Almost all of us are engaging, this first full week of April, 2020, in some version of “stay home, stay healthy,” or “shelter in place,” while CORVID-19 continues to have its way with us. I won’t get into why we’re doing this—I’m not a doctor or public health professional—but let’s take a look at the concept of social distancing from the fiction writer’s perspective. What if characters can’t, or at least shouldn’t, hang around each other?

For horror authors or readers, isolating characters is almost rule number one. I get into this in my online Advanced Horror Writing Workshop:


In Writing Monsters I talk about monsters bringing out the good and evil in characters, but they’re also an opportunity to bring out the strengths and weaknesses in characters, to reveal what’s imperfect and, therefore, human about them:

If you’ve trapped a cast of characters in an isolated locale and thrown even a single monster at them, those characters will naturally rise to their own overriding impulses, whether that impulse is to protect everyone else at all costs or to protect themselves at all costs.

Keep in mind, too, that monsters can bring out more than simply “good” and “evil” in your characters.

I define a villain as someone whose motivations you understand but whose methods you abhor, and a hero as someone whose motivations you understand and whose methods you admire. In the same way that monsters can bring about this split in method, they can also bring out the resourcefulness in people… Your monsters can allow your characters to exhibit qualities like tenacity, loyalty, trustworthiness, a capacity for forgiveness, and so on. All of these characteristics are brought to the forefront by placing characters in a world full of monsters that force them to act, choose, and become something more (or, tragically, less) than they were before the story began.

In her short story “You Can Stay All Day” (from The Best Horror of the Year, Volume Ten), author Mira Grant gets into the idea of an inherent weakness in her POV character, Cassandra, who seems to dislike people, is judgmental, and focuses on small things that make her feel superior in some way:

Morning at the zoo was always Cassandra’s favorite time. Everything was bright and clean and full of possibility. The guests hadn’t arrived yet, and so the paths were clean, sparkling in the sunlight, untarnished by chewing gum and wadded-up popcorn boxes.

It was funny, people came to the zoo to goggle at animals they’d never seen outside of books, but it was like they thought that alone was enough to conserve the planet: just paying their admission meant that they could litter, and feed chocolate to the monkeys, and throw rocks at the tigers when they weren’t active enough to suit their sugar-fueled fantasies.

Nothing ruined working with animals like the need to work with people at the same time. But in the mornings, ah! In the mornings, before the gates opened, everything was perfect.

Here we meet a character who is isolating herself on purpose. Cassandra sees herself as a “hero”—or at least superior to the people who don’t live up to her expectations. We clearly see why this woman is in this place at the beginning of this story—she belongs there, she has an emotional connection to the place and a package of expectations and emotional reactions to other people. She is, in her imperfection, entirely and plausibly human.


But most of the time we need our characters to interact with other characters in order to exist as real-seeming people. In “Nuts and Bolts: ‘Thought’ Verbs,” Chuck Palahniuk wrote:

One of the most-common mistakes that beginning writers make is leaving their characters alone. Writing, you may be alone. Reading, your audience may be alone. But your character should spend very, very little time alone. Because a solitary character starts thinking or worrying or wondering.

Unless, of course, you want your character to start thinking or worrying or wondering! More than a hundred years ago, Bertrand Russell spent a few months in prison for the “crime” of disseminating “pacifist propaganda,’ and had this to say about it when all was said and done:

I found prison in many ways quite agreeable… I had no engagements, no difficult decisions to make, no fear of callers, no interruptions to my work. I read enormously; I wrote a book, Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy… and began the work for Analysis of Mind… One time, when I was reading Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, I laughed so loud that the warder came round to stop me, saying I must remember that prison was a place of punishment.

The idea that people might want to live in isolation isn’t new, though statistically speaking it is a bit unusual. After all, prisons use solitary confinement as a way to punish convicts who misbehave, and people who are left in solitary for extended periods do show significant psychological damage as a result.

Authors of various genres have used the threat or reality of isolation to give their characters a challenge or two. It’s seen as so abnormal by most people that once you end up in a confined space, even with a small group of people, it’s not seen as quite as “agreeable” as Bertrand Russell thought. In his science fiction novel The Fortress at the End of TimeJoe McDermott summed it up this way:

The ansible rings true and through it all. The planet called Citadel is the farthest colony of man from Earth. The station called Citadel placed herself above the only desert rock they had in range with enough magnetic fields to sustain a planetary colony against the stellar winds. They gathered ice comets and liquid moons and hurled them upon the surface to inject life into the ground before the damaged battleship’s supply ran out, but it is not enough to sustain a complex economy like Earth’s. It is described as a desert in its lushest places, a wind-blasted moonscape where man has not begun to change the ground. Terraforming is always slow, and as distant as they are relative to the center of cosmic gravity, the speed of terraforming seems even slower to the solar system. Every year, Earth is three weeks faster than us on the Citadel. It is Sisyphean to consider a place like this, and it is Sisyphean to sit here in my little cell and write about what is obvious to everyone: This is a terrible posting at the edge of the human space and time, and everyone here knows it, even you.

The isolated outpost goes back a long way in science fiction in particular, and the most famous of those stories might be “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell, the short story that inspired three movie versions:

“It does get crowded, Kinner,” Garry acknowledged. “But I’m afraid we all find it that way at times. Not much privacy in an Antarctic camp.”

“Privacy? What the hell’s that? You know, the thing that really made me weep, was when I saw Barclay marchin’ through here chantin’ ‘The last lumber in the camp! The last lumber in the camp!’ and carryin’ it out to build that house on his tractor. Damn it, I missed that moon cut in the door he carried out more’n I missed the sun when it set. That wasn’t just the last lumber Barclay was walkin’ off with. He was carryin’ off the last bit of privacy in this blasted place.”

Though we know that the CORVID-19 outbreak will eventually come to an end, it’s hard not to be, for lack of a better term, “freaked out” by social distancing and sheltering in place. Honestly, I’ve been working from home for ten years and tend to be at best a “homebody” and at worst a sort of hermit, but even I want to go to a restaurant so bad right now I’m trying not to descend into a screaming panic. My “normal” workdays are being intruded upon by some significant family togetherness time while… and it’s put me now almost two weeks behind schedule, which I can’t honestly even make sense of.

This is NOT a good look for me.

But we have to do what we have to do, and this too shall pass. In fiction, though, it doesn’t always pass. Sometimes it gets worse and worse and worse until we get so far into the downfall of civilization that we’re looking back on the apocalypse. Those are stories that have been around forever. The Bible ends with one. Eugene Thacker, in his book Starry Speculative Corpse put it this way:

Nothing is more indicative of human culture than the obsessiveness with which it has depicted its own planet. When the Earth was decentered from the universe by Copernican astronomy, this was more than compensated for by the innumerable images of the Earth produced over the years by artists and scientists alike. The Earth was, and is, in many ways, still at the center of things. In this sense, the first televised images of the Earth can no doubt be regarded as the pinnacle of a species solipsism, one that has its underside in the many computerized film images of a disaster-worn, zombie-ridden, apocalyptic landscape. We are so fixated on the Earth—that is, on ourselves—that we would rather have a ruined Earth than no Earth at all.

And I guess I’d rather be in Cellblock A (for Athans family) than in solitary.



—Philip Athans


See how deftly I referred to my Advanced Horror Workshop, which just so happens to start up again on May 14th?



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The lake was black water, reflecting a blackening sky. Sara couldn’t believe anything might live in water so black, so cold. That lake was no place for anything alive. The surface was still and the whole thing was like lacquered ivory. Along the edges, ripples from little water spiders like the curly paths of ice skaters.

Sara looked up, away from the water, her eyes dry even in the humid, heavy air. An allergy to pollen was a threadlike anchor to the reality of her own life inside her. A storm front crept in above her. To her right lay the dead body of her lover, Justin. To her left, the thin gravel road that connected the gravel bank of the lake to the other thin gravel road that led to the thin paved road that led to the wide interstate. The road was empty of cars, of people, and like the lake, empty of any emotive, judgmental, fearful life at all.

The wind caressed her, warm and moist and full of promises for a hard rain. She sighed into it, letting her own breath wrap itself around her face. She looked down at Justin and tried to decide whether to smile or cry. His face was a puckered blank, paper left in a pocket and run through the wash. The hot wind rustled hair across his forehead, flipped his collar over, and hissed through the tall, flowering weeds.

The field of flowers stretched away on all sides of them. So many different colors, and Sara took some time to count them. Three shades of purple, two yellows, a slight pink mixed with orange, blue just like her mother’s eyes, garish magenta, forlorn indigo, and a stark hospital white. The wind teased at their petals and the sky grew darker. Sara closed her eyes, turned her face to the sky, and waited for the first drop.

They had come to the lake to make love on a Saturday afternoon designed by a just God for making love in the sun, among the flowers, at the side of a lake. Sara had no idea what caused Justin to die, and why he went so suddenly and so quietly. All the little movements of his body stopped. His face fell in, just a little, and he fell back. It seemed as if he’d known it was going to happen, had planned it, and intended to come back just as quickly and with no more explanation, and later they would get some ice cream. His face and his stillness didn’t tell her he was sorry, or that it was okay, or that he’d done it on purpose or if it was an accident.

Then the first raindrop made a soft sound like a lowercase p on the petal of a flower in front of her. The sound tickled her mind and she smiled and the rain came on. There was the loud hiss of the wind in the flowers like an overture, the entr’acte for the coming storm. The sound and the wall of air swept across the lake, scattering leaves and bees and the little water spiders and lifting Sara’s long straw hair into the heavy sky.

“That’s all right,” she whispered.

Her answer was the distant rumble of coarse thunder, a cascade of the little ps, and a sudden pinpoint wetness on her right cheek. Her face felt so hot just then, the raindrop so cool, she thought the drop would boil away. Maybe it did.

The movement of an ant scurrying across Justin’s still face caught her eye and she realized how much she loved him. With the storm coming in, it felt to Sara as if the world meant to wash him away, breaking him up like mildew between the tiles of the earth. He would be gone with the ending of the storm and she wanted to go with him, but knew she couldn’t. The rain would cleanse her of him, like it cleansed the ground. The flowers would grow back up from under him and she would forget. Maybe, next Saturday, she could come back with someone else.

She put her left hand to her mouth, a sudden realization almost making her giggle. She could trick the storm. It wouldn’t know she wouldn’t let him go all the way away. She spoke his name and the way he kissed her—the brush of hot, dry lips a little rough and a little soft, the tip of his tongue—into her hand. She said a poem of him to herself that had no real words, just the ideas behind them. She held the fragile breath lightly in her hand like a robin’s egg and put it in the pocket of her dampening dress. And though she knew the storm would never find it there, she couldn’t bear to keep it to herself.

She looked up again into the sky and as the rain fell harder she closed her eyes tight. She said the words and whispered the breath again to the sky. She told the storm about Justin, so even if it washed him away, it wouldn’t forget him. In her pocket, the first breath of the little poem felt warm against her leg.


—Philip Athans


P.S., I wrote this story about thirty-five years ago. Though I sent it around to a few magazines at the time, it has never been published. Any author of a certain age will have some number of these in a file somewhere. And heck, maybe a global pandemic will come along and inspire us to throw them out into the world, just because.


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I’ve been working from home since June of 2010, so the current COVID-19 “lockdown” is, in most ways, business as usual for me. But here in the hot zone of Western Washington, a lot of my neighbors—most of my neighbors, even—are experiencing working from home, for the first time as many local business that can have moved employees to remote work.

This week I’d like to offer a little advice to all of you reading this while working from home for the first time, struggling to figure out how to do this.

To start, I’ll have to assume that you have the requisite technology. It might have been provided by your employer, even. You do need a computer that’s connected to the internet. You will need some kind of telephone. You will need some suite of apps that help you do your work and communicate. Many of these things, like Google Drive, Skype, and Slack, can be had for free—at least in their basic versions. So yes—gather your tools, test them to make sure they work, and work with whoever you need to work with to get yourself online.

That handled, I’d like to concentrate on the human side of it.


Get Up, Get Outta Bed, Drag a Comb Across Your Head

When we have to get up in the morning and go to an office for our workday, there are certain rituals we all go through. Hopefully you want to present a clean, reasonably acceptable personal appearance. You take a shower, you brush your teeth, you shave, you put on clean clothes in accordance with whatever dress code (or lack thereof—a coworker of mine at Wizards of the Coast would routinely show up for work wearing a t-shirt that read: DON’T SUCK CORPORATE COCK, but that might not fly at the law firm), then put on your shoes, and you’re off.

Keep doing that.

Don’t sleep in. Get up at your normal time, even if you wake up early because you normally have a long commute. Stay in as much of the groove as you can. Get out of bed, have a cup of coffee… whatever you normally do. Don’t stop showering, don’t stop shaving, don’t stop brushing your teeth.

I have joked about how in the last ten years or so I’ve become my neighborhood’s sweatpants guy. And unfortunately, it hasn’t always been a joke. I’ve gone through periods of depression, especially during a long, almost five-year stretch of living with chronic pain, and I lost a lot of this basic stuff. My sleep patterns went all haywire. I hardly ever shaved, showers became… less predictable… and things like a morning routine started to slip away. Unlike the chicken or the egg, in my case I know which came first: it was the depression that led to me not really taking care of myself. But that can go the other way just as easily. Don’t take this pandemic as some kind of flop time. Get up, clean up, and get dressed.


We’re Going to Pump You Up

I have gone through periods in my life where I exercise, and periods where I don’t. Like everyone, I know I should do some reasonable daily exercise, but I don’t always. Don’t be like me. If you had a daily exercise routine before you started working from home, keep to that routine. Depending on where you live and other factors you may not have access to the gym you’re used to going to—may not have access to any gym at all. I don’t know anything about your specific medical/physical needs—maybe you do need some kind of specific apparatus to keep you healthy. Work with whoever you need to work with to continue doing that. Physical therapists are likely still open for business, health clubs probably aren’t. Can’t run because you don’t have a treadmill? Are there no sidewalks where you live? Adapt how and where you exercise to your new reality, but don’t stop exercising.


On the Air

If you’re working remotely as part of your normal team, some supervisor or manager surely has scheduled online meetings of one form or another and communicated that schedule to you. Show up on time. Make sure that, if you’re on video, the background behind you is tidy and free of distractions. If you’re on a “shelter in place” order like me, your kids are home, too. My kids are older (25 and 19) so they (probably) won’t be crying in the background. If you have a baby, I bet your coworkers already know that, and won’t get too bent out of shape if the baby is crying in the background, or you have to bow out to tend to a child. Stay on schedule but adapt, and allow your coworkers to adapt.

But take down the weird posters or photos that are funny to your friends but you but might get you in trouble with coworkers. Wear the same clothes you would have worn to work. Shave, wear makeup, etc.—as you would on a normal workday, because it is a normal workday. You might be in your bedroom, but for the length of that Skype meeting, you’re at work. Act as if.


It’s the Work-a-day World

Have a work day.

This is something I honestly still struggle with. For instance, I started writing this then my brother called me from Chicago. I ended up talking to him for an hour and fifty minutes, from 3:00 to 4:50 pm. That’s not good. That’s a tough almost two hours to pull out of my working afternoon. I can and will make up for that, but still, I should have told him I’d call him back in a couple hours.

If you’re working from home and have scheduled meetings, those are easy to keep track of and be available for. If you then go do some work that has a deadline, the temptation to push that off for a special two hour lunch to watch a movie on Netflix, can you, will you really make up that hour? Unless you are some kind of weird alien lifeform the answer is no, you won’t make up that time. That two hour lunch took an hour out of your day.

This is actually the absolutely hardest part. An alarm clock (or alarm app) will wake you up at normal time. Most people would prefer being clean to being dirty. Most people will show up on time to a scheduled meeting. But self-policing your work day when the boss isn’t standing at your desk, when no one else on the team knows exactly when you started your lunch break and how long it’s taken you… it’s the easiest thing in the world to fall into being “off.” If you’re working from home for some period of time, work from home. If you want to take a staycation, take a staycation.

Realistically, you will start taking longer lunches,. You will talk to your brother for almost two hours in the middle of the afternoon. Hopefully you work in an environment with clear expectations, clear and reasonable deadlines. However you get to those deadlines, get there. The best way to do that, honestly, is to stay on track, stay on working hours. The “bonus time” you get from this will be your commute time. The time you’d normally spend in the car or on the bus or train will now come back to you in the form of an episode of Better Call Saul or an afternoon chat with your brother.

But if you stay on your normal version of “nine-to-five” you may be able to avoid the home worker’s worst trap of all, which is working every day, including weekends and holidays.

Good luck out there!


—Philip Athans



Maybe spend the extra time you get from no longer having to drive to work taking my two-week online Writers Digest University course Horror Writing Intensive: Analyzing the Work of Genre Master Stephen King.

Starting Thursday, April 2!


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I’m writing this in a strange and frightening time. Strange, I think, for just about everyone, and frightening in different ways and to different degrees for different people. I live in the Seattle area, the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic in America, watching as more and more things are shut down, cancelled, postponed, rescheduled, and so on. More and more people are being sent home either to work remotely or, unfortunately, not to work at all, and it’s all at least confusing and weird. And no one seems to be at all sure when it’s going to end. I won’t wallow in it, or make it all about me—I got that bit of self-absorption out of my system last week. Instead, let’s bring this whole thing around to the idea of fantasy and science fiction.

I’ve noticed, and I’m sure you have too, that cable channels and streaming services suddenly added movies like Contagion and other stories of plague and disaster. When I first noticed them popping up I have to admit I cringed. Is this really something we want to address with fiction—and not always particularly well crafted fiction? Is this what we want to watch while in self- or otherwise-imposed quarantine? And then I realized… well… maybe.

I have a feeling agents and editors around the world are already seeing an influx of plague-based novels quickly thrown together or resurrected from a filing cabinet. Are they zombie apocalypses? Are they some kind of Invasion of the Body Snatchers-esque alien invasion plague stories? Are they “hard” science fiction takes on something closer to reality either charting how a dangerous pandemic can be stopped, like The Andromeda Strain or something that goes horribly wrong and gets fully apocalyptic?

I’m, personally, not writing a plague story right now. I don’t tend to do that, myself. I don’t really write “torn from the headlines” stories—but maybe you do. Maybe this is exactly how you work through the weirdness and scariness of what’s going on. Maybe reading one of those books or watching one of those movies will help you organize your feelings, help you take bites out of the anxiety.

Or maybe you’re wondering now if fantasy and science fiction, or genre fiction in general suddenly feels silly and pointless and the world is too serious, especially right now, to allow yourself to wallow in escapism by reading a fantasy novel or watching a science fiction movie. I disagree, and at least in spirit, from 1956, so does C.S. Lewis:

At all ages, if [fantasy] is used well by the author and meets the right reader, it has the same power: to generalize while remaining concrete, to present in palpable form not concepts or even experiences but whole classes of experience, and to throw off irrelevancies. But at its best it can do more; it can give us experiences we have never had and thus, instead of ‘commenting on life,’ can add to it.

Genre fiction can be a great place to go when you’re worried, and not just to take your mind off whatever it is that’s troubling you, but to help you gain some perspective. And we’re all writers here, too, right? So are you feeling off balance and frightened and thinking the world is too serious right now to write fantasy? Are you thinking we need to “get serious”?

Sure, when it comes to washing your hands, avoiding groups, and taking other commonsense measures to protect yourself and others from a rapidly-spreading virus, take that seriously. You don’t live in a fantasy story, you live in the real world. But in the same way reading genre fiction can help you at least take your mind off your anxieties, writing it can help you work through them—and help your readers the same way. Just because a message is wrapped in a fun story doesn’t mean the message is meaningless, or doesn’t get through. You have to really have been purposely not keeping track of things if you still think genre fiction is in any way a “lesser form” than so-called “literary” or realistic fiction. Genre fiction has long ago moved past “trash fiction” to once again become “literature.”

In “Of Philip K. Dick, Reflexivity, and Shifting Realities: Organizing (Writing) in Our Post-Industrial Society,” Christian De Cook wrote:

[Philip K.] Dick employs glaring clichés of trash (e.g. the usual SF props of precognition, time travel, androids,…) to tackle exceedingly complex philosophical problems. This trashy surface allows his novels to survive in different ways in the reader’s environment, either semiotically (awareness of the resurrection of metaphysical values) or semantically (very entertaining, if a bit disjointed) understood. Thus the novels contain some sort of double encoding which [author Stanisław] Lem… explained as follows:

‘If many coloured flags are put upon the masts of a ship in the harbour, a child on the shore will think that this is a merry game and perhaps will have a lot of fun watching, although at the same time an adult will recognize the flags as a language of signals, and know that it stands for a report on a plague that has broken out on board the ship.’

So plague apocalypse stories may well have something of extraordinary value to say to us right now, it’ll just be coded a bit differently. And seeing as the oldest known works of fiction all have elements of the fantastic, it’s worth considering, at least, that it’s that, let’s call it “fantastic coding” that helps us pull out of fiction more than just facts and procedures, but a shared experience through examples of heroism and villainy.

I read (and write) a lot of non-genre or “literary” fiction, and don’t tend to be quite this dismissive in either direction, but what the hell, here’s something John M. Ford wrote  in an email to Neil Gaiman:

If a guy comes into the room holding a symbol of true kingship, the book is a high fantasy.

If he is holding a sword with pizza sauce on the blade and is accompanied by a talking penguin, it is low fantasy.

If he is holding a poorly described article that is clearly of great emotional significance to himself, but none whatever to us, and then he leaves the room without having done anything, it is a New Yorker story.

At least, so says Isaac Butler in “The Disappearance of John M. Ford.”

So I’m going to keep reading, editing, and writing genre fiction regardless of what real life throws at me. I don’t know where all this is going to end up, or what might change in my own life because of it, but I know it’ll show up in my writing, one way or another, sooner or later. As Stephanie Kane said in “Life Into Fiction: Turning a True Event Into a Compelling Story”: “Any journey has two endings: where it came to rest, and where it left the protagonist.”



—Philip Athans



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This week I’d like to step out of the world of writing science fiction, fantasy, and horror and address the fact that I currently live in the COVID-19 “hot zone” of Seattle; mailed in my mail in ballot a week before the person I voted for (Elizabeth Warren) dropped out of the race, leaving that vote meaningless; and have brushed up against other news stories including people seeing their life’s work trashed by internet mobs in a descent past due process and into a straight and uninterrupted path from allegation to conviction. It’s definitely feeling, here in the second week of March 2020, like things are teetering on the brink of complete collapse into barbarism.

But let’s break that down, starting with the feeling these and other current events are engendering in me.

Aldous Huxley wrote, in The Perennial Philosophy:

Agitation over happenings which we are powerless to modify, either because they have not yet occurred, or else are occurring at an inaccessible distance from us, achieves nothing beyond the inoculation of here and now with the remote or anticipated evil that is the object of our distress. Listening four or five times a day to newscasters and commentators, reading the morning papers and all the weeklies and monthlies—nowadays, this is described as ‘taking an intelligent interest in politics’; St John of the Cross would have called it indulgence in idle curiosity and the cultivation of disquietude for disquietude’s sake.

That’s not a book I would otherwise tend to find solace in, being in general an apology for religions I’m not a party to, but if he can be in general agreement with Bertrand Russell, someone I do tend to be more philosophically aligned with, who said in his 1951 speech “To Face Danger Without Hysteria”:

Mass hysteria is a phenomenon not confined to human beings; it may be seen in any gregarious species. I once saw a photograph of a large herd of wild elephants in Central Africa seeing an aeroplane for the first time, and all in a state of wild collective terror. The elephant, at most times, is a calm and sagacious beast, but this unprecedented phenomenon of a noisy, unknown animal in the sky had thrown the whole herd completely off its balance. Each separate animal was terrified, and its terror communicated itself to the others, causing a vast multiplication of panic. As, however, there were no journalists among them, the terror died down when the aeroplane was out of sight.

…I think we may be onto something here.

COVID-19 is real, and real people have really died. A small fraction of the population is in actual danger, and I’m happy to participate in reasonable measures to help them avoid contact with this virus. That’s actually pretty easy for me, personally, since I work from home and my car is broken so I’m effectively self-quarantined. Still, this is not the Black Death, and this is not the fourteenth century.

I do feel that Elizabeth Warren would make a competent, empathic, reasonable, and progressive president, so I voted for her in the primary. The fact that she’s dropped out has not, however, sent this country into a death spiral. I’ll hope Bernie Sanders can pull it out so I won’t have to be forced to vote for Joe Biden, but if I am, like I was forced to vote for Hilary Clinton and John Kerry before him, I’ll dutifully cast my “not-the-other-guy” vote and we’ll stagger on as a nation. The other thing? Let’s face it, banned books always sell better than books everybody thinks are swell. All that business will either just blow away or eventually descend into lawsuits and criminal trials and in any case a young generation will eventually mature enough to be as embarrassed by their youthful indulgences as I can sometimes be about mine. Because punk rock will live forever, death to yuppies.

What sends me into a hyperbolic psychological death spiral is exposure not to the corona virus, the presidential campaigns, or cancel culture but the wildly uncontrolled non-stop mainstream media and social media hand wringing, doomsaying, and the willful, aggressive ignorance wound up in it.

I write and edit (primarily) fiction, so can happily ply my trade forever without a minute by minute transcript of the day’s events, filtered through a myriad of competing agendas. I can, have, and will continue to stay away from the “news,” full stop. If, in the last couple weeks I’ve strayed from that True Path, it’s only proved to me how smart I was to turn my back on it when I did, years ago.

Maybe all this chatter and yelling and screaming and dressing down and speculation does something for you. I hope not, but you do you.

Just leave me out of it.


—Philip Athans



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The next run of my online Pulp Fiction Workshop starts up day after tomorrow (March 5) and it’s got me thinking about pulp “master” Lester Dent again. The course centers around the famous “how to” article “Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot” in which the co-creator and principal author of Doc Savage (writing under the house name Kenneth Robeson) lays out how to write a six thousand word short story in the pulp style. There’s a lot of solid advice there for anyone looking to write entertaining genre fiction of any length. I’ve also posted and discussed a separate article of his on choosing names for your characters

Lester Dent had some useful things to say. I’ve used the “formula” (and you can read here about how it’s actually more like a recipe than a formula) myself with some success, as have people who’ve gone through that workshop.

But what about Lester Dent himself?

You probably don’t even know his name. You might have some passing familiarity with the character Doc Savage, but maybe not—he’s slipped into obscurity in the last, oh, maybe thirty years. Because Lester Dent wrote using a number of pseudonyms, in magazines that haven’t seen the light of day since World War II, you might even have a hard time tracking down his work.

So then why learn how to write from an author who wrote a lot of throwaway pulp fiction seventy or eighty years ago but who few people remember? Why not seek out advice from Ray Bradbury or Stephen King or Orson Scott Card?

Well, you should read those other books. Lester Dent has, as you’ll see here, little if anything to teach us about writing. But Lester Dent actually does have a lot to teach us about storytelling.

And yes, there is a difference. I would submit that a lot of authors who’ve sold a lot of books were terrible writers. The craft either eludes them or fails to interest them. You might be hard pressed to find a clever turn of phrase, a quotation to last the ages, in any of Stephenie Meyer’s huge best-sellers. You might not feel your heart soar at the subtle artistry of Lee Childs. But clearly they know how to tell a story that readers respond to, even if they don’t set out to stretch the art of literature at the same time.

This hit me particularly hard when I actually sat down to read some of Lester Dent’s fiction.

His “Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot” isn’t about the craft of writing at all. It’s all about the craft of storytelling. In it he asks questions like, “Does it have suspense? Is there a menace to the hero? Does everything happen logically?” Here’s what Lester Dent says the first quarter of your story should contain:

First line, or as near thereto as possible, introduce the hero and swat him with a fistful of trouble. Hint at a mystery, a menace or a problem to be solved—something the hero has to cope with.

The hero pitches in to cope with his fistful of trouble. (He tries to fathom the mystery, defeat the menace, or solve the problem.)

Introduce all the other characters as soon as possible. Bring them on in action.

Hero’s endeavors land him in an actual physical conflict near the end of the first 1500 words.

Near the end of first 1500 words, there is a complete surprise twist in the plot development.

He really only talks about writing once:

Don’t tell about it, show how the thing looked. This is one of the secrets of writing; never tell the reader—show him. (He trembles, roving eyes, slackened jaw, and such.) Make the reader see him.

Maybe the most “basic” writing advice of all.

I set out to read some of Lester Dent’s actual work and was, at first, horrified by how terrible it was. Follow the links in these purple passages for detailed complaints on certain elements…

Something swished by one ear. A heavy form lunged toward him. Ham spun, fast as a dancer, jerked the long blade of his sword free from the cane.

Big arms wrapped around him. The sword was knocked from his hand to fall on the thick carpet of the hallway. Ham’s elbow shot back, landed with satisfying solidness just below the ribs.

—Doc Savage: The Living Fire Menace (1938)

For years it was Lester Dent’s full time job to fill the pages of Doc Savage Magazine with novel-length tales of daring do. He was writing to a demanding word count minimum that must have felt at times like an impossible task. I don’t think anyone writes fiction like this anymore. Throughout the Doc Savage stories it’s plain to see where he’s simply padding sentences, saying things in as many words as he felt he could get away with, like “The sword was knocked from his hand to fall on the thick carpet of the hallway.” That’s sixteen words. This is eleven: “The sword was knocked from his hand to the hallway carpet.” And it could just as easily be seven: “The sword was knocked from his hand.”

Dent was even back then sort of notorious for just… not… getting… women…

She became downcast. Probably, she thought, she should be ashamed of herself for causing Doc Savage so much trouble. She had not helped Doc’s effort by getting, or trying to get, into the excitement. The only result had been that Doc had been forced to take time off to trick her into going back to New York.

I’m a miserable nuisance, she reflected. I don’t help. I make Doc mad. I take up his time. I don’t do a bit of good. I should stick to the beauty shop business.

—Doc Savage: The Hate Genius (1945)

Sure. Okay.

Lots of extra words follow:

The man had ceased speaking when the basement door crashed. He had vanished so swiftly Doc could not hear his running feet. Before Doc could reach the stairs, the men above were descending upon him.

Doc flipped a gas capsule and it fell at the feet of the foremost man. But the rush carried the men over the gas before it could become effective. The bronze man was holding his own breath. Then an automatic pistol slashed its blaze into the gloomy basement. And a sizzling stream of ammonia searched for Doc’s eyes and nostrils.

—Doc Savage: Cold Death (1936)

Okay, I’m an editor. I’m accustomed to reading rough draft or first draft text. Once I slipped into that mode my reading of Lester Dent got easier and the story was able to shine through. He, in fact, was a terrific storyteller. All the stuff I’ve read of his clips right along with plenty of menace and action and suspense and grief… It’s perfectly fair to call it “plot driven.” But it’s fun as hell.

So we really can learn from a master storyteller while recognizing that he either never was, or was never allowed to be, a particularly skilled writer.

You try writing a complete novel every month, to strict deadline and word count demands, then tell me if you’re feeling more like Lester “Kenneth Robeson” Dent or Victor “Twelve Years to Write Les Misérables” Hugo. What I hope we’re all striving for now is a balance between, or the highest levels possible of both compelling storytelling and beautiful writing. But even stressing quality over quantity I tend to think you should take less than twelve years to write any novel, though certainly more than a month. I wrote a novel in about two months once and have regretted it ever since!


—Philip Athans


And here’s the ad for… my four-week online

Pulp Fiction Workshop!

We’ll learn storytelling techniques that transcend the pulp genres and make writing fun again. Write a 6000-word short story, with edit, in any genre!

Next class starts Thursday, March 5


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Apparently coined by screenwriter Angus MacPhail, maybe in the late 1930s, a MacGuffin is a story device that’s as old as stories themselves. Hell, the Golden Fleece is a MacGuffin.

Let’s let Alfred Hitchcock, one of the all time masters of the MacGuffin, explain it in its basic terms…

And he elaborated in his famous interview with Francois Truffaut:

The main thing I’ve learned over the years is that the MacGuffin is nothing. I’m convinced of this, but I find it very difficult to prove it to others. My best MacGuffin, and by that I mean the emptiest, the most nonexistent, and the most absurd, is the one we used in North by Northwest. The picture is about espionage, and the only question that’s raised in the story is to find out what the spies are after. Well, during the scene at the Chicago airport, the Central Intelligence man explains the whole situation to Cary Grant, and Grant, referring to the James Mason character, asks, “What does he do?” The counterintelligence man replies, “Let’s just say that he’s an importer and exporter.” “But what does he sell?” “Oh, just government secrets!” is the answer. Here, you see, the MacGuffin has been boiled down to its purest expression: nothing at all!

This isn’t just one of many story “tropes,” either. MacGuffins can be identified in the field damn near everywhere. In “Literary Scavenger Hunts: The MacGuffin & Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, Sam Spade, and Others,” Robert Lee Brewer wrote, “Sort of like discovering the matrix, once you realize what a MacGuffin is you begin to see them littered throughout literature.”

MacGuffins fuel the entire stories of two of the greatest films ever made: Rosebud in Citizen Kane, and the Genesis Device in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The One Ring that drives the action of The Lord of the Rings trilogy is a MacGuffin that does actually have power, is actually worth trying to control or destroy. A MacGuffin can be a commodity, and not simply a single object, like the spice melange in Dune. It can even be a person. Arguably, Danny in Stephen King’s The Shining is a MacGuffin: the thing that is being fought over. The spirits that infest the Overlook Hotel are trying to take him from his mother, who is trying to protect him. And the list just goes on and on and on: Le Morte d’Arthur, Raiders of the Lost Arc, The Crystal Shard… and the most often cited example…

Cairo rose and bowed. “I beg your pardon.” He sat down and placed his hands side by side, palms down, on the corner of the desk. “More than idle curiosity made me ask that, Mr. Spade. I am trying to recover an—ah—ornament that has been—shall we say?—mislaid. I thought, and hoped, you could assist me.”

Spade nodded with eyebrows lifted to indicate attentiveness. “The ornament is a statuette,” Cairo went on, selecting and mouthing his words carefully, “the black figure of a bird.”

The Maltese Falcon (1929) by Dashiell Hammett

In “Love, MacGuffins, and Death,” William Flesch wrote:

The genius of movies (and sometimes novels) like The Maltese Falcon and Out of the Past is that the MacGuffin’s formal status as MacGuffin is part of the plot, that is part of what the noir (anti)hero is doing. Spade or Jeff Bailey are not, or not fundamentally, in love with the femmes fatales (disclaimer: yeah sorry, the movies are sexist, it’s the formal structure I’m interested in). They both know, and know from the start of the main action, not to trust the women they are teamed up with. And they’re barely interested in the MacGuffins, the “dingus” as Spade calls it, at all. Rather they want to understand the crimes that have organized themselves around the MacGuffins. It’s still a question of knowledge. Spade knows who done it from the start (as we find out at the end), but not why. So the forties noirs use what might be called fake MacGuffins, objects the detectives are not really interested in, even in the fictional world, and fake love stories, stories for which the detectives have no ambition or desire for a happy ending, in order to find out the MacGuffin of all MacGuffins, the truth.

To some degree, a MacGuffin is defined as a thing that has no actual value or utility, so that might preclude objects like the monolith on 2001: A Space Odyssey, which does actually act in the story. Still, I would make the case that the monolith serves the same purpose as the MacGuffin that’s, as Hitchcock said, “nothing at all” in that it’s the central object that moves the entire story forward—as is the One Ring, the Genesis Device, and so on. So in some cases, when it comes to fantasy and science fiction worldbuilding at least, the MacGuffin has significant powers and is part of the magic or tech of the world. In other cases, as in the Maltese Falcon or melange in Dune, it subs in as an object of greed—we’re all doing this to get/control this thing.

In her book Write Away, Elizabeth George says much the same thing as part of her discussion of suspense:

If time isn’t of the essence, then a MacGuffin can work for purposes of suspense. This is an object that everyone in a novel is seeking. Sometimes it turns out to be something that’s inherently worthless; other times it’s something of value. In either case, it’s the race itself—the race to possess the MacGuffin in advance of the other characters—that creates the suspense.

So even if your MacGuffin can’t turn you invisible or destroy all life on a planet in favor of its new matrix, and is entirely an object of greed, the more thought you put into how the MacGuffin acts on the characters around it the better. If your readers don’t really understand why everyone cares so much about this thing, your story will collapse on you.

Make sure there is some emotional, personal connection between your villain and the MacGuffin and your hero and the MacGuffin—it has to really matter to both parties (all parties, etc.) for it to matter to your story, even if the object itself doesn’t actually do anything or is never actually used for anything. It’s the desire for it, or the desire to destroy it, that drives your characters through the story.

Like the zombie horde, which is a monster that subs in for an Act of God, or a natural disaster—a mute force that brings out the good or evil in the people who come in contact with it—so the same is true of a MacGuffin. It may well be fair to say that the zombie first created in Night of the Living Dead is a MacGuffin, and has been, in all of its subtle variations, ever since.


—Philip Athans


Bring your best MacGuffin to my four-week online Pulp Fiction Workshop where you’ll write a 6000-word short story, in any genre. Includes edit!

Next class starts Thursday March 5.






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