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

Mentioned in the footnotes of Steven Pinker’s tomelike The Better Angels of Our Nature was a book whose title and subject matter caught my eye, so as I do with dozens of books—maybe a dozen a month, actually—I tossed it onto my Amazon list then just thought, screw it, I’ll order it. And it only sat on my “to read” shelf for a few weeks before I picked it up and was immediately taken not just with its message, but with the author’s easy, readable style. In Savage Pastimes: A Cultural History of Violent Entertainment, Queens College professor Harold Schechter makes a case, like Pinker’s, that “the good old days” were not as good as some people would have us think. And this is reflected in the media of the time.

If you’re one of those people—and “those people” seem more and more to be “almost everybody” in the hyper-aware state of affairs that is America in 2018—who think that the world, or at least Western culture, is disintegrating under our feet, that discourse has reached an all time low, that the country if not the world is being ripped apart by escalating violence, and that things used to be better at some idealized point in the past, whatever that Golden Age might be for you, well…

You’re wrong.

Yes, you can see violence in media. Yes, you can see violence in real life—just turn on any TV news channel at any time on any given day. But in the same way that Pinker made a convincing case that real violence is continuing the sharp decline begun in the 1990s, so too does Schechter make a convincing case that violence in fiction of various media, especially fiction aimed at children, is actually on the decline as well.

At the end of the first chapter of Savage Pastimes, Schechter asks a question that, to my mind, is this book’s statement of purpose: the question he will then go on to try to answer:

The current uproar over media sensationalism rests  on two premises: that popular culture is significantly more vicious and depraved than it used to be, and that we live in uniquely violent times. Everyone seems to accept these propositions as the obvious, irrefutable truth.

But what if they were wrong?

He then begins to dig deeply into our shared mythic tradition, and it doesn’t take much digging to start to find the blood and guts that poured out of ancient myths and up through Grimm’s fairytales. Broadsides detailing real life murders, replete with gruesome drawings, were the mass market scandal sheets of the supposedly straight-laced Victorian era.

In what I think is the whole point of the book, Schechter writes, in Chapter Four, on a page that features an old woodcut depicting a crowd of people attending the autopsy of an accused killer as cheering spectators, guts spilled out on the floor to be lapped up by a dog:

Those who deplore the current state of American society and accuse the media of pandering to, if not actually creating, an unwholesome obsession with violence would do well to learn something about cultural history. A look at the cheap newspapers and crime literature so popular during the pre-Civil War era demonstrates quite clearly that things were no better in the past. Not only was violent crime rampant in the good old days, but the prurient need to hear every juicy detail was just as widespread and intense as it is now.

The book is short, and I’ll admit I found some of its reporting lacking perspective. For instance, in the margins next to this:

Their manners may have been crude, but in the area of ghastly violence medieval peasants were clearly connoisseurs, who appreciated nothing better than a nicely performed quartering, disemboweling, or beheading.

I wrote: “Okay… but WHY?”

In fairness, though, how can a literature professor writing in 2005 run a psychological profile of European peasant culture of seven centuries or so in the past? Still, I bet someone else has…

To this end, though, later in the book, Schechter cites George Stade, who wrote:

“People are fascinated by representations of murder because, in the first place, they want to kill someone and, in the second, they won’t. Surely one function of narrative is to allow in the imagination what we forbid in the flesh.”

And Schechter goes on to state that:

In short… fantasy violence isn’t a substitute for sex. It is a substitute for actual violence.

This matches with my own admittedly scientifically-lacking “study” of the effects of violent video games on American violent crime rates that shows an almost perfect match between the release of a violent video game to a decrease in the rate of violent crime in America. We are violent animals, but we’re also smart. We can replace war with football, actual torture with the Saw movie series, and actual violent crime rampages with Grand Theft Auto, and in effect we have.

The book makes it clear that while in the past, violent entertainment actually offered real violence done in the moment to real people: public executions and torture, the aforementioned public autopsy, bear baiting, and other animal torture shows…

That we react with such horrified incredulity to the mere description of the victim’s suffering is significant in itself, suggesting that—for all our exposure to virtual violence—we are actually quite sheltered from the real thing and have a very limited tolerance for it. Our popular culture may be saturated with synthetic gore, but at least we don’t spend our leisure time watching real people have their eyes put out, their limbs pulverized, their sex organs amputated, and their flesh torn to pieces with red-hot pincers.

Yikes. I second that.

When his overview of the history of violent media continues into the Penny Dreadfuls and Paris’s Grand-Guignol. This description of one such play brought to my mind the ending of Frank Darabont’s film version of Stephen King’s The Mist:

In The Final Torture, for example—one of the most famous and frequently performed of the Grand-Guignol plays—a French marine stationed outside Peking during the Boxer Rebellion has his hands cut off by the Chinese. Making his way back to his besieged embassy, he displays his mutilated stumps to the head consul, D’Hemelin, and—with his dying breath—describes the unspeakable atrocities being perpetrated against foreigners. To spare his daughter a fate worse than death, D’Hemelin shoots her in the head—only to be rescused by allied forces, who burst into the embassy seconds after the unfortunate diplomat executes his beloved child. D’Hemelin promptly goes insane.

Everything old is new again, eh?

Harold Schechter’s point is that violent entertainment has always been there, and the purpose it appears, at least, to serve is to give us both an outlet for violent fantasies and a safe experience of violence that actually has the opposite effect from the feared “desensitization” we’re so often warned of, reality be damned.

In my online horror courses, both the Horror Intensive and the new Advanced Horror course, as well as in my Pulp Fiction Workshop, I try to keep the question of violence and gore open. Each individual author is free to find their own comfort zone when it comes to the content of their fiction, be it violence/gore, explicit sex, language, and literally anything else. That’s not for some Board of Review to decide, and though there are publishers that have created their own set of guidelines, and individual agents or editors that will have their own unwritten rules—their own comfort zones—guiding their decisions on what to represent or publish, thankfully there is no Board of Review in the publishing business, so your comfort zone, whatever it may be, will find an audience with a similar comfort zone—or an audience willing to read outside that—and we’ll all be able to stake out our own claims as authors and readers. I’m glad we have books like Savage Pastimes to remind us that we aren’t descending into anything as a culture, but that we share some tendencies with our parents, grandparents, and more distant ancestors—and those tendencies don’t always look like Care Bears.


—Philip Athans







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Like all weird little writing quirks, of which there are many, not all authors fall into this particular trap, but I see it—please believe me—time and time and time again, and that’s a careful hyper-specificity for firearms.

It’s strangely rare that a character pulls “a pistol” on someone, or aims “a rifle” at something. Instead, we poor beleaguered readers are “treated” to a specific and often inexplicably detailed inventory of each character’s varied and robust personal arsenal, and almost always that level of detail is not at all necessary, because it never pays off.

I’ll refer you back to my post on the concept of “Chekhov’s Gun,” which is the author and playwright’s oft-paraphrased admonition that, “If a gun is hanging on the wall in act one, it must be fired in act two,” which means that if you show your readers (or viewers, etc.) a specific detail, make sure that detail pays off in some way.

Your readers, often unconsciously, are making a sort of mental list of details as they read your book and though they may not be able to articulate why, when a significant portion of those details—or even one key detail—isn’t somehow resolved, those readers will be left with at least the vague feeling that something’s lacking, something’s missing, something didn’t quite connect.

So then why do your readers ever need to know the specific brand and model, or worse, the specific brand and model of accessories, of any given character’s firearm?

Of course, there are all sorts of ways in which a specific gun is important to a story. If a murder is committed and the autopsy finds that the victim was shot by a .38, for instance, then a suspect is apprehended and a pistol is found in his glove compartment—but it’s a 9 mm. Okay, now that matters. But it still doesn’t necessarily matter that the gun in the glove compartment is a Sig Sauer P320 and the murder weapon was a Ruger LCP Standard, because once a .38 is found, connected to a possible suspect, they’re going to be looking at that specific gun, not that make and model of gun, to match it to the bullets found in the body, right?

So then, if one character pulls a handgun on another character and threatens him, and that character being threatened thinks, Oh no, that’s a Glock G42—what does that mean? Does it mean that’s the gun he found in his wife’s purse? Okay—that might matter to the story then. How did this bad guy get his wife’s gun? Is it his wife’s gun, or just another Glock G42? There’s story in there—I get it. It matters. But if all the gun is there for is to hold that character in place while something happens, the fact that it’s a Glock G42 does not matter and instead becomes a detail we’re now waiting to see paid off.

Please tell me this makes sense.

In The Ballad of Black Tom, author Victor LaValle calls out specific firearms, in part, I think, to show us the time period and to illustrate a specific moment in a specific city’s history:

Theodore Roosevelt became president of the Board of Police Commissioners in 1895, and, though serving for only two years, he begun the process of modernizing the force. As a result, the officers had a bevy of weapons as they prepared to take the three tenements. Each man wore his department-issue revolver, but now, from the rear of the emergency trucks, an arsenal appeared. M1903 Springfield rifles; M1911 Browning Hi Power pistols for those who wanted to go in with a gun in each hand. The Browning Model 1921 heavy machine guns were set up on the street. Each required three men to take it down from the trucks. They were set in a row; each one’s long barrel faced the front stoop of a tenement. They looked like a trio of cannons better for a ground war than breaching the front doors of a building.

When the 1921s were set down, they were so heavy chips of tarmac were thrown in the air. At the sight of the heavy machine guns the whole neighborhood gasped as one. These guns were designed to shoot airplanes out of the sky. Much of the local population had fled countries under siege, in the midst of war, and had not expected to find such artillery used against citizens of the United States.

But then by this point in the book we’re well aware of the setting and time period, so I’ll ask: Would this have worked just as well without the make and model numbers? A machine gun is a machine gun when it’s pointed at your front stoop, right? And the model numbers never do come back into the story in any way.

I just finished reading The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway, a brilliant novel set in that war-torn city during the collapse of the former Yugoslavia. The novel follows four characters, one of whom, a woman who calls herself Arrow, is a sniper sworn to defend her city from the “men on the hill,” who also employ snipers to harass the city’s increasingly desperate inhabitants. Here is a woman who depends on her rifle, who is trained in its use, and who is caught in a moment in time where this thing is not a toy, employed in the furtherance of a hobby like deer hunting, but is a matter of life and death. And yet at no point does Steven Galloway, through Arrow’s tight and intimate POV, feel the need to tell us exactly who made that rifle, when, and how it’s different from any other rifle.

I called out this as an example of even when Arrow is interacting with the rifle, we don’t know what kind of rifle it is, much less the brand name of the scope:

The sniper puts the cellist in his sights. Arrow is about to send a bullet into him, but stops. His finger isn’t on the trigger. This isn’t a detail she would usually notice, or care about, but she can see it in her scope, and it makes her pause. His hand isn’t even in the vicinity of the trigger. His right hand holds the uppermost point of the stock, and his shot is clear, but his left hand isn’t on his rifle. It hangs down to his side, out of her view.

Throughout, Arrow lives not in her rifle, but in the totality of her life. This is her experience, not shopping at her local Cabela’s:

This is how she now believes life happens. One small thing at a time. A series of inconsequential junctions, any or none of which can lead to salvation or disaster. There are no grand moments where a person does or does not perform the act that defines their humanity. There are only moments that appear, briefly, to be this way.

She thinks of this in the context of pulling the trigger and ending a life. Before she ever killed, she had assumed this would put her life at a clear crossroads. She would behave in a way that demarcated the sort of person she had become. She expected to feel altered somehow from the person she was, or hoped to be. But that wasn’t the case. It was the easiest thing in the world to pull the trigger, a nonevent. Everything that came before, all the small things that somehow added up without her ever noticing, made the act of killing an afterthought. This is what makes her a weapon. A weapon does not decide whether or not to kill. A weapon is a manifestation of a decision that has already been made.

This is the story of a woman experiencing this war, not a rifle experiencing its war. This is personal, not procedural. This is about experience, not inventory.

Whether or not you, yourself, are a gun owner or enthusiast, or are pro- or anti-gun control, as an author of fiction, choose your details carefully, guns included!



—Philip Athans








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Time to jump back into my series of posts looking back at a ninety-three year old issue of Weird Tales, which is available for all of us to read online. We’re making some headway here, moving from “The Rajah’s Gift” to “The Fireplace” by Henry S. Whitehead.

In Part 2 of this series, looking just at the first sentences of each story, I gave author Henry S. Whitehead some crap about starting his story from the point of view not of a character but…

When the Planter’s Hotel in Jackson, Mississippi, burned to the ground in the notable fire of 1922, the loss of that section of the South could not be measured in terms of that ancient hostelry’s former grandeur.

Is this from the point of view of a building? This story opens like a newspaper article and honestly, that’s not a good thing. To my tastes, this is the worst first sentence of the lot. Back to the drawing board, Henry S. Whitehead!

And reading on through the first long paragraph, the feeling that this begins, at least, more like a newspaper or magazine article about a tragic fire holds true. It’s a stylistic choice that no few authors have adopted, since—at least back in the olden times of newspapers and magazines—this could lend a certain air of realism to the proceedings. Presenting it as a news item makes it feel somehow more real, right?

Sure, maybe. Is this just a personal preference of mine getting in the way of my enjoyment of at least the first page of “The Fireplace”? That’s it, exactly. I have trouble with that device, and maybe it’s because I never really grew up reading the paper, or experiencing the world in that way. Of course I read non-fiction of all stripes, and have for the better part of my life, but I’ve compartmentalized those things on my brain maybe a bit too thoroughly: This is what a newspaper article sounds like. This is what fiction sounds like. And never the twain shall meet.

I’ll volunteer to be the first person to admit I need to stop with “never” in my intellectual life so okay, Henry, I’ll stick with you. And sorry about trying to send you back to the drawing board. Anyway, he can’t go back to the drawing board because he died eighty-six years ago last week (November 23, 1932), only seven years after this story was published.

Henry S. Whitehead, a Harvard classmate of Franklin Roosevelt’s, had a fairly short career in fiction, but like many pulp era authors, a rather prolific one. His first short story (“The Intarsia Box”) was published in 1923 and eight more short stories followed, most published in Weird Tales, until we get to “The Fireplace.” His stories have been collected into books starting with Jumbee and Other Uncanny Tales in 1941 through to 2012’s Voodoo Tales: the Ghost Stories of Henry S. Whitehead. He’s another Lovecraft collaborator (“The Trap,” “Cassius,” and “Bothon”)—starting to see that trend in Weird Tales? I think so.

Back to the story:

Starting with the fire that claimed the lives of two prominent Southern gentlemen, which was thought to have started in the fireplace (ah ha—a callback to the title in paragraph two!) we pick up with what is clearly our POV character, “a certain Mr. James Callender,” arriving at the hotel ten years before the fire. He seems to be a nice enough guy, giving the “grinning negro porters” a generous tip. Whitehead also slips in a reference to “the festival season of Christmas” as a reason for the porters to expect a bigger than average tip—a clever way to say, “It’s Christmastime,” the significance of which calls back to the date of the fire and takes on even greater significance later in the story.

Our horror story reader’s ears prick up when Mr. Callender specifically asks for “the room with the large fireplace”—the room where the two men are killed. You know it’s going to be haunted. How is it not haunted? But then the fire happens ten years in Callender’s future, so…?

What is the significance of Callender curling up by the fire to read Arthur Machen’s “House of Souls”? I’m not sure. I haven’t read it, but we all can, for free, via Project Gutenberg. I’m going to bookmark that and read it later.

Anyway, Callender gets wrapped up in the book and is startled by a late-night knock on his door. I love the description of him reading—marking his place in the book to answer the door. There’s no reason to be surprised that a Harvard graduate from the first third of the 20th Century was a reader, but that fact is tangible here.

Ooh, spooky—he opens the door and there’s no one there. See? Told you that room was haunted. It has to be haunted. This story is in Weird Tales for God’s sake. But Mr. Callender doesn’t know that so he experiences what I discussed here a few weeks ago as the Persistence of the Logical:

He opened the door, and was surprized to find no one in the corridor. He stepped through the door, and glanced right and then left. There were, he observed, turns in both directions at short distances from his door, and Mr. Callender, whose mind was trained in the sifting of evidence, worked out an instantaneous explanation in his mind.

Way to stay enlightened, Mr. Callender! But seriously, this is exactly what I was talking about in that post, and it worked just as well decades later for Jeff VanderMeer.

I love the reveal that follows. This is precisely how to do it:

Mr. Callender, smiling at the whimsical idea of his, turned back into his room and shut the door behind him.

A gentleman was sitting in the place he had vacated. Mr. Callender stopped short and stared at this intruder…

See how simple that is? Mr. Callender is fine, the world is as it should be.

New paragraph.

The unexpected thing is just there. Henry S. Whitehead didn’t feel the need to point that out with something like:

Though it was completely impossible and so therefor had to be the result of some supernatural force, the ghost of a man was sitting in his chair—a ghost, I tell you!

Well, you know what I mean. How do you write a “jump scare” in prose horror? Just drop the unexpected thing right in there, as simply stated as possible. The guy is just there. Boom.

Despite that, Callender calms down quickly and stays in the logical. He doesn’t go right to “this is a ghost.” Somehow this guy got into his room, and though startled, Callender takes the man at face value, dropping hints to us that something’s weird about this guy by describing the older fashion of his suit.

This goes to the heart of suspense. In most cases suspense comes from an imbalance of information. One character knows something the others do not, and/or your readers know something the POV character does not. In this case, we know there will be a fire in that room that kills two men ten years from now, but then this guy seems to be fifteen years in the past, or twenty-five years ahead of the fire? Callender doesn’t know any of this, though, so now we’re nervous for him. When is he going to get that something really creepy is going on? That question right there equals “suspense.”

I like the way the ghost (though admittedly, I don’t actually know this is a ghost yet, do I?) disarms Callender by being really chill and reasonable.

Here’s a question: Is the overly formal way both men speak to each other actually a relic of the time—meaning that real gentlemen of the 20s would talk like that—or is this an author struggling with making characters talk to each other like people actually talk to each other? That’s a tough question to answer, so I’ll just leave it out there and maybe circle back to that in a post of its own. Anyway, it got me thinking—and that’s exactly why we (all writers) need to read, and read a lot, because what other writers are doing (or have done, however long ago) can get us thinking about how we’re writing ourselves.

The “ghost” gives his name as Charles Bellinger—not one of the two men killed in the fire in the opening paragraph. Hm. Interesting. My expectations have been subverted. I have been surprised. And then I’m immediately surprised again when Mr. Bellinger says, “I may as well add to this, since it explains several matters, though in itself sounding somewhat odd, that actually I am dead.” Surprises coming at a nice clip. I like that.

Clearly, December 23 matters—it’s the same day the fire happens in the future. Remember that reference to the porters’ tip at the beginning?

So then, sixteen years ago, Bellinger was here in this room with the two victims of the future fire, who are still alive in Callender’s present day. Weirdness!

The story now goes into the ghost of Mr. Bellinger telling Mr. Callender a long story. I struggle to forgive that. I get it, and though having a ghost tell the back-story is better than an “omniscient” narrator just info dumping it, it’s only one click better. It would be a fun and, I bet, enlightening exercise to brainstorm ways to make this story of Bellinger’s feel as though it’s happening “in the now” so Callender experiences it in a more visceral, emotionally involved way. Feel free to do that exercise, it will build a skill you’ll want to use next time you start a scene in which two characters sit in comfy chairs and tell each other a story when they should be experiencing a story!

I do like Bellinger’s creepy description of the moment of his own death, but again, showing that rather than telling that would have been better!

Okay then, so here’s the source of the haunting. After accusing one of the other men of cheating at cards, Bellinger is stabbed and killed. The other prominent Southern gentlemen (including the two victims of the fire that will eventually destroy the hotel) decide to cover up the murder, so they’re all guilty of the crime. Got it!

Whitehead dances around the gory stuff a bit as the men cut Bellinger’s body up and burn him, piece by piece, in the huge fireplace, thereby disposing if the body. O, Murder Most Foul!

This word choice here struck me as… folksy:

My not inconsiderable winnings, as well as the coin and currency which had been in my possession, were then cold-bloodedly divided among these four rascals, for such I had for some time now recognized them as becoming.

Rascals? Dude, they just murdered you, chopped up your body, burned it, and stole all your money. Rascals?

If you say so.

Bellinger then goes into the details of the rascals’ only big mistake, which is their idea to hide his other belongings rather than disposing of them in the river or at some other remote locale.

The strange limits to Bellinger’s abilities once “materialized” add a little worldbuilding to the proceedings, as we start to learn at least a little of the limits of how ghosts work—but this will give me trouble at the very end of the story. Rules have now been established for how ghosts work, or, at least, how this ghost works. Those rules now need to be followed, right? More later.

Bellinger knows, somehow, that Callender is an attorney and asks his help in bringing his killers to justice, though sixteen years have passed since the crime. Callender agrees and Bellinger disappears.

Callender dutifully launches his investigation—probably my least favorite part of any ghost story—but in this case it feels organic to the story, however “organic” it can be that a ghost has hired a lawyer. Still, I’m with you, Henry S, Whitehead!

But then Callender gets busy with other work and sets aside the investigation, only coincidently booking the same room, now on the 23rd of December.

And the ghost of Bellinger, apparently unable to sue for legal malpractice, strangles poor Mr. Callender and stuffs his head in the fireplace grate. This is accomplished by Bellinger’s own strangely long-fingered hands even though earlier in the story he needed Callender’s help lifting the corner of a rug to reveal the hidden belongings. Which requires more strength, lifting up the corner of a rug or strangling a grown man who we have to imagine struggled for his life? I’ll refer you to that disturbing scene in the movie No Country for Old Men in case you’re still not sure.

Follow your own rules, people! If a ghost can’t lift the corner of a rug and says flat out that knocking on the door was pretty much the limit of his ability to interact with the world, that same ghost can’t strangle someone.

No other mention of how we then get, ten years later, to the death by fire of two of the “rascals.” I guess Bellinger was stuck waiting for these guys to book the room again on the same day?

I liked this story a lot, right up till the end, and not just because of the inconsistent abilities of the ghost.

How does this pay off? Callender is murdered for what reason, really? Couldn’t Bellinger have just materialized and talked him into relaunching the investigation? We don’t know if that happened and if Callender refused because we aren’t shown that scene. Bellinger just strangled him with his weird long fingers. The story to that point depended on our wanting to see justice for poor, mistreated Bellinger but now we’re left thinking, Fuck you, Bellinger. I guess it takes a rascal to know a rascal.

I don’t know, Henry S. Whitehead… did you just run into some kind of pre-set word count limit? Seems to me he just bailed out of this one.

Still, some lessons to be learned from “The Fireplace,” especially in terms of how not to end a short story!


—Philip Athans







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Do I really have to write a post in response to “Jonathan Franzen’s 10 Rules for Novelists”? Does that need to be critiqued again? Am I required to jump all over him like a lot of the Internet has already done in the past week or so?

Let’s answer all those questions with no, then, taken in order: …but I’m going to anyway; …so I won’t critique it but will try to add and/or clarify as best I can, not being Jonathan Franzen, myself; and …I guess I sorta did already, responding to some tweets from Chuck Wendig then feeling bad about it after seeing some more tweets from Joe McDermott.

I’ll come at Franzen’s rules from a place of love. If you haven’t read them, they can be found at Lit Hub. G’head and read through them if you haven’t already then come back.

Many, if not most of the responses to this I saw online fell back on the idea that there are no rules for fiction—or any creative endeavor—and anyone who tries to impose any rules on anyone in any context is terrible and should be shamed into silence. A few people were just kinda having a laugh about it. And some people picked through and did what I think we should all do, which is take them in the spirit in which they were offered, either in response to a direct question or as an effort to help, and, y’know… just try not to be pricks about it.

And as for that first group, those who feel there are not now nor shall there ever be rules for novelists, I both agree and disagree with you. After all, working through a similar list of “commandments” from novelist Henry Miller, I offered my own list of rules. Here they are again:


  1. Work on one novel at a time until finished, while also writing the occasional poem, short story, article, and weekly blog post.
  2. Start on your next novel only when you feel you’re done with your last novel, and take a break from the new novel only to revise that last novel according to editorial advice or flash of inspiration, then get back to the new novel as soon as you can.
  3. Write in ecstasy, edit with intent.
  4. Work according to the best program of your own devising, built honestly and sincerely around the realities of your individual life, which can and should—even must—include writing.
  5. Write something… anything… but write!
  6. Clean up yesterday’s writing then write the next section, which you’ll clean up tomorrow before adding tomorrow’s new text. Do no further revision until the rough draft is done.
  7. Keep human! Interact with other humans everyday, in whatever way you can, and from time to time, take a full week off.
  8. Rejoice in the act of writing itself.
  9. Give yourself a break and realize that sometimes you have to set aside the project at hand, but you can, and will, come back to it as soon as possible.
  10. Write the book you care the most about—the story that speaks to you, that won’t let you sleep at night, that won’t go away.


Mine are based on Miller’s, meant as a direct response to that list. But at the same time I think you’ll see me working reasonably hard to walk back from the strict interpretation of the word “commandment.” I try not to engage in “you always have to…” or “you can never…” when talking about creative writing. Maybe the problem started for Mr. Franzen with that word: rules.

“Commandments,” to me, anyway, from both myself and Henry Miller, felt hyperbolic enough that it came with an implied sense of the ridiculousness of applying a strict set of rules to a creative endeavor, much less a creative life. If that article had been called “Jonathan Franzen’s 10 Pieces of Advice for Novelists,” I’d like to think he would have seen less pushback. In fact, that’s really the way I read them—at least the second time.

I think, also, that trouble came from his lack of context or further explanation, so we’re left to puzzle through what he actually means by “Fiction that isn’t an author’s personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn’t worth writing for anything but money.” That can be read as all fiction that isn’t “frightening” (horror?) is bad, but I’m sure that’s not what he meant. Is he talking about something like I wrote about in terms of sometimes having to peer into your darkest corners? What does “You have to love before you can be relentless” have to do with writing a novel? I honestly don’t understand.

I’d like to find a few that I agree with, or that, at least, I can interpret as something helpful—and that’s much, much more important than any otherwise unknown intent on the part of Jonathan Franzen. Take this list not as some author whose books you may or may not have read or may or may not have liked demanding that you write only a certain sort of book in a certain sort of way—I honestly don’t see that there anyway—but as free-floating ideas that you can play with on your own, bending, stretching, or discarding as you see fit.

And by the way, you don’t need me to give you permission to do that, any more than you need Jonathan Franzen to tell you when, exactly, to use “first-person voice.” And anyway, in that rule (#4) he’s pretty much saying: third person unless you want it to be first person in which case, first person, which is easy enough to take as: think for yourself, but do things in your writing as a result of thinking not just because you think you’re supposed to or because someone told you you’re not supposed to so here comes that second person future tense epic fantasy novel!

See how I twisted that around to serve my own purposes? Like that.

So then here’s one I think he got right:

The most purely autobiographical fiction requires pure invention. Nobody ever wrote a more autobiographical story than The Metamorphosis.

Everything you write, including fiction, and including genre fiction, is inherently autobiographical because you are the only person you know, for sure, how to be. Your emotions are the only emotions you are absolutely qualified to experience. Everything else, everyone else, you have to observe, interpret, and invent. Whether or not this constitutes a rule, per se, I’m not sure. I think it ends up being true—it’s a default position with which I agree, but if it serves as advice it’s to remind you to be yourself and not think you have to provide some kind of literal transcript of a character’s life.

I think?

Now I’m actually getting confused.

What if I just boiled it down to…

I agree with 1, 4, 6, and 8.

I disagree with 3.

I’m not sure I understand 2, 5, 7, 9, or 10.

Whatever. Your list might be completely different.

Look, rules are good for grammar, punctuation, spelling, and usage. Learn those rules and break them as you wish, but on purpose, not because you just don’t know. Other “rules” or “commandments” from anyone, including me, should be taken as suggestions, as inspiration, as food for thought, and so on. Don’t fall into lockstep, but also don’t shit on them. We’re just trying to help as best we can.



—Philip Athans


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STAN LEE (1922-2018)

I owe the lion’s share of my own creative education to three men, all of whom, as of yesterday, are no longer with us. In reverse chronological order, those men are Gary Gygax, co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons and role-playing games in general; Harlan Ellison, the greatest American author of all time; and Stan Lee, creator of the World’s Greatest Comic Magazine: Fantastic Four, and an entire universe of science fiction and fantasy that is more popular today than it’s ever been.

Though I worked at TSR, it was long after Gary Gygax had been removed from the company and I’m sad to say I never had a chance to meet him. I wrote here, after the passing of Harlan Ellison, of my brief encounters with him. Now, though I wish it were under better circumstances, I’m happy to share this, my one encounter with Stan Lee.

Just a few years ago I was on my way back home from a writers conference in Los Angeles, waiting at my gate at LAX. I noticed someone else waiting there—he looked familiar, but I tried not to stare. Then it hit me: Paul Dano. There he was, in the flesh, one of the great character actors of his generation and star of a handful of my favorite movies including There Will Be Blood. I surreptitiously took a blurry cellphone photo of him to text to my wife, who didn’t recognize him. But it never occurred to me to approach him, ask if he had a milkshake, or confess that I had abandoned my boy… even after a few teenage girls took a selfie with him. Give the guy his space.

Then the plane arrived at the gate and people started coming off the flight and I instantly recognized Stan Lee. He walked off the plane talking to another man—I got the feeling they knew each other—and he was walking fast. My thought process took all of one second, a “conversation” with myself that could be summed up: “If you don’t shake his hand you’ll regret it for the rest of your life.”

He was going to walk right past me so I stepped up to him with my hand out and said, maybe a little too loudly,” Stan Lee!” He noticed me, took my hand in a firm grip and smiled—still walking—and I said, “I’m a huge fan.” He said, “Thank you,” and I said, “No, thank you,” and he was gone, never having missed a step.

I think I stood there for a minute or so like some great dork, just basking in the fact that I had an opportunity to thank Stan Lee. I don’t think ever thanked Harlan Ellison, and I know I never had a chance to thank Gary Gygax. I guess I’ll have to content myself with that one out of three.

Stan Lee died yesterday at the age of 95, which goes back to a point I made here a long time ago that there might be something in the life of a science fiction and fantasy author that they live a long time because, like Stan Lee, they’re—we’re—doing what we love.

What else can I say about a man who has had, whether or not you feel superhero comic books should be taken at all seriously, so massive an impact on American popular culture for the past 57 years? When asked how he wanted to be remembered, Stan Lee told the New York Times, “When I’m gone, I really don’t care.”

Well, I do. Excelsior, Stan Lee!


—Philip Athans

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Before I even start reading the next story for this series of posts looking back at a ninety-three year old issue of Weird Tales, which is available for all of us to read online, I’m getting nervous about what sort of retrograde colonialist ideology is going to launch itself at us from this very short story by E. Hoffman Price—but then, let’s try not to pre-judge, and just dive into “An Oriental Story” from 1925. Ready or not, here we go!

A quick look back at the author first and here we find one of the few in this issue of Weird Tales that had a significant career and is still being read today. The E stands for Edgar and his Wikipedia page identifies him as “an amateur Orientalist,” which certainly shows in this story. “The Rajah’s Gift” was actually Price’s second published short story, so we’re seeing an early example of a career that stretched well into the 1980s. He was a friend and collaborator of fellow Weird Tales author H.P. Lovecraft and received the World Fantasy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1984. Not too shabby.

Then a note on the word “Oriental” in this context: My mother is of the generation that used that word in place of the currently preferred Asian, in the same way that my mother-in-law stuck with “Colored” into the first decade of the 21st century. You can take the people out of the times but you can’t always dislodge the times from the people. We also don’t refer to Asia itself as “the Orient” anymore because… it’s a continent named Asia? From what I can find it took until 2016, ninety-one years after this story was published, for the word “Oriental” to taken out of federal law so change sometimes creeps along. Let’s just let this story be in 1925, I guess, but then… hmm… How do we unpack that first paragraph?

It’s hard not to see this for what it is: E. Hoffman Price establishing the rajah as better than the average example of his kind since he’s managed to adopt “a thick veneer of European culture.” God knows you can’t get very far until you’ve got that locked in. So, yeah, it’s 1925 and non-white people might be able to sort of sometimes take care of themselves as long as they get with the colonial program. Gotcha.

As we go into the second page of the story, note this example of telling rather than showing. Maybe in a very short story you have to fall back on this a little, not having the word count necessary to cover this backstory more organically, but even then, I’ll ping Mr. Price on this. He starts off telling us about the rajah and his friend Zaid, then they have a short “inciting incident” conversation then it’s telling us (not showing us) how Zaid met the rajah. If I were his editor I’d ask E. Hoffman to go ahead and give himself the word count necessary to break this up.

But we do learn that Zaid, as a young peasant boy, was awed by “the pomp and splendor” of the rajah’s parade, which gave him the motivation to go out and make something of himself. This I find interesting in the abstract. Is there a moment in your story where we learn—hopefully sharing that experience rather than being told about it like this—in what moment a significant character was set off on the trajectory that puts that person into this story? Not everyone has a moment like this. A lot of people sort of fall into jobs and things like that, but I think many of us can still look back to the moment we decided, the moment we realized, the moment we knew that… What? I’ve said in the past—and it’s still true, of course—that the moment I read the story “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” by Harlan Ellison I knew I would tell stories for the rest of my life, that the pursuit of the possibility of putting the feeling I had reading that story into some distant person with a story of my own locked me into this, for good or ill.

Our characters deserve moments like that, don’t they? Is there a character in your work in progress who can honestly say, like Zaid does here: “For twenty years that vision has haunted me. Much has happened since then; much have I seen and experienced, but through it all, this mad desire has persisted.”

Then here, in true pulp fashion, we have a statement of purpose from one character that is immediately batted back in his face by the other—an obstacle has been put in Zaid’s way, a threat of extreme danger, and a reversal of a promise. E. Hoffman Price drops that fast, hard, and without the slightest hesitation. I love that Zaid stays firm on this, though—sort of like I did in my determination to be the next Harlan Ellison. Still, working on that, by the way, but the journey’s the thing!

An aside here regarding the occasionally weird scene breaks in these old pulps. There is no change in time, place, and/or POV between “…you know the result.” and “Suddenly the rajah arose.” So then why the line space and the drop cap? I don’t get it. I wonder if editor Farnsworth Wright just thought we needed a pause there—a pause after so many words, or some number of pages? No idea!

Let’s cleanse our minds of that question with the pure pulp adventure story imagery here:

And Zaid was led through subterranean vaults, treasure vaults full of gilded arms and armor, trays of flaming jewels, great chests of gold, the secreted plunder of a hundred generations.

Okay—I’m back in the story! (Even if Zaid is unimpressed.)

Oh, look, the first (and, it turns out, only) female character to appear in the story is some kind of sex slave. Two things a contemporary story might have done different is to make her an actual character but then still go into more detail on what follows than this:

What allurements, what sorceries, what fascinations Nilofal used to entice the fancy of Zaid during those three days, we shall never know. Suffice it to say that she failed in her efforts to separate the Persian from his madness.

Not exactly Fifty Shades of Grey. But going back over the whole sordid subject of sexism in the pulps, and the cover art that often showed women in bondage, etc., here’s an example of how the content of the magazines sometimes did match the lurid covers (though not the case with this particular issue, which has a rather less than lurid cover) with women portrayed as playthings, victims, or villains, but not too often as, y’know… humans. Deep breaths, people. It’s been a long ninety-three years where feminism is concerned.

So anyway, the rajah has attempted to distract Zaid from his desire for a parade in his honor with threats to his life, treasure, and prostitutes. I’d have relented on the first one, been disappointed to find out I missed my chance to be bought off with the secreted plunder of a hundred generations, and would have proceeded to step three only if my wife told me it was okay. Which means I’d never know what Nilofal had up her sleeve. And let’s be honest: three days? There ain’t enough Cialis in the Orient!

And… moving on…

Despite her best efforts, Nilofal couldn’t seal the deal so now there is a proper scene break, cutting to the next day and Zaid is up on an elephant and ready for his big moment. I like that the rajah gets on his friend’s side at this moment. It shows a certain largesse we don’t tend to see in this kind of colonial fiction, wherein the “natives” are rarely so “woke.” Though as the scene goes on and the rajah makes clear the distinction in his head between people of his own rarified class and ordinary men—suffering over the changes that Zaid has in store for him, changes that can never be properly realized so he’ll be a peasant with a quick trip into the aristocracy. To the rajah, then, it’s better for Zaid not to know what it’s like to be a rajah—it can only make the peasantry feel bad about themselves.

Get over yourself, Rajah.

But then the rajah is a character living his life, cultural baggage and all. On a similar note, in “How Postmodernism Undermines the Left and Facilitates Fascism,” Benjamin Studebaker wrote:

Some people stray outside of left wing frameworks by insisting that we can overcome capitalism, racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression by demanding that individuals not affirm these ideologies. But this is not idealism because it does not recognize these ideologies as systems of belief—instead, it blames and targets individuals for having these beliefs. This doesn’t treat these individuals as part of ideological systems—instead it treats them as if they were independent of these systems. That would deny the core left wing premise. Blaming individuals who participate in systems of oppression for the oppressive ideologies they’ve acquired is no different from blaming the victims of oppression for the oppressive conditions to which they are subject—it treats individuals as if they were outside social systems when no one can be outside the social system.

Does this cover “amateur Orientalist” E. Hoffman Price as well? But in any case, his two characters are locked into a rigidly class based culture, and Zaid is disrupting the status quo by asking the rajah to do the same, though circumstance and tradition have other ideas:

“When indeed they do grant to a man the realization of his dream, they straightaway reach forth to snatch from him his prize, lest in his triumph he become godlike and gaily toss them from their lofty thrones.”

See? And you thought all this pulp fantasy was just about guys fighting monsters with magic.

This, by the way, is how you kill a character:

And the god, who but half an hour before had been Zaid, the Persian, toppled forward in the gilded howdah. The last roll of the gong had masked the smacking report of a high-powered rifle.

And then that final twist to reveal the villain of the story immediately followed by what Lester Dent called “The snapper, the punch line to end it.” Nailed it, E. Hoffman.


—Philip Athans




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Last week I promised a rundown of the conference I attended this past weekend and here it is! The conference was even better than I’d hoped it would be and I’ll reiterate my “thank you Tweets” to everyone who attended and to Writer’s Digest, who put on a fantastic event. I’ll also reiterate my strong recommendation to everyone reading this who hasn’t been to at least one writer’s conference: Go to one! If you can’t get to LA or New York, find one closer to home. They’re all over the place and the one closest to you is just a Google search away.

So then, my experience last weekend…

I flew in Friday afternoon, knowing (but not liking) that I would miss the full day of sessions on Friday. After a bit of a delay getting off the ground in Seattle, I finally made the short flight down to Bob Hope Airport in Burbank. If you’ve never flown into Burbank, put it on your bucket list. It’s like arriving at a frontier airport in some tiny desert nation. It’s the only airport I’ve ever flown in and out of that has no jetways. Don’t believe me? Here’s a picture of the sheet metal ramp that puts you right on the tarmac!

The shuttle driver actually picked me up at the airport (not so much on the return trip, but that’s another sad tale of woe and want) and I got to the Westin Pasadena in time to get to see most of Robert Crais’s opening keynote. I was a little frazzled from travel—the way travel frazzles, I think, most people—so failed to take any notes, but I liked the guy. He has a very human approach to writing and I think he’d like my Pulp Fiction Workshop. Anyway, he did inspire me to put his books on my to read list—I want to start reading more thrillers, so why not his?

So now I’m in Pasadena, which, honestly, shares many of the things that I really, really don’t like about LA in general, but it had some character to it, unlike “LA in general.” Anyway, I didn’t come for the sightseeing, I came for the conference and was downstairs bright and early Saturday morning determined to soak up a full day of programming. Hour-long sessions were set up in four tracks: Craft & Character; Inspiration & Idea Generation; Genre; and Platform, Business & Beyond. I figured, if I could, I’d try to get to at least one in each track, but mostly I went to what sounded like it would help me most as a writer—precisely the advice I’d give anyone who’s attending one of these.

I started my day at 9:00 am with The Secret of Mission-Critical Storytelling with Larry Brooks. His message differed from my own “the villain starts the story, the hero ends it,” to rely more on what the hero wants, focusing on “the hero’s problem.” Though that may make it seem as though we’re somehow diametrically opposed—not so. It’s all about motivation for both hero and villain, protagonist and antagonist. With just an hour he couldn’t cover the whole premise of the book he has coming out on the subject, so he stuck with the idea and his interesting take on the difference between or the combination of idea, concept, and premise that asks, or begins to ask, “What’s the mission of your story?” I took a snap of one of his slides that we’ll call a “teaser” for the forthcoming book, which will be on my own to read shelf. During his talk I scribbled quotes like: “It isn’t a story until something goes wrong,” “Enter a scene at the last possible moment,” and “Do something to your story to make it glow in the dark,” which I just loved.

Next, at 10:15 am, I sat in on April Eberhardt’s The Changing Face of Publishing in which she laid out a fairly bleak picture of the publishing world. I have to admit I cringed more than once at her clearly anti-traditional publishing bias. Yes, it’s slow. Yes, it’s (extremely) hard to break into. Yes, they don’t do as much “marketing” (whatever that actually means) as you want them to. But no, they don’t tie up all rights to your book forever. No, they don’t call back advances for books that don’t earn out—if she advised a client to sign a contract like that… yikes. But yeah—though it can and routinely does take years to get through the mill from first query to published book, it’s still well worth a try. Anyway, she had some good, solid advice on indie and co-op publishing and got some smart, direct questions from an audience eager for help.

Also making it onto my to read list was author Erika Mailman, who talked historical fiction in Delving Into the Past. I’ve been in far orbit around an idea for a historical novel for so long you could write a historical novel about when I first got the idea. This session was a lot of fun, especially the hands-on exercise that forced me to work out a very sketchy bullet point mini-outline for the beginning of that book. It was the first time I ever actually sat down and did that with that idea and a character appeared as if by magic that in all this time thinking about this story never occurred to me, then that character’s relationship to another character… wow! This might be the absolute best reason to go to one of these conferences: It’s an inspiration-rich environment,and you never know what’s going to trigger an idea, another idea, a connection, and so on.

Lunch, then Not Just Your Hero Needs a Plan from TV writer Greta Heinemann, which started out feeling a bit—no, a lot Tony Robbins but she’s hilarious and cool and totally pulled it out with real, human, actionable advice on what she called “productivity hacks” and “accountability hacks” to help reprioritize writing in our otherwise busy lives. She also has a book coming out, the Writer’s Productivity Journalthat could really help you if you’re having trouble getting yourself motivated, keeping yourself motivated, and writing.

Another TV/movie writer (it is LA, after all), Erik Bork, was up next with The Seven Elements of a Viable Story Idea, which was heavily slanted toward Hollywood, including a frankly strange warning against originality that I hope no one in the room took to heart, but there’s still a lot to like in his PROBLEM idea:

Punishing (hero “in hell and under siege”)

Relatable (tight POV)

Original (“a fresh twist on the familiar”)

Believable (gain audience buy-in)

Life-altering (big internal and external stakes)

Entertaining (and why not?)

Meaningful (theme, which he downplayed)

Sounds like I didn’t like it right? I liked him—the message, on the other hand, may be all you need to know about why studio movies and network TV shows are so awful. I feel bad saying that, but there it is.

Anyway, I was up next with Writing Scary—again: great crowd, smart questions, and I hope people got a lot out of it.

Saturday drew to a close with Curtis Sittenfeld, who I must admit I had never heard of, but I will seek out her work after her charismatic, snarky, but honest talk. She gets more overtly political than I’ll ever get, actually writing from the POV of Hilary Clinton in both an upcoming novel and a short story. She read from the latter and it was amazing.

Sunday was a short day beginning with the closing keynote by the refreshingly forthright and refreshingly nerdy Nicola Yoon, another author I need to start reading, though a huge YA audience has long ago beat me to her. And here’s another reason to come to these: Writers talk to other writers differently than they would talk to an interviewer for a blog, a magazine, or a newspaper (etc.)—and they answer questions about process and the writing life that can be more informative than any staged seminar with a robust PowerPoint.

Speaking of which, I helped close out the conference with my robust PowerPoint for Act of Villainy, which built out from my online tutorial and broke down motivations for villains/antagonists into three layers of motivation. Who knows, maybe you’ll see that covered here in the weeks to come. But what you won’t get here—not in the same way, anyway—is the chance to ask questions and get an immediate answer and then hear the answers to other questions. This is one of the few advantages this old recluse can think of to being out there in real life—the occasional directed, purposeful, but honest and inspiring interaction with like-minded fellow travelers.

Get out there, writers!


—Philip Athans

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