stretch of the mental stage, and now that you’ve finished that piece of work, there’s nothing on the stage anymore.

Most advice about getting your creativity stoked up after an experience like this talks about a process people call “filling the well.” The idea is that you’ve tapped out your ideas and that you need to rest and refill the pot of ideas brewing inside you. It’s a metaphor that makes sense because you feel hollow when you’re in this situation. The thought that resting and playing around with other forms of art and reading books you love can fix you? That’s a wonderfully comforting thought. But the problem with filling the well this way is that it can take a much longer time than you’d really like it to take. I need to get creative quickly if I’m going to make a living doing this!

Luckily, I found a trick to recover faster. See, when your brain is being creative, it’s taking the material of the world and your experience and running it through a kind of blender.

we start off with all these fresh ingredients, recognizable (a heart, a finger, an eyeball, a glass of wine) and we throw them in the art-blender. i only let things mix very slightly. i keep my blender on 2 or 3. you can recognize the component parts: in the final art-soup, the finger might be severed and mangled, but you can peer into your bowl and see that it’s a finger, floating there, all human and bloody and finger-y. neil puts his art-blender on 10. you wind up with a fantastic purée, but often you have no fucking idea where the experiences of his life wound up in the mix of his final product. if you see a finger, it’s not recognizable as a human one. and that’s part of what makes Neil Gaiman (capital N and G) work. and, i’d argue, my choice to dial my art-blender down from a 5 to a 2 or 3 over the past few years, as i write more and more “direct” songs…i don’t know, it may be part of what i’ve needed to do to survive as an artist (or more likely, as a human).

we do these things instinctively, i think.

- Amanda Palmer, blog

But for most of us, we’re not running the blender all the time. And between smoothie orders, we spend a lot of time stocking up on ingredients and filling our pantry (or “filling the well”), but we’re not being our own sous-chefs. We’re not doing actively anything to get the ingredients ready for our smoothie, so when it’s time to cook, there’s an overwhelming sense of THERE’S NOTHING TO EAT! DISASTER! QUICK! SOMEBODY ORDER A PIZZA!

So if you’re like me, when you meet someone who’s always ready to whip up a delicious meal–or someone who’s always painting or writing or creating some wonderful thing–it’s awe-inspiring. But these people, whether they’re creative business-people like Martha Stewart or in-demand movie makers like Guillermo del Toro, aren’t inhuman creator-machines. They’re ready to go because they’re their own darn sous chef. They take time to actively engage with their experiences so they’re easily available for art.

Basically: They are working all the time. Just on stuff YOU CAN’T SEE. They’re making ingredients!

If you’ve ever taken an art class, your teacher probably told you that keeping a sketchbook would help your skills up and help you work out ideas before you ever need them. If you wrote a senior thesis in college, you probably spent a lot of time reading and making notes and processing texts before you finally found the perfect combination of ideas to use in your final product. You had to prepare your ingredients before you started cooking with them.

Del Toro Sketchbook & Cover of book

Cover and pages from CABINET OF CURIOSITIES, a book exploring Guillermo del Toro’s sketchbooks and collections. (From Mighty

Well, I’m finally keeping a notebook. I’m spending a little bit of time every day (or at least every few days!) working in my notebook. Not working on my particular current projects, but just thinking about images and texts and life experiences that I’m exploring right now. Instead of just reading a book and enjoying one of the characters, I’m jotting down what I liked or didn’t like about that person. I’m actively engaging my brain on a regular basis–and every time I get done working, I find I’ve come up with all kinds of new insight and engagement in the projects I have to work on. I feel inspired all the time!

I’m keeping my blender on the counter all the time, and I’m filling the fridge with lots of great ingredients that are ready to go in the blender. Just knowing that I’ve got material ready means I don’t have to ever feel worried about running out of material. And I don’t have to feel that horrible, hollow feeling of burnout (which can turn into a much darker feeling of depression if you’re not lucky).

So get out there and start thinking, and save your thoughts in a notebook. You might be amazed by how good it will make you feel.

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Enhance Your Writing Performance Now!

Sex and writing. I know, these two topics are always on our minds, right? And I’m amazed at the parallels you can find between the two. For example, suffering from writer’s block is not unlike being afflicted with sexual dysfunction. Maybe you try again and again but just can’t reach a fulfilling conclusion. Or you can’t even begin. Or the process is painful, or scary, or simply unexciting. Your self-doubt and high expectations interfere with your ability to perform. You’re frustrated by the poor quality of what you get out of it, in spite of all that you put into it. Or you get through it, and it’s just okay. You’re not satisfied with the results.

I wanted to see if we could learn something about writing (and maybe sex?) by comparing these two different issues. The comparisons are imperfect, to be sure. Also, I do want to note here that it is not my intention to diminish either problem, especially because there are physical and traumatic reasons behind why many folks struggle with enjoying sex.

1. Be cautious with comparisons. 

Maybe you’re worried that you won’t measure up in bed to your partner’s former lover, the wealthy well-endowed Swedish sex therapist with the discrete, countable abs. Or you can’t write the tactile, delicious prose of Nabokov. These comparisons can only lead to discouragement and diminished confidence. Remove that pressure. Be completely present with your partner or with your words. Don’t invite Benedict Cumberbatch or Anais Nin into these personal spaces. (I mean, unless, of course, you can.)

2. Create a safe space. 

Safe spaces are absolutely esssential for healthy sexuality. Sex should be an act of mutual consent and absolute trust, so that you and your partners have the freedom to be completely vulnerable, to take emotional risks. Remove the sense of safety, and free sexual expression and enjoyment evaporate. Your creative life should similarly be free to express itself without fear of failure, of unrealistic expectations, of harsh self-criticism. Only when you feel free to take risks and to be completely vulnerable can you reach the greatest heights, in art and sex. 

3. Be playful.

In both writing and sex, experiment and explore, take risks. You need a safe space to do this. In sex, you do this with both your own and your partner’s consent. Imagine that your writing is absolutely supportive and consenting. It’s waiting for you. So go on, cuff yourself to the your standup desk, write ridiculous blog posts comparing sex and writing, whip out new instruments and implements and feel their pleasing heft in your hand. Break out of old routines. Begin at a different place than you’re used to, stop abruptly, and immediately begin again somewhere else, somewhere completely different. Introduce new textures and rhythms, try new roles. Try things that maybe even scare you. 

It’s my hope that there’s something to be gained by comparing our biological and artistic creative urges and problems, small lessons that lead us to greater security and more satisfying experiences in each. I’d love to hear from you all if you have any observations to make along these lines.

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Lessons from Camp Revision: Split Screen

Late last year, I finished the first draft of my first novel. I celebrated. I printed it out. I re-read it and scribbled across its pages in glorious red ink. And then I ignored it for a couple months.

I sat down to start revising, earlier this year, and I felt my soul wrench. I skimmed the page and, with the calm of a impartial observer, realized that the words on the page didn’t match what I thought I had written. It wasn’t just that the draft was bad — it was — but it was broken. It was incomplete. An entire sub-plot made no sense. Inconsistencies galore. A hook that existed only in my head. Here I was thinking that I could rip through a second draft in a few weeks and be ready to send it off to beta readers and start querying agents. Instead, I needed to start over and do a rewrite.

Well, not quite a complete rewrite, but at least a redrafting.

I have to admit that it was hard not to despair. A lot of work went into that first draft, between research, world building, and actually writing it. It felt like I’d already failed. I sulked for a while, and then I made a plan.

Before raiding the castle, one should take stock of their assets. I had a solid start to the novel I wanted to write and the complete story in my head. But I needed to figure out how to revise.

I usually write longhand. Give me a notebook and fountain pen (preferably filled with purple ink) and I’ll write until my hand is ready to fall off. The thought of turning to a fresh page and rewriting everything from the beginning was, let’s just say, not good.

Editing on the computer presents its own problems. I didn’t want to trash what I’d already written; I wanted to preserve the first draft, as reference, and maybe as an to my future self on how not to first draft. I was also worried that it would end up being a line edit rather than a true revision. I needed to cut paragraphs and take whole scenes and throw them out, to write new ones in their place.

I use Scrivener, so I figured that there had to be a better workflow than retyping it all. I started clicking around and reading how other people used it, and I stumbled across split-screen view (Patrick Hester has a lovely write-up of using it here). I could have a blank chapter on one side of my screen and the first draft on the other. I was free to copy and paste, to rewrite, or to add new words. The unedited first draft remained intact in all of its glory, while creating and reshaping something new from its bones.

Progress, at last.

We all get stuck from time to time. What matters is that we figure what is holding us back, find a way around it, and finish things.

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