Helpless in the Face of Your Enemy: Writers and Attack Novels

Helpless in the Face of Your Enemy: Writers and Attack Novels

Great-Way-Final-Cover-eBook-3-copySome writers plan their careers.

They scan the top of the best seller lists, think Hmm… here’s a police procedural, this one’s steampunk, these two are zombie novels, and this one’s about angels. Great! I’ve been wanting to try steampunk. I’ll write a steampunk murder mystery about a pair of mismatched cops. One will be a zombie and the other will be an angel. No, a fallen angel who has lost his celestial whatsit.

Which is a silly example, obviously, but authors manage the non-silly version to great success. As I recall, John Scalzi has said that he wrote Old Man’s War because MilSF seemed to be selling well. There are others, too, but I hesitate to name them because writing to the market has a bit of a stigma attached to it, although it shouldn’t. More power to them, I say.*

Me, I can’t do it. Not that I haven’t tried, but I can’t make it work. I don’t read fast enough to sample the sales lists widely, I can’t make myself write a book without screwing around with the tropes of the genre, and I suffer from attack novels.

Attack novel: ( əˈtak ˈnävəl) n: a story idea that a writer can’t stop thinking about, even (especially) when they’re supposed to be working on something else.

The first book I ever sold was an attack novel. So was the first book I ever started and abandoned. They haven’t all been, but when they come on me, all I can do is put them off until I finish whatever’s on deadline.

At the beginning of March, I released an attack novel that I started five years ago, and in every way that matters, it was a book I shouldn’t have written.

In fact, I shouldn’t even be talking about it here. I have a epic fantasy trilogy out right now that should appeal to Black Gate ‘s readership: one that combines epic fantasy and apocalyptic thriller. The first volume, The Way into Chaos received a great review right here on Black Gate, and at BoingBoing, too. It also got a star from Publishers Weekly. Check out this (clickable) cover:

The Way Into Chaos-small

gameofcagesPretty sweet, right? That trilogy wasn’t an attack novel. I wrote it as part of a homeschool project I did with my son** and it was explicitly planned out. Still, it’s good work, reviews have been largely positive, and I’m proud of it.

However, I’ve written about 30,000 words of promotional blog tour for those books, and… Okay. I’ve put off writing about my attack novel long enough. For this final blog tour entry, I want to talk about that book, why it was absolutely the wrong thing to write, and why it couldn’t be denied.

I can almost pinpoint the day that the attack novel hit me. I was finishing Game of Cages, my second book for Del Rey, when I began to think about protagonists and exposition characters in urban fantasy. They were all Buffy and Giles: young fighters and the knowledgeable elders who told the fighters what to do.

But why did it have to be that way? In the modern day, sensible people don’t solve their problems by strapping on plate armor and a broad sword. They use peaceful means. The law. Diplomacy. Compromise. And yet, ever urban fantasy novel I read — set in major cities around the world — was written as though the characters lived in a lawless world of might-makes-right.

“Only trust your fists. Police will never help you,” is the quote, right? For thriller narratives, it’s a fine thing,*** but did every urban fantasy have to be a thriller of some kind?

At the same time, I was coming across a lot of articles, interviews, and news stories about people treating older women as though they were invisible: actresses who could not find roles to play, wives whose husbands had finally made their fortunes turning them out in favor of trophy wives, and so on.

Taken together, those observations made me want to read an urban fantasy novel with an older female protagonist, a book where the character who knows what needs to be done doesn’t pass that information like a shopping list to a young character. I wanted a book where she does it herself.

But I couldn’t find one. There were mysteries with older protagonists, definitely, but urban fantasies? No one knew of any. What’s more, the oldest female protagonists in fantasy anyone was able to come up with in that thread was 35.****

A Key, an Egg, an Unfortunate Remark-smallIf I wanted to read this book, I’d have to write it.

It’s commonly accepted wisdom that no one in sf/f wants books with an woman in her sixties in the lead. Supporting character? Sure. In the mystery genre? See above, because yes. But urban fantasy? Think again. The market wasn’t interested and publishers don’t take them. And yet, here I was, about to commit Senior Protagonist, and she wasn’t going to be helpless, or doddering, or in way over her head. She was going to be the UF Miss Marple.

What’s more, urban fantasies were magical action/thrillers, often with romance added in. I was about to write UF with barely any action at all.

A smarter author would have looked at the best seller lists and chosen to spend all those months on a book someone would want to publish. Authors have a limited number of years to create a legacy, and I wasn’t sure that I should follow my Twenty Palaces novels (this was before I found out Del Rey would cancel the series) with light-hearted pacifist urban fantasy. I did it anyway.

I put off the book until after I turned in Circle of Enemies to Del Rey in 2010. The dour ending of that one left me feeling wrung out, and I was glad for the chance to write something lighter. I came up with the title A Key, an Egg, an Unfortunate Remark, with no idea how keys and eggs would feature into the story, and I started writing.

It’s taken me years to get a draft I like and release it, and I’m already seeing negative reviews from people put off by a forceful older female protagonist.

But why else am I writing if not to fill the world with books I want to read?

The real question is whether readers want the same things I do. Do book buyers (and not just older ones) want to read a pacifist urban fantasy about a socialite who’s part Auntie Mame, part Gandalf? I’m about to find out.

King Khan-smallIf you’re curious about A Key, an Egg, an Unfortunate Remark, you can read more about it, or you can go straight to the six (short) sample chapters.

Thanks for your time.

* Some people think it’s a bad idea to write to the market, but there are smart ways to do it. Smart ways (according to me): Do not try to jump onto the success of a surprise break-out hit unless you’re very prolific. Taking a year to write another New Big Thing runs the risk of finding the market saturated. Start quickly and finish quickly. Otherwise, figure out which sub-genres sell well year after year. If you go either route, there will be a lot of competition, and you’ll need good writing/storytelling to stand out.

** More details (including the specific screwing-with-genre-tropes that earned me accusations of being a liar and a cheat) here.

*** I make full use of this trope in King Khan and the Twenty Palaces books, and I’ll use it again.

**** In Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker, which is a good book, even if it has zombies in it.

Harry Connolly’s debut novel, Child Of Fire, was named to Publishers Weekly’s Best 100 Novels of 2009. For his epic fantasy series The Great Way, he turned to Kickstarter; at the time this was written, it was the ninth-most-funded Fiction campaign ever. Book one of The Great Way, The Way Into Chaos was published in December, 2014. Book two, The Way Into Magic, was published in January, 2015. The third and final book, The Way Into Darkness, was released on February 3rd, 2015.

Harry lives in Seattle with his beloved wife, beloved son, and beloved library system. You can find him online at or on Twitter as @byharryconnolly.

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Scott Taylor

Attack Novel… I have those but I’d never heard that definition before. Thanks for providing it so I now can put a name to my affliction 🙂

[…] at Black Gate, Harry Connelly talks about writing to your audience, attack novels and an urban fantasy he has […]

[…] Helpless in the Face of Your Enemy: Writers and Attack Novels — Harry Connolly talks about the novel he had to write. His talk about the big UF taboo is interesting/troubling. And I will get to my blog post on this one soon. Really. […]

Sarah Avery

All my long projects are Attack Stories. And your UF Miss Marple description sounds irresistible to me.

I’m glad I clicked over to your blog for the work-in-process meme. I’m tutoring a homeschooler of just the right age and interests for the book you used with your son, and it wasn’t one I was familiar with. Thanks for the tip!

[…] on io9. It turned out that the io9 article was an extract from a more complete essay published at Black Gate. It’s here, go read it. I’ll […]

[…] Helpless in the Face of Your Enemy: Writers and Attack Novels. […]

[…] boredom with my current genre.  It’s not even purely a commercial endeavor.  No, this is an Attack Novel.  The story rose up and demanded I write it.  Its incessant nagging started two years ago, and […]


My newest novella (yep self promotion) “Neighbors Good and Fair” has an 80 year old female protagonist.

[…] on io9. It turned out that the io9 article was an extract from a more complete essay published at Black Gate. It’s here, go read it. I’ll […]

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