Guest Post: Staring at the Dragon

I’m really starting to like all these other people blogging for me! Especially when I have such talented clients to do it! Today’s guest blogger, Katherine Sparrow,  writes speculative fiction for readers of all ages. She’s published short stories online and in various anthologies, including Fantasy Magazine and Escape Pod. She’s a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop, as well as a social worker and advocate for mentally ill people. She is nominated for a 2011 Nebula Award for her story The Migratory Pattern of Dancers. Katherine blogs at and she was and you can find out more about her at katherinesparrow.net

I love writing. I love, love, love writing but, as in fiction, writing about uncomplicated love is not interesting, so I thought I’d talk about one of the horrible parts of writing.

As writers we all have things we’re a natural at — plot and dialogue are easy for me — and things we’re naturally crappy at. I’m horrible at the dreaded action scene.

So why don’t I write stories without action scenes? Because my muse sucks. Because I’m not really in the drivers seat when it comes to the stories that poke me with a hard stick. Because I seem to have a need to write about revolutionary moments, and those tend to have action scenes.

So anyway, there I am, empty page, scared heart, unwritten action scene, feeling sick and like I should quit and go do anything else (such as writing a blog entry about what to do when you have to write the thing you really don’t want to write.) So anyway, here’s what I’ve found to be helpful when I’m staring at the dragon.

1. Don’t trust your instincts. My instincts are bad about action scenes. I know this, so whatever ideas first spring to mind? I don’t use them. I make myself imagine a couple more scenarios and think about it from different perspectives.

2. Find a writer who does what you want to do, and study the heck out of them. For me, Jonathan Stroud and Philip Pullman are the grand masters of awesome action scenes that somewhat resemble my style of writing. How can I tell what writer has a similar style to me? If I love the writing and it also fills me with dread and despair, it’s similar. If I love it to pieces and that’s all, then it’s not.

3. Remember that you can write and rewrite this thing to death.

4. Talk it out with someone. It doesn’t matter who, but someone who listens more than they talk is best. Dogs work.

5. Set goals with baked goods. Frex: I will get a chocolate éclair when I’ve written 2,000 words of this crappy action scene. I will get an almond croissant when the characters in this scene become less wooden and awkward.

6. Life is suffering. I don’t know why the basic tenet of Zen Buddhism always cheers me up when I’m in the writing weeds, but it does.

So that’s what helps me. What helps you?

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12 Comments

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12 responses to “Guest Post: Staring at the Dragon

  1. eugenemyers

    Great post! Thanks for sharing these helpful tips. I admit I mostly rely on #3 to get me through those tough scenes.

  2. Erik Larson

    I think my dragon is not writing in enough descriptive and emotional depth. When I go back over that first draft that seems to be where I spend a lot of my time.

    With action scenes I usually have a strong mental movie (and if I don’t I watch movie clips and youtube for inspiration) of what is happening and I just describe what I think the POV character will see, then I go back and add more senses and what emotions I think the POV character would have. Then it’s a mess and I have to rewrite it. I feel like I come out with a decent action scene at the end, but it’s some messy sausage-making.

    My reward for getting a chapter done is getting feedback from a beta-reader or two. I’m not too proud to admit I like the attention.

  3. I set goals with candy. Swedish Berries are my current favourite, followed by jujubes and kettle corn. When I actually need to fit into my pants the next day, I reward myself with music. One chapter edited = one Paul Simon song. (Or one Nine Inch Nails song, depending on my mood.)

  4. I sometimes feel like the dragon is behind me during my (precious and rare) uninterrupted writing time. The dragon taps its watch, breathes down my neck, and makes snide, inappropriate remarks about my inability to prioritize and manage my time well. The dragon reminds me how well some of my writer friends are doing, and that some of them seem to work circles around me. It’s a lot of pressure, you know? How can I find my groove if I’m worrying about everything but my story? So I’ve learned to refocus during those times, and to recognize (and convince that bitch of a dragon) that I’m in charge here, and that I deserve a little more faith in my process.

  5. Katherine, this is fantastic. I love what you said here “I seem to have a need to write about revolutionary moments, and those tend to have action scenes.” What is that? I am the same way and action scenes are like death to me. I’d rather get my teeth pulled and I struggle so much with them. It’s good to know I’m not alone!

    What works for me is I have this amazing crit partner who can look at it and walk me through it. I’m sadly dependent on her to ask me questions. I also watch a lot of NIKITA and try to pay attention. It’s always a challenge to me, but when I complete it, there’s always an award. Awards in the form of pastries are good! I’m going to look up some of the authors you suggested!

  6. T. P. Jagger

    Thanks for the insightful post. I’m a “polish-as-I-go” writer who has really had to force myself into writing some exceptionally weak scenes in my current manuscript. Ultimately, this has given me a chance to let my creativity flow through the revision process. At the time of my first draft, as some of my crap-filled scenes oozed byte by byte onto my hard drive, I struggled to convince myself that I wasn’t being lazy. Now that I realize I was actually “staring at the dragon,” I feel much tougher. =)