A little harried, extremely busy, getting close to that coveted and elusive state known as “caught up,” and sorta pressed for ideas this week, so let’s run back through some of the last few months’ worth of posts and see if anything needs an update, and in general we’ll play Catch up With Phil.

First up, let’s run back through the online Pulp Fiction Workshop. The first course, via Writer’s Digest University, is all wrapped up and I think it went extremely well. If anything it was over-enrolled, and though not everyone submitted the four weekly writing assignments to build a complete 6000-word story almost everyone did—and though that meant some work for me it was work I was happy to do. Some exceptional stories were written for that class, and I’m delighted to be gearing up for another go-around starting on August 6. Sign up now!

Here’s a little taste of the additional material (I post something new every weekday) for the pulp course:

You only have one sentence to make a great first impression. Here are some sample pulp first lines…


From “Jim Dickinson’s Head” by Harold Ward (Black Mask, August 1920), an immediate establishment of tone, and a broad hint of something terrible having happened:

Jim Dickinson’s head, pickled in a jar of alcohol, reposes in the dishonored fastness of a dusty closet in Doctor Wright’s office.


From “Herbert West: Reanimator” by H.P. Lovecraft (Home Brew, 1922), the master at work:

Of Herbert West, who was my friend in college and in after life, I can speak only with extreme terror.


From the undisputed classic “Weasels Ripped My Flesh” by Mike Kames (Man’s Life, September 1956), a hero in trouble from the get-go:

I was sprawled on a mound of hay—shotgun cradled in my arms and my head drooping fiercely from want of sleep—when that first ripple of alarm surged through the dark house.


The first line of James G. Blades’s story “Squaw Killer” (Indian Stories, Winter 1950) gets things started immediately:

The Wolf flung his axe.


You know Beth Farrell’s story “The Silver Duke” is going to get good when it starts off this catty:

“Jan’s got to get out, ma, she’s too pretty.”

Science Fiction

Here’s the first line from the much reprinted novella “The Gods Hate Kansas” by Joseph J. Millard (Startling Stories, November 1941), which, again, starts the action right up, and immediately says “this is science fiction!”:

The rocks had been hurtling toward earth for more than a week, silent and invisible in the black airless void of space.


I’m not sure I’d recommend a sentence this long, but look how much worldbuilding Clark Ashton Smith put into the first line of “The Abominations of Yondo” (Overland Monthly, April 1926):

The sand of the desert of Yondo is not as the sand of other deserts; for Yondo lies nearest of all to the world’s rim; and strange winds, blowing from a pit no astronomer may hope to fathom, have sown its ruinous fields with the gray dust of corroding planets, the black ashes of extinguished suns.

War & Air Combat

For the sake of being complete, how about the first line of “Jinx Run” by Scott Sumner (Wings, Spring 1947):

As an AAF soldier-correspondent I was strictly excess baggage on this mission, and I was mighty glad the little tail gunner had crawled back into the waist to keep me company.


Another great example of naming your hero right up front, while he’s in danger, from “Beast-Gods of Atlantis” by John Peter Drummond (Jungle Stories, Summer 1950):

Without breaking the swift stroke of his paddle, Ki-Gor snatched another brief glance over his shoulder at the pursuing war canoes.

Fight Stories

Don’t be afraid to just say what kind of story you’re writing in the first sentence, like Tom O’Neil did in “An Honest Fight Every Night” (Fight Stories, Fall 1949):

Center City was a fight town.

Speaking of online courses, I’m currently in week three of my four-week Worldbuilding class, also from Writer’s Digest University. This is, obviously, geared for fantasy and science fiction authors whereas the pulp class covers every genre. That’ll come back around with a new session starting on August 27 and you can sign up well in advance.

What’s great about these courses but that doesn’t always show up in the advertising, is the interaction between the students that happens with me off to the side as an observer. You get feedback from me, but if you choose to post your work so the rest of the class can read it (and that’s entirely optional) and are willing to read and offer constructive comments to your fellow students, there’s some amazing wisdom to be gained there. It’s not quite as thorough and intimate as the real life, face-to-face interaction that I really miss by no longer teaching these classes in a live setting, but it’s the next best thing, and you don’t have to live in the Seattle area to join in.

In the post from June 9: Writing Without Typing I mentioned a ghostwriting project I was planning to finish that day. There were a couple more passes through the text ahead of me then, but I’m delighted to report that that project is now completely done (at least from my perspective) and I’ve started wrapping nickels in Post-Its for other projects now. I can’t tell you the title of the book or even when it’ll be published, but I was delighted to be a part of it, and to share in a terrific story that I promise will be worth reading.

Looking back at the two posts about Writing Accents, I’d like to add a recommendation for an author who has done this extremely well. Read The Given Day by Dennis Lehane.

My complaints regarding my woefully inadequate home office, revealed in all its (total lack of) splendor in (Un)Happy Organize Your Home Office Day continue. I did buy a new chair, which is much better, but still. I need to explore standing options, leaving the house options, levitation, remote viewing . . . at this point, I’m open to anything. Add to that the preternaturally hot summer we’ve been having and this little nook is becoming a sort of pocket-dimension version of Hell. Maybe I need to start a Go Fund Me to pay for office space. It seems like a waste of money, and adding a commute to a commute-free life is anti-Earth, but . . . I still need to get out of here. Facebook reminding me that it’s been three years to the week since I last took a vacation isn’t helping either, believe me.

Looking at the Books For Christmas posts makes me feel a little better about the fact that I’m kinda keeping up on reading. Of this list I’ve read as much of The Haunted Vagina as I was able to get through (turns out I’m not a Bizarro fan, but at least I kept an open mind for part of it!), and read all of Attempting Normal and American Grotesque, both of which I highly recommend. The fact that these didn’t just go up on my shelves to be read, maybe, a decade from now, is kind of a big deal. I’m currently reading books I bought that long ago at least.

I am still reading a book from The Sci-fi Paperback Grab-bag, it’s just that the book I pulled out of the box at random in May was Peter F. Hamilton’s massive Pandora’s Star, and I’ve been loving it so far but working my way oh so very slowly through its 992 pages, proving yet again that I do not have an instantly limiting bias against long books. But it is taking me a while, and I’m not reading as fast as I can, and . . . whatever. The grab-bag lives!

Now I have to get back to two short but intense writing projects, two edits, and another ghostwriting project. Next week: writing advice. I promise!


—Philip Athans


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Dialog is a challenge for a lot of authors and sometimes the common, easy advice like “read it aloud” isn’t enough. It could be that there are writers who read their dialog aloud and think, That’s good—that sounds right for this character, but pretty much no one else agrees. The explanation for this disconnect could be as simple as performance. Maybe there’s some almost imperceptible inflection you’re using when you read it aloud that isn’t indicated, or that most people who don’t share your regional accent or dialect—whatever that may be—wouldn’t pick up on.

That all sounds pretty grim, then, in terms of learning to write dialog that will resonate with everyone—and it is difficult, maybe even impossible. You can’t please everyone, after all.

But there are a few things that the overwhelming majority of us share in terms of the patterns of the content of our speech. One of those common patterns is that we don’t tend to speak in bullet points.

Yes, there certainly are exceptions to this rule. The order-acknowledgement back and forth you’d hear on the bridge of a submarine, for example. But regular people don’t talk like that:

“Johnny, clean your room!” the harried mother yelled.

“Answering: clean room, aye aye ma’am,” Johnny shouted in response.

Overly formal, regimented dialog is one of the most common stumbling blocks for inexperienced writers and I see it all the time. And it’s an affliction that can be cured, like most writing afflictions, by specific attention followed by rewrites.

For example:

“I considered joining the King’s Guard once. Something else came up. Then I began an apprenticeship with a blacksmith. The blacksmith was a good man. He taught me everything I needed to know. I became a practicing blacksmith. I worked in Megacity. In the Smithy District. Off of Ingot Street. I realized this was my calling. I met a woman. We fell in love. The beer wraiths killed her. They were drunk at the time. What have you been up to?”

I know that might sound like a goofy example, but trust me, I see this kind of thing all the time. Even if this character who’s speaking is being interrogated by the Megacity Watch, this still isn’t the way people talk to each other. Let’s look at that again, but this time rendered as bullet points:

  • I considered joining the King’s Guard once.
  • Something else came up.
  • Then I began an apprenticeship with a blacksmith.
  • The blacksmith was a good man.
  • He taught me everything I needed to know.
  • I became a practicing blacksmith.
  • I worked in Megacity.
  • In the Smithy District.
  • Off of Ingot Street.
  • I realized this was my calling.
  • I met a woman.
  • We fell in love.
  • The beer wraiths killed her.
  • They were drunk at the time.
  • What have you been up to?

One option, and in this case, I think a bad one, would be to own the list and describe the character ticking these off on his fingers or writing them down on a white board.

Cringe, right? No thanks!

It means breaking this paragraph up again, but this time, taking each sentence and thinking carefully about what it does right here to serve the story and the character saying it, and the character or characters listening to it.

“I considered joining the King’s Guard once.” I might leave alone. It introduces the whole thing, starts this character thinking about his past.

“Something else came up.” This says, essentially: “I didn’t join the King’s Guard,” but I bet that if we could see the rest of the scene this paragraph is a part of, we’d already know he isn’t a member of the King’s Guard, and anyway, didn’t he just say he considered joining once? That implies he didn’t join, just thought about it at some unspecified point in the past. Say goodbye to that sentence entirely, but maybe indicate with a facial expression that it wasn’t necessarily a tragedy that he didn’t join.

“Then I began an apprenticeship with a blacksmith.” Feels a little passive, no? Once you start on that then this then that then the other thing cycle it can be as hard to jump off of as a hamster wheel. What we need to know is that instead of being a King’s Guard he became a blacksmith. Does it matter that he went through an apprenticeship? Maybe not, but let’s say it does since he’s talking to someone about his past—maybe an old friend who joined the King’s Guard and hasn’t seen the speaker in a while. If you’re talking to an old friend, the words you choose tend to be more personal, and by keeping an ear out for that you can start to build back stories for your characters with little off-hand references. I’ll imagine that the person he’s talking to would know this specific blacksmith, and the fact that “The blacksmith was a good man,” can remain unsaid. Oh, and remember that people often speak in sentence fragments, so don’t forget to write dialog the way people talk, not the way their English teachers would prefer they talk.

“He taught me everything I needed to know. I became a practicing blacksmith.” Since one would follow the other, can I combine these two sentences? I bet I can.

“I worked in Megacity. In the Smithy District. Off of Ingot Street.” Now, who says all this actually has to be said by the same character? Imagine this is a conversation, so make sure there’s some back-and-forth. Let’s have the person he’s talking to ask him if his shop is in Megacity and then the original speaker can nod in response—because we don’t always speak information: gestures, facial expressions, and other non-verbal cues work just as well in a lot of instances. We can even have the other character get to the next specific level, and then go back to the original speaker for confirmation.

“I realized this was my calling.” Okay, do you care? I don’t, and I bet whoever’s listening to this won’t either. He’s a blacksmith, not a King’s Guard. Let’s kill that line and move on.

“I met a woman. We fell in love.” This is a pretty severe shift in subject matter from his job to his personal life. That’s fine, but people either don’t do that—we really don’t just smash cut from subject to subject—or if we do, not without some kind of “tell.” I’ll start thinking of ways to call out that transition.

And then another hard left turn from romance to tragedy: “The beer wraiths killed her. They were drunk at the time.” We’ll assume we’ll get into what a beer wraith is later—or have before this—so let’s concentrate on thinking about whether it matters that they were drunk, and if it does, why are these two obviously (based on the name of the monster) related facts cordoned off from each other in separate sentences? And beyond that, maybe the other person in the scene can help with that transition, can say something to move the speaker from “We fell in love,” to “The beer wraiths killed her.”

And that kind of tragedy needs to show in their faces and body language. You don’t report the death of a loved one like you’re announcing the 5:15 from Newark arriving on Track 16. We need to feel the emotional weight on the characters.

Then the last harsh transition, what really feels like a sort of punch line: “What have you been up to?” I have to imagine that this conversation is a tough one for both characters involved, so lets see if we can sell that punch line on an emotional level—and sell it with a contraction at that.

Here’s what I ended up with:


“I considered joining the King’s Guard once,” Galen said, the corner of his mouth curling into a wistful half-smile. “Apprenticed with Garrick Ironson instead.”

Bronwyn smiled and nodded at the mention of the old blacksmith’s name. She hadn’t seen Garrick Ironson in years either, but she remembered her father never went to another blacksmith in Smallercity.

“He taught me all I needed to know to start my own shop,” Galen said, looking at her in the eyes for the first time, his head tipped a little to the side.

“Here in Megacity?” Bronwyn asked. Galen nodded and she added, “Smithy District?”

Still nodding, Galen raised his eyebrows and replied, “Ingot Street.”

Bronywn offered him an impressed frown and returned the same nod until he sheepishly looked away.

Still not looking at her, Galen said, “I met a woman.” His voice was quiet, almost lost to the noise of the street. He was looking her in the eye again by the time he finished saying, “We fell in love.”

Bronwyn blinked and forced herself to smile. She nodded, but it felt jerky, insincere. Not sure what to say, she started with, “Are you and she—?”

“Beer wraiths,” he cut in.

Bronwyn gasped and took a step closer to him without intending to. He stiffened, but didn’t move away from her. “She was . . . ?” Bronwyn started.

Galen interrupted her with a shake of his head, and he looked down at the cobblestones at his feet.

There was a long moment of silence while Bronwyn considered reaching out to touch his shoulder, even hug him.

Then he looked up and with a forced smile over eyes heavy with tears, asked, “What’ve you been up to?”


I sprinkled in a little more back story for both of them. We now know they grew up in Smallercity, so Galen must have moved to Megacity to set up shop.

This was meant to indicate that Galen was curious to see if Bronwyn was impressed by the fact that he’d set up his own blacksmithing shop: Galen said, looking at her in the eyes for the first time, his head tipped a little to the side. Was I being too subtle?

Lots more words in the end, but words are cheap. Use as many as you need to share your characters’ story with your readers. Save the bullet points for work memos—and your own notes.


—Philip Athans


Posted in Books, E-Books, horror novels, how to write fiction, indie publishing, intellectual property development, monsters, POD, Publishing Business, Pulp Fiction, RPG, Science Fiction & Fantasy Novels, SF and Fantasy Authors, transmedia, Writing, writing advice, writing horror, Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments


Last week I determined, using rigorous scientific methods, the precise number of words for a chapter, no more, and no less. This was based on medical evidence and a joke that was meant to say there is no perfect length for a chapter and any effort to determine one is as silly as timing poops.

That having been said, though, those books with too-short chapters and the other books with too-long chapters still plague me. Surely there’s something off that I’m sensing and it’s not, to be honest, in any way connected to my bathroom habits.

Let’s dig a little deeper into this—the question of how long a chapter should be, that is, not my . . .

Anyway . . .

The number I arrived at last week was 2500 words, read in 12.5 minutes. Even if people read a little more slowly, that might be 15 minutes, or 20 minutes. Or, maybe, a morning’s commute by bus or train? Don’t read while you’re driving, but how about one chapter of an audio book if you drive to work? Could you read a chapter or two while on an exercise bike or other cardio machine either reading or listening? This would be a chapter per short lunch break, especially if you’re in school. I used to read during lunch when I was in school, and when I started working, too.

So even sans silliness about bathroom breaks I still like this number as a discreet package of minutes. It’s very reader-friendly, and we should all strive—at least a little bit and in service of our stories first—to be reader friendly.

See what I did right there? I said, “in service of our stories.”

Setting the math aside, what is a chapter even for, anyway? Why break our books up into chapters?

For a history of the chapter I’ll refer you to Nicholas Dames’s New Yorker article “The Chapter: A History.” From that article:

Novels have always been good at absorbing and recycling, taking plots and devices from other genres and finding new uses for them. With the chapter, novelists began, in the eighteenth century, to naturalize an informational technology from antiquity by giving it a new cultural role. What the chapter did for the novel was to aerate it: by encouraging us to pause, stop, and put the book down—a chapter before bed, say—the chapter-break helps to root novels in the routines of everyday life. The chapter openly permitted a reading oriented around pauses—for reflection or rumination, perhaps, but also for refreshment or diversion. Laurence Sterne’s “Tristram Shandy” insisted that “chapters relieve the mind,” encouraging our immersion by letting us know that we will soon be allowed to exit and return to other tasks or demands. Coming and going—an attention paid out rhythmically—would become part of how novelists imagined their books would be read.

In my studies of the number of words in a sentence and the number of sentences in a paragraph and how that affects your readers’ breathing, it’s the idea of the length of a pause—short breath at the end of a sentence, longer breath and the end of a paragraph—that changes the rate of breathing. Chapters, then, take that idea to the next level, with a much longer pause in which you’re essentially giving your readers “permission” (in quotes because no matter what you do, your readers will access your words in whatever way they damn well please) not just to take a breath but to step away for a moment.

This is what you need to think about—and let me stress this: you need to think about it: Where do you think it’s okay for your readers to put the book down for a minute, or until the commute home, or the next time nature calls? Leave off at a point that says two things:

It’s okay to step away . . . smoke ’em if you got ’em.


You’ll want to get back soon to see where this goes from here.

That last indicates that a chapter should end with some form of a cliffhanger. Though that’s a word that can be considered too literally sometimes, what I mean to say is that there is a pause in the story but not an end. That there’s some hint, either broadly (the hero actually is hanging from a cliff) or subtly (the heroine gets a letter from her husband but is afraid to open it) that something very interesting is going to happen in the next chapter.

For me, it’s that point, not the 2500th word, that tells you to put a chapter break there. If you’re writing a fast-paced thriller with lots of these cliffhanger moments, you should consider lots of short chapters. Who says if I have 25 minutes on the exercise bike, how many chapters I can read in that time? Two 2500-word chapters? One 5000-word chapter? Or five 1000-word chapters? It’s the pacing of the story that should determine that.

This leaves me thinking back to Peter F. Hamilton and Simon Green and their immensely long chapters. Is that slowing the perceived pace of what are, at least in Simon Green’s case, incredibly fast-paced space operas? I think so. I really like these books, but have to ask: Would I have liked them more if they’d been split up into chapters of no more than 5000 words?

Honestly, I would have.


—Philip Athans


Posted in Books, creative team, E-Books, horror novels, how to write fiction, indie publishing, intellectual property development, NaNoWriMo, POD, Publishing Business, Pulp Fiction, Science Fiction & Fantasy Novels, SF and Fantasy Authors, transmedia, writing advice, writing horror, Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment


I’ve been looking at a lot of self-published books again lately, and not from clients but books that have already been published by people I don’t know. One of the things I’ve noticed is that a lot of these books have a large number of short chapters. Sometimes that works, and sometimes it doesn’t. I have written books (like the Watercourse Trilogy) with lots and lots of short chapters, and others (like Annihilation) with fewer longer chapters. I’m also currently working my way through Peter F. Hamilton’s Pandora’s Star, which has incredibly long chapters. I read the whole Deathstalker series by Simon R. Green, too, which also had immensely long chapters. In both cases, though I really like the books, the chapters did seem way too long to me.

So where’s the sweet spot?

After tackling the myth of the 300,000 word fantasy, and doing a bunch of counting of the number of words in sentences and the number of sentences in a paragraph, it seems as though the length of a chapter is my final numerical frontier.

When I was at Wizards of the Coast and occasionally had to fend off accusations that what we published was “formulaic” I used to jokingly threaten that I was going to find out how many words the average American read per minute and compare that to the number of minutes the average American took to complete a bowel movement and use that to determine the perfect length for a chapter.

Okay, so, TMI, probably, but I get an awful lot of my non-work reading done while, let’s say . . . multitasking.

I’m not prepared to say I share that with most American readers, but I have sufficient anecdotal evidence to indicate that I’m not alone in that practice.

So, then, this begs the question: Is there some validity in that premise, whether or not it began as a joke?

Finally, I couldn’t resist it any longer and had to start Googling in search of statistics. After a much less than remotely exhaustive period of research I was unable to find any sort of authoritative statistic for the duration of the average American bowel movement. I see this as a failure of the Information Age, but for purposes of our discussion here, I’ll fall back on anecdotal information that ranges from five to twenty minutes. This comes out to an average of twelve and a half minutes for one poop.

The average American, according to slightly better statistics, reads approximately two hundred words per minute.

So I did the math:


200 words per minute x 12.5 minutes = 2500 words read per poop


Therefore, we can conclude that the precisely perfect length for a chapter is 2500 words.

Problem solved.


—Philip Athans


Posted in Books, creative team, horror novels, how to write fiction, indie publishing, intellectual property development, NaNoWriMo, POD, Publishing Business, Pulp Fiction, Science Fiction & Fantasy Novels, SF and Fantasy Authors, transmedia, Writing, writing advice, writing horror, Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments


I spent last weekend up in Bellingham, Washington as part of the faculty of the 5th Annual Chuckanut Writers Conference. I’ve written here about the importance and value of conferences to any writer’s continuing education in his or her craft, but indulge me, because I’m about to do it again.

Creative writing is not something anyone will ever perfect. No one, I don’t care how long you’ve been doing it or how many books you’ve sold, knows everything there is to know about writing fiction or non-fiction. It’s just not possible. So that means we’re always learning, always trying new things, always open to new ideas—or at least we damn well should be.

What I love about attending conferences like this isn’t that I get another hour of “everybody listen to me” time—though I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t in it at least a little bit for that. What’s actually lots more useful to me than listening to myself talk is listening to everybody else—faculty and attendees alike.

Having done a couple of one-day seminars at Whatcom Community College in Bellingham and spending a little time there I already knew that this is a remarkably literate town. The rocky center of the community seems to be the independent bookstore Village Books, which is three stories of awesome. Bellingham is a college town with not just the community college but Western Washington University as well—and everybody there seems to be reading all the time. I love it up there.

That spirit infused the conference and brought in some talented people—aspiring authors of all ages.

First, I want to thank Jessica Lohafer and everyone involved in organizing the event, which ran so smoothly it almost seemed as if some supernatural power had been invoked. It was almost impossibly well organized.

After a short orientation on Friday morning, I sat in the audience as Stephanie Kallos, author of the critically acclaimed Sing Them Home and her latest, Language Arts, spoke on the importance of asking questions in “Behind Every Book is a List of Burning Questions.” She was insightful and challenged the writers in attendance to think about the little things that add up to making a character a person.


Then later that afternoon we were asked to do short readings. They brought us up in alphabetical order and so I was first up—a little nerve wracking but in the end I think I had it easiest, since I didn’t have to take the audience on any sharp turns in tone. I read the conclusion from my book Writing Monsters, and I think I got a pretty good response, but since I had to wear my reading glasses, when I looked up at the audience all I saw was an amorphous mass of color. But the amorphous mass of color laughed at my jokes, so I’m calling it a success!

But what was much more of a success was the collection of readings as a whole, from Brian Doyle’s funnier follow-up segue from my reading to his through one of those sharp turns in tone when Steven Galloway read from The Cellist of Sarajevo. I thought two of the poets, the urgently earnest Samuel Green and the fighting his way through nervousness to demand to be heard Robert Lashley gave the afternoon’s bravura performances.


Then a blissfully air conditioned night in the beautiful Fairhaven Village Inn during an unprecedented Western Washington heat wave later and I showed up Saturday morning to sit on the panel “Directions to Where I Live.” Moderated by Nan Macy, I was in the distinguished company of Brenda Miller, Lee Gulyas, and Stephanie Kallos. We spoke to a small but attentive crowd on the subject of literary influences and I found myself making notes during the seminar. I’m learning from my fellow panelists much more than I’m offering to the crowd—after all, there were four of them and only one of me!

My literary influences? In particular Edgar Rice Burroughs and Harlan Ellison and I got a chance to talk briefly about my attraction to the opposite ends of the genre spectrum, from the pulp to the literary, leaving the mainstream more or less unread.

Then fast forward a bit to early afternoon, where I gave an abbreviated and slightly revised version of Writing Scary in the hottest room on the campus—but undaunted by almost debilitating back pain and general sweatiness we pressed on talking about how to use sentence and paragraph length to alter your readers’ breathing to convey anxiety and panic. Everybody seemed to get it and asked smart questions that got me thinking, too.

And I’ve said this before: Live events are best becuase of that in-person interaction—you aren’t just listening to speeches you’re asking questions and actively engaging with the faculty and other attendees.


Author Erik Larson (The Devil in the White City and the newly released Dead Wake) kept that going in his breakout session “The Dark Country of No Ideas” in which he asked attendees to stand up and pitch their non-fiction works in progress for short but insightful workshopping from both Larson and the other attendees. There are some amazing writers out there, working on some amazing stuff. And Erik Larson knows what he’s talking about.

As things wound down I wandered over to the Village Books table trying to mentally balance my budget. Just because I wanted to buy all of the books and have all of my fellow faculty members sign them didn’t mean I could—at least not in one go—so I had to pick a couple. I bought The Devil in the White City because as an ex-patriot Chicagoan that story has always intrigued me. Erik Larson was kind enough to sign it. I felt particularly compelled to buy Samuel Green’s collection of poems All That Might be Done because I liked his reading and him personally.

I was kicking myself for not bringing my copy of Sing Them Home for Stephanie Kallos to sign, but Language Arts is on my to-buy list, as are books by other faculty members especially Robert Lashley, William Kenower, Steven Galloway, Bryan Doyle, and Elizabeth George.

By the end of the day on Saturday I hated to admit it but my back was telling me it was over, so I had to skip the closing party at Village Books, but I was there in spirit!

Now, go find a writers conference in your area—and I drove two hours to get to Bellingham, so think about the farthest reach of “your area” if you have to—and go there!

It will be both money and time well spent on both useful tips on the craft of writing like my own Writing Scary, or inspiration that will lift you out of the deepest of writer’s blocks.

Thank you Chuckanut Writers Conference. I am energized.


—Philip Athans




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. . . or at least that’s what some science fiction authors would have you believe.

The other day, I happened upon the movie Forbidden Planet on TCM. It was just about to start. I wanted to avoid working. A match made in heaven!

I’ve seen this movie a bunch of times—I own the DVD, actually—and I love it. It really is a classic of the genre. In it we see the 200,000-year-old alien technology that is every 1950s engineer’s dream. It’s self-cleaning, self-correcting, self-calibrating, and always perfect. It wasn’t the machines that created the monster from the id, it was user error on the part of Professor Morpheus (spoiler alert . . . sorry, but if you’re reading this blog and haven’t seen Forbidden freakin’ Planet, well . . .)


Surely this is what machines of The Future will be like, right? Perfectly always functional for hundreds of thousands of years—for forever.

We actually live in The Future, at least from Forbidden Planet’s writers’ point of view, and so is this true?

Let’s see . . . Right around the same time I was watching this movie my $500 Android smartphone was dying a pitiful death. And this is the old phone that was replaced a couple years ago by a newer $500 Android smartphone my daughter knocked out of my hand on the way to Emerald City Comicon and broke, so rather than pay another $500 to replace it I went back to the old $500 phone. This weekend I bought another new $500 smartphone, this time an iPhone.

A few weeks before that we came down in the morning to a terrible grinding rumble coming from our refrigerator then spent the better part of that Saturday living in denial while touching various jars of stuff and saying, “It’s still cold!” with a pitiful squeak in our voices until I put a little thermometer on the inside of it and it was the same temperature inside as it was outside, which was about 69°F. It was broken. It was about fourteen years old. I found a “cheap” replacement for about $800 that’s a swell deal as long as you’re okay with the loudest ice maker on Earth. For the record, I’m okay with that since the next price level up added $1000. Now the sound of cascading ice cubes rattling around in a plastic box sounds like savings!

About a week before that tragic refrigerator death my wife was leaving for work then came right back in because she thought one of the tires on the Mustang looked “low.” I went out to discover that it was flat. She took the minivan that morning instead—the minivan we had put new tires on a week before.

A couple months before that we were experiencing weird cable TV malfunctions so I went into the little Comcast store in Redmond and a nice young man* sold me on their new Xfinity platform, which is really way, way better in that instead of working one-third of the time it works about two-thirds of the time. Progress!

Wouldn’t all those 1950s science fiction fans be disappointed.

As a fifty-year-old science fiction fan, I know I am—but then tires last a lot longer now than they did in the 50s. Refrigerators probably had about the same life span but the newer ones use a fraction of the electricity. And in the 50s there was no such thing as a smartphone nor a digital cable platform with hundreds of channels, thousand of on-demand TV shows and movies, and DVR that allows me control over time and space the likes of which a 1950s TV viewer could only dream of—at least, y’know, one- to two-thirds of the time.

Lesson for science fiction authors, then:

New technology is awesome and cool and creates whole new universes, and will break down. George Lucas had some fun with the used car unreliability of the Millennium Falcon in Star Wars—this isn’t a fresh idea. But keep this in mind. Cell phones are awesome, except when there’s inexplicably no service. Digital cable is great except for the hopelessly buggy software. And all of this stuff wears out.

The idea that there will be an iPhone in a museum in 200,000 years is pretty difficult to imagine. That it might still be working is . . . well, I like my new iPhone and less than a week in it’s functioning perfectly, so I don’t want to be a dick.


—Philip Athans


* Holy Jesus on His Cross, I just referred to a guy in his twenties as “a nice young man”! That’s it for me. I am now officially old.


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I’ve written more than once here at Fantasy Author’s Handbook of my love for the pulp fiction tradition, especially in the science fiction and fantasy genres. Though there have been some recent events in SF/fantasy fandom that may have temporarily co-opted the term “pulp” in a negative way, the lessons we can all learn from these early practitioners of the genres we love are as varied as they are valuable.

I touched on some of those things in my post What Pulp Can Teach Us, but that really only scratches the surface.

I believe it’s fair to say that both the science fiction and fantasy genres as we know them today were not quite invented in the pulp magazines of the first half of the twentieth century, but this is where they came into their own, where the archetypes and expectations that still define those genres were worked through, experimented with, and ultimately cemented into place.


As I touched on in the article The Shelf-Life of Sci-Fi Storytelling for Prologue Books, the SF/fantasy pulps were proving grounds, on-the-job training camps, and advance bases for exploration for people who became some of the undisputed giants of the genres, from Edgar Rice Burroughs through Ray Bradbury to Philip K. Dick, it was the pulp magazines that grabbed hold of what was considered a second-rate genre that no “serious” author, let alone any “serious” publication would sully itself with and not only published them but embraced them, encouraged them, provided them a living, and built a community of authors and fans that built the genres more or less from scratch.

I will grant that looking back at the massive history of the pulp magazine tradition, there are some red flags that quickly unfurl. These were products of a (thankfully) lost time, of a segregated America where blatantly racist images of minorities and a systematized degradation of women was commonplace—at least in the lurid cover art.


But as I’ve said before, an author who sets out to write a “pulp” story in our more enlightened times is under no obligation to adopt the retrograde morays of decades past. A new movement, which was discussed in my interview with Pro Se Production’s Tommy Hancock, called New Pulp, is taking what was great about those stories—that storytelling tradition—and filling in the details from a contemporary sensibility.

I have to be honest, my approach to storytelling changed when I first encountered Lester Dent’s Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot. This led to a discussion here of the definition of a formula in the post: Formula vs. Recipe.

What Lester Dent achieved with that document wasn’t to lay out a strict formula that made for a long string of roughly identical stories. Instead, and what continue to be enormously useful to any genre author—writing in any genre—are his reminders along the way. He does use language that makes the “formula” feel purpose-built only for hardboiled crime stories, but it’s easy to read it as I think it really was meant to be: a set of prompts and warnings that can help keep your story on track, keep it entertaining—and no, there’s nothing wrong with entertaining!—character-focused, and vibrant.


I was so impressed with that document, and so reenergized in my lifelong appreciation for that style of writing that I set up an in-person class called the Pulp Fiction Workshop. In that class we met for a few hours one Saturday and went through Lester Dent’s “formula” in detail, talked about the history of pulp and the wide array of genres (including romance, war stories, fight stories, etc.) it covered. Then everyone went away for a few weeks and wrote a 6000-word short story with Dent’s advice in mind and we met on another Saturday to read those stories and discuss the perils and pitfalls, the pleasures and pains, of writing in the pulp tradition.

It was a fantastic experience.

Now I have a great relationship with the good people at Writer’s Digest, who’ve been running my successful Worldbuilding class (starting up again July 2, by the way!). I brought this idea to them and they loved it.

The first online WDU Pulp Fiction Workshop starts this Thursday—and yes, there is still time to sign up. In that course we’ll do the same thing we did in the in-person course, except we’ll stay in closer touch along the way. We’ll start with a close look at Lester Dent’s formula then start in on writing. Over the next four weeks, everybody writes a 6000-word short story, in any genre, and we’ll look at it in fourths along the way. You can choose to share it with the rest of the students, or just with me, and I’ll provide feedback and additional advice along the way, with each week taking a deeper dive into Lester Dent’s advice—and some advice of my own and from other sources.

And at the end you’ll have a 6000-word short story that I absolutely promise you will be as much fun to write as it is to read.


—Philip Athans


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