Wendy Hammer is one of the first authors I knew nothing about that I took a chance on. It paid off. Here she is talking about how she worked to overcome her technical writing weaknesses while writing the Cross Cutting Trilogy.
One of my all-time favorite con panels compared writer skills to a deck of cards. They said every writer has been dealt a hand. These cards are things that seem to come to us naturally: the ones it’s hard to talk about or teach because it just flows. Some writers may have an ear for dialogue whereas others may have speed, or amazing organization, a way with character, a strong voice, and so on. The cards we don’t have in our hand are the things we have to study, practice, pay attention to, and work hard for.
I wasn’t given an action card.
Describing the complex geometry of movement, grasping physics, and navigating my characters through spaces are all tough for me. This made writing the Cross Cutting Trilogy the best kind of challenge. It was designed to be a fast read filled with action and motion. My main character’s magic depends to a great degree on walking and there are fights and chases in all sorts of spaces. I had to learn and stretch to get it on the page.
Your mileage may vary, but here are some things that help me.
Study is always first. When I find a story that handles action particularly well, I read it for enjoyment and then I analyze it. How did they do it? What kind of detail do they include? How is it arranged? Are there changes in style, sentence, and paragraph structure? For extra help, I took a fight scene writing class and I tracked down some craft books on action.
As much as it pains me to admit, sometimes reading isn’t enough on its own. There are times I need to see something to describe it. Movies are great and YouTube is a lifesaver. Need to know what it looks like when someone takes a beanbag round to the chest or puts Mentos in a two liter of diet soda? You’re golden. I found excellent videos of kalinda fighting and cultural pieces by Trinidadians, too—so there’s plenty of thoughtful videos out there.
Any map program with street view is invaluable, especially when you’re working with a real place as your base. I’m still delighted that if you go to the right underpass in Google maps you can see the vans that inspired The Thin.
Images on a screen can only go so far so I try to explore real places. I walked the trail in Indianapolis. I’ve been in the tunnels at Purdue and in nearby parks. I’ve driven by other spots I put in the novellas.
But what happens when I’m trying to build the actual action scene? I have to dig deep into my arsenal.
When I have trouble with staging a space, I build a rough replica of it out of LEGO and use mini-figs to represent the characters. It helps me devise plans, fix eyeline problems, and keep track of who is where doing what. Also, it’s fun.
When I need to figure out basic physics (often those things that people with more coordination and common sense would immediately grasp) and I don’t want to disturb my husband (or admit how clueless I am) a big poofy stuffed animal comes to my rescue and we...spar. “If I punch here which way would the body turn? What would happen if…” It’s a little weird, but I’m not too proud to pass up any opportunity to make the work better.
I’m really pleased I didn’t shy away from the challenge. Sometimes the things you have to work for are the sweetest.
Wendy Hammer grew up in Wisconsin and lives in Indiana. She has degrees in English from The University of Wisconsin-Madison and Ball State University. Her research focus was in gender/identity studies and bodies. Her dissertation was about the intersections of twentieth century infectious disease narratives and imperialist discourse, with a particular focus on Africa. The diss was abandoned, but her interest remains. She currently teaches introductory literature and composition at a community college.
She reads everything. She indulges in K-drama, horror, and cooking competition show marathons (especially the Great British Baking Show). She likes geeky cross stitch projects, classic punk music, and salted licorice. And finally, she considers both Cobra Commander and The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl to be kindred spirits.