This post originally appeared on the blog Mel Odom and I set up for the Arron of the Black Forest series—a series that stopped, unfortunately, at the first book—but looking back at this I thought it was worth sharing again, not just to maybe throw a little light on that old eBook, but to reconnect with H.P. Lovecraft in a fun way, separate from all the discussion of Lovecraft the racist, and so on, and touching back on Lovecraft the weird, absurdist wordsmith . . .


In my travels through the stygian corridors of the noisome internet, I ran across the brilliant site Cthulhu Chick in which we’re given a list of some of H.P. Lovecraft’s favorite words—the often antiquated usage he’s known for, and some other popular favorites. Since I knew going in that The Haunting of Dragon’s Cliff was as much an homage to Lovecraft as anything, I kept this list next to me as I wrote, trying my damnedest to use as many of them as I could.

Here’s how that worked out, with the number of times Lovecraft used that word himself in parenthesis after each word, which is called out in bold:

There was more than one ghost in this accursed (76) place, and all of them were focused around this “Captain,” a man who was a failure in life, and who died a cripple, tortured by his household servants.

She was not what she appeared, but an undead thing, the blasphemous (92) shade of a woman dead for nigh on a century.

“I am but a servant,” the demonic (55) force inside Latimer replied. “Chief among the servants. You have met a few of my less fortunate charges.”

Why not let this Captain have me, so you and your Groundskeeper and whatever else lurks in this eldritch (23) hovel can—”

And the magus started to nod then just fainted (189), falling in a heap on the leaf-littered flagstone floor.

Arron took note of the Hound’s furtive (60) glance his way.

The gambrel (21) roof bowed, paint flaked off, and rainwater cascaded down from the corners, making little waterfalls all its own.

A gibbous (9) moon shined and stars twinkled above him, eclipsed at one edge by a semicircle of roiling clouds.

As the bog ape gibbered (10) and screamed, roiling its troop to a murderous frenzy, Arron stared into the dead eyes of his brother.

“You don’t know me,” the ghost said and even as she spoke her face changed into a hideous (260) mask of decay.

There was no one home to hear his knock, and probably hadn’t been since time immemorial (25).

He saw the skeletons of trees, the spilled-entrails jumble of the thorny underbrush, but could only feel the animal—or animals—that lurked (15) there.

Something screamed at him—a sound like a little boy shrieking in mortal (27) agony—and Arron turned and ran for the house.

Using just the sounds of its tiny clawed feet on the sparse gravel, Arron swiped at the nameless (157) thing with his axe, but the battered old blade passed through nothing but air.

This isn’t one of the fishermen from Gifford’s Quay, one of the noisome (33), superstitious local fishmongers who know better than to set foot on the path to Dragon’s Cliff.

Far more powerful than the hurricane’s gale, the force of her singular (115) cry lifted him fully off his feet.

Arron couldn’t believe he was having a conversation with a ghost, but he realized this spectral (60) girl was the first “person” he’d spoken to at any length in weeks—the Heteronomy’s stooge in the barn not withstanding.

Arron’s nose filled with the stench (59) of the decay of not just the house, but the entire civilization that built it.

Arron looked back down the old road into the stygian (6) darkness of the sparse forest.

This swarthy (14) child of the Heteronomy may do well, once we’ve taken some pieces of him, once his soul is consigned to Outer Darkness and his earthly form carved clean for the Captain to inhabit as a hermit crab moves from shell to shell to shell as it eats and grows and breeds.

I’ve seen the barbarian hew at walls, rage at the tenebrous (9) air, and hurl himself through the attic window, but I have not seen him oppugn* the living.

His ears rattled under the onslaught of the preternatural, ululating (4) shriek—then his eardrums burst and his eyes snapped closed against the pain.

It mixed with the drool that all but poured out of his mouth to spatter his chest an unmentionable (16) green.

The storm will fuel his fear, ignite his superstitions to fill his heart with unnamable (22) horrors, but at the same time it will drive him here, to me.

Shandy had come to this house in the loneliest stretches of the Hooks in the middle of a hurricane to kill Arron and bring his head back in trade for a pouch of coins, but still the barbarian couldn’t leave a man to this unutterable (13) fate.

I was particularly proud of the times I managed to work more than one into a single sentence:

The pain was monstrous, but nothing compared to the fetid (22), dank (19) effluence of the creature’s charnel (20) breath.

Something small, tentacled (28), and loathsome (71) dragged itself across the path in front of him and was gone, but even then, even with his mighty forearm thrown up against his eyes, Arron could sense its foul presence.

“Behold,” Latimer said—but Arron knew without anyone having to tell him that this was no longer Latimer, but some new demented spirit, some indescribable (25) madness (115) from beyond the grave.

For H.P., with cyclopean, amorphous, iridescent respect!


—Philip Athans


* I grant myself bonus points for this one. Don’t oppugn my methods for sending you to the dictionary a couple times at least!

And . . .

Yes, I’m fully aware that here you see characters (monsters, more correctly) referred to as the Captain and the Groundskeeper . . . Do what I say, not what I do?



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I read what other authors have to say about writing. I wouldn’t say I read that “obsessively,” but definitely “regularly.” You should be doing that to—and, I guess, if you’re reading this right now . . . you are!

Though I don’t do guest posts here at Fantasy Author’s Handbook, I thought maybe this week I’ll more or less turn it over to a few other authors—from articles and interviews of theirs I’ve read , on the subject of ideas and inspiration.

How does a story actually begin to form in an author’s mind? How does it move forward from vague concept to finished prose? This is the Big Mystery out of all the many and varied Big Mysteries in the realm of creative writing.

Where do ideas come from? What is the source of human creativity? I have no idea, so let’s see what a few smart people have to say . . .

Neil Gaiman tackles this head on in “Where Do You Get Your Ideas?” where he concentrates on an author’s inner dialog:

You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we’re doing it.

You get ideas when you ask yourself simple questions. The most important of the questions is just, What if . . . ?

(What if you woke up with wings? What if your sister turned into a mouse? What if you all found out that your teacher was planning to eat one of you at the end of term—but you didn’t know who?)

Another important question is, If only . . .

(If only real life was like it is in Hollywood musicals. If only I could shrink myself small as a button. If only a ghost would do my homework.)

And then there are the others: I wonder . . . (‘I wonder what she does when she’s alone . . .’) and If This Goes On . . .. (‘If this goes on telephones are going to start talking to each other, and cut out the middleman . . .’) and Wouldn’t it be interesting if . . . (‘Wouldn’t it be interesting if the world used to be ruled by cats?’) . . . Those questions, and others like them, and the questions they, in their turn, pose (‘Well, if cats used to rule the world, why don’t they any more? And how do they feel about that?’) are one of the places ideas come from.

Often ideas come from two things coming together that haven’t come together before. (‘If a person bitten by a werewolf turns into a wolf what would happen if a goldfish was bitten by a werewolf? What would happen if a chair was bitten by a werewolf?’)

Isaac Asimov, the Grand Master of Grand Masters of science fiction, wrote an essay called “How Do People Get New Ideas?“ in 1959 that, though more concerned with the development of new scientific theories, still has a lot to tell us about creativity in general and the dichotomy of creating as a strictly personal, isolated pursuit and the concept of the “cerebration program,” which we might call a “writers group”:

My feeling is that as far as creativity is concerned, isolation is required. The creative person is, in any case, continually working at it. His mind is shuffling his information at all times, even when he is not conscious of it. (The famous example of Kekule working out the structure of benzene in his sleep is well-known.)

The presence of others can only inhibit this process, since creation is embarrassing. For every new good idea you have, there are a hundred, ten thousand foolish ones, which you naturally do not care to display.

Nevertheless, a meeting of such people may be desirable for reasons other than the act of creation itself.

No two people exactly duplicate each other’s mental stores of items. One person may know A and not B, another may know B and not A, and either knowing A and B, both may get the idea—though not necessarily at once or even soon.

Furthermore, the information may not only be of individual items A and B, but even of combinations such as A-B, which in themselves are not significant. However, if one person mentions the unusual combination of A-B and another the unusual combination A-C, it may well be that the combination A-B-C, which neither has thought of separately, may yield an answer.

It seems to me then that the purpose of cerebration sessions is not to think up new ideas but to educate the participants in facts and fact-combinations, in theories and vagrant thoughts.

But how to persuade creative people to do so? First and foremost, there must be ease, relaxation, and a general sense of permissiveness. The world in general disapproves of creativity, and to be creative in public is particularly bad. Even to speculate in public is rather worrisome. The individuals must, therefore, have the feeling that the others won’t object.

If a single individual present is unsympathetic to the foolishness that would be bound to go on at such a session, the others would freeze. The unsympathetic individual may be a gold mine of information, but the harm he does will more than compensate for that. It seems necessary to me, then, that all people at a session be willing to sound foolish and listen to others sound foolish.

If a single individual present has a much greater reputation than the others, or is more articulate, or has a distinctly more commanding personality, he may well take over the conference and reduce the rest to little more than passive obedience. The individual may himself be extremely useful, but he might as well be put to work solo, for he is neutralizing the rest.

The optimum number of the group would probably not be very high. I should guess that no more than five would be wanted. A larger group might have a larger total supply of information, but there would be the tension of waiting to speak, which can be very frustrating. It would probably be better to have a number of sessions at which the people attending would vary, rather than one session including them all. (This would involve a certain repetition, but even repetition is not in itself undesirable. It is not what people say at these conferences, but what they inspire in each other later on.)

For best purposes, there should be a feeling of informality. Joviality, the use of first names, joking, relaxed kidding are, I think, of the essence—not in themselves, but because they encourage a willingness to be involved in the folly of creativeness. For this purpose I think a meeting in someone’s home or over a dinner table at some restaurant is perhaps more useful than one in a conference room.

Probably more inhibiting than anything else is a feeling of responsibility. The great ideas of the ages have come from people who weren’t paid to have great ideas, but were paid to be teachers or patent clerks or petty officials, or were not paid at all. The great ideas came as side issues.

To feel guilty because one has not earned one’s salary because one has not had a great idea is the surest way, it seems to me, of making it certain that no great idea will come in the next time either.

For a more spiritual take, in the introductory material for his graphic novel collection Screaming Planet, mad genius Alexandro Jodorowsky wrote:

I admit that I would often get down on my knees and pray to my unconscious: “I can’t imagine my way out. Please, give me the solution!” After a while, the solution would pop into my mind. I do mean “pop,” because I wasn’t crafting it. I just contented myself to receive it fully formed in my mind. In those privileged moments, my heart would beat faster and with an exquisite joy I would exclaim: “Thank you, my unconscious! Thank you for this gift!”

And in the additional material for my online Horror Intensive (which is starting up again in a couple weeks), I quote the great Stephen King three times on the nature, source, and wellspring of ideas. The first is from an interview with Rolling Stone:

I can remember as a college student writing stories and novels, some of which ended up getting published and some that didn’t. It was like my head was going to burst—there were so many things I wanted to write all at once. I had so many ideas, jammed up. It was like they just needed permission to come out. I had this huge aquifer underneath of stories that I wanted to tell and I stuck a pipe down in there and everything just gushed out. There’s still a lot of it, but there’s not as much now.

Next, from a Paris Review interview in which he discusses commenting on, or being inspired by, current events or trends:

Take Cell. The idea came about this way: I came out of a hotel in New York and I saw this woman talking on her cell phone. And I thought to myself, What if she got a message over the cell phone that she couldn’t resist, and she had to kill people until somebody killed her? All the possible ramifications started bouncing around in my head like pinballs. If everybody got the same message, then everybody who had a cell phone would go crazy. Normal people would see this, and the first thing they would do would be to call their friends and families on their cell phones. So the epidemic would spread like poison ivy. Then, later, I was walking down the street and I see some guy who is apparently a crazy person yelling to himself. And I want to cross the street to get away from him. Except he’s not a bum; he’s dressed in a suit. Then I see he’s got one of these plugs in his ear and he’s talking into his cell phone. And I thought to myself, I really want to write this story.

It was an instant concept. Then I read a lot about the cell phone business and started to look at the cell phone towers. So it’s a very current book, but it came out of a concern about the way we talk to each other today.

Then he doubles down on his warning to jump on those ideas when they’re still there in this interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books:

But for me, you reach a point of diminishing returns. Also, I’m older. I wrote more when I was younger, working on two different projects: I’d work on something new in the morning and something that was done at night. But it was never done to make money. It was done because all those ideas were there. They were all screaming to get out at the same time and they all seemed good.

Personally, I get my ideas from a demon baby that lives in my brain and tells me things by whispering them into my soul.

Y’know . . . like they do.


—Philip Athans



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I know for sure that as a reader of fantasy, and to a slightly lesser degree, science fiction, you have run across a common word with an initial cap used to convey some special emphasis, or just general “specialness,” and used not in place of but as a proper name. Maybe you’ve committed this sin in your own writing.

This is not good. It’s not good worldbuilding, and it’s not good writing.

Okay—it’s not the end of the world, but . . . yeah . . . it kinda is.

For me, at least, it’s the end of your unique world, because when you do this, especially when you do this most of the time, and there are some of you—and you know who you are—who do this almost all the time, I stop living in your world and start seeing your writing. Or worse, I start seeing the lack of attention paid to the worldbuilding.

If you can do a match case search for anything on this list and find it in your work in progress, this is your wake up call, your challenge to build just a little bit more world in that particular spot. And this is not at all a complete list:

the Council

the Wizard

the School

the Hero

the Villain

the Throne

the Sword

the Dragon

the Tower

the Forest

the City

the Temple

the Doctor (except for that English guy)

the Ranger (J.R.R. got that one, you can’t have it back)

the Kleenex… wait, that one you actually need!

Kleenex is a brand name—always look up brand names and type them the same as you see on that brand’s official web site.

As for the others, and especially with successful examples like the Doctor and the Ranger sort of making me look like a jerk here, I get what you’re going for. This isn’t just a tower, it’s the Tower. But then, if it’s that important to the people who built it, why didn’t they name it? Here’s a picture of a very famous building:

The Building rises up over the City.

Note that it isn’t called the Building.

In pretty much every case, I caution you to fall back on an existing rule of grammar and syntax before you make up one of your own, and only make up a new rule if it really means something to you. So just as military ranks you’ve created, like spearmaster, should follow the same rules as existing military ranks like captain:

“Where is Spearmaster Galen?” Bronwyn asked, having not seen the spearmaster since leaving the Tower for the Breakfast.

“He went fishing with the swordcaptains,” the custodian replied. “You’ll find him down by the Lake.”

So should everything else:

“Where is Spearmaster Galen?” Bronwyn asked, having not seen the spearmaster since leaving the tower for breakfast.

“He went fishing with the swordcaptains,” the custodian replied. “You’ll find him down by the lake.”

But if the tower is a particularly special tower, and there’s more than one lake . . .

“Where is Spearmaster Galen?” Bronwyn asked, having not seen the spearmaster since leaving the Tower of Seven Spears for breakfast.

“He went fishing with the swordcaptains,” the custodian replied. “You’ll find him down by Zargrandis Lake.”

Now these have become proper nouns.

Just like the Empire State Building or the Mall of America, it’s the Tower of Seven Spears. And note that the article before it is not capitalized in the middle of a sentence, so it’s the Tower of Seven Spears and not The Tower of Seven Spears.

And woe be onto thee who forces an editor to fix every instance of The Council, even if it’s The Council of Twelve, which makes it a particular (proper noun) council.

And just like we name lakes Lake Michigan or even Crystal Lake in the real world, the Lake becomes Zargrandis Lake in my fantasy world.

I just made up the name Zargrandis on the spot, by the way. He was a famous mapmaker who was the first to start coloring in lakes with blue paint, or so I’ve just now decided. I Googled the word Zargrandis because you should do that with every name you just make up in case it means “eat shit and die” in Swahili or something. All I got was an ice cream shop in Surabaya, Indonesia that leaves off the s at the end, so I’m good. They’re on Foursquare.

Let’s face it, a good 90% of fantasy and science fiction worldbuilding comes down to naming stuff.

Naming characters, naming cities, naming continents, naming mountain ranges, and so on. Ed Greenwood didn’t invent the concept of a continent, but when he created an imaginary one of his own, he named it Faerûn, not the Continent. J.K. Rowling didn’t invent the idea of a boarding school, but when she created one she named it Hogwarts, not the Boarding School.

People name stuff. And okay, not every name is particularly creative. The biggest city in America is named after a much smaller city in England—the Puritans not necessarily known for wild flights of fancy, I guess—especially since it used to be named after a city in the Netherlands before the British colonists got all British and renamed it. But see? There’s a little story behind the name of that city. It’s not just the City.

America is full of hyper literal place names like Death Valley or Boring, Oregon or Volcano, Hawaii. But most of the time we name places after some kind of feeling we want to convey, like the town of Fertile, Iowa, which probably is; or Pyongyang (Peaceful Land), North Korea, which definitely isn’t.

We also like to name places after significant historical figures, like the city of Lafayette, Indiana, named for the French general who fought for the newly-independent Americans in the Revolutionary War; or the state of Washington, where I live, which is named for a character in the popular 1970s sitcom Welcome Back Kotter.

I’d like to live in a town called Malice because I’m a big fan of the Jam, but I live in Sammamish, which is a native Lushoostseed word that, according to Wikipedia, means “meander dwellers, or willow people,” which is just kinda weird. But whatever inspired that, at least it isn’t called the Town or worse, the Suburb.

See where I’m going with this?

How to name places, much less people, is a bigger subject that I don’t want to blow through here, but at least let’s start with not simply hitting a generic word with an initial cap—at least not past the placeholder phase.

Both the Editor and the Reader will appreciate it.


—Philip Athans


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Literary agent Mark Gottlieb began his publishing career while still at Emerson College, where he helped establish Wilde Press. After a stint at Berkley Books, Mark went to the Trident Media Group, Publishers Marketplace’s number one ranked literary agency, first in foreign rights then audio rights, and now as a literary agent. Mark has himself ranked number one among Literary Agents in Overall Deals, and other categories, as he continues to build a client list of his own.

Literary Agent Mark Gottlieb

Philip Athans: Please define “fantasy” in 25 words or less.

Mark Gottlieb: Fantasy fiction is a highly imaginative, improbable universe, often drawing upon magic or the supernatural, with many roots in the oral storytelling tradition.

Athans: Please define “science fiction” in 25 words or less.

Gottlieb: Science fiction is often comprised of imagined futures, technologies, societal changes, often with intellectual and practical thinking as a basis for knowledge.

Athans: For a while now we’ve been hearing about the about the indie/self-publishing “revolution” and the demise of traditional publishing. Has the former been overstated or is it indeed happening? And do you think we actually are seeing the demise of the traditional publishing model?

Gottlieb: Don’t believe the hype. You can’t believe everything you see and read. I remain a firm believer in that no matter how far technology takes us, there’s always a need for the human element, and I’m not talking about a “ghost in the machine.”

It is no lie that an author receives a larger share of royalties in the digital space in self-publishing, but there’s still a common misconception. In self-publishing, authors sell in smaller numbers than a literary agent and publisher could do for an author.

Authors that self-publish are primarily in the digital format, rather than being in the other revenue tributaries of major trade publishing. Overall it’s better to diversify one’s publishing portfolio with a major trade publisher, offering various publishing formats, online and physical retailers, etc.

One day I see traditional publishers having an even bigger presence in the digital sphere for books in terms of placement among online retailers in buying co-op deals, key site-placement, and more, exactly the way music and movie companies originated subscription services and digital access. Print won’t become a thing of the past but perhaps a nostalgia, much like the way in which music aficionados appreciate vinyl records. Like the LP, the hardcover book is a technology that has been perfected and is ideal to the experience of reading. Regardless, readers will always opt for their preferred format, whether that be print, audio, or eBook.

Athans: What is the single most important thing that a good agent can do to help an author start or maintain a successful career as a working professional?

Gottlieb: Remaining within the spirit of constant reinvention is important. The interesting thing is that there really is no average day in the life of a literary agent, or at least there shouldn’t be, for when a literary agent’s days begin to stagnate and look the same, then that person’s career and the careers of their client(s) is in trouble.

Every day that I walk into the office, I think of ways to try to reinvent myself in a way to make myself competitive, while improving the careers of the authors I work with in creative and innovative ways. Every day should not be about drudgery—life is an adventure.

Athans: You probably read a lot of query letters. Besides the basics like the author’s contact information and the title of his or her book, is there one thing you think every query letter absolutely must have, and conversely, what have you seen that’s an absolute query letter no-no?

Gottlieb: The single most important thing a good query letter should exhibit is good writing within the letter itself. That’s everyone’s first impression of how good the manuscript might be.

The biggest no-no in query letter writing is querying a literary agent with an unfinished manuscript since fiction can only be sold on a full manuscript to publishers.

Athans: What is the most common mistake that aspiring authors make in their writing?

Gottlieb: For the purposes of this article being about SFF, I will say that in fantasy, I see the mistake of under- or over-worldbuilding; whereas in science fiction, I see either a complete and utter lack of hard scientific evidence, or other times the overuse of hard science to the point of boredom.

Athans: What is the most common mistake that inexperienced authors make in their professional lives?

Gottlieb: The most common mistake I see among inexperienced authors in their careers is taking the very first offer of literary representation they’re presented with. Most aspiring authors are happy just to have that. Instead, they should take time to think about their decision in researching how a given literary agent or literary agency ranks on a site like Publishers Marketplace.

Athans: Can authors cross genres? If your first published novel is an epic fantasy can your second be a contemporary romance?

Gottlieb: I see no reason why an author couldn’t write across genres if they can do it successfully. Obviously it’s better to replicate success wherever possible. If the first publication within a given genre was successful, I’d usually recommend that an author continue within that genre. If the first publication in a particular genre weren’t successful, then I’d recommend that the author find another genre and a penname. Speaking of pennames, I wouldn’t recommend that a children’s book author write erotica and publish both types of work under the same name.

Athans: Tell us about a few books you’ve represented that are available now and that you’re particularly excited about.

Gottlieb: For the purposes of this article being about science fiction and fantasy, I will share some recent SFF deals I’ve done where the books are currently on sale:

World Fantasy Award Nominee Christopher Brown’s Tropic of Kansas, on the front lines of a revolution whose fuse they are about to light, a fugitive brother and sister are harboring explosive government secrets; pitched as a novel of political dissent akin to the Americana of The Road, the brave new corporate world of Jennifer Government, or a post-9/11 Man in the High Castle; the story of ordinary people seeking to refresh democracy in a mirror America ruled by a telegenic dictator of a businessman.

Deborah A. Wolf’s The Dragon’s Legacy, pitched in the tradition of Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Sarantine Mosaic and the darker folkloric tales of Arabian Nights: set in a desert world of sand and honey, the series balances and contrasts the grim with the wondrous, the heartbreaking with the humorous, and takes an unflinching look at real-world issues such as the plight of indigenous peoples in a world mad for power.

Social media @XplodingUnicorn leader James Breakwell’s Only Dead on the Inside: A Parent’s Guide for Surviving Zombies, pitched as styled in the tradition of Max Brooks’s The Zombie Survival Guide and The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbooks, providing practical advice on how to raise happy, healthy children in the midst of the zombie apocalypse, by joining the genres of parenting advice books and undead survival manuals in an unholy union that is both ill-advised and long overdue—the narrator, an inept father of four young daughters, uses twisted logic, graphs with dubious data, and web comics that look like they were drawn by a toddler to teach families how to survive undead hordes.

Athans: Are you currently open to new clients, and if so, what genres/categories are you most interested in and what’s the best way for authors to contact you?

Gottlieb: I am open to receiving new clients for consideration and am open to most every genre. The best way for potential authors to contact me is through our website’s submissions/contact us page at http://www.tridentmediagroup.com/contact-us.

Athans: And I’m sure you’ll be hearing from more than one Fantasy Author’s Handbook reader/author—thanks, Mark!


—Philip Athans


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This post does contain spoilers through the episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones that aired Sunday, August 20, 2017 (Season 7, episode 6: “Beyond the Wall”), so read accordingly.





I am a huge fan of Game of Thrones—I’m there, with bells on, every Sunday at 9:00 pm then watch that week’s episode at least one more time during the week between. This is not going to be any kind of review or condemnation of Game of Thrones. Nor am I, believe it or not, one of those people who insist on picking gnat shit out of pepper on every last detail of any TV series, movie, or book to find the tiniest mistake or inconsistency. Frankly, I don’t even do that as an editor. I not only accept but fully embrace a Story First philosophy in which fudging the occasional bit of lore is a lesser sin than telling a boring story.

And it’s with that in mind that I’ve overlooked a bunch of stuff in Game of Thrones, like the infamous question mark of Melisandre’s necklace. Does it magically make her look young and beautiful? Does she get all old and ugly when she takes it off in season six as the show seems to indicate? Because if so, she would have been old and ugly when she was in the bathtub, sans necklace, talking to Selyse in season four—but she was young and beautiful. I noticed it, but it didn’t ruin my experience of the show one bit.

But then this Sunday we had some timing issues that were, for me—and apparently, I’m not alone—a bit tougher to overlook since the implications in the story were so much greater. This was a huge escalation in the war with the white walkers and in the relationship between Jon Snow and Daenerys . . . just a big, pivotal moment in the ongoing story.

And when I said I’m not the only one to notice, I started seeing it in my circle of friends pretty much immediately, like this Facebook post from author and game designer Keith Baker:

Last night’s episode was FILLED with things that simply make no logical sense at all: by appearances, within a day one person ran the distance it took them at least a day to cover on foot; a raven flew halfway across the seven kingdoms; and then, what happened next happened. IT WAS AN AWESOME *SCENE*, and frankly, I’m OK with the fact that it makes absolutely no sense and was simply a way to hand a major weapon to the Night King… But we’re definitely in the “don’t think too hard about it” territory. I doubt this is how the books will handle things, and that’s OK.

I’m hardly abandoning the show or anything, but for me, it’s not quite as okay. And it also looks as though a fan reaction is being heard, at least enough to prompt one of the principle creatives involved in the episode to speak to Variety, as quoted in the article “ ‘Game of Thrones Director Alan Taylor Breaks Down Timeline in ‘Beyond the Wall’ ”

“We were aware that timing was getting a little hazy,” Taylor told Variety. “We’ve got Gendry running back, ravens flying a certain distance, dragons having to fly back a certain distance… In terms of the emotional experience, [Jon and company] sort of spent one dark night on the island in terms of storytelling moments. We tried to hedge it a little bit with the eternal twilight up there north of The Wall. I think there was some effort to fudge the timeline a little bit by not declaring exactly how long we were there. I think that worked for some people, for other people it didn’t. They seemed to be very concerned about how fast a raven can fly but there’s a thing called plausible impossibilities, which is what you try to achieve, rather than impossible plausibilities. So I think we were straining plausibility a little bit, but I hope the story’s momentum carries over some of that stuff.”

Fudge the timeline as necessary. I’m okay with that, but I agree with Keith Baker, who told me:

Some people are suggesting that they were supposed to have been stranded on the rock for days waiting for Dany; if that’s the case, we needed more scenes establishing the passage of time, like at least one more night scene. Whether it was their intention or not, as a viewer it FELT like it was all happening in an afternoon.

Felt like that to me, for sure.

And that interview with Taylor was picked up by Germain Lussier for iO9.com in: “The People Behind Game of Thrones Admit This Week’s Rescue Timeline Didn’t Quiet Work

Hey, at least he admits it. There are probably people out there who would vehemently defend the timeline no matter what . . . But Taylor’s reasoning at least feels honest. Either you were entertained and didn’t care, do care and were annoyed, or are somewhere in between.

For the record, I did care but was entertained.

But for all of us writing fantasy, science fiction, and/or horror, let’s take this as a good example of what happens when we play even just a bit too fast and loose with our own rules.

Let’s leave the world of complex, expensive, and time-crunched TV series production out of this for the rest of this post and fall back to prose fiction. In a novel or short story, you don’t have to worry about your effects budget, time on location, pressure from the network, etc. You have the time to stop and think before you set your rules, stop and think about how you’re following your rules as you’re writing, stop and think about when and how you want to change your rules as you’re writing, stop and think about what you’ll have to go back and revise to accommodate that rule change . . .

You have time. You’re smart. These are your rules, and you’re in charge of them. So stop and think and do the work.

Because plausibility—not realism, and I’ve hit you over the head with that often enoughdoes matter. I took at least one movie (Legion) to task for that here at Fantasy Author’s Handbook, and belabored the point in both The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction and Writing Monsters.

How far is it between Eastwatch and Dragonstone?

How fast can a dragon fly?

It’s entirely up to George R.R. Martin to decide these numbers. The distance between two purely fictional places is entirely up to you to decide in the course of your worldbuilding. Write that down, and once someone travels between those two places—once it actually matters in the story—that’s locked in until you decide to change it and revise accordingly. But once it’s in print in Chapter 2 it has to be the same in Chapter 3.

How fast can a dragon fly? I don’t know; dragons are pretend. I can’t look that up. You tell me. But again, once you’ve told me it’s that fast. Is there some magic item that can make them go faster? Sure—but establish that early enough so it doesn’t come out of nowhere. Could they fly through some kind of magical gate that jumps them forward a hundred miles in a flash? Of course they can, because this is fantasy and in fantasy everything is possible if you establish it properly and it functions consistently within the context of your created world.

How fast does a raven fly?

Now you’ve stepped out of your fantasy world and into the real world, because unlike a dragon, a raven is a real animal—I see them in my neighborhood up here in the Pacific Northwest all the time—and we can all look up how fast they can fly. And not unexpectedly, it appears I’m not the first person to Google that in the last couple days. According to DinoAnimals.com (you have to find it in the comments, since ravens aren’t one of the ten fastest birds), they max out at 31 miles per hour.

This is the thing you can’t fudge.

Unless you show us the fudge.

Show us the little ring around its ankle that imbues it with magical speed.

Show us that these are bred from the ancient speed ravens of yesteryear.

Show us something that will take them out of the realistic and into the plausible.

But Game of Thrones never said these were magical ravens—just unusually well-trained ravens.

And Gendry wasn’t wearing boots of speed. Usain Bolt’s been clocked at “nearly” 28 mph, and that was only in a 100 meter sprint.

If this episode shows us that a dragon can fly, say, 100 miles and hour, okay—that might be uncomfortably windy for Daenerys, but okay.

The best I could find online is that it’s as far as 1900 miles between Eastwatch and Dragonstone, so that’s at least 62 hours, one way, for the raven, which is sent after some unknown number of hours of Gendry running, and if a raven could fly for 62 hours straight at maximum speed (and I’m sure it can’t), and the dragon goes 100 miles an hour or 19 hours back to Eastwatch, further ignoring the additional distance they walked north of the Wall, we get 81 hours not including Gendry’s run that they stood on that rock, surrounded not just by dumb zombies but the zombies’ clearly sentient commanders, who didn’t realize the lake had frozen over again.

Roughly estimating Gendry’s run, let’s call that four days.

If it took the raven twice as long, which is much more plausible, it’s actually more like six days.

Just standing there.


Maybe we can get Alan Taylor to take my next online Worldbuilding course. It starts Thursday.


—Philip Athans

P.S.: But then there’s this: Is the Night King holding off on purpose? Waiting six days knowing, or at least hoping, that Daenerys will come and bring a dragon for him to kill and reanimate? That will probably be how they fix this—showing us it was all part of his master plan—but that still doesn’t show us those guys were stuck on a rock for at least the better part of a week.

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1. Work on one novel at a time until finished, while also writing the occasional poem, short story, article, and weekly blog post.

2. Start on your next novel only when you feel you’re done with your last novel, and take a break from the new novel only to revise that last novel according to editorial advice or flash of inspiration, then get back to the new novel as soon as you can.

3. Write in ecstasy, edit with intent.

4. Work according to the best program of your own devising, built honestly and sincerely around the realities of your individual life, which can and should—even must—include writing.

5. Write something . . . anything . . . but write!

6. Clean up yesterday’s writing then write the next section, which you’ll clean up tomorrow before adding tomorrow’s new text. Do no further revision until the rough draft is done.

7. Keep human! Interact with other humans everyday, in whatever way you can, and from time to time, take a full week off.

8. Rejoice in the act of writing itself.

9. Give yourself a break and realize that sometimes you have to set aside the project at hand, but you can, and will, come back to it as soon as possible.

10. Write the book you care the most about—the story that speaks to you, that won’t let you sleep at night, that won’t go away.


—Philip Athans

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Well, we’ve finally made it to the eleventh and last of this long series of posts examining Henry Miller’s Eleven Commandments of Writing. If you haven’t been following along from the beginning, or want a last look at the full list of commandments, you can click back to the first post here.

It’s come to the end, and here I finally disagree with Henry Miller on general principle when he says:

11. Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.

If that was meant to say: Write first thing in the morning then get to everything else . . . and based on his Program, it may well be, then okay, maybe—but then there are people, like me, who don’t tend to write particularly well in the morning and for no particular reason, though I suppose I could probably teach myself to write in the morning.

Instead, what I think Henry Miller means here is bigger than a day’s schedule. He means prioritize writing (and as with most if not all of these commandment, we can sub in any career for writing) over all other things, no matter what—“first and always.”

You know what?


After all, this is the same guy who warned us not to be a draught horse, to “keep human” and maintain our connections to the people and the world around us, and now he seems to be telling us, “Yeah, do that, but work always takes first priority.”

Sorry, Mr. Miller. I refuse to live like that, and I refuse to encourage other people to put work first—even if that work is creative writing.

Think about this with “write” switched out for other occupations:

Sell insurance first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.

Hang drywall first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.

Trade stocks first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.

Design user interfaces first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.

Again, nope.

I know a lot of people who put a lot of things before whatever job it is they do, no matter how much they love that work: kids/family, friends, pets, faith, even hobbies . . . all come before work.

It’s an interesting coincidence that this morning I happened upon Stephen Moore’s article “What the Fuck is Work-Life Balance?” This has been a concern of mine for a long time, but especially since I’ve been out on my own as a freelancer. Let’s start with Moore’s definition of work-life balance:

This balance is the ability to seamlessly juggle the responsibilities of work, with the responsibilities of life. Work all day. Party all night. It is being able to contain your work hours, allowing other hours to free up, so you can cook nice meals at home, watch movies, meet friends, spend time with loved ones and maintain some form of social life. In an ideal world, we would all live with a perfect work-life balance, and no one would have a single grumble.

This is tough for a lot of people, in a lot of circumstances. When, like me, you work from home and your “company” has an employee roster of one, and your office is in a little nook in the upstairs hallway, your commute is up a single flight of stairs, this concept of work-life balance can be almost impossible to understand, much less achieve. How do I leave work at work when I live in my workplace? If I shut off my “work” phone, well, that’s the same as my “home” phone.

And all this even assumes that everyone reading this is writing full time.

I know that’s far from the case.

Most of the people I know are writers, and maybe three or four of them do it full time. So then at some point a “day job” can come between you and your writing—especially if you’re a reasonably responsible person and have a family that at least in part depends on you, you have rent or a mortgage to pay, student loans hovering over you, or indulge in other crazy luxuries like electricity, food, or internet/phone service.

If you’re not 100% sure you’re in a position to quit your day job—don’t quit your day job!

If your kids are hungry and you haven’t written yet, feed them, get them off to school, then write. But at the same time, yes, we do need to find time, make time, even insist on time to write. Stephen Moore wrote:

A hugely important part of finding this balance is having periods of time completely switched off from work. One way to do this is to set work day hours for emails/calls. (This will probably be ignored if the matter is important). Make clients and colleagues aware that you will respond within said business hours. There is nothing wrong with that.

And I think this matches up with previous advice from Henry Miller to set aside some writing time, but to balance that with other activities—being a human out there in the world. So can you work with your family, one way or another, to provide you with some uninterrupted hour for writing? I bet you can—even if your kids are home for summer vacation.

And then how about this idea:

Who says we have to confine our lives to a set list of priorities?

Things change—sometimes on a day to day, even hour by hour basis. I often go through busy periods where I’ll pretty much stop everything to get one project done, but that doesn’t mean I’m putting that project always and forever at the top of my priority list. It doesn’t mean I even have a “priority list” to begin with.

Honestly, I think in order to achieve any kind of work-life balance, any sort of balance in our lives at all, we need to remain awake and flexible and ready to change on a moment’s notice. I said above that maybe I could train myself to write in the morning, and maybe I could—but why? I think it’s better to train yourself, especially if you have a day job, a family—any other important components to an actual human life—to write any time, anywhere, however you can fit it in. Can you write for twenty minutes on the bus in the morning? On the two hour flight to and from a business trip? While your kids are at school or at night when everyone else is asleep, or, for that matter, early in the morning when everyone else is asleep?

We might not be able to put writing first and always—let’s try to put writing in there somewhere.

I’m going to leave the eleventh commandment off my own list, since I think this is all covered under:

4. Work according to the best program of your own devising, built honestly and sincerely around the realities of your individual life, which can and should—even must—include writing.

So, yeah . . . write. And parent. And work at whatever other job(s) you have. And play games. And go to museums. And read. And pay bills. And mow the lawn. And . . .


—Philip Athans

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