ALL FICTION IS “AUTOFICTION”

In “Autofiction: What It Is and What It Isn’t,” Brooke Warner wrote: “Autofiction, which is short for autobiographical fiction, is one of those labels that ultimately doesn’t matter to the industry.” I agree, so let’s dispense with the term up front. My contention is that all fiction is, to some degree of another, autobiographical. And yes, this extends to like science fiction and fantasy, which are otherwise defined by their disconnection from the “real world” experience of pretty much anyone. I’ve written novels set in the Forgotten Realms world but I only figuratively lived there. Surely there is no autobiographical aspect to any of the fiction set there, or in Middle Earth or Westeros or Narnia… or so you might think, if you’ve not digging a bit deeper.

Where the “fiction” in “autofiction” comes in is where the author’s real life falls away and is replaced with some form of fiction: conjecture, some sort of aspect of the fantastic, an assumption of what other people were thinking, conversations the author was not actually privy to in real life, and so on. The distance between the fictional version of the author and the actual living author can be very close, as in J.G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun, or seemingly separated by a chasm of impossibility as is assumed in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Of course Tolkien never claimed to be reporting on real events in a real place in LotR, but still he infused that work with an awful lot of himself: what he was thinking (at least at the time) about politics, society, race, gender, authoritarianism, nationalism, manners, and so on and so on.

We all do this, including Arundhati Roy, who told The Paris Review: “For me, everything I see I absorb, I harness it, I turn it to my purpose—which is to tell stories.”

We not only tend to but absolutely must dig into your own past, and not just for plot and research details but to find the emotional centers of characters who will never be more or less than versions of ourselves. Consider this, from “Proust’s Panmnemonicon” by Justin E.H. Smith

Another thing happened in 1996 that I still remember: my father convinced his mother, Bertie, in the aim of helping her to stave off mental decline, to write an autobiography (or, more likely, to dictate an autobiography; the polish of the spelling and grammar are clearly my father’s). It’s not very long, sixty pages or so, but it’s filled with passages that move me to my core, and that I wish I could cite at length. I’ll content myself with just one.

In the summer of 1936, in rural Arkansas not far from the town of Monticello, the Cruce family had guests:

They had this little boy that had been spoiled by his mother. He was such a cry-baby and tattled on the other kids all the time. While the grown-ups were eating, we took him out in the garden and talked him into eating a red hot pepper. He went blubbering back into the house and his mother gave him a chicken leg. He came back outside grinning, and the rest of us kids were mad at him because we were all so hungry.

Seen from the perspective of the long history of literature, this document amounts to a sort of demotic Proust. My grandma had no real knack for it, she was only doing it to pass the time. Yet the very idea that you could retrieve such a singular event as this one from sixty years prior, and in some sense you could eternalise that blubbering boy’s small triumph in textual form, and that it is good and worthy to do this, is something my dad only thought to encourage because the template for such undertakings already existed.

The brilliant Japanese novelist Kenzaburo Oe, also in The Paris Review, drilled it down to:

I haven’t seen many great things. I haven’t been to a new world. I haven’t had many strange experiences. I have experienced many little things. I write about those small experiences and revise them and reexperience them through revision.

It was in this way that Tolkien reexperienced his simultaneously conservative and complex worldview into The Lord of the Rings, Frank Herbert did the same in Dune, and Harlan Ellison dissected the feeling of being a short Jewish kid surrounded by early 20th century middle American anti-Semites over and over again for decades worth of brilliant genre fiction.

Sometimes, this is easy. If you have a strong opinion about Donald Trump you make him the villain (hopefully) or hero (yikes) of a fantasy story and work some shit out. But the easy route rarely gets you to the village of Good. Usually, and I think this is particularly true for Harlan Ellison and J.G. Ballard in particular, this sort of exploration into your own past in search of not necessarily an event but a feeling, requires exposing one raw nerve after another.

In Bird By Bird, Anne Lamott wrote:

The great writers keep writing about the cold dark place within, the water under a frozen lake or the secluded, camouflaged hole. The light they shine on this hole, this pit, helps us cut away or step around the brush and brambles; then we can dance around the rim of the abyss, holler into it, measure it, throw rocks in it, and still not fall in. It can no longer swallow us up. And we can get on with things.

We write to expose the unexposed. If there is one door in the castle you have been told not to go through, you must. Otherwise, you’ll just be rearranging furniture in rooms you’ve already been in. Most human beings are dedicated to keeping that one door shut. But the writer’s job is to see what’s behind it, to see the bleak unspeakable stuff, and to turn the unspeakable into words—not just into any words but if we can, into rhythm and blues.

Stephen King, in conversation with George R.R. Martin, put it a bit more simply: “You just have these sick ideas… and instead of going to a shrink and paying the shrink we write them and you pay us. It’s a pretty good deal.”

Just not an easy one.

—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.

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Posted in authors helping authors, authors to writers, best fantasy blogs, best genre fiction blogs, best horror blogs, best science fiction blogs, best websites for authors, best websites for writers, Books, characters, Dungeons & Dragons, fiction writing blog, fiction writing websites, Game of Thrones, help for writers, helping writers become authors, how to write fantasy, how to write fiction, how to write horror, how to write science fiction, Publishing Business, SF and Fantasy Authors, websites for authors, websites for writers, writers to authors, Writing, writing advice, Writing Community, writing fantasy, writing horror, writing science fiction, Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

BOOKS FOR FANTASY AUTHORS XXVII: HISTORY OF ATLANTIS

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

For what it’s worth, I don’t think there ever was a continent in the Atlantic Ocean, west of Europe and east of the Americas, that was the home of an advanced civilization that was then destroyed in a cataclysm but not before seeding both east and west with their superior awesomeness. I think the Egyptians created their own culture, as did the Maya, and people may or may not have travelled across the oceans before the times we know of for sure, and so on.

So then, why read Lewis Spence’s History of Atlantis, a book that claims to “prove” that Atlantis did indeed exist and absolutely did influence numerous ancient cultures?

Why? Because I like stories and I don’t particularly give a shit if they’re true, even if their authors are convinced of their own veracity.

But it actually goes a little deeper than that. As an author, editor, and fan of fantasy and fantasy worldbuilding, how can I not be fascinated with the mythical, legendary, and oh so very fanciful Atlantis? And reading this book triggered all sorts of characters and thoughts about fantasy and worldbuilding ideas… The pull on me to stop everything I was doing and start designing my own fantasy Atlantis setting was almost irresistible. I couldn’t help but start linking things in my mind—these are the clerics, here are the rangers, there are druid aplenty for sure… The king is a giant, might be a god, maybe a titan… oh, wow, just a million ideas per page.

But a bit of background on the book. I have no idea where I ran across the copy that’s been dutifully waiting to be read on my bookshelves, crowded with similar mysterious objects, but it’s a fairly recent (1995) reprint from Senate. The book itself was written and first published in 1927, so first we have to be forgiving of the almost one hundred years of rapidly accelerating scientific and technological advancement that renders an awful lot of his “scientific” suppositions entirely moot, though in maybe just as many cases we can say that the jury is still out. Lewis Spence was a Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain, and a  respected scholar. The book does feel like a serious examination of the subject—he doesn’t come across as some kind of “crackpot.” Still, Mr. Spence discards the burden of scientific proof pretty much immediately and makes a case that not just the existence of Atlantis but specific aspects of life there can be proven by circumstantial evidence—if you allow significant leeway on the definition of “evidence.” From the second paragraph of the book:

Such an account, I am the first to admit, must have as many lacunae as it has facts, and must rely in large measure upon analogy and often upon pure surmise.

He then covers the easy stuff, like the fact that both the Egyptians and the Maya constructed pyramids as proof that they came from or were at least influenced by, a common ancestor. The fact that a pyramid is the easiest tall building to make when you’re limited to stacking stone blocks on top of each other sounds like the more logical explanation to me, but Occam’s razor is really the first principle Spence sets aside. Almost all of his “evidence” can be dismissed with the notion that the Maya and the Egyptians were humans, and humans have a certain way of doing things that cross cultures—including cultures that spent thousands of years in isolation. And then, of course, we all do have a common ancestor, but they came from Africa, not Atlantis.

So then, yeah, throw all that away. Don’t feel you have to be convinced that Atlantis was real, or that any of the specific assumptions about daily life there, their religious views and practices, their art and architecture, is actual history instead of supposition based on cobbling together bits and pieces of otherwise unconnected information in service to the twin angels of hope and imagination. Instead, let your imagination run wild, just like mine did, and bathe in this great work of public domain fantasy worldbuilding, cast as history.

You will not regret it, and I guarantee, ideas will flow like water through the grand circular canals of lost Atlantis!

—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.

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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.

 
Posted in authors helping authors, authors to writers, best fantasy blogs, best genre fiction blogs, best horror blogs, best science fiction blogs, best websites for authors, best websites for writers, Books, characters, Dungeons & Dragons, fiction writing blog, fiction writing websites, help for writers, helping writers become authors, how to write fantasy, how to write fiction, how to write horror, how to write science fiction, Publishing Business, websites for authors, websites for writers, writers to authors, Writing, writing advice, Writing Community, writing fantasy, writing horror, writing science fiction, Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

WHAT CAN YOU GET AWAY WITH IN FICTION?

Great question, easy answer: Anything.

In fact, the question itself is silly. You don’t have to feel you’re “getting away with” anything.

An epic fantasy novel featuring a gender-fluid protagonist? Why not? In fact, the only argument against is necessarily trans- and/or homophobic. If we, as fantasy readers, can accept that the hero of an epic fantasy is a hobbit, which is a sort of person who does not exist in the real world around us, how can any case be made that fantasy readers can’t accept a non-binary person, which is a sort of person who does exist in the real world around us?

I once wrote a post about why you shouldn’t swear in fantasy. Then I saw Game of Thrones and was like, oh, fuck, I guess we fucking can now, holy shit! I was trained at TSR in their Code of Ethics and I guess some of that (which was actually the old Comics Code) rubbed off on me, or sat inside me like some kind of mind-numbing tumor. I’m delighted to say I’m cured of that as thoroughly as any other sort of strictures as to what is and isn’t “appropriate” for this genre or that genre.

Okay, you might not want to throw f-bombs in your middle grade chapter book, but once you decide your audience is more than single digit years old, write your characters in your story in your voice from your experience. We, as readers, want—or we should want, anyway—to experience not just some idealized version of ourselves (though I freely admit that’s sometimes fun) but we can also, even primarily, read fiction to experience being some version of “the other” by walking a mile (or 90,000 words or so) in their shoes. In part of an excerpt from  Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon, Mark McGurl lays it out like this:

Our interest in fiction is in part an interest in encountering different degrees of (albeit, properly formatted) otherness, the better to assimilate it to ourselves in the spirit of personal augmentation. It is the otherness of fictional characters and their experiences, most obviously, but also the otherness of the author’s gradually revealed intentions. To varying degrees, and notwithstanding the self-centeredness of literary self-care, our interest in the novel is an interest in encountering the author’s autonomy, which is the real difference—and addition—they bring to our existence, in however mediated a fashion.

If fiction is a form of “wish fulfilment,” fine—so instead of being careful what we wish for, let’s wish for the widest possible experience. In “& Other Stories,” Eloghosa Osunde wrote:

What does fiction do for me? It allows me to see what has been made, just as it is. It reminds me that if there are seven billion of us, there are seven billion ways to experience the world, seven billion valid iterations. The systems do what the systems do, and the kindest thing I can think to do for anyone I love is to follow them to the end of their desire, is to go with them to the beginning of their imagination—that place where  I wish  turns into  I want. I listen to my loved ones when they say:  I wish  this was a world in which I could decide not to have kids.  I wish  I could decide not to get married.  I wish  this world was kinder to queer people.  I wish  we’d all take friendships more seriously.  I wish  this world was fair to neurodivergent people. I wish. I wish.

As an author, don’t be afraid there isn’t a readership for this, that, or the other thing. To be honest, in America in 2021, there’s effectively no audience for any novel—not like there used to be in, say, the 1950s (or any point pre-TV, pre-video games, pre-Internet, pre… whatever else), so embrace that. Your book will find your audience, and that audience almost definitely wasn’t going to be millions of readers even if you followed the Comics Code and kept it light PG rated and your hero is definitely a straight white guy who only saves straight white princesses from bad guys who don’t have to be white or men. I love the old pulp stories and the whole pulp fiction experience, not because the genres had reached a state of perfection that must now be repeated over and over again forever, but because, or more accurately in spite of the fact that those authors, editors, and illustrators were flailing around trying to invent stuff within sets of strictures based on a general feeling of who they were selling magazines to, who they wanted to sell their magazines to, who their invariably conservative advertisers wanted to sell their products to, and that was a 1920s, 1930s systemically and legally racist and sexist society.

Anyone who thinks science fiction and fantasy—or any genre—should continue to play to hundred year old market forces… I just don’t know what to tell you.

—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.

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases, and I also recognize the supreme irony of adding an associates link to Amazon for a book that takes Amazon to task. God bless America.

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.

 

Posted in authors helping authors, authors to writers, best fantasy blogs, best genre fiction blogs, best horror blogs, best science fiction blogs, best websites for authors, best websites for writers, Books, characters, Dungeons & Dragons, fiction writing blog, fiction writing websites, Game of Thrones, help for writers, helping writers become authors, how to write fantasy, how to write fiction, how to write horror, how to write science fiction, Publishing Business, Pulp Fiction, SF and Fantasy Authors, websites for authors, websites for writers, writers to authors, Writing, writing advice, Writing Community, writing fantasy, writing horror, writing science fiction, Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

THE PULP GENRES: AN (ALMOST) COMPLETE LIST

This week, how about a look back at my still indefinitely on-hold Pulp Fiction Workshop. As part of the rundown on the history of the pulps, I made a quick rundown of at least most of the broader genre categories found on the newsstands of, say, 70-100 years ago, when popular fiction magazines routinely sold in the hundreds of thousands of copies each month. The examples were sourced from two great online resources, The Pulp Magazines Project and the even longer list of titles found at the Luminist Archives, both being places where you can actually read, even download and keep, scans of some of the surviving original pulps. If you’re like me, you may have to take a couple days off work once you start clicking through these treasure troves.

You have been warned.

DETECTIVE/CRIME

Not to be confused with traditional mysteries, the pulp version of the contemporary mystery featured either the hardboiled, no-nonsense, shoot from the hip detective or private investigator, or focused on the criminals and the crime itself. Some of these magazines were branded as “True”—and the HBO series True Detective is a nod back to those magazines. How actually “true” those were was in doubt from the get-go, but why split hairs? There were murderers, armored car robbers, cat burglars, hop-heads, and Axis spy rings to crack wide open. The “spicy” detective pulps added a teaspoon’s more sex to the mix and though tame by today’s NC-17 standards, these magazines inhabited the spaces under many an American mattress. Black Mask is widely considered the best of the crime/detective pulps, but there were lots more, from Clues Detective Stories to Thrilling Mystery.

HORROR

The horror pulps gave us such weird fantasy luminaries as H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith. Though Weird Taleswas the most influential, that magazine quickly found the line between horror and fantasy and went more and more into fantasy while there were loads of competing horror magazines, especially the simply titled Horror Stories and Terror Tales, featuring monsters, ghosts, vampires, werewolves… and some of the most enduring pulp stories.

WESTERN

This is the original pulp genre, from the dime novels of the mid-19th century. Westerns came in all flavors, including romance westerns like Rangeland Romances that were aimed at women, and even territory-specific westerns like North West Romances. As a Seattleite, I should be reading that one! These westerns first presented in the pulps were hungrily slurped up by Hollywood and a new American mythology was created, with just a dash of actual history and a lot of macho wish fulfillment.

 

ADVENTURE

This was the category that could soak up almost all the other genres, as long as a man (and they were almost invariably men) was, well… having an adventure. Mostly this is where you would find tales of being stranded on a deserted island full of savage headhunters, wealthy hermits who hunt men for sport, historical adventures, and attacks by every conceivable species of animal from sharks to weasels. In case you weren’t sure what you were getting, like the horror and western pulps, most were rather unambiguously named, like Adventure or Mammoth Adventure. Under this category sat a few more specialized adventure pulps, concentrating on things like Jungle Stories (one of my favorites) or Sea Stories. These, like the science fiction magazines, hung on while the pulps faded away, morphing into “men’s adventure magazines” then into simply “men’s magazines,” which is an old fashioned name for pornography.

ROMANCE

Romance pulps were aimed, just like the Harlequin romances of today, exclusively at women, which was to say middle class white housewives. After all, a girl has to have something to occupy her time while hubby’s away having daring adventures on the high seas or tracking down the Blueblood Killer or, y’know… colonizing Mars. Romances came in various varieties including saucy, thrilling, “true,” and western. But mostly, the operative word was “love.” Code that however you want.

SCIENCE FICTION

Though Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which pre-dates the pulps, is arguably the first science fiction novel, it was in the pulps that the SF genre really took off. In fact, this is where all the first couple generations of great American SF authors started, including Ray Bradbury and Philip K. Dick. It was also the genre that survived—there are still science fiction magazines being published today. Some of the earliest include Wonder Stories, and other favorites like Startling Stories and Astonishing Stories. The Luminist Archives has a whole separate section for SF, fantasy, and “weird fiction.” Honestly, I just sometimes wallow in old science fiction magazines. The nerd love is oh, so very real.

FANTASY

The great sword & sorcery pulp fantasies predate The Lord of the Rings and featured such enduring characters as Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian. Picked up by Marvel Comics in the 1970s, Conan has kept that pulp fantasy tradition alive through to today. Though fantasy is arguably the world’s oldest genre, the pulps, as they did with science fiction, helped establish the basic lexicon of fantasy archetypes that inform every work of the genre today. Though there’s a lot of crossover in the pulps between what we now consider separate genres—fantasy, science fiction, and horror—magazines like Ten Story FantasyUnknown, and the later Fantastic couldn’t have known the sort of cultural force they were helping to unleash.

WAR & AIR COMBAT

The stories in magazines like Air Wonder Stories were mostly lighter science fiction stories, imagining then-impossible flying machines, but mostly “air” stories were tales of derring-do in the brand new era of aviation and air combat. The war and air combat magazines were on average much less lurid, less “spicy,” than their pulp brothers and sisters and stressed the action and adventure. It might be difficult to believe how many of these there actually were, including AcesAir Action, and Flying Aces, which spoke to a significant demand—more so than the other war pulps, which kept their action mostly in the trenches.

SPORTS

This is the really lost genre, though we do occasionally see a sports movie come around, or a TV series like Friday Night Lights, but back in the day, sports fans gobbled up stories from generalized collections like Fifteen Sports Storiesto whole magazines devoted to a single sport, mostly boxing with magazines like Fight Stories, but let’s not forget Basketball Stories or Football Stories.

 

 

And those are only “the big ones.” Some pulp magazines were super-specialized, others almost uncategorizable, but I have a love for every one of them, warts and all. Have fun!

—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.

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Where Story Meets World™

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

Posted in authors helping authors, authors to writers, best fantasy blogs, best genre fiction blogs, best horror blogs, best science fiction blogs, best websites for authors, best websites for writers, fiction writing blog, fiction writing websites, help for writers, helping writers become authors, how to write fantasy, how to write fiction, how to write horror, how to write science fiction, Publishing Business, Pulp Fiction, SF and Fantasy Authors, websites for authors, websites for writers, writers to authors, Writing, writing advice, Writing Community, writing fantasy, writing horror, writing science fiction, Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

FOCUS ON THE WORK, NOT THE RESULTS

Of course we all want to find our books at the top of the New York Times best seller list. We want our books to be taught in English classes for decades if not centuries to come. We want to be spoken of in the same breath as Shakespeare or Melville or whoever we most admire or think most people most admire. Of course we want theme parks to be built around our fantasy series. Of course we want the super serious, expensive HBO series… oh, how we want, want, want.

And hey, all that’s great. Honestly, more power to anyone and everyone who achieves those things, or some version of any of those things. But I know—I hope, at least—that we can all agree that us poor lowly writers out here are powerless to actually make that kind of thing happen on our own. There is no secret Amazon algorithm by which that kind of success can be conjured up. Everything listed above, and not just the absurd stuff but even reasonable stuff like writing a best seller—that’s more reasonable than the theme park thing—is a result of not just having finished a novel, but the result of a wildly improbable set of circumstances that follow its publication.

I wish all these great things for everyone who puts pen to paper, but here’s the thing…

First, set pen to paper!

None of that great stuff happens before you write a book. It’s like hoping you’ll win the lottery without buying a ticket. The chances of the million-dollar payday is infinitesimally small, but drops to zero if you don’t buy the ticket. Likewise, the chances of fame and fortune as an author drops to zero if you don’t write the book.

And since we know—we know this, don’t we?—that the guaranteed success strategy is a myth, is entirely out of our control, then what is under our control? I mean, come on, even writers have to be in control of something.

The answer:

The only thing we have control over is the quality of our work.

And there’s a lot that goes into “quality.” A clean copy edit—yes, for sure. Learn and practice the craft of writing. You can learn some storytelling basics at least. You can try out formulas and other things—explore the wide world of writing advice, starting with Fantasy Author’s Handbook and working your way down… Okay… Anyway…

There is probably an infinite number of ways to approach and to write a novel, but the one thing that has to be there is the author’s passion for their own writing. You have to love it. You have to value it. You have to have something to say.

So advice number one, more important than anything, is love writing!

I know writing is hard, but being difficult doesn’t mean you can’t love it. The difficulty of it, the challenge, is actually one of the things I like most about writing.

What all that “success” stuff boils down to is expectations. In “Want to Be Happier? Jettison Expectations,” Eric Weiner wrote:

Gandhi was not results-oriented. He was process-oriented. He made no distinction between means and ends. For him, the means were  the ends. How you achieve your goals is more important than whether you achieve them. The delicious irony is that this process-oriented approach produces better results than a results-oriented one.

In a landmark study, Teresa Amabile, a psychologist at Harvard University, found that expectation of a reward or evaluation, even a positive evaluation, squelched creativity. She calls this phenomenon the intrinsic theory of motivation. “People will be most creative when they feel motivated primarily by interest, enjoyment, satisfaction, and the challenge of the work itself—not by external pressures,” she said.

Not only does living expectations-free soften the sting when life goes sideways, as it inevitably does, it frees us up for the possibility of unexpected delight, what the writer Robert Grudin calls “the beauty of sudden seeing.”

There are a lot of businesses in which its expected that we’ll have some expectations, that we’ll be goal-oriented, that we’ll be tracking performance and revenue and all that stuff I hated about being part of the business of publishing. But the writing itself? Throw those business expectations right out the goddamn window, and write for the pure joy of it. If all you’re trying to do is get rich, writing fiction might be the hardest way to accomplish that. If you burn to tell stories, tell stories!

The great Haruki Murakami said: “I’m a writer, and I’m writing, but at the same time I feel as though I were reading some exciting, interesting book. So I enjoy the writing.”

Jettison the expectations and enjoy the 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.

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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!

Posted in authors helping authors, authors to writers, best fantasy blogs, best genre fiction blogs, best horror blogs, best science fiction blogs, best websites for authors, best websites for writers, Books, fiction writing blog, fiction writing websites, help for writers, helping writers become authors, how to write fantasy, how to write fiction, how to write horror, how to write science fiction, Publishing Business, SF and Fantasy Authors, websites for authors, websites for writers, writers to authors, Writing, writing advice, Writing Community, writing fantasy, writing horror, writing science fiction, Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

GROUP POV? NO. JUST… NO.

Do I even need to go on?

Please believe me that I’m not a rules-monger when it comes to creative writing. I want to read great stories told in fresh and fascinating ways. If that means a copy editor at The New Yorker would faint dead away at the sight of your sentence fragments and exclamation marks—em-dashes… ellipsis, commas, commas, and more commas then so be it.

But there’s always a but, isn’t there?

But…

For me, the one rule to bind them all in fiction is: one scene, one POV.

That means there is no such animal as “third person omniscient.” Find a character in that scene—and I recommend it be the one character who has the most to learn—and show us (your readers) that scene from that one character’s perspective. That means we only experience what that character experiences. We only see what that character sees, only hear what that character hears, only taste what that character tastes, only feel what that character feels, and only know what that character knows. The feelings of other characters have to be filtered through that perspective, so if Bronwyn is the POV character and she says something to Galen that pisses him off it’s:

Bronwyn could tell Galen was pissed, but he would just have to get over it.

Not:

Galen was pissed, though he knew Bronwyn would just tell him to get over it.

Yeah? And it goes deeper than that—it gets harder sometimes. POV issues are one of the things I see most often in the work of less experienced authors I work with, and it can take a bit of concentrated effort to lock into one scene, one POV, but it’s effort well spent.

But even beyond slipping from head to head within a scene (or even a paragraph), I sometimes see authors falling into something I can only describe as “group POV.” This makes my editor’s brain swell in my skull and bad ideas come to me from the Screaming Darkness.

Let’s say you’re writing a fun space opera about the crew of a starship going to the planet Zeblax on the Important Mission. They’re leaving the space station…

As the ship thrusted away from the station, the crew was nervous. The reports of alien things abducting colonists from the outpost on Zeblax came as a surprise to everyone, but they knew they had to get there fast since the colonists were unarmed and none of them were ready for this. The crew were well trained, and confident in their abilities once they hit the ground, but if half the stories they’d heard about the… things… on Zeblax were true, they could be in for the worst fight of their lives.

Oh, so scary, eh? What a brilliant set up! This is the story of some number of people who all feel and experience exactly the same thing at exactly the same time and I’d be scared for them but… who are they? Who am I in this? Am I reading a newspaper article about this mission?

As a reader, I feel pushed back from the story, disengaged, and whether or not I might even be able to articulate why I’m struggling with this, I am struggling. If this goes on in this fashion another few paragraphs… ouch.

Jettison the “group POV” immediately and completely!

The good news is this is something you can revise your way out of:

As the ship thrusted away from the station, Captain Bronwyn could see that the crew was nervous. They’d all seen the reports of alien things abducting colonists from the outpost on Zeblax. The reports came as a surprise to everyone, but Bronwyn took it personally. She was the one who’d cleared Zeblax for colonization, had declared it devoid of animal life, had called it safe.

“Ready for hyperjump at your command, Captain,” Navigator Galen said, not looking up from his console.

“Engaging hyperjump,” Bronwyn said as she keyed in the command code.

“Will we get there in time?” the ship’s surgeon, Dr. Zox asked. Bronwyn hadn’t realized she’d come up to the bridge.

“I hope so,” Bronwyn replied. “The colonists are unarmed. None of them could be ready for what’s happening there.”

Bronwyn swallowed in a dry throat. Her crew was well trained, and she was confident in their abilities once they hit the ground, but if half the stories she’d heard about the… things… on Zeblax were true, they could be in for the worst fight of their lives.

The same information, but with the addition of a person who carries the experience. Note that I’ve included dialog here because, y’know, sometimes people talk to each other. This also shows not just “the crew” but specific members of the crew, with specific jobs, doing things. And now, though it may be true that everyone on the ship is afraid of what they’re going to find on Zeblax, that’s filtered through Bronwyn’s experience of her own emotions, and her ideas and expectations of her crew’s ability. Note the addition of an emotional layer, too, in the guilt Bronwyn feels about having said the planet was safe for colonization.

The second attempt feels lots more like a story to me.

So again, one scene, one POV, and that means not one group of people but one person, and of course that “person” can be any sort of sentient creature you can dream up!

—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.

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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.

Posted in authors helping authors, authors to writers, best fantasy blogs, best genre fiction blogs, best horror blogs, best science fiction blogs, best websites for authors, best websites for writers, Books, characters, fiction writing blog, fiction writing websites, freelance editing, help for writers, helping writers become authors, how to write fantasy, how to write fiction, how to write horror, how to write science fiction, monsters, Publishing Business, SF and Fantasy Authors, websites for authors, websites for writers, writers to authors, Writing, writing advice, Writing Community, writing fantasy, writing horror, writing science fiction, Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

ON THE KIND OF FICTION CALLED MORBID

I don’t normally run guest posts here, but this week, I’d like to turn Fantasy Author’s Handbook over to Vincent O’Sullivan, and an essay he wrote for the April 1896 issue of Savoy entitled “On the Kind of Fiction Called Morbid.” Being all of a century and quarter old, please excuse his default male pronouns, but I think we can all get something out of the spirit of the sentiment.

Without further ado…

“This is a poison-bad world for the romancer, this Anglo-Saxon world,” wrote Robert Louis Stevenson to Mr. Sidney Colvin: and if a popular writer with an obvious style, after his years of experience, came to this conclusion, we risk little in asserting that the same conclusion has been reached by many another writer whose style is not obvious, and who is not so popular. Amongst these, the man who would be always introducing the thin presence of Death is, without doubt, the most reviled; we will have nothing of a fellow who comes to our feasts with a skull. And though we all agree that Memento homo quia pulvis es1 is a fine and wise saying, yet, i’ faith! we are content to leave it at that; and we clap the rogue who recalls it in the stocks. Nay! Ash Wednesday would have been long ago rubbed out of the calendar, save that we are careful not to understand the full significance of it; just as we are careful not to understand the full significance of Good Friday.

The smiling gentleman who hails us in the street does not like to think that one day he must be dead; archbishops are supposed not to like a dwelling on that; and a certain parson of easy life, whose business it is to preach mortality, when invited by a plain writer to fall into a better acquaintance with the cold guide who shall lead him to the Eternal Hills, flies into a passion, calls my plain writer (of all things in the world!) immoral, and sits down, raging, to write insolent letters to the papers. But (you will ask), do not these people give a man the credit of his courage in facing what they dare not face? Well, no. For when a man has done the day’s appointed labour, he stirs the fire, sinks into his armchair, and lo! in a trice he spurns the hearth and is off swinging the sword and aiding somewhat sulky damsels with De Marsac; or, if he is of a cold habit of body, he wanders in lanes where the clover breathes, and John and Joan while away the white-winged hours a-wooing. Or again, he hies to the ball, and watches the tenderness with which my lord and the farmer’s daughter take the floor. If, then, to this man a person of wry visage and hearse-like airs comes offering a sombre story—why, up he leaps, grasps the intrusive fellow by the shoulders, and lands him in the street. No; it is certain that abnormal nerves are not understood or thought proper in the suburban villa: and they are not tolerated by the Press, which is almost the same thing. Even editors, those cocks that show how the popular wind blows, if they have no kicks, have few ha’pence for the writer of stories which are not sops to our pleasure. The thought of death is not pleasant! (folk may be imagined to exclaim); to escape that we laugh at sorry farces and the works of Mr. Mark Twain; and yet, here is a zany with a hatful of dun thoughts formed to make one meditate on one’s tomb for a week! Still, for him, poor devil! life is not all (as they say) beer and skittles. With an impatience of facility, he sets to work sedulously on a branch of art which he is pleased to consider difficult; it cannot be pleasant work, since it progresses with shudders and cold sweats; it cannot be easy, since it is acknowledged to be no easy thing to turn the blood from men’s faces. He is even charmed by the fancy that he is driving his pen to a very high measure. He may (by chance) be right; he is possibly wrong; but I am glad to say I have yet to hear that Banquo’s ghost at the feast, and Cæsar’s ghost in the tent, are deemed infamous, or (as the cant goes) immoral. And, talking of Shakespeare, has it ever occurred to you how the critics would waggle their heads at “Romeo and Juliet,” if it were presented to-day as a new piece by William Shakespeare, Esq.?

“As in a vault, an ancient receptacle,

Where, for these many hundred years, the bones

Of all my buried ancestors are pack’d;

Where bloody Tybalt, yet but green in earth,

Lies festering in his shroud; where, as they say,

At some hours in the night spirits resort;—

Alack! alack! is it not like, that I,

So early waking,—what with loathsome smells,

And shrieks like mandrakes’ torn out of the earth,

That living mortals, hearing them, run mad;—

O, if I wake, shall I not be distraught,

Environed with all these hideous fears?

And madly play with my forefathers’ joints?

And pluck the mangled Tybalt from his shroud?

And, in this rage, with some great kinsman’s bone,

As with a club, dash out my desperate brains?”

Methinks I see the words: “exotic,” “morbid,” “unhealthy,” ready-made for that! Ah! how, then, can my modern writer expect to be suffered, any more than we suffer an undertaker to send out cards setting forth the excellence of his wares. When he takes to the road, he must know that he is in for a weary and footsore journey: comely persons, in beautiful garments, with eyes full of invitation look down from bordering windows and jeer at his sober parade; he sees cool, shaded by-lanes which are never for him; others pass him on the road singing blithe, gamesome songs, and he is left to loiter. And be sure he travels in glum company: the stiff-featured dead, with their thin hands and strange smile, fall into step with him and tell him their dream-like tales. The poor dead, whom we all forget so soon on this sunny earth! I think they tell him that they have a kindness for those who perform the last offices for them: the dead villager for the barber and the crone, the dead peer for the undertakers who come by night to Belgrave Square. Perhaps it is from fear of the ghosts who attend the march, that the writers of aweful stories are few and far between, up and down the world. And when we meet with such a one, whose head is humming like a top from the gray talk of his fellow-passengers, should we not thank (rather than stone) him for his sense of the decency of things, which prevents him from going tearing mad and holding the highway with a gun? I will wager that the recognition of this is all he asks of reward from the “poison-bad world for the romancer,” for sticking with iron courage to the graveside, and refusing to engage in work less resolute, and more easy.

Yes, more easy; for it is more easy — if more degrading-to write a certain kind of novel. To take a fanciful instance, it is more easy to write the history of Miss Perfect: how, upon the death of her parents, she comes to reside in the village, and lives there mildly and sedately; and how one day, in the course of her walk abroad, she is noticed by the squire’s lady, who straightway transports her to the Hall. And, of course, she soon becomes mighty well with the family, and the squire’s son becomes enamoured of her. Then the clouds must gather: and a villain lord comes on the scene to bombard her virtue with clumsy artillery. Finding after months that her virtue dwells in an impregnable citadel, he turns to, and jibes and goads the young squire to the fighting point. And, presto! there they are, hard at it with bare steel, on the Norman beach, of a drizzling morning; and the squire is just pressing hot upon my lord, when—it’s hey! for the old love, and ho! for the new—out rushes my Miss Perfect to our great amazement, and falls between the swords down on the stinging sands, in the sight of the toiling sea. Now I maintain, that a novel woven of these meagre threads, and set out in three volumes and a brave binding, would put up a good front at Mudie’s; would become, it too, after a while, morality packed in a box. For nowadays we seem to nourish our morals with the thinnest milk and water, with a good dose of sugar added, and not a suspicion of lemon at all.

You will note that the letter-writer says, the “Anglo-Saxon world”—Great Britain, say! and the United States; and it is well to keep in mind this distinction. In France, for example, people appear eager to watch how art triumphs over any matter. “Charles Baudelaire,” says Hamerton, “had the poetical organization with all its worst inconveniences;” but one inconvenience he had not—the inconvenience of a timid public not interested in form, and with a profound hatred of the unusual: a public from which Edgar Poe, Beddoes, and Francis Saltus (to name but three) suffered—how poignantly! Let us cling by all means to our George Meredith, our Henry James—our Miss Rhoda Broughton, if you will; but then let us try, if we cannot be towards others, unlike these, if not encouraging, at the least not actively hostile and harassing, when they go out in the black night to follow their own sullen will-o’-the-wisps.

—Vincent O’Sullivan

I sourced this text from Gaslight, with thanks.

1. “remember you are dust”—usually rendered in full as Memento homo quia pulvis es et in pulverem reverteris: “remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

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.

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.

 
Posted in authors helping authors, authors to writers, best fantasy blogs, best genre fiction blogs, best horror blogs, best science fiction blogs, best websites for authors, best websites for writers, Books, fiction writing blog, fiction writing websites, help for writers, helping writers become authors, horror novels, how to write fantasy, how to write fiction, how to write horror, how to write science fiction, Publishing Business, Pulp Fiction, Science Fiction & Fantasy Novels, SF and Fantasy Authors, websites for authors, websites for writers, writers to authors, Writing, writing advice, Writing Community, writing fantasy, writing horror, writing science fiction, Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

INTENTION-DRIVEN FICTION

Coincidently, while I’ve been wandering in and out of my wife’s current binge re-watch of The West Wing, I happened upon Aaron Sorkin on The Big Interview with Dan Rather and had to rewind it and write down something he said that I thought was fantastic, simple, and vital advice for any author of fiction. He said:

…it really boils down to intention and obstacle. That’s all drama is. Somebody wants something; something’s standing in their way of getting it. They want the money, they want the girl, they want to get to Philadelphia—it doesn’t matter. They’ve got to want it. If they need it, that’s even better. Something—whatever the obstacle is—has to be formidable. You can’t be able to get rid of it with a phone call or they just walk around the obstacle. Once I know what the intention and obstacle is, then we get to the part of writing that I love, because we just got through the part of writing that makes you want to put your head through a wall.

I just couldn’t agree more—and I love how succinctly he put it. That is both the definition of “plot,” while also defining what it means to have a “character-driven” story. Killing multiple birds with that one stone, it also blows up the absurd notion of plot-driven vs. character-driven fiction as separate entities. If you’ve received, probably while working on your MFA in creative writing, the terrible notion that genre fiction is “plot-driven” and literary fiction is “character-driven” and that’s why the latter is always better than the former, please stick with me while I bring on more expert witnesses to disabuse you of that notion.

How about Kurt Vonnegut, from a Paris Review interview:

I guarantee you that no modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction, unless one of those old-fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere. I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading. When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away—even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.

When you exclude plot, when you exclude anyone’s wanting anything, you exclude the reader, which is a mean-spirited thing to do. 

Yes? So then by all means, start with characters driving your story. Start, as both Sorkin and Vonnegut advise, with intention. A character (hero, villain, or anyone in between) wants—or better, as Sorkin pointed out, needs—something for some reason, and goes out to get it. Then you throw some obstacle in that character’s way, something that makes it difficult for the character to achieve that goal. Do that on both the micro and macro level. Intention/obstacle should be apparent in every scene. That POV character intends this, and is frustrated, surprised, horrified (and so on) by that. Likewise and simultaneously: in this novel, the protagonist intends to… and the villain intends to… and both run into obstacles, including each other, until whatever happens in the end, which will be most satisfying if it has a personal impact on both the hero and the villain.

In Never Say You Can’t Survive, Charlie Jane Anders wrote:

You’ll often hear people talk a lot about a character having an “arc,” which brings to mind the image of an arrow shot in the air, curving upward and then downward again. But another useful image is a piece of coal coming under immense pressure and becoming a diamond. People don’t change when life is easy and straightforward—they change when life is a bloody confusing nightmare.

So the beginning of the “arc,” or for Anders the state of “immense pressure,” is that character’s intention, and the pressure itself is caused by the obstacle. And yes, we could make one or both of those plural: intentions and obstacles.

As you’re considering this, ask—and really actually ask yourself this question—at the beginning of each scene: What are my POV character’s intentions here? And wants are fine, but needs are better. Then start thinking about the limitless number of potential obstacles that might stand in that character’s way, keeping in mind what Steven James said in his book Story Trumps Structure:

Easy choices make for weak fiction.

To touch readers on an emotional level, you’ll need your main character to desire something your readers also desire.

In each scene the protagonist will move forward from goal to setback(s) to a decision that drives things forward. Your character will seek something, fail in a way that makes things worse, process what just happened, and then proceed into the next scene of the story.

Four steps: seek, fail, process, proceed.

We could render this: seek = intend to get what you need, fail = succumb to obstacle, process = rethink intention or double down on it, and proceed = intend to get what you need. Or, as Anne Lamott said in Bird By Bird:

Plot grows out of character. If you focus on who the people in your story are, if you sit and write about two people you know and are getting to know better day by day, something is bound to happen.

In other words, all plots are character-driven.

—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.

Where Story Meets World™

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

Posted in authors helping authors, authors to writers, best fantasy blogs, best genre fiction blogs, best horror blogs, best science fiction blogs, best websites for authors, best websites for writers, Books, characters, fiction writing blog, fiction writing websites, help for writers, helping writers become authors, how to write fantasy, how to write fiction, how to write horror, how to write science fiction, Publishing Business, SF and Fantasy Authors, Story Structure, websites for authors, websites for writers, writers to authors, Writing, writing advice, Writing Community, writing fantasy, writing horror, writing science fiction, Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

LANGUAGE AND VOICE

Earlier this morning I posted this to Twitter:

I’m of the opinion that “voice”—an author’s voice, authorial voice, etc.—is something that can be switched on and off, manipulated, revised, built upon, etc. as you spend your life #writing and trying new things and getting better at it.

And of course I stand by that, having seen nothing in the last couple hours to change my mind. But the question of “voice” is a complicated one. It’s relatively easy to teach craft things like sentence structure, punctuation, and even some storytelling ideas like intention/obstacle and so on, but voice? How could anyone like me possibly tell you what exact word should go exactly there, at least in a story or novel you haven’t even started writing yet? That’s crazy.

Ultimately, voice, however you play with it, develop it, and try to master it, is unique to each author, and might be the most sacred of the sacred aspects of the art of fiction.

In some effort to dig at least a bit deeper into the unknown, I saved three quotes from interviews in The Paris Review’s long-running The Art of Fiction series, and I’ll start with author Allan Gurganus in the Spring 2021 issue, Number 236:

Beginning writers see language as a means to an end, the paint used to coat your house. But language is the whole game, it’s not the frosting on the cake, it’s the cake, milk, sugar, flour, wheat. How accountable and original and mellifluous is the building material? That counts most of all. Our primal duty is to the hive’s queen bee. She is either/or. She is language itself. We’re mainly here to guard and renew her. Our regeneration depends on her.

As I said—sacred. This is the heart of writing, the thing, as Gurganus says, that we’re here to protect, to honor, to do with as we please, yes, but always in the hope of advancing her.

So then how do we actually do that? How do we find exactly the right word that helps us move our unique stories forward in our unique voices? Do we, as Arthur Quiller-Couch infamously (I say because I think he was wrong) commanded: “murder your darlings?” Or can we learn, as the brilliant Arundhati Roy has (as she said in The Art of Fiction No. 249, The Paris Review #237, Summer 2021) that maybe the first word that comes to mind is the right one?

Sometimes people think of language as something that you construct or choose. But, for me, it is never that. It arrives organically, to tell the story that needs to be told. It comes to me, like as an audio track, as music almost. When I write, I don’t write a lot and then redraft and throw things away. It’s more like I hear it. And then there’s an enhancement, but there isn’t a great amount of redrafting. Recently I was tidying up my cupboards and I found all these papers, sections of Utmost Happiness. They were written eight years ago, and there are pages, whole paragraphs, in which nothing has changed. It’s almost like these sentences and phrases appear as colored threads, and then it is a question of weaving them into a fabric.

Even as someone with no religious, spiritual, superstitious, or metaphysical component to my life, I’m a firm believer in a sort of internal “magic”—what we can default refer to as “inspiration.” Anyone can learn craft, no one can learn talent. Yeah, you either got it or you ain’t, but if you got it, listen to it! And like Arundhati Roy most of it will be good, but not necessarily all of it. The equally brilliant Toni Morrison, also in The Paris Review, said:

The difficulty for me in writing—among  the difficulties—is to write language that can work quietly on a page for a reader who doesn’t hear anything. Now for that, one has to work very carefully with what is  in between  the words. What is not said. Which is measure, which is rhythm, and so on. So, it is what you don’t write that frequently gives what you do write its power.

By this I think, okay, don’t murder your darlings, but don’t let them run wild, either. There still has to be some intent behind telling a story.

Something to consider, at the very least.

—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.

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!

Posted in authors helping authors, authors to writers, best fantasy blogs, best genre fiction blogs, best horror blogs, best science fiction blogs, best websites for authors, best websites for writers, Books, fiction writing blog, fiction writing websites, help for writers, helping writers become authors, how to write fantasy, how to write fiction, how to write horror, how to write science fiction, Publishing Business, SF and Fantasy Authors, websites for authors, websites for writers, writers to authors, Writing, writing advice, Writing Community, writing fantasy, writing horror, writing science fiction, Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

WHAT WE CAN LEARN FROM A RANDOM SCIENCE FICTION NOVEL: DONOVAN’S BRAIN

In December 2014 I outlined the step-by-step process of creating a random science fiction, fantasy, and horror novel grab bag box, which I hope, like me, you’ve been drawing from for the past almost seven years. Not only have I read some great stuff—all mass market paperbacks I picked up in some cases for a few cents at used bookstores, library sales, and so on over years and years of obsessively buying books based on such a wide range of criteria I couldn’t even tell you—though now that I mention it that might be a fun subject for a post of its own!

Anyway, in my closet is a now much bigger than the original pizza box full of books, and from time to time I pull one out and read it. And sometimes, if the mood strikes me, I write about it here. Let’s do that again this week, with the most recent grab-bag book, a beat up 1950 Bantam Books edition of Donovan’s Brain by Curt Siodmak.

If, also like me, you’re a fan if the great B science fiction movies of the 1950s you’ll probably recognize the title and the concept, known as “the brain in the jar.” But if that sounds like a tired cliché now, keep in mind that every cliché was once original, and Donovan’s Brain is at least among the first to be put in a jar for our entertainment.

I really liked the book—let’s start with that. It was a fun, but most of all surprising read. The short recap:

A scientist named Dr. Patrick Cory lives out in the desert where he pursues weird experiments on the brains of monkeys. When he is called to the scene of a plane crash he recovers the body of a wealthy man named Donovan. Patrick brings the body back to his home laboratory, removes the millionaire’s brain, and manages, via science, to bring the brain back to life—except it’s just a brain in a jar so Donovan can’t experience anything—he has no eyes, ears, etc.

The experiments continue while the increasingly mad scientist further experiments on the disembodied brain until it grows bigger and stronger. It eventually begins telepathically communicating with the doctor, and eventually is able to fully possess him, and move him around in seemingly inexplicable efforts to pay off and manipulate people to some mysterious and, we assume, nefarious purpose. Meanwhile, the mad scientist is dealing with a blackmailer, a close associate who thinks he’s doing the wrong thing, and—what I’d like to focus on myself—a semi-estraged spouse.

Though the book’s “big surprise” is the nature of Donovan’s brain’s goals in controlling the scientist, what I found fascinating, especially for what can so easily be dismissed as an early SF “potboiler” with a goofy idea and this whacked-out cover:

Scan of my copy the book–a fun used bookstore find!

…is a surprisingly complex and nuanced story in which we’re continually forced to ask the question: Who is the hero of this story? Is there one?

There is definitently a protagonist, who is the first person narrator, the mad (?) scientist Patrick Cory. But we see Patrick do some pretty unheroic stuff, like stealing the brain and faking an autopsy, experimenting on what he believes to be a disembodied human consciousness, and so on.

Siodmak has written a fairly common SF hero of the era: a scientist who is smart as all get-out but otherwise an emotionally vacant problem-solving machine. But in the case of Donovan’s Brain, that almost robotic scientist-hero is confronted with not just an external antagonist (Donovan’s psychic brain) but an intimate antagonist: his long-suffering wife Janice.

When we first meet Ddoctor and Mrs. Cory, Janice has been pushed into the background, and Patrick makes it clear that though they might once have had a loving relationship, now she’s basically someone who kinda takes care of the house but is otherwise an annoyance. Patrick is entirely involved in his work, and he’d rather she wasn’t even there.

She cannot bear the climate, the heat of the parched desert, the sudden sandstorms, the stale water that is pumped through miles of hot pipelines. She was withering away slowly, dessicating. I had told her often enough to leave Washington Junction. She should live in New England, where she was born. But she will not leave me.

And later on the same page, when Patrick is about to leave when he’s called to the plane crash site, he’s surprised that she wakes up, ostensibly interested in what’s going on, maybe hoping to help…

I realized I had not talked to her for weeks. Her shadow was always behind me—my food in my room at the right moment, the house cleaned noiselessly, and she never bothered me with questions. She was waiting for me to call her, but I had forgotten her shadowy existence.

What a swell guy, our “hero” is, eh?

Reading this, very early in the book, I started to get nervous for Janice. Is this going to be one of those (and I’ve read more than a few) 194os and 50s era SF novels in which women are either not included at all or are there to be rescued? Is this all going to come down to her screwing things up and making our hero’s life more difficult, as femae charcaters of the era were wont to do?

Spoiler alert… no.

As the story progresses, Patrick becomes more and more obsessed with his experiment, until he becomes a willing participant in Donovan’s possession of his body, paying off shifty people, hiring lawyers, burning dow the blackmailer’s house… and Janice stays a shadow in the background… until Donovan causes Patrick to falter at the wrong moment and he is seriously injured in an accindent. Janice, a trained nurse, visits him in the hospital where Patrick begins to actually recognize her presence:

She looked very well, and I noticed that she was attractive in her nurse’s white uniform. She had lost that anemic look and I was half convinced she had not really been sick at all. It was our unhappy marriage that had broken her down.

And yet she still cares enough to help nurse her asshole husband back to health. Good on him for recognizing that. As Patrick gets more and more overwhelmed by the powerful disembodied brain, Janice takes on a larger role in the story, but more significantly, a larger role in the protagonist’s life. While Donovan is in control of his body, and Patrick can only helplessly watch what’s happenibg, he finally gains a more mature appreciation of a woman who stood by him even while he actively pushed her away then descended into this insane experiment gone terribly out of control:

She has that indefinable intuition which can understand happenings outside everyday reality. surely she would realize that it was not I, Patrick Cory, sitting on this bed, but Warren Horace Donovan.

“Patrick,” she said softly, and her voice was strained with uncertainty. Her eyes grew so dark the pupils were imperceivable.

She stood motionless. Her subconscious fear, which she controlled with singular bravery, gave her an untouchable aloof air. She was not capable of fright. The more horrible the truth, the braver she would be. She stood taller than the mounting danger.

She wore her bravery like an armor, and an air of virginity made her still less conquerable.

This epiphany I found suprisingly affecting, despite the clinkiness of some of the languae (“an air of virginity”? I have no idea what he means by that…). This is a protagonist who has done wrong, and specifically he’s done wrong to a person who has been on his side and who deserved to be treated better.

Now that I was sure she knew, I trusted her implicitly. All these years while she had lived close to me, she knew me so well, reading my thoughts before I was conscious of them myself, being there when I wanted her, and away when I wished to be alone. She was my thinking shadow.

A bond exists between certain people which may bring death when it breaks. Two persons connected by those immaterial links might not be in love with each other, might hate each other even, but still a strange identification which cannot be put down in formulas binds them together. An abstract identification lying outside space and time.

Often these persons are not aware of the bond until a great disaster or a threat of extreme danger breaks down the barriers of their ignorance. In these moments we step over the threshold of the unknown world and use weapons we were not aware of before.

Set aside for a second the gender role aspect here, set aside the values and terminology from a book orginally published in 1943, and think about this in terms of the intimate antagonist. Does this character exist in your stories? Someone who is close to your protagonist, shares their goals and sensibilities, or at the very least wants what’s best for your protagonist, but who’s own goals—especially emotional or psychological needs and expectations—sits in some way in opposition to the protagonist’s. This relationship can be incredibly powerful, and, as in Donovan’s Brain, can transform a “golden age” SF potboiler into a novel worthy of serious consideration in the far-flung future world of 2021.

 

—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.

Posted in authors helping authors, authors to writers, best fantasy blogs, best genre fiction blogs, best horror blogs, best science fiction blogs, best websites for authors, best websites for writers, Books, characters, fiction writing blog, fiction writing websites, help for writers, helping writers become authors, horror novels, how to write fantasy, how to write fiction, how to write horror, how to write science fiction, Publishing Business, Pulp Fiction, SF and Fantasy Authors, websites for authors, websites for writers, writers to authors, Writing, writing advice, Writing Community, writing fantasy, writing horror, writing science fiction, Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment