I’m really starting to hate that word, “busy.”

“How you doin’?”

“Busy. You?”

“Totally busy.”

“Well, it’s good to keep busy.”

“Oh yeah, love being busy.”

This is a conversation I’ve had over and over again, instigated by me as often as not. I like to Tweet about how busy I am, blog about it, too, and sometimes complain about it, but I think I need to stop that. I’m actually starting to get on my own nerves.

So instead of a post about how busy I am, how about a post about how lucky I am to have all of these opportunities happening at the same time?

And I’m honestly not being sarcastic about that.

I have had months where it seems like a whole years’ deadlines have all converged on a three-week period. That’s not literally true, of course. It seems like that. And this month, it has definitely seemed like that. I can’t remember a time in the last several months at least when I was so b—I mean . . . rich in opportunity.

This month is a bit different than other times, though. Instead of feeling the effects of my own tendency to procrastinate—not always, but often enough that it can sometimes be an issue—this is really just a matter of scheduling.

But so far I’m not in really bad shape, deadline-wise, and I’m staying on top of it and you know what? I’m actually having a ball.

I love the work I’m doing, especially the teaching.

And that’s really where stuff is piling on, for the better.

Now I start trying to sell you stuff, so bear with me. Or better yet, come along with me, because this isn’t work. This is fun.

The next run of my Pulp Fiction Workshop begins this week—still plenty of room to sign up for that We’ll start writing a pulp-inspired 6000-word short story this Thursday, October 20.

This afternoon’s priority will be finishing up the written course material for a new online course I’m teaching for Writer’s Digest University:

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

Here’s how it’s being sold:

It’s no accident that Stephen King is one of the world’s best-selling authors. He knows what scares us—it isn’t just kids and clowns—and he knows how to use words to invoke that fear in the same way a horror movie director uses lighting and editing.

In this two-session course we’ll look at each of those two vital elements: knowing what scares your readers, and knowing how to use words to bring that fear to life. We’ll look at examples from Stephen King’s writing to take a deep dive into both the why and the how of writing horror like a (Stephen) King.

In this class, you’ll have the opportunity to write an outline and a 2,000 word short story or chapter incorporating elements of suspense that moves towards a well-paced climax. These two assignments will be submitted for instructor critique.

This workshop also offers two video tutorials in which author and instructor Philip Athans discusses horror writing by analyzing the writing of Stephen King.

To get the most from this workshop you should:

Do the writing! Even if the assignments don’t match up perfectly to your current work-in-progress, go ahead and create something fresh. You might just surprise yourself with a great short story, or the seed for your next best-selling novel.

I’m really excited about this—looking forward to getting some great horror writing, but more than that, the online conversations that happen when course participants actually, y’know, participate.

You should sign up for this—the inaugural course starts October 27.

And that’s the same day I get on a plane to sunny Los Angeles for the:

Writer’s Digest Novel Writing Conference


This’ll be my third trip to LaLaLand for that (or a similar) event and I’m so looking forward to it.

This year I’ll have two seminars:

Friday, October 28 at 11:30 is Exploring Science Fiction and Fantasy—what I hope will be mostly Q&A on a subject you know I can talk about forever. Keeping that to an hour will be a challenge, but I’ll rely on the good people at Writer’s Digest to gently but firmly usher me out so no one misses lunch. This will be similar to the event I just did a couple weeks ago at another outstanding event, Write on the Sound, here in Western Washington. I left that event exhausted but energized at the same time, and expect nothing different in LA.

And that’s not all for me there. On Saturday at 10:15 I’ll give the attending authors a wake up call with Lessons from the Pulps for Writers in Every Genre. I know it must seem as though I’ve become overwhelmingly pulp-obsessed of late, but ever since I ran the first pulp workshop as a two-session in-person class at Bellevue College it’s been one of my absolute favorites. The lessons we learn from that fast-and-furious writing style, and with advice from the great Lester Dent and others of his contemporaries, has yielded some amazing stories (oops, see what I did just there, that actually wasn’t intentional!) in every iteration both online and in-person. This is the first time I’ve ever had to try to cover it in just an hour, though, so wish me luck.

Oh, and I’m deep into an online Worldbuilding course right now as well, with the next one of those scheduled to start on November 10th.

And I have the regular workload of editing and consulting . . .

I’m busy!

And I’m loving every minute of it because so much of what’s keeping me busy is also keeping me in touch with the greatest people in the world:



—Philip Athans


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From time to time I’ll recommend—not review, mind you, but recommend, and yes, there is a difference—books that I think fantasy 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 the fantasy author, so worth looking for.

The lists of my ten favorite fantasy novels and my ten favorite science fiction novels have been among of the most popular posts here at Fantasy Author’s Handbook, and it’s been a long time since I first made those lists. But now here we are in October, the spookiest month of the year, and that got me thinking . . . What about my ten favorite horror novels of all time? As with the previous lists, this is presented in no particular order, but these ten books scared the pants off me in one way or another, and they might do the same for you. And anyway, if you want to write horror . . .


House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

Johnny Truant is kind of a hipster. He works at a tattoo parlor. He didn’t ask to run across the abandoned life’s work of the enigmatic Zampanò, but he does. And he starts reading . . .


I think this is a haunted house story.

It might be a haunted life story.

But either way, House of Leaves isn’t just one of the most unsettling books I’ve ever read—more disturbing than “scary”—I’m prepared to call it one of the greatest debut novels in the history of literature, and I’m not alone.

I don’t remember what drew me to this book. Was it mentioned online somewhere? I don’t read reviews . . . that couldn’t have been it. Did I just run across it on a bookstore shelf, drawn to its unusual large format trade paperback and even stranger interior layout? It definitely reminded me of some great Harlan Ellison stories in terms of that first glance, where the type itself was used to convey added layers to the story. Now, I know you’ve all probably heard me tell you never to do that, to reserve all your creativity for the story itself. I’ve also told you not to affect some kind of period voice in your writing either, unless you’re prepared to go as full-on as Susanna Clarke did in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Same here. If you’re going to use footnotes, your gold standard is the monumentally artful and impossibly readable House of Leaves.

I don’t know what else to tell you about this book. It has to be experienced. Never in my life have I read a novel—any novel by any author in any genre—that felt so real.

Frankly, there’s still a part of me that thinks it actually is a work of non-fiction and that documentary, and that house, are really out there.



American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

Patrick Bateman doesn’t necessarily want to get caught, but at the same time he can’t help but take personally the reasons he hasn’t been. Taking that as a challenge, he just kills and kills and kills and kills.



If you’ve only seen the movie, well, shame on you. In fact, never in the history of cinema has a filmmaker so entirely and tragically misunderstood her source material than in that train wreck of an “adaptation.” Sorry. Had to get that out.

This book is, whether he likes it or not, is Bret Easton Ellis’s masterpiece and will, I fully believe, stand as the seminal American novel of the 1980s. Nowhere else is the peculiar culture of that era captured with such visceral and horrifying glee. Ellis’s deep dive into the twisted psyche of a psychopath came off as gratuitous to some—and there were the misguided cries of misogyny that only ended up fueling sales—but was, for me, the best novel about a serial murderer of all time because it shows with amazing creativity the everything-is-even worldview of that particular mental illness.

And he doesn’t just kill women.

And it really, really isn’t just about creative murder set-ups.

American Psycho is a book about identity in a world created by and for sociopaths and the inevitability of the viper in its embrace.

Go ahead, read this book then try to convince yourself that we should further deregulate Wall Street.


The Stand by Stephen King

A plague kills almost everyone on Earth, giving the few survivors left a clean start. But with that new start comes a very old choice. Call it “original sin” if you want to, but though the plague-ravaged world of this post-apocalyptic epic is no Eden, the forces acting on the survivors is the same.


How many books by horror uber-mega-superstar Stephen King could I have put on this list? Besides this, certainly, The Dark Half, The Shining, Carrie . . . etc. But in the interest of including a few other authors on this list, let me put all my Stephen King chips into The Stand.

I read this very long book, as I’m wont to do, very slowly over the course of a summer. That happened to be the summer my family went on what was, in a long string of bad family vacations, arguably the worst and thankfully the last. Stuck on a rented houseboat on a murky Wisconsin river plagued by swarms of biting flies—and these fuckers took chunks out of you—I didn’t have much else to do but read. When I finished The Stand, I wrestled control of the houseboat away from my father and unilaterally called an early end to the torture. To this day we refer to that trip as Das Hausboot.

Without The Stand I wouldn’t have lasted nearly as long as I did.

People talk about books they can’t put down.

The Stand was, for me at least, one of those—even while suffering the Death of a Thousand Bites.


Nazareth Hill by Ramsey Campbell

When Amy and her father move into the newly remodeled apartment building, it’s hard not to remember what that building once was. And what was left in that house by the former tenants hasn’t entirely moved out yet. They continue to crawl in the shadows, and squirm into Amy’s father’s already fragile psyche.


Oh, boy, do I love a good haunted house story and Nazareth Hill is that and then some. This one will go right to your fear of . . . well, they don’t call Nazareth Hill “the spider house” for nothing.

It’s fair to call Ramsey Campbell the British Stephen King—more so, in my mind at least, than Clive Barker. What Campbell and King share is a keen sense of the ordinary, of the relatable, and both of them start with characters we really understand. We could be these people.

And when that house starts working on them, we’re forced to confront the terrifying fact that we might fall victim in the same way—ways that are as much our own fault as the ghosts’.

Nazareth Hill is a hell of a scary-ass haunted house book. It might be hard to find, but find it!


Alien by Alan Dean Foster

A commercial starship follows a mysterious beacon to an uninhabited world and . . . hell, you know the story.


Yes, I am including a movie novelization on this list.

When I was a kid I read movie novelizations, and quickly got to know the name Alan Dean Foster. In some cases I read the novelizations before seeing the movie—actually did that with both Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Wars, believe it or not. I can’t believe I ever did that, myself, but I did. I’d never do it again, but anyway . . .

I read this novelization after seeing the movie—what I still consider the scariest movie I’ve ever seen—because I’d heard there were extra scenes in it. Those scenes are now familiar to anyone who’s seen the Director’s Cut, but for me, it added a whole new layer, and one that, frankly, Alan Dean Foster pulled off better than the tacked-on deleted scenes in later DVDs.

Maybe it was the fact that this movie had already lodged itself in my brain, that reading the book reactivated that fear impulse, but honestly I have never been more scared in my life reading a book. Say what you will about the humble movie novelization, but Alan Dean Foster smashed this one out of the ballpark. It actually stands as a brilliant science fiction-horror novel in its own right.



Résumé With Monsters by William Browning Spencer

Philip Kean works in a blah office in a blah industrial park in a blah part of Austin, Texas. He doesn’t like his job, doesn’t get along with his coworkers, and is having trouble finishing that novel. Oh, and he’s pretty sure he’s being stalked by Yog-Sothoth and Cthulhu.


This one might be even harder to find than Nazareth Hill, having originally been published by RPG publisher White Wolf, but damn it, go hunt it down.

I’m not a big fan of any genre mixed with comedy, unless someone somehow manages to do that perfectly, and in what’s sort of a post-modern Lovecraftian Young Frankenstein, William Browning Spencer does indeed pull that off perfectly.

I don’t know what else to say. I’ve given you a rumor of a treasure map. Follow it to your just rewards.


The Collected Stories of H.P. Lovecraft

Okay, so I went with a short story collection among my favorite science fiction novels, so I get to put old H.P. here as well.

I’ve written about how I feel about H.P. Lovecraft here before, used him as my primary muse in Writing Monsters, and I know what you’re going to say before you say it—at least I have a short list of possible responses—and I’m not going to even try to argue it out.

He’s just the gold standard. Even more so than Edgar Allen Poe, who he tried so hard to rip off. Howard Phillips Lovecraft is the grandmaster of otherworldly monster horror.

Full stop.


The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty

A little girl plays host to the Devil Himself, and just tying her to the bed isn’t going to be good enough. Medical science fails, so what’s a mother to do? Call in the Catholic Church’s controversial and mysterious exorcist and watch him wage a battle between perfect Good and perfect Evil—inside your daughter.


I was about ten or eleven years old when the movie adaptation of The Exorcist came out and the TV commercials would send me running from the room in abject terror. Looking back, frankly, I have to admit that I had fallen for the hype—and there was considerable hype around this movie. Tales of people fainting and having heart attacks in movie theaters rippled across the country and as terrified as I was, I was also fascinated.

I never had any sort of religious upbringing, so all this stuff about the Devil and possession was all new to me, and there was something about it that really dug into me. It could be that the victim in this definitely-for-adults horror movie was a kid that did me in. I’m still not sure.

But at some point one of my parents must have bought the book and a few years later I worked up the courage to read it. It was scary, to be sure, but what struck me about the novel wasn’t just the visceral creepiness of it—and it was viscerally creepy as hell—but the sometimes subtle, sometimes less than subtle cues that author William Peter Blatty infused his novel with. Unlike the movie, which fully commits to the metaphysics of it all, there’s a sense in the novel that this whole possession thing might just be bullshit after all.

And even then, it still scared the bejeezus outta me.


The Other by Thomas Tryon

In Depression-era small town New England, identical twins Niles and Holland Perry get into all the same sort of shenanigans you’d expect from a couple of rambunctious boys. But boyish tomfoolery slowly begins to take on a more sinister air and we’re soon led to believe that one of the twins, at least, is far less innocent than he seems.



I bet a still-young Stephen King read this book and loved it. You can see his whole career in its fetal stages in this perfectly crafted coming-of-age story that goes into such dark places, honestly, I’m not sure it would even be published today.

It was adapted into a nicely creepy movie, but for God’s sake read the book first, if not exclusively. This amazing novel works on so many levels, lulling you in with just the right amount of small town folksy before the psychological torture begins.

The Other is a classic.


Deadfall Hotel by Steve Rasnic Tem

Richard Carter and his daughter Serena find their way to the secluded—even, strangely walled-in—Deadfall Hotel and immediately run afoul of the hotel’s eccentric residents. As the days pass, the hotel reveals itself to be something much, much more than a secluded vacation spot. And the residents and staff reveal even stranger sides of themselves.



I included J.M. McDermott’s Last Dragon, a book I acquired for the ill-fated Wizards of the Coast Discoveries imprint, on my list of favorite fantasy novels so it’s only fair I include another here.

Having published Steve Rasnic Tem and Melanie Tem’s incredible The Man on the Ceiling, I went back to both of them for more and got, from Melanie, The Yellow Wood, and from Steve, Deadfall Hotel. Then the imprint was killed by the forces of evil within Wizards of the Coast and we weren’t able to publish either book. Happily, someone else was smart enough to pick up both, so you get to discover this amazing, weird, chilling book too.

When I was first reading the manuscript of Deadfall Hotel, sitting at my desk at the Renton, Washington offices of Wizards of the Coast, I fell so deeply into the story that I was able to tune out the general office buzz around me—then my desk phone rang and I about jumped out of my skin.

I’ve been asked what editors look for when they’re reading a manuscript.

That moment sold me on Deadfall Hotel.

When you read it, just remember to turn the ringer on your phone off.


Well, there it is, more than in time for Halloween—my favorite horror novels of all time.


—Philip Athans


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In the interest of not letting another year or more go by between “Passive Search” posts let’s add this little gem to “Something Was Verbing” and “He Could See.” This one I think we’ll be able to lob up and bat out of your writing quickly. It’s what I like to call “the Thing of Someone” and I’ve seen it a lot, not just lately, but over the length of my career as an editor. And let’s face it, I’ve probably fallen into this trap as a writer, too.

I run across this most often in fantasy and historical fiction, and it might stem from an effort, conscious or otherwise, on the part of the author to try to affect a certain archaic or “old timey” voice. But if you’re going to do that you have to either do it all the way, as Susanna Clarke did in her monumentally fantastic Dr. Strange & Mr. Norrell, or just don’t do it at all. If you are going to follow Ms. Clarke down that rabbit hole, choose your time period and voice wisely, do the same high level of research she did, and for God’s sake alert your editor ahead of time!

But for the rest of us, this is the danger sign we’re looking for:

Galen reached up out of the grave and grabbed the ankle of Bronwyn.

I have to ask, and this for my fellow Americans, at least: When was the last time you said anything like this? Not that you reached out of a grave, of course, but identified any noun as the [thing] of [someone]: the car of Dave, the Xbox of Andrea, the suitcase of Evelyn . . . ?

We just don’t talk like that, so when it shows up in description it feels . . . not wrong, per se, but somehow . . . out of place.

All this passive voice stuff goes back to the concept of emotional distance. You always want to do everything you can to shorten, if not eliminate, the emotional distance between your characters and your readers. But this sort of sentence structure will, however momentarily, drop your readers out of the story to reveal the writing. And though most if not all of your readers will never be able to clearly articulate that this sentence structure dropped them out of the story, adding all those moments together will serve to lessen or even sever your readers’ connection to the characters and the story.

How to fix this?

Couldn’t be easier, actually:

Galen reached up out of the grave and grabbed Bronwyn’s ankle.


Unfortunately, though, this can be a tough one to find using your computer’s search function. What do you look for, every instance of the word of? That might take a while.

Still, if you’re reading this thinking, Uh oh, I do that, or even Hm, do I do that? it’ll be worth that exercise just to find out. Even if you only find one instance of the thing of someone and fix in a few seconds what it might have taken you half an hour to find in the full text of a novel, well . . . I think it’s worth it.

But then, of course, if “the thing of someone” shows up in dialog, all bets are off.

I asked you if you ever actually say things like “the suitcase of Evelyn,” and I’m willing to bet you don’t, but one or more of your characters might. Generally speaking, all these “rules” are both made to be broken or at least bent, and apply only to description.

Okay? Now, go give the work-in-progress of you another active search!


—Philip Athans


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Last week I recorded another tutorial for Writer’s Digest University. It won’t be available for a little bit but it was on the subject of genres—what genre your book fits into and why that matters. One of the things I touched on there, and that I’d like to dig into here in a bit more detail, and more specific to science fiction and fantasy, is how an author working in a specific genre should come out of that community.

Defining a “community” as any group of people with a common interest, genre readers are a community. There is a community of science fiction fans, a community of fantasy fans, a community of horror fans, and lots of people (like me!) who belong to all three constituencies.

You must write what you know, they say, and I’ll extend that out to genre. Write the genre you know, the genre you love, the community you are already a part of as a reader.

I’ve written before on the subject of my quest to not be a snobby reader, but I think it’s perfectly fair to say that I’m still not a member of the romance genre community. I don’t read it, really, and I haven’t made any effort to write it. And that community, for what it’s worth, seems to be chugging along just fine without me.

But on a few—thankfully rare—occasions after a conference or convention seminar I’m approached by someone who says something like: “I’m not really a fantasy fan—I really only read non-fiction—but I have this great idea for a young adult fantasy novel. Do you think it will sell?”

Controlling the impulse to murder this person on the spot I always manage to politely deflect and offer some non-advice like “I guess so . . . why not?” then I get the hell out of there.

I’m a middle child and so inherently non-confrontational, but what I really should say, for the benefit of this would-be Stephenie Meyer is “For God’s sake, no. Don’t do it.”

But why not? Young adult fantasy sells. And how hard can it be?

Set aside for a moment the fact that no one knows anything and this non-fantasy reader might well end up being the next Stephenie Meyer. Stranger things have happened; worse books have sold millions. But think for a moment about the fantasy community: the community of readers who love that genre. Is barging into someone else’s community to make a fast buck the way you really want to conduct your business? Is it, Wal-Mart? And can you actually “make a fast buck” writing . . . anything?

If you’re looking at genre in terms of get rich quick schemes, the genre that sells best most years is romance, but even then any genre is, statistically speaking, a stay poor slow scheme for almost everybody, and that includes fantasy . . . even young adult fantasy.

If your answer to the question “Would you write it anyway, even if its never published?” is anything but “yes,” don’t write it.

If you think of the current group of, say, fantasy writers as a club I think you’ll find us a welcoming lot, and fantasy-specializing agents and editors as much more welcoming than they might at first appear. We love fantasy and as an editor I can tell you for sure that I would love to discover the next J.K. Rowling—and so does every other editor and every agent. We read in the genre and we’re curious to see what you can bring to the table.

And I guarantee you all of those people are there after years of hard labor. They’ve read their share of “the canon”—even if there’s no particular consensus as to what that might be—and they’ve lived the fan’s life.

I couldn’t imagine engaging in the seemingly endless hours of hard work, study, writing, rewriting, and selling that a finished novel requires all for the vague hope of some magical payday at the end of that process if I had to add in getting up to speed with the massive, decades-old, and fan-intensive romance genre from a cold start. No glimpse into Danielle Steele’s surely-impressive royalty statement would change that.

If you’re in this—writing in general—for the money . . . wow, are there easier, faster, and less blue-sky ways to get rich in America than writing anything for anyone. It happens, yes, that some fantasy authors get huge paydays. It also happens that people win the lottery or get drafted in the first round for the NBA.

I get in on MegaMillions for a dollar every drawing, spend two bucks a week for the entertainment value I get from imagining what I would do with my winnings. Trust me, I’ve made no concrete plans based on that eventuality. It’s a wild possibility bet with a very, very low buy in: virtually no time at all, and a financial investment that amounts to pocket change. Why not give it a whirl?

I don’t play basketball and don’t watch basketball on TV, but I used to shoot baskets in the driveway sometimes when I was a kid, and they occasionally made us play basketball in gym class. I haven’t attended a gym class in at least thirty-four years, but why should that stop me? I could spend the next year doing nothing but practicing but at age fifty-two and with a decided lack of athletic skill I will not be drafted by the NBA. In fact, taking that year will bankrupt me, probably result in a wide range of physical injuries if not a fatal heart attack, and cause me to miss out on things I actually can do, love doing, and might even get rich doing—slowly, at least.

I’ve established here that writing can be a very, very inexpensive business to start up, so not unlike the lottery in that regard, but where I might spend a few minutes every month or so buying a lottery ticket, it takes hundreds of hours at least to write a novel. Your investment in money may be small but your investment in time is huge. Do you really want to spend that time doing something you don’t really like in the hope of a possible but unlikely payday? Even at the same two dollars a week if I had to spend ten hours a week playing the lottery I wouldn’t do it. Full stop.

Same, then, for the basketball example. Would you put your next year at risk doing something you don’t really love on the way-outside chance of a million dollars?

I hope not.

But then if you were to ask me, “Hey Phil, would you spend about ten hours a week for the next year writing a fantasy, science fiction, or horror novel knowing you might make no money at all?” well . . . I have, I am, and I will.

I do it for the love of the game, and it’s that passion for the genres that fuels me, not the money. And I have found a way, as an editor, to make a living engaged in the work I love, leaving me some freedom to explore writing more as a passion than as a source of mortgage payments. I hope that comes through in the work, but if I have to write a romance novel to provide an adequate control group I’m happy to let that stay in the realm of the obvious but ultimately unprovable.


—Philip Athans

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With another round of my online course Worldbuilding in Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing starting this Thursday, I’ve been going through the daily additional material that’s part of the course, and I’d like to share a couple of those items, on the subject of governments.

I’ve been reading, editing, and writing fantasy and science fiction all my life and I’ve noticed that “the government”—in whatever form that takes—is the most important single aspect of any fantasy world or science fiction future. Religion, usually unique polytheistic systems, tends to be lots more common in fantasy and does show up from time to time in science fiction, but some sort of political system is described in essentially everything.

Not all SF/fantasy is “political” in nature, in that the author is clearly trying to make some kind of political point, and that’s perfectly fine. Even then, though, there’s some kind of politics going on, from the highly detailed and intricate political machinations of Game of Thrones or Dune (both of which also feature carefully-crafted religious institutions) to the sort of evil priest-king du jour of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories.

A short story in which an alt-history government plays a role.

A short story in which an alt-history government plays a role.

Thinking about what your created government represents, how your characters interact with it, can take up an awful lot of your worldbuilding bandwidth. But most important—and what I try to focus on in the course, too—is that though setting up all sorts of laws and regulations and ministries and so on might be kind of a fun exercise, if your characters don’t interact with, say, the Ministry of Textile Design, or your villain has no interest in being made the Sewage Secretary . . . ?

How does the government, the king, the council, the senate, the alliance, etc.—interfere with or in any way interact with your characters?

In Writing Monsters I get into what monsters actually represent, what function they serve. I get into the idea of monsters as metaphor (Godzilla = the A-bomb, etc.) or how the zombie horde is not a villain but a force of nature/natural disaster.

Could we approach politics the same way?

How about these examples from the course material:


Science fiction grand master Robert A. Heinlein was well known as a political conservative, even if the hippy generation saw something he may not have known he was presenting in his classic Stranger in a Strange Land. Though I think Heinlein would probably move toward the Libertarian end of the contemporary conservative movement if he were alive today, unlike that generally anti-government ideology, Heinlein, in his novel Podkayne of Mars, had this surprising thing to say about politics . . .

“Politics is just a name for the way we get things done . . . without fighting. We dicker and compromise and everybody thinks he’s received a raw deal, but somehow after a tedious amount of talk we come up with some jury-rigged way to do it without getting anybody’s head bashed in. That’s politics. The only other way to settle a dispute is by bashing a few heads in . . . and that is what happens when one or both sides is no longer willing to dicker. That’s why I say politics is good even when it is bad . . . because the only alternative is force—and somebody gets hurt.”

Definitely something to keep in mind when you have a government that’s not meant to be the source of all evil—the thing your heroes are struggling against. And that’s the government that we see too often now in both SF and fantasy: the evil empire. But what about the governments that are at least worth fixing?


And . . .


For “government,” an example from George Orwell’s 1984, one of the SF genre’s most enduring classics, and quite possibly the most important novel (of any genre) of the 20th century—an examination of government gone wrong:

Nothing is efficient in Oceania except the Thought Police. Since each of the three super-states is unconquerable, each is in effect a separate universe within which almost any perversion of thought can be safely practised. Reality only exerts its pressure through the needs of everyday life—the need to eat and drink, to get shelter and clothing, to avoid swallowing poison or stepping out of top-storey windows, and the like. Between life and death, and between physical pleasure and physical pain, there is still a distinction, but that is all. Cut off from contact with the outer world, and with the past, the citizen of Oceania is like a man in interstellar space, who has no way of knowing which direction is up and which is down. The rulers of such a state are absolute, as the Pharaohs or the Caesars could not be. They are obliged to prevent their followers from starving to death in numbers large enough to be inconvenient, and they are obliged to remain at the same low level of military technique as their rivals; but once that minimum is achieved, they can twist reality into whatever shape they choose.

Yeah . . . a much-bigger-than-one-blog-post subject, right?


—Philip Athans

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In an effort to actually work through the exercises I’ve suggested for other authors, I tried a form of writing I haven’t practiced since I was a little kid and had no choice (read: no typewriter) and that’s writing by hand.

For years—decades actually—I’ve poopooed writing by hand as an affectation (you’re just trying to get it touch with your inner Shakespeare in some kind of dumbass Golden Age Thinking exercise in hipsteristic nonsense) or a waste of time (eventually you have to type it up or no one will be able to publish it, or will even be willing to read it for publication) and though the former may be true for some people, the latter can actually become a valuable part of the writing process.

Maybe it’s just because I’m getting on in years, but my interest in being any version of “hip” or “cool” or “trendy” or whatever variation on that might exist is so small I doubt science has provided us with a unit of measure to describe it. I’m nanohip, picocool . . . I don’t give a rat’s ass.

I use the best technological tools I can get my mitts on to do my job, working almost all the time on a computer. And when I do write by hand, it’s not on archival paper bound in a leather cover embossed with the Celtic cross, nor do I use a gold fountain pen or a goose quill.

I use the cheapest discount spiral notebooks or composition books I can find, purchased the week after school starts for a dramatic discount. Which reminds me, have you bought your writing supplies yet this year? The pens I buy in a plastic tub from Staples, and sometimes I use pens I took from hotel rooms or are other giveaways advertising whatever service—I don’t even know or care. If it works, I’m writing with it.

Fifty pens for twelve bucks! That’s less than a quarter each!

Fifty pens for twelve bucks! That’s less than a quarter each!

So you have to believe me, I’m not writing by hand so I can feel like a medieval monk or Abraham Lincoln, or whoever, whenever. I focus on the words, not the tools, and if you do that too you’ll find—much to the horror of your accountant, like mine—that writing may be the cheapest business on Earth to enter into and maintain.

So then what about this whole “waste of time” thing and retyping it?

Yes, eventually I have to retype all those words I’ve scrawled (literally—I try to go as fast as I can, not as neat as I can) into my 79¢ spiral notebook with my 24¢ pen. But that’s hardly a waste of time, in fact it’s my first editing pass.

I’m not just typing I’m making decisions about what I wrote—word choice, sentence structure, pacing . . . all that good stuff that takes you from rough draft to first draft. This isn’t just drudge work, or an added step, it’s a necessary part of the writing process.

And guess what?

I’m writing more.

I’m unbound from the desk again, even though my clunky old laptop has unbound me already. I laid down on my bed yesterday afternoon with my dog Fresno Bob and while he was licking my nose and biting my thumbs I wrote a solid thousand words of a short story.


Yes, I named my dog Fresno Bob, because I’m a huge nerd.

I can carry that notebook around with me if I have to. If I lose it, yes that will indeed suck. There’s no cloud backup for a 79¢ spiral notebook, so I have to take basic precautions, but I still mostly write at home anyway, so that’s not a problem.

What I find is that writing by hand somehow frees me up to get into that “flow state.” I sit down with the blank page and for no reason I can explain or that could make any kind of empirical sense, I just find it less . . . scary? Intimidating? More . . . fun? Liberating?

I gotta be honest, I’m not even sure.

But here’s what I do know:

I’m writing.

It’s working.

That’s all I need to know.



—Philip Athans






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Has it really been since March of 2015 that I promised more posts ahead on the subject of active voice?

For shame.

Better late than never, let’s get back to the subject . . .

As an editor, I frequently run across certain issues in the books I work on and in the interest of time, I’ve gathered together a small Word file I call “Common Comments.” Here’s one of them:

That construct: “something was verbing” is often a sign of passive voice. It’s almost always better to let the action be more direct: “something verbed” so that thing is happening in the past tense “now” and doesn’t come across as feeling as though there’s an extra layer of delay between your readers and the action.

“Something was verbing” is not a mistake, per se. This is one of those components to the craft of writing that goes past what’s grammatically correct and gets into what’s more engaging to readers. I’ve harped on this idea of emotional distance—the space between your characters and your readers—before, and this is another example of how unwanted separation can be introduced without you intending to do that, and there isn’t really a tool to use to identify it, at least not a reliable one.

Here’s what I mean:

Galen was running as fast as he could, the ghoul nipping at his heels the whole way. The screams the creature was making sent a chill down Galen’s spine, getting him thinking this would soon end with the ghoul’s fangs sinking deeply into his back.

To start with, there’s nothing grammatically incorrect about that short paragraph. It describes action, it gets into the character’s feelings about what’s going on—it’s fine, right?

Keep in mind that this isn’t about the number of words in each sentence. You need to use lots of words sometimes and very few words other times. It’s about the immediacy of the action, the immediacy of the feeling, and the difference between description in the context of fiction, and reporting.

As written this feels like a report on an unfolding incident. It tells us what was going on, and how Galen felt about it. But even if you’re writing in the past tense, there’s a sense of immediacy to well-crafted fiction that puts your reader inside the experience. The more words you use to qualify that experience, the more your reader is pushed away. We get the facts about what happened and what was being felt, but that one layer of remove is enough to leave readers dry.

This is another instance in which most readers wouldn’t necessarily be able to articulate what’s “wrong” with that paragraph, but they will be left with a feeling that the writing was just somehow . . . dry?

As I said in my “common comment” above, the solution is almost always just this easy:

Galen ran as fast as he could, but the ghoul nipped at his heels the whole way. The creature’s screams sent a chill down Galen’s spine, and he was convinced this would soon end with the ghoul’s fangs sinking deeply into his back.

Note that I removed almost all present participles, but not all. There’s no rule, as with adverbs, that all words that end with -ing should be summarily cut. They are, in fact, perfectly acceptable and extremely useful tools in any writer’s kit, but as with all tools, should be used with care and precision.

Identifying this as you’re writing is essentially impossible, but as you start to make your first edit pass through, use your handy search (not search and replace—just search) tool to find the suffix -ing.

Most of what you’ll find will be perfectly fine, but the key is not to delete anything, but to simply find those possible trouble points and read through it and think about it.

Would “she ran” make as much factual sense in that moment in the story was “she was running”? If yes, make it “she ran.” And if “she was running” makes more sense in that context, leave it alone—those three words do actually work together. But the point is to make that decision based on a set of specific circumstances rather than simply allowing yourself to write in a passive manner out of habit.

Once you go through this process in a few chapters or a few short stories, I think you’ll find new, more active habits forming.


—Philip Athans


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