HONORING HONORIFICS

Let’s take this week to go after a certain copy editing bugaboo that I have found extremely common in both fantasy and science fiction. It’s another of those seemingly impenetrable rules governing the proper use of an initial cap.

An initial cap is when the first letter of a word is capitalized, regardless of its place in a sentence. Rules for things like proper names of people and places are easy enough to remember, and I won’t go back into railing against initial caps intended to make a common noun seem more important, but in the case of honorifics, I see authors just all over the place in how they’re handled, quite often inconsistently applying caps within a single paragraph, much less a single novel.

An honorific is used in place of a name to infer respect or high station. We don’t use them a lot in contemporary American society, but all the time in medieval-flavored fantasy.

Going to our old friend, The Chicago Manual of Style(16th Edition),* we find a firmly stated, unambiguous rule:

8.32

Honorifics. Honorific titles and respectful forms of address are capitalized in any context.

 

Her (His, Your) Majesty; Her (His, Your) Royal Highness

Your (His, Her) Excellency

but

sir, ma’am

my lord, my lady

I cherry-picked a few honorifics I see a lot from their longer list of examples. Combining lessons already learned regarding initial caps of ranks and titles, let’s see this in action in a fantasy story:

 

“Approach, Captain,” the queen commanded.

After taking two steps forward, Captain Galen sank to one knee before the beautiful Queen Bronwyn. “I fear I have bad news to report, Your Majesty,” the captain said.

“I am happy to see you alive, at least, sir,” Bronwyn said with a false smile.

“I,” a voice from behind the throne growled, “am not so happy!” Lady MacBetty strode out onto the dais, twirling a silver-bladed dagger in her left hand.

Galen scowled but said, “Good evening, my lady.”

“Take your good evening and shove—” the lady began.

“Enough,” the queen interrupted. “Now, Captain, what of the wars?”

“Twenty thousand men dead at the hands of Duke Jaerik, Your Majesty,” Galen reported, “including His Excellency the grand vizier.”

 

I threw as much in there as I could to show how all these work together.

Now consider that, if your worldbuilding includes honorifics not in Chicago’s list of examples, the rule still holds:

 

“Approach, Spearmaster,” the matriarcha commanded.

After taking two steps forward, Spearmaster Galen sank to one knee before the beautiful Matriarcha Bronwyn. “I fear I have bad news to report, Your Momentousness,” the spearmaster said.

“I am happy to see you alive, at least, sirrah,” Bronwyn said with a false smile.

“I,” a voice from behind the throne growled, “am not so happy!” Anne MacBetty strode out onto the dais, twirling a silver-bladed dagger in her left hand.

Galen scowled but said, “Good evening, sirress.”

“Take your good evening and shove—” the noblewoman began.

“Enough,” the matriarcha interrupted. “Now, Spearmaster, what of the wars?”

“Twenty thousand men dead at the hands of Imperator Jaerik, Your Momentousness,” Galen reported, “including His Pomposity the grand wizard.”

 

Same rule, different words/different worlds.

Yes?

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

* And yes, I know the 17th edition is out, but I just haven’t gotten around to ordering that yet.

 

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DOWN WITH THE COUNCIL! THE COUNCIL MUST BE STOPPED!

I had a couple other things in mind to write about this week, but then as I was working through assignments for the current run of my online worldbuilding course for Writer’s Digest I was moved to action!

This week we’re talking about government and religion—I know, your parents told you not to do that, but it’s kinda hard to talk about worldbuilding and leave those out. Of the seven students in this run of the course, six people sent in assignments for this week, and of those six, three of them called their governmental bodies the Council.

Okay, so, before you worry that if you take one of my online courses I’m going to bitch about you in public, please know that all three of those people wrote amazing stuff. And I’m seriously not just saying that. I’m always delighted by the quality of the work that comes through these courses, and this week in this class was no different. I’m not complaining about the quality of the writing, just this one thing, this single word that I see over and over again, and not just in 50% of the worldbuilding course assignments but in probably that same percentage of full manuscripts that come across my desk. One after another, after another, after another.

So this is it.

Today I begin a one-man crusade against the Council!

The Council must be stopped!

First off, please refer to my rant against the use of common nouns with an initial cap here. Absorb that, embrace that, be sensitized to that, and also please notice that the Council is the very first entry on my list of (negative) examples.

Before you panic because the Council is all over your work in progress, know that there’s about a 99% chance that your fantasy or science fiction governmental body can work exactly as you describe, because like the talented people in this course who thought through the function of that body and made its decisions and actions personal, so their characters were actually affected by its policies and decisions, most likely all you need to do to fix your Council-infected work in progress is search for the word Council and replace it with… anything else!

I’ve said this before, but let me say it again: Maybe 90% of worldbuilding is naming things. So then why would you want your things named the same as everybody else’s (or even half of everybody else’s) things?

I’ll answer that for you: You don’t!

You want the names of your worldbuilding elements to reflect the creative energy you’ve put into those details and the creative energy and individual artistry you’ve put into your characters, your story—every aspect of your writing.

What to call it then?

My thesaurus app returned:

1 the town council: municipal authority, local government, administration, executive, chamber, assembly, corporation.

2 the Student Council: advisory body, board, committee, brain trust, commission, assembly, panel; synod, convocation.

3 that evening, she held a family council: meeting, gathering, conference, conclave, assembly.

Any of those will do for now.

Thanks to Google Translate here is Council in a few other languages, which one works for you?

Azerbaijani: Şurası

Basque: Kontseilua

Corsican: Cunsigliu

Finnish: neuvosto

Hawaiian: Ka’aha’ōlelo

Malagasy: Filan-kevitra

Samoan: Fono

Sudanese: dewan

Zulu: Umkhandlu

Or, y’know… just make something up!

You can do it! The Council must be stopped! Who’s with me?

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

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FIRST SENTENCES IN DETAIL: EXPLORING WEIRD TALES Vol. 5, No. 1—PART 2

I won’t stay stuck on this Amazing Stories series every week, but I wanted to touch back right away after starting out last week with a look at the completely out of context first and last lines. This week, let’s just ruminate on the first sentences and see what we might be able to learn from them.

Remember what Lester Dent says in his Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot: “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.”

First, we can see how these stack up to that, starting with “introduce your hero.”

Of the twenty-one stories in this issue (still amazed at the quantity of content there!), a cursory glance shows that exactly two-thirds of them, fourteen stories, begin either in the first person point of view of a character we can at least assume for now is the “hero,” or identifies a character by name in the first line:

 

As Obligated by Armstrong Livingston

Sir Geoffrey Coombe, Bart., snorted contentedly as his round bald head and his plum white shoulders emerged above the waters of his morning tub; without troubling to open his eyes, he reached over the edge of his porcelain container and groped blindly along the length of the heated towel rail.

Here we meet Sir Geoffrey Coombe, but he’s not quite in the middle of some sort of action scene or anything, is he? Dent says, “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.” But I’m not getting that from this first line!

The Rajah’s Gift by E. Hoffman Price

Strange tales are told of the rajah of Laera-Kai, of the justice he dealt, of the rewards he gave; but the strangest of all these many tales is that of the gift he gave to Zaid, the Persian who had served him long and well.

Likewise this would seem to indicate that our “hero” is Laera-Kai—or will it turn out to be Zaid? That doesn’t matter, to me at least. What’s most important, and what we’re looking for in this weird exercise in going back to the fundamentals, is that it begins with characters. We read stories to inhabit a person, not a setting, not a theme or an idea, but a fellow traveler who will take us on a journey through that setting, winding through a plot, to hopefully leave us a bit smarter in some way or another (theme).

White Man’s Madness by Lenore E. Chaney

Hour after hour John Martin staggered up the steep trail, singing bits of ribald songs picked up here and there throughout a rather free and easy past.

I don’t know about you, but I’d rather see John Martin staggering up a hill in any other condition but “free and easy,” but where I think he might pass Lester Dent’s vague test is that he’s “singing bits of ribald songs picked up here and there throughout a rather free and easy past.” Is that hinting that John Martin’s present is neither free nor easy? Since this story was published in Amazing Stories, I think it’s safe to assume it is not.

Red and Black by Irvin Mattick

Yong Lo was a reptile with an artist’s soul.

Bonus points for the character’s name immediately up front, but I’m getting the feeling that Yong Lo is not the hero but the villain of this piece. As such, should it even be on this list? Still, I might actually go so far as to rewrite Dent’s formula to read:

First line, or as near thereto as possible, introduce the villain and show him being villainous. Hint at a mystery, a menace, or a problem to be solved by a hero to be named later.

It is my firm belief that the only story structure you really need to embrace is that the villain starts the story and the hero ends it.

When We Killed Thompson by Strickland Gillilan

My, how I used to lie awake nights, staring into the darkness of the attic, wishing we hadn’t done it!

Ah, the classic opener in which we’re told up front that something went terribly wrong then the story circles back to show that play out. This is a bit old fashioned by today’s standards and could be read as a spoiler. Now we know that the as yet unnamed narrator will live to regret what’s about to happen, so at least we know that things won’t work out well in the end—but the bigger spoiler, for my money, is that now we know the end of his/her emotional arc as well. Whatever happens, it ends in regret.

On the Highway by Cargray Cook

My twenty-first birthday.

Pregnant with possibility… I guess. I’m assuming the unnamed narrator is the hero, but I could be wrong. This reads passive to me. Is that really the strongest detail to start with? We’ll have to actually read on to really judge that, I guess, but somewhere Lester Dent is shaking his head.

The Ocean Leech by Frank Belknap Long, Jr.

I heard Boucke beating with his bare fists upon the cabin door and the wind whistling under the cracks.

It’s a reasonable guess to assume that the first person narrator is the hero and Boucke might end up as a minor player, bringing news of some kind of emergency. I think this covers what Dent was asking for, more or less, and at the very least hints that something’s afoot. It has action in it. And by action I mean: a character is doing anything. And “beating with his bare fists upon the cabin door” at least implies some urgency.

Luisma’s Return by Arthur J. Burks

Christophe, who called himself Henri I, Emperor of Northern Haiti, was the greatest monster in all history.

I bet this Christophe guy, like Yong Lo in “Red and Black,” is actually the villain of the story. That works for me, but unfortunately, he isn’t doing anything right away. This definitely makes me fear for an info dump to follow, in which we have to be educated on the life and sins of the Emperor of Northern Haiti before anything like a story begins. I hope I’m wrong!

A Changeling Soul by Victor Lauriston

Flora, hesitant, whispered: “It is—impossible.”

Now you’re talking—and starting with a woman, no less! That is a rare treat for these old science fiction magazines. I fear that we’ll find Flora fading into the background as things progress, but for this week let’s at least hold out hope that the “hero” of “A Changeling Soul” is actually a “heroine.” That aside, the fact that she’s clearly amazed by something makes me want to read the next sentence, so as first sentences go, it’s a success!

The Valley of Teeheemen by Arthur Thatcher

When Benton realized that Virginia and Holton had disappeared, he thought quickly of the best course to pursue.

And hopefully that’s all we get of the planning session!

The Remorse of Professor Panebianco by Greye La Spina

“Cielo, what an enormous crystal globe, Filippo!” exclaimed Dottore Giuseppe del Giovine, regarding the great inverted glass bell that hung over the professor’s dining table.

Whether Filippo or Giuseppe turns out to be either the hero or villain of the story, props for starting with a character speaking and/or doing something. And here we’re also being introduced to a thing that might end up being a McGuffin, or… who knows? We’re going have to read it to find out. Also, right away, I’m taking a wild guess that this story is set in Italy.

Arhl-a of the Caves by C.M. Edy, Jr.

When Arhl-a opened her eyes, darkness had settled over the universe.

Female protagonist number two! Down with the patriarchy! See, I told you the content of pulp stories wasn’t as casually misogynistic as the covers often were. Here we have our heroine named right up front (as well as in the title!), and something clearly bad is happening. Darkness settling over the universe can’t be good, right?

The Festival by H.P. Lovecraft

I was far from home, and the spell of the eastern sea was upon me.

Spoiler alert, I’ve read this story before and know where this is going but still, we begin with “I”—call him as much a “hero” as you might tend to find in a story by our old pal Howard Phillips, and in his own fashion he begins by setting a mood.

Something tells me H.P. Lovecraft and Lester Dent were more at odds, artistically, than they were simpatico. Lovecraft tends to start with grim foreboding then spiral into cosmic madness, revealing the “mystery, a menace or a problem to be solved” a bit more slowly. And the problem is only very rarely solvable.

Phantoms by Laurence R. D’Orsay

The only man who knew the story was Carson, and he never told it.

Hm. Is Carson the hero? Assuming “Phantoms” tells the story Carson never told, he’s at least a survivor of whatever it is that’s happened. But here’s another version of what we saw in the opening line of “When We Killed Thompson.” This feels less spoiler-ey, though, since we know at least Carson lived to (not) tell the tale, but have no sense of how he was affected by it except what we’re left to interpret from the fact that he never told it. And I like being able to bring some of my own active interpretation into a story, so I’ll just say I like this one, and am curious to see what Carson’s been hiding.

So then the rest of the stories started with something other than a character, hero or otherwise, so fall outside Lester Dent’s advice, but so what, really? Lester Dent has left us some interesting pointers, but let’s not allow anyone to force us to write to a template. Let’s see what the other third did here.

Invaders from Outside: A Tale of the Twelve Worlds by. J. Schlossel

On every hand huge brilliant suns, single or multiple, flashed past with their retinue of small dark planets.

This issue of Amazing Stories falls back far enough toward the beginnings of what we know as modern science fiction that starting up in space was probably eye-catching enough for SF readers of the time. There’s a poetry to this, too, that I really like. Screw the hero, let’s hear it for the solar system!

The Electric Chair by George Waight

The facts were carefully hushed up at the time.

Our third spoiler-ish opening, but I think this goes wrong by not attaching any sort of character to it. No one in particular is hushing up whatever it was, so we’re left with what, to me at least, feels a bit more like idle curiosity as to what might have been so bad that it was “hushed up at the time.”

The Fireplace by Henry S. Whitehead

When the Planter’s Hotel in Jackson, Mississippi, burned to the ground in the notable fire of 1922, the loss of that section of the South could not be measured in terms of that ancient hostelry’s former grandeur.

Is this from the point of view of a building? This story opens like a newspaper article and honestly, that’s not a good thing. To my tastes, this is the worst first sentence of the lot. Back to the drawing board, Henry S. Whitehead!

Wings of Power by Lady Anne Bonny

The moon’s stealthy searchlight extended long, ghostly fingers into the darkened bedroom on the second floor of a fine old house that huddled between encroaching warehouses on a street that had known better days.

I need to do a little research to see if Lady Anne Bonny was the author’s real name* or if this is some dude writing under a frilly female pseudonym. That wouldn’t be at all out of the ordinary for the time. But let’s give Lady Anne the benefit of the doubt for now and credit Amazing Stories for not being 100% all male author, all the time. Whoever she was, though, I think Lady Anne packed a bit more information into that opener than one sentence should be tasked with carrying. And though her imagery is fun, if quaint, she’s starting with a version of the weather report, which I just… don’t…

Out of the Long Ago by Seabury Quinn

Two letters in the afternoon mail; both requiring answers.

Well, whoop-de-doo for the afternoon mail! Okay, I’m being unfair to one of the most successful authors of his day. This opening does promise that something interesting will be in both of two letters. But we have no idea who sent those letters and who received those letters. Hero? Villain? Both? Neither? I have questions, but I don’t feel desperate to find out what’s in those letters because they came to me in the abstract.

Fog by C. Franklin Miller

Some men are like the throb of a kettledrum.

I like to fancy myself one of those men. Anyway, I may as well be for all my wife and kids seem to hear what I’m saying.

Quick: Is that a metaphor or a simile?

The Specter Priestess of Wrightstone by Herman F. Wright

The ruins of historic old Wrightstone Castle still rear their crumbling towers above the dreary Hampton Bog, near Manchester, a fast decaying but fitting memorial to the foul deeds and fiendish proceedings that have taken place within its bleak walls.

It’s hard for me to criticize this when something similar is my favorite opening paragraph of all time. See The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. Ms. Jackson did it better—much better—but if we compare just the two stories in this issue of Amazing Stories that start from the POV of a building, this one is better than “The Fireplace.”

 

Okay, then, fundamentals learned:

  • Lead with character—so your readers have a point of view to follow.
  • That character should be the hero if you agree with Lester Dent, or the villain if you agree with me. And you’re free to agree with both of us. I know I do!
  • Action = any character doing anything. Pounding on a door counts. It doesn’t have to be the middle of some violent fight scene.
  • Mood, if well conveyed, can replace action.
  • Opening with an info dump, a weather report, or an object in the abstract is not good.

What else?

 

 

—Philip Athans

 

* Turns out Anne Bonny was a real-life pirate. Might need to read this story to see if it was presented as if it were written by her. But then who did write it? The plot thickens!

 

 

 

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FIRST & LAST: EXPLORING WEIRD TALES Vol. 5, No. 1—PART 1

In his famous Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot, author Lester Dent offers a lot of advice—some slightly oddball and some with real lasting value. This week, let’s look at the opposite ends of his “formula” in terms of how to start a story and how to end it.

Dent says: “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.”

And ends with: “The snapper, the punch line to end it.”

So how did actual pulp authors of (more or less) his era stack up to that advice? Rather than cherry-pick examples of the best or worst, I thought it would be interesting to find a random pulp magazine and look at just the first and lines from every story. So without further ado, I give you just the first sentences of every story in the January, 1925 issue (Volume 5, Number 1) of Weird Tales, edited by Farnsworth Wright.

Invaders from Outside: A Tale of the Twelve Worlds by J. Schlossel

On every hand huge brilliant suns, single or multiple, flashed past with their retinue of small dark planets.

The Electric Chair by George Waight

The facts were carefully hushed up at the time.

As Obligated by Armstrong Livingston

Sir Geoffrey Coombe, Bart., snorted contentedly as his round bald head and his plum white shoulders emerged above the waters of his morning tub; without troubling to open his eyes, he reached over the edge of his porcelain container and groped blindly along the length of the heated towel rail.

The Rajah’s Gift by E. Hoffman Price

Strange tales are told of the rajah of Laera-Kai, of the justice he dealt, of the rewards he gave; but the strangest of all these many tales is that of the gift he gave to Zaid, the Persian who had served him long and well.

The Fireplace by Henry S. Whitehead

When the Planter’s Hotel in Jackson, Mississippi, burned to the ground in the notable fire of 1922, the loss of that section of the South could not be measured in terms of that ancient hostelry’s former grandeur.

White Man’s Madness by Lenore E. Chaney

Hour after hour John Martin staggered up the steep trail, singing bits of ribald songs picked up here and there throughout a rather free and easy past.

Red and Black by Irvin Mattick

Yong Lo was a reptile with an artist’s soul.

When We Killed Thompson by Strickland Gillilan

My, how I used to lie awake nights, staring into the darkness of the attic, wishing we hadn’t done it!

Wings of Power by Lady Anne Bonny

The moon’s stealthy searchlight extended long, ghostly fingers into the darkened bedroom on the second floor of a fine old house that huddled between encroaching warehouses on a street that had known better days.

Out of the Long Ago by Seabury Quinn

Two letters in the afternoon mail; both requiring answers.

On the Highway by Cargray Cook

My twenty-first birthday.

The Ocean Leech by Frank Belknap Long, Jr.

I heard Boucke beating with his bare fists upon the cabin door and the wind whistling under the cracks.

Fog by C. Franklin Miller

Some men are like the throb of a kettledrum.

Luisma’s Return by Arthur J. Burks

Christophe, who called himself Henri I, Emperor of Northern Haiti, was the greatest monster in all history.

A Changeling Soul by Victor Lauriston

Flora, hesitant, whispered: “It is—impossible.”

The Specter Priestess of Wrightstone by Herman F. Wright

The ruins of historic old Wrightstone Castle still rear their crumbling towers above the dreary Hampton Bog, near Manchester, a fast decaying but fitting memorial to the foul deeds and fiendish proceedings that have taken place within its bleak walls.

The Valley of Teeheemen by Arthur Thatcher

(Actually the opening line of Chapter 13 in the second part of a two-part serial:)

When Benton realized that Virginia and Holton had disappeared, he thought quickly of the best course to pursue.

(Attention novelists: The first sentence of each chapter is just as important as the first sentence in a short story!)

The Remorse of Professor Panebianco by Greye La Spina

“Cielo, what an enormous crystal globe, Filippo!” exclaimed Dottore Giuseppe del Giovine, regarding the great inverted glass bell that hung over the professor’s dining table.

Arhl-a of the Caves by C.M. Edy, Jr.

When Arhl-a opened her eyes, darkness had settled over the universe.

The Festival by H.P. Lovecraft

I was far from home, and the spell of the eastern sea was upon me.

Phantoms by Laurence R. D’Orsay

The only man who knew the story was Carson, and he never told it.

 

And now, the last sentences:

Invaders from Outside: A Tale of the Twelve Worlds by J. Schlossel

The survivors of the Twelve Confederate Worlds made their way to the Earth, the least injured of the planets, and there they began anew, in a strange environment, to build the civilization that had been wrecked by the invaders from beyond the Milky Way.

The Electric Chair by George Waight

When they reached him, he was quite dead.

As Obligated by Armstrong Livingston

Sir Geoffrey, a little shaken, stared at the letter. He continued to stare until his wife reminded him that the eggs were getting cold. . . .

The Rajah’s Gift by E. Hoffman Price

Yet once, at least, though he did not know it, the rajah had made a futile move: the shot of Al Tarik had missed; and there was no wound on the Persian’s body.

The Fireplace by Henry S. Whitehead

The fingers had sunk deeply into the bluish, discolored flesh, and the coroner’s jury noted unusual circumstance when they sent out a description of the murderer confined to this peculiarity, that these marks indicated that the murderer (who was never discovered) possessed very long thin fingers, the index fingers being almost or quite as long as the middle fingers.

White Man’s Madness by Lenore E. Chaney

White man’s madness—ever it leads to sorrow and to death.

Red and Black by Irvin Mattick

His dismembered, clenched fist remained aloft in the locked handcuff, next to his other arm by which he swung, bleeding to death from the handless right arm dangling over Yong Lo’s strangled body.

When We Killed Thompson by Strickland Gillilan

But a fear had lodged in my emotional system that had not, until that withered native had said “cah”, been wholly absent from me.

Wings of Power by Lady Anne Bonny

“I shall make her consent to marry you,” he said, pointing to the laboratory table, “by means of the wishing machine!”

[TO BE CONTINUED]

(Goes back to that advice, again, that a chapter can (should?) also end on a kind of cliffhanger or a version of Lester Dent’s “punch line.”)

Out of the Long Ago by Seabury Quinn

And Alice Frasanet, fox-trotting, bridge-playing, tea-drinking Alice Frasanet, laid her fluffy, empty little head against his breast.

On the Highway by Cargray Cook

Oh, my God, I amthe dead man!

(Okay, I have to say right away—that one is my favorite!)

The Ocean Leech by Frank Belknap Long, Jr.

I looked away towards the black topsail masthead.

Fog by C. Franklin Miller

On the bottom lay a lump of putty!

Luisma’s Return by Arthur J. Burks

He died a few years ago, in Cap Haitien, insisting, even on his deathbed, that his story was true.

A Changeling Soul by Victor Lauriston

Heedless of Sundry’s astonished stare and wild questionings, the newPhilip Kingswell caught a passing car, bound for the West End—bound for Flora.

The Specter Priestess of Wrightstone by Herman F. Wright

The present Count Wrightstone, Sir Mandeville Wright, is now residing at London.

The Valley of Teeheemen by Arthur Thatcher

“Good-bye to the land of Teeheemen,” echoed her companion.

The Remorse of Professor Panebianco by Greye La Spina

I, who believed I would never experience the emotion of regret, shall suffer remorse for that weakness until I die!

Arhl-a of the Caves by C.M. Edy, Jr.

And there in the heart of the jungle, with only the moon looking on, the girl found her place in the out-stretched arms of the man and the evening breeze softly kissed the reunited pair.

(Do I even say this? The character recognition software read “arms” as “anus.” Might have changed the whole ending there. Proofreading, people. Proofreading.)

The Festival by H.P. Lovecraft

Great holes secretly are digged where earth’s pores ought to suffice, and things have learnt to walk that ought to crawl.

Phantoms by Laurence R. D’Orsay

For Carson was as hard-headed a man as you could find in the country, and his pride was that he wasn’t superstitious.

 

Kinda weird without any other context, but we’ll start to try to make sense of this starting next week. And hey—how about this idea:

Because the kind folks over at archive.org were kind enough to scan this and make it available to anyone who wants to read it—what if we all read this whole issue of Weird Tales together, coming back to it from time to time as a way to touch base with what coaches would call “the fundamentals”—the basic skill set required of the genre author?

That could be fun!

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

 

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WHAT’S IN A NAME?

I work with a lot of young/aspiring authors and time and again I find them suffering over the subject of naming characters and places. Placeholders abound, names from other works like the Forgotten Realms or Game of Thrones start to sneak in, or sometimes they just fall back on real world names so you get something almost as clunky as Sir John Johnson or Nancy, Queen of the Witches.

Choosing the right name for your characters and the places they inhabit is one of the many hard parts in the bottomless sea of hard parts that is writing fiction—and science fiction and fantasy in particular. It’s a bigger subject than one post, so when I had an opportunity to be a part of the Writer’s Digest’s Fourth Annual Science Fiction & Fantasy Virtual Conference this coming weekend (my bit’s on Saturday the 21st) I jumped at the chance to finally tackle the name question in greater detail.

I really hope you’ll be able to be there, and ask questions, but either way, if you are struggling with names,  I have dived into this pool here at Fantasy Author’s Handbook a few times:

The Name Game

This one focusses on one oddball idea for changing vowels around—but it’s mostly about trying things and keeping names that work and throwing away the ones that don’t.

Lester Dent’s Wave Those Tags

A series of posts that dig into some long-lost advice from our favorite pulpster. Like his plot “formula” there’s some good advice here surrounded by a few odd turns. Use with care!

Please Stop Using Initial Caps as a Substitute for Creativity

Find and destroy those placeholders—and do it as soon as possible. Even if you didn’t intend them to be placeholders. This is the must-read of the bunch since it’s something I’m seeing practically all the time.

Read, Think, Repeat

In this post I outed myself for my tendency to take notes while reading. In that spirit, I circled this passage in Frank Herbert’s Children of Dune as an example of a story reason behind a generic or “placeholder” name:

The stir as they came down and circled over Sheeana’s Desert Watch Center awakened her.

Desert Watch Center. We’re at it again. We haven’t really named it… no more than we gave a name to this planet. Chapterhouse! What kind of a name is that? Desert Watch Center! Description, not a name. Accent on the temporary.

As they descended, she saw confirmations of her thought. The sense of temporary housing was amplified by spartan abruptness in all junctures. No softness, no rounding of any connection. This attaches here and that goes over here. All joined by removable connectors.

This example will make it into the additional material for my newly revised online course Worldbuilding in Fantasy & Science Fiction, which starts up again on July 26, but tends to run maybe every couple months or so. I added a whole session on geography that deals with naming both places and people. Here’s a little taste of that from the course material:

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

Yeah… guilty as charged.

Or, you can just take an existing name and add -onius, -ainous, or -anous to it.

 

—Philonius Athanous

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PULP AND SEXISM

With another round of my online Pulp Fiction Workshop starting up this week, I’ve been looking at a lot of old pulp magazine covers again, and continuing to read a lot of old pulp stories—even full issues of magazines. And even as I use some of those old magazine covers to draw attention to that course, it’s hard to look at them and not see some issues. In some cases some really, really big issues.

I’m honestly desperate that everyone who learns of the course, thinks about taking the course, or is inspired in any way to explore the classic era of pulp fiction in terms of their own writing, understands what I’m actually trying to do not just with this online workshop, but with all my posts and tweets (etc.) about a time and place and style of fiction for which I have a real love, but not unconditional love.

Today, let’s dive headfirst into the issue of sexism, which will be immediately evident in your first Google image search for “classic pulp magazine covers.” Sexism has been a significant issue in genre publishing (and not always excluding romance) for as long as the genres have been around. For more on that I’ll point you to the article “I read the 100 ‘best’ fantasy and sci-fi novels—and they were shockingly offensive” by Liz Lutgendorff, who wrote:

Frankly, from my vantage in 2015, it was just plain weird to read books where there were hardly any women, no people of colour, no LGBT people. It seemed wholly unbelievable. I know what you could say: it’s science fiction and fantasy, believability isn’t one of the main criteria for such books. But it is relatively absurd that in the future people could discover faster-than-light travel, build massive empires and create artificial intelligences but somehow not crack gender equality or the space-faring glass ceiling.

True, though I will at least ask that everyone consider that science fiction never was about accurately predicting either the technological or social future, but has always reflected the era in which it was written.

Beyond that, the endemic sexism of the pulp era doesn’t always seem to have penetrated the current mindset, as evidenced by things like, when commenting on a gallery show of old pulp magazine cover art, Kevin Stayton, Curator of Decorative Arts for the Brooklyn Museum, was quoted as saying:

Although this art may have pushed the edge of what was acceptable, it’s fairly tame by today’s standards. Things that were troubling to the public 60 years ago, like scantily clad women, don’t really bother us anymore, while things that didn’t raise an eyebrow then, like the stereotyping of Asians as evil, cause us tremendous discomfort now.

Is that true?

Of course the broad racial caricatures of many of the pulp magazines are going to cause a reasonable person “tremendous discomfort now,” but in not all, of course, but in a too-significant-to-ignore percentage of the old pulp magazines, women weren’t just “scantily clad” but are depicted in sexualized, non-consensual bondage. They are not just hoping for rescue by the male hero, but are in immediate danger of sexual assault—or, it’s certainly fair to say of a woman who’s been forcibly bound already—further sexual assault.

Here are covers from four different pulp fiction magazines that I was able to find in a few seconds’ worth of Google image searches:

Spicy Detective, October 1934

 

Spicy Western, November 1937

Spicy Adventure Stories, April 1939

Spicy Mystery, April 1942

You’re going to need someone like a cultural anthropologist to give you a better idea of why it seems that a mass market American magazine aimed at adult men equated “spicy” and S&M at least through the mid-1930s to the early 1940s—but believe me, these are only four examples. Search for “spicy pulp cover art” and you will find one after another after another basically just like these.

Obviously, these covers were almost exclusively the work of men, but let’s be historically accurate here: In early 20th century America pretty much everything was “almost exclusively the work of men,” because women were routinely barred from having jobs beyond a few acceptable vocations (teacher, nurse, secretary, etc.) Still, there are stories of women who might to today’s eyes seem almost a sort of collaborator. In her article “The colourful world of pulp fiction: The art that graced the covers of short-story magazines is seducing people more than ever,”Alice-Azania Jarvis told the story of

[Artist Marilyn] Brundage [who] was imprisoned by her gender. Never signing her full name, she posted her work to New York from her home in Chicago. Raised by her widowed mother, and married to the erratic Myron “Slim” Brundage, a heavy-drinking former vagrant, she specialised in producing the raunchiest of raunchy covers. Women, nudity barely concealed, embrace; sinister-looking men prepare to drag the object of their affection into their room. When her femininity was eventually revealed, it caused outrage.

Reading through a lot of pulp fiction from that era, there is a basic assumption that the all-American hero is a white man and women tend to come in one of two guises: victim to be rescued or villainess to be defeated, but I’ve yet to run across a story I would equate to Fifty Shades of Grey. It seems, at least anecdotally, that the bondage stuff was at least mostly on the outside—as though the editors were leading that charge with the artists, but not so much with the authors.

Still, female characters didn’t really fare too much better in the stories than their cover girl sisters. As described in her article “Pulp Sci-Fi’s Legacy to Women in Science: What I learned about gender in STEM when I analyzed 560 works of pulp,” Elizabeth Garbee “set out to uncover the way those authors portrayed scientists by using something called corpus linguistics. Words have meaning based largely on the ways we use them, and corpus linguistics is an incredibly powerful way to use statistics to help uncover that meaning.” She managed to find, out of those 560 science fiction stories, only three female scientists. Here’s how she described one of the three:

The first of these women makes an appearance in the 1945 story “Me and My Shadow” by Berkeley Livingston. Erica Seeling is a Nazi-sympathizing self-described “lady scientist.” While quite obviously nefarious, Erica possesses typically attractive qualities, which makes it difficult for the male characters to be around her. Her beauty is distracting, and even simply occupying the same room makes her male colleagues blush and think lurid thoughts. Disarmingly pretty, clever, and resourceful, this woman is clearly a force to be reckoned with. Nevertheless, her supervisor feels the need to describe her as a genius “in her own way.” The male assistants she works with in the story aren’t described as geniuses in their own ways. They’re simply good at their jobs.

The second “lady scientist” was even more… let’s say… problematic, while the third, from a clearly post-pulp era 1963 Samuel R. Delany story, shows signs of a culture at least beginning to work itself out of the deeper depths of the patriarchy.

Look, it’s been a long time since these magazines graced the crowded newsstands of America—a very long time—and not just counted in years but in an unprecedented cultural shift that, though we clearly have a whole lot of room for improvement ahead, has seen seismic shifts away from the institutionalized sexism and racism that was the norm in 1942 and earlier. These covers, and the stories they sometimes illustrate, can’t be removed from the times in which they were written, and neither can the authors, artists, and editors behind them.

But in exactly the same way that we expect a corporate CEO in America in 2018 to ignore gender in hiring, promotion, and salary decisions (though they often fail us there), and (the Electoral College aside) the majority of American voters chose for president a qualified woman they didn’t necessarily like over an unqualified man they, well… really didn’t like—we have a lot of work left to do, and maybe one of the ways we can help, as writers, is to learn from the pulps what the pulps have to teach us and in the same way that authors like Edgar Rice Burroughs or H.P. Lovecraft brought into their stories the world and culture around them, after a long and tumultuous hundred years in between we can do the same—bring a post-sexist, post-racist, post-nationalist culture into fiction that is just as entertaining, fun to read, and original as any you might find in the pages of Spicy Detective, but reflecting a more sophisticated and increasingly inclusive culture.

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

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HARLAN ELLISON (1934-2018)

Oh, I so don’t want to write this post.

Though I can’t actually claim to count Harlan Ellison among my many friends in the genre publishing universe, I will unashamedly claim him as my unofficial mentor, my primary inspiration, and will always hold dear the couple times I talked with him, in which he was funny, smart, and—both times—yelled at me at least a little. He corrected my English once (I said “like” when he wanted me to say “as if”) and he would occasionally spell things out for me, lacking confidence that I knew words like cess.

But more on those conversations in a bit.

As a young science fiction fan—this would be in the mid- to late-1970s—there was this list of authors that everybody read, everyone assumed you’d also read, and who were already considered the grand masters of the genre, even while many of them were not just still alive but still writing, and in some cases prolifically. This was the upper strata populated by names like Asimov and Clarke, who stood on the shoulders of giants like Wells and Verne.

But at the same time there was a sense of a new generation out there—authors who were moving the science fiction genre forward not in steps but in bigger, more transgressive leaps. While authors like Isaac Asimov were adding larger doses of science to the post-pulp, post-space opera landscape, authors like Ray Bradbury were blurring the lines between genres and freely comingling science fiction, fantasy, and horror with a higher literary calling. It was right about here in my life that I started in on a big Ray Bradbury phase—no regrets there, of course.

But even beyond Bradbury were these other guys (and, alas, they were mostly guys back then) who I kept hearing about through the strange pre-internet fan grapevine: J.G. Ballard, Philip K. Dick… and most of all, Harlan Ellison. There was a buzz about him, not always positive, but he seemed to be the author that the really smartest, coolest SF fans—the people really, deeply “in the know” were reading.

I remember that somehow vaguely scaring me. I was actually afraid to read anything by him. Was this some lingering sense that I was too young? That he was writing something for “adults”?

But then I got my hands on a book called Masterpieces of Science Fiction, a big, over-sized illustrated collection of short stories that drew me in with the art—and stories by authors I already knew and loved, including Ray Bradbury. And there was a story by that weird guy I kept hearing about: Harlan Ellison.

I know that the collection included Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder” and I remember loving it. I have no memory of the other stories or the other authors. Harlan Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,” seems to have wiped all the rest of them out.

I always wanted to be a writer—as long as I can remember. At least as long as I could actually, y’know… write. And at some point I became aware of books and stories as things that people called “writers” or “authors” actually created—made up themselves out of their own imaginations. That sounded like a fun way to spend the rest of my life: playing make believe and sharing it. Once I learned from my parents that I was going to be too tall to be an astronaut, writer was the only other profession for me.

But the experience of reading “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” not only cemented writer as the thing I was going to do for the rest of my life, but took me from the idea of telling fun space adventure stories (which we all know, I still love) to really, actually, wanting to do that.

I wanted to write that story.

And by that story I don’t mean stories about computers torturing people. I mean stories that take an innocent young reader and smash his fucking brains out.

I know exactly where I was when I read that story—laying on my back on my bed. I remember not being able to breathe right for the next half hour or so after it was over. I remember re-reading the ending—over and over again. I remember the gut shot it delivered and the mix of terror and joy that left me, literally, quivering.

It set me out, too, reading Harlan Ellison.

Lots of Harlan Ellison.

All the Harlan Ellison I could find.

I basically never re-read books, and only very rarely re-read short stories. I’ve read and re-read some of Harlan Ellison’s short stories over and over again.

So then, let’s fast forward a few decades and now I’m working as an editor for Wizards of the Coast and we’re coming up on the thirtieth anniversary of Dungeons & Dragons and planning what we called “the coffee table book” to mark the occasion. My boss, Peter Archer, wanted to add the voices of celebrity gamers and authors who might have been influenced by D&D and somehow Harlan Ellison’s name got on that list. he knew I was a rabid Harlan Ellison fan so he tapped me to interview Harlan Ellison for the book.

By now, those of you who have a copy of Thirty Years of Adventure know that Harlan Ellison is nowhere to be found in its pages.

I talked to him for close to two hours and mostly what he did was rail against the very concept of role-playing games, which he saw as intruding on the sanctity of storytelling as a personal, singular act. As much as I disagreed, I loved every minute of it. The best I could get out of him in terms of an endorsement was, “I don’t know, as far as I’m concerned, people are free to go to hell through whatever door they choose.”

We paid him for that interview. He took the money, told the truth as he saw it, and we couldn’t use a word of it.

That might be all you need to know about Harlan Ellison as a person. He expected to be paid for his time and efforts, he didn’t sign on to bullshit, and he wasn’t about to change his mind because you wanted him to, asked him to, or even paid him to.

The second time I talked to him, a few years later, was when I wrote him a letter I had to send via snail me (no email for him—that’s real) asking for his permission to use his snarky answer to “Where do you get your ideas” in The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction. He agreed then gave me, word for word, the text you can find on the legal page of that book. Then we chatted a little and I know he probably would have yelled at me for sitting there grinning like an idiot.

But how could I not smile, even as he threatened to sue me if I didn’t get that legal line exactly right. I was talking to the author that reached through the pages of a book and transformed me from pre-Harlan Ellison Phil to post-Harlan Ellison Phil.

I think he did that for (or one might say “to”) a lot of people.

He once wrote: “For a brief time I was here, and for a brief time, I mattered.”

Harlan Ellison’s stories will be here for a very, very long time, and Harlan Ellison will keep on mattering for a very, very long time, too.

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

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