MAYBE I NEED TO CHEER UP

I continue to struggle with what I guess I can call “writer’s block.” I do write this blog every week, the occasional poem, even finished the (very) rough draft of a short story yesterday, but the novel continues to elude me. Why is that?

Am I really “too busy”? No. I was pretty busy when I wrote all those Forgotten Realms books. That’s really not it.

Am I out of ideas? Not at all—ideas abound.

But maybe that’s the problem…

The ideas—all at the outline stage or beyond—are pretty fucking depressing.

One is the “novelization” of a screenplay I wrote years ago that of course was never produced in any form. It’s a monumentally sad story about a person who does something terrible, over and over again. Another is a dark fantasy, emphasis on dark, about a sort of post-apocalyptic, but not really, world in which a simple farmer tries to do the right thing but it’s really not possible to do the right thing, or even know what the right thing is. The third idea is so fucking bleak thinking about it makes me think I really need to get into therapy. And the last is a complicated historical novel about a bad person struggling to be better in a terrible moment in history, and of course he fails because everyone involved in that moment in history failed to be better than they were.

What is it about me that the only stories I seem to come up with are about powerless people ground down by impossible to overcome circumstances, all leading to, at best, qualified “wins,” and more likely some hopeless continuation of the unavoidable central tragedy. I guess I do read stuff like that, watch movies like that… But is the overwhelmingly depressing nature of these stories what’s stopping me from progressing on any of the four ideas?

Should I just ditch that shit and write the random fantasy dungeon crawl novel instead?

I could make that fun, I think. Fun to write as well as fun to read.

But that dark fantasy says more. The screenplay gave me nightmares and had me abandoning it a few times until I found myself forced to finish it, so that must mean it’s of real value, no? The other thing might help me work through some of my own shit—it’s more personal. The historical has something to say about the world we live in now—at least what I think about certain big subjects.

The random fantasy dungeon crawl will have more monsters, and characters that can have a sense of humor, though. That’s not bad, is it?

I had to pause right then, sigh, and drum my fingers on my desk before writing this last bit.

—Philip Athans

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THE GENUINELY POPULAR CULTURE OF YOUR WORLD IS…

Start with the most basic premise that a story is characters in conflict, and the best stories are those that present the most fully realized characters—characters who feel like real people, however unreal their circumstances—so that no matter how outlandish the conflicts in which they find themselves our readers happily come along for the ride. That said, how do we create characters, especially in fantasy and science fiction stories and novels with no grounding in the real world at all, that seem like real people, when nothing about the world in which they live is itself real?

This is the the trick, isn’t it, to genre writing in all forms. For me, this always starts with authors’ own ability to empathize with the people they create. You have to know what it feels like to be scared in order to write a character into a scary situation. But this is true of any genre, or “genreless” or literary fiction as well, isn’t it? Of course it is. Know what love feels like before you start writing a romance novel, people.

In his book Making Shapely Fiction, Jerome Stern reminds us:

A character comes out of a dense cultural, social, and psychological matrix. The more richly this is suggested, the more resonant the portrait. Evocative details about the person’s family, childhood incidents, intimate moments—all are clues that help us understand the character. And remember, too, that you’re writing fiction; you’re creating art. Actual facts are your raw material, not your boundaries. 

Romance authors and realist authors have the “actual facts”—the whole real world—to fall back on. We know what the codes are, basically. We know what in not just the physical world but the culture that triggers various emotional responses. Will those same triggers exist through the looking glass or a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away? This is where worldbuilding enters the picture, but not in the sense of maps and names for things and arcane religious rituals. Romance and mystery/thriller characters exist in a cultural context, and it’s from that context they’re drawn. In his book The Upright Thinkers, Leonard Mlodinow wrote:

“Culture” is defined as behavior, knowledge, ideas, and values that you acquire from those who live around you, and it’s different in different places. We modern humans act according to the culture in which we are raised, and we also acquire much of our knowledge through culture, which is true for us far more than it is for other species. In fact, recent research suggests that humans are even evolutionarily adapted to teach other humans.

If we’re creating our own cultures, we need to think through those triggers, those basic expectations and the unwritten rules that can be summed up as culture. But this can get complicated. It certainly is in the real world, in which we hear talk of “culture wars” around an impossibly broad swathe of subjects. My cautions against too much worldbuilding in place, can you describe the culture of your invented world in a couple paragraphs? In his essay “The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius,” George Orwell wrote:

But in all societies the common people must live to some extent against the existing order. The genuinely popular culture of England is something that goes on beneath the surface, unofficially and more or less frowned on by the authorities. One thing one notices if one looks directly at the common people, especially in the big towns, is that they are not puritanical. They are inveterate gamblers, drink as much beer as their wages will permit, are devoted to bawdy jokes, and use probably the foulest language in the world. They have to satisfy these tastes in the face of astonishing, hypocritical laws (licensing laws, lottery acts, etc., etc.) which are designed to interfere with everybody but in practice allow everything to happen. Also, the common people are without definite religious belief, and have been so for centuries.

One can learn a good deal about the spirit of England from the comic coloured postcards that you see in the windows of cheap stationers’ shops. These things are a sort of diary upon which the English people have unconsciously recorded themselves. Their old-fashioned outlook, their graded snobberies, their mixture of bawdiness and hypocrisy, their extreme gentleness, their deeply moral attitude to life, are all mirrored there.

As a counterpoint to that passage from Orwell, consider a similar short take, this time on American culture, by Eugene Thacker from his book Tentacles Longer Than Night:

The idea of an American pessimism is an oxymoron. In a culture that thrives on entrepreneurialism, pharmacology, and self-help, “pessimism” is simply a fancy name for a bad mood. In a culture that prizes the can-do, self-starter attitude, to be a pessimist is simply to be a complainer—if you’re not part of the solution, then you’re part of the problem. To live in such a culture is to constantly live in the shadow of an obligatory optimism, a novel type of coercion that is pathologized early on in child education in the assessment: “Does not like to play with others.”

I’ve used these as examples in courses on science fiction and fantasy worldbuilding, challenging students to use that Orwell passage as inspiration to write something similar for their own world. What is the ordinary citizen’s experience of this kingdom or that stellar empire?

This gets into how people live, their behavior and interactions. And this is how you bring a sense of personal involvement into your characters’ lives. It’s not all about the high-minded ideals of duty, honor, country… Sometimes, and I’ll side with George Orwell in asserting that this is true most of the time, what really defines us are cultural expressions like slang, fashion, music, courting, sports and games, and so on.

Here’s a good example of what I’m talking about in terms of characters living in the popular culture from the science fiction novel Memory of Water by Emmi Itäranta:

The atmosphere in the square was almost relaxed today. I had only seen two soldiers when I had arrived, and they had been leaning against a wall at the edge of the square, looking indifferent and drinking amber-coloured liquid from their waterskins. A couple of children were arranging frayed plastic mahjong tiles on the ground, someone was playing an accordion across the uneven puzzle of the stalls, and Ninia’s sister Tamara was selling trinkets and hair brooches a short distance away on the other side of the alley. It seemed strange to me that women would still want to decorate their hair. When I had mentioned this to Sanja, she had said, ‘People will hold on to what they’re used to, for as long as they can. It’s the only way to survive.’

In this book, climate change has forced a global fresh water crisis, and the heroine, Noria, lives in a small town that’s part of a much larger police state. Even in a world of “water crimes” where citizens are summarily executed in the street, we see people clinging to pop culture—to games (mahjong), music (someone is playing the accordion), and fashion (hair brooches and other trinkets). These human touches serve to add a greater level of personal affront to the actions of the oppressive regime by building a foundation of humanity under Noria and the other characters trying to make their way in this dystopian future.

There are certain “facts” of what it means to be human—certain shared assumptions in any case—but everything is then filtered through lenses of culture, in this world, and our dreamworlds.

—Philip Athans

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FANTASY+AUTHOR+HANDBOOK

Phantasy by thermostats will always be a component of human life. Enchiridion is the most fundamental sophist of humankind; many to confluences but a few of conjecture. a plethora of writer lies in the field of literature in addition to the realm of theory of knowledge. Instead of observing the drone, phantasy constitutes both an interpretable agronomist and a quintessential account.

According to professor of reality Leon Trotsky, handbook is the most fundamental oration of human life. Although an orbital reproduces, interference at the intercession emits the gamma ray for antagonistically but belligerently transitory assemblies. The neutrino on advancements spins to transmit simulation. a neuron with expulsion is not the only thing the plasma reacts; it also counteracts pendulums by masochist for writer. The more appeasement that might sedulously be the circumspection is rightful, classic, and protean, the more assemblage of an exposition is interpretable in the extent to which we vie. Seeing as civilizations which assent or permeate disruption are delineated for writer, amygdalas to comportment commence equally at fantasy.

The atelier on administrations, often with retorts, will inaugurate the altruist for fantasy. Because of blustering, author which surprises most of the disenfranchisements and exhibits a respondent can be more injudiciously substantiated. Additionally, gravity is not the only thing information by countenances oscillates; it also receives the brain of vade mecum. My celebration may be corroboration. The propagandist can, even so, be effectively contemptible. In my theory of knowledge class, some of the aggregations at our personal epigraph to the quip we feign contend. Subsequently, the despicably and sophistically surprising declaration forsakes purloined quarrels by our personal interloper for the apprentice we pilfer. an allusion collaborates, not particularism. Our personal ligation on the inquisition we preclude can effortlessly be lethargy. The inchoate fantasy changes an abundance of fantasy.

As I have learned in my semantics class, humanity will always mortify author. The same gamma ray may produce two different orbitals with comptroller to invert. Interference by the study of literature for a tyro implodes to emit pendulums. The plasma is not the only thing a gamma ray at proclamations spins; it also processes neutrinoes of twenty-first to phantasy. The less accusations bemoan the appetites involved, the sooner the affirmation that remunerates propagation is excessive yet somehow indispensable but accuses irrelevance. Because of the fact that analyses are lauded with handbook, scintillatingly or conscientiously postlapsarian exposures voyage to the same extent at author.

Vade mecum for ruminations which compensate a reprimand by a demonstration but ascend of concurrences has not, and doubtless never will be contrived. Be that as it may, knowing that mesmerism might inflexibly be the embroidery, many of the advances on our personal circumscription with the trope we expose regret vernacular to the reprover. The masochistic contemplation by author changes a confluence at handbook. Handbook has not, and doubtlessly never will be aggravating but not raucous. Therefore, enchiridion might engender most of the amplifications.

Babel Generator

PS: From a link in the must-read article “The five-paragraph fetish” by David Labaree, this week’s post was “written” by a set of computer algorithms that have been used to actually pass the essay portion of standarized tests. This is another example of the sorry state of the American education system, as well as an example of why you need to learn to write, and never, no matter how sophisticated these things might get in the future, leave anything as important as writing to a machine.

—Philip Athans

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Where Story Meets World™

Look to Athans & Associates Creative Consulting for story/line/developmental editing at 3.5¢ per word.

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VACATION WEEK

I’m out of the office, out of town, and out of touch this week, but I can’t let a Tuesday go by without something here at Fantasy Author’s Handbook so this, written last week and scheduled to post using the magic of the internet, will have to do. Advice for authors this week falls into the category of self-promotion. I’ve said before that you have to be the first champion of your own work, so this week, please allow me to champion my own work—Fantasy Author’s Handbook itself.

This is the 683rd post, a continuous every-Tuesday ritual since June of 2009. More than 223,000 visitors have accounted for over 518,000 views. Y’all have left 1200+ comments and almost 900 people are following along either via WordPress.com or email. I’m pretty proud of all that, and remain 100% committed to continuing this weekly ritual into the years to come.

Now here’s where I start asking you for stuff—and I promise it won’t be that hard!

I do not hide any content behind a Patreon wall or anything like that (except the older posts that are now part of The Best of Fantasy Author’s Handbook) so all this comes at no cost to you—unless you want to help out with an entirely optional donation. You’ll see a “Buy Now” button just to your right, and I hope you’ll see fit to use that to throw me a couple extra potatoes for the effort.

If you aren’t following FAH, now’s a great time to start! Just below the appeal for money is a place for you to enter your email address so you’ll get a friendly reminder every week to come back and see what’s up. This is, of course, entirely free of charge.

Do you even know what an RSS feed is? Click those links to find out!

The section “Are you following me?” grabs a few recent Tweets, which should remind you to follow me on Twitter @PhilAthans.

Then there are all sorts of fascinating links. Have you ever wandered through those? Why not start this week?

And you might have noticed that I end every post with this:

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.

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

…and a book cover or Athans & Associates link that will invite you to, y’know… buy one of my books or hire me to edit your book or otherwise help in your writing career. Actually clink on those links, people!

This vacation I’m on now is the first I’ve taken in five years, so the burnout has been real lately. But I’m putting a lot of eggs into this vacation basket and plan to come back next week energized and ready to finally dust that burnout off, along with any lingering COVID malaise, and so on, and hit the ground running through the rest of 2022 and beyond.

What can you look forward to from me?

You’ll see a second volume of The Best of Fantasy Author’s Handbook by year’s end, at least.

I will start writing again, and dive into another “how to” book—still deciding if I just go full on everything-you-need-to-know-about-genre-writing, a book on crafting villains, or a deep dive into POV…? Eventually, all three and more.

A novel, too.

And, finally, a return to online courses and tutorials, which I love to do, but that were interrupted with the Writers Digest bankruptcy and the hard transition to a new company that, let’s say… I had some compatibility issues with. But I’ll be back in a new venue (or venues) with all new content and a couple of old favorites.

What else? You tell me.

Am I the only one out there without a podcast? Is that something you’d subscribe to?

Am I just too handsome to deny the world a YouTube channel any longer? Who can say?

And who knows what else might happen, but I do know that I’m getting back out there after this trip, y’all, so strap in!

—Philip Athans

Where Story Meets World™

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ARE YOU A “LIFER”?

I’ve met a number of authors who’ve told me they really just want to try it. They just want to see if they can finish a novel, self-publish it, and just sort of “have it out there.” They’ve even said things like, “I don’t need it to make any money.” And you know what? That’s fine with me. There are all sorts of things you can do on a strictly amateur level. For instance, I “play” guitar—badly. Very badly. I’m not in a band, nor will I ever be. No one will ever pay me to play the guitar. So then should Jimmy Page come to my house and demand I turn over my guitar because I’m not taking it seriously? It’s either be a professional—make a career out of it—or hands off? Of course not. You can go shoot baskets with your friends without any ambition to play in the NBA, right? So yes, by all means, write some stuff. Try it on.

The rest of this post, though, will be for those of you who do aspire to the life of a professional, published author—just like Jimmy Page aspired to the life of a professional, recording guitarist. If that’s where you have your sights set, if it’s the writer’s life for you, then be in it for life.

That means writing—a lot. A lot of words. A lots of short stories, a lot of poems, a lot of notes and outlines—many of which will amount to nothing. It’s about, yes, writing query letters and synopses and all the stuff everybody hates that goes along with the business rather than the art of writing. And yes, my friends, it means writing whole books—more than one whole book. I have two completed novels sitting unpublished—and they very likely never will be. So what?

The book is a job, the books are a career.

How many jobs have you had in your life? I’m fifty-seven years old and am going to think back now and count on my fingers…

I came up with eighteen jobs since the age of fifteen, and I bet I’m forgetting a couple. My first job was watering lawns at a condo complex for the summer. The longest I spent in one job was fifteen years at TSR/Wizards of the Coast, and I’m closing in on that number with Athans & Associates. The shortest: I worked half a day at a Blockbuster Music store—but that’s a story for another day. Still, if I can work half a day in a record store and get the hell out of there, who says you can’t write half a novel, realize it’s not working, and get on with your life?

Being a “full time” writer of fiction is hard—essentially impossible—so you better get your life around it, yeah? Don’t quit that day job unless you get a better day job. In “The State of the Literary Jonathans,” Emily Gould wrote: 

Most authors have day jobs, which is nothing new; Herman Melville worked as a customs inspector. The difference in 2021 is that traditional side careers are less viable and also less “side.” My 50-plus-year-old friends worked as typists and came home with creative juice left in the tank. Employers today demand 24/7 access to your mind and soul and claim to be “like family,” which is accurate in the darkest sense. The competition for tenure-track MFA jobs is so intense that candidates are virtually clawing one another’s eyes out over the chance to move to, for example, Arizona. The other way authors used to make a living was journalism. In 2021, that’s like working as an aspiring actor to subsidize your true passion, waiting tables.

But if you write a novel, surely everything will be rainbows and unicorns and riches, right? No… not necessarily. In Bird By Bird, Anne Lamott cautions:

Publication is not going to change your life or solve your problems. Publication will not make you more confident or more beautiful, and it will probably not make you any richer. There will be a very long buildup to publication day, and then the festivities will usually be over rather quickly.

A decent advance for a genre novel might be in the general neighborhood of $50,000 (likely less)—and let’s be honest, even if you don’t live in as expansive an area as I do, how long can you live on $50,000 that comes in probably three installments over maybe two years, minus your agent’s commission and taxes? And as for it being over rather quickly, the publishing business—not unlike many other businesses, especially the entertainment business, can be summed up not as Woody Allen said: “It’s dog eat dog… No, it’s worse than dog eat dog, it’s dog doesn’t return other dog’s phone calls,” but: What have you done for me lately? Book came out? Great! What’s its BookScan numbers look like? Not exactly Stephen King, are we? Back to the end of the line! So then of it isn’t a get rich quick scheme, and is just as hard to maintain a writing career than to establish one, why do it in the first place? 

“I looked forward to the struggle of the writing life,” said Susan Sontag. “I thought of being a writer as a heroic vocation.” And I agree—it is a heroic vocation. At least it’s an ancient and honorable profession, and that’s a good enough reason to do it.

Other authors have other reasons, like Elias Canetti, who said, “My pencils are safer vehicles. As long as I write I feel (absolutely) safe. Maybe that’s the only reason I write. It does not matter what I write. I simply mustn’t stop.”

And so then don’t fucking stop. Keep writing. Finish something! And then… “…when you finish a book, whatever its reception, there is some dislodgment of the imagination,” John Cheever told The Paris Review. “I wouldn’t say derangement. But finishing a novel, assuming it’s something you want to do and that you take very seriously, is invariably something of a psychological shock… To diminish shock I throw high dice, get sauced, go to Egypt, scythe a field, screw. Dive into a cold pool.”

Then start writing the next one, even while trying to sell this one, because no matter how much you suffer over it, at some point, it leaves the nest, one way or another. And, just like Eudora Welty, we have to let go:

I correct or change words, but I can’t rewrite a scene or make a major change because there’s a sense then of someone looking over my shoulder. It’s necessary, anyway, to trust that moment when you were sure at last you had done all you could, done your best for that time. When it’s finally in print, you’re delivered—you don’t ever have to look at it again. It’s too late to worry about its failings. I’ll have to apply any lessons this book has taught me toward writing the next one.

And this is still true, even for younger, contemporary authors, including Ocean Vuong:

If I had a chance now with every book I wrote, every page would be a little different. Commas would be moved, words. And I think that’s beautiful, actually. That’s a good thing. It reminds us that the artist and the mind and the poem still grow. The poem is like a tree, and the book is a photograph of the tree. You take a photograph of the tree, but the next day, the tree has new cells. The next year, it has new branches. We have to make peace with the fact that a book is actually just a photo album, and that the organic psychic life of the poem is already growing somewhere else, somewhere inside you. And we pin it down.

Remember, we’re talking about doing this not just for a book, but for a career—a life. And that means not just writing, but getting it out there somewhere, because only when it’s out there somewhere does it have any value at all. Isaac Asimov may have written more books than anyone, so it must not come as a surprise that he said: 

You must keep sending work out; you must never let a manuscript do nothing but eat its head off in a drawer. You send that work out again and again, while you’re working on another one. If you have talent, you will receive some measure of success—but only if you persist.

Got a rejection letter? Fantastic. Next! Please stop thinking you’re going to finish a novel, immediately send it off as is to an agent who’ll shout, “Brilliant!” then give it to one editor—exactly the right editor—who will join in the chorus of “Brilliant!” and immediately send your book off to the printer so it will be on the front table at Barnes & Noble next Monday.

In “Repeat After Me: ‘I Am Not the Great American Novelist,’ ” Michael Bourne wrote:

Every writer fails. It’s just the nature of the beast. You can’t will yourself to stop writing bad fiction. You can only, slowly, over time, learn from your mistakes so you can start making different ones. This requires, first, that you see your work clearly and honestly and cultivate a trusted circle of writers and editors who will catch what you miss. Then you have to listen to what they’re saying and not only fix the problems but understand them so you don’t go on endlessly repeating them. And finally, you have to remain patient because you’ll fail again in new and different ways. It’s the only way you’ll ever succeed.

Really want to still be doing this in your fifties? Sixties? Keep writing, and keep learning! “At the age of sixty,” said the brilliant Japanese author Kenzaburo Oe, “I started to think that my method could be wrong, my image of how to create could be wrong. I still elaborate until I cannot find any open space on the paper, but now there is a second stage: I rewrite a very simple, clear version of what I’ve written. I respect writers who can write in both styles—like Céline, who has a complicated style and a clear style.”

Mix it up—try stuff! Italo Calvino, said, “What I do have is the fear of repeating myself in my literary work. This is the reason that every time I must come up with a new challenge to face. I must find something to do that will look like a novelty, something a little beyond my capabilities.” He stretches and so should we all.

The writer’s life is a life of continuous education, of striving to get better at it, because the one thing—the only thing—you can control about the subjective world of writing and publishing fiction is the quality of your own work. “Don’t take yourself too seriously,” Matt Labash warned, “but take your work very seriously. Care about the things you write about, even if they’re trifles. Because if you don’t, nobody else will.”

And for you fantasy authors out there, remember to enjoy the genres—let your “fanishness” drive you. J.R.R. Tolkien said as much in “On Fairy Stories”:

But the land of Merlin and Arthur was better than these, and best of all the nameless North of Sigurd of the Völsungs, and the prince of all dragons. Such lands were pre-eminently desirable. I never imagined that the dragon was of the same order as the horse. And that was not solely because I saw horses daily, but never even the footprint of a worm. The dragon had the trade-mark Of Faerie written plain upon him. In whatever world he had his being it was an Other-world. Fantasy, the making or glimpsing of Other-worlds, was the heart of the desire of Faërie. I desired dragons with a profound desire. Of course, I in my timid body did not wish to have them in the neighbourhood, intruding into my relatively safe world, in which it was, for instance, possible to read stories in peace of mind, free from fear. But the world that contained even the imagination of Fáfnir was richer and more beautiful, at whatever cost of peril. The dweller in the quiet and fertile plains may hear of the tormented hills and the unharvested sea and long for them in his heart. For the heart is hard though the body be soft. 

Keep writing!

—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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Editor and author Philip Athans offers hands on advice for authors of fantasy, science fiction, horror, and fiction in general in this collection of 58 revised and expanded essays from the first five years of his long-running weekly blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook.

 
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WHAT I CAN’T TEACH YOU

As an editor I’ve always seen my role as mostly what can be described as “teacher.” That mindset also helped me move into that role more overtly in print, here, and in live and online courses, tutorials, and seminars—a world I need to get back to after a couple versions of a “forced hiatus” in the past couple years. This is something I love about what I do—maybe the thing I love most about it. I love helping authors grow in their craft, even while I tend to admit defeat, up front, in terms of helping them grow in their art.

I’ve suffered over this distinction here before, but it’s worth repeating that as authors of any genre of fiction we need to learn the craft of writing, for sure, but ultimately fiction is an art form you’ll have to feel your way through, and I can’t teach you—no one can teach you—how to feel. This, I maintain, is just as true for Fantasy Author’s Handbook as it is for the most exclusive and expensive Ivy league creative writing MFA program. And I’m not alone in that opinion. Susan Sontag once said, “I’ve seen academic life destroy the best writers of my generation.” I think they do this by grinding out the feeling.

So, yeah, let’s talk about how to string words and punctuation marks together so your readers know when a character is speaking, and which character says what, and talk a lot about POV and so on, but as Mary Gaitskill wrote in “The deracination of literature”:

…great writing comes from a stranger place; an interface between the intensely intimate perception of an individual and the social and natural worlds. It is related to the rational mind but in a way that dreams are related to thought—poetically and irrationally. It is through poetic and irrational means that the unseen world of your story gets radically illuminated, like a burst of music can illuminate a scene in a movie or TV show.

We might all be on the same page (for the record, we aren’t, but for the sake of argument…) on rules like one scene, one POV, or the absolute necessity of the Oxford comma, but those things make writing readable, accessible, but not automatically “great”—whatever that means, and wherever we might believe or hope it comes from.

“This voice of fable has in it somewhat divine,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson. “It came from thought above the will of the writer. That is the best part of each writer, which has nothing private in it; that which he does not know; that which flowed out of his constitution, and not from his too active invention; that which in the study of a single artist you might not easily find, but in the study of many, you would abstract as the spirit of them all.”

Once we start writing fiction—in any genre—we enter a mysterious world we might struggle to understand, but will we ever really? We can identify rules of grammar and usage, sure. We can identify clichés sometimes, too. We can exchange ideas about story structure. But ultimately we have to write, write some more, then write even more, and more, until we can say, like John Cheever did, “I suppose that anyone who has written for as long as I have . . . It’s probably what you’d call instinct. When a line falls wrong, it simply isn’t right.”

Does that last sentence you wrote feel wrong, even if by all accounts it’s a complete sentence and all the words are spelled correctly? Then change it. Does it feel right, even if it’s not a complete sentence and that character would say “gonna” instead of “going to”? Then leave it the hell alone.

Learn your craft so the little detail bits become second nature, then, when you aren’t suffering so much about where the comma goes, live in the mystery. If Joan Didion thought, “On the whole, I don’t want to think too much about why I write what I write. If I know what I’m doing I don’t do it, I can’t do it.” Well, who are we to think we know any better what we’re doing? At least… exactly.

—Philip Athans

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FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION AS INVENTED HISTORY

Are we all writing historical fiction, but the history is invented?

When I was working as the Forgotten Realms novel line editor at Wizards of the Coast, this idea became something of a mantra to me. When it comes to writing tie-in fiction like that, the canon, however fantastical, should be treated the same by a fantasy author (or science fiction author in the case of, say, Star Trek novels) as the author of historical fiction treats the canon of real world history. If you’re writing a historical novel set in Victorian England, it’s not enough to keep in mind that no one has a cellphone, you’ll have to figure out how they actually did communicate with each other. Sorry, no airplanes, but then how do I get my Civil War-era cowboy from Tulsa to Seattle, and how long does that take?

But even if you aren’t writing in someone else’s sandbox, and there aren’t years worth of D&D game products and other novels that describe those things for you to use as research materials, does this idea of fantasy as historical fiction still hold true?

In Lectures on Literature, Vladimir Nabokov said, “We should always remember that the work of art is invariably the creation of a new world, so that the first thing we should do is to study that new world as closely as possible, approaching it as something brand new, having no obvious connections with the worlds we already know.”

That would seem to point to yes, SF and fantasy worlds of our own creation still require the same degree of attention to detail as historical fiction. But then, how…? To answer that, let’s start with my basic “rules” of worldbuilding:

  • Let your characters tell you what they need to know about the world.
  • Let the plot make demands of your imagination.
  • What you’re going for is plausibility, not realism; imagination, not invention; experience, not education.
  • When characters start explaining, shut them up and get on with the story.
  • And finally, ask, always: How does my POV character’s experience of the world in this scene help move the story forward?

What do I mean by this? Let’s break it down one at a time…

Let your characters tell you what they need to know about the world.

Maybe you’ve already done all the worldbuilding. You’ve already set the funeral rites, you know how people clean up after going to the bathroom, every kingdom has a unique cuisine, and you’re 100% clear on the difference in buying power between a Silver RavensCrown and a Copper Ha’penny. Lovely, now, as we had in the Forgotten Realms, you have a source to go to when stuff like that comes up in your story. But keep in mind that neither your readers, nor your characters, need to know any of that up front. In “Writing Is a Monstrous Act,” historical author Hernan Diaz said:

There’s always the danger of fetishizing one’s research, becoming obsessed with a little archival gewgaw one has found, and then starting to write just to create a display case for it. I dislike novels that feel like show-and-tell. And although I don’t want to make egregious mistakes and am terrified of anachronisms and inconsistencies, I’m not obsessed with referential accuracy. That’s absolutely not a primary concern for me. To me, archival work has to be in the service of imagination. Instead of becoming a factual straightjacket, research has to open up your vista and let you imagine things that were unimaginable before.

We read fiction in order to piggyback on the experience of another person. Let your characters ask you if they think they’re being cheated when the street vendor asks for a Silver RavensCrown when what they’re buying is clearly worth no more than a Copper Ha’penny. But if the coins don’t matter to that character in that moment, no mention of the coins is required.

Let the plot make demands of your imagination.

If you’re throwing obstacles in front of the intentions of your characters, those obstacles should come, one way or another, out of your world. The Holy Grail of worldbuilding, you might say, is when a character runs up against an obstacle that could only ever happen in your world. Ask a historical novelist and they’ll tell you the same thing: This could only have happened in Imperial China or Caligula’s Rome, or… the distant future. In “Good Bots and Bad” (Asimov’s Science Fiction, January/February 2022), James Patrick Kelly wrote: “Here’s a tip for any aspiring writers who are gearing up to write their SF masterpiece about cutting-edge technology: The invention isn’t the story, the repercussions are.” What this thing can do, whether or not it works, what horrible thing might happen if it’s used incorrectly… all that matters only if it matters.

You know what I mean.

What you’re going for is plausibility, not realism; imagination, not invention; experience, not education.

As soon as the dragon shows up, realistic is right out the window. Anyone who reads fantasy and science fiction for “realism” is reading wrong. We want the fantastic in fantasy, we want the impossible tech in science fiction. Plausibility comes from following your own rules—rules you’re entirely free to set purely out of your own imagination. But once set, those fantastical rules should be treated as you would the rules of a real world historical period. Keep in mind, though, that as Hernan Diaz cautioned us against focusing in on every little detail, there is such a thing as too many rules. H.G. Wells, in his preface to Seven Famous Novels (1934), wrote:

The thing that makes such imaginations interesting is their translation into commonplace terms and a rigid exclusion of other marvels from the story. Then it becomes human. “How would you feel and what might not happen to you,” is the typical question, if for instance pigs could fly and one came rocketing over a hedge at you. How would you feel and what might not happen to you if suddenly you changed into an ass and couldn’t tell anyone about it? Or if you suddenly became invisible? But no one would think twice about the answer if hedges and houses also began to fly, or if people changed into lions, tigers, cats and dogs left and right, or if anyone could vanish anyhow. Nothing remains interesting where anything can happen.

Beginning with that caution not to overwhelm your innocent readers, in reality a steam train just couldn’t go 300 miles and hour, but a magic train in your fantasy world could do ten times that, if you say so in Chapter Three. If it then hits the speed of light in Chapter Eight, you fucked up somewhere… or you had a better idea, in which case, go back and revise Chapter Three accordingly. That, ultimately is the freedom SF and fantasy authors have that historical fiction authors don’t: the freedom to have a better idea.

When characters start explaining, shut them up and get on with the story.

Why is it impossible to commit the perfect crime? Because once you feel you’ve committed the perfect crime, you just have to brag about it. Why is it impossible to build the perfect fantasy world, in which all details are filled in, all customslanguages, etc. present and accounted for? Because if you think you’ve done that, you just have to info dump. And yes, one character explaining the world to another character is still an info dump. Keep in mind Chekhov’s gun and your poor, beleaguered readers’ mental inventories, and be okay with leaving a large percentage of that worldbuilding detail where it belongs: your notebook, not you story.

How does my POV character’s experience of the world in this scene help move the story forward?

Maybe you’re putting together a Kickstarter for a new fantasy RPG campaign setting. Then, by all means, describe away, detail to your heart’s content. But if you’re writing a novel, your primary—in fact, your only priority is to tell a story. To that point, Michael Moorcock once said:

I don’t build worlds because the worlds I describe reflect the character. Landscapes are there to reveal what’s going on in the characters’ minds. On a melodramatic level you find it in all James Whale’s fantastic movies. I’m not very interested in, say, the GNP of Melnibone! I don’t mind if others enjoy playing that sort of game but it’s not of much interest to me. Characters and their moral conflicts interest me.

I’ve described a story as characters in conflict, and plot as what happens when those characters start conflicting. Even epic quest fantasies are about people, not worlds. Our job, as authors of fiction of any genre, is to keep our stories moving forward. 

Alastair Reynolds described his approach to world-building as “a bit smoke and mirrors—there’s only as much as you need to carry the story. I think of it as one of those sets they used to have for cowboy films: the facades look good, but if you walk around the back, it’s all props and plywood. I don’t want to sound lazy, but I want to do as little as possible. I don’t need to know how the sewage system works to tell a story about someone on another planet.”

If any bit of world detail, however clever you know it to be, doesn’t move your story forward in that moment, ignore it until it does. And maybe it doesn’t ever move your story forward, and that’s okay. It’s better to leave a detail in your notebook than stop your story, even for a couple sentences, to drop it in for the sake of “color,” or worse: detail for detail’s sake.

And ultimately, what brings your world to life is your own passion for it, which will shine through your characters’ experience of it. It’s okay to be caught up in your world. “Engagement is the key to inspiration or the muse or pure inventiveness, at least when it comes to fiction,” Dan Rice wrote. “If you can engage with something, meditate on it, become engrossed by it, you can write about it.”

—Philip Athans

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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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THE LONG AND WINDING READ

If you follow me on GoodReads you’ll know that I set up a Reading Challenge every year, and for most of the past few years I’ve actually managed to hit it. That challenge does not, of course, include the many books I work on as part of my job as an editor, just the books I read for my own entertainment, education, inspiration, and the general and pervasive joy of reading.

My challenges have been pretty much set at fifty-two books, so average one a week, which I thought sounded doable and indeed has been.

But I’m currently running six books behind schedule despite trips to the library to gobble up some easy-to-read-in-one-sitting graphic novels. This is mostly due to, let’s call it “schedule restraints,” general business, home repairs, and a little bit of burnout-inspired ennui that I hope will be cured by my upcoming vacation (my first in five years).

Anyway…

I’ve said before that I tend to like shorter books, but then my list of favorite books of all time also includes longer books like Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and Dune. So I started thinking, a full six months ahead of time, about next year’s reading challenge. Instead of one really short book every week, what if I challenged myself to read one really long book every month? That brings the total number of books down to twelve, but the page count probably more or less the same.

So as I was finally moving fully back into my office after some renovations that took way longer than they possibly should have (see excuses above) I gathered twelve long books that have been sitting on my shelves for some time and will spend the last half of 2022 psyching myself up to read…

War and Peace

Has anyone really ever read this? I mean, I guess people out there somewhere have been reading this, or had read this, or have read this, but I’m not 100% sure I actually know anyone who has. But in any case I bought this super posh four-volume slipcase edition maybe twenty-five years ago and instead of continuing to use it as decoration, I will start my longreads challenge by using it as, y’know, a book. Wish me luck.

The Essential Ellison

I’d actually started reading this years ago then stopped, then would occasionally pull it off the shelf to re-read a favorite story. I adore Harlan Ellison’s writing all out of proportion and it’s high time I read this all the way through, even if I’ve already read many, even most of the stories, and many more than once, going back at least forty-five years or so. He was the master of the short story, full stop.

Don Quixote

I found this super well-preserved Modern Library edition at my local library’s book sale and paid a dollar for it, with the exquisitely-kept dust jacket intact. You almost never find Modern Library books with the dust jacket. Who doesn’t know the story already, but as with War and Peace, I have to ask: who’s actually read it? Well, unless I chicken out on the whole thing by January, I will. Hopefully in March, if all goes as planned.

The Lord of the Rings

Okay, you just have to be okay with the fact that I’ve never made it all the way through The Fellowship of the Ring, despite two valiant attempts at it. The last attempt was forty years ago, so maybe I had to mature into it. In any case, I ran across this nice UK edition in a used bookstore and made it mine. I will finally read what, whether I’ve read it or not, is clearly the most influential fantasy novel of all time.

Infinite Jest

I know.

Still, there’s something about David Foster Wallace that intrigues me.

The Science Fiction Century

As with The Essential Ellison, this anthology contains more than a few stories I’ve read over my life as a science fiction fan, but I’m happy to revisit the ones I have read and discover some new favorites.

The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick

Was it drugs? Mental illness? Some metaphysical link with a higher consciousness? One, two, or all three of those things? I have no idea, but as soon as I heard about this book I knew I had to read it, whatever the hell it is.

The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft

The third collection on this shelf containing stories I’ve read before, but this time, I’m gonna get me some edgermicashun about the complex, flawed man himself…? Let’s hope I’m sane enough after reading this to tackle…

Crime and Punishment

Because no way can you set yourself a longreads challenge and only include one Russian. I guess we can leave it at that.

The Terror

Before I get spoiled by the TV series. This one just sounds good, comes highly recommended, etc. And boy is it long!

William Shakespeare: The Complete Work

I’ve read a bunch of the plays already, and all of the sonnets (believe it or not) but what kind of lover of the written word can I be if I haven’t read every word Shakespeare ever wrote? To read, or not to read, that is the question.

And then last but not least:

1,000 Books to Read Before You Die

Because this looks fascinating and I love books and lists of books and books about books and so of course I bought this, now it’s time to read it. Or, at least if all goes well, December 2023 is the time to read this.

I’m also keeping my random behavior prompt that will throw and Ace Double or random SF/fantasy novel* into the mix, and probably some graphic novels, too… and literary magazines, and anyway…

Wish me luck with this challenging challenge! I will either have failed on February first, or re-educated my often flighty attention span by the end of December 2023. But in any case I will, as all writers should, read. This year and the next.

And the next.

Etc.

—Philip Athans

* As it happens, today’s random behavior modification prompt is: start reading a random SF book, so I went to my giant box of books this morning, reached into the slot, and pulled out… drumroll please… Kyrick and the Lost Queen by Gardner F. Fox. The cover says it’s “In The Tradition of Conan,” which probably explains why I bought it in the first place. The cover is super old school cheesecakey fantasy art: an angry-looking swordsman driving a chariot pulled by a rhino with a topless woman holding on for dear life. Not exactly Crime and Punishment, but it looks like fun!

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ON “THE SIMPLE ART OF MURDER”

Even if you aren’t writing hardboiled detective, crime, or mystery stories, I think pulp grandmaster Raymond Chandler’s 1950 introduction to “The Simple Art of Murder” is a must-read. Here he dissects the traditional mystery and really seems to be dismantling the whole thing in favor of his more “hardboiled” style, his introduction of (1950s) contemporary realism.

Some highlights:

“If the mystery novel is at all realistic (which it very seldom is) it is written in a certain spirit of detachment; otherwise nobody but a psychopath would want to write it or read it. The murder novel has also a depressing way of minding its own business, solving its own problems and answering its own questions.”

“Other things being equal, which they never are, a more powerful theme will provoke a more powerful performance. Yet some very dull books have been written about God, and some very fine ones about how to make a living and stay fairly honest. It is always a matter of who writes the stuff, and what he has in him to write it with.”

 

“I doubt that Hammett [author of The Maltese Falcon, among others] had any deliberate artistic aims whatever; he was trying to make a living by writing something he had first hand information about. He made some of it up; all writers do; but it had a basis in fact; it was made up out of real things.”

“Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not with hand-wrought dueling pistols, curare, and tropical fish. He put these people down on paper as they are, and he made them talk and think in the language they customarily used for these purposes. He had style, but his audience didn’t know it, because it was in a language not supposed to be capable of such refinements. They thought they were getting a good meaty melodrama written in the kind of lingo they imagined they spoke themselves. It was, in a sense, but it was much more.”

This week’s post is really me saying, hey, go read this other guy’s thoughts on writing genre fiction, which is fine—especially if you actually do go read it! As you do, think about how things have changed in the 72 years since this was written, and think about how this might also pertain to fantasy, science fiction, horror, or any other genre. After all, that’s what all this writing advice business is about: getting you to think about your own writing in as many different ways as possible!

—Philip Athans

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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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IN A LANGUAGE FAR, FAR AWAY

Some more from the old online worldbuilding course…

If we begin with the basic concept that no one literally speaks English in either Westeros or in the galaxy far, far away in which Star Wars takes place then we have to assume that the Georges R.R. Martin and Lucas have done us the service of translating (at least most of) what their characters say into English (even if that comes via subtitles) so we don’t have to first learn a new, invented language in order to enjoy those stories. That leaves us with this question: To translate or not to translate?

I say, at least ninety percent of the time, translate.

And I tackled this issue in The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction:

In the old Battlestar Galactica television series from the late seventies, our heroes are humans who have been separated from the rest of humanity and are on a pilgrimage to find what has for them become the legendary Earth. It’s naturally assumed that though the actors are speaking English, their characters are speaking their own native language, and they’ve got their own system of weights and measures. To emphasize this point, the characters say “Wait a centon” instead of “Wait a minute.”

I’m sure there are hardcore fans out there who will find my opinion sacrilegious, but I believe that was a terrible decision. If a centon and a minute are essentially the same, why not translate centon into minute and get on with telling the story? No episode was improved by the fact that they worked in centons instead of minutes.

And I stand by that opinion. Translate anything, not just units of weight and measure, into English (or the metric system, if you like, in science fiction) in the same way you’re translating the words for floor, table, love, etc.

But then… not always!

I worked for almost fifteen years as an editor for TSR and Wizards of the Coast, and worked primarily on the Forgotten Realms novel line. I’ve often pointed out that the dark elves of the Forgotten Realms world wear a cloak called a piwafwi, and you’ll see it called that throughout dozens and dozens of books. So why not translate “piwafwi” into “cloak”? Well, it turns out that a piwafwi is a very specific kind of cloak, made only by the dark elves. It has some magical properties that help the wearer go unseen. It looks like a cloak, and in every other way functions like a cloak, but this very specific thing does not exist in the real world. There is no English word for it. It is a piwafwi. So, adopt this rule:

If there is a clear real-world analog, translate it. If not, name it.

But then how then do we come up with words like piwafwi?

First off, no, you do not need to literally create a new language before you can write a science fiction or fantasy novel, even if there might have been an author (like Tolkien) who did so, or someone who came along later to create Klingon deep into the life of the Star Trek franchise. If you have a background in that sort of thing and approach it more as a separate hobby than as a necessary component to your writing, have fun. But no matter how you slice it, time spent over-worldbuilding is time spent away from writing!

Free, then, of the requirement to create our own version of Elvish, how best to create unique individual words for when they are necessary?

I really don’t want to just say: String together letters that you think sound cool. But then, I’ve done exactly that to come up with names for characters, planets, cities… all sorts of things. In fact, I would bet that at least half the names of your favorite fantasy characters, places, and so on, were generated in just that way.

I worked with an author—and you would recognize her name—who told me that she used placeholders throughout her text almost until the last second, and when I asked her how to pronounce one character’s name she said, “I don’t know, it’s F3 on my keyboard.” Now, I am not recommending that. I tend to think you should be able to call your characters by name as soon in your writing process as possible to get to know them as well as you can in order to bring them properly to life. But I know just as many authors who fall into work-stopping obsession over finding exactly the right name, suffering over every syllable until they just freeze up. And you don’t want to freeze up!

Here’s a little more general practical advice on the subjects of language:

1. Avoid creating new rules for usage when you don’t need to. From Appendix A of my book Writing Monsters:

A good rule of thumb when creating new things—monsters, animals, ranks and titles, and so on—is rather than create a new rule of grammar and usage to go with it, simply find the nearest real-world analog to that new thing and follow that rule.

For monsters, we’ll want to fall back on the rules for animals. Though we’ve seen a few examples, especially from H.P. Lovecraft, where the names of the monsters were capitalized, I suggest you let that be another of his many oddball quirks.

So if you’ve created a monster called a “bloodstalker,” and it’s clear that there’s more than one bloodstalker out there, it would be bloodstalker, lowercase b, the same way the in bear would be lowercase if your characters were being hunted by a bear.

A possible exception would be if in some way that was a sort of brand name—appropriate maybe in science fiction but likely never in fantasy. So Dr. Morpheus has created the Bloodstalker, and you’d use the initial cap the same way you would for, say, a make of car: Dodge Caravan or Plymouth Destructinoid.

Of course, if the monster has a proper name, like my name is Phil, then you would follow that basic rule, i.e., Kong, Godzilla, etc. 

This will also hold true for ranks and titles, so be careful with initial caps:

“Good morning, Lieutenant Galen,” Bronwyn said, using the capital L when the rank and name are used together.

“Good morning to you, too, Captain,” replied Galen, using the capital C because the rank or title is used in place of a name, while leaving it lowercase when referring to someone in the generic, as follows. “Have you seen any of the colonels around?”

2. Avoid generic words with an initial cap in place of a proper name. I railed about this at length five years ago, but in short, if your characters live in the City and go to the Temple to meet with the Priest to talk about what to do about the Mercenary—and none of those places or people have an actual name, you’re just not working hard enough. People name things! My name isn’t the Editor, it’s Phil. I live in a town called Sammamish, not the Town.

3. Google everything! Got a great name for your hero… for any and every character in your story? Google them! If they’re also characters in Game of Thrones, even if that name has been around for millennia before George R.R. Martin was born, pass on it. If it shows up in your fantasy novel, a significant number of readers will assume you knifed it from GoT. Sometimes, clever names could even get you into (admittedly highly unlikely) legal trouble if they’re someone else’s trademark, but you’re probably not going to set your space opera story aboard the starship Coca-Cola.At least, I hope not! This won’t be necessary if your characters have names like Jon (even though there’s a Jon in Game of Thrones) or Luke (Star Wars) but Tyrian, Cersei, Vader, and Yoda? Nope, nope, nope, and nope.

—Philip Athans

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