If you aren’t fully caught up with HBO’s Game of Thrones, be aware that this post contains spoilers.


In an interview with WalesOnline, Game of Thrones actor Iwan Rheon is quoted as wanting his character Ramsay Bolton “to die an epic, horrible death.”

“Of all the terrible things Ramsey’s done—and there have been loads—that was by far the hardest to shoot,” said Rheon, referring to the shocking moment a few weeks ago when his character brutally raped his new wife Sansa Stark (played by Sophie Turner).

“It was a horrible, horrendous thing to do, and I remember having a little moment in my trailer beforehand.

“I was like, ‘I’m not sure I can do this; actually, I really don’t want to do this’—I was struggling, to be honest.

“But, in the end, I just had to pick myself up and get on with the job at hand—we both did, me and Sophie.

“After all, this sort of thing goes on in the world all the time—it’s our duty as actors to try and portray such things as truthfully as possible.”

Still, that “truthful” scene made an awful lot of people angry. I’m not interested in stirring up political controversy, myself, but there’s a valuable lesson—a series of valuable lessons, in fact—for authors of any genre in all of this.

He’s a bastard all right.

He’s a bastard all right.

In The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction I defined a villain as someone who’s motivations we understand but whose methods we find abhorrent.

It was the first part that I was really focusing on there, the importance of a strongly motivated villain. This is absolutely essential, and I’ve belabored the point before, but haven’t really gotten to the second part of that equation: the abhorrent methods.

In her article for Vogue, “Game of Thrones’s Most Controversial Season Yet: A Retrospective,” Monica Kim wrote:

A few weeks ago, the rape of Sansa Stark by Ramsay Bolton led viewers like Senator Claire McCaskill to publicly quit the series, while The Mary Sue, a feminist pop culture site, decided to stop all active coverage of Game of Thrones. Others defended the scene as a logical one, given Ramsay’s modus operandi. Last week’s burning of Shireen Baratheon was equally divisive. To some, it was a new low. For others, it was business as usual—on this show, what was particularly bad about burning a little girl?

Well, let me stop you there, Ms. Kim. It was absolutely unforgivably awful, the burning of that little girl, and a grotesque act that the show’s creators never asked us to be okay with. Almost immediately after, Shirene’s mother kills herself and her father is killed by one of the show’s stand-out heroes (who also happens to be a woman). The Red Witch behind that horrifying act (abhorrent method) is at the very least knocked back on her heals at the loss of her patron and the seeming betrayal of her own god. These characters had been going too far for a while before that scene and this was the final way, way, way too far they had to go to finally unravel entirely. No one in the world of the show got out of that unscathed, and no one in the audience was ever asked to shrug it off.

The sheer horror of the act is what lined us up, finally and without equivocation, against Stannis and the Red Witch. We understand their motivations—he’s absolutely convinced that he is the rightful king, she is a power mad fanatic intent on using this would-be king to force her religion onto all of Westeros—but their methods, up to and including filicide, are abhorrent.

Not exactly what you’d call “innocent,” but still…

Not exactly what you’d call “innocent,” but still…

More controversy at the so-called “Penance Walk” of Cersei Lannister. The High Septon, a man, was forced into the same naked walk of shame a few episodes before, with no detectible outcry from the media. Only Cersei—clearly a villain who has been personally responsible for how many deaths, betrayals, acts of incest, and so on—being subjected to the same treatment draws controversy. No one seemed to mind the gruesome systematic torture and castration of Theon Greyjoy, but the rape of Sana Stark by the same villain has people fleeing the show in disgust? I know better than to identify double standards on this point, so I’ll leave that for each of you to come to grips with on your own.

Ramsay Bolton, née Snow, is the worst (in regards to his abhorrent methods) villain the series has yet put forward, and Game of Thrones is a series that sets the villain bar particularly high.

We understand Ramsay’s motivations. He’s a bastard, desperate to gain the affirmation of his stoic father and the legitimacy of his name. And he was raised under the banner of the Flayed Man, for goodness’s sake. We can imagine the systematic abuse that might have made Ramsay the demented young psychopath he’s become. Motivation complete. In fact, he’s essentially the same guy as Jon Snow, arguably the show’s most inviolate hero. In the same book I described a hero as someone who’s motivations we understand and who’s methods we find inspirational. And we get to see Jon Snow being a hero, even if it doesn’t always work out for him. We see him actively working to do the right thing.

So then why can’t we see Ramsay actively working to do the wrong thing?

Torture is never okay, and that’s precisely the point.

Torture is never okay, and that’s precisely the point.

If we’re asked to simply imagine that he’s really mean to people, if we don’t actually see him being villainous, how scary can he really be?

Game of Thrones, more so even than premium cable series like The Sopranos and Dexter before it, has overturned everyone’s expectations of how a TV series is supposed to function. I guess it isn’t too surprising that some critics and viewers are seeing it as having gone way too far.

And for certain people I’m quite sure it has. No one is being forced to watch this show, nor should they be. Each episode begins with the requisite trigger warnings, and by now, frankly, you’d have to have just emerged from a sealed bunker to not know that if you watch Game of Thrones you will see acts of violence and boobies—lots of boobies—and sometimes both acts of violence and boobies at the same time, which really gets Americans up in arms.

And now that it’s clear that I’ve dismissed people who might be offended by the show, let me walk that back a little, at least. Not everyone’s going to be okay with the content of Game of Thrones, and that’s perfectly fine. You have your comfort zone, I have mine, and as adults we can find our own way through things. I do understand that women will be more sensitive to images of violence directed at women than men are, and that doesn’t mean that all men are inherently violent rapists. I assure you, I have never cheered on Ramsay Bolton. I have cheered on all those who’ve come up against him, though, because I’ve seen the depths to which this guy gleefully sinks and I want, like the actor who plays him, to see Ramsay get his. Acts of violence like this aren’t aspirational in the sense that we’re watching that thinking, Gee, looks like fun, but just the opposite: I want to be the guy who cuts Ramsay’s sick head off. We aspire to be the hero that defeats guys like that.

As writers we all have to find our own comfort zones as well. Please don’t think this post is somehow demanding that you force a rape scene into your work in progress. That is absolutely never a requirement of anything. But what I am saying is that if your villain seems like he might be kind of a dick, that might not be as effective as a villain who we know, without question, murders, tortures, rapes, commits acts of genocide . . . whatever it is that adds the abhorrent method to his (or her) otherwise identifiable motivation.


—Philip Athans


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On May 5, 2016, barely more than two weeks ago, John DeNardo announced that the venerable SF Signal mega-blog would be shutting down for good.

I was blown away—crushed, even.

At the top of my browser are a bunch of my most-used links, including a pull down menu called GROUPS that include places I visit regularly to keep up with the world around me. This includes Facebook, GoodReads, and up until a couple weeks ago, SF Signal.

Now I have no idea where I’m going to go to keep up with the genres. From books to movies and TV to games and all sorts of stuff including science and technology news, SF Signal has been one of my go-to sites for years.



I know, Locus will cover the nuts and bolts of what’s happening, but they don’t come from a fan perspective. I find Locus too journalistic. I don’t get the feeling that I’m wallowing in SF/F/H goodness with a bunch of fellow fans like I did at SF Signal.

If you look down and to your right you’ll find a link to SF Signal under “Resources.” I don’t have the heart to delete that.

I was once part of one of SF Signal’s Mind Meld discussions. Go read that now before their archives disappear!

I particularly loved the recurring feature they called [SF/F/H Link Post] that listed all sorts of interesting stuff going on around the internet. I would click through that once a week and can’t even estimate how many times I ended up sharing something I found through SF Signal on Twitter, making me look like I have my finger on the pulse of the genres.

I did have my finger on the pulse of the genres, and the vein was called SF Signal.

I hope there’s someone out there who can pick up the flag for this amazing site, but in the meantime, please join me in bidding a fond farewell to SF Signal, wishing all the best to John DeNardo and his people, and the best of luck for whoever dares try to fill their shoes.

I do read a lot of Gizmodo/iO9, but now, use the comment section to point me in the direction of the next best thing from SF Signal . . .


—Philip Athans



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I’ve been writing a lot lately about what we can learn from the old pulp magazines, about grabbing your readers in the first paragraph, and lots of stuff about action and adopting an active writing style. And now I’ve started to worry that it might seem as though I’m encouraging, if not demanding, that everyone write to some seventy year old formula and obsess over new and creative ways for characters to kill each other, blow stuff up, and otherwise charge through stories like Conan, to the exclusion of all else.

I have, kinda, said that.

But I’ve also tried to make it clear that if I invoke Lester Dent’s “different murder method” or encourage you to punch your readers in the face, that we broaden those definitions—the definition of the word action, in particular—out just as far as they can go.

You have to read this.

You have to read this.

I do love the old pulp stories, especially the so-called “golden age” of science fiction. I have a very small collection of pulp magazines myself, and a very large collection of Ace Science Fiction Doubles that I read, love, and cherish . . . and learn from, believe me.

I also have a huge library of lots of other sorts of books. I’ve encouraged everyone to read a lot, and to read outside your chosen genre, and I do that—all the time, actually. I’m always reading at least one book that isn’t strictly in the SF or fantasy genres. I subscribe to the New Yorker.

I adore pulp SF, fantasy, and horror in particular and I write science fiction, fantasy, and horror almost exclusively. I also write (non-genre) poetry, “literary” (no way to use that, even with quotes, without squirming a bit at the pretense, but . . .) short stories, and continue to slowly research a planned historical novel.

Though I always stay in close orbit to SF and fantasy, the genres I have always and will always love, I also tend to gravitate out to what I see as the farthest edges of those genres. As much as I adore pulp authors like Robert E. Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs, my lists of favorite SF and fantasy books also include literary masterpieces like The Stolen Child, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, and Last Dragon—“fantasy” novels that have no discernable connection to the pulp tradition. As much as I love a great adventure story with lots of unique murder methods and action set pieces, I also adore the immersion in the voice of a writer like Haruki Murakami or Mark Z. Danielewski, both of whom seem entirely unconcerned with whether or not you “get it,” or if there might be a Hollywood movie deal at the end of it.

But all that’s not to say that you have to choose one or the other.

You don’t have to decide, “I’m going to be a literary author,” then ignore the pulps both old and new and denigrate plot and set yourself above it all. Neither must you decide, “I’m an entertainer,” and force out formulaic thrillers that unimaginatively hit every unexpected groovy plot twist in the hopes of a huge payday.

You have to read this, too.

You have to read this, too.

There is art in Conan. There is action and suspense in The Wind-up Bird Chronicle.

There is a richly realized future world in David Starr, Space Ranger, as there is in 1984.

I will admit that my tendency to pull to the edges means I’m not as up on the “mainstream” as I sometimes feel I ought to be. But I gotta be honest, I’ve read quest fantasies or first contact alien invasion SF novels before and loved them, but now they leave me asking, “And . . . ?”

As a reader, I want to be surprised.

I want to be surprised by a wild plot twist and a creative fight scene.

I want to be surprised by a sentence that is somehow gifted by the gods with a poetry that makes me want to run around reading it aloud to people while secretly wishing I had written it.

And I think we should all, always, be striving for a mixture of the two.

Entertain me and make me think. No one, reader and writer alike, should be forced to choose between one or the other.


—Philip Athans



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Near the end of 2014 I described the step-by-step process of creating a random SF/fantasy paperback grab-bag. Though there was a period of time taken up by one immense book, I’m delighted to report that I have continued to draw books from the box, one after another. As I said in the first part of this now, apparently, ongoing feature after finishing the first random book that came out of the box, The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke, the idea behind the whole grab-bag thing was to read for fun more, but my editor’s brain won’t allow me to read a book “just because.” I ended up making a few notes in the margins and calling out a few examples of some interesting things on the subject of writing science fiction, SF worldbuilding, and so on.

Though I didn’t do that with every random science fiction book I’ve read since then, I did with the last one I just finished: a 1969 Ace Science Fiction Classics edition of The Lord of Death and the Queen of Life by Homer Eon Flint, which looks exactly like this (I scanned my own copy):

Now easy to find for free, in the public domain.

Now easy to find for free, in the public domain.

Pulp author Homer Eon Flint might be best known for the strange circumstances surrounding his death in 1924, but for fans of classic science fiction it’s as the co-author (with Austin Hall) of The Blind Spot that he’s known and loved. It’s not strange that I picked up a book that’s actually a combination of two novellas first published in the old SF pulps. I’ve been reading a lot of pulp lately, teaching an ongoing online pulp fiction workshop, and writing some pulp-inspired stuff of my own, so this jumped off the shelves of a used bookstore and into my grab-bag box with lots of cousins from that era.

The Lord of Death was first published in the magazine Argosy All Story Weekly in May 1919, followed by The Queen of Life in the August 1919 issue of the same. That makes it the 97th anniversary of the first publication, so sort of a bit of bonus timing there.

I have a copy of this July 1940 issue of Fantastic Novels featuring a reprint of The Blind Spot in my personal collection!

I have a copy of this July 1940 issue of Fantastic Novels featuring a reprint of The Blind Spot in my personal collection!

One of the things I confront right away in my pulp fiction workshop is the obvious sexism and racism on display in any image search for pulp magazines. It was clear that the publishers back then thought their predominantly white male audience would respond favorably to women in bondage and stereotypical caricatures of non-white villains. I guess they were right because these magazines sold like crazy.

It’s interesting, though, how often, or more accurately, how rarely the stories printed under those covers actually matched the racist, sexist packaging.

It was with this, and other pulp thoughts in mind that I made my way through The Lord of Death and the Queen of Life.

Though the subject of race doesn’t really come up, there was at least this cringe worthy line late in the book when the earthmen are puzzling over the appearance of the Venusians: “Like a lot of Chinamen,” said Van Emmon in an undertone, “can’t tell one from another.”


Keeping in mind that very nearly a century has passed, how does Mr. Flint approach gender, circa 1919? In The Lord of Death we meet Mercury’s despotic emperor Strokor, who has this to say about the only woman mentioned in that novella:

She was in no way like any woman I had seen. All of them had been much like the men: brawny and close-knit, as well fitted for their work as are men for war. But this chit was all but slender; not skinny, but prettily rounded out, and soft like. I cannot say that I admired her at first glance; she seemed fit only to look at, not to live. I was minded of some of the ancient carvings, which show delicate, lightly built animals that have long since been killed off; graceful trifles that rested the eye.

Later, when the “chit” in question offers herself up to mighty Strokor for marriage:

Many women had looked like that at me before. But I had always been a man’s man, and had ever heeded my father’s warning to have naught whatever to do with women. “They are the worst trick of all,” he told me; and I had never forgot. Belike I owe much of my power to just this.

“I will have naught to do with ye,” I told her, civilly enough. “When I am ready to take a woman, I shall take her; not before.”

Granted, “man’s man” Strokor is the villain of the piece, and this passage is meant to further paint him as an unfeeling brute, but here we see a female character serving only to further illuminate the male. We’re also left to ponder the gay subtext rich throughout this, which might still have been at least partly intentional almost a century ago.

But what makes The Lord of Death interesting isn’t the sexual politics but the more overtly political message at the heart of the story.

We begin with a team of scientists and intellectuals from Earth who travel to the planet Mercury in a spacecraft of their own invention. Their theory that Mercury once orbited farther from the sun and was the home of an intelligent species is confirmed—but only by the ruins the natives have left behind. In the ruins they find recording devices that tell them the story of Strokor, a brutish despot who (spoiler alert) goes on to wipe out the entire population of Mercury (including himself) in his effort to achieve world domination.

World War I, the War to End All Wars, came to an end six months before the first publication of The Lord of Death.

Surely the horrors of mechanized warfare were top of mind for pretty much everyone at that time, and the fact that science fiction was used as a warning for just how mad the madness of war can get shouldn’t come as too big a surprise. If anything here we have a science fiction author warning of the genocidal war to come. And though Strokor’s doomsday weapon depends on magnetism, Flint is eerily prescient in terms of the potentially world-ending weapons yet to be invented.

In that context the fact that he seems to see women—or anyway, his villain tends to see women as sex objects at best or irritants at worse is secondary to the idea of a war that results in complete mass extinction.

So much for The Lord of Death. What about The Queen of Life?

In the second installment our intrepid explorers once more venture out into interplanetary space, this time with their sights set on the planet Venus. And this time, they’ve recruited a new member of their team, someone they know by reputation only and who, heaven forefend, turns out to be . . . a woman!


But this is a man’s job, with danger and the necessity for rational thought, and all the other reasons a woman couldn’t possibly be expected to be brought along.

But then, strangely, especially so in light of Strokor’s feelings on the subject and the otherwise complete lack of any female voice in The Lord of Death, in The Queen of Life the earthmen get over the fact that their new teammate is a woman surprisingly quickly. There are a few clunky passages early on where the forward-thinking Mr. Flint grapples with the reality of the day’s sexual politics. His male characters struggle to be genteel and not condescending, and though for the most part they fail, the effort flies directly in the face of pulp magazines that much more often looked like this:

I know, right?

I know, right?

The female lead of The Queen of Life is E. (Edna) Williams Jackson, known as Billie, and though she’s happy to help with the cooking and washing up, she is seen as a valued member of the team by the end of Chapter 2, in which we learn that she’s wont to wear trousers and doesn’t care who knows it. It goes from retrograde to quaint in odd little baby steps and though there’s a certain amount of what might now be described as “mansplaining” we see in The Queen of Life the direct opposite of Strokor’s macho warmongering. Instead, the much more civilized—and very much still alive—citizens of Venus are in the process of genetically engineering women to fertilize their own eggs, thereby rendering the male gender obsolete.

Though male Venusians stage a sort of riot in response, I got the feeling that Flint left it for the women of Venus to move into a peaceful and productive future unencumbered by the warlike brutes with penises that have done nothing but fuck up everything they’ve ever touched.

World War I ended six months before the publication of The Lord of Death, and American women voted for the first time fifteen months after the publication of The Queen of Life.

So this concept that men are warmongering assholes and women might fix everything if given the chance, was certainly in the air while Homer Eon Flint was writing his pulp science fiction mini epics.

Pretty forward thinking, but like the best science fiction, it was much more about what was going on while it was being written than it was any real attempt to guess at the actual cultures of Mercury and Venus.


—Philip Athans





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I hope you can answer that question, and I hope it wasn’t too long ago.

We’re all writers here, aren’t we?

We all either depend on book royalties or hope to depend on book royalties for at least some portion of our income, don’t we?

Though we do get royalties when libraries buy our books, we need actual individual people to do the same if we’re hoping to cover more than a trip to the grocery store every year.

We’re all readers, too, aren’t we?

We better be. Though I’ve also said you shouldn’t limit yourself to only books, I’ve joined any number of other authors and editors (including Stephen King in his book On Writing) who’ll tell you that if you want to write, you better damn well be reading, too.

My daughter is finishing up her last few weeks of college, which has been a drain on our finances over the last few years—believe me—and for a few other reasons I’ve been trying to be more frugal lately, trying not to overspend, trying to manage my personal finances in smart ways, and so on.

For a while there I was spending as much as $100 a week—at least $50—on books. Yes, you heard that right. Going to bookstores, browsing, and buying, was my number one hobby. Until, that is, I started tracking my spending better and realized, yeah, while we transition from full time employee to full time freelancer/consultant, we can’t really keep doing that.

The good news for my reading time is that during that period I collected a crap-ton of books. I have at least a couple thousand at home that I have not yet read. With time for anything in short supply these days, I read for pleasure as much as I can but still might read only, maybe, thirty books a year or so, which means during those careless, wild book-buying spree years I socked away a 67-year supply of reading material. I should be good until the age of 118.


I need to read more. If I can get that to an average of a book a week, I can get through my library just before my 90th birthday.


You don’t have to own that many books, even if you read more in a year than I manage.

Still, though that $50-$100/week in books has trickled away, I still buy books and have a huge Amazon whish list. I hang out at bookstores, just not nearly as often as I used to, and frankly, not often enough.

A little while ago I mused over the fact that I’m not keeping current, and gave myself a challenge to read more recently-published books along with the classics and obscure old science fiction, and this is also a challenge to buy books a little more often.

There has to be a sweet spot somewhere between $100/week and never.

How much can you afford to spend?

If your budget is tight, borrow books from the library or from friends. I shop at used bookstores and don’t get the slightest bit upset when I see one of my own books there. My kids ran across a copy of Annihilation in a Half Price Books store that had been stamped DISCARDED across the cover for some reason. They thought that was hilarious. But hopefully someone rescued it for half price and enjoyed it.

Can’t wait for the new book by your favorite author and need to shell out full price for the hardcover? Great. Like eBooks and have it shot right from Amazon (or wherever) to your favorite device? Fantastic.

But come on, us. If we don’t buy books, who the heck will? And how can we ask other people to do the same?


I tried valiantly to get National Buy a Book Day up and running but just couldn’t manage the commitment. Let’s say that any day you have the money to spend and a book you find interesting is International Buy a Book Day. But if you like the idea of a community like that, I’ll remind you that April 30th is Independent Bookstore Day. I genuinely hope you can find an independent bookstore in your area. If you can, go there and buy a book or you will very soon find yourself among the increasing population of people who can’t find an independent bookstore in their area.

Then please venture back out on May 7 for Free Comic Book Day. And while you’re there, buy a comic book.

Comic books are cool, too.


—Philip Athans


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The past perfect tense is used to indicate an action that has been completed (perfected) before some other action was completed. It can be spotted, most of the time, by looking for the word had:

I had lived on Mars for three years before leaving for Venus.

First, I lived on Mars for three years then I left for Venus: two actions in one sentence, in which the order of those actions matters—this happened first, the other thing happened next.

There is no law against the past perfect tense. In the above example it makes sense and gives clarity to this character’s past experiences. As such, please don’t take this post as some kind of blanket condemnation of the past perfect tense—just a mostly blanket condemnation of the past perfect tense.

Though there has been a bit of a trendy inclination toward present tense, which I still believe comes from screenplays—which everyone wants to write on the off chance that they’ll sell for a quick million bucks—the overwhelming majority of genre fiction, at least, is still written in the reader-friendly simple past tense. This means you’re describing, either through the direct experience of one point of view (POV) character (first person) or through an unspecified narrator (third person), events that transpired in the undefined past. Where writers get in trouble is in the conflation of simple past tense and past perfect tense.

Going back to that example of past perfect:

I had lived on Mars for three years before leaving for Venus.

This is the same idea rendered in simple past tense:

I lived on Mars for three years, then I moved to Venus.

The same information is conveyed, but in this specific example I still think the past perfect reads better, so then what’s the beef against past perfect?

Like anything from alcohol to gambling, anything in excess is bad.

Past perfect goes bad when it’s used too much.

For instance, as an editor I often see versions of a sustained past perfect flashback. Start with the basic idea that in this past tense narrative everything we see described has already happened in the past, but now I want to show something that happened before the past tense “now” of the A-line narrative.

The creature gnashed its poisoned fangs at him and he stepped back.

Galen had seen these things once, just before he fled the castle. They had come up from the ground, snarling and clawing. Their skin had glistened in the sunlight as though it had been covered by a thick layer of slime. The castle guards had fought bravely that day, but the creatures had killed a dozen men before having been driven back into the cold ground. That had been a day Galen had never forgotten.

The creature lunged at him and Galen swiped his sword in front of him to fend it off.

In that example, the first one-sentence paragraph is in the story’s A-line “now,” and is written in simple past tense. The first verb, gnashed, is the past tense form of “to gnash” and immediately follows the subject: “the creature,” so we know who gnashed. This continues as we see that Galen stepped back (again, past tense). The last one-sentence paragraph is there to show us going back to the A-line “now” and simple past tense. The creature (subject) lunged (past tense verb), etc.

In the second, longer paragraph I wanted to make it clear to my readers that Galen had encountered these same creatures once before, and why not show some of that action, so what follows is a brief flashback. In the first sentence of that paragraph:

Galen had seen these things once, just before he fled the castle.

we see the past perfect tense in all its glory. This is back in time from the story’s A-line “now,” indicated by the word had and we see one action (seen) happen before another (fled) in which the order matters: he saw them first then he ran away. The rest of the paragraph, as written, continues in either the past perfect tense or in some stilted version of the past perfect tense, and this is where things go wrong.

Since the first sentence in that paragraph—Galen had seen these things once, just before he fled the castle.—establishes that we’ve gone back in time from the A-line “now,” most of the rest of the paragraph can then drop back into simple past tense. We’ve entered the B-line “now.” In other words, in context, my readers understand that we’ve taken a short detour into Galen’s past and are seeing more of his first encounter with these monsters.

That being the case, look at how the past perfect tense can be used to establish a new “now” while still leaving the rest of the paragraph in a much more readable state, without all these reminders of “this is the past’s past,” or worse, each new sentence dragging us farther back in time:

Galen had seen these things once, just before he fled the castle. They came up from the ground, snarling and clawing. Their skin glistened in the sunlight as though covered by a thick layer of slime. The castle guards fought bravely that day, but the creatures killed a dozen men before they were driven back into the cold ground. That was a day Galen had never forgotten.

Note that the last sentence serves as a cue to say that we’re wrapping up our quick jaunt into the past’s past and transitioning back into the A-line “now.”

This is a small example, but I hope you’ll take it to heart. I’ve seen whole stories written in some strange hybrid version of past perfect tense, and they’re difficult to read. This is another example of the kind of writing mistake that the majority of readers won’t necessarily be able to describe in detail, but after reading a story that had happened, believe me, they will feel that something wasn’t quite right. This is another case of what I keep going back to, and that’s unnecessary emotional distance. By putting everything in the past’s past, you’re putting another layer between your readers and your story, and trust me, they will detect that even if they can’t name it. And they won’t like it.

The first easy step is to search for the word “had.” The second, much more difficult but essential step is to think about what that word is indicating. Had is not a bad word and doesn’t belong on any kind of “banned word list,” but like, let’s face it, every other word, it should be used carefully and with clear intent.


—Philip Athans


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Robert Plutchik, professor emeritus at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, identified eight primary emotions: anger, fear, sadness, disgust, surprise, anticipation, trust, and joy. I’ve seen similar lists from experts as varied as Donald Maass and Tony Robbins. Some are a little longer, include a few other emotions, but looking at this list . . . I can see it. This makes sense to me, and anyway it gives us a place to start to talk about the emotions that motivate or drive our characters. In this series of posts we’ll get into each of these eight emotions and how they can help drive your narrative forward and infuse it with the humanity your characters need to connect with readers.

If you haven’t been following along you can click here to start at the beginning.

This week we end up with . . .


“I have drunken deep of joy,

And I will taste no other wine tonight.”

―Percy Bysshe Shelley


“Happiness” has become quite the fashionable buzzword in the past decade or so, but that was not always the case. Trish Hall opened her 1998 New York Times article “Seeking a Focus on Joy in the Field of Psychology” with the paragraph:

Psychologists rarely think much about what makes people happy. They focus on what makes them sad, on what makes them anxious. That is why psychology journals have published 45,000 articles in the last 30 years on depression, but only 400 on joy.

I can’t speak for the psychology journals but there’s a GoodReads list of “Best Happiness Books” in which 284 voters managed to rank a list of 172 books on the subject of happiness ranging from the Dalai Lama’s best selling The Art of Happiness to Helen Russell’s The Year of Living Danishly: My Twelve Months Unearthing the Secrets of the World’s Happiest Country. I wonder if she found any joy in being at the bottom of the list?

I have actually read this and it was very interesting.

I have actually read this and it was very interesting.

At least by 2014 there were whole web sites devoted only to this subject, including Ingrid Fetell Lee’s blog Aesthetics of Joy in which we find that we have “A Universal Right to Joy.” In that post is a terrific definition of “joy” and how it’s separate from the more transitory and external “happiness”:

We don’t have to think about it—we just feel it. We feel it in our bodies, warm and light, and we can see it in the bodies and on the faces of others. Darwin documented people and animals in states of joy, and found it easy to identify people experiencing joy by their bright eyes, smiles, and laughter, as well as their upright and open posture. Joy has a universal language, because the emotion itself is universal. We can come into a moment of joy by encountering something delightful, or we can conjure it in the mind, through memories or imagination. But we can’t fake it. And in fact research shows that we can all discern a fake smile, because the muscles that contract around our eyes in a real smile are not under our conscious control. Joy is visceral and automatic. We’re hardwired to feel it—it is a primal sense that tells us in a moment that life is good.

Of course authors of fiction have tapped into the eternal wellspring of pure joy, as we see in this clip from The Call of the Wild by Jack London:

He was mastered by the sheer surging of life, the tidal wave of being, the perfect joy of each separate muscle, joint, and sinew in that it was everything that was not death, that it was aglow and rampant, expressing itself in movement, flying exultantly under the stars.

Shawn Actor and Michelle Gielan, in their post “The New Definition of Happiness,” build on the deeper meaning of joy as opposed to the more transitory experience of happiness:

Joy is something we can experience in the ups and downs of life, even when things are not pleasurable. A long run can be tiring and painful, but you can feel joy and happiness as you use the body you’ve been given to explore your potential. Childbirth is one of the most painful things humans can endure, but, as our baby doctor told us, there is a difference between pathological pain, like breaking your arm, and meaningful pain. There is a joy throughout pregnancy, childbirth and parenting that, while not always pleasurable, is linked to us achieving our potential as parents, lovers and contributors to this world.

Think about this dichotomy in your own characters. What makes them happy (that pizza sure does taste great) and what brings them joy (I understand my place in the universe . . . or something like that)?

By way of a literary example, I give you the complete text of the short story “Joy” by Anton Chekhov, written in 1883 and as translated by Constance Garnett for her 1921 collection The Schoolmaster and Other Stories:


It was twelve o’clock at night.

Mitya Kuldarov, with excited face and ruffled hair, flew into his parents’ flat, and hurriedly ran through all the rooms. His parents had already gone to bed. His sister was in bed, finishing the last page of a novel. His schoolboy brothers were asleep.

“Where have you come from?” cried his parents in amazement. “What is the matter with you?

“Oh, don’t ask! I never expected it; no, I never expected it! It’s . . . it’s positively incredible!”

Mitya laughed and sank into an armchair, so overcome by happiness that he could not stand on his legs.

“It’s incredible! You can’t imagine! Look!”

His sister jumped out of bed and, throwing a quilt round her, went in to her brother. The schoolboys woke up.

“What’s the matter? You don’t look like yourself!”

“It’s because I am so delighted, Mamma! Do you know, now all Russia knows of me! All Russia! Till now only you knew that there was a registration clerk called Dmitry Kuldarov, and now all Russia knows it! Mamma! Oh, Lord!”

Mitya jumped up, ran up and down all the rooms, and then sat down again.

“Why, what has happened? Tell us sensibly!”

“You live like wild beasts, you don’t read the newspapers and take no notice of what’s published, and there’s so much that is interesting in the papers. If anything happens it’s all known at once, nothing is hidden! How happy I am! Oh, Lord! You know it’s only celebrated people whose names are published in the papers, and now they have gone and published mine!”

“What do you mean? Where?”

The papa turned pale. The mamma glanced at the holy image and crossed herself. The schoolboys jumped out of bed and, just as they were, in short nightshirts, went up to their brother.

“Yes! My name has been published! Now all Russia knows of me! Keep the paper, mamma, in memory of it! We will read it sometimes! Look!”

Mitya pulled out of his pocket a copy of the paper, gave it to his father, and pointed with his finger to a passage marked with blue pencil.

“Read it!”

The father put on his spectacles.

“Do read it!”

The mamma glanced at the holy image and crossed herself. The papa cleared his throat and began to read: “At eleven o’clock on the evening of the 29th of December, a registration clerk of the name of Dmitry Kuldarov . . .”

“You see, you see! Go on!”

“. . . a registration clerk of the name of Dmitry Kuldarov, coming from the beershop in Kozihin’s buildings in Little Bronnaia in an intoxicated condition . . .”

“That’s me and Semyon Petrovitch . . . It’s all described exactly! Go on! Listen!”

“. . . intoxicated condition, slipped and fell under a horse belonging to a sledge-driver, a peasant of the village of Durikino in the Yuhnovsky district, called Ivan Drotov. The frightened horse, stepping over Kuldarov and drawing the sledge over him, together with a Moscow merchant of the second guild called Stepan Lukov, who was in it, dashed along the street and was caught by some house-porters. Kuldarov, at first in an unconscious condition, was taken to the police station and there examined by the doctor. The blow he had received on the back of his head . . .”

“It was from the shaft, papa. Go on! Read the rest!”

“. . . he had received on the back of his head turned out not to be serious. The incident was duly reported. Medical aid was given to the injured man . . .”

“They told me to foment the back of my head with cold water. You have read it now? Ah! So you see. Now it’s all over Russia! Give it here!”

Mitya seized the paper, folded it up and put it into his pocket.

“I’ll run round to the Makarovs and show it to them . . . I must show it to the Ivanitskys too, Natasya Ivanovna, and Anisim Vassilyitch . . . I’ll run! Good-bye!”

Mitya put on his cap with its cockade and, joyful and triumphant, ran into the street.


Thank you, Mr. Chekhov, for not just capturing the human quality of joy, but for anticipating, by some 124 years, Keeping Up With the Kardashians.


—Philip Athans

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