WRITING MONSTERS

At last it can be revealed in all its glory: my upcoming book from Writer’s Digest: Writing Monsters. Picking up where The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction left off, at least in the case of monsters, this book goes much deeper into the what, why, and most importantly how of creating monsters for horror, fantasy, and science fiction. Look for lots of examples, especially from monster master H.P. Lovecraft, and a generous sprinkling of words of wisdom and advice from the likes of Alan Dean Foster, David Drake, and other knowledgeable and talented authors and editors.

Here’s what the cover looks like. I dig it!

Coming in August 2014!

Coming in August 2014!

So how about a little sneak peek?

Can a dragon breathe fire with every breath? Or does it have to recharge in some way? Does it have to eat something to recharge? Dragons are pretend, so I don’t know the answer to those questions. The answer can be anything you like—anything that serves your story—but remember, consistency is king, so if that dragon discharges a torrent of fire eight breaths in row in Chapter Six then can barely manage two in Chapter Twenty, what’s changed?

Likewise if the monster is “really strong,” how strong is “really” strong? If it’s “really smart,” how smart is “really” smart? You don’t have to be exact, but you should be descriptive and clear about these traits, if only for yourself. Is it so intelligent that it qualifies as a villain (or hero) instead? Or if it can fly, how high and how fast can it fly, and does it have limitations? H.P. Lovecraft determined a sort of limit to a monster’s ability to fly in “The Whisperer in Darkness”:

The things come from another planet, being able to live in interstellar space and fly through it on clumsy, powerful wings which have a way of resisting the aether but which are too poor at steering to be of much use in helping them about on earth.

 The creatures can fly well in space, it seems, using their powerful yet clumsy wings, but they seem less apt at flying in Earth’s atmosphere. Again, this is an example of a limitation more than a weakness.

And in the previous example from Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Out of Time,” we learn something of the limits of the monster’s senses: “For example, their senses did not include that of sight; their mental world being a strange, non-visual pattern of impressions.” Can your monster see in the dark? Can it smell blood like a shark? Limiting a monster’s senses can give your characters a chance for survival, but apply these limitations carefully and try to balance them with other abilities. Consider the Tyrannosaur in Jurassic Park. It can’t see its victims if they don’t move, but can it smell them? Can it hear them? Your monster may possess some, none, or all of the five senses and/or some other sense entirely. Some animals like bats and whales have natural sonar. A shark’s lateral line can detect electrical impulses in water. It’s hard for us to imagine what that might feel like, but no one ever said writing monster was going to be easy!

 This one was a blast to write—I loves me them there monsters!

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

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CAUTION: ADVERBS CROSSING

I’ve talked with editors who will rant and rave, practically foam at the mouth, on the subject of adverbs. I remember reading Stephen King’s warnings against same. I once went through an author’s manuscript with a search for ly and took almost all of his dozens and dozens of unnecessary adverbs off to a nice farm where they could run around all day and play with the other adverbs.

But unlike the semicolon there actually is a legitimate reason for the existence of adverbs in the English language (see how I did that, interjecting a blanket dismissal of the hated semicolon into a perfectly innocent sentence?). And contrary to what you may remember (if you’re old, like me) from Schoolhouse Rock, not all adverbs end in -ly.

 

 

Indubitably!

But I think there are two reasons most editors and some (but still way too few) writers are so sensitized to adverbs:

They Often Tell Rather Than Show

This is a problem primarily in dialog. Far too many inexperienced authors fall back on ___-ly in dialog attribution and though it’s perfectly fine to use adverbs in this way sometimes, it doesn’t take much to cross that invisible, irregular line between perfectly fine and editor-maddening horror. Here’s an example:

“I don’t think they see us,” Galen said quietly, his eyes glued to the circling orc sentries.

In that example I think we get why Galen would want to say that quietly, but even then, what if there was a word that meant “to say something quietly”? I’d rather use that one. Hm, let’s see:

“I don’t think they see us,” Galen whispered, his eyes glued to the circling orc sentries.

In fact, I think this is even better, because “whispered” makes me think he’s speaking even more quietly than merely “quietly”, which might be his normal voice, just a little softer. But here the scene demands that we know Galen is either speaking quietly or whispering because if not, if he just speaks in his normal voice, the orc sentries will hear him. The fact that we “see” Galen whispering “shows” us how his behavior is changing based on the situation at hand.

Where we get into trouble is when that adverb tells us something about the character’s mood. One of my least favorites:

“Well, now they heard us!” Galen said angrily.

I get it. It is possible to say something angrily, but that’s telling us that Galen’s angry rather than showing us he’s angry, and it’s in these little details that that “show vs. tell” really lives.

Galen closed his eyes, clenched his fists, and with a face turning red growled, “Well, now they heard us.”

I even got rid of the exclamation mark, which you should use an average of once every manuscript.

Okay, maybe a few more than that, but that’s a rant for another post!

In that second example, we get to see what Galen looks like, and the verb of speaking, “growled” adds some specific character to his voice. This adds up to more words than “angrily,” but I think it’s more interesting to read. We understand our fellow humans’ facial cues and body language. And that’s what we’d experience if we were there and Galen was speaking to us. But the real cardinal sin would be this:

Galen closed his eyes, clenched his fists, and with a face turning red growled angrily, “Well, now they heard us.”

Now you’ve both showed and told us that Galen is angry, which does not score extra points.

Some adverbs, known as intensifiers, are hopelessly overused: very, extremely, really, etc. Again, these aren’t words you need to just delete sight unseen, but use them sparingly, with a keen eye to what it is, exactly, they’re intensifying. For instance, can something be “very unique”? Unique means one of kind, how can you be more one of a kind than anything else that’s one of a kind? “Totally destroyed” has always been a phrase I’ve had a love/hate relationship with. In general it’s probably better to reserve intensifier adverbs for something that’s in an incomplete/partial state, rather than the other way around, so “partially destroyed” makes more sense than “totally destroyed,” since “destroyed” means the thing is, well, all messed up.

People Make Them Up

Once upon a time there was a novel in which a character who was a wererat, and who had rat-like features, etc., was made to say something “rodentially.” Y’know, in the manner of a rodent.

This is why editors hate adverbs.

When I looked up “rodentially” in the dictionary, no results. When I looked up “insanely” there it was. Good rule of thumb there: if your -ly construct’s in the dictionary, you’re clear for take off. If not, you might still be okay, but most likely not. Let that be the point at which you pause and think: Is there a better way to say this?

I bet there is.

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

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BOOKS FOR FANTASY AUTHORS XV: WHY I WRITE

From time to time I’ll recommend—not review, mind you, but recommend, and yes, there is a difference—books that I think science fiction and fantasy authors should have on their shelves. Some may be new and still in print, some may be difficult to find, but all will be, at least in my humble opinion, essential texts for the SF/fantasy author, so worth looking for.

Why I Write, a slim volume published as part of Penguin’s Great Ideas series, collects four essays on writing by George Orwell, author of what I believe is the single most important novel of the 20th century: 1984.

The essays were written between 1931 and 1946 and despite Orwell’s pleas to the contrary, a version of Newspeak has managed to change the language, and contemporary readers and writers will need to keep this in mind, but the overwhelming majority of Orwell’s advice is still entirely valid.

orwell

Though geared toward the political writer, and not the science fiction or fantasy author, Orwell as much as anyone recognized the power of science fiction (1984) and fantasy (Animal Farm) in the effort to convey a political message—or grind an axe, as the case may be.

You may not consider yourself a “political writer,” and for what it’s worth, neither do I, but for better or worse we are all “political” in one way or another and the tradition of political genre writing goes back to the very beginning and some of the genres’ greatest classics have overtly political points of view, like Frank Herbert’s Dune or Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers.

Whatever your political stripe, or the degree to which politics plays into the themes of your writing, these four essays are a must read for any serious author. For instance, I use the following extended passage from the essay “The Lion and the Unicorn” both in The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction and in my worldbuilding classes as a great example of how the popular culture of a place and time can be concisely expressed, and the importance of what it means to be an ordinary person inhabiting this place and time. The challenge for my students is to find a way to present the popular culture of their created worlds as well as this:

GOrwellPic

“But in all societies the common people must live to some extent against the existing order. The genuinely popular culture of England is something that goes on beneath the surface, unofficially and more or less frowned on by the authorities. One thing one notices if one looks directly at the common people, especially in the big towns, is that they are not puritanical. They are inveterate gamblers, drink as much beer as their wages will permit, are devoted to bawdy jokes, and use probably the foulest language in the world. They have to satisfy these tastes in the face of astonishing, hypocritical laws (licensing laws, lottery acts, etc., etc.) which are designed to interfere with everybody but in practice allow everything to happen. Also, the common people are without definite religious belief, and have been so for centuries.”

And he goes on to say:

“One can learn a good deal about the spirit of England from the comic coloured postcards that you see in the windows of cheap stationers’ shops. These things are a sort of diary upon which the English people have unconsciously recorded themselves. Their old-fashioned outlook, their graded snobberies, their mixture of bawdiness and hypocrisy, their extreme gentleness, their deeply moral attitude to life, are all mirrored there.”

I know that’s quite a challenge: Write as well as George Orwell, but if you aren’t up for difficult challenges, you may as well stop writing now, since writing at all is a difficult challenge.

The last of the four essays, “Politics and the English Language” takes on the subject of how to write more head-on, and I’d love for you to read what Orwell has to say rather than my paraphrasing, so I’ll leave you only with Orwell’s list of rules that he said “will cover most cases:”

i. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

ii. Never use a long word where a short one will do.

iii. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

iv. Never use the passive voice where you can use the active.

v. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

vi. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Got that? Good! Now get the book.

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

 

 

 

 

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SOME DIALOG TIPS: WE KNOW WHO HE’S TALKING TO

I teach a three-hour, one-day seminar called Living Dialog, and that class, itself inspired by a blog post, has inspired more than one more, including this one.

Here’s something that I see from less experienced authors way too often, and from experienced authors basically never. Please heed this advice:

 

Do not end a line of dialog with the name of the person that character is speaking to, unless you specifically want the character who’s speaking to sound like a used car salesman.

 

Ending a sentence with the name of the person you’re speaking to is a common, and hopelessly overdone mnemonic device used by bad salesmen who are trying to build a rapport with you, and trying to remember your name. This is meant to give you the idea that this guy you just met knows you, is speaking directly to you, cares about you, and isn’t just trying to make a quick buck off you.

This reminds me of a famous science fiction line: “The Force can have a strong influence on the weak-minded.”

Notice that wasn’t: “The Force can have a strong influence on the weak-minded, Luke.”

Sometimes I wonder why I keep seeing this is fiction. Is it that the author was given that basic sales training and doesn’t know when and why to turn it off? If so, please learn to turn it off, and frankly, keep it turned off forever.

Maybe the author is worried that unless he or she identifies the character being spoken to the reader won’t be able to figure it out? The good news there is that probably nine times out of ten it’s perfectly clear in context who is being spoken to, so you can change:

“The Force can have a strong influence on the weak-minded, Luke,” Obi-Wan said.

to

“The Force can have a strong influence on the weak-minded,” Obi-Wan said.

Voila! One word chopped off the end and you’re in business. We get it.

If there is some confusion, you should probably rethink the structure of the scene, but the easy solution is just to shift that to description, so our Star Wars example would read:

“The Force can have a strong influence on the weak-minded,” Obi-Wan said to Luke.

or maybe:

Obi-Wan turned to Luke and said, “The Force can have a strong influence on the weak-minded.”

This is one example that sits in the broader category: Listen to how real people talk. Even though there are some real people who talk like this, they’re doing it on purpose, or for all intents and purposes have been hypnotized into doing it, and the rest of us wish they’d stop. Of course, if you’re writing a story that includes an irritating used car salesman, make sure that character does do this, just none of the other, non-used car salesman characters.

Unless you’re writing a story set in a world inhabited only by used car salesmen, in which case I probably won’t be reading that anyway, so have at it!

 

—Philip Athans

 

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MORE TRAVELLER . . . FINALLY!

It’s been way too long getting the new fiction line for Marc Miller’s latest version of the venerable role-playing game Traveller up and running, and I have to admit that most of that is my fault, but at last . . .

The second Traveller novel, Shadow of the Storm by Martin J. Dougherty, is available right now on e-book and will be coming very soon in a print edition, too.

ShadowoftheStormCoverSmall

Shadow of the Storm takes us to the Solomani Rim, and joins Robert E. Vardeman’s Fate of the Kinunir in finally bringing the Classic Traveller Universe to life.

I won’t cover this territory again, but, yeah, I love Traveller and I’m excited to be a part of this, especially since it’s finally really moving forward.

Next up, Priority: Hyperion by Erik Scott de Bie, and more, more, more, in both e-book and print formats.

Don’t believe me about the print books? Here’s the cover for the print edition of Fate of the Kinunir, which should be up for sale by the end of this month:

KinunirPrintCover

I know, this sounds awful, “selly” and that’s not (usually) the purpose of this blog, but please indulge me.

Here’s how you buy . . .

Shadow of the Storm from Amazon for the Kindle

Shadow of the Storm from Smashwords

Shadow of the Storm from Scribd

Other formats and resellers for Shadow of the Storm are pending, and Fate of the Kinuir is also available from iTunes.

Fate of the Kinunir from Amazon for the Kindle

Fate of the Kinunir from Smashwords

Fate of the Kinunir from Barnes & Noble for the Nook

Fate of the Kinunir from Kobo

Fate of the Kinunir from Scribd

Fate of the Kinunir from Diesel

Join us for some science fiction adventure in the far future!

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

 

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DIALOG EXERCISE: TIME, PLACE, AND GENRE

In my one-day seminar Living Dialog, I give each student this little excerpt from Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey and ask them to rewrite it so it’s set in a time, place, and/or genre of their choice. It’s a fun exercise, meant to get you thinking about what dialog can do other than simply expressing some point of fact. Here’s the excerpt:

That moment a rustling of leaves attracted her attention; then the familiar clinking accompaniment of a slow, soft, measured step, and Lassiter walked into the court.

“Jane, there’s a fellow out there with a long gun,” he said, and, removing his sombrero, showed his head bound in a bloody scarf.

“I heard the shot; I knew it was meant for you. Let me see—you can’t be badly injured?”

“I reckon not. But mebbe it wasn’t a close call! . . . I’ll sit here in this corner where nobody can see me from the grove.” He untied the scarf and removed it to show a long, bleeding furrow above his left temple.

“It’s only a cut,” said Jane. “But how it bleeds! Hold your scarf over it just a moment till I come back.”

She ran into the house and returned with bandages; and while she bathed and dressed the wound Lassiter talked.

“That fellow had a good chance to get me. But he must have flinched when he pulled the trigger. As I dodged down I saw him run through the trees. He had a rifle. I’ve been expectin’ that kind of gun play. I reckon now I’ll have to keep a little closer hid myself. These fellers all seem to get chilly or shaky when they draw a bead on me, but one of them might jest happen to hit me.”

“Won’t you go away—leave Cottonwoods as I’ve begged you to—before someone does happen to hit you?” she appealed to him.

“I reckon I’ll stay.”

“But, oh, Lassiter—your blood will be on my hands!”

“See here, lady, look at your hands now, right now. Aren’t they fine, firm, white hands? Aren’t they bloody now? Lassiter’s blood! That’s a queer thing to stain your beautiful hands. But if you could only see deeper you’d find a redder color of blood. Heart color, Jane!”

“Oh! . . . My friend!”

“No, Jane, I’m not one to quit when the game grows hot, no more than you. This game, though, is new to me, an’ I don’t know the moves yet, else I wouldn’t have stepped in front of that bullet.”

“Have you no desire to hunt the man who fired at you—to find him—and—and kill him?”

“Well, I reckon I haven’t any great hankerin’ for that.”

First, consider this in the original genre it was written in, a western, of course. Note how different Jane’s dialog is than Lassiter’s. Clearly this is meant to convey that Jane is more educated, more genteel than Lassiter. And in Lassiter’s dialog look at how Zane Grey shortened some words and misspelled others to give that character a sort of “cowboy accent”: hankerin’, mebbe. And how the order of words actually do an even better job of establishing the cowboy cadence: I reckon now I’ll have to keep a little closer hid myself.

I’ll rewrite the scene as a 1930s hardboiled detective story:

That moment a rustling of newspapers attracted her attention; then the familiar tap of a slow, soft, measured step, and Lassiter walked into the court.

“Jane, there’s a torpedo out there with a gat,” he said, and, removing his fedora, showed his head bound in a bloody handkerchief.

“I heard the shot; I knew it was meant for you. Let me see—you can’t be badly injured?”

“Nah. That hood might’ve been tryin’ to flub it . . . I’ll take a load off here in this corner where them palookas can’t see me from the grove.” He untied the handkerchief and removed it to show a long, bleeding furrow above his left temple.

“It’s only a cut,” said Jane. “But how it bleeds! Hold your hanky over it just a moment till I come back.”

She ran into the house and returned with bandages; and while she bathed and dressed the wound Lassiter talked.

“That chump had a good chance to plug me. But he must have flinched when he pulled the trigger. I hit the deck but peeped him high-taillin’ it through the trees. He had a Tommy gun. I’ve been expectin’ that kinda Chicago lightning. I guess now I’ll havta go to the mattresses. These goons all seem to get the heebie jeebies when they level a Roscoe at me, but one of ’em might just manage to ventilate me.”

“Won’t you go away—leave Cottonwoods as I’ve begged you to—before someone does happen to hit you?” she appealed to him.

“I ain’t no pushover to go climb up my thumb just cause—”

“But, oh, Lassiter—your blood will be on my hands!”

“See here, Sheba, look at them mitts now, right now. Aren’t they fine, firm, white flippers? Aren’t they bloody now? And that’s my blood! You got yerself a piece of my heart in them meat hooks, Toots! I’m dizzy for ya.”

“Oh! . . . You big lug!”

“No, Dollface, I’m not one to take the run out just cause the heat’s on, no more than you. This kinda heat, though, is the rumble to me, an’ I don’t know the play yet, or else I wouldn’t have ankled in front of that slug.”

“Don’t you want to find the man who shot at you—to find him—and—and kill him?”

“Not this bunny, Dolly.”

Same story, same facts, same basic characters, but a very different time and place.

Feel free to give this a try.

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

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INFORMED CONSENT: YOUR EDITOR AND YOU

The legal concept of “informed consent” tends to be applied mainly to doctors, but in thinking about the (typical) author/editor relationship, it got me thinking . . .

The American Medical Association guidelines on informed consent for their member physicians read:

Informed consent is more than simply getting a patient to sign a written consent form. It is a process of communication between a patient and physician that results in the patient’s authorization or agreement to undergo a specific medical intervention.

In the communications process, you, as the physician providing or performing the treatment and/or procedure (not a delegated representative), should disclose and discuss with your patient:

–The patient’s diagnosis, if known

–The nature and purpose of a proposed treatment or procedure

–The risks and benefits of a proposed treatment or procedure

–Alternatives (regardless of their cost or the extent to which the treatment options are covered by health insurance)

–The risks and benefits of the alternative treatment or procedure

–The risks and benefits of not receiving or undergoing a treatment or procedure.

In turn, your patient should have an opportunity to ask questions to elicit a better understanding of the treatment or procedure, so that he or she can make an informed decision to proceed or to refuse a particular course of medical intervention.

Authors and editors, please consider this rewrite . . .

An edit is more than simply changing text around. It is a process of communication between an author and editor that results in the author’s authorization or agreement to undergo a specific set of revisions.

In the communications process, you, as the editor providing or performing the edit (not a delegated representative), should disclose and discuss with your author:

–The specific revisions requested

–The nature and purpose of a proposed revision

–The risks and benefits of a proposed revisions

–Alternatives

–The risks and benefits of the alternative revisions

–The risks and benefits of not receiving or undergoing a specific revision.

In turn, your author should have an opportunity to ask questions to elicit a better understanding of the edit or revision, so that he or she can make an informed decision to proceed or to refuse a particular alteration to the text.

I’m going to just throw that out there with only one note, which is when I said (typical) above I mean excluding certain work-for-hire, shared world, etc. relationships in which an editor has a second master—the shared setting—that has needs of its own and the author has been informed that he or she does not own Star Wars or the Forgotten Realms now or at any time in the future, and needs must as continuity demands.

Otherwise . . . thoughts?

 

—Philip Athans

 

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