10 Tips to Conquer a Writing Block Mountain

Writers often slam into a story wall. Sometimes they find a way to scale it and continue to run and dodge through the rest of the obstacle course to reach “The End.”

But sometimes, instead of a wall standing in our path, it’s a mountain range that blocks our progress. We’re backed into a corner. Ideas stop coming. Words shrivel up and die on the page before the ink dries. Maybe we don’t know the characters well enough. Somewhere between the lines we’ve lost our passion for the story. Whatever the reason for the block, it’s a real thing (no matter what others might say), and it happens to most writers sooner or later.

Suggestions abound for busting down writing blocks that don’t involve actual writing, such as drawing a map of the story world, designing a book cover, or compiling a playlist. Switching to another writing project keeps creativity flowing but distracts from the piece that caused the crash-and-burn in the first place.

The following tips focus on keeping you on a path through your current work-in-progress—the one that’s actually giving you grief. Most of these will get your brain to shift gears, help stimulate creativity, and cause you to look at your characters and their story from a different angle.

1. Write in long hand. This is the one I turn to first when I’m stuck. It means an extra step in transcribing your work onto a computer later, but it could be just enough of a change to get you back on the path.

2. Write a scene from a different point of view (POV) character. Try one you haven’t used yet or never thought to use at all—a secondary character, a love interest, the antagonist, the protagonist’s dog, the biggest redwood in the forest. This is especially helpful in understanding how another character feels or will react in a situation.

3. Write flashbacks. Here’s a way to dig deeper into your characters, where they come from, and what shaped their lives. Do this for villains as well as heroes.

4. Switch POV style and rewrite a scene or two—first person instead of third, third person instead of first.

5. Write out-of-order. Who says you have to write chronologically or strictly follow an outline? Whether or not you have a scene busting to be written, give it a go no matter where it falls in the storyline.

6. Having trouble deciding where the plot should go? Take inspiration from the Write-Your-Own-Adventure series. Write more than one course of action and follow the results. This also works if you know the end of your story but not how to get there.

7. Write a scene or chapter only in dialogue. This is a great way to practice your skills and get your brain working on advancing the story in a different way.

8. Change from “showing” to “telling” mode. Author Robin LaFevers suggests this switch “allows you to ‘tell’ the story. You can then go back in and convert it to showing/action based scenes later but being able to ‘tell’ helps you keep moving forward.”

9. Apply writing exercises or prompts to your characters or story. One of my favorites: What do your characters carry in their pockets, and why are these things important to them? A variation asks what a character wears, such as jewelry, as a token of remembrance.

10. Write a dream sequence or nightmare in your protagonist’s POV. This might be helpful if a character is wrestling with making the right decision or doesn’t know how to get out of a predicament—the subconscious often knows exactly what to do.

If just one of these suggestions helps blaze a new trail around the mountain, gives you a better understanding of a character, or reveals where the story is going, it will be worth the time spent deviating from the original plan. You might end up with writing that doesn’t fit in your story, but no writing is a waste of time or energy. It’s all part of the journey to “The End.”

What techniques have you used to find a way around a writing block mountain (or through it, if you like goblins)?

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A Must-have Resource for Writing Character Emotions

For the last month, I’ve been part of a Street Team for Angela and Becca at Writers Helping Writers who will launch a new writing book on February 19th. Because they’re known for showing, not telling, they decided it would be fun to keep the topic of the thesaurus a secret until the book cover reveal…WHICH IS TODAY!

I own every thesaurus Angela and Becca have published, so it’s been hard to keep quiet about this. I’m excited to finally announce that The Emotion Thesaurus Second Edition is coming.

Many of you know (and possibly use) the original Emotion Thesaurus. It released in 2012 and became a go-to resource with its lists of body language, thoughts, and visceral sensations for 75 emotions, making the difficult task of showing character emotion on the page much easier.

Over the years writers have asked Angela and Becca to add more emotions, so the two decided to create a second edition. It contains 55 NEW entries, bringing the total to 130 emotions. In addition, the instructive portion and existing entries have been revamped and expanded.

With the new content, this book is almost DOUBLE THE SIZE of the first one. I love the original Emotion Thesaurus (and all of Angela and Becca’s resources for writers), so I recommend checking out the new book.

Preorder Alert!

This book is available for preorder starting today. You’ll find all the details about the book’s contents by visiting Amazon, Kobo, Apple Books (iTunes), and Indiebound, or by going to Writers Helping Writers. You can also view the full list of emotions included in the new thesaurus.

One last thing…

Angela & Becca have a special gift for writers HERE. If you like free education, stop by and check it out. (It’s only available for a limited time!)

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Goals: Blogging, Books, and Bonekeeping

After weeks of thinking, planning, and scribbling (along with necessary reality checks), I’ve settled on several writing-related goals for the coming year.

Fiction Goals

Major goal: Book one in my dark fantasy series, The Last Bonekeeper, is ready for an editor’s eyes. The draft of book two, after sitting for several months, is waiting for the first round of self-editing. I’m also five chapters into the draft of the final installment in the trilogy. The plan is to indie publish the first book in December, with the others to follow in 2020.

Lesser goal #1: Finish a light-hearted space opera novella I’m currently sharing in a critique group. Rewriting/revising is taking longer than I expected because it’s one of my first completed projects (so it needs a ton of work), but the story and characters are such fun to write I just can’t give up on it. The plan is to indie publish in 2020.

Lesser goal #2: Take the draft of another fun-to-write book through editing and critiquing stages (think: an order of ninja nuns fights an evil brotherhood). The storyline is strong enough to carry a series. The plan is to seek a small traditional publisher in 2020.

Blogging Goals

As part of my goals for 2019, I’ll continue monthly interviews (starting again in February) and posts on writing terms and internet treasure. Revisiting 2018 goals, I’ll also add a comic strip with the help of my 14-year-old granddaughter. And last, sharing my writing will actually happen this year on the blog, alternating between fantasy and sci-fi short stories. Here are the titles and opening paragraphs for a few of them:

“After the Rats”
13…Love and Luck. What better way to acquire both than invite a witch to supper? Wrank snickered as he swiped a rag across the tavern’s polished bar.
13…The last of the day’s light pierced the front window and hit him square in the eyes. He cursed the sun and its reminder of his lack of coin. The tavern and the inn had no canopies to shade its windows, few candles and little lantern oil to burn once he closed the shutters. Canopies, candles, and oil cost coin. Did he have a single copper for any of it? No, but he had a witch coming to sup.

“Eyes of Daze”
13…Lenz slouched in his gelatinous, free-floating pilot’s chair. The journey had been a long one to the third planet in this nondescript solar system. More than half the day had passed, but it would still take several hours to complete his errand once he landed on the surface below.
13…“It’s too bad you can’t remember,” Rolin said from the co-pilot’s seat, his words trailing off as he failed to fight off a yawn. “It would make things a lot easier if you could.” He stretched his tri-clustered arms and legs and dangled them over the armrests.
13…Lenz raised a brow at his friend. He had surmised years ago that Rolin was the result of his mother’s belief that strength and sturdiness were more important than the superficiality of looks, especially on the family’s rock farm. He could think of no other reason for giving Rolin one head, a single huge torso, and three of almost everything else, except brains — unfortunately, he only had one of those.

“Timekeeper”
13…A song pressed through the hollow stump from far below the workroom floor. Not truly a song but Tumbledown’s idea of one. The ancient fae creature couldn’t carry a tune any more than a tax collector could keep honest books.
13…Rawly closed his eyes for a moment, took a deep breath, and pushed aside Tumbledown’s croaking in favor of the task at hand.
13…Everything Rawly needed to fix the vicar’s clock lay within reach on the workbench. Gears, weights, and springs glinted in the lantern light from their place in the bottom of a divided tray. A handful of screws, some with heads the size of a jelly-gnat, waited on a cloth nearby. Too many screws to use for one clock, but a few always chose to play on the hard-packed floor after a long day waiting on the bench. Rawly had learned it wasn’t wise to rush the screws or the clocks. Hurrying led to mistakes, and it was never a good thing to make a mistake with time.

“Fair Trade”
13…Yesterday never existed and tomorrow was uncertain, but at least today Saul had a name. He clung to that knowledge the way he held on to the truth the doctor had told him, “Your brain is now partitioned into three sections. One brain, three minds. Yours is the third mind, Saul, the interface. Be patient. It will take time for the other two to find their way to the surface through you. And don’t forget you’re in charge of the doors that open from the other minds. Understand?”
13…Saul understood. Better outside in the fresh air than trapped in a grey-walled room. Better to walk upright with every sense intact than to thrash about in a dark and hollow emptiness.
13…Better than death, a voice whispered from a doorway. Saul nodded and waited, and prepared to shut the door if the voices grew too loud. But this time only silence lingered in response from the other side.

Reading Goals

For me, reading is an important part of reaching an ongoing writing goal of improving my craft. I’ll be reading two to three books a month (maybe more)—one or two in the fantasy/sci-fi genres and one thriller/suspense or historical fiction. I haven’t kept track of my reading in the past, but my guess is I normally finish at least 24 books a year. I’ll also track the number I start but don’t complete. To reach my reading goals I’ll have to snuggle up with a book an hour or two earlier each night, which means saying goodnight to Netflix earlier as well.

What writing or reading goals have you set for yourself this year? What do you need to give up to make sure you meet your goals?

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Obstacles


As someone who’s easily distracted, I understand the need to stay focused on what’s important (and to remind myself of that truth). A companion of that need is remembering to remind myself.

Like so many others at this time of year, I’m in the throes of project planning and goal setting. The new year brings a blank slate, washed clean of last year’s smudges of failure and lost dreams.

It might seem premature to consider the possibility of obstacles. But we all know they’re there, the key is not to let them distract from what’s truly important. Following a roadmap and tracking milestones seems a sure way to reach a destination.

I’ve added Hannah More’s quote – “Obstacles are those frightful things you see when you take your eyes off the goal.” – to my daily Remember This list, along with Jack Bickham’s “Writers Write. Everyone else makes excuses.”

It’s a new year full of new days and a blank day-week-month planner waiting to be filled. I’m looking forward to the possibilities, all the lessons to be learned and the trails (wild or tame) waiting to be taken.

How about you?

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Author Interview: JA Andrews

Author JA Andrews juggles time, family life, and aphantasia to write epic fantasy stories in her Keeper Chronicles world where peace-keeping storytellers fight magic with magic. The series includes A Threat of Shadows, book one (2nd edition, 2018) and Pursuit of Shadows, book two (2018), as well as the standalone novel A Keeper’s Tale: The Story of Tomkin and the Dragon (2016)—with more to come. You’ll find Janice on her website JAAndrews.com and on Facebook.


What sparked the initial story idea for A Threat of Shadows? Did you plan on the first book working into a series?
A Threat of Shadows was actually started in 2008 because my husband had to work out-of-town for a month, and he was bored to death. So I started writing him a scene of a story each day to give him something entertaining to read at night. The first ten-ish chapters of the final book came out of that time. Once he got home, the story was dropped and mostly ignored for the next half-dozen years. But I had developed such a fondness for the characters that I couldn’t quite forget it. After a few writing classes and discovering that indie publishing was becoming more viable and more interesting all the time, I decided to give it a try.

Wrangling those early chapters into the beginning of a novel was a lot of work, and I had a ton to learn about writing stories (I still do), but around 2014 I decided to give this writing thing a chance, and began the (incredibly slow) process of writing and learning and editing and rewriting and wailing in despair and editing again. I finally published it in 2016. As soon as I got into the book I knew I wanted a series about the Keepers.

What do you do to make your magic system logical and believable?
I have a degree in engineering, so to have the magic system be all about manipulating energy felt like a rational thing for me. It doesn’t all work perfectly—because it’s magic—but I get a bit hung up on magic systems that defy the existing laws of physics. Explaining this always makes me feel quite nerdy, and always leads people to ask why I don’t write sci-fi instead. But I think it’s the wonder of the magic that draws me to fantasy. Sci-fi feels too rational. I want a little whimsy in my magic. And some sparkle.

Tell us a little about your main characters and why readers will connect with them. Will those who know you recognize you in any of the characters?
My main characters are Keepers, a very small group of people (one is found about every 7-10 years) who can do magic but are mostly concerned with keeping the history and stories of the country. They’re more bookish than warrior-like. In fact they don’t usually have weapons, and they’re not that much help in a fight. Which is unfortunate as they keep being attacked by dragons. The Keepers are very dedicated to keeping peace in the country and are generally self-sacrificing and noble. In my first book, Keeper Alaric spends the book wrestling with the fact that in an effort to keep his wife from dying, he’s thrown away a lot of those ideals and went to dark places he’d never thought he could go. I do think people can probably see me in most of my characters. I think it’s hard to genuinely write characters if you can’t really sympathize with their desires and their struggles.

How did the first book in the series compare to the second as far as challenges go?
The second book in my series, Pursuit of Shadows, follows a different Keeper than the first, and I really underestimated how hard it would be to write a new character after writing Alaric from book one for almost a decade. The books do intertwine (and it’s a continuation of a larger story arc), but it was hard to learn to write with a new voice.

What does a typical writing session look like for you? Any writing rituals or must-haves to get you started or keep you going?
I have three kids (ages 7, 9, and 12), and I home-school them. So all my good writing happens early in the morning before anyone else is awake. I have a mini-Christmas tree lit up next to my desk, a cup of coffee, and brain.fm, which is music that’s magical and enhances focus. It’s the greatest thing ever.

Of the three books you’ve written, which one did you enjoy writing the most?
A Keeper’s Tale, without a doubt. It’s a short novel that is a standalone story. Unlike the other two books, which are the first two in a series and spend a lot of time focused on relationships and larger issues (like how we reconcile who we are with who we think we should be), A Keeper’s Tale is basically a romp of an adventure story. It was so much fun to write that it gave me the mistaken idea that all future books would be that easy. If you ask any of my critique partners who listened to my moaning for a year and a half of writing Pursuit of Shadows [written after A Keeper’s Tale], you’ll know that didn’t turn out to be true.

Where does A Keeper’s Tale: The Story of Tomkin and the Dragon fit into the world of The Keepers Chronicles? Do you have plans for more Keeper’s Tales?
The Keepers are storytellers, and the story of Tomkin and the dragon is a well-loved story in their world. It was mentioned more than once in my first book, and so I thought it would be fun to write it out, seeing as how even I didn’t know what the story was about. It turned out to be a really fun tale about a bookish young man who’s finally put in a place to be as heroic as he’s always wanted to be.

I do have plans for more! I wrote a short story called The Black Horn which is another of the Keeper’s stories. It’s published at the back of the expanded second edition of A Threat of Shadows. I have at least one more story that I have vaguely outlined which will probably be novella length and will relate to book three. And I’m sure I’ll have many more. They’re really fun to write, it’s just finding the time to do it!

In an interview with Marc Secchia, you discuss the term “noblebright.” Why does your writing fit in this category? When you write, do you keep in mind that your children or grandchildren will someday read your stories?
Noblebright is a little tricky to describe, but it’s a term that stands opposite of grimdark, which is a bleaker, darker sort of fantasy. Noblebright doesn’t mean that the world is bright and cheery, or that the characters are all good and noble. To me the difference lies in the hope that characters can do something that will make a difference. For instance, if you take a series like Game of Thrones, the entire world is so dark and broken that no character, no matter how much they try, will have a significantly good impact on the world. In contrast, take Lord of the Rings, where a couple little hobbits can sacrifice a lot and manage to defeat a terrible evil. Or a shield maiden of Rohan can kill the king of the Nazgul. Not all of Middle Earth is as cheerful as the Shire, but there’s a hope there that good can prevail in a significant way. To me, that’s noblebright, and it’s definitely the feel in all my writing. I don’t want characters who don’t struggle, because I don’t see that as realistic. I want them to be urged on by the hope that even though it looks bleak, maybe they can bring something good to the world.

And I do keep in mind that my kids will read my books. They’re all excellent readers, and my twelve-year-old reads everything I write. I don’t want to write children’s books, but I want my books to be clean enough that younger readers can read them. At the same time, the books are written for adults and tackle more adult ideas like guilt and loss and loyalty.

Do you have a message or a theme that recurs in your writing?
I keep finding my characters dealing with who they are compared with who they think they should be. I suppose I should spend some time soul-searching why I keep writing that, lol.

What are the hardest kinds of scenes for you to write?
Descriptions of new places! I have very little visual imagination. When I imagine the story, it’s emotions and sounds and character interaction and dialogue all set in a hazy, vague setting. Unfortunately, most people want a little more setting than that, and when my characters reach a place that’s really important to the story, it takes blood, sweat, and tears (and a lot of editing) to get things right. When all else fails, I personify things. An approaching rainstorm becomes a storm giant striding across the land. Not because I am so very fancy that I thought of it right away, but because I worked on trying to actually describe it for an hour before giving up and slapping some personification on it.

What writing projects are you working on now?
I’m currently drafting the final book of the Keeper Chronicles, which I hope to publish next spring.

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3 Fiction Writing Terms: Data Dump, Filter Word, Head Hopping

I wince at the memory of using each of these writing “no-no’s” in my early fiction (and critique partners still catch me in the act at times). Data dumping is fun for writers bursting to share their research or hard-wrought descriptions, but it’s a bane for readers who just want to get on with the story. Using filter words is a hard habit to break but one a writer should consider if the goal is to draw a reader closer to a point-of-view character. And head hopping? Let’s just say I’ve worked for weeks to destroy the chaos I brought to one of my first novellas.

This is another in my series of what-I-wish-I’d-known-then posts that include short lists with definitions and links for further reading.

Data Dump (also Information/Info Dump)

“There’s an important balance that has to be struck, between ‘intriguing information about this world’ and ‘overwhelming info dump about this world.’” ~ Stefanie Gaither

A data dump in fiction is an instance where a writer shares too much information (such as backstory, description, or history) all in one place. Coming upon such a weight might prompt a reader to skim a page (or more) until the action resumes. Data dumps also slow down the forward momentum of a story, often stopping it, and usually signal author intrusion. A better approach for a writer is to weave in pertinent information only when a reader needs it.

For more:
Jennie Nash: “Stop Info Dumps Before They Start”
Robert Wood, Standout Books: “How (And When) To Stop Front-Loading Your Story”

Filter Words

Routine use of filter words—saw, heard, looked, felt, etc.—in describing a point-of-view (POV) character’s experience adds a subtle barrier between the character and the reader.

With filters: Jim saw the falcon dive from the crevice and felt a wing graze his cheek as the bird swooped by.
Without filters: The falcon dove from the crevice. A wing grazed Jim’s cheek as the bird swooped by.

According to Janice Hardy, filter words not only distance readers from the POV character, they “remind them they’re reading, explain things that are obvious, and often lead a writer into telling [versus showing] or crafting passive sentences.” Without filter words, the reader “looks through the eyes of the POV character” at the world. With such filters, a reader “looks at the POV character” as the character looks at the world. And, “Remember, your POV is already filtering for you. There’s no need to remind the reader they’re doing it.”

For more:
Janice Hardy, Fiction University: “You’ll Have to Go Through Me: Eliminating Filter Words”

Head Hopping

When a narrative jumps from one character’s POV to another within a paragraph or scene, it’s called head hopping.

Joe Bunting gives the following explanation of why head hopping is discouraged for most genres*: “[W]hen the narrator switches from one character’s thoughts to another’s too quickly, it jars the reader and breaks the intimacy with the scene’s main character. Also, it’s good to give readers ground rules—such as a consistent point of view—for how the storytelling will work, and if we break those ground rules, we can lose the reader’s trust.”

Cynthia VanRooy adds, “Every time you shift the reader from one character to another, they are jarred out of their suspension of disbelief and reminded that they’re only reading a story. Do that often enough and they’ll stop reading your story. Scene changes or new chapters are the best and least disruptive places to change POV.”

Head Hopping vs. Omniscient POV
Head hopping might sound like the same method used to tell a story through an omniscient point of view (the all-knowing, outside narrator), but D. Wallace Peach explains the difference this way: “It comes down to ‘voice.’ Head-hopping acts like an omniscient POV in that the narrator has access to all the character’s thoughts and feelings in a scene. But instead of sharing them in the outside narrator’s voice, in head-hopping, the story hops from one character’s distinctive inner ‘voice’ to another. The result can be disorienting, jarring, or confusing.”

*In the romance genre, head hopping is more acceptable because the reader wants to know how the love interests feel at a particular moment. Romance writers might use multiple POVs within a scene, but separate them by paragraphs to avoid confusion.

For more:
Jodie Renner on Kill Zone Authors: “POV 102 – How to Avoid Head-Hopping”
K.M. Weiland, Writers Helping Writers: “Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 62: Head-Hopping POV”

As a writer, have you ever dumped data, overused filter words, or hopped from one head to another? From a reader’s perspective, have any of these writing methods pulled you out of a fictional world?


For more in the 3 Fiction Writing Terms series, check out:
Active Verbs, Author Intrusion, Backstory
Arcs, Beats, Blurbs
Foreshadow, MacGuffin, Red Herring
Clichés, Point of View, Suspension of Disbelief

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Defend Your Inner Writing Life

A writing life and a writing career are two separate things, and it’s crucial to keep the first. The single essential survival skill for anybody interested in creating art is to learn to defend this inner life from the world. ~ Lan Samantha Chang

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2018 Wednesday on the Web #4

Here’s the fourth (and last) of my fifth Wednesday posts for 2018. Alas, my bottomless bag of online treasure continues to fill despite my efforts to pluck and share.

■ For Writers

Shakespeare Insult Kit
Chris Seidel presents a list of Shakespearean insults he attributes to Jerry Maguire, an English teacher at Center Grove High School in Greenwood, Indiana. Mr. Seidel has also added his own insults after the original list. To let the fun begin, combine a word from each of the three columns and preface the insult with “Thou.” Click here for a pdf.

Stephen King’s “Everything You Need to Know About Writing Successfully—in Ten Minutes”
The folks at Aerogramme Writers’ Studio reproduced this article by Stephen King that was first published in The Writer magazine (1986) and later included in The Writer’s Handbook (1988). From the introduction: “I really am going to tell you everything you need to pursue a successful and financially rewarding career writing fiction, and I really am going to do it in ten minutes, which is exactly how long it took me to learn. It will actually take you twenty minutes or so to read this essay, however, because I have to tell you a story, and then I have to write a second introduction. But these, I argue, should not count in the ten minutes.”

■ Science

It’s Made Of SCIENCE: Zombies
In this article, Nathan Scalia writes about “examples in nature that give us a template for a potential zombie infection outbreak.” He concludes the article by noting: “Zombie fiction generally gets a pass from scientific judgment, because most zombie stories aren’t about the science of zombie infection. They’re usually horror survival stories, and if that’s the type of story you intend to tell, then by all means, use magical zombies…if the mechanism of your zombie infection isn’t important, then there’s nothing stopping you from creating a…zombie story without the need for science.”

For the Living, a Donated Face. For the Dead, a Lifelike Replacement.
“NYU surgeons hope a 3-D printed reproduction will encourage people to donate the faces of dying family members for use as transplants.” In this article from January 2018, Andy Newman and Marc Santora give us a look into face transplants—how they’re currently performed and how 3-D reproduction could improve on the process.

■ For Fun

Harry Potter Snowflakes
Artist and designer Anthony Herrera says, “Since creating snowflake designs out of mainly Star Wars characters, the most requested theme I get is Harry Potter… As always I recommend using scissors, a sharp x-acto knife and patience. And just Have fun!” Once on the website, scroll down to preview the snowflakes and download your free design(s) from the list below the images. Look around, you’ll also find patterns for Guardians of the Galaxy and Frozen.

■ Yummies

Tasty Howl-o-ween Recipes
If you need some last-minute ideas for a Halloween meal or snack, check out my post on ThisNewMountain.com from several years ago.

What’s in your magical bag of online treasure?

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Compelling Book Covers: Dragons

In my research into book cover design, I’ve become more aware of symbolism and what readers expect from a particular genre. Romance covers are known for their couples lost in longing embrace, while science fiction covers depict vistas of other worlds and spacecraft locked in laser battles. Let’s not forget fantasy—dark woods, blazing torches, swords and sorcerers. And dragons.

This post gives examples of covers with dragons as the focal point. Each book represents a speculative fiction sub-genre: a portal/man out of time/fantasy story, a post-apocalyptic tale, and a short story collection of both fantasy and science fiction. That a dragon can be used to sell different types of books says a lot about the power of such a symbol to convey wonder and magic, or the fight of good against evil. This is an element of cover design I’ll have to spend more time researching.

I’m also keeping track of the whys of my own book-choosing habits. Is it an intriguing cover that makes me push the buy button? A well-penned blurb? Here are three “dragon” books I’ve already felt compelled to buy and why I committed to the purchase.

Dragonvein (Book One) by Brian D. Anderson
Cover: A dragon stands in a dark glen, watching a soldier approach. Sunlight partially illuminates the beast. Its wings are extended, tail in an arc, one arm raised—all suggest motion. Has it just landed, ready to fight? Or was it startled awake, frightened at the possibility of an enemy in its forest?

Summary: Ethan, a soldier in the 101st Airborne (France, 1944) “is ripped from his world and transported to a land of magic, swords, and dragons. And though the Nazis are now far, far away, danger is closer than ever” with Eternal Emperor Shinzan destroying mages and exiling dragons. For Ethan to survive, “he must reach the dwarf kingdom of Elyfoss before Shinzan can find him.”

My Take: A man in a modern(ish) uniform and his seemingly passive approach to a dragon are both in contrast to typical fantasy garb and violent confrontation. The cover intrigued me enough to read the summary and buy the book.

The Island (Fallen Earth Book 1) by Michael Stark
Cover: A dragon with its wings extended waits on a rock in the surf and appears to be watching something (outside the frame). A sunrise or sunset paints the water with gold and light, in contrast to the dragon’s red hues and dark perch.

Summary: Experts predict a global pandemic as a killer disease sweeps across the world. While humanity hoards food and hides behind barricades, William Hill heads for an island, with its promise of peace and fond memories, to live out what’s left of his life. “He didn’t plan on becoming humanity’s last hope for survival, or watching over an old woman and an eerie little boy.”

My Take: The cover, with its dragon and vibrant colors, caught my attention and hinted at conflict (and maybe evil), but not enough to buy the book on its own. The summary sparked my curiosity, and a chance to read the first two (out of six) episodes for free made me hit the buy button.

The Very Best of Tad Williams by Tad Williams
Cover: A baby dragon hovers before a much larger version of itself perched on a verdant pinnacle. The landscape appears almost primeval, while flying creatures (perhaps dragons) soar in the distance beneath a blue sky filled with gathering clouds.

Summary: “Within these pages you will find such delightful and curious things as a strange storytelling vampire, two woefully-overmatched angels, a dragon in cahoots with a knight and a witch, an ineptly duplicitous fish, the loyal robot butler of Werner Von Secondstage Booster, and the Greatest Wizard of All (disputed).”

My Take: Who can resist a baby dragon? A look at the summary makes it plain the short story collection is a mix of fantasy and science fiction, but the cover did its job and sucked me in to buy the book (and the author’s name helped sell it too!).

What do you think? Would these covers compel you to buy the books?

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Author Interview: Nicki Huntsman Smith

Author Nicki Huntsman Smith is a longtime book lover who became hooked on post-apocalyptic fiction as a preteen. Troop of Shadows (2016), Beauty and Dread (2016), and Moving with the Sun (2018) are her first offerings in the Troop of Shadows Chronicles, a series of post-apocalyptic dystopian thrillers that follows the survivors of a global pandemic (sans aliens and zombies) as they fight for their lives and their humanity. Visit Nicki at NickiHuntsmanSmith.com and on her Amazon author page.


What sparked the initial story idea for Troop of Shadows, the first book in the Troup of Shadows Chronicles? At what point did you realize the story was strong enough to carry a series?
I have a lifelong love of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction that began with No Blade of Grass and The Omega Man, which I read as a preteen. I became intrigued with the concept of prepping in 2014 and began researching the subject. After publishing Secrets Under the Mesa, I was ready to write a second book, and a post-apocalyptic, prepper-themed premise sounded fun. I wanted my story to have a twist, though—one that didn’t include zombies or aliens. So I created a unique concept for the pandemic which precipitated the apocalypse. I soon realized that to properly tell my characters’ stories, I would either need to write a 200k-word novel or split it into two books. While writing the sequel, Beauty and Dread, I realized the fundamental story could continue in other settings and with new characters by utilizing one of the more colorful secondary characters as a common thread, connecting one book to the next. There is no limit for this series and populating it with a new cast and providing a new location each time will keep it fresh.

What was the most difficult aspect of world building for the books?
Getting the bleak imagery just right—life without technology and creature comforts—but not going into too much tiresome detail. For example, I allowed readers to conjure their own images of the characters doing their bathroom business under primitive circumstances rather than spelling all that out for them. It was a tricky balance.

Tell us a little about your main characters and why readers will connect with them. After three novels, did your characters still surprise you as you wrote their story?
The four main characters in the first book are Stephen, Julia, Pablo, and Logan. They each have their own third-person, limited narrative POV. Stephen is a prepper whose fierce determination to do more than merely survive in this harsh new world is someone readers can relate to. I was able to share much of my recently acquired prepping know-how through Stephen, the details of which readers will find interesting, I think. Julia is a molecular geneticist. I utilized her scientific dedication to solve the mystery of the pandemic’s origins as a vehicle to explain the pathologies of the disease. Logan is one of several antagonists in the book. He is an intellectually challenged serial killer possessing savant-level proficiency with firearms. Writing from his childlike POV was especially fun (I realize that makes me sound creepy). The more my characters developed, the more helpful they were in writing their own stories. Their personalities and natures determined their choices and actions. Yes, they often surprised me. I love when that happens.

Why did you decide to use the particular settings you chose? Do you consider the setting a character in the books?
I live in North Texas and spent my early childhood in Central Kansas, so I wanted to use at least a couple of settings familiar to me. I don’t consider the setting a character in either of the first two books, but I suppose it is in the third book (Moving with the Sun) because of Florida’s proximity to the Atlantic Ocean and its inevitable hurricanes.

Did you discover anything interesting or surprising while doing research for the series?
I did a huge amount of research on a variety of unglamorous subjects: electrical engineering, waste management, gasoline and propane storage, firearms, greenhouses, and water wells. What I found the most interesting was food preservation and both the modern and primitive techniques used therein. In my quest for knowledge, I bought a pressure canner. I learned how to preserve meat and other low-acid foods for long-term storage. I have eaten chicken that I canned five years ago, and it tastes as fresh and delicious as if I had cooked it the same day. It’s remarkable that food can be preserved in such a way that it will last for decades with little degradation.

What was your favorite part of putting the Chronicles together?
Creating the characters that propel the story. They became my friends—even the scary ones.

Looking back to the beginning of your writing/publishing career, what do you know now that you wish you’d known then?
I wish I had known I could do it—that I could write a book beginning with “Chapter One” and finish with “The End.”

Besides your series, you’ve also published Secrets Under the Mesa (2014), a standalone sci-fi suspense novel, plus a “creepy anthology” titled Dead Leaves, Dark Corners (2017) that includes a novelette and “thirteen delightfully disturbing short stories.” Of all your book projects, which one was the most challenging and which was the most enjoyable to put together?
The first book I wrote, Secrets Under the Mesa, was the most challenging. It began as a short story which suddenly grew legs long enough to expand to novel-length. I had never written a book and, frankly, didn’t know if I could (or would) finish the thing. It took me a year to write the first draft, and I experienced doubts the entire time. I had the most fun writing Dead Leaves, Dark Corners. I came up with the short story ideas over the course of many months and saved them first on my iPhone and then in a Word document. It’s fun and gratifying to create a world and write a complete story arc in just a few days or weeks.

What writing projects are you working on now?
I’m currently writing a standalone novel, The Sublime Seven, which I expect to publish in the spring/summer of 2019. The tagline is: Time Travel with a Transcendent Twist. After I finish writing, rewriting, editing, rewriting, editing, editing, and editing, I’ll publish it and begin work on the fourth book in the Troop of Shadows Chronicles.

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All who wander are not lost.~ JRR Tolkien

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