Tag Archives: craft

O, Dreaded Prologue!

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.100_2471

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…

Ahem.

Go ahead and add salt if you’d like.

***

So… Why write a prologue? Continue reading O, Dreaded Prologue!

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Five Fight-Writing Tactics

100_2182This 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.

Continue reading Five Fight-Writing Tactics

Little News Bits

 

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.

Nothing is being done before I complete Breath of Stone, darlings.  NothingI’m down to oe 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 fewadditional 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!

#SFWApro

Set A Choke, Break A Choke — Part Two

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.

100_2182Being 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.

Continue reading Set A Choke, Break A Choke — Part Two

Set A Choke, Break A Choke — Part One

 

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.

100_2182Some 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.

Gah.

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.

Gaaaahhhh…!

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. Continue reading Set A Choke, Break A Choke — Part One

Train the Brain to Write at Night Again

RedPenWorkThe 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.

#SFWApro

 

Fight Breakdown: Connecting Mindset with Character and Action

GeminiCellCoverThis article originally appeared at Patreon.

There are a ton of “How To Write Fights” books and articles and blog posts and whatevers out there.  Most of them repeat the same advice that—while mostly valid and accurate to varying degrees—remains rudimentary for beginning writers and horribly redundant for experienced writers looking to improve their craft.

*shelves temptation to discuss the search for resources readily available to experienced writers looked to be even better*

I want these articles to be more than “the basics.”  By using great fight scenes as examples, we’ll explore what works, how it works, and why it works.  The goal is to move beyond technical skill—good fight scene—and look at the fight scene of exceptional craft—compelling story.

A few disclaimers before I begin:

First, I will never rip apart a fight scene for the sole purpose of pointing out everything it does wrong.  Sure, it’s tempting now and then, and I’ll likely more than once give you my fight-scene peeves, but I’m not here to tear down another writer.

Second, the nature of deconstructing scenes means there will be varying levels of spoiler-y stuff to deal with.  I’ll do my best to keep it to a minimum, but…  Well.  Please take those words to heart, my darlings.

Third, the fight scenes I choose will come from stories I like.  I don’t give a flying flip if the author publishes independently, with a small press, or under a trade publisher.    We’re here to talk craft, my darlings, not business.

Fourth, I’ll add a purchase link for the stories we’ll be examining.  If the fight scene looks interesting and you haven’t read the book, do the writer a service and pick up their work.  At this moment, I’m not setting up affiliate links, though I’ll likely do so in the future, and will notify you when it happens.

Lastly, these are my opinions and impressions.  If you’re the writer of the scene I’m highlighting, and you want to jump into the conversation, PLEASE DO SO!!  Because that would be totally cool.

And with that, let’s start with an action scene from the opening chapter of Myke Cole’s Gemini Cell (purchase link).

I originally envisioned these analysis pieces to be of short sections of scenes.  But I’ve been kicking around varying ways to discuss an issue I’ve seen come up now and again—characters whose actual physical fighting is well-written, yet seem to be missing the mindset that would support such great fighting abilities.  (See, The Mindset That Matters.)

Gemini Cell offers a great opportunity to highlight a fighter whose mindset is fully integrated.  So this fight breakdown will be a little different than others.  It’ll have fewer explorations of specific word choices, physical actions, and so forth.  Instead I’ll focus on the wider perspective because there are so many things here done well.

The scene I pulled is from the opening chapter depicting a SEAL team infiltrating a cargo ship at sea. Major plot spoilers are non-existent in the sections I’ll be using, though you’ll of course have an idea of what happens in the fight itself.

It’s a different kind of fight scene.  Rather, it’s a fight scene presented differently.  It doesn’t adhere to or concern itself with the “standard” fight-scene advice.

It doesn’t work well in spite of that fact.  It works well because of it.  Because Cole has chosen to do far, far more with this action scene than provide action.

The action encompasses the entire chapter, so I’m not going to tear apart every line.  Instead I’ll excerpt sections to illustrate what makes the whole thing work together, giving general comments and specific ones.

We’ll start about a quarter of the way through the opening chapter.

 “Cut the chatter,” came in Ahmed’s voice as they rejoined the team and began weaving through the piled metal containers.  The ship groaned beneath them as it drifted around its anchor and the swell began to hit it directly on the beam.  The cloud cover was thick above them.  When the hell’s it going to clear?  With  nearly no ambient light, the shadows coiled in every niche and recess among the stacks of conex boxes, putting Schweitzer’s reflexes on edge.

The bridge’s windows were dark, but Schweitzer knew that meant nothing.  A crewman of the watch was most certainly on duty, hopefully sleeping, his binoculars resting on his belly.  He glimpsed the windows one last time, the signal mast rising about it, before it was lost from sight as the towering stacks covered them.

Do you see those sentences?  Especially those loooong sentences full of scene-building?  They come in the midst of the action.  After the enemy has been engaged.  After people have died.  And the pattern of long sentences, with lots of details and observations and complexities that introduce the reader to characters and setting, continues for over a dozen paragraphs that include maneuvers of stealth, gunfire, and other violence.

So let’s look at what all those long sentences, descriptions, and such tell us.  I’m not talking about what the words describe.  I’m instead referring to what we learn about the POV character—James Schweitzer—as a result of his observations and choices.

The longer and more complex sentences, coupled with the details, reveal a man whose experience has made a fight normal rather than unusual, who is accustomed to the surge of adrenaline (and its consequences).  He is a warrior fully immersed in the fight.  His thinking mind is immersed—something I rarely see understood by non-fighting writers—so he sees the fight as an integrated part of his being.

It isn’t disjointed and frantic.  It’s a day on the job.  It’s smooth and flowing.  While no experienced fighter would call a fight predictable, Schweitzer’s viewpoint tells us the fight is familiar.  The visual representation would be a single fluid and camera-steady shot viewed over the shoulder of a highly competent fighter.  And a fighter who, when life and death is playing tug-of-war, notices all of this—

Both men were ignoring the plastic stick, dropping to their knees and raising military-grade carbines, fitted with modified sights and extended magazines as advanced as the gear the SEALs carried.  They looked nothing like the armed seamen Schweitzer had taken out.  They wore black bodysuits, NODs mounted to high-quality Kevlar helmets, torsos enveloped in military-grade body armor that would stop most rounds fired into their center mass.

–is danged near guaranteed to give me a story that has the smarts to match its action.

So here we are, pages into an extended action scene told in specific and smart language that hasn’t slipped into the hokey “Look! It’s a big doo-doo fight!” pattern of jabbing my brain with choppy sentences to describe solely physical action for paragraphs on end.  I’ve slipped from trusting the writer—an abstract decision—into trusting the viewpoint character—an immersive experience—and am happily riding along on his shoulder.

Have you ever been to Disneyland?  Ridden one of the story-based rides like Pirates of the Caribbean or The Haunted Mansion?  If you have, the opening chapter of Gemini Cell is at this point the ride’s introductory section.  The ride before the ride.  It’s the darkening, increasingly claustrophobic journey from the quiet bayou into shadowy tunnels echoing with stark warnings. It’s the descending elevator that takes you from the interesting oddity of paintings that shift with a head-tilt to the screaming deadly stakes of a dead body hanging over your head.

Then we take the blind plummet into darkness.

Shouts.  A voice was crying out behind them, ragged and coughing, but loud enough to do the job.

Chang rolled back around the corner, returned a moment later. “Your guy, Coastie.”

The shift to short sentences here isn’t really about suddenly signaling, “Here’s the fight!”  Nope.  It’s about tension, not pacing. It shows us our viewpoint character is now uncomfortable.  And if a guy as steady and competent as Schweitzer is worried, you can be damned sure I’m worried, too.

The pressure of the operation, especially one in which he’s mostly unseen and anonymous, hasn’t truly and deeply disrupted his composure before.  But now something doesn’t fit his narrative, has jolted his internal expectations.  Even though Schweitzer has been fighting and in jeopardy from the novel’s opening—conditions that would have sent an “average” fighter into short-sentence mode from the start—it’s this unexpected interruption of forward movement that puts a bump in his flow.

We have Shouts.  Not Someone shouted or the stupid-clunky He heard shouting.  We have instead a single word that tells us, “At least one human is making lots of noise that others will hear, and since we’ve established we’d recognize the voices of our own guys, we know it’s an enemy.”

That’s an impressive and hard-working word there, Shouts.

Then we have A voice was crying out.  Not a person.  Just a voice.  Disembodied.  Unidentified maybe because the author wants to raise momentary suspense with mystery, but I read it more as indication of who Schweitzer considers worth consideration.  It’s confirmation that this isn’t an ally who is shouting, and it underscores the viewpoint warrior’s mindset.  The enemies he has encountered exist as things vastly separated from his very human and real companions.   Period.

I love that Cole then chose the phrase “to do the job” to concisely express the threat.  The reader knows “the job” is to disrupt the mission of Schweitzer’s group by alerting others to the infiltration and rousing those others into taking deadly action.  But it would totally suck to say all that.  Cole trusts the reader to follow along, and this reader appreciates the trust.

And here’s another immersion point: Schweitzer isn’t going to pause to explain something like that to the reader.  Schweitzer expects you to keep up.

Now look at the following single sentence from Chang.  We don’t even get a proper conjunction.  (Insert Schoolhouse Rock moment.)  Schweitzer doesn’t have time for no stinking conjunction right now.  We shouldn’t be wasting time on a three-letter word, either.  Seconds matter, damn it, so quit your bitching.

This is when and where those short sentences matter enough to make an impact.  The contrast is a tool used to get the reader’s attention.  It’s the sudden turn the roller coaster takes right before you slam into a wall.  Sure, you missed that sudden death, but there’s something even worse just up ahead.

Chang’s three-word summation of the life-threatening problem is lovely.  Your guy, Coastie. Now we know who’s shouting, whose fault it is, and Chang’s preference for naming fault with a moniker that sets one person outside the team’s cohesion.

That’s a damn fine bundle of stuff packed into four sentences.

A rapid exchange of dialog follows, and a handful more of punchy sentences.  Then Schweitzer gives himself a single command:  Focus.  The narrative resumes with detailed observations and varied sentence structures.  Schweitzer has rammed himself back into op-mode, which is on one hand incredibly composed, and on the other exceptionally intense, as the action pounds onward.

After a little while, we come to my writer-brain’s favorite little section in the whole chapter.

Within moments, they both abandoned the tight target box and let their shots roam in the interest of being able to put more bullets in more people more quickly.  Schweitzer shot one of the enemy operators in his gut—miserable aim by his standards and likely stopped by the body armor, but the force drove the man off his feet and he tumbled from the top of the stack, shrieking, to slam into silence against the deck below.  Schweitzer’s eyes tracked and moved, sighting targets and shooting them, his hand mechanically releasing his empty magazine and shuffling it over two inches so the full one, duct-taped alongside, could move into the gun’s smoking ammunition well with barely a second lost before the carbine’s bolt slid home, and he was shooting again.

Bang.  Target down.  On to the next.  Move.  Bang.  Target down.  On to the next.  Move again.

Those two paragraphs do All the Things, my darlings.

Again we have these longer and detail-filled sentences, but now we feel as if we’re on the downhill and picking up speed.  There’s a sense that everything is happening at once, and maybe we need to read faster so we don’t miss something.

Let their shots roam… I love this most awesome phrase.  I kept thinking, “Request permission to send my bullets on a walkabout, ma’am!”

Miserable aim by his standards…  Under extreme pressure in a mission going sideways, he’s critiquing his aim—even though the shot took the enemy out.  Process matters to this guy.  How something gets done is just as important as whether something gets done because how is something within his control.

And the entire one-sentence description of reloading is a thing of beauty.  There are no unnecessary bogging details; we’re told only what’s important in that barely-a-second Schweitzer gives himself, and in retrospect, that’s a whole damned lot of necessary.

Then we reach that second paragraph—the short and sharp parts that are supposed to make us feel frantic.  But their deliberate nature actually slows us down.  Focus, Schweitzer is telling us.  Don’t outrun your own feet.

(I don’t much write fanfic per se, but I do hear random snippets of dialog from characters at times.)

Bang.  We are done wasting time with extra words.  Forget the conjunctions, we don’t even have time for italics.  Bang is statement, not a sound.  Stark and emotionless.  Alone but for the period at the end.

And we haven’t even hit the cool and spooky stuff, and the most intense fighting, that this one chapter has to offer you.  But we’ve seen plenty at this point to establish one the most important traits of a strong fight scene.

It isn’t how pow-bam cool the techniques are (though those factors will indeed be more important when we start examining hand-to-hand fight scenes).  It isn’t imposing a pre-ordained rhythm on your fight scene (though understanding the rhythm of a fight helps you know how to break up expectations).

It is absolutely about the choices the writer makes to reveal, expose, and illustrate what kind of fighter the character is.  The mindset that will drive the character not only in the fight, but in the story before and after the fight.

Questions, comments, and ideas?  Share them, pretty please!

And for goodness sake, go buy Myke Cole’s book.

If you like this fight scene breakdown, and want to see more articles on writing fight scenes and understanding self-defense, check out Patreon.

Edited to Add: Myke Cole wrote an excellent post in conversation with this one on how the cumulative nature of focused practice–not some unknown talent or instinct–makes it possible for him to write his fight scenes without being constantly aware of the writing choices he’s making.  Go read!