DESCRIBE YOUR WRITING PROCESS

Do you even have one? Have you thought about it much, if at all?

First off, if you are writing—if you’re making words appear on a page, and they are pretty good words put into an interesting order… if you’re actually finishing things: a novel, a short story, a poem, an essay… whatever—that means your writing process is working.

If you’re feeling anything that might be described as writer’s block, if you’re struggling to get any words out at all, if you haven’t really finished anything in a while, or in any other way feel stagnant or disconnected from your muse, that could mean your writing process is not working.

So what do I mean by “process”? When that word comes up it’s often tied to the spurious distinction between “plotters” (people who write some form of an outline first) and “pantsers” (mythical creatures who just start writing and keep writing until they’ve finished a novel without thinking ahead), but please tell me that, by now, we’ve all moved past that to recognize that everyone does some degree of plotting and some degree of pantsting. Anyway, that’s not what I’m talking about here. What I’m asking is, what does the physical act of writing look like for you? Do you write longhandor always on a computer? Is that computer a laptop, sitting on a comfy chair, or at a desk? Do you have a private space or office you go to to write in? Do you listen to music while you’re writing? Do you (at least pre-COVID) sit in a Starbucks and write, or at some other remote locale? If you write by hand or dictate into some recording app, when and how does that eventually get into a Word document? What do you do with your rough draft? Do you revise the last chapter you wrote then write the next? I tend to do that, and it’s worked for me. I’ve tried some version of all these things, too, by the way, except dictating, and I should try that, too.

Have you thought about it?

In an interview with the Paris Review, Truman Capote succinctly described his writing process in one paragraph:

I am a completely horizontal author. I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy. I’ve got to be puffing and sipping. As the afternoon wears on, I shift from coffee to mint tea to sherry to martinis. No, I don’t use a typewriter. Not in the beginning. I write my first version in longhand (pencil). Then I do a complete revision, also in longhand… Then I type a third draft on yellow paper, a very special certain kind of yellow paper. No, I don’t get out of bed to do this. I balance the machine on my knees. Sure, it works fine; I can manage a hundred words a minute. Well, when the yellow draft is finished, I put the manuscript away for a while, a week, a month, sometimes longer. When I take it out again, I read it as coldly as possible, then read it aloud to a friend or two, and decide what changes I want to make and whether or not I want to publish it. I’ve thrown away rather a few short stories, an entire novel, and half of another. But if all goes well, I type the final version on white paper and that’s that.

How would you describe your writing process in one paragraph? Can you?

This exercise might feel pointless—and probably is—if you’re generating text that pleases you in both quantity and quality. If that’s true, then yeah, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But even if you aren’t “struggling” with your writing, per se, but feel you could be writing more and/or better, think about how you’re actually making words appear. The process of thinking through that and trying to write it down might just reveal the problem.

Maybe only writing on weekends isn’t enough time. Maybe having to be alone in complete silence in your special writing nook has stopped being possible with your kids home all day every day while distance learning through the pandemic. Maybe you get some great stuff down in your notebook then balk at the tiresome process of typing that into your computer. We can all easily put up stumbling blocks between ourselves and even things we love to do, and it’s even easier to put a stumbling block between ourselves and a part of something we love that we don’t love as much, that feels like work just to get from good part (the flow state of a rough draft) to good part (the rewarding sense of finishing a polished draft).

Every author’s writing process will be different—at least a little different. Don’t think I’m trying to tell you you have to do exactly what Truman Capote did. That’s just an example of one author’s writing process. And sometimes those things change. After the publication of In Cold Blood, Capote essentially stopped writing, and didn’t publish much of note after that. Did his process, described here, fail him? Did his life, his psyche, his situation change so that what worked for him for so long didn’t anymore? If he had shaken up this process, would he have gone back to writing, just taking a different road to get there?

I have no idea, but in any case I don’t think there’s any reason to believe that what worked once will always work, for anyone, across any pursuit. We change, the world around us changes, our circumstances change… all sorts of things intrude on our best laid plans, or our firmly engineered processes. It certainly doesn’t hurt to peek under the hood every once in a while and see if anything needs to be adjusted.

—Philip Athans

Follow me on Twitter @PhilAthans

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WHY WAIT TILL 2021?

I know 2020 has been challenging for, well… pretty much everyone, and I’m sure we’re all looking forward to 2021 to at least be better, less miserable, less divisive, less deadly. I have no superstitious or metaphysical component to my life but I’ll admit that, this year especially, I’ve been drawn into the “let’s blame 2020” thing, a sort of uber-meme that assigns, usually sarcastically, some evil agency on the part of a year. It was a presidential election year but there’s one of those every four years. The COVID pandemic was the real big event—a still-unfolding disaster. But a virus has no way of understanding human constructs like years—or any other human constructs beyond our oh so tasty lungs. And anyway, COVID-19 was a creation of 2019. So let’s blame 2019 for that.

Or better yet, let’s not “blame” any year at all.

I went through some stuff this year, and again, I’m as ready to blame that on 2020 as the next guy. My little work-from-home bubble was intruded upon by my family—three adults who were sent home from work or school to suddenly be the unwanted “associates” in Athans & Associates. They didn’t do anything wrong, being quarantined, furloughed form work, relegated to online university… I let distractions distract me. I more or less stopped writing—why? I went from breezing through two consecutive 52-book GoodReads challenges to now be sitting at only 28 books read (for pleasure that is) so far in 2020—running seventeen books behind schedule—why? I love writing and I love reading, but I set both aside to… what? I can’t even remember.

Blame it on 2020—or myself.

I think the latter is the real culprit, at least one very real crisis aside.

So now here I am in the middle of November having made some promises to myself to turn some things around in 2021. I’ve tweeted a few of those things—whatever that does. And I’ve set calendar reminders and thought of another New Years Resolutions post here but… why? If the coronavirus doesn’t know or care what year it is, why should I/?Okay, maybe for tax accounting, but deciding to read more? To write more? To involve myself in things? To restart long-dormant hobbies? All these things were, over the course of the summer and early fall, planned for the mythical utopia of 2021, leaving me apparently deciding to wait another month and a half before I live my life, as though I’m now somehow committed to staying miserable to finish off 2020 at maximum miserableness?

Nonsense. I have control over at least some aspects of my life—we all do. I can’t cure COVID or rebuild the economy, or any of those big things, but there are still the same twenty-four hours in a day, and I have a larger measure of control on how I parse those hours out than most people do, so let’s get on with it. That said, here are my November 17 Resolutions.

I’m going to write at least a little bit every day—not because I have to but because I want to.

I’m going to read more, at least at the pace I was running with my previous GoodReads challenges, because I love reading and it’s fun to have those community goals with other readers.

I’m going to “get out there” even as we go back into a COVID quarantine period. How? By doing what I know a whole bunch of people have been doing for at least the last year or so: virtually.

Sticking with this one… I thought about this and decided to add it to my “starting in 2021 list,” then when I realized why wait, I started at Eventbrite, which hosted the Chicago Screenwriters seminar on writing monsters I did last month, set the filter to “free,” and started signing up for stuff. Not in 2021, but right now. The first event is tomorrow (November 18): the Los Angeles Times Virtual Book Club: The Worlds of Octavia Butler. I love Octavia Butler—why would I not want to do this? 

Then, instead of vacuously binge watching TV shows (or whatever) this Saturday I’ll be online for four and a half hours for TEDx Seattle. I’m gonna get smarter—I can feel it already!

Next week, on the 25th, something called Humpday Comedy that just seems to be standup comedy? Okay—why not?

And I kept going into December, starting on the 5th with a big one—this might test my resolve—the 27th Barnard College Medieval and Renaissance Conference, which, because we’re on opposite coasts, starts at 6:00 in the morning—but I get up early. Why not spend the day doing that, at least coming in and out of it, until 3:30 in the afternoon? And why this? Well, I have always had an interest in medieval history and have spent my life in medieval fantasy in one form or another, and am still there. Will this make me at least an incrementally better author and editor of fantasy fiction? I bet it will!

I’m also signed up for the Virtual Writing Hour with the National Portrait Gallery on December 15—in which I will get my writing on. And I’ll get it back on on the 28th with Feeling Fiction: Feeling Your Way to Short Fiction because if I decide I know everything about writing fiction, that’s when it’s all over for me. I’m alive, so I’m learning.

So… want to sign up for some of those with me? Already signed up for other stuff like this? Have one coming up that you can recommend? Please do!

The last two things on my list of November 17 Resolutions are to get back to having some kind of hobby or hobbies, and reintroducing myself to friends. I’ll try not to let those two wait another month and a half either.

So then how does all this stuff help you be a better fantasy author? Well, all of us struggle with fallow periods, and all of us have had to deal with things that have been thrown at us in the past year or so, but all of us also have the capacity to say in some form or another, “Well, that sucked, now let’s walk it off.” Like me, has your writing suffered? Decide it suffers no more. Are you lonely and homebound like almost everyone right now? There are ways to get “out there” and write with people, share your work, share in other authors’ work, and learn something through various online courses or conferences that can help inform your writing.

I can be a bit of an old dog, and if I can learn new tricks, anyone can. Let’s get writing, let’s get reading, let’s get some version of “out there” now, and not wait for the arbitrary flip of a calendar.

—Philip Athans

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A CASE FOR LITERARY FANTASY

…and science fiction and horror and… every other genre has been made before, and now it’s my turn. I have turned to this subject in the past, including my suggestion that we not forget that fiction—of any genre—is also an art form in “Lest We Forget the Art,” but something caught my eye that got me thinking on that subject again.

In “Reading literary versus popular fiction promotes different socio-cognitive processes, study suggests,” Beth Ellwood reports on a study by Emanuele Castano of the University of Trento and the National Research Council in Italy in which a comparison is made of the cognitive effects of reading either “literary” or “popular” fiction. Though their conclusions aren’t anti-genre, per se, and I obviously haven’t made any effort to repeat their research, what struck me as a trouble spot in this is the often loose, even personal definition of “literary” and “popular.” Their definitions, at least according to Ellwood, pulls out authors as examples: “literary (e.g. Don DeLillo, Jonathan Franzen, Alice Munroe) and popular fiction (e.g. Dan Brown, Tom Clancy, Jackie Collins).” I can see where they’re going with that and will certainly not try to make a case for Brown, Clancy, or Collins as serious literary authors, but the danger I see is that allgenre authors—and we’ve all seen this happen in the past—then get tossed into the “popular” category.

Before I get deeper into that, Let’s look at the conclusions of the study itself. The authors of the study said literary fiction “paints a more complex picture of human affairs, and of the human psyche, than popular fiction . . . we should find that readers of literary fiction develop more complex schemas about others, their behavior, and about the social world they inhabit.”

So this is what they went looking for, even while carefully trying to side-step the “this is good,” this is bad” categorization we still see in the discussion of literary vs. genre fiction. According to Castano:

We are not saying that literary fiction is better than popular fiction. As human beings, we need the two types of thinking that are trained by these two types of fiction. The literary type pushes us to assess others as unique individuals, to withhold judgment, to think deeply. It is important, but it can paralyze us in our attempt to navigate the social world. The popular type reinforces our socially-learned and culturally-shared schemas; a mode of thinking that roughly corresponds to what Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman calls System 1: fast, automatic, well-practiced.

I submit that for a well functioning society a continuous tension between these two types of thinking styles—and thus both types of cultural products that, among other factors, promote them. Too much literary, and we disintegrate as a society. Too much popular, and we ossify. Neither scenario is auspicable.

Okay, so it doesn’t hurt us as individuals or as a society to read popular fiction. I like that. And, again, it makes some sense to me that Alice Munroe and Tom Clancy might work toward different parts of our psyches. But then what about the many, many books and authors that can be and have been classified as both literary and genre fiction? I would put Margaret Atwood, Ray Bradbury, Mark Z. Daniele ski, Octavia Butler, Haruki Murakami, and George Orwell firmly in a third category of “literary genre.” And obviously that’s not the full list—not even close. I’ve read Philip K Dick and he “paints a more complex picture of human affairs, and of the human psyche,” doesn’t he? Doesn’t Margaret Atwood? Of course she does. And Ernest Hemingway at least sometimes “reinforces our socially-learned and culturally-shared schemas,” doesn’t he? Doesn’t F. Scott Fitzgerald?

Look, nobody loves a good hack-and-slash sword and sorcery fantasy yarn, alien-crunching space opera, or tentacley supernatural horror gore fest as much as me, but not all “popular” authors and “popular” books fall into those categories. If you’re writing to entertain, fantastic. By all means keep doing that. If you’re writing to educate or elucidate, that’s fantastic, too. If, like most genre authors you’re finding some balance between both—better yet. After all, maybe the definition of the “perfect novel” is one that paints a more complex picture of human affairs, and of the human psyche, while at the same time reinforcing our socially-learned and culturally-shared schemas.

—Philip Athans

P.S.: If you would like to tackle the full study you can find it here:

The effect of exposure to fiction on attributional complexity, egocentric bias and accuracy in social perception” byEmanuele Castano, Alison Jane Martingano, and Pietro Perconti, published May 29, 2020

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I tried to make this book both literary and popular…

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ELECTION DAY, 2020

I don’t like to bring current events, especially politics, into Fantasy Authors Handbook—that’s not what this blog is about. Still, this year has been, let’s say, “different” in so many ways that that stuff has crept in, or in a few cases huffed and puffed and blown my house in. Now we come to Election Day, 2020 and how do I pretend that isn’t happening, and that it doesn’t have such massive consequences? We either get back to a stable if lumbering status quo, or we pack it in.

At least, I think.

I’m not old by most people’s definition, but neither am I young. I’ve seen elections come and go. The first presidential election I was old enough to vote in, my vote went to Walter Mondale. I sort of packed it in for a while after that, ignoring politics entirely for several years. Then my wife talked me into voting for Bill Clinton’s second term. After that I voted against George W. Bush, twice, then voted for someone for the first time since that first election, in which as a citizen of the state of Illinois I was able to help Paul Simon go to the United States Senate—I liked him. And I like Barrack Obama even more, and voted for him twice, then voted for someone I really didn’t like against Trump, and now against Trump again.

Okay, I voted.

And in the meantime I’ve gone back to trying not to get involved in politics, and I continue to avoid the news, especially the TV news. At this point, honestly, I couldn’t tell you the name of a single cabinet secretary. The Secretary of State could walk into the room right now and I would call the police because what the hell is this strange person doing in my house?

You might think I’m putting my head in the sand, pretending that if I can’t see it it isn’t there… and maybe that’s true, but really I’m just fifty-six years old and I’m tired. When I’m told about a problem my instinct is to try to fix it, and all the news does is present me with unfixable problems—and I’m all full up on impotent rage, thank you very much. In fact I’m trying to get rid of a bunch of it so if you know anyone interested in some impotent rage give them my email address. I’m willing to let it go for the price of postage.

Looking around at least a little, though, it looks like America has a generation of people in their twenties who are taking this moment in American history seriously. They have a positive if angrily-voiced agenda and they appear to be willing to vote. I love that. I’m behind them, if quietly, a hundred percent. It’s their time to shove this country forward, like people in their twenties did in the 1960s. When I was in my twenties I was a punk rocker. I didn’t accomplish shit. That was my bad.

If you’re a person in your twenties you should be trying to save the world. If you’re a person in your fifties and you aren’t hoping people in their twenties will save the world, you’re the person they’re trying to save the world from.

Get to work, young America.

And with that, I leave politics and current events again, and I promise, promise, promise, next week we get back to talking about writing fantasy, science fiction, horror, and fiction in general.

Whatever happens in the next week.

—Philip Athans

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OKAY, LET’S JUST TAKE A WEEK AND…

Ah, another Tuesday and once more into Fantasy Author’s Handbook. Glancing back it looks like I have been a little “ranty” lately, whether it’s unloading a pallet of bile in regards to reviews or bemoaning the fact that for a week or so the air where I live was poisonous, and I guess there’s this whole pandemic thing happening, and an election…

Stress, right? Definitely stressful times. Add to that my own personal things, managing my own family-in-and-out-of-quarantine and project managing not just my own slightly overwhelmed workload but an ongoing string of home repairs, car repairs, body repairs, and mind repairs, too.

A decent night’s sleep? Nope.

Diet even resembling healthy? Hilarious!

Feeling good in any way at all? Not so much.

And guess what… I’m not the only one. I know that for sure. This is quite an ongoing shitshow we’ve found ourselves in, isn’t it.

It sure is.

So after the I’ve-lost-count-of-how-many stressful days in a row I find myself, not necessarily about to lose it or anything but honestly, hovering around the edges of about to lose my ability to stop myself from getting to where I’m about to lose it.

Deep breath time.

I’m okay, actually.

I’m busy, which is good. I’ve got work to do, and it’s work that I love. I don’t feel as though I have all the time I need to do that work effectively, but that’s a problem I can and will solve on my own. No help required. Other things—projects around the house, in particular—I’ll knock off one at a time in small doses. I don’t know how people put themselves through that total home renovation process. I’m going with a project at a time and it will all get done, just not this week. I feel like crap but I’m not actually sick. I don’t have any signs of COVID or any other serious or life-threatening disease. That’s pretty good. I’m writing a little at least, which is better than not writing at all. And to be honest, most of the things I’m really putting a lot of pressure on myself about are not really that big a deal. Time to just take a moment and stop and breathe and be okay.

How are you doing?

Are you writing? Are you ranting and raving on the Internet? Does that help you? It doesn’t help me, but we all have to find our way. Are you writing “enough”? How much is “enough”? Considering the moment, especially here in America, I’d like to put forward the idea that any creative work at all is “enough” right now. Maybe if all goes well next week, we can take another moment or two and regroup for 2021 with plans and diets and exercise routines and all sorts of great stuff.

But in the meantime I’m putting myself in urgent priority mode, getting to work, keeping my head down, and getting through the rest of 2020 with my family, my health, my business, and my sanity intact.

All things considered, that’s not bad.

—Philip Athans

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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

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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

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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

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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

 

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.

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

 

 

 

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