This spring, as a break from the madness of NaNoWriMo, I decided that I was going to write a spy novel. Fresh from reading Olen Steinhauer’s Milo Weaver trilogy (The Tourist, The Nearest Exit, and An American Spy), all of which I loved, my head was full of ideas for how I would approach the genre. I dove head first into plotting and writing. I didn’t finish. In fact, I didn’t really get much further than a completed outline and some character profiles.

Some day I may actually finish my novel about a newly hired spatial analyst working for the diplomatic service in Minsk, Belarus who is plunged into the world of covert intelligence operations when his Ukrainian girlfriend, who turns out to be a foreign agent, tries to murder him. Until then, I have a number of resources I found in the process of putting together my ideas. Maybe they will be useful for you.  I know there are books and classes and other things out there that probably put all of this into a formula or framework or something that makes sense as a whole system and that you don’t have to put together yourself, but these are free resources.  Beggars and all that.


How to Write a Fight Scene

I know from writing The Paper Sword that writing a good fight scene is really hard. Actually, writing a bad fight scene is hard too. Throwing all of your characters into a heap and making sure the right ones walk away with the right amount of damage, and making it even semi-believable is an incredible challenge. Add on to that the fact that real fights are horrible, messy, violent, awkward things, and do not make for good prose, and my level of admiration for writers of great fight scenes just soars. In putting together the outline for my spy novel, I found several resources that would probably be helpful regardless of what genre you are writing (I know that I wish I had seen these when I was writing The Paper Sword).

Does Your Fight Scene Pack a Punch?
Main Point: Instead of scripting out the fight scene like you are writing directions for the stage or for film, concentrate on the emotional impact to the viewpoint character.

How to Write Fight Scenes
Main Points: Make opponents give the hero a challenge; make the fight real; consider your words carefully; develop a style that works for you; and make sure to show the effects of the fight afterwards.

How to Fight Write
Main Points: This one was a really helpful resource – an entire site with hints, tips, and resources for writing fight scenes. Useful information includes things to avoid/deadly sins, five simple ways to write convincing fight scenes (this is one of my favorites out of all of the fight scene resources), various types of attack (open hand, kicks, fists, elbows and knees, etc.), blocks, and much more. If you had to go to only one place, this should be it.

How to Write a Kick-Ass Fight Scene
Main Points: Describes three types of fight scene writers. Didn’t find this one as useful, but maybe you will.

Ten Tips for Writing Great Fight Scenes
Main Points: Although fairly short, this is another of the gems. Touches many of the points the others make, like concentrating on the consequences of violence, but also adds some novel points (e.g. Realism is cool, but not all important, and equal opponents should be saved for special occasions).

R.A. Salvatore on How to Write a Damn Good Fight Scene
Main Points: This one is out of the genre (R.A. Salvatore is a fantasy writer), but it is an interview with a master of writing fight scenes. And in the end, it’s all words anyway.

Pow! Boom! Ka-Pow! 5 Tips to Write Fight Scenes
Main Points: Bonus points to this one for placing “Read” as number one on the list. Extra bonus points for directing readers to Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn Trilogy.

How to Write a Fight Scene
Main Points: This one is a list and summary of a bunch of different resources, including a few of the ones I have listed here. Goes beyond action/thriller/espionage genres.

Here’s How to Write a Damn Good Fight Scene
Main Points: The best tip here is to use verbs instead of adverbs (e.g. pounded instead of hit very hard).


How to Write a Spy Novel

Writing Spy Fiction with an Unputdownable Plot
Summary: Principles for plot development for spy fiction.

The Art of Espionage Fiction with Former Spy Gene Coyle
Summary: Preparing the plot outline for my novel, I started to get discouraged, realizing that many of the current best selling espionage writers worked in the intelligence machine or were somehow involved. Did that mean I couldn’t write a good spy novel because I work for a non-profit and run a Web site in my spare time? Shoot, I’m not even really an author except during November each year. This audio interview and transcript with Gene Coyle helped me with that. One of the things he said really stuck with me.

“You gotta tell a good yarn. And you have to make the characters interesting, so that the reader feels like they know them. What makes for a good spy novel—or any fictional novel—is if the characters in the story, by the end of the book you feel, “I’ve actually known this fellow.” And you actually care what’s going to happen to him or her.”

Spy novel or not, a story is a story. This one just happens to have particular conventions. If the readers believe it, does it matter if it’s real?

Spy Novelist David Ignatius Describes His Four Favorite Spy Cities
A good resource – got me thinking a lot about setting as a character, especially in this genre.

The Spy Novel as Genre
My piano teacher always told me you have to know the rules and know how to operate creatively within the rules before you are qualified to artistically break the rules. Break the rules without knowing the rules isn’t creativity – it’s called fumbling around with hardly a clue hoping something works out. It’s amateurism.

This is a Tour: Resources for Writing Espionage
A good collection of resources, some of which are listed here already.


Character/Name/Whatever Generators for the Real World

I have an entire collection of generators that I like and use frequently when writing in my Tciona world, but I had to actively search for resources that provided realistic real-world names and details. Maybe this is an instance of the uncanny valley, but most of the real-world generators that I found produced names and characters that were way too artificial. Parents agonize (at least most parents I have ever known) over the names of their children, trying to match their hopes for the new child with family beliefs and traditions and popular trends. A child’s name is a stamp of history, hope, and intent, and is very much a non-random thing. Random generators produce results that are probably not truly random in the mathematical sense, but certainly don’t have the same depth of meaning that real names do. There are a lot of generators out there, and I spent hours trying them out.  Most of them were crap.  At least for what I was looking for.  Here are the ones I hated the least.

Random Teen Generator

Corporation Generator
Some of the names are really stupid, but there are some great gems.

Character Cast Generator

Quick Character Generator

Location and Setting Generators

Quick Character Generator
I remixed results from this generator with ages and jobs I already had in mind to create several of my characters.

Murder Mystery Victim Generator

Character Motivation Generator

Basic Character Appearance Generator

Character Flaws and Weaknesses Generator

Character Interests Generator


Writing Non-Stupid, Non-Boring Sex Scenes

I really think that this is the kind of thing that is very largely about personal taste (or complete lack of it). I think of Katsuki, one of the main characters from the manga Katsu!, who when asked what kind of pornography he prefers answered that he liked pictures where you could kindof see, but kindof not see. For me, the most effective and sex in fiction lets you know what happened and how it affected who, and the emotions and results involved, without actually telling you what happened. L.E. Modesitt, Jr. Is a good example of this. Greg Mathews (e.g. Little Red Rooster) is probably an example of the opposite but the same, where you get every detail and then how it affects each character and the story emotionally. So take these resources (presented really without comment because of the somewhat subjective nature and my own preferences on the subject) as you will. UPDATE: The Bond novels also do a pretty good job of being sexy and sexual without the actual sex.

How to Write About Sex Without Being Boring

How to Write a Sex Scene

How to Write a Good Sex Scene

How to Write a Sex Scene

Twenty Steps to Writing Great Love Scenes

How to Write Sex Scenes When You’re a Prude with Misha Crews
Warning: I know I said I wouldn’t comment, but just a warning that this is a romance-novel-centric source. You have been warned.

So You Want To: Write A Sex Scene

How to Write Sex Scenes: The 12-Step Program


Other Stuff

Espionage Tropes
A really great list of all the things that make espionage fiction what it is. Use this list to make sure you aren’t just like everything else out there. Or maybe use this list to make sure you fight perfectly into the genre. Or use the list to wrap fish in. It’s all up to you.

11 Character Flaws to Use in Your Script Right Now
The character profile template I use has an entire section to develop character flaws. This was one of the resources I used to create a pick-list to fill that section out.

Archetypes that Make Your Story Resonate
Spy fiction makes strong use of several archetypes.

Outline Your Novel in 30 Minutes
Outlining/plot development is actually one of my strong areas. The biggest problem is that I tend to get very detailed before I’ve written anything. Because this was supposed to be a relaxing side project, I wanted to get my outline down quickly and get to writing. This page helped.

So You Want to Have an Attractive Character
I have read characters that I absolutely fell in love with. There is at least one that I read as a young teenager that I probably still have a crush on. And yet it is interesting how sometimes the harder you try to write a character that is irresistible, the more flat that character seems. This page gives some tips. Not silver bullets, but helpful all the same.

Mindsets and Rationales that Lend Well to Villainy
Because the biggest thing I always thought watching Bond movies growing up was “What in the world would cause someone to self-identify as a villain?” I mean, really, are there just some people who aspire to being really bad? Are there people who think villain means hero and they just haven’t gotten the Webster memo yet? This page describes some of the mindsets that villains might have.

Generate Your Own Spy Novel Title
Because they’re all named the same anyway.

Mad Lib Thriller Title Generator
Same reason.

Who are the Master Spy Novelists?
See the tip above that the first step is writing better is to read.



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Photo: Markus Spiske /