How sword fighting is like writing

A big part of my spare time is dedicated to HEMA. I'd write more books if I didn't swing swords, but I also wouldn't be as happy so those books would be full of existential despair instead of vampires and dragons in space.

Better writers than me have talked about the way other physical exercises help the craft, but swordplay is a more specific metaphor, and so if like me, you need abstract models to help tackle difficult tasks, this post might help you too.

Any idiot can swing a sword and get a few hits in (citation needed) and watching this is similar to watching a drunken brawl. There is some perverse pleasure in seeing people hurt each other (citation needed) but in the end, there is no suspense. Sure there can be surprise--chaotic systems are bound to throw up an unexpected result now and then, but like jump-scares, they are cheap and soon forgotten.

Instead, what we love to see happen in a duel is what we love to see characters do on page or screen. Intention, and reaction. When there is a clear intent, both in fencing and in stories, mystery is baked into the moment. This does not mean we need to know exactly what the fighter or character hopes to get--this is for two reasons, one, all characters like fighters want to 'win', and winning is often obvious to the point of boring; not dying, getting the golden fleece, kissing the girl etc. Instead, intent means purpose, an act that is meaningful, aimed to get a little closer to the goal. Too often we think we need to tell our readers what this goal is up front, having read, no doubt, some advice that says we must devise a clear A story to build relatability with our characters. But this is not nearly as important as we've been led to believe. Don't get me wrong, I've just finished reading all of Blake Snyder's 'Save the Cat' books (more on that next post)  and I strongly believe that in an overall novel there must be A story, B story and Theme and all the rest, but in a specific moment, in a beat or a scene, the most important ingredient is intention.

I think this gets right to the heart of human interaction. We see hundreds of people in a given week, some are the main players in our story, some mere scenery, but for each one we meet, we must build a little mental model of their intention. Do they mean us harm? are they our friend? And all we have to go by are the actions that we can see them make, the things they say, the reactions they have to the things we say to them. We don't know their goals, other than those big ticket items at the bottom of Maslow's pyramid, so we have to pay attention to the details. And this brings me back to sword fighting.

You might think it would be fun to see lots of flashing swords, clashing blades, sparks and sweat and flailing limbs in a duel -- just like the movies right? But in real life, it just isn't. I've seen a lot of these fights, and they are as confusing as they are boring because the two fencers are more often than not inexperienced and so have no clear plan. Conversely, I've seen people spontaneously cheer for those fights where seemingly nothing much happens for a bit, and then in a rush, there is an attack, parry, and strike. That's a good engagement, and people love it. After sizing each other up, one fencer took action, the other responded, and then we all find out whose plan worked.

 That's the best way to fight, whether you're the one who attacks first or responds doesn't matter, all you have to do is be ready. And we need to write scenes like that too, with characters ready to act or respond. Doing nothing is boring, but so is flailing your weapon wildly and hoping for the best.

The other way sword fighting is like writing is that it hurts a lot, and you often feel like you aren't getting anywhere.

I recently injured my arm and was out of action for the better part of 2018. This mirrored my writing career, that has been in a bit of limbo after my last two publishers went out of business. But in neither instances did I sit around and do nothing, even though the thing I really wanted to do, I couldn't.

When I couldn't fight, I started Yoga, and when I couldn't sell my first trilogy any more, I started a new book and joined an amazing writers workshop.

This year is all about swinging swords again.

Gotta keep fighting.



  1. Wanna experience 7thHeaven?
    ● ●
    Cya soon, bro...


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