DON’T BE BORING!

Genre authors have one enemy in common as it is boredom.

Our number one goal, our Prime Directive, our First Commandment, our first principle is:

Never be boring.

Our readers come to us for a cure for boredom. I am a voracious reader and always have been. I have never curled up with a book thinking, I hope this bores me to sleep. Books that do that—and of course I’ve read my share—are books I don’t finish, and it’s rare that I’ll give that author a second try.

I will not engage with the snobby anti-genre literati, I will not fight the same pointless war from the genre side. I read and write “literary” fiction, too. I won’t be forced into an either/or existence… well, pretty much across the board. I don’t think literary authors gain any traction by writing boring books, either. Nor do authors of historical fiction, which tend to be either romances or mysteries set in the past. Romance needs to be sexy or sweet or some measure of both. Fantasy has to have some kind of magical or unreal quality to it, with interesting characters doing interesting things in an interesting world. Science fiction can’t just describe some technological gizmo, it has to put that gizmo in the context of characters in conflict, trying to get the gizmo, or turn it off, or… whatever. Horror needs to be scary. Full stop.

You know what I mean.

In the Aeon article “Boredom is but a window to a sunny day beyond the gloom,” Neel Burton asked:

What, exactly, is boredom? It is a deeply unpleasant state of unmet arousal: we are aroused rather than despondent, but, for one or more reasons, our arousal cannot be met or directed.

In the case of curling up with a novel, we are “aroused” by the desire for a good story. If the story isn’t good, that arousal isn’t met. Sounds like science to me.

And you know exactly what I mean.

This is, honestly, the one true test of any piece of fiction. Is it, at the very least, not boring? And all the things we’ve talked about here, that I’ve written in books like The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction and Writing Monsters, and that I’ve tried my best to do in my own fiction from the age of, maybe, six onward, is to encourage writing that, in the first place, isn’t boring.

All I do, it sometimes seems, is rail against the info dump, which I define as long passages (and more than a sentence equals “long” in most cases) of dry recitation of facts. If you, the author, write yourself into the story, however tangentially or inadvertently, and start telling us about characters: how tall they are, where they were born, what political party the belong to… or worse, start telling us about places: how hot it gets, how many people live there… you’re info dumping. Your story is now on pause, or, since these often come at the beginning of a novel or short story, hasn’t yet begun while you—not your point of view character, but you as the unwanted voice of the best-unseen and un-heard from author—somehow brings us up to speed, “sets the scene,” or “wows” us with your detailed research, that’s boring. It needs to go.

This is at the heart of why some people get on the otherwise absurd anti-prologue bandwagon. If they’ve read more than one info dump “prologue” that tells us about the history of the fantasy world, or whatever other piece of would-be journalism, I get it. Yes, that’s boring.

I love science fiction, fantasy, and horror fiction, and I always have. And I, like, I’m sure, most fellow fans, love it for the experience of temporarily inhabiting some strange new person in some strange new place, not for the Monster Manual entry that breaks down the alien creature or the Player’s Handbook spell description, or the article on the kingdom of whatever from the Campaign Setting Guide… I want to live in that place, in that adventure, not with but as the POV character—or just as often, as those POV characters.

If you inject your own voice into the narrative I’m now reading the description of a story, not a story, and there is a huge difference.

The difference is that the former is boring, and the latter is not.

So remember, no matter what:

DON’T BE BORING!

 

—Philip Athans

Science fiction and fantasy can be the most challenging—and rewarding!—genres in the bookstore. 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 VIRTUE OF SHELFIENESS

Hey, Objectivists, see what I did there?

I’ve been seeing so-called “shelfies” all over social media for a while now, and have even shared a few glimpses of my own shelves from time to time, but this week, I want to go full shelfie and reveal my personal library/no kill book shelter in all its glory—and to me, it is glorious! Let’s start upstairs, and the four bookcases that line a wall of my office loft, going left to right…

 

The top shelf stores a bunch of notebooks and a supply of author copies of some of my published work. The rest of this (with a few exceptions on the right side of the second shelf down and the bottom shelf) houses what I’ve kept of forty-two years of playing, collecting, and otherwise being a part of the hobby, lifestyle, and business of role-playing games. Yes, that is the original Traveller box set. Yes, that is my copy of the first printing of Deities & Demigods, with the Cthulhu and Melnibonéan Mythos intact. Yes, there’s Judges Guild aplenty.

The top shelf and the third shelf down contain more of the books I’ve written or anthologies that include a story by me—also a small supply of puppy training pads, but that’s a post for another day. Dig my globes of Mars and the Moon. The second shelf down sports the complete Berserker series by Fred Saberhagen—I plan to work my way through that… eventually. The bottom two shelves contain books on writing and various reference books.

Next up is my Star Trek shrine. Just… don’t even.

And finally my prized collection of Ace science fiction Doubles, carefully shelved in chronological order, in protective plastic bags. The middle shelf is another series “to read” collection: the rest of the expanded Dune series, and a few others, including a partial collection of Iain Banks’s Culture series. I’ll get to it!

Moving downstairs, we have one whole wall covered in track shelves. Again, working left to right…

This is my science fiction, fantasy, and horror section. Of course they’re alphabetized by author—what do you take me for, some kind of savage? In the middle is a shelf that includes a couple of series I’m still working to collect all of, including the classic Tom Swift, Jr. and original Tom Swift books, and Perry Rhodan. If you have to ask, you’ll never get it. And sitting on their sides, a few books I’ve acquired recently and haven’t shelved yet. Below that, comics and graphic novels. And yes, those are the original Encyclopedia of Comic Book Heroes books, and Son of Origins of Marvel Comics, which have been with me for decades. Do not even try to step to my nerd cred, bitches.

Above the TV, from top to bottom: books about movies and television, and plays. Then poetry, literary magazines, a couple of art books, and full-on miscellaneous. On the bottom: religion, philosophy, and mythology.

And then the rest of the wall. I know… yes, that is an autographed photo of Majel (Nurse Chapel) Barrett. Still not getting the whole Star Trek thing? The top four rows are all fiction of various genres except science fiction, fantasy, and horror (mostly). Below the Clockwork Angels clock I designed for Brilliance Audio is history. Then below that, biographies, general non-fiction, space, science, animals, and a stack of pulp era fantasy and SF paperbacks that need to find a more permanent home. Finally, on the bottom, all things pulp fiction, including a large portion of the Bantam Doc Savage books, and a section of author biographies and autobiographies.

In the bottom left corner of this last photo you can see some larger format books stacked under the cable box. There are two more shelves below that (not pictured) of the same. Another little shelf unit holds some books my wife’s been meaning to read, and a collection of books by Edgar Rice Burroughs, a few in editions now more than a hundred years old. And then there’s the SF paperback grab bag box next to my desk upstairs, and another box full of SF, fantasy, and horror paperbacks marked OVERFLOW BOOKS in my closet.

Okay, so maybe you don’t have this many books at home. You may not have gone to Book Expo America for a few years and sent back three or four boxes of free books for yourself every year. You might not have spent a good portion of your share of stock option payouts from a corporate merger on a three-year book buying spree. I get it. Hell, maybe you have more books than me—it’s not a race!

I love books, man. I just really, actually do.

I literally surround myself with them, live inside of them.

Okay, then: shelfies shared.

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

In my four-week online Pulp Fiction Workshop we’ll learn storytelling techniques that transcend the pulp genres and make writing fun again. Write a 6000-word short story, with edit, in any genre!

Next class starts Thursday March 5.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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LOVECRAFT’S NOTES ON WRITING WEIRD FICTION

For the first time ever, I’m turning Fantasy Author’s Handbook over to another author, and one who’s been dead for almost eighty-three years. Love him or hate him, H.P. Lovecraft is one of the undying masters of horror and dark fantasy fiction. This essay, apparently written in 1933 but first published in the May-June 1937 issue of Amateur Correspondent, draws back the covers on not just his reasons for writing horror fiction, but describes his process as well.  Though not as detailed or proscriptive as Lester Dent’s Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot, Lovecraft’s five-step process is certainly worth a look-see, and I’m going to try my hand at his method in the weeks ahead. I’ll let you know how that works out, but in the meantime, I give you, in its entirety…

 

Notes on Writing Weird Fiction

 

My reason for writing stories is to give myself the satisfaction of visualizing more clearly and detailedly and stably the vague, elusive, fragmentary impressions of wonder, beauty, and adventurous expectancy which are conveyed to me by certain sights (scenic, architectural, atmospheric, etc.), ideas, occurrences, and images encountered in art and literature. I choose weird stories because they suit my inclination best—one of my strongest and most persistent wishes being to achieve, momentarily, the illusion of some strange suspension or violation of the galling limitations of time, space, and natural law which forever imprison us and frustrate our curiosity about the infinite cosmic spaces beyond the radius of our sight and analysis. These stories frequently emphasize the element of horror because fear is our deepest and strongest emotion, and the one which best lends itself to the creation of nature-defying illusions. Horror and the unknown or the strange are always closely connected, so that it is hard to create a convincing picture of shattered natural law or cosmic alienage or “outsideness” without laying stress on the emotion of fear. The reason why time plays a great part in so many of my tales is that this element looms up in my mind as the most profoundly dramatic and grimly terrible thing in the universe. Conflict with time seems to me the most potent and fruitful theme in all human expression.

While my chosen form of story-writing is obviously a special and perhaps a narrow one, it is none the less a persistent and permanent type of expression, as old as literature itself. There will always be a small percentage of persons who feel a burning curiosity about unknown outer space, and a burning desire to escape from the prison-house of the known and the real into those enchanted lands of incredible adventure and infinite possibilities which dreams open up to us, and which things like deep woods, fantastic urban towers, and flaming sunsets momentarily suggest. These persons include great authors as well as insignificant amateurs like myself—Dunsany, Poe, Arthur Machen, M.R. James, Algernon Blackwood, and Walter de la Mare being typical masters in this field.

As to how I write a story—there is no one way. Each one of my tales has a different history. Once or twice I have literally written out a dream; but usually I start with a mood or idea or image which I wish to express, and revolve it in my mind until I can think of a good way of embodying it in some chain of dramatic occurrences capable of being recorded in concrete terms. I tend to run through a mental list of the basic conditions or situations best adapted to such a mood or idea or image, and then begin to speculate on logical and naturally motivated explanations of the given mood or idea or image in terms of the basic condition or situation chosen.

The actual process of writing is of course as varied as the choice of theme and initial conception; but if the history of all my tales were analyzed, it is just possible that the following set of rules might be deduced from the average procedure:

(1) Prepare a synopsis or scenario of events in the order of their absolute occurrence—not the order of their narration. Describe with enough fulness to cover all vital points and motivate all incidents planned. Details, comments, and estimates of consequences are sometimes desirable in this temporary framework.

(2) Prepare a second synopsis or scenario of events—this one in order of narration (not actual occurrence), with ample fulness and detail, and with notes as to changing perspective, stresses, and climax. Change the original synopsis to fit if such a change will increase the dramatic force or general effectiveness of the story. Interpolate or delete incidents at will—never being bound by the original conception even if the ultimate result be a tale wholly different from that first planned. Let additions and alterations be made whenever suggested by anything in the formulating process.

(3) Write out the story—rapidly, fluently, and not too critically—following the second or narrative-order synopsis. Change incidents and plot whenever the developing process seems to suggest such change, never being bound by any previous design. If the development suddenly reveals new opportunities for dramatic effect or vivid storytelling, add whatever is thought advantageous—going back and reconciling the early parts to the new plan. Insert and delete whole sections if necessary or desirable, trying different beginnings and endings until the best arrangement is found. But be sure that all references throughout the story are thoroughly reconciled with the final design. Remove all possible superfluities—words, sentences, paragraphs, or whole episodes or elements—observing the usual precautions about the reconciling of all references.

(4) Revise the entire text, paying attention to vocabulary, syntax, rhythm of prose, proportioning of parts, niceties of tone, grace and convincingness or transitions (scene to scene, slow and detailed action to rapid and sketchy time-covering action and vice versa… etc., etc., etc.), effectiveness of beginning, ending, climaxes, etc., dramatic suspense and interest, plausibility and atmosphere, and various other elements.

(5) Prepare a neatly typed copy—not hesitating to add final revisory touches where they seem in order.

The first of these stages is often purely a mental one—a set of conditions and happenings being worked out in my head, and never set down until I am ready to prepare a detailed synopsis of events in order of narration. Then, too, I sometimes begin even the actual writing before I know how I shall develop the idea—this beginning forming a problem to be motivated and exploited.

There are, I think, four distinct types of weird story; one expressing a mood or feeling, another expressing a pictorial conception, a third expressing a general situation, condition, legend, or intellectual conception, and a fourth explaining a definite tableau or specific dramatic situation or climax. In another way, weird tales may be grouped into two rough categories—those in which the marvel or horror concerns some condition or phenomenon, and those in which it concerns some action of persons in connection with a bizarre condition or phenomenon.

Each weird story—to speak more particularly of the horror type—seems to involve five definite elements: (a) some basic, underlying horror or abnormality—condition, entity, etc.—, (b) the general effects or bearings of the horror, (c) the mode of manifestation—object embodying the horror and phenomena observed—, (d) the types of fear-reaction pertaining to the horror, and (e) the specific effects of the horror in relation to the given set of conditions.

In writing a weird story I always try very carefully to achieve the right mood and atmosphere, and place the emphasis where it belongs. One cannot, except in immature pulp charlatan-fiction, present an account of impossible, improbable, or inconceivable phenomena as a commonplace narrative of objective acts and conventional emotions. Inconceivable events and conditions have a special handicap to overcome, and this can be accomplished only through the maintenance of a careful realism in every phase of the story except that touching on the one given marvel. This marvel must be treated very impressively and deliberately—with a careful emotional “build-up”—else it will seem flat and unconvincing. Being the principal thing in the story, its mere existence should overshadow the characters and events. But the characters and events must be consistent and natural except where they touch the single marvel. In relation to the central wonder, the characters should show the same overwhelming emotion which similar characters would show toward such a wonder in real life. Never have a wonder taken for granted. Even when the characters are supposed to be accustomed to the wonder I try to weave an air of awe and impressiveness corresponding to what the reader should feel. A casual style ruins any serious fantasy.

Atmosphere, not action, is the great desideratum of weird fiction. Indeed, all that a wonder story can ever be is a vivid picture of a certain type of human mood. The moment it tries to be anything else it becomes cheap, puerile, and unconvincing. Prime emphasis should be given to subtle suggestion—imperceptible hints and touches of selective associative detail which express shadings of moods and build up a vague illusion of the strange reality of the unreal. Avoid bald catalogues of incredible happenings which can have no substance or meaning apart from a sustaining cloud of color and symbolism.

These are the rules or standards which I have followed—consciously or unconsciously—ever since I first attempted the serious writing of fantasy. That my results are successful may well be disputed—but I feel at least sure that, had I ignored the considerations mentioned in the last few paragraphs, they would have been much worse than they are.

 

—H. P. Lovecraft

 

Check out my online course Advanced Horror Workshop from Writers Digest University

This course’s in-depth background material and challenging writing assignments takes writing horror as seriously as you do.

Starting this Thursday, February 6!

 

 

 

 

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TELL ME YOU HAVE SOME OF THESE

I have file after file on my computer of story ideas, the beginnings of stories, notes for stories and novels… Please tell me you’re doing this too. Please tell me you aren’t letting story ideas just pass you by. I might not ever actually write any of these, but here are a few, just for fun, and just to show that sometimes an idea can come to you kinda sorta semi-formed, and maybe an idea is only:

cosmic horror sf story

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

—Eugene Thacker, Starry Speculative Corpse

And that’s all I’ve got: a sub-genre and a quote from a book I read.

This one is in a file called AsylumStoryStart.doc:

short story

The /name of/ Asylum for the Mentally Ill tumbled down the hill like a man-made avalanche. It came apart and rolled together in a jumble of crumbled bricks and pulverized mortar, shattered glass and corroded steel, jagged ceramic and shredded fabric. Steel bed frames, rust settling into the scratches in the grey paint, twisted together like skeletons, great dead rib cages, femurs, /bone/, and /bone/, but no skulls. Mattresses, stained golden brown with blood, vomit, and urine, slid down intact, some trailing heavy leather restraints. All this collected into a pile at the bottom of the hill, the weight of it pushing the wrought iron gate to a precipitous angle. In the driving rain, it settled with no dust, no cloud of smoke. Of the hundred and sixty-seven patients and thirty-eight staff, there was no sign, and there never would be.

/fix that last bit since you showed us their bones./

Okay, I don’t know the names of very many bones right off the top of my head. I’ll do research later!

Ah, this one has a title:

Delayed in Transit

(idea 4/15/16)

world with teleportation technology

guy teleports to work, comes out 1,000,000 years later—meets people dropped there from the last few years

before accident: reports of cover-up, people being lost in transit

after about 10,000 people are lost, teleporters were banned, world economy collapses into war, which is why, a million years later, the Delayed are the only people left on earth

maybe primitive intelligent species? crows? other species of bird?

I wrote down the date this idea came to me because that will be important for my biographers in centuries to come, I’m sure.

Some seem like a great idea then a few minutes later I start thinking maybe it suffers from a lack of originality. I find it difficult to believe I’m the first to come up with this one:

Demon story idea

based on the biblical Book of Matthew

 

wandering cleric comes to town

hears screaming in the night

“Who is that?”

local (bored, depressed) priest: “the demoniac—leave him in peace.”

Cleric: “Peace?”

against local priest’s cautions, cleric goes to cave in mountains over looking town

Madman/hermit torturing, mutilating himself

madman begs cleric to leave him alone

cleric persists, feeds him dogmatic bullshit

weird (possessed) voice urges cleric to perform exorcism

madman (cleric thinks it’s the demon inside him) begs him not to

WILD FUCKED UP EXORCISM

cleric releases flood of demons—Legion

who laugh and fly off to town

madman dies—“they were keeping me alive, I was keeping them contained”

cleric, wounded, struggles to town…

EVERYONE IS POSSESSED!

 

maybe the townspeople call the madman “the jailer”

Well, who doesn’t love the occasional WILD FUCKED UP EXORCISM? And make sure you have that super awesome surprise ending in all caps. That seals the idea forever in eternity.

Some ideas require drawings:

Surely there’s a way to combine that with the WILD FUCKED UP EXORCISM of the previous idea. And, yes, I did save this scan as HellsWells.pdf—don’t judge me!

This one also has a title—and I like it!—but the story is… ouch…

Miss Stephanie’s Prevailing Theory

(idea 4/4/16)

A special ed teacher becomes convinced that the kids in her class are aliens—or angels, or demons—but what we’re really experiencing is her descent into madness after a lifetime of undiagnosed psychological problems and abuse.

There might actually be a way to write that. It would make a great Netflix series.

Here’s MobStoryStart.doc:

Tom Connelly paused in the act of dismembering Salvatore “Big Sally” Pizzanato with a hacksaw to take a tentative sip through the little hole in the white plastic top of his venti Americano.

Nope.

Still too hot.

I have posted the entire contents of a Word file, or the one page from a notebook I scanned, for each of these ideas. You’re seeing literally everything I have on each one. And that only gets me to the beginnings of the Ms in an alphabetical list of files, and there are more… lots more… in notebooks that I haven’t scanned or copied yet. This is a writer’s brain: one idea after another after another, and only some chosen few become stories and not all of those stories are worth sending out in the end. But I’m going to keep doing this. On my deathbed the coroner will find a scrap of paper clutched in my hand upon which is scrawled:

The Thousand-Year Standoff

A group of “militants” take over a federal building ala Oregon “standoff.”

Eventually the authorities are called away on other stuff—everyone forgets they’re there—but the militants don’t ever realize this so their “siege” goes on for a thousand years, across many generations in what becomes a bunker society based on fear, and which has come around 180 degrees from their original dogma.

Until a young couple escapes and realizes just how far the world has progressed around them—they’re like monkeys in a world of supermen.

Oh, that one is gold!

 

—Philip Athans

 

If you manage to get from idea to first draft, look to Athans & Associates Creative Consulting for story/line/developmental editing at 3¢ per word.

Where Story Meets World™

Now scheduling projects for late February and into March.

 

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ANOTHER POST ON THE SUBJECT OF DIALOG?

Sure, why not?

Fanny Ellsworth, editor of Ranch Romances was quoted in “Magazine Editor Warns Against Loss of Originality”:

Do you put thought on your dialogue—to make it sound natural without making it full of queerly spelled words that will take the reader’s mind from the story? Do you remember such little things as having the girl say, conversationally. “I’d love to” instead of the stiffer “I would like to?”

Well, do you?

Whether you spell it dialog or dialogue, characters talking matters—it matters a great deal in any genre of fiction. I’ve written a lot about it here at Fantasy Author’s Handbook and stand by those earlier posts. When I sat down to write this I started thinking about what else I might not have covered here on the subject and thought I’d flip back and add a handful of links to a few previous posts on dialog… only to find that I have written a lot on that subject.

I broke down the basics of what I mean by “Living Dialog” here then went on to create a seminar on the subject, which you can find as a Writer’s Digest Tutorial of the same name.

I get into dialog attribution in “Basic Training” and more on the nuts and bolts of how to punctuate a line of dialog in “ ‘Some Basic Dialog Tips,” Phil Suggested,” and the slightly angrier “Learn This Stuff Right Now or Stop Writing.” Even if you’re sure you know what you’re doing, those are worth a look-see.

And speaking of dialog attribution, on the subject of adverbs, Elmore Leonard said:

Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”… he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances “full of rape and adverbs.”

I more or less agree with him in “Caution: Adverbs Crossing.” To me it’s a matter of the difference between show (tell us what the speaker’s face looks like or some other gesture or cue that conveys their emotions) and tell (he cautioned cautiously).

In his book Making Shapely Fiction Jerome Stern wrote:

You want your readers to think, I could hear that person talking. The more you capture the rhythms of speech, its hesitancies, its phrases, its long, winding, run-on sentences, and its non-sentences, the closer you come to the feel of a real person. You’ve made the readers believe in the character. You don’t have to be grammatical or correct if your speaker isn’t. The character is talking, not you. Let that distinctive voice come through.

But detecting those “rhythms of speech” can take effort. Listening to how the people around you talk is Dialog 101 for any author. I touched on that in “Flashes of Inspiration: Stealing From Your Own Experience.” Sometimes what you hear from other people can get a bit under your skin, like “I Mean, Enough Already,” but it’s still worth trying, even if you can’t necessarily make out much in a loud coffee shop full of fast-talking caffeinated moms, which I bemoan in “Exercise Two… Attempted.”

Vladimir Nabokov travelled by car across America, almost obsessively, in part to collect butterflies, but also to collect American English. In “Little Nothings: Nabokov’s Road Notes,” Elsa Court wrote:

In the ten years following his arrival in the United States, his general approach to reading and assimilating his American surroundings—especially the unfamiliar and ever-shifting American slang—led to a remarkable linguistic metamorphosis: American parlance is reflected across  Lolita, and marks the author’s conscious transfer from Russian émigré to American, fully fluent in the culture and its linguistic ticks.

But for months before Nabokov began work on [Lolita], he took notes. Sitting at the back of public buses, he jotted down teenage slang, setting it aside for his unfortunate heroine.

“Slang” can take many forms, and some common dialog issues come from a tendency to be too formal. For instance, unless you want them to be irritating, don’t force your characters to add the name of the person their talking to to the beginning or end of every sentence, which is what I call “used car salesman dialog” in “Some Dialog Tips: We Know Who He’s Talking To.” In any case, you will likely notice that people do not tend to use you will or do not when you’ll and don’t are right there waiting for them, because “Contractions Aren’t Bad.” This goes for archaic forms that pop up in fantasy a lot, too. If ye feel ye absolutely must drag thy readers through archaic usage, at least try to get it right, and I’ll get ye started in “The Forsooth File.”

I even wrote about when not to write dialog in “What Not to Say” Jerome Stern backs me up on at least some of this, also in Making Shapely Fiction:

Some writers use too much direct dialogue. When you use direct quotation you imply that what’s being said and how it’s said are important. If the characters talk on and on but they’re not talking about anything significant, nothing dramatic is happening, and the language isn’t distinctive, readers’ interest flags. Narrative momentum falters. Too much dialogue also flattens the emotional landscape. If characters talk four pages about their omelet and four pages about their divorce, major scenes and minor scenes feel pretty much alike.

Maybe the best advice for writing dialog is to just relax, and let your characters do the same, which I go into more detail on in “De-bullet Point Your Dialog.” Still, the one I most want everyone to read and embrace is “Don’t Write Accents Phonetically,” cuz eyz n’t lahk its wenn ya duh thet.

—Philip Athans

 

 

Truly living dialog is brilliantly crafted, perfectly vivid, exactly appropriate, layered and nuanced… and it just sounds right.

Living Dialog:

Bring Your Characters’ Words to Life

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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PHANTOMS: EXPLORING WEIRD TALES Vol. 5, No. 1—PART 28

Well, we’ve done it. We’ve made it to the end of our months-long exploration of the January 1925 issue of Weird Tales  with the short story “Phantoms” by Laurence R. D’Orsay. Let’s take this story as a chance not just to enjoy one last Weird Tale, entirely on its own merits, but to muse a bit on what we’ve learned from this ongoing time trip ninety-five years into the past and the beginnings of the modern horror and dark fantasy genres. We’ve read some great stories, some not so great. We’ve met authors who remain mysterious and a few whose work has stood the test of time. And now we come to…

Often enough in the past I’ve said that suspense comes from an imbalance in information. You’ve let your readers in on something the POV character in a particular scene doesn’t know, and that lack of knowledge is sending her into danger while we cringe knowing what’s around the corner, waiting for her. Or one character knows something another doesn’t and we (your readers) see the manipulation or the ignorance… the conflict inherent in that, and we squirm. Here’s a great example of two characters who know something we readers don’t know, and the suspense comes in the form of: What are they talking about? What did he say? What happened? Why does Sellars want Carson to forget he heard it?

“I would promise, and welcome,” said the other slowly, “if it weren’t for the victims. The child, man! You know, Sellars, your case is serious. If you die with that on your soul! I guess I’m old fashioned and all that; but the child, apart from the—the other thing—abandoned, as you say, in the woods! See a priest—let me call Father Quinn. My God, Sellars!”

There’s definitely something terrible going on here, or something terrible has happened. Even the telling of it is traumatic. It’s a clever way to open a story in media res, that’s for sure. I get into more detail on that in my post “Punch, Push, Explain.”

As the story progresses we fall into a flashback, which is fine by me, but here’s a good example of what I was talking about in my post “I Had Encountered Past Perfect Tense Far Too Many Times Before Writing This Post.” I would leave the first paragraph of this example alone:

This was the third day that he had passed alone in the old cabin since Martha died. But three days—they seemed like years. Like years it seemed since he had returned in his skiff from Vallejo to his home above the inlet and Martha, noting his drunken state, had started the argument.

This sets in the readers’ minds that we’re now going back in time, that a flashback has begun. Here are the next two paragraphs as published:

It had degenerated into the usual squabble, for both were of uncertain temper. Martha, womanlike, seeing that she was being worsted in the argument, had pushed him through the door of the cabin, causing him to land full-length in the sticky mud outside.

Then he had risen in a towering rage and, grabbing a heavy iron bar, had dealt a terrific blow at his wife’s head, expecting to see her dodge as on many similar occasions. But she had slipped and lost her balance, and with a crunching, sickening sound the bar had descended on her unprotected head. He could see her now, lying where she had dropped without a cry or groan.

With a bonus edit to make it a smidge less overtly sexist, here’s how I’d rather it read:

It degenerated into the usual squabble, for both were of uncertain temper. Martha, seeing she was being worsted in the argument, pushed him through the door of the cabin, causing him to land full-length in the sticky mud outside.

Then he rose in a towering rage and, grabbing a heavy iron bar, dealt a terrific blow at his wife’s head, expecting to see her dodge as on many similar occasions. But she slipped and lost her balance, and with a crunching, sickening sound the bar descended on her unprotected head. He could see her now, lying where she had dropped without a cry or groan.

Once it’s clear we’re a step farther back in time, let the story live there. I left the last sentence alone to show how that can remind us we’re in a flashback and imply we’re coming out of it with “lying where she had dropped.” But in the actual story, the flashback continues with had after had after had after… On page 176, the word had  appears twenty-five times. This may not seem like a big deal, but read this story again, having had had pointed out, and let me know what you think.

What then follows, I think, is a scary, fun ghost story that may not be the most original of tales, but it was weird, and I dug it. This is another story of a criminal driven mad by guilt, seeing ghosts either real or imagined, and hounded to his grave by the weight of his misdeeds. Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” first published in 1843, predates “Phantoms” by eighty-two years, but so what? This is a type of ghost story that’s been told over and over again ever since, and the originality comes in the author’s unique spin on it.

As for “Phantoms,” I liked the epilogue in which Carson dismisses the supernatural as the result of a “constitution undermined by long and excessive use of alcohol and drugs.” There was no ghost hell-bent on revenge. Sellars was just nuts. This is a simple but effective example of what I called “The Persistence of the Logical.”

And so there we have it for our last story: two positive examples and one negative—not a bad ratio for Laurence R. D’Orsay, who, wrote a handful of stories and a single novel, and wrote books on writing. Looks like all those books, and his novel, are long out of print. Too bad—I’m going to keep an eye on the used marketplace in any case.

And there we have it for Weird Tales Vol. 5, Number 1, from January of 1925, a look back at genre fiction in its formative years. Throughout this series, as with “Phantoms” on its own, there are positive examples—what to do in your own writing—and negative examples—what not to do in your own writing—in every story. Though when it comes to a lot of parts of the craft of writing (where the comma goes, is a semi-colon okay here?) it’s generally more instructive to read more recent fiction, storytelling has changed in only fairly subtle ways in the decades between the initial release of this pulp magazine and now, and positive and negative lessons are here for us all to absorb, think about , and make of them what we will.

And for those of us who just love the whole history of science fiction, fantasy, and horror… well, long live pulp!

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

Whether your writing is new pulp, old pulp, or no pulp at all, look to Athans & Associates Creative Consulting for story/line/developmental editing at 3¢ per word.

Where Story Meets World™

Now scheduling projects for February 2020.

 

 

 

 

 

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FANTASY NAMES ARE HARD

Adam Bassett began his Worldbuilding Magazine article “Naming people: Creating New Naming Customs” with:

“Names have value. Aside from an identity, an individual’s name offers something greater: a glimpse of the person’s culture, history, and ancestry.”

I could not agree more. Please follow the link above and find that whole article. In it, Bassett approaches naming characters in terms of naming practices. In our culture that tends to be first name, maybe a middle name, and a last name or family name.

Within American culture, of course, are remnants (at least) of the many cultures that have come together here. My own name, Philip, says that my parents just decided to call me that because they wanted to name me Peter but that’s what my older brother (then almost five years old) called his penis, so they needed to spend the next three years breaking him of that before my younger brother Pete was born. My middle name is George, after my father, which was a half-assed nod to a supposed Greek tradition (at least, so said my paternal grandfather) that said the first born son should be named for his paternal grandfather and have his father’s name as a middle name. But my maternal grandmother was dating a guy named Mike in 1959 when my older brother was born and my parents liked him so gave my brother an Americanized version of my grandfather’s first name then Michael in the middle, and it was as if the world had come to an end for papou. Then I came along and got my father’s name as my middle name, which assuaged no one. In any case, my family name, Athans, was changed by my grandfather about a hundred years ago because no one could (or would, at least) pronounce Athanesiades (I think that’s the right spelling). My wife and I named our son George (my father’s name) Donald (my wife’s father’s name) mostly because they had both died before my son was born.

Anyway.

So then the question Adam Bassett asks, and that I’m asking now, too, is what do your characters’ names say about the world around them? What do those names say about different cultures within that world? Or as Bassett wrote:

By naming individuals based on different histories and traditions, you are able to echo their cultures. Or, inversely, if you come up with a fun way of naming people within a culture, find out why it works that way! It’s easy to come up with a random series of letters that sound neat, or fall into whatever is comfortable. However, when you name people in your world with these ideas in mind, you can create formulas for it and plenty of worldbuilding to explain why those exist.

In my online course Worldbuilding in Science Fiction and Fantasy (which starts up again on Thursday January 9, 2020) I express the opinion that sometimes, at least, “a random series of letters that sound neat” may be the way to go:

…in more exotic settings it may actually be best to simply string letters together that sound interesting. But even then, be cautious of your readers’ ability to track new words. If character and place names are more than three syllables long, you might want to rethink—if they’re more than four syllables, please do. Also be as clear as you can in regards to pronunciation. This might seem like no big deal—until someone gets the audio book rights and a poor beleaguered narrator has to figure out your goblin names, none of which include vowels because you thought it would be clever to decide that goblins hadn’t invented vowels yet.

Yeah… guilty as charged.

And that reference is to the Dungeons & Dragons novel The Savage Caves, which I wrote for Wizards of the Coast (as T.H. Lain) and featured goblins with names like Tzrg and Nlnz. My bad.

In “5 Tips for Creating Believable Fictional Languages,” Amber Massey makes the point, not unlike Adam Bassett, that:

Fictional languages are more believable when they’re rooted in something our culture or society has heard before. Linguists and authors often draw inspiration from real languages in order to invent something new. In Lord of the Rings, Sindarin was inspired by Welsh, and Quenya was based on Finnish. In A Clockwork Orange, Nadsat was inspired by Russian slang.

And in the end, the best advice I can really give you on the subject of naming fantasy characters also comes from my online course and that’s to:

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.

Do I even have to add: Harry Potter?

I didn’t think so.

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

More on naming, as well as magic, technology, governments, religions, and cultures…

My four-week Writers Digest University course Worldbuilding in Science Fiction and Fantasy, starts this Thursday, January 9.

 

 

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