FANTASY AND/OR SCIENCE FICTION AND/OR HORROR

I’ve written before on the difference between fantasy and science fiction, and even how we can combine genres like science fiction-horror or science-fantasy, but in reading Science Fiction Handbook, Revised (1975) by L. Sprague de Camp & Catherine de Camp, their take on the subject stuck out to me:

In general, we use the term “fantasy” for stories based upon supernatural ideas or assumptions, such as the existence of demons, ghosts, witches, and workable magic spells. “Science fiction,” on the other hand, is the term used for stories based upon scientific or pseudo-scientific ideas, such as revolutionary new inventions, life in the future, or life on other worlds. Some stories, like several of H.P. Lovecraft’s, fall on the border between the two classes.

Indeed, but Lovecraft’s work is almost always classified as horror, even if the supernatural beings come from space (hinting at science fiction) or from some unknown dimension like the Dreamlands (reading as fantasy). I think a case can be made that Lovecraft wrote primarily a three-part admixture of fantasy, science fiction, and horror. In his own writing about his own writing he classified his work as “weird fiction” and didn’t seem overly concerned with any more granular a distinction in genres. The infamously xenophobic Lovecraft even expressed some desire to leave behind the limitations of the real world, the present culture, the way things work. But maybe it was precisely his inherent xenophobia that caused him to see any interruption in a narrow sense of the way the world works as a certain cause, at least at first, of a feeling of existential horror. If even one part of the way we’re raised to see the world crumbles away, surely the rest of the foundation upon which we’ve built our selves is destined for ruin. In “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction,” Lovecraft explained it this way:

I choose weird stories because they suit my inclination best—one of my strongest and most persistent wishes being to achieve, momentarily, the illusion of some strange suspension or violation of the galling limitations of time, space, and natural law which for ever imprison us and frustrate our curiosity about the infinite cosmic spaces beyond the radius of our sight and analysis. These stories frequently emphasize the element of horror because fear is our deepest and strongest emotion, and the one which best lends itself to the creation of nature-defying illusions. Horror and the unknown or the strange are always closely connected, so that it is hard to create a convincing picture of shattered natural law or cosmic alienage or “outsideness” without laying stress on the emotion of fear.

It’s the fear of the unknown that drives an awful lot of what we’d probably all see as traditional fantasy or science fiction. Lovecraft isn’t the only author, or even the first author, to conjure up monsters or supernatural forces to challenge the sanity of some hapless human who might begin under the terribly mistaken impression that we have this whole universe and our places in it figured out. The more we find out about the world, much less the effectively infinite universe, the less sure we are that we know anything. What’s out there? A friendly E.T. who just wants your help getting home, or something that uses you for a womb to create a predator that’ll kill everyone else on your spaceship? The answer just has to be both, and with some wildly crazy shit we don’t even know how to imagine on top of that. This is really where you can start with science fiction—it comes from another planet, then add some dollops of fantasy—a planet where the laws of physics are completely different, and finally end up with horror—and for no reason you can at all detect it will eat you after its finished making you murder your entire family. The thing that adds the horror is entirely without limits, as described in “Weird Beings” in Worldbuilding Magazine:

There are plenty of tropes and common elements in unknowable monsters—causing insanity, a general disregard for human affairs, god-like powers—but in truth there are no rules. Rules are used to understand how something behaves, and these monsters cannot be understood. These beings are the closest thing to absolute creative freedom a worldbuilder can have since they diverge from our reality, which most fiction is based on. An unknowable monster can have any motivation, take any form, or do anything that the creator desires so long as some part of it doesn’t fully make sense or sit right with the audience.

To me, Alien is still the scariest movie ever made, and it succeeds by being equal parts science fiction and horror. There are horror elements cooked into fantasy even by the more conservative authors of “fairy stories,” like the fully scary scenes with Gollum in The Hobbit. My favorite short story of all time is Harlan Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,” which begins and ends with scenes of some of the scariest horror ever written, wrapping an entirely science fiction premise. And maybe more than anyone, at least since Lovecraft, Ellison not only questioned but openly challenged genre convention. In “On Horror: An Interview With Harlan Ellison” by Richard Gilliam published in the book On Writing Horror, Ellison said:

The people who insist on calling themselves “horror writers” exclusively have stifled themselves; they’re like those tunnel-visioned, superannuated “fanboys” who write “science fiction” exclusively or write “westerns” exclusively. It’s an amateurish way for someone who thinks he or she is a writer to run a career. If you’re a writer, you should be able to write more than just one type of fiction… which is also smart from a commercial perspective, since it opens additional markets—it opens the world—for the writer!

In the same book Douglas E. Winter pointed out in his essay “Darkness Absolute: The Standards of Excellence in Horror Fiction” that “Horror is not a genre. It is an emotion.” Any fantasy novel can, like The Hobbit, have horror scenes, and any science fiction story can, too, in the same way that science fiction stories can have a little fantasy and fantasy can have a little science fiction. Simon Van Booy wrote in “Becoming a Multigenre Writing Master”:

A professor once told me that life is just like the experience of eating fruit. Every time you bite into an apple, the taste, texture, or juiciness is slightly different. That’s because it’s natural. Every time we bite into a machine-made cookie, it’s the same experience over and over again, which is not like life at all. And so to write successfully in multiple genres, give up your attachment to one particular version of yourself. Explore all your sides: the serious, the funny, the laid-back, the confident, the shy, and the bold. That way you can work on a book about war in the morning and a book about mice in the afternoon.

Or work on a book about mice at war with zombie cats on a planet where magic is real.

—Philip Athans

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BOOKS FOR FANTASY AUTHORS XXVII: SCIENCE FICTION HANDBOOK, REVISED

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

I ran across a copy of Science Fiction Handbook, Revised, by L. Sprague de Camp & Catherine de Camp (Owlswick Press, 1975) at a used bookstore not far from my house and was amazed to find it in impeccable condition, dust jacket intact. How could I possibly pass it up? It sat on my to read shelf for at least all of the COVID lockdown time, but I eventually got to it and found it equal parts enlightening, heartening, bizarre, borderline offensive, and quaint. But let’s keep in mind right away that this is the 1975 revised edition of a book originally published in 1953, so there’s a bit of a layer of dust on the contents, jacket or no.

The book begins with an overview of the science fiction genre, up to date as of forty-six years ago. Most notable in this section is the de Camps’ dismissal of fantasy as a popular genre with only the slightest nod to Tolkien. I found this odd considering the first time I remember reading anything by L. Sprague de Camp was in his series of Conan collections in which he curated the original Robert E. Howard stories, finished some unfinished Howard tales, and wrote some of his own. But 1975 is maybe five years prior to what then became a huge resurgence of fantasy, so I won’t say he was wrong that no one was reading fantasy, he was just… writing this in 1975.

Still, this section had me adding to my to-read list: The Clouds and The Birds by Aristophanes, Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto, Micromegas by Voltaire, “What Was It?” and other stories by Fitz-James O’Brien, The Wolf Leader by Alexandre Dumas, and Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu.

L. Sprague de Camp’s career started in the later part of the pulp fiction tradition, and his love of Conan the Barbarian, if nothing else, sets him largely in that tradition: genre stories should be fun, written to sell, and keyed to the tastes of the current roster of magazine editors:

In 1942, one of the authors sat in the headquarters of the U.S. Navy in Manhattan, facing three officers gathered to interview him as to his fitness for a commission in the U.S. Naval Reserve. These men seemed interested in the fact that, on the questionnaires he gave his occupation as “writer.” They had trouble, however, in putting their concern into words. After some beating about the bush, one said:

“What we want to know, Mr. de Camp, is: why do you write?”

Sprague de Camp thought and answered: “To make a living.”

They relaxed. We suppose they feared that he might say he wrote to express his soul or to convey his deathless message to the world. Not that there is anything wrong with expressing one’s soul or conveying one’s deathless message, provided that one has some other means of support. Still, most writers do have to consider the bread-and-butter aspect of their writings.

God forbid we attempt both. In this 1975 edition he’s pretty openly disdainful of the “New Wave” authors like Harlan Ellison and J.G. Ballard. I’d love to go back in time and encourage him to rethink that, allowing room for Howard and Ellison, Dunsany and Ballard, or both Edgar Rice and William S. Burroughs, but alas…

Speaking of the pulp tradition, the de Camps quote Jack Williamson and Edmund Hamilton’s “formula” for a science fiction story that I think makes for a perfectly usable short story prompt:

Three men go out to save the world. One goes mad, one is eaten by the Things, and one returns to tell the tale.

Speaking of quaint verging on offensive, as seen above, the de Camps do rely on the traditional male pronoun for everything—and I mean everything. Though passing reference is made to certain female authors of the day, the whole book clearly assumes that science fiction writers are men, writing stories for boys, as we see underlying n this weirdly schizophrenic take on fans:

Because many science-fiction fans are adolescents, and because some adolescents are given to exhibitionism and gaucherie, fans as a group have sometimes been scorned as eccentric. Actually, the average fan displays high intelligence, a voracious appetite for reading, and a personality type that often finds it hard to get along with ordinary people. The fans’ interest in speculative literature gives them a common bond, which they do not often feel towards the average person.

And I couldn’t help but take offense to this heavy handed bit of flagrant and baseless ageism:

Collaboration works best when the collaborators make contributions of equal importance and when their special skills complement, rather than duplicate, each other, it is usually best for the younger to do the rough draft. The younger writer is likely to be more fertile and facile, while the older is probably the keener critic, with a sharper eye for inconsistencies, grammatical errors, and other flaws.

In the quaint but not offensive column are numerous long passages of text and advice that only demonstrates just how much technology has changed since 1975:

When, at last, you write your final draft, type with a black ribbon, reasonably fresh, on white paper of average grade. Either make two carbon copies, or—if you can afford it—one carbon for your files and one Xerox of the ribbon copy. The latter is ideal for further reproduction; but a typed copy made with fresh carbon paper will serve and saves the writer money.

Wow—how expensive were “Xeroxes” in 1975? The de Camps go on to describe their complex filing system, with each story or novel given its own index card tracking publication dates, when rights were reverted, reprints, and so on, and ledger pages to keep track of royalties. I’d advise, if you can find this book in the first place, that you actually look at the information they track, though Excel will better serve as a repository for the same information, just as a backup drive or cloud storage will mitigate your Xeroxing and carbon paper expenses.

The advice in terms of actually writing a science fiction short story or novel, is a bit light. This book reads more like “how to be a science fiction author” than “how to write science fiction,” but there is some good advice, mirroring some of the same advice I’ve offered myself, like this pearl, which belongs in last week’s post:

At gatherings, people have asked: “Mr. de Camp, do you think that I, too, should become a writer?”

Strictly speaking, the right answer to such a question is “No.” Unless a person has a strong urge that he will struggle to become a writer no matter what anybody says—if there is no doubt in his mind—he had better avoid this profession. He will almost certainly do better financially in some other occupation for which his physique, education, and personality qualifies him.

In general, the de Camps advise us to write, and more or less figure it out ourselves, though with a nod to help from books like theirs, more formal education, and so on, with this statement at the heart of it:

Other professionals, such as lawyers and physicians, spend years in special training before they are competent to practice. Why should a writer expect to master his profession any sooner?

It’s hard not to agree with that in principle.

And this paragraph nicely encapsulates the nature of a short story:

In a short story, there is no space to waste. The reader has no tolerance for long beginnings. To hook the reader, shoot the sheriff in the first paragraph. There is no space for great complications and no time for lengthy processes, such as a basic change in a person’s character. You cannot develop character; you can at best reveal it and show its relationship to the action. You have a brief development leading up to one major incident, told in a concentrated, concise manner. If you can put in a snapper ending, so much the better.

And I just like this advice on the subject of active writing:

While all sentences narrating an action may be said to move, some move faster than others. Those that move the fastest have a simple structure of substantives, and other verbs with the necessary prepositions, conjugations, and other operative words to tie them together. Those that move slowly are stuffed with adjectives and adverbs.

All in all Science Fiction Handbook is more entertaining as a glimpse into the world of what I now do for a living from the year I turned eleven than it is a must-read how-to for contemporary authors. Some things, like advice to write clearly and to take learning your craft seriously, remain unchanged, while we’re safe to set aside the assumption that only men write or read science fiction, and do so using fresh new typewriter ribbons and carbon paper, even if you still have to save up for the occasional luxury of a Xerox. Maybe it was that expense that drove one author of the de Camps’ acquaintance to explore other income streams, embodied in this fun quote from L. Ron Hubbard: “Some day I’ll pull something that’ll make Barnum look like a piker.”

—Philip Athans

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HOW TO ENJOY WRITING

I have been guilty of perpetuating the… myth? feeling? cliché?… that writing is not just difficult but effectively impossible, no one should be encouraged to try it, only mentally ill people are attracted to it in the first place, and if you’re the slightest bit serious about it it will only exacerbate those mental illnesses until it ultimately destroys you.

Y’know… the sort of  stuff that even smart people like Connie Willis said in a Clarkesworld interview:

When I’m on panels with writers who say, “Oh, I just love writing. I just sit down and it flows out like magic,” I always want to slap them.

Or what Steven James said in his book Story Trumps Structure:

The truth is, if you like long hours in solitude, emotional turmoil, constant self-criticism, and bouts of heartrending disappointment, you’ll make a good writer. And if you can actually tell an engaging story, you might just make a great one.

Terrifying, right? But then when I look back at my own writing life, I find that when I’m writing, I’m less depressed, more engaged, and when I’m finished I’m happier, easier to get along with, and in almost all cases it’s really a joy to start, to do, and to complete. And I’m not alone. William S. Burroughs said in an interview with The Review of Contemporary Fiction:

I don’t know. I just sit down and write! I write in short sections; in other words, I write a section, maybe of narrative, and then I reach into that, but if it doesn’t continue, I’ll write something else, and then try to piece them together. The Wild Boys was written over a period of time; some of it was written in Marrakech, some of it was written in Tangiers, and a good deal was written in London. I always write on the typewriter, never in longhand. 

I wrote portions of Baldur’s Gate in Renton, Washington, some in Issaquah, Washington, and… okay… bad example. But you might be thinking, Okay, but Burroughs is famously, if not infamously incomprehensible, known as a disorganized, stream of consciousness writer and all that stuff, but maybe that’s exactly what he can teach us. Still, no one can accuse the brilliant J.G. Ballard of incomprehensibility, but in a Paris Review interview, he seems to indicate he has no more trouble writing than did Burroughs. When asked “So, how do you write, exactly?” he answered:

Actually, there’s no secret. One simply pulls the cork out of the bottle, waits three minutes, and two thousand or more years of Scottish craftsmanship does the rest.

So then Ballard was a drinker and we know Burroughs was a heroin addict… deep breaths. I’m not advising you to hurt yourself with drugs and alcohol. But what can you do that’s safe and healthy to calm yourself down, get the fear out of the way, and just write?

This starts with being honest about what scares you. Is it that you’re somehow “not ready”? This is usually the terror of research at work. But consider the advice of Mark Billingham in his “Ten Tips For Writing Crime Fiction”:

Obviously, there will be stuff you need to know about, but then there’s the temptation to crowbar in everything you’ve found out at the expense of the story. Why not be counter-intuitive and do your research afterward? That way you only find out the things you really need to know and avoid falling into the trap of showing off. You’re writing a novel, not a documentary, so don’t worry about annoying the handful of readers who might actually know this stuff in detail and will take great pleasure in letting you know where you went wrong. We all get the occasional angry letter and they’re fun to read out at events. Truth is not always the same as fact… especially these days.

And this goes for worldbuilding, too. If you think you have to build your world out in such detail that it will anticipate everything you might need to tell this one story, you’re officially doing too much worldbuilding. Keep in mind what Mark Billingham said about being okay with occasionally getting things wrong and who might bitch about it later. Just write, and let future readers, your literary immortality, and other similar bits of, let’s face it, complete nonsense, take care of itself, or not, as the case may be. And if you don’t believe me, how about Bertrand Russell from nothing less than his Nobel Prize acceptance speech:

Vanity is a motive of immense potency. Anyone who has much to do with children knows how they are constantly performing some antic, and saying, “Look at me.” “Look at me” is one of the fundamental desires of the human heart. It can take innumerable forms, from buffoonery to the pursuit of posthumous fame.

Speaking of smart people, in another Paris Review interview, Kurt Vonnegut said:

If you make people laugh or cry about little black marks on sheets of white paper, what is that but a practical joke? All the great story lines are great practical jokes that people fall for over and over again.

No one dies at the end of this. No one gets hurt—not really. Some people will like what you’ve written, some people won’t. Some people will get all angry about what you’ve written or how you’ve written it—or they’ll pretend to anyway. Some people will post on the Internet that it’s the greatest novel of all time—but it isn’t, really, because there’s no such thing. This novel, this short story, this poem… is what you have to say right now, said in the way you’re saying it right now.

So then, what have we learned about how to enjoy writing? Start with this…

  • Don’t be afraid to be as incomprehensible as William S. Burroughs, at least in your rough draft. Your raw creativity is always more interesting than your strictly controlled craftsmanship.
  • Write anywhere. Okay, you don’t have to fly to Tangiers, or even Renton, but get yourself out of your bubble and let writing happen for you, not to you, wherever and whenever it pleases you.
  • Calm yourself, without dangerous chemicals. Brush off the fear or nervousness so you can relax into it.
  • Research and worldbuild later—even after you’ve completed your rough draft. Let your story and characters tell you what you need to research, and what you need to make up.
  • Get over your legacy. No one, including you, has any idea if you’re going to be the next Shakespeare. Shakespeare had no idea he’d be Shakespeare. Just write, and let the future take care of itself.

…and you’ll find at least a few ways to write joyfully all your own, if you go ahead and write.

—Philip Athans

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ISOLATION 14

They keep calling me Mr. Hartford.

“My name is Donovan,” I say, but can’t be sure I’ve been heard.

I’m cold, and I want to tell them that, too, but I can’t, or I don’t try.

Someone is holding my ankles down and I bend my right knee to slip out, but I can barely lift it off the bed. I’m strapped down. Above me is a ceiling of plain white acoustic tiles and a fluorescent light that’s flickering—one of the tubes is, anyway.

“Don’t try to move around, Mr. Hartford,” one of them says to me.

I can’t see her. She’s behind me. And then I think maybe there’s someone else here, too. Someone named Hartford?

But the room feels like it’s been made for one.

The walls are cinderblocks painted a light blue. Some of the blocks are scratched, showing cement gray underneath. There’s a wheeled cart made of dull metal tubing on which sits three different machines, none of which show any signs of life—no lights, nothing moving.

I try to move my left leg, bend my knee, but I can’t. It doesn’t feel like I can, anyway, but then one of them says, “We’re not going to try to move around, right, Mr. Hartford?”

I try but don’t know if I succeed in shaking my head.

There’s something in my nose, blowing cold air into my right nostril. I reach for it and my elbow bends just fine, though my hand feels numb. I drag the little tube out of my nose and someone puts it back in with a warm, dry hand.

“No,” she says. “We need that in there, okay?”

I think I might be shaking my head again.

She walks around and past me and I can see her, dressed in dark green scrubs, a surgical mask over her nose and mouth. Her eyes are narrow and deeply set under a heavy, masculine brow. I think she’s white—her voice sounds white—but why would that matter? As my eyes follow her they pass a door—there’s a door. The glass in the window has letters running backward, or in some language… I can’t read it.

“You know where you are?” she asks, continuing back around behind my head the other way.

I shake my head but answer, “Isolation 14.” I don’t know why I think that, but it sounds right.

She laughs at me, or maybe she’s clearing her throat.

“My hand is cold,” I say. “My fingers are cold.” I’m holding my left hand up, just barely off the mattress.

She touches my hand, wraps my fingers in hers, and says, “No it’s not. You’re fine.”

But my hand is cold. My fingers are freezing. My hand looks strange, like someone else’s, but it’s definitely mine.

I close my eyes and I think some period of time has gone by. The bed is facing a different direction, my head is turned to my right. There’s the door—the same door. The light isn’t flickering anymore.

“Mr. Hartford,” one of them says—a different one, with a different accent, “do you know where you are? Where are we?”

“Isolation 14,” I say, and my voice is a little better, but it hurts to speak.

“Sore throat?” she asks.

I nod.

“That’s normal,” she says, and I can’t imagine why that would be normal.

The cart with the machines is gone and instead there are two empty IV stands.

This makes me wonder why I keep falling asleep, makes me wonder how long I was asleep. There’s a pinch in the crook of my right elbow and I loll my head down to look at it. There’s an IV there, leaking a little bit of colorless liquid under a transparent plastic strip. I pick up my left hand to try to pull it out, but her hand on my wrist is firm. She pushes it back down, but doesn’t restrain me.

“Someone’s holding my ankles,” I tell her and she laughs at me.

“Do you know what year it is?” she asks and I can’t imagine why she would ask that. “Do you know the name of the President?”

“I can’t stay awake,” I say, maybe finishing the entire sentence before I’m asleep again. It’s like one slow, heavy blink and the empty IV stands are gone and there’s a folding chair, putty brown, in its place. The door is on the same side of me.

“Help me,” I say, if for no other reason than to determine if there’s anyone in the room to hear me.

There isn’t.

I reach up with my left hand to pull the IV out of my right elbow and my hand flops down on the tube. It hurts a little when it hits. My fingers move slowly—barely at all. I can’t get a grip on the little tube under the surprisingly thick plastic strip.

I need to get out of here. I need to go home. I need to get back to work. There are bills to pay, I tell myself, but I can’t think of what bills are due. What do I need to pay? When do I need to pay it?

“Mr. Hartford,” a scolding voice says, and a nurse walks in through the door, blocking the space behind it. She’s big, and she isn’t wearing a mask, and her scrubs are green and her shoes are a brilliant white as if today is the first time she’s worn them.

“I’m not…” I start, but lose track of what I was going to say as she gently pulls my left hand back to my side.

“How’s the pain?” she asks. She moves back behind me and I’m vaguely aware of something beeping back there.

“No,” I reply, hoping that will convey the fact that I feel no pain at all. It’s all I have the energy to say.

My left hand comes up and there’s an unpleasant warmth in the crook of my right elbow. She’s putting something in my IV, maybe something for the pain, something that will make me fall asleep again.

“No,” I say again, and this time I put more urgency into it—or try to.

She comes up next to me and takes hold of my left wrist. She has brown eyes and dry, almost chalky skin, and she smells like cigarettes. And she’s trying to drug me—she has drugged me.

“You try to rest now, Mr. Hartford,” she says, and I can see that she’s irritated with me.

“Why?” I ask.

“To help with the pain,” she says, faking a smile, pretending to comfort me. But I was asking why she was trying to keep me here, to keep me asleep, to keep me isolated.

“No,” I say, thinking I’ll explain it to her.

“Let’s not be difficult, now,” she says, and anger blasts through me, faster and hotter than the drugs dripping into my arm and I whip my wrist out of her hand. She gets halfway through this Mr. Hartford business again before I punch her.

I’ve never punched a woman, I don’t think, but I punch this one—hard—as hard as I can, knowing that in the state I’m in, that won’t be very hard. Her head explodes in a puff of red mist and pieces of hot things pelt my face, making me blink. The sheet over me is already soaked and there’s nothing on her shoulders and blood comes out of her neck in fountains, timed with her heartbeat. She’s still on her feet and my left hand hurts a little and is drenched in red and it’s hot—hotter than I though blood could be—and there’s something on my hand. I flick it off and it’s her scalp, or a part of her scalp, and her body makes a terrible sound when it drops to the floor and I can’t see her anymore and I try to scream, or call someone and then the anger is gone all at once, replaced by whatever she pumped into my right arm, and I’m asleep again.

Well, that couldn’t have happened.

No way that actually happened.

This is clear to me when I wake up into the middle of what I guess you could call a panic attack.

It’s literally impossible for me to have punched someone’s head off. Mike Tyson couldn’t do that, and I’m… I feel like I’m old, but no exact number presents itself. This troubles me, but only a little.

The dream of bursting a nurse’s head with my fist still lingers, the feel of the hot blood, the sounds of it—horrible.

I’m still in Isolation 14. I think the last time I was awake there was a folding chair, but now there’s that same cart again but with one of the machines gone.

I puzzle a little over how I could remember that it’s the same cart and that there used to be three machines on it, but not remember how old I am.

I still have an IV in.

They’re still drugging me.

Weird dreams, hallucinations even, and spotty memory—that could all be drugs. Of course that’s all drugs.

“Ah,” a woman says, “we’re awake.”

We’re? We are?

I turn to look at her and my head flops to the side. She’s sitting in one of those big weird hospital room chairs, a little blanket over her knees, a magazine in her hand that’s in some foreign language—I can’t read it. I can’t even tell what language it is.

“How are we feeling, Mr. Hartford?” she asks, and she seems sincerely curious. She isn’t afraid of me—that I can see in her face. I sigh a little, relieved. That clinches it for me. I didn’t punch one of her coworkers’ head off.

“Donovan,” I say, and man, does that hurt.

“Throat still a little sore?”

I nod in response and she stands, letting her blanket fall to the tile floor. She rummages around behind my head and comes back with a little plastic cup with a straw in it.

God only knows what she’s really giving me but I’m so thirsty I don’t care. It hurts to swallow it. It tastes like water, cool but not cold. She smiles down on me as I drink some more. The second swallow less painful than the first.

She pulls the cup away and says, “Let’s not drink too much yet, Mr. Hartford.”

I want the rest of the water and more, but I’m too tired to put up a fight.

“How are we feeling?” she asks, looking at something on the wall behind my head. I’m propped up a little in the hospital bed, tucked in under a white blanket. I still have the IV, but whatever was holding my ankles down is gone. My fingers and toes are cold. I feel like I could move, that I have the ability to move, but I don’t want to.

“My name,” I whisper, because it hurts less, “isn’t Hartford.”

The nurse smiles at me, practically dripping with rehearsed patience, and says, “Of course it is, Mr. Hartford.”

She wraps cold, strong fingers around my left wrist, leaning right over me to do so. There’s a plastic band around my left wrist, but it’s under the blanket and under her hand. I can’t read it.

“Right here,” she says, her voice the sort of sing-song you might use to talk to a three-year-old, “Hartford.”

I shake my head. “Donovan,” I whisper, and she ignores me, tucking the blanket around me. It feels good when she finally covers my toes.

“My hands are cold,” I whisper to her. “My fingers.”

She grabs my left forearm, not as tight, not having to lean over me, and says, “You’re fine.”

“Why am I here?” I ask her, but she doesn’t seem to hear me. I can’t be sure I actually made a sound.

I clear my throat—that hurts—and I whisper, “Are you drugging me?”

She laughs at that and says, “Of course not, Mr. Hartford. Why? Are we feeling a little woozy?”

I shake my head, but I guess you could call this “woozy.”

“Well,” the nurse says, “that’s to be expected.”

Then she leaves. Just walks to the door, opens it, walks out, and closes it behind her.

“Wait,” I hiss out, but the door is already closed.

I take as deep a breath as I can and lay back down. Maybe if I just lay here for a few minutes my strength will come back. I try to think through this—and parts of it, at least, seem pretty obvious. I must have been in some kind of accident or something. I had some kind of surgery. I’m in the hospital. They think my name is Hartford. Maybe they think I know what happened to me, know why I’m here. Both of these nurses seem to feel they don’t need to explain anything to me.

But then I’m not sure the first nurse was even real at all.

That ended in a dream—it had to have—though it didn’t seem to start out as a dream. I saw the room, the door, the ceiling… that’s all the same.

“Knock knock,” someone says instead of knocking, already coming in the door.

Another nurse. This one is heavy, round, with a broad, smiling, pleasant face. There are little cartoon characters on her scrubs—a yellow square with eyes. She’s pushing a cart with a blue plastic bin on it.

“Hi there, Mr. Hartford, glad to see we’re coming around,” she says, all smiles, stopping at the foot of my bed. “We remember each other, right?” She puts a hand over the plastic badge hanging from the V-neck collar of her scrubs. “Do we remember my name?”

I shake my head. I’ve never seen this woman before in my life.

She looks disappointed and I whisper, “I’m sorry.”

“Are we still feeling a little woozy?” she asks, taking her hand away from her badge. I blink at it, trying to focus, and I can clearly make out her picture, but all the writing is in some other language—an alphabet I don’t recognize. I try to remember the name of the alphabet the Russians use, but can’t. It’s not Chinese.

“Mr. Hartford?” she prompts, and I start shaking my head but change over to a nod. I do feel woozy.

“Well,” she says, tipping her head to one side like a puppy, “that’s to be expected.”

Then I shake my head, and I don’t know why.

“Okay, well, my name is Honey… Nurse Honey, but everybody just calls me Honey.”

I shake my head again, and I still don’t know why.

That makes her giggle. I think I might have smiled a little, too.

“I hear tell,” she goes on, dropping her hands into the blue bin, “that we’ve been having a little memory trouble.”

A chill runs down my arms, and not just because of what she said but because of the cheerful, mocking tone in which she said it. Her face falls a little at my reaction.

“Sorry,” she says in some kind of weird, cartoony voice.

I shake my head again but she doesn’t see. She’s looking down and rummaging around in the bin.

She pulls out a shoe—a man’s shoe, athletic shoe—and she holds it up in both palms as though presenting it to me.

“Does this look familiar?” she asks, opening her eyes wide, turning her head a little bit away, waiting, somehow also cheering me on.

I shake my head and say, “It’s a shoe.”

“Good,” she says as if praising a puppy for going pee-pee outside. “Now, whose shoe is this?”

I shake my head. I want to ask for water but instead croak out, “No idea.”

She’s disappointed, but puts the shoe back in the bin. “Well,” she says, as if talking to herself, “that’s a hard one. Let’s see… Ah! Here we go.” She takes out a black leather wallet and holds it up.

“That’s not mine,” I tell her, whispering again. Even as I’m telling her it isn’t mine I can’t think of what my wallet looks like, if I even have a wallet. My wife gave me a wallet for my birthday last year and she put a five dollar bill in it like her grandparents used to do, and we laughed about that. I can feel the memory my laugh in my throat, the tickle of hers in my ears.

She opens it and pulls out a card with the picture of a man on it and more of the foreign writing. “Guess who?” she teases.

I shake my head.

She smiles at me, waiting.

“That’s not mine,” I whisper to her. “I don’t even know what country that’s from.”

She turns the card and looks at it, makes a show of grimacing, then says, “Well, it sure looks like you!”

“Can you—?” I start to ask but cough and sputter.

She steps behind me and comes back with the same plastic cup. She lets me drink as much as I want to, which is all of it.

“Thank you,” I say in something approximating a normal voice.

She smiles as she puts the cup away then goes back to the blue bin at the foot of my bed and picks up the card again. “Sure we don’t want to take another look at this?”

“Can you read that?” I ask. “What language is that?”

She looks at the card again and her face drops. I have a sudden urge to hug her. I think I start to cry.

“Okay,” she says, still looking down at the card.

She thinks for a minute, her lips pressed together, her mouth twisting into strange patterns as she slides the card back into the wallet and drops the wallet into the bin. She moves something around in there, stops, looks up at me, looks back down into the bin, then sets her forearms over the bin, leaning over it.

She looks me right in the eyes and says, “Well, looks like we’re way, way more fucked up than we thought.”

I want to look away from her but I can’t.

“Did I hurt myself?” I ask her.

She just stares at me, her face going blank, almost sagging off her skull.

“Fuck,” I whimper. “Did I have a stroke or something? Did I smash my head? Do I have brain damage? Am I fucking paralyzed?”

She just stares at me, her face so still it’s as if she’s turned to stone.

“Can you hear me?” I whisper, my eyes blurring from tears.

I have to close my eyes.

“Where am I? What hospital is this? What country is this? Have you called my wife? Call my…”

I open my eyes, blinking back the tears, and she’s gone. I didn’t hear her leave, couldn’t hear the door open and close.

“Nurse…?” I try to call out, but I can’t yell or shout, or make my voice any louder than a choked stage whisper. “Honey? Why am I in isolation? Why do you keep calling me Mr. Hartford? Who’s shoe was that? What happened to me?”

But I’m alone in the room.

A woman’s voice crackles over a staticky P.A. system, “Try not get agitated, Mr. Hartford,” she says. “Let’s try to remain calm, okay?”

“What happened?” I ask, then fall into a round of body-shuddering sobs. I think I remember driving, that my wife was in the passenger side next to me. I know it’s her but I can’t see her face behind her long brown hair. “What happened to me?”

“No one here can tell you that, Mr. Hartford.”

I take a few quivering breaths and ask the ceiling, “How can that be?” There was no accident. I remember pulling up to a house I think is our house, but it doesn’t look any different from any other house.

“Is there anything else we can help you with, Mr. Hartford?”

I loll my head around on my shoulders, scanning the room, the blanket still firmly tucked around me on the bed, looking for anything… something.

“My hands are cold,” I say finally. “My fingers are cold.”

“Of course they aren’t, Mr. Hartford,” the voice replies. “You don’t have any fingers.”

That’s when I start screaming.

—Philip Athans

Follow me on Twitter @PhilAthans

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Where Story Meets World™

Look to Athans & Associates Creative Consulting for story/line/developmental editing at 3¢ per word.

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WHOSE POV SHOULD IT BE?

Building a bit on my post from three weeks ago, “Write What Your Characters Know,” which was really all about point of view (POV), let’s look at one fundamental question every fiction author needs to ask at the beginning of a new scene: Whose POV should I be in?

If you’ve started writing in first person, that question has been answered already—or, well, usually, assuming you only have that one first person character and aren’t trying to juggle multiple first person narratives. That’s possible, by the way, but pretty hard to get right, so proceed down that path with caution.

But even in third person narratives you might still only want to stick with a single POV character throughout. This works well in whodunnit style mysteries, for instance, where you only want your readers to know what the detective/hero knows when they know it, and nothing more, so your readers are following along with the investigation.

Still, multiple POV characters are more or less the standard, and the reasons for that are a big part of that previous post. What that scene’s POV character doesn’t know but your readers do know, because they’ve been in the head of the villain a couple chapters back when the trap was set, can build suspense, which is good, right?

You can obviously employ more POV characters in a novel than a short story where one, maybe two, are usually best, though there’s no hard and fast rules here so if you can pull off ten POV characters in a 5000-word short story, well… wow.

For a decent basic primer on who your POV character should be in any given scene, check out “How to switch point of view without confusing the reader” at Nail Your Novel. I like this in particular:

Two key characters in one scene? Which POV?

Of course, some characters will have overlapping experiences. For these, you could:

1. Pick the person who will have the most intense experience.

2. Pick the person with the least intense experience and rely on the reader to intuit the turmoil in the other character (can be very effective, but needs setting up).

3. Hop between their experiences in different paragraphs, but be very disciplined to make sure the reader is clear whose experience they are following. To do this might interrupt the flow of the scene, especially the dialogue. And often when I see writers do this, they’re missing an opportunity for more tension.

4. Settle into one POV, then change. Start the scene from one character’s experience and after a while, make the switch. Do this with a break in the action, or even a line break, so that the reader understands to tune into a different experience.

I’ll add that “or even a line break” should be: with a scene break, every single time, so that the reader understands to tune into a different experience.

But then also… how to define “the most intense experience”?

First of all, the POV character should be someone who is the POV character in more than one scene. All of a sudden we’re inhabiting someone passing by on the street who we haven’t met before and will never see again…? There are precious few instances in which that won’t feel gimmicky and confusing. Some authors will limit POV characters to the hero, the villain, and a sort of third neutral party. I think that’s a bit limiting, but still—let’s stay with that advice about “the most intense experience.”

If you’re at all unsure of who your readers should be inside of in this scene, ask yourself:

Who knows the least about what’s happening, what’s about to happen, and/or what might happen?

Remember: Suspense comes from an imbalance of information. If we’ve been in the villain’s POV and see the trap being set, then jump to the hero’s POV just as they’re entering the place where the trap has been set, we know something the hero doesn’t and we’re afraid for them. Will they notice the trap before it goes off? If it goes off, what’s going to happen? Is this the end for our hero? Will this at least delay them long enough for the villain to escape or do the terrible thing the villain has threatened to do?

You get what I mean.

So then let’s change write what your characters know to:

Write what the least informed of your characters know.

This is, actually, exactly how a whodunnit works—the detective/hero has the least amount of information at the start, and has to gather clues to finally reach the end of the mystery. And it might just be fair to say that every individual scene is something of a whodunnit. What is this POV character learning—often the hard way—over the course of this one scene?

—Philip Athans

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WE ARE MAKING THIS UP AS WE GO ALONG

Very few writers really know what they are doing until they’ve done it. 

—Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

As someone whose full time job is to teach people how to write, and predominantly how to write fiction, I have always had a tendency to freeze up—freak out, might be a better description—when clients and students ask questions I can’t answer. This happens fairly often—all the time, might be a better description—and it can sometimes get a little weird. The reason for this is that there are some questions about creative writing for which there simply is no good answer. Eventually the craft advice falls away and we get into the art of it. And the fact is there’s no way to teach art. We teach craft, whether we’re teaching creative writing or painting or dance… literally any and every artform… but then it falls on the aspiring artist to have something to say, have their own unique voice, have a way with words… that mysterious thing called “talent.”

And boy do some of these less experienced authors freak out at this point. Some people really believe there must be some kind of universal formula that can be followed to produce quality stories, and unfortunately there have been some books on writing—especially writing screenplays—that put forward that very idea.

Charlie Jane Anders touched on this in Never Say You Can’t Survive:

I get why people want to share their own writing rules… we’re all super insecure, and you never really know if anyone’s going to like a particular piece of writing. None of us have that much control over the things we care most about, so we cling to the illusion that we know some universal laws of authordom. Plus, when you find something that works for you, it’s natural to want to share it with everyone else, and to overcompensate by presenting it as more than just a suggestion.

But this is still another way that we internalize our anxieties, and then put them onto everyone else. And you shouldn’t ever feel like a fraud because you’re not following someone else’s rules.

And even someone who caused a bit of a dust-up with his own writing rules, Jonathan Franzen, said in a New York Times interview:

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

We all have to pause from time to time and tell ourselves, “Look, a lot of this is going to be me flailing around trying to make a story happen. I’m making this up as I go along, and so is everyone else, including Jonathan Franzen, Charlie Jane Anders, and that’s just as hard to work through as Rod Serling told me it was going to be:”

This is, if not a lifetime process, awfully close to it. The writer broadens, becomes deeper, more observant, more tempered, much wiser over a period of time passing. It is not something injected into him by a needle. It is not something that comes on a wave of flashing, explosive light one night and says, “Huzzah! Eureka! I’ve got it!” and then proceeds to write the great American novel in eleven days. It’s a long, tedious, tough, frustrating process, but never, ever be put aside by the fact that it’s hard.

Writing fiction well—whatever “well” even means—is not something you take a quick online course to learn then have it mastered in the next couple weeks. It’s not something you absorb by osmosis by reading a bunch of novels, though you will learn in toto a lot by reading a bunch of novels. It’s not something you achieve by clinging white-knuckled to any version of a formula. Writing fiction well means writing your fiction as best you can, and not necessarily suffering over it, but working on it, working to see not just the flaws but the triumphs, large and small, in every sentence. An editor can then take that manuscript and help you see more of the good and the bad, the almost theres and the for the love of all that’s holy keeps…

But secret time… Editors are making some portion of it up as we go, too.

Art can not be perfected. That’s what makes it, along with science, the two things that define the human condition. Start by knowing that you’ll never know everything, because everything keeps expanding. If you take writing advice only from Aristotle you will have no female characters in your writing at all. If you take writing advice from Shakespeare you’ll be left trying to sell a novel written in iambic pentameter to a contemporary editor, and good luck with that. If you take writing advice from Lester Dent you’ll only write 6000-word detective stories. If you take writing advice from me, you’ll still have to make up a solid 90% of the rest of it on your own.

I’ll leave you with some words of wisdom from one of my favorite authors of all time, J.G. Ballard, who told the Paris Review:

A lifetime’s experience urges me to utter a warning cry: do anything else, take someone’s golden retriever for a walk, run away with a saxophone player. Perhaps what’s wrong with being a writer is that one can’t even say “good luck”—luck plays no part in the writing of a novel. No happy accidents as with the paint pot or chisel. I don’t think you can say anything, really. I’ve always wanted to juggle and ride a unicycle, but I daresay if I ever asked the advice of an acrobat he would say, “All you do is get on and start pedaling…

How do your learn to write? Start writing, and don’t stop for the rest of your life.

—Philip Athans

Follow me on Twitter @PhilAthans

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Pay no attention to the “Six Steps” bit the publisher forced on…

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ONLINE RESOURCES FOR FANTASY, SF, AND HORROR AUTHORS

This week I’d like to share a small handful of web sites I’ve found extremely useful over the years. If you haven’t already, “favorite” or “bookmark” these sites—you won’t be sorry.

The Internet Speculative Fiction Database (ISFDB)

Can’t remember the name of the author of The Gods Hate Kansas? Look it up here: it’s Joseph Millard. You’ll also learn that the book was first published in February of 1964 by Monarch Books here in the US and the cover artist was Jack Thurston. You can click on Jack Thurston and find that he also created cover art for Imitations of Eve, Darkness and the Deep, Mission: Third Force, Satan’s Steed, and Chill between 1961 and 1978. If, like me, you have to know more about a book called Satan’s Steed, you can click on that and find that it was written by Jory Sherman and published in 1978 by Pinnacle Books—and even see the cover in question. I could do this all day.

The ISFDB in an amazingly robust collection of information that is a must-see for anyone the slightest bit interested in the history of genre fiction. Here you can search by author, title, or ten other categories to find publication histories for what seems to be every science fiction or fantasy story of novel ever written. Okay, I won’t make that claim for them literally, but I have used it to look up some rather obscure stuff and it’s yet to come up short. They’ve got my info right, at least, and helped immensely with research for my work with Prologue Books years ago.

Ralan.com

Okay, you’ve finished that short story, now what? Well, click on over to Ralan and find a massive list of markets for that story. You can sort by Pro markets, markets that Pay, and so on, or just start at the top and work your way down.

A sample listing looks like this—copied today, March 23, 2021, so if any time has passed, go to Ralan to check if this is still good…

THE DARK – monthly e-zine/some podcast; h/dark f (fic/art). Pay: fic=6¢/word; art=not given. Words: 2k-6k (query if longer). RT: <1 week. Reprints: no. E-subs: ONLYSean Wallace, Editor.

So we now know that The Dark publishes horror (h) and dark fantasy (f) stories and artwork and will pay 6¢ a (not bad) word for fiction no shorter than 2000 words or longer than 6000 words. They say they’ll respond in less than a week, which is lightning fast. I left in the links. You don’t submit through Ralan, so make sure you click these links, study each market’s full guidelines carefully to make sure you’re sending them something they might actually publish, and do it in the way that works for them.

Ralan also notes when markets are open or closed, so as of today I know not to bother Zoetrope: All-Story: “MARKET NOTE – 11Mar21: as of this date, still closed to general submissions.” It is a great resource—use it wisely.

Behind the Name

Oh, boy, naming characters can be hard. It’s still one of the questions I get most often, and have tried to answer at least in some way here over the years. The kind people behind Behind the Name can help with their exhaustive lists of real world contemporary and historical names, their variations, and the meanings behind them.

Of course I looked up Philip and their little popularity graphs made me feel bad about myself. Seriously, Australia. What’s up? The photo of the bust of Philip II of Macedon made it all okay, though. And I love the list of characteristics under the heading “People think this name is: classic, mature, formal, upper class, natural, wholesome, strong, refined, simple, serious, nerdy.” I accept all of those except formal and upper class, but I bet those would go away if I searched for Phil.

And yes, my Greek immigrant grandfather used to call me Philippos.

Technovelgy.com’s Glossary of Science Fiction Ideas, Technology and Inventions

This site helped me a great deal in a previous post about common science fiction elements like blasters that started somewhere but have now become such a part of the SF lexicon that they’re free to use by all. But still, we should all strive for maximum originality, so you might want to go here to look up the names of your invented technologies. You may be surprised to see that Edgar Rice Burroughs beat you to the magnetic elevator 103 years ago in The Gods of Mars, the viewplate has been a thing since the 1928 Amazing Stories publication of “Armageddon: 2419 A.D.” by Philip Francis Nowlan (an author known to be classic, mature, formal, upper class, natural, wholesome, strong, refined, simple, serious, and nerdy), and George R.R. Martin camouflaged his characters in chameleon cloth in 1977’s Dying of the Light.

The lengths of these lists is as intimidating as they are impressive.

The very tippy top tip of the Internet iceberg, of course, but for me, these have become essential tools. And I’m always on the lookout for more, so please feel free to share appropriate links in the comments.

—Philip Athans

Follow me on Twitter @PhilAthans

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Or contact me for editing, coaching, ghostwriting, and more at Athans & Associates Creative Consulting.

 

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WRITE WHAT YOUR CHARACTERS KNOW

By now I think we’ve generally disposed of the old saw: Write what you know. This is, in any case, especially bad advice if what you’re writing can in any way be described as fantasy, science fiction, or horror. If you tell me you literally know the fantasy world you’re writing about, full of dragons and wizards, I will ask that you please seek psychological help before editorial advice. So of course we know that George R.R. Martin has no first hand knowledge of what it’s like to actually be the King of the Andals and the First Men. He’s making it up.

Okay… based on some historical research, a firm grounding in the fantasy genre thus far, and all those important things we need to do to write genre stories well. And sure, a preponderance of Stephen King’s horror novels feature the writer from Maine as a protagonist, his version of Woody Allen’s decades-long string of movies about himself but with ghosts and monsters. It’s possible to write about yourself in horror. Fine.

What we really want to figure out how to do is not write what we know, but what our characters know. And I’ll limit that to what one point of view (POV) character knows in that particular scene. Not all characters know everything all of the other characters know (at least mostly) and that’s good—that’s where things like suspense and tension and conflict come from.

We need to put some concerted effort into not writing about ourselves, or more so not injecting ourselves, the author, into our stories. Fairly often in edits I tag a sentence or even a whole paragraph with notes like: Who’s thinking this? or How does she know this? or Don’t feel you have to explain everything.

In different ways, these three questions come down to POV. And no, again, it’s not okay to write in the antiquated third person omniscient. Believe it or not, we don’t see ourselves as and so can not really fathom the experience of God. We (your readers) see ourselves as people who, for the length of your story, want to experience what it’s like to be some other person, and for our genres, to be some other person in a world of myth and legend or a galaxy far, far away.

The worst form this disconnection between author, character, and reader can take is described in Making Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern:

When writers are self-conscious about themselves as writers they often keep a great distance from their characters, sounding as if they were writing encyclopedia entries instead of stories. Their hesitancy about physical and psychological intimacy can be a barrier to vital fiction.

Ultimately, yes, we do write from our own experiences—our own emotional and psychological experiences. Horror authors confront what scares them. Fantasy authors imagine what sort of king they would be. Science fiction authors want to explore an alien planet full of mystery and aliens. We loosely base characters on ourselves, our family, friends, coworkers, or favorite or least favorite artists, scientists, celebrities, or politicians or historical figures across the expanse of human history. But once those characters are conceived and it comes time to give them voice, give them their own voice. And by that I don’t mean some cooked up accent, but give them a package of experiences of their own. Think as deeply as you can about things like: How would she respond? Would he be afraid right now? then: This feels right for her, but that’s going to get her in a load of trouble, which is great, or No, he wouldn’t be afraid but he damned well should be, which also great.

Inhabit your characters. As the great Rod Serling said, “Every writer is a frustrated actor who recites his lines in the hidden auditorium of his skull.” Be the entire cast of your novel, as hard as that sounds—and if I wonder if anyone’s keeping track of how many times I’ve said: No one ever said this was going to be easy.

Here are at least a few things to think about in terms of showing your readers only what that one POV character experiences in a particular scene, and how that’s filtered through the package of experience they come in with. I’ve also tagged, in edits, anachronistic metaphors like a fantasy character saying “that’s par for the course” in a world without golf.

In her brilliant memoir The Shapeless Unease: A Year of Not Sleeping, Samantha Harvey (wrote:

How can I describe this feeling I have when I lie down to sleep and it’s as if I’m falling from a fifty-storey building, and there’s nobody, nothing, to catch me? See, that isn’t describing it. That’s describing something else—falling from a fifty-storey building with nobody to catch me. What use is there in coming up with a metaphor of something I’ve never experienced to describe something I often experience? How can I describe the sense that underscores my life—all life as I see it—that nothing is known? Nothing is inherently certain. Everything is bottomless. How can I get to the heart of that?

You see, already the building metaphor doesn’t even work as a metaphor, let alone as some literal evocation of falling. With the fifty-storey building the fear, presumably, is in hitting the ground, when really my fear is that there is no ground.

Actual people think and speak in some measure in metaphor (as above), similes (in which disparate things are compared—this blog post is like a gift from God), idiom (a phrase or sentence that has a meaning not directly communicated by its component words), and clichés (any of the following that have been used too often, especially if they’re often misused), though as Mark Abley postulated in “Clichés As a Political Tool,”:

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

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

So then, yes, we all know what people mean when they say “a leopard cannot change its spots,” but what if your characters live in a world without leopards? Or golf or picnics, or… It means you’re going to have to give them their own idiom, even their own clichés (maybe communicated by another character rolling his eyes), world-specific similes (as big as a blorgath in heat), and as Samantha Harvey suggests, metaphors that make sense not just for the world (which may not include buildings as tall as fifty storeys) but for the specific POV character, who should be comparing a present experience with a past experience of their own, or with some clearly common experience. This is how characters start to inhabit your world, their world, and precious little detail is required. J.R.R. Tolkien said in “On Fairy Stories”:

If [literature] speaks of bread or wine or stone or tree, it appeals to the whole of these things, to their ideas; yet each hearer will give to them a peculiar personal embodiment in his imagination. Should the story say “he ate bread,” the dramatic producer or painter can only show ”a piece of bread” according to his taste or fancy, but the hearer of the story will think of bread in general and picture it in some form of his own.

To that end, here are a few examples of authors who’ve put their POV characters deeply into a moment, with only necessary procedural detail (she walked to the six foot by eight foot window three feet from the northwest corner of the third room down the hall from the stairs).

First, a human observes another human he does not know, but makes observations and assumptions about her based on the time, location, and circumstances of the world around him, along with his life experiences and psychological quirks, hood, bad, or indifferent, from “No One Here is Going to Save You” by Julian Zabalbeascoa

Down where the hallway intersected with another, three women on their hands and knees scrubbed the concrete tiles with soapy rags while two guards I didn’t recognize stood near them. One of the women had large breasts that moved from side to side under her shirt as she scrubbed. Stooped over, her shirt was open at the neck, and I squinted to see if the Falangist brand of the yoke and arrows had been seared onto her chest above her heart, knowing what it meant if it had. One of the guards tapped her backside with his foot and instructed her to put more soap on her rag. When she sat up to soak it in the bucket, two large wet circles on her shirt spread from her nipples. The fabric clung to her. She looked in my direction, not at me but past me, and I wondered if the infant that had been taken from her—surely it was with the nuns now—would keep her from sitting on a window’s ledge or ultimately push her off of it. I saw the hard corner of Father Muñoz’s desk. I wished I could tell her the child would be fine, sensed that she needed this assurance from someone, but I couldn’t provide it.

And have I forgotten hyperbole? That’s when you describe an ordinary salesclerk as a demigod, as Vladimir Nabokov did in “Details of a Sunset”:

Through this mirrory darkness he staggered home: Mark Standfuss, a salesclerk, a demigod, fair-haired Mark, a lucky fellow with a high starched collar. At the back of his neck, above the white line of that collar, his hair ended in a funny, boyish little tag that had escaped the barber’s scissors. That little tag was what made Klara fall in love with him, and she swore that it was true love, that she had quite forgotten the handsome ruined foreigner who last year had rented a room from her mother, Frau Heise.

This is actually too huge a subject for a blog post. It may well be the wall that separates “good” and “bad” fiction, if such a wall exists. I could keep going for at least a book’s worth of advice on this subject and who knows, maybe I will…

—Philip Athans

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PANTSING MY WAY THROUGH AN OUTLINE

In an effort to dispel the ongoing nonsense “battle” between pantsers—authors who get an idea and start writing “by the seat of their pants”—and plotters—authors who write detailed outlines to which they slavishly adhere throughout the writing process—I’d like to show you exactly what a working outline looks like. Here you will see my actual hardcopy outline for the novella Devils of the Endless Deep, one of the few books in the ill-fated multi-author series The Fathomless Abyss. I wrote a bit about my struggles with it about eight years ago in “Devils of the Endless Writing Process,” but looking at the outline, you’ll see me struggling as I realize my original outline had some flaws, both major and minor, and then doing something about it by “pantsing through it, heavily revising the outline as better ideas emerged from… I don’t know… my pants?

Here’s the cover page…

Notice the multiple pens. Also note the little checklist of things to add. I’m essentially talking myself through it, making sure I jot ideas down so as not to forget them as they emerge from my pants. This is the beginning of a living document that morphs from an idea into a story.

The next few pages were character sketches and some worldbuilding stuff not germane to the discussion, so we’ll pick up again on the first page of the actual chapter-by-chapter outline…

Not many notes here. I must have felt as though I’d gotten off to a pretty strong start. There are a few little notes about word count goals—I honestly have no idea how that matches up to the finished novella.

On the next page…

…we see the first time I crossed out an entire scene with the note: not necessary. This is only chapter three and I’m already going off script. Then things get even more real…

More stuff crossed out, more questions I had left unanswered, or didn’t realize I had to answer, scribbled onto the outline. Parts of Chapter 6 were deleted and replaced with new stuff, and Chapter 8 was moved down past a new Chapter 9.

This page looks fairly clean but I’m moving chapter stops and starts, probably reacting to pacing issues.

And then disaster strikes. By what was Chapter 14, now, apparently, Chapter 12, I’ve realized I have no idea why my villain is doing anything he’s doing. What obviously felt fine in the outline rang terribly hollow in the actual writing. I stalled out here, suffered the tortures of the damned, then started crossing out whole chapters, scenes, and parts of scenes. In a few instances I changed which character was doing what, and made a little list to make sure I remembered who was in the war party.

At least two different pens indicate where two whole new chapters were added, like: 15: G saves A+K—lets herself be carried off by anipar * Guillermo & H 2010. It’s significant to note how little detail was in that note. By now I knew the characters, the world, and the story enough to… yes, you guessed it, pants my way through the chapter.

I can’t make any sense of the arrows indicating scenes moving from place to place—at least not anymore. Still a lot of the outline appears to have been kept, so it isn’t all “pantsing.”

And by the end we see another whole chapter simply X-ed out and two scenes made into chapters of their own, clearly not in the original order. And finally…

This little piece of scratch paper stapled to the end—a list of things to “add to my book.”

And of course none of this indicates the couple of revision passes that came next—just the writing itself.

So then where are we?

Outline? Sure, you bet I do.

Write by the seat of my pants? Just as soon as my outline fails me.

And guess what? Every outline has failed me at one point or another.

This plotters vs. pantsers thing is nonsense. We’re all some portion of both.

 

—Philip Athans

 

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TIMES NEW ROMAN 12, THE ONLY FONT YOU’LL EVER NEED

Times New Roman was created by Stanley Morrison, a type designer, and Victor Lardent, a draftsman, in 1932 for the prestigious Times of London, which had the font “tested by the highest ophthalmic authority” after following the recommendations of the British Medical Research Council’s Report on the Legibility of Print. They were so proud of their new typeface they printed a side by side comparison with its previous font, and objectively it is more readable:

Even though the Times itself thought Times New Roman was specifically a newspaper font and shouldn’t be used in books, the overall readability of it took it quickly into the book publishing world as well. And once the computer screen and printers moved past the era of sans serif for screen-readability’s sake, Times New Roman made its home there as well—at least until Microsoft made the incomprehensible decision to default to Calibri, which may be the least readable and least portable typeface I’ve ever come across, with the obvious exception of the truly decorative fonts.

Since at least the late 90s, I’ve screamed at the top of my lungs from whatever rooftop I’ve managed to climb up on that the only font any author needs or should ever use is 12-point Times New Roman. And I stand behind that. It’s the most readable typeface on a screen or printed. The overwhelming majority of guidelines from publishers and agents who demand any particular font at all will ask for Times New Roman, with a few weird old Courier holdouts, who want to pretend we all still use typewriters.

But we don’t still use typewriters.

And for all you sans serif fans who damage the eyes of your innocent victims with huge blocks of Arial, I beg you to stop it. Arial is a decorative font that might be appropriate for headlines in some cases, other design uses, I don’t know… but Rachel Hawley does and breaks it down in “Here’s the Typography of the Next Decade”:

At the beginning of the 2010s, geometric sans serifs—those without serifs or contrast in stroke width, and whose letters are built around simple shapes like circles and squares—experienced a dramatic uptick in popularity within web and digital design. As the geometric sans serifs rose to prominence, elements such as drop shadows, gradients, background textures, and bevels began to fall away, leaving behind the flat, minimalist digital aesthetic you might see on Facebook, Airbnb, or Postmates. Many designers cited a desire for increased legibility on low-resolution screens as reason for the shift; the desire for increased page-load speeds likely also played a role.

Now, please read this carefully: I’m saying that when you send your writing to someone else, it’s all 12-point Times New Roman all the time. But while you’re writing…?

In “When fonts fight, Times New Roman conquers,” Alison Flood found that

[author Sean] Richardson, whose exploration of what it means to be queer and religious, Unorthodox, was published last year, admits he is a “Calibri 11 person” himself, although “if I’m writing creatively I’m a Garamond 11.”

The bestselling novelist Max Porter also eschews serifs. “Grim and uneventful reply I’m afraid. Stone cold auto Calibri 11,” says Porter, author of Grief Is the Thing With Feathers. “But with postcards of great lettering and design and art and landscapes on my wall to periodically cleanse my eyes and soul. I don’t know why I live this way.”

Write in whatever font and whatever you size pleases you, inspires you, makes you laugh or cry… It’s all good.

Until you send it out.

Of course, whoever you send a .doc (or .docx… the subject of a future rant, I assure you) file to may very well select all and change everything about your carefully crafted standard manuscript format. Old people like me have trouble reading 12-point type at 100%. I just zoom in to 200% and get rolling since I’ve had a contemporary “letterbox” screen, but back in the old TV aspect ratio days I would pull the margins way in and boost the type up to, like, 18-point, write and edit like that then pull the margins back out to standard and the type back to 12-point when need be.

So, God help your eyes, go right ahead and write a 100,000 word novel in 10-point Arial or 9-point Comic Sans… whatever floats your boat. But once you want to float the boat of a publishing professional, set aside your comfort for theirs and show that you are at least that professional.

Or, which I would actually recommend if you haven’t decided on some kind of “lucky font” or something, reset your defaults to 12-point Times New Roman (like I do) and never, ever look back. Now you’re free to put all the creativity you might have put into your manuscript design into the story itself, which will always, always be more important.

And a final note for indie publishers: Various ebook outlets may have made font decisions for you. There’s no reason to do battle with that. Let them figure out what works best with their devices, etc. If you’re setting up a print book, Times New Roman is fine, but now you can get a little smaller, but even if you really want to save pages, anything small than 9-point is going to be hard to read. I’d even go so far as to say 10-point is as small as you want to go. But for your print books, Times New Roman is not the only font. I like Bell MT—it has great readability and an attractive italic. Forgotten Realms novels were set in New Century Schoolbook—a great font for longer blocks of text. And there are others, but Calibri? Arial? No. Just… no.

There, I said it.

 

—Philip Athans

 

Follow me on Twitter @PhilAthans

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Or contact me for editing, coaching, ghostwriting, and more at Athans & Associates Creative Consulting.

 

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