Stretching Those Imagination Muscles

I had the pleasure of hearing NY Times bestselling author (and incredibly nice guy) Jonathan Maberry speak at the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference

Jonathan Maberry opens up the 64th annual Philadelphia Writers’ Conference

today. Not only was his energy and optimism infectious, but he was also filled with battle-tested and sage advice. With much thanks to Mr. Maberry for offering this idea, I am going to share it with you. Some of you may know this, some may not. Some may know it and not do it, but I hope to change that. Ok, whew…that just sounded like a Bruce Campbell Old Spice commercial. “If you need it, you don’t have it. If you have it, you need more of it. If…” Ok, you get the idea.

So, the advice/idea is this. When people go to the gym, they don’t just jump right into their workout and start slamming away. They warm up. They stretch to limber up their body and work through some exercises to get the blood flowing. Well, our imagination, our creativity needs the same thing.  When we sit down to start writing, we need a primer. Something to get the creative juices flowing and limber up that part of our mind.

Mr. Maberry said that he sits down and conducts a 15 minute writing exercise (unassociated to the current project) and invests himself in it. When the 15 minutes are up, he stops and dives into his true work out, or project.

This is great stuff! It’s not for publication. It doesn’t have to (and will not be) perfect. Nobody has to read it. This is your initial stretch to open that creative door and just start DOING. No holds barred, just you and the exercise, and the only rule of Write Club is that nobody talks about Write Club (unless you want to, and if so…have at it).

I thought about this and for all the years I’ve been writing, I hadn’t been doing it. I’d start the regular daily project from a cold workout. Looking back, I realize that it took me a bit to start really making progress. Why? Because I was tight. Well, thanks to the NEW and IMPROVED MABERRY pre-project creative exercise, you too can loosen up before you go-go. And if you act now, you’ll also receive this free collection of novelty cheese sandals (while supplies last).

So, for my own sake, and for yours, I am going to endeavor to offer daily writing exercises under my new “Creative Warm-Up” category. It’s yours, have fun with it and when 15 minutes is up, let it go and go knock the world off its orbit!


Your main character is a SERVANT who CAN’T WAIT ANY LONGER (for what? That’s up to you!!)

Your secondary character is a FLORIST

The source of the conflict is an OVERDUE APOLOGY.

Tell the story!! No edits, just start writing and see what you come up with in 15 minutes!!! (Set a timer).

I will try to throw all kinds of creative mash-ups and different types of exercises up here each day for you to dig into. Part of the exercise is to do it without thinking too much about it (even if it seems absolutely absurd or bizarre). And if you want to post your creation for a chuckle, pride, or just to share, that would be great! We’ll read and enjoy without judgement or critique. Because, again, this is a free-range run to stretch and play. No preservatives added.

Thank you and I hope you’ll find this useful and helpful! Let me know!

How skeletons, dice, and a picnic table transformed a boy. Sharing the gift of your imagination.

“Crypt dust floats in the slanted rays of sunlight, filtering down between the age rusted bars. The stone is cold and reeks of mildew. Your breath forms ghostly clouds in the quiet tomb. There are no other doors out of this small, octagonal chamber. Six sarcophagi are laid out in a semi-circle. In the center of the room, atop a stone plinth, is the gem you seek. The Eye of the Seether. What do you-“

“I go for the gem,” says the teen with the mop of hair and backwards hat. “I shoulder through the group and grab it!”

“No!” says the group, almost in unison. Their faces bear looks of horror and exasperation.

The lanky teen with the old station wagon, the one surrounded by books and papers, the one lurking behind his cardboard screen, smiles and rolls some dice. Funny looking dice with bright colors and odd shapes.

What is going on, I think? What just happened? Why are they so upset? But I am not here. I am not at that splintered, wooden picnic table whose red paint is somehow symbolic of the blood that will begin to flow in that cold tomb, a thousand worlds away. I am not in that Pittsburgh backyard, in the middle of Summer, in my tank top and sandals. I am there, sword in hand and I. am. nervous.

The boy behind the screen smiles and leans forward. I lean with him while the others ruffle papers and flip through books, racing for spells or equipment.

“As your fingers brush the surface of the gem, there is an explosion of splintering wood and long undisturbed dust. A carrion stench fills the air, the smell of rot. You grab the gem, but stumble back in shock as you look upon the grinning skeletal faces of Lord Mazeer’s death knights. Six skeletal warriors, armed with the blades they wielded in life and armored in the ancient breast plates of Salazir, step out of the remains of their coffins. Their eyes are burning pits of hellfire and they are all. looking. at….you.”

Then, like the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, there was an eruption of questions, declarations, dice rolling, shoulder punching (upon the shoulder of he who grabbed the gem), book searching and paper rustling. Someone tried to “turn” them. Someone was raising a shield and swinging tempered steel. Someone else was searching their belt pouch for spell components. They wanted to cast some orb kind of thingy, but needed manticore blood. It was all a blur, to me, this enthralled twelve-year-old boy in a tank top and sandals. I listened as the boy behind the screen, this silver-tongued bard, this purveyor of absolute magic, continued to weave his tale with the help of those players whose characters helped decide the direction of the story. I was twelve and I had just walked through a door that would forever change me.I had become enlightened, in the purest sense of embracing our creative imagination.

I ran home, plundered the dice from the Monopoly game (they had only six sides, but they would do) and found an unused spiral bound notebook. I began to record the rules to my own game. The First of hundreds (literally HUNDREDS) of role-playing games I would play or own in my life. I wrote down what I could remember. Hmmm….let’s see. You can be a fighter, am elf, a dwarf, a thief….an axe does 1d6 (that’s one six-sided roll, in case you hadn’t figured that out)..and a sword does 2d6…..roll 1d6 for hit points (that’s your life essence. At zero you are dying)…you have strength, um..intelligence….

I wrote and I wrote, filling in that notebook. Then I went for the graph paper and I began to create my first dungeon. There would be fire traps and pits and monsters and secret doors.It would be the first of thousands (literally THOUSANDS) of dungeons, adventures and stories I would create and/or run in my life. With the rules and the dungeon ready for action, I invited my friend, Daniel, to play and we sat down in my backyard, under the boughs of a sagacious old tree and embarked on a journey that I still walk today.

I was twelve. That was twenty-six years ago (quick, do the math) and obviously it still resonates in the forefront of my mind. This experience, this image is a raging bonfire amongst flickering candles in the pitch of my memory. I believe that moment, that experience, laid the foundation for who I am today, for embracing the talents and gifts that I possess. Creative individuals are, inherently, creative, but that well can fill with an onrush of gushing water, pouring over the sides or it can run near dry, where only a puddle remains at the bottom, wishing, hoping for some rain to erase the drought.There are moments in our life, and in the lives of others, where we can experience, or we can BE that rain. And that is the point here.

We, as writers (and again, any creative enterprise works here: artists, musicians, etc) have the ability to share the magic of our imaginations with young kids in tank tops and sandals. Haha, ok, so maybe they can be wearing sneakers, or fuzzy slippers, or t-shirts, or hockey jerseys. Maybe it’s not at a picnic table, and maybe it’s not a role-playing game, like Dungeons & Dragons, but we can be foster parents of their imagination. We can enchant them in such a way that I was enchanted (and still am) twenty-six years ago.  We can create worlds, weave stories, breathe life into heroes, and show children today that magic DOES exist. That there are other worlds worth exploring and that one day, maybe, they will put “pen to paper” and offer lands of adventure that kids at picnic tables will wonder at and dream of.

The vikings had hot chocolate.

I am often seized by inspiration at odd times. I also find reality and imagination blurring frequently and, again, at odd moments. Like today.

Once again, we were battered by snow. So I, shovel in hand, trudged out to clear our walk and driveway. As I set to shoveling, hurling clumps of snow aside, the minivan melted away. The swing in the yard disappeared. The sounds of the neighbors’ snowblowers ceased to whir. I was in the Frostlands of Mozique, the wintry lands of the Volsuungs, a realm that had recently appeared in a fantasy story I wrote for Writers’ Journal. I held in my hand a honed and ice kissed blade of the north, a battle-axe, not a snow shovel. I was not clearing a way for our cars. I was clearing the ground for our camp, for tomorrow there would be war and the blood of the lowlanders would color the white landscape. Incidentally, the lowlanders may have had snowblowers.

“Dad? Can I go sledding?”

“Huh? Oh, yeah…sure. Be back in an hour.”

I smiled down at my bundled up son, eagerly ready for a day at the hill. I was back in reality, but the idea was fresh. I would write a follow-up story to “Of Ice and Iron”. I trudged up to the door, asked my wife for some paper and a pen and wrote out my idea.

Then it was back to work. Then THEY came, soaring over the house, cutting a path across the wintry sky. A huge flying V of geese and a poem danced into my head. The first couple lines of a poem, at least. I planted my shovel in the snow and trudged back up to the door.

“Hon? Can I have some more paper and a pen?”

I wrote out the first couple of lines to the poem and turned back to the snow clearing. By this time, my wife and other boys were outside. They wanted the sleds from the garage. As I was retrieving them, I found a pair of drumsticks laying behind a box. I began to tap out a beat, translating into my memory for a possible bass line. My bass was waiting patiently in my office, anxious to pound out some tunes.

My wife just shook her head.

“What?” I said.

“You,” she said. “Always coming up with something. Another idea. Another project.”

But that’s what I do. That’s what WE do, we creators and artists. Inspiration strikes all the time and we have to EMBRACE it. Record it.

I did manage to finish the driveway, and leave the lands of the Volsuungs, where hot chocolate was waiting for me. Perhaps the lowlanders and their snowblowers would live another day, this viking had hot chocolate to drink.