You Are Never Finished: Barnes, Leigh, Morris, Perry & Sullivan on Writing & the Martial Arts

Studying a martial art may teach a writer the mechanics of a fight scene.  Continued practice and discipline may give that writer insight, a subtler understanding of the physicality of confrontation, of the head game, the philosophy, of wellness and well-being.  It is hard to separate out how one discipline informs the other.  Hard, but also interesting.

Below, Steven Barnes, Stephen Leigh, Susan J. Morris, Steve Perry, and Thomas T. Sullivan talk about the complex relationship between practicing martial arts and writing.  They talk about writing action, facing fear, splitting the reader’s attention, and accepting that there is no end to learning.

Steven Barnes is a novelist, screenwriter, and teacher.  His novels include the Great Sky Woman duology, and Lion’s Blood: A Novel of Slavery and Freedom in an Alternate AmericaLion’s Blood shows Barnes at his best—a complete inversion of Western civilization deftly handled.  Whether co-writing, writing in a shared universe, or on his own, Barnes writes with a big heart and sage’s eye.

Stephen Leigh writes science fiction and fantasy under his own name and a variety of pen-names.  Most recently, he’s written the Cloudmage Trilogy and The Nessantico Cycle as S. L. Farrell.  Leigh is a master of world-building and character development.  The fact that his action scenes are crisp and ultra-realistic are a bonus.

Susan J. Morris recently stepped down as an editor at Wizards of the Coast.  While at Wizards, she edited some of Wizards’ most prominent authors and launched the careers of the next generation.  She worked as editor of the Ed Greenwood Presents Waterdeep novels and as a writer and editor on the best-selling Practical Guide series. 

From Conan novels to the Matador series, Steve Perry has been setting the standard for action novels for more than thirty years.  His recent novels include Indiana Jones and the Army of the Dead and Champion of the Dead: a Buddhist Martial Arts Fantasy Novel.  You won’t find a better martial arts-themed novel than Perry’s The Musashi Flex.

Mark T. Sullivan writes thrillers such as Labyrinth, The Serpent’s Kiss, and the recent Triple Cross.  Sullivan hones his prose to a fine edge and bleeds every last drop of blood out of his characters.  Labyrinth is almost offensively good.


What has the study and practice of martial arts taught you about writing in general and fiction writing in particular?


Steve Perry:  This has been part and parcel of my writing all along — I started studying martial arts long before I turned to writing. If you are going to do action stuff, you need some kind of basis, and that’s mine. Pretty much all of my novels have some of that in them.

Mark T. Sullivan:  I started practicing Aikido in Takoma Park, Maryland in 1986 about the same time I was starting out in my life as an investigative reporter. At first Aikido was just something I did to blow off stress and I did not see it influence my writing.

Then I moved to San Diego and started studying with Kazuo Chiba Sensei, who had been the personal student and servant to Ueshiba, the founder of Aikido as a meld of jiujisu and samurai sword work. Chiba was the toughest teacher I’ve ever had, someone who pushed you way beyond your limits. That’s the first thing he and Aikido taught me about writing. The only limit in Aikido, in anything, was the imagination. During the five years that I trained with him, Chiba taught me that everything is a process of becoming, just like a piece of writing, which only stops becoming when you set it down or publish it. Aikido taught me the importance and submission to years of practice, of doing the same movements over and over again until the moves became instinctual, which is how the best books are written.

Steven Barnes:   Focus, discipline, sneakiness, splitting the reader’s attention.  If there is a plot development that is important for an emotional payoff, sometimes you want to be sure the reader can’t get ahead of you, doesn’t guess what you’re up to. You give them a secondary problem which, in retrospect, will seem fair and reasonable, but leads them to invest energy in the “wrong” direction. Readers are smart. In a mystery, they know there is a puzzle–you get them to invest in the wrong one. This is similar to “leaving an opening” to draw a response in sparring, anticipating that response and having your counter ready.

Susan Morris:   My fight scenes are far cleaner and more realistic. At first, when you learn something in martial arts, it’s all about the detail. Every angle, the speed of acceleration, the impact, when you tense, when you relax, everything. But then, it becomes something your body knows–a feel, an instinct. Then, when asked about a move, you can express it in the “elevator pitch”–you can express its essence rather than its details.

It is this essence that transfers well to writing. I actually wrote a column about this here.

Mark T. Sullivan:  Aikido also taught me to face fear and overcome it, a handy thing if you’re a writer faced with a blank page or a writer thinking of quitting your job to follow the dream. Also, at a certain point, say when you’re fighting four men at once, each move has to be instinctual and creative. I try to approach writing in the same way.

Stephen Leigh:  Study of the martial arts has taught me to strive to be patient with myself, something I still occasionally struggle with.

Martial arts have also taught me that there is no “goal”. The idea that there’s an end point to anything in life is a very Western concept, but in studying Aikido and listening to my teachers along the way, I finally realized that there’s no finish line in this race. To obtain a black belt doesn’t mean you’ve “mastered” the art; it means that you’re finally a serious student of the art. There’s no such thing as mastery: the path is a continuum and doesn’t have an end. You’re always learning nuances and new ways of approaching a technique, and even entirely new techniques. As your body changes and ages, you also have to be constantly re-adjusting what you do based on where you are now.

There’s no end to learning a martial art. You’re never, ever “finished” with the process.

And it’s the same with writing. You should always, always be learning to be a better writer.


Jeremy L. C. Jones is a freelance writer, editor, and teacher.  He is the staff Interviewer for Clarkesworld Magazine and a frequent contributor to Kobold Quarterly.  He teaches at Wofford College and Montessori Academy in Spartanburg, SC.  He is also the director of Shared Worlds, a creative writing and world-building camp for teenagers that he and Jeff VanderMeer designed in 2006.