Category: Advice

Ask a Triceratops: Susan’s 10 Rules for Novelists

Jonathon is a famous novelist and he has written me a long letter which I won’t quote because it goes on a bit. It seems he has decided to copy my writing advice style and produced a list of “10 rules” for novelists. Now everybody is laughing at him and he is sad. He’d like to know if I could suggest 10 different rules that would save him from mockery?

Absolutely Jono! Only too happy to help a struggling novelist out!

  1. Ensure your primary narrator is comfortable. Remember the novel is an aural medium and your narrator should have a comfy nest of uprooted plants to stand or lie down on.
  2. Pay attention to the little things: how did the t-rex get drunk? What kind of tree is she trying to climb?
  3. Your secondary narrator shouldn’t be too colourful a character as this can distract from your tertiary narrator or the triceratops that is recovering from having a t-rex fall on her.
  4. Use sentences or sentence fragments or isolated words or phrases or grunting noises. 
  5. Don’t use gestures to get your point across. OK maybe that works for humans but classic triceratopian literature never uses gestures and you really can’t argue with a literary form with that kind of longevity.
  6. Avoid mammals. Not just in your novels but in life in general. At worst they’ll eat your eggs and at best they get underfoot.
  7. Don’t use “then” as a conjunction. Instead use a strong twine made out of twisted strips of bark.
  8. Setting fires to things can be fun but be careful you don’t cause a stampede or burn down the whole savannah.
  9. Your t-rex doesn’t need much motivation or character development. They are blundering drunken fools the lot of them.
  10. There’s nothing wrong with standing in the rain shouting your novel at a thundering sky, defying the lightning to strike you down as you declaim your truth to the heavens but don’t do this while holding an umbrella like my friends cat did that one time. On the other hand a cat highly charged with static electricity makes for an excellent if bad tempered duster.

Ask A Triceratops: Libraries!


Hi to everybody! I’m back in this timeframe after taking care of some business in Fungus Town of the Far Future! Our question today is about libraries:

“My friend is a writer and I love her books but I always borrow them from the library rather than buy a copy. I live in a small apartment and I’ve no room for books and money is short. Am I a terrible person?”

Isla Borrows

Hi Isla,

Thanks for the question. Let me reassure you that in triceratops culture NOBODY expects you to buy anybody’s book. We don’t have “libraries” as such as ours is more of an oral tradition of story telling. Also we don’t have book stores. Also we don’t have any kind of shops. Also we don’t have money.

Let me explain.

Triceratops are many things: wry observers of life, witty raconteurs, tank-like stomping machines crushing the furry ovophages we despise but also we are herbivores. We eat unprocessed food. We like eating unprocessed food, grazing is pleasurable for us. Also we are creatures of the plains, we neither seek nor need shelter because we are armoured against our enemies even the elements.

Now ask yourself, what possible role has commerce among a herd of triceratops? We don’t need somebody to cook or prepare food for us nor build a house nor fashion tools for us. We live in a society without goods. Without goods we have no need for money.

Like any social creature we produce art and culture but these are things we borrow and share because of their intrinsic nature.

Your primate friend though lives in the confused putrid nexus of an omnivorous (panivorous?) species’s metastasised complex of reciprocity gone badly awry and twisted into the perversion known as “trade”. They must write to earn tokens to trade for bread because their weak jaws cannot masticate the husky grain directly nor can their weak stomachs gain any nutrients from the abundant grasses that bless this era.

The good news is that borrowing their book from a library helps them as an author. Libraries help promote books and authors to people who READ BOOKS. This, I am told, is called ‘targeted advertising’ . It’s not unlike when a fungus person reaches their fruiting cycle and climbs to the top of the nearest tall building and flings their spores into the miasma: it is only those spores that settle in the places that are damp and dark which will spawn. A library is like one of those dank places and your friend’s book is like a spore and you borrowing their book keeps that damp place warm for the sporlings.

My advice to you is let your friend know that you are helping incubate the mildewy essence of her ideas.

Best of Luck!


Ask A Triceratops! – TTFN!


“Hi Susan.

This is Bob from Fungus Town. Are you coming back soon? A giant bird ate Simon. Also Triceracopter doesn’t seem to be around? Have you seen them anywhere? It is weird that you are both away at the same time? Hoping you might have bumped into them on your travels.
All the Best,
PS Cheryl says ‘Hi!'”

Hi Bob,
I’m just helping out a friend. I’ll be back soon. If I see Triceracopter I’ll tell them about Simon and the giant bird.

[2018 Folks: I’m heading off for the time being. Keep those questions coming in!]

Ask A Triceratops! – All Aboard For Fungus Town!


“What is it like living in fungus town? Are the fungus people aggressive? Is it true that they are all zombies?”
G. Romero

“Hi Susan, I hope I’m not being too nosy, but I was curious about your ‘copter. Is it a harness you can take off? or is it a cyborg enhancement? or were you born with it?”

Fungus town is a great place to live and the fungus people are really quite lovely. There is a deep seated biological imperative deep within the fungus genome that makes them want to infect anything with a functioning nervous system with spores but there are ways of bypassing this strange aggressive compulsion.

Fungus people are alive and well and so not ‘zombies’ in the modern sense. Also they lead independent lives and have their own thoughts, wants and aspirations.

Unfortunately, if you turned up in Fungus Town without taking the proper precautions they would turn on you, forced by the fungoid-compulsion to tear you apart and turn you in to the surreal base of a giant fungoid fruiting body.

Robotic nervous systems do not turn fungus people into rage monsters and you will find many robot people living happy lives in Fungus Town. Cybernetic nervous systems are a way of biological animals living safely in Fungus Town and, without going into too many details, that’s why I have a some, shall we say ‘mechanical’ parts to me.

Ask A Triceratops! – Inter-species Dinosaur Culture


Ed asks me a question about my recent column:

“Why is this one “Ask a Dinosaur”? Do triceratops speak for ALL dinosaurs??”

I felt the question for that column was about the wider distributed culture of dinosaurs. As you may be aware from such drama-documentaries as ‘The Land Before Time’ or Disney’s ‘Dinosaur’, Cretaceous dinosaurs formed a wider meta-society via common inter-species language. Some things equivalent to scientific knowledge were part of a common cross-species culture, as in this case regarding social attitudes formed by dinosaur palaeontology. 

Questions about literary forms I treat as comparing triceratops culture with human culture because triceratops literature is quite distinct from, say, iguanodon literature. As you probably know, iguanodon literature is primarily theatrical in origin and is focused on slapstick. It is technically comedy and they take it very seriously. As a non-iguanodon, I really don’t get it and I can’t really talk about it much. Yet, if I was to ask an iguanodon “What fossilised creature from the late Permian period can you name?” then odds are they would probably say something like “leg-leg-watchouts” or “oopsie-downers”. That stuff was common meta-cultural stuff across dino-society.

The “Ask A Dinosaur” column was about a bit of shared cultural experience. OK – modern dinosaurs (aka ‘birds’) wouldn’t know what I was talking about but that is because of the passage of time and changing culture.

Ask A Triceratops! – We Make Good Pets


“What is the best pet for a writer to own?”
Brian Wilson

Sound question Brian!

Some popular choices include:

  • Micro-raptor – like owning a small flightless bird but beware! Do not own more than three as they can take down a much larger dinosaur when they hunt in teams.
  • Pterodactyl – don’t let those big wings put you off! They will happily roost on your roof and keep the local mammal vermin in check. Very low maintenance if you have a sufficiently large mammal population (which these days is most places!)
  • T-rex – OK you’ll need acreage and they are notoriously heavy drinkers but if you can afford the meat bill, they are a great muse for the aspiring writer. Best to have a tree on your property.
  • Aquatic reptile – if you have a lake or a Scottish loch, a plesiosaur will feed itself AND attract visitors. Open up a Bed & Breakfast as a side business for all the tourists eager to catch a sight of the mysterious ‘monster of the loch’. As a writer be sure to mine lots of material from your visitors’ anecdotes.
  • Protobadgers – sort of like a carnivorous wombat with badger colouring. Great as a guard dog and if you get bored of them, you can feed them to your pterodactyl.
  • Cat– no don’t, just don’t.

Ask A Triceratops! – Technology!


“If we lived in the future and we had teleporters and I wrote a story which had teleporters in it, would it still be science fiction?”
B.M. Upscotty

Maybe. Imagine you wrote your story as a 1960s story about teleporters. If you did it would still be like a science fiction story from that time and so it would still be a science fiction story in general.

It is not whether the technology exists or not that matters but whether you treat the technology as fictional.

Think about it. Dinosaurs existed but if you wrote a story about a dinosaur like me trying to make her way in the popular song writing industry of 1960s New York, your story would be science fictional EVEN THOUGH I REALLY DID THAT! Do you see?

OK, an easier one. Aliens visit Earth in secret – science fiction right? But what if it turns out aliens really have visited Earth in secret? Does any SF book dealing with that issue just become contemporary fiction?

Fiction isn’t fiction because it is false but because it does not HAVE to be true.