WHY FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION

Why not?

Isn’t that a good enough answer?

It is for me, but let’s look at this subject again, and bring in some experts.

I love fantasy and science fiction and I have all my life. I have refused to “grow out of it” on any level and I never will—I’m fifty-five years old, guys, and if I’m still in, I’ll always be in. Plain and simple.

Still, there continues to be a thread of the culture, even in these times of almost over-saturation of science fiction and fantasy in movies, TV, gaming… everywhere. And fantasy continues to be one of the three biggest genres in publishing (with romance and thrillers), including and maybe even especially in the YA sphere, which means younger people are getting into fantasy and science fiction, and in a climate that’s more welcoming to it than it was even when I was a kid.

It has been gratifying to see science fiction being taken more seriously than it was when I was a kid, when people like Philip K. Dick had to work so hard to defend it:

If SF becomes annexed to the academic world it will buy into its own death… Professor Warrick’s pound-and-a-half book with its expensive binding, paper, and dust jacket staggers you with its physical impression, but it has no soul and it will take our soul in what really seems to me to be brutal greed. Let us alone, Dr. Warrick; let us read our paperback novels with their peeled eyeball covers. Don’t dignify us. Our power to stimulate human imagination and to delight is intrinsic to us already. Quite frankly, we were doing fine before you came along.

(Quoted by Christian De Cock in “Of Philip K. Dick, Reflexivity, and Shifting Realities: Organising (Writing) in Our Post-Industrial Society”)

Then fast forward to just this year and Berci Meskó writing in “Science Fiction Prepares You For Dream Worlds And Ethical Apocalypses”:

Science fiction is a form of conversation between technology and society about the future.

It is a vivid conversation. It makes us think, debate and learn. And it’s not a one-way street, but rather a strong interaction—while science fiction feeds on the ground that technology offers, it also gives ideas about how to build a better world for our children. Science and science fiction walk forward hand in hand.

Science fiction doesn’t just provide fun entertainment—though the best SF still does that. It has been at least partly responsible for the careers of a number of actual scientists, continues to inspire them, and inspire readers and viewers of SF to dig deeper into the continuing scientific golden age that also continues to go largely unnoticed. It makes us smarter.

In their report “Who Reads Science Fiction and Fantasy, and How Do They Feel About Science? Preliminary Findings From an Online Survey,” Christopher Benjamin Menadue and Susan Jacups wrote:

Contrary to declining reading habits, the science fiction and fantasy audience read consistently high volumes of books, as well as watching genre TV and film. We discovered that reading science fiction and fantasy may have a role in sustained, and cognitively beneficial, adoption of reading by young people and is complementary to other forms of consumption, rather than competitive. Science fiction was also found to be an important influence on the perception and acceptance of science by the public. Implications of this are that science fiction and fantasy are now a normal part of life for a wide range of people, and science fiction has a positive influence on popular interpretation, acceptance, and support of scientific endeavors. These results support earlier work that suggests science fiction is a valuable research tool for public engagement with science.

And the same study finds that SF fans aren’t just watching TV or playing video games, but reading as well:

In the survey, reading was in addition to interest in science fiction in TV and film, and this suggests that the reading of science fiction is complementary to other forms of genre consumption, rather than competitive. These findings indicate a population that is not following a more recent trend of declining reading that is particularly concerning to some educationists, as Sandra Stotsky has described in “What American Kids Are Reading Now” (Stotsky, 2016), and the significant impact of literacy upon quality of life has been discussed elsewhere…

A method for increasing literacy among young people might be simply to encourage them to read science fiction and fantasy, perhaps as an alternative to employing more complex and time-consuming behavioral interventions to the same ends (Cockroft & Atkinson, 2017). One approach to addressing declines in reading has been to recommend a more popular, public investigation of reading characteristics to identify the issues that exist (Albalawi, 2015). As a contribution to this effort, this survey seems to identify one reading group that is not in decline.

Yes! Please assign science fiction and fantasy novels in English classes! Yes, please! And not just Brave New World.

And not just science fiction. Fantasy belongs in schools, too. It may not engender an interest in science, but what else could fantasy lead to? I’ve said before that I learned more math in my high school years from playing Traveller than I did from all the math teachers combined. I learned more history, languages and vocabulary, creative problem solving, anthropology, philosophy, and more—too many fields in the humanities to name here—playing Dungeons & Dragonsthan from any social studies, English, or history teacher. In “Fantasy Literature: Through the Facade,” Allison O’Neil may have conjured an explanation for that:

While other forms of literature are hampered by the desire or need to mimic reality, fantasy and sci-fi largely abandon this aim. That is not to say the observations and criticisms of social structures or patterns aren’t real—quite the opposite. By eliminating the imitative components of other literature forms, fantasy becomes more universal. Through artifice we see what is real.

Role-playing games and fantasy and SF novels made me want to learn stuff, made me curious about where these ideas came from, and engaged me in an expansive education in ways that “sit down, shut up, and listen” traditional education couldn’t.

These genres are not—and I know I’m preaching to the choir here—simply “escapist entertainment,” even though I maintain there’s nothing wrong with escapist entertainment. Genre fiction can have quite a lot to contribute, not in spite of the fact that it’s divorced from “reality,” but because it’s divorced from reality, or as Robert Scholes wrote in Structural Fabulation:

Fantasy has claimed with considerable vigor a special status in literature. It has insisted that it is capable of non-realism, of an imaginative divorce between fictional models it constructs and the world we all experience. This claim, too, has proved unfounded. No man has succeeded in imagining a world free of connection to our experiential world, with characters and situations that cannot be seen as mere inversions or distortions of that all too recognizable cosmos. Thus, if we must acknowledge that reality inevitably eludes our human languages, we must admit as well that these languages can never conduct the human imagination to a point beyond this reality. If we cannot reach it, neither can we escape it. And for the same reason: because we are in it. All fiction contributes to cognition, then, by providing us with models that reveal the nature of reality by their very failure to coincide with it.

I’ve always found it funny to me that some of the genres’ most vocal critics have come, from time to time, from the Christian right. In Dear Bertrand Russel, Bertrand Russel wrote: “My own preference is to look upon theological writings as the slightly historical fantasy world of primitive tribesmen, often savage and sometimes of interest.” And Julius Kagarlitski took that a few steps farther:

Fantasy, a child of the new age, came into being only with the destruction of syncretic thought, wherein the real and the imaginary, the rational and the spiritual are inseparable. Fantasy begins to take shape only from the moment when the original unity is destroyed and disintegrates into a mosaic of the probable and the improbable. A myth is believed in too much for it to be fantasy. When disbelief arises side by side with belief, fantasy comes into being.

I guess it takes a fantasist to hate a fantasist.

 

 

—Philip Athans

 

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

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

 

 

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CONTENT IS KING

I had an opportunity to chat with Joanna Penn on her Creative Penn Podcast and the concept of writers as “content providers” came up. This is something I’ve been preaching for at least nine years now, as this former Grasping for the Wind post from 2011 will attest to…

 

I’ve long ago lost track of how many times I’ve publicly identified myself as a “content provider.” Most of the time, this has been in regards to the rise of the e-book. How do I feel about this upstart new format (or so it seemed in 2011!) that seemingly turns the very concept of the book and how it’s published on its head? Well, I respond, over and over again:

I’m a content provider, and I’m happy to see that content published in whatever form people are willing to buy—whatever form will get me the biggest audience.

And if that means e-books—and it does now, by the way, and e-books are clearly moving toward being the dominate format at least for adult fiction and nonfiction by the end of 2014—then e-books it is.

 

Pausing here for a second in 2020 to defend what was a perfectly reasonable assumption in 2011. There was no reason then, and there remains no reason now, that the publishing industry itself didn’t force the e-book down readers’ throats. It is such a better business model for the perpetually low-profit publishing industry, tied as they were then and are now, to retail outlets constantly on the verge of collapse, but who still demand full returnability… Don’t even get me started. However, though I felt myself in the minority nine years ago as someone who loves the book as an artifact, turns out I’m not so alone as I thought. E-books hit a certain percentage of the marketplace and plateaued. People are still reading, and they still appear to prefer paper books, and, of course, audiobooks, which continue to be a significant force in the publishing biz. But now, back to 2011…

 

But what does this mean, “content provider”? I know, it sounds kinda corporate, kinda sell-outy… Ugh, how I hate that. With a nod to my friend, director James Merendino (what’s he up to?—I should shoot him an email—I said nine years ago and didn’t…), from his brilliant film SLC Punk, “I didn’t sell out, son, I bought in.”

No way, as author of the video game novelization Baldur’s Gate, do I have an artsy-fartsy leg to stand on. That one publication wiped out all my indie cred, despite years publishing poetry and flash fiction (before it was even called flash fiction) across the weird pre-internet landscape of the late-80s micropress boom… and really, does anyone care? Is anyone really keeping track?

The science fiction and fantasy genres have for decades suffered under the weight of a peculiar conservatism that I’m very happy to report is only now finally starting to dissipate. And by conservatism, I don’t mean in a political sense. By conservatism in this case, I mean a narrow view of what is acceptable behavior on the part of authors, publishers, and fellow readers.

I’ve sat in seminars at conventions being told that shared world/tie-in fiction was a cancer on the genre. I’ve heard stodgy New York SF editors rudely dismiss readers of the fantasy genre, and vice versa. I’ve worked with brilliant authors who’ve had to suffer through friends and relatives asking them when they’re going to write “a real book,” even while the tie-in they just finished is sitting on the New York Times best sellers list.

One of my former bosses at Wizards of the Coast once contacted the agent of a major fantasy author (I won’t say who, but you’ve read his stuff) with a serious offer to write for us, only to have the agent laugh in her face and refuse even to go to the author with any offer. The world will never know if he’d have done it if his agent wasn’t irresponsibly “protecting” him from a real opportunity based on some package of entirely unsupported prejudices.

But now there seems to be a real change in the air. Is it the so-called “Death of the Midlist” that followed the book retail collapse? (I meant Borders closing up after helping to almost annihilate independent bookstores, which started to come back strong only to be elbowed in the face by COVID-19…) Is it finally a recognition that tie-ins, when well written, responsibly edited, and based on great properties are just as “real” as any of a particular author’s original work? Whatever the reason, Greg Bear’s written a Halo novel—but then he wrote a Star Trek book years ago, too. I know. I’ve read it. And Michael Moorcock wrote a Dr. Who book—and why not? Moorcock’s a Brit—no way he wasn’t a lifelong Dr. Who fan. Tie-ins aren’t just the launching pad anymore—places where authors get their feet wet before they move on to their “real” careers. Now those streams flow both ways.

 

Unfortunately here I have to step in from 2020 and bemoan the apparent collapse of the tie-in novel. We still see a few, but nowhere near what was maybe its peek around 1999-2005-ish? Do we blame online fan fiction? Do we blame an audience of young men who more or less stopped reading completely in favor of online gaming? Subject for another post, I suppose, though I will probably find it too depressing to write. Anyway…

 

A smart young author has to—repeat, has to—keep his or her mind open to opportunities to do what we do. We’re content providers, storytellers. And if we want to make a living doing that, we have to be professionals, which means we have to walk through the doors that are open. That doesn’t mean you have to write anything and everything that comes your way, but don’t reject any work, any opportunity to reach an audience, out of hand.

Science fiction and fantasy are huge right now (and remain so in 2020), the reach of the genres far outpacing the numbers coming out of the publishing business. There’s science fiction on TV: (warning: blasts from the past ahead!) I’ve been watching the new season of Dr. Who and lovin’ it, my DVR is set up to capture the Falling Skies pilot (I don’t even remember that), and I’m suffering through the Fringe hiatus as best I can (I got over it.). For Father’s Day on Sunday my wife and kids are taking me to see Green Lantern (I liked that movie… don’t judge me!). I saw X-Men: First Class while I was in LA for E3. Super 8 is selling tons of tickets, and the summer movie season has lots more SF and superheroes still to go.

 

Sigh… remember when there used to be a “summer movie season”? Anyway, the wall to wall SF, fantasy, and horror on TV has only grown in the last nine years: Game of Thrones, Dark, Tales From the Loop, Upload, Dispatches from Elsewhere… and on and on…

 

Then there are games… more games… game after game after game both electronic and “analog”—practically all of them are SF or fantasy in some way. E3 (2011) was full of SF and fantasy properties, mixed in with a small scattering of sports, music, and fitness games. Oh, boy, do I want that Aliens: Colonial Marines game (and I got it, and I played it), Rift is looking like the heir apparent to World of Warcraft (it wasn’t), and the 40k Space Marine game looks fraggin’ amazing (and it was and I played it all the way through)…

The list of my friends and professional acquaintances who write for either or both of the analog and digital gaming businesses is too long to recite here. Opportunities abound. What else? Could you write comic books? Screenplays? TV? Any sort of online content vehicle—even one you create yourself? Publish a novel or ongoing serial in blog form? Audio short stories or short plays in podcast form? Sometimes the best opportunities are the ones we make for ourselves.

Look at all those hungry vessels just waiting to be filled up with interesting stories. So does refusing to limit myself only to my super detailed, massive original epic fantasy series make me a sell out?

I don’t care.

I get paid to tell stories.

 

—Philip Athans

 

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E-book only still, at least for now…

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ANTICIPATORY ANXIETY AND THE LONG PARAGRAPH

Even if they aren’t reading aloud, our readers tend to breathe as if they were. That might not look or even feel exactlythe same as reading aloud, though I have seen people reading in public moving their lips, eyes bugged out, hand over their mouths, and otherwise really, really into it. And I love that, by the way, and always try to see what they’re reading, as unobtrusively as possible so as not to interrupt them, especially in that state. If a book can get someone to look like that, as far as I’m concerned it’s worth a look. Still, even if they aren’t breathing exactly as if reading aloud, your readers’ internal experience matches that sensation much more closely than you might think. The way you feel has a huge impact on how you breathe, and how you breathe has a huge impact on how you feel. If you don’t believe me, how about Thomas A. Richards, Ph.D. of the Anxiety Network, who wrote:

The flow of adrenaline and the resulting extra blood flow increases your strength and awareness of the danger. This extra “awareness” of the perceived danger may cause all sorts of feelings, such as dizziness, nausea, hyperventilation, heart palpitations, confusion, lack of control, unreality, being dazed, shaking, trembling, and sweaty palms, among others.

Neuroscientist Alex Korb, from his book The Upward Spiral:

Different types of breathing have different effects on the body and the brain. A study from Sweden showed that a combination of different breathing types (slow, fast, and superfast) increases feelings of optimism and decreases feelings of depression, anxiety, and overall stress.

Breathing affects the brain through signals carried by the vagus nerve. Not only does the vagus nerve send signals down to the heart, but it also carries signals up into the brain stem. Vagus nerve signaling is important in activating circuits for resting and relaxation, known as the parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic system is the opposite of the sympathetic nervous system, which controls the fight-or-flight instinct. Slow breathing increases activity in the vagus nerve and pushes the brain toward parasympathetic activity. Slow, deep breathing calms you down.

By contrast, rapid breathing deactivates the parasympathetic nervous system and activates the sympathetic nervous system. When you are anxious, excited, or scared, you breathe quickly. But it’s also true that if you breathe quickly, you’re more likely to feel those feelings. Fast breathing can make you more nervous—but also more excited.

A state of anxiety causes hyperventilation, and hyperventilation causes a sate of anxiety. What this means to authors—of any genre, really—is that if we think about how our readers are reading, on a physical level, we can start to manipulate their physical states to some specific effect.

I know, that sounds creepy, but so are stories about vampires, so…

But seriously, there’s no reason to believe you can actually do anyone actual harm by writing a piece of fiction, and none of these techniques will effect someone on so extreme a physical level that they’ll be physically altered in any way. What we’re looking for, and are limited by reality to, is subtle changes in breathing to nudge our readers into the feeling we’re hoping to convey in that scene.

Today let’s focus in on anticipatory anxiety. This is the feeling of fear or dread of something that is going to happen in the near future, or you’re afraid will happen in the near future. You’ve probably felt this from time to time, manifesting as things like “test anxiety” or the “fear” of some scheduled appointment—a job interview or doctor’s appointment. In this state of anxiety we tend to pause too long between breaths. Your mind is going through all these terrible possibilities and you focus in on what if I blow the interview, what if she says I have cancer, what if the plane goes down, what if I go to school tomorrow but forget to wear pants…?

So then if we want our readers to worry about what’s going to happen next, but we’re not ready to reveal the monster (the interview flub, the cancer diagnosis, etc.) that means we’ll need to prevent our readers from taking a deep breath. And this is done through the magic of punctuation!

  • An em-dash in the middle of a sentence indicates a sharp transition from one idea to another, with no pause at all.
  • A comma in the middle of a sentence signals a very short pause, just a quick breath.
  • Ellipsis in the middle of a sentence indicates a longer pause, time enough to take a breath, and the same is true of a  period at the end of a sentence.
  • A paragraph break indicates a deeper breath.

So then if you want your readers to experience a faux panic state, make them breathe more: more periods, more paragraph breaks, coming right on top of each other. But anticipatory anxiety, breathing less often and less deeply, means the opposite: a longer paragraph made up of longer sentences.

Still don’t believe me? Try breathing through this long paragraph from Shirley Jackson’s classic The Haunting of Hill House:

Hillsdale was upon her before she knew it, a tangled, disorderly mess of dirty houses and crooked streets. It was small; once she had come onto the main street she could see the corner at the end with the gas station and the church. There seemed to be only one place to stop for coffee, and that was an unattractive diner, but Eleanor was bound to stop in Hillsdale and so she brought her car to the broken curb in front of the diner and got out. After a minute’s thought, with a silent nod to Hillsdale, she locked the car, mindful of her suitcase on the floor and the carton on the back seat. I will not spend long in Hillsdale, she thought, looking up and down the street, which managed, even in the sunlight, to be dark and ugly. A dog slept uneasily in the shade against a wall, a woman stood in a doorway across the street and looked at Eleanor, and two young boys lounged against a fence, elaborately silent. Eleanor, who was afraid of strange dogs and jeering women and young hoodlums, went quickly into the diner, clutching her pocketbook and her car keys. Inside, she found a counter with a chinless, tired girl behind it, and a man sitting at the end eating. She wondered briefly how hungry he must have been to come in here at all, when she looked at the gray counter and the smeared glass bowl over a plate of doughnuts. “Coffee,” she said to the girl behind the counter, and the girl turned wearily and tumbled down a cup from the piles on the shelves; I will have to drink this coffee because I said I was going to, Eleanor told herself sternly, but next time I will listen to Dr. Montague.

This paragraph contains, believe it or not, only ten sentences. At eighteen words, the first sentence is the shortest, and the last is the longest: 52 words. Shirley Jackson refused to insert a paragraph break even where a copy editor would likely demand one, like before the single word of spoken dialog: “Coffee,” or the transitions between description and direct thought.

It all stays firmly and entirely inside Eleanor’s experience, inside her anxiety. Eleanor’s mind is racing, she’s hyper aware, because she’s excited and terrified at the prospect of getting to the haunted house—and so we are too—and she’s holding her breath. Shirley Jackson puts us firmly in Eleanor’s experience and keeps us there, which is precisely what fiction, almost by definition, is, does, and should do.

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

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CONVENTION ETIQUETTE FOR PROS & PANELISTS

Last week I advised that, at conventions, you behave at like a decent person with normal human levels of empathy and perfectly obvious ethical standards. Even though I know you didn’t need that advice because you’re not a cave-dwelling nitwit, it got me thinking about another one of my former Grasping for the Wind posts in which I offered some advice to authors and other professionals when it comes convention time. Now, in the COVID-cancelled no-convention year of 2020, and amid what to a casual observer might seem like an endless stream of accusations ranging from “inappropriate” to “violent felony,” it’s interesting to see what I stressed in January of 2011. I stand by this still, and recommend you pay heed, even if the next convention or conference you attend is via the Internet. So then, without further ado, I bring you back to 2011 without bothering to recalculate how many conventions we all have been to since…

 

Because I am a huge, gigantic nerd, I have saved all of my badges from every single convention I’ve ever attended, starting with IDECON II from March 14, 1981. I was badge number 8. IDECON was a one-day game convention put on by the games club of a neighboring high school. What makes me a huge, gigantic nerd as opposed to just a huge nerd is that all of these badges are lovingly taped into the endpapers of my first edition (4th Printing, May 1979) Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Players Handbook. My geek cred knows no boundaries.

That convention badge collection reads like the famous illustration of a monkey that becomes a bigger monkey then stands up straight then becomes a Neanderthal then becomes a human—The Ascent of Man—an evolution from teenaged gamer geek to middle-aged gamer/book/etc. professional in 29 easy steps over the last 30 years. A magical moment came when my two Gen Con 1995 single-day (Friday and Saturday) badges gave way to my Gen Con 1996 Staff badge, boldly emblazoned STF.

This was when I was thrust from the crowd to actually sit on panels, and even moderate a few. Thankfully, I had a big community of coworkers at TSR to give me advice, professional authors (Elaine Cunningham in particular) to rescue me when I started sinking while moderating my first author panel event, and still some years of trial and error followed. Not everyone goes in to a professional/panelist situation at a convention with the same support I had at TSR, but there have been conventions over the years where I’ve sat there thinking, “What is this guy’s deal?”

I was on a panel once with the late Chris Bunch, a big time SF author and an even bigger personality, horrified by the stream of obscenities he let loose on a book fair crowd. Somehow it worked for Chris, but…

Years later I attended a World Science Fiction Convention and was in the audience at a panel of editors when a cell phone went off—already a no-no—but it turns out the offending device belonged to one of the panelists, a well-known veteran editor from one of the major New York SF publishers. I won’t cause him to pass on my own future books by mentioning his name here, but the guy actually took the call, turning his back on the assembled convention-goers and chatting for a few minutes while we, and his fellow panelists, looked on with a mix of perplexed horror and righteous irritation.

Those two instances may seem like obvious faux pas, something no one would ever do, but in the interest of better convention experiences for all, I asked a few friends to help me provide some simple dos and don’ts for the professional conventioneer.

Show up on time and be ready for action

Richard Garfield, creator of Magic: The Gathering, and the very concept of the trading card game, doesn’t quite remember his first convention as a panelist, but thought it might have been, “Radcon 1994. I was at Gen Con 1993, but I doubt I was on any panels. Radcon was a small local convention (I was teaching at Whitman College) and I remember running some events there and I was also on some panels. I remember they had irradiated marbles as giveaways.” He’s been to between fifty and a hundred since then and cautions pros not to “show up just as the panel is ending. I have done that once this year already. Check your scheduled time and give yourself time to find the room if you aren’t familiar with the convention’s layout!”

Those maps in the convention programs aren’t just for the fans. If you volunteered to be at a certain place at a certain time, be at the right place at the right time. Convention staff will generally ask you to be at your room, or a convention green room, 5-15 minutes before your panel begins and ask that you start bringing the discussion to a close the same 5-15 minutes before the next seminar begins. Be respectful of the con’s carefully crafted and infinitely fragile schedule. When it’s time to start, start. When it’s time to stop, stop.

You don’t have to wear a tuxedo or formal gown, or even a suit, but be clean and tidy and generally “business casual” in appearance, and unless you’re speaking at the Adult Entertainment Expo or other professional events with no kids present (trade shows like E3, for instance), assume that not everyone in your audience is eighteen or over.

Be appropriate for family audiences in appearance, language, behavior, and visuals. If you have concerns about the material you might be covering, talk with the convention’s programming staff as soon as possible—they might be inclined to attach something to the schedule booklet to indicate that your presentation is recommended for mature audiences.

And when you get there, as Richard Garfield advises, “Make sure you have paper and a writing utensil when you have fellow panelists. Comments will strike you as they’re talking. You don’t want to derail them, but by the time you get a chance to step back in you may have forgotten the point you wanted to make.”

Know and prepare for the topic

If you’re on a panel discussing trends in e-book formats, for instance, please actually have something to say on that topic before you arrive. If you’ve found yourself assigned to a panel you don’t think is appropriate to your areas of expertise, inform the convention programming staff of your concerns as soon as possible.

Jim Minz, Senior Editor at Baen Books, has attended over a hundred conventions since Wiscon 18 in March 1994 and offers this advice: “Rather than just volunteering for programming, suggest a panel or two or three, ideally on topics right for you, and even better if you can include other people you know personally who are attending the con, would be appropriate for the panel, and would be happy to do the panel with you. Make the programmers’ lives easier with your volunteering, rather than putting the onus entirely on them to find a space for you.”

And again, a little prep goes a long way. “Even in panels which are largely question answer,” Richard Garfield told me, “at least some preparation will lead to a much better panel. Jot down some notes you want to cover, some stories that would interest the listeners. I have done panels with zero preparation (I always warn the host when that is a risk), and I feel it really isn’t respectful of the participants’ time.”

Award-winning mystery, romance, science fiction, and fantasy writer Kristine Kathryn Rusch has attended more than two hundred conventions over the last twenty-four or more years, and has served as a panel moderator at least once a convention. She cautions against too much preparation: “Those moderators who try to prepare ahead of time with a list of questions that everyone has vetted by e-mail have already failed at their job as moderator. The key is to have an interesting discussion, not one that’s rehearsed and planned for. And those moderators who insist the panelists write an opening statement should never be allowed to moderate again. Speaking off the top of your head is the best way to do it. Make sure everyone on the panel introduces themselves, take questions from the audience, and go from there.”

Sometimes the topic can be a little tricky. That panel I mentioned earlier on which I sat with Chris Bunch and two other authors, was on the topic of why fantasy seems to come in trilogies. I offered the opinion that The Lord of the Ringswas published as a trilogy, so people just started copying that. It was kind of a reductivist stance I’m not sure I can defend, but it was all I could think of at the time. The four of us pretty much just punted and it became a discussion on writing in general, heavily weighted toward research. I have no idea how that happened, but it’s a good segue to…

Think on your feet

Panel discussions in particular have a habit of wandering off topic. It’s okay, actually, but try to circle back as much as you can. After all, the people in the audience showed up for that seminar on that topic, instead of going to a different event happening at the same time. Give the people what they came for—as much as possible.

Jack Emmert, COO of Cryptic Studios (now with Daybreak, I believe…), has attended a dozen conventions or so over the past ten years, and agrees that a little variance from the topic at hand is okay, “if the audience seems to want it that way. But it’s when there’s an oddball who has their own axe to grind or point of view that a problem arises.”

Jim Minz says he’s “been known to play the Devil’s Advocate on a panel just to make it more interesting, because five people sitting around nodding and agreeing with one another can be quite boring—but either make it clear you’re being a Devils Advocate, or have a co-conspirator on the panel with whom it’s okay to pick a fight.”

That’s what I remember most about Chris Bunch—he was game for anything. But I have encountered fellow panelists who are less adaptable. Keep your eyes and ears open and do your best to get a sense of the room, which includes the rest of the panel.

“How far to stray will depend on the audience and its interests,” said Richard Garfield. “If the panelists are wandering off target I am usually happy to let them wander, especially if they are having a dialogue. I will pull them back to topic if I have more things I want to cover, but I am in no rush if they are engaged and the audience seems engaged. If questions from the audience are threatening to hijack the topic I will tell them there will be time for open questions at the end, and usually that puts an end to it. Then when the panel and audience have run their course on the topic I will open the floor to general questions.”

Manage the audience

Like me—like all of us, I’m sure—Kris Rusch has encountered her fair share of disruptive, intrusive, or downright weird audience members. She offers the following horror story:

“Usually, I verbally shut the person down. (I’m known for speaking my mind.) Only once did I fail. That was at a Westercon. Some guy in a beanie (seriously!) thought he knew more about science fiction than Connie Willis and I. He kept calling us ‘the girls’ and patronized us. Both Connie and I were so speechless at his rude sexism that we didn’t shut him down until the end of the panel. Then she and I spent the next hour in the bar apologizing to each other for not acting sooner. Otherwise, I talk over them, tell them to be quiet, or if it gets too bad, tell them to stop talking so other people will have a chance.”

Jim Minz has had his share, too, of “the bossy, overbearing audience member, and there is no one way to handle it, because the situation is always fluid. If I’m merely a panelist, I do try and let the moderator take the first crack at bringing the conversation back to the panelists. If I’m moderator, or if the moderator is failing in their efforts (or, worst-case scenario, the moderator is pals with the audience member and engaging/encouraging them even when they are not on topic, or have no reasonable credentials on the topic), I start with trying to deflect and redirect with a bit of humor (not humor at the expense of the audience member—self-deprecating humor is usually the most useful). Do not engage/encourage, but you also try to not be rude. If all else fails, you can be blunt, without being rude. Just a simple ‘That’s interesting. What do you think, [name of fellow panelist, preferably one you know is ready to jump in], would you agree with that?’ That way you’re cutting them off, but involving someone else, so as to be non-confrontational. It’s not really that difficult.”

But it is necessary. Minz goes on to say that he’s been “on hundreds of panels, and there’s only been one occasion where a moderator finally just had to tell the person point blank, ‘Listen, the people in this audience came to hear the panelists speak on this topic. We appreciate your input, but it’s time to give the audience what they came here for.’ They were actually much more restrained than I would’ve been, but it was very early in my career. Now I appreciate and try to emulate that kind of restraint.”

But again, keep your head on a swivel, and ride out the situation as it unfolds. Sometimes, a particularly energetic audience member can save a sagging seminar.

According to Minz, “there has been more than one occasion when the audience member had serious, intelligent things to say on the topic, and in fact had better credentials to be on the panel than I did, at which point I recommend you seriously consider inviting them up to be a panelist—though don’t let them dominate, let them contribute.”

Share the stage

I prefer panels to solo acts, myself. It’s usually easier to share the stage, having someone there to work off of, to throw to when you’re at a loss, and to feed you new questions and topics of conversation. In accordance with the Golden Rule, I try to do they same. Ask questions of the other panelists, shut up while they answer, laugh when they’re funny, and save them when they’re floundering.

“When there are multiple people on a panel,” Richard Garfield will, “always try to share around the questions, asking other panelists’ opinions when it is appropriate. It is best with a panel if there is a dialogue and some different opinions and a variety of stories rather than one panelist doing all the talking.”

But what if one of your fellow panelists goes off the deep end?

Jack Emmert has “been with people that dominate the talking so much, I might as well have not attended. Typically, I hold my tongue and just let it go. I figure it must be important to them, so I let it be.”

Kris Rusch agrees, to a point: “If they’re a panelist, I’ll sometimes suffer in silence, sometimes argue with them, and sometimes flatly tell them to shut up so that others can talk. It all depends on the situation. I’m in the position, after so many conventions, that I’m usually the most experienced person on the panel and the others will default to me if need be.”

Having served as panel moderator, Rusch maintains that the moderator’s role is “to keep the panel interesting, make sure everyone gets a chance to talk, and to shut down the panel-hogs.”

This is a good place to remember to keep that ego in check. Richard Garfield is as close as there is to a rock star in the hobby gaming community, and has experienced problems with an audience “steering the panel into an area where only one of us was a real participant. For example, on a board game panel we start getting all Magic questions. In this case I would attempt to rephrase the questions in a broader way that other panelists might have input to. For example, if I were asked about what I thought about the changes in balance to Magic over the years I would probably talk a little on that, and broaden the topic to balancing games in general and ask one of my panelists about one of their games’ balance, or how the game changed over editions.”

And don’t be afraid to disagree with your fellow panelists. Respect everyone’s voice, but don’t allow yourself to be bullied or intimidated into agreeing with anyone.

According to Minz, “If you’re on a lot of panels, you’re going to have disagreements; I’ve never taken them personally, and I sincerely hope the feeling was mutual. In general, I try and avoid being on panels that might be too inflammatory: on politics, or hot button topics, all of which I freely discuss over drinks in a bar, but try to avoid in formal, potentially recorded settings. A few sparks make for an entertaining panel, but preferably sparks with someone you already have a strong relationship with.”

And some words of wisdom from Kris Rusch: “Remember that you’re on the panel for a reason—and the reason is notto promote your books. It’s to entertain the audience. If they find you interesting, they’ll look for your work. So don’t sit there like a bump on a log. Participate. But don’t hog the panel. You’ll be the least experienced person there, so defer to the folks who have more fans in the audience. (Someday that will be you.) If someone challenges you, answer them politely. If you disagree, do so with wit and verve. If you have something important to add, do it. And enjoy yourself. Everyone else will as well.”

In other words…

Say what you mean and mean what you say

What was that Jim Minz said about panels being recorded? “Some conventions record panels and speeches, and in this day and age, many fans are recording panels and speeches right on their smart phones, etc. So if you’re on a panel, remember the mic’s always on. Once you’re in front of the audience, even if the panel hasn’t officially started, never say or do anything you don’t want the whole world to hear or see.”

New York Times best-selling author Matthew W. Stover’s first convention was the World Fantasy Convention in October of 1995, shortly before his first novel, Iron Dawn, was released. He’s had a sort of love-hate relationship with conventions since then, but in terms of what to say and what not to say, offers this advice:

“Eschew surplusage.”

Twain’s too concise? Then Shakespeare: “Brevity is the soul of wit.”

Or Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Spartans, stoics, heroes, saints and gods use a short and positive speech.”

Most people will only recall three things from your speech, presentation, or panel. Don’t let two of them be how boring you are.

You just have to have your brain set at 10 the whole time. Think before, during, and after you speak, and if you put your foot in your mouth, it’s better to apologize, turn it around with a joke, or ask for a moment to clarify. Doing that a week later on Twitter will ring hollow. Doing it right then only humanizes you.

Keep your cool, and roll with it

You honestly don’t have to love conventions. In fact, there’s a lot about them to hate. Matt Stover told me he doesn’t really care for conventions, which he sees as “kind of a chore. There are writers who are naturally gregarious—especially in my end of the business, franchise fiction. A lot of media tie-in writers start as fans, hanging around these conventions. A lot of the ‘serious stylists’ start in grad school or workshops, and have their own circle of writers they trust and interact with, who read and critique each other’s scripts. I started as an out-of-work actor who had a fiancée, a cat, and an electric typewriter. When my first novel sold, the only working author I had ever met was me.

“It makes my relationship with conventions kind of . . . difficult.”

I guess all this boils down to one thing: Be prepared, mentally, for anything.

And I do mean anything.

“The funniest thing I ever encountered,” Jack Emmert told me, “is when I was running Marvel Super Hero demos for TSR back in the day. One participant was running the character Storm—who had powerful control over the weather. He wanted to shoot one of his fellow X-Men with a lightning bolt. When I said that wasn’t very heroic, the person asked, ‘Well, then can I knife him?’ ”

Richard Garfield once found himself signing Magic cards at a convention in Germany, “and there was no line just a crowd, which was so unruly I had hands sticking at me from all directions. When my handlers finally cleared out the crowd after ninety grueling minutes I saw that things were so crazy that I had actually signed half a dozen of my own cards that were lying on my table without realizing it.”

And keep your cool not just with the fans but with the convention staff as well. No convention I’ve ever been to from IDECON II onward has gone off without a hitch. There are hitches on top of hitches on top of hitches in even the best-run conventions.

“Almost all of these conventions are being run by people who are volunteering their time and effort,” Jim Minz reminds us. “No matter the bumps that you may encounter, remember, they could be spending their time, effort, and passion on numerous other endeavors, so appreciate that passion, and understand things may not always go smoothly at a con, because this ain’t their day job, this is what they’re doing for fun.”

And I’ll give Mr. Minz the last word with some vital advice:

“Relax, be yourself, and most important of all, to quote Cosmo Brown—Donald O’Connor’s character in Singing In The Rain—Make ’em Laugh!”

 

—Philip Athans

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WRITE FROM YOUR SELF

I’m writing this from the continuing COVID-19 crisis, the accelerating economic fallout, and the inevitable political firestorms that rage in and around those things and all the endemic problems those things shine a brighter and brighter light on. This is a time when everything seems political, when anything seems to be somehow controversial, when no opinion is without vehement disapproval… and we’re supposed to keep writing during this? We’re supposed to just press on?

It’s 2020 and there’s no excuse for obviously bad behavior. I will not accept that there’s anyone out there who “didn’t know” or “didn’t realize” that their obviously abusive, even violent behavior wasn’t obviously abusive or violent. It’s not a matter of trying to navigate some new, ever-changing set of arbitrary rules—the rules have been there all along and are not arbitrary. Please tell me you’ve known all along that it’s not okay to strangle someone or rape someone or force someone out of any part of any community because of things like race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc. This isn’t a post about how to behave at conventions: behave like a decent person with normal human levels of empathy and perfectly obvious ethical standards. This isn’t a post about which authors are “problematic” and so therefor should be silenced. And this isn’t a post about how to not be silenced by writing within some set of new, ever-changing set of arbitrary rules that don’t actually exist in any case.

This is a post reminding you to write, first and foremost, for your self. Write a story that says what you want to say, and says it in the way you want to say it, without fear of disapproval from some unknown “they.” Let’s be honest, there really is no they there.

Now, this doesn’t mean you try to sell a middle grade fantasy with A Game of Thrones levels of sex and violence in it. There will be some reasonable category limitations that you need to learn and adopt as part of being a reasonable professional—going back to that idea of normal human levels of empathy and perfectly obvious ethical standards.

This also doesn’t mean that you have to write outside your comfort zone, or write to shock, if you are writing for an adult audience. But even then, careful about putting too many filters between yourself and your writing. You may not want to go as far as Allen Ginsberg, quoted in a 1966 Paris Review interview:

The problem is, where it gets to literature, is this. We all talk among ourselves and we have common understandings, and we say anything we want to say, and we talk about our assholes, and we talk about our cocks, and we talk about who we fucked last night, or who we’re gonna fuck tomorrow, or what kinda love affair we have, or when we got drunk, or when we stuck a broom in our ass in the Hotel Ambassador in Prague—anybody tells one’s friends about that. So then—what happens if you make a distinction between what you tell your friends and what you tell your Muse? The problem is to break down that distinction: When you approach the Muse to talk as frankly as you would talk with yourself or with your friends.

…but tell your story in your voice, emphasize what feels important, brush past what doesn’t. Personally, I’ve never had a conversation with my friends about assholes and cocks, so my Muse will be safe from that. But that’s me, not you, and not, apparently, Allen Ginsberg. Filter yourself based on your instincts not on what you think most people will think is okay, what you think agents want to sell, what you think editors want to publish, what readers want to read. This is especially important since, I assure you, you have no idea what most people will think is okay, what agents want to sell, what editors want to publish, what readers want to read. What all those people want is something original, fresh, readable, and entertaining—in one way or another.

And I’m hardly the first or only person to point this out. In an interview, again, with the Paris Review, the brilliant James Baldwin said:

Obviously you can only deal with your life and work from the vantage point of your self. There isn’t any other vantage point, there is no other point of view. I can’t say about any of my characters that they are utter fictions. I do have a sense of what nagged my attention where and when; even in the dimmest sense I know how a character impinged on me in reality, in what we call reality, the daily world. And then, of course, imagination has something to do with it. But it has got to be triggered by something, it cannot be triggered by itself.

It’s true that characters, however fictitious they eventually become, at the very least start with someone we know in one way or another from reality. And there I am again with “one way or another.” Some authors populate their books with fictionalized (or even semi-fictionalized) people from their own lives: friends, enemies, relatives, coworkers, teachers, etc. Actually, I should say: all authors do this, even those authors who aren’t consciously aware of those connections. We also conjure up people from history or current events, people we’ve never met in real life but who we have some opinion about. These are people we admire or despise… it doesn’t really matter. But we, authors, are people who live in a community of other people. We don’t know anything of people except what we’ve experienced of people, so when we set out to create a fictional person, we of course draw from that set of experiences. And yes, this absolutely goes for fantasy and science fiction as well, even if you don’t know any real life wizards or Martians.

Likewise, fantasy and science fiction of course can convey your view of the world around you. Same as you’ll use real people to inspire your fantasy characters, you’ll use the real world to inspire your fantasy worldbuilding. Genre fiction absolutely can, and I submit always does, have something to say. But does that mean we have to censor ourselves in response to tense and judgmental times? Keep in mind, yet again, that we always want to remain in possession of normal human levels of empathy and perfectly obvious ethical standards, but it’s also worth noting that a fantasy novel, any more than a “literary” or historical novel, can’t hypnotize people into believing something they wouldn’t normally believe. The novel 1984 definitely got a lot of people thinking, but in no way put an end to oligarchical totalitarianism, and Dune may have warned against the dangers of a single resource economy, but fifty-six years later we’re still just as addicted to oil as we’ve ever been.

In “Problems of Fantasy,” S.C. Fredricks wrote:

We should now admit that Fantasy fiction is not intended to inculcate dogmatic beliefs. If it were, why should Fantasy also always be so idiosyncratic, so unique and personal in its vision of reality, so individualistic in its style and expression? This does not sound like a very intelligent or effective way to proselytize for one’s narrow religious or philosophical cause. The stronger thesis is that Fantasy should make us sensitive to the bad beliefs that we already have and open to new, better ones. Fantasy is in this sense intellectually subversive. Such a view implies, for instance, that C.S. Lewis’ Perelandra-trilogy should be read as an imaginative critique of modern scientism and not as closely argued orthodox theology (though this does not preclude Lewis from being a fairly orthodox Christian). Fantasy thus seems to appeal to the intellectual non- conformist in us all.

I like that—I like thinking of myself as an intellectual non-conformist. But still, as Richard Russo warned us in “The Lives of Others”:

Writers use people. We tell stories because we must. And the source of that must isn’t talent or knowledge or the authenticity that derives from research and lived experience. It’s mystery. What we don’t understand is what beckons to us.

Follow your muse, write for your self, and just like you find characters in the world around you, some you love and some you hate, readers will find authors in the libraries and bookshops around them, some they love and some they hate.

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

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PILE ON THE HUGE: SCIENCE FICTION & FANTASY ON (OR OFF) A BUDGET

I didn’t want to just re-post every one of the guets posts I wrote for Grasping for the Wind nine or ten years ago. And in any case I was looking only for those that still felt relevant, but I was flipping through that folder and this one just begged to be reposted here completely unedited. I still stand by the premise, 100%, so let’s leave in the charming period piece aspects of it entirely as is, shall we?

 

At Wondercon in San Francisco last month I went to the Green Lantern movie presentation, where the movie’s star, Ryan Reynolds, showed a nice big chunk of footage from the movie. Even though I’m not really much of a Green Lantern fan I was blown away by what I saw. The scale of this movie—at least the parts we saw at Wondercon—is absolutely enormous. We travel to the world of Oa, home of the Green Lantern Corp, and the city, with its hordes of aliens, is so magnificently realized it was actually breathtaking.

And that got me thinking about a few passages from The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, in which I advised authors to think big, in regards to establishing a sense of place:

Without a well-considered sense of place your characters are wandering through a gray void, talking to each other like characters in a cheap one-act off-Broadway play. No offense to cheap one-act off-Broadway plays—they have a brilliance all their own—but you’re writing a novel (or a short story) and so have an unlimited “budget” for set design or location shooting. Your story can take place anywhere. Fantasy should take place in fantastic surroundings and science fiction should be set in a richly realized future—surroundings that become characters in themselves.

And on the subject of a “supporting cast”:

I’ve said before that if you’re writing a novel, you don’t have to worry about budgets for special effects, costumes, makeup, and set design, so you can make the world as big as you like. Similarly, you have no budget for actors, so you could have a million extras in your giant throne room, and any number of characters with names and lines, oblivious to Screen Actors Guild contract stipulations.

More on worldbuilding:

A richly realized world is not more important than compelling characters, good writing, or creative, well-balanced action, but its creation can be more complex. We’ll fall back on methods we’ve covered earlier, especially the idea of asking yourself an open-ended series of questions, giving yourself permission to work outside of a special effects budget and “think big,” and so on. But we’ll also talk a little bit about restraint, so you don’t end up with an unrecognizable, overly-complex setting no one can grasp.

And finally:

If you’re creating a world of your own, really make it your own. Remember, you have no special effects budget when you’re writing a novel, so let your imagination soar. Let your world be as big as you can imagine, as long as your characters are big enough not to get lost in it.

Then I went to see the movie Thor. Of course I went to see Thor. Are you kidding me?

Discussions of Marvel comics vs. movie continuity and other details aside, I loved it. And one of the things I loved most about it was the immense scale of at least parts of the movie. Asgard was appropriately mammoth and amazing, Jotenheim and its (literally) gigantic denizens was no less mammoth and darkly amazing in its own right. Thor, and what I’ve seen so far of Green Lantern, not to mention the trailers for the third Transformers movie, Captain America,and more, really got me thinking about that advice to authors to keep thinking big.

Actor/filmmaker Albert Brooks was on the May 11, 2011 episode of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, promoting his new novel 2030: The Real Story of What Happens to America. “I wrote this as a novel because I’m only given small budgets (for the movies he directs),” Brooks told Jon Stewart. “I’ve learned how to write to a few million dollars.” He went on to joke about how he’d edit down his screenplays to take out all the expensive stuff, whittling it down to something he could make for a few million dollars, as opposed to Green Lantern’s reported nine-figure price tag. “But (in his novel) I have a pilotless jet quietly landing at Reagan International Airport—oh my God, I looked behind as though someone was going to say ‘you’re arrested,’ you know? ‘You’ve got to go to writer’s jail. You can’t write like that.’ ” He ended with, “So that was why I wanted to write a novel.”

Maybe he should talk to his agent about working for Marvel, DC, or Hasbro.

And there’s no sign that Hollywood is slowing down, much less stopping, it’s full-court SF/fantasy epic machine. Morgan Freeman is reportedly still trying to get a major film version of Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous With Ramaunder way. The Avengers is a go project for sure. There are more than rumors of an Alien prequel from Ridley Scott, and Pixar is working on a live action adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s A Princess of Mars.

The blogosphere is chock full of lists of great SF and fantasy classics that have not (yet, at least) been made into movies but that should. Personally, I want to see Michael Moorcock’s Elric series, Larry Niven’s Ringworld, Frederick Pohl’s Gateway, and William Gibson’s Neuromancer most of all. The technology now exists to make these books soar as movies. So let’s get going, Hollywood!

As for writers, aspiring and otherwise, I stand behind every word of that advice from The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, but if it deserves to be rewritten at all, it may be to include a caveat that even if you’re writing a screenplay, go ahead and pile on the huge. Who knows, a studio may just pony up $200,000,000 to bring your vision to IMAX 3D life.

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

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IS SCIENCE FICTION BAD FOR US?

This article was originally guest-posted on the now defunct blog Grasping for the Wind in December of 2010. As I promised a few weeks ago, I’ll resurrect a few of those dozen or so posts, depending on how they’ve aged. And this one will show its age in a few ways, but I think the overall point is still valid, and worthy of consideration…

 

For years now—decades even—there has been an argument in play in political circles in this country that violent action in movies, television, and especially now in video games has a desensitizing effect on children. The “logic” is that if children “witness” thousands of murders before, say, their eighteenth birthday, they grow up to be violent adults, having been taught by the media that not only is there nothing wrong (scary, distasteful, or even illegal) about violence, but that acting out violently makes you cool.

Or something like that.

I imagine by now you’ve sorted out from my use of quotes how I feel about this post hoc ergo propter hoc argument in terms of violent behavior stemming directly from violent fictional content.

If you haven’t figured it out from the quotes, I’ll just say it: I think it’s crap.

But then something else just happened.

On December 2 (2010), astronomers announced that there are actually three times as many stars in the universe as we thought there were. That same day, NASA confirmed (then later walked back) that they had discovered arsenic-based life in Mono Lake, California, which seemed to indicate the presence of a terrestrial shadow biosphere. That day I was all aflutter with these two news items, popping in and out of my SF-author/fan-heavy corner of the Twitterverse, which was equally aflutter… but then I rejoined the mainstream world.

I’ll bet you real money a nationwide poll would tell you that more Americans know the name of the porn star who rode out Charlie Sheen’s latest drug-fueled tantrum (that pegs it on the pop culture timeline, doesn’t it) than had even heard of either of these events, much less exhibit the simplest understanding of their implications.

Why is that?

I’ll admit that the larger implications of a possible second biosphere on Earth (and a microbial one at that), much less the number of red dwarves in the universe can be esoteric at best. But the relative weight of the day’s “news” made me stop and think about why scientific developments so rarely capture the attention of the media, which is ostensibly making decisions on what to cover based on what their customers have told them they want to hear about.

I did a little Googling (again, nine and a half years ago), and this is what I found: A search for “Mono Lake arsenic life” yielded 243,000 Google results, while the term “Charlie Sheen porn star” gave back 341,000 results. Vagaries in Google’s metrics aside, that seems to indicate that there are 98,000 more web sites that mention “Charlie Sheen” and “porn star” in the same breath than mention “Mono Lake” and “arsenic life.” But again, the implications of the Mono Lake find are a little on the obscure side, so what if we just went with personalities?

On a lark I figured I’d Google the most famous (then) living scientist I know of, Stephen Hawking, and came up with a heartening 4,730,000 results, which made me really excited when I discovered that, sans “porn star,” Charlie Sheen netted only 3,700,000 results, which I insist means that Stephen Hawking is more famous than Charlie Sheen. A win for science! Until, that is, I typed in the name Paris Hilton and was knocked on my faux Gucci handbag by her whopping 51,500,000 Google search results.

Granted, that news is probably most disturbing to Charlie Sheen, but I would really like it to be disturbing to everyone.

At the same time NASA was telling us about lots more stars and critters we didn’t know we’ve been sharing our planet with, I’ve been reading more science fiction, including the Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle classic The Mote in God’s Eye, as well as a little science: The Eerie Silence by Paul Davies, both of which I’ve written about at Fantasy Author’s Handbook. Something made me ask: Is all this science fiction’s fault?

If violent video games desensitize people to violence, does science fiction desensitize people to science?

Let’s face it, there’s nothing about the first inklings of the possibility of a terrestrial shadow biosphere that’s as entertaining as the extraterrestrial car/robots of Transformers, the cantina scene in Star Wars, even the remake of V, or any of the other thousands and thousands of depictions of extraterrestrials science fiction has provided us. And a few more stars, even a few planets orbiting them? Big deal. The crew of the Enterprise went to a new planet every week or so. I couldn’t help getting the feeling that the overwhelming majority of the public greets science reporting with a cynical grunt and, “Yeah, let me know when it’s about to grab my face and lay an egg in my stomach.” Until then, it’s just not interesting.

And that goes double for technology. I’m enough of a full on geek that my new 4G smart phone blows my freakin’ mind. I feel as though I’m living the science fiction novels I read as a kid in the seventies. But it seems that almost everyone else just shrugs this stuff off, like, “Sure, my phone can tell me where I am on Earth—anywhere I am on Earth—at the flick of a touch screen. Why couldn’t it?” In fact, it’s gotten to be a sort of hobby, people criticizing science fiction for all the times they got the future wrong.

In his article “Space Colonization in Three Histories of the Future,” John Hickman wrote:

Retrospective story telling is attractive not only because of the overlap in the audiences for popular science and hard science fiction but also it lends a measure of pleasing inevitability to the promise of space colonization. For writers intent on sneaking past the messy problems of financing and populating their future space colony, there is nothing quite so effective as the sense of inevitability for giving readers permission to engage in wishful thinking. Crucial to the perpetration of this literary deception is analogy to some incorrectly conceived historical episode of frontier opening on Earth.

I interpret this to mean that SF is fun, but pretty much entirely without basis and results only in some pointless thought-experiments, setting aside the fact that he’s missing the point of what science fiction actually is, which is a means of commenting on the present by extrapolating into the future and only in the most naive cases is it actually meant to postulate some future reality. But Hickman’s criticisms continue by targeting the 2008 Robert Zubrin book:

How to Live on Mars is loosely modeled on the dozens of guidebooks published for prospective emigrants to the mid-19th century interior American West. The perhaps unintentional irony is that it shares some of their worst flaws. Typically the products of journalistic imagination rather than direct experience on the frontier, those old guidebooks usually promoted the economic interests of particular railroad lines and particular towns.

From this we’re led to believe that at least one of SF’s sacred cows (that space colonization is akin to the colonization of North America) is utterly baseless, or at least based on a convenient/populist mis-read of history. In other words, if we press out into space with that in mind, we’re doomed to repeat our forefathers’ worst mistakes. There are science fiction novels and movies, including the ham-fisted Avatar, that actually recognize this potential, that we might spread the worst of our mercantile and environmental sins into a galaxy of innocent aborigines.

The colonization of the moon for the purpose of mining helium-3 is another trope that Hickman tore down:

Beyond the optimistic projections that… fusion reactor technology will become a practical way to generate electricity, there are two other obvious wrinkles in the tissue of expectation.

I’m leaving off what those two insurmountable obstacles to moon colonization might be, mostly because he’s generally correct, but I like that line: “wrinkles in the tissue of expectation.” See? Science fiction gives us unhealthy expectations of a utopian future.

If you’re willing to believe that violent games cause real violence, it’s at least as easy to see that futurist predictions that don’t come true cause cynical reactions against the would-be prognosticators who made them, despite the fact that specific technological predication is rarely the SF author’s aim.

In “15 Predictions About the Future That Failed Miserably,” (an article I can no longer find…) Stephen Kral started out with:

If you watched movies or TV shows at all in the last fifty or so years, then you’ve seen just about everything the future has in store for us. You’ve seen us conquer aliens, you’ve seen machines conquer us, and you’ve seen crazy batshit technology doing crazy batshit things. The only kicker is that you never got to see this stuff in real life. Which, in most cases, would be a good thing (Alien invasions? No thank you), but then there’s the stuff that we would want and that we are still waiting for (flying cars anyone?). Here are some of those cases. That is, the most noteworthy cases in which the future predictions of television and cinema, failed us miserably…

The article then went on to bemoan the absence of all the horrible things that didn’t happen, including Terminator’s nuclear apocalypse, 1984’s, well, Orwellian totalitarian oligarchy (which has come true, by the way), or Red Dawn’s ridiculous invasion of the United States by USSR-supported Nicaragua and Cuba.

Really? You’re mad because no one ever actually built Skynet, and Skynet didn’t actually become self aware in either 1997 or 2004, and didn’t actually try to kill us all with nuclear weapons and unstoppable robotic assassins? Sorry, and yeah, James Cameron is a big fat liar.

This business was turned upside down, thankfully, in Sarah Kessler’s article “11 Astounding Sci-Fi Predictions That Came True” in which she points out that SF authors have indeed gotten it right sometimes, and have predicted everything from the iPad (described in spooky detail in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey—and you can see a moon astronaut using one in the movie) to Hugo Gernsback’s 1911 description, in “Ralph 124C 41+,” of a device that operates entirely like RADAR, which was not actually realized until 1933.

And in my recommendation of Paul Davies’s The Eerie Silence I threw myself at the feet of scientists who were inspired, like Davies, into a career in science by way of the SF they were exposed to as kids.

Okay, so tripling the number of stars and doubling the number of biospheres isn’t as viscerally entertaining as that opening space battle in Star Wars Episode III, and I guess I’m in the minority in being more caught up in the idea of setting out from the Gateway asteroid on a mysterious journey to the farthest reaches of space than I am in imagining being trapped in the bathroom while Charlie Sheen trashes a hotel room. But in the same way that actual crime statistics argue the direct opposite of the violent games equals violent kids argument, there might be an argument against the same post hoc ergo propter hoc argument that science fiction creates scientific ambivalence.

Damien G. Walter wrote in his article for the Guardian,Stranger Than Science Fiction”:

“…throughout human history, from Homer to Milton and beyond, the form of fiction most trusted to touch the truth was not realism but fantasy and myth. It seems the permeability of the barrier between fiction and reality is nothing new, at least to writers.

And the fact that Grand Theft Auto was most popular during one of the least violent periods in recorded history and a movement was organized around the opposite assumption, might just mean that I should go back to thinking SF is good for us, because after all, Avatar was released smack dab in the middle of a scientific and technological golden age unparalleled in all of human history, and no one seems to give a crap.

Except science fiction fans.

 

—Philip Athans

 

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LET ME TELL YOU SOMETHING YOU ALREADY KNOW

Two tweets stuck out to me yesterday. One was from an indie author bemoaning her poor sales. Ads she’d paid for didn’t result in any sales. And she said she was going to give up on her book and assumed no one would ever read it. That made me think of a similar but even sadder tweet from a few weeks ago. Another indie author reported on her book launch, crushed she only sold one copy on the first day. She also seemed prepared to give up.

To that, I say: Give up then. This isn’t for you. If you dreamed up a writing “career” that was massive instant success or nothing, well… that was your first mistake.

Then I happened upon another tweet asking for recommendations, for the most inspiring movies. I was going to reply that the single most inspiring moment in the history of cinema is this:

…but of course someone beat me to it.

Then my brain connected those tweets, and I thought maybe the writing community needed to hear this, absorb this, take this to heart. So here it is again in text form. Read this before you give up because you only sold one book on your “launch day.” Read this before you vilify the evil gatekeepers like agents and editors. Read this before you do anything that means anything to you, and especially before you quit doing anything that means anything to you.

You ain’t gonna believe this, but you used to fit right here. I’d hold you up to say to your mother, ‘This kid’s gonna be the best kid in the world. This kid’s gonna be somebody better than anybody I ever knew.’ And you grew up good and wonderful. It was great just watchin’ you, every day was like a privilege. Then the time come for you to be your own man and take on the world, and you did. But somewhere along the line, you changed. You stopped being you. You let people stick a finger in your face and tell you you’re no good. And when things got hard, you started lookin’ for something to blame, like a big shadow.

Let me tell you something you already know. The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place, and I don’t care how tough you are, it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard you hit, it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!

Now if you know what you’re worth, then go out and get what you’re worth! But you gotta be willing to take the hits. And not pointing fingers saying you ain’t where you wanna be because of him, or her, or anybody! Cowards do that and that ain’t you! You’re better than that!

I’m always gonna love you no matter what. No matter what happens. You’re my son and you’re my blood. You’re the best thing in my life. But until you start believing in yourself, you ain’t gonna have a life.”

Thank you, Mr. Stallone. You are absolutely right.

 

—Philip Athans

 

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WHAT CAN I SAY?

I don’t think America needs to or wants to hear from another middle aged white guy right now. I don’t know what to say about what’s going on in the streets of almost every city in the country, and I certainly have no ability to plumb the depths to which the current temporary resident of the White House might yet sink. I guess all I can say is that I stand with life, with my fellow humans, who come in a variety of shapes, sizes, colors, and personalities.

No one should be strangled to death in the street for any reason ever.

How is it “controversial” to say that? And how is it possible that it has to be said then defended in the first week of June in the year 2020? I was born in 1964, into a country having precisely this same conversation as the Civil Rights Movement gathered steam, and tremendous progress has been made in the half-century or so since then, but still this?

And it’s not, I don’t think, a coincidence that systemic inequality has once again come to a head in the midst of the ongoing CORVID-19 crisis. In her Paris Review article “How Pandemics Seep Into Literature,” Elizabeth Outka wrote:

The xenophobia woven into a “Chinese virus” or even the “Spanish flu” sets up whole groups for denunciation. Factual medical descriptions of contagion, disease, and contamination morph into poisonous discriminatory metaphors of moral uncleanness and danger. The early-twentieth-century horror writer H.P. Lovecraft channeled into his postwar/postpandemic writing his prejudicial and homophobic beliefs that immigrant hordes and deviants were tainting pure Aryan blood lines. After the influenza pandemic had swept through his home state of Rhode Island, Lovecraft populated his stories with proto-zombie figures rising from the dead in the midst of pandemics or wars, bent on further destruction. Lovecraft transforms a miasmic blend of diseased atmospheres and deep-seated prejudices into monsters that can be seen and killed with impunity, a move that suggests the dangerous ways anthropomorphizing the threat may mask vicious discriminatory impulses.

Confine people; show them terrible things happening, leave them to guess what might happen next; tell them “we just don’t know” when or even if we’ll go back to work, to restaurants and bars, or game night with friends; blame some or all of it on some or all “others;” and how can this not go terribly, terribly wrong? And the coming economic depression hasn’t even started yet. Ultimately, though, when one group is told that those people are all murderers and anarchists and another group is told that that those people are all murderers and fascists and other groups are told to take a side and stay there lest the entire world collapse around us all, well, how can this not go terribly, terribly wrong?

I happened to be flipping through the TV last week, early in the morning, and decided to rewatch the HBO documentary Studs Terkel: Listening to America. Even before what happened in Minnesota, I was moved to write down this quote:

In all my books, this is the premise, this is the postulate: that people are basically decent, people do have an innate intelligence, but day after day you call upon malevolence, day after day you call upon smallness, day after day you call upon trivia, and you make that the headline, something must happen to people.

Studs Terkel was right, and that interview is at least twenty years old now. Something must, and something has happened to people.

So then, as writers, what do we do with all this?

I’ll dip back into the Paris Review and Wayne Kostenbaum’s thoughts on “The Writer’s Obligation” for at least a little help:

Mask and task are two nouns—two behaviors—I love. From Oscar Wilde come masks; from the Marquis de Sade, and from Yahweh, come tasks. After Eden, masks and tasks. In Eden, we had neither. Literature—the respite of the fallen—is the process of making do with mask and task, diverting ourselves with tasks that mask our disenfranchisement.

I don’t know… what can I say?

Keep writing.

 

—Philip Athans

 

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FIVE THINGS EVERY ASPIRING AUTHOR SHOULD KNOW

This article was originally guest-posted on the now defunct blog Grasping for the Wind in November of 2010. As I promised last week, I’ll resurrect a few of those dozen or so posts, starting with these five nuggets for those authors just starting out.

ONE: Don’t limit your own creativity.

Time and again I’ve read a particular piece of advice for writers that says you should create for yourself a special place in which to write. Make sure it’s in a clean, well-lit, ventilated place, maybe with a vase of freshly-cut flowers, a tub of warm water on the floor in which to soak your feet while you write out your book long-hand using high quality vellum paper and the most expensive fountain pen you can afford.

This is awful advice. If you have this kind of special writing nook set up at home, as soon as you’re finished reading this, please begin to dismantle it. Then do this instead:

Buy a laptop computer. If you’re using anything but a computer to write you’re indulging in a silly affectation that only a very very few established eccentrics will be allowed to get away with, and even then I don’t really think they’re getting away with it. [Okay… that’s what I really believed ten years ago, since then I have started writing by hand—not always, but often—and I love it. So ignore my snarky dismissal of a decade ago, but also please don’t over-spend on fancy notebooks and pens!] It is an essential tool of the trade now. A writer without a computer is like a carpenter without a hammer.

What makes a laptop better than a desktop computer is that you can take it just about anywhere, which means you can write just about anywhere. And if you’re really serious about doing this, you should be able to write just about anywhere, even if there’s noise, even if the sun is up, or the sun is down, or it’s a weekday or a weekend or you’re at a convention, or whatever.

If you insist on being in your special little cocoon, all you’re really doing is imposing artificial limits on your own creativity—when and how you can write—which means you’re imposing artificial limits on how much work you’re actually doing. The world will find ways to impose itself on your precious writing time. Don’t give it any help.

TWO: Do it for anything but the money.

Yes, I know, J.K. Rowling wrote out the first Harry Potter book longhand using garbage-picked pencils and she’s now richer than the Queen of England. Stephanie Meyer admitted at least once on national TV that she had no idea what she was doing and just sat down and knocked out Twilight and wham, she’s mega-rich too. Those are two stories of massive financial success for genre writers. For each of those there may be as many as ten thousand good midlist authors still clinging to their day jobs to keep the mortgage paid, food on the table, and health insurance going.

Hollywood screenwriters have a great union that provides health benefits, but no other writers, really, get that. If you’re an American hoping to write full time, budget a lot of money for health care.

Book advances range from zero to about $10,000 if you’re lucky. The days of the million dollar advance for previously unpublished genre authors are long over, and someone who does nothing all day but write novels is a very rare bird. In my fifteen years as an editor at Wizards of the Coast I worked with four full-time novelists.

For writers, money comes, generally speaking, in small doses at unpredictable times. There is no paycheck, and there is no benefits plan.

If you’re here to learn how to write so you can cash in quick like J.K. Rowling, please take a moment and get a hold of yourself. If you want to get rich quick, get a job in the financial services industry. Write for the love of storytelling, not the love of money.

THREE: Start strong.

Once your work is in the hands of an agent, editor, or reader, you have maybe a page, more likely a paragraph, to grab that person’s attention or they’ll probably just set your work aside and move on to someone else’s. And that’s not an agent or editor being mean, that’s an agent or editor trying to discover the next great author while also trying to make a living and have some kind of personal life. There are a finite number of hours in a day.

Let’s start with what not to do: You absolutely must avoid what my former colleague at Wizards of the Coast Mark Sehestedt described as “weather report, fashion report, travel report.”

Have you written this?

The dark clouds roiled on the horizon, lit by frequent lightning, and heavy with freezing rain. Galen’s long blond hair spilled out over his forest green cloak of fine suede, tickling his lanternlike jaw and blazing in his crystal blue eyes. He was still three days away from the city of the wizard king, having followed the low road east for nearly a month.

If you have, please stop it. It’s just a weak way to start a story.

Keep in mind the Latin phrase in media res, which translates roughly to “in the middle of things.” Start in the middle of a fight, or during the escape from the burning space station, or with the hero floating face down in a pool… any sort of danger, conflict, comedy, any kind of business at all. Then fill in the details as you go, when they become relevant.

Wouldn’t this be more fun to read?

Galen pulled his knees up to his chest, avoiding the dragon’s serrated fangs by a hair’s breadth. When the great wyrm’s jaws smashed together below him, the sound was so loud it shook the tree root from which Galen hung. Dry dirt and sand rained down on Galen’s head, stinging his eyes—and he lost his grip on the root and fell. The dragon beat its wings once and flew up past him, its great, glowing red eye following Galen’s fall to the shark-infested waves below.

FOUR: If you’re an American, write like an American.

Time and again I see manuscripts written in some kind of false British accent. Adding a “u” to the word armor and using the words “about” when you mean “around,” “which” when you mean “that,” or “further” when you mean “farther” doesn’t make you sound smarter or more sophisticated, it just makes you sound like someone trying to sound smarter or more sophisticated. There are a few exceptions to this rule, especially if you’re writing in first person, but unless you’re both willing and able to fully commit, don’t do it.

Also, leave behind the myth of the third person omniscient. One scene, one point-of-view. People, including Brits who do it all the time, who tell you they write in “third person omniscient” are really telling you they write in “third person lazy.” Pick a character and get into his or her head and stay there until you think you need to switch to someone else’s head, in which case you need to employ the services of a scene break. Even in a third person narrative, readers respond when they can get into the head of a character and experience the story first hand, if not first person.

FIVE: There is no time limit.

If you’ve been reading this blog you’ve seen me recently recommend Steve Martin’s memoir Born Standing Upand by extension biographies and autobiographies of creative people from literally any discipline. If you’re interested in the creative process you can learn from anyone.

I think standup comedians and authors have more than a little in common. Comedy and prose are fairly solitary pursuits, best when made personal. So I guess it isn’t weird that this last piece of advice came from another comedian. In the documentary Comedian  Jerry Seinfeld was telling the story of an aspiring comedian who was bemoaning the slow start to his career and Seinfeld said, “What is there, a time limit?” What he meant was as long as you’re aspiring you’re still an aspiring comedian—or author—and only when you stop aspiring are you a failed comedian, or author.

There is no time limit. For every story of some teenager achieving best seller status before he can legally buy a beer there are a thousand more—ten thousand more—of authors who were forty, fifty, sixty years old when their first book was published. There are all sorts of editors who can tell you you’ve failed to sell this one book or story to that one editor, but there is no one out there who can tell you you’ve failed as a writer but yourself.

You can’t control other people’s reactions to you and your work, but you can control your reaction to their reaction. Let rejection motivate you. Filter through whatever advice might come your way. Try new things. Read constantly, write as much as you can. It may take a really long time, and on the best day it’s really hard, but if this is what you’re meant to do, keep going. There is no one in the publishing business who wants you to fail—no one is actively working against you. I had zero connections when I started in this business. My father was a salesman and my mother was an art teacher. I didn’t know a single editor or agent, but I kept at it. I made my own luck when and where I could. This is a tough business, but it is possible, and if you aren’t afraid of hard work, possible is enough.

 

—Philip Athans

 

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