WHAT’S IN A NAME?

I work with a lot of young/aspiring authors and time and again I find them suffering over the subject of naming characters and places. Placeholders abound, names from other works like the Forgotten Realms or Game of Thrones start to sneak in, or sometimes they just fall back on real world names so you get something almost as clunky as Sir John Johnson or Nancy, Queen of the Witches.

Choosing the right name for your characters and the places they inhabit is one of the many hard parts in the bottomless sea of hard parts that is writing fiction—and science fiction and fantasy in particular. It’s a bigger subject than one post, so when I had an opportunity to be a part of the Writer’s Digest’s Fourth Annual Science Fiction & Fantasy Virtual Conference this coming weekend (my bit’s on Saturday the 21st) I jumped at the chance to finally tackle the name question in greater detail.

I really hope you’ll be able to be there, and ask questions, but either way, if you are struggling with names,  I have dived into this pool here at Fantasy Author’s Handbook a few times:

The Name Game

This one focusses on one oddball idea for changing vowels around—but it’s mostly about trying things and keeping names that work and throwing away the ones that don’t.

Lester Dent’s Wave Those Tags

A series of posts that dig into some long-lost advice from our favorite pulpster. Like his plot “formula” there’s some good advice here surrounded by a few odd turns. Use with care!

Please Stop Using Initial Caps as a Substitute for Creativity

Find and destroy those placeholders—and do it as soon as possible. Even if you didn’t intend them to be placeholders. This is the must-read of the bunch since it’s something I’m seeing practically all the time.

Read, Think, Repeat

In this post I outed myself for my tendency to take notes while reading. In that spirit, I circled this passage in Frank Herbert’s Children of Dune as an example of a story reason behind a generic or “placeholder” name:

The stir as they came down and circled over Sheeana’s Desert Watch Center awakened her.

Desert Watch Center. We’re at it again. We haven’t really named it… no more than we gave a name to this planet. Chapterhouse! What kind of a name is that? Desert Watch Center! Description, not a name. Accent on the temporary.

As they descended, she saw confirmations of her thought. The sense of temporary housing was amplified by spartan abruptness in all junctures. No softness, no rounding of any connection. This attaches here and that goes over here. All joined by removable connectors.

This example will make it into the additional material for my newly revised online course Worldbuilding in Fantasy & Science Fiction, which starts up again on July 26, but tends to run maybe every couple months or so. I added a whole session on geography that deals with naming both places and people. Here’s a little taste of that from the course material:

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

Yeah… guilty as charged.

Or, you can just take an existing name and add -onius, -ainous, or -anous to it.

 

—Philonius Athanous

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PULP AND SEXISM

With another round of my online Pulp Fiction Workshop starting up this week, I’ve been looking at a lot of old pulp magazine covers again, and continuing to read a lot of old pulp stories—even full issues of magazines. And even as I use some of those old magazine covers to draw attention to that course, it’s hard to look at them and not see some issues. In some cases some really, really big issues.

I’m honestly desperate that everyone who learns of the course, thinks about taking the course, or is inspired in any way to explore the classic era of pulp fiction in terms of their own writing, understands what I’m actually trying to do not just with this online workshop, but with all my posts and tweets (etc.) about a time and place and style of fiction for which I have a real love, but not unconditional love.

Today, let’s dive headfirst into the issue of sexism, which will be immediately evident in your first Google image search for “classic pulp magazine covers.” Sexism has been a significant issue in genre publishing (and not always excluding romance) for as long as the genres have been around. For more on that I’ll point you to the article “I read the 100 ‘best’ fantasy and sci-fi novels—and they were shockingly offensive” by Liz Lutgendorff, who wrote:

Frankly, from my vantage in 2015, it was just plain weird to read books where there were hardly any women, no people of colour, no LGBT people. It seemed wholly unbelievable. I know what you could say: it’s science fiction and fantasy, believability isn’t one of the main criteria for such books. But it is relatively absurd that in the future people could discover faster-than-light travel, build massive empires and create artificial intelligences but somehow not crack gender equality or the space-faring glass ceiling.

True, though I will at least ask that everyone consider that science fiction never was about accurately predicting either the technological or social future, but has always reflected the era in which it was written.

Beyond that, the endemic sexism of the pulp era doesn’t always seem to have penetrated the current mindset, as evidenced by things like, when commenting on a gallery show of old pulp magazine cover art, Kevin Stayton, Curator of Decorative Arts for the Brooklyn Museum, was quoted as saying:

Although this art may have pushed the edge of what was acceptable, it’s fairly tame by today’s standards. Things that were troubling to the public 60 years ago, like scantily clad women, don’t really bother us anymore, while things that didn’t raise an eyebrow then, like the stereotyping of Asians as evil, cause us tremendous discomfort now.

Is that true?

Of course the broad racial caricatures of many of the pulp magazines are going to cause a reasonable person “tremendous discomfort now,” but in not all, of course, but in a too-significant-to-ignore percentage of the old pulp magazines, women weren’t just “scantily clad” but are depicted in sexualized, non-consensual bondage. They are not just hoping for rescue by the male hero, but are in immediate danger of sexual assault—or, it’s certainly fair to say of a woman who’s been forcibly bound already—further sexual assault.

Here are covers from four different pulp fiction magazines that I was able to find in a few seconds’ worth of Google image searches:

Spicy Detective, October 1934

 

Spicy Western, November 1937

Spicy Adventure Stories, April 1939

Spicy Mystery, April 1942

You’re going to need someone like a cultural anthropologist to give you a better idea of why it seems that a mass market American magazine aimed at adult men equated “spicy” and S&M at least through the mid-1930s to the early 1940s—but believe me, these are only four examples. Search for “spicy pulp cover art” and you will find one after another after another basically just like these.

Obviously, these covers were almost exclusively the work of men, but let’s be historically accurate here: In early 20th century America pretty much everything was “almost exclusively the work of men,” because women were routinely barred from having jobs beyond a few acceptable vocations (teacher, nurse, secretary, etc.) Still, there are stories of women who might to today’s eyes seem almost a sort of collaborator. In her article “The colourful world of pulp fiction: The art that graced the covers of short-story magazines is seducing people more than ever,”Alice-Azania Jarvis told the story of

[Artist Marilyn] Brundage [who] was imprisoned by her gender. Never signing her full name, she posted her work to New York from her home in Chicago. Raised by her widowed mother, and married to the erratic Myron “Slim” Brundage, a heavy-drinking former vagrant, she specialised in producing the raunchiest of raunchy covers. Women, nudity barely concealed, embrace; sinister-looking men prepare to drag the object of their affection into their room. When her femininity was eventually revealed, it caused outrage.

Reading through a lot of pulp fiction from that era, there is a basic assumption that the all-American hero is a white man and women tend to come in one of two guises: victim to be rescued or villainess to be defeated, but I’ve yet to run across a story I would equate to Fifty Shades of Grey. It seems, at least anecdotally, that the bondage stuff was at least mostly on the outside—as though the editors were leading that charge with the artists, but not so much with the authors.

Still, female characters didn’t really fare too much better in the stories than their cover girl sisters. As described in her article “Pulp Sci-Fi’s Legacy to Women in Science: What I learned about gender in STEM when I analyzed 560 works of pulp,” Elizabeth Garbee “set out to uncover the way those authors portrayed scientists by using something called corpus linguistics. Words have meaning based largely on the ways we use them, and corpus linguistics is an incredibly powerful way to use statistics to help uncover that meaning.” She managed to find, out of those 560 science fiction stories, only three female scientists. Here’s how she described one of the three:

The first of these women makes an appearance in the 1945 story “Me and My Shadow” by Berkeley Livingston. Erica Seeling is a Nazi-sympathizing self-described “lady scientist.” While quite obviously nefarious, Erica possesses typically attractive qualities, which makes it difficult for the male characters to be around her. Her beauty is distracting, and even simply occupying the same room makes her male colleagues blush and think lurid thoughts. Disarmingly pretty, clever, and resourceful, this woman is clearly a force to be reckoned with. Nevertheless, her supervisor feels the need to describe her as a genius “in her own way.” The male assistants she works with in the story aren’t described as geniuses in their own ways. They’re simply good at their jobs.

The second “lady scientist” was even more… let’s say… problematic, while the third, from a clearly post-pulp era 1963 Samuel R. Delany story, shows signs of a culture at least beginning to work itself out of the deeper depths of the patriarchy.

Look, it’s been a long time since these magazines graced the crowded newsstands of America—a very long time—and not just counted in years but in an unprecedented cultural shift that, though we clearly have a whole lot of room for improvement ahead, has seen seismic shifts away from the institutionalized sexism and racism that was the norm in 1942 and earlier. These covers, and the stories they sometimes illustrate, can’t be removed from the times in which they were written, and neither can the authors, artists, and editors behind them.

But in exactly the same way that we expect a corporate CEO in America in 2018 to ignore gender in hiring, promotion, and salary decisions (though they often fail us there), and (the Electoral College aside) the majority of American voters chose for president a qualified woman they didn’t necessarily like over an unqualified man they, well… really didn’t like—we have a lot of work left to do, and maybe one of the ways we can help, as writers, is to learn from the pulps what the pulps have to teach us and in the same way that authors like Edgar Rice Burroughs or H.P. Lovecraft brought into their stories the world and culture around them, after a long and tumultuous hundred years in between we can do the same—bring a post-sexist, post-racist, post-nationalist culture into fiction that is just as entertaining, fun to read, and original as any you might find in the pages of Spicy Detective, but reflecting a more sophisticated and increasingly inclusive culture.

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

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HARLAN ELLISON (1934-2018)

Oh, I so don’t want to write this post.

Though I can’t actually claim to count Harlan Ellison among my many friends in the genre publishing universe, I will unashamedly claim him as my unofficial mentor, my primary inspiration, and will always hold dear the couple times I talked with him, in which he was funny, smart, and—both times—yelled at me at least a little. He corrected my English once (I said “like” when he wanted me to say “as if”) and he would occasionally spell things out for me, lacking confidence that I knew words like cess.

But more on those conversations in a bit.

As a young science fiction fan—this would be in the mid- to late-1970s—there was this list of authors that everybody read, everyone assumed you’d also read, and who were already considered the grand masters of the genre, even while many of them were not just still alive but still writing, and in some cases prolifically. This was the upper strata populated by names like Asimov and Clarke, who stood on the shoulders of giants like Wells and Verne.

But at the same time there was a sense of a new generation out there—authors who were moving the science fiction genre forward not in steps but in bigger, more transgressive leaps. While authors like Isaac Asimov were adding larger doses of science to the post-pulp, post-space opera landscape, authors like Ray Bradbury were blurring the lines between genres and freely comingling science fiction, fantasy, and horror with a higher literary calling. It was right about here in my life that I started in on a big Ray Bradbury phase—no regrets there, of course.

But even beyond Bradbury were these other guys (and, alas, they were mostly guys back then) who I kept hearing about through the strange pre-internet fan grapevine: J.G. Ballard, Philip K. Dick… and most of all, Harlan Ellison. There was a buzz about him, not always positive, but he seemed to be the author that the really smartest, coolest SF fans—the people really, deeply “in the know” were reading.

I remember that somehow vaguely scaring me. I was actually afraid to read anything by him. Was this some lingering sense that I was too young? That he was writing something for “adults”?

But then I got my hands on a book called Masterpieces of Science Fiction, a big, over-sized illustrated collection of short stories that drew me in with the art—and stories by authors I already knew and loved, including Ray Bradbury. And there was a story by that weird guy I kept hearing about: Harlan Ellison.

I know that the collection included Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder” and I remember loving it. I have no memory of the other stories or the other authors. Harlan Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,” seems to have wiped all the rest of them out.

I always wanted to be a writer—as long as I can remember. At least as long as I could actually, y’know… write. And at some point I became aware of books and stories as things that people called “writers” or “authors” actually created—made up themselves out of their own imaginations. That sounded like a fun way to spend the rest of my life: playing make believe and sharing it. Once I learned from my parents that I was going to be too tall to be an astronaut, writer was the only other profession for me.

But the experience of reading “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” not only cemented writer as the thing I was going to do for the rest of my life, but took me from the idea of telling fun space adventure stories (which we all know, I still love) to really, actually, wanting to do that.

I wanted to write that story.

And by that story I don’t mean stories about computers torturing people. I mean stories that take an innocent young reader and smash his fucking brains out.

I know exactly where I was when I read that story—laying on my back on my bed. I remember not being able to breathe right for the next half hour or so after it was over. I remember re-reading the ending—over and over again. I remember the gut shot it delivered and the mix of terror and joy that left me, literally, quivering.

It set me out, too, reading Harlan Ellison.

Lots of Harlan Ellison.

All the Harlan Ellison I could find.

I basically never re-read books, and only very rarely re-read short stories. I’ve read and re-read some of Harlan Ellison’s short stories over and over again.

So then, let’s fast forward a few decades and now I’m working as an editor for Wizards of the Coast and we’re coming up on the thirtieth anniversary of Dungeons & Dragons and planning what we called “the coffee table book” to mark the occasion. My boss, Peter Archer, wanted to add the voices of celebrity gamers and authors who might have been influenced by D&D and somehow Harlan Ellison’s name got on that list. he knew I was a rabid Harlan Ellison fan so he tapped me to interview Harlan Ellison for the book.

By now, those of you who have a copy of Thirty Years of Adventure know that Harlan Ellison is nowhere to be found in its pages.

I talked to him for close to two hours and mostly what he did was rail against the very concept of role-playing games, which he saw as intruding on the sanctity of storytelling as a personal, singular act. As much as I disagreed, I loved every minute of it. The best I could get out of him in terms of an endorsement was, “I don’t know, as far as I’m concerned, people are free to go to hell through whatever door they choose.”

We paid him for that interview. He took the money, told the truth as he saw it, and we couldn’t use a word of it.

That might be all you need to know about Harlan Ellison as a person. He expected to be paid for his time and efforts, he didn’t sign on to bullshit, and he wasn’t about to change his mind because you wanted him to, asked him to, or even paid him to.

The second time I talked to him, a few years later, was when I wrote him a letter I had to send via snail me (no email for him—that’s real) asking for his permission to use his snarky answer to “Where do you get your ideas” in The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction. He agreed then gave me, word for word, the text you can find on the legal page of that book. Then we chatted a little and I know he probably would have yelled at me for sitting there grinning like an idiot.

But how could I not smile, even as he threatened to sue me if I didn’t get that legal line exactly right. I was talking to the author that reached through the pages of a book and transformed me from pre-Harlan Ellison Phil to post-Harlan Ellison Phil.

I think he did that for (or one might say “to”) a lot of people.

He once wrote: “For a brief time I was here, and for a brief time, I mattered.”

Harlan Ellison’s stories will be here for a very, very long time, and Harlan Ellison will keep on mattering for a very, very long time, too.

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

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READ, THINK, WRITE, REPEAT

Stephen King said it best: “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

He’s 100% correct on that point, so I’m going to go ahead and assume that you’re all out there reading. And as I’ve recommended before, you should be reading in and out of your favorite genre. Do you write (at least primarily) fantasy? Fantastic! You know I love fantasy. I write fantasy, and I read fantasy, too. And I read science fiction, horror, mystery—in various sub-genres—as well as “literary” fiction and all sorts of non-fiction, and not just non-fiction about writing fiction, either, but all sorts of stuff, across the board.

I bet you do that to, and that’s swell.

Now let’s kick it up a notch.

Read—for God’s sake, read—but if you’re also writing, you should think of everything you read—again, in and out of your chosen genre(s)—as Writing School. Everything you read—and I mean everything, good, bad, or indifferent—is a lesson in how to do it or how not to do it, often both within the same book.

For example, I didn’t just read then set aside the book The World Split Open: Great Authors on How and Why We Write, which I recommended here a couple weeks ago. As I read that book, I wrote notes in the margins, copied passages into not just that post but into various files on various subjects, including this one, from E.L. Doctorow’s essay “Childhood of a Writer” in which he revealed that when he was nine years old he

…was more disposed than ever to read or listen to radio stories, and I was now reading not only to find out what happened next but with that additional line of inquiry of the child writer who is yet to write: How is this done?It is a kind of imprinting. We live in the book as we read it, yes, but we run with the author as well—this wild begetter of voices, this voice of voices, this noble creature of the wild whose linguistic lope over any sort of terrain brings it into being.

I also recently ran across (for only 99¢—the subject of another post!) the book American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath by Carl Rollyson. In an appendix therein, Rollyson showcases a few passages that were found underlined and/or annotated in Plath’s personal library, including:

O strange happiness, that seeketh the alliance of Death to win its crown… it must needs be a forcible evil, that has power to make a man (nay, a wise man) to be his own executioner… A wise man is indeed to endure death with patience, but that must come ab externo from another man’s hand and not from his own. [In the left-hand margin, Plath wrote, “Why?”] But these men teaching that he may do it himself, just needs confess that the evils are intolerable which force a man to such an extreme impropriety. [Plath wrote, “yes.”]

—St. Augustine, The City of God

Something I share in common with Sylvia Plath. I love it.

It’s actually pretty rare that I read a whole book without at least copying out some passage if not actually marking it up in the book itself. I have a whole shelf of books that I have annotated in some way.

If you can’t handle the sin of marking up a book, consider this your only trigger warning for the images to follow, but even if you do feel strongly that books should not be written in (Sylvia Plath and I, at least, disagree) then at least scan stuff you want to remember, or shoot a picture with your phone camera, or transcribe it in some way—the same way you might take notes in class. Because if you’re a writer, when you’re reading, you’re in class!

Here are a few lessons I’ve learned from books I’ve read:

I’m still working my way through a beat-up old copy of the sword and sorcery anthology The Fantastic Swordsmen, edited by L. Sprague de Camp, but I had to call out this example of how pulp fiction wasn’t all written in the kind of straightforward, results-oriented style of the hardboiled detective authors like Hammet and Chandler. Here, a sixteen year old Robert Bloch, via Lovecraft, via Dunsany, goes purple:

In the same book I came across a reference to a book that sounded interesting (and it’s been added to my list!) and thought a paragraph in de Camp’s introduction to Henry Kuttner’s “Dragon Moon” offered some interesting advice on how imitating other authors can actually help you find your own voice.

 

In the weeks ahead look for a post on how authors use sound to move their stories forward, which will include this example from the short story “The James Dean Garage Band” published in Rick Moody’s collection The Ring of Brightest Angels Around Heaven.

I use Stephen King’s Skeleton Crew as one of the texts for my online Horror Intensive, so when I put that course together I read it again while making extensive notes, like this, which illustrated a point I made in my own book, Writing Monsters:

Not intending to do so when I sat down to read it, I wrote a three-part blog post series on lessons from Arthur C. Clarke’s The City and the Stars, after noticing I’d called out a bunch of concepts like:

 

 

Anyone who’s spent any time here knows I put a lot of thought and words into heroes and villains, so why wouldn’t I have made note of this paragraph from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground?

 

And I could go on and on and on.

Everything I read (and everything I watch on TV and every game I play, and every conversation and every moment I’m conscious) I’m observing, thinking, trying to remember, taking notes… absorbing the world around me to put it back into my work.

And I’m not special or weird or in any way different from any other writer. It’s a thing we do so we can then do what we do.

 

—Philip Athans

 

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GIVE TILL IT FEELS GOOD!

For a while now I’ve made it a point to donate $25 a week, every Friday, to charity. I’ve given a little money to a lot of good causes, and from the beginning I’ve had a tendency to lean toward organizations that support literacy, a love of reading, and the dissemination of books. This week, I thought I’d share a few of these organizations in the hope that a few of you Fantasy Author’s Handbook fans also have a little money to give, and might want to, like me, support new generations of readers. And readers are any author’s most valuable ally, after all!

So I give you, in no particular order, these eight organizations out of many more worthy causes, with descriptions copied directly from their web sites so I don’t misrepresent them in any way. Follow these links and give until it feels good!

 

Open Books

Transforming lives through reading, writing, and the awesome/unlimited/amazing/giving power of used books.

https://www.open-books.org

Open Books is a nonprofit social venture that provides literacy experiences for tens of thousands of readers each year through inspiring programs and the creative capitalization of books.

Through our Literacy Programs, we transform students’ reading and writing skills through experienced educators who deliver innovative instruction, passionate volunteers who serve as positive role models and provide enthusiastic support, safe learning environments for practice, exploration, and social-emotional growth, and access to high-quality books and tailored curricula.

 

Barbershop Books

Help black boys ages 4-8 to identify as readers by connecting books and reading to a male-centered space and by involving men in boys’ early reading experiences.

https://barbershopbooks.org/about-us/

Barbershop Books is the debut program of Reading Holiday Project, Inc., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit literacy organization in New York City. Developed in Harlem, Barbershop Books is a community-based program that creates child-friendly reading spaces in barbershops and provides early literacy training to barbers across America. We leverage the cultural significance of barbershops in black communities to increase boys’ access to culturally relevant, age appropriate, and gender responsive children’s books and to increase out-of-school time reading among young black boys.

 

First Book

Providing equal access to quality education for kids in need since 1992.

https://firstbook.org

First Book transforms the lives of children in need. Through a sustainable, market-driven model, First Book is creating equal access to quality education—making everything from brand new, high quality books and educational resources, to sports equipment, winter coats, snacks, and more—affordable to its member network of more than 375,000 educators who exclusively serve kids in need.

Since 1992, First Book has distributed more than 175 million books and educational resources to programs and schools serving children from low income families in more than 30 countries. First Book currently reaches an average of 3 million children every year and supports more than one in four of the estimated 1.3 million classrooms and programs serving children in need. With an additional 1,000 educators joining each week, First Book is the largest and fastest-growing network of educators in the United States exclusively serving kids in need.

 

Little Free Library

Building Community/Sparking Creativity/Inspiring Readers

https://littlefreelibrary.org

Little Free Library is a nonprofit organization that inspires a love of reading, builds community, and sparks creativity by fostering neighborhood book exchanges around the world. Through Little Free Libraries, millions of books are exchanged each year, profoundly increasing access to books for readers of all ages and backgrounds.

 

Room to Read

We Believe that World Change Starts with Educated Children

http://www.roomtoread.org/about-us/

We envision a world in which all children can pursue a quality education that enables them to reach their full potential and contribute to their communities and the world.

Room to Read seeks to transform the lives of millions of children in low-income countries by focusing on literacy and gender equality in education. Working in collaboration with local communities, partner organizations and governments, we develop literacy skills and a habit of reading among primary school children, and support girls to complete secondary school with the relevant life skills to succeed in school and beyond.

 

ProLiteracy

Help us raise adult literacy rates to improve lives worldwide.

https://www.proliteracy.org

ProLiteracy promotes adult literacy through content development, programs, and advocacy. Our goal is to help literacy programs increase the quantity and quality of services provided.

 

826 National

Inventive Resources to Ignite a Love of Writing

https://826national.org

Founded in 2002 by internationally acclaimed author Dave Eggers and award-winning educator Nínive Calegari, 826 Valencia inspired a network of creative writing and tutoring centers now eight cities strong: San Francisco, Ann Arbor/Detroit, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York City, Washington, D.C., and New Orleans. The 826 National office was established in 2008 to serve the growing educational network by providing strategic leadership, administration, and other resources to ensure the success of the 826 network.

826 National’s chapters offer a variety of inventive programs that provide under-resourced students ages 6-18 with opportunities to explore their creativity and improve their writing skills. They also aim to help teachers get their classes excited about writing. Their mission is based on the understanding that great leaps in learning can happen with individualized attention, and that strong writing skills are fundamental to future success.

 

BookTrust

At Book Trust, all our work revolves around a single, sad fact: There are thousands of children in America who would like nothing better than to read, but have no books.

http://www.booktrust.org/about/

It might seem surprising that so many kids in one of the wealthiest nations in the world can’t get their hands on a simple two-dollar book. But the picture is pretty stark—in low-income areas, there is just 1 book for every 300 children.

We empower kids from low-income families to choose and buy their own books, all through the school year. And our focus on book choice and ownership is no accident. Studies show that children are much more likely to read books that they choose,and having books at home brings proven benefits. We’re all about helping kids build home libraries full of books they want to read, and helping teachers use those books in the classroomto build healthy habits of reading and learning.

Best of all, our approach really works. Over a school year, the percentage of Book Trust students reading at grade level jumps from 31 percent to 59 percent.

 

That should be a good start, but feel free to share other similar organizations you’ve found, or who serve your community!

 

—Philip Athans

 

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BOOKS FOR FANTASY AUTHORS XXII: THE WORLD SPLIT OPEN

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

I have no idea how I ran across The World Split Open: Great Authors on How and Why We Write. I filter book recommendations from the world around me on an almost continual basis, and I hope you do as well. If I read something online that mentions a book and that book sounds the least bit interesting, onto my huge and always-growing Amazon list it goes. In fact, as I write this, I’m working my way through The Ring of Brightest Angels Around Heaven by Rick Moody. Why? Because a character on the TV series Legion was reading it and if it’s interesting to the creators of that brilliant series, it’s interesting to me (and I’m loving it so far, by the way.) Every time I step into a bookstore I pop that list up on my phone and often buy books, not from Amazon, but from some brick and mortar store… and sometimes, yeah, I just order from Amazon. But anyway, at some point, this book was mentioned, referenced, and/or recommended and it made it onto my now rather more active to-read list.

The World Split Open is a collection of essays that were actually lectures given by some significant authors at Literary Arts events in Portland, Oregon. Each of the ten authors included in the collection discuss some aspect of the writing life, or more specifically, their writing lives. What I found most fascinating about it is the wide range of experiences found there, the terrific variety of voices.

What voices? Here’s the table of contents:

305 Marguerite Cartwright Avenue by Chimamanda Adichie

Spotty-Handed Villainesses: Problems of Female Bad Behavior in the Creation of Literature by Margaret Atwood

No, But I Saw the Movie by Russell Banks

Childhood of a Writer by E.L. Doctorow

Finding the Known World by Edward P. Jones

“Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?” by Ursula K. Le Guin

On “Beauty” by Marilynne Robinson

Fiction to Make Sense of Life by Wallace Stegner

Morality and Truth in Literature by Robert Stone

What Is Art For? by Jeanette Winterson

Quite a list of significant heavy-hitters there, including a few authors who have written fantasy and/or science fiction.

You need to read this book for yourself, but here are some random thoughts from me:

First off, I absolutely adore the whole first paragraph of Chimamanda Adichie’s beautiful and heartfelt essay, too long to copy here, but her consideration of the power of books just got to me. I’m embarrassed to say I hadn’t heard of Ms. Adichie going into this book, but after reading her essay here I went out and bought one of her books and will get to it soon. I’ll also be drawing out some of the text of this essay as an example of the importance of culture for my ongoing online Worldbuilding course.

Margaret Atwood is her usual forthcoming, direct, and uncompromising self in “Spotty-Handed Villainesses” and writes quite convincingly on the intersection between genre and literary fiction. I found myself, not surprisingly for anyone who follows this blog, in complete agreement when she wrote here: “any story you tell must have a conflict of some sort, and it must have suspense.” Indeed!

One thing I learned from this book is that I need to start reading E.L. Doctorow. I pulled a bunch of stuff out of his essay, including another clip to bring into my revised Worldbuilding course, related to some of what we talked about here in regards to the Lester Dent essay “Wave Those Tags”:

Naming is profoundly important, every name carrying an injunction and so, if coordinate enough with other circumstances of life, a fate.

And I underlined this from Doctorow in regards to some of our discussions here about an author’s intentions vs. a reader’s interpretation: “an author’s intentions are hardly reliable measures of his accomplishments.”

I was also charmed to hear that Doctorow, like me, used media playing in the background while he wrote as inspiration, which I’ve also written about here.

And his challenge to authors to push ourselves bears repeating:

I believe nothing of any beauty or truth comes of a piece of writing without the author’s thinking he has sinned against something—propriety, custom, faith, privacy, tradition, political orthodoxy, historical fact, literary convention, or indeed, all the prevailing community standards together. And that work will not be realized without the liberation that comes to the writer from his feeling of having transgressed, broken the rules, played a forbidden game—without his understanding or even fearing his work as a possibly unforgiving transgression.

Food for thought.

I will write a whole post about research largely based on things that Edward P. Jones has to say in his essay “Finding the Known World,” so keep your eyes open for that. I can say it’s given my own years-percolating historical novel a new lease on life.

Likewise, Jones’s advice to focus on character, not detail, as he discusses a lack of historical detail regarding the construction of a log cabin in his novel The Known World (now on my to-read list as well!), ending with, “my job—as this writer, as this creator of Elias—is to present the man in the very best way that I can and that the intelligent reader can build his or her own cabin.”

Exactly!

I adore Ursula K. Le Guin’s brief but perfect definition of fiction: “Imagination working on experience.”

Thank you, ma’am.

I also tweeted this quote from her, which to my mind puts a final nail in the coffin of the snobby anti-genre literary elite: “To say that realistic fiction is by definition superior to imaginative fiction is to imply that imitation is superior to invention.”

Preach it, Sister!

In the margins of Wallace Stegner’s essay “Fiction to Make Sense of Life” I wrote: “great quote, just in general.” Here goes:

“The life we all live is to many degrees and in many ways amateurish and accidental. It begins by accident and proceeds by trial and error toward dubious ends. That’s the law of nature.”

Words to live by.

And I’ll end with this, from Robert Stone:

Storytelling is not a luxury to humanity; it’s almost as necessary as bread. We cannot imagine ourselves without it, because the self is story. The perception each of us has of his own brief, transient passage through things is also a kind of fiction, not because its matter is necessarily untrue, but because we tend to shape it to suit our own needs. We tell ourselves our own stories, selectively, in order to keep our sense of self intact.

Read this book. Make notes in the margins. Underline passages that you find particularly interesting. Agree with any or all of the authors on one point, disagree with same on any other—but read this. And, while we’re at it, read other books like it (some I’ve recommended here and others I will recommend eventually)—but read about writing and think about what you’ve read.

I do!

 

—Philip Athans

 

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A SERIES OF POSTS ON MOTIVATION: CONTRIBUTION

And finally, this week we’ll focus in on the sixth and last of the “Six Human Needs” I introduced a few weeks ago: contribution.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this one comes last, since in more ways than do the other “human needs” on this admittedly hyper simplified list, contribution interweaves with all the others.

Humans are pack animals. We evolved to work together in tight groups for our own survival. One cave man with a pointed stick going up against a wooly mammoth is in grave danger—of starvation, at least. Twenty cave men working together feed the whole tribe. Simple, right?

It is, actually—even if over the past hundred or so millennia we’ve created some amazingly complex and interrelated institutions, both formal and informal, to direct those impulses. But whether we’re trying to be a good member of the congregation, a good son or daughter, a good Democrat or Republican, a loyal American, or a diehard Trekkie, to some degree or another we feel we need to contribute to some cause in order to be a part of the solution and not a part of the problem, however those may specifically manifest. We may work toward making ourselves feel significant or to combat uncertainty in our own lives, but more times than not, we do that as part of some team, family, community, etc. Or as Mark Manson wrote in The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck:

“You know who bases their entire lives on their emotions? Three year old kids. And dogs. You know what else three-year-olds and dogs do? Shit on the carpet.”

Grown-ups do that to, at least figuratively, but when they do, the rest of us tend to turn on them. Breaking from the group can be the greatest sin imaginable, according to loyal members of the group. It can also be the greatest accomplishment, when seen from people who oppose that group—because by leaving that group, you’re joining or in some other way helping the competing group. But in the end, it’s about moving from group to group with individual behavior filtered through the groups’ expectations.

We form into and contribute to groups for all sorts of reasons, which can be tied back to the other five human needs. In terms of the split between certainty and uncertainty, we all contribute to a consensus reality, come together in groups of various sizes and goals, in order to feel sure of something, to feel secure in the knowledge that we’re part of a community of like-minded individuals who share our certainty of… whatever it is (Jesus Saves, rich people should pay no taxes, drugs are bad, and so on) in order to stave off the uncertainty of a complex and sometimes frightening universe. “For, after all,” George Orwell wrote in 1984, “how do we know that two and two make four? Or that the force of gravity works? Or that the past is unchangeable? If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable—what then?”

Contributing to the common good, or fooling ourselves into thinking we’re contributing to the common good, or tricking others into thinking we’re contributing to the common good, can motivate villains, in particular, who are simultaneously driven by a desire for personal significance. This is true of the over-reaching Dr. Haber in Ursula K. LeGuin’s classic The Lathe of Heaven:

It’s not that he’s evil. He’s right, one ought to try to help other people. But the analogy with snakebite serum was false. He was talking about one person meeting another person in pain. That’s different. Perhaps what I did, what I did in April four years ago… was justified… (But his thoughts shied away, as always, from the burned place.) You have to help another person. But it’s not right to play God with masses of people. To be God you have to know what you’re doing. And to do any good at all, just believing you’re right and your motives are good isn’t enough. You have to… be in touch. He isn’t in touch. No one else, no thing even, has an existence of its own for him; he sees the world only as a means to his end. It doesn’t make any difference if his end is good; means are all we’ve got… He can’t accept, he can’t let be, he can’t let go. He is insane… He could take us all with him, out of touch, if he did manage to dream as I do. What am I to do?

Contribution and connection are particularly intertwined, and for many of the same reasons we contribute to a common cause to combat uncertainty and gain certainty, characters can come together and act out of a sense of duty, a connection to “the corps” achieved by contributing to a common goal. Sometimes, that contribution can require a degree of deindividualization or even dehumanization, as seen in Joe M. McDermott’s The Fortress at the End of Time:

Theories of reality clashed in the air, unknown to me. I saw things as I believed them to be. I believed that I was a clone of a man born on a boat in the Pacific Ocean, on Earth, across the galaxy. I did not believe I was placed in this colony to suffer, but to work hard and transcend. That is the life that was told to me: Work hard and transcend to other colonies.

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Bilbo discovers and taps into an otherwise unknown reservoir of courage, not for his own sake, but to contribute to the greater good:

A sound, too, began to throb in his ears, a sort of bubbling like the noise of a large pot galloping on the fire, mixed with a rumble as of a gigantic tom-cat purring. This grew to the unmistakable gurgling noise of some vast animal snoring in its sleep down there in the red glow in front of him.

It was at this point that Bilbo stopped. Going on from there was the bravest thing he ever did. The tremendous things that happened afterwards were as nothing compared to it. He fought the real battle in the tunnel alone, before he ever saw the vast danger that lay in wait.

Here is a classic hero finding personal growth in contribution to a common goal.

So when considering the six human needs, don’t just look at each individually: Character A seeks personal growth, Character B lives in the uncertainty, Character C is desperate for a lasting personal connection… Look at how those mix and mingle, how they compete with each other for attention within that character, how they support or undermine each other. The whole point of the list is that these six human needs exist to one degree or another in all of us—and as fiction writers, we want our characters to feel, as much as possible, like all of us.

 

—Philip Athans

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