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

 

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

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

Link up with me on LinkedIn

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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

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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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

 

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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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

Link up with me on LinkedIn

Friend me on GoodReads

Find me at PublishersMarketplace

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

 

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A BRIEF HISTORY OF PULP FICTION

You know I’m a pulp fiction fan, and have led an online Pulp Fiction Workshop (and will again, I promise!). The following was written for that workshop, as part of additional material that I filtered out over the course of the workshop’s four-week run. I thought I’d repurpose it here, just to once again touch back on my love of the era of the classic American pulp fiction magazines, which spanned roughly the first half of the 20th century…

…until TV came along? Until the introduction of the mass market paperback book? Both? And also around the same time comic books went on the rise, there was a general wave of conservatism in post-war America, too, that took a dim view of the lurid cover art that would surely get you in trouble with Mom. The 50s also marked the rise of the “men’s magazine”—when some of the old pulps more or less morphed into “men’s adventure” magazines then into soft-core pornography that occasionally published fiction. Tastes and technology changes… sound familiar?

The “pulp” magazines got their name from the cheap newsprint or pulp paper they were printed on. This kept costs down, especially during the war years, but also meant that the magazines themselves were pretty fragile physical objects. You could practically rip a page by breathing on it, which is why it can be hard to find one in less than deplorable condition. I have a few in my own collection that flake apart if I take them out of their plastic bags.

That also tends to reveal what their publishers thought of them—these were more like weekly or monthly newspapers, and I doubt anyone thought there was any reason for them to survive past the release of the next issue.

The pulps covered the full spectrum of genres and though most were aimed at a male audience, there were dozens of romance titles for women, and despite a much more gender-defined culture, plenty of women reading the other genres as well. There were genres that essentially grew out of the pulps, were introduced in those pages, especially science fiction, and a couple that seem to have died along with the magazines, like air combat stories, which were all the rage beginning in World War I and trailing off at the end of World War II.

It’s safe to say that the pulp fiction magazine really began in 1882 with the publication of The Golden Argosy, which featured stories that today we’d call “steampunk.” There were railroad magazines with fiction to stir the imaginations of a still-developing nation even before that, and the old western dime novels all contributed to a popular thirst for adventure stories. With the Industrial Revolution came modern advertising—and the dollars necessary to fund more magazines, and more specialized magazines. This also helped publishers like the innovative Frank Munsey keep their cover prices low, so more and more of the new American middle class could easily buy in and get hooked. When Munsey dropped the cover price of his magazine to 10¢ 1893, the pulp era took off.

The 1910s

For me, at least, this pivotal second decade of the 20th century was clearly dominated by Edgar Rice Burroughs, who went on to become one of the most successful American writers of all time. Burroughs is certainly best known as the creator of Tarzan, who first appeared in the October 1912 issue of All-Story.

But I’m a particular fan of Burroughs’s science fiction—or maybe more appropriately “science fantasy”—particularly the series of stories and short novels that followed the adventures of John Carter, who inadvertently travels to Mars and finds an amazing world of adventure—and a princess to fall in love with. I promise you, you will never have more fun reading SF than A Princess of Mars! I’d go as far as to credit Burroughs with inventing the very concept of SF/fantasy worldbuilding. He created his own Mars (Barsoom) only very loosely grounded in the rather incomplete and inaccurate science of the time, and populated it with wonderfully plausible creatures and vast, ancient civilizations with complex cultures.

It was really in this decade that the “modern” pulp took wing. The hunger for fast, cheap entertainment made for a very crowded field as more and more magazines started to appear. Science fiction and fantasy in particular really started to form in this decade, again thanks to Edgar Rice Burroughs, but others as well. Stories were also starting to get more “gritty” to match some changing attitudes of the new industrial century and a world descending into the first mechanized war.

The Roaring 20s

Clearly the 1920s was the real Golden Age of pulps. With a solid foundation under it, pulps were ready when World War I veterans came home and not only wanted but deserved a break from years of brutal trench warfare. They wanted to have fun, and the Roaring 20s delivered in style.

For young men in the 20s, the pulps gave them more science fiction, horror, and war titles, all getting a bit more lurid, more over-the-top than fiction had ever been. For women, the romance pulps got racier and racier, helping to fuel a whole new sense of female empowerment. After all, ladies had just won the right to vote.

This decade also saw the birth of what are arguably the two greatest pulp magazines of all time. Though detective pulps launched some great, long-standing careers, the science fiction, fantasy, and horror authors that first started in the magazines Weird Tales (1923-1954) and Amazing Stories (1926-1960) became, almost to a man, the first generation of greats those genres have ever known. The list of authors who got their start in these pages and went on to incredible careers—and are still being read voraciously today—is absolutely astounding. Both of these magazines have been resurrected and are being published even as we speak. That isn’t something Basketball Stories can claim!

The Depression 30s

With the exception of the depression of 2008, publishing has always been considered a “recession proof” business. Cheap mass market paperbacks and e-books now, or pulp magazines then, cheap production and low cover prices made for a low cost per entertainment hour. And with no internet driving brick-and-mortar stores out of business, no TV drawing audience attention, pulp magazines were on sale everywhere and could be had for pocket change. So while much of the rest of the country was suffering, the pulps continued to boom. In fact, the 30s was the pulps’ peak period, with as many as forty-four monthly titles on sale at any given time.

The 30s also saw the rise of the single character titles, most famously Doc Savage and The Shadow. The latter was also a successful radio drama of the day—popular escapism during tough times.

This is also the period that saw an increase in so-called “spicy” pulps, even while the country itself seemed to be heading into more conservative times. As the middle of the decade saw war coming once again to Europe, the latter part of the 30s saw the introduction of new villains as the national enemy shifted from bootleggers and “Reds” to the very real menace of the Nazis.

The War-torn 40s

Pulp magazines started easing American readers into the idea of another World War starting several years before Pearl Harbor, but once war was declared they tended to go all in. The pulps’ peak times continued all through the 1940s, while the war raged.

The pulps’ generally racist attitudes quickly shifted away from African and generic Asian villains to dive full-speed ahead into the race war that was raging across the Pacific. It’s a troubling and revealing time in American history and one the pulps fully embraced. We were fighting a war in Europe not against Germans but against Nazis. In the Pacific, we were fighting against the “Japs.” Japanese Americans were put in internment camps. German Americans (like my German immigrant grandfather) were not. I’ll let you puzzle over that on your own.

It was also the war years that were responsible for the current rarity of surviving copies of pulp magazines and comic books from that era and before. Mass paper drives were held where patriotic citizens were encouraged to turn in old newspapers and magazines for the war effort. This is, as much as the poor quality of the paper and the general lack of a sense by even their most devoted readers that these monthly magazines would ever be worth more than their ten cent cover prices, is why so few pulp magazines survive to this day.

Through the war years the pulps remained a little less “spicy” and became more “thrilling.” As the war came to a close and the GIs returned, the pulps responded with what would eventually be their final incarnation…

Farewell from the 50s

Chaucer told us that all good things must come to an end, and for what’s commonly known as the era of the classic American pulp magazines, that end came not with a bang, but with a whimper over the course of the 1950s.

Once again the country saw another shift in its culture, a sort of cuddling up with itself as a way to deal with the horrors of World War II and the uncertainty of a world in which we were all of a sudden expected to lead. The Cold War set aside the Nazis and the Japanese in favor of the dastardly communists, who attacked in ways both overt and subtle, as in Jack Finney’s classic novel The Body Snatchers. Here was an enemy dead-set on turning us into a race of mindless drones… which from the perspective of a few decades could be read as more of a warning against the homogenizing of American culture in the McCarthy Era than any Marxist nightmare.

In any case, by the middle fifties there were fewer than ten monthly magazines left, mostly publishing science fiction that was quickly leaving the pulp “space opera” tradition in the rearview mirror. Authors like Philip K. Dick and Ray Bradbury were bringing a literary bent to the genre and the so-called “hard” science fiction authors like Isaac Asimov and Frederick Pohl introduced a scientific rigor to the process that would surely have stumped some of their pulp predecessors.

You can also see a bigger gap form between the much less lurid, more “family-friendly” magazines and the rise of the new men’s magazines. That line between fun stories for kids and soft-core pornography for adults turned into a true no man’s land. And, of course, there was television, which jumped onto the pulp genres with early shows like The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents (many episodes of both series were based on stories published in the pulps), The Lone Ranger and dozens of other westerns, as well as daily soap operas for the romance fans—all of which siphoned audiences away from the pulp magazines.

And so there we are, with an amazingly rich tradition of fiction of varying levels of literary quality, and a small army of authors still read and appreciated decades later.

—Philip Athans

 

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SOME THOUGHTS ON HORROR

All fiction is shared experience. Authors reach out to some unknown other people, across time and distance, and say: “I felt this.” We look to horror in the same way we look to all genres of fiction, to experience what it’s like to be that character in that time and place, under those circumstances. So then, how weird is it that so many of us read horror fiction—willingly, even gleefully entering into a shared experience of horror, terror, and all the negative emotions that conjures up? Why do we want to, like to, even need to be scared?

According to Pam Weintraub in “Our Age of Horror,”

Horror is what anthropologists call biocultural. It is about fears we carry because we are primates with a certain evolved biology: the corruption of the flesh, the loss of our offspring. It is also about fears unique to our sociocultural moment: the potential danger of genetically modifying plants. The first type of fear is universal; the second is more flexible and contextual. Their cold currents meet where all great art does its work, down among the bottomless caves on the seabed of consciousness. Lurking here, a vision of myself paralysed in the dirt, invisible to those I love.

This sounds to me like what we’re really afraid of is being alone. That’s not too difficult to imagine, since we humans are definitely social animals, depending on some version of a tribe or pack for our survival going all the way back to the African savannah. That said, it’s not surprising that so much horror depends on a small set of characters cut off from the larger community of humans, the modern support structure of emergency first responders, then being picked off one by one, so our pack keeps getting small until, in some of the most effective cases (think Alien), we get down to one lone survivor.

In his brilliant book Tentacles Longer Than Night, Eugene Thacker wrote:

It’s all in your head. It really happened. These mutually exclusive statements mark out the terrain of the horror genre. And yet, everything interesting happens in the middle, in the wavering between these two poles—a familiar reality that is untenable, and an acknowledged reality that is impossible.

So then it might be that we’re afraid of losing touch with our closely held beliefs. This can’t happen, this can’t be happening, how is this happening? I wrote a bit more on that, what I called the persistence of the logical. I, personally, do not believe in ghosts. If I were to find myself in a real haunting I can’t see ever believing it, actually. The ghost would eat my soul even while I continued to reject that there’s even such a thing as a soul. I will be of no help to you in the seance. But if I was trapped in the supermarket in The Mist, I would accept that there are weird animals I’ve never heard of before and they are dangerous, then would act accordingly. But even then, I love horror that takes my closely held beliefs and rejects them up front. I like stories of demonic possession and hauntings as much as I like stories of magic and gods and aliens—and maybe, as Emily Asher-Perrin asserts in “The Peril of Being Disbelieved: Horror Fiction and the Intuition of Women,”:

Horror exists as a genre primarily to reflect the ugly and the despicable parts of our world back at us through a funhouse lens that makes the trauma digestible. Most fans of horror know this and will tell you so; Frankenstein is about the terrifying possibilities that science and technology might visit on us; Invasion of the Body Snatchers told the story of what happened to a world beset by McCarthyism and Cold War anxieties; Get Out has shown us how the racism of white liberals is every bit as menacing as its more vitriolic counterpart. Some of these lessons are cautionary, which explains all the teenaged kids making bad spring break choices. But some of these lessons are simply mirror images of terrors we know all too well—like a girl telling someone that she isn’t comfortable, and being told in response that she’s the worst kind of downer for daring to admit it.

So then, like both fantasy and science fiction, horror isn’t separate from the real world. Like every fantasy world from the mythology-inspired Middle Earth to the history plus D&D hack and slash of Westeros, and every imagined future from the hopeful socialist utopia of Star Trek to the dystopian crypto-fascist England of 1984, every horror story says things like: “Look how fragile our world is,” or “What would you do if…?” or “Communism is like being made into a pod person, stripped of your essential humanity.”

Though we may not all share certain specific Cold War Era fears, once we start making those things less specific, they start being more evenly applied. Invasion of the Body Snatchers still works not because we’re afraid of the Soviets but of course we’d all recoil from any mechanism of transformation that threatens to rob us of our individuality, our treasured relationships, our creative and emotional lives. And this goes even deeper once we start to look out into a flatly uncaring universe.

In a letter from to Farnsworth Wright dated July 5, 1927, quoted in the book In the Dust of This Planet by Eugene Thacker, H.P. Lovecraft explained something of his own motivation in writing characters with similar xenophobic worldviews to his own:

Now all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large. To me there is nothing but puerility in a tale in which the human form—and the local human passions and conditions and standards—are depicted as native to other worlds or other universes. To achieve the essence of real externality, whether of time or space or dimension, one must forget that such things as organic life, good and evil, love and hate, and all such local attributes of a negligible and temporary race called mankind, have any existence at all… but when we cross the line to the boundless and hideous unknown—the shadow-haunted Outside—we must remember to leave our humanity and terrestrialism at the threshold.

Okay, so Lovecraft wouldn’t have been a Trekkie.

Author Victor LaValle picked up on this concept brilliantly in The Ballad of Black Tom, using this idea of humanity’s insignificance before the cosmic horror to motivate his villain:

When the sun rose, Robert Suydam concluded with one final piece of wisdom. He retrieved the stone from his pocket again. This time he pressed the rock into Tommy’s palm.

“How much did this stone matter to you, to your existence, before you picked it up to use it on those boys who followed you? That’s how little humanity’s silly struggles matter to the Sleeping King. When he returns, all the petty human evils, such as the ones visited on your people, will be swept away by his mighty hand. Isn’t that marvelous? And what will become of those of us who are left? The ones who helped him. Think of the rewards. I know you’re a man who believes in such things, and you’re smart enough to make sure they come to you.”

In Writing Monsters, and all over this blog, I point out that monsters of the mindless animal variety, like zombies, are really a force of nature, an ongoing natural (or supernatural) disaster, and the story is in the effect that disaster has on a group of characters. Some will rise to the occasion and behave heroically, some will let fear or ambition take hold and become villains.

So what if the universe doesn’t give a shit about you and is as likely to sterilize the Earth with a random gamma ray burst as to open its riches to the galaxy-spanning United Federation of Planets? Horror tends to say: This is bad—the world and the people in it as scary. And that can be true, but one more quote, this one from Frank Sinatra: “You only go around once, but if you play your cards right, once is enough.”

Terrible things might want to eat you. You’ve been warned. Now, what is that going to tell us about you?

—Philip Athans

Follow me on Twitter @PhilAthans

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INSPIRATIONAL WORDS ABOUT INSPIRATION

“Coming up with ideas is the easiest thing on earth. Putting them down is the hardest.”

Rod Serling

What inspires us to write?

What inspired this story idea or inspired you to sit down that day and write something… anything?

Often in this blog I tackle issues of craft. This is the “how to” stuff that can help authors write more clearly, avoid falling into or perpetuating unnecessary rules and strictures, and otherwise learn the rules of grammar, punctuation, usage, and so on. That’s the teachable stuff, the stuff you can actually attend a writing class and learn, that you can sit down and practice, even if sometimes it gets complicated. Things like limited viewpoint third person ties more than a few inexperienced writers in all sorts of knots.

But of course there’s more to fiction (of any genre) than the craft of writing. We all get through the process of learning to write a sentence fairly quickly. At least some of what you learned in high school English class does actually translate. Where and how to “come up with an idea,” or the eternal, and eternally unanswerable question, “is this a good idea?” may remain forever elusive.

Let’s see if anyone out there can shed some light on the mystery of inspiration…

In the introduction to “The Intuitive Thing: Ray Bradbury on the Arts,” author Sam Weller tells this story of the subject of his interview:

LOS ANGELES: The Santa Ana winds blew dry and hot. Ray Bradbury sat in the front seat of a town car, headed south on the 405 Freeway. As the automobile approached an overpass, Bradbury looked out the windshield at the roadway above. Painted along the side was a mural of graffiti art: a swirling black tag of graceful letters, illegible at 60 miles per hour, all surrounded by a splash of vibrant spray-painted color.

“That’s wonderful!” Bradbury remarked, just catching a glimpse of the illegal artwork before the car passed beneath it. “I wonder how those artists hang from the overpasses to do that?” 

A few days later, Bradbury sat down to write the short story, “Ole, Orozco! Siqueiros, Si!,” a tale about a Los Angeles graffiti artist who dies while hanging from an overpass. The story would go on to be published in the collection The Cat’s Pajamas

This is how Bradbury worked. Art and literature of all kinds influenced him: from graffiti to comic strips, fine art, film scores, architecture, and more. 

I love this story. This says, clearly: be open to anything and everything. Where does and idea come from, where and how are we inspired to write? Anything. Everywhere. The entire world around us a giant mishmash of writing prompts.

And as Truman Capote experienced himself, we should remain open to inspiration all along the way—not just get an idea and slavishly cleave to it with our brains shut down.

I invariably have the illusion that the whole play of a story, its start and middle and finish, occur in my mind simultaneously—that I’m seeing it in one flash. But in the working-out, the writing-out, infinite surprises happen. Thank God, because the surprise, the twist, the phrase that comes at the right moment out of nowhere, is the unexpected dividend, that joyful little push that keeps a writer going.

At one time I used to keep notebooks with outlines for stories. But I found doing this somehow deadened the idea in my imagination. If the notion is good enough, if it truly belongs to you, then you can’t forget it—it will haunt you till it’s written.

And here, again, the weird, the ephemeral, the impossible to teach or to quantify: “it will haunt you till it’s written.” That’s not something you can read a book—or this blog post—and acquire. I think inspiration, in a larger sense, is built into all of us. I write about writers writing, but inspiration for a killer app can come to a software designer from anywhere, too. Any human pursuit will be some part craft and some part art. Some part objective, some part subjective.

And of course even being open to new ideas can only take an idea so far. In Never Say You Can’t Survive Charlie Jane Anders wrote:

There’s no shame whatsoever in writing five sentences (or five pages) of a story before deciding that it’s not going to click after all—you’ll know you’ve found “the one” when it keeps popping into your head, and you keep thinking of more places you could go with it. Plus, sometimes you’ll come back to one of those stories you started, and suddenly have a great idea of how to finish it. I’ve put plenty of half-finished stories aside, only to come back years later and find my way to the end of them.

So it may take some unknowable length of time for the sort of inspiration-along-the-way that Capote talked about to show up, or at least to show up in a constructive way that solves a specific problem you’ve run into in a work in progress.

That only leaves the question: “Is this a good idea?” I wrote about that in a bit more detail just recently, and in the end, I think Samuel Taylor Coleridge pretty much nailed it 204 years ago in Biographia Literaria:

The prerogative of poetic genius (is) to distinguish by parental instinct its proper offspring from the changelings, which the gnomes of vanity or the fairies of fashion may have laid in its cradle or called by its names.

At some point, you just… know.

 

—Philip Athans

 

Follow me on Twitter @PhilAthans

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