Category Archives: On Writing

On Writing World Weekly Round-Up: 3/18/12

I present to you my attempt at a weekly round up, that is, a conglomeration of good posts from the last week. This will be too long because I follow too many blogs. It will also be too much coolness to handle in its entirety, so just scroll through and open whatever catches your eye. 😀 If this isn’t too painful in the creation, you will get more.


  • News & Noteworthy

(As if every single one of these links isn’t noteworthy. My headings need work.)

The eye-popper of the week award goes to A Follow’s Not a Book Sale (Though It’s Really Nice), which asks “Does social media affect sales AT ALL?” via The Intern

Maggie Steifvater with lotsa From Rough to Final links! There is so much to learn from watching the pros edit.

I found Erin Morgenstern’s Flax Golden Tale wonderful this week. Read the flash fiction Monitoring System.

Alison Cherry runs a pretty entertaining blog as a rule, but you know The Things We Do For Research will be a real gem just from the title.

Luke Alistar offers sobering thoughts for writers on The Power You Hold.

Why Finish Books? Yes, this is every bit as odd-ball as it sounds. via The New York Review of Books

  • Advice

Ready to Submit? Think Again is a very comprehensive checklist to go through before, well, submitting. via Fantasy Faction

Pretend you don’t need 3 Ways to Keep Social Media from Taking Over Your Writing Time. Just pretend. I dare you. via Author, Jody Hedlund

8 Tips For Getting What You Want (out of industry professionals). via Go Teen Writers – not just for teens. 😉

Lessons from the Strictly Objective Critique Partner. via YA Highway

  • Writing Advice

We’ll start this off with a good old-fashioned “how to beat writers block.” Creativity Blocked? Here’s the Solution. Write a letter to yourself. Through the MAIL. No, really. via Write to Done

Here’s something with the provocative title of Writing Multiple Books in a Year– It Doesn’t Take as Much as You Think. via Mystery Writing is Murder

Done to Death: A New Trope questions how much original plots matter. via Speculative Faith

This is about changing the way you view subplots forever and Grey’s Anatomy. via Novel Rocket And to continue mining TV shows, Lessons from Downton Abbey.

The Art of Poisoning Your Characters, because we all know there is nothing a little poisoning couldn’t make worse, and worse is better, right? via Fantasy Faction

We were gifted with two brilliant pieces on Io9: How Not to Be a Clever Writer and 8 Unstoppable Stories for Writing Killer Short Stories.

EditTorrent talks about what three varied writers need to start. Once the push from what you need to start a novel wears off, Janice Hardy has So Where Were We? Finishing Manuscripts. She also has Under Development: Ways to Create Characters.

Want The Scoop On Agents? via The Kill Zone Authors

  • Resources

Nifty little things that have been around since the dawn of time I am only now discovering because I live underneath a rock. It’s dark here.

Solving the “I don’t have the money or the oomph to travel” excuse for not attending writer conventions is WriteCon, an online conference for KidLit, MG, and YA authors. It’s free.

102 Resources for Writing. Just in case you didn’t have enough links. This is one to bookmark, ladies and gentlemen. via Here to Create

Donna Macmeans has compiled a list of Rooting Interests, the things that get readers behind characters.

I present to you The Michael Hauges Story Concept Template. In fact, this is going to be the All-Important Reader Engagement Moment of the Week. Fill in the blanks with your novel and post it in the comments below so we can see what each other is writing! iva Jill Williamson

  • Fun

My twitter stream was filled by people tweeting their Hunger Names this week. It gives you your precinct, the number of your game, and the way you die, too. Yes, this is under “fun.”

“NASA has released videos shot from onboard the Space Shuttle’s Solid Rocket Boosters in the past, but you’ve never seen one prepared as masterfully as this.” via Io9

St. Paddy’s Day Writing Prompts – what it says on the tin. via Creative Writing Prompts for Writers

A fellow aspiring writer takes the amusing route in announcing a vacation. Which I should do instead of not posting for a month without notice.


Enjoy. Don’t forget to leave the your Michel Houghes Story Concept Template in the comments so we can learn about each other’s plots!


How to Make a Fantasy Character Name

[A note to my subscribers: this post was originally published in October, but wordpress hiccuped and the post was down within the day. Some of you will remember it and some of you will not. I just now made this re-post.]

Usually, fantasy and science fiction names come easily to me. But for some reason my current WIP does not want anything in it named. I was having a headache of a time, so I decided to do a little research. Maybe you aren’t having as bad a time as I was – you just need a fantasy character named, without the writer’s-naming-block. Well, you’re in luck. Fantasy name generators are a half-penny a dozen on the internet. Just google search, pull up a site, press “generate” until you find something you don’t hate, and presto, fantasy name. Go on. What are you standing around for?

Still here? Good. That means you understand enough to know no generator can possibly supply a quality name, specific and tailored and an enrichment to the rest of your fantasy world. You know a generator can not supply originality or the specific need of your story. Yay!

  • Quick: What NOT to Do

I found this humorous piece while researching. In short, it gives a good run-down of how not to make a fantasy name. Since humor does every so much better a job at explaining things (especially why things are wrong), I’ll just link. How Not to Make a Fantasy Name. It’s a quick read.

  • Methods of Creation

I found many authors sharing their method of playing with words and sounds in order to come up with something they liked. I suppose this is what I always did before; it just came naturally to throw together sounds. Lots of writers look through baby name sites and then manipulate a name they like. One author said she would take a word, and then change it one letter at a time until she had what she wanted. At first glance just playing with sounds doesn’t sound like a good method, but don’t dismiss it too soon. This mainly relies on your ability to decide on a name that “feels right.” Which comes to my next topic. . .

  • Connotations of Sounds

What makes a name “feel right”? It’s not psychic. It’s not random. Sounds have connotations around them. Yes, this is scientific. Think about softer sounds versus harder sounds. S and L versus the hard G and K, for example. When a word, especially a name, sounds like what it means, that’s perfect. So play with sounds. . . but know what you’re doing when you play with them. If you have the time – and I highly recommend you make quite a bit of time if you don’t have it – explore the site at, which deals extensively with this subject.

  • Fitting in the Language

Names are part of a language. Names from the same country are going to come from the same language. Grithinlot and Tien are different fundamentally because they do not sound like they come from the same language. Brandon Sanderson, an author of fantasy, detailed the way he came up with different languages in one of his novels, and I highly recommend the source – anything I say would probably be repeating him. Why do you need to think about an entire language when all you want are character names? Well, what else will you need to be naming? Cities? Animals? Foods? Maybe you need a magical phrase. All words are part of a language, and you can’t ignore that while worldbuilding.

As mentioned earlier, many writers have their own methods for giving their fantasy characters names. What is your method? What is one fantasy name you particularly like? What is your favorite fantasy name that you created?

Testing a Character for Mary Sue-ism and What to Do About It

What is a Mary Sue?
There are several definitions of a Mary Sue. Usually a character that makes people say, “Mary Sue!” has some combination of the follow characterizations:

  • A Character Based Off Yourself

Named after you, working at the job you wish you had, possessing all your good qualities, dressing, thinking, and acting like you, this is the beginner’s Mary Sue. When I first started writing as a teen all my protagonists were copies – maybe idealized copies, but still copies – of me. Trust me, this is a bad idea. You will get too attached to your character, not allow them to grow and 3D-ize naturally, and will squish the story to fit the character, instead of the other way around.

  • A Perfect, Unbeatable, Fantastic Character

She is gorgeous. She will whip anyone in a fight. She can not lose. She gets all the guys she wants. If she’s got a fault it something like “a little clumsy when not on the battlefield.”  She’s a Mary Sue. These are the characters that annoy people. Unfortunately, these Sues also tend to masquerade as Really Cool characters. And it’s really temping to make your favorite character Really Cool.

  • A Character With Cliche Qualities, Backstory, or Plot Points

She was abandoned by her parents, has strange eyes that see into your soul, and will die in her lovers arms to be brought back to life at the Crucial Moment. If you’re wondering how you could possibly write a character this terrible. . . well, maybe not that terrible. But letting “little” cliche attributes pile up is easier than you think, especially if you are not well-versed in cliches.

Despite the female name, Mary Sues do not have to be girls. Guys can have the qualities too. Now, whether you call a male Mary Sue a Gary Stu or Murray Sue or Marty Stew is subject to some debate. For the sake of simplicity, however, I will only use “she” in this post. Substitute “he/she/it” in your mind.

A Little History

Originally, Mary Sues referred to original fanfiction characters. Even more originally, it referred to original Star Trek fanfiction characters. A short story mocking the abundance of young, perfect, attention-stealing insert characters coined the term. It is viewable here: The term “Mary Sue” has lost a lot of its meaning in fanfiction due to general overuse and definition fuzziness, but plain fiction writers have happily adopted the term.

How can I tell if one of my characters is a Mary Sue?

Well, the easy way is to try a Mary Sue test on the character. Now, in no way is a simple yes/no test perfect, but I’ve found such tests very useful. I’ve compiled links to the tests I’ve found most useful. They are intended for straight fiction characters (many tests you find will be intended for fanficiton characters).

  • The Original Mary Sue Test for Fiction Characters

[Note: the original original Mary Sue test which the above test was based off of was for fanfiction characters.]

  • The Exhaustive, Recommended Test [Slight language and references to sexuality. For a PG to PG-13 audience.]

[Note: on the same site is a Mary Sue test for created races.]

  • A Shorter Test

[Note: the “summary” after the test is humorously unreliable, but all the points are something to think about.]

The Mary Sue of Stargate: Atlantis

I just realized why Teyla is my least favorite character on my favorite show. She's an orphan, the leader of her people, a keen warrioress, partially Wraith, and the only new thing she struggles to understand is Earth culture. No wonder she annoys me.

Oh dear. How do I fix my Mary Sue?

Fixing Mary Sues isn’t too hard, as long as you’re not too attached. What exactly you need to do to fix your Mary Sue depends on what is wrong. But first, let me define “fixing.” I do not mean going, “OK, maybe I can cut that out,” and de-checking boxes on a Mary Sue test until you are down to a reasonable score. I mean taking a grand look at your character, picking up the worst problems one at a time, and figuring out what should be there instead.

  • Copy of You

So, she’s actually you, huh? Here’s a quick tip: change her (or his) name. I mentioned above that all my first protagonists were coppies of me. Well, one of those protagonists has since been rewritten (along with her accompanying story line) into someone else entirely who can carry a novel on her shoulders. The first step was to change her name. Then figure out how much of your storyline was pandering to the fact she’s you – and cut it.  Leave her alone for a few months. Come back and figure out who she really is.

  • Backstory

Backstory is perhaps the easiest to fix, and it’s even easier to fix if you’ve yet to start writing (this is why you test for Mary Sues in the development stage). Just. . . change their personal story. If you’ve already begun writing, you may need to add or delete scenes, but trust me, it’s for the better of your novel. This only gets tricky if you have a bad backstory giving a character their motive or something for integral to the story. In this case it’s back to the drawing board: your character is underdeveloped. Decide what is really causing Mary Sue to act.

  • Character Traits

Ditch the purple eyes and raven hair and the out-of-time-and-place clothing. Make sure she has a real character flaw – or three or five. Realize she is not going to stay calm and collected no matter what, and certainly not when everyone else is panicking. Take a look at your character arc: how has she changed by The End? Or did you make her perfect at the beginning and leave no room for development?

  • Cliche Development

If you just realized that Mary Sue easily switches from being an apothecary to leading the rebel army, if Mary Sue never gets honestly beaten or makes a mistake (without a reasonable excuse), if Mary Sue develops amnesia, and becomes royalty. . . hopefully you’re only outlining. 🙂 Take bad plot points out and figure out a better way to get from the A before the point and the B after the point. Add good plot points (your character receiving the consequences for being a smart alec, for example). Think carefully about realism, since many Mary Sue plot point borderline the fantastic.

If you find that a character is just too deep a Mary Sue to keep alive and just can’t make it in your story, that’s OK. Sometimes its easier to start over from the beginning rather than try to revise the unrevisable. Just last year I scrapped a complete draft and started over from the beginning. It was that bad.

Things To Remember So You Don’t Huff And Ignore Everything I Just Said:
~Those tests are for symptom of the disease. Not every point is to be avoided like a hurricane; Mary Sue characteristics – when used with restraint – can be done well. See below.
~Yes, it is possible for you to see Mary Sue qualities in a character from your favorite or a classic book. If you are a really, really good writer, you can pull off a great story with a Mary Sue. And I mean J. K. Rowling good (try doing a Mary Sue test for Harry Potter).
~Every writer has made a Mary Sue in their day. You will too at some point. You are not J. K. Rowling. If you think you are, there’s a name for that psychiatric condition.

This is the first post in a serious on characters. You see, in my planning for NaNoWriMo, I’m fleshing out my main and supporting characters. So it’s all in self-interest.  May you never write another Mary Sue again! (I wish the same for myself.)

How to Write a Back Cover Blurb for Your Novel (or more of, it’s twin you will actually use)

You are walking down the bookstore isle for your favorite genre, just browsing for a new read. You see an interesting looking cover. You stop and pick it up. What do you do next? Read the back cover, of course, and see if the blurb (for anyone who doesn’t know, that’s the thingy on the back of a novel describing what’s inside) is as captivating as the cover. Then you open the book, probably randomly, to see if what’s inside is a captivating as both the cover and the blurb.

Back up.

As just the author, you may not have much to do with designing the cover. But you will have something to do with creating the blurb. You’re going to have to write it. But not for the reason you think.

Realistically, someone in the marketing department writes the actual blurb that will be on the back of your printed novel, but you will have to write something essentially the same for querying. For the agent or editor, the hookline is the cover – the flashy front that gets attention. But instead of flipping the novel around, they read down the page to the next item on your query. Some call it a tiny synopsis, but I don’t like that term (I’ll tell why later).  Just imagine you are writing the blurb for your novel.

Who is the protagonist?
What’s the problem and the inciting incident?
What does the protagonist want?
How are they going to achieve that goal?
What’s in the way?

Sound familiar? Kind of like what you wanted to portray in the hookline? Well, there’s a reason for that. The blurb is the expounding of the hookline. You have two to four paragraphs to do it, and these aren’t big blocks of text. How do you cut your novel down so far? The answer sounds easy, but is harder in practice: cut the unnecessary details. We don’t need to know how old the protagonist is. We don’t need to know their dog’s name. And we don’t need unnecessary plot explained; we need just enough plot to ground us in the direction of the novel. Concise is better.

One of the biggest killers of a blurb is confusion. This may be caused by lack of conciseness, or it could be something else. Are there too many characters named? Does the storyline progression make sense? Are any sentences confusing? Often something that is clear to the writer is not clear to the reader. Maybe even who the protagonist is is murky. Watch for continuity problems as well. Characters mentioned in the first paragraph must be with us in the last. A blurb also shouldn’t jump locations or time without a note.

For the actual crafting of a blurb, all that applies to regular story telling is applicable to your blurb. I mentioned I didn’t like the term “tiny summary.”  That is because a summary is flat prose. We want popping prose, sentences that live and breath and above all show, just like your novel.

My modest attempt for my novel We Will Survive>:

The year is 2234. 100 years ago, Earth launched it’s first interstellar space colony, the Alliance. Now, that colony is outgrowing it’s alloted solar system and stretching further. For Taylor Road, this means being among the recruits for the Tythese-System exploration mission. It’s dangerous, mentally strenuous work out of contact with the rest of the Alliance, but her job assures her baby brother won’t be the next victim of insufficient resources. For the Veninians, this means confrontation ahead of schedule. For now, they’ll stay hidden. They know there is no need for the Alliance to know they exist until they’re the Alliance’s masters.

Within weeks the exploration teams know something is different in the Tythese System. Unaccountable communications interference. Moons that appear to be in the process terraformation. Rumors of Heelans – the terrorists who were driven from the Alliance decades ago – ripple the fleet. Finally, a disappearance, and it’s from Taylor’s team. The resulting search falls into the same trap their teammate did.

Their captors call themselves an empire, and do not hide their designs on Alliant space. All Alliants have dreamed of once again contacting the people of Earth, their cousins. But are these what Earth has turned into? Solemn, genetically modified people who believe their sole duty is to subjugate inferiors? Taylor doesn’t have the answers, and she doesn’t care. Right now she needs to find a way – any way – to warn her people.

To see a more professional blurb, try grabbing a book off the shelf and taking a look at the blurb on back or in the front flap. I also recommend Query Shark for blurb examples and critique. You see, most of a query is just like the blurb on the back of a novel. The Query Shark is an agent who runs this blog as a service to the writing community: people send their possible query letters to them not for acceptance, but for public critique on their blog. I have to warn you: this shark bites.

Have you ever written a blurb, either just for fun, to keep you on track while writing your novel, or for an actual query? Feel free to share and offer tips.

How to Write a Powerful Hookline

The hookline will be the first thing anyone ever hears about your novel. Even before the killer first sentence (and you did craft one of those, yes?), the hookline snags a reader. The reader either is reeled in or slips off back into the sea. Agents and editors are flooded with queries. This is your one chance to make an impression. If you fail, your query letter gets chucked in the trash. Scared yet?

A hookline (or logline, if you’re talking about a movie or play) is a one-sentence summary of your novel. It’s goal is to intrigue. A typical hookline set up is, “In [setting], [protagonist] [action – specific plot element] to [goal], but [protagonist] [counterforce or motive],” but there is no hard and fast setup. Still, most of those elements are included in every hookline.

The Protagonist and the Antagonist

First, forget your characters’ names. Andrew Fillmore or Martha Anderson say nothing about the character, but the “chipper, unemployed trapeze artist” or “retired Navy officer” does. Capture people with who your characters are, and they will want to know names.

Second – and you can keep this in mind for all nouns in your hookline – forget everything you’ve been told about cutting adjectives. At least while you’re writing a hookline. You only have one sentence, and while it must be tiny, it should not be skin and bones. Don’t be superfluous and give each noun an adjective – or two, but do say that the ranch your widow must restore is dilapidated.

You will not need to mention more than two or three characters or groups of characters. The main speaker and their team or close connection, and the antagonist and their team or close connection are all who need to be mentioned. For example, the logline for The Magnificent Seven could read:

A professional gunslinger (protagonist) organizes a unique posse (protagonist’s team or group) that struggles to save a Mexican town from a murderous group of banditos (antagonist group).

A cyber-friend on a forum I frequent is writing a novel with this hookline:

A genius orphan (protagonist) races to find a cure for his brain-damaged sister (protagonist’s close connection) before her makeshift life support system fails (antagonist – time).

Notice in the above hookline, the antagonist is not a person. While a thinking, calculating being is usually used as the bad guy, the antagonist can easily be a stressful job, time, or illness.

The Goal or End Result

Both the protagonist and the antagonist have these. The protagonist’s goal absolutely must be stated, but the antagonist’s goal may be implied. If the antagonist is not a person, then it can not have a goal, but it most certainly has an end result.

A professional gunslinger organizes a unique posse that struggles to save (protagonist goal) a Mexican town from a murderous group of banditos (implied antagonist goal – to keep the town).

A genius orphan races to find a cure (protagonist goal) for his brain-damaged sister before her makeshift life support system fails (antagonist end result).

The Setting

The setting is both the time period and the place of the novel. If the novel takes place in a contemporary setting, there is no need to give a time. The contemporary setting is assumed. But if your novel is historical fiction or takes place in the future, you need to make that clear.

Do the same you did for names for places. Unless the place is Los Angeles or the Rockies or some other place that does not need an explanation, a “bustling suburb” is better than Georgetown, and “newly colonized planet” is better than “Ithos-3.” For a novel with a complex world (such as a fantasy or science fiction novel), the setting may need an entire clause.

A professional gunslinger (setting keyword – time) organizes a unique posse that struggles to save a Mexican town (setting – place) from a murderous group of banditos.

The setting may be implied by keywords associated with that time or place, as it is with “professional gunslinger.” By the time we get to “posse” we know this is a western and now have a time frame of the events.

In a future where criminals are arrested before the crime occurs (setting – time), a despondent cop struggles on the lam (setting – place) to prove his innocence for a murder he has not yet committed.

This logline for Minority Report illustrates how a science fiction novel carries its setting. It devotes the entire first clause to a) telling us this novel takes place in the future, and b) explaining the part of the world that has the biggest impact on the plot (criminals being arrested before the crime occurs).


No doubt your hookline will include one or more actions by the protagonist, and maybe even by the antagonist. These actions should be aggressive, not passive. No one wants to read about a passive hero (Or villain, for that matter. How exactly can one be a passive villain anyway?). Make the actions very specific, not general, preferably using actual plot points, and as always, use vibrant verbs and few adverbs.

A professional gunslinger organizes a unique posse (protagonist specific action) that struggles (protagonist evocative action) to save a Mexican town from a murderous group of banditos.

Notice that while “struggles” is not a specific plot point, it nevertheless evokes a strong sense of both physical and mental action, and is offset by the specific action (organizes a unique posse).

A genius orphan races to find a cure (protagonist actions) for his brain-damaged sister before her makeshift life support system fails.

“Races to find a cure” is actually a fairly general action, but if the novel is about the boy trying one thing after another, this more accurately reflects the plot line than just one of those attempts.

Showing Mood

Consider the following two loglines from the same movie.

Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first woman she meets, then teams up with three complete strangers to do it again.

After a twister transports a lonely Kansas farm girl to a magical land, she sets out on a dangerous journey to find a wizard with the power to send her home.

Try to echo your novel’s tone. If your novel is comedic, throw a bit of wit in your hookline. If it’s a lighthearted adventure, give it a childish fantastical feel. If it lays bare grim reality, portray the attitude in it. You shouldn’t worry over trying to include your novel’s tone too much, but never, ever, mix moods. (For those of you who are wondering, Wikipedia attributes the first, rather twisted logline of The Wizard of Oz to “Richard Polito of the Marin Independent Journal, who writes humorously sarcastic briefs for the paper’s daily TV listings.”)

I have a weakness for hooklines. It is hard to condense my novel into a single sentence, but it would be extremely useful, not only so I could write a decent query, but so I could have an answer when someone asks me what my novel is about. So far I either mumble, “it’s science fiction,” or I prattle on for three minutes.

Do you have any hooklines for your novel? Any other tips on how to write a hookline?

How to Write an Alien Invasion Novel

In 1898, H. G. Wells struck the match for alien invasion novels with his War of the Worlds.

“I’m writing an alien invasion novel.” You’ll get a few odd smiles, a few confused looks, and maybe a few glazed “whatever” looks. The genre has been suffering under mediocre representations. But you, as a creative and adventuresome fellow who knows how to write, can bring the alien novel back to life! Right? Right?

The Aliens
As a writer, you’ll often hear that your characters are what draw a reader to your story and create the first link between observer and world. This means antagonists as well as protagonists. Whether a well-developed protagonist or antagonist is more important is subject to much debate. For an alien invasion novel, however, the answer is simple: the antagonists. The people who read alien novels look for an are attracted to the aliens. Don’t skimp on this. Even if all the humans see is ships, you would need to develop their thought process to make all their actions cohesive. Most important is the aspect that allows the aliens to be defeated or win.

Motives, Motives, Motives
This is number one, and a swimming pool of cliches. Slaves. Food. Planetary resources. Punishment for being a war-like race (And they aren’t? Who’s attacking who?). Or just some super evil galactic government that can’t stand the thought of sentients not under it’s control. One thing that will hook readers is a unique motive. As part of the premise, the motive must be strong and believable.  Keep in mind that all the alien’s actions during the invasion are governed by the motive.  If the aliens want the planet resources, they’ll take care not to damage the atmosphere and landscape too much. If the aliens want more subjects, they will be more mindful of the civilian lives. With that in mind, you don’t need English-speaking aliens to communicate a motive. Their actions will do just fine.

What is the alien weaponry? Defense? What type of ships do they possess? Are there any other technological advantages that they have? Your heroes will be fighting this. Just make sure the technology level is smooth: if they have motherships that can vaporize a city, they probably won’t need foot soldiers. If there is a weakness to their technology, it must be realistic. Any aliens attacking Earth have no doubt worked simulations of our attempts to resist.

Methods of Attack
~Alien Raids
Aliens without the power or numbers for an all-out attack can be content with pirating resources in raids. Raids, with presumably less-advanced ships and smaller numbers the enemy, are easier for smaller groups or citizens to defeat (or at least convince not to come back). On the other hand, raids may be preparation for an all out attack, doing reconnaissance of Earth’s population or military abilities or spreading terror.
~Alien Infiltration
Aliens take human form and live among us, slowly taking higher and higher levels within our society until they affectively rule the world, or can smother resistance to a true invasion. This is interesting because aliens could be running nations and no one would know.  To bring the aliens down, the protagonist must first discover them, and take on sleuthing duties to route expose them.  Easily a thriller in the mystery/spy department.

The Independence Day aliens show you how it's done.

~All-Out Attack
The aliens come. The aliens attack. Earth is crumbling. This is for the aliens who are to big and bad and don’t have to bother with infiltration or minor attacks. Also the favorite method of exterminators. Presumably, the aliens know what they’re doing, and the only hope of defeating them is in an odd weapon. Ala the common cold be deadly to Martians (or macs being compatible with alien motherships, but I had to give a good example first). The defeat must be different, reasonable, and unexpected. I find this version the most exciting, but that may just be me.

Reaction and Resistance
Since, most likely, your story will be from the humans’ point of view, their reaction are most of the story. Being a stubborn bunch, most will fight back (before or after peace negotiations fail). But there will be the few that see Earth as the losing side and throw their lot with the aliens.
Military Resistance is likely to be wiped out, but then, we could always come up with some clever incision the aliens were not prepared for. More common is an innovative defeat involving brains over brawn or natural aspects of Earth being deadly to the aliens.

Defeat or Triumph?
By far, most alien invasion novels end with Earth in triumph. But not all. There are three main endings for the alien invasion novel: a) Earth wins, b) peace is negotiated, or c) aliens win and Earth is left on bent knee. . . at least until next time.
If Earth wins, you must decide how. Usually any strict military action gets crushed (or vaporized, as the case may be) and innovative action is used for the actual defeat, if indeed human action is the alien downfall.
If peace is negotiated, the natural communication problem must be solved, preferably with a more interesting fix than “They watched our TV shows” (Wouldn’t they all be brain dead then?) or “Telepathy!” (Getting close to magic, even if it is acceptable soft sci-fi).
If the aliens win, you need to make sure readers don’t throw your own book at you. There must be a silver lining: plans for the future, the aliens aren’t any worse masters than any other government, or something else that saves the ending. We tend to want the guy most like ourselves to win, or at least be okay. If you defy this, it had better be so interesting readers are to busy thinking about it to aim properly at you.

~Beneficial Alien Invasion/Aliens are the Good Guys
What if the invasion was for the benefit of man kind? What if Earth had been provocative, and the aliens were more good guys than bad? Since our natural tendency is to route for the humans (after all, they are the ones we understand and can sympathize with best), this opens some interesting opportunities for dilemmas. What side does the protagonist take, and how does he justify it? What if both sides think they are in the right?

Harry Turtledove's Worldwar series is an example of alternate history alien invasion.

~Alternate HistoryHarry Turtledove’s Worldwar Series is an example of placing an alien invasion in the past.
Most aliens novels take place in the present – whenever the “present” was when the novel was written, for this simple reason that the readers get hit with the creepy feeling of possibility and “w. But this is hardly a hard-and-fast rule. Giving an aliens invasion a historical setting takes the usual work and research of a historical novel, but the possibilities are enticing. (Personally, I think aliens versus Napoleon could be cool.) Ancient cultures are fascinating, aliens are fascinating, and the combination of the two is at least interesting.

I like to think about the “what ifs” of an aliens invasion. I don’t know whether or not I’ll write an alien invasion novels someday, but all novels have their “what-if” stage. Hopefully this post will start a “what-if” chain in your mind as well! Have you ever written an alien invasion novel or story? Is there anything you like to add? What aspect of an alien invasion novel do you find most important?

How Many Races Should You Have?

I seem to be getting inspiration from people’s questions a lot lately.  A little over a week ago, Thrawn asked a question on the Holy Worlds Sci-Fi forums:

How many groups of aliens do you think is appropriate and easy to handle?

While I responded on the thread, I wanted to elaborate. Like many answers, the short version is “It depends.” As with all answers, the long version is more interesting. While I am speaking in science fiction terms, this is all very relevant to fantasy as well.

From what I have found, there are three main development/involvement levels for races (or, “groups of aliens,” if you prefer). The number of groups you may handle depends on the level of development and involvement, since these affect how much time and effort is needed.

Fully Developed Races
Main characters and sub-main characters are part of fully developed races (with a few plot exceptions – such as the main character is the only surviving member of the race). These are races where everything is developed: history, culture, clothing, food, mindset, factions, schooling, religion, technology, architecture, etc. etc. etc.

Semi-Developed Races
Usually secondary characters belong to somewhat developed races. Just as secondary characters play a minor role, the development is less. Things like appearance, clothing, and mindset are given, but all other aspects of development are created only as it is needed: if the character is part of a faction, then that faction and how it is different from the norm is developed. You would only develop food if they ate a meal. If the main characters were passing through the race’s territory, architecture would need to be developed.

Fully developed and somewhat developed races may have a political role in the story. Also, one or more planets may be fully developed.

Existing Races
Some secondary characters and background characters belong to existing races. Nothing more is developed than the race’s home planet or territory’s location, any quirks the race has, the race’s appearance, the race’s means of communications, and possibly clothing. Usually not even all of that is developed.

Fine. How many of each, exactly?
No exactly. How many people groups you can handle involves the story line, your comfort level, and the level of the races. If you need more races for the galaxy to feel less empty, add a half-dozen existing races. Throw them around interplanetary stations. Mention passing their territory or planet. Most of us could develop a dozen existing races without a problem.

For fully developed races I can usually only handle about three at most. But then, my novels are short for the sci-fi genre. If I had room, perhaps I could develop more if my story line called for it.

Key phrase: if the story line calls for it. Don’t over develop a race just because it’s there. You can become stressed thinking you have to make every race fully or even semi developed. On the other hand, don’t worry about overdeveloping: you could always use the development unmentioned in the story for another race in another story. Also, for a semi-developed race, over development might help you “get a feel” for the race, as a friend pointed out.

Take your pick as to which half of the above paragraph you are going to listen to.

An Interesting Note
There have been studies showing that the human brain can only completely manage four other people at a time at top capacity. The article I heard was referencing how many generals leaders have historically handled effectively. About a year ago, I noticed an interesting thing: while I could make smooth and even conversations between four characters, conversations fell apart when I used five. Someone got left in the sidelines. What’s more, I never was able to learn how to make my five characters have a smooth conversation, even with time and plenty of practice. My theory is that I’m managing four “people,” and as the study showed, I can’t handle five at 100% effectiveness. It’s just a theory – and I’d love to hear if this is true for you as well as me – but it appears sound as I’ve applied it to other things.

And races are “other things.” I would recommend no more than four fully developed races.

How do you tell what level a race should be?
You can look at the level of the characters in that race and judge from there. But my personal route is to write in a race at a lower level, and wait to see if I need more development. If I’m writing and realize I really, really, need to have some standard wardrobes for different classes in a race, I’ll pause, pull out pretty colored pencils, and create apparel. I am very obviously a panster.

How many groups of aliens or races do you handle in one story? From what I have said, which development and involvement levels do these races have?

How to Write a Spy Novel

A few days ago, a friend (who will probably be among the first to comment) shot me a message, wondering how to write a spy novel:

Hey Katty!

So… you said you really like spy stories, and I just got an idea for a spy story. 😀 The problem is, I know diddly squat (er… my mom says that; I’m not sure if anyone else does! 😀 ) about spies and spy stories. 😛 Is there anything I need to know about them… or should I just wing it and see what I end up with? 😉

Love in Christ,

First off: DON’T WING IT! Whatever you do, do not wing the spy novel. I winged my first spy novel plot and ended up with so many twists and subplots with no resolutions that you couldn’t see the main plot (OK, slight exaggeration). If you get an idea that will change everything mid way through, great, but plot it out first and see if it’s vaguely plausible.

A spy novel needs to be thought out beforehand, even more so than novels of most genres. Unlike, say, a quest fantasy, where plot points can be shuffled or cut out or added without too much trouble, everything needs to be compactly connected to the main plot. (Unplotted) whims simply do not have a place.

I know you’re very excited and want to sit down and start writing right away, but you shouldn’t. If you start before you have your twists and ever-so-important plot points planned, you will be tempted to throw in twists and sidetracks and obstacles at every turn. This breaks the pace and spell, not to mention you run the risk of losing the main plot. No matter how big a panster you are (I’m right there with you), you need to accept this. Plot your major points. Plot your major twists. Plot your ending. Make a dreaded outline.

No James Bond coppies, please.

While plotting, make sure you do not lapse into a dreaded cliche. This is generally true for all genres, but in a spy novel you simply can’t get away with it. Ever since the spy novel was invented, people have been searching for plot twists and uniqueness. I’d say “There isn’t much left,” but imagination is boundless, so there is plenty left. You just have to find it.

A rule of thumb: if you’ve seen it done once, there are a lot of people who have seen it done a thousand times. TVtropes has an excellent list of spy tropes, many of which are cliches or have cliche versions. I highly recommend it.

There isn’t much unique to spy novels as a genre. First and foremost, they are thrillers. Knowing how to write fight scenes, chase scenes, and standoffs (ooh, I’m getting future post ideas) is imperative. That was one of my goofs in winging a spy novel: I didn’t know how to write a fight scene. I figured that out at the first one that came along and quickly searched for the information now contained in the above link.

But those are not the defining element of thrillers. Suspense is, and it is made in many ways.

Pacing is key. There should never be a relaxing moment for your characters. This doesn’t mean you should annoy your reader by keeping the pace racing ahead at headache speed. But something should always be happening. If there is a “dull” moment it needs to be peppered by the fact something else is going on at the same time and the point of view character knows it. In other words, keep scenes tense either for the characters or the reader.

You keep the reader tense by keeping secrets from them. Never, ever let the reader know everything. Give them just enough information to keep reading, wondering what the whole picture is. Scatter the hints naturally. Kill every single info dump and spread the information through a scene or two in suspenseful snippets.

For example, if you start a scene with a man hiding in a room, the reader wants to know from whom he is hiding, why they want him, and what his plans are. In that order. So give the answers in the reverse order. The man loads his gun. His plan. He positions himself. In between text. Next the man destroys a piece of paper, thinking he can’t afford it to fall in the wrong hands. Why his enemies want him (and a new question – What was on the paper?). There are noises, and the man prepares himself. In between text. KGB agents walk in. Who he is hiding from. The entire scene can end without the question of what was on the paper being revealed.

This tension and suspense would be completely destroyed if the man curses his enemies at the beginning of the scene, reads the contents before destroying the paper, and is then forced to action when the agents walk in.

Never do the expected, either. This is hard, because we want to go with the first scenario that comes to our mind. Thing is, the first scenario that comes to our mind has been done before. A lot. Take the time to think of unique and different twists. Think about what is expected in a situation – what would normally happen, what would a person normally act – and take an opposite route. This is fresh and new and most importantly, different. The reader wants to know how this different thing will turn out.

Some genres can get away with bending facts. Soft science fiction comes to mind. But a spy novel can not. The basic premise of spy novels – daredevil heroes running around on wild, exciting, adventuresome missions – is less than factual. Everything else must be, otherwise you lose the world, reader, and trust.

If you are going to use spy gear and guns, research them. If your spy is hopping around countries and borders, research and create plausible political scenarios (Don’t have your spy running to North Korea when they need a break.). It pays to do your geographical and cultural research. Little real details can make an incredible difference.

In short, plot it, be unique, know what you’re doing, be suspenseful, and be accurate.  With a healthy dose of writing knowledge, these will help you write a spy novel that stands out.

Have you ever written a spy novel?  Do you have any other tips about how to write them?  Do you read spy novels?  If so, what do you look for in a new read?

Related Posts:
Writing Prompt: Spy
How Long Should a Chapter be in a Novel?
How to Outline a Novel
How to Write a Fight Scene

How long should a chapter be in a novel?

It’s a confusing thought. Your first draft may have chapters of radically different lengths, or no chapters at all. When you come back for a second draft, you have to make sure your chapters are the right length! But just how long should a chapter in a novel be?

What’s normal?
Strictly speaking, 10 to 17 pages is normal. But this “norm” is flexible (yes, another “it depends” answer) and based off the following principles:

In One Sitting
Granted, the Utterly Fantastic Novel of the Century would probably have readers up all night. But a more realistic idea has readers going chapter by chapter. Try to make your chapters good bight-sized lengths, small enough to read in one setting but long enough to contain enough interesting information and events to last a day. (If you’re writing a thriller, of course, you can ignore this. Aim for the page-turning effect.)

Think Complete
While some novels thrive on the cliffhanger chapter ending, a general rule of thumb is to make each chapter a mini-story. Just like the entire novel, an ideal chapter would adhere to a mini-three act structure with a beginning, middle, climax, and resolution. I will post more on the completeness of a chapter at a later date. For now, remember that if you come to a point where there is a “complete” feeling to the recent events, that is a good place to stick a chapter break. This also gives your readers a tiny sense of satisfaction at having completed their bight-sized reading amount.

Genre Differences
Just like how the length of a novel is affected by the genre, the length of a chapter is affected. History, fantasy, and science fiction novels are usually longer because they need more room to create a world. Thrillers and some types of mysteries are shorter because they are compact to create tension. The same applies to the individual chapters. Some fantasy chapters will reach 20 pages. Some thrillers have chapters only 2 or three pages long.

Flip Open a Favorite
Like many writing questions, this can be answered by grabbing a favorite novel (for this case, preferably the same genre).  Why a favorite novel?  Well, obviously you enjoyed it.  And, if no one else, you want your novel to please yourself.  So take a look at how many pages a few of your favorite novels have and divide that number by how many chapters each has.  That’s the average page length of a chapter.  Aim for it.

How long are your chapters? What guidelines do you follow to break your novels up?

How to write Fight Scenes: Useful Sites

A while back (and midway through a spyfy) I realized I didn’t know how to write fight scenes.  So I googled it.  Problem is, apparently everyone posts what everyone knows about fight scenes.  I ate page after page of redundant material until I had found enough unique sites to know my stuff.  Do not worry, this is not going to be yet another post on what everyone knows about fight scenes.  Other people have written enough on how to write fight scenes that I can give you a nice triplet of links and sleep at night knowing I’ve helped you bloody your characters.  Take the time to read through these; it can only improve your fighting skill.  Er, writing fighting skill.

How to Write a Fight Scene
After I read this, I thought, “I need to rewrite every fight scene I’ve ever written.”  After a friend read this (on my recommendation), she said, “I feel like rewriting every fight scene I’ve ever done.”  Essentially the same thing. 😉  I believe you will feel the same way too.  The author leads you through a fight scene step by step in the one of the more engaging voices I have read in an article.

Fight Scenes 101
An entire (small) site devoted to fight scenes.  Thumbs up.  The sections are titled Location, Weapons, Language, Writing, Big Odds, Big Battles, Other Types of Action, and Weapons Database, which gives you a good idea of the contents.

Does Your Fight Scene Pack a Punch?
Just an article, but it packs a punch.  Pun unintended.  This article focuses on two major things:  how to keep your fight scenes from looking like a choreographer’s notebook (For the record, mine did.) and how to give your fight scene emotional punch.  After all, readers aren’t going to worry about that broken nose if there is no emotion involved.

Pretty much every other article you’ll find parrots what is covered in these three sites.  ‘Tis a pity. I could rant about regurgitation articles forever (or at least a paragraph). Instead. . . Enough experts. What do you have to say about writing fight scenes? Anything to add?

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