NO MORE SUMMER, PLEASE

Another summer is rapidly coming to a close. This was a hot and dry one up here in the arid wastelands of the once verdant Pacific Northwest. It’s hard not to look at this summer as a sign of impending climate apocalypse. And here I am in my typically air conditioning-free Seattle-area house. “You really only need air conditioning a few days a year, so why bother?” was the line we heard repeated over and over again. And when we came here in 1997 that seemed more or less true. But now the six-week dry season has turned into a five-month dry season, temperatures are routinely in the upper 80s and low 90s, and by about 2:00 in the afternoon it’s just too hot for me to function in my office. At least I got my old laptop back up and running so I can sit in the “downtown office” in front of a fan that blows hot air full of dust and other allergens at me and is a constant roaring white noise that makes me sick and angry and temperamental and what do you care?

Calm down, Phil, just calm . . . down.

<Pause for deep, cleansing breath, followed by dust-clogged choking spasm.>

Okay, I’m better now.

Let’s find some good news about yet another summer that I have essentially missed while working my butt off, sweating even while sitting down and typing.

“Back to School” approaches. That’s good news. I need these kids out of here for at least some of the day. They interrupt me with their constant need for food, attention, etc. I was under the impression that once your kids left the toddler phase it would no longer be necessary to track their every move. Apparently this will go on forever.

Ooh . . . here’s a good one!

I am more on top of projects and deadlines right now than I have been in a year and a half at least. I have two short-term deadlines that will be reached on time, and two lingering, way-too-behind projects that will be finished up quickly after. I’m looking to my birthday as a goal: Get to September 7 and you’ll be 100% caught up!

Hurray me!

But wait . . . don’t celebrate yet . . . that’s just going to jinx it!

And how about a reality check for me:

These projects are: edit a fantasy novel written by a major author in the field, edit a fantasy anthology that’s almost done (gone to the copy editor), write a novelization I can’t tell you about but that’s a joy to write, teach the last session of this term’s Worldbuilding class tonight, write five more jungle pulp stories, write a hardboiled detective short story for a waiting anthology, edit a fun and quirky role-playing game, edit two more Traveller novels, write a Traveller novel I’m writing myself, edit a fantasy novella the author want to expand into a novel, and finally get started on the big fantasy work-in-progress that hasn’t been progressing at all.

And here I am, whining.

This is my job, and I get paid pretty nicely for it, too.

This is what I’m bitching about.

Wait . . . no it isn’t! I’m bitching about all the things that are preventing me from doing that work, that get in the way, like the oppressive heat, or my equally oppressive children. With the end in sight for both summer heat and summer vacation, coupled with the end in sight for some major deadlines, I’m feeling on top of it for the first time in a while.

Now, if I had sat down to write this after 2:00 this afternoon, I might be singing a different tune.

But where’s the advice for writers in this?

Try not to be me, at least in this sense. If you can make a living in publishing, and concentrate on the genres you love, look for that work/life balance that eludes most overworked Americans, and even if that eludes you, too, quit yer bitchin’.

This is a pretty sweet deal.

 

—Philip Athans

 

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ARE YOU ATTENDING A CONFERENCE THIS YEAR?

Or are you taking a continuing education class? Going to writing seminars at conventions?

What are you doing this year to improve your craft?

And yes, this is at least partially an introduction to a plug . . .

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On Thursday afternoon I fly down to Los Angeles for the Writer’s Digest Novel Writing Conference. This is an intensive three-day conference specifically oriented toward novelists. The schedule of speakers and topics is fantastic, and once again they were gracious enough to invite lil’ ol’ me!

I’ll be running two sessions this weekend.

First, on Friday morning, an intensive three-hour “boot camp”: How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy Novels. We’ll cover as much as we can in that time, focusing on what makes the SF and fantasy genres a unique writing challenge. And for what it’s worth I can answer that in one word: Worldbuilding.

Then on Saturday morning, I bring my Living Dialogue workshop to LA for the first time. This one is for authors of any genre, and we get into some real kung-fu dialog skills, inspired by a post first offered here.

And you know what else I’m going to be doing this weekend?

I’m going to be attending other seminars.

One of the great benefits to being invited to speak at conferences is that it gets you into the conference itself, so when I’m done being a font of wisdom, I can go drink from some other fonts. There is no point at which you’re done learning to write. This is not something you can perfect—I don’t care who you are. And the more opportunities you give yourself to learn, the better you’ll be.

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Okay, so maybe it’s not in the budget to, with a couple day’s notice from me, register for this event and book a flight to LA and a hotel room, and meals, and so on. Okay, then what else are you going to do?

When I teach Living Dialog at Bellevue College it costs less than a hundred bucks (I think . . . don’t quote me on that, the college sets the price, not me) and no one so far has driven more than fifty miles or so to attend, so I’m not asking you to book a trip from wherever you are to Seattle for that, though I certainly wouldn’t stop you!

So what’s going on where you live? There are at least two great writer’s conferences in the Seattle area every year, and a couple of SF, fantasy, comic book, video game, and anime conventions that have writing programs. Every community in America has a community college, right?

And then, of course, there’s the internet.

Once again thanks to the good people at Writer’s Digest I’m bringing my Worldbuilding class online. This is a slightly abridged version of the eight-week course I’m teaching now at Bellevue College, but we’ll do some of the same writing assignments, and cover an awful lot of the same ground, and you’ll be able to ask questions, have your text reviewed . . . I wouldn’t have signed up if I didn’t think it was worth it.

Still out of your budget?

Do you have a library? Can you get your hands on a book? Maybe a book about writing? How about any book at all? You can and should be reading constantly—every author who’s ever lived can be a mentor.

There’s wisdom out there for the taking—go get it!

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

 

 

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WHAT PULP CAN TEACH US

I know I’ve been talking about pulp a lot lately, but bear with me. I’m in the middle of teaching a two-session Pulp Fiction Workshop, with the second session coming this Saturday. Students have been sending me their stories and I’ve sent them mine. And mine also happens to be the pulp jungle story I talked about in terms of character bullet points, which will be published under Pro Se’s Signature Series in the fall. So, yeah, pulp and new pulp have been on my mind a bit.

I don’t want anyone to think that now I’ve become Phil, Master of Pulp and that there’s some exclusive Oath of Allegiance that I’ve taken or that I’m asking you to take. I’ve said before that I’ve always, personally, been drawn to the opposite ends of the genres I love, with an equal interest in the most literary or avant garde (authors like J.M. McDermott and Harlan Ellison) on one end and the adventure-heavy pulps (Robert E. Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs) on the other end. The middle ground, or “mainstream,” I can usually kind of take or leave.

So what can pulp teach you if you’re writing either in the middle, or the mainstream of the genre, or aspire to be one of the few authors who push the genres into uncharted new territories?

I think it can teach you a lot.

But first, let’s run through a couple things that might have people keeping pulp a bit at arm’s length.

Though a lot of the most significant genre authors, especially science fiction authors, got their start in the pulps we tend to think of the best as having started there and progressed out of it, and anyway the SF pulps tended to be a bit more brainy than the rest of the pack. But either way, the heyday of the pulp fiction magazines ran more or less from the mid-20s to the early 50s, and there were two social conventions at play during those times that are difficult for a lot of contemporary readers to get past: institutionalized racism and violent sexism. It’s hard to look at magazine covers like this:

In case you thought hating Mexicans was a new invention!

In case you thought hating Mexicans was a new invention!

. . . or this:

The number of magazine covers featuring women in bondage or being sexually assaulted was ridiculous.

The number of magazine covers featuring women in bondage or being sexually assaulted was ridiculous.

. . . and not wonder what the hell is going on. But what was going on was a segregated America, the era of Jim Crow, and a time when the Women’s Movement was, pardon the pun, barely moving. The stories inside those purposefully lurid covers were often just as racist and sexist as the covers themselves, and I’m not trying to offer any apologies for that, or tell you that was okay, much less encourage you to adopt those “principles” in your own writing.

But think in terms of learning from the pulp storytelling tradition. What I teach in that workshop, and practice in my own writing, is to look at the pulp plot structure, then build on that structure from our more enlightened, contemporary point of view. This is what we mean when we say “new pulp.”

Take my jungle story, for instance. The original jungle pulps tended to be overt knockoffs of Tarzan, and almost exclusively featured white heroes rescuing white women (and in the pulps women came in one of two forms: victim or villain) from black savages. I can’t write that story in 2014, and not because I want to but no one will let me, but being a child of the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Movement, I just don’t know how. Those old stereotypes just ring false to me.

So in my pulp jungle story, the role of Tarzan is played by a black woman who is more than capable of taking care of her own society, thank you very much, without the “civilizing influence” of some white guy. Instead, the white guy becomes my POV character serving double duty as fish-out-of-water victim (ala Tarzan’s Jane) in occasional need of rescue, and as a narrator just like Dr. Watson was to Sherlock Holmes: a sidekick observing the master at work.

Yikes.

Yikes.

But I think I have a fun story, and that’s what’s really important, and what we can all learn from pulp. I’ve written before about how I think science fiction novels have stopped being fun, to the clear detriment of sales. What I also hope to combat is this notion that reading always has to be difficult, and that going in with the primary purpose to entertain is somehow bad.

It’s not.

So what the pulp story structure—and I use Lester Dent’s famous “formula” as a starting point—teaches us can be applied to anything: any genre, any approach. All Mr. Dent really does is remind us to tell a story, and that a story at its heart is characters in conflict. What I told my students, and have tried to bring to my own writing, is that when Lester Dent says things like “murder method” and “kill the villain,” we don’t have to take that literally. He wrote that “formula” to cover hardboiled detective stories, but if you replace “kill” with “defeat” and “villain” with “antagonist,” and so on, you can see that there’s a common thread for any genre, and any approach.

It’s about making your story readable, entertaining, and focused. I just will not accept that any of those three things are bad, and that a story is better for not having all three of those elements, no matter how heavy a message you’re intending to convey, or the infinite variety of word choice, worldbuilding, etc. that goes into making your story completely original, Lester Dent or anyone else be damned.

I think every single writer should take Lester Dent’s “formula” and try one short story using it as a guide. What’s the worst that can happen? After all, there is no Spicy Western Stories to sell it to anymore, and you’re under no obligation to write to their racist cover art.

Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water!

 

—Philip Athans

 

P.S. If you want to read some real vintage pulp magazines, you can find a bunch of them, and their offensive covers, here.

 

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THE FANTASY AUTHOR’S HANDBOOK INTERVIEW: TOMMY HANCOCK

Tommy Hancock is doing something almost no one else has had the courage to do: run a publishing company from the state of Arkansas. Though only “geographically undesirable” from the point of view of the lumbering old giant of traditional publishing, as partner in and editor-in-chief of Pro Se Productions, Tommy has put himself on the bleeding edge of the small press boom. Pro Se publishes fiction by authors like previous Fantasy Author’s Handbook interviewee Logan L. Masterson and yours truly across an amazing spread of genres beginning with a foot firmly in the American pulp tradition.

Tommy Hancock

Tommy Hancock

Philip Athans: Define “fantasy” in 25 words or less.

Tommy Hancock: In fantasy, anything can happen. Noble heroes and monsters usually abide, but fantasy can also live on urban streets and alien worlds.

Athans: Define “science fiction” in 25 words or less.

Hancock: When fact grows into speculative knowledge and is woven into a tale we are both familiar with and new to, that is science fiction.

Athans: Define “pulp” in . . . as many words as you like, and feel free to add a definition of “new pulp”!

Hancock: There was a group of modern pulp authors a few years back, myself included, that came up with a definition for pulp and I tend to use it as a general guideline:

 Pulp is plot oriented fiction that usually focuses on some sort of conflict, normally runs at a fast clip, and often features over the top characters on both sides of whatever equation is in the story. It’s also a style that is not afraid of descriptive words, colorful, sharp dialogue, and even being a bit purple.

I think that definition fits New Pulp as well, although I think New Pulp tends to try to strike a balance between plot and characterization driving the stories. But put simply, pulp is a style of writing. Some try to call it a genre, some a “format,” and so on. But for me, it’s a style of writing.

Athans: I’m often asked by aspiring authors if they should bypass traditional publishing and just self-publish their work and I tend to advise against self publishing. I see the e-book and POD revolution ushering in not a new era of self-published successes but a new era of small presses, so-called “niche publishers”—is that a fair description of Pro Se Productions? And how have these changes in the production and distribution of books helped or hurt you?

Hancock: Pro Se Productions is probably best described as a niche publisher that has grown beyond where it started. Originally considered a company focused squarely on New Pulp, Pro Se has come to be regarded as a publisher of Genre Fiction, granted much of what we publish still being in the pulp style. Our books definitely run the genre gamut and some are definitely more “pulpy” than others.

Pro Se tends to paint “pulp” with a broad brush as far as the style goes and we’ve taken risks on ideas that other pulp outfits wouldn’t touch. Although not every one of those has taken, we’ve had enough success with some pretty out of the box concepts that I’m comfortable saying that Pro Se is more a genre publisher than a niche publisher, even if we’re just at the beginnings of that.

Athans: This is primarily a blog for aspiring authors. What is the most common mistake that inexperienced authors make in their writing?

Anthology on Sale Now

Anthology on Sale Now

Hancock: You’re probably looking for an answer from the technical side of things, the mechanics of writing. But my reply is confidence. Most inexperienced authors have confidence issues, and they’re not always the same. Some writers have absolutely no faith in their work or their ability to write and this leads them often to continually edit, rewrite, and never finish to their satisfaction. Other writers believe that every word they’ve written is a drop of gold from God’s mouth and no one can change a single word or question their choices in punctuation, plot, or anything else. I see both versions of the confidence problem often and unfortunately I’ve watched several promising creators either fade away in insecurity or burn up in their own hubris and just vanish.

Athans: Besides a decent dictionary, and The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction of course, is there one book you think every author should keep close at hand?

Hancock: No, but there are two. Every author should have his or her all time favorite book nearby. He or she should also have the worst book she/he has ever read just as close. Both of these will serve as reminders of what they like as readers and what they don’t like. And both of those thoughts should influence all of us as we write.

Athans: You and your team at Pro Se Productions have recently embarked on a new marketing push and you seem determined to get the word out on Pro Se itself, the books you’ve published, and the authors you work with. That’s always been the biggest challenge for a small publisher—for any publisher really—what can an author do to help market his/her book, and what should he/she expect from the publisher?

Hancock: Every prospective author I’ve ever met only wants to talk about one thing: their story/book/movie/comic idea. That should not change for authors just because their books are published. The way authors (and artists, for that matter) can help the most is to talk about their work. Share what they’ve done in any way they can—on social media, at the coffee shop down the street, on a radio station or TV show if they get the chance. And they should never stop. Even if they end up publishing ten books, they should talk about all of them when they get the chance with the same excitement they had before their words hit paper and someone’s bookshelf.

As for what an author should expect from a publisher, that depends on the publisher. Pro Se, I feel, has done more than many other small press publishers have in terms of promotion and marketing, but I will also tell you we’ve not been able to do nearly enough. Some of that can be blamed on lack of money, limited time (none of us do this full time), and lack of knowledge. We’re taking steps to correct all of those and in the next few weeks and months, we’ll be continuing what has worked for us, marketing-wise, and going several new directions as well.

Will all of them work? No. Will some seem strange and weird? Probably. But Pro Se will be taking steps to raise awareness of the company itself as well as individual authors and the titles that are the core of what we do.

A Chick, a Dick, and a Witch Walk Into a Barn

A Chick, a Dick, and a Witch Walk Into a Barn

Athans: Do you read reviews of novels you’ve published? Have you found any review to be particularly helpful or destructive? Do you encourage the authors you work with to read reviews?

Hancock: Yes, I read every review I can get my hands on. And every review is both helpful and destructive. The best reviews in the world always give me something to go back to that particular work and look for, to see if I see what the reader saw. The worst reviews usually are dead on about most of the issues the reader finds, but all reviews give us one important piece of data. We learn from every review how a book we’ve published has impacted a reader. And that’s extremely important. So yes, I read the reviews and I highly encourage authors to read reviews of their work.

Athans: The Pro Se Web site has a page titled WRITER’S WANTED! How open are you to new, as-yet-unpublished authors, and what advice can you give aspiring authors submitting work to Pro Se, and then for any other publisher?

From Pulp Publisher to Genre Publisher

From Pulp Publisher to Genre Publisher

Hancock: Pro Se has had a reputation since we started for welcoming unpublished authors and that won’t ever change. Several of our upcoming titles are by first time authors. And the best advice I can give any author submitting to any publisher, Pro Se or otherwise, is you need to know the work of the company you’re pitching to. Not just know who writes for them or like their Facebook page, but read what they put out. Pick up a few books, download a few digital titles, whatever you need to get a good feel for what the company you’re looking at puts out. Then submit.

Athans: Where can people go to find out more about you, Pro Se, and what’s coming up next for you?

Hancock: The easiest way to keep up with all things Pro Se can be found in two places. Our website is prose-press.com and you can like us on Facebook. The easiest way to keep up with me, even though most of what I’m doing lately is Pro Se, is to find me on Facebook. Although I wax philosophical occasionally, my personal Facebook page is mostly pulp/Pro Se/writing focused.

 

Thanks Tommy—and now everybody go buy a Pro Se book!

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

 

 

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WHY AMAZON DOESN’T SCARE ME

Depending on whether or not you’ve put all your indie publishing eggs in the Kindle Select Program or not, you may see Amazon as the Great Liberator or the Great Satan. If you’re trying to run an independent brick-and-mortar bookstore—first of all, I applaud you and wish you nothing but success!—then Amazon is the Devil. If you’ve given up on so-called “traditional publishing” Amazon has made it so easy to self-publish that surely they are like unto Moses, leading his people out of bondage to the pharaohs of New York publishing.

And then this happened . . .

 

KDP SELECT NEWS

Introducing Kindle Unlimited

Now, when you enroll your title in KDP Select, your title will be included in Kindle Unlimited—a new subscription service for readers in the U.S. and a new revenue opportunity for authors enrolled in KDP Select. Customers are able to read as many books as they want from a library of over 600,000 titles while subscribed to Kindle Unlimited. When your title is read past 10%—about the length of reading the free sample available in Kindle books—you will earn a share of the KDP Select monthly global fund. For July we’ve added $800,000 to the fund, bringing the July fund amount to $2 million.

All books currently enrolled in KDP Select with U.S. rights will be automatically included in Kindle Unlimited. KDP Select books will also continue to be enrolled in the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library (KOLL) available to Amazon Prime customers in the U.S., U.K., Germany, France, and Japan where authors will continue to earn a share of the KDP Select global fund when their book is borrowed. KOLL borrows will continue to be counted when a book is initially downloaded. In the month of June, KDP Select-enrolled authors earned $2.24 each time their books were borrowed.

KDP Select is an optional program for you to reach more readers, and it gives you the opportunity to earn more money. In addition to potentially earning royalties from Kindle Unlimited and KOLL, you can also maximize your book’s sales potential by choosing between two great promotional tools: Kindle Countdown Deals, time-bound promotional discounts for your book, available on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk, while earning royalties; or Free Book Promotion where readers worldwide can get your book free for a limited time. Plus, you can earn 70% royalty for sales to customers in Japan, India, Brazil, and Mexico.

Visit your Bookshelf to enroll your books in KDP Select, or if you are already enrolled, visit your royalty report to see your results. If you’d like to learn more, visit KDP Select.

 

Make no mistake, though couched in a sort of “Good news everybody!” message, this is a blanket dismissal of KDP Select indies. The rules are different for you than they are for publishers, and the rules mean you get less money, and I mean less money than the very little you’re already making anyway if you’ve signed on to KDP Select. Amazon doesn’t care about you, indie publishers, and why should they?

And then there was all that hullabaloo between Amazon and Hachette that seems to indicate that Amazon hates publishers, too, so where does that leave us?

Well, I don’t know where that leaves you but it leaves me entirely unchanged either way.

Amazing!

What’s my secret?

I never considered Amazon as either the Great Satan or the Great Liberator, but always knew them to be what they are in real life: a for-profit, publically-traded corporation with a legal responsibility to “increase shareholder value.” Why do people suddenly scurry around in a panic when a for-profit corporation does something designed to increase its own profits? What do you expect from a pig but a grunt?

This new Netflix model they’re trying will either succeed for them or it won’t. I have no idea. But if you don’t want to let them give your books away for whatever mysterious bit of money they may or may not decide to pay you after the other corporations, who have lawyers, take their regular cut (which, frankly, is the only reasonable interpretation of their terms) then one easy solution presents itself:

Don’t sign up your books for KDP Select.

Presto, no subscription service, no mystery terms. And this should actually be really easy, since you shouldn’t have anything except maybe the occasional promo short story in that program anyway. Just because Amazon sells 60-70% of the e-books sold in America doesn’t mean you have to sign up to try to help them close that last 30-40%.

Here’s what I do:

I sell my indie stuff via KDP, CreateSpace, and Smashwords.

KDP becuase they sell most of the e-books, and why wouldn’t you want to have your book on sale at Amazon?

CreateSpace because it’s cheaper, and at least in my experience, they turn out a very nice product.

Smashwords because they’ll sell your e-book (essentially) everywhere else, including for the iPad and Nook.

Selling books in the indie sphere is hard enough already, why sign up for a program that limits you to only some of the market, even if by “some” we really mean “most”? The extra visibility promised by KDP Select appears to be largely if not entirely imaginary. You don’t just get love from a for-profit corporation, people, you buy love from a for-profit corporation. If you aren’t sending a check with a significant number on it to Amazon for co-op placement you’re not getting significant additional visibility, any more than you’ll ever get your indie POD book on the front table at a Barnes & Noble store without, like the publishers of all the other books on that table, you’ve paid dearly for the privilege.

So, yeah, suffering over Kindle Unlimited? Take a deep breath and opt out.

After all, if the Great Liberator just leads you into bondage to a different master . . .

 

—Philip Athans

 

P.S.: And if you’re considering signing up for this as a way to get “exposure” and don’t care about the money then all you’re doing is “exposing” yourself as someone who doesn’t think your work has any value. If you really believe that to be true, please don’t publish it. Instead, keep working at your craft until you feel you’ve got something to contribute. If you feel you do have something to contribute, then it’s unfair to you and the rest of the author community for you to give your work away for free, and no one has the right to ask you to do that in exactly the same way you don’t go into a grocery store and expect they’ll give you free food for “exposure.” And again, a freebie short story to try to draw people into your novel? Yes, get that in the hands of anyone willing to read it, just like they pass out free samples of food in grocery stores. But free novels? NO!

 

 

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THINKING IN BULLET POINTS

How do you take notes? I know there are classes you can take that are essentially “how to take classes”—how to write notes, how to highlight a textbook . . . I never took one of those classes, which may partially account for my C-average public school education.

I tend to see notes as a form of personal, even artistic expression. There has even recently been some studies done on the positive nature of doodling.

I’ve been asked a number of times for direction on how to take notes, and I tend to default back to: “Do what works for you.” And that really isn’t me just avoiding the question. I honestly believe that’s the best advice.

A classic jungle pulp you can read by clicking on this image!

A classic jungle pulp you can read by clicking on this image!

That having been said, I’m currently teaching a two-part workshop on writing pulp fiction where we’re writing 6000(ish)-word short stories using the Lester Dent “formula,” and learning about the American pulp tradition in general. I’m writing a story for the class, too, which will also serve as the first in a series of jungle pulp stories I’m writing for Pro Se Productions.

Yesterday I shared my outline with the class, which included all of the notes I have concerning the story’s three principal characters:

 

CHARACTERS

Princess Tai

  • extremely smart—picks up English in a couple weeks
  • capable of “juju light”—herbal medicine, a few sleight-of-hand tricks
  • no “real” magic!
  • Tall: 6’ 2”
  • dark black skin, short-cropped Afro
  • BIG light brown eyes—Jameson describes as “chestnut”
  • sees herself as protector—like the chief of police of her village and the surrounding area
  • she will succeed her mother as queen, but is in no hurry to do so—loves her mother
  • can climb like a monkey, and leap from tree to tree
  • seems able to appear and disappear—really knows how to move in the jungle
  • not terribly interested in juju—sees it as a male pursuit
  • curious about the world beyond the Ebony Jungle

 

Kyle Thomas Jameson

  • American sailor
  • born in Ireland but taken to the New World as a boy
  • merchant seaman from New Amsterdam (before it was renamed New York)
  • his ship was bound for Hispaniola but caught in a hurricane that forced her across the Atlantic. It sank and Jameson made it, alone, into a lifeboat. Some weeks (at least days) later ends up washing ashore in West Africa.
  • shorter than Tai: 5’ 10”
  • dirty blond hair—Tai finds this fascinating
  • always troubled by sunburn and insects
  • went to school, was an avid reader
  • went to sea to avoid poverty. His father died when he was just a kid, his mother struggled to care for him
  • studied the Caribbean, not Africa, so tends to be surprised by everything
  • smart, observant, but prone to hyperbole (he mentions this word to Tai and she finds it funny)
  • he’s 26 years old when first story begins
  • has no idea what day it is when he washes up on the beach, estimates late June or July of 1632

 

Zembu

  • Villain
  • jujuman (witch doctor)
  • wanted to marry Tai’s mother, she rejected him
  • he started slowly trying to undermine the matriarchy, but Tai’s mother is too popular
  • he seems the least surprised by Jameson’s appearance—no one else has ever seen a white man and are fascinated by him, but Zembu doesn’t seem surprised at all
  • short, 5’2”
  • covers his skin in ash so he appears gray—a typical ritual thing, so no one thinks this is weird
  • wears weird totems: feathers, small animal skulls, bits of bone, shells, etc.
  • has a persistent cough (from his juju fire chemicals)
  • physically weak but crafty and a capable jujuman (chemistry tricks and sleight-of-hand)

 

This was copied verbatim from my handwritten notes.

One worry I have about sharing this in such a “raw” form is that there might be a tendency for others to read this and attach emphasis to things based on, say, the order of the bullets. That order was unintentional, or anyway not edited to create some kind of hierarchy—what’s most important about each character. It’s all in the order in which it came to me, and all but a few were drawn from other notes and the outline for the story itself, and in some cases with the idea that this is the first in a series of stories in mind. Not all of this stuff, for instance, will be made clear in the first story, and in some cases, there might even be bits that are never expressly presented in any of the stories.

This way of taking notes—bullet points—can be efficient and freeing. I’m not spending creative energy crafting a sentence, I’m just jotting down reminders. I’m also freely mingling physical description like how tall people are with psychological and emotional states, and with personal histories and experiences. This isn’t a character sketch or description, these are just some things I felt I needed to keep in mind either for consistency’s sake (so a character doesn’t grow and shrink throughout the story) or to help move the story forward, like the villain’s motivation and what people can and can’t do in terms of the invented jungle “magic.”

This is also a place where you can keep reminders for those little character traits, what I sometimes call “twitches” or “tweaks,” like the jujuman’s persistent cough. A few little things like that in each character’s list can help bring them to life, and, as in the case of this guy’s lung problems, illuminate some aspect of the worldbuilding. This guy’s a witch doctor and spends a lot of time standing over a smoky fire, throwing in chemicals to change the color or nature of the flame to thrill the faithful, and God knows what he’s been inhaling all these years.

This story—the whole series—is, like all pulp jungle stories, a fully-conscious Tarzan pastiche, but I’m turning it upside down, so the white guy is more of a Jane/Dr. Watson character and the African woman is the hero—Tai is Tarzan. So the fact that she’s taller than Jameson matters. She literally looms over him, playing into the flip in expected (by 1632’s standards, anyway) gender roles. They also fight off a pack of hyenas in the story, and male hyenas tend to be smaller than female hyenas, so the relative height of characters is a storytelling hook. If it doesn’t matter how tall any particular character is in your story, you may never need to write that down.

That’s one reason that character forms, like I complained about in a previous post on Storyist, tend to make me bristle a bit. And even though Writing Monsters includes a <gasp> monster form, you’ll notice specific advice to leave out anything on the form that doesn’t really matter to your story.

Another nice thing about bullet points is that they can be easily changed.

In the process of writing the story, I guarantee you my outline will change—at least a little bit. I give myself permission to have a better idea, and you should give yourself permission to do the same. Maybe I’ll decide I want everybody to be shorter or taller. Okay, then they are, but I’ll not only change that bullet point in my notes/outline, but do my best to read back and make sure the change is consistently applied throughout the story itself.

Your notes, like all your writing, should be a fluid, living thing, right up until the moment you decide you’re done . . . well, then an editor might “rehydrate” it for you, but okay, it solidifies once it goes to typesetting!

 

—Philip Athans

 

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WHAT MAKES A MONSTER SCARY?

The clock is ticking on the imminent release of Writing Monsters, so how about a full chapter to whet your appetite?

I’d like to meet the first person who ever ate a lobster.

Imagine being the first to pick up that horrible, red-brown spider-thing with terrifying claws and twitching antennae and saying, “Yum!” To me, a lobster is a giant bug with claws—I’d have run screaming from a lobster. But now we know what a lobster is and what it tastes like and that it isn’t really dangerous. The only thing scary about it is the unknowable mystery of its “market price.”

We’ll want our monsters to maintain a greater degree of mystery or at least begin with a greater degree of mystery than that.

Start by asking . . .

What are people afraid of?

I asked myself this question while working on a fantasy novel in which I envisioned a world overrun by demons. In an effort to build a sense of increasing danger in the book, each new sort of demon my characters meet is more dangerous, more powerful, and more frightening than the last. To do this, I decided to look at my readers’ deepest fears and inject those fears into the demons. So off to the Internet I went in search of the top ten phobias. This is what I found:

  1. Arachnophobia (fear of spiders)
  2. Social Phobia (fear of a hostile audience)
  3. Pteromerhanophobia (fear of flying)
  4. Agoraphobia (fear of an inability to escape)
  5. Claustrophobia (fear of enclosed spaces)
  6. Acrophobia (fear of heights)
  7. Emetophobia (fear of vomit or vomiting)
  8. Carcinophobia (fear of cancer)
  9. Astraphobia (fear of thunder and lightning)
  10. Taphophobia (fear of being buried alive)

Phobias are irrational, pathological fears. Though some of them are more rational than others. Most people are at least a little bit afraid of cancer, which is a highly prevalent illness that can strike anyone at any time. But there’s a crucial difference between being nervous about a routine cancer screening and being literally paralyzed by fear of cancer when there’s no rational reason for you to think you actually might have it. Phobias take common fears to the pathological level.

If these are the ten most common phobias (and I’ve found a few different lists, so your search may yield slightly different results), there’s a good chance that someone reading your book, seeing your movie, or playing your game will have one or more of them to some degree. And even if your readers don’t completely collapse at the sight of a spider, they probably share a common low-level uneasiness in the presence of them.

In order to create that sense of progression and escalation of danger, I simply reversed that top ten list so the final, scariest demon embodies the most prevalent phobia. That means the lowest level demon comes up from underground and pulls you down and buries you alive, and the “boss” demon is a spider, or something that looks and/or behaves like a spider.

Turns out, those are fairly easy fears to apply to a monster or demon, but what about pteromerhanophobia, the fear of flying? Richard Matheson made quite a splash in 1961 with the short story “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” in which a poor soul suffering from pteromerhanophobia encounters the dreaded gremlin tearing pieces out of the wing of the plane he’s flying in. This story became one of the most famous episodes of The Twilight Zone, a vehicle for a young William Shatner. So yes, a monster absolutely can prey on your audience’s fear of flying. That particular phobia might be tough to handle in a medieval fantasy world with no airplanes. But what if the demons can fly? They might snatch up their victims and carry them off into the sky, release them into a free fall, catch them again, repeat the tortuous exercise, and toy with their fears. A reader who dreads air travel will squirm through that story.

But please don’t think that triggering your audience’s phobic responses is the only way to make your monsters terrifying. In a broader sense, monsters are scary because . . .

They are unpredictable

Can that lobster take your hand off with one of those claws? Turns out, no, but what if it could? What if lobsters were large enough and powerful enough to do just that? What if one of them grew to the size of a minivan? In real life we know they can’t hurt us, and that makes them predictable, and predictability is the enemy of horror.

Humans tend to have a pretty good sense of what another human is going to do next. We can tell when someone is getting angry. We sense when things might get out of control or violent. But monsters don’t necessarily give out those human signals. This is a creature, after all, outside our normal experience. Who knows what it’ll do next?

We’ll discuss setting rules for your monsters and how important it is that you follow those rules, but keep in mind that while you know the rules that govern your monster, your characters don’t. In fact, the less your characters know about what a monster can and can’t do, the better. It’s this unpredictability that will keep your readers on the edge of their seats, playing into the power of the imagination.

And that’s the next thing. Monsters are scary because . . .

. . . they have a disturbing capacity for violence

Monsters don’t just attack you, they attack in particularly gruesome ways, as shown in this paragraph from the short story “The Little Green God of Agony” by horror master Stephen King.

 Melissa had seen where the thing came from and even in her panic was wise enough to cover her own mouth with both hands. The thing skittered up her neck, over her cheek, and squatted on her left eye. The wind screamed and Melissa screamed with it. It was the cry of a woman drowning in the kind of pain the charts in the hospitals can never describe. The charts go from one to ten; Melissa’s agony was well over one hundred—that of someone being boiled alive. She staggered backwards, clawing at the thing on her eye. It was pulsing faster now, and Kat could hear a low, liquid sound as the thing resumed feeding. It was a slushy sound.

Want to scare the crap out of someone? Go for the eyes.

It’s up to you to set a degree of “goriness” that your story will contain. Movies like The Blair Witch Project are terrifying without spilling a drop of blood, while some contemporary “torture porn” like the movie Hostel, is gross, even disturbing, but scary?

I tend to describe “gore” as unmotivated violence—a violent scene done badly, in which all the reader gets is a sense of the quantity of blood and guts without the emotional and psychological (read: character) connection of well-written violent action. I’ll refer you to the scene in Haruki Murakami’s brilliant novel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle in which a Japanese soldier is skinned alive as an example of terrifying violence written with an impeccable hand for character, story, and psychology—but don’t blame me if it scars you for life.

Take a second look at the example from Stephen King. No blood. There is some yucky language in there (“It was a slushy sound.”) but mostly we get Melissa’s experience of this cringe-worthy act of violence and her efforts, however vain, to make it stop.

Exploring truly disturbing events can be difficult for many authors to work through. Horror in particular, but fantasy and science fiction, too—really any genre of fiction—can ask you to plumb your own psychological depths. So what scares you? A little creature that eats your eyes first? Is that disturbing enough for the psychological sweet spot you’re trying to hit?

They exhibit an “otherness”

Monsters come from the Unknown (note the capital U), which is a place “out there,” beyond our normal experience. The Unknown can be a physical place, or it can be more spiritual or supernatural. Again, lobsters aren’t scary because we know they come from the ocean, we know where to fish for them, we know how they behave, and better yet, how they taste. But things that come from an alien terrain—literally an alien planet or some uncharted dimension—are terrifying until proven mundane.

In his short story “The Cold Step Beyond,” author Ian R. MacLeod presents a world full of strange creatures hunted by a character who may well be a monster, too. This sense of his monsters’ “otherness” is evident in a single line.

 The true aliens, the real horrors and monstrosities, lay not in the far-flung reaches of the galaxy, but sideways.

What an uneasy concept that is. We have at least a basic understanding of “the far-flung reaches of the galaxy,” imagining that there are other planets out there with strange animals on them, but the idea of some other dimension, some place we can’t even properly quantify, much less imagine, creates a greater distance between our irrational fear of monsters and our rational understanding of animals.

What an uneasy concept that is. We have at least a basic understanding of “the far-flung reaches of the galaxy,” imagining that there are other planets out there with strange animals on them, but the idea of some other dimension, some place we can’t even properly quantify, much less imagine, creates a greater distance between our irrational fear of monsters and our rational understanding of animals.

And in the story “The Other Gods,” author H.P. Lovecraft takes us to his Dreamlands—the ultimate Unknown locale in which sleep reveals an entirely separate reality, inhabited by things you wouldn’t want to see in the waking world.

But now they have betaken themselves to unknown Kadath in the cold waste where no man treads, and are grown stern, having no higher peak whereto to flee at the coming of men. They are grown stern, and where once they suffered men to displace them, they now forbid men to come; or coming, to depart. It is well for men that they know not of Kadath in the cold waste; else they would seek injudiciously to scale it.

And then there are the distant worlds of the endless universe, the epitome of the Unknown. “Much like a monster,” Richard Baker says, an alien is, “inhuman, it’s alive (or animate, anyway), and it wants to destroy you. In addition, it’s definitely outside the norms of terrestrial nature or experience in some important way—it’s not from around here, and the reader or viewer doesn’t have anything in his frame of reference to understand the rules that govern the alien’s behavior. He has to figure them out.”

When it comes to aliens, veteran author Alan Dean Foster gets nightmares from “the thought that Homo sapiens might be the only intelligent species in the galaxy.”

To circle back to phobias for a moment, this idea that monsters come from “out there” plays directly into our underlying, or too-often overt, xenophobia—fear of foreigners.

Our imagination makes them scarier

Albert Einstein once said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” And the human imagination is more powerful, too. How many times have you imagined something will be absolutely terrifying—a roller coaster, a job interview, a scary movie—and when it’s over you immediately think, That wasn’t so bad.

And another great quote: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Franklin Roosevelt wasn’t talking about Godzilla, but he may as well have been. This plays back to the idea of unpredictability and “otherness.” We have no idea what to expect from this thing and no way to determine its motives, so we start to fill in the blanks with conjecture, which tends to make something quite a bit more terrifying than it should be. Our imagination, and thus our fears, becomes the true monster in this case.

Strangely this can also work in reverse. A lot of monster stories start with monsters that are scary and then turn out to be nice (Beauty and the Beast, for example). Others, such as Star Trek’s tribbles, start out as cute and harmless but become something else entirely. When the crew of the Enterprise first encounters tribbles, their assumptions take over. They imagine the tribbles to be cute, harmless little puffballs, but have no specific information about their true nature. The tribbles slowly reveal themselves over the course of the story to be a sort of plague, like a swarm of locusts. Assumption and imagination can be very dangerous.

Play with the assumptions of your characters in this way, and you’ll be playing with the assumptions of your readers right along with them. We have a tendency to assume that many beings we encounter have a certain sense of right and wrong, or at the very least a sense of their role in relation to other beings around them and what they must do in order to not just survive but co-exist and thrive, but monsters can be particularly scary when they seem to lack this sense.

Coming Soon!

Coming Soon!

They are amoral

Human society, by definition, is a set of rules—or more accurately, a set of moral and ethical standards that then inform a code of laws. When a moral standard is violated there are consequences, which is why most of us know exactly what we can and can’t do in public, what should be kept private, not done at all, and what will be offensive or disturbing to those around us. But what about some thing outside of human society—some creature from somewhere else—that doesn’t have anything resembling a human conscience? A monster doesn’t care how you feel, and it has no sense of the pain its actions cause others. It doesn’t give a second thought to consequences or the rights, feelings, or treatment of its prey. Or, worse, it might have a truly immoral goal—not just the capacity for evil but a tendency to revel in the terrible, the violent, the grotesque.

There’s something particularly unsettling about beings that do the wrong thing on purpose. In his novel Excession, Iain M. Banks describes a particularly amoral monster in the form of an artificially intelligent spaceship:

 The Grey Area. The ship that did what the other ships both deplored and despised; actually looked into the minds of other people, using its Electro Magnetic Effectors—in a sense the very, very distant descendants of electronic countermeasures equipment from your average stage three civilisation, and the most sophisticated, powerful but also precisely controllable weaponry the average Culture ship possessed—to burrow into the grisly cellular substrate of an animal consciousness and try to make sense of what it found there for its own—usually vengeful—purposes.

This thing simply doesn’t care about how what it’s doing affects its victims. How do you argue with something that doesn’t even recognize you as anything but material?

They are beyond our control

Humans generally like to be in charge. We spend a lot of time trying to control our weight, our relationships, our personal finances. We take classes to learn how to train our dogs, motivate our employees, and so on. So what happens when a monster makes its way onto our starship and simply won’t follow the rules? It eats what and when—and who—it wants to eat. It bleeds acid all over the place without regard for the hard vacuum of space just a bulkhead away. You can’t negotiate with a monster. You can’t calmly tell a Denebian slime devil, “Okay, wait. I’m going to go to the store and buy you a bunch of steak—don’t eat me in the meantime.” That monster does what it does, and it neither seeks nor respects your opinion.

Simply put, monsters don’t play by our rules—and that scares us.

They are terrifying in appearance

Here’s another example from H.P. Lovecraft, from the classic short story “Pickman’s Model”:

It was a colossal and nameless blasphemy with glaring red eyes, and it held in bony claws a thing that had been a man, gnawing at the head as a child nibbles at a stick of candy. Its position was a kind of crouch, and as one looked one felt that at any moment it might drop its present prey and seek a juicier morsel. But damn it all, it wasn’t even the fiendish subject that made it such an immortal fountainhead of all panic—not that, nor the dog face with its pointed ears, bloodshot eyes, flat nose, and drooling lips. It wasn’t the scaly claws nor the mould-caked body nor the half-hooved feet—none of these, though any one of them might well have driven an excitable man to madness.

Lovecraft goes to great length to describe a foul-looking creature here, made more ominous by what it’s doing (gnawing on “. . . a thing that had been a man . . .”) and what it might do next (“. . . seek a juicier morsel.”), but it’s important to keep in mind that not all scary looking monsters have to appear classically “scary” in order to be so. In Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, author Ransom Riggs described a less traditional, but no less unsettling creature:

“But these weren’t the kind of monsters that had tentacles and rotting skin, the kind a seven-year-old might be able to wrap his mind around—they were monsters with human faces, in crisp uniforms, marching in lockstep, so banal you don’t recognize them for what they are until it’s too late.”

This monster has the ability to hit closer to home, describing the human potential to become inhuman through political, military, and/or social assimilation. Not as frightening as a “nameless blasphemy with glaring red eyes,” but equally monstrous on the inside. Later in the book we’ll go deeper into what makes a monster scary, something you’ll need to keep in mind as you develop your own monsters. For now, we will take an extended look at what I think is the principal reason monsters are so scary.

They turn us into prey

People are drawn to monsters because they flip the predator/prey relationship on its head, turning us from the hunter into the hunted. This, more than any other quality, is what makes a monster truly scary.

Most people in our modern civilized world no longer think of themselves as “predators,” per se, but we are still wired that way. By nature, humans are omnivorous hunter/gatherers. And we’re pack hunters. One guy with a pointed stick versus a woolly mammoth is going to go hungry. A dozen guys all working together with pointed sticks will feed the whole tribe. We’re not the only animals who do this, by the way. Wolves are pack hunters, as well, and there’s every reason to believe that our long relationship with wolves’ human-altered offspring (dogs) springs from a certain mutual understanding: We get each other. We operate in the same way.

Monsters hunt, too. Some hunt in packs (such as the velociraptors in Jurassic Park) and some hunt alone (to use the same film reference, how about that T-Rex?), but just like us, most predators aren’t looking for a fight, even when they’re hunting. Spiders and other venomous animals have evolved ways to paralyze or kill their prey before moving in to feed. Sharks, such as the bull shark for instance, might bump their prey a few times, testing and prodding with caution before biting. Great whites are ambush hunters, hoping to catch prey unawares.

It’s not easy being a predatory animal. You have to get right in there to bite something, risking your eyes and other injuries, so caution is still key.

One of the things that early humans sorted out, thanks to our complex, creative, problem-solving brains and our nimble-fingered hands, was how to kill things from a distance. That makes hunting safer. If you have to get close enough to a wild boar to stab it with a flint knife, the boar has an opportunity to fight back, but if you can shoot it with an arrow from several yards away, maybe even from the safety of a tree or some other high ground, you run the risk of missing but dramatically reduce the risk of being gored by your would-be dinner.

As the centuries stretched on, we became better and better hunters. Then we invented agriculture, domesticated the animals we thought tasted best, killed off competing predators in our chosen ranges, and, at some point in the distant past, became fully removed from the predator/prey relationship. We are no longer concerned with being preyed on by other animals.

Then along comes a monster…

What makes the alien in the movie Alien, or the shark in Jaws so scary? Both are presented as the apex predator—“the perfect killing machine”—and it’s loose on our starship or swimming through our beach party. It’s hunting us, and our natural weaponry, which has made us a rather lazy apex predator over the years, is no match for its brute “animal” instincts and desires to kill, feed, and in some cases, reproduce.

We humans still have those hunter instincts buried deep inside of us, but we don’t have a natural enemy anymore. Monsters force us to find and use those instincts again.

In Alien, we meet a cast of recognizable and relatable space truckers, and all of a sudden this thing is hunting them. They are totally unprepared to deal with the situation and they’re confronted with difficult questions: What is this thing? Where did it come from? We didn’t know about this. No one told us this was going to be here. It just seems to want to eat us, one by one. It’s treating us like prey.

They do eventually approach the alien as hunters would—tracking it down, trying to trap it when it’s still small—but their efforts are complicated by the alien’s inconvenient defense mechanism: acidic blood. The crew of the Nostromo can’t just shoot it. They can’t stab it. They are, basically, defenseless in a face-to-face fight, which lands them a place at the bottom of the food chain.

Humans don’t have the powerful jaws of the shark or the acidic blood of the eponymous alien. Drop us in the middle of the ocean in a Speedo and the shark will win. Put us on a starship where we all die if the acidic blood eats through our hull, and we’re in big trouble. Our teeth are basically useless, and we haven’t much in the way of claws, either, but nature gave us weapons that end up being a lot more powerful than a shark’s jaws: intelligence and technology.

What makes both the shark and the alien scary, even if we eventually win the battle, is that they attack when we’re unprepared or unsuspecting. We either don’t have our weapons handy (paddling around at the beach with our friends) or our weapons are rendered useless or dangerous (the acid blood eats through the hull of your starship and everybody dies). The most effective—the scariest—monster stories always take away those things that humans rely on to tip that balance in our favor.

And beyond technology and our wits, we also still depend on each other. It’s scary when we find ourselves isolated from the rest of the “pack” like the arctic explorers in the movie The Thing (or the original John W. Campbell, Jr. short story “Who Goes There?”) or the crew of the Nostromo in Alien. The creators of these monsters also create divides that separate us physically and emotionally. The Thing’s ability to hide in plain sight breeds an environment of suspicion, where no one can tell who is good or bad.

“A monster is something that turns life on its ear. Whether its Gary Ridgway or Godzilla,” Scott Allie, editor-in-chief of Dark Horse Comics, says, “it challenges how we look at the natural order, externally or internally.”

This is the visceral thrill of the monster. The ultimate “What If?” What if you were being hunted down by something you don’t understand, something you couldn’t shoot or bludgeon, that was stalking you in some remote location where you couldn’t just call 911 or animal control? What if you were dropped out of your secure place not just at the top of the food chain, but effectively removed from it—rendered defenseless, isolated, and obsolete?

The monster has turned the tables. Predator has become prey.

Scary stuff.

—Philip Athans

 

 

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