SUBSCRIBE TO A LITERARY MAGAZINE

Many, many years ago… hundreds of years before the dawn of history… a struggling young author, fed up with his undeniably brilliant short stories being rejected by all the fancy gatekeepering magazines, and inspired by the punk rock fanzines of the day, set out to change the literary landscape by publishing a magazine of his own. It turned out to be a great thing for this young writer, especially when he realized, almost immediately, exactly how many other writers, young and old, were out there sending their short stories and poems into an uncaring universe in the hopes of anything resembling publication. He also started to learn how to be an editor, and started to learn (the hard way) the unforgiving landscape of the publishing industry.

Oh, okay, you got me… that young writer was me, the year was 1986, and the magazine was Alternative fiction & poetry, which lived for five issues (the last was the combined numbers five and six), before I just couldn’t keep paying for it. Still, it launched me into a career in publishing that’s gone through some ups and downs, but hasn’t come to a full stop since.

One of the things I struggled with then was the fact that I received in the daily mail literally hundreds of short story and poetry submissions a month, and literally ones of subscriptions a year. The magazine might have had a circulation of about 700 at its peak.

Some of the reason it didn’t really take off was that I didn’t really know how to make it take off. There was also a surprisingly crowded field back then—the height of “zine” culture—which was super exciting, but there’s nothing like an infinitesimally small marketplace that’s also over saturated to really blow your finances to smithereens.

Fast forward what feels like seven or eight million years and I made a decision to restart my own writing career at the very beginning, and instead of writing an epic fantasy novel, or whatever might have been expected of me having just been ejected form the Forgotten Realms, I wanted to reexperience writing just for the joy of it, and allow myself to make a living as an editor, a ghostwriter, and the other things I do all day via Athans & Associates.

So here we are, a few years into that plan and I have managed to get the occasional poem and short story published and out there. I’m feeling it again… and I’m also remembering that feeling of everyone wanting me to publish their stuff but no one wanting to actually, y’know, buy the magazine it’s in. So I started subscribing, mostly at random, to a range of literary magazines, and I’m loving it enough to want to encourage everyone to at least give a few of them a try.

It started with realizing that I kept going back to The Paris Review’s online archives and I thought, I should just subscribe to this. Then they started running a holiday promotion. It wasn’t that expensive, so I subscribed. I was just overwhelmed with joy when my first issue showed up in the mail and I read every word, cover to cover. Then the same with the next issue, and I’m currently working through the third.

I realized then that I could really get into this whole subscribing to literary magazines thing so I added it to my random behavior prompts, so maybe once or twice a month my computer tells ne:

Subscribe to a literary magazine

…and I do.

Now I get presents in the mail every once in a while and I just love it.

Honestly, when was the last time you read a print magazine—especially one with fiction in it, much less poetry? I’m frankly surprised there even are print magazines in 2022—but there are, and they can be, like The Paris Review or The Wax Paper, amazing physical artifacts, with amazing attention to detail, in some cases entirely unlike what we get from the book publishing world now.

Here are the magazines I subscribed to, in order. You can try these, or find one or a few of your own, but just please consider doing this—whatever your genre of choice. These magazines not only help you stay in touch with what’s happening now in your genre, or literature in general, but I assume we’re all readers here, and these little surprise gifts that show up in the mail… just love it!

I currently subscribe to:

The Paris Review

Maybe not the oldest running literary magazine, but quite possibly the very best. Their interviews with authors are worth the price of admission, and with your subscription comes entry into their online archives, which are crazy good.

The Wax Paper

Fully reminiscent of the best of the old zines, The Wax Paper comes in the form of a newspaper, mailed wrapped in wax paper and sealed with a little wax seal—I kid you not. They even included a personal thank you note with the first issue. Dynamite.

Not One of Us

A rather small literary horror magazine that contains very smart, deliciously well written stories in a tiny package.

Asimov’s Science Fiction

I subscribed to its sister magazine, Analog, for years, years ago, but decided to give Asimov’s a try this time. The fact that these SF digests are still publishing warms this aging fan’s heart.

The Sun

This one looks most like a traditional magazine, what they used to call a “slick.” It’s smart, well curated, and worthy of attention.

Weirdbook

More mainstream horror published by John Betancourt, who I’ve known for years now. This is sort of a magazine disguised as an anthology, but I get it, and you should too!

Will I renew all these?

Maybe!

Will I add more?

Definitely!

 

—Philip Athans

Follow me on Twitter @PhilAthans

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Or contact me for editing, coaching, ghostwriting, and more at Athans & Associates Creative Consulting.

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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I SAID AND

“I’ve seen this a lot lately,” I said and stopped typing to think about how clunky this reads. “We need to talk about that construction.”

The construction we need to talk about is:

said and

…in dialog attribution.

It’s clear what authors are trying to say with this, but it just reads terribly. A character says a thing then does some action. Yes?

Or is that a character says a thing and does an action at the same time?

That disjunction is probably my biggest issue with said and. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be seeing there. And honestly it feels a bit lazy. It feels as though the author is reporting on an event rather than immersing me in a story. And that’s not just semantics, there’s a huge difference there, and the difference, honestly, is between pedestrian and compelling writing. I know we all would prefer—in both fiction and non-fiction—to achieve the latter.

So then what instead?

Start with the problem:

“I’m here!” I said and stepped through the door. “Now the party can start!”

If I’m stepping through the door at the same time I’m saying “I’m here,” it should be:

“I’m here!” I said as I stepped through the door. “Now the party can start!”

If I step through the door and say “Now the party can start!” at the same time it might be:

“I’m here!” As I stepped through the door I added, “Now the party can start!”

If I step through the door after saying “I’m here,” but before saying, “Now the party can start!” I’d prefer:

“I’m here!” I stepped through the door. “Now the party can start!”

I took out I said here because the action between the two lines of dialog is what “I” am doing, so that should convey who’s speaking.

And there are lots more options… variations aplenty, yes?

So then think about those options rather than said and.

“That was a short post this week!” Phil said and let it end there.

Oops!

“That was a short post this week!” Phil said, letting it end there.

 

—Philip Athans

Follow me on Twitter @PhilAthans

Link up with me on LinkedIn

Friend me on GoodReads

Find me at PublishersMarketplace

Or contact me for editing, coaching, ghostwriting, and more at Athans & Associates Creative Consulting.

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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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DEFINING MY TERMS

It’s rather funny how a word sometimes sneaks into a family and gets itself adopted. Where does it come from, I wonder? I’d very much like to know.

—Jean Cocteau, Intimate Relations (Les parents terribles)

In pretty much all of my writing about writing I tend to fall back on certain words that I understand might cause a little confusion, since often they can be interpreted in more specific ways than I might actually mean at the time. This week, please allow me to quickly dig into a few of them in hopes of allaying any concerns you might have that I’m pushing everyone into some broadly genre-ready or “old school” or “pulpy” way of thinking about genre fiction in particular or fiction in general. For what it’s worth, as a reader (and therefor as an author) I tend to be attracted to the far ends of the genre boundaries. Either give me wildly entertaining action-heavy space opera, sword & sorcery, and monster horror, or show me some literary approach to the genres completely unlike anything I’ve ever read before. The stuff in the middle is fine, but I like the ends. This might explain why some of my favorite fantasyscience fiction, and horror novels include authors as stylistically diverse as Edgar Rice Burroughs and Haruki Murakami. This will color my definitions, especially in terms of:

VILLAIN

When I say “villain,” please, by all means, feel free to sub in words like antagonist or rival or opponent… What I mean here is the character who is in conflict with the hero (see below). And yes, your “villain” can be, in the tradition of authors like Jack London, the environment, or an idea, and so on. Does your villain have to be “evil”? No. These could simply be two people who disagree, since I’m also working from the widest possible definition of conflict as well (again, see below). In some cases villains are easily recognizable, like Darth Vader or Ramsay Bolton, but that’s not only what I mean when I say “villain.” Likewise…

HERO

Star Wars worked because balanced against the uber-villain Darth Vader was the classic hero Luke Skywalker. But coming as it did in the spring of 1977, a hero like Luke was a bit of surprise for the American moviegoing public. Movies of the 70s had become steeped in the concept of the anti-hero. These are people we’re not quite sure about, who could go either way, or are downright terrible (Dirty Harry, for instance). So when I say “hero” I mean protagonist, or even “main character.”

Who’s story are we really following? Who are we most identifying with as readers? That’s your hero, whether or not you’re describing a super nice person, someone fighting for truth, justice, and the American way, or a tough cop who’s maybe just one percent less corrupt than the other cop (the villain). Still, I’ll make the case for a “good” hero, as Anne Lamott did in Bird by Bird: “In good fiction, we have one eye on the hero or the good guys and a fascinated eye on the bad guys, who may be a lot more interesting. The plot leads all of these people (and us) into dark woods where we find, against all odds, a woman or a man with the compass, and it still points true north. That’s the miracle, and it’s astonishing. This shaft of light, sometimes only a glimmer, both defines and thwarts the darkness.”

And for both hero and villain, I’m absolutely not affixing a particular…

GENDER (ETC.)

Absolutely there is no gender restriction on any story’s hero or villain, nor do I ever want anyone to think that any character can or can’t or should or shouldn’t be either a hero or a villain based on sexuality, race, religion, neurodiversity… anything but what that one individual person wants and how that one individual person sets out to get (achieve, prevent, etc.) that thing. As a reader and as an editor I’m delighted to see a diverse set of characters in…

CONFLICT

Yes, I love sword & sorcery, where “conflict” tends to mean guy cleaving monster in twain with his mighty battle-axe, but that’s not only what I mean when I say conflict. The conflict at the heart of your story does not have to in any way include violence, any sort of physical confrontation, or even any particularly harsh words traded between your hero and your villain. Any time two characters find themselves in any way in disagreement with each other they are, at least by my definition, in conflict. Ultimately, until you have something like a hero in conflict with something like a villain, you have no…

STORY

Which I tend to use broadly to mean any work of fiction of any length. So if I say something like I just said above, that goes as much for a novel as it does a short story. Or a screenplay, or…? A story is a story no matter how long it takes to unfold. And a story is made out of…

PLOT

If you still think you’re writing, or should write, “plotless” fiction, I’ll refer you back to a previous post that I hope will blow that up for you. Plot, as I see it, in any case, is the stuff that happens as a result of characters in conflict. In his book Story Trumps Structure, Steven James explained it this way: “Stories are transformations unveiled—either the transformation of a character or a situation, or, more commonly, both. If nothing is altered, you do not have a story, you simply have a series of images or a chronicle of events.”

Since characters tend to take an active role in that, thinking of ways to get what they want (or better yet, need) then it could be said that all plots are “character driven.” But if you are dragging characters through a bunch of things that start and end beyond their control, you might find you’re being accused of having written “plot-driven” fiction, and though I’d advise against it that seems to have worked out okay for Dan Brown, so what the hell… But in any case, “plot” may be a four letter word, but don’t be afraid of it, all it points to are the things that happen in your story.

And that’s it, though if you find any other terms you’ve run across here at fantasy Author’s Handbook or any of my books on writing, drop ’em in the comments!

—Philip Athans

Follow me on Twitter @PhilAthans

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As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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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A REMINDER TO READ!

Writing without reading is like…

…I don’t even know. Analogies fail me. If you’re out there writing fiction and you aren’t avidly, voraciously reading  fiction, you’re in the wrong business. How can you create something you don’t love? I will never be able to understand that.

So from here, let’s all assume we’re in our avid reader/writer safe space together, and talk a little bit about what we’re reading and why and how, and fun stuff like that.

If you follow me on GoodReads, you’ll see that I’ve set up another Reading Challenge there, committing myself to reading fifty-two books in the coming year. That is, of course, an average of one book a week, which when I first set the goal several years ago, seemed entirely reasonable. If I dived into a very long book that might take me more than a week to finish, there was always a shorter book devoured in a couple days to keep me more or less on track. This was the number I set for myself last year and actually made it to fifty-three books.

Success on this challenge has been a bit mixed, with 2020 inexplicably coming up short at only thirty books—yet another reason to pretend that year didn’t actually happen. But I hit fifty-two in both 2019 and 2018, which is when I started making this an annual event. I set up the 52-book challenge first in 2012 and now I can’t remember that far back as to why I ended up reading a paltry twenty-nine books, but let’s say the statute of limitations has run out on that one.

Now, that said, I am in a bit of a weird position in that as an editor, what I do pretty much all day, for work, is, y’know… read books. I spend at least four or five hours every day very carefully, closely reading (mostly) novels. I’m in the position where I routinely read books well before they’re published, if they’re ever published at all. I even read books while the authors are still writing them. I read fiction in rather rough form, and fiction in rather finished form, and all stages in-between. Those, for the purposes of the GoodReads challenge, don’t count, but in the greater scheme of writers must read, they absolutely do. Still, I do tend to mentally separate the “edits” from the “books” I read every year, though many of the “books”—it might even be fair to say all of the “books”—I read are in fact in some way or another work-related.

But those GoodReads Challenge books are all books that are done, and have been done for some time—even centuries gone by. There’s nothing I can do to change them—nor would I want to—though it can often be difficult, even impossible, to turn off that “editor’s eye” and not see the typo here, the “nodded his head” there, the little plot hole elsewhere, and so on. But I have a feeling most readers would notice that stuff, too.

A few of the books I read every year I go into with some agenda. I read books on the art and craft of writing fiction to keep up with what other people like me have to say about the central passion of my working life, and a few other books that I’m reading with some “work” purpose in mind. But the overwhelming majority of the fifty-three books I read in 2021 I read because I wanted to. They came to my attention in one way or another. Some have been sitting on my shelves for literally decades. Some I just bought the week before.

And though if you look at the list of books I read last year, it might seem a bit random, there was, actually, a method to the madness. And this is where I worry that I’m going to start sounding a bit like a crazy person.

I sometimes have a tendency to over structure my world. In some cases, this has been a good thing. As a managing editor at Wizards of the Coast I helped keep an impossible schedule running on time because I can lock into minutiae and systematize things. My energy in that regard has been flagging a bit over the past few years, but it still shows up in some admittedly odd ways. One of those ways is what I call my “reading scheme.”

I know, right? I have a reading scheme, because that’s… healthy…?

Let’s say it is.

This is how it works.

Over the course of 2021 I was reading four books at any given time. One was a non-fiction book on any of a wide range of subjects. One was a science fiction, fantasy, or horror novel. One was a “literary” work: fiction, poetry, or plays. And the fourth was a graphic novel/comics collection.

I like this. It means I’m not always reading one thing.

But the “scheme” doesn’t stop there. I went at least one layer deeper and started the year with a plan to not just read one SF/F/H novel at a time, but to alternate between an ACE Double, a book that has been sitting on my shelves for a while, a random pick, and a book that I bought in 2021. This means I’m reading my adored ACE Doubles, working through the giant grab bag of old SF/F/H paperbacks in my closet, and reading some old and some new books instead of just piling up the backlog. Go me! This more or less worked, too.

Oh, and “new” books? That doesn’t mean the book was written or published in the last year but that I bought it in 2021. I buy, religiously, one book from Amazon every Wednesday—another bit of scheduled happiness I allow myself. And I also still go to bookstores and spend more than most people on a semi-regular basis. The books I’ve bought in 2021, even though I have read some over the past year, now reside in three surprisingly large stacks (SF/F/H, “literary,” and non-fiction).

Now it’s 2022 and I thought, sure, let’s reset that, and not just start a new 52-book challenge but a new scheme as well. This year’s scheme will be pretty much the same, except I’m wrapping the graphic novels/comics into the SF/F/H category and reading only the books that I bought over 2021, in order. The fifth slot is reserved for an ACE Double or a random SF/F/H book that I’ll pick when one of my random behavior modification prompts tells me to.

Oh, and I’m also subscribing to literary magazines, so I read those, too, in the order they come in. I just finished Not One of Us #68 and started in on the Winter 2021 issue of The Paris Review this morning.

Is this normal?

Am I advising that you do this, or think this is what everybody, or any number of people more than me should definitely do?

Okay, I’m not that nuts. But in the end—at the end of 2021, 2019, and 2018, anyway—I did average a book a week and read books across a wide range of categories and subjects with authors ranging from Stan Lee to Lawrence Ferlinghetti, from Little Nemo cartoons from 1905 to books published in 2021. I read one really “meh” self-help book, some poetry, a couple vintage mysteries, a Star Trek Fotonovel (because if not me, who?), and more.

With no regrets.

So then, advice?

If you don’t feel you’re reading enough, think about a GoodReads Challenge. If you feel you’re in a nothing-but-epic-fantasy (or whatever) rut, maybe start thinking in terms of a reading scheme.

But whatever you do, and however you do it… read!

—Philip Athans

Follow me on Twitter @PhilAthans

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Or contact me for editing, coaching, ghostwriting, and more at Athans & Associates Creative Consulting.

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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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2022: THE YEAR OF PHIL

On January 5, 2021, I wrote this:

By the power vested in me by myself, I hereby proclaim 2021 to be the Year of Phil.

This replaces and in all way supersedes the previous attempt at the Year of Phil, which, due to circumstances beyond my control, became 2020 instead.

Fantastic! But then, guess what, due to circumstances beyond my control, the second attempt at the Year of Phil became 2021 instead. So that means, having again been overwhelmed by circumstances beyond my control, we have arrived, finally, at 2022, the third and final attempt at the Year of Phil.

What does the Year of Phil have in store for us all?

Well, apparently you don’t remember from last year, so let’s try it again, and maybe refine a few things in light of a couple of… let’s say… years…

In the Year of Phil I’m going to complete a bunch of projects, both personal and professional, that had been put off for various reasons, not started because of… 2020… 2021… and so on. A bunch of these things, you don’t necessarily care about, like home repair projects and stuff like that.

There are also a bunch of professional things I still can’t talk about because of NDAs and other privacy issues, and so on. Let’s just say I’m going to streamline—and in fact have already started to streamline—a lot about how my little one-man-operation operates so I’m working smarter, more efficiently, and so on. As of today, for instance Athans & Associates Creative Consulting is closed to new editing projects, and will likely remain so through the first quarter of the new year, so I can concentrate on existing projects.

I think I’ve abandoned the idea of online tutorials that was a part of the original Year of Phil Manifesto. I just don’t have the bandwidth to learn how to do that, or the time to maintain them, but maybe a instead of tutorials or online courses, per se, let’s see if I can get back to doing at least online conferences (and I do have one on the books already!) and even some in-person seminars and conferences, COVID permitting.

As for my own writing, I’ve refined my writing goals to a simple line:

Write something of value.

That appears on my to do list every day. And I’m going to really concentrate on that this year, damn it, so I might just be out there with fiction, poetry, more writing on writing, etc. as I move forward with two new publishing imprints from me, Fantasy Author’s Handbook and Af&p.

The health issues that really knocked me back a bit over the course of 2021 are all either resolved or in the process of being resolved. I’m fine, I’m healthier now than I was this time last year, and will continue to improve over this year of not sitting on my ass watching TV and eating candy.

Keep your eyes here and on Twitter (@PhilAthans) for further information on online and live events, book launches… who knows what amazing stuff might come out of the Year of Phil.

And hey, listen, just like 2020 and 2021:

It’s not just the Year of Phil.

Let’s proclaim, by the power vested in ourselves by ourselves, that this is the Year of [insert your name here]. The Year of Everybody.

Write in 2022. Publish in 2022. Expand your horizons in any way that helps, pleases, or excites you in 2022.

We can do it!

—Philip Athans

Follow me on Twitter @PhilAthans

Link up with me on LinkedIn

Friend me on GoodReads

Find me at PublishersMarketplace

Or contact me for editing, coaching, ghostwriting, and more at Athans & Associates Creative Consulting.

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

And here’s something I did manage to finish and get out there in 2021!

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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A WEIRD STORY MINI-FORMULA

In my look, last April, at the book Science Fiction Handbook, Revised, by L. Sprague de Camp & Catherine de Camp (Owlswick Press, 1975), I wrote:

Speaking of the pulp tradition, the de Camps quote Jack Williamson and Edmund Hamilton’s “formula” for a science fiction story that I think makes for a perfectly usable short story prompt:

Three men go out to save the world. One goes mad, one is eaten by the Things, and one returns to tell the tale.

I ran across that again in one of my notebooks in the past week or so, and it got me thinking, Why haven’t I tried this mini-formula myself? Does it, as much as any fiction formula could, have any validity? And in any case, where did this come from?

Strangely enough, the internet has failed me on at least the latter question. Searching for the text itself, even in small snippets with the names of the authors credited for it, came up with only my original post. Far be it from me to accuse the de Camp’s of getting this wrong, but maybe they heard it from the author’s themselves?

In any case, it seems only to have been repeated in that now long out of print book, and here at Fantasy Author’s Handbook. If for no other reason, that makes me want to try to bring it back—at least put it up for discussion—all the more.

So then, as formula’s go, this one is about as short and sweet as I’ve ever seen, closer to my own attempt at the shortest articulation of story structure:

The villain starts the story, the hero ends it.

But I’ve written short stories from no less sketchy writing prompts, so I feel entirely justified in calling Williamson and Hamilton’s formula that at least—a prompt. But let’s break it down some more, one sentence or phrase at a time, but first, of course, there’s the obvious updating of the language we can quickly pull off:

Three people go out to save the world. One goes mad, one is eaten by the Things, and one returns to tell the tale.

Starting, then, with:

Three people go out to save the world.

This implies that we’ve thought about what it is they’ve actually set out to save the world from. This sort of scrapes against my “the villain starts the story” idea in that Williamson and Hamilton seem to be putting the goals of the heroes first. But then, are they? If they have some idea to save the world then someone or something (the villain) must be threatening the world in the first place. And yes, the “villain” of a story could be something like climate change, the Cold War, etc. So… okay, we’re sort of on the same page there.

Still, not every story begins with someone trying to save the world. These three characters, who we are not told we have to think of as either heroes or villains, per se, might enter the story looking for all sorts of things, and end up either saving the world, or failing to save the world, after being confronted by the Things that drive one crazy and eat another. Even assuming we don’t necessarily have to take the next two items in order, let’s look at:

One goes mad,

Now it sounds like we’re writing an H.P. Lovecraft story, which is fun, but what if we play around with the meaning of “goes mad”? Could whatever it is that happens, whatever they encounter, turn one of these three people into, or reveal that one of these people always has been, the villain? Think about what I brought up in Writing Monsters, which is that some monsters are really forces of nature, not villains at all, but their threat brings out the good or evil in the characters that confront them. Could this first person “go mad” and become the Thing that eats the next person? Could “going mad” take the form of chickening out and fleeing the story all together? Could that character “go mad” and decide to join the Things?

Obviously, the answer to all these rhetorical questions is: you can write any story in whatever way you want, so yes, all that can happen as you wish. But in terms of the “legitimacy” of the mini-formula in question, this freedom to define “goes mad” tells me to keep that in there, though maybe not in so many words. Same is true for:

one is eaten by the Things,

This one’s easy, in its literal sense. We’ve come to know this character as the “red shirt,” and I’ll link you back to a bigger discussion of that subject, but in short, this is the character, like an anonymous actor wearing a red uniform in Star Trek, who shows us how the monster (or other dangerous “Thing”) works. Monsters are always scarier when they actually hurt of kill someone, and William Shatner is under contract.

Of course, the undefined “Things” could be a non-living thing: a bit of technology gone out of control, a blizzard, a pandemic, an ideology… there are limitless definitions of “Things.” This is really whatever they have a problem with—whatever gets in their way. And, of course, no one actually has to be literally killed. That character can be seen to have been defeated in some way, taken out of the story, harmed, dismissed… and so on.

Even if there is no happy ending to your story, per se, you could still end up with: 

and one returns to tell the tale.

Even then, I might say this is optional. I’m kind of a sucker for the everybody-dies-in-the-end ending, and if we’re starting out with the Lovecraftian descent into madness, why feel we have to end with some version of the Final Girl (or Boy, or whatever)? Usually, Lovecraft has the character who goes mad tell the tale.

Still, I think this can be left in since most stories do end with someone making it out alive. And again, maybe no one dies, no one is literally eaten, but this third person is the hero of the story in one sense of the word or another. Some resolution is arrived at by this third character. Of course, there really is no requirement that anyone get back to where they started. In fact, that might be the opposite of the story you want to tell. What if, instead of going out to save the world, your three people go out into space to find an earthlike planet that will serve as our new home as the climate collapses on Earth? We don’t want them to return, we want them to go forward.

Then, of course, are we now limiting ourselves, even in a short story where that sounds like a good number, to only three characters? We should give ourselves some leeway on that, too, so all that considered, can I rewrite the esteemed Jack Williamson and Edmund Hamilton like this?

At least three people go out to do something. At least one is revealed to be or have a problem; at least one is hurt, killed, or otherwise eliminated by their shared problem; and one carries the story to a satisfying conclusion.

Hell, I think we might have something here.

—Philip Athans

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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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JUST THROWING THIS STUFF OUT THERE…

“Work as joy, inaccessible to the psychologists.”

—Kafka

Okay, I have to admit it, I haven’t put a lot of thought into this week’s post, but damn it, I’m going to post something of value!

I’ve just been super swamped with multiple deadlines collapsing onto the end of the year—multiple projects all spinning above my head at the same time… some health stuff, some other stuff, the holidays… etc. So this week I thought I’d kinda give Fantasy Author’s Handbook over to some quotes about writing and the writer’s life that I’ve collected and throw them at you with no more context than that.

Here we go!

The English may not always be the best writers in the world, but they are incomparably the best dull writers.

Raymond Chandler

I take control of them. They are very carefully imagined. I feel as though I know all there is to know about them, even things I don’t write—like how they part their hair. They are like ghosts. They have nothing on their minds but themselves and aren’t interested in anything but themselves. So you can’t let them write your book for you.

Toni Morrison

In general, about a third of my life is devoted to reading, a third is devoted to writing novels, and a third is devoted to living with [his son] Hikari.

Kenzaburo Oe

Hey…Instead of telling us exactly how tall someone is, how much they weigh, and what color hair and eyes they have, do this sort of thing instead:

Then I saw her. She had been out back, in the kitchen, but she came in to gather up my dishes. Except for the shape, she really wasn’t any raving beauty, but she had a sulky look to her, and her lips stuck out in a way that made me want to mash them in for her.

—James M. Cain, The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

When I’m writing novels, reality and unreality just naturally get mixed together. It’s not as if that was my plan and I’m following it as I write, but the more I try to write about reality in a realistic way, the more the unreal world invariably emerges.

Haruki Murakami

A good writer should know near to everything as possible. Naturally, he will not. But he should be capable of learning so fast and remembering so much that he seems to have been born with knowledge nonetheless.

—Ernest Hemingway

Much is said to disparage authors who write outside of their expertise, and worse still, who appropriate the experience of others about whom they cannot know—a white man appropriating the experience of a Bangladeshi woman, a childless woman that of a mother—but nobody took the pen from my hand when I, well slept, found a notion in my brain of sleeplessness. To write fiction you have to engage in organized fraud, the laundering of experience into the offshore haven of words.

—Samantha Harvey, The Shapeless Unease: A Year of Not Sleeping

My favorite failure is every time I ever ate it onstage as a comedian. Because I woke up the next day and the world hadn’t ended. I was free to keep fucking up and getting better. I wish at least one catastrophic failure on everyone pursuing the arts. It’s where you’ll get your superpowers from.

—Patton Oswalt from Tribe of Mentors by Timothy Ferris

When I was much younger, when I was just starting to write, I had a lot of respect for writers who could get it in on time, and then suddenly I realized, “Wait a minute, what the hell is this, ‘Get it in on time?’ ” I owe no allegiance to publishers or producers or networks. Even if they paid me staggering sums of money, I owe allegiance only to the work. Only to the work. And if I give them shit on time, then I have cheated them. If I take six months longer than they expected, or five years, or 10 years longer, and give them something that no one else could have given them, then I’ve honored the obligation to them. Whether they see it that way or not, that’s the way I see it. I’ve become totally irresponsible in that respect.

—Harlan Ellison, 1979 The Comics Journal interview

Every book is like Japanese flowers that go into your head and they sink down through the water inside your head, and then open out.

Ray Bradbury

I think it can be tremendously refreshing if a creator of literature has something on his mind other than the history of literature so far. Literature should not disappear up its own asshole, so to speak.

Kurt Vonnegut

I never write—indeed, am physically incapable of writing—anything that I don’t think will be paid for.

Truman Capote

“Writing is all a lottery—I have been a loser by the works of the greatest men of the age.”

—Tobias Smollet, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker

Writing a novel is one of those modern rites of passage, I think, that lead us from an innocent world of contentment, drunkenness, and good humor, to a state of chronic edginess and the perpetual scanning of bank statements. By the eighteenth book, one has a sense of having bricked oneself into a niche, a roosting place for other people’s pigeons. I wouldn’t recommend it.

J.G. Ballard

See you next week.

 

—Philip Athans

Follow me on Twitter @PhilAthans

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As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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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BOOKS FOR FANTASY AUTHORS XXIX: INVENTED FUTURES

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

I’m not sure what first drew my attention to Prem Poddar and Andrew Wyatt’s 2016 book Invented Futures: Fin de Siècle Fantasies, but as soon as I saw it I knew it was right up my alley. For years—decades, even—I’ve seen bits and pieces of some of these strange science fiction illustrations from around the end of the nineteenth century, but this book is the first place I’ve seen so many of them together, and put into their proper historical context.

The book is divided into ten sections, and I’ll try to find an example image for each:

Cities of the future

From the book: “This multiple-function tower in the shape of a man (a humorous concept for the Chicago World Fair of 1893) contains a prison and a museum, as well as other facilities. Its unusual design would make it even more of an attraction than the Eiffel Tower, suggested the magazine. (Puck magazine, US, 1890.)”

Getting around

“Humans will live under the sea, and they will need under-water transportation. The most economical method in terms of saving fuel will be a whale-bus service. The whale doesn’t seem too happy at having to carry humans around! (Advertising card, France, c.1900)”

Life in the air

“In the 21st century, firemen will be able to put on wings, so that they won’t have to worry about ladders if the fire breaks out at the top of a high building—they’ll just fly up. So this woman and her baby will be safely brought down to the ground by her flying rescuers. (Advertising card, France, c.1900)”

Men, women, and children

“No need to read textbooks, or for professors to give lectures! Textbooks will be put into a machine that converts information into electrical pulses. The students receive the input via what look like earphones. (Advertising card, France, c.1900)”

The food we’ll eat

“The life of recruits in the airforce will be made much more agreeable thanks to the services of Eulalia and her flying canteen, serving beer and wine to the thirsty aviators. (Postcard, Germany, c.1910)”

Fashion and beauty

“Men’s tailors will have much less to do in the future. Once the customer has been measured by the machine on the right, everything else will be automated, up to the point when the completed suit comes out of the chute on the left. (Advertising card, France, c.1900)”

The new woman

“Women will no longer have to go through the experience of giving birth. They will be able to beat biology by using this coin-operated baby machine, inserting the coin in the right-hand or left-hand slot, depending on whether they want a girl or a boy. (Postcard, Germany, c.1907)”

Sport and leisure

“Fish racing will be a popular underwater sport. It must be quite a challenge for the jockeys to keep themselves from falling off—though the fish have saddles on their backs, a quick flip of their tails and a dive downwards could easily result in the jockeys finding themselves on the sea bed. (Advertising card, France, c.1900)”

Buying and selling

“One day there will even be ads on the Statue of Liberty! It’s interesting to see that the name chosen for the imaginary cigarette brand is Sure Death—the dangers of smoking were recognised even a hundred years ago. (Puck magazine, US, 1885)”

Communication and culture

“The newspaper of the 21st century will be listened to, rather than read. This illustration was drawn long before radio had become a practical reality. Although the artist is imagining what will happen in the future, the actual machine he drew looks very old-fashioned—not much advance on the Edison phonograph of the 1890s! (Advertising card, France, c.1900)”

Apparently, as the world welcomed the year 1900, the imagination turned to the world of the next double zeroes, so a lot of the images here are specifically tagged as glimpses into the year 2000. If you think the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey is “quaint” now that it’s been overtaken by events, you’ll probably have as much fun as I did basking in the pure what-the-F-were-they-thinking nature of these American, British, German, Japanese, and French predictions of en l’an 2000.

But then… are they “predictions”? Many of them seem to be taking a bit of current technology and imagining it engineered to huge scale, with travel being done by various forms of steam locomotion, balloons, ornithopters, early airplanes, and even vacuum tubes that will shoot you at speed over long distances and eject you—dangerously, or so it appears—at your destination. “The new woman” is full of the terror of women taking over traditional male roles, which of course means men will be tragically feminized. And the new medium of advertising is seen as an unstoppable force that will fill every nook and cranny of the future world. William Gibson said, “I treasure archaic science fiction for those very flaws. It makes it charming and deeply strange, and it demonstrates that it is an artifact of the very moment in which it was made, which is really all it can be.” That said, I doubt any of these artists would be at all surprised if they were able to see the real 2000 in which their “inventions” were nowhere to be seen… at least… mostly.

That, in itself, is the most important lesson this book conveys to science fiction authors of en l’an 2021. Predict away… knowing you will be completely wrong about the world of 2121. But as with History of Atlantis, which we looked at a couple weeks ago, Invented Futures screams out to the worldbuilder in all of us. Oh, boy, did I want to start writing stories set in this beautiful, bizarre, amazing year 2000! And you know what? I’m sure I will, and you can too!

—Philip Athans

Follow me on Twitter @PhilAthans

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As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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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ALL FICTION IS “AUTOFICTION”

In “Autofiction: What It Is and What It Isn’t,” Brooke Warner wrote: “Autofiction, which is short for autobiographical fiction, is one of those labels that ultimately doesn’t matter to the industry.” I agree, so let’s dispense with the term up front. My contention is that all fiction is, to some degree of another, autobiographical. And yes, this extends to like science fiction and fantasy, which are otherwise defined by their disconnection from the “real world” experience of pretty much anyone. I’ve written novels set in the Forgotten Realms world but I only figuratively lived there. Surely there is no autobiographical aspect to any of the fiction set there, or in Middle Earth or Westeros or Narnia… or so you might think, if you’ve not digging a bit deeper.

Where the “fiction” in “autofiction” comes in is where the author’s real life falls away and is replaced with some form of fiction: conjecture, some sort of aspect of the fantastic, an assumption of what other people were thinking, conversations the author was not actually privy to in real life, and so on. The distance between the fictional version of the author and the actual living author can be very close, as in J.G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun, or seemingly separated by a chasm of impossibility as is assumed in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Of course Tolkien never claimed to be reporting on real events in a real place in LotR, but still he infused that work with an awful lot of himself: what he was thinking (at least at the time) about politics, society, race, gender, authoritarianism, nationalism, manners, and so on and so on.

We all do this, including Arundhati Roy, who told The Paris Review: “For me, everything I see I absorb, I harness it, I turn it to my purpose—which is to tell stories.”

We not only tend to but absolutely must dig into your own past, and not just for plot and research details but to find the emotional centers of characters who will never be more or less than versions of ourselves. Consider this, from “Proust’s Panmnemonicon” by Justin E.H. Smith

Another thing happened in 1996 that I still remember: my father convinced his mother, Bertie, in the aim of helping her to stave off mental decline, to write an autobiography (or, more likely, to dictate an autobiography; the polish of the spelling and grammar are clearly my father’s). It’s not very long, sixty pages or so, but it’s filled with passages that move me to my core, and that I wish I could cite at length. I’ll content myself with just one.

In the summer of 1936, in rural Arkansas not far from the town of Monticello, the Cruce family had guests:

They had this little boy that had been spoiled by his mother. He was such a cry-baby and tattled on the other kids all the time. While the grown-ups were eating, we took him out in the garden and talked him into eating a red hot pepper. He went blubbering back into the house and his mother gave him a chicken leg. He came back outside grinning, and the rest of us kids were mad at him because we were all so hungry.

Seen from the perspective of the long history of literature, this document amounts to a sort of demotic Proust. My grandma had no real knack for it, she was only doing it to pass the time. Yet the very idea that you could retrieve such a singular event as this one from sixty years prior, and in some sense you could eternalise that blubbering boy’s small triumph in textual form, and that it is good and worthy to do this, is something my dad only thought to encourage because the template for such undertakings already existed.

The brilliant Japanese novelist Kenzaburo Oe, also in The Paris Review, drilled it down to:

I haven’t seen many great things. I haven’t been to a new world. I haven’t had many strange experiences. I have experienced many little things. I write about those small experiences and revise them and reexperience them through revision.

It was in this way that Tolkien reexperienced his simultaneously conservative and complex worldview into The Lord of the Rings, Frank Herbert did the same in Dune, and Harlan Ellison dissected the feeling of being a short Jewish kid surrounded by early 20th century middle American anti-Semites over and over again for decades worth of brilliant genre fiction.

Sometimes, this is easy. If you have a strong opinion about Donald Trump you make him the villain (hopefully) or hero (yikes) of a fantasy story and work some shit out. But the easy route rarely gets you to the village of Good. Usually, and I think this is particularly true for Harlan Ellison and J.G. Ballard in particular, this sort of exploration into your own past in search of not necessarily an event but a feeling, requires exposing one raw nerve after another.

In Bird By Bird, Anne Lamott wrote:

The great writers keep writing about the cold dark place within, the water under a frozen lake or the secluded, camouflaged hole. The light they shine on this hole, this pit, helps us cut away or step around the brush and brambles; then we can dance around the rim of the abyss, holler into it, measure it, throw rocks in it, and still not fall in. It can no longer swallow us up. And we can get on with things.

We write to expose the unexposed. If there is one door in the castle you have been told not to go through, you must. Otherwise, you’ll just be rearranging furniture in rooms you’ve already been in. Most human beings are dedicated to keeping that one door shut. But the writer’s job is to see what’s behind it, to see the bleak unspeakable stuff, and to turn the unspeakable into words—not just into any words but if we can, into rhythm and blues.

Stephen King, in conversation with George R.R. Martin, put it a bit more simply: “You just have these sick ideas… and instead of going to a shrink and paying the shrink we write them and you pay us. It’s a pretty good deal.”

Just not an easy one.

—Philip Athans

Follow me on Twitter @PhilAthans

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BOOKS FOR FANTASY AUTHORS XXVIII: HISTORY OF ATLANTIS

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

For what it’s worth, I don’t think there ever was a continent in the Atlantic Ocean, west of Europe and east of the Americas, that was the home of an advanced civilization that was then destroyed in a cataclysm but not before seeding both east and west with their superior awesomeness. I think the Egyptians created their own culture, as did the Maya, and people may or may not have travelled across the oceans before the times we know of for sure, and so on.

So then, why read Lewis Spence’s History of Atlantis, a book that claims to “prove” that Atlantis did indeed exist and absolutely did influence numerous ancient cultures?

Why? Because I like stories and I don’t particularly give a shit if they’re true, even if their authors are convinced of their own veracity.

But it actually goes a little deeper than that. As an author, editor, and fan of fantasy and fantasy worldbuilding, how can I not be fascinated with the mythical, legendary, and oh so very fanciful Atlantis? And reading this book triggered all sorts of characters and thoughts about fantasy and worldbuilding ideas… The pull on me to stop everything I was doing and start designing my own fantasy Atlantis setting was almost irresistible. I couldn’t help but start linking things in my mind—these are the clerics, here are the rangers, there are druid aplenty for sure… The king is a giant, might be a god, maybe a titan… oh, wow, just a million ideas per page.

But a bit of background on the book. I have no idea where I ran across the copy that’s been dutifully waiting to be read on my bookshelves, crowded with similar mysterious objects, but it’s a fairly recent (1995) reprint from Senate. The book itself was written and first published in 1927, so first we have to be forgiving of the almost one hundred years of rapidly accelerating scientific and technological advancement that renders an awful lot of his “scientific” suppositions entirely moot, though in maybe just as many cases we can say that the jury is still out. Lewis Spence was a Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain, and a  respected scholar. The book does feel like a serious examination of the subject—he doesn’t come across as some kind of “crackpot.” Still, Mr. Spence discards the burden of scientific proof pretty much immediately and makes a case that not just the existence of Atlantis but specific aspects of life there can be proven by circumstantial evidence—if you allow significant leeway on the definition of “evidence.” From the second paragraph of the book:

Such an account, I am the first to admit, must have as many lacunae as it has facts, and must rely in large measure upon analogy and often upon pure surmise.

He then covers the easy stuff, like the fact that both the Egyptians and the Maya constructed pyramids as proof that they came from or were at least influenced by, a common ancestor. The fact that a pyramid is the easiest tall building to make when you’re limited to stacking stone blocks on top of each other sounds like the more logical explanation to me, but Occam’s razor is really the first principle Spence sets aside. Almost all of his “evidence” can be dismissed with the notion that the Maya and the Egyptians were humans, and humans have a certain way of doing things that cross cultures—including cultures that spent thousands of years in isolation. And then, of course, we all do have a common ancestor, but they came from Africa, not Atlantis.

So then, yeah, throw all that away. Don’t feel you have to be convinced that Atlantis was real, or that any of the specific assumptions about daily life there, their religious views and practices, their art and architecture, is actual history instead of supposition based on cobbling together bits and pieces of otherwise unconnected information in service to the twin angels of hope and imagination. Instead, let your imagination run wild, just like mine did, and bathe in this great work of public domain fantasy worldbuilding, cast as history.

You will not regret it, and I guarantee, ideas will flow like water through the grand circular canals of lost Atlantis!

—Philip Athans

Follow me on Twitter @PhilAthans

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Or contact me for editing, coaching, ghostwriting, and more at Athans & Associates Creative Consulting.

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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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