blairmacg: (FeatherFlow)

Common talk (and just about every critique group and workshop) says a writer should never use a prologue because prologues are so often written poorly. But… first chapters are often written poorly, too, as are fight scenes, descriptions, character backstory, depictions of horses, near-future science, and final chapters. But we do not advise writers to avoid writing them. We instead advise them to learn how to write them well.

So it should be with prologues. After all, not knowing how to write compelling prologues results in lots of bad prologues, which reinforces the mistaken notion that prologues are inherently terrible.

I’m no widely acclaimed or best selling author. I’m just a workaday gal who has to spend more time than others figuring out what works and what doesn’t, and why. So take my assessments with all the salt you wish.

Personally, I suggest smoked paprika instead. Or tarragon. Or fresh basil and black tea with a nice smoky whiskey…


Go ahead and add salt if you’d like.


So… Why write a prologue?

Let’s get the backstory question out of the way right now because, while prologues certainly don’t need to contain backstory, so many of them do.

If I put a heading of, “Indianapolis, 2015” above my novel’s first chapter, I have just supplied you with a massive amount of historical, social, and cultural backstory. The same thing happens if the heading is “Rome, 64 CE.” The reader might need a bit more information if the chapter heading is, “Qusqu, 1532,” but a couple sentences will settle the reader in space and time.

But stories set in secondary worlds lack the support of (usually) common historical knowledge. Thus there are many, many methods taught to writers who face the task of super-secretly teaching the reader about the new world’s unknown history that’ll drive the story forward.

Characters sit down to eat and/or have a drink, which seems to naturally trigger a very specific and story-relevant conversation about historical events or mythology. Or characters just happen to be researching something in the library, underground archives, university records hall, or some such, and must have a detailed conversation about the purpose and/or stakes of the search. Or an authority figure happens to deliver a lecture to a class, to wayward (chosen) children, or an especially gifted person who now Must Be Told the Truth. Or the characters happen to take a stroll through an historical site, or attend an ostensibly boring yet info-laden meeting, or discover a hidden packet of revelatory artifacts while, coincidentally, in the company of someone who knows absolutely nothing, thus giving the knowledgeable character reason to expound at length… You get the idea.

I came across one of those during a recent read, in fact. It’s a great story by a respected writer that came highly recommended… and the “Backstory Supper” is plopped right in the middle of an early chapter. It comes complete with Educated Person telling New Person With Obvious Purpose everything the reader needs to know to make sense of the world. I sighed and skimmed it with more exasperation than I would have a mediocre prologue , truly.

Y’see, all those backstory insertion strategies can be just as clunky as poorly written prologues. They’re a common source of “the later parts of the story dragged” critiques and reviews, and yet, for some reason, they’re considered far more worthy of a learning investment than prologues.

In addition to the super-secret nudge-wink methods of giving a reader blocks of backstory beneath the obvious, yet agreed upon as proper, veneer of action or conversation, there is the craft of disclosing backstory one small phrase or inference at a time. The reader’s experience becomes one of constant and subtle mental readjustments over the course of the story, because every backstory disclosure alters the character’s relationship to and with the world and plot.

I do love that as a reader. I love that type of story. But not every story needs to be, nor should be, the trickle-backstory-reveal tale. And not every piece of backstory is made for trickling.

So yes, a prologue can be an important tool for relaying large-scale backstory, especially the kind of backstory that would instead end up in one or more contrived scenes of thinly-disguised information delivery. It’s a means of introducing meta-events that will influence, drive, control, and overshadow the entire story with the same depth and power as, perhaps, a chapter heading of, “Paris, 1942.”

But discussing prologues solely in terms of establishing a story’s scope does them, and those who might write them, a great disservice. That way lies encyclopedic entries masquerading as story. The standard advice of, “Just make it compelling!” isn’t all that helpful because it prematurely leaves behind the question of purpose in favor of method, and assuming prologues exist for the sole purpose of relaying backstory is utterly disastrous.


Years and years ago, I was fortunate enough to act in a production of Jean Anouilh’s Antigone. It’s an incredibly awesome play about power, choice, justifications, and consequences, and it was the most challenging role I ever had the good fortune to take on.

But the role I found most awesome wasn’t mine. It was Chorus.

Chorus comes on stage to deliver the play’s first lines, and proceeds to talk to the audience for well over a thousand words. Chorus doesn’t interact with other characters here. They just tell the audience about them—who they are to each other, how they came to be here, and what their fates will be. It is brilliant and breathless storytelling, my darlings, not because of the telling and the backstory, and certainly not in spite of it. Chorus alone holds the audience for nearly ten minutes with the power of their tone. Their voice. Their attitude.

The audience could watch the entire play and not miss a smidgeon of the plot—not even the backstory, really—without the Chorus expending so much time and energy telling it. Anouilh’s dialogue within the play, at one point or another, touches on nearly everything Chorus mentions. But the audience’s experience of the story, emotionally and intellectually, is rendered completely different by the attitude rather than the facts. The audience rides the ensuing tragedy the way Anouilh wants them to, at the speed he sets, at the level of dread he desires, and with the knowledge the characters themselves are denied. The audience has been let in on secrets only retrospection can provide.

In short, Chorus delivers a beautifully successful prologue.


So let’s break it down a little bit.

The first line Chorus speaks is, “Well, here we are.” In those four words, Chorus establishes we’re all in this together. That might not seem like a big deal unless and until you understand the play ruthlessly examines resistance and collaboration under an authoritative government. That “we” is a harsh invitation to examine one’s complicity.

Throughout Chorus’s opening monologue, they treat the audience as an insider, as someone who understands, as someone who will appreciate not only the information, but the bits of snark that go along with it. Chorus shows up again later in the play to expound on the comforting blamelessness of tragedy, to ask why dirty work must be done at all, to close the play with a short speech that brings us right back to the beginning with, “And there we are.”

The writerly equivalent to Chorus would be an omniscient viewpoint—an outsider’s voice who knows everything the characters have yet to learn—and it’s underscored by closing the circle with similar phrasings and audience-chat at beginning and end.

But the same critical pieces—voice, focus, and stakes—will ride as equal purposes with successful prologues of any viewpoint.

Voice sets the tone for the reader’s experience, and this matters regardless of viewpoint. Prologues cue the reader to expect a little extra information, so a viewpoint that’s a tad more inclusive, a tad more open to sharing details privy only to the viewpoint character, will be more successful than a viewpoint that might be a tad more miserly with its revelations. It’s the difference between eavesdropping on a conversation and having the asides whispered to you. Prologues are the latter.

Focus gives the reader subtle cues as to what will be important in the pages ahead. For an example that’s likely more well-known than Antigone, consider Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The first four lines tell us this is not a love story, no matter how much we might want to make it into one. It’s a story about the breakdown of community and family and civility, and the consequences of hate. After that prologue, we know there will be bloodshed even as Nurse lovingly teases Juliet, even as the Friar tries to manipulate a bloodless solution, even as Romeo awakes in their wedding bed. The prologue doesn’t spoil the story. It changes the way we experience it.

Above all, a successful prologue establishes stakes that are often barely understood by, or completely/mostly/partially unknown to, the story’s primary characters. These are the threats others don’t yet realize is breathing down their necks, the events that turn seemingly-rational decisions into noose-tighteners. These are the deaths Chorus tells us will happen because “When your name is Antigone, there is only one part you can play.”

Few prologues are so straight-forward as that, but they do lay out hints and inferences aplenty. There’s a reason A Game of Thrones begins with its deadly prologue. There’s a reason Shakespeare wanted to set out parameters at the beginning of Romeo and Juliet. There’s a reason Shakespeare opted to implore the audience to provide “imaginary puissance” at the start of Henry V, and I’d say only about half that choice came from struggling with the limitations of the performance medium. (After all, the play’s “Chapter One” opens with a MASSIVE explanation of Salic law.)

Any of these stories without their prologues would be vastly different experiences. Better or worse? That’s for the reader to decide, my darlings. Some readers love the frame; some consider it an arrogant intrusion. Some readers enjoy the multiple purpose a prologue can serve; others resent it. And in the end, it’s up to the individual reader. Not the non-existent collective.


Will any of these pieces guarantee a perfect and reader-grabbing prologue? Be not silly, of course not. They’re simply the guidelines I’ve tried to follow as I write my own prologues. (You can check the Look Inside feature here to assess if I was successful or not.)

But thousands of additional words could be written about successful prologues that do few or none of these things well or at all, but do other things with amazing triumph. And even if you create the most masterful prologue, some will say you suck. Some will say you’ve resorted to a storytelling crutch that no proper writer would deign to snort at in public.

Some will say, “Cool, there’s a prologue!”

But most readers don’t have a passionate stance on prologues. They want a good story, and prologues are simply another tool intended to tell a different kind of tale. Like every other tool, it should be used with deliberation and purpose, not because it was the first thing that came to mind.


blairmacg: (FeatherFlow)

The cool folks at Beyond the Trope invited me to chat about writing fight scenes.  Today, the podcast went live.  You can listen to it here.

Usually when I record stuff, I’m working from a script or, at the very least, a PowerPoint presentation.  Usually when I’m answering questions and such, I’m doing so in front of a group, in person, where expressions and body language make up so much of the communication.  Recording a podcast based on questions asked by folks I couldn’t see was absolutely nerve-wracking!

You’ll hear those nerves in the opening ten minutes or so.  Fortunately, Michelle, Giles, and Emily were great chatting companions, and I had a great time once I relaxed.

So take a listen and tell me what you think!  I hope you’ll find something in there useful to you.

blairmacg: (FeatherFlow)
This article originally appeared for patrons only at Patreon.  Because they’re wonderful patrons, they support making the articles on self-defense and fight scenes available to everyone within a month of the original posting.  So if you like it, thank the patrons, or consider becoming one yourself!

Before I hit the tactics, I want to share this most marvelous video by Karate Culture on the grappling techniques within traditional Okinawan kata.  If you’ve read my articles for awhile, you’ll know I’m not a fan of teaching throws as a universal self-defense technique because their application is limited mostly to people who are quite able-bodied, well-trained, and being targeted by a single attacker.  That doesn’t mean I don’t like, train, teach, and use grappling!  Just check out the awesomeness of that video.  You won’t regret it.

And now…

1. Applying good craft to writing fight scenes is 95% of the battle.

Grammar is about writing well and properly—a necessary skill if we want readers to sink into our stories rather than decipher odd and misleading sentence constructions.

But storytelling?  That’s the craft I’m talking about.

You understand how to structure a scene, describe a new setting, and define a character’s role in the secondary world you’ve created.  You know how to portray a character’s stroll through the prison yard or verbal argument in the mess hall.  You’ve shown the joy they feel partaking in gardening, the intrigue of hunting for secrets in a library, the fear of creeping through a forest on a moonless night, the simple process of walking from personal lodgings to, say, the riverfront.

You successfully write action as part of building plot and character.

Fight scenes are no different.  Really, truly, my darlings, they are no different.

The fight scene isn’t something separate from the story itself, no more than describing setting or revealing backstory or creating the dialog of an argument is a break from forward action.  Apply the same tools of craft you use everywhere else.

2. Communicating combat principles is more important than relaying combat details.

I’m certain someone will ping me for saying so, but it’s true.

The make and model and emissions output and towing capability and average heat generation and speaker alignment are the most important elements of a car chase, right?  Or maybe it’s the composition of the road’s asphalt, angles of the corners, temperature of the tires, and the history of road construction that readers most want to know about while the bad guy speeds away, yes?

Oh, please, no.  While all those things will impact a car chase, rare is the reader who wants to have all those elements related in detail in the midst of a car chase as if they must soon solve a word problem based on the available listed data.

Do you want me to tell you how the materials of the tires interact with the hot pavement on that Texas road?  Or do you want me to describe how the stink of burned rubber and smoke made me grit my teeth and squint as I chased after the murderer who knew the Texas backroads better than I ever would?

Don’t get mired in step-by-step instructionals on body positions and fist trajectory. Use instead the principles of fighting.  Speed, mass, leverage, and momentum.  Pain, focus, struggle, and fear.  Expectation and surprise.  Determination and exhaustion.  Landing the punch is damned important, but the consequence of the punch and the reason it was thrown is what moves character and story forward.

Besides, a reader shouldn’t need to pull out a slew of action figures to envision what’s actually happening.  (On the other hand, you might need those action figures, depending on the complexity of the fight.  I’m not ashamed to say I’ve staged stuffed animals on my office floor to keep track of things.  A little sheepish, maybe, but not ashamed.)

3. Do not mistake sport fighting and performance fighting for actual fighting.

The past few decades have seen an incredible rise in tournament martial arts, particularly for children.  As a result, a great many martial arts schools teach primarily techniques with an emphasis on strikes and kicks that will score points, and discourage, through penalties and punishments, techniques intended to end a fight quickly by seriously injuring your opponent.

These rules are appropriate for the setting.  Few parents want to see their middle school child get her throat smashed in and her knee dislocated.  But the rules have consequences when the distinction between sport-centered training and fight-centered training is smudged over student-teacher generations.  In a high-pressure hurt-or-be-hurt confrontation, those students won’t go for the fight-ending attacks unless they have been trained to fight in non-tournament settings.

There is also an entire tournament track for martial arts weapons performance, some of which involve setting routines to music.  There are staffs and swords twirled and tossed, or nunchaku whirled in tight circles around the body, and there are often jump-kicks and back-flips thrown in for flash and dash.  These have as much to do with the act of fighting as rifle drill teams do with shooting, or majorettes do with stick-fighting.

Yes, they all take skill and have roots in combat training, but no soldier is going to start twirling and tossing his gun in the middle of a fight.  And critical and high-stakes fight scenes shouldn’t read like a retelling of a tournament.

When characters fight to prove ability or dominance, sparring techniques and targets are appropriate, just as it’s considered appropriate to punch a person playing grab-ass without consent but not considered appropriate to carve remove the person’s windpipe.

But a trained fighter trying to avoid being killed won’t expend a bunch of time tagging the villain’s jaw and punching to the gut.  Knuckles to the throat work much more quickly.  Fight scenes shouldn’t be one-blow affairs, but a person fighting for life itself is highly motivated to keep trying to make it so.

Indiana Jones opted out of using his whip to defeat the sword-spinning man in the marketplace.  And Han shot first.  Smart characters.

4.  The most interesting fights focus on revealing weaknesses, not forcing greater strength.

I never much liked watching sport fighting.  It all looked like little more than two people bashing on each other until one just couldn’t take it anymore.  Then I learned what went into a fight—angles, footwork, targeting, drills done so often the body moved without hesitation, experience that turned those base reactions into flowing responses—and realized brute strength was the lesser power in comparison.

Such it is with writing the fight scene.

We like to watch the protagonist find the strength—of body, of will, of heart—to drag herself to her feet one… last… time… to take down the villain with a final, all-encompassing blow.  We cheer the grit, the perseverance, the determination, the spirit of well-earned triumph.  The final battle!  The climax!  The victory over self and enemy!

But the truth is, the protagonist wins because she also finds, attacks, and exploits the villain’s weakness—just as the villain has done to her all along.  Rather than expend all your writerly energy building up the protagonist to impossible levels of power and strength, invest it knowing too the villain’s weaknesses.

What the characters choose to do with each others’ weaknesses usually creates greater depth than forging a bigger, badder weapon.

A battle of power against power requires constant escalation, and that stops being interesting after awhile.  Searching out and evaluating weaknesses is a twisty, curvy process of surprises and unpredictability.  It happens quickly in hand-to-hand combat, to be sure, but it happens nonetheless.

(This is applicable to plots, too, btw.)

5.  Know the expectations of your target audience.

This is where all the possible nuances of advice items #2 and #3 come into play.

Readers of different subgenres hold unique expectations of how worldbuilding or technology or character emotions should be presented, explored, and emphasized.  The same goes for rendering fights and action.  It isn’t a matter of one subgenre wanting more or less of a fight than another. Rather, readers expect different aspects of a fight to play greater or lesser roles in the narrative.

A paranormal romance reader wants a fight scene that is just as well written as a military SF reader does, but wants different pieces of that fight to receive more attention.

The differences expose why one reader bounces off a flashy, drawn-out fight scene that other readers rave about, or finds depth and realism in a fight scene that seems to have little physical description amidst a great deal of emotional reactions.  And that understanding circles back up to the first point: fight scenes require the same considerations of craft as any other part of the writing process.  Know what your readers expect from your action scenes, and construct them accordingly.

Questions?  Comments?  Disagreements?  All are welcome!

blairmacg: (FeatherFlow)

Just a few days ago, I had the pleasure of spending an evening with Cat Rambo, marvelous writer and president of SFWA (who also has a Patreon you can find here).

She is an absolute delight!  The kind of writer who knows her craft and her business, and is excited about sharing her knowledge and connections with others.  The sort of person who is genuinely interested in others, and damned interesting in her own right.  Our time together, chatting about everything from family dynamics to SFWA projects, was immensely enjoyable.

I drove home from our meeting buoyed both by her encouragement and her expressions of creativity.  And I’m looking forward to jumping back into SFWA matters the moment I complete Breath of Stone.

(And really, I so need to be jumping back in. Everything got sidetracked right before the holidays, and must needs be sorted out by spring.)

But nothing is being done before I complete Breath of Stone, darlings. Nothing.  (Erm, expect a way, way overdue beta-read for a friend...) I’m down to one new chapter that needs composing and a couple that need some extensive revisions.  Then it goes out to beta readers who have been so damned patient and supportive, I feel unworthy.  Hopefully, those betas will enjoy the novel more than they feel the need to rip it apart.  Once I hear their feedback, I’ll have a good idea on the upcoming release date.

The last year has made a few things abundantly clear: I cannot write a massive novel in the same twelve months I must shepherd my homeschooled son through the last year of high school, train a replacement to take over one business, move cross-country, and set the foundation to launch a new business in a new location.  I don’t believe I’ll be willingly taking on that level of insanity again!

A few additional quick notes:

–A new Patreon article will go up next week!  In this one, we’ll look at the key principles that’ll strengthen any fight scene, regardless of how simple or complex you want it to be.  And the Patreon is only $35 away from adding author/fighter interviews and fight scene breakdowns as regular, monthly features, and about $115 away from adding a monthly video.  (Yes, a video.  I’m insane.)

–Remember that podcast on fight scenes I recorded for Beyond the Trope?  It’ll be available for listening in a little more than two weeks!  I’m hoping it sounds half as good as it was fun to record.  As soon as I have the link, I’ll send it out to y’all.  Okay, as soon as I have the link, and have listened to it myself, and have decided I don’t sound like an idiot…  then I’ll let you know. :)

–I am registered for 4th Street Fantasy!  I had a marvelous time last year, and can’t wait to not only connect with the cool folks I know through Viable Paradise and the awesome people I met last year, but to meet new people as well.

And now… back to the chapters!


blairmacg: (FeatherFlow)

This article originally appeared for patrons at Patreon. Due to its length, I’ve broken it into two parts.  Part One can be found here, and includes discussion of the chokes in general and defensive considerations of air chokes in particular.  This section discusses defense against blood chokes, and offense of both blood and air chokes.


Being choked from behind—when the attacker uses biceps and forearm as a vice on the sides of the neck for that blood choke—is a very different experience. It can be more of a “Hey, what are doing back there?” experience because the pain isn’t always as acute as the air choke. By the time you hit the, “Hey, I feel funny…” realization, you’re halfway to any set of techniques being useless because everything below the neck will soon stop listening to you.

Read more... )


This post is made possible through the generous support of patrons via Patreon–where all self-defense articles and fight scene breakdowns are posted for an exclusive period before being made available to the public.  If you’d like to see the articles sooner, be part of choosing article topics, or check out other benefits, consider becoming a patron!


blairmacg: (FeatherFlow)
This article originally appeared for patrons at Patreon. Due to its length, I’ve broken it into two parts.  Part One includes discussion of the chokes in general and defensive considerations of air chokes in particular.  Part Two discusses defense against blood chokes, and offense of both blood and air chokes.

Some time ago, I shared my frustration with a fight scene I saw on television. (Yeah, go figure, right?) The scene showed our hero valiantly fighting a bad guy with direct and aggressive blocks and strikes… until the bad buy got his hands around her throat. Then that supposedly well-trained and aggressive fighter seemed to lose all training and sense, and battled the person choking her by grabbing his wrists to attempt pulling his hands away.


Now, a situation like that—a trained fighter demonstrating sudden incompetence and/or panic—is totally possible if the fighter never received proper training for a suddenly-changed situation. And many martial arts schools don’t teach how to set or escape a choke, and some that do teach them do so poorly. But in the instance mentioned above, when the character’s extensive training had been established through backstory and on-screen action, the abrupt shift from good fighter to startled victim on the floor happened so another character could arrive to save the day.


That’s not bad fight-scene writing. That’s bad writing: a storyline that sacrificed being true to the character for the sake of a forced plot point.


Being choked is a frightening thing. Really frightening. It’s the training experience most likely to put my adult students on edge, and I plan accordingly by including time to establish comfort and trust. But even when folks have trained together for awhile, permitting someone to apply pressure to the neck kicks off all sorts of adrenaline-fueled aversions. I’ve had students on the verge of tears, students pace the mat to calm down, break into nervous laughter, or close their eyes and take deep breaths as a trusted peer sets hands at their throat or tightens an arm around their neck. Chokes set off all our THIS IS NOT RIGHT STOP I MUST FIGHT RUN MAKE IT GO AWAY triggers.

And with good reason. Some well-set chokes can incapacitate a person in seconds. Some can cause a lasting and/or fatal injury in even less time, even though death itself might take unconsciousness and death take longer to occur. There isn’t much time to escape, and the stakes are high if you don’t.

There is no tap-out in real life.

Read more... )
blairmacg: (FeatherFlow)
The marvelous Tam MacNeil (Go check out her books! She’s awesome!) brought up on Twitter the advantages of freelancing—namely, making your own schedule to make best use of one’s most creative hours. (She brought up the downsides, too, but let’s not speak of those right now…)

(My, I’m feeling parenthetical today.)

My own most creative hours have almost always been in the evenings. Truly, I blame twenty years of theater for training my brain from childhood to work in the make-believe world of rehearsals and performances more nights than not. Heck, when I started writing in earnest, I even kept a notebook backstage so I could write between stage-time.

After theater came karate.  When I started training, then teaching, karate way back when, it cut into my writing time a few times a week, but I adapted. When my teaching went fulltime… Ouch. I mean, I adapted somewhat by using afternoon hours, but it always felt as if I was really rolling just about the time I had to stop writing to put on a gi and head out to the dojo.

Writing after teaching wasn’t very productive. Really, teaching well and with energy is a creative process in itself, and I don’t deny there’s performance art involved in keeping the attention of dozens of students over the course of the evening. Four hours on the mat, teaching the way I do, didn’t always leave much energy for writing.

So now I’ve been in Colorado about five months, not teaching at all. This is so weird and disturbing to my internal clock and creative brain. Between five and six o’clock, I start fidgeting, pacing, cleaning the kitchen, running kata while I wait for clothes to come out of the dryer, thinking I might want to paint all the walls and install a drop ceiling in the basement… You get the idea.

Just as theater trained me to be creative during certain hours (and to preferring late nights over early mornings), teaching karate taught my body to spend the evening in physical action.

These two trained behaviors are now in conflict, you see. I cannot write well while punching a heavy bag. Alas.

Of course, the brain can be retrained, and it’ll take time. I’m still holding out hope I can find a place to train in the next couple months, but that’ll be only two or three nights a week. The other nights will require work. My current workaround is to leave the house around “teaching time” a couple nights a week, giving in to my body’s need to go somewhere for work, and spend time in the local coffee shop or pub. Doing this ups my productivity immensely, but costs money. The coffee shop gift cards I received for my birthday do help. Alas, I have no pub gift card, so must keep that an occasional treat. :)

(No, the library is not an option. It’s a traffic-filled drive to find a branch open past 6pm.)

So that’s what I’m able to do: trick my body into believing we’re leaving for work so the brain will hit the proper writerly space. I’m rather curious what it would take to change forty years of “nights are for creativity” habits, but not so curious as to struggle to write in the early morning… unless that becomes the sole option at some future date.

(Sends out please-no-not-that vibes.)

I blame theater in general, and working with Shakespeare’s works in particular, for many things in my writing—the black box, the starting place of dialog, the focus on character, my penchant for tragic death, and my love for the wise and noble fool. Now I blame it for when my writerly brain is most willing to cooperate with me.

Still doesn’t make me want to perform or direct again.

Unless, maybe, someone needs a Volumnia.


blairmacg: (belt)

(The following article originally appeared as content for Patreon backers on November 21, 2015.)
This is an odd article to write, and not at all what I expected to be writing.  After all, I've a fight scene break-down in the works, a post on chokeholds in the wings, and an interview set for after the first of the year.

But right now...  Well.

On the morning of November 21, I sent messages of encouragement and excitement to a past student of mine preparing to test for her Sandan rank (3rd degree black belt), and exchanged cheerful notes with my own teacher, Shihan, of more than a dozen years, who'd be overseeing the test.

Then all my karate contacts on all social media platforms went quiet for a few hours, as one would expect during a long and demanding test.  But what followed was not the  outpouring of celebratory pictures and comments tempered with tales of hardship.

Instead, I found a smattering of brief comments, then a bunch of longer ones, expressing loss and grief.

Shihan's sensei of four decades had died unexpectedly, and Shihan had found out ten minutes before bowing onto the mat to evaluate the efforts of almost three dozen students prepared to prove themselves worthy of the black belt.  He made the announcement to students and observers, dedicated the day to Hanshi, and began the test.

Had it been Shihan who'd passed away, he would have wanted the same thing.  And you know what?  So would I.

This is not an article about my loss and grief.  Truly, I met Hanshi only a scant handful of times so my sense of loss is removed, more of an empathetic reaction for those who were close to him.  This writing is instead about continuity and legacy, understanding how those things contribute to the formation of a fighter's mindset, and how a fully realized mindset creates an authentic fighting character.


The style in which I've trained for fourteen years is indeed a family style, founded in 2001 with Hanshi's encouragement and approval.  The founding couple have four sons, all of whom run at least one dojo. Three of the daughters-in-law also teach.  Six of the nine grandchildren hold a junior black belt; two are still far too young.  The eldest grandchild, who became one of my own first students way back when, earned his adult black belt at the last test I observed before moving to Colorado this year.

When the family gets together, a large chunk of time is spent adjusting details of form, sharing discoveries made through studying historic materials and diverse styles, discussing stories of martial artists who'd influenced them, and making modifications to teaching methods that improve student learning and achievement.  There are in-depth discussions and physical demonstrations on a million other details that would eventually be handed down to thousands of students.

Ten skilled martial artists with collective experience exceeding 250 years...  Believe me—when I was fortunate to be present at those gatherings, I knew enough to understand how much I'd learn, as a martial artist and a writer, by silently absorbing every single moment.

As you might imagine, such a tight group of primary instructors results in an amazingly high level of training consistency throughout the style.  The angle of punches in Pinan Shodan is precisely the same for every student at every dojo.  Every dojo teaches the same methods of utilizing body mechanics over brute strength.  All students learn the same wrist control to deliver nunchaku blows.

That level of scrutiny is essential to preserving the best of martial arts study and evolution, and to ensuring every student is held to the highest standard.  Truly, it's pretty simple to make a student smack the top of their foot against their opponent's head.  It takes a trained and focused teacher to teach a student how the angle of the stabilizing knee will affect the kicking leg's targeting and control, how the turn of the hip should be engaged, what the tension (or lack of) in the upper body will produce, where the hands and elbows should be during the kick, and what the body should prepare to do next.  Establishing and demanding that level of exceptional consistency and results is also essential to the continuation of smaller family styles.

But after sitting on black belt review boards dozens of times over the last decade or so, after watching hundreds of students from all the dojos test side-by-side, I can usually surmise each student's primary instructor after watching a single kata or a handful of self-defense techniques.  The differences lie not in technique, but in style and bearing.

The rhythm of a fight.  Whether the student most often breaks right or left.  If the student strikes or throws first under pressure.  It's in the way deference is given to instructors, how confidence is shown in a fight or in answering questions, and how community support is expressed even in the midst of harsh competition.

And we discuss and reinforce the behavior we most want to see in our fighters, because we understand the strongest fighters have the potential to be the most resilient leaders.

So our students are the ones who lend their weapons to fellow tournament competitors who forgot theirs.  They're the ones who'd give up their own class time to help a struggling classmate earn the next level of kata, spar with students half their size in order to teach and encourage, hug a classmate who was crying over the death of a pet, or pull me aside for an awkward conversation of concern about a fellow student who was being teased at school.

And as we worked on strong a kiba dachi, or talked through the impact of weapons bans on karate's development, or compared the way to throw a classmate to the way to throw a enemy, we talked of all those things.

Y'see, what we teach creates continuity.  How we teach creates legacy.  That's why instilling values in a fighter is a fundamental goal of any instructor or any style at any level, even if the teacher doesn't realize it.

In the writing world, influence matters.  Sure, there are the "masters" of our genre, who are widely or narrowly recognized as ones who impacted the field, whose works are foundational to understanding the evolution of a genre.

But then there are writers who influence us in more personal and, frankly, more important ways—the writers whose support and encouragement pushes us to strive for improvement, who demand we do our best, who teach us how to interact with fans and other writers, who believe we have the ephemeral gift of storytelling that will move readers as deeply as they themselves have been moved.

Influence matters in the fighting world as well.

Yes, there are the masters most students learn of early on—those who founded their particular style, or whose identities have become more legend than fact.  But, also as in writing, the most important influencers are the ones much closer to us in time.

The teacher who gives our first hard-earned nod of approval, who shows us how to deal with the pain of injuries, who teaches us how to interact within a rank-based society, who believes we can find inside us the grit and confidence to stand firm when faced with a terrifying fight.

To view the totality of fighting is to understand the interplay of continuity and legacy.

Just as surely as the body has been trained, so too has the person's character.  When we respond, how we respond, and why we respond is coached and modeled by those of higher rank and technical skill.

Students who are bullied and mocked throughout their training will come out the other side a wildly different fighter than one who is supported and cherished.  A person taught to treat their attained skill as a new responsibility will behave differently than one taught to treat it solely as a personal accomplishment.  New people are seen as potential community or presumed enemy.  Interruptions are potential or possibility. Creativity is enthusiasm or disrespect.

So despite the impression given by certain how-to books or zealous students of the All-Perfect Superpower Martial Arts Style, technique and ability demonstrated in a fight are secondary—in both real life fighters, and the fighters in fiction—to the person's character as a fighter.  And that character isn't formed by hours on the mat or studying old documents or watching (if they exist) grainy films of masters. It's trained into the fighter by present and present-day influencers who provide context, purpose, and connection.

In other words, believing technique makes a great fighter is like believing good grammar makes a great storyteller.


Chances are you're a reader.  As a reader, you'll have specific reactions to events or conversations because you're reminded of a story or character.  You'll have specific priorities when you pack for a trip, purchase furniture, consider lighting, allocate your resources, and a million other things.

You're a reader even when you're not reading.

And don't even get writers started on how writing permeates their lives!

It's no different for fighters.  And yet, writers tend to take on their fighting characters in compartmentalized ways.

Some of that comes from the great distance between what many writers know about fighters and fighting, and the level of fighting they want to include in their stories.*  Some is caused by the rabbit-like proliferation of "How To Write Fight Scenes" books, and the tons of articles that define a fighter's "mindset" as what the character does and doesn't think about in relation to a fight.

So writers end up creating characters who fight—and some who fight very, very well—but who aren't fighters if they're not fighting.

This is wrong.

There are all sorts of stereotypical "tells" used to attempt demonstrating a fighter's mindset: Always know the exits, never sit with the back to the door and/or always sit with your back to the wall, take cover after a loud noise...  While none of those things are inaccurate, they're collectively as deep as signaling your character is a "reader" by adding glasses, a ragged paperback, and a tendency to ignore one's surroundings.

That's just not good enough, my darlings.

"Mindset" isn't what comes and goes when violence is present or absent.  Mindset is what the fighter understands about where she fits in the world. Mindset is constant and ever-present.  Legacy and continuity—the way-back of knowing a fighting style's origins and evolution, the present-day influence of one's teachers—is what provides everything but technique.

And, no matter what those fight-scene books infer, technique is not mindset.

In Zeroboxer by Fonda Lee, you'll find a martial artist whose fight training seeps into every aspect of life.  The main character has been trained to be aware of every detail of his body and physical responses during a fight, and has been taught by example to be an example to others.  Lee extends that natural awareness into every scene.  She gives the reader an authentic fighter whose mindset is fully expressed and incorporated into the character's life.

In Gemini Cell by Myke Cole, you'll meet a highly trained military man who must endure impossible circumstances, and yet even his humor is that of a fighter determined to win.  There is one moment, when the character chooses reading material, that encompasses everything about the character's fighting mindset.  His choice not only sticks it to his primary opponent, but connects him with his past and underscores the balance of his strength.  It is a fabulous moment of deft craft that you'll recognize the moment you read it.

So if you're writing about people who fight—who have supposedly trained to injure, maim, and kill others—you'd best understand and determine how training and perspective will affect every single other incident, interaction, reaction, and decision.

The driving priority might be kill the enemy or it might be defend the weak.  The ability to harm another human being might be taught in the context of attaining power or preventing harm.  Personal achievement is a reason to expect the deference of others, or an opportunity to share something new.  The world is presented as filled with dangerous people in need of constant vigilance, or a mostly peaceful place with occasional eruptions of violence.

Or all those principles, abilities, achievements and assumptions might be presented as opportunities to find the balance between what you expect from yourself and what you expect to teach others.

In light of all that, you'll understand why "sits with the back to the wall" is an incredibly simplistic storytelling tool.


On November 21, Shihan made a decision to once more train the character of his highest ranking students, and members of his own family, who'd come to demand excellence, endurance, and determination from those who sought to be honored with a black belt.  In doing so, he offered everyone present an opportunity to learn and understand a way to deal with personal loss when others are depending upon you.

Certainly many of the younger students and newer families would understand the outward reason, the stated reason, for dedicating their test to Hanshi's memory.  And they wouldn't be wrong to accept honoring his memory as the reason to move forward with the testing of all their skill and might.  That is indeed what fighters are expected to do for those who have passed on.

But the older students, the ones who'd been around long enough to understand the cultural priorities of our style and dojo, knew the reasons tucked beneath the surface and understood the day's black belt test was a reinforcement of the purpose that connects past with future.  They understood that continuing with the test despite their own shock, hurt, and wonderings of why was only in part about honoring the dead.

It was also about the students and families who'd worked hard, planned for the event, and were ready to prove themselves part of an unfolding lineage built on martial excellence and inclusive humanity.

Because we don't fight for the past, and we fight just as much as we must for the present.  What we truly train for, what we believe is worth risk and sacrifice, is the fight for the future.

And that mindset matters far more to a fighter's choices than how well they can throw a punch.

blairmacg: (Default)

My Darlings Most Patient and Understanding,

I awoke one morning last week with a solution to the writing logjam I've been hammering at for a couple, three weeks now.  So I spent some hours playing with it--sketching dialog (that's always my Step One), writing bridges, checking timelines--and determined that, yes indeed, it would work.

And there was much rejoicing throughout the land!  Well, my home, at least.  It included nachos and bacon.

This solution includes five new chapters, and I'm excited to write each one.  After fleshing out the notes well enough that I can call future work on them "revisions" rather than "writing from outline," I printed out the whole thing.

I don't print unless and until I'm ready to call what I'm printing an actual draft.

So.  Official first draft achieved, clocking in at 117K.  We'll see what it is once all the changes and additions are made.

There's a wee bit of additional good news as well.  Book Three is almost 50% written already.  There will not not not not again be so many months between novels.

And... I have no title for Book Three (and Four, which is all planned out, too).  I need titles.  I cannot come up with anything that rhymes with bone and stone without hitting my giggle-factors.  (Silence of Cone!  Twilight of Phone!  Tone and Moan!)  And for consistency's sake, I'd like the second pair to have the same rhythm as the first pair.  More on that when I have ideas for bouncing.

I'm working on the fight analysis piece for Patreon, too.  It'll be from Myke Cole's Gemini Cell, a novel I recently read and love-love-loved for so many reasons.  Rather than talk about what does and doesn't work -- that depends too much of genre, subgenre, and targeted audience -- it will instead focus on pacing, word choice, pov submersion, and so forth.

Though the fight scene articles will be Patreon-only, I'll be posting the first one here as well so folks know what I mean when I refer to them. (By the by, I will never use a fight scene I think fails.  While it can be instructive, I'd rather remain positive.)

So there we go! Even with the holidays approached, I've managed to work through about a fourth of the revisions in the last week. I'm growing happier and happier with the process and the outcome. And truly, I'm thrilled that the solution to my banging-head-against-wall problem results in, essentially, an additional book.
blairmacg: (FeatherFlow)

I made the mistake of reading yet another pair of articles examining what it means to write a “REAL” Strong Female Character.

I should know better, truly.  Thousands upon thousands of words expended on the issue! Countless examples and counter-examples in an attempt to make it very clear! Comment after comment debating those words and examples!

And in the end, it’s about as helpful as debating what color the walls ought to be painted while the roof is leaking like a sieve.

I’m a busy woman, so I’m going to make this quite simple and brief:

It doesn’t matter if the sharp pointy thing a woman carries is a darning needle, a plow, a pen, a sword, a scalpel, or a brooch. It doesn’t matter if she wears skimpy black leather, frumpy jumpers, billowing gowns, maternity jeans, heavy armor, or a wimple. It doesn’t matter if she sleeps with everyone, concurrently or consecutively, or if she sleeps with no one at all. If she has kids or hates them. If she spends her time nurturing or demanding. If she talks to women or talks to men, or talks about women or talks about men.

It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter.

Here’s what does matter:

A strong character assesses the situation, accepts responsibility, makes decisions, takes on a leadership role, and initiates action. A strong society doesn’t blink when that character happens to be a woman.



blairmacg: (Default)
My darlings, there is indeed forward movement!

This week and next week are for major structural revisions.  We’re talking quite major here.  Were this an architectural project, I’d be doing something akin to replacing spiral staircases with glass elevators, and installing fireplaces in place of heating ducts.  Sure, it would be relatively simple were I just changing the artistic renderings.  But elevators and fireplaces require the installation or creation of all sorts of things that’ll be hidden behind panels and walls, and its the hidden things that make the obvious and visible function at it’s best.  That’s what has consumed my time.

Plot is easy.  Story is hard.

If I do it properly and well, if I take the time to do it right, maybe the reader won’t notice.  Maybe it’ll look effortless.  And I want it to seem that way.  I want the story to capture and resonate.  Yeah, I put in little connections and hints and call-backs, but I’d prefer they work without distracting the reader with their presence.

I don’t want to be a clever writer (which is good, because I am not clever).  I don’t want to be a writer-as-character in the story.  I want the story to be for the reader.

So.  The tentative schedule goes something like this:

Between now and next weekend, I need to retrofit the existing manuscript.  This includes stripping out a subplot that not only wandered into the hinterlands but tried to drag the main plot with it, replacing those chapters with what will actually work, and reordering some of the remaining pieces so they fit better into the structure.  I estimate it’ll take about 20K words of new material.

Then I really want to take another week to make one more pass before sending it along to beta readers.

Then I shall send it to my beta readers.  I suspect I’ll do a great deal of compulsive cleaning and packing around that time.

Then I fix All the Things.

Then I get a proofreading, and fix All the Other Things I screwed up while fixing All the Things the first time.

Then I format.

Then I send it out into the world!

Newsletter subscribers will get a release-date heads up–and access to a discounted price at Amazon*–before I make the general release announcement.  (How do you get the newsletter, you ask?  Why, you can sign up right here!)

And once it’s out there in the wild, I will again throw myself into packing and cleaning, which will likely distract me from the nail-biting wait to see the early reviews.

Thank you for your patience and encouragement, my darlings.  I promise the next one won’t take nearly so long to get to your hands.

Yes, I did say the next one. There will be more.  Hee.

*Why only Amazon?  Because when I make pricing changes, Amazon responds in a timely manner.  Other retailers and distributors take their long, long time.  Amazon’s response time is measured in hours, other measured in days and days.

blairmacg: (FeatherFlow)

uSince I’ve just gutted the middle of Stone because the plot was moving with all the grace of a square-wheeled locomotive chugging over the Rockies, you get a Sunday blog post so I can clear my head before I resume stitching the innards back together.*

So here it is: As I mentioned on Twitter, discussion forums for MMA and other fighting sports are a goldmine of writerly information.

There are bunches of little guides out there on how fantasy writers can realistically and vibrantly portray combat.  Information on everything from edged weapons and individual duels to archery and battle formations is fairly easy to find.  But not as much hoopla surrounds the aftermath of those fights—the small injuries, the crippling injuries, and the physical/emotional life-long consequences.  It’s simple to Google for “broken leg” and come up with a pile of guidance from modern medical sites.  But that’s only part of the story.

From a storytelling perspective, it’s a mere sliver of the story.

The fun part—the part that makes plot and character development real—is what happens after the injury is sustained.

Modern medical sites will give you extensive information on trauma, treatments, and expected outcomes.  But they are based on modern interventions coupled with assumed accessibility to food, water, shelter, cleanliness, temperature control, and rest.  In my stories, it isn’t unusual for some, most, or all of those things to be missing.  And that, my darlings, changes everything.

These days, most folks head to the doctor when they or their kids are injured.  Bumps on the head, twisted ankles, sprained wrists, possibly broken bones, blistering burns, busted noses—all prompt immediate doctor visits, extensive testing, and scheduled follow-ups with specialists.

But for a number of present-day fighters—especially those who love it but aren’t making a circuit/tournament career out of it— the doctor’s office isn’t the immediate stop.  Unless the pain from an injury is debilitating—and sometimes, not even that is enough—some fighters take a ton of convincing and failed self-care before they’ll show up in an emergency room or urgent care center.  I’ve gone days with a dislocated elbow and partially torn ligaments.  A friend ended up with stress fractures in both feet.  A training partner waited out the pain of a dislocated shoulder.  And I’ve seen folks finish belt tests with a blown-out knee, or a broken hand, or busted ribs, or a swollen-shut eye.

For a few, it’s a matter of ego, certainly.  But in my personal experience fighting and being around fighters for more than a decade, ego is secondary to expectation and experience.

Y’see, fighters expect to get hurt in a fight, they expect to hurt for awhile after the fight, and they’d really rather not be treated as fragile or stupid or both.  Experience tells them they can work through most hurts, and many of those hurts can be treated without professional medical intervention.

Why go to the doctor for bruised ribs?  Wrap ’em up, take it easy, deal with the pain, watch out for secondary infections, and move on.  They’ll be better in a couple months either way.  Why rush out to have a sprained wrist checked when you know the answer will be, “Rest it, ice it, elevate it, come see me in a week if it isn’t better?”  Yes, there will be times more serious injuries are missed.  But most fighters learn to tell the difference between something that hurts badly and something that’s badly hurt.

This is where those discussion forums come in.

Sure, I can look up all sorts of technical information on tissue damage done when a person is strangled, or the recovery prospects for a person with torn quads, or the lasting effects of a concussion, and all of that is useful to me. But understand those medical sources exist to provide information on how best to care for and heal an injury. That's not always the most pressing goal in the story, though. That's... not always what the writer wants, either.

It’s the discussion forums that’ll tell me the experience and consequences of those injuries when limited (or no) medical attention is gained, and what it feels like to keep training and fighting despite those injuries.  I learn how different people describe the sensation of being choked out, how the throat felt while eating and drinking over the next few days, how it felt and sounded to speak after the injury, and at what point those symptoms shifted from getting better to better see a doctor.

If you’re not a fighter, or have limited martial arts experience, you’ll also gain a glimpse into a different mindset.  Spend a little time, you’ll be able to tell the difference between the “indestructible” youths and the more wise and experienced by the way an injury is described.  Dig a bit more, you’ll read a few journeys undertaken by fantastic and powerful fighters who come to terms with injuries that forever change how—and sometimes if—they can continue doing what they love.

For some things, I can call on my personal experience: broken nose, torn tendons, dislocations, foot fractures, bruised ribs… even the experience of giving up a large part of my training due to ongoing physical challenges that can’t be mended.  The forums, though, expand knowledge and understanding, and give insight into injuries I’d rather not experience myself.  I’ve been choked to gray-out, but I don’t want to discover first-hand what it feels like to have my throat punched, thank you.  And I really don’t want to find out how long it takes for one’s ability to breathe and swallow without pain, or what my voice would sound like once scar tissue hardens.

But the knowledge is good for stories we want to stick in the mind and heart of a reader.

So.  There’s your writerly tip for the day.  I suppose I’ll now resume the revisions that simply shouldn’t be this difficult, yet are somehow even more difficult than difficult.  Alas, I’ve vented my frustration on as many characters as I can without killing them off.

I promise I won’t kill them all.

But no one is reaching the end without scars.

*Next time I mention squishing two very long novels into one long-ish novel under the assumption it’ll be easier, just smack me, mmkay?  I mean, it had to be done, and the story will be better for it, but there has been nothing “easy” about the squishing process.


blairmacg: (FeatherFlow)
My writing “process” has so differed from project to project, I can’t even relate to the die-hard pantser/plotter discussions anymore.  And really—when it comes down to it, a pantser is simply someone who plots in detailed prose, and a plotter is simply someone whose pantsing happens in a streamlined outline.

The writing process for Breath of Stone is, again, very different.  Tearing apart two novels, ripping out an entire plotline and set of characters, cramming everything that’s left back together into one volume, and making it all flow as if I’d always envisioned it that way…  And wow, holy shit, this is hard.

Outside of a couple chapter-here-and-there cases, I write my novels straight through.  Start to finish, I move between viewpoint characters, shift settings, and push forward the plot.  Everything is pointed toward That Scene – the one event/confrontation/exchange, usually near the end, that is the entire reason I’m writing the novel.*

But this time… I’m writing out of order.  Yes, yes, I know many writers do this as a matter of course.  I don’t.  So the fact I’m writing Breath of Stone one viewpoint at a time, start to finish, is a bizarre experience.  At first, I spent far too much time crosschecking while I wrote to make certain each chapter would fall into its perfect place, as if they were Tetris pieces falling from the sky faster and faster and faster…  It didn’t work for long.  Not even my Magic Index Cards could save me.

So now I’m writing chapters according to viewpoint as if I’m sorting puzzle pieces by color before attempting to assemble it.  No, wait, that’s not quite right.  It’s more like… carving brand news puzzle pieces to match the picture on the box, and I won’t know exactly how to make the pieces fit perfectly until…  well, until I try to make the pieces fit together.  Then it’ll be all about shaving an edge here, sharpening a corner there, and making sure I didn’t create a snore-fest sea of blue-sky pieces in the process.

And it should all fit within the single novel.

Aaaaaand that’s a goal.  Not a promise.  Hee.

And if you’d like to be among the first to know when advance copies will be available for review, sign up here!

blairmacg: (FeatherFlow)
Via a Twitter link, I came upon Infodump, Mary Sue, and Other Words That Authors Are Sick of Hearing. I'm a little bit in love with it, truly. Don't even attempt the comments unless you want to watch a rehash of the years-long debate of what Mary Sue actually means, and what every single commenter means when they use it. Trust me: if you weren't sick of hearing Mary Sue before reading the comments, you will be after. It's rather interesting, though, that of all the terms in the article, it's the Mary Sue that got most folks all a-chatter.

A brief Twitter conversation came up between some writers, including the comment that new writers are told not to use the omniscient viewpoint because editors don't want to see it. I do wonder how many lovely books have been lost over the years because of that.

If you haven't already, head over to Maggie's journal for The Uncomfortable Trail-Blazer. (There you'll also find a link to the interview she did with Publishers Weekly, which is, y'know, pretty darn cool.) Pay close attention to the section on the publishing reality of 100 good books for only 45 publishing slots: "At the end of the day, there were 1000 books worth publishing, and 45 got through the door. And there was nothing the remaining 955 authors could have done to better their chances. "Write a better book" is false advice, because many better books still failed. "Write a more marketable book" is better advice, but it requires you to understand the market, be willing to write to it, and get it to someone before the trends change... and the book still might fail"

That cannot be said enough, and writers deserve to know it, understand it, and plan their careers accordingly.

Lastly, Publishers Weekly presented The Rise of the Seven-Figure Advance. Ostensibly, the article is about a seeming increase in mega-advances being given out, particularly to writers who have no BookScan records. But it's really quite a peek into how the industry is evolving, and it's the first time I've seen mention of certain predictions come to pass. As reasons for high advances, anonymous insiders say the "pool of talent is shrinking" because there are now fewer submissions, and publishers are having to prove themselves because of the success being found in self-publishing.

Really, truly, go read the whole thing because that little article just quietly confirmed publishers and agents are now caught up with the backlog of slush enough to realize the number of manuscripts that aren't there anymore.
blairmacg: (FeatherFlow)
Back at this post, we talked about throwing away the Wet Blanket—turning off the part of your prefrontal cortex that inhibits creativity—in order to use new writing skills and be creative at the same time.

It’s easy to say.  There are writers who have, it would seem, a natural ability to bypass the Wet Blanket or perhaps have no Wet Blanket at all.  Hearing their advice—”Just do it!”—can be so frustrating because the fact you can’t just do it makes you feel like a failure or an imposter.  It’s even worse when the advice is coupled with judgment about a writer’s worth that’s based on this single measure.

But know this, my darlings: Very few writers can “just do it,” and natural ability is no indication of future success.  The fact your creativity doesn’t perform on command is normal.  Tapping your creativity can be learned.  But it is also, unquestionably, difficult at times.  And the most difficult time is when you’re actively working to improve your skills.

Research performed at the University of Pennsylvania found free and creative thinking could be enhanced by inhibiting the left prefrontal cortex with a mild electrical current.  Shocking your brain sounds a tad extreme for home use—not the sort of DIY project I’d recommend—so let’s see what else we can do, hmm?

We writers love our accumulating wordcounts.  Numbers are a way to prove—to ourselves, if no one else—that we’re actually doing something, moving forward, making progress.

But we get so focused on forward progress that deleting words feels like failure, and words written for anything but a story we expect to edit and market feel like a waste of time.  We talk about it as spinning our wheels, being stuck in one place, or even (dun-dun-DUUUUN!) writer’s block.  Among writers who have seen a little success—moderate sales on the first self-published novel or a publishing contract for the first novel—the pressure to amass only words that can be strung into a story drives that counterproductive feeling.*

I invite you to see deletion of words and writing non-salable words instead as an investment because practicing the New Thing is the only way to transform it into a Known Thing, and the primary way for a writer to practice is to write.

As an actor, I usually spent more hours rehearsing than performing  Musicians, artists, athletes, crafters, chefs—all of them expect to invest time and effort, expect to do it wrong before doing it right, expect to spend time practicing even when the practice produces nothing useable or salable at the end.  They all know rehearsals are required, not wasted, time.

Gill McGrath mentioned this in comments at Blair MacGregor Books:  “When I get stuck I start writing in what I call list form, sort of whole thoughts in small readable segments (meaning I am not worried about structure or full stops or actually what I am writing about or if I will ever read it again).”

That’s excellent!  It’s a perfect way to lull the Wet Blanket into thinking it isn’t needed, opening the door to your deeper creativity.  In theater, my favorite director would have actors who seemed unable to truly engage in the scene stop saying their lines and improvise, driven by the scene’s emotion, instead.  I suspect that method hit the same cues Gill is speaking of, and I plan on trying Gill’s “list form” when the Wet Blanket strikes again.

Another method that works for me is often a combination of writing prompts and pressure, which happens to be a method used at many writing workshops.  At the end of the Writers of the Future week-long workshop, we writers were to take a single prop, a quickly-researched topic, and a person we met on the street in front of Hollywood’s Chinese Theater and craft them all into a complete short story in twenty-four hours.

I was terrified.  After all, my head was full of incredible new writing stuff taught by KD Wentworth and Tim Powers—all sorts of ideas and rules and advice and guidelines that left me feeling I hadn’t known a damned thing about storytelling before showing up.  And I didn’t at all consider myself a short story writer.  But the ticking clock (and likely the resulting exhaustion), combined with prompts I didn’t have to think up on my own, tossed the Wet Blanket aside.  With very little editing, that 24-hour story has become one of my most-read short pieces (and, for some reason, extremely popular at Barnes and Noble).

But what about things we write and throw out?  Well, I wrote four or five complete novels’ worth of practice words, as well as a dozen partial novels, before Sword and Chant.  While there are some ideas in that pile I intend to mine for other pieces, the actual storytelling is beyond saving.  And those were all words well spent.  Time well invested.

But there is another way to practice that doesn’t involve actual writing, one that was brought up by Green_Knight in comments over on LiveJournal.  “…the fallow period while my brain churns on New Thing is a necessary part of the learning process and the sooner I delve into it, the sooner I come out.”

That is indeed so important.  That “fallow period” is a type of rehearsal, indeed part of the learning process that pulls New Thing deeper into the mind to become part of creativity rather than a set of rules to follow.  It’s like the athlete who envisions the perfect throw, the speaker who envisions the audience and venue before stepping onto the stage, the architect who envisions the impact of different angles on the fall of light within a new building.  Imagining how to apply New Thing is practice time as valuable as attempting to apply New Thing.

And many might hear “fallow” and hear “unused.”  In truth, leaving a field fallow is the choice to cease wringing the last bit of productivity from the land and instead allow it to regain its natural fertility.  Fallow fields are not left bare.  They are instead covered with plants–either intentionally planted or naturally seeded–that enrich the soil for future crops.

So all those words you write and discard, all the stories you start and stop, all the writing rambles and morning pages and journaling and stream-of-consciousness words you get on the page, all the time spent seemingly doing nothing but thinking—all of them are ways of practicing.  All of them help get rid of the Wet Blanket.

Lastly, I want to mention the importance of retreats.  It can be a specific writer’s retreat, like Rainforest, or a workshop-driven retreat like Viable Paradise, or a lone excursion like my days camping beside a lake.  If you’re generally like me (a human with responsibilities) or perhaps specifically like me (the widowed parent of a teenager, self-employed, solely responsible for all finances, concerned for aging parents, working to complete numerous writing and teaching projects), the Wet Blanket of your prefrontal cortex will fight tooth and claw to maintain control because it might be needed at a heartbeat’s notice.

In those cases, retreating lets the Wet Blanket relax.  Sometimes the relaxation comes quickly.  A few minutes into my drive to the campground, my mind had already released the responsibilities of home and turned to solving the problems in my novel.  While camping, I let myself take my time, work or walk or sleep or eat or stare at the landscape when the fancy struck me.  Forty-eight hours of bliss.

Sometimes, though, it takes days.  When I attended Viable Paradise, I think it was Wednesday before I fully relaxed, and even that was with the help of gimlets and whiskey.  I’d been wound so tightly for the months leading up to that week, getting my Wet Blanket to go away was actually a painful process, but so worth it.

If you’re a writer without the options to get away, as I was for many years, the notion of a retreat sounds like a distant dream.  But this is when rituals come into play, truly.  Your time might be limited to an hour between the time the kids go to sleep and the moment you are too tired to continue, or a lunch hour hunched over a notebook in your cubicle at work, or twenty-minute sprints dependent on naptime.

If this is your situation, (been there, done that, got the stained and tattered t-shirt!) you can develop a ritual to set your Wet Blanket aside.  A cup of coffee or tea.  Re-typing the last paragraph from the day before, then writing more.  A quick note posted on Twitter that you are commencing your writing time.  Anything can become the cue your Wet Blanket can to be elsewhere for awhile because the world is, for a little space of time, a safe and predictable and uneventful place.

So.  Turning the Wet Blanket into a warm and cozy one requires practice—actual writing, and thinking about writing.  That practice can be helped along with acceptance of the process that produces words simply for the sake of writing them, and enjoyment of that process as one of discovery.  And if it is the stress of life rather than the writing rules that keep your Wet Blanket tucked over your creativity, finding a way to retreat—whether by physically leaving home, or creating a set of ritual cues—can do the trick.

It isn’t an easy process.  It isn’t comfortable.  And sometimes it feels… well, safer to stick with the rules we implement while editing than risk what Sherwood Smith calls the white fire.  But it is necessary if we want to reach that point of creativity when everything around us disappears, time becomes inconsequential, and we fall into our own story as if it has always been part of us.

And you know what?  That’s not a touchy-feely woo-woo notion, either.  It seems that when we hit that deep creative flow, another part of our brain—the parietal lobe—goes very quiet.  And when that happens, our sense of self as a distinct and separate being fades away.  It happens during prayer.  It happens during meditation.  And it happens when we sink into storytelling.

We truly do feel at one with our work.  Our brain can make it so.

blairmacg: (FeatherFlow)
It happens to a bunch of writers—particularly those writers who are enthusiastic storytellers and seeking better ways to write those stories.  (Perhaps writers like those who have attended, and are currently attending Viable Paradise.  Just maybe.)

You spend years writing stories as quickly as your fingers can fly across the keyboard, thrilled with the ideas, the characters, the dialogue, the action, EVEYTHING.  Every stolen moment is spent adding to the word count, and those stolen moments are absolutely necessary because the story is always right there at the edge of your thoughts.  It’s ready.  You’re ready.  It’s all flow.  You are the ruler of all story!

Then you learn a New Thing—possibly the most wonderful and accurate and encouraging New Thing any writer could dream of—and yet your stories grind to a halt.  Words that once spilled effortlessly onto the page become painful little treasures to be counted one at a time as they are pushed through the keyboard.  Days that used to yield thousands of fantastic, reader-believed words might now give you a few hundred painfully-awkward words that’ll need much revising.  Stories that used to seem so natural and alive and perfect now sound stilted and dull and derivative.  Everything is wrong.

You wonder what sort of fever-dream led you to believe you could string words together at all.

Read more... )

Practice isn’t the only way to convince the Wet Towel to take a vacation.  Specific other means are likely to vary from person to person, but I’ve found a few that work for me and have seen other interventions work for others.  I’ll chit-chat about those later this week.  Feel free to share your own methods, too!

blairmacg: (FeatherFlow)
Once a storyteller hits a certain level of competency, much of her reader’s investment comes down to how well expectations are established and met.  I’m not talking about genre tropes a writer uses and a reader expects.  Rather, I mean those methods of storytelling that convey, build, and sustain emotional investment.

It’s been twenty-mumble years since I first decided I wanted to write novels.  I sucked at it.  I sucked hard.  I mean, a lifetime of theater and reading had given me an internalized understanding of story arcs and the importance of emotional investment.  But my plots had holes as deep as the Mariana Trench.  The characters—young and old—indulged in the emotional roller coaster of adolescent melodrama.  Plot stuff happened because those happenings gave me an excuse to shoot the characters into the next Big! Emotional! Scene!

I sucked.

And because I sucked so badly—and because I was so on fire to write I was churning out about two thousand words every day or so, by hand with a Uniball pen on college-ruled notebook paper—I ended up learning a great deal.  I didn’t learn from writing alone, or from writing with a critique group, or from completing an entire long work before begging for feedback.  I learned because I had a friend who’d read every chapter within hours of being handed those loose sheets.

She wasn’t a writer.  Neither one of us knew the usual language or process of critique.  We had no idea what “constructive feedback” was supposed to be.  I was writing a story.  I wanted to know if she liked it.

Since I began writing in ancient times, I could get her feedback only if I was near a landline phone at the same time she was near one, or if we met in person.  So we’d get together for coffee every couple of days and she’d give me her reaction.

Sometimes her feedback focused on what made sense and what didn’t, but she mostly told me what she liked and what she didn’t like.  But the most valuable information she shared with me was what she thought would happen next and what she hoped would happen next.

Remember: I had no idea what I was doing, writing novels.  I had no outline.  I had no mentor.  I had no writing group.  I was just writing to that one clear scene I could so fully envision.  I was utterly clueless.  Experience-less.  Tool-less.

I didn’t know that giving an early walk-on character a few clever lines (edit: lines I thought were clever) signaled the reader to pay attention because that character was likely to show up in some significant role later.  My first reader taught me this by gushing all over a character I’d just tossed in and planned to toss out just as easily.  I ended up working that character in to later scenes.

I didn’t know the difference between giving the reader well-founded plot surprises and playing a mean game of Gotcha.  I learned this when my first reader was upset I’d not only misled her, but so shocked her with an unsupported plot twist that she wanted me to change it.  I ended up making the change for her, then in revisions a year later, putting that plot twist in after I’d set it up properly in earlier chapters.

Every step of the way, my reader guessed and hoped and extrapolated.  After every chapter, I listened to her reactions and ideas.  She wasn’t trying to write the story for me.  She was just as excited to be talking about a story she liked as I was to be writing that story.  Sometimes I’d tell her the guesses she made were wrong.  Other times, we collaborated.

In every meeting, I got to see, chapter by chapter, what story I was creating in the reader’s mind—something often quite different from the story I thought I was writing.  Had I waited to get feedback until I’d completed the novel, I would have missed out on what I consider the most important “growth spurt” I had as a writer.

Through trial and error, over the course of two years and four handwritten novels, I figured out the basics.  The amount of screen time a character gets indicates importance, but so can the emotional intensity of the given screen time.  Plot twists should be surprising, but logical and supported by what preceded them.  Large arc conclusions must hit the level of resolution that allows people to sleep at night.

And if I wanted to sidestep or blow up the expectations I’d already created, I’d better acknowledge what the original expectation was.  The gun over the fireplace doesn’t always need to be used, but it damn well better be acknowledged.

Most of all, I learned I’m the sort of writer who is much better off getting readers invested in characters than in outcomes.  If I push reader-investment in a particular plot outcome, I’m tied to hitting that outcome.  If I push reader investment in characters, the reader gives me greater flexibility in plot, and that works better for me.

Regardless of which set of expectations I emphasize, it all comes down to emotional investment.  That’s what an expectation is, after all.  It’s longing or dreading.  Fervent hope or keen fear.  A wish or a denial. Faith or disbelief.  Anticipation strong enough to keep the reader in a make-believe world until the writer wants to let her leave.

blairmacg: (FeatherFlow)

Once upon a time, I lived near deserts and I loved them. It was natural, then, that deserts became the living and breathing setting for Sand of Bone.

When I was a kid, my grandparents owned a piece of desert property outfitted with a one-room cabin outside Apple Valley, California, on the edge of the Mojave Desert. Apple Valley was a little tiny place at the time – less than a tenth of the population it is now – and for a kid raised in the suburbs of Orange County, it was about as middle-of-nowhere as I could imagine.

Our family spent a few weekends every year up there. It being the late 70’s, my parents let me roam the desert at will for hours as long as I promised to never try to catch a snake or explore the abandoned mineshafts.

I never broke the first rule (though I did watch my cousin catch, and get bitten by, a red racer), and sort of skirted the second rule. I mean, really! I was nine years old, my head was filled with adventure stories, and the mineshaft was right there! Alas, by the time I was twelve, I’d seen some movie about a collapsing mineshaft. That movie did a better job of keeping me out of the mine than any threat my parents made.

The stars at night were incredible — glitter strewn on deep blue silk. And I could see at night! I could walk right out the front door and around the hilltop in a dark that wasn’t really dark after all.  I didn’t know then it had to do with rods and cones and how eyes adjust to light.  So I told myself stories about magic in the land that gave people “desert eyes” – a special ability to see the open desert by starlight as clearly as I could see it by day.

As a young adult, I made numerous trips to sites within the Mojave (including the time I tried camping there in August and ended up sleeping in the car wearing nothing but my hiking boots), and high deserts and low throughout the Southwestern United States. Whenever life felt too tight, I longed to head to the desert.

It’s hard to explain the magic of deserts to people who’ve experienced them only from a car window on the way from one more exciting place to another. It isn’t barren at all. It is instead completely comfortable with its unfilled spaces.  There is freedom in the great openness, a thinness to the air that pulls me forward, a longing to just be still and watch the wind pass its touch from dry grass to grit to jackrabbit ear.

In my mind, much of Sand of Bone’s SheyKhalan desert is akin to those deserts. Instead of deep and shifting sand dunes, most of SheyKhala’s landscape is made up of rocky plains, wind-scoured ridges, salt flats, and jagged canyons. But there are parts of SheyKhala, such as the region around the Daggers, that look more like this photo of the Libyan Desert:

Libyan Desert

The sand atop rock, the spires of dark stone, the painfully blue sky… That’s where the characters do a great deal of living and dying. And in the sequel, Breath of Stone, a very special group of characters exist in a place that looks almost exactly like that photo.

Will you picture the same desert for Sand of Bone as I do?  It doesn’t really matter if you do, really.  I’d rather you have in your mind the desert that you feel — the open place that will draw you in then leave you to fend for yourself, that will challenge you to expand your limits rather than have mercy for your mistakes, that will tell you being alone is perfectly fine while at the same time proving the importance of community.

Because that’s what wild and dangerous places do for us.

And now, back to polishing the manuscript…

I have a newsletter starting up!  You can even sign up for the newsletter if you'd like. :)

blairmacg: (FeatherFlow)
The opening chapter is now complete! In it, we have treachery questioned, loyalty confirmed, a touch of elemental manipulation, a dire threat, heightened stakes, and the discovery of a theft that could determine the balance of power.

I think that's quite enough to get the ball rolling apace.

At some point in the last few years, I lost the backstory-angst of writing a sequel. I no longer feel the need to ensure the reader is "up to speed" with all that happened in Book One. Backstory should be revealed on a need-to-know basis. There's no reason the rule should be different for sequels. So, happily, I find myself untroubled as a set a continuing story in motion.

Besides, one of the primary reasons behind telling/reminding the reader what happened before was the anticipated difficulty readers would have finding previous volumes. Now, with the shelf-life and accessibility of series novels extended and expanded immensely, the likelihood of readers having to jump in mid-series is so much smaller. Yes, there will still be readers who pick up mid-series, but it simply isn't going to be as common.
blairmacg: (FeatherFlow)

Today I'm a guest at Anne E. Johnson's blog, where I talk about putting women (plural!) of agency and influence at the core of the story.

Traditional gender roles are hard to combat for the fiction-writer, especially in a genre like fantasy which has a long tradition of distressed damsels being captured and needing saving. Even for a writer who is aware of this problem and wants to defy it, knowing how to let the females drive the story takes a lot of thought and practice. Today's guest, Blair MacGregor, generously shares her advice.

Read the rest here!

In other news, I'm not changing another word in Sand of Bone until its final edits are sent to me.  That means it's time to both work on Breath of Stone!


blairmacg: (Default)

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