The last time I tried to write a 50,000-word novel over the course of the month of November was 2010. This was about four months after leaving Wizards of the Coast and should have been the point at which I had the most time and intellectual freedom to do it. I got up to 3683 words then.

This year I started out on the NaNoWriMo path as part of my efforts to actually do some of the exercises I’ve suggested to other authors. And though I’ve had mixed results on those other exercises, this one I really felt I had a handle on.

I have an idea I like, a protagonist I already know, and a completely workable outline drawn together as part of another of those exercises. I was ready for action. I really was. So then what happened? Why is it November 24th and I’ve written a sum total of zero words of Bella Lucky and the Monsters of Methone?

Go ahead and think of these as “excuses,” because they are, but let’s see if I can pry any wisdom out from the cracks between one excuse and the next.

In my 2010 failure analysis, I said that I had hoped to finish another book I was working on by the end of October but hadn’t, and had trouble starting the NaNoWriMo book with that other one still unfinished. That’s not a terrible excuse, as excuses go. There is a certain “flow” you want to get into on a novel, and interrupting that for the sake of an exercise like NaNoWriMo isn’t necessarily a good idea. This year, though, all I have really to finish is a short story that really wasn’t holding me up, so that wasn’t it. I was mentally free to start in on Bella Lucky and the Monsters of Methone. I just didn’t.

Five years ago I also offered the excuse that November is a crappy month for this kind of thing. The days are too short, energy ebbs low at year’s end, there’s a holiday in there. Here in the Pacific Northwest at least it tends to be gloomy and dreary. I said I thought NaNoWriMo should be moved to July. But now I think June would be better.

There, see? It’s not my fault. It was poorly scheduled.

Five years ago I worried that maybe I’d let November go by without my writing 50,000 words because there was no guaranteed money at the end of it. But then there’s very rarely any guaranteed money at the end of any writing project like this. I’ve written books “on spec” before, and easily 50,000 words worth of short stories in a month just for the love of the game.

But this year, unlike my still-living-on-severance self from 2010, I have a crap-ton of paying work, mostly edits and ghostwriting, that demand my attention. When you put that demand together with a very expense private art college’s demands for tuition you end up with a father who has to balance “wouldn’t it be fun to do this” with “this will pay the mortgage, this will keep the lights on, and this will pay the tuition bill.”

And this ultimately was this year’s “excuse.” I have to get paid—I have to do for me and mine.

But here’s some good news:

I’ll be over that short-term financial hump by the end of the year, leaving me looking forward to a January in which I get to catch my breath, a February and March in which I figure out how to pay another small short term bill, then . . .


I’ll write the rough 50,000-word version of Bella Lucky and the Monsters of Methone in April.

Just see if I don’t!



—Philip Athans



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I’ve been reading Dennis Lehane’s The Given Day and just loving it to pieces, but as I read it I can’t help but think about the author’s relationship to the setting: Boston, and how that’s shaped his writing. There are other authors like that, associated with a particular place, either a city (how many “New York authors” can you name?) or a region (the many and varied “Southern writers”).

It occurred to me that these authors, like Dennis Lehane, or Truman Capote, or Annie Proulx, and so many others, are linked to these places, this accent, those streets or prairies, because in some way or another it marked them. They had a tough time there—a difficult childhood on the mean streets of a mean city or in the cultural isolation of the country. I guess when you grow up in a place like South Boston or the South Bronx or the South Side of Chicago, your environment sort of takes over. And for many it becomes an indelible component to their identity.

But I don’t come from nor have I ever lived anywhere in particular.

I was born in the suburbs of Rochester, New York. We moved from there to the suburbs of Chicago before my fifth birthday. I have no feelings for Rochester, or Upstate New York, at all. It’s foreign territory to me. As for suburban Chicago, while the mean streets were chewing people up and spitting them out about thirty miles or so away, I lived in a completely uninteresting place full of generally uninteresting people going on about their uninteresting lives in completely uninteresting ways. My childhood was reasonably “normal.” There was no particular trauma. The others kids were dicks to me sometimes, but my life was never in danger. I have never been mugged, nor have I mugged anyone. I was never a member of anything resembling a gang. It was virtually impossible for me to see the invisible line dividing my suburb and the next, and no one cared. There were no turf wars between us and Schaumburg or Streamwood because the kids who lived in Schaumburg or Streamwood also didn’t give a shit one way or another.

Then I went to college and that was fun, but Carbondale, Illinois isn’t exactly Cambridge. I have no Dead Poets Society-esque story. It was more like Animal House except everyone was played by Tom Hulce.

Then I moved back in with my parents in the same house in the same suburb and started writing, mostly science fiction, but also a lot of high-minded literary stuff that ultimately rang hollow. I had as little to say about the human condition as any particular suburban twenty-year-old with raging depression but little in the way of life experience. There was no Crucible of the Streets for Phil.

Then I met a girl from the neighboring suburb of Hoffman Estates, a town so uninteresting it’s named after the builder. Hoffman Homes built a bunch of tract houses and voila—a “city” is born. We eventually moved in together in Schaumburg, in an apartment complex that was a few steps away from Rolling Meadows, but who would ever know? We lived in a couple other apartments in Schaumburg then trekked all the way across the country to . . .

. . . another suburb! This time tucked up against Seattle. We then moved to another Seattle suburb then to another, which has only been a town for ten years. It’s chief claim to fame is that it has the lowest incidence of crime in the state of Washington, which is to say that no one here can even muster the energy to steal each others’ shit.

For all intents and purposes I come from nowhere.

I also have no ethnicity.

Technically, I’m a Greek-American, and my father was always fond of reminding us that we were Spartans, especially when he wanted us to stop whining about having been injured in some way. His parents were Greek immigrants, but somehow he managed to have a basically ethnicity-free upbringing. My mother is not Greek, which severely pissed off my paternal grandfather. Her father was German but I never knew him (and for all intents and purposes neither did she) and her mother was some kind of white Yankee mutt of maybe French and English and Irish and whatever. My grandparents were back east so we only saw them for a couple weeks in the summer and it was kinda like, here’s that weird old Greek guy again.

I have nothing like the ethnic family experiences I’ve seen in movies (or that Lehane writes so eloquently about in The Given Day). Holidays were whitewashed versions of Christmas and Halloween. I had no religious upbringing at all (which I’m thankful for, actually). I have no idea really what it might be like to be part of some huge Italian or Jewish family with a million cousins all growing up together and everybody’s all in each others’ shit. I was a nation of one.

I also come from no particular time.

I was born in 1964 so was way too young to be a hippy or protest the war in Vietnam. I was also too young to experience cocaine and disco culture, so there’s a silver lining, anyway. I had punk, but experiencing punk in Downstate Illinois and suburban Chicago was even more pointless than punk in general, so, yeah. I was too old for hip hop. I have a friend who joined the army in 1983 and eventually fought in Operation Desert Storm but we were fairly old by then, so I never had that whole drafted into either the great cause like World War II or the horrible debacle of Vietnam.

Everything around me was just kinda fine and blah.

I guess I could write a Lehane equivalent set in the suburbs in the 70s, but why?

After all, here’s what I have instead of the great city or the great generation. I have the future.

I grew up in what might be the only time in American history where everyone was talking about the future. The hippies were talking about a future of peace and love and the conservatives were talking about a future of technology and super-weapons, and everyone assumed we were all going to be living in space by now.

So that’s my Boston, my New York, my Vietnam, my Studio 54, my Passover, my Haight-Ashbury.

I lived in a place and a time that did nothing to shape me. And I mean nothing. So I had to go out and shape myself. And I chose to shape myself in the future. In space, or in a world of myth and legend. In imagination. In possibility. In danger. In worlds uncounted and unexplored.

I’ve been to Boston and it’s a swell city—love the accent—but I’ll still take Waterdeep any old day.


—Philip Athans


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I hate excuses. I’ve railed about excuses here, and in particular, the “my dog ate it” of the 21st century:

My hard drive crashed.

But about a week and a half ago, my hard drive crashed–and panic set in then a scramble to recover the last month’s worth of work, and then a trip to bring it in for repair, and still here I sit, waiting for it to be fixed, with tomorrow the eighth business day of their projected eight to ten business days.

So it could have been worse. I will not have suffered significant data loss, and I can still work, kinda.

As it stands I’m cobbling my life together using four devices: my ancient PowerBook, which can access an older version of Office so I can still edit and write but that can’t access the internet; my son’s old Windows laptop, which I’m using right now to type directly into WordPress, which I never do, but it can access the internet but doesn’t have Word and it’s really wonky in lots of ways; my iPhone, which is now my primary email portal, but I have to tell it to go look for new emails, so that’s slowed my response time to a crawl; and an Android tablet that I can use for quicker internet access on the fly and can answer some emails with a bigger so easier to use keyboard.

So edits continue. I’m able to keep up with my online courses, and when I do get my primary computer back I can rebuild it without having lost a month’s work, but still. It’s weird how dependent I’ve become on that work station and disturbing how difficult it’s been for me to roll with this.

This post, for instance, should have been another NaNoWriMo update, but here I am just kinda ranting on the fly. This knocked me back a week, sort of, but in the end, or more accurately right now, I have to walk that off and get back to work, including writing, which I’ve found I can do just as well with a pen and a notebook.

So, I guess, wish me luck that the repair will be done soon and will be affordable, and I’ll be back to writing and editing and living my normal, iMac-centered life soon.

It can’t be too soon!


–Philip Athans

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With November suddenly upon us, it’s time for me to get to work on Bella Lucky and the Monsters of Methone, but in previous posts I admitted I had some big holes to fill in the plot before I could get started, and even needed an additional character to serve as the humble but all-important “redshirt.” Let’s get him out of the way first, the poor, unfortunate . . .
Michael “Big Mike” Stenglitz (M)


DICE tactical officer

gregarious soldier

dies very soon


NO POV scenes

Personal qualities: Vitality, Excitement and Passion, Cheerfulness; lacks: Appreciation and Gratitude

Who are you?

I am one big bad motherfucker.

What do you want more than anything?

To bust some skulls for the cause, whatever that cause might be.

How far would you go to get it?

All the way out to the maximum operational range of my weapon.

Why is what you want so important?

They tell me it’s important to bust up drug cartels, I bust up drug cartels. If they told me to jack up the fucking Girl Scouts, the fucking Girl Scouts are getting jacked up. End of story.

How do you feel about the people in your life?

I love my husband, my parents, my dogs, and my fellow Marines. Most DICE constables should be fucking hanged, but this Bella chick’s not so bad.

How do you feel about yourself?

I fucking rule.

What groups do you belong to (and the top three)?

Most importantly: ex-Saturnian System Marine Corps (SSMC) Staff Sergeant, husband, dog person (owns three)

But also: betweener (born aboard a spacecraft between Jupiter and Saturn), color blind, country music fan, DICE tactical officer, gay, hunter, member of Bug Hunters Anonymous, military veteran, Saturnian, son, square dancer, uncle

What makes you unique?

paranoid about my feet, supreme self-confidence, funny and fun as hell

Unique Item:

a particularly big and versatile rifle that I still need to define

Physical Description:

massive: 6’7” tall, 300 lbs of pure muscle. Shaved head, big mustache, wears particularly heavy boots

Primary Sense:

sight—he’s an uncomplex kinda guy: “Do you smell that?” someone asks. “Nope,” he answers—and the monster eats his head.


Spoiler alert, but I want to set him up to seem like a major character¾he’ll be with Bella before she meets the rest of the team and goes along for the (God help me for using this term) “inciting incident.”

Speaking of that, one of the biggest holes in my rough, note card-constructed outline was a reason for all this to be happening. I decided before anything else that I wanted to write a space opera dungeon crawl so I roughed out my “dungeon party” and filled in a balance of monsters and traps and tricks, but then why is all this happening, and where do all these monsters come from?

Idea One was that this is an illegal genetics lab and these monsters are all man-made, but something rang hollow for me on that from the get-go. Why are they creating these monsters? To what end? I know I didn’t want this to be a “bio-weapons” program, so then, what?

Then I re-read the short story “Bella Lucky and the Titan of Tarvos” and found I’d slipped in an off-hand reference to “Europan crustaceans,” and this instantly solved my problem.

This meant that in my imagined future colonized solar system they have indeed discovered indigenous life in the oceans under the ice on Europa, a moon of Jupiter—and one of the solar system’s prime candidates for life, assuming there are the same kind of mineral-rich sub oceanic vents there that we find in the deep oceans here.

There appears to be a similar ice-covered ocean on the Saturnian moon Enceladus, so if there are crustaceans on Europa, why not “monsters” swimming around Enceladus? And there have been theories put forward that there could be life in the atmospheres of the gas giants¾the chemistry’s there, anyway¾so how about some monsters from Saturn itself? And then there’s partially-explored Titan, which has lakes and rivers¾of freezing liquid methane, but who’s counting? Since I’m in charge of the reality of my future solar system, I can decide there’s life on Titan. These would be less animals (birds of Saturn or fish of Enceladus) and would give me a chance to cook up some full-on cold-weather monsters¾something more exotic from a more exotic environment.

So now I have my premise:


Bllithe & Company is a pharmaceutical company from Callisto, which has only recently begun to move into Saturn space. They had a few big successes using organic compounds sourced from the seas under the ice of Europa. What no one outside the company, and very few inside it, know is that these “organic compounds” were extracted from the native crustaceans, even though it’s illegal to remove any native species from their environment. Essentially, all extraterrestrial life forms are considered endangered species.

In search of more exotic organics, or what they call “exanics,” Bllithe & Company has expanded into Saturn space and have begun buying illegally harvested animals from Enceladus (tentacled sea creatures similar to octopuses and squids), the atmosphere of Saturn (birds and “floaters”), and Titan (straight up “cold monsters”). They took over an abandoned weapons R&D facility on Methone, which they operate in secret with the help of certain paid-off allies in the Saturnian government and DICE.

Among other hopeful lines of inquiry, they’re very close to a treatment for Martian Orange addiction.

The lab itself is very carefully “air gapped” to maintain their internal security. All lab personnel are Jupitan. It’s officially called MethLabs, Inc., and is registered as an independent corporation founded on Titan, but that’s just a shell corporation, and when they check it will appear to have gone bankrupt three months before.

Dr. Niu has been offered a massively lucrative drug study for her cooperation in securing data from the lab and covering up Bllithe & Company’s involvement in animal testing.


I also sat down and put a little thought into some fun, dungeon-crawly trap rooms, which I’ve dropped in here using names that likely won’t be referenced in the text. I split up the monsters from the three sources, with more coming from Enceladus (just so I can get all tentacly¾and why not?), with a couple flyers from Saturn and the primitive sentient species from Titan.

Because I need to get started fast I put more thought into just the first couple chapters. I’ll fill in details, more worldbuilding, and so on as I go. So here I have my revised outline¾just enough to get started:


Chapter 1


Bella and Big Mike are on their way to Prometheus, where the DICE tactical unit training center is. Mike has agreed to help Bella learn to shoot. It’s clear they’re old friends. They get a call from DICE dispatch with a video distress call from a young man in the cockpit of a truck, scared out of his mind, begging for help, says something about not caring if he goes to jail… In the background is a loud banging, then a tearing noise and he screams as a tentacle wraps around him and pulls him back through the torn-open cockpit door. One last scream then the cockpit begins to fill with blood and water mixing in zero-G. Bella and Big Mike are closest to the truck’s location so they get the call.

* * *


At the truck, they go in and fight off MONSTER-1 (Enceladus/squid), a great tentacled beast from the oceans of Enceladus. They see the truck was on course for Methone, but the only thing on Methone is MethLabs, Inc. (Bella gets the historical reference, but Big Mike doesn’t) and records show the lab was abandoned when the company went bankrupt three months ago. Bella calls this in and is told to report to Prometheus where a team will be assembled to investigate MethLabs on Methone.


Chapter 2


On Prometheus, the team is assembled and Bella gets a quick read on everyone involved. Big Mike complains about lack of tactical support. It’s all fairly rushed and hasty as they get ready to leave. The truck is there, with the dead monster, and everyone but Dr. Niu is grossed out. Here it’s revealed that she was part of a team studying them in their natural habitat¾which is why she’s a part of the team. Everyone seems pretty on the ball.

* * *


They arrive Methone and enter the lab. It’s creepy, no one seems to be around, there’s sign of a fight, etc. Big Mike dies right away: “Do you smell that?” someone asks. “Nope,” he answers—and MONSTER-2 (Titan/cold) eats his head. Fight breaks out and Bella is injured by MONSTER-2 and has to rely on Dr. Niu.


Chapter 3


gathering data on all other characters

—secretly an internal affairs investigator:

Knows Jimmy is cartel, suspects Bella

interrupted by MONSTER-3 (Saturn/bird)

Stas notices personal information about scientists


Chapter 4


trapped by

TRAP/TRICK-1 (Impossible Fish)

has to rely on Hunter

Stas notices personal information about scientists


Chapter 5


alone, gathers data, deletes files, releases:

MONSTER-4 (Saturn/floater)


Chapter 6


saves the day by overcoming

TRAP/TRICK-2 (Passwords), in which Stas figures out passwords based on personal information about scientists he’s gathered along the way, retrieves all the lab’s data into his bigBRAIN.

Stas has doubts about Bella


Chapter 7


confronts Stas over data he’s downloaded into his bigBRAIN—but he’s not traitor/villain

loses trust of others


Chapter 8


tries to turn Stas & Hunter against Bella (fails)

TRAP/TRICK-3 (Centrifuge)

Bella separated from the rest


Chapter 9


has to fight

MONSTER-5 (Enceladus/squid)

all by herself


Chapter 10


tries to find place to secretly contact her bosses

discovered by Hunter


Chapter 11


has to figure out

TRAP/TRICK-4 (Cattle Chute)

all by herself


Chapter 12


has to fight

MONSTER-6 (Enceladus/squid)

all by herself—

finds her way back


Chapter 13


Discovers the truth about Dr. Niu

—tries to tell Bella

—leaves message, but interrupted by

TRAP/TRICK-5 (Power Core)

Dr. Niu leaves him to die

Bella shows up just too late


Chapter 14


moment of doubt and pain

TRAP/TRICK-5 (Power Core), continued

has to rely on Stas

fails to protect Hunter



Chapter 15


Lost, alone,

succeeds in contacting bosses

then surprised by

MONSTER-7 (Enceladus/squid)


Chapter 16


accidentally injures Stas

confronted with limits of luck

MONSTER-8 (Enceladus/squid)


Chapter 17


dénouement with his reflections on:


Dr. Niu





Chapter 18


moment of doubt and pain—


almost killed by

MONSTER-9 (Titan/cold)

but manages to communicate with them


Chapter 19


Dr. Niu takes sides with monster in big huge fight with

MONSTER-10 (Titan/cold sentient boss), which is the “queen” for MONSTER-9s


Chapter 20


confronts Dr. Niu

“kills” her


the end


Now, I start writing!



–Philip Athans


Posted in Books, characters, how to write fiction, intellectual property development, monsters, NaNoWriMo, Publishing Business, Pulp Fiction, Science Fiction & Fantasy Novels, science fiction technology, SF and Fantasy Authors, transmedia, Writing, writing advice, writing horror, Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment


Continuing to put together my outline for Bella Lucky and the Monsters of Methone for next month’s—no, next week’s (yikes!)—start to NaNoWriMo, it’s time to focus in on the characters. I also want to continue along the short, bad book path in terms of no over-thinking to start with. Where that line sits, by the way, between over-thinking and under-thinking . . . well, that’ll be different for all of us, and even for each project.

But still, any book, however short or bad or long or good has to be about people. Readers focus on characters, and if all your characters do is advance the plot, you’re doing it wrong. The plot should be there to advance your characters. Likewise, for fantasy and science fiction authors, if your characters are only there to advance (or explain) the world, you’re doing it wrong. The worldbuilding should be there to advance the characters.

With that in mind, I cobbled together advice from a bunch of different sources over the years and came up with a sort of template that can get me thinking about who these people are, what they want, how they think, and so on. This also helps tell me where I need to do some worldbuilding.

The personal qualities are words I think I got from Donald Maass’s book Writing the Breakout Novel—and if not from there then somewhere else. I don’t want these lists of character traits to bind me up—and bind up my characters—but I like to start with them in terms of easy keywords that I can loop back around on as I go, either reminding myself to stay on course or giving myself permission to change course and cross off one or more of those keywords and replace them with another, or with nothing at all. What I want to avoid doing is getting hyper mathematical about it—and I do have that tendency—so I don’t do things like wedge in a scene in which Stas demonstrates his flexibility then another scene in which Dr. Niu is seen conspicuously lacking forgiveness. Some of these traits may simply not come up, and that’s perfectly fine.

Where did I get these questions from? I promise to dig into that and make sure I let you know if there’s a source for them—is it weird that I might have just developed them on my own and don’t remember? In any case, these are designed to help you get to know these people on more personal level. I chose to answer them “in character” and I was purposely keeping the answers as short as possible. This is designed to get to the core of the character, not the minutiae.

The list of groups and separate list of individual qualities comes from an exercise from one of my writing classes. This is a valuable exercise, especially for fantasy and science fiction writers, but for writers across all genres. These lists start to humanize and “flesh out” your characters so you can get thinking about how they interact with the world around them both at the macro/political level and (I think, more importantly) on the micro/personal level. For fantasy and science fiction this exercise also prompts some worldbuilding. For instance, I have characters who clearly needed to have an educational background—so I started making up names of universities (and mixed in some real ones too). They live in a colonized solar system, specifically among the moons of Saturn, so where were they born and where do they live? These then serve as seeds from which more worldbuilding can spring. Does each moon of Saturn have a unique accent, or some cultural something that makes them unique, like the various states of the US? Are there rivalries, like sports rivalries? Which moon or which city on a particular moon has the best pizza?

I tend to harp on the idea of appealing to all five senses wherever possible, and to keep reminding myself of that I thought each character should have a “primary sense.” This isn’t the be-all-end-all—none of this is. So if Big Mike’s primary sense is sight it doesn’t mean he can’t hear, it just means that’s what he tends to rely on. If you asked him to remember a particular event he’d start with what he saw.

Lot’s more to say on all this, but for now I’ll let the actual examples speak for themselves, and get back to writing!


Bella Lucky (F)


hero/primary POV (10 scenes)

relies too heavily on luck, which she has to spare

Can’t shoot or drive to save her life

smart and resourceful

brave, verging on cocky—ready for anything (or so she thinks)

catch phrases from the short story: “The DICE just rolled you.” “people in hell want snow cones” “Save the dog and pony show for somebody who’s buyin’ ”

sometimes calls people “buster”

engaged to Jimmy Dobro, but starting to suspect there’s something he isn’t telling her

Heroes: Lunar Security Chief Bryson and Elliot Ness

Personal qualities: Cheerfulness, Confidence, Contribution, Determination, Excitement and Passion, Vitality; discovers: Flexibility; lacks: Appreciation and Gratitude, Forgiveness, Love and Warmth, Self-sacrifice

Who are you?

I am the baddest of the badass DICE constables.

What do you want more than anything?

To rise in the DICE ranks—all the way to the top.

How far would you go to get it?

I have to be the best DICE constable—ever. Maybe even the best cop, full stop—ever.

Why is what you want so important?

I help people…which is what I tell other people. Secretly I know I like the personal power and the thrill of the hunt. I like out-smarting bad guys and being the hero.

How do you feel about the people in your life?

I love Jimmy—I think, and maybe it’s just cop paranoia but I think he’s up to something he’s not telling me. I respect most of my coworkers, but for the most part I’ve let personal relationships suffer for my career.

How do you feel about yourself?

I refuse to admit to myself that I rely way too much on luck, and I know I can’t keep fooling people forever, but if I keep working my ass off maybe my skills will catch up to my luck, the outward appearance I project, and my own image of myself.

Art by Adam Shaw

Art by Adam Shaw

What groups do you belong to (and the top three)?

Most importantly: cop, DICE constable, Saturnian

But also: agnostic, coffee-drinker, detective novel reader, jazz fan, liberal (mostly), native Miman (born on Mimas), right handed, smoker, straight, wedding magazine reader (closeted)

What makes you unique (and the top three)?

Most importantly: lucky, fooling everybody, undefeated

But also: clever, fast, fun, funny, smart

Physical Description:

see illo

Primary Sense:

sight—very straightforward



Niu Fu Ian (F)


bio-tech expert/doctor


6 POV scenes

all about the pretense

In way over her head, but more afraid of trying to work her way out of it than in just pressing ahead and hoping for the best

Personal qualities: Confidence, Determination, Flexibility, Self-sacrifice, Excitement and Passion; loses: Excitement and Passion; lacks: Appreciation and Gratitude, Cheerfulness, Contribution, Forgiveness, Love and Warmth, Vitality

Who are you?

I’m a once-promising doctor and gifted geneticist who’s at the end of a long and rocky career.

What do you want more than anything?

To flush the rest of my baggage and be free to finish my life with some shred of dignity.

How far would you go to get it?

I will kill anyone but my son, commit any crime… I have nothing left to lose so have to just do anything to get out of the nightmare my life has become.

Why is what you want so important?

If I didn’t think there was a way out, I guess I’d just have to kill myself, but I deserve a second chance (or is it a third or fourth or fifth chance?) to get my life back on track.

How do you feel about the people in your life?

I love and miss my son but I understand why he doesn’t talk to me. Everybody else just wants something from me, and are using me up. Fuck ’em.

How do you feel about yourself?

I’m a decent person in indecent circumstances and if I can just get through this, do what I have to do, I can go home and spend the rest of my life just being a doctor and forgetting all about this

What groups do you belong to (and the top three)?

Most importantly: doctor, Enceladus Wildlife Survey Team member (former), University College Tethys graduate (go Gray Ghosts!)

But also: amateur poet, Asian descent (Chinese), atheist, DICE consultant (part time), gamer (romance RPGs), geneticist, Gray Ghosts fan, half-Earthling (on her father’s side), Martian cartel associate (not by choice), Martian Orange addict (reformed), Miman (currently), mother (son is 26, still lives on Tethys), native Thethyan, rehab “graduate”, Saturnian, Saturnian Medical and Research Technical Society (SMARTS) member, scientist, widow

What makes you unique (and the top three)?

Most importantly: watchmaker’s daughter, resourceful, guilty

But also: anxious, daring, desperate, has-been, intelligent, lonely, secretive, temporary, transformative

Different Murder Method:

Uses the monsters to do her dirty work, knows her drugs/instruments will be checked

Unique Item:

Carries a portable medical kit that’s a sort of doctor’s bag/extreme first aid kit—will need some specifics so it doesn’t become “the thing that can do whatever is convenient at the time”

Physical Description:

Asian woman, short (5’ 1”), black hair in an extremely geometrical bob, tends to stand with her hands behind her back, head usually tipped down (guilty body language), showing signs of age (mid-50s) around her eyes

Primary Sense:

touch—the trained hands of a surgeon


Stas Zalevsky (M)


tech expert, but not “geek”

but ultimately a good guy

Bella suspects he’s cartel, but he isn’t

2 POV scenes

Personal qualities: Cheerfulness, Flexibility, Forgiveness; lacks: Confidence

Who are you?

I’m the guy who knows how things work and how to get them to do even more. There’s nothing I can’t figure out (eventually).

What do you want more than anything?

To be recognized for my far more valuable work within the “gun culture” of DICE. What I do is important but marginalized.

How far would you go to get it?

I’m seriously considering interfering in the old fashioned cop culture in some critical case to showcase that my way is better. But I’m not so sure this case is important to warrant that, and it might not be the best showcase either.

Why is what you want so important?

The Martian cartels are out-spending, out-witting, and simply winning the “war” with DICE because they put more money into resources and technology, and they are out-thinking the good guys. DICE is losing the war on drugs—and people are dying as a result.

How do you feel about the people in your life?

If and when there are people in my life, ask me again.

How do you feel about yourself?

I’m smart—actually, I’m smarter than easily 99% of the people in the Saturnian system if not in the entire settled solar system. And if I didn’t absolutely believe that, I would just have to kill myself.

What groups do you belong to (and the top three)?

Most importantly: Phi Beta Kappa, The Titan Institute of Technology and Sciences graduate (TITS, MS, one year of PhD), DICE

But also: current Miman, ethnic Russian, Independent Thinkers of Saturn (ITS, sort of a “social” club for intellectuals), MENSA member, native Martian, naturalized Saturnian, people who hate the acronym TITS, puzzle fan (crosswords, Sudoku, etc.), Rhea Polytechnic graduate (undergrad), Saturnian Museum of Art and Science—Mimas (membership), Subaru owners, vintage video game collector (but not player)

What makes you unique (and the top three)?

Most importantly: very much smarter than almost everybody, unappreciated, right

But also: customized his DICE bigBRAIN, defensive, disgruntled, lonely

Unique Item:

Stas has a bigBRAIN—sort of the laptop version of a BRAIN. It’s physically bigger—he carries it around in a messenger bag—and faster and smarter with more robust apps, etc. Of course I’ll have to figure out a way to get rid of it pretty early on so it doesn’t become a crutch.

Physical Description:

There is nothing particularly interesting or unique about the way Stas looks, and that’s why no one really seems to notice him. He’s average in every way—on the outside. Since he doesn’t particularly care what he looks like, and neither does anyone else, we’ll never get any details of his physical appearance in the book.

Primary Sense:

hearing—he listens for signals, but not from people


Hunter Weston (M)


DICE officer

straight-laced, Mormon

security expert, electronics


2 POV scenes

Personal qualities: Contribution, Love and Warmth, Self-sacrifice; lacks: Flexibility

Who are you?

I am a father, husband, and DICE JAG officer.

What do you want more than anything?

To help create a nurturing and safe environment for my family—specifically one free of drugs, which are burning through the Saturn system like a wildfire.

How far would you go to get it?

I always operate within the law (which I understand in exacting detail), and within the system (which I’m not always a big fan of), but I’m not afraid to lie to a liar or even kill a killer.

Why is what you want so important?

I need to know that I’ve done everything I can to leave the Saturn system a better place than I found it—it’s where my children will live on after me.

How do you feel about the people in your life?

I love my six children, my wife, and our extended family so much sometimes it seems overwhelming. In many ways, I exist only for them. I know that DICE is deeply flawed, but I’m not going to give up on it, or the people who still believe in its mission.

How do you feel about yourself?

If I stopped to think about myself at all, which I don’t, I might feel a little sad about the things I’ve missed—even if I’m not sure I could put my finger on exactly what those things are or were. Still, in the dark moments of the soul, I can feel something missing.

What groups do you belong to (and the top three)?

Most importantly: father (of six), husband, Mormon

But also: Bimini Insula Icebergs fan (professional G-ball team), blond, Brigham Young University School of Law graduate (BYU, Earth), computer expert, cousin, DICE Judge Advocate General’s Office special agent, G-ball coach (like soccer but in zero-G, for his son’s team), G-ball fan, grandson, hates the acronym JAG Off, history buff, Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate (MIT, Earth, undergrad in network security), native Titanian (still lives there in the city of Bimini on Bimini Insula), Saturnian, security expert, son, uncle

What makes you unique (and the top three)?

Hunter refuses to think about what makes him special. He sees service and community as much more important than what makes him different.

Unique Item:

In his BRAIN are detailed dossiers on every member of the team and their significant contacts. It’s set to self-destruct if anyone tries to access or download it.

Physical Description:

Thin but not lanky or “skinny,” blond hair cut very short, blue eyes, perfect teeth, fastidious uniform and appearance in general

Primary Sense:

smell—he feels he can “sniff out” a bad cop, and actually manifests this literally.


Michael “Big Mike” Stenglitz (M)


DICE tactical officer

gregarious soldier

dies vey soon


NO POV scenes

Personal qualities: Vitality, Excitement and Passion, Cheerfulness; lacks: Appreciation and Gratitude

Who are you?

I am one big bad motherfucker.

What do you want more than anything?

To bust some skulls for the cause, whatever that cause might be.

How far would you go to get it?

All the way out to the maximum operational range of my weapon.

Why is what you want so important?

They tell me it’s important to bust up drug cartels, I bust up drug cartels. If they told me to jack up the fucking Girl Scouts, the fucking Girl Scouts are getting jacked up. End of story.

How do you feel about the people in your life?

I love my husband, my parents, my dogs, and my fellow Marines. Most DICE constables should be fucking hanged, but this Bella chick’s not so bad.

How do you feel about yourself?

I fucking rule.

What groups do you belong to (and the top three)?

Most importantly: ex-Saturnian System Marine Corps (SSMC) Staff Sergeant, husband, dog person (owns three)

But also: betweener (born aboard a spacecraft between Jupiter and Saturn), color blind, country music fan, DICE tactical officer, gay, hunter, member of Bug Hunters Anonymous, military veteran, Saturnian, son, square dancer, uncle

What makes you unique?

paranoid about my feet, supreme self-confidence, funny and fun as hell

Unique Item:

a particularly big and versatile rifle that I still need to define

Physical Description:

massive: 6’7” tall, 300 lbs of pure muscle. Shaved head, big mustache, wears particularly heavy boots

Primary Sense:

sight—he’s an uncomplex kinda guy: “Do you smell that?” someone asks. “Nope,” he answers—and the monster eats his head.


And by now you’ve probably realized that even though I knew I’d end up putting this up on my blog, I still wrote this for me. These are my notes, and normally would never be published in any way. And like I’ve said a bunch of times: No plan survives contact with the enemy. This is my plan for these characters. How they’ll end up will be largely determined by the writing itself. And I’ve already got an idea that will require adding another character—and this after I’ve already added Big Mike since the last go around. This is enough to get me started next week, but it’s just the first few layers, and everything is subject to change.


—Philip Athans


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Looking back at my outline for Bella Lucky and the Monsters of Methone, and having thought through the log line at least, it’s time to start layering some flesh on the bones of that extremely skeletal outline. Especially this early in the outline phase, it’s really time for me to start asking myself some questions.

Chapter 9 of The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction is entitled “Ask, and Answer, Questions.” This is specifically in relation to characters, but the same technique easily applies to everything else. From the book:

As you’re writing, you’ll find yourself constantly circling back to that why question. Never shrug that off. If it drags your writing to a complete stop, good. Stop. Think. Support your characters and get started again, even if it means a radical left turn in what you thought your story was going to be. There is no story compelling enough to support unmotivated characters.

Looking back, not only do I still stand by that, but I’ll add:

There is no world compelling enough to support unmotivated characters.

I wrote the following questions before that last bit, and looking back at the questions again I’m not surprised that the majority of them have to do with character motivation: why this character is doing this and not that? What does he or she hope to gain? And so on. But sprinkled in, too, are some plot questions, and worldbuilding infuses almost all of them.

In keeping with the spirit of the “short, bad book” exercise and my own advice not to over-worldbuild up front and keep myself open to new ideas in the writing—and to keep this post from getting way too long—I’m going to force myself to think fast and spend no more than a few minutes answering each question . . .


Who are Dr. Niu’s “mysterious ‘bosses’,” and what do they want in general, and more specifically, what do they want of Dr. Niu?

I have established in the short story that the Saturn system is at least heavily influenced if not actually controlled by one big corporation, so that’s indicating to me that the future solar system is a pretty corporation-heavy place. The first idea is that Dr. Niu works for a rival corporation. Genetic engineering would make sense as a growth industry in the far future, especially in this colonized solar system. One of the ways NASA is already looking at making a Mars mission more survivable for the astronauts who undertake it is to change the astronauts—somehow making them more radiation resistant, etc.

So what if this rival corporation is more or less in that business, and hopes to compete with the already-established corporation by offering these genetically engineered animals as alternatives to robots? Something about that feels a little on the nose, a little too easy.

I always tell people to listen to that inner voice . . . Mine’s telling me to keep thinking. But even then, this only brings up more questions, like: Why do they think these “monsters” are or at least could be better than robots? How have they gone off plan and created monsters that will threaten our cast of characters? What are these monsters intended to do, what service are they engineered to provide?

As for what they expect from Dr. Niu, the outline already has her gathering up information to bring back to her mysterious bosses, but I’d also like to see her attempt to destroy the place, eliminating the evidence of the various crimes, and also kill any survivors before they can be arrested and interrogated. This makes her a lot scarier—she isn’t just a bureaucrat but a saboteur/assassin as well. I’ll really have to think about where Dr. Niu comes from that she’s willing to fill that role. It seems hard to imagine a medical doctor as an assassin, but . . . Hannibal Lecter, anyone? Anyway, I don’t see her as quite that evil!


Why is genetic engineering “frowned upon” and “the creation of unique life forms” illegal?

If one of the reasons Bella Lucky and her fellow Saturnians can lead happy and productive lives in the highly radioactive space around a gas giant is because they’ve been genetically engineered to be more radiation resistant, it seems that genetic engineering would be seen as a good thing, wouldn’t it?

I suppose I could get up on my soapbox about how genetically modified crops are being vilified in the here and now even while they’re feeding millions of people who would otherwise starve and helping to keep food prices down in the developed world, too. That might actually be worth inserting. Maybe the Saturnians are experiencing some kind of anti-science backlash against genetic engineering, which is what’s driven this lab underground.

A plague that devastated the population of one of the moons either fairly or unfairly blamed on genetic engineering? Maybe some kind of fast-reproducing pest or even a scary predator was introduced and resulted in multiple deaths, and this lab is continuing that work?

This is a worldbuilding question that needs to be built into the history of my far future. I like the idea of a predatory monster being released on an innocent population. That works with the whole space opera dungeon crawl vibe, too.

Ooh . . . and one of the characters was there and his or her parents were horribly killed, so he/she is now the strident anti-genetic engineering champion.

I’ve also been thinking lately that this book needs at least one redshirt. This might be that guy.

He could tell the story like Quint relating his experience in the sinking of the USS Indianapolis in Jaws.

Thinking . . .


If this is all illegal, why are Dr. Niu’s mysterious bosses doing it anyway?

There’s a good question.

In the highly civic society I described in the short story, you can easily imagine that the people responsible for the scary predator attack scenario I just made up above would have eventually been sued into submission. So then why reorganize and start the whole nightmare again? “This time, I’m sure it’ll work,” sounds too weak to me.

I thought maybe they’re breeding monsters on purpose for the military—then immediately cringed since that was too much like Aliens and that also actually always confused me about Aliens. If “the bio-weapons division” really wants these things, how were they expecting to control them? How does “I have a monster army” work, exactly?

Then I thought maybe the cartel wants them for some reason, or is bankrolling the whole thing because . . . why? They just like exotic pets?

I really need to spend some quality time with this question—until I can answer it to my satisfaction this book has a gaping hole in it.


Why does Bella’s fiancée, who’s in the robot business (and also secretly aligned with a Martian drug cartel), want to bust up this lab, and how did he “get wind of it” in the first place?

If it is as simple as the genetic engineers hoping to compete with robots, there’s all the motivation Bella’s fiancée needs to torpedo them. But still, I can’t make myself believe that a genetically engineered monster will ever be seen as a better potential janitor than the janitorial robots I described in the short story. And that’s even though the robots in the story ended up functioning like monsters.

If the cartel is funding the thing, that’s a good reason for the fiancée to not blow the whistle on it. Unless he’s trying to screw the cartel? Maybe he’s trying to take over?

Cringing again on that.

This is another big hole but I think it’s one that will be easily filled in once I know what the genetic engineers want and why. Then I can figure out how the fiancée might see that as a problem.

As for how he got wind of it, this is a guy who has a solid network of people, so the easy idea is that he had someone on the inside who tipped him off that things had gotten to the point in their research where maybe he should be worried. I could see how an ambitious engineer might want to turn to corporate espionage in the hope of securing a position with a much bigger—and legal—company.

And Bella and Company can find that insider’s partially-eaten corpse . . . it was that person who released the monsters in the first place?

Wheels are turning.


How does Dr. Niu’s mysterious bosses get her on the team investigating the laboratory?

As marginalized as they are, this mysterious gang of genetic engineers have the resources necessary to establish a clandestine laboratory on an otherwise deserted moon, maintain it, hire a team of skilled professionals, and so on. Given the degree of corruption I hinted at in the short story, the Saturn system is riddled with corporate spooks, drug dealers, mobsters, con men . . . If Bella’s fiancée has an insider or two in law enforcement, why not the genetic engineers too?


How is the rest of the team assembled, for that matter?

It’s perfectly okay for characters who are cops, etc., to simply be assigned to something. If Bella is on the case thanks to her fiancée’s influence, Dr. Niu is slid in by the genetic engineers, and Hunter is an internal affairs officer investigating one or both of them, that really just leaves Stas. And for all that, Stas could just be the next “magic-user” up on the duty rotation.


Why do the cops send an internal affairs officer (Hunter) along with the team? Who do they suspect and what do they suspect that person has done?

It could be fun to leave readers guessing about this, and I really should. But I shouldn’t be guessing at the same time.

Let’s say there’s reason to think he might be investigating Bella because the cops are on to the fiancée and his links to the cartel, and they want to see if Bella’s in on it. But actually they’re investigating Dr. Niu, who they suspect has ties to this illegal genetic engineering stuff. Maybe some kind of red flag is raised when she’s put in the team. This is pretty much in the outline already, with Hunter confronting Dr. Niu and ultimately paying the price.


Why was this lab set up on Methone, in particular?

My very cursory (so far) research on Methone shows it to be quite an exotic and lonely little moon. It’s a frozen ice ball, and though that ice would be a valuable commodity for a space-going society, it feels very “Last Frontier.” It’s sort of like asking why put the nuclear energy lab in the desert of Nevada? Because no one lives there and you can cordon off a few hundred thousand acres of dead space we’re willing to lose if something goes horribly wrong. So, the genetic engineers use the ice and other elements for their own purposes, but without even a remote “village” there, it’s off the space lanes and otherwise forgotten territory.

There are a lot of little moonlets like this flinging themselves around Saturn, so I’ll just make sure there’s a certain “frontier culture” around them that’ll make sense to the characters.


Why can’t they just wait outside (or even inside), wearing space suits, and just bleed all the air out of the lab to kill all the monsters, then go in and collect all the evidence they need at their leisure?

This one I actually thought about.

First, they have no idea when they first arrive that monsters have been set loose in the lab. They expect to find people there whom they can arrest. So at first they go in through the airlock, specifically trying to avoid an act of mass murder. Then they’re beset upon by monsters, and so why not just withdraw and bleed the air out? I’ll need to keep the question of surviving humans alive. I think they need to find a surviving genetic engineer or two as they go. I can then make sure that at least one character’s suit is ruptured beyond repair, and in general just keep tracking this so that no matter what happens, it’s never that easy. There is no one-step scorched earth opportunity.


Who was manning this station and conducting these experiments and where are they now?

Ah—I just said maybe I need some survivors. I like the idea of some scientists barricaded themselves in somewhere. This could serve as one of my TRAP/TRICK chapters. How to get these people out of . . . wherever they are.

I’m seeing scientists trapped in an inner lab and the outer lab has been exposed to vacuum and something is preventing them from repressurizing it, so they’re stuck in there with no space suits, but then something makes it really hard for our heroes to get through this vacuum room to get them. More thinking . . .


So I’m sure by now you can see that I’m hardly done with this outline. I haven’t answered all these questions, and have answered really none of them to the degree that I feel I’m ready to write.

This process of asking and answering questions is meant to lead to new questions, which lead to new questions, etc. I’ll be thinking about this for at least the next few days, but if I really want to start writing on November 1st, I better get cookin’!


—Philip Athans


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As I continue to work through my own process of outlining Bella Lucky and the Monsters of Methone, I know I need a log line—a one-sentence description of what this book is about—to focus my thinking as I get deeper into the outline, and to help me sell it when it’s done. On page 17 of The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction I briefly touch on the idea of the log line and provide a couple samples I cooked up myself, like:

A lost alien race has left behind working starships that intrepid prospectors take to unknown destinations across the galaxy in search of riches.

. . . my log line for Frederick Pohl’s Gateway—and with two words to spare!

Since then, though, I’ve included the log line exercise in classes, and thought about them in a little more detail. One thing I’ve advised is to open that word limit up a little bit in the more word-friendly world of publishing, so we can go to as many as fifty words.

Your log line should give whoever reads it a sense that there’s a story, and that that story is about people doing things, but that’s pretty much it. The log line is all set-up, and needs to be 100% spoiler free. This is “sales copy” for you, and you’ll use it when talking to agents, editors, and anyone else. It’ll be a part of your cover copy or Amazon landing page/catalog copy—or will at least be a basis for that. It’ll be part of every query letter, press release, your web site or blog, etc. So make it count!

I think log lines for novels need three elements:

  • Hero (or if you prefer, protagonist)
  • Villain (or antagonist)
  • Conflict

Even if your book has more than one hero and more than one villain, surely there’s one major character, or at least group of characters, who can fill each spot. Really, you should have one principal protagonist and one principal antagonist or your story is probably (not definitely, but . . .) overly complex and difficult to relate to.

This is another big advantage of this process. It forces you to drill down to the absolute essential. Now, of course, no one who knows anything about anything will think that this is the sum total of your story. No one is going to read this and think, Gee, there are only two characters? Of course we all expect that there will be lots of twists and turns, fascinating worldbuilding, compelling ideas, and so on, but you have to start somewhere.

So then, following that basic template, here’s one I wrote up as an example for a class:

Genetically engineered androids come to Earth to confront their creator and a cynical cop has to track them down and kill them in cold blood.

That’s Blade Runner or Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? in exactly twenty-five words.

The order in which we get hero, villain, and conflict is entirely optional, so this example starts with the villains and what they want—and what the villain wants tends to start every story off—then we meet the hero (a cynical cop) and the conflict is clear. Notice also that none of the characters have a name. Even agents and editors who specialize in science fiction and fantasy will trip over weird character names or start wondering if this is a character they should have heard of already. With only twenty-five to fifty words, you don’t have time for much if any worldbuilding. And notice, too, that I spent no time describing the category, genre, audience, etc. The fact that this is a science fiction novel for an adult audience will be in a separate part of the query letter, and anyway, “Genetically engineered androids come to Earth” kinda screams science fiction, doesn’t it?

With Bella Lucky and the Monsters of Methone starting off, at least, as a short 50,000 word straight-ahead sci-fi adventure story, I probably don’t need as many as fifty words, but let’s see what I can come up with. I’ll start by describing each of those three elements in the shortest possible way but in a way that’s still interesting. For instance, describing Deckard as “a cynical cop” hints at an additional layer of conflict as opposed to just “a cop.” Since I’ve thought through enough of the outline that I want a big part of Bella’s story to be about how she’s come to rely on luck and needs to get past that, let’s go with . . .

Hero: a police detective who’s come to rely too much on luck

The villain is a little less clear in my head. I know that Dr. Niu is reporting back to mysterious “bosses” as they explore the clandestine genetics laboratory and that she is working against Bella, but I haven’t really put a lot of thought into the why yet. I’m thinking that in this future genetic engineering is frowned upon and the sort of genetic engineering that leads to the creation of unique life forms (the monsters of Methone) is flat-out illegal. Since I’d introduced ubiquitous robots in the short story and robots in general have a connection with Bella through her fiancée, who works for the company that manufactures robots, I’m thinking that he gets wind of this clandestine laboratory, set up by a competitor, and is the one who blows the whistle. Bella is assigned to this hastily-assembled team to go to Methone and investigate, but this mysterious corporate competitor manages to get one of their people (Dr. Niu) on the team to engineer a cover-up. So Dr. Niu plans to be the sole survivor of the expedition, and after securing the relevant data, she needs to destroy the evidence.

That’s an okay start at least, but a lot of words.

Thinking cap on.

Villain: a traitor who will stop at nothing to cover up her employers’ crimes

In that thinking about the villain I also ended up with a good measure of the core conflict. Bella is there to investigate a crime. Dr. Niu is there to cover up the same crime. The crime itself is the creation of genetically engineered monsters. This brings me to:

A police detective who’s come to rely too much on luck leads a small team to a remote moon of Saturn to investigate an illegal genetic engineering lab, but one of her team is a traitor who will stop at nothing to cover up her employers’ crimes.

I make that forty-seven words.

I chose to start with the hero, and I’m not 100% sure why, but it sort of just worked out that way. And I’ll rationalize it as wanting to put my series-hopeful character Bella Lucky at the front of the action, complicated by the villain being villainous.

Notice I slipped a teaspoonful of setting in there, too. I felt on the fly that I wanted to make sure people knew this was space opera. This isn’t a genetic engineering lab in New Mexico—and I kinda want to explain the title since very few people will be able to identify Methone. So then now the title makes a little more sense, we get that Bella Lucky is probably the “police detective who’s come to rely too much on luck,” that Methone is “a remote moon of Saturn,” and the monsters are the product of “an illegal genetic engineering lab.”

Kind of feels like a story is brewing.


—Philip Athans


Posted in Books, how to write fiction, intellectual property development, monsters, Publishing Business, Pulp Fiction, Science Fiction & Fantasy Novels, science fiction technology, SF and Fantasy Authors, transmedia, Writing, writing advice, writing horror, Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments