JUST EXACTLY LIKE

Okay, I have to admit it, I’m currently residing in Deadline Hell in order to get the Year of Phil off to a proper start the first full week in February, so how about a short story this week?

This one was published in the Spring-Summer 2017 issue of the literary magazine Word Fountain, and the editor was gracious enough to nominate it for a Pushcart Prize, which is always flattering to hear. Enjoy…

JUST EXACTLY LIKE

“What’s this?” she said after she’d crossed right in front of him.

He didn’t really think she wanted to know the name of the movie she’d momentarily interrupted but still he said, “The Vampire Bat.”

There was, of course, no reaction, just the sound of her opening a cabinet in the kitchen then the refrigerator.

“It’s got me thinking,” he said, raising his voice a little to make sure she could hear him. “Every generation has a woman who looks just exactly like Maureen Stapleton.”

“Who drank the last Diet Coke?” she replied.

“In Maureen Stapleton’s generation, it was Jean Stapleton,” he said.

“Is this grapefruit juice still good?” she said.

He shook his head—didn’t care if she could see him or not. “I’m not happy,” he said.

“Can you get some more tomorrow?” she said. There was nothing in her voice to indicate she thought he might not.

He shook his head again. It never occurred to him to wonder if she meant he should get more Diet Coke, more grapefruit juice, or more of both.

“Did you check the voicemail when you got home?” she said.

He’d never left.

“I’m thinking of getting a Playstation 4,” he said then something in the movie made him realize he hadn’t been paying attention. Who was Herman?

“Can you move Aiden’s dentist appointment to next Tuesday, the eighteenth?” she said.

In the movie, three men in suits walked down a staircase and met another man who told them Herman was dead.

“Poor Herman,” he said.

He couldn’t remember the last time he’d worn a suit.

“Is the car still making that weird sound?” she said, the sentence reeling itself out as she crossed back in front of the TV again.

“It’s calling out for help,” he said.

If she heard him, she gave no indication. She went up the stairs.

He said, “Poor Herman.”

 

—Philip Athans

 

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SO JUST WRITE AREADY!

This post is directed at myself, but you might accidentally benefit from it as well. It started with rereading this quote from a Paris Review interview with Stephen King:

You have a short life span. You need to stop this crap about sitting there and talking about what we do, and actually do it. Because God gave you some talent, but he also gave you a certain number of years…

I do primarily make my living talking about what we do (writing), more or less, but I get what he’s saying and so should we all. Are you, like me, setting writing goals then watching them go right past you? Are you going days, weeks… longer…? without writing at all? Are you talking/posting (etc.) about writing instead of, y’know… writing?

I know I am, and as part of the ongoing project that is the Year of Phil, I’m determined to put a stop to that this year… or at least the last eleven months of this year. I have no choice but to set aside January to finish the last of the late 2022 editing (etc.) projects and finish the first big project of 2023 so I get to February 1st in the magical state of “caught up.” This has not proven easy so far, but it remains entirely possible here at about the halfway mark in the month, so then, all this motivation to write stuff starts in a couple weeks. It’s never too early to get myself psyched up for it, though, so let me remind myself that writing isn’t a chore, a task, just a to do list item to cross off. I like the way Elisa Gabbert describes it in “Why Write?”:

I love writing, but I hate almost everything about being a writer. The striving, the pitching, the longueurs and bureaucracy of publishing, the professional jealousy, the waiting and waiting and waiting for something to happen that might make it all feel worth it. But when I’m actually writing, I’m happy.

I’m a little less negatively inclined to some of the business stuff, but I fully embrace the feeling of happiness I get when I’m in that great “flow state” and words are just pouring out of me. I make a swell living as an editor, consultant, etc., so from a purely financial standpoint, I don’t have to write—I want to write, and it’s well past time to embrace that desire the same way Ray Bradbury described in that Paris Review interview I advised you to read in November:

My passions drive me to the typewriter every day of my life, and they have driven me there since I was twelve. So I never have to worry about schedules. Some new thing is always exploding in me, and it schedules me, I don’t schedule it. It says: Get to the typewriter right now and finish this.

Now, this is Ray Bradbury, the successful full-time author talking here, so the rest of us mere mortals do have to, at least from time to time, “worry about schedules.” But I don’t have to always or only worry about schedules, do I? Definitely not after I’m “caught up,” starting February 1st (which I will keep repeating in an effort to help conjure it into existence).

I know, writing can be hard, and it can feel like some terrifying monster we have to somehow wrestle to the ground—but does that stop me from doing it? “There’s a lot of mystery to me about writing and performing and showing off in general,” Joan Didion said. “I know a singer who throws up every time she has to go onstage. But she still goes on.”

I’ve never thrown up over anything I’ve written—yes, including Baldur’s Gate—but I have had nightmares, and anxiety attacks, and still I went on, which means now with the economic and “success” pressure off, I certainly should be able to go on from here, yes?

Every Wednesday morning so far in 2023 I’ve watched the same TED Talk about procrastination and jot down a line or two. One I’ve kept next to my desk is, “It’s just a deadline, not a bear attack.” This is pushing me through editing deadlines, but can also be a good reminder when it comes to writing. I know it all feels so do or die sometimes, the stakes so enormous… be the next J.K. Rowling (hopefully without the transphobia) or die trying… publish a new Kindle ebook every week in service to an ever-changing and unbeatable algorithm… It makes me nervous even thinking about how nervous this business can make us all.

So let’s all, starting with me, take a deep breath and remember that “Writing, contrary to popular belief, should not be a form of suffering,” Marcy Dermansky wrote in “On Revising Without Losing Your Mind,” “Writing can be a form of absolute play; you never know what you are going to write. Even if you have an outline, you still don’t know. Your fingers may betray you. And literally everything that has ever happened to you is material.”

So it’s all there, waiting to get out, and if, like H.P. Lovecraft, we remove the pressure of worldwide fame and literary accolades from the process… “There are probably seven persons, in all, who really like my work; and they are enough. I should write even if I were the only patient reader, for my aim is merely self-expression.” …fucking write already and have fun with it.

And finally, another quote I pasted into the top of my daily to do list, just so I get exposed to the message every day in the Year of Phil and beyond, once more courtesy of the great Ray Bradbury…

Action is hope. At the end of each day, when you’ve done your work, you lie there and think, Well, I’ll be damned, I did this today. It doesn’t matter how good it is, or how bad—you did it. At the end of the week you’ll have a certain amount of accumulation. At the end of a year, you look back and say, I’ll be damned, it’s been a good year.

Hell, maybe I need to live the Year of Ray!

—Philip Athans

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The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction!

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DO YOUR CHARACTERS QUESTION THEIR OWN MOTIVES?

You know, by now, how strongly I feel about the importance of strongly motivated characters—heroes and villains alike. Last October, I got into this in “Why? The Heart of Character Motivation” when it comes to villains:

Evil, like good, is specific to an individual and is something that comes from deep inside, from a mix of nature and nurture, and is visible in that individual’s speech and deeds. And often, the worst acts are perpetrated not by someone with “evil intent,” but by someone with perfectly benevolent intentions who somehow screws up, misinterprets, acts out of fear or some other personal weakness.

In other places I’ve described the heart of well-motivated characters as an effort to fill some hole in themselves, to find a missing piece in their lives, their psyches, their souls, that they believe can be filled by… whatever your story is about: the lust for power, the final defeat of Evil, etc. But just “I want to be the king” simply isn’t enough. There has to be a reason that this particular person feels he has to be the king. This deeper level gets to what I believe Italo Calvinomeant when he said, “Novelists tell that piece of truth hidden at the bottom of every lie.”

The lie is I want to be king because it’s my birthright and I would be awesome at it. The truth is that  my father once told me I would never be king and if I can prove him wrong I can finally feel like a whole person, like I’ve beaten him in some kind of epic struggle, even if that struggle exists entirely in my imagination, based on a wild misinterpretation of one conversation had forty years ago. The truth, it turns out, almost never matters when it comes to what we really feel, or as Franz Kafka once wrote, “The outside world is too small, too clear-cut, too truthful, to contain everything that a person has room for inside.”

So then what is that missing thing your character is trying to reclaim, or claim for the first time…? Could it be what the Portuguese call saudade—a longing for a past happiness that may have been entirely invented? Maybe.

Indeed, it could be anything, but if you can describe it in one word, I don’t think you’re there yet. How to get there… that’s the hard part. Do we start with what’s missing in ourselves? Hernan Diaz said,

Writing is a monstrous act because it implies a metamorphosis. Writing, to me, is an attempt at becoming someone else. Every novel is a long way of tracing an x, of crossing myself out. I don’t want to be on the page. I want someone else to be there—someone else to “happen.” Still, despite my best efforts, I always remain, deformed and disfigured. The final paradox, of course, is that I am the one striking myself out. And isn’t this duality also quite monstrous?

But we also have to venture outward from ourselves. How else could we imagine what might be missing in someone? “I could answer,” Susan Sontag once said, “that a writer is someone who pays attention to the world.”

So, pay attention!

It’s actually fairly rare, in my experience, that a character actually comes out and says: This is why I’m really doing this. These holes we try to fill in ourselves rarely make themselves known to us, and likewise stymie everyone around us. But sometimes we figure it out, just like the protagonist of Harlan Ellison’s 1966 short story “Turnpike,” about a truck driver who meets a woman on a cross country trip, they follow each other for mile after mile, day after day, and things get weird…

And then, as we passed over the line into Ohio, with night bombarding us, I got the most eerie feeling. What was pulling me on like this? Why was I so hot to get this little teenie-bopper? I’d seen the swingers before; they peppered the bars off Times Square every Saturday night. In from Jersey where the age limit was higher. But why this one? What song had she been silently singing that got my groin bell bonging, what snail crawling through my inward side, what height I hadn’t reached, what door slammed when I was a child, what act I’d begun and never completed, what vision I’d had that had been shattered for me… what meal had turned rancid in my belly, what bill had never been paid, what game had I chanced everything and been taken like a patsy… what wind had chilled me, what sun had scorched me… all uselessly, all senselessly the day of graduation when I’d run shrieking into the fields of reality and never gone back for the passport into the big time? What was it that made me follow through the night that blue Mustang with the waving banner of yellow hair? What was it, and would it kill me?

Whether or not this fevered introspection is enough to set this guy straight…? That would spoil an exceptional story you should go out and read for yourself. But in this example we see that this idea of a deeper motivation needs to be grounded in a world, either our own now or in the past or future, or one of your own making. Whatever is missing in a character will tend to be filled from what’s available to that character in that time and place, because it’s something from that time and place that’s missing in the first place. Consider this from “Against Authenticity” by Bo Winegard:

Even a person’s most sacred beliefs—those about God and the relationship between humans and the cosmos—are inextricably connected to culture. The ancient Mediterranean worshipper of Isis and Osiris may have been a zealous Protestant in 17th-century Germany and a combative skeptic in 21st-century America. Similarly (though less consequentially), a champion of free verse in the 20th century may have been a stickler for meter and rhyme in the 14th. Dante wrote as he did because of his surrounding culture. Five hundred years later, he would have written differently. The same holds for virtually every imaginable belief and activity, from the mundane to the sublime. 

I want to follow this woman and steal her away from the guy she’s traveling with because…?

I want to be Queen of Andals and the First Men because…?

I will have my revenge against the Baron Harkonnen because…?

“I,” the character, may not ever be able to answer that question, but we, the authors, better put some quality thought into it.

—Philip Athans

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Editor and author Philip Athans offers hands on advice for authors of fantasy, science fiction, horror, and fiction in general in this collection of 58 revised and expanded essays from the first five years of his long-running weekly blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook.

 

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2023: THE YEAR OF PHIL (FOR REAL THIS TIME)

I think I proclaimed 2020 as the Year of Phil on Twitter, then doubled down in 2021… and I think we all know what those years ended up being instead—anything but Years of Phil.

But the Year of Phil is too important an idea to give up on forever, so once again, and this time for sure, I hereby proclaim this as the Year of Phil, using the same super cool, awesome graphic I designed for the first attempt:

What does this mean for you?

Probably nothing, but this is my blog, so gimme a week, already.

In the Year of Phil I will put as much good effort into my mental health as I put into my physical health last year (or the last year and a half or so). Considering the progress I made on that front, I should be in fine trim this time next year.

I will write this year, and publish some books and some short stories and some poems.

I will work hard in a field I love and make a living in the world of books.

I will expand my book collection and my new hobbies.

I will do all sorts of stuff to make my life better without hurting anyone else in the process.

Those sound like decent goals, right?

They’re specific but not too specific, actionable and possible, open ended so as to reduce ending up being a detailed list of failed milestones… Not a bad outlook, and one that this post is actually meant to share.

There’s a lot of pressure on authors of fiction—on artists in general—especially in America, where the so-called “Protestant Work Ethic” is actually a bullshit name for desperation in the face of a totally unforgiving system that values short term gain over literally anything else. But though I will not be leading anything resembling any kind of Socialist revolution this year, I might just try to shift our focus away from sales and submission grinders and money-first milestones determining “success” and “failure.” Instead, let’s all take the Year of Phil to remember why we’re doing this in the first place—or, at least why we should be doing this in the first place: because we love books. We love our genres. We love our favorite books and our favorite authors, and we adore our readers.

If I can write some words I’m proud of, and maybe sell some in 2023, the Year of Phil will be a success.

Write some words you can be proud of, and maybe sell some in 2023, and it will be the Year of You, too.

Let’s not try to make 2023 our bitch. Let’s make it our boon companion.

See how that works.

—Philip Athans

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In Writing Monsters, best-selling author Philip Athans uses classic examples from books, films, and the world around us to explore what makes monsters memorable—and terrifying.

You’ll learn what monsters can (and should) represent in your story and how to create monsters from the ground up.

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LOOKING BACK ON 2022

I’m trying my best to stop blaming things on years.

We all piled on poor, plague-ridden 2020, started-with-Capitol-riot 2021, and now economic-fallout 2022 is lined up in front of the firing squad. Does it help anyone if I pile on that? Looking back on 2022, sure, it could have been better. Making a living was more difficult this year, but I’m still okay. I even managed a short vacation in July, which is highly unusual. I started actually spending more time with my wife, developed a new hobby, started doing something other than working, watching TV, sleeping (repeat)… I did some writing, sold a few poems…

What else?

Looking back at older New Years Resolution posts I learned that I have not kept up with “the news” for exactly ten years. This avoidance of impotent rage may be the single deciding factor as to why I am still alive.

Seriously.

Let’s see what else has been going on… Hmm…

It’s not been a great year for Fantasy Author’s Handbook, with only 29,168 views this year—the worst showing since 2014. Where did everybody go? This is encouraging me to light a fire under my own ass, though, so will there be a Fantasy Author’s Handbook YouTube channel in the coming year…? I will certainly try!

In previous resolutions posts, I’ve promised to be healthier in the coming year, and I’ve lost 56 pounds since it was made clear to me in April of 2021 that something had to give. And I’m all set up to continue the downward trend in weight, targeting another 25 pounds in 2023.

Look at that there: two resolutions actually kept… eventually.

I’m adding to this coming year an emphasis on mental health, too—getting reacquainted the old, fun Phil. The last few years as an ultra-shut-in was not healthy. There are lots of things I’ve already started doing to combat that: self study, hobbies, and…

I’d also like to get back out there into the world, physically, in 2023, so I hope you’ll see me back out there at writers conferences, conventions, and so on in the coming year—the coming years, anyway. And there will be a second volume of The Best of Fantasy Author’s Handbook in 2023 and a revised print edition of Completely Broken as well. That’ll be cool.

I have started writing more but am determined to write even more in 2023, and I think I have a good plan to do so, to keep me motivated to keep writing and getting stuff out there. Let’s see how that plays out in ’23.

What else…?

Will I complete a novel, finally? I hope so!

Sell at least a few short stories? That should be possible.

After all, I did just advise y’all to be more like Harlan Ellison and Robert Silverberg… and I better damn well at least try to take my own advice. That said, yeah… one resolution, this year:

Be more like Harlan Ellison and Robert Silverberg and write a lot of stuff that sounds like me, that pleases me, that works for me, and hopefully an audience will follow.

While that’s in progress, I’ll continue to see you here every Tuesday, just like I have every single week since June 15, 2009.

Happy New Year!

—Philip Athans

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MAYBE WE SHOULD ALL BE MORE LIKE ROBERT SILVERBERG

Last week, inspired by my reading of his collection Gentleman Junkie, I wondered aloud if we should all be more like Harlan Ellison—an author who found, developed, and protected his own voice, his own career, and steadfastly defended that against all odds and temptations. Obviously, I stand by that, even a full seven days later, but that post got me thinking… who else could we be more like?

Watching a lot of science fiction Booktube recently, another author’s name kept popping up, a name I’m of course familiar with, but one who otherwise never seemed to be in the discussion of all time greats—at least not in most of the circles I found myself in, but then, isn’t he? Of course he is.

He, by the way, is Robert Silverberg. And here’s how I think we should all be more like him:

Robert Silverberg, like Harlan Ellison, wrote not just short stories but essays and reviews, he edited anthologies—and unlike Ellison he wrote novels. Novel after novel after novel. He wrote a lot. If you look at the isfdb.org page devoted to his work you’ll see the following headings:

Fiction Series

Novels

Collections

Omnibus

Magazine Editor Series

Anthology Series

Anthologies

Chapbooks

Nonfiction

Short Fiction Series

Short Fiction

Poems (just one)

Essay Series

Essays

Interior Art (really…?)

Reviews

Interview Series

Interviews with This Author

Non-Genre Fiction Series

Non-Genre Novels (mostly softcore porn written under various pseudonyms)

Non-Genre Collections

Non-Genre Omnibus

Non-Genre Nonfiction

Non-Genre Short Fiction

The page just scrolls and scrolls and scrolls.

His work is divided out into twenty-four categories, which begs the question: How many categories does your isfdb page have? Mine has eight, including a story in the same Star*Drive anthology he had a story in! And you don’t have to scroll very far to get to the end of mine, though it is missing a few things.

Robert Silverberg has written a lot, and I mean a lot of stuff, including a lot of full length novels. And you know what? Most of them are fantastic.

Though not known as the sort of literary giant Harlan Ellison was, you will have to be a pretty young science fiction and fantasy fan not to have read at least a few of his books. His work ranges from earlier “potboiler” SF adventure stories to later works that stand shoulder to shoulder with the best of the epic classics of the genre. You’ll find no richer worldbuilding than in his Majipoor series—on par with Tolkien, Herbert, Martin, et. al.

This is not an author who suffered for a decade on the Great American novel. Just looking at one year, 1958, Robert Silverberg published nine science fiction novels: Aliens from Space, Invaders from Earth, Invisible Barrier, Starhaven, Starman’s Quest, and Stepsons of Terra, Vengeance of the Space Armadas (as Calvin M. Knox), The Shrouded Planet(with Randall Garrett), and Lest We Forget Thee Earth (as Calvin M. Knox); and Love Nest (as Loren Beauchamp). That’s ten novels. In one year. Not just written, mind you, but published.

And there’s more.

I count 70 short stories published in various magazines in 1958. That’s one short story not just written but published every five days.

His one poem was published that year, too, and he also published five essays, and 28 book reviews.

How is that even possible?

That’s publishing…

A novel every 36 days or so.

A short story every five days.

A book review every two weeks.

And he did that again, more or less, in 1959, 1960…

His mass of output did slow down a bit getting into the 70s and 80s, but if we try to be more like Robert Silverberg by not just maybe writing a little more, but writing a seemingly absurdly lots more, can we achieve even the scantest level of quality? I’ve bemoaned my suffering during and after having written a novel in less than two months, but what if that novel was my own idea, my own world…? I could have roughed it out, an editor could have helped me make it better… but still, ten novels out in one year? Sure, these early novels tended to be much shorter, too, back then, maybe as short as 60,000 words even, but still, if all ten were 60,000 words that’s 600,000 words in one year… exactly theNaNoWriMo goal of 50,000 words in a month. And he also got out all the other stuff.

Clearly this is not something an author can do and maintain a day job.

And in the current state of the publishing business, I don’t see any of the major SF imprints publishing ten new novels by the same author in one year, but then… why not?

In the era of eBooks and print-on-demand, it should be even easier for a publisher to publish more books. I honestly believe a new Robert Silverberg could operate in the 2020s.

Could that be you?

Let me make this challenge even harder, though.

Unlike some of his contemporaries—pulp era “hacks” who poured words out in a quantity over quality struggle to make a living at a penny a word, Robert Silverberg wrote well. Maybe his ten novels in 1958 weren’t quite up to the standards of his later, more spaced-out work, like the Majipoor series, but I’ve read some of these early novel—have more than a few in my Ace Doubles collection—and have been reading Robert Silverberg at least here and there basically as long as I can remember, and still have several more of his books on my shelves waiting to be read. He wasn’t just fast, he was good.

In fact, he was very good.

Maybe, in a similar mechanism to Harlan Ellison writing well because he allowed himself to write what he wanted to write, how and when he wanted to write it, Silverberg wrote well because he gave himself no time to over-think, obsess, revise, second-guess. He would have had to simply sit down and write through today’s idea at typing speed. And he could only do that if he had the same confidence in his voice and ability that Ellison had.

Robert Silverberg found something I think few if any authors now even realize could be possible: a balance between quantity and quality that made him not just a solid working mid-lister, but one of the greats of all time, winner of four Hugo Awards, six Nebula Awards, and three Locus Awards in a massively long career stretching from the mid-1950s to the early 2000s—and at age 87 he’s alive and kicking, which makes me think back to a long-ago post about long-lived SF authors

So then, the challenge is out there now. Can we—can anyone—be more like Robert Silverberg?

—Philip Athans

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…and Mr. Silverberg gave me permission to use an excerpt from one of his Majipoor novels as an example in…

Science fiction and fantasy is one of the most challenging—and rewarding!—genres in the bookstore. But with best selling author and editor Philip Athans at your side, you’ll create worlds that draw your readers in—and keep them reading—with

The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction!

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MAYBE WE SHOULD ALL BE MORE LIKE HARLAN ELLISON

I’ve been slowly, luxuriously, reading through Gentleman Junkie and Other Stories of the Hung-up Generation, a 1961 collection of short stories by Harlan Ellison, and it’s got me thinking…

Maybe we should all be (at least a little bit) more like Harlan Ellison in the approach to both our writing and our writing careers.

First, here’s the relevant section from the Foreword from the book, by Frank M. Robinson, that started me thinking about this…

[Being a writer] is an easy thing to say, and a very difficult thing to be. You have to have a certain talent to begin with, and then you have to develop it.

You develop it by first giving up your regular job because, as you quickly find out, serious writing is a full-time proposition and steady employment saps your strength and enthusiasm—so you take part-time jobs in bookstores, libraries, and beaneries, and you write in the early morning hours when the rest of the city is sound asleep (few people in the rest of the city have talents they want to develop).

You develop your talent by living on crackers and beans, by washing your own clothes and stringing them up on a wire in the john, by wearing the same shirt for a week and sleeping on your pants to give them a crease, and by living in a roach-ridden third-floor walk-up where there’s only one water tap and the water’s the same temperature come summer or winter—cold.

You develop that talent by writing like mad every free moment you have; by stealing away a few of those moments to read what’s been written by other people; by submitting material to every magazine you know of, even if they only pay in packets of birdseed, and by being thrown bodily out of publishers’ offices as well as agents’.

A lot of writers go through exactly this.

Ellison did.

A few writers have the guts and stamina to claw their way up from the bottom and finally Make It.

Ellison did.

All writers worth their salt (and despite what they go through) develop an empathy and a compassion for people and realize what so few outsiders do: that the characters you read about in fiction are not much different from the people you meet in Real Life, the acquaintances you make and the friends you love. It’s not so much the material you work with, it’s the view you take.

Ellison realizes this.

I know we’ve all heard advice like that before. I’ve offered versions of it myself here. This is something you commit to, that you give your life to, yes? But that story of deprivation in pursuit of a higher calling is a common one. Precious few authors just sort of materialize into some kind of successful career. Few have had a hand up by influential relatives or other contacts, and let’s set aside forever the “celebrity author” whose ghostwritten book rides in on the wave of a reality TV series or Instagram following. If you have that going for you… more power to you. But for the rest of us mortals who are actually writers, yeah, it’s writing while feeling as though you’re banging your head against an impenetrable wall.

But I want to add more to this idea of being more like Harlan Ellison. He didn’t just make a career happen for him by writing while everyone else was asleep. He wrote well. He was a master of the form. He could put together a sentence like no other. His stories were as meaningful as they are readable, and vice versa. He learned the craft of writing fiction, and took that part of the equation seriously. Let’s continue to learn to write well, and practice writing well, just like Harlan Ellison did.

Then, the other part of “the equation”:

I know he could be kind of an asshole, which is to say a total fucking asshole on more than one public occasion. He tended to lead with anger, a bitterness born of childhood trauma kept alive and in conflict through his own writing. He was a difficult guy who wrote difficult fiction and at no point could any of his work been the work of anyone else.

Harlan Ellison wrote, exclusively, Harlan Ellison stories. He didn’t just develop his own voice and hope an audience would find him, he infused his writing with his whole self, and his whole self with his writing. He wrote on his terms. Even when he took on paid gigs like screen- and teleplays he steadfastly remained himself, regardless of anything resembling a “school” or worse, a trend.

He was put in amongst a few other (mostly incredible) science fiction(ish) authors (like Ballard, Moorcock, et.al.) who became known as the New Wave, but I don’t think Harlan Ellison had any intention of founding or participating in any sort of school of writing. He bristled when people referred to him as a “science fiction author” and instead preferred the appellation “fantasist,” and even then, wrote whatever the hell he wanted to write, entirely on his own terms, regardless of what genre or category someone later put it in or took it out of.

This is how I think we should be trying to emulate Harlan Ellison.

I often work with authors at the very beginning of their careers, and sometimes we talk about the business of publishing in relation to what they wrote. How could this novel best be positioned, can we identify comp titles, what does it seem like agents and editors are looking for, and whatnot. I try to give the very best advice I can, always, but the best advice I give is on the craft of writing and storytelling. Again, as strange as a lot of Ellison’s short stories could get, there was always an attention to the craft at work. Words, punctuation, syntax all used with great care to make sometimes difficult subject matter come alive. In his best stories, Harlan Ellison the cantankerous personality disappears, and you’re immersed in the characters and the world they inhabit and the often terrible things that are happening to them, so it feels like those terrible things are happening to you. This is what all fiction should do—always.

So then how do we become more like Harlan Ellison?

Do we have to send a dead gopher to a publisher’s office, touch another author inappropriately at an awards ceremony, get in a fist fight with Frank Sinatra’s bodyguard…?

Of course not. That was Harlan Ellison’s life—his thing, his baggage he carried around all his life.

Be like Harlan Ellison in how he approached his own writing and that was that it was his own, and not the agent’s, the editor’s, the culture’s, the New Wave’s, the business’s, the… anything other than yours. This is your short story. Yournovel. Your characters. Your plot. Your theme. Your structure. Your voice. Not J.K. Rowling’s or Stephen King’s, or George R.R. Martin’s, as rich and famous as they all may be.

Let’s face it, everybody, the odds of achieving some massive financial windfall through publishing novels, even carefully crafted and “on trend” genre novels, are against us. The act of writing something worth reading, that carries with it some substance, and is a story that could only ever have been written by you and you alone, is entirely in your hands.

Just like, however hard he toiled or however he got a crease in his pants, Harlan Ellison’s writing could only have been written by Harlan Ellison and Harlan Ellison alone.

“After a while,” Ellison wrote in his own introduction to Gentleman Junkie, “I flashed on the simple truth that you canchange your life, if you make a sudden, violent commitment without stopping to rationalize why you shouldn’t.”

—Philip Athans

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I’VE BEEN WATCHING “BOOKTUBE”

I threw myself into the unknowable vortex of YouTube to research Vegas ahead of my anniversary trip last July, then discovered, buried under inexplicable algorithmic recommendations for videos about “near death experiences” and anything having to do with Joe Rogan, that there were actually things of value being done on YouTube… go figure. It didn’t take long for me to find “booktube,” which is what people who talk about books on YouTube call themselves (and why not?), and over the past few months it’s become a bit of an obsession of mine, wandering through the backlogs of video, and adding book after book after book to my Amazon wish list in the process. If you’re reading this, I assume you love books, so if you haven’t seen these folks yet, here are some of my favorite channels…

Outlaw Bookseller

This channel is about Books (especially Science Fiction which the channel presenter has been reading for 50 years, but other genres as well), Music, Film, Collecting, & Travel to Italy’s Amalfi Coast, South Wales and the South West of England.

Outlaw Bookseller is Stephen E Andrews, a sometimes professional writer (his first book, 100 Must Read Science Fiction Novels, reached #1 on 2 Amazon bestseller charts in 2007), life sentence bookseller, collector, former University guest lecturer, and occasional national/local radio and television guest.

Through a recounting of opinions, critical and historical insights, anecdotes and stories from almost forty years of bookselling, book collecting and writing, Steve looks back/forward at his literary and related cultural obsessions in music & film. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily represent the opinions of his current or former employers.

Being nearly exactly the same age as me, and sharing some other qualities, I find Mr. Andrews most sympatico of them all. He’s my English mirror in many ways, though we do disagree about a few things, especially Dune and most of the fantasy genre, but if I wanted to see a YouTube video of exactly me, I would make my own YouTube video, wouldn’t I.

Book Blather

Hi! We’re Dave and Olive! Welcome to Book Blather, where a maltipoo and her dad blather about books and comics of all types. We read a fair bit of horror, sci-fi, and fantasy, including YA and graphic novels, but we like to mix it up with plenty of other fiction and non-fiction as well. Watch at your own risk!

I love Dave’s positivity almost as much as I love his dog, Olive!

Bold Books and Bones

Books—sometimes ancient, sometimes recent—about events or people who found something that changed the world in profound ways…

A Belgian psychologist’s beautifully produced and thoughtful dives into (mostly) non-fiction books across a wide range of subjects. This is easily the most professionally produced of the lot, if that’s something you’re looking for. Super smart, immaculately presented.

Bibliosophie

A new find for me, described as “bookish thoughts from a Franco-American musician/academic and lover of words based in New York,” she’s got smart, interesting things to say about a range of books. This is where I leave science fiction/fantasy again for a wider view of things.

Media Death Cult

Moid is by far the “snarkiest” of them, but he’s hilarious. I have no idea how (because he’s from the UK) and why (probably an unanswerable question) he appears to be armed in most of his videos, but…

Anyway, he has fun things to say about science fiction books.

The Shades of Orange

Another smart reader/collector of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, etc. with lots of interesting things to say. I will leave a warning… She talks fast. And I mean very, very, very, quite extremely fast, accelerating in speed as her videos progress. If you’re able to follow people who talk fast, which is to say really rather extremely fast, you’ll find smart, interesting things about books within.

Bookpilled

Everybody loves Matt’s famous Sci-fireplace and his chatty, honest, thoughtful, and enthusiastic journey as a sort of science fiction “newbie,” though I’m not at all sure that moniker still applies.

And last but not least…

Jules Burt

The uber-collector of, apparently, everything, also makes spectacularly long and detailed videos about his clearly obsessive book collecting. Jules goes way beyond anything most collectors strive for, and to my mind has left the appellation “collector” behind and moved solidly into the category of archivist, which are people human culture always needs. Watch his long videos where he goes through and laboriously cleans his collection of everything ever published by mostly UK presses including Penguin.

Penguin, I said.

Everything published by Penguin.

Everything.

From Penguin.

Already subscribed to these folks? Have other recommendations? Comment! Share!

—Philip Athans

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In Writing Monsters, best-selling author Philip Athans uses classic examples from books, films, and the world around us to explore what makes monsters memorable—and terrifying.

You’ll learn what monsters can (and should) represent in your story and how to create monsters from the ground up.

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READ THIS INTERVIEW WITH RAY BRADBURY

This week, I’m just going to toss this over to The Paris Review and an interview with the great Ray Bradbury, The Art of Fiction No. 203. Read this interview while you still can—it might drop back behind their paywall. In any case, here are the bits I pulled out that I thought were valuable, and you’ll very likely see quoted in future posts and other of my writings about writing. Enjoy…

Science fiction is any idea that occurs in the head and doesn’t exist yet, but soon will, and will change everything for everybody, and nothing will ever be the same again. As soon as you have an idea that changes some small part of the world you are writing science fiction. It is always the art of the possible, never the impossible.

The critics are generally wrong, or they’re fifteen, twenty years late. It’s a great shame. They miss out on a lot. Why the fiction of ideas should be so neglected is beyond me. I can’t explain it, except in terms of intellectual snobbery.

If I’d found out that Norman Mailer liked me, I’d have killed myself. I think he was too hung up. I’m glad Kurt Vonnegut didn’t like me either. He had problems, terrible problems. He couldn’t see the world the way I see it.

It took a long time for people simply to allow us out in the open and stop making fun of us. When I was a young writer if you went to a party and told somebody you were a science-fiction writer you would be insulted. They would call you Flash Gordon all evening, or Buck Rogers. Of course sixty years ago hardly any books were being published in the field. Back in 1946, as I remember, there were only two science-fiction anthologies published. We couldn’t afford to buy them anyway, since we were all too poor. That’s how bereft we were, that’s how sparse the field was, that’s how unimportant it all was. And when the first books finally began to be published, lots of them in the early fifties, they weren’t reviewed by good literary magazines. We were all closet science-fiction writers.

I often use the metaphor of Perseus and the head of Medusa when I speak of science fiction. Instead of looking into the face of truth, you look over your shoulder into the bronze surface of a reflecting shield. Then you reach back with your sword and cut off the head of Medusa. Science fiction pretends to look into the future but it’s really looking at a reflection of what is already in front of us. So you have a ricochet vision, a ricochet that enables you to have fun with it, instead of being self-conscious and superintellectual.

Style is truth. Once you nail down what you want to say about yourself and your fears and your life, then that becomes your style and you go to those writers who can teach you how to use words to fit your truth.

I just can’t imagine being in a world and not being fascinated with what ideas are doing to us.

If you’re not careful in tragedy, one extra rape, one extra incest, one extra murder and it’s hoo-haw time all of a sudden.

The short story, if you really are intense and you have an exciting idea, writes itself in a few hours. I try to encourage my student friends and my writer friends to write a short story in one day so it has a skin around it, its own intensity, its own life, its own reason for being. There’s a reason whythe idea occurred to you at that hour anyway, so go with that and investigate it, get it down. Two or three thousand words in a few hours is not that hard. Don’t let people interfere with you. Boot ’em out, turn off the phone, hide away, get it done. If you carry a short story over to the next day you may overnight intellectualize something about it and try to make it too fancy, try to please someone.

My passions drive me to the typewriter every day of my life, and they have driven me there since I was twelve. So I never have to worry about schedules. Some new thing is always exploding in me, and it schedules me, I don’t schedule it. It says: Get to the typewriter right now and finish this.

Three things are in your head: First, everything you have experienced from the day of your birth until right now. Every single second, every single hour, every single day. Then, how you reacted to those events in the minute of their happening, whether they were disastrous or joyful. Those are two things you have in your mind to give you material. Then, separate from the living experiences are all the art experiences you’ve had, the things you’ve learned from other writers, artists, poets, film directors, and composers. So all of this is in your mind as a fabulous mulch and you have to bring it out.

Action is hope. At the end of each day, when you’ve done your work, you lie there and think, Well, I’ll be damned, I did this today. It doesn’t matter how good it is, or how bad—you did it. At the end of the week you’ll have a certain amount of accumulation. At the end of a year, you look back and say, I’ll be damned, it’s been a good year.

If a book is new, it smells great. If a book is old, it smells even better. It smells like ancient Egypt.

I have three rules to live by. One, get your work done. If that doesn’t work, shut up and drink your gin. And when all else fails, run like hell!

What a smart, amazing genius. Who doesn’t love Ray Bradbury?

…maybe too much?

—Philip Athans

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DELETE NOTHING, AT LEAST NOT PERMANENTLY

It’s okay to cut bits of text from your work in progress as you’re revising, but let’s say you’ve written the beginning of a short story, and about a thousand words in it feels like it’s just not working for whatever reason. It’s okay to walk away from that, but it’s not okay to throw it in the trash.

Keep everything you write. Why? Because you never know.

What if, twenty years later, you experience some flash of inspiration that rescues that first attempt at a story and propels it to something new and great? But you’ve tossed the first stab at the text, so now you’re scrambling around trying to recreate it, and… why?

What if, instead, that was on your computer in a folder, or even printed out or handwritten and in a filing cabinet—whatever works? Now you have this thing you started and suddenly know how to finish and there it is: no words “wasted.”

“I feel like it’s all about, don’t be afraid to write lots of garbage, but also don’t throw any of it away,” wrote Susan Choi on “Powering Through a First Draft,” “Have a very large storage system for all that garbage, because it’s only garbage in context. It may turn out to be a treasure in some other context you haven’t discovered yet.”

At least now, in the Computer Age, can there be such a thing as wasted words, or even wasted time? When it’s possible to archive essentially everything—and in any case everything we write—even though there might not be any short-term financial return on investment, what about the impossible to predict long term? What about the experience we gain, as writers, from every single word we write? The act of writing literally anything has real value that goes beyond any future royalty payment or flat fee or per-word or honorarium.

Of course, if you have what you feel is a great idea and the writing is coming to you quickly, and everything is humming on all cylinders and you’re sure this is your next worldwide best seller, by all means, keep going—and save often in case of power failures or God knows what else can happen. Make sure you’re backing files up, keeping notebooks in a safe, dry place, and so on. Of course I’m not saying stop doing what’s working and instead write something terrible that might someday be made less terrible, but if you have written something terrible, yeah, people: save it because it might someday be made less terrible.

“Sometimes, you have to write the boring pages and then delete them, to do what the story requires,” Marcy Dermansky wrote in: “On Revising Without Losing Your Mind” “This, however, is not suffering. This is revision, and revision is also fun. While making a book better, new ideas keep coming in.”

Revising doesn’t necessarily come immediately after writing either—not for everything. Even a scene cut from a work in progress should be saved. What if that, heavily revised, becomes the start of new project, or a related short story, or… who knows what? I don’t know what it might turn in to, and neither do you. It might end up being nothing, but keep it anyway, just in case.

—Philip Athans

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