SURF, THINK, WRITE, REPEAT

In June, in a post entitled “Read, Think, Write, Repeat,” I once again urged y’all to read and allow your own writing to be informed by what you’ve read. I also shared my habit of scribbling notes in the margins of (some) books and dropping that wisdom back here or in one of my online courses, or… into a file like the one in my computer called Random Writing Quotes and Examples.docx.

What I said in June for books goes for the Internet as well. I don’t really know how to scribble in the margins of the Internet but I do know how to copy and paste, and in my regular travels around cyberspace words of wisdom and interesting examples and some authority backing up something I’ve said myself or mean to say at some point get dumped in that file if I don’t have an immediate use in mind. I’d like to share the contents of this file with you now, even if I might still filter some or even all of these little snippets into other things, at least in part.

Without further ado, I give you, in no particular order and with no further explanation except the little notes I made to myself at the beginning of each quote…

add to writing as play, having fun with it:

My best writing advice is also the most simple—just have fun with it. Take the pressure off and allow yourself the freedom to stretch creatively. The external goals—agent, book deals—are all attainable, but what lovely landscape opens up artistically if they aren’t the core reason for your art? Write the thing that’s fizzing and bubbling inside you. Stay true to yourself and explore your passions (even personality-disordered horses!), and remember that you will always be the utmost authority on your writing.

—Kira Jane Buxton author of Hollow Kingdom interviewed at writersdigest.com

re: idiom

Idioms, by contrast, lend themselves to a variety of tones. The verbal melodies they express may appear in unpredictable form. They are perpetually ready to shift shape. By uniting a physical image with an abstract thought, idioms can take their place in many different patterns. When you utter an expression that has startling idiomatic force, it can make your listeners or readers hear or see the world in a novel way.

—Mark Abley “Clichés As a Political Tool

re: cliché

Sometimes the line between idiom and cliché gets blurred. On lists of clichés, I’ve found expressions like “cut off your nose to spite your face,” “a leopard cannot change its spots,” “wear your heart on your sleeve,” and “a few sandwiches short of a picnic.” But are these really clichés?

I don’t think so. If all those expressions were clichés, we could come under fire for speaking in any kind of figurative terms. The distinction between an idiom and a cliché is partly subjective, but it also depends on the rate and type of usage. For an idiom to be broadly understood, it needs to be occasionally heard or read. All four of those expressions would bemuse a newcomer to English. They make sense to us only because we’ve met them before.

—Mark Abley “Clichés As a Political Tool

re: theme? Why we write in the first place (and not for money)

Lord only knows that there are enough problems yet to be solved, books to be written, and music to be composed! Yet for all but a very few, the path to these lies through the performance of perfunctory tasks which in nine cases out of ten have no compelling reason to be performed. Heaven save us from the first novels which are written because a young man desires the prestige of being a novelist rather than because he has something to say! Heaven save us likewise from the mathematical papers which are correct and elegant but without body or spirit. Heaven save us above all from the snobbery which not only admits the possibility of this thin and perfunctory work, but which cries out in a spirit of shrinking arrogance against the competition of vigor and ideas, wherever these may be found!

—Norbert Wiener from The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society

in support of fantasy

At all ages, if [fantasy] is used well by the author and meets the right reader, it has the same power: to generalize while remaining concrete, to present in palpable form not concepts or even experiences but whole classes of experience, and to throw off irrelevancies. But at its best it can do more; it can give us experiences we have never had and thus, instead of ‘commenting on life,’ can add to it.

C.S. Lewis (1956)

maybe add to “intellectual curiosity”

“On the one hand, to function well, you have to believe in yourself and your abilities and summon enormous confidence from somewhere. On the other hand, to write well, or just to be a good person, you need to be able to doubt yourself—to entertain the possibility that you’re wrong about everything, that you don’t know everything, and to have sympathy with people whose lives and beliefs and perspectives are very different from yours.”

—Jonathan Franzen from a New York Times interview

your voice

“I bring everything I know to whatever I write, and I believe the same of other writers. A person’s complete life experience forms the basis of authorial voice, in my opinion. To hold back any part makes a narrative feel contrived.”

—Tade Thompson, author of The Murders of Molly Southbourne

I just like this…

There’s always a moment of transformation in the process of making. Suddenly, you understand what your novel is about or what a short story hinges on or what you’re trying to say in a poem. I love talking to people about that moment, the moment where they knew. It’s like when lightning strikes—another gesture beloved of the gods—and all the trees in a field jump out in stark relief, their leaves hot-white and glowing. But the trees weren’t created in that moment: they were there all along. There are objects in a dark room. A light bulb just allows us to see them.

—Larissa Pham, Paris Review article: “Marlene Dumas’s Metamorphoses

Philip K. Dick defending science fiction

‘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.’

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

breaks down the overall goal of Philip K. Dick’s SF:

Dick fully accepts that the late modern condition attendant on the ever-expanding proliferation of realities cannot be undone or overcome (i.e. going back to one reality which replaces values with facts) but has to be faced, tolerated, and worked through. In book after book, Dick portrays an elemental estrangement of reality. Dickian characters find themselves trapped in hallucinations or fake worlds of various kinds, often without knowing it or, if knowing it, without being able to do anything about it. And it is not only worlds that are fake. Objects, animals, people may also be unreal in various ways (Aldiss, 1979). There can be no longer any talk of returning to nature or of turning away from the ‘artificial’, since the fusion of the natural with the artificial has long since become an accomplished fact (Lem, 1984).

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

pulp fiction moving past its limitations—or limitations being pulled down around it? When does “trash fiction” become “literature”?

[Philip K.] Dick employs glaring clichés of trash (e.g. the usual SF props of precognition, time travel, androids…) to tackle exceedingly complex philosophical problems. This trashy surface allows his novels to survive in different ways in the reader’s environment, either semiotically (awareness of the resurrection of metaphysical values) or semantically (very entertaining, if a bit disjointed) understood. Thus the novels contain some sort of double encoding which Lem (1984, p.85-86) explained as follows:

‘If many coloured flags are put upon the masts of a ship in the harbour, a child on the shore will think that this is a merry game and perhaps will have a lot of fun watching, although at the same time an adult will recognize the flags as a language of signals, and know that it stands for a report on a plague that has broken out on board the ship.’

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

re: setting/atmosphere

In terms of the landscape, a landscape is always alive. It always has something going on beyond the characters. Sometimes I literally put myself in the place of the particular setting and think about how it might impact the story in some way. That comes to fruition in terms of me thinking in the Southern Reach books about how Area X would have agency and how it would impress itself upon the characters.

—Jeff Vandermeer interview for writersdigest.com

personal vs. procedural

No one ever conceived of a more sophisticated and dynamic philosophical history than Hegel. His system is built around three fundamental ideas. First, the key to human agency is self-consciousness. For people to be doing anything in any real human sense is to know what we are doing as we do it. This applies even when we are not explicitly thinking about what we are doing. Here’s a simple example: as you are reading this, suppose you get a text message from a friend: ‘What are you doing?’ You immediately reply: ‘I’m reading a piece on Hegel.’ You knew what you were doing without having to have a separate act of thinking about it or drawing conclusions. Without any further thought, you knew that you were not skydiving, taking a bath, gardening or doing the crossword. You didn’t look around and infer from the evidence. You didn’t need any particular introspection. In fact, in Hegelian terms, when you are doing something and you do not know at all what you are doing, you’re not really doing anything at all. Instead, stuff is just happening. To be sure, sometimes we are only vaguely aware of what we are doing. However, even our often more distanced reflective self-consciousness is itself only a further realisation of the deeper and distinctly Hegelian self-relation: all consciousness is self-consciousness.

—Ted Pinkard from “The Spirit of History

 

If you don’t already have a file like this, what are you waiting for?

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

Starting Thursday, August 22.

Writers Digest University’s Advanced Horror Workshop’s in-depth background material takes writing horror as seriously as you do.

 

 

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WHEN CHARACTERS MEET TECHNOLOGY

I like to define science fiction as stories in which the impossible is made possible by the use of some imaginary technology or scientific discovery. In other words, if the hero gets to a distant planet via a starship it’s science fiction. If the hero gets to a distant planet via magic, it’s fantasy. Clear enough as a starting point, anyway.

So then if science fiction depends to one extent or another on imagined technology, the balancing act is how to keep your story a story, which I like to define as “characters in conflict,” and not a fictional technical paper. The fiction side of the science:fiction ratio demands people doing things in opposition to other people (and feel free to present people as humans, robots, space elves, Martians… whatever) while the science side demands that they do it with science (technology, etc.). Easy.

But then where to draw the line, or where to balance that ratio of science to fiction?

Though she was writing within her comfort zone of “Hard SF,” I was a little pushed back by what felt to me to be an example of what I admittedly too-dismissively call “Hey, look at all this research I did!” in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Falling Free:

Leo smiled thanks for the desired straight line. “They are indeed gas porosities. Oddly enough, though, when we crunch the numbers through, they do not appear to be defects. Let us run the computer scan down its length, with an eye to the digital read-out. As you see,” the numbers flickered at a corner of the display as the cross-section moved dizzyingly, “at no point do more than two porosities appear in a cross-section, and at all points the voids occupy less than five percent of the section. Also, spherical cavities like these are the least damaging of all potential shapes and discontinuities, the least likely to propagate cracks in service. A non-critical defect is called a discontinuity.” Leo paused politely while two dozen heads bent in unison to highlight this pleasingly unambiguous fact on the autotranscription of their light boards, braced between lower hands for a portable recording surface. “When I add that this was in a fairly low-pressure liquid storage tank, and not, for example, in a thruster propulsion chamber with its massively greater stresses, the slipperiness of this definition becomes clearer. For in a thruster the particular degree of defect that shows up here would have been critical.”

Whew. Deep breath. And this is actually paragraph six of a twenty-five paragraph lecture by protagonist Leo that runs more or less exactly like this—exhaustive details on welding quality assurance.

It is fair to keep in mind that Leo has come to this space station to teach welding to a team of genetically engineered “quaddies,” bred to work in zero gravity by some interstellar corporation. This scene shows that the quaddies are smart and attentive, understanding all these technical details and all this technical jargon better than… well, better than I did, anyway. We see that Leo seems to know what he’s talking about (as a casual reader I didn’t, won’t, and wouldn’t ever have fact checked this myself) and is doing what he’s been brought to the station to do, despite his initial surprise and obvious discomfort with what are clearly shown to be genetically engineered slaves. But all that conflict-rich set-up—the story at hand—stops for these exhaustive technical details. Do we (Lois McMaster Bujold’s readers) really need to sit through that lesson? I say no, but I understand some readers may disagree.

Rather than a literal technical lecture, in The Fortress at the End of Time authorJoe M. McDermott shows us his characters’ personal interaction with his imagined future technology:

“Ensign,” said the other tech, one of the four women on board, “recording off.”

I nodded, confused. Wong handed me the helmet and the suit. I checked for any signs of damage. We sprayed ourselves with UV blockers, and suited up. We were not in heavy gravity. The airlock door, once opened, would lead to a long tube that ran straight to the central axis upon which we spun. We would fall down into weightlessness and then climb out with ladders to the surface of the station’s outer shell. First, we checked each others’ suits. Never assume a suit is sealed unless it is checked twice by two diligent people. Then plug in the interface, and check the diagnostics for a seal. Recording begins with the computer interface. It can be turned off manually at any time. In cases of imminent death, I am told, it is considered wise to say what needs to be said, then turn it off to protect others from dying screams. There are also situations where communication signals are possibly compromised in wartime, and individual units need to be able to unplug from the network. I did not understand why Wong would want recording off. Even on board the station, while on duty, everything was recorded. We were so accustomed to the microcameras and microphones, we didn’t even see them. Who could bother watching all that footage, anyway, except a machine?

I had to choose between my rigorous training and my new role model’s odd command. Safety protocols trump chain of command. I only pretended to adjust my computer. I consider what I did sinful. Wong had his reasons, and only with the communication recorders off could he even dictate them aloud, but I didn’t think about that in the moment.

 

There’s actually a lot of technical detail there, and in general I would rather see that sort of detail shown in action, and if that’s not possible then rendered in dialog (as Lois McMaster Bujold did), and only after those first two option are proved impossible, in description. But this description, with some thanks to the first person, feels more personal than the welding lecture. This is a human in a weird and dangerous environment, trying to remember his training, trying to make sure he does the right things even when he realizes that the right things might be based on the wrong reasons. Judgments are being made, the motives of other characters are being questioned—this puts me in that character’s experience rather than pushing me into a chair in a classroom.

From a book about genetically engineered “machines” learning to use traditional mechanical devices through an astronaut balancing safety protocols and the apparent “house rules” of the station he’s been assigned to, Ursula K. LeGuin does what both Bujold and McDermott do when we look at their books in whole. She shows that machines themselves are not the real problem or solution, that “guns don’t kill people, people do.” Or in the case of The Lathe of Heaven, Augmentors don’t change the world via effective dreaming, effective dreamers do:

Orr pulled away the electrodes whose wires ran like thread-worms between Haber’s skull and the Augmentor. He looked at the machine, its cabinets all standing open; it should be destroyed, he thought. But he had no idea how to do it, nor any will to try. Destruction was not his line; and a machine is more blameless, more sinless even than any animal. It has no intentions whatsoever but our own.

Fill your science fiction with science and technology, but not at the cost of characters and story. Technology in science fiction—or magic in fantasy, for that matter—is blameless, it has no intentions but your characters’.

 

—Philip Athans

 

Take this post to the next level with…

Engaging Your Readers Through Emotion and Description

Every story is about people, and people experience the world around them (including technology and magic) with lots more than their intellect.

 

 

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WHAT WE CAN LEARN FROM A RANDOM SCIENCE FICTION NOVEL: THE WORLDS OF ROBERT A. HEINLEIN

Near the end of 2014 I described the step-by-step process of creating a random SF/fantasy paperback grab-bag, and I have continued to draw books from the box, one after another. I’ve already outed myself as someone who makes notes in the margins of books (sometimes, at least) to call out a few examples of interesting things on the subject of writing, worldbuilding, and so on. I didn’t do that with every random science fiction book I’ve read since then, but I made a few at least in my old 1966 Ace copy of the short story collection The Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein.

The stories in this collection, originally published mostly in Astounding in 1939, 1940, and 1962, definitely fall into the Hard SF category, much more concerned with the science and engineering being done than with the characters doing it. What I actually found more interesting than the stories themselves was Heinlein’s long introduction to the book, “Pandora’s Box”—a 1966 update of his 1952 essay “Where To?”

Heinlein sets the tone of the essay quickly with he simple declaration:“Science fiction is not prophecy.” Then more robustly:

Science fiction is almost always laid in the future—or at least in a fictional possible-future—and is almost invariably deeply concerned with the shape of that future. But the method is not prediction; it is usually extrapolation and/or speculation. Indeed the author is not required to (and usually does not) regard the fictional “future” he has chosen to write about as being the events most likely to come to pass; his purpose may have nothing to do with the probability that these storied events may happen.

Having recognized that, Heinlein boldly lists some of his own predictions of the near future including things like “Contraception and control of disease is revising relations between sexes to an extent that will change our entire social and economic structure” and “In fifteen years [1981] the housing shortage will be solved by a ‘breakthrough’ into new technology which will make every house now standing as obsolete as privies.”

Of his nineteen predictions, eight turned out to have come true (or mostly true), eleven were false, or essentially false, having not happened yet, but they might still someday. That’s not bad, being within a reasonable margin of error of 50/50. Not bad looking from 1966, when a lot of technologies we take for granted now were still either still in the realm of fiction or in their infancy (he said: “Your personal telephone will be small enough to carry in your handbag”), and a period of extreme social change was only just beginning (as per his thoughts on relations between the sexes, above). This only serves to back up Heinlein’s supposition that the best laid plans of any would-be science fiction prophet will have little better than a coin toss’s chance of coming to pass. And this only made more difficult by a dramatic shift in how science and technology is done:

Even to make predictions about overall trends in technology is now more difficult. In fields where before World War II there was one man working in public, there are now ten, or a hundred, working in secret. There may be six men in the country who have a clear picture of what is going on in science today. There may not be even one.

Weirdest of all here is Heinlein calling for something he understood was necessary, but was way off in terms of how it would actually come about:

Call it the Crisis of the Librarian.

We need a new “specialist” who is not a specialist, but a synthesist. We need a new science to be the perfect secretary to all other sciences.

Enter, thirty-two years later, Google.

Happily, Heinlein was wrong about one common assumption of the Cold War era:

The period immediately ahead [of 1966] will be the roughest, cruelest one in the long, hard history of mankind. It will probably include the worst World War of them all. It might even end with a war with Mars, God save the mark! Even if we are spared that fantastic possibility, it is certain that there will be no security anywhere, save what you dig out of your own spirit.

And here he was, right in the second decade of the Long Peace, and ten years before the Viking lander made it clear that Mars was rather lacking in (at least macroscopic) Martians. See what propaganda can do to even really smart people?

All that said, Heinlein did predict, in the short stories that follow in The Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein, an awful lot about the coming atomic age. Since the collection was put together in 1966, and surely included some revisions, it’s hard to credit all of these predictions to the original stories published in the 40s. Still, in this collection we can see an author who takes the science in science fiction quite seriously, working with an editor, Joseph Campbell, who took it even more seriously, as what came to be known as “Hard SF” took over from the pulp space operas and science-fantasies of the pre-war era. These early stories also fail to predict Heinlein’s own part in pushing the genre from “hard” to “soft” with his own Stranger in a Strange Land, published just a year before the story “Searchlight” and more than two decades after the rest of the stories in this collection.

A tricky, moving target, that future, isn’t it?

Even our own futures.

 

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

Finding the Personal in the Procedural

A Deep Dive into Show vs. Tell

One of the most common refrains from writing workshops is that writers need to show, not tell. Procedural description tells your readers what someone, or worse, something, is doing. But what readers really want from fiction is to feel what it’s like to be in that place and time, experiencing that moment with your character. In this 70-minute tutorial, author/editor Philip Athans looks at some specific techniques to personalize every moment of your fiction to bring your readers and your characters closer together.

 

 

 

 

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FOG: EXPLORING WEIRD TALES Vol. 5, No. 1—PART 20

Let’s finish up “Fog” by C. Franklin Miller from the January 1925 issue of Weird Tales we started a couple weeks ago, still examining the story through the lens of Lester Dent’s Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot.

By now we’ve come to the all-important…

FOURTH 1500 WORDS

Let’s say the last fourth of the story starts at the scene break at the bottom of the left column of page 121 with “That settled all doubts,” and see how C. Franklin Miller stacks up against Lester Dent’s advice to…

Shovel the difficulties more thickly upon the hero.

This sounds like a difficulty to me:

Our retreat was cut off and the realization unnerved me. If only I could see! Trailed by some inconceivable monster and unable to fight back was too much for the human brain.

They’re still being chased by some unknown thing in a pitch-dark cave. But do the difficulties get thicker?

Get the hero almost buried in his troubles. (Figuratively, the villain has him prisoner and has him framed for a murder rap; the girl is presumably dead, everything is lost, and the different murder method is about to dispose of the suffering protagonist.)

This counts:

“We made a frantic effort to evade its spread. It was useless. Its power of expansion and contraction seemed tremendous. With an unearthly hiss it swirled about us and held us, struggling madly, in its icy embrace.

This is a good example of how when Lester Dent—or anyone who has ever written this sort of formula—says something specific like “buried,” you are not only free to, but are hereby encouraged (by me, at least) to expand the definition of “buried” as far out as you can. Being captured by some kind of enveloping monster counts as “buried,” for sure.

The hero extricates himself using his own skill, training or brawn.

I’m nervous about this, going into the fourth section, since they find their way out of the cave by sheer luck, running madly away from the thing and not using any particular “skill, training, or brawn.” At least not yet.

Uh, oh:

Almost blinded and scarcely able to breathe, I hacked away with my knife, trying to dig a way through the pasty mass. I was like one fighting in delirium. For one agonizing moment I was conscious of a dull roar in my ears and then—

“I must have fainted. With the coming of light I was lying face downward on the ground halfway up the slope. My arms were wrapped tightly around the trunk of a tree. A fine rain was falling.

He passes out, wakes up, and the monster is just gone. No skill. No training. No brawn. No particular effort on the part of the hero—or was he more effective with his knife than we were led to believe? Did he extricate himself by using blind panic and his only available tool—and his brawn, I guess?

Good enough?

The mysteries remaining—one big one held over to this point will help grip interest—are cleared up in the course of the final conflict as hero takes the situation in hand.

So, as of Moisell waking up and the monster gone, there are two mysteries remaining:

What was this thing? and…

What was he afraid of on the ship—is it the same monster?

Final twist, a big surprise. (This can be the villain turning out to be the unexpected person, having the “Treasure” be a dud, etc.)

The final twist is interesting but for my money a bit too obscure.

Was it really all in Moisell’s fevered imagination? Was Bonner really killed by ordinary quicksand? Was Moisell just lucky enough to crawl out of it before it pulled him under? Is this “putty” in the box some ordinary… putty? Or is it physical proof of the monster that Hunter can’t recognize?

I’m not opposed in any case to stories that end with questions hanging. Not only do I not need but I tend to strongly dislike any sort of “now we’ll explain what happened” ending. But I’m getting an inexplicable feeling that C. Franklin Miller meant for this mystery to have been solved, that Hunter’s conclusion that his friend is crazy is warranted, is the ending of the story, and the solution to the “mysteries” still outstanding.

The snapper, the punch line to end it.

The snapper: “On the bottom lay a lump of putty!” as I said above, doesn’t really solve it for me, but it’s still exactly the sort of thing Lester Dent is calling for. Some final statement, some last idea that leaves us with what he called, “that warm feeling.”

But ultimately, in the case of “Fog,” the final question from Lester Dent: “Did God kill the villain? Or the hero?” remains unanswered.

If the villain is the monster it’s unclear if Moisell actually killed it. Even if there wasn’t really a monster and Moisell imagined it doesn’t matter. The “villain,” as Dent calls it, doesn’t have to be real in any case—again pull out from the obvious to expand the definition of “villain” as far as you want to.

Was this a deus ex machina (machine of God) ending? One where some outside force swoops in to pull the hero’s fat out of the fryer—maybe the Cardinal Sin of contemporary fiction? Or could we call this an insanire ex machina (machine of madness) ending. Is that better or worse?

I honestly don’t know!

 

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

 

A captivating and unique world is what sets science fiction and fantasy apart from all other genres.

Explore this vital subject in my four-week Writers Digest University course

Worldbuilding in Science Fiction and Fantasy,

starting this coming Thursday, July 25!

 

 

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FOG: EXPLORING WEIRD TALES Vol. 5, No. 1—PART 19

I’m just going to go right into the next part of “Fog” by C. Franklin Miller from the January 1925 issue of Weird Tales we started last week, examining the story through the lens of Lester Dent’s Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot.

Having introduced our characters and set them off on their expedition to find the living descendants of the dinosaurs, we should, at least according to Lester Dent, be well into the story now by now…

SECOND 1500 WORDS

Lester Dent advises we…

Shovel more grief onto the hero.

C. Franklin Miller has added his own chapter numbers, and though the word/page counts don’t perfectly match up, it’s fair to go ahead and start at “2” on page 118, which begins a year after the initial meeting at the Bachelor’s Club. Has Miller shoveled any grief onto our hero?

This encounter with a terror-stricken Moisell definitely ramps up the action, and adds an air of spooky moodiness to the story, which so far has been rather lighthearted. This is a good lesson in terms of writing entertaining short stories, in general:

This story should have started here.

Lose the whole male bonding opening and begin the story on the steamer, with the demented Moisell, solidly in the first person POV of Hunter. This is all much more interesting, attention-grabbing, and story-rich. Am I right?

Hero, being heroic, struggles, and his struggles lead up to:

Well, I don’t see anyone struggling here, necessarily. It appears that Moisell is about to tell us a terrifying story, and there’s the threat of something on the deck that tried to smother him, but…

Another physical conflict.

…hasn’t actually happened yet. Not only are we missing another physical conflict, we’re still waiting for the first one. C. Franklin Miller is ramping things up… but too slowly!

A surprising plot twist to end the 1500 words.

And there is no surprising twist, either. So far, this looks like a Lester Dent fail, though the story itself, had it started at “2,” is actually pretty good.

NOW: Does second part have suspense? Does the menace grow like a black cloud? Is the hero getting it in the neck? Is the second part logical?

I think this second part does have suspense. For me, suspense comes from an imbalance of information, We (the readers) only know what Hunter knows, which is precious little, while Moisell clearly has had some traumatic experience, and not in some faraway distant past and/or place, but just now on the deck of the ship. What’s out there that he’s so afraid of? The suspense is rising. Likewise, the menace grows as well, for all the same reasons.

But the hero isn’t “getting it in the neck,” he’s trying to figure out what’s wrong with his friend.

As far as logic is concerned—sure. They’re both seasoned travelers and are on the same steamer, and no one has done anything that would seem to break the laws of physics or plausibility.

Let’s press on to the…

THIRD 1500 WORDS

Where Lester Dent urges us to continue to…

Shovel the grief onto the hero.

Now I’m experiencing Hero Confusion.

Hero Confusion is a psychological malady caused by authors who either aren’t sure themselves, want their readers to be unsure, or accidentally cause their readers to be unsure who the hero (aka protagonist) of the story actually is.

It seemed as though, from the first part, that Moisell was the hero, but that clearly switched to Hunter in the second—or, at least, Hunter was the point of view character and maybe I made an incorrect assumption based on that. Now it seems as though we’re going to get the meat of the story told to us by Moisell, reclaiming the role of the hero.

Though purposely evoking some degree of Hero Confusion in your readers can be an effective storytelling tool, where I fear for C. Franklin Miller in this case is that we’re now going to read a story that is told to one character by another character. This was not uncommon in stories from the period (keep in mind, we’re in 1925 now) but I doubt contemporary editors are going to look on this too fondly now. Try it—because anything that works is good—but tread carefully.

As an aside, I’d like to call out how C. Franklin Miller “stages the reveal” of his monster. In my book Writing Monsters, I offered this advice:

Reveal your monsters in three stages [First Encounter, The Growing Threat, and The Tipping Point]. The first and third will be the fastest (using the least number of words) and perhaps most dramatic. The middle section is where you’ll spend time revealing aspects of the monster—what it can do, what it looks, sounds, smells, and feels like—while always increasing the danger to your characters and upping the stakes for your story.

Note that Miller introduces the monster first by the dramatic psychological effect it’s had on Moisell and the traces of gray stuff it’s left behind. When he gets into “The Growing Threat,” he stages the thing in using appeals to senses other that sight. First, smell:

‘‘We had not gone very far in the darkness when I became conscious of a strange, nauseating odor. It grew more obnoxious as we advanced and at times was almost unbearable. I could liken it to nothing I had ever experienced before excepting, possibly, the evil-smelling scum over a sun-baked mud-hole.

Then they see the gray stuff and the body—the effect of the thing. Then we get only a scary sound in the darkness:

“We did—and again came that swishing sound—cumbersome, stealthy, insistent—like some enormous beast stalking its prey. Bonner must have heard it too, for he quickened his pace. But we could not shake it off. It stopped when we stopped, and when we got going again it came swishing out of the darkness with a maddening persistency. It clung to our heels with almost human intelligence—and gained steadily.

Ending with the feeling of it:

I could feel its cold breath on my neck.

Note it has cold, not warm or hot breath like any normal animal would.

Scary! We still can’t see this thing, and being humans, we all tend to rely on sight as our primary sense. But instead C. Franklin Miller has put us in a dark, confined, isolated space, cut off from outside help, and given us ample evidence of something we can’t explain and can’t see, chasing us down. This is a classic monster reveal.

Hero makes some headway, and corners the villain or somebody in:

Miller continues to lag behind Mr. Dent in that no one has made any headway and the hero has been himself cornered by the as yet unseen “villain.” But this all would follow nicely if Miller had started the story with his Chapter 2!

A physical conflict.

Here we’re actually pretty much in line, if you consider this the end of the third section:

Without reasoning I stopped long enough to empty my rifle into the gloom, and then we stumbled along like drunken men.

A surprising plot twist, in which the hero preferably gets it in the neck bad, to end the third 1500 words.

There isn’t so much a plot twist here as the action following along logically—something else Lester Dent urges us to do.

Does it still have suspense? Is the menace getting blacker? Does the hero find himself in a hell of a fix? Does it all happen logically?

And then we’re left with a string of positive answers. It indeed has suspense—what the hell is this thing and what does it want from us? The menace gets considerably blacker—they’re literally being chased through a cave by an unseen, unknown monster. That also puts them in a hell of a fix, and it’s perfectly in line with the story’s own internal logic.

So far, then, a qualified success!

Let’s see how it all wraps up next week…

(Ah, the classic pulp cliffhanger!)

 

—Philip Athans

 

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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FOG: EXPLORING WEIRD TALES Vol. 5, No. 1—PART 18

Diving once more into the January 1925 issue of Weird Tales we come to:

Um… That’s supposed to be C. Franklin Miller… And there’s an interesting typo in the first paragraph, too:

…a certain emotion, a certain

tensity, that his friends…

I bet the linotype operator felt he’d already typed the first two letters in intensity but it was only the last two letters in certain. I make that sort of mistake myself from time to time. I unconsciously want to invent the word bothe, which means both the, but without so much typing. I guess this issue of Weird Tales was put together with the same tensity as the rest of the fast-to-market pulps of the era.

Moving on from that, I wonder if we can look at this story through the lens of Lester Dent’s (in)famous Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot, which I use as the cornerstone of my online Pulp Fiction Workshop, the current session of which is wrapping up this week. If you aren’t familiar with Lester Dent, he’s the co-creator of Doc Savage and wrote most of the Doc Savage stories (under the pseudonym Kenneth Roberson) as well as dozens and dozens of other works of fiction across an array of genres. His “formula” first appeared in Writer’s Digest in the early 1940s and has been passed around from author to author ever since, of course ending up on the Internet. You can click here to find the full text.

Dent breaks his 6000-word short stories down into four sections of 1500 words each. Rather than estimate word counts here, I’ll just go ahead and divide the seven pages this story took up in the magazine by four, so we’ll see how each 1.75-page section fits into Dent’s formula. Of course, this story predates the formula itself, so I don’t mean to imply that C. Franklin Miller was actually using it, or anything like it, but the experiment is worth running for its own sake.

Before we even begin writing, Dent has us consider these four important elements:

  1. A DIFFERENT MURDER METHOD FOR VILLAIN TO USE
  2. A DIFFERENT THING FOR VILLAIN TO BE SEEKING
  3. A DIFFERENT LOCALE
  4. A MENACE THAT IS TO HANG LIKE A CLOUD OVER HERO

Rather than identify those up front, let’s see what, in “Fog,” we might match up to those categories as we discover them. In the meantime, here’s what Lester Dent says should happen in the first quarter of the story:

First line, or as near thereto as possible, introduce the hero and swat him with a fistful of trouble. Hint at a mystery, a menace or a problem to be solved—something the hero has to cope with.

Assuming Moisell is our hero, we get his name as the first word in the second sentence, so, so far so good. In the first line, though, we learn a little about Moisell, and that’s that he’s a hell of a guy. A real man’s man. An international man of mystery, you might even say. There are hints at a mystery—Moisell doesn’t seem to like to talk about dinosaurs?—but by the end of the first column all I know is that Moisell is super cool. There’s no particular problem to be solved. And is C. Franklin Miller a bit too fond of his hero?

As an aside, am I wrong to just love this sentence, which I don’t think could ever be written, at least without irony, now? Young Donaldson, “Long Jim” Haney and myself were boring each other over a couple of highballs down in the grill of the Bachelors’ Club…Go ahead, tell me the Bachelors’ Club isn’t actually a gay bar, and I’ll explain how Jim Haney got that nickname.

Anyway, still no problem to be solved at the end of the first page—get it together, C. Fraklin… Franklin… whatever your name is!

Okay, finally…

“Just the same,” put in the irrepressible Donaldson, tapping his glass, “I’ll bet you get more kick out of a dead dinosaur than you could out of a dozen of these.”

“Humph!” snorted Bonner disdainfully. “Dead ones, indeed!”

He glanced hurriedly around the room with an elaborate air of mystery and then leaned across the table as if about to divulge some momentous secret.

“How about the kick of a live one!” he whispered.

Ooh… okay, Bonner has seen a live dinosaur.

The hero pitches in to cope with his fistful of trouble. (He tries to fathom the mystery, defeat the menace, or solve the problem.)

At the end of the second page (which we’ll call 1.75 pages, or a quarter of the way through, since maybe a quarter of the first page is taken up with the title illustration), we do at least have Moisell “pitching in” with the expedition to Patagonia in search of dinosaurs, even if the “action” is still limited to a lively discussion at the Bachelors’ Club.

Introduce all the other characters as soon as possible. Bring them on in action.

We meet the boys, and get through some serious male bonding, so Miller is in line with Dent on this score, but he doesn’t really “bring them on in action.”

Still, the real utility of something like Dent’s “formula” is in the quotes around “formula,” which is to say, the degree of freedom you afford yourself in interpreting words like “action,” “grief, “menace,” and so on. We do at least meet the club members in conversation, glad-handing and boozing it up at the Bachelors’ Club. I’ll give this one to C. Franklin.

Hero’s endeavors land him in an actual physical conflict near the end of the first 1500 words.

But here C. Franklin Miller totally blows it, at least according to what Lester Dent will map out some sixteen years later. This first quarter of the story has no physical conflict at all—or even any reasonable stretch of the definition of “conflict.”

Near the end of first 1500 words, there is a complete surprise twist in the plot development.

Likewise, Miller fails at providing what I would call a “complete surprise twist,” in that there’s a plan to go find the descendants of the dinosaurs, which Moisell postulates might be roaming the wilds of Patagonia, but that follows from the rest of the “action” of the story thus far. If I were C. Franklin Miller’s post-Dent pulp adventure story editor, I’d have him cut this whole first section, open with a dinosaur, then backfill the whole story of how they got there—if necessary.

This is a good example of knowing when to start your story.

Especially with a short story, you have very few words to waste, and need to grab your readers as quickly as possible—immediately, really—with something happening in the first sentence, not even just the first paragraph. And again, this thing that’s happening doesn’t have to be a fistfight or a shootout, just some action (defined as a character doing something) that at least hints at a conflict (there’s at least one other character that doesn’t like what the first character is doing).

That sounds awfully broad—and it is. On purpose. I don’t like the idea of writing to a strict formula any more than anyone else, but if you look at this, as I urge people who take my Pulp Fiction Workshop to do, as a set of reminders rather than strict instructions, you’ll get your story started not when the idea first came up over drinks, but right at the moment it all started going terribly wrong.

Speaking of live dinosaurs, think about the first scene in the movie Jurassic Park. It doesn’t open with Dr. Grant in Montana, it opens with guys loading some unknown thing into a pen, and that unknown thing eats one of them.

Steven Spielberg knows this better than anyone: action first, explanation later, or what I’ve called “punch, push, explain.”

And finally, has Miller touched on any of the four elements Dent asked us to consider before even starting? This first quarter does establish that they’re at least planning on going to A DIFFERENT LOCALE, so we’ll give him that one.

We’ll see how the rest of “Fog” matches up with Lester Dent’s Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot in the weeks ahead.

Stay tuned!

 

—Philip Athans

 

Starting this Thursday, July 11!

Get in touch with what scares your readers… and yourself in my two-week online Writers Digest University course

Horror Writing Intensive:Analyzing the Work of Genre Master Stephen King.

 

 

 

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ANSIBLES, BLASTERS, AND CREDITS, OH MY!

I tackled the complex subject of genre clichés, archetypes, and originality in The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction:

Certain key components, like dragons in fantasy or robots in science fiction, are free for the taking. No one, even the estates of J.R.R. Tolkien or Isaac Asimov, can sue you for picking those archetypes up and running with them. But if you don’t give them a unique spin, agents and editors will shrug you off.

If the robot is an archetype, what makes your robot different than Asimov’s, Lucas’s, or anyone else’s? C-3PO’s gold “skin” was reminiscent of the Maria robot in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, but Threepio’s personality couldn’t be any more different. Lucas gave a nod back to one of the first science fiction movie epics, but he created robots all his own, robots that have stood the test of time. If you take any advice in this book, remember this:

Use every archetype in the genre toolbox, but make them your own.

Keeping that in mind, let’s dig a little deeper into some popular science fiction archetypes and where they came from.

Science fiction might appear, on first blush, to be more grounded in reality than fantasy, but a few of the “hardest” hard science fiction novels aside, I’m not sure that case can really be made. Fantasy authors often do extensive research into medieval technology and life, steampunk authors immerse themselves in Victoriana even while imagining airships and automatons, and even far-future science fiction does the same. We can research astronomy, spaceflight engineering, and so on, but what makes science fiction science fiction is the technology that doesn’t actually exist today but might exist tomorrow, or a thousand years from now. And like fantasy, which often feeds off myth, legend, and folklore for dragons, elves, magic wands and rings, and so on, science fiction feeds on itself for what has become an ever-growing lexicon of future technologies and concepts.

We know that the word “robot,” now increasingly a real thing, was first coined by the playwright Karel Capek in R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), all the way back in 1920. So when I said, “…robots in science fiction, are free for the taking,” was I encouraging you to rip off another science fiction author?

I suppose some argument could be made for that, but then everyone who’s ever used that word owes the Capek family money—and that would be a lot of money by now. It’s a strange, usually unseen or unremarked moment when some neologism (a newly coined word or expression) enters the realm of common usage, and sometimes those science fiction neologisms, like Karel Capek’s “robot” and William Gibson’s “cyberspace,” actually come true—someone eventually builds the thing.

But there are still a few—more than a few, really—imagined technologies that are still in the realm of science fiction but that have entered into common usage, at least in science fiction novels, movies, games, and so on. Here are three, which, like robots, are yours to put your own spin on:

 

ANSIBLE

A machine that allows for faster-than-light communication so two parties can communicate in real time over interstellar distances.

Radio waves travel at the speed of light, so if you want to talk to a friend on the planet Gliese 581g from your radio on Earth, your message, “Hey, Nancy, is that you?” will take twenty years to get there, and the reply, “Sorry, Nancy’s at work. Can I take a message?” will take another twenty years to get back to you, and any message you leave for Nancy will get to her a full sixty years after your first radio message.

The word “ansible,” which seems to just be a made up word, first appears in Rocannon’s World  by Ursula K. Le Guin:

“But if your kinfolk, your friends, in the City Kerguelen, call you on the ansible, and there is no answer, will they not come to see—” Mogient saw the answer as Rocannon said it:

“In eight years…”

When he had shown Mogien over the Survey ship, and shown him the instantaneous transmitter, the ansible, Rocannon had told him also about the new kind of ship that could go from one star to another in no time at all.

But the term, not just the concept, has been conjured up in any number of stories that followed, including Joe M. McDermott’s The Fortress at the End of Time:

I pushed a shiny red button. I pretended to be screaming of an invasion in a final, dying act along the securest ansible line. There were no intruders; it was all a sham. In the space of time between the admiral’s results from a scouting patrol, and the filing of official reports about that patrol, I exploited a hole in the network emergency protocols. It was such a simple hack in a procedural gap that I can only imagine what all the networks of the universe will do to prevent it from happening again.

The ansibles run precisely entangled at the quantum level, but time is ever relative.

Across campus, to the ansible attached to the space elevator, I looked up at the distant top, where ships drift away into sky. At the tip of the elevator, a signal line reached out across space and time with quantum entanglements. The binary signals of matter itself could be used to send data and create matter out of the chaos of hydrogen gas and ions and electrons.

Need characters to be able to talk to each other across interstellar distances? The ansible is there for you, but, like Joe McDermott has, give it your own spin—his functions as a transporter, too.

 

BLASTER

A personal and/or crew-served and/or vehicle-mounted weapon that projects some kind of energy beam or projectile.

Guns shoot bullets, big guns shoot shells. Laser guns shoot lasers. But blasters shoot… whatever you want them to shoot. Various scientific-sounding words like “plasma,” “fusion,” or “quantum” can be added to blaster, but in any case what you have here is a futuristic gun.

The blaster dates back all the way to the April 1925 issue of Weird Tales and the story “When the Green Star Waned” by Nictzin Dyalhis, though he spelled it Blastor:

 

The Blastor made no noise—it never does, nor do the big Ak-Blastors which are the fighting weapons used on the Aethir-Torps, when they are discharging annihilation—but that nauseous ugliness I had removed gave vent to a sort of bubbling hiss as it returned to its original atoms; and the others of our party hastened to where I stood shaking from excitement—Hul Jok was wrong when he said it was fear!—and they questioned me as to what I had encountered.

In the 1940 story “Coventry,” Robert A. Heinlein mentions a “portable blaster.” And of course they’re all over the Star Wars universe.

Blast away, blastermen!

 

CREDIT

The all-purpose currency of the future, credits take the place of dollars, euros, and rubles because surely all those things are going to go the way of the lira in the future.

The credit is the currency of the Traveller universe, Star Wars, Isaac Asimov’s Foundationseries, and… so many others, including the video game franchise Mass Effect. From the Mass Effect novel Revelation by Drew Karpyshyn:

She spun the screen to face him. The display showed several prospects, along with the allotted price for each. Groto had to check himself to keep from choking in shock when he saw the amounts. Unlike the whorehouses he usually frequented, hourly rates weren’t an option here. A full night at the Sanctuary was going to cost several hundred credits more than his entire bonus. For a brief second he considered turning around and just walking out, but if he did, the four hundred credits he’d paid at the door were gone for good.

According to the web site Technovelgy.com, the credit was first created by John W. Campbell, Jr. in the 1934 story “The Mightiest Machine”:

Right enough, and tell me why I have to build that five-million credit flying laboratory.

And that’s only the tip of the science fiction neologism iceberg. We stand on the shoulders of giants!

 

—Philip Athans

 

Starting Thursday, July 11, get in touch with what scares your readers… and yourself in my two-week online Writers Digest University course

Horror Writing Intensive: Analyzing the Work of Genre Master Stephen King.

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