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 former is always better than the latter, 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

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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

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

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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

 

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BLOG POST DCXL: TOO MUCH INFORMATION IN YOUR CHAPTER STARTS 11:19 am PST, TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 21, 2021 CE SAMMAMISH, WA “Come ye, all Authors and Hear, for Wisdom shall be granted upon thee by the hand of the Not At All Mighty that thou might Hearest.” —Lord Philus Athansusus, the 63rd Lord Viscount of the City of Citiphus in the Duchy of Blackriverwaterberg of the Kingdom of Forevermore, Part XVII, Chapter 24, paragraph 83 of the third volume of the Collected Writings of Lord Philus Athansusus, the 63rd Lord Viscount of the City of Citiphus in the Duchy of Blackriverwaterberg of the Kingdom of Forvermore (standard edition), published in the Year of the Publishing (Summer)

Figured out yet what this post is going to be about?

I get it. Chapter titles are fun. So are quotes from “in world” sources. And the exact time and date of the events of this chapter are of vital importance. There is no way your readers will ever begin to understand your story without all of this, or anyway, all but the parts that are there to provide lots of groovy extra “color” and show beyond a reasonable doubt that you’ve really put that worldbuilding work in to get your complicated calendar system all set and perfect.

Except maybe one of those things might be true, and even then, if you really actually do need your readers to understand a fraction of this stuff before your story makes sense, the problem isn’t your lack of mighty, robust chapter starts but the story itself.

I know, I went nuts in the example and no one actually does that—not that much, not that eggregiously. Okay, sure—mostly. But I do see books that are pretty damn close.

But yeah, you might be thinking, isn’t that kind of cool robust worldbuilding exactly why we read science fiction and fantasy in the first place? Doesn’t all that add to the experience?

I love cool robust worldbuilding—when it unfolds organically as part of the experience of a set of POV characters involved in an unfolding story. Reading an encyclopedia… not so much. But even then, hell, I’ve written world bibles and caompaign settings—I get it. That can be awesome, too. But in the case of the overly complex chapter start, what’s actually happening is you’re stopping your readers from staying in the story.

Everything you’ve done to raise the stakes, to craft rich and relatable characters, to build tension and suspense… all the good stuff… now comes to a complete stop so we (your readers) can be told a list of facts, and the result is that all that hard and good storytelling work is derailed and we have to work through why all this matters… Wait, what time was it when the last chapter ended? I need to flip back and see if time has passed. And is Lord Philus going to be a character? Did they meet him? I don’t remember him. How long ago was the Year of the Publishing? Is this an old book or a new one? Does that matter?

Good luck getting that reader back into the story.

Also, I have to come right out and say it, this sort of thing also provides most of the people you’re sending this to a quick out. Agents, editors, and readers alike might just take this sort of info pile-up as a sign that they don’t have to, or anyway, don’t want to, read further. So then, yeah, don’t do it!

Now, you know I don’t like to be negative. If I point out a problem I feel the need and responsibility to then offer a solution. And at the same time I don’t like to try to impose hard and fast rules any more than I like hard and fast rules being imposed on me. So in search of help, I pulled six published books off my shelf and took a look at what these authors did, which, at least in terms of chapter starts, got them published. I’ll start with a book I’m still reading now, the 1943 science fiction/horror classic Donovan’s Brain by Curt Siodmak. Here chapters are not numbered and only begin with a dateline—but a very simple dateline: only the month and day. The book begins on September 13 and ends (no spoilers—I haven’t finished it yet!) on June 10. This works nicely since the text is written in the first person, as though it’s a scientist’s notes on an experiment, or his diary/journal. So here we see a minimal bit of information with a story purpose behind it: we’re reading Dr. Cory’s diary.

I am a William Gibson fan, so I pulled out my copy of his 2003 science fiction novel Pattern Recognition. Here chapters begin with an Arabic numeral and a short title. For example

15.

SINGUARITY

And that’s all. That’s fine, though I should warn you to craft your chapter titles carefully so they don’t become spoilers, like:

16.

NED GETS EXECUTED

Right?

A newer book, A Big Ship at the Edge of Universe by Alex White, has similar chapter starts but with the word chapter and the number spelled out, and, again, a simple chapter title:

Chapter Thirteen

Double Apex

And the publisher (Orbit) added a fun little graphic, too, which is swell. And the story continues right along.

Surely mega-best selling franchise authors can get away with the huge-ass chapter start, though, right? In his 2006 novel Lisey’s Story, mega-best selling author Stephen King employs a Roman numberal and a slightly longer, more complex title:

VII. Lisey and Scott

(Under the Yum-Yum Tree)

And then he further subdivides each chapter with Arabic numerals in place of scene breaks, which is a little Od School, but hell, first be Stephen King then do whatever the fuck you want.

One of the greatest science fiction novels of all time, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven, begins chapters with an Arabic numeral and a quote from a real world source, which can be as short as:

8

Heaven and Earth are not humane.

—LAO TSE: V

…though some are much longer.

Another more recent book, Empress of Forever by Max Gladstone, literally just has an Arabic numeral, centered, in larger type than the text:

32

This tells us we’re on the thirty-second chapter and anyway, on with the story. This is the default that, I think, works perfectly fine in 90% or more of novels.

Just looking at these random samples we can see a lot of variation in approach, which is great, but the point I’m hoping to make is that choices are being made in terms of which elements to use, if not just a number then maybe a second element, and that’s it.

On with the story!

—Philip Athans

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Where Story Meets World™

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ON THE NATURE OF EVIL

This, from “A Witch Shall Be Born” by Robert E. Howard (Weird Tales, December 1934) is what evil looked like in the great old days of pulp sword and sorcery:

Taramis, queen of Khauran, awakened from a dream-haunted slumber to a silence that seemed more like the stillness of nighted catacombs than the normal quiet of a sleeping palace. She lay staring into the darkness, wondering why the candles in their golden candelabra had gone out. A flecking of stars marked a gold-barred casement that lent no illumination to the interior of the chamber. But as Taramis lay there, she became aware of a spot of radiance glowing in the darkness before her. She watched, puzzled. It grew and its intensity deepened as it expanded, a widening disk of lurid light hovering against the dark velvet hangings of the opposite wall. Taramis caught her breath, starting up to a sitting position. A dark object was visible in that circle of light—a human head.

In a sudden panic the queen opened her lips to cry out for her maids; then she checked herself. The glow was more lurid, the head more vividly limned. It was a woman’s head, small, delicately molded, superbly poised, with a high-piled mass of lustrous black hair. The face grew distinct as she stared—and it was the sight of this face which froze the cry in Taramis’s throat. The features were her own! She might have been looking into a mirror which subtly altered her reflection, lending it a tigerish gleam of eye, a vindictive curl of lip.

“Ishtar!” gasped Taramis. “I am bewitched!”

Appallingly, the apparition spoke, and its voice was like honeyed venom.

“Bewitched? No, sweet sister! Here is no sorcery.”

“Sister?” stammered the bewildered girl. “I have no sister.”

“You never had a sister?” came the sweet, poisonously mocking voice. “Never a twin sister whose flesh was as soft as yours to caress or hurt?”

“Why, once I had a sister,” answered Taramis, still convinced that she was in the grip of some sort of nightmare. “But she died.”

The beautiful face in the disk was convulsed with the aspect of a fury; so hellish became its expression that Taramis, cowering back, half expected to see snaky locks writhe hissing about the ivory brow.

“You lie!” The accusation was spat from between the snarling red lips. “She did not die! Fool! Oh, enough of this mummery! Look—and let your sight be blasted!”

Light ran suddenly along the hangings like flaming serpents, and incredibly the candles in the golden sticks flared up again. Taramis crouched on her velvet couch, her lithe legs flexed beneath her, staring wide-eyed at the pantherish figure which posed mockingly before her. It was as if she gazed upon another Taramis, identical with herself in every contour of feature and limb, yet animated by an alien and evil personality. The face of this stranger waif reflected the opposite of every characteristic the countenance of the queen denoted. Lust and mystery sparkled in her scintillant eyes, cruelty lurked in the curl of her full red lips. Each movement of her supple body was subtly suggestive. Her coiffure imitated that of the queen’s, on her feet were gilded sandals such as Taramis wore in her boudoir. The sleeveless, low-necked silk tunic, girdled at the waist with a cloth-of-gold cincture, was a duplicate of the queen’s night-garment.

“Who are you?” gasped Taramis, an icy chill she could not explain creeping along her spine. “Explain your presence before I call my ladies-in-waiting to summon the guard!”

“Scream until the roof beams crack,” callously answered the stranger. “Your sluts will not wake till dawn, though the palace spring into flames about them. Your guardsmen will not hear your squeals; they have been sent out of this wing of the palace.”

“What!” exclaimed Taramis, stiffening with outraged majesty. “Who dared give my guardsmen such a command?”

“I did, sweet sister,” sneered the other girl. “A little while ago, before I entered. They thought it was their darling adored queen. Ha! How beautifully I acted the part! With what imperious dignity, softened by womanly sweetness, did I address the great louts who knelt in their armor and plumed helmets!”

Taramis felt as if a stifling net of bewilderment were being drawn about her.

“Who are you?” she cried desperately. “What madness is this? Why do you come here?”

“Who am I?” There was the spite of a she-cobra’s hiss in the soft response. The girl stepped to the edge of the couch, grasped the queen’s white shoulders with fierce fingers, and bent to glare full into the startled eyes of Taramis. And under the spell of that hypnotic glare, the queen forgot to resent the unprecedented outrage of violent hands laid on regal flesh.

“Fool!” gritted the girl between her teeth. “Can you ask? Can you wonder? I am Salome!”

“Salome!” Taramis breathed the word, and the hairs prickled on her scalp as she realized the incredible, numbing truth of the statement. “I thought you died within the hour of your birth,” she said feebly.

“So thought many,” answered the woman who called herself Salome. “They carried me into the desert to die, damn them! I, a mewing, puling babe whose life was so young it was scarcely the flicker of a candle. And do you know why they bore me forth to die?”

“I—I have heard the story—” faltered Taramis.

Salome laughed fiercely, and slapped her bosom. The low-necked tunic left the upper parts of her firm breasts bare, and between them there shone a curious mark—a crescent, red as blood.

“The mark of the witch!” cried Taramis, recoiling.

“Aye!” Salome’s laughter was dagger-edged with hate. “The curse of the kings of Khauran! Aye, they tell the tale in the market-places, with wagging beards and rolling eyes, the pious fools! They tell how the first queen of our line had traffic with a fiend of darkness and bore him a daughter who lives in foul legendry to this day. And thereafter in each century a girl baby was born into the Askhaurian dynasty, with a scarlet half-moon between her breasts, that signified her destiny.

“ ‘Every century a witch shall be born.’ So ran the ancient curse. And so it has come to pass. Some were slain at birth, as they sought to slay me. Some walked the earth as witches, proud daughters of Khauran, with the moon of hell burning upon their ivory bosoms. Each was named Salome. I too am Salome. It was always Salome, the witch. It will always be Salome, the witch, even when the mountains of ice have roared down from the pole and ground the civilizations to ruin, and a new world has risen from the ashes and dust—even then there shall be Salomes to walk the earth, to trap men’s hearts by their sorcery, to dance before the kings of the world, to see the heads of the wise men fall at their pleasure.”

“But—but you—” stammered Taramis.

“I?” The scintillant eyes burned like dark fires of mystery. “They carried me into the desert far from the city, and laid me naked on the hot sand, under the flaming sun. And then they rode away and left me for the jackals and the vultures and the desert wolves.

“But the life in me was stronger than the life in common folk, for it partakes of the essence of the forces that seethe in the black gulfs beyond mortal ken. The hours passed, and the sun slashed down like the molten flames of hell, but I did not die—aye, something of that torment I remember, faintly and far away, as one remembers a dim, formless dream. Then there were camels, and yellow-skinned men who wore silk robes and spoke in a weird tongue. Strayed from the caravan road, they passed close by, and their leader saw me, and recognized the scarlet crescent on my bosom. He took me up and gave me life.

“He was a magician from far Khitai, returning to his native kingdom after a journey to Stygia. He took me with him to purple-towering Paikang, its minarets rising amid the vine-festooned jungles of bamboo, and there I grew to womanhood under his teaching. Age had steeped him deep in black wisdom, not weakened his powers of evil. Many things he taught me—”

She paused, smiling enigmatically, with wicked mystery gleaming in her dark eyes. Then she tossed her head.

“He drove me from him at last, saying that I was but a common witch in spite of his teachings, and not fit to command the mighty sorcery he would have taught me. He would have made me queen of the world and ruled the nations through me, he said, but I was only a harlot of darkness. But what of it? I could never endure to seclude myself in a golden tower, and spend the long hours staring into a crystal globe, mumbling over incantations written on serpent’s skin in the blood of virgins, poring over musty volumes in forgotten languages.

“He said I was but an earthly sprite, knowing naught of the deeper gulfs of cosmic sorcery. Well, this world contains all I desire—power, and pomp, and glittering pageantry, handsome men and soft women for my paramours and my slaves. He had told me who I was, of the curse and my heritage. I have returned to take that to which I have as much right as you. Now it is mine by right of possession.”

How fun is that? How over the top? How purely conceived: there are good guys and gals and there are bad guys and gals. Here, one sister, condemned from birth as a witch, was cast out, left to die, but survived to avenge herself against her family and claim what is hers by right—or so she believes. This is a classic revenge tale set-up: You done me wrong, I’m here to settle the score.

And this worked in 1934. And it kept working. These Conan stories have lived for decades now and I will never turn my back on them. It’s all just huge, gushy nerd love.

But can we get away with this eighty-seven years in the future? Is revenge enough motivation?

I’ve written on that in more detail in the past, so I’ll let Steven James sum it up for me, from his book Story Trumps Structure:

All fictional characters, just like real people, desire happiness. As philosophers throughout the ages have pointed out, happiness is the end to which we all aspire. After all, nobody pursues happiness so he can get money and power; he pursues money and power so he can get happiness.

So then, will revenge make Salome happy? Maybe. And is that motivation enough for a short story that’s heavier on action than ideas? Maybe.

If one sister is the good sister and the other sister is the bad sister… is that enough? Can we as fantasy authors in 2021 continue to deal in good and evil?

Though I don’t in any way want to pull back the clock to the point where we embrace what’s lacking in classic pulp fiction—and as fun as it is, there’s a lot lacking there, especially in terms of race, gender, and social enlightenment in general—does good vs. evil still have a place?

In The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, Bruno Bettelheim wrote:

Evil is not without its attractions—symbolized by the mighty giant or dragon, the power of the witch, the cunning queen in “Snow White”—and often it is temporarily in the ascendancy. In many fairy tales a usurper succeeds for a time in seizing the place which rightfully belongs to the hero—as the wicked sisters do in “Cinderella.” It is not that the evildoer is punished at the story’s end which makes immersing oneself in fairy stories an experience in moral education, although this is part of it. In fairy tales, as in life, punishment or fear of it is only a limited deterrent to crime. The conviction that crime does not pay is a much more effective deterrent, and that is why in fairy tales the bad person always loses out.

Though I’d caution anyone to filter the mass news media of its many biases before joining in on “this person is evil,” “that country is a part of the Axis of Evil,” and so on, there is evil in the world. People do terrible things. And fiction, absolutely including fantasy, science fiction, and horror, has always been a way to work through that, as Bettelheim pointed out, and not just for kids being read fairy tales, but by anyone of any age reading any genre of fiction. Stories are how we work through the bad things that people do, making them more human, more complex now than Robert E. Howard generally went for, but the idea that “murder will out,” that evil will be punished, persists.

This is at least true of what Stephen King referred to, in conversation with George R.R. Martin, as “inside evil”: evil contained in human form, like Salome in “A Witch Shall be Born,” but what of “outside evil”… also like Salome, who seems to have been cursed at birth by some higher power? Is there a thing out there in what Lovecraft called “the black seas of infinity,” or Howard: “the black gulfs beyond mortal ken,” that has no concept of happiness, that has no particular personal motivation? King said:

In a way, outside evil is a more comforting concept… the idea that “the Devil made me do it” is a way of shucking responsibility and saying that I’m not there. So I think that we all understand that evil is inside a lot of people, while at the same time I think that what a lot of horror fiction does and what a lot of fantastic fiction does is it allows us to grapple with the outside evil that strikes us…  So there are two kinds of evil, there’s inside evil and there’s outside evil and I think that when we have the stories like the Lovecraftian stuff, we’re trying to cope with the sort of things that happen in our lives that are bad things that we don’t understand.  

And as authors, I don’t think we’re under some special mandate to understand all the things we have to cope with, that we have some responsibility to explain the nature of evil. Sometimes, all we can do is provide our villains with an excuse, then show them doing terrible things so our heroes can, hopefully, win, and as Bettelheim said, “the bad person… loses out.”

Or, anyway, mostly… sometimes… hopefully loses out.

—Philip Athans

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

 

The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction!

 

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GUARANTEED SUCCESS STRATEGY!

Want to write a massive, runaway international best seller? Want to turn a book you’ve already written into a massive, runaway international best seller? Want to publish one book, see it instantly become a massive, runaway international best seller then immediately retire, rich and famous? Want to see your fantasy novel turned into a theme park because it was such a massive, runaway international best seller?

Well, I know exactly what you should do, and it works every single time, which is why thousands of books a year are massive, runaway international best sellers!

Okay… now I’m writing fantasy!

Of course that’s nonsense. We all have to know that very few books published in any given year become massive, runaway international best sellers. Very few become national best sellers. In fact, very few sell enough to earn out the advances paid to the author. And if you’re operating in the indie sphere and haven’t treated your self-published books like a business, so they aren’t “self-published” but published by a small press that you also happen to own and operate, there’s little chance of you selling more than a few hundred copies.

So then, what does that mean?

There’s no hope for anyone, it’s all just a big fool’s errand, and all the success stories we’ve heard about are lies?

Not at all. There are some publishing success stories that aren’t entirely honest, sure, but there are also a lot of perfectly legitimate success stories out there. I’ve worked with indie authors who sell books in the tens of thousands, which is really good. I’ve worked with authors in the traditional publishing world that sell in the hundreds of thousands, and a small handful that have grabbed that golden ring and are doing really quite well for themselves.

And not a single one of those success stories was even explicable, let alone predictable. If a huge publisher has somehow decided they’re really going to get behind your book, there are things they can do—money they can spend—to get books shipped. They can pay for placement in bookstores and on Amazon, and maybe get you on TV or the right podcasts… stuff like that… to give you a leg up.

But even then, there have been books that have been seriously hyped that fell flat when potential readers stayed away in droves. Reviews sometimes hurt, rarely actually help, and usually do nothing at all. You can do everything right and still fail. You can also do everything wrong and still succeed. Your book can be patently awful and still be a massive, runaway international best seller—and you know the books I’m talking about. Likewise, your book can be brilliant, resoundingly well reviewed, beloved of a small cult audience, and not break even.

I’ve been doing this—working in one way or another in the publishing business—since 1986. You’d think, in all that time, I would have cracked it. That I’d be in possession of the guaranteed success strategy for any novel, especially fantasy, science fiction, and horror novels. I’m sorry to report that no, like literally everyone else, I have not cracked it.

And this is not me giving up, or showing you my charmingly self deprecating side. This is me telling a truth that, as Thomas Jefferson said, we hold to be self-evident: If there was a guaranteed success formula, I would have applied it by now, and so would every editor of every book ever published.

This success formula simply does not exist, and beware of anyone who tries to tell you differently.

No publisher puts money, time, effort, and reputation into a book they hope will be a flop. Likewise, every author goes into publication at least hoping that this is their best effort. Everyone wants to succeed and tries to succeed, and yet most fail.

And it sucks when you fail.

It does.

I’m not even going to try to sugar coat it.

You’ve put maximum effort into something—writing a novel—that is, no matter how you slice it, incredibly difficult. If you’re doing it right you’ve literally opened yourself up and poured yourself into it. Then you’ve worked as hard as you can work to give it the best chance out in the world. You have done the sincere and difficult work.

And no one cares.

This is fucking horrible.

And I know it’s insufficient for me to just say, “Hey, that’s part of it. You win some, you lose most. Get over it and keep writing!”

But you know what? That’s all the good advice I can give you in terms of answering the question, “Will this sell? Will it be a massive, runaway international best seller?”

The educated, experienced, expert answer is: I have no idea, but hey, that’s part of it. You win some, you lose most. Get over it and keep writing!

I do feel, having been doing this as long as I have been, that I know what’s “good” and what isn’t. I know what I like and what I think will sell. I have a good sense of what’s being published and what’s selling, and so on. So if I say, “This is great—this has a great chance out there,” I’m not just blowing sunshine up your skirt. I mean it.

But I don’t know—I can’t know.

“Everyone thinks they have a book in them. The truth is that most people don’t,” wrote Joy Fielding in “What’s the Secret to Writing a Bestseller? Hint: There Isn’t One.” “The truth is that even those who do have a book lurking somewhere inside them will not write a book that more than a handful of people will want to read or pay money to buy. And the hardest truth of all is that no one—and I mean  no one, not your editor, not the publisher, not the critics—has any idea what makes one book sell millions of copies while other, often better, books do not.”

I think you can define a writer as someone who knows they live in a world of random subjectivity but still they persist. And they persist not just at writing, but at being a writer. The amazing Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami said in an interview with The New Yorker:

As you may know, it’s not easy to be a gentleman and a novelist. It’s like a politician trying to be Obama and Trump. But I have a definition of a gentleman novelist: first, he doesn’t talk about the income tax he has paid; second, he doesn’t write about his ex-girlfriends or ex-wives; and, third, he doesn’t think about the Nobel Prize for Literature. 

If you’re reading this and you have a book ready to go out into the world, you very well might have a massive, runaway international best seller on your hands. You might even have a solid midlist genre novel—which is perfectly fine, and I know a lot of good writers who make a good living doing exactly that. You might also make effectively zero dollars. If you’re thinking of writing—in any form, category, or genre—as a get rich quick scheme, you need to seriously reconsider and maybe get into real estate or stock speculation. Writing, at best, is a get rich maybe, and probably really slowly and anyway hope to one day make a living doing it scheme, but for me, anyway, doing it, living in it, associating with fellow readers and fellow authors and editors and book people in general, makes it instantly and infinitely more rewarding than real estate or stocks. Call me a Socialist, but I’d rather be middle class and happy than rich and miserable.

I’d rather be writing, either way.

So, yeah, your first book hasn’t found an audience (yet) on Kindle Direct? Hey, that’s part of it. You win some, you lose most. Get over it and keep writing!

—Philip Athans

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

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DON’T JUMP TO CONCLUSIONS, PART 2: WORLDBUILDING

Last week I made the case that telling us a character is “sad” (or angry or scared or happy, etc.) is less interesting to read than showing a character being sad (etc.), and how even then, because that description is coming from a single POV character, that conclusion, “sad” might be incorrect, incomplete, or, yeah, even spot-on.

This isn’t the only place in which good storytelling depends on some degree of uncertainty. The world your characters inhabit, like the emotional responses of the characters around them, has to be described from a POV character’s experience. So if the POV character believes the empire to be evil, that character can think of it as “the evil empire,” but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is. Consider all the ways in which other Americans (or your fellow citizens of any other country) wildly misinterpret (according to you, the POV character in your own story) what America is or should be or used to be.

If you allow yourself into your writing, so you, the author, are establishing that the empire is evil, okay, then I guess it’s evil. Check that off your list of worldbuilding elements you feel you needed to cover. But hell, I’m just going to say it: that’s boring.

I don’t read fiction to check things off the list of clichés, the list of plot points, the list of facts, or any other lists. In fact, I don’t really care who the author of what I’m reading right now is. Of course I have some favorite authors, but it’s not because of their presence in their own work, but because they do what Tim Waggoner describes in “All the things I wish I’d known as a beginner horror writer”:

Writers don’t tell readers stories. We give them tools so that they can tell a story to themselves. Far too many beginners write bare-bones outlines that are more like scripts. These stories don’t engage the imagination. They’re just words on a page with no life to them. They communicate the simple “this happens, then this happens” of a basic narrative, but don’t give readers enough detail to create a fully fleshed-out fictional reality in their minds.

Great fantasy worlds come alive because characters we find interesting live in those worlds, and live there in an immediate, emotionally charged, and individual way. And that means your world has to be as human and as flawed and as open to interpretation as the real world we all struggle to make sense of. If you’ve created a world of absolute good and absolute evil, or a political force that operates in perfect harmony with the people or in lockstep with the evil dictates of the evil emperor, then you’ve dropped characters into a place that will, however detailed you make it, feel unreal.

In “If the aliens lay eggs, how does that affect architecture?’: sci-fi writers on how they build their worlds,” author Anne Leckie wrote:

There’s a particular style of world-building that’s all about filling in all the details, making sure everything fits logically. In real life, people are chaotic and self-contradictory. While I do believe that, in theory, everything is ultimately susceptible to logic, human cultures and activities are far less simple and obvious than some people seem to assume.

When someone thinks they entirely understand the logic of human behaviour, the world-building is very flat, and the shadows that might have given it depth are filled in with the very schematic, simplistic assumptions the world builder assumes are universal truths.

Just as there’s a deeper “why” behind what villains do, that “why” extends to their effect on the world—the institutions and cultures they create, and the institutions and cultures they come from, that helped form their worldview.

To me, that’s the heart of worldbuilding: a context for the worldview of each of our characters.

—Philip Athans

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Where Story Meets World™

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

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DON’T JUMP TO CONCLUSIONS, PART 1: CHARACTERS

Continuing on the general subject of point of view (POV) and “show, don’t tell,” let’s talk a bit about drawing conclusions. This, like lapses in POV, often shows up in dialog attribution, often in the form of the dreaded adverb:

“My sword isn’t magical anymore,” Galen said sadly.

This tells us Galen is sad about the state of his sword. Information has been conveyed. But as author Chuck Palahniuk pointed out in his essay “ ‘Thought’ Verbs,” “Thinking is abstract. Knowing and believing are intangible. Your story will always be stronger if you just show the physical actions and details of your characters and allow your reader to do the thinking and knowing. And loving and hating.” So then…

With a tear in his eye Galen muttered, “My sword isn’t magical anymore.”

…starts to show him being sad. If the scene is in another character’s POV, maybe that character can start to draw conclusions:

With a tear in his eye Galen muttered, “My sword isn’t magical anymore.”

Bronwyn had never seen him look so sad.

Now it’s clear that Galen’s sadness is being conveyed by Bronwyn’s experience of him in that moment. Is she right? Is that how he feels? The truth is your characters might not even know what they’re thinking in a particular moment, or have the desire or sense of urgency to draw some concrete conclusion. In “The Spirit of History” Ted Pinkard draws some conclusions about Hegel’s not thinking we necessarily draw conclusions:

No one ever conceived of a more sophisticated and dynamic philosophical history than Hegel. His system is built around three fundamental ideas. First, the key to human agency is self-consciousness. For people to be doing anything in any real human sense is to know what we are doing as we do it. This applies even when we are not explicitly thinking about what we are doing. Here’s a simple example: as you are reading this, suppose you get a text message from a friend: ‘What are you doing?’ You immediately reply: ‘I’m reading a piece on Hegel.’ You knew what you were doing without having to have a separate act of thinking about it or drawing conclusions. Without any further thought, you knew that you were not skydiving, taking a bath, gardening or doing the crossword. You didn’t look around and infer from the evidence. You didn’t need any particular introspection. In fact, in Hegelian terms, when you are doing something and you do not know at all what you are doing, you’re not really doing anything at all. Instead, stuff is just happening. To be sure, sometimes we are only vaguely aware of what we are doing. However, even our often more distanced reflective self-consciousness is itself only a further realisation of the deeper and distinctly Hegelian self-relation: all consciousness is self-consciousness.

What if Galen has no idea he’s as “sad” as he looks, and Bronwyn can’t really know just by what she sees (the description of Galen in her POV) that he’s “sad,” per se? Sure, you, as the author, may know exactly what Galen is feeling, but your job is to show that to your readers through the experience of your POV characters. If you do that well, readers will pick up on it and be sad along with them.

Always remember that reading is itself a creative act. Let your readers bring themselves into your work!

—Philip Athans

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

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

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

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DIALOG AND POV

If you’ve been following Fantasy Authors Handbook for any length of time you’ll know I’m not big on rules for writing fiction. Fiction is an art form, and so has to be open to new ideas, new methods, new voices.

That said, there is one rule, at least for novel-length fiction, that I feel rather strongly about, and that is: one scene, one POV.

If you’re writing in first person, point of view is easy: everything is coming from the experience of the first person narrator: I did this, I saw that, and I felt good about it. In first person writing there’s no room to get into the heads, to hear the unspoken thoughts, of anyone else in the story. This is POV at its purest state.

It can get a bit more complicated in third person: He did this, she saw that, they felt good about it…? If “he” and “she” are separate people in that last sentence, one of them has to be the POV character, so it’s either: He did this, she saw that, she felt good about it or She did this, he saw that, he felt good about it. Why? Because what “he” did is likely clear to the person looking, but its not necessarily clear to the person doing something exactly what the other person saw, and though we can guess at what other people think, we can’t know for sure.

POV is the one element that newer, less experienced authors struggle with. I see it, and try to correct it, time and time again with the authors I work with. Some get it right away, others struggle to see breakdowns in POV happening in their own writing. And, like anything that might fall into the category of a (I cringe to use the word…) mistake, it can be difficult to spot even for the most experienced author, at least in the occasional or smaller lapse in POV.

In terms of a bigger issue with messy POV all over the place, that’s where a capable and experienced editor comes into play. But that doesn’t mean POV is impossible to learn, or impossible to see in our own writing. This week, let’s look at one of the places that slips in POV can be the most evident, and that’s thoughts and actions adjacent to or as part of dialog attribution.

Dialog attribution is simply: which character is saying this line of dialog? This…

“Hi, this is me talking,” Galen said.

…tells us Galen said “Hi, this is me talking.”

We can add a little emotional or intellectual context (thoughts) to that:

“Hi, this is me talking,” Galen said, hoping everyone recognized him now.

That puts the scene in Galen’s POV because it’s revealed that he’s hoping something. If the scene has been previously established as coming from Bronwyn’s POV, a simple add can keep us from going inside Galen’s head:

“Hi, this is me talking,” Galen said, clearly hoping everyone recognized him now.

“Clearly” indicates that this is Bronwyn thinking, and she’s assuming he’s hoping everyone recognized him, but she can’t necessarily know that the way Galen can know what he’s thinking in his POV.

It’s in this spot that POV tends to wander, because we often want our readers to know what our characters are thinking, and want to coordinate the action of the unfolding plot. For instance:

“I came alone,” Bronwyn lied, knowing backup was a single safe word away.

“Good, because if there’s anyone else here, I’m blowing myself up,” Galen replied, his finger on the detonator, which only he knew was actually plugged into nothing.

So then in this exchange, only one of the bits that follow the dialog are okay. A decision has to be made as to which of these characters is the POV character. Is it Bronwyn, who knows she has backup but has no idea Galen’s bomb is fake? Or is it Galen, who thinks Bronwyn came alone and knows his bomb is fake?

If we (your readers) know both these things there’s no suspense. We know Bronwyn is fine either way: she can summon help with a safe word, and anyway, there’s no bomb. But suspense comes from an imbalance in information: Galen (the POV character) knows something Bronwyn (not the POV character) doesn’t know, or you’ve previously written a scene in which something about Bronwyn is revealed that Galen (as current POV character) doesn’t know, so his thinking she came alone makes you worried for Galen.

In any case, your readers should be worried, one way or the other: Galen doesn’t realize he’s about to get busted, or Bronwyn thinks she can’t use the safe word or Galen will blow them both up.

The story lives in that disconnect, so if you’re lazy about POV, you’re dong damage to your story. Look first at the actions and thoughts around dialog to make sure that we’re only seeing inside the experiences (she saw, he thought, etc.) of one character in each scene.

—Philip Athans

 

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WORK IN PROGRESS OR WORKS IN PROGRESS?

If you follow me on GoodReads, or this blog for that matter, you know by now that I switch between four books at any given time. I switch off between one science fiction, fantasy, or horror novel; one “literary” work of fiction, poetry, or plays; one non-fiction book; and one graphic novel or comics collection. By letting myself respond to my own moods I find I read more often, and so read more books in a given year (not counting the books I edit as part of my job, which, yes, continues to be to read books!). If I’m not in the mood for SF, I grab the non-fiction book. Not in the mood for non-fiction? There’s a graphic novel or comic collection right next to it, and so on. I’ve been doing this for years and it works for me—and I know I’m far from the only person who does this.

So then if I can switch between books—and switch between TV series and movies and other media—who says I can’t work on multiple writing projects at the same time, too?

Well, turns out I can. This, what you’re reading right now, is a “writing project” for me, and one I work on every week. I also have a short story I’m noodling my way through, a fantasy novel that currently exists in pieces—scattered scenes and an outline—and I’m revising another novel that’s finished. I’m also working on two ghostwriting projects I can’t tell you about, and fairly easily switch between this novel, that novel, the other short story, and a weekly blog post, with considerable ease. And as it is with reading multiple books, I know I’m not alone in having multiple writing works in progress at the same time. “In Revising One Sentence,” Lydia Davis wrote:

Sometimes I have four or five, or more, stories in progress at once. It is nice to feel that there is too much to work on rather than nothing at all—the blank page. Some stories, not quite finished, may get pushed out of the way in all this activity and may be forgotten for a while—even months. But sooner or later I come back to them and finish them, and it does not hurt them to let this time pass. I see them more clearly.

This is true of science fiction legend Connie Willis as well, who said in “Science Fiction and Schmaltz: A Conversation with Connie Willis” in Clarkesworld: 

Despite appearances, I am an incredibly slow writer. I’ve just produced a lot of stuff because I’m really old. I’ve always been able to keep working, I think because of the way I work, which is in pieces. If I get stuck on one story, I work on another. If I get stuck on one part of a novel, I write some other scene or the ending or something and then come back to the place I was stuck in a couple of weeks. Or I work on something else altogether.

Can’t get motivated to tackle the next chapter of the novel? Write a poem instead. Not inspired to write a poem? Tackle a short story. Feeling a bit burned out on fantasy halfway through an epic fantasy novel? Start writing something else. If you have an idea for a horror novel but think you can’t start in on it until you’re done with the epic fantasy… says who?

James Baldwin said, “Every form is difficult, no one is easier than another. They all kick your ass. None of it comes easy.”

And he was right. Writing is hard, and writing well and continuing to write even as the world seems to be completely ignoring you is harder still. And projects do have a tendency to stall, sometimes permanently. If you can at least take an occasional break from the incredibly complex novel for the occasional short story, or to do a little worldbuilding for the science fiction novel, or put your notes together for an essay collection… you’ll stay writing. And when lightning strikes and that long awaited big idea hits you and gets you back into the fantasy novel—back into it you go!

—Philip Athans

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

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