ANOTHER POST ON THE SUBJECT OF DIALOG?

Sure, why not?

Fanny Ellsworth, editor of Ranch Romances was quoted in “Magazine Editor Warns Against Loss of Originality”:

Do you put thought on your dialogue—to make it sound natural without making it full of queerly spelled words that will take the reader’s mind from the story? Do you remember such little things as having the girl say, conversationally. “I’d love to” instead of the stiffer “I would like to?”

Well, do you?

Whether you spell it dialog or dialogue, characters talking matters—it matters a great deal in any genre of fiction. I’ve written a lot about it here at Fantasy Author’s Handbook and stand by those earlier posts. When I sat down to write this I started thinking about what else I might not have covered here on the subject and thought I’d flip back and add a handful of links to a few previous posts on dialog… only to find that I have written a lot on that subject.

I broke down the basics of what I mean by “Living Dialog” here then went on to create a seminar on the subject, which you can find as a Writer’s Digest Tutorial of the same name.

I get into dialog attribution in “Basic Training” and more on the nuts and bolts of how to punctuate a line of dialog in “ ‘Some Basic Dialog Tips,” Phil Suggested,” and the slightly angrier “Learn This Stuff Right Now or Stop Writing.” Even if you’re sure you know what you’re doing, those are worth a look-see.

And speaking of dialog attribution, on the subject of adverbs, Elmore Leonard said:

Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”… he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances “full of rape and adverbs.”

I more or less agree with him in “Caution: Adverbs Crossing.” To me it’s a matter of the difference between show (tell us what the speaker’s face looks like or some other gesture or cue that conveys their emotions) and tell (he cautioned cautiously).

In his book Making Shapely Fiction Jerome Stern wrote:

You want your readers to think, I could hear that person talking. The more you capture the rhythms of speech, its hesitancies, its phrases, its long, winding, run-on sentences, and its non-sentences, the closer you come to the feel of a real person. You’ve made the readers believe in the character. You don’t have to be grammatical or correct if your speaker isn’t. The character is talking, not you. Let that distinctive voice come through.

But detecting those “rhythms of speech” can take effort. Listening to how the people around you talk is Dialog 101 for any author. I touched on that in “Flashes of Inspiration: Stealing From Your Own Experience.” Sometimes what you hear from other people can get a bit under your skin, like “I Mean, Enough Already,” but it’s still worth trying, even if you can’t necessarily make out much in a loud coffee shop full of fast-talking caffeinated moms, which I bemoan in “Exercise Two… Attempted.”

Vladimir Nabokov travelled by car across America, almost obsessively, in part to collect butterflies, but also to collect American English. In “Little Nothings: Nabokov’s Road Notes,” Elsa Court wrote:

In the ten years following his arrival in the United States, his general approach to reading and assimilating his American surroundings—especially the unfamiliar and ever-shifting American slang—led to a remarkable linguistic metamorphosis: American parlance is reflected across  Lolita, and marks the author’s conscious transfer from Russian émigré to American, fully fluent in the culture and its linguistic ticks.

But for months before Nabokov began work on [Lolita], he took notes. Sitting at the back of public buses, he jotted down teenage slang, setting it aside for his unfortunate heroine.

“Slang” can take many forms, and some common dialog issues come from a tendency to be too formal. For instance, unless you want them to be irritating, don’t force your characters to add the name of the person their talking to to the beginning or end of every sentence, which is what I call “used car salesman dialog” in “Some Dialog Tips: We Know Who He’s Talking To.” In any case, you will likely notice that people do not tend to use you will or do not when you’ll and don’t are right there waiting for them, because “Contractions Aren’t Bad.” This goes for archaic forms that pop up in fantasy a lot, too. If ye feel ye absolutely must drag thy readers through archaic usage, at least try to get it right, and I’ll get ye started in “The Forsooth File.”

I even wrote about when not to write dialog in “What Not to Say” Jerome Stern backs me up on at least some of this, also in Making Shapely Fiction:

Some writers use too much direct dialogue. When you use direct quotation you imply that what’s being said and how it’s said are important. If the characters talk on and on but they’re not talking about anything significant, nothing dramatic is happening, and the language isn’t distinctive, readers’ interest flags. Narrative momentum falters. Too much dialogue also flattens the emotional landscape. If characters talk four pages about their omelet and four pages about their divorce, major scenes and minor scenes feel pretty much alike.

Maybe the best advice for writing dialog is to just relax, and let your characters do the same, which I go into more detail on in “De-bullet Point Your Dialog.” Still, the one I most want everyone to read and embrace is “Don’t Write Accents Phonetically,” cuz eyz n’t lahk its wenn ya duh thet.

—Philip Athans

 

 

Truly living dialog is brilliantly crafted, perfectly vivid, exactly appropriate, layered and nuanced… and it just sounds right.

Living Dialog:

Bring Your Characters’ Words to Life

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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PHANTOMS: EXPLORING WEIRD TALES Vol. 5, No. 1—PART 28

Well, we’ve done it. We’ve made it to the end of our months-long exploration of the January 1925 issue of Weird Tales  with the short story “Phantoms” by Laurence R. D’Orsay. Let’s take this story as a chance not just to enjoy one last Weird Tale, entirely on its own merits, but to muse a bit on what we’ve learned from this ongoing time trip ninety-five years into the past and the beginnings of the modern horror and dark fantasy genres. We’ve read some great stories, some not so great. We’ve met authors who remain mysterious and a few whose work has stood the test of time. And now we come to…

Often enough in the past I’ve said that suspense comes from an imbalance in information. You’ve let your readers in on something the POV character in a particular scene doesn’t know, and that lack of knowledge is sending her into danger while we cringe knowing what’s around the corner, waiting for her. Or one character knows something another doesn’t and we (your readers) see the manipulation or the ignorance… the conflict inherent in that, and we squirm. Here’s a great example of two characters who know something we readers don’t know, and the suspense comes in the form of: What are they talking about? What did he say? What happened? Why does Sellars want Carson to forget he heard it?

“I would promise, and welcome,” said the other slowly, “if it weren’t for the victims. The child, man! You know, Sellars, your case is serious. If you die with that on your soul! I guess I’m old fashioned and all that; but the child, apart from the—the other thing—abandoned, as you say, in the woods! See a priest—let me call Father Quinn. My God, Sellars!”

There’s definitely something terrible going on here, or something terrible has happened. Even the telling of it is traumatic. It’s a clever way to open a story in media res, that’s for sure. I get into more detail on that in my post “Punch, Push, Explain.”

As the story progresses we fall into a flashback, which is fine by me, but here’s a good example of what I was talking about in my post “I Had Encountered Past Perfect Tense Far Too Many Times Before Writing This Post.” I would leave the first paragraph of this example alone:

This was the third day that he had passed alone in the old cabin since Martha died. But three days—they seemed like years. Like years it seemed since he had returned in his skiff from Vallejo to his home above the inlet and Martha, noting his drunken state, had started the argument.

This sets in the readers’ minds that we’re now going back in time, that a flashback has begun. Here are the next two paragraphs as published:

It had degenerated into the usual squabble, for both were of uncertain temper. Martha, womanlike, seeing that she was being worsted in the argument, had pushed him through the door of the cabin, causing him to land full-length in the sticky mud outside.

Then he had risen in a towering rage and, grabbing a heavy iron bar, had dealt a terrific blow at his wife’s head, expecting to see her dodge as on many similar occasions. But she had slipped and lost her balance, and with a crunching, sickening sound the bar had descended on her unprotected head. He could see her now, lying where she had dropped without a cry or groan.

With a bonus edit to make it a smidge less overtly sexist, here’s how I’d rather it read:

It degenerated into the usual squabble, for both were of uncertain temper. Martha, seeing she was being worsted in the argument, pushed him through the door of the cabin, causing him to land full-length in the sticky mud outside.

Then he rose in a towering rage and, grabbing a heavy iron bar, dealt a terrific blow at his wife’s head, expecting to see her dodge as on many similar occasions. But she slipped and lost her balance, and with a crunching, sickening sound the bar descended on her unprotected head. He could see her now, lying where she had dropped without a cry or groan.

Once it’s clear we’re a step farther back in time, let the story live there. I left the last sentence alone to show how that can remind us we’re in a flashback and imply we’re coming out of it with “lying where she had dropped.” But in the actual story, the flashback continues with had after had after had after… On page 176, the word had  appears twenty-five times. This may not seem like a big deal, but read this story again, having had had pointed out, and let me know what you think.

What then follows, I think, is a scary, fun ghost story that may not be the most original of tales, but it was weird, and I dug it. This is another story of a criminal driven mad by guilt, seeing ghosts either real or imagined, and hounded to his grave by the weight of his misdeeds. Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” first published in 1843, predates “Phantoms” by eighty-two years, but so what? This is a type of ghost story that’s been told over and over again ever since, and the originality comes in the author’s unique spin on it.

As for “Phantoms,” I liked the epilogue in which Carson dismisses the supernatural as the result of a “constitution undermined by long and excessive use of alcohol and drugs.” There was no ghost hell-bent on revenge. Sellars was just nuts. This is a simple but effective example of what I called “The Persistence of the Logical.”

And so there we have it for our last story: two positive examples and one negative—not a bad ratio for Laurence R. D’Orsay, who, wrote a handful of stories and a single novel, and wrote books on writing. Looks like all those books, and his novel, are long out of print. Too bad—I’m going to keep an eye on the used marketplace in any case.

And there we have it for Weird Tales Vol. 5, Number 1, from January of 1925, a look back at genre fiction in its formative years. Throughout this series, as with “Phantoms” on its own, there are positive examples—what to do in your own writing—and negative examples—what not to do in your own writing—in every story. Though when it comes to a lot of parts of the craft of writing (where the comma goes, is a semi-colon okay here?) it’s generally more instructive to read more recent fiction, storytelling has changed in only fairly subtle ways in the decades between the initial release of this pulp magazine and now, and positive and negative lessons are here for us all to absorb, think about , and make of them what we will.

And for those of us who just love the whole history of science fiction, fantasy, and horror… well, long live pulp!

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

Whether your writing is new pulp, old pulp, or no pulp at all, look to Athans & Associates Creative Consulting for story/line/developmental editing at 3¢ per word.

Where Story Meets World™

Now scheduling projects for February 2020.

 

 

 

 

 

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FANTASY NAMES ARE HARD

Adam Bassett began his Worldbuilding Magazine article “Naming people: Creating New Naming Customs” with:

“Names have value. Aside from an identity, an individual’s name offers something greater: a glimpse of the person’s culture, history, and ancestry.”

I could not agree more. Please follow the link above and find that whole article. In it, Bassett approaches naming characters in terms of naming practices. In our culture that tends to be first name, maybe a middle name, and a last name or family name.

Within American culture, of course, are remnants (at least) of the many cultures that have come together here. My own name, Philip, says that my parents just decided to call me that because they wanted to name me Peter but that’s what my older brother (then almost five years old) called his penis, so they needed to spend the next three years breaking him of that before my younger brother Pete was born. My middle name is George, after my father, which was a half-assed nod to a supposed Greek tradition (at least, so said my paternal grandfather) that said the first born son should be named for his paternal grandfather and have his father’s name as a middle name. But my maternal grandmother was dating a guy named Mike in 1959 when my older brother was born and my parents liked him so gave my brother an Americanized version of my grandfather’s first name then Michael in the middle, and it was as if the world had come to an end for papou. Then I came along and got my father’s name as my middle name, which assuaged no one. In any case, my family name, Athans, was changed by my grandfather about a hundred years ago because no one could (or would, at least) pronounce Athanesiades (I think that’s the right spelling). My wife and I named our son George (my father’s name) Donald (my wife’s father’s name) mostly because they had both died before my son was born.

Anyway.

So then the question Adam Bassett asks, and that I’m asking now, too, is what do your characters’ names say about the world around them? What do those names say about different cultures within that world? Or as Bassett wrote:

By naming individuals based on different histories and traditions, you are able to echo their cultures. Or, inversely, if you come up with a fun way of naming people within a culture, find out why it works that way! It’s easy to come up with a random series of letters that sound neat, or fall into whatever is comfortable. However, when you name people in your world with these ideas in mind, you can create formulas for it and plenty of worldbuilding to explain why those exist.

In my online course Worldbuilding in Science Fiction and Fantasy (which starts up again on Thursday January 9, 2020) I express the opinion that sometimes, at least, “a random series of letters that sound neat” may be the way to go:

…in more exotic settings it may actually be best to simply string letters together that sound interesting. But even then, be cautious of your readers’ ability to track new words. If character and place names are more than three syllables long, you might want to rethink—if they’re more than four syllables, please do. Also be as clear as you can in regards to pronunciation. This might seem like no big deal—until someone gets the audio book rights and a poor beleaguered narrator has to figure out your goblin names, none of which include vowels because you thought it would be clever to decide that goblins hadn’t invented vowels yet.

Yeah… guilty as charged.

And that reference is to the Dungeons & Dragons novel The Savage Caves, which I wrote for Wizards of the Coast (as T.H. Lain) and featured goblins with names like Tzrg and Nlnz. My bad.

In “5 Tips for Creating Believable Fictional Languages,” Amber Massey makes the point, not unlike Adam Bassett, that:

Fictional languages are more believable when they’re rooted in something our culture or society has heard before. Linguists and authors often draw inspiration from real languages in order to invent something new. In Lord of the Rings, Sindarin was inspired by Welsh, and Quenya was based on Finnish. In A Clockwork Orange, Nadsat was inspired by Russian slang.

And in the end, the best advice I can really give you on the subject of naming fantasy characters also comes from my online course and that’s to:

Google everything! Got a great name for your hero… for any and every character in your story? Google them! If they’re also characters in Game of Thrones, even if that name has been around for millennia before George R.R. Martin was born, pass on it. If it shows up in your fantasy novel, a significant number of readers will assume you knifed it from GoT. Sometimes, clever names could even get you into (admittedly highly unlikely) legal trouble if they’re someone else’s trademark, but you’re probably not going to set your space opera story aboard the starship Coca-Cola. At least, I hope not! This won’t be necessary if your characters have names like Jon (even though there’s a Jon in Game of Thrones) or Luke (Star Wars) but Tyrian, Cersei, Vader, and Yoda? Nope, nope, nope, and nope.

Do I even have to add: Harry Potter?

I didn’t think so.

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

More on naming, as well as magic, technology, governments, religions, and cultures…

My four-week Writers Digest University course Worldbuilding in Science Fiction and Fantasy, starts this Thursday, January 9.

 

 

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KEEP READING!

I’ve been seeing this weird thing again lately:

I stop reading when I’m writing because I don’t want to be influenced by another author’s writing, and don’t want to accidentally plagiarize them.

This, like “all prologues are bad, no one reads prologues,” comes and goes from time to time, and largely without challenge. Well, just as I did with prologue haters, I hereby challenge this assertion, which I think can do significant damage to any author, writing anything, in any genre. William Faulkner said, “Read, read, read. Read everything—trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it.”

Reading is an essential act for any writer before, during, and after their own writing process. First of all, your writing process should be ongoing. You should always be writing. If so, then, if you’re always writing (something, in any case) how can you read anything if you can’t or won’t read while you’re writing?

And if you’re worried that reading will exert undue influence on your writing, well… great! be influenced then! In fact, Rachael Tulipano made this one of her “10 Reasons Why Every Writer Needs To Be a Reader”:

When you read often, you become more and more exposed to raw talent in other authors’ writing. This is valuable experience to improve your own writing and grow your craft. Think about the books you’ve read that left you in absolute awe. How about the stories that made you experience a spectrum of emotions? Or, the one liners that gave you pause. All of this stems from good writing and reading is a valuable tool in mimicking this in your own work.

And if you’re worried about accidentally plagiarizing another author… really? Are you really worried that as you’re working on your YA fantasy novel you might accidentally type in a chapter of The Man in the High Castle or Enlightenment Now? Or even Harry Potter? And then not notice it in your edit? And no one else notices it until it’s published and the lawsuit comes through?

That’s just absurd.

Jeff Goins sums this all up nicely in “Why Writers Need to Read if They Want to Be Good”:

Writers need to read.  A lot.  Magazines. Books. Periodicals.  And so on.  They need to grasp the art of language, to appreciate the finer points of words. As they read, they should jot down ideas and capture thoughts as they come.

Nothing inspires a writer like reading someone else’s words.

I’ve kept reading and writing in 2019, and for the second year in a row made it to my fifty-two books GoodReads challenge. In 2019 I read all of these books:

 

2,000 to 10,000 by Rachel Aaron

The Red Dancer by Richard Skinner

A Mirror for Observers by Edgar Pangborn

At the Booth Memorial Home for Unwed Mothers, 1966 by Patti Sullivan

The Status Civilization by Robert Sheckley

Essential Dr. Strange, Volume 3

The Worlds of Frank Herbert

Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer

Quantum Lyrics from Atlantic by William Holman

Social Media Just for Writers by Frances Caballo

The Empty Trap by John D. MacDonald

Astounding by Alec Nevala-Lee

Norman Conquest, 2066 by J.T. McIntosh

The Upward Spiral by Alex Korb

Dune: House Harkonnen by Brian Herbert & Kevin J. Anderson

Here They Come by Yannick Murphy

Regiments of Night by Brian M. Ball

American Heiress by Jeffrey Toobin

First Step Outward, edited by Robert Hoskins

The Monk by Matthew Lewis

Essential Killraven, Volume 1

Those Across the River by Christopher Buehlman

Making Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern

City by Clifford D. Simak

Starry Speculative Corpse by Eugene Thacker

Selected Poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay

The Seedling Stars by James Blish

The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things by J.T. LeRoy

Dune: House Corrino by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson

Falling Free by Lois McMaster Bujold

Codex Seraphianus by Luigi Serafini

Can & Can’tankerous by Harlan Ellison

Star Trek: The Starless World by Gordon Eklund

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

Pieces of Map, Pieces of Music by Robert Bringhurst

The Essential Neruda by Pablo Neruda

Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze by Kenneth Roberson

1984 by George Orwell

Not Pounded by Self-Doubt Because I Can Do Anything I Put My Mind To by Chuck Tingle

Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker

The Fury Out of Time by Lloyd Biggle, Jr.

Tentacles Longer Than Night by Eugene Thacker

Forest of Memory by Mary Robinette Kowal

Showcase Presents: Aquaman, Volume 1

The Prisoner: Shattered Village by Dean Motter

Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland

Selected Poems of Yevgeny Yevtushenko

Endgame & Act Without Words by Samuel Beckett

Search the Sky by Frederick Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth

The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djèlí Clark

Shakespeare’s Sonnets

 

So you absolutely have to continue reading while you’re writing. Read in your genre of choice and outside it. Read fiction of all genres, non-fiction of all categories, poetry, plays… anything and everything that interests you at all. “I believe that reading and writing are the most nourishing forms of meditation anyone has so far found,” said Kurt Vonnegut. “By reading the writings of the most interesting minds in history, we meditate with our own minds and theirs as well. This to me is a miracle.”

Bring that miracle to your writing.

 

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

And maybe take a break from reading just long enough to participate in…

My four-week Writers Digest University course Worldbuilding in Science Fiction and Fantasy, starts Thursday January 9!

 

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THE FESTIVAL: EXPLORING WEIRD TALES Vol. 5, No. 1—PART 27

And finally our exploration of the January 1925 issue of Weird Tales has brought us to the magazine’s most famous (some will say infamous) alum: H.P. Lovecraft and his short story “The Festival,” which, though written in 1923, was published here for the first time. And what perfect timing that this should fall on Christmas Eve… Lovecraft’s weird Christmas story…

It was the Yuletide, that men call Christmas though they know in their hearts it is older than Bethlehem and Babylon, older than Memphis and mankind. It was the Yuletide, and I had come at last to the ancient sea town where my people had dwelt and kept festival in the elder time when festival was forbidden; where also they had commanded their sons to keep festival once every century, that the memory of primal secrets might not be forgotten.

Spooky…

Google thinks the Latin quotation at the beginning means:

They make it out devils, that the things which are not, as though they were so far, however, might be seen by men, municipal official.

…which seems a little off. The H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society has it as:

Devils so work that men perceive things which do not exist as if they were real.

…which sounds lots better. Any Latin scholars out there prepared to help?

What can I say about this amazing story? It’s Christmas Eve, my family wants me to go do family stuff… Maybe I’ll just recommend that you read the story, even make it an annual Weird Xmas tradition. And if you’re dreading the next couple days at all, hey—it could be worse:

Fainting and gasping, I looked at that unhallowed Erebus of titan toadstools, leprous fire, and slimy water, and saw the cloaked throngs forming a semicircle around the blazing pillar. It was the Yule-rite, older than man and fated to survive him; the primal rite of the solstice and of spring’s promise beyond the snows; the rite of fire and evergreen, light and music. And in the Stygian grotto I saw them do the rite, and adore the sick pillar of flame, and throw into the water handfuls gouged out of the viscous vegetation which glittered green in the chlorotic glare. I saw this, and I saw something amorphously squatted far away from the light, piping noisomely on a flute; and as the thing piped I thought I heard noxious muffled flutterings in the foetid darkness where I could not see. But what frightened me most was that flaming column; spouting volcanically from depths profound and inconceivable, casting no shadows as healthy flame should, and coating the nitrous stone above with a nasty, venomous verdigris. For in all that seething combustion no warmth lay, but only the clamminess of death and corruption.

And you’re worried about having to deal with that Trump supporter uncle of yours.

Finally, let’s just roll around in that last sentence for a bit:

Great holes secretly are digged where earth’s pores ought to suffice, and things have learnt to walk that ought to crawl.

Merry Festival!

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

Struggling to summon the spirit of your world’s rites and rituals from the stygian depths of your impenetrable, fevered imagination?

Explore this vital subject and more in my four-week Writers Digest University course Worldbuilding in Science Fiction and Fantasy, starting January 9.

 

 

 

 

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TOO WEIRD TO DESCRIBE

Let’s start with an often used (because it’s so great) example from the best known practitioner of “too weird to describe,” H.P. Lovecraft. Here’s his first person description of the shoggoths from his classic At the Mountains of Madness:

“South Station Under—Washington Under—Park Street Under—Kendall—Central—Harvard…” The poor fellow was chanting the familiar stations of the Boston-Cambridge tunnel that burrowed through our peaceful native soil thousands of miles away in New England, yet to me the ritual had neither irrelevance nor home-feeling. It had only horror, because I knew unerringly the monstrous, nefandous* analogy that had suggested it. We had expected, upon looking back, to see a terrible and incredibly moving entity if the mists were thin enough; but of that entity we had formed a clear idea. What we did see—for the mists were indeed all too malignly thinned—was something altogether different, and immeasurably more hideous and detestable. It was the utter, objective embodiment of the fantastic novelist’s ‘thing that should not be’; and its nearest comprehensible analogue is a vast, onrushing subway train as one sees it from a station platform—the great black front looming colossally out of infinite subterraneous distance, constellated with strangely coloured lights and filling the prodigious burrow as a piston fills a cylinder.

But we were not on a station platform. We were on the track ahead as the nightmare plastic column of foetid black iridescence oozed tightly onward through its fifteen-foot sinus; gathering unholy speed and driving before it a spiral, re-thickening cloud of the pallid abyss-vapour. It was a terrible, indescribable thing vaster than any subway train—a shapeless congeries of protoplasmic bubbles, faintly self-luminous, and with myriads of temporary eyes forming and unforming as pustules of greenish light all over the tunnel-filling front that bore down upon us, crushing the frantic penguins and slithering over the glistening floor that it and its kind had swept so evilly free of all litter. Still came that eldritch, mocking cry—“Tekeli-li! Tekeli-li!” And at last we remembered that the daemoniac shoggoths—given life, thought, and plastic organ patterns solely by the Old Ones, and having no language save that which the dot-groups expressed—had likewise no voice save the imitated accents of their bygone masters.

Interestingly, here Lovecraft tells us the thing is indescribable in the process of describing it. But what he’s doing so very right is keeping the whole thing deeply rooted in the firsthand experience of his protagonist, who makes various desperate efforts to try to describe something unlike anything he’s ever even heard of, let alone seen. So he thinks about it in terms of a subway train rather than as some other sort of recognizable animal, and focusses on small details that can be described using common language like “pustules” and “eyes.”

The idea of a character confronted by the indescribable is, according to Eugene Thacker in Tentacles Longer Than Night, the moment where:

Language can only continue by way of an apophatic use of negative terms (“nameless,” “formless,” “lifeless”), which themselves are doomed to failure.

Here one notices two strategies that are regularly used, often in concert with each other. There is a strategy of minimalism, in which language is stripped of all its attributes, leaving only skeletal phrases such as “the nameless thing,” “the shapeless thing,” or “the unnamable,” which is also the title of a Lovecraft story. There is also a strategy of hyperbole, in which the unknowability of the unhuman is expressed through a litany of baroque descriptors, all of which ultimately fail to inscribe the unhuman within human thought and language.

John Linwood Grant calls this “The Lurking Adjectives of Doom”:

There are two sound reasons for this. The first is that the author genuinely wants to convey something which has an impact beyond normal sensory perception, or is beyond rational description. The very best authors use subtlety, nuance and the effect on the characters to give you what you need.

I can’t agree enough with the idea of showing “the effect on the characters” in terms of every part of a work of fiction. Describing a room can be done effectively by a journalist or technical writer, but placing characters in that room requires the “soft sciences” of emotions and memories triggered by the space, the lighting, the smell or smells, the temperature of the air—some combination of elements that make your characters come alive in that space—what we mean when we use the word “atmosphere.”

Grant continued:

And sometimes it is best not to describe. Graphic portrayal can be a risk. It reminds me of the two versions of the film Cat People. In the original 1942 version (unless my memory is shot), the menace came from shadows and suggestion. It was unsettling. The 1982 version showed what was happening quite openly and lost out in the process.

Also quite true! Often our readers’ imaginations are our greatest tools as authors of fiction. Keep them in mind as best you can while you’re writing. Granted, it can be so difficult as to seem impossible to find the line between “just enough” and “too much” description—but here’s where I have to fall back, yet again, on: Nobody said this was going to be easy! But reading is, in itself, a creative act. If you’ve gone right up to it—whatever it is (the description of a monster, a place, a person, etc.)—they can and will take it the rest of the way.

This also helps you avoid over-describing, especially being too specific: the creature weighed 1341.3 pounds (608.403 kg) and was 12 feet, 4 inches (3.758184 m) long with a Pantone 4022 C hide as rough as FEPA P80 sandpaper covered in irregular Pantone 3595 C spots.

I’m exaggerating, but you know what I mean. You do not have to describe a monster to your readers as if you’re talking to a police sketch artist—even if you are talking to an artist who might be creating a cover image for you. Let the artist in on the creation process. You’re likely to find that the collaboration makes for a better, more visually appealing (or shocking, repulsive…) monster in the end.

And then there are authors who decide that the best way to go is no visual  description of anything at all, as in this example from “The Red Room” by H.G. Wells:

I turned to where the flames were still dancing between the glowing coals and splashing red reflections upon the furniture; made two steps toward the grate, and incontinently the flames dwindled and vanished, the glow vanished, the reflections rushed together and disappeared, and as I thrust the candle between the bars darkness closed upon me like the shutting of an eye, wrapped about me in a stifling embrace, sealed my vision, and crushed the last vestiges of self-possession from my brain. And it was not only palpable darkness, but intolerable terror. The candle fell from my hands. I flung out my arms in a vain effort to thrust that ponderous blackness away from me, and lifting up my voice, screamed with all my might, once, twice, thrice. Then I think I must have staggered to my feet. I know I thought suddenly of the moonlit corridor, and with my head bowed and my arms over my face, made a stumbling run for the door.

In this case fear is brought on by an absence of visual input. As Franklin Roosevelt would say, “The only thing to fear is fear itself.”

 

—Philip Athans

* My dictionary app had no entry for nefandous. Nor does it appear in my unabridged Oxford American Dictionary, so…? I wonder if this is just an oft-repeated scanning error and should read: nefarious.

 

 

Lots more about making things go bump in the night can be found in…

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

 

 

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GET IT OUT THERE!

As 2019 winds down, the time for resolutions approaches, and like a lot of people I end up taking stock of things as any year draws to a close. I review how business has been, start budgeting for the next year, try to figure out what worked and what didn’t, and all that good stuff—and it is good stuff. It’s important to check in on yourself and your business from time to time to make sure you aren’t stuck in various ruts or loops or other bad situations, but also to know what is  working so you can keep doing that, and so on and so on.

One of the things I’ve tried to climb on top of in the last year or so is my own writing, with the goal to reengage with writing for the joy of it rather than for the commerce of it. I’ve been writing (and publishing, I might add) poetry and short stories again. I’ve even been paid (a small amount of money) for a few of them—hurray for me.

In my December journey through year’s end I’ve looked at that writing with the fresh eyes and fresh enthusiasm of post-chronic pain Phil, and though my own inherent negativity meant I went in thinking I was going to be disappointed, I revised my tracking sheet and found that I currently have three short stories and nineteen poems out in circulation, sitting with editors, waiting for an acceptance or a rejection.

That feels pretty good, but back in my energetic twenties it was likely three times that many. I may not be as physically energetic now in my fifties, but I’ve been feeling creatively energetic lately—and I’m not going to stop at three stories and nineteen poems.

Backing up a bit, though… tracking sheet?

Yup, I have an Excel file that tracks short stories and poems by title, word count, genre, market (who I sent it to), the date I sent it and how (email, Submittable, etc.), the date I received a rejection or acceptance, and then a column for “notes,” because you always have to have a column for “notes.”

This might sound a bit incongruous, writing poetry then tracking its movements with a spreadsheet, but the art goes into the poem, the organization into the spreadsheet, and they’re comfortably separate. Because of that spreadsheet I know when I haven’t heard back on a poem for six months, after which I assume they don’t want it and send it to someone else. It also helps make sure I don’t embarrass myself by being rejected by some literary magazine then sending them the same poem a month later.

I have no idea how many short stories and/or poems you have and in what state of completion they’re in—or you think they’re in—but I know one thing for sure and that’s that no one will ever publish them if they’re secreted away on your hard drive.

Is the story done? Send it!

Is the poem done? Send it!

Did it get rejected? Immediately send it somewhere else!

I try to turn things around in less than forty-eight hours.

Or are you waiting for that short story to be “perfect”?

Well, it’ll never be perfect. This is creative writing. There is no perfect.

If it’s done and you feel like you’ve given it a good once over and you won’t overly embarrass yourself with zillions of typos—send it!

Even if you’re sure it’s not good enough, send it anyway. You have no idea what’s good enough. I’ve been in this game on both sides of the fence longer than a lot of you reading this have been alive and I have no idea what’s good enough. The only way to know if someone will publish it is to offer it for publication. Don’t be scared. Writing is meant to be read, and there really is a benefit from it being read first by an editor. Finish the thing, lightly revise the thing, proofread the thing, then for the love of all that’s holy send the thing!

Submission guidelines for short stories are available on each market’s web site. Read those guidelines, take them seriously, follow the easy instructions, and submit it! The only caution: do not pay a submission fee, ever. It’s becoming, unfortunately, more common, but just don’t do it.

The odds are overwhelmingly in favor of rejection. So what? Send it anyway. That’s what this whole thing is about. Write, submit, get rejected a bunch of times, get published, be read.

 

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

Story/line/developmental editing at 3¢ per word.

Scheduling projects now for January!

Where Story Meets World™

 

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