EVERYONE GETS BAD REVIEWS AND NO ONE SHOULD READ THEM

I’ve said it before but here in October of dismal 2020 I feel I should say it again: Never read or write reviews of anything ever, and especially never read reviews of your own writing.

Nothing is less useful to a writer’s craft or psyche—and those two things are inseparably linked—than some asshole’s uninformed opinion of you and your life’s work. It’s not sour grapes or being a “snowflake” to ask, sincerely, “Who the fuck are you to tell me anything about a work of art I essentially bled into?” That might sound kind of aggressive, and it is, and none of us have to be like that. In fact, the only thing worse than reading a review of your work is responding to a review of your work. The only conversation you really need to have with your readers is the book itself. If you want to do some speaking stuff, signings, seminars on craft, and so on—great. I do all those things myself. I talk with readers all the time, mostly via Twitter, and have done interviews and seminars and courses… all kinds of stuff. And though those are almost exclusively talking about writing in general, my own work does sometimes come up, and I will engage with people. I’m not a hermit, really.

I mean… I want to be a hermit, but I’m not one.

My wife won’t let me.

But guess what? No one has ever given me a negative review of anything I’ve written to my face.

And I’ve been to Gen Con, for Christ’s sake.

What does that tell you? My too-fast, too-furious stab at a computer game novelization from more than twenty years ago still generates online hate but not one single person ever looked me in the eye in real life and told me it was the worst fantasy novel ever written and I should have my fingers broken. That was reserved for the Internet.

Why would you read something someone wouldn’t say to your face, and not because they don’t have the courage to say it, but common courtesy and normal human empathy would preclude it for any but the literal sociopath?

Lest you think this is just sour grapes, that I read a negative review twenty years ago and have been having some kind of existential crisis ever since, take a look at this gem, written by none other than Voltaire, in 1748:

Hamlet is a gross and barbarous piece, and would never be borne by the lowest rabble in France or Italy. Hamlet runs mad in the second act, and his mistress in the third; the prince kills the father of his mistress and fancies he is killing a rat; and the heroine of the play throws herself into the river. They dig her grave on the stage, and the grave-diggers, holding the dead men’s skulls in their hands, talk nonsense worthy of them. Hamlet answers their abominable stuff by some whimsies not less disgusting; during this time one of the actors makes the conquest of Poland. Hamlet, his mother, and father-in-law, drink together on the stage. They sing at table, quarrel, beat and kill one another.

One would think the whole piece was the product of the imagination of a drunken savage. And yet, among all these gross irregularities, which make the English theatre even today so absurd and barbarous, we find in Hamlet, which is still more strange and unaccountable, some sublime strokes worthy of the greatest genius. It seems as if nature took pleasure to unite in the head of Shakespeare all that we can imagine great and forcible, together with all that the grossest dullness could produce of everything that is most low and detestable. 

What to make of this then. Was he wrong? Is it possible to be wrong or right when stating a preference? Did this stop Hamlet from being read and performed essentially continuously for the next 272 years?

Come on, just…

And Voltaire was a really smart guy who we might all agree would have something constructive, interesting, and informed to say about literature. Imagine what the anonymous teenage boys thought of Hamlet at the time and what they might have thrown out there if there was an Internet in 1748 that made every dumbass with Wi-Fi think they were the next Voltaire.

I know this will be hard for a lot of people, especially those of you who also write reviews. On GoodReads I sometimes write short little… I guess you could maybe call them “reviews” or maybe “blurbs,” or more accurately “recommendations” of books I’ve read and liked, because though in reality it might not always feel that way I want GoodReads to be a version of a conversation with friends, which the Amazon review just simply is not. I’ve also written recommendations, in much more detail, of books I think authors should be reading here at Fantasy Author’s Handbook. So I don’t want you to think I’m either telling you to not do something I’m doing myself, or that you should never write about writing—hell, I’m writing about writing right now. But what I also do is work as hard as I can to be positive. I say something to the effect of: I read this book and I liked it and here’s how I think it has specific value (for my Books for Fantasy Authors series) or just kinda some version of “I liked this” on GoodReads—exactly as you would when talking to your friends. Amazon? No—and least not for a very long time, and yes, I did my time in the voluntary salt mines digging through hateful or lovely reviews of my own work before I wised up. Since I stopped reading reviews I have also stopped taking anti-depressant medication.

I’m not kidding.

Be a part of your genre community, a part of the writing community, a part of the book community—and be a positive member of those communities. Encourage your fellow authors, not with “stars” but with conversation and consideration and support. Even if you have the best intentions you are not doing anything of value in writing an Amazon review in particular, especially since no matter who you are, how smart you are, or what soapbox you stand on, in the 21st century you are being shouted down by the mob. For every impassioned and well considered three-star Amazon review you’ve ever written is a five star review that contains one word, like: “Awesome!” or a one-star review complaining that the book was damaged in the mail. What could you possibly gain from joining in that fray, or wading into it for a book you’ve already written? Despite the consensus of the faceless masses, there’s no take-backs. That book is done. It belongs to the ages. The critics can not help you, but they can and will hurt you.

Give them no power and they will have no power.

—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.

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WHAT WRITING ACTUALLY IS

“Let us record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness.”

—Virginia Woolf, “Modern Fiction”

We write in order to explain ourselves, in one way or another, to perfect strangers removed from us by both place and time. I’m all for fun adventure stories in any genre, all the while understanding that even those fun adventure stories have something to say about the author and his or her time and place and culture and prejudices and fears and anxieties and desires and… as much as I can pry out, all of which will have been pried out, by me, because that’s what I’m looking for as a reader. Your readers will read your work in which you have poured out some measure of your time and place and culture and prejudices and fears and anxieties and desires and… filtered through their own time and place and culture and prejudices and fears and anxieties and desires and…

See how that works?

Why you start to write at all is entirely personal. I hope you’re not approaching it as some kind of “If J.K. Rowling could do it…” get rich quick scheme, but what the hell… that will come through in your writing as well. Maybe you have something to say about… anything… sibling relationships gone wrong, elder abuse, the eternal power of love and forgiveness, why it sucks to be living through COVID quarantine… anything in any combination.

In “Pippi and the Moomins,” Richard W. Orange uncovered that:

‘It was the utterly hellish war years that made me, an artist, write fairy-tales,’ (Finnish author Tove) Jansson told an interviewer after her second Moomin book, Comet in Moominland (1946), came out. ‘I was feeling sad and scared of bombs and wanted to get away from gloomy thoughts.’

Oh, boy, do I want to get away from gloomy thoughts right now. That sounds like a fantastic reason to write in October of 2020.

But that doesn’t mean you need a war or a pandemic to set you off on writing fiction. Pure imagination is also a worthy starting point, and ultimately fuels the whole thing, however grounded in your experience. If you’re writing an autobiography and have taken some kind of honesty oath, you might try to stick to “the facts” but without getting too philosophical (in that teenage pot smoker sort of way) the only “truth” you know is what you’ve decided to trust and what you think you experienced based on your human-flawed memory that’s chock full o’ influences from your own time and place and culture and prejudices and fears and anxieties and desires and…

In Elif Shafak’s TED Talk “The Politics of Fiction” he touched on the difference between knowing and feeling:

…why is it that, in creative writing courses today, the very first thing we teach students is “write what you know”? Perhaps that’s not the right way to start at all. Imaginative literature is not necessarily about writing who we are or what we know or what our identity is about. We should teach young people and ourselves to expand our hearts and write what we can feel. We should get out of our cultural ghetto and go visit the next one and the next. 

Yes we should! Even if, ultimately that’s still going to be filtered through our particular time and place and culture and prejudices and fears and anxieties and desires and…

What are current readers going to think of your writing once it’s out there? Will it be criticized for being insensitive in some way to someone? Maybe. Will it stand the test of time? I have no idea. Check back with me in five hundred years. If I’m still around I’ll let you know. Will my novel (if not me) be universally loved? Hilarious. No. Especially not in the Internet Era, the time of the Negativity Superhighway from which no one exits intact. Weird that certain aspects of that odd condition weren’t necessarily a surprise to everyone. In a 1966 Paris Review interview with Tom Clark, the poet Allen Ginsberg said:

I remember I was thinking, yesterday in fact, there was a time that I was absolutely astounded because Kerouac told me that in the future literature would consist of what people actually wrote rather than what they tried to deceive other people into thinking they wrote, when they revised it later on. And I saw opening up this whole universe where people wouldn’t be able to lie anymore! They wouldn’t be able to correct themselves any longer. They wouldn’t be able to hide what they said. And he was willing to go all the way into that, the first pilgrim into that newfound land.

Go ahead and try to deceive yourself into thinking you are all things to all people, or at least all things to all enlightened people. Your novel, like mine, like anyone else’s including Jack Kerouac’s, go out there naked and alone and live or die in that same state.

If that sounds scary, maybe writing isn’t for you. if it sounds exciting, it just might be.

And no matter who is writing what and when and for whom, one thing remains constant, and that was said most eloquently by Rod Serling:

It has forever been thus: So long as [people] write what they think, then all of the other freedoms—all of them—may remain intact. And it is then that writing becomes a weapon of truth, an article of faith, an act of courage.”

—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.

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THE WORLDS THAT OUTGREW THEIR STORIES

This, I promise, will be the last of the posts reprinted from Grasping for the Wind from 2010. This one is a bit more personally maudlin for me, but I didn’t wallow in that then, why wallow in it now? Still, imagine it’s ten years ago and the Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance novel lines were still ongoing concerns…

If you’ve been even dimly aware of the world around you for at least the last decade or so, you’ve probably heard the term “intellectual property” bandied about. If you haven’t, or aren’t sure what it means, an intellectual property, as defined by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) “relates to items of information or knowledge, which can be incorporated in tangible objects at the same time in an unlimited number of copies at different locations anywhere in the world. The property is not in those copies but in the information or knowledge reflected in them. Intellectual property rights are also characterized by certain limitations, such as limited duration in the case of copyright and patents.”

Think of it this way: Star Wars was a really cool movie released in 1977. Add to that five (circa 2010!) more movies, Clone Wars, Force Unleashed, all those books for kids and adults, comic books, action figures, and so on, and Star Wars is an intellectual property—and what some corporations would refer to as a “global brand.”

In more and more instances as everyone from filmmakers to video game studios look to the success of brands like Star Wars or Harry Potter, there’s a sense that everything is more than the limits of its initial incarnation. Every movie, book, or game is at least a potential intellectual property.

For about the last decade and a half (that was 1995-2010) I was tasked with helping to maintain and develop a number of successful, long-running intellectual properties. Part of my job was to look far beyond each individual book or game product and both back over the existing canon and forward toward the lasting implications of every decision. Two of the most successful properties in the Wizards of the Coast (via TSR) portfolio are the Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance settings. To me these have been, for years, two sides of the same coin.

Both are long-lived, successful properties, sub-brands of the Dungeons & Dragons game, that have been brought to life in a number of media from pencil-and-paper role-playing games through best-selling novel series, and on to video games, animated films, comic books, etc. But what separated them, at least in my mind, is the initial approaches from which they were born.

For me, Faerûn (the Forgotten Realms setting) was a world created first, and characters and stories were added later. Krynn, meanwhile, was a setting created for the original Dragonlance Chronicles novel and D&D adventure module trilogy, and was further developed only in the service of a continuing series of sequels and prequels.

I’ve seen other properties take both approaches. The larger Star Trek IP grew out of the original TV series, so is similar to Dragonlance. World of Warcraft is a setting created to house your MMO character, and is open to a continuous stream of new content to keep you paying your subscription fee. In that way at least it’s like the Forgotten Realms, right?

If for nothing else but affirmation, I went to the fonts of all (or at least most—if I don’t qualify that at least a little, Jeff Grubb and Margaret Weis will kill me!) FR and DL wisdom: Ed Greenwood, creator of the Forgotten Realms setting; and Tracy Hickman, co-creator of Dragonlance.

“I agree with this assumption,” Ed Greenwood told me. “I know that the Realms was created with this intent, because I’m its creator and deliberately took this approach.”

But Tracy wasn’t as willing to let me off that easy. He told me he wasn’t sure my assumption, “is entirely accurate in the case of Dragonlance. It is true that the story was the foundation of Dragonlance and came out of the personal desire of both my wife [Laura Hickman] and myself to use role playing games as a medium of storytelling. You have to remember that at the time adventure games were largely of the ‘kill the monster, take its treasure, buy more weapons to kill bigger monsters’ variety. We wanted to introduce meaning into gaming through story.

“In practice, however, it became a ‘chicken and egg’ sort of issue. The game was being developed ahead of the story—which actually adversely affected the story itself. It wasn’t until we started writing story ahead of game… during the break between Dragons of Autumn Twilight and Dragons of Winter Night… that things actually smoothed out.”

Ed Greenwood elaborated: “[The Forgotten Realms world] began as a ‘shared setting’ for individual fantasy short stories I was writing (at the age of six, so none of the tales are, ahem, ‘classics’) in the same way as Fritz Leiber’s later Fafhrd & the Grey Mouser stories were then being published in (the Ted White era) Fantastic magazine, which I was then reading as issues appeared: Episodes centered on recurring characters (in my case, the fat, aging, wheezing swindler of a merchant, Mirt the Moneylender) that happened to all be set in the same world. [The world itself] was ‘in the background’ to the reader of just one story, but someone who read them all would over time learn more and more about the setting, and hopefully begin to enjoy and anticipate based on what they ‘knew’ about the imaginary setting.”

And at risk of making the eternally youthful Ed Greenwood feel old, I should point out that that was quite some time ago, especially in relation to Dragonlance’s comparatively brief bout with growing pains. “By 1967… I had hit upon the name and concept of ‘The Forgotten Realms,’ ” Ed went on, “and could see more of the setting. I was also following other characters besides Mirt. The results are in print, as the short story ‘One Comes, Unheralded, to Zirta.’ ” (printed in the collection The Best of the Realms, Book II: The Stories of Ed Greenwood, Wizards of the Coast, 2005)

Both FR and DL have lived a very, very long time and feature major best-sellers, so I won’t bother trying to choose sides, and make the case that one strategy is inherently better than the other, but still I felt compelled to ask both Ed and Tracy which approach they thought made for a better, more interesting property from the point of view of an author spending decades in the same world.

Ed Greenwood was “heading towards something I think is a major flaw, from the point of longevity, for a world that’s being used for games or collaborative and shared-setting novels, over time, as opposed to being the private playground of just one author: If the world is built around a single big epic, it can be too ‘narrow’ in scope to comfortably tell other satisfying tales. Or to put it another way: If the root tale of the setting is too ‘big,’ involving heroes who save the world, what do you do for an encore? Save it again?”

That got me thinking about my previous comparison of Dragonlance to Star Trek, and I’m finding myself questioning the validity of that comparison. Though the “world” of the Federation was created as a back-drop for the adventures of Captain Kirk and his intrepid crew of space explorers, the episodic format of the series required that that future universe grow with each new adventure, and to guarantee that there was something worth watching next week, the universe—the IP—of Star Trek had to remain open to new conflicts and challenges. But it was still mostly about Kirk and crew, like Dragonlance is still mostly about the Heroes of the Lance. But it’s not entirely that simple, as Tracy Hickman points out:

“Story is the universal conveyor of meaning. Properly deployed story in game settings extends the game experience beyond the rules and the setting into the realm of change, growth and life application. I think it is a mistake to fixate on the specific and more tangible elements of the setting; one needs to have a grasp of the overall tone and message that a ‘property’—whatever that is—conveys to the reader. Dragonlance isn’t meaningful to readers because it has dragons and lances. It’s meaningful because it conveys a certain attitude, viewpoint, promise and meaning. The same is true with Forgotten Realms. I don’t think it is a question of approach… I think it is a question of deep content that is found beyond the words and the rules.”

Leave it to Tracy Hickman to hit the intellectual property nail firmly on the head with those eleven words: “deep content that is found beyond the words and the rules.”

And a successful property requires care and feeding. I always described myself, in my roll for some years as the Forgotten Realms line editor at Wizards of the Coast, as a “shepherd.” FR was only partially and only temporarily under my care. Like a doctor, my first responsibility was to do no harm.

Ed Greenwood feels that “it’s important to emphasize that the success of either approach is in how they’re handled, not the inevitable result of flaws and strengths in one approach versus the other.

“It’s certainly easier,” he went on, “if multiple creators are at work in [a shared setting], to tell different stories centered around different characters—and because writers are all individuals who tell stories in different ways, the collective result will inevitably be richer than the work of one writer. However, there may well be (and usually is) a cost in coherency and consistency.”

To me, this is where a good, responsible, creative IP management team comes in, with or without a strong central manager in the form of an editor, an empowered creator, or what TV producers call a “show runner.” Somewhere, that coherency and consistency that Ed spoke of has to be contained in some kind of document. If the secrets of what makes the property the property exist only in one person’s head, or in any other form that cannot be readily shared, disaster is the only possible result. The nature of the Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance D&D campaign setting game products—detailed encyclopedias for each world, in multiple volumes—were extraordinarily helpful, but other properties will only have those “bibles” in the background, available to writers, producers, editors, etc. And woe, and I mean woe, to anyone who tries to manage even the least complex IP without them.

“A property gets too big for any one person the moment they haven’t time to enjoy doing a good job on published works associated with that property, or products are licensed that they can’t themselves create with the same skill,” Ed Greenwood said. “I can draw, but not well enough to produce the gorgeous painted covers I want on Realms novels. Nor can I create lunch boxes well enough to produce a line of Realms lunch boxes without holding up all Realms products while I learn how. The moment that happens, the ‘too big’ moment has been reached.

“Before that moment happens, a team should have been developed in which trust is paramount (regardless of the inevitable creative tensions), and a shared vision (and creators’ rules, such as who has the ultimate decisions and so on) settled upon, so the fights can be about creative details (i.e. benefiting the setting) and not about turf, power, office politics, personal enrichment, or anything else.”

Tracy Hickman: “I believe it comes down to respect and trust. No single person can write and control every single aspect of a project this large. In the 1970s or even early 80s a single person could sit down and write the code for a computer game. Now, it requires a huge staff and a budget equivalent to a movie to produce a computer or console game. The same is true of any large gaming IP.

“But I believe it comes down to how you control the product. I believe that management of continuity should be like holding a bunch of marbles in your hand. If you squeeze too tightly—try to control every aspect of the continuity or generate it yourself—then the marbles start flying out between your fingers and you lose your marbles. If you open your hand and let everyone working on the property do whatever they want then you lose any structure, direction, or focus as everyone does their own thing. Again, no marbles.

“But if you give a product a vision, a direction and a structure within which everyone can explore their own ideas… then you don’t have to sweat the individual details because everyone being on the same page and within the same structural parameters of the unified vision.”

I’ll boil it down to what I’ll call Phil’s First Rule of Intellectual Property Management: Write everything down. Which then leads to Phil’s Second Rule: Read what you just wrote, and read it again and again, especially when you don’t think you have to.

Ed Greenwood has rules of his own:

“Good property development looks down the road and anticipates.

“Always apply my base design principles for the Realms:

“1. Don’t blow up the moon (this is Jeff Grubb’s wording, but I already had that same idea; ‘don’t break the toys you find when you arrive’ was the way I put it). This stops one creative project or person from wrecking the entire show, however unintentionally or for ‘good’ reasons.

“2. For every possibility you close off, put three in its place (so if you tell the reader where the lost princess went and what happened to her, you also need to subtly put three new mysteries for them to chase into the Realms). This avoids bleeding the setting of life and ‘ending the story.’

“3. Entertain all ideas brought to the table, but make sure you turn them all on their heads to see if they work better twisted in an unintended or unforeseen way. This is where new blood and energy comes from.”

When I asked Ed what he might do differently if he had an opportunity to go back in time to the very inception of the Forgotten Realms world, he went back to the subject of who is in control, and to what degree any one person can be in complete creative control of a bigger, more complex property: “I would have kept some measure of creative control over the world, however short-lived, by accepting that offer to become a TSR staffer ‘in charge of’ the Realms. Not to stop the various designers going wild with the stories they wanted to tell, or ‘stay on top’ so the best selling novels were mine, but to avoid inconsistencies and misunderstandings.”

Tracy Hickman had a similar, if a bit more philosophical answer: “I suppose it is tempting to think I could have insisted on having more control over the setting and its continuity but that would not be right. Dragonlance, whatever it became, was more than just my vision—for good or ill it became what it was because of the influence of countless designers, writers, and production artists of all kinds down through the years. I may be the father of Dragonlance but children always grow up and never in the ways their parents expect of them.”

So here we have two similar settings, indelibly linked, if not at first, to the Dungeons & Dragons game, that started in very different ways and have both been around longer than some of the younger authors—and at least two editors I know—have been alive. I had to ask, then, how did they live this long?

Tracy Hickman blames you. “Every day I acknowledge the fact that longevity in a product is not something that I do, but is measured entirely by the actions of our audience. We provide them with our best efforts—longevity is a measure of their reading our words or playing our games. That is action on the part of the audience.”

Ed Greenwood has a similar feeling in terms of the fans’ desire to keep exploring the Realms. “Some gamers decry the endless stream of Realms products or the masses of background detail,” Ed told me, “but the point is that for decades, far more gamers have lapped it all up, cried for more, and are still crying for more. Anything we’ve explained in detail has been discussed, argued over, and analyzed in depth. Anything we haven’t explained has been speculated over and demanded, repeatedly. Anything, from small details of passing fashion to the fates or mysterious pasts of minor supporting characters.”

And both IPs are still going strong, so what of the future? Successful intellectual properties have a way of outliving their creators, and certainly outlive the occasional editor or two.

According to Tracy Hickman: “Whenever new people coming into something like Forgotten Realms or Dragonlance, the first thing they want to do is ‘fix it’, ‘change it’ or ‘make it better.’ It’s natural for new people to want to make their mark on something like this and, in truth, I wish they would. Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms both have to be living, breathing and changing things, evolving if they are going to survive.

“The problem is that too often new people coming into something like this have no real understanding of the history of a property like this or its evolution over time. They don’t have a grasp of the foundations on which it was all built in the first place and only an obscure notion of what the IP is ‘about.’ We were pioneers in our day trying to figure out how to merge story with games. We made a lot of mistakes and we learned from them. We certainly learned more from the mistakes than from our successes. And over time we came to understand what ‘Dragonlance’ was about in the meta-sense.

“What I would hope for in the next generation of developers is that they would take the time and the opportunity to learn what made Dragonlance ‘right’ in the first place—its development history and original vision before they put their hand to changing it. If there has been a consistent problem with Dragonlance in particular, it has been that new people coming into the product ignore the foundation, vision and roots of the product and, in doing so, keep having to learn the lessons that have already been hard won by those who went before them.

“So, I suppose what I would most value in those who come after me is a respect and understanding of the great work that so many other people have done before them.”

Ed Greenwood’s sentiments were basically identical: “I most value the ability to ‘think Realms,’ and express it. In other words, to respect what has come before and mesh with it, treat the Realms as a real place, and make all changes and developments seem to be part of the unfolding history of this real world known as the Realms, not something tacked on or jarring with what we’ve already seen in print, or ‘it’s not a change; it’s always been this way, what you read before was wrong.’ To take that latter route would be disrespectful to the creators who came before and to the readers and gamers who already use and love the setting, because they are made to feel duped, or less brilliant than the new guys on the block because they loved and identified with something that is now being ‘improved’ or ‘fixed’ or worse, openly sneered at.

“I most value the capacity to love, and express that love, in people who create in worlds I’ve created, or game or read in those worlds. What goes around, comes around: love, and the love comes back to you.”

—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.

Posted in authors helping authors, authors to writers, best fantasy blogs, best genre fiction blogs, best horror blogs, best science fiction blogs, best websites for authors, best websites for writers, Books, characters, creative team, Dungeons & Dragons, fiction writing blog, fiction writing websites, help for writers, helping writers become authors, how to write fantasy, how to write fiction, how to write horror, how to write science fiction, intellectual property development, Publishing Business, Science Fiction & Fantasy Novels, SF and Fantasy Authors, transmedia, websites for authors, websites for writers, writers to authors, Writing, writing advice, Writing Community, writing fantasy, writing horror, writing science fiction, Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

HI, TALL GIRL, MY NAME IS EYE PATCH, PLEASED TO MEET YOU

Bear with me this week while I vent my frustrations with the vile horror of descriptive placeholder semi-nicknames to differentiate thugs and other tertiary characters who don’t seem worthy of a name, but Eye Patch or Tall Girl may as well be names, so you just fucking named them.

This comes up, usually, in fight scenes in which the hero is confronted by cultists, thugs, goons, or other agents of the villain. These are people the hero doesn’t know, and usually end up dead or otherwise dealt with. Their value to the story is in the fight scene itself and no farther. So the easy thing to do—and what really worries me is that authors feel it’s the clever thing to do—is have the POV hero give them little descriptive nicknames so the guy with a sword becomes Sword, the guy wearing sunglasses is Sunglasses, the woman with red hair is Redhead, and so on and so on. This might seem like a good way around the one scene, one POV dilemma we all eventually find ourselves in: How do I show this properly so it makes sense when the POV character is missing information?

My advice, rather than fall back on this—and I’m gonna say it out loud people—hackneyed cliché from Hell, is find a way to write about them without naming them at all.

Here’s a paragraph from the Conan novel The People of the Black Circle by Robert E. Howard, as he wrote it:

Conan’s action was as quick as theirs. As the voice shouted he sprang for the hut door. But they were closer to him than he was to the door, and with one foot on the sill he had to wheel and parry the swipe of a yard-long blade. He split the man’s skull—ducked another swinging knife and gutted the wielder—felled a man with his left fist and stabbed another in the belly—and heaved back mightily against the closed door with his shoulders. Hacking blades were nicking chips out of the jambs about his ears, but the door flew open under the impact of his shoulders, and he went stumbling backward into the room. A bearded tribesman, thrusting with all his fury as Conan sprang back, overreached and pitched head-first through the doorway. Conan stopped, grasped the slack of his garments and hauled him clear, and slammed the door in the faces of the men who came surging into it. Bones snapped under the impact, and the next instant Conan slammed the bolts into place and whirled with desperate haste to meet the man who sprang from the floor and tore into action like a madman.

There we see him simply writing around the fact that Conan has no idea what these anonymous tribesmen’s’ names are—and he’s Conan so we know he doesn’t care. That last bit is important: we know Conan doesn’t care what their names are.

But what if, because he prided himself on his detailed worldbuilding, Robert E. Howard, if not Conan, cared what their names were? It might sound like this:

Conan’s action was as quick as theirs. As X’Changa shouted he sprang for the hut door. But they were closer to Conan than he was to the door, and with one foot on the sill he had to wheel and parry the swipe of K’Jungo’s yard-long blade. He split K’Jungo’s skull—ducked B’Loonga’s swinging knife and gutted the wielder—felled Z’Namo with his left fist and stabbed T’Allgirl in the belly—and heaved back mightily against the closed door with his shoulders. Hacking blades were nicking chips out of the jambs about his ears, but the door flew open under the impact of his shoulders, and he went stumbling backward into the room. E’Nuff, thrusting with all his fury as Conan sprang back, overreached and pitched head-first through the doorway. Conan stopped, grasped the slack of E’Nuff’s garments and hauled him clear, and slammed the door in the faces of the men who came surging into it. Bones snapped under the impact, and the next instant Conan slammed the bolts into place and whirled with desperate haste to meet E’Nuff, who sprang from the floor and tore into action like a madman.

Now, reading this, I’m being told that their names matter, that these are characters I need to “track” for the rest of the book. This goes back to what I’ve said before about the concept of Chekhov’s Gun and the Mental Inventory. You’re asking your readers to take mental inventories of people, places, things, etc. as they read your story. The weight you give certain things will be picked up on, and your readers will expect those things to pay off in some way. Even if I hadn’t given up and gone to obviously silly joke names (maybe the worst cliché of all) this would still be unnecessarily confusing for what it actually means in the context of the whole novel.

So then, is it made better with super-obvious placeholder names?

Conan’s action was as quick as theirs. As Shouter shouted he sprang for the hut door. But they were closer to him than he was to the door, and with one foot on the sill he had to wheel and parry the swipe of Sword’s yard-long blade. He split Sword’s skull—ducked Knife’s swinging knife and gutted the wielder—felled Eye Patch with his left fist and stabbed Tall Girl in the belly—and heaved back mightily against the closed door with his shoulders. Hacking blades were nicking chips out of the jambs about his ears, but the door flew open under the impact of his shoulders, and he went stumbling backward into the room. Beard, thrusting with all his fury as Conan sprang back, overreached and pitched head-first through the doorway. Conan stopped, grasped the slack of Beard’s garments and hauled him clear, and slammed the door in the faces of the men who came surging into it. Bones snapped under the impact, and the next instant Conan slammed the bolts into place and whirled with desperate haste to meet Beard, who sprang from the floor and tore into action like a madman.

I’ll answer for you. It isn’t made better, it’s made silly, and maybe if you’re going for silly, okay, but I bet you, like Robert E. Howard, aren’t going for silly in a scene like this.

Still, I will admit that there are times when this device might be useful, but if you feel it is—and you’re the only one who can know that, at least until a decent editor comes along—go ahead, but at least create nicknames for those unnamed characters. Nicknames, as opposed to what I’ve called placeholder names or descriptors like Tall Girl, say something about how the POV character sees those unnamed characters, and in so doing, says something about the POV character himself, as in this example from the short story “A&P” from a very different author, John Updike:

The girls, and who’d blame them, are in a hurry to get out, so I say “I quit” to Lengel quick enough for them to hear, hoping they’ll stop and watch me, their unsuspected hero. They keep right on going, into the electric eye; the door flies open and they flicker across the lot to their car, Queenie and Plaid and Big Tall Goony-Goony (not that as raw material she was so bad), leaving me with Lengel and a kink in his eyebrow.

Here the fact that the POV character, a teenage boy who is reacting on an almost primate level to three teenage girls he doesn’t know but who he wants to be seen as defending, informs the nicknames he chooses for them. We know more about him as a character because of the nicknames, and may or may not feel more or less positively inclined toward him as a result.

But just looking at a character and saying, “she’s tall, so I’ll call her Tall Girl,” or “he’s wearing an eye patch so his name is Eye Patch…” I’m going to have to ask for more thought than that, from you and from your POV characters.

 

—Philip Athans

 

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ROBOT IS THE NEW VAMPIRE

In July of 2010 I wrote this for the blog Grasping for the Wind. Let’s see how it holds up ten years later…

 

In the popular mythology of vampires, these undead creatures are difficult to kill, but it isn’t impossible. A wooden stake through the heart will do it. Sometimes the barest touch of a ray of sunlight will reduce them to ashes or even make them explode. If you want to get Old School, you can immerse them in running water. Then there’s always the old standby: decapitation. That seems to work on everything.

But in the mythology of the publishing business, there appears to be nothing anyone can do to stop them. Expose the clichés of one, and ten more crawl from the grave to take its place. Publish a vampire book that’s a little too gory or a little not gory enough, a little too sexually explicit or a little too chaste, and you’ll still sell more than any of your traditional fantasy titles, and leave science fiction so far in the dust it’s stopped even being worth discussing. This is the only necessary explanation for why there are so many vampire books out there.

But I belong to what appears to be a vanishing minority of both readers and writers. I don’t read vampire books, nor do I write them. Though in all honesty I have read some vampire books, including the original Dracula by Bram Stoker, but I can’t remember one I actually liked. I’ve seen vampire movies, and my favorite is The Hunger. I tried to watch True Blood, but wandered off when the vampire was disabled by a silver necklace. And I did write about a vampire in Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn, but they made me do it.

Firing off more and more vampire books seems to still be working for publishers, but that’s just not good enough for me—and as the author of video game novelizations, please trust me that I’m not entering this argument as a pampered artiste who feels anything that’s fun and entertaining is beneath him. I won’t have fun writing about vampires, so I’d rather be one of the desperate few looking for the fad that will eventually replace them.

This is occupying the creative and marketing minds of an awful lot of people in publishing, believe me—enough so that it’s drawn the attention of The Onion in their hilarious article: “ ‘Minotaurs The New Vampires’ Says Publishing Executive Desperate To Find New Vampires”.

They’re kidding about minotaurs, but I’m not kidding when I offer up this alternative to the blood-sucker:

ROBOTS.

Yeah, you heard me. Robots are the New Vampire.

Stories of mechanical men date back into ancient times, from the myth of the golem and so on, but the word “robot” was first coined by Czech playwright Karel Čapek (1890-1938). Robots grew in prominence in the twenties and had a sort of peak in the 1950s then again following the global success of Star Wars. Though not every SF author has made use of them, they’re as popular a genre archetype, and take at least as many forms, as spaceships and other imagined technologies.

I’ve written at Fantasy Author’s Handbook of my fond memories of the young reader novel The Runaway Robot by Lester Del Rey, and I’ve enjoyed robot books from Isaac Asimov’s classic I, Robot to the shared-world series Isaac Asimov’s Robot City. Robots are appearing in newer books like Boilerplate by Paul Guinan and Anna Bennet, and Paul Collicutt’s Robot City Adventures graphic novel series for young readers, but so far they aren’t quite burning up the best sellers lists.

That being the case, you may be wondering how I came up with robots as the next vampires.

Here’s how:

I want them to be the next vampires.

And they have a lot going for them…

  • Like vampires, they come in endless varieties—in fact I think they come in potentially far more varieties than vampires.
  • They can be both hateful villains or loveable heroes.
  • You can dress up as a robot for Halloween. Okay, maybe not as easily as a you can a vampire, but nothing worthwhile is easy, right?
  • Robot toys are more fun. That’s just a fact.
  • If you’ve been keeping up with theories of the approaching singularity, you’ll have realized by now that you’re more likely to actually be a robot at some point in the future than you are to be a vampire.
  • Robots can have sex, just like vampires. I’ve seen Westworld. (and at this point I meant the original movie…)
  • You can have robot hunters, just like vampire hunters. Philip K. Dick called them Blade Runners.
  • Robots are Hollywood friendly. I’m thinking of recent movies like Terminator Salvation and Surrogates, not just classics like the Robby the Robot vehicles Forbidden Planet and The Invisible Boy. The first vampire movie is generally recognized to be F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), which is still among the best vampire movies ever made, and the first movie robot, Maria in Fritz Lang’s seminal Metropolis, shows up only five years later in 1927.
  • One of the things that publishing likes about vampires is they can be adapted for a wide audience from fairly young kids (A Practical Guide to Vampires) through the teen years (Twilight), and on into adulthood (Anita Blake). Kids love R2D2, surely there’s a teen robot out there somewhere, and I once had the misfortune of sitting through part of a bit of anime porn in which a guy has vigorous sex with an alien robot. It was awful, and I’m still scarred by the experience, but hey, someone took them there.

I could go on for days, but maybe if the community of authors got together behind robots we could, by sheer force of submission, make it happen for our mechanical brothers.

And if I’m the only one who votes for robots, okay, give me an alternative. Minotaurs? If you say so. Martians? Count me in. Harpies? Sure. Mummies? Wrap one up for me. Steampunk samurai? Why not?

Just please don’t try zombies again.

 

Okay, then, ten years later, how did I do? For what it’s worth I feel pretty prescient on this one, thanks to HBO’s Westworld reboot, Ex Machina, Blade Runner: 2049, and so on. TV and movies caught on, but let’s see more robots in print fiction! We can do it!

And yeah, they did try zombies again.

And again.

And again…

But the vampire craze does seem to have calmed a bit.

Progress marches on, I guess.

 

—Philip Athans

 

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And look: a robot story by lil ol’ me…

 

 

 

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I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN NEXT

A lot of people, I might even go so far as to say most people—including me—lead pretty boring lives, all things being equal. We have certain routines with kids and spouses and work and bills, and other things that add structure to a day. If you commute to an office every day, chances are that office is in the same place day after day, week after week, year after year. When I had a daily commute I used to sometimes drive in the direction of work even on weekends, my body following that prescribed route from muscle memory. I’ve now been working from home for a full decade so I no longer auto-pilot my way to Renton, but I have a new set of routines around when I do certain daily tasks. I have a pretty good idea what tomorrow is going to look like, and there’s very little surprising about what’s happening today. It’s Tuesday, Fantasy Author’s Handbook blog post day, so, ah, look, here I am Tuesday morning, writing this. This is how days can bleed into each other so that, as Virginia Woolf wrote in “The Death of the Moth,” “One is apt to forget all about life, seeing it humped and bossed and garnished and cumbered so that it has to move with the greatest circumspection and dignity.”

That all might sound boring and predictable, and certainly doesn’t do much to inspire a great fantasy, science fiction, or horror story idea. Stories are, really by definition, the exact opposite of that. They may start with an entirely ordinary person going on about their entirely ordinary daily routine but then Gandalf shows up, or Dad says we’re moving to Arrakis, or that fog bank has… something in it. Stories are about the stable world suddenly being destabilized in some way. Sophie Haigney touched on this in “An Elegy for the Landline in Literature”:

Uncertainty is invaluable in fiction. It is often what makes reading a novel so pleasurable: the instability of the world that we enter; the sense that something is going to happen, though we do not know what; the promise that what we imagine might, in fact, unfold. The mechanics of this uncertainty have often required certain objects: the broken-down car, the doorbell, the unopened package.

Okay, then COVID-19. That upset some daily routines, and for a lot of people, didn’t it?

It’s Tuesday, September 15, 2020 and the west coast of the United States is on fire. The air quality where I live is still in the “dangerous” zone. Over the weekend it was “hazardous.” We went out on Saturday and in the middle of the afternoon I could look up at the sun and stare directly at it, a pale mauve circle in the sky—that’s how thick the smoke was. I got a picture of it…

Issaquah, Washington, Saturday 9/12/20, about noon. See that tiny little dot almost dead center?

That’s not normal.

Is this the start of a horror story? Or the third act twist of a horror story? I hope it’s the third act—that means it’s almost over.

Is this me continuing to flail around in a desperate attempt to find something positive in what we’ve all come to know as, simply, “2020”?

Sure, maybe. And why not?

This year has given us all a lesson in the plot twist, whether or not we wanted it or particularly needed it. Some massive immovable force has lumped itself down in the middle of our lives, exposing us to literally life-threatening dangers, and we’re left to scramble around trying to make sense of it. COVID was an inciting incident, a plot device, a twist, a coincidence that started a billion stories.

That’s a billion stories by people who now have been granted a better understanding—whether we asked for it or not—of what it feels like to be a perfectly ordinary person in imperfectly extraordinary times.

And, maybe, sheltering from viruses and smoke, we’ve also been granted the alone time to turn that feeling of cosmic powerlessness into a few weird stories of our own, since, as Jean Cocteau wrote in The Eagles With Two Faces (L’Aigle à deux têtes): “Nothing worthwhile is created in the bustle of the world, so I shut myself off from it in my castles.”

 

—Philip Athans

 

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SIFTING THROUGH THE RUBBLE OF SIFTING THROUGH THE RUBBLE OF COVID

On April sixteenth of this year, I dropped a couple notes into a word file and named it “Sifting Through the Rubble of COVID”—a blog post for the near future, maybe around the first week of July or so, when “this whole pandemic thing” was finally over. The plan was to look at the state of writing and publishing in the wake of the pandemic and see if anything positive might have come out of it.

So…

Yeah.

Now it’s September and things are looking up in a few ways, sure, but most schools are still online, a lot of people are still working form home, we’re wearing masks everywhere we go—and still trying not to go too many places in any case, lots of businesses are still closed and many will never reopen, and an awful lot of people are still unemployed. It’s still pretty dismal out there.

I could easily write a post today about how goddamn over it I am. How sick I am of the masks. How desperately I want this country not just to “get back to work,” but learn from this disaster and move forward in a positive way, but… why would I do that?

You feel the same way—I get it.

I’ve puzzled over how little reading I’ve been doing, how little writing I’ve been doing, and how I managed to get terribly behind with work even though I’ve been working form home for a decade now. I’ve offered a little advice, tried to keep my mask-covered chin up, and all that stuff. And you have too, I’m sure. So instead of looking back on COVID, maybe let’s pause and take stock.

I think it’s a good thing that I’ve identified some problems in my own world. I get too easily distracted when my routine is interrupted. When my son came home from college and finished out last year remotely and wife and daughter stopped working, so did I. Why? No reason that makes any sense, even to me. I’ve gotten a handle on that now, and am still in the process of climbing on top of it. The fact that my wife is back to work, my son is back in school, and my daughter expects to be back to work this month helps a lot, but the same way the government needs to learn valuable lessons on managing pandemics across the country, so too do I have to learn how to better manage pandemics, or any other intrusions on my routine, here at home. I’m working full speed, reading more again, and have even been doing a little writing. I can fix myself, if not the world.

I wrote a little sci-fi flash fiction piece that obliquely deals with the pandemic, or life in pandemic times, but otherwise, fantasy and science fiction authors should be able to press on despite COVID. Like Charlie Jane Anders said in Never Say You Can’t Survive: “A light-hearted romance between an elk princess and a swamp god might not just be the only thing you feel like writing these days—it might also be the best way for you to deal with the problems we’re all facing.” But COVID has attacked authors of “realist” fiction in a big way, as Ben H. Winters identified in “The Coronavirus Is Upending the Plot of My Novel”:

Here’s something I probably always knew, deep down, but never thought about: Writing a novel presupposes the existence of a stable reality that will remain basically the same until you’re done working on the book.

I’ve been anxious in the past that a book I’m working on will be superseded by another book with a similar premise, or that a social or political issue central to the book’s themes will no longer be in the zeitgeist by pub day. It never occurred to me to worry that a massive crisis would so change the fabric of how we live that my work of realistic fiction would no longer seem remotely realistic.

The pandemic has taken a lot of things that occur in this book, things that were just the basics of human experience—people going to bars, seeing doctors, shaking hands—and recoded them, charged them with new meaning.

“A stable reality”? Hilarious!

Still, it does seem like there’s a light at the end of the COVID tunnel, and we can write and edit and work and play our way out of it, safely, and so as not to endanger ourselves or anyone else. And we can do that without going to the lengths Daniel Defoe described in Due Preparations for the Plague (1722):

His Letters were brought by the Post-Man, or Letter-Carrier to his Porter, where he causd the Porter to Smoke them with Brimstone, and with Gunpowder, then to open them, and then to sprinkle them with Vinegar; then he had them drawn up by Pulley, then smoak’d again with strong Perfumes, and taking them with a pair of Hair Gloves, the Hair outermost, he read them with a large reading Glass, which read at a great Distance, and as soon as they were read burn’d them in the Fire; and at last the Distemper raging more and more, he forbid his Friends writing him at all.

Do your best out there, and I’ll do my best in here, and maybe next September I’ll get to that “now that it’s all over” blog post. But only after I sprinkle my computer with Vinegar and smoak it in strong Perfumes.

I can’t afford to burn it after, though.

 

—Philip Athans

 

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SCHRÖDINGER’S IDEA

Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger’s 1935 thought experiment meant to describe the quantum physics concept of superpositioning posits that if you put a cat in a box with some poison and close the lid, the cat has both eaten the poison and died, or ignored the poison and lived, until you open the box. Only at the point when the cat is observed, is the cat fixed into one of the two positions, alive or dead. Here’s a fun TED animation that explains the concept in more detail:

 

 

Leaving aside that Schrödinger himself walked away from the idea later in life, let’s extend that concept to writing and posit that every story idea is both good and bad until you let it out of the box.

I’ve posted before about having some version of an “idea file.” Write down and save stray ideas and look back at them from time to time—but look back at them in their current superpositioned state. If all it is is an idea, that idea is by nature “a blur of probability.” It’s in a superpositioned state between good and bad, and will require an observer (you) to examine it, which is to say at least start writing it, in order to fix it in a specific instance of good or bad. This might be a novel way of thinking about it, but I’m far from the first person to say that an idea by itself is of no value until you do something about it. In Never Say You Can’t Survive, Charlie Jane Anders wrote:

So how can you tell if a story idea is worth your valuable time and attention? By trying to make it work and seeing what happens. There’s no diagnostic that works as well as just trying to do the thing, and seeing if it’ll happen—and being okay with deciding at some point that it’s not happening with this particular premise.

I bet you can tell if an idea has eaten the poison before you get all the way through a full rough draft, but honestly, that might not be the case. You might actually struggle all the way through it, thinking—as I’ve recommended myself—that it only has to be a short, bad book, and it will be made whole in the revision process… but then the revision process turns into a death march of painful realization that this idea was crap to begin with. It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. It sucks, but learn from it and move on.

Most of the time, happily, you’ll encounter the dead cat fairly quickly. I know some of you reading this are committed “pantsers” who abhor the very idea of an outline, but this is where at least a basic plot outline can really come in handy. I’ve had “brilliant” ideas that didn’t survive the outline stage, and even dragged my poor Fantasy Author’s Handbook readers through one of them—a space opera book that never solidified for me, that never found its legs, and was never actually written.

Unlike a dead cat, story ideas can be brought back to life in some cases. So you find after making a couple attempts at an outline that the idea hits some impenetrable wall. It doesn’t make sense, there’s kind of a sort of plot or plot-like thing but no characters or there are characters who you want to get to a great idea for an ending but there’s no apparent way to get them to that ending because you have no idea where they’re starting from or why they’re going that direction… a million, a billion variations on “it’s not working.” Let it sit. Maybe, and maybe entirely out of the blue, a flash of inspiration will pop into your head that suddenly makes the whole thing make sense, and the cat struggles to life.

Fiction is our way of exploring the landscape of the imaginary, why not look at the process as an imaginary cat in an imaginary box with imaginary poison who either stays dead or is brought back to imaginary life by what might actually be a real miracle?

 

—Philip Athans

 

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Bella Lucky’s (so far) only appearance in print.

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A FANTASY WORD LIST

One thing I do, and have done, with every edit (at least of a fantasy or science fiction novel or story) since starting at TSR in 1995 is create a word list/style guide. I’ll share my basic template here and encourage everyone to create and maintain this resource. I guarantee it will be a valuable tool not just for you while you finish your story or book—or series, even more so!—but it’s something you not only can but should give to editors and others who will be working with your text.

You might be surprised how often, as an editor, I get manuscripts in which the spelling of even the primary characters’ names change subtly throughout the text. Rules for initial caps and other things can easily end up being more or less randomly applied, too. But a sense of plausibility is often signaled in the subtlest of ways, including the judicious application or careful revision of an exiting rule of grammar and usage that works on a subconscious level so your world just “feels real.” Believe me, you’ll really come to appreciate it when it prevents an editor like me from “fixing” a perceived “mistake” that was an intentional component of your worldbuilding. The word list will warn your editor ahead of time that this was intentional, and not a typo.

Starting at TSR and continuing on to Wizards of the Coast, we maintained a style guide that included world-specific word lists, and one that covered “fantasy” in general as well as D&D terms that were the same from world to world, and that defined our contemporary American style (it’s armor, not armour).

Below is the beginning of my novel or series-specific word list/style guide, with some basic stuff like what country you come from (and yes, it does matter) and how you want to deal with the difference between: I have a bad feeling about this, Galen thought and I have a bad feeling about this, Galen telepathically broadcasted to the rest of the party.

The words on the sample list are actually applicable to any and every fantasy world. You’ll find a lot of them in the dictionary, but you’d still be surprised how often I see authors not just using them improperly but even inconsistently with two or even more versions of the same thing coming up, like warcry, war cry, and war-cry.

But most of all this is the place to lock in the spelling of character names (it’s Galen, not Galan), place names (Hellmount, not Hell Mount), and any other invented words unique to your world (spirit-staff, not spirit staff). You might have a separate invented language, too, so the Martian word for spirit-staff is gliurbex, which you’ll want to italicize throughout, so it should be italicized on your list to indicate that.

Include plurals, too, especially if there’s something weird about them, like djinni (singular) / djinn (plural). Don’t be afraid to address ways you don’t want something spelled, too, like: dwarves (not dwarfs)—or for your book, the other way around!

Anyway, check this out, think about anything that might stand out to you, and by all means feel free to keep it as a guide for your last revision/polish. Some things, like second in command, will not be spotted by a spellcheck. Those are three perfectly fine words and your computer has no idea they should have hyphens in certain specific cases: Bronwyn only spent a second in command of the caravan before the fireball went off… is correct, and so is: Galen regretted agreeing to be Bronwyn’s second-in-command when his face melted off his skull.

Right?

 

Title

Word List/Style Guide

Any word that appears on this list in italics, should always be in italics.

Any word that appears on this list with an Initial Cap or in ALL CAPS, should always have an Initial Cap or be in ALL CAPS.

Direct character thoughts in [roman or italics].

Psychic/magical (etc.) communication in [define style].

English (US, UK, CAN, or AUS).

 

WORD LIST

antimagic

axe (not ax)

aye aye (not aye-aye, which is a kind of monkey)

battle cry

battle magic

battle-axe

battle-mage

battle-shield

battlehammer

bloodlust

bowstring

breastplate

broadsword

Bronwyn

chain mail

demonspawn / demonspawned

djinni (singular) / djinn (plural)

dragonkind

dwarves (not dwarfs)

extradimensional

extraplanar

eyestalk

fireball

Galen

giant-kin

godsforsaken (in a world with multiple gods!)

greataxe

greatsword

guildhouse

hellforged

Hellmount

hellspawn / hellspawned

lady-in-waiting / ladies-in-waiting

life force

long sword (not longsword)

longbow / longbowman (pl. longbowmen)

lorekeeper

magecraft

magelight

magesight

magic-user

man-at-arms / men-at-arms

nock (place an arrow to a bowstring)

plate mail

poleaxe

rearguard

scry, scried, scrying, scries, scryer, scryers

second-in-command

sellsword

shapeshift / shapeshifter / shapeshifting

shock wave

short bow

short sword

spell duel

spellbook

spellcaster / spellcasting

spellcraft

spirit-staff / gliurbex

sword arm

sword belt

sword blade

sword fight

sword point

swordplay

swordsman / swordsmen / swordsmanship

swordsmith

trapdoor

war cry

warhorse

weaponsmith

wineskin

Your word list is most important where it varies from obvious sources like the dictionary or the Chicago Manual of Style. Consistency is king in pretty much all things, and is a big part of what will make your fantasy world seem plausible. It says to your readers: I care about this thing I’ve created, and I’ve worked to make it feel real.

 

—Philip Athans

 

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TOO MANY BOOKS?

Maybe we can “blame” COVID-19 and my shiny new Amazon Prime membership but I’ve started buying books again in greater numbers than the past few years or so, though not nearly to the degree of my $150-$200 in books a week (you read that right) around the turn of the century. Before the COVID quarantine I had started reading more, challenging myself, via GoodReads, to read fifty-two books a year. I’m currently running rather far behind on this year’s 52-book goal, something I also inexplicably blame on COVID. Weird that the less I read the more I buy? Is that true?

I’m going to pretend that’s not true because denial is a perfectly acceptable way to get through life.

Anyway, something prompted me to count up all of the unread books in my possession, something I haven’t done in a decade or so. I was able to count 1074 unread books, including 179 of my coveted ACE Doubles that I haven’t read yet, but then there’s the SF/Fantasy Paperback Grab-bag box in my closet that contains an uncountable number of mass market paperbacks that I’m conservatively estimating at two hundred, which leaves me with 1274 unread books currently in my possession.

And yes, I absolutely do intend to read every last one of them—I don’t buy books for decorative purposes. If I bought it (or got it for free in a few cases) it’s because it somehow struck my fancy, came highly recommended, etc. I do intend to read them all.

But then even if I can stick to my goal of reading fifty-two books every year that means I have exactly twenty-four years, six months worth of books stockpiled. That’s assuming I buy no more books during that time.

And oh, you know I’m going to buy more books.

I’ll be turning fifty-six in three weeks, so that means I have all the books I need to get me to the age of eighty.

I think reading fifty-two books a year is pretty good. I see a few people on GoodReads who at least say they read a hundred or more books in a year—and that’s possible if a lot of them are shorter books, or they have huge commutes and fly through audio books like I used to when I used to drive to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin every day (108 miles round trip). I suppose I could expand my goal next year to, say, one and half times the current goal, or 78 books? Doubling it doesn’t seem possible for me—I do have a fairly demanding job that, actually, means I read even more books, and I have a family and other interests. But could I read 104 books a year? That’s two a week. I bet I couldn’t hit that, though it would mean my supply of books runs out in only a little less than twelve years…

Whatever this might mean to you, the fact is that my 1274-book home library (not counting books I have read but have kept) comes to about 1/258th of the number of books published in the U.S. alone in one year (328,259 in 2010), and that was just one year, ten years ago. That means 3,282,590 books have been published in America since last time I counted how many books I own but haven’t read yet. And I’m not sure that number accounts at all for independent books, which continue to grow. According to Google, there are 129,864,880 books all together, so I only own about 1/101,000th of the books.

That’s a lot of books, 130 million…

Is that too many books?

In her brilliant book Reading Contagion, which I bought and read this year, Annika Mann shows that the idea of a “flooded marketplace” of books is essentially as old as commercial publishing itself:

(Alexander) Pope ’s own artistic production takes place over the period of print’s rapid acceleration, when, after the 1695 lapse of the Licensing Act (by which the Stationers’ Company restricted the book trade to particular printers), the number of printers in London and outside grew exponentially. This lapse led to a swift change in the conditions for authorship itself, which moved from a patronage system to a modern commercial arrangement, in part through the form of the subscription. These rapid and visible changes produced an era of vastly increased textual production and circulation, as well as a wide-ranging debate about that increase, as writers regularly and perhaps obsessively commented on textual overproduction.

Something tells me that there were far fewer books published in England in 1695 than anywhere near the 184,000 new and revised titles published in the UK in 2011.

So even though I own only a minute fraction of the books I am perfectly willing to concede that I might not live to read all the books I currently own, much less in addition to the many books I will absolutely buy in the next quarter century. If I had the money to buy every one of those 300,000+ books published in America every year, you bet your ass I would… though honestly I’d still pass on the political stuff.

But hey, buy books!

Read books!

Collect books!

Fill your life with books!

 

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

Follow me on Twitter @PhilAthans

Link up with me on LinkedIn

Friend me on GoodReads

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

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