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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THE FANTASY AUTHOR’S HANDBOOK INTERVIEW: LOGAN L. MASTERSON

Logan L. Masterson describes himself as a “poet, writer, actor, storyteller, artist, photographer, and new world man.” Logan and I share a few of those traits, along with a relationship with Pro Se Productions, a leading small press publisher focused on new pulp.

Something I always tell my students is that with hard work, determination, and talent, getting your work out there is not as impossible as it may seem—and now we get a chance to hear from an author at the very beginning of what I’m sure will be a long career.

Logan L. Masterson

Logan L. Masterson

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

Logan L. Masterson: Fantasy is that fiction which accepts that wonder and magic are key elements in the human narrative. We all believed in magic once.

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

Logan L. Masterson: Science fiction, on the other hand, frames its wonder within the limits of theoretical possibility, trading magic for rational thought.

Philip Athans: Ravencroft Springsis your first published novella. How did you get in contact with the publisher, Pro Se Productions . . . how did it’s publication come about?

Logan L. Masterson: I was fortunate enough to meet Tommy Hancock and Morgan McKay nee Minor at a local comic book event. It wasn’t quite a convention as such, more of a one-day gathering in a small space here in Nashville. I was totally unprepared, having to bring up my manuscript on my phone, but the Pro Se folks were willing to look at that, and I guess Morgan was pretty impressed, because they offered me a contract on the spot!

Available Now!

Available Now!

Philip Athans: I’ve written a few novellas myself, and found that the e-book format seems to have breathed new life into the novella. Where do you see this trend leading, if it’s a trend at all?

Logan L. Masterson: Oh, you betcha! Of course, some of the major genre awards have had novella & novelette categories for years, so it was never a dead format. Heck, one of the most recognizable pieces of the English Canon—A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens—is a novella. That said, there is new life in the form, and the e-book is a big part of that. I hope that it will allow a wider audience for these shorter forms. With authors and publishers able to set reasonable prices, it should be an ever more viable format.

Philip Athans: I’ve written a couple short stories for Pro Se and plan to write more. Are you a fan of the pulp tradition, and how do you see it’s place in the contemporary media world?

Logan L. Masterson: I love pulp! Some of my favorite science fiction is the Humanx Commonwealth created by Alan Dean Foster, which is sci-fi adventure pulp at its best! I also love Doc Smith, Harry Steeger’s Spider, Michael Moorcock and H.P. Lovecraft, all of whom have pulp in their veins.

Really, pulp is the equivalent of the modern action movie: it applies innovative language and bombastic characters the same way film pushes the envelope of visual effects. There’s plenty of room for action and excitement that eschews the trappings of self-important literature.

Philip Athans: Ravencroft Springs is billed as “a Lovecraftian tale of suspense” . . . I have to assume you’re a fan of H.P. Lovecraft. When did you first encounter his work and what about his peculiar milieu got your creative juices flowing?

Logan L. Masterson: I guess I first read Lovecraft as a young teen. I must have been thirteen or fourteen when I discovered “The Call of Cthulhu.” I was immediately impressed by the cosmic scale of things, and the bizarre fusion of horror, fantasy, and science fiction. I said to myself, “this is what Poe was reaching for.”

Philip Athans: When you first started writing, where did you go to learn your craft? Did you read books on writing, did you pursue a degree with writing in mind?

Logan L. Masterson: I began by diving in, head first. I had a friend in Dallas who had written something great, and it inspired me tremendously. I wrote a few little somethings, and suddenly felt I had found my calling. I did a lot of poetry in my youth, for the emotional release as much as anything else, and finally turned a serious eye to creating proper fiction much later on, in my thirties. I have no formal education, but I have read a ton of great books on the process and business of writing. I favor Robert McKee’s Story: Substance, Structure, Styale, and the Principles of Screenwriting and Stephen King’s On Writing especially, but I will often check out something new from the library looking for those little gems I have somehow missed elsewhere.

Philip Athans: What have you found to be the most surprising aspect of being a professional, published author—what were you least prepared for when you were still “aspiring”?

Logan L. Masterson: Starvation? Seriously, though, I am most surprised at the welcome I have received from the community of authors. Those writers I meet at events and online are pretty much universally cool people, willing to lend a hand, share their experiences, and help us noobs along the winding uphill road.

Philip Athans: Ravencroft Springs is set in the Tennessee Appalachians. Have you spent much time there? How did you settle on that as a setting for your Lovecraftian horrors? And how important is an author’s direct experience with a real world setting in terms of being able to bring it to life in prose?

Logan L. Masterson: Ravencroft Springs, the town, is based on the real-world artist colony and vacation spot of Eureka Springs, Arkansas. I used to go there as a kid with my parents, and I took my wife there for our honeymoon. It’s a great little mountain town full of artists and old hippies, galleries and bookshops and quirky restaurants. I don’t know how it survives there.

During our winter honeymoon, we walked the streets and explored the shops, and I couldn’t help wonder about the more sinister aspects of the place—the religious and political conflicts that surely seethed beneath the surface.

And that seething beneath the surface bit is what grew into a story, and it’s the reason I transplanted the setting.

The Appalachians are among the oldest mountains on earth, and may even have been connected to the mountains of Scotland in the primordial past. They’re associated with the people of Scotland now, being settled by Scot and Irish immigrants who came to the region searching for opportunity and something like home.

And yes, I have spent a lot of time there. The Appalachians are great for hiking and camping, and the mist that rises in the morning and settles in the evening gives the region an eeriness that can’t be explained, as if something really were sleeping beneath the hills.

It was vital to the tale that Ravencroft be evocative, chilling, a character in its own right. In that sense, I do not think I could have done the setting justice without having experienced both of the sources directly.

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

Logan L. Masterson: My website, agonyzer.com, features a blog where I talk about my upcoming projects and events. I also have a Facebook author page for those who find that easier. There’s a page for Ravencroft Springs, too!

Philip Athans: Thanks Logan, we’ll be on the lookout for more!

 

 

 

 

 

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WORLDBUILDING NEEDS YOU!

I hate to do it, but this one is primarily for Seattle-area people . . .

The next eight-week session of my Worldbuilding class at Bellevue College is starting on July 1, and there are still spots open. Register now!

If you do live in the area, here’s what the syllabus looks like . . .

If you don’t live in the area, good news . . . thanks to our friends at Writer’s Digest University there will be a four-session online version of this class coming up in the next couple months. Keep your eye on Twitter for that announcement.

Syllabus

Worldbuilding

Philip Athans

Summer 2014

 We will meet every Tuesday at 6:30 pm-9:30 pm from July 1, 2014 through August 19, 2014 at Bellevue College North Campus.

 Come ready to talk and write!

 In this course, The New York Times best-selling author and veteran editor Philip Athans, author of The Guide to Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction (Adams Media 2010), gets into some seriously detailed techniques for creating worlds for fantasy and science fiction stories, novels, screenplays, and games, drawing from a quarter century of experience creating new worlds.

Coursework will include weekly reading and writing assignments, review of your written work, and a chance to meet and share ideas with other aspiring science fiction and fantasy authors.

Our text for this term will be The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume Seven, Edited by Jonathan Strahan.

 Week 1: Where to Start

An introduction to the course and coursework, and advice on where and how to start creating a fantasy or science fiction world. We’ll discuss research and sources of inspiration, and the importance of setting and following your own rules.

Writing assignment: Describe your world in one paragraph. This is your “statement of purpose.”

Reading assignment: “Domestic Magic” by Steve Rasnic Tem & Melanie Tem for discussion of magic, and “Immersion” by Aliette de Bodard for discussion of technology

 Week 2: Magic & Technology

It’s not fantasy without magic and it’s not science fiction without advanced technology. What your characters can do, the means by which they communicate, defend themselves, travel, and so on, will have to be as plausible as they are imaginative.

Writing assignment: Describe in detail one aspect of your world’s magic (an artifact, spell, ritual, etc.) or advanced technology. Give it a reason for being, limits to its power, and an emotional/story context.

Reading assignment: “The Easthound” by Nalo Hopkinson for discussion of monsters.

Week 3: Monsters

Monsters are a staple of the genre, and must be created with care. Discussion will include monsters as metaphor, monsters as characters, and how to build them in a plausible, believable way.

Writing assignment: I’ll provide a form, you fill it out, describing your monster.

Reading assignment: “Katabasis” by Robert Reed for discussion of people.

 Week 4: People

Humans, elves, and Martians alike, the fantasy and science fiction genres have imagined a wide range of sentient creatures. We’ll learn how to populate our worlds with believable and compelling characters.

Writing assignment: I’ll provide a form, you fill it out, describing your “people.”

Reading assignment: “Great-Grandmother in the Cellar” by Peter S. Beagle for discussion of cultures.

 Week 5: Cultures

From wild flights of fantasy to educated predictions of near-future society, people are more than just their DNA. This week we’ll take a close look at the way people interact with each other and the world around them, drawing inspiration from history, current events, mythology, and more.

Writing assignment: Using the paragraph from George Orwell’s Why I Write for inspiration, distill your world’s popular culture into a couple paragraphs.

Reading assignment: “Macy Minnot’s Last Christmas on Dione, Ring Racing, Fiddler’s Green, The Potter’s Garden” by Paul McAuley for discussion of governments and “The Woman Who Fooled Death Five Times” by Eleanor Arnason for discussion of religion.

 Week 6: Government & Religion

If “culture” defines how people view each other, governments and religions define the rules by which they live their lives. We’ll discuss both the positive and negative aspects of the institutions that send us off to prayer or war, a wedding ceremony or a voting booth.

Writing assignment: I’ll provide a form, you fill it out, describing either a religion or a government.

Reading assignment: “A Bead of Jasper, Four Small Stones” by Genevieve Valentine for discussion of geography.

 Week 7: Geography

We’ll draw maps, discuss geographical features both terrestrial and cosmic, and examine how the distance between things can effect your story. But ultimately this will be a discussion of the importance of establishing a sense of place.

Writing assignment: Take as many as 2000 words to describe a significant place in your setting, referring to prompts provided in class, or better yet, draw a map!

Reading assignment: The Fathomless Abyss Series Bible and other material to be provided, for discussion of series bibles, style guides, and notes.

 Week 8: Bringing it All Together

We’ll discuss forms of story, world, and character bibles; style guides; and how to maintain and develop your creation through an ongoing series. And hopefully time for final questions, comments, and thoughts.

 

I hope to see you there, or online later this summer!

 

—Philip Athans

 

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MAKING A LONG STORY SHORT

I’m often asked how long a novel should be and I always try to weasel out of answering by saying something like: “It should be as long as it needs to be.”

I’m trying to avoid saying what I personally feel, which is that a novel should be as short as possible. But professionally, I think that’s a safe answer. If you’ve gotten to the end of the story, everybody who’s read it likes it, including you, and you just can’t think of a single thing more to say, then that story is done. If you get there in, say, 25,000 words, congratulations on your novella. If it came out to be 200,000 words, congratulations on your . . . no, well. Hold on a minute.

Marcel Proust, record holder at 1.2 million words... Take that George R.R. Martin!

Marcel Proust, record holder at 1.2 million words… Take that George R.R. Martin!

There have been massive uber-tomes that have risen to the top of the fantasy genre. For this, I blame Mr. Tolkien. But does that mean fantasy = impossibly long? I’m happy to admit my personal bias in favor of shorter novels (50,000-80,000 words), but please don’t think this post is some sort of admonishment that if you like really really long fantasy novels you’re wrong or bad or stupid—if you’re reading my blog you couldn’t possibly be any of those things!

I tend not to like really long books. Especially as I ease into my Golden Years. I missed the Wheel of Time series. I can’t start reading that now. I’ll never live to see the end of it.

So yes, I like shorter books, by and large, more than longer books, but can we find some kind of common ground here? Some kind of upper limit?

E-books have made word count largely irrelevant, but a really long book printed on paper is going to be more expensive than a shorter book, and that goes beyond even the cost of paper, printing, and binding but to typesetting, edits, case pack weight (shipping), retail shelf space, and so on.

Set all that aside, though, and let’s get back to what makes a book “better,” from the standpoint of the reader. In a post at AutoCrit Nicholas Sparks wrote:

 Books that are too long are the sign of laziness by the writer and also imply an arrogance of sorts, one that essentially says to the reader, “I’m the author here and I know what I’m doing, and if you don’t like it, then that says more about you than me, and we both know which one of us is smarter.” Not so. [...] Why are so many books too long these days? Because being efficient is difficult and often time-consuming. It’s a lot harder to capture a character’s personality fully in one, original paragraph, than it is to take a page to do so. But efficiency is one of the characteristics of quality writing. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” is a much stronger opening than taking a paragraph or two to say exactly the same thing.

Oh boy is he right!

When I first started at TSR I was surprised by how regimented they were in terms of word count. With a very few (mostly Weis & Hickman-authored) exceptions, TSR novels were 90,000 words long to fit into a 320-page mass market paperback. If a manuscript went to 100,000 words it was as if the world was coming to an end. A series of meetings would take place as to whether or not we could increase the page count of the finished book from 320 pages to 352 pages and more often than not the answer was no. I once cut 20,000 words out of a novel a few words here, a sentence there, and the author couldn’t tell what I’d cut. But then, y’know, my kung fu is the best.

This kind of surgical edit is what Nicholas Sparks is, I think, advocating. It’s not a question of which subplot to do away with, though think about this: If I ask, “Which subplot can you lose?” and you can answer in less than thirty seconds, cut out that subplot. Sometimes it’s not the writing that’s too complicated but the plot.

The overwhelming length of novels, especially by less experienced authors, almost always—and yes, almost always—comes not from the epic nature of the fantasy but from plain old fashioned over-writing. If you do things like:

“Yes,” he said, and nodded.

. . . which is five words that could be replaced by two:

 He nodded.

. . . that’s almost always why your book is 180,000 words long.

I understand that not everyone wants to be Ernest Hemingway, and not every author should be known for a super-lean, just-the-facts-ma’am style of writing. And sometimes books really do tell a long, complex story. Some of may favorite books (Dune and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell to name just two) are longer than the average of about 80,000-90,000 words.

Nicholas Sparks said “being efficient is difficult and often time-consuming” and he’s right. But beyond that, writing is always difficult and time-consuming. You need to think about what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. But it’s not always that we aren’t thinking of the reader, or being arrogant in our demands on our readers’ time. Sometimes, just the opposite is true. Sometimes, we don’t give our readers enough credit. We’re worried that if we don’t explain this plot point or that aspect of the setting one more time we’ll lose people.

Sometimes I make lists of important story elements so I can actually remind myself that by this point in the book the reader should know that . . . whatever it is: the captain is really a werewolf, the crystal has lost its magical properties, and so on. Then make sure that that’s been made reasonably clear once.

If you can do that, you might find you’ve trimmed 10% out of your manuscript. If you learn to write in a more direct, less cluttered style, you’ll lose . . . who knows how many extraneous words? And who cares? Again, it’s not about driving to a set word count, it’s about writing just the story you want to tell, not the story you want to tell wrapped in some kind of protective outer covering.

Oh, and you are more likely to get it published if it’s closer to 90,000 words than to 150,000 words.

You just are.

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

 

 

 

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THE PALE BLUE DOT

Earth, from four billion miles in space.

Earth, from four billion miles in space.

Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar”, every “supreme leader”, every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there—on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

 

—Carl Sagan, 1994

 

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