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Women spies of the World Wars: Noor Inayat Khan

This blog series on women working undercover during the world wars highlights a few of the stories that inspired me while writing At the Table of Wolves which deals with the anti-fascist career of Kim Tavistock in the years leading up to WWII.

In the second World War the life expectancy of radio operators in occupied Europe was six weeks. Despite the danger, a number of women applied for and were accepted by the British military for missions behind enemy lines. Among them was Nancy Wake, the first subject of my blog series, and Noor Inayat Khan.

Inayat Khan, World War II radio operator Born in 1914, Noor Inayat Khan was the daughter of an American woman and a prominent Indian father who taught Sufism. The family settled in Britain but moved to Paris in 1920 where Inayat Khan studied music at the Paris Conservatory. At the outbreak of WWII the family fled to England where Inayat Khan cared for her siblings and her widowed mother. Despite her strong pacifist beliefs, she felt she most do something to fight the Nazis and joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and soon, the Special Operations Executive (SOE) for work as a radio operator where her fluent French was seen as a crucial asset. Read More…

Drawing Winners

Categories: News |

Thank you to all those who entered my drawing for a chance to win a free audiobook of At the Table of Wolves!

Our four winners are: (And thanks to Sharon Shinn for conducting the drawing!)

B. Fisher, Z. Zielinski, A. Knight, H. Farmer. Congrats to the winners! (If any of the four of you didn’t receive an email from me yesterday with your promo code, please check your spam folder or contact me.)

At the Table of Wolves, historical fantasyGiveaways are a common feature of my infrequent newsletters, so please stay tuned for more offers like this one, and if you’re an Audible fan, the book is always available here.


Writing a novel synopsis

The two-page synopsis is one of the toughest things I have to write. Yes, even harder than the chapter outline.

I mean, if I have 20 or so pages to convey my story in a detailed way, it’s kind of like writing a short story. The old line “Sorry this response is so long, but I didn’t have time to make it short,” carries a hidden truth. In many cases, long is easier than brief.

So, yes, I do think the two-page synopsis is murder. I like to start long and gradually pare down. (There are people who can pound out a synopsis in one sitting, but these people can never be my friends.)

For basics on the synopsis, you can find  plenty of suggestions (such as here) from people who are smarter than I am. So I’ll skip right to:

My special tips for the two-pager

  • Head up the synopsis with an elevator pitch in italics. Start the elevator pitch with “What if.” Using At the Table of Wolves as an example: What if, in inter-war England, when magic has come into the world in the form of psi-abilities, a woman uses her gift for hearing the truth to uncover a Nazi plot to subdue England with a devastating power over ice and cold?
  • Then write the rest, focusing on plot and character, and aiming for 4-5 pages. That length takes the pressure off and helps you get past the fear and loathing stage. You gain confidence from having distilled the book down that far. Try not to fuss with wording on this pass. I know you want to, but it’s a waste of time if you’re going to cut half of it out.
  • Once you have this longer version, sit back and consider what’s crucial for plot, character motivation, world-building, and emotional appeal. What’s  missing? Any key people/events needed for story logic?
  • Now start to cut. Edit out the fat, the repetition, the extraneous sequences. Aim to cut a full page.
  • Another pass, and start revising for a more lively style. Try out one-liners for reversals.
  • Set aside for a day.
  • Then print out what you’ve got so far and edit with a pencil, marking it up and making a mess. Use specific, vibrant nouns and verbs.
  • Cut to 2 pages.
  • Read the pages out loud, noting ideas and final tweaks as you go. Incorporate these and print it.
  • Set aside for a few days. With these breaks, you’re letting the work marinate and your mind recover from a natural “revision blindness”
  • Finish and give to a few people to critique.
  • Make last revisions.

Read More…

Pitching a Novel

How do you pitch a novel? And why lavish time on it? Is it just so that we won’t be caught flat-footed when someone asks what the story is about?

The Point of Pitching

A pitch is more than a conversational gambit. It’s true that an intriguing, quick blurb for a novel makes us look more professional–and saves us the embarrassment of stumbling through a painful and confused rendition. But a pitch also has a deep marketing purpose that goes beyond elevator encounters with editors.

A pitch for your novel positions your story amid the world of books. In that larger context, it gives instant perspective on the story, pinpointing genre, tone, and unique features.

Although we may consider our deep and carefully crafted novel impossible to boil down to a couple of sentences, publishing today depends on branding and brevity.  For better or worse, we are in the world of entertainment and marketing with its thirst for audience definition.

The pitch is not just for the elevator. The novel’s “handle” will follow the book through the whole path of publication, affecting–whether explicitly or in the background–cover design, choice of titles, author blurbs, and promotion.

Pitch Patterns

To process information, people sort input into patterns. So with the pitch, we are helping people to quickly identify our novel’s pattern, making our story “known” at an instinctive level.

“Adventure novel,” “coming of age,” “family story” are all familiar patterns that begin to narrow the universe of our story. That’s a good place to start.

Taking as an example my latest book, At the Table of Wolves, I started with:

“A historical fantasy . . .”

I’m a big fan of establishing the “kind” of book immediately (historical fantasy) so that one can grab onto the most salient positioning feature. Then I needed to move on to extra information that would bring my story into sharper focus. Setting is a major feature of Wolves, so I added in:

” . . . set in 1936 England when psi-powers have come into the world . . .”

This opening quickly zeroes in on genre and sub-genre. Not just a historical fantasy, but the interwar years. Not medieval fantasy, not sword and sorcery, but psychic abilities.

But we still don’t have a grasp of who or what, so I add in:

“. . . and a young woman with a gift for hearing the truth is recruited into espionage, uncovering a Nazi plot to invade England with a mysterious power over ice and cold.”

This leaves us with “A historical fantasy set in 1936 England when psi-powers have come into the world and a young woman with a gift for hearing the truth is recruited into espionage, uncovering a Nazi plot to invade England with a mysterious power over ice and cold.”

The strengths of this pitch are clarity of genre, a hint of world-building (a gift for hearing the truth; a power over ice and cold) and the story problem (Nazi plot to invade England.) What can make it stronger: A comparison to other stories:

So we tack on: “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy meets the X-men” – this tells us that the story deals with super powers (adventure) with an overlay of espionage (thriller). Comp titles are very effective in pitches. As in the above example,  the pattern can be “____ meets ____.” Comps not only describe the work, they suggest who the audience for your book is.

Another approach using comps is to establish contrast: My book is like “A” except for “B.” Using  Naomi Novik’s Uprooted as an example, “A fairy tale but with a heroine who rescues the dragon.” Further along in the pitch you might add in more titles. Again, for Uprooted: “The violence of the Brothers Grimm deepened by the friendship of two women.” You don’t need to stick to two.

Is it easy to create the perfect pitch? No, indeed. But it does help if the pitch seems effortless.

As a mentor of mine once said — and whose advice I’ve adhered to ever since: Never let ’em see you sweat!

This post, and others noted in the link below, are part of a Zombies Need Brains kickstarter.

Check out more posts on creating winning pitches here.

Zombies Need Brains is proud to present its 2017 Kickstarter, featuring three new anthology themes! Join us as we explore the thin line between being a rebel and an insurgent in military SF&F anthology THE RAZOR’S EDGE. Sharpen your blades and work up your dark magic for the sword & sorcery anthology GUILDS & GLAIVES. And travel through time with Gilgamesh in a time-traveling bar in SECOND ROUND. Help us bring these themes to life by backing our Kickstarter at and find out more about the small press at!


Women spies of the World Wars: Nancy Wake

At the Table of Wolves, historical fantasyMany women worked undercover during the world wars, but we know the names of only a few. Like men in the secret intelligence services, many went to their graves never revealing their roles. This blog series highlights a few that inspired me while writing At the Table of Wolves.

Nancy Wake

Nancy Wake, Spy of World War IIA decorated heroine of the French resistance in World War II, Nancy Wake’s life cut a meteoric path from an impoverished childhood in Australia to a high society hostess in the south of France and then, in occupied France, being responsible for saving hundreds of Allied soldiers’ lives, many of them downed paratroopers, by leading them across the Pyrenees to safety in Spain.

She said that she saw no reason why women should be limited to waving goodbye to their men and sitting at home to “knit balaclavas.”

The Gestapo noted her uncanny ability to elude capture, calling her “the White Mouse,” and putting a price of 5 million francs on her head. Read More…