BOOKS FOR FANTASY AUTHORS XXV: HORROR OF PHILOSOPHY

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

 

As has been the case with many of my favorite books, I came across In the Dust of This Planet: Horror of Philosophy, Volume 1, by Eugene Thacker entirely by accident while browsing in one of my favorite bookstores. I was a little unsure of it at first—can’t say I was ever a particular fan of reading philosophy, per se. I blame my impenetrable college freshman textbook for beating that urge out of me. But freshman year of college was, for me, a rather long time ago now and I had actually begun teaching a course on horror writing by then… so the book looked, actually, right up my alley. Would there be some added wisdom within that I could pass on to my students? Would it give me a wider perspective on the genre? Would it just be… interesting?

It proved to be all of those things and more. Enough so that I then bought the second and third volumes, and read them in what is for me fairly rapid succession.

Each of the three volumes: In the Dust of This Planet, Starry Speculative Corpse, and Tentacles Longer Than Night, are slim little books—the longest is the third at only 204 pages—but all three are densely packed with ideas that weave together the Western philosophical tradition and genre horror in fascinating ways.

The first two books focus on philosophy, essentially using horror as a lens through which to examine the work of a handful of major philosophers. The third is much more tied to the horror genre, examining the interesting ways in which genre horror expresses similar, if not identical ideas, how it presents a philosophy of its own, and how it challenges some long held philosophical beliefs. Though the third volume may sound more of use to horror authors, I would recommend reading all three, and reading them in order.

And I would further recommend reading them with a smartphone or computer nearby, and a pen in one hand. I made extensive notes in all three of my copies, highlighting whole passages, underlining books, articles, and other sources mentioned so I could find them elsewhere—and a computer to translate some “lingo” that will be unfamiliar to anyone who hasn’t studied philosophy, or (like me) hasn’t studied philosophy recently.

By way of random examples, here are a few things I made note of in In the Dust of This Planet:

Let us consider a hagiography of life in the relation between theology and horror: the living dead, the undead, the demon, and the phantasm. In each case, there is an exemplary figure, an allegorical mode, a mode of manifestation, and a metaphysical principle that is the link between philosophy and horror.

Next to this:

A long-standing foundation of Western philosophical thought, the principle of sufficient reason states simply that everything that exists has a reason for existing. It is the very bedrock, the very ground of philosophy.

…I wrote: “And yet it’s not at all true—another example of human arrogance.” This is a book that invites that sort of critical read—at least, it invited me! Later, I wrote “interesting concept for competing magic systems” next to:

…the via negativa or path of negation as the way to divine union. Those in this tradition often utilize several modes of discourse to talk about the divine: that of negative theology, in which one makes use of language, logic, and philosophical argumentation to demonstrate the aporetic unknowability of the divine, and that of darkness mysticism, in which poetry and allegory are used to suggest the ways in which the divine remains forever beyond the pale of human thought and comprehension.

In Starry Speculative Corpse  this quote from Dionysus the Areopagite:

“The fact is that the more we take flight upward, the more our words are confined to the ideas we are capable of forming; so that now as we plunge into that darkness which is beyond intellect, we shall find ourselves not simply running short of words but actually speechless and unknowing.”

…inspired me to ask: “True of cosmology, quantum physics, etc., too, yes?” And then I just like this quote:

In the depths of labyrinthine caves, embedded in gigantic rocks, buried in the hottest geothermal vents, and in the cold stellar dust of space, life is stealthily creeping.

Some of my marginalia was as long as the thought on which they commented, as when I wrote “And it turns out THIS ISTHE CASE—so it may render all—or most—philosophy not only moot but another example of human arrogance” in response to:

What if there is no reason for the world’s existence, either as phenomena or as noumena? What if the world-in-itself is not ordered, let alone ordered “for us”?

Call me a rationalist, but the world is clearly  not “ordered ‘for us,’ ” The question “Which came first, the planet or the humans that inhabit it,” has been answered unequivocally. Earth is comfortable for us because it was here first, and we evolved on it. Case closed. Our “special place in the universe” is the chemical nursery that birthed us. This is not a mystery.

Then in Tentacles Longer Than Night, this passage made me think of my own blog post “The Persistence of the Logical” in so much as “I’m crazy” can make more sense than believing the “impossible”:

And yet, what is more terrifying [than] insanity is the possibility that “it” really happened. This is a crucial twist in both Poe’s and Lovecraft’s stories—what is horrific in not that one is insane, but that one is not insane. At least if one is insane, the strange, terrifying “it” can be explained in terms of madness, delirium, melancholia, or in terms of clinical psychopathology.

Is this a definition of the “weird tale”? Fear of fear itself?

In so far as stories like these are part of the horror genre, they present horror less as a stimulus-response system, in which a threat elicits an emotional response of fear, and more as a kind of freezing of all affect, resulting in a combined state of dread and fascination—what theologian Rudolf Otto once called the mysterium tremendum. In stories like these, horror is a state of frozen thought, reason’s dark cyclopean winter.

Along the same lines, a quote from Thomas Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against the Human Race (which is now on my Amazon list):

“In the literature of supernatural horror, a familiar storyline is that of a character who encounters a paradox in the flesh, so to speak, and must face down or collapse in horror before this ontological perversion—something which should not be, yet is.”

And this is far from the only book I’ve added to that list from my reading of the three books of Horror of Philosophy. I have a feeling you’ll have a list of your own when (not if!) you read them, too.

 

—Philip Athans

 

In Writing Monsters, best-selling author Philip Athans uses classic examples from books, films, and the world around us to explore what makes monsters memorable—and terrifying.

You’ll learn what monsters can (and should) represent in your story and how to create monsters from the ground up.

 

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THE REMORSE OF PROFESSOR PANEBIANCO: EXPLORING WEIRD TALES Vol. 5, No. 1—PART 25

Feeling a bit off-kilter this morning so I need a little fun pulp fiction. Let’s dive back into our read-through of the January 1925 issue of Weird Tales with “The Remorse of Professor Panebianco” by Greye La Spina.

I have to admit this is another author I’m unfamiliar with, and the name screamed “pseudonym” to me, but a quick Google search and there she is, Greye La Spina, who, according to Wikipedia “was an American writer who published more than one hundred short stories, serials, novelettes, and one-act plays.” Born in 1880, she was forty-five years old when this story was published, six years after her first publication. So if you’re in your late thirties and suffering over the fact that you haven’t been published yet—hang in here!

Greye La Spina is her actual (married) name, and I even found a photograph of her! You can read more about her at Weird Fiction Review.

Pulp authors often get more than their measure of grief from critics of their time and ours. And having read a lot of pulp fiction myself all I can say is that as much as I adore the whole wild and crazy mess, it can be a bit more of a mess than most readers circa 2019 are going to be prepared for. I’ve read full-length Doc Savage stories. I’ve witnessed how much a single sentence can be padded, then go right to the next shockingly padded sentence in a palpably desperate effort to get to the target word count. I’ve read stories that are flat out racist, absurdly sexist, and so on. But can we take a moment, please, to note that the pulp tradition also gave birth to the genres we know and love, some of our most important authors, and true gems of the written word like this:

We have seen the soul of a drowning mouse emerge from its body, in a spiral coil of vapor that wreathed its way out of the water to lose itself in the etheric spaces that include all life. We have watched the soul of a dying ape emerge in one long rush of fine, impalpable, smoke-like cloud that wound upward to become invisible as it, too, amalgamated with the invisible forces of the universe about us.

I don’t know about you, but I find that beautiful.

In the past I’ve cautioned authors not to forget that the best fiction balances art and craft. I talk mostly about craft here, and that’s simply because craft can be taught, practiced, adopted… but art is what you bring to your writing from somewhere inside you, from a place no writing teacher or editor can access. All we can do is encourage its expression and applaud its presence when it makes itself known, and absolutely yes, including in a genre story—any genre story.

And don’t be an asshole and point out that she follows that up with the dialog attribution: asseverated the doctor, musingly.

No one’s perfect.

The pulps are also, mostly correctly, considered an all-boys club, and all white boys, at that, but there were a number of women writing for the pulps, and despite lurid covers and other stories that showed women as essentially lower life forms, Greye La Spina breathes considerable life into the long-suffering Elena:

Elena did not reply. She loved too deeply, too passionately, too irrevocably. And the only return her husband made was to permit her assistance in his laboratory work. Her eager mind had flown apace with his; not that she loved the work for itself, but that she longed to gain his approbation. To him the alluring loveliness of her splendid body was as nothing to the beauty of the wonderful intellect that gradually unfolded in his behalf.

Early 20th century gender roles mostly intact, Elena is still afforded a functioning mind, and motivations of her own, not the least of which is an effort to save her husband from working himself to death. Instead of another story in which the dashing white male hero saves the hysterical white girl from the clutches of the evil non-white male villain, here’s a story about a woman who is so determined to bring what we’d now call “work-life balance” to a man she loves that her own health suffers as a result. Meanwhile, the man in question holds firm to all the old saws of the day. Women are frivolous distractions that should never come between a man and his work.

“She’s very nervous, I know. She disturbs me inexcusably with silly demands for kisses and caresses, actually weeping when she thinks I don’t see her, because I refuse to humor her foolish whims. I’ve been obliged, more than once, to drive her away with cold looks and hard words, because she has tried to coax me to stop work, insisting upon my talking with her.”

Yes, definitely don’t kiss or talk to your wife. Keep working on trapping souls, because you’re clearly the hero of this story… or are you?

I love “The Remorse of Professor Panebianco” in particular as an example of how and why to put the personal above the procedural. On its surface this is another in a (very) long line of pulp-era mad scientist stories. We’ve already read more than one in this single issue of Weird Tales. But what sets this story apart is that the experiment may be the plot of the story, but the way the characters are personally involved with it is what makes it a story worth reading. This isn’t the story of an experiment in trapping souls, this is a story about a man who trades on the love of his wife, and a wife who sacrifices herself for the man she loves, using the experiment as a vehicle. If all you have is an experiment (or a murder mystery, or a war mission, or an artifact to recover, etc.) all you have is a list of plot points. Make those plot points matter to your characters, make it a matter of personal immediacy, so that there are no plot points without them. Then you’ll have a story.

Lesson learned, Mrs. La Spina.

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

Finding the Personal in the Procedural

A deeper dive into show vs. tell, and making your story matter to your characters first!

 

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WHAT I’M READING RIGHT NOW AND WHY

If you’ve friended me on GoodReads, or follow me on Twitter, you know I’m working my way through another fifty-two book challenge: to read fifty-two books, an average of one a week, in the calendar year 2019. Right now, I’m sitting at forty-two books read so far this year, or one book behind schedule, which isn’t bad at all. And, of course, the books I read as part of my job don’t count. These are all books that have been published and that I’m reading for my own entertainment and education, and every book is part both.

One of the things I try to do is to read across a number of categories (fiction, non-fiction, graphic novels, etc.) and genres (science fiction, fantasy, mystery, etc.). And I long ago realized that—maybe we can blame this on a form of attention deficit disorder—I can lose interest in a book for a few days or even a week along the way, just not be in the mood to read that particular book. But that meant it could sometimes take me weeks of even, believe it or not, months to get through a book. I was reading too few books in any given year. So I started reading a number of books interchangeably. That way, if I’m not in the mood for, say, some heavy complex non-fiction book, I have a “pulp” science fiction novel I can pick up instead, and so on. After a little experimentation I’ve more or less settled on four as the right number of books at a time. And I do put at least a little thought into the mix there, but sometimes end up with a couple very similar titles, or a very long book that takes me a while to get through while I whip through shorter books alongside it…

It’s not, nor does it need to be, and exact science. The important thing is that I’m setting aside time to read, and I’m exposing myself to a variety of experiences.

Here’s what I’m reading right now…

The Castaways of Tanagar by Brian Stableford

I have the first edition, first printing, of the original DAW Books edition (No. 428) from 1981. I bought this at a used bookstore, probably paid $1.25 for it… and I have a lot of books just like it. In the past twenty years or so I’ve been on a more or less continuous used book buying spree. My massive personal library has long ago grown beyond reasonable expectations that I’ll ever read them all, though part of this fifty-two book challenge is designed to at least make a little headway. Still, my library have become more a no-kill book shelter than a collection or a “to read” shelf. When I see a book that looks at all interesting or that, basically, is science fiction and I haven’t read it and it’s old and it has cool cover art… and it’s cheap… I buy it.

This got “bad” enough that I eventually put them—some of them, anyway—in a box I occasionally draw from at random. The Castaways of Tanagar is exactly this. I must have thought it looked cool so i bought it, I put it in that box, then a random behavior prompt told me to draw a random science fiction/fantasy paperback from my box, and voila! I’m only fifty-six pages in and I’m digging it. This one is for the love of science fiction. I love science fiction. I read science fiction.

Yes?

Next is…

Tentacles Longer Than Night by Eugene Thacker

I’ve read the first two of Thacker’s three volume Horror of Philosophy, loved the first, liked the second, and so far am loving the third. The first two look at the horror elements of the Western philosophical tradition, and I found that fascinating. This final volume examines the philosophy of horror, how horror authors have used the genre to put forward or explore certain philosophical concepts. Though they’re slim little volumes they can be a intellectually dense, but while The Castaways of Tanagar satisfies my love of straight-up science fiction, Tentacles Longer Than Night satisfies my curiosity about the horror genre, and helps inform things like this blog, the two online horror courses I teach for Writer’s Digest, and my own writing, which has recently been going back to horror.

I almost never re-read books, but made the decision a few years ago to read the entire Dune series, including the new, expanded series, so I started by re-reading Dune, Dune Messiah, and Children of Dune, then the final three books Frank Herbert wrote, only one of which I had started reading when it was new, but don’t remember finishing. I then moved on to the new series, or series of series, by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson. I loved the first three and have made my way to:

Dune: The Butlerian Jihad by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson

I’m only barely into it and it’s good—I’m hanging in with it—but it begins with one thing I have advised anyone and everyone who’ll listen not to do. It opens with a three-page backstory info dump so clunky it sent me scrambling to the Internet to make sure I hadn’t gotten the order of the series wrong—had I just read a three-page spoiler of a book I was meant to read before this?

But no, this was just plopped in there… not good. Please never do this. I’m unable to understand how an author as experienced as Kevin Anderson, and people as experienced at those included in the acknowledgments, would ever allow this…

Let the book stand on it’s own!

Then last, but not least…

Showcase Presents Aquaman, Volume One

Do I just like to root for the underdog?

Do I feel some empathic bond for anyone who seems marginalized?

I hate the hate that Aquaman gets. As a kid, I always thought Aquaman was pretty cool. I’ve always loved undersea science fiction… What could possibly be so bad about Aquaman? He talks to fish—that’s awesome! His mother was a queen of Atlantis—that’s amazing!

I’m more than halfway through this huge collection of the original Aquaman stories from 1959-1962 and okay, sure, they’re… light entertainment pieces. But I’m finding them so charming, so much fun… just delightful. Sometimes you want to read for the pure joy of it, and this is pure joy.

Aquaman rules!

Okay… so there you have it. What are you reading, and why?

 

—Philip Athans

 

NOW SCHEDULING PROJECTS FOR DECEMBER 2019

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

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THE VALLEY OF TEEHEEMEN: EXPLORING WEIRD TALES Vol. 5, No. 1—PART 24

We’re getting close to the end of our long read-through of the January 1925 issue of Weird Tales, and I have to be honest. This next story has me almost (well… no… not really…) regretting this whole thing. Is it wrong that I don’t want to read the second half of a novel having not read the first half? I don’t think I’m wrong or alone in that.

But there has to be something we can learn from part two of the two-part serial “The Valley of the Teeheemen” by Arthur Thatcher.

And maybe this is it: No one wants to read only the second half of your novel!

Well, sure, that’s sounds kinda “duh” when you say it like that. But it got me thinking about another piece of advice I often give to authors, and that’s to make sure your debut novel can accurately be described as a stand-alone with series potential.

The publishing business has recovered well from the disaster of the depression of a decade past, but hard lessons were learned when retail dried up, credit dried up, and people with jobs and disposable income dried up all at the same time. A lot of other stuff was drying up at the time.

It sucked!

One of the lessons the publishing business learned circa 2007-2011 was that investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in new, fresh talent was not a safe bet. That doesn’t mean they don’t still do it from time to time, but when they do they do it oh so very carefully, which means they do it oh so very rarely. So if you’ve written Book 1 of a planned (and I’ve actually seen authors promise as many as) twenty-book series… the first impulse of the people who have to put that money entirely at risk is to walk if not run away. And they run almost all of the time.

On the same token, every publisher (and every agent, and every book store) is looking for the next franchise author. They would love to find the next Terry Brooks, who reliably gets out the next series fantasy that then sells reliably. Everyone wants to settle into a series franchise that keeps them working, keeps the sales and royalties and commissions flowing, for years and years. Who wouldn’t? Trust me, I have some friends who have done quite well doing exactly that.

I have more friends who were not able to sustain it for more than a relatively few books.

I have even more friends who are still waiting for an offer to publish a sequel to a Book 1 they published years ago.

But what does this have to do with Weird Tales from 1925 and “The Valley of the Teeheemen”?

Well, look at where we are now. I bet I can find the previous issue of Weird Tales and read the first installment, but what if I can’t? Part two now sits there like a lump on a log, waiting for an interested reader to put forth some concerted effort to find part one.

Weird Tales sold some portion of their print run through subscriptions, so there was a reasonable expectation that people were getting and reading every issue. I bet some readers saw “Part one of a two-part serial” and set that issue aside until the next one came in and they could read it without having to wait for the next issue.

Now this question:

How many times have you stood in a bookstore and found something that looks interesting, but it’s Book >1 of a series and Book 1 is nowhere to be found? Now you have to do some work to get Book 1 before you buy Book 2… and if you’re like me, and I daresay most people, you decide not to do that work, or you put that work off and buy something else instead, vowing to get Book 1 from Amazon later—and maybe you do, but probably you don’t.

Now that bookstore is sitting with dead inventory—until someone who has read the previous books and needs exactly that one comes in, and what are the chances of that happening? Better if that store has The Two Towers but not The Fellowship of the Ring in stock, but for a mid-list series? That book has a much better chance of being returned by the retailer than being bought by a reader.

And this is why everyone is nervous about series. Agents have to work harder to sell a series because editors are afraid to publish Book 1 to less than stellar sales then either have to publish Book 2, which they know will sell even less, or kill the thing, leaving whoever did buy Book 1 hanging… And retailers worry about having some books in a series in stock, but not all of the books in the series, especially now that if you’re in a bookstore and it’s not there you’re much more likely to go to Amazon than wait for them to get a copy in stock for you. Now that retailer has to manage not one book that a few readers might be looking for, but a series of books in various combinations…

It’s either a huge win or a huge loss, and the odds are in favor of the huge loss, for everyone.

But if Book 1 sells like crazy and you’re ready, willing, and able to provide a Book 2, or you’ve already written Book 2, you’ll be your publisher’s hero author. Retailers will stock it, and Book 3, then want to see an omnibus edition so they can sell the trilogy only managing one SKU.

It is possible to sell a series—fantasy readers in particular still love them—and eBooks, online retailers, and print-on-demand has made series books more accessible, so I’m not in any way calling for or reporting on the death of the series. Not at all.

But the three-book deal for a previously unpublished author… that body’s been cold for a while.

Even in 1925, the editor of Weird Tales might have been better off keeping the whole “The Valley of Teeheemen” together in one issue, at least for the sake of readers of online scans in 2019. It’s as if Farnsworth Wright doesn’t even know we exist!

 

 

—Philip Athans

 

Science fiction and fantasy is one of the most challenging—and rewarding!—genres in the bookstore. But with best selling author and editor Philip Athans at your side, you’ll create worlds that draw your readers in—and keep them reading—with

The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction!

 

 

 

 

 

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BANTER AT YOUR OWN RISK or WHAT WE CAN LEARN FROM A RANDOM SCIENCE FICTION NOVEL: THE FURY OUT OF TIME

Five years ago I described the step-by-step process of creating a random SF/fantasy paperback grab-bag, and I keep drawing books from my box, including The Fury Out of Time by Lloyd Biggle, Jr.

As I write this, I’m only forty-two pages into this book, at the end of Chapter 3, so this week’s post won’t cover everything we might learn from this all but forgotten 1965 science fiction novel by an author whose name I’ve been hearing forever, but who never seemed to have made it out of the mid-list.

That, in and of itself, is not a criticism. I maintain that sales and quality are not always linked—and when they are the relationship seems coincidental. So fear not, Lloyd Biggle, Jr. fans, not only am I not condemning this book or any of his work, but I promise I will finish it and already see some interesting ideas unfolding to set things up…

Still, I have a complaint.

Written in the mid-60s as it was, The Fury Out of Time at least begins with a familiar boys-only club feeling to it. The protagonist is a retired astronaut, after all, and all his friends and colleagues man the nearby Air Force base, so yes, that would by default mean they’re all men in 1965—at least mostly men. And when men who have been friends and/or close co-workers or teammates for a long time get together they talk differently than they might around strangers, around women, around kids, and so on. They break each others’ balls. They tease each other about perceived weaknesses, past failures or near failures… all sorts of things. I get it—I do it in real life, even—and it’s a natural part of what would make the men at the beginning of The Fury Out of Time read like real people. In this case what I’ll call “banter” is a good thing.

But there can be too much of anything, including a good thing.

Banter, like all the tools in our fiction writing toolkits, should be used with care and with the lightest touch possible. Where do we find the line between “realistic” sounding dialog, natural conversation between a specific set of people in a specific set of circumstances, and some kind of comedy routine gone wrong?

I think Lloyd Biggle, Jr. lays it on too think in the first three chapters of The Fury Out of Time.

A little spoiler-free context (since I’ve only read the first three chapters!):

Bowden Karvel, our protagonist, was an astronaut who lost a leg in a car accident but still lives near the Air Force base and hangs out at the local bar with his old friends and former colleagues. One night there’s a strange tornado—or something that seems like a tornado—that causes localized damage and injuries. After warning the base of the approaching storm, Karvel drags himself to the epicenter of the effect and finds a strange metallic sphere they decide to call a U.O. (Unknown Object). The U.O. appears to be the cause of this spiraling “storm,” which they codename Force X. While in proximity to the U.O. Karvel finds and captures an unusual butterfly. Karvel then wakes up in the base hospital to find that the Air Force has brought the U.O. to the base and have found a weird, possibly alien, occupant in it, who is dead. They question Karvel, who calls in a friend who happens to be a lepidopterologist to take a look at the weird butterfly.

There’s action in here, some gory description of the dead occupant of the U.O., some interesting sciencey-sounding stuff about the butterfly… but it’s all buried under so much “funny” back-and-forth that I wanted to say out loud: “Will you guys get to the point—this is serious! People have been hurt! The Earth might be in the middle of an alien invasion! Just fucking say what this thing is!”

In most cases, they don’t know what this is. And that’s fine. It’s only the first three chapters. The mystery of this Unknown Object and its origins and goals are just beginning to unfold. But what starts as a bunch of guys breaking each others’ balls at the local bar turns into guys breaking each others’ balls in the middle of a military debriefing around an unexplained but clearly dangerous event. They simply don’t seem to be taking it seriously enough. But worse, it reads like padding.

Too many words are being used to make incremental progress in the story because they won’t just say what they’re thinking. They have to warn each other first, belittle each other along the way, and apologize for how crazy it sounds then wait to be told that it does sound crazy and that’s par for the course for you because you’re crazy and say crazy things like that time you said a crazy thing—but that turned out to be true!—okay, sure but this time I think you’re crazy even though there’s no other explanation or theory on the table so let’s definitely make this meeting take as long as possible before we, a bunch of professional military officers, start actually working on a problem that might be the most significant moment in the history of the human race.

Holy… Deep, cleansing breaths.

Banter, yes.

Ballbreaking, sure.

Humor, of course.

But always and constantly? No, thank you.

Now, I wish I could give you some kind of rule, some ratio of non-banter dialog to banter-dialog, but of course I can’t. This is definitely one of those moments where it’ll pay to listen to that still small voice. Are you worried this might be too much? Listen to yourself—it probably is. Did two of your three beta readers think it seemed as though characters weren’t taking the story seriously enough or came across as “dude bros,” or…? Listen to them. Two people is a trend.

And if you’re looking for an example but don’t want to track down a copy of The Fury Out of Time, just watch (if you can) the movie Transformers: The Last Knight. There you’ll be treated to a string of action set pieces in which giant robots fight each other while the human characters switch between insulting and belittling each other and complaining about how much it sucks to be there. And they do that constantly, often seeming to slip out of context with the movie.

You know I’m not a critic and I don’t write or read reviews, but that movie was painful to sit through. The good news is that, like Legion, it provides us with a cautionary tale.

Your characters need to sound like real people, and real people banter, but not only and always, and not, generally speaking, while a disaster is literally in progress around them.

Good luck out there!

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

Living Dialog: Bring Your Characters’ Words to Life

Truly living dialog is brilliantly crafted, perfectly vivid, exactly appropriate, layered and nuanced… and it just sounds right. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

This online tutorial from Writers Digest will help!

 

 

 

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GALEN STOOD UP. “LEAD WITH ACTION!”

First of all, be extremely cautious around “trendy” writing advice. If someone tells you that, for instance, no one ever reads prologues so never write a prologue… well, that one I’ve already debunked. Another that keeps popping up is that you should never use any sort of dialog attribution, especially verbs of speaking, including said. Instead, the New Way of Doing Things is to (hopefully) make it clear who said a particular line of dialog by putting an action that character is doing right next to it. I think the theory behind this is that words like “said,” “asked,” or “replied” somehow slow down your readers or even amount to “telling” rather than “showing.”

Of course, that’s nonsense.

Certain words, said included, are read more like punctuation, indicating that a particular character said that or is about to say this in much the same way a period indicates the end of a sentence. It in no way slows down or pulls your reader out of the action. Unless, of course, your reader is somehow infected by this goofball idea and so then starts to see that word when they shouldn’t.

And yes, it is possible to read wrong.

I don’t like to live in an either-or world, so let’s keep both “she said” and “He stood up” in our writers’ toolkits. Sometimes action in place of dialog attribution absolutely is the better way to go, or at least is just as good. Now the trick becomes where to put it.

You might be surprised how often I see something like this:

“Look over there! Do you see that?” Bronwyn pointed up into the sky.

“What? You’ve never seen a dragon before?” Galen looked up then smiled.

“No, not the dragon, the B-52 bomber behind it!” Bronwyn slapped him on the shoulder.

“Oh… that’s… weird…” Galen looked again and blinked in surprise.

What’s wrong with that? We clearly see what’s going on here. We know who’s saying what. The dialog and actions of the characters are set apart in their own paragraphs, but…

It’s in the wrong order.

Whenever possible, action comes first.

Sometimes you point and say “Look!” at the same time. Sometimes you point then say, “Look!” Rarely, I think, do you say “Look,” and then point, but I think I could be convinced that’s possible. But even then, what if your readers don’t know from other context cues that this is Bronwyn speaking until she points—that does take your readers out of the action. Starting with Bronwyn in action carries into the dialog.

In the second sentence, Galen has to look up before he sees the dragon, which makes him smile. That happening after the dialog would indicate that he already knows there’s a dragon there. And again—that might be precisely what you want to convey, since he doesn’t see the airplane yet.

Then Bronwyn slaps him on the shoulder after she tells him about the plane. The order here makes the slap on the shoulder mean different things. Is she mad at him for thinking she’s amazed by a dragon or is she trying to turn his attention to the airplane?

The last sentence is the worst in that we hear Galen’s response then see it. He should look first, then he can speak and blink in surprise in whatever order.

Maybe it’s as easy as changing all but one line?

Bronwyn pointed up into the sky. “Look over there! Do you see that?”

“What? You’ve never seen a dragon before?” Galen looked up then smiled.

Bronwyn slapped him on the shoulder. “No, not the dragon, the B-52 bomber behind it!”

Galen looked again and blinked in surprise. “Oh… that’s… weird…”

I think it would read even better if it was mixed up some, and a little more atmosphere was added. Remember, good storytelling is a balance between what the characters are doing and why the characters are doing it—it’s personal more than procedural.

Bronwyn pointed up into the sky and screamed, “Look over there! Do you see that?”

Galen looked up, his hand going to his sword. Then he smiled when he saw the young wyrm hovering above the castle. “What? You’ve never seen a dragon before?”

Bronwyn slapped him on the shoulder. “No, not the dragon, the B-52 bomber behind it!”

Galen looked again and blinked in surprise. “Oh…” he breathed. The sun glinted off the straight silver wings of the rapidly approaching aircraft. “That’s…” he said, his voice lost to the growing roar of the engines, “weird…”

There’s more to this than learning one rule and strictly adhering to it. Mix it up—listen to what your characters are saying and see what they’re doing. The standard advice for writing dialog is to say it out loud. That can help—do that! But sometimes, you may have to stand up and act it out, too. Have fun with that if you write on a laptop at the local Starbucks.

“Look, Mommy,” the little girl said, pointing at the writer across the coffeeshop, “that man is dancing!”

The author mimed a brutal swing of an imaginary battle-axe. “Take that, orc scum!”

 

—Philip Athans

 

STARTS THIS WEEK!

Two weeks of intensive training in intense horror starts this coming Thursday October, 17 in my online Writers Digest University course Horror Writing Intensive: Analyzing the Work of Genre Master Stephen King.

 

 

 

 

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THE SPECTER PRIESTESS OF WRIGHTSTONE: EXPLORING WEIRD TALES Vol. 5, No. 1—PART 23

I continue to be amazed by the sheer volume of content contained in the January 1925 issue of Weird Tales, which has been keeping us busy for closing in on two dozen posts. Back in those days, fourteen years before Simon & Schuster introduced Pocket Books, not a lot of average everyday citizens could afford to buy books—at least, not a lot of books. But with a cover price of 25¢ (what is the equivalent of $3.67 in 2019) you get all this—enough to keep you busy until next month, or until another magazine comes out next week. When Pocket Books started publishing mass market paperbacks, their cover price was also 25¢, so Weird Tales, at least, was still a better value… at least in terms of quantity, if not always quality of fiction.

Though TV gets the lion’s share of the blame for the end of the pulp magazine era, the paperback book shares some of the responsibility (along with comic books), bringing literature to the Depression- and war-weary masses in a way that continues today. But even then, think about current mass market paperback prices. I looked up “mass market paperback best sellers” on Amazon, and found that cover prices for that trim size really haven’t gone up at all in the last ten years or so. The cover price for One Day at a Time by Danielle Steel is $8.99 (Amazon discounts it to $5.99, but that’s a weird tale for another time)—more costly in real dollars than 1925’s 25¢ pulp magazine with more or less the same number of words of, let’s go ahead and call it “low brow” entertainment fiction.

So, yeah, Weird Tales, 1925—a lot of bang for your quarter of a buck!

That aside, then, we’ve come to “The Specter Priestess of Wrightstone” by Herman F. Wright.

Here’s another author who seems to have no history. When I Googled him, the first hit was one of my own posts, starting this series looking at just the first and last sentences. The only work listed for him at ISFDB is this one. Short of launching a full investigation, it seems there’s nothing out there about Herman F. Wright. Though it is possible that Mr. Wright wrote a story, sent it in, it was accepted and published, then he died or decided not to write anymore (or…?), I have a feeling this was a pen name used once by some other author—and the author’s true identity has escaped the Internet.

This got me thinking… How cool would it be to write only under pen names, and with a different pen name every time? I’ve written as T.H. Lain and G.W. Tirpa before… how many more authors could I be?

In any case, it was extremely common for pulp authors to have different names for different genres or different magazines, or they’d come up with a different name to hide the fact that the same author wrote two (or more!) stories in the same issue of a single magazine.

Who was Herman F. Wright really?

Maybe it’s none of our business.

Hell, maybe this is Charles Dickens, recasting Scrooge as a butler!

Of course, Dickens died fifty-five years before this story was published, but maybe… it was his ghost!

The Ghost of Short Stories Future?

Probably not, but hey, pulp fiction inspires me to flights of weird fancy.

Here’s another theory: This is actually Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Maybe?

There’s the mention of a Sir Ernest Greystoke at the end…

Please actually follow the links to this story  and experience the curse of a druid priestess and the general weirdness of this tale for yourself. In style it definitely owes more to the traditional English ghost story in the tradition of M.R. James than it does the action-packed pulp tradition that was still in development in the mid-20s. This English gentleman has some problems with specters in his English estate, and in all ways, including the outright reference to Dickens, this is an English ghost story.

Herman F. Wright had a way with words, too. I love this bit:

The fiend has haunted the castle for generations, and an old legend tells that the specter can never be laid until two of the heads of the ruling family of Wrightstone have sacrificed their throbbing hearts to her gleaming scalpel.

Spooky!

And I want this printed on a t-shirt:

I am old, and age brings queer prognostications.

This is what I love about the written word in general. Essentially by accident of random happenstance, I’ve read your one and only published story, Herman F. Wright, on a device you could not have imagined in your time. I’ve heard you, and you’ve entertained and inspired me, ninety-four years into a future weirder than any of the tales in this magazine.

If you end up only ever writing one thing that’s published, the possibility exists that, in 2113, someone will find it, read it, love it, and do whatever version of “blogging” (which, I know, is already getting antiquated) might exist in that impossible to fathom future.

 

—Philip Athans

 

P.S. You gotta love the ad at the end of the story for a book by Houdini, no less, debunking spirit mediums. And look—it’s twice the price!

 

Starting Thursday October 17

Sign up now and let’s get “weird” together!

 

 

 

 

 

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