Follow These Five Principles to Writing Mastery (in 10,000 hours or less!)

I like the concept of the 10,000 Hour Rule, made famous by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers. Boiled down to its essence, it states that 10,000 hours of practice leads to expertise or mastery of a skill. The Rule is overly simplistic and not universally applicable, but it highlights the importance of hard work as a key factor in individual success.

Here’s how I break down and apply the 10,000 Hour Rule to my writing life:

10,000 hours: This is approximately 20 years at ten hours per week. This gives me some perspective of how much I need to invest in improving my skills and for how long. If I’m impatient, increasing my weekly hours to 20 per week will help me achieve mastery in 10 years. I see this as almost metaphorical, as opposed to an actual measure towards a specifically achievable goal. In other words, I’m in this for the long haul. If I want to get better faster, I need to sacrifice more of other things, and keep this up over a long period of time.

Practice: I define this as smart, deliberate, focused time spent improving my writing. I’m not just logging hours–I’m investing in activities designed to make me a better writer. I elaborate on this below.

Expertise: I want to be a strong enough writer that editors and readers find it difficult to pass over my work. I’m willing to invest 10,000 hours in achieving this level of storytelling mastery.

Here are five principles that I’m using to help me decide how to intelligently invest my 10,000 hours.

1. Seek out challenges:

Break out of those comfortable patterns! For example, I noticed recently that all my stories follow straightforward chronological structure, so I chose to write a story with several parallel narratives (my one story sale last year!). Along these lines, I write a lot of horror and urban fantasy, so I’m considering work on a police procedural and a hard SF story. I tend to write from close third-person or first-person POV, so maybe it’s time for me to try an omniscient narrator. The opportunity to experiment is one reason I prefer writing in the short form, at least during this early portion of my training. I know it’s scary to try new things. I’ve definitely made mistakes and embarrassed myself, but I believe the potential for growth is worth this risk over the long haul.

2. Attend workshops and classes:

We’re very lucky to be writers in the SF space. We have a strong culture of fostering and supporting aspiring writers. We’ve got the Clarion Workshops, Odyssey, Viable Paradise, Taos Toolbox, the CSSF Workshops, and many more–I don’t think that any other genre has as many respected opportunities for writers to learn directly from professionals in the field. As an undergrad, I attended creative writing classes taught by UC Irvine MFA students who offered valuable lessons and made me start thinking seriously about writing as a craft. And I’m scared now to even glance at stories that I wrote before I went to the Clarion West workshop.

3. Get feedback:

I’m slowly learning which of my first readers provide the critiques that teach me something new. They point out strengths as well as those things which not only improve a single story, but have the potential to make me a better writer overall. I’m in a writing group with some of the best authors in the business, and I’m striving to recognize this as as a tremendous opportunity and to submit stories to my group, even though some of these wonderful people intimidate the hell out of me. Treasure your best critiquers!

Side note: one might think that the majority of ones time at the Clarion West Workshop would be spent producing new stories, but we spent the equivalent of a full-time job–with overtime–reading, critiquing and listening to critiques of our stories.

4. Study fiction:

This emphasis is one of the biggest changes I’ve made in my writing life during the past year. First, I’m reading a number of books on craft. Instead of reading these works all at once, I read a bit at a time, in parallel with my own writing. This gives me the opportunity to both apply the new techniques I learn to my own stories. Second, I deliberately seek out and read the best works in the field and ask myself what their authors did differently that made many of us take note. My favorite stories to study are the ones that suck me in and make me forget to study, so that I have to go back and attempt to dissect them again. (And again, sometimes!)

My current craft reads are Jeff Vandermeer’s Wonderbook and David Madden’s Revising Fiction. I strongly recommend both, for very different reasons.

5. Connect with peers and mentors:

First of all, attend conferences and writing retreats. The Rainforest Writers Village is one of my annual favorites, because you can write with other writers, which is hard to do at conferences.

My favorite idols aren’t the demigods of our field *cough*NeilGaiman*cough*, but my friends who are perhaps a year or three ahead of me (like my Tracie, and all of the inkpunks!). I know them and their lives well enough to know what I need to emulate to achieve success, which habits I need to break or adopt. I know what sacrifices they make and how they carve writing time out of their hectic, distraction-filled lives. My writing friends and colleagues are a source of endless encouragement and commiseration, both in-person and via twitter and Facebook and email. I depend on them–on you all–for the strength to keep pursuing my long-term writing goals.

FYI: 10,000 hours spent connecting with peers on Facebook will not make you a better writer. It may (if you challenge yourself in a deliberate, focused manner) make you better at connecting with your peers on Facebook.

I’d like to emphasize that nothing is a substitute for writing. Bottom line: If I want to become a better writer, I have to write. But like with any investment, I’d like to maximize my return, so I want to invest wisely.

I’d love to hear from you all–what do you think about the 10,000 hour Rule? Do you have any tips for smart and deliberate practice? Do you have any books on craft that you’d recommend?

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New Year, New Goals: Let’s Review Responsible Goalsetting!

I’ve talked about it before, but it’s a useful topic and since my post is due on New Year’s Eve, I figured it was a pertinent topic well-worth repeating: responsible goalsetting for creative types (or, anyone, really).

Obviously setting goals will help you along with your creative career, or with anything else you hope to do. It’s hard to move forward when you don’t have a direction to run in, or an idea of how to get there. Setting a responsible goal comes down to two things: selecting a goal that is entirely within your control, and breaking that goal down into paceable, achievable steps.

Selecting a goal that’s entirely within your control may seem straightforward, but that’s when you’re consciously thinking about your goals. How many times have we said something like “I’m going to sell [the thing] this year?” or “I’ll get my book talked about on [the blog]” or some variation therein? Those goals, while great things to get, are not entirely within your control. What is in your control is how often you write, edit, and submit, and how you manage your own publicity and outreach. So, instead of saying “I’m going to write a story that sells this year” try something more like “I’m going to write one short story every month and submit those stories to the appropriate markets.” Achievable, and completely within your control.

Breaking a goal down into paceable, achievable steps may seem hard and tedious (for me it’s a sick and twisted little pleasure to do this, I love agendas, don’t judge me) but it’s well worth your time. Say your goal for 2014 is to become the kind of writer who writes 2K every day. But say you haven’t written anything in the last month (she types, guiltily). And say you’ve never been the type of writer who writes 2K every day. Say the most you’ve ever done in the past is maybe 500 words a day, with an occasional burst here and there. It’s going to be hard to jump right into 2K a day if you’re not used to it, and eventually you will burn out and drop the goal entirely. It’s like running a marathon or learning a new skill: you have to build your way up to it. Set challenging-but-achievable goals, and when you can, push yourself a little harder. Build every day until you’re at the place you want to be. And work on one big goal at a time — if you’re working on too many things at once, something will give, and it’s likely going to be your stamina.

There’s one method that’s quite useful for producing good creative work: the “Seinfeld method” aka “Don’t Break the Chain.” The theory here is that excellence is built on habit: keep working at something every day, and eventually something good will fall out. My personal writing-related goal is to work on writing every single day, regardless of what’s going on. This may be anything from wordcount to editing to re-reading to outlining to character development to writing exercises. As long as I’m doing something for writing, it counts. I’m using this free printable PDF of the Don’t Break the Chain calendar for 2014.

An important note about the “Don’t Break the Chain” method: you’re probably going to break the chain at some point. It’ll just happen. Maybe you got too sick to brain one day, or you’re simply in a situation where you absolutely cannot get time away to do the thing you set out to do. An additional rule I have seen, for those of us just starting our Chains, is “miss no more than one day.” If you miss a day for some reason, it’s your responsibility to get back on the Chain the very next day. Otherwise you’re going to start making a new chain of not-doing the thing.

I hope everybody reading this has a fun (and safe!) New Year’s Eve, and a productive New Year’s Day! I’m kicking off my personal JanNoWriMo tomorrow, with a few of my friends on twitter, and my goal is to finish my First Draft by the end of January. What’re your New Year goals?

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A sign of good things to come

Once again we’re closing in on the end of the year. Another year of hard work, of hope and frustration, of trying desperately to balance our need to make cool stuff with our need to pay bills and feed kids. This has been a tough one for all of us here at Inkpunks, for one reason or another, and we’re all hoping for good change ahead in 2014.

We have at least one good omen for things to come, and we wanted to share it with you. We don’t do a ton of self-promoting around here–it’s awkward for us–but I think today we need to make an exception. Because for the first time, an Inkpunk has a novel coming out. An actual legit book from an established publisher. And we’re all giddy aunts and uncles cooing over our dear Wendy’s bookbaby and need to show pictures of it to everyone  whether they like it or not. (But honestly, how could you NOT like it? IT’S AMAZING. Illustration by Michael Ivan.)

Cover of Skinwalkers by Wendy W. Wagner

Cover of Skinwalkers by Wendy W. Wagner

That, my friends, is the payoff. The fruit of years of hard work. The end result of submissions and rejections, of retreats and workshops and critiques, of novel drafts that never saw the light of day, of outlines and pitches that were sent back as not good enough, of finally having to learn the rules of someone else’s world (omg, I can’t even imagine, it’s hard enough when we get to make them up ourselves!). That’s two years of emails between Wendy and the rest of us, sometimes elated, sometimes despondent, but always in touch, always working, always setting an example for us.

That’s Wendy’s book, and we could not be any fucking prouder of her than we are.

Skinwalkers will be available from Paizo on March 1, 2014.

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Superstars and Whatnot

It was at the Illustration Masters Class where I first heard Greg Manchess declare that there is no such thing as talent. A rather startling premise to tell a bunch of aspiring artists. But no, Greg stated that artistic skill “is built, not possessed”, created by hard work and training. I wonder about this idea, chew on it occasionally, still not sure what I think. It makes me think of films like Amadeus and Finding Forrester that portray bitter rivalries between merely adequate creators and their brilliant counterparts. I have no idea how historically accurate the portrayals are, but today Mozart is a household name while Salieri is mostly for history buffs. I itch and scratch away at what that thing is that makes one individual a superstar while another is just adequate.

In a recent conversation on facebook, art director Irene Gallo stated “I often tell students they need to find their own voice. There needs to be a reason to hire them  specifically and not any one of a dozen guys. I hire artists based on how smart they are, really. How do they answer the problem. The technique has to be there, sure, but I want someone smarter than me coming up with an answer to the problem better than I could. Otherwise, I can just ‘hire a wrist.’ (Which is useful at times but those aren’t the superstars.)”  Someone recently asked me if being an artist was a “higher calling, just or a craft like any other” and I found myself struggling to answer.  Gallo’s comment touched on that difference. Yes, there is a voice, a vision, something that separates one artist from another. Those artists who are good, who are really good, the ones that just blow your mind with what they can do, it is more than just being technically good at the craft. I find myself wondering how much of that voice is smarts vs. hard work and long hours practicing, vs things like personality and life circumstance and even luck.

 Here’s something else, Gallo’s comment was part of a discussion about Justin Landon’s insightful article on gender parity in SF cover art. (Seriously, drop everything and read that article NOW.)  It hit a few buttons for me: Awards like the Hugo and inclusion in art collections like Spectrum were a few of the guidelines Landon used to determine the plight of women artists working in the Speculative Fiction field today (hint, it’s kind of scary.) Ironically, this past year both of those things happened for me (which was personally INCREDIBLE). My Hugo was in the Fan Artist category, the one for un-paid or low-paid work and my inclusion in Spectrum 20 was in the Unpublished category, the one where Landon assumed there would be more gender equality because “no one has paid for the work.” (There was still less than two women artists for every ten illustrations.) I sometimes wonder if societal conditioning and the fact that a significant portion of my day is spent in cooking, cleaning, and helping a 4th grader with homework is what might prevent me from ever achieving “superstar” status. Or is that just a convenient red herring? Because many many amazing creators have regular life stuff that must be balanced with making their art.

I think Mark Manson, writing for the Huffington Post, is on to something when he asks; “what pain do you want? What are you willing to struggle for? Because that seems to be a greater determinant of how our lives end up.” I have a lineup of awesome jobs for some amazing clients, the bathroom is atrocious, the kitchen sink is full of dirty dishes and if I don’t go for a run today I’ll go crazy. That’s just life. Sometimes creating art feels like magic. More often, creating art is agonizingly tired eyes, and loss of any free time. Occasionally it all comes together and I feel touched by the muse, other times I do feel like ‘just a wrist’. It doesn’t matter: I keep making art (and trying to get better at it) because whether or not it will win awards and make history (or money) is really besides the point. This is just what I do.

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The Reindeer Games of the Writer’s Brain

As I sit here and compose my last Inkpunks post for 2013, I find myself reflecting on the past year with an uncomfortable mix of contentment and frustration. It was a very rough year, full of personal and professional setbacks.

These things are sharper than they look! (by ChaoticMind75 flickr)

These things are sharper than they look! (by ChaoticMind75 flickr)

In the wee, cold hours of these winter nights, my Writer’s Brain precipitates these frustrations into giant, cruelly-edged failure snowflakes. I see you nodding. You’re familiar with them, too. But wait–what are those shadows lurking in the snowdrifts along the dark treeline?

Oh, the evil Reindeer Games our writer brains play with us.

There were a lot of good things that happened this year, too, but the Writer Brain knows that play; tries to stamp down with its sharp, muddy hooves.

AND YET: a handful of sales (one this week!), completion of the first draft of my novel, some fun experiments with comic scripts, and a steady stream of (nonfiction) freelance writing that presented some interesting new challenges. I attended Rainforest Writers Retreat and had the good fortune to attend Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop this summer, too. All along the way there have been good times with friends and colleagues old and new.

In your face, Writer Brain! Ducks past the razor-sharp antlers of not having enough time to write!

When I tell my friends everything I’ve been up to (especially my non-writer ones) they are impressed with how busy I am! How come I haven’t been able to do more?

Shut Up, Writer Brain! A be-hooved kick sends me reeling into a snowdrift of abandoned drafts!

 As the year draws down, many of us start making lists of all the goals, plans, and resolutions we hope to accomplish in the new year. It’s always been my habit to explicitly write down a list of all the things I’ve done in the previous year (the good things, Writer Brain. I’m on to your plays.)

 This list of things is topped by the things I’m most proud of. The things that have given me the most joy. They don’t all have to be BIG accomplishments, (or necessarily completed) but each will have moved my writing life forward in some way. See my list above. What about you? Name three things you accomplished this year with your writing. I bet you could name five. Ten. Twenty.

A reindeer fires lasers from his glowy nose, but I leap nimbly behind an old, scraggly tree made of previous years’ lists!

Don't let his placid gaze fool you. (Photo Courtesy Classic Media/CBS)

Don’t let his placid gaze fool you. (Photo Courtesy Classic Media/CBS)

I have a lot going on in my life that has nothing to do with writing. We all do. Some days/months/years, it seems like writing takes a back seat to everything else. So I focus on my list of accomplishments (public or in-progress), my huge network of friendly fellow scriveners (that would be all of you reading this), and the close support of family and friends (much gratitude) who give me the space and encouragement to suit up and face those Reindeers and their Ninja Star Snowflakes of Death. Okay. I’ve probably tortured this analogy enough. But make your list. Check it twice.

I hope you all have a wonderful holiday full of many words to light your way against the dark. Or at least against that pack of surly reindeer set free by your Writer Brain.

Time to get our game faces back on. 2014 is just around the corner.

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A Writer’s Thanksgiving

By, via Wikimedia Commons


My favorite part of Thanksgiving isn’t the big dinner. In fact, since we went veg, we’ve often abandoned the big dinner in order to enjoy wacky and fun meals we’d never eat any other time of year. 2011’s 1960’s Casserole Night was a blast, and this year’s Frozen Cheese Pizza Taste-Off promises to be the most exciting meal I’ve ever made!

No, because I’m a giant sap, my favorite part of Thanksgiving is listing all the things I have to be grateful for. This year’s is going to be the greatest Thanksgiving list ever. Sure, I lost my job and my husband was unemployed for six months, but this year has been one of the most amazing in my life! I’ve made new friends, gotten to see old ones, become a full-time writer, and written some really terrific pieces. I’ve also gotten to spend a lot of time with my brother, my husband, and my daughter that I wouldn’t normally get to enjoy. Talk about things to be grateful about!

Anyway, here are a few writing-related things I’m grateful for:

  1. The amazing editors and publishing staff I’ve gotten to work with this year. I’ve loved all the people I’ve gotten to work with this year, which makes this year an exceptional one. In particular, I have to give a shout-out to the amazing folks at Paizo, especially my editor James Sutter. He is so fun to work with and is an incredibly smart editor. Three cheers for James!
  2. Being invited to join a really great writing group. Dale Ivan Smith, thank you so much for creating the Masked Hucksters! The group’s sense of fellowship has really encouraged me these last few months.
  3. I’m beyond thankful for my family, who are all so amazingly supportive. My husband never rolls his eyes at any of my crazy writing talk, either.
  4. The people who make tutorial videos for Windows 8. No, seriously, thank you. Getting a new computer after seven years was really traumatic for this old fossil.
  5. The staff of the Multnomah County and LINCC libraries. You feed every word I write and you take such good care of me while I’m visiting your workplaces.
  6. The amazing con committee at Orycon, my home convention. Every year you create an amazing convention that has taught me new and fantastic things. Thanks for all your hard, unpaid work!
  7. The support of amazing friends like the Inkpunks, who are always there when I need them. I’m also desperately grateful to Robyn Lupo and Minerva Zimmerman, twitter friends who are constantly helping me with research and reading. A billion hugs to my amazing novel beta readers, Jeffrey Petersen and Rebecca Stefoff. Without you guys, my books would probably suck.
  8. The people who invented coffee, and to the staff of the Painted Lady Coffee Shop, who treat me so nicely.
  9. Jane Austen, David Mitchell, Tamora Pierce, Diane Duane, Katherine Dunn, Jeff Vandermeer, Mark Doty, James S. A. Corey and Stephen King for filling my belly with the fire to write and to write better.
  10. I’m thankful to poetry and music and the amazing grace that somehow one bunch of primates have somehow brought into this world. Humanity, when you don’t suck, you are amazing. We have this holiday just to reminder ourselves of this fact.

Who are some of the people who have inspired you this year? How can you tell them how grateful you are? Why don’t you go out there and tell them–you’ll feel great when you do.

Wishing you and yours a wonderful holiday, full of gratitude and joy. And with a little luck, pie!




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On Sticky Notes, Character Wheels, and Russian Folklore, Or…Planning a Novel

I first met bestselling author Jodi McIsaac when she joined our local speculative fiction writing group (IFWA), shortly after she moved from Vancouver to Calgary. Then I had the pleasure of attending one of her panels at When Words Collide, entitled “Plotters, Pantsers, and Quilters.” She was firmly in the “plotters” camp. And when I say firmly I mean…I could scarcely believe the amount of preparation that went into one of her novels! I imagined the book must practically write itself after such an exercise. (Right, Jodi? haha)

But it wasn’t just the extensive outlining that interested me, it was her emphasis on structure. How to construct each scene, each act, and the novel as a whole so as to maximize tension and readability–something every author wants; something I haven’t thought enough about and am very interested in learning. So I asked if she’d prepare a blog post on the subject and she kindly agreed.

What follows is an overview of her process…which I’m definitely going to borrow for my next novel.


Jodi says:

I spend a lot of time preparing to write a novel. In fact, I spend as much time preparing as I do writing the first draft. Some days, I wish I could be a “pantser,” someone who sits down in front of a blank screen and just starts writing. But I’ve learned over the last three books that it just doesn’t work that way for me, as enticing as it sounds. I seize up when faced with a blank screen, overwhelmed by the myriad possibilities. I need a plan, a roadmap, a guide to the journey ahead. And so far, my plan tends to look something like this:

1. Start with common folklore structure, preferably Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale

Others might prefer the Hero’s Journey. It’s a kind of structural analysis that works best with chronological or linear stories, which is what I’ve written so far. Propp describes thirty-one functions (which can be thought of as plot points or major events in the story) of the folktale, as well as seven character archetypes: the villain, the dispatcher, the helper, the princess, the donor, the hero or victim/seeker, and the false hero. These roles don’t necessarily need to each be fulfilled by one person–there might be several false heroes, or the helper and the donor might be the same person. The princess is the prize, what the hero is trying to rescue (and not necessarily a person). In my first book, Through the Door, the princess is the main character’s daughter, Eden, but it might also be “relational harmony” or another abstract prize or goal that the hero is trying to rescue from the “dragon.” By starting with these basics, I feel like I’m tapping into thousands of years of storytelling tradition and using functions and characters that will deeply resonate with readers, as they have for countless generations.

2. Outline Obsessively

My outline for Through the Door, the first book in the series, was eighty pages long. I’ve chilled out a bit since then and my subsequent outlines were around a dozen pages each. I start with sticky notes on my office walls (one column for each act), and then flesh out each scene or plot point in a Word document. As I outline, I write a description of what happens in each scene, as well as the following three points:

DRAMATIC DESIRE: this is what the point-of-view character in the scene wants, and it has to be “dramatic”–i.e., something I could show in the film version of the story. For example, the dramatic desire can’t be something vague such as “to gain her daughter’s love.” It needs to be something more specific such as “she wants her daughter to give her a hug and say that she loves her.”

GAP: this is how the scene will turn and head in a completely different direction. It’s the “gap” between what the character (and reader) expects to happen, and what actually happens. For example, if a character goes to the bank expecting to withdraw money, but the bank is closed, that’s not a gap (because his desire is still the same–to withdraw money–and he can just go to another bank). But if he goes to the bank and someone puts a gun to his head and threatens to kill him, that’s a gap. Now the story is headed in a completely different direction.

NEW DRAMATIC DESIRE: By the end of the scene, the point-of-view character should have a different dramatic desire than the one he or she started with. If we use the above example, the new dramatic desire might be to call the police without the robber noticing (as opposed to the old dramatic desire, which was to withdraw money).

There doesn’t need to be a gap and shift in desire in every scene (there actually shouldn’t be, or else you’ll give your readers whiplash), but the more scenes that contain these gaps, the more gripping and fast-paced your story will be. And for me, I want to be thinking about these things in the outlining stage, so I can make sure I’m clear on what my character wants in every single scene–and foil her desires as often as possible.

A good resource on structure is Robert McKee’s Story (which is about screenwriting but is applicable to novels as well).

3. Charts

Also maps, spreadsheets, timelines, and lists. I make what’s called a “character wheel,” with the main character in the centre and the secondary characters in a circle around her. On the spokes between the main characters and the secondary characters I write how the secondary characters illustrate one part of the MC’s personality. For example, my main character Cedar feels anger towards her ex, who abandoned her when she was pregnant. And so I’ve amplified that anger and given it in full force to her mother, who was also betrayed and allowed her anger to overtake her. So I write “anger” on the spoke between Cedar and her mother. Every secondary character should show us more of our main character’s personality as the two of them interact, so I often start by making a list of the main character’s traits and then doling them out to the other characters in the story by using the character wheel.

With all of this preparatory work, it’s a wonder I ever get around to writing the book! But I’ve found that by doing this planning ahead of time, I feel much more confident moving forward, knowing that I’m building on a solid foundation. It also means I (usually) have to do less re-writing, though one or two major re-writes is still the norm. Because no matter how much planning I do, my characters have their own ideas about what should happen. And I’m perfectly okay with that.


Jodi-081 edit1


Jodi McIsaac is the author of the Thin Veil    contemporary fantasy series, where Celtic mythology and the modern world collide. Into the Fire, the second book in the series, was just released on November 12. You can buy it here.



Through the Door (book 1)




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How to Scare People

The great thing about having guests of honour like Dan Wells at your local convention, is you get to hear words of wisdom from the best in the industry right in your backyard, so to speak. At VCon this year, Dan did a work shop called How To Scare People, something he does often in his novels. With Dan’s permission, I’m going to share what I took away from his workshop.

1. Establish normal and then break it

Fear is our response to something that goes wrong, so make sure your readers know what is normal for your world and your novel. Then go ahead and break that.

2. Familiar becomes unfamiliar

Dan gave the example of a scene in the movie Zombieland where there are little girls in princess dresses running around. Cute, right? No, because they’re zombies and that’s creepy. People can also become unfamiliar. Think of when someone you’re in a relationship with says, “we need to talk.” You don’ t know what’s wrong, but something has changed. That’s scary.

3. Make them wait

A group of people are sitting around talking about baseball, then the room erupts in an explosion. Interesting, but not a lot of tension or fear built up. Contrast that with letting the audience know there’s a bomb under the table, while the group talks about baseball. It completely changes the scene.

Another way to make them wait is to magnify a moment by dragging it out, perhaps by describing something in great detail that doesn’t seem like it should be given that much attention. It’ll make your reader nervous.

4. Push fear buttons

“Sometimes, a spider is all you need.” –Dan Wells.

We’re all afraid of different things, so it’s not always easy to trigger those fears. Generally speaking, our common biggest fear triggers are our vulnerabilities. In the workshop we easily came up with a long list of things most people are afraid of such as: paralysis, darkness, betrayal, illness, toxic relationships and many more.

5. Show the monster

Finally, you need to show the monster. How many times is the reveal of the monster a let down compared to the build up? Dan says to never try to meet expectations, but either exceed them or subvert them.

In Jaws, we’re shown a shark at the beginning, it’s small and it’s dead. When we finally see the real one, it’s is HUGE, very much alive and covered in blood.

Hannibal subverts our expectations. We’re first introduced to him by the other characters talking about him, about how awful he is, the horrible things he has done, but then when we meet him, he’s calm, well spoken and doesn’t “look” scary. That’s what makes him completely terrifying.

I hope this helps you in your writing and good luck scaring your readers! Thanks to Dan for allowing me to share his tips with you.

Dan Wells writes in a variety of genres, from dark humor to science fiction to supernatural thriller. Born in Utah, he spent his early years reading and writing. He is the author of the Partials series and the John Cleaver series. He has been nominated for both the Hugo and the Campbell Award, and has won two Parsec Awards for his podcast Writing Excuses.


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a short collection of past Inkpunky advice

Ya know, these inkpunk people have written a lot of really smart stuff. I remember when I first started reading the blog a few years ago each new post was a breath of fresh air and inspiration. At the time I was trying to restart my own creative life with ambitions to write an epic fantasy novel or maybe create a webcomic, or at least start drawing again, SOMETHING! Every post left me feeling energized and ready to do it.

So today I decided to select a few inkpunk gems from the past, focusing on inspiration, setting goals, style, writing exercises, etc. Whether you are gearing up for NaNoWriMo* next month, looking for motivation to start a new creative endeavor, or full tilt in your current WIP, may this help fuel the fires and release the madness.


From Adam Israel:

Learning To Say No: “There was a day, not that long ago, that I’d jump at any opportunity for volunteer work in the speculative fiction field. I was eager, willing and capable, even when my workload was already spilling over the edges like a good bowl of french onion soup… ” ~read more


Working Through Self Doubt: “I had to figure out a deeper truth. The most important thing to writing a first draft is to get the ideas onto the page. Like working with clay, you have to start with a rough form before you can shape it into something beautiful. Revision is the potters wheel, spinning and spinning until the prose sings a song that brings tears to our eyes.” ~read more


From Andrew Penn-Romine:

Capturing the Essence: Gesture Drawing for Writers:“I started carrying around a small notebook in pocket at all times, prepared to sketch any interesting people who came my way. I quickly found that my notebook became more of an idea book, however, with rough sketches replaced by descriptive phrases and bits of doggerel.” ~read more


Failure: You’re Doing it Right: “Failure is part of the process, so it’s helpful to openly acknowledge it as such and move on from any sense of shame you might feel. The more you think of it as normal, the less it can bug you.” ~read more


From Carrie Ratajski (aka Geardrops):

First person POV and Developing other Characters: “So this round, I’m sitting down with each character and thinking through their story in this story. How did they get here exactly. What do they want. How do their wants change as the story goes on. What are they doing while they’re offscreen.” ~read more


Listmaking and Letting Go: “My two lists are “Things I Want That Are Wholly Within My Control” and “Things I Want That Are Not Wholly Within My Control.” (Well actually they’re “career goal things” and “career squee things” but you don’t need to know the sordid details of my doc filing system.)” ~read more


From Christie Yant:

Getting Unstuck: “What [Steven] Brust’s lecture did was provide me with tools to help me write cool shit that matters when I’m stuck. Because if it’s not cool, I frankly don’t want to write it.” ~read more


Writing What’s Real: “I remember the first time I put something real in a story. It was the smell of my ex-boyfriend’s leather jacket, the way it smelled at 2:00 a.m. on a park bench in a seaside college town as we watched a Jerusalem cricket slowly amble by in the sodium glow of the streetlight.” ~read more


From Erika Holt:

Getting Started: The Hardest Part: “Overcoming inertia seems impossible at times. This is particularly true when I’ve taken a long break or have only been able to write sporadically. That elusive thing called “flow” is absent and I feel I’ll never get it back.” ~read more


Breaking out of a Stylistic Rut: “…the early days can also be a time of heady experimentation. A literary story written in first person, present-tense might be followed by a high fantasy story in distant third person. We write flash pieces, and novellas, and portions of novels. We’re not yet constrained by our style, because we don’t have one. Once we move beyond this stage, into what might be considered a “style” of our own, other problems can arise.” ~read more


From Jaym Gates:

Decompression: “I wrote 4 novel drafts, over 50 short or flash stories, and a crap-ton of blog and forum posts. I added it all up at one point (minus forum posts and most blogs) and had over 300,000 words, about a year before that pace caught up with me. I burned out HARD.” ~read more


In Her Forehead Are the Blessings of Allah: “This post isn’t going to correct EVERYTHING Hollywood gets wrong, but that’s not what it is about. It’s more about examining the horse as a companion and cohort in heroics.” ~read more


From John Remy:

Abuse Your Muse: “So here’s my idea, which I wish someone had told me earlier in my writing career: We own our muses, not the other way around. They are not cats, or addictions, or sacrifice-demanding, dictating deities. Here are three ways you can abuse your muse:” ~read more


Making Nanaowrimo Work for You: “I participated in NaNoWriMo [years ago], and am wondering if I should subject myself to this painful experience again this year. Maybe others are contemplating similar questions.” ~read more


From Sandra Wickham:

Sometimes We Need a Kick in the Butt; “…check out Written Kitten I’ve used it to help get words down because it’s absolutely adorable. You can set the number of new words you need to produce before you get a new kitten, 100, 200, 500 or 1000. When you hit that number, surprise! A new, incredibly cute kitten picture appears. Who can resist that?” ~read more


Write-Brain Excuses; “On my shelves I have a great book called “The Write-Brain Workbook, 366 Exercises to Liberate Your Writing,” by Bonnie Neubauer. In this crazy writing life, one thing this is clear. Improving our writing requires practice, practice and more practice. I’ve mined some of my favorites for you. These can help you out of a writing slump, can serve as a warm up for your writing session or can spark ideas for larger works. However you use them, have fun!”~read more


From Wendy N. Wagner.

YES, BUT – NO, AND: “If you’re like me, a wonderful scene will just pop into your head while you’re doing dishes or going for a walk, and you become really excited about it. It’s only later, when you sit down to work through the scene that you realize this scene is so perfect and complete that you can’t figure out what could possibly come after it.” ~read more


Fire it up! A writing exercise: “Find an object to study. Maybe it’s a painting. Maybe it’s a jar of hand cream. Anything will do, as long as it’s close at hand. Make sure you have no distractions. Turn off the phone and feed the cats. Let yourself relax.” ~read more


There you go. A healthy serving of advice, a dash of commiserating,  a few exercises, some horses, a few kitties, and an ex-boyfriend’s leather jacket. Now, go forth and create something!


*For those of you interested in artistic NaNaWriMo alternatives, check out my post on that subject for the Functional Nerds.

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Summer Sabbatical

Image courtesy Steve (cc) Flickr

Image courtesy Steve (cc) Flickr

I know what you’re thinking. It’s mid-October, so why I am I talking about summer? Well, here in Los Angeles, the last of the summer heat has just broken, and proper fall is just now beginning. Everything is pumpkin-spiced and crisp, and the 60-degree overnight lows keep us indoors–so what better time to reflect on the last few months?

At the start of the summer, I outlined a plan to turn my full-time-writer summer into a very productive period. Did it work? For the most part, yes. I think we always wish for more hours in the day and more creative output at the end of it. There are projects I didn’t quite finish and others that didn’t turn out quite as planned.

I finished my novel draft. Another pass awaits. I worked on more short stories (though not the ones I’d planned to work on!). I wrote some comic scripts and TV ideas. I drew more. I tried different schedules to divide up my day. I got more exercise. I raised my keyboard and stood at my desk while I worked.

These were all radical departures from my usual process of writing in the morning and working during the day. Of course, it can be terrifying to untether yourself from routine, from the safety and comfort of ritual. Some creatives work best when they focus on only one project at a time. Others when time and other factors are rigidly structured.

But (mostly) on the other side of my Summer Sabbatical, I’ve discovered the time to play in other forms, to (re)create myself in other ways, has been a wonderful experience. I’ve gained some confidence as a writer and creative, and it’s also been a lot of fun!

This luxury of time came with a hefty price tag — long periods of unemployment aren’t exactly ideal — but there are some ways you might take a sabbatical from your routine, even when you can’t make big changes.


image courtesy Joy Kirr (cc), Flickr

 1. Change the Time of Day You Create. If you can, try writing in the morning (if you usually write in the evening) and vice versa. Work at both times if you don’t already. Work on the same project, or use the other time slot for a different sort of project. The experimental one.

image courtesy Horia Varlan (cc)

image courtesy Horia Varlan (cc), Flickr

2. Experiment. As writers, we’re probably doing this already — playing with form and POVs and structure, etc. Try going way outside your comfort zone. Work on comic scripts. Draw comics. Write poetry, or mysteries, or flash fiction. Write some erotica. Draw some erotica!

image Helgi Halldórsson/Freddi (cc) Flickr

image Helgi Halldórsson/Freddi (cc) Flickr

 3. Accept That It’s Okay When Something Isn’t Working. I’m a big believer in finishing things. But personally speaking, if I’ve been grinding on a project too hard, it’s better to take a break and step away before I burn out. This applies to changes in routine, too. If writing in the morning just doesn’t work for you, then go back to your evening schedule. If you discover you still hate writing screenplays, then find another alternative to your fiction routine. This Sabbatical is about finding the things you love. And if you discover at the end of it that what you really love is writing fiction (or drawing comics, or painting portraits, or developing TV pilots) — then at least you’ve explored your artistic options.

And that’s always a great thing.

So. We’re coming up on the holidays (faster every year, I’ve noticed). Our routines are going to be squashed and stretched by the demands of parties and the obligations of fun and general chaos of celebrations. So while things are a little topsy-turvy, maybe it’s a good time to try something new?
Let me know what you think.

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