WHAT CAN I SAY?

I don’t think America needs to or wants to hear from another middle aged white guy right now. I don’t know what to say about what’s going on in the streets of almost every city in the country, and I certainly have no ability to plumb the depths to which the current temporary resident of the White House might yet sink. I guess all I can say is that I stand with life, with my fellow humans, who come in a variety of shapes, sizes, colors, and personalities.

No one should be strangled to death in the street for any reason ever.

How is it “controversial” to say that? And how is it possible that it has to be said then defended in the first week of June in the year 2020? I was born in 1964, into a country having precisely this same conversation as the Civil Rights Movement gathered steam, and tremendous progress has been made in the half-century or so since then, but still this?

And it’s not, I don’t think, a coincidence that systemic inequality has once again come to a head in the midst of the ongoing CORVID-19 crisis. In her Paris Review article “How Pandemics Seep Into Literature,” Elizabeth Outka wrote:

The xenophobia woven into a “Chinese virus” or even the “Spanish flu” sets up whole groups for denunciation. Factual medical descriptions of contagion, disease, and contamination morph into poisonous discriminatory metaphors of moral uncleanness and danger. The early-twentieth-century horror writer H.P. Lovecraft channeled into his postwar/postpandemic writing his prejudicial and homophobic beliefs that immigrant hordes and deviants were tainting pure Aryan blood lines. After the influenza pandemic had swept through his home state of Rhode Island, Lovecraft populated his stories with proto-zombie figures rising from the dead in the midst of pandemics or wars, bent on further destruction. Lovecraft transforms a miasmic blend of diseased atmospheres and deep-seated prejudices into monsters that can be seen and killed with impunity, a move that suggests the dangerous ways anthropomorphizing the threat may mask vicious discriminatory impulses.

Confine people; show them terrible things happening, leave them to guess what might happen next; tell them “we just don’t know” when or even if we’ll go back to work, to restaurants and bars, or game night with friends; blame some or all of it on some or all “others;” and how can this not go terribly, terribly wrong? And the coming economic depression hasn’t even started yet. Ultimately, though, when one group is told that those people are all murderers and anarchists and another group is told that that those people are all murderers and fascists and other groups are told to take a side and stay there lest the entire world collapse around us all, well, how can this not go terribly, terribly wrong?

I happened to be flipping through the TV last week, early in the morning, and decided to rewatch the HBO documentary Studs Terkel: Listening to America. Even before what happened in Minnesota, I was moved to write down this quote:

In all my books, this is the premise, this is the postulate: that people are basically decent, people do have an innate intelligence, but day after day you call upon malevolence, day after day you call upon smallness, day after day you call upon trivia, and you make that the headline, something must happen to people.

Studs Terkel was right, and that interview is at least twenty years old now. Something must, and something has happened to people.

So then, as writers, what do we do with all this?

I’ll dip back into the Paris Review and Wayne Kostenbaum’s thoughts on “The Writer’s Obligation” for at least a little help:

Mask and task are two nouns—two behaviors—I love. From Oscar Wilde come masks; from the Marquis de Sade, and from Yahweh, come tasks. After Eden, masks and tasks. In Eden, we had neither. Literature—the respite of the fallen—is the process of making do with mask and task, diverting ourselves with tasks that mask our disenfranchisement.

I don’t know… what can I say?

Keep writing.

 

—Philip Athans

 

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FIVE THINGS EVERY ASPIRING AUTHOR SHOULD KNOW

This article was originally guest-posted on the now defunct blog Grasping for the Wind in November of 2010. As I promised last week, I’ll resurrect a few of those dozen or so posts, starting with these five nuggets for those authors just starting out.

ONE: Don’t limit your own creativity.

Time and again I’ve read a particular piece of advice for writers that says you should create for yourself a special place in which to write. Make sure it’s in a clean, well-lit, ventilated place, maybe with a vase of freshly-cut flowers, a tub of warm water on the floor in which to soak your feet while you write out your book long-hand using high quality vellum paper and the most expensive fountain pen you can afford.

This is awful advice. If you have this kind of special writing nook set up at home, as soon as you’re finished reading this, please begin to dismantle it. Then do this instead:

Buy a laptop computer. If you’re using anything but a computer to write you’re indulging in a silly affectation that only a very very few established eccentrics will be allowed to get away with, and even then I don’t really think they’re getting away with it. [Okay… that’s what I really believed ten years ago, since then I have started writing by hand—not always, but often—and I love it. So ignore my snarky dismissal of a decade ago, but also please don’t over-spend on fancy notebooks and pens!] It is an essential tool of the trade now. A writer without a computer is like a carpenter without a hammer.

What makes a laptop better than a desktop computer is that you can take it just about anywhere, which means you can write just about anywhere. And if you’re really serious about doing this, you should be able to write just about anywhere, even if there’s noise, even if the sun is up, or the sun is down, or it’s a weekday or a weekend or you’re at a convention, or whatever.

If you insist on being in your special little cocoon, all you’re really doing is imposing artificial limits on your own creativity—when and how you can write—which means you’re imposing artificial limits on how much work you’re actually doing. The world will find ways to impose itself on your precious writing time. Don’t give it any help.

TWO: Do it for anything but the money.

Yes, I know, J.K. Rowling wrote out the first Harry Potter book longhand using garbage-picked pencils and she’s now richer than the Queen of England. Stephanie Meyer admitted at least once on national TV that she had no idea what she was doing and just sat down and knocked out Twilight and wham, she’s mega-rich too. Those are two stories of massive financial success for genre writers. For each of those there may be as many as ten thousand good midlist authors still clinging to their day jobs to keep the mortgage paid, food on the table, and health insurance going.

Hollywood screenwriters have a great union that provides health benefits, but no other writers, really, get that. If you’re an American hoping to write full time, budget a lot of money for health care.

Book advances range from zero to about $10,000 if you’re lucky. The days of the million dollar advance for previously unpublished genre authors are long over, and someone who does nothing all day but write novels is a very rare bird. In my fifteen years as an editor at Wizards of the Coast I worked with four full-time novelists.

For writers, money comes, generally speaking, in small doses at unpredictable times. There is no paycheck, and there is no benefits plan.

If you’re here to learn how to write so you can cash in quick like J.K. Rowling, please take a moment and get a hold of yourself. If you want to get rich quick, get a job in the financial services industry. Write for the love of storytelling, not the love of money.

THREE: Start strong.

Once your work is in the hands of an agent, editor, or reader, you have maybe a page, more likely a paragraph, to grab that person’s attention or they’ll probably just set your work aside and move on to someone else’s. And that’s not an agent or editor being mean, that’s an agent or editor trying to discover the next great author while also trying to make a living and have some kind of personal life. There are a finite number of hours in a day.

Let’s start with what not to do: You absolutely must avoid what my former colleague at Wizards of the Coast Mark Sehestedt described as “weather report, fashion report, travel report.”

Have you written this?

The dark clouds roiled on the horizon, lit by frequent lightning, and heavy with freezing rain. Galen’s long blond hair spilled out over his forest green cloak of fine suede, tickling his lanternlike jaw and blazing in his crystal blue eyes. He was still three days away from the city of the wizard king, having followed the low road east for nearly a month.

If you have, please stop it. It’s just a weak way to start a story.

Keep in mind the Latin phrase in media res, which translates roughly to “in the middle of things.” Start in the middle of a fight, or during the escape from the burning space station, or with the hero floating face down in a pool… any sort of danger, conflict, comedy, any kind of business at all. Then fill in the details as you go, when they become relevant.

Wouldn’t this be more fun to read?

Galen pulled his knees up to his chest, avoiding the dragon’s serrated fangs by a hair’s breadth. When the great wyrm’s jaws smashed together below him, the sound was so loud it shook the tree root from which Galen hung. Dry dirt and sand rained down on Galen’s head, stinging his eyes—and he lost his grip on the root and fell. The dragon beat its wings once and flew up past him, its great, glowing red eye following Galen’s fall to the shark-infested waves below.

FOUR: If you’re an American, write like an American.

Time and again I see manuscripts written in some kind of false British accent. Adding a “u” to the word armor and using the words “about” when you mean “around,” “which” when you mean “that,” or “further” when you mean “farther” doesn’t make you sound smarter or more sophisticated, it just makes you sound like someone trying to sound smarter or more sophisticated. There are a few exceptions to this rule, especially if you’re writing in first person, but unless you’re both willing and able to fully commit, don’t do it.

Also, leave behind the myth of the third person omniscient. One scene, one point-of-view. People, including Brits who do it all the time, who tell you they write in “third person omniscient” are really telling you they write in “third person lazy.” Pick a character and get into his or her head and stay there until you think you need to switch to someone else’s head, in which case you need to employ the services of a scene break. Even in a third person narrative, readers respond when they can get into the head of a character and experience the story first hand, if not first person.

FIVE: There is no time limit.

If you’ve been reading this blog you’ve seen me recently recommend Steve Martin’s memoir Born Standing Upand by extension biographies and autobiographies of creative people from literally any discipline. If you’re interested in the creative process you can learn from anyone.

I think standup comedians and authors have more than a little in common. Comedy and prose are fairly solitary pursuits, best when made personal. So I guess it isn’t weird that this last piece of advice came from another comedian. In the documentary Comedian  Jerry Seinfeld was telling the story of an aspiring comedian who was bemoaning the slow start to his career and Seinfeld said, “What is there, a time limit?” What he meant was as long as you’re aspiring you’re still an aspiring comedian—or author—and only when you stop aspiring are you a failed comedian, or author.

There is no time limit. For every story of some teenager achieving best seller status before he can legally buy a beer there are a thousand more—ten thousand more—of authors who were forty, fifty, sixty years old when their first book was published. There are all sorts of editors who can tell you you’ve failed to sell this one book or story to that one editor, but there is no one out there who can tell you you’ve failed as a writer but yourself.

You can’t control other people’s reactions to you and your work, but you can control your reaction to their reaction. Let rejection motivate you. Filter through whatever advice might come your way. Try new things. Read constantly, write as much as you can. It may take a really long time, and on the best day it’s really hard, but if this is what you’re meant to do, keep going. There is no one in the publishing business who wants you to fail—no one is actively working against you. I had zero connections when I started in this business. My father was a salesman and my mother was an art teacher. I didn’t know a single editor or agent, but I kept at it. I made my own luck when and where I could. This is a tough business, but it is possible, and if you aren’t afraid of hard work, possible is enough.

 

—Philip Athans

 

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FANTASY AUTHOR’S REFRESH

Time to update and refresh Fantasy Author’s Handbook!

I’ve made a few long overdue changes to Fantasy Author’s Handbook, mostly weeding out old links, pages that are showing their age, and so on. I’m not changing any content or deleting any posts, just cleaning it up a little so FAH continues to be easy to access, and still full of all the content I’ve spent almost eleven years gathering.

First off, I’ve said goodbye to the ASK PHIL page, which never really did what I hoped it would do. If you’re not even sure what I’m talking about, well… that pretty much says it all.

I’ve updated my bio, which you’ll find above (or right here) at Philip Athans, which was so old it didn’t even include Writing Monsters, and said I have a huge collection of CDs, which have long since been downloaded and sold off. Anyway, now you know more about me than you might ever need to.

I updated the Welcome to Fantasy Author’s Handbook page to ask for a little help keeping things afloat, especially as the COVID-19 quarantine grinds on:

Fantasy Author’s Handbook is brought to you free of charge, but I do invite you to donate using the button to the right. If you can spare a one-time donation of $5, $20, or maybe $5 a month, that would really help keep Fantasy Author’s Handbook happily handbooking into the 2020s.

I went through all the links on the right side of the page and was sad to see all those guest posts I wrote for Grasping for the Wind have disappeared with the blog itself. I still have the text, though, and will revise and repost the best of them here in the months ahead. I hope they’re at least a little better organized, and anyway, as of today at least, they all actually work!

I made a little list of places where you can find me:

Follow me on Twitter @PhilAthans

Link up with me on LinkedIn

Friend me on GoodReads

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

I’ll eventually paste that on to the end of older posts, but that’s going to take a while, with 574 posts and counting. In any case, there’s your chance to hook up with me if you haven’t already.

It’s been a while since the post that explained “Advice for Manufacturers of Hokum” so I went ahead and changed that back to “Advice for authors of fantasy, science fiction, and horror,” for clarity’s sake.

Next up will be a way too long overdue update of the INDEX page, wherein you’ll find links to all 574 posts going back to June 2009. If you haven’t poked around that at least a little, do it as soon as possible… there just might be aBest of Fantasy Author’s Handbook book in the future that will collect the more popular and useful older posts from the first five years, and the full text of those posts will no longer be available here. Of course, it might be a while before that’s on sale, but still… what else have you got to do while in quarantine?

A lot… I know.

Thank you for spending a little of that time here, and I’ll see you again next Tuesday, and the Tuesday after that, and the Tuesday after that, and…

 

 

—Philip Athans

 

Follow me on Twitter @PhilAthans

Link up with me on LinkedIn

Friend me on GoodReads

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

 

 

 

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WHY NOT POETRY, TOO?

For the better part of the last half of the twentieth century and all of the twenty-first, so far, the money for creative writers has been in screenplays. This is where you might actually make a million dollars selling a script that will probably never even be produced. TV, of course, could beat that if you get a staff job somewhere, especially on a successful sitcom. Of course, that means Hollywood is buried in spec scripts—probably millions of them by now.

But I don’t cover Hollywood. I’ve taken my stabs at it and heard all the tales of fame and fortune, and all the horror stories of watching your story rewritten and rewritten over and over again until whatever you started with is gone completely…

Outside of Hollywood, though, the money is in novels. And I like that territory because there the author is king. Editors are there to help you, not to rewrite you or homogenize you. If a publisher is behind a book it means they’ve decided that your vision might make them some money. I like that, and I bet everyone reading this likes that, too, so we’re all writing novels, trying to sell novels or self-publish novels. Yes! Don’t stop doing that.

Novellas are making a pretty good run at it, too. I’ll credit the e-book for that, which allows us to publish shorter works, sell them for a couple, two-three dollars, and that’s great. Tor.com is publishing a bunch of fine novellas, so that’s not an impossible market—though much smaller.

People (at least a few people) also still read short stories. Short stories continue to be a way to work your way up into a genre community. Get a few stories in (online or print) magazines and anthologies, and the right people start to see your name out there, and your novel will then (at least maybe) have a more welcoming set of eyes on it. Definitely, be writing short stories.

And then there’s the lowly poem, the forgotten form. Poetry is, believe it or not, still being published. Some of the markets even pay a little bit of money for poems. Books of poetry are still being published, and rare birds like me occasionally buy them. But money? Fame and fortune? No.

Just, no.

So then why bother? Why would anyone ever write a poem?

I’d be hard pressed as a consultant and writing coach to muster the nerve to advise anyone to pursue a career as a poet. I honestly don’t think that’s a thing. You might be a literature or classics professor who is also a poet, and that’s great, but job title: poet? Probably not.

So, there’s no money in it, very little audience… why do it?

Why not?

I’ve been writing and (very occasionally) publishing poetry for, what? Almost thirty-five years now? I think the most I’ve been paid for a single poem was $20. Added all up I don’t think all of my published poetry grossed a full hundred dollars.

I write poetry because I like it. It allows me to work creative muscles I don’t normally work. But maybe most of all, poetry allows me to finish something very, very quickly. Certainly very, very quickly compared to a novel. That feeling of creating a finished work is more than worth the time spent on the work itself, so whatever money might follow is of zero consequence.

It used to be that authors of what we now call “speculative fiction,” or science fiction, fantasy, and supernatural horror, regularly wrote poetry as well as short stories and novels. In my long read-through of the January 1925 issue of Weird Tales, I ran across the poem “Two Crows” by Francis Hard, which you can read here.

Some of my favorite authors from that era at least dabbled in poetry, including some of the formative authors of the speculative genres. For instance, you can find all of the poems of H.P. Lovecraft here, including:

Despair

O’er the midnight moorlands crying,
Thro’ the cypress forests sighing,
In the night-wind madly flying,
     Hellish forms with streaming hair;
In the barren branches creaking,
By the stagnant swamp-pools speaking,
Past the shore-cliffs ever shrieking;
     Damn’d daemons of despair.
Once, I think I half remember,
Ere the grey skies of November
Quench’d my youth’s aspiring ember,
     Liv’d there such a thing as bliss;
Skies that now are dark were beaming,
Gold and azure, splendid seeming
Till I learn’d it all was dreaming—
     Deadly drowsiness of Dis.

 But the stream of Time, swift flowing,
Brings the torment of half-knowing—
Dimly rushing, blindly going
     Past the never-trodden lea;
And the voyager, repining,
Sees the wicked death-fires shining,
Hears the wicked petrel’s whining
     As he helpless drifts to sea.

 Evil wings in ether beating;
Vultures at the spirit eating;
Things unseen forever fleeting
     Black against the leering sky.
Ghastly shades of bygone gladness,
Clawing fiends of future sadness,
Mingle in a cloud of madness
     Ever on the soul to lie.

Thus the living, lone and sobbing,
In the throes of anguish throbbing,
With the loathsome Furies robbing
     Night and noon of peace and rest.
But beyond the groans and grating
Of abhorrent Life, is waiting
Sweet Oblivion, culminating
     All the years of fruitless quest.

King of the action-adventure sword and sorcery yarn Robert E. Howard wrote poetry as well, including:

Cimmeria

I remember
The dark woods, masking slopes of sombre hills;
The grey clouds’ leaden everlasting arch;
The dusky streams that flowed without a sound,
And the lone winds that whispered down the passes.

Vista upon vista marching, hills on hills,
Slope beyond slope, each dark with sullen trees,
Our gaunt land lay. So when a man climbed up
A rugged peak and gazed, his shaded eye
Saw but the endless vista—hill on hill,
Slope beyond slope, each hooded like its brothers.

It was a gloomy land that seemed to hold
All winds and clouds and dreams that shun the sun,
With bare boughs rattling in the lonesome winds,
And the dark woodlands brooding over all,
Not even lightened by the rare dim sun
Which made squat shadows out of men; they called it
Cimmeria, land of Darkness and deep Night.

It was so long ago and far away
I have forgotten the very name men called me.
The axe and flint-tipped spear are like a dream,
And hunts and wars are like shadows. I recall
Only the stillness of that sombre land;
The clouds that piled forever on the hills,
The dimness of the everlasting woods.
Cimmeria, land of Darkness and the Night.

Oh, soul of mine, born out of shadowed hills,
To clouds and winds and ghosts that shun the sun,
How many deaths shall serve to break at last
This heritage which wraps me in the grey
Apparel of ghosts? I search my heart and find
Cimmeria, land of Darkness and the Night.

Legendary fantasist Clark Ashton Smith wrote a lot of poetry, which you can find here, including:

A Phantasy of Twilight

Ere yet the soaring after-fire was flown,
I found a city in the twilight lone—
Asleep in lapse of some forgotten land
And griping horizons of deserts prone.

Ah, strange with time and ruinous it was!
The seeping sand through idle gates did pass,
The garths were barren, and each breasted grave
Was rock-reluctant to the nursling grass!

But in the dusking palaces I saw
Twilight rebuild the broken thrones of Law—
Affording unto fanes long-desecrate,
What elder glooms of mystery and awe!

And walls and columns, in the ghostly gleam,
Lit as with memory of a past supreme,
Held mightier form portentous for awhile,
Ere night should whelm them like a crumbling dream.

And, lo, from courts and arches, unconfined,
Rode forth, unto some desert bourn assigned,
The evanescent pomps of ghostly dust,
On thin and momentary manes of wind!

And last, but I hope not least…

Kaiju Sonnet No. 1

From sunken Atlantis a beast did crawl
Through darkness impenetrable
With will, unshakable
Open-mouthed, consuming all
Still hungry since the Great City’s fall
Lifting itself through wrecks unnamable
And into the gloom of starlight so damnable
Broke the waves with a wailing call

And unaware within its sights
Turning westward to the nearest coast
Its shoreline bespeckled by innocent lights
Glittering in safety none thought mere boast
Was the beast then within its rights
To with its breath set that city to roast?

…by yours truly, published in the May 2017 issue of (the now-defunct) magazine Bloodbond.

I write poetry, I read poetry… try it!

 

—Philip Athans, Poet Laureate of the Upstairs Hallway of His House

 

Pandemic priced at only 99¢!

 

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PROCESSING YOUR PROCESS

I find it utterly bizarre that in the midst of the CORVID-19 shutdown I’m actually writing (and reading) less than before. I hate to shift “blame” for something like that, but the fact that my son is finishing this college class year at home via the internet, and both my wife and daughter have been furloughed from work may have something to do with that. My “alone time” as a work-from-homer has dropped to zero hours per week and my ability to sit downstairs and read to the tune of Music Choice Classical Masterpieces has been replaced by competing binge re-watches of Dexter  and  Below Deck, one of which I’m only slightly less embarrassed by…

What really has me thinking about this today is that I’m clearly not the only one going through this with similar confusion and regret. I’ve had students on my online courses tell me they couldn’t finish assignments because of things going on in their lives related in one way or another to coronavirus. My Twitter feed seems at times awash in authors bemoaning what should be newfound writing time seemingly wasted…

I blame  none of those people. This is a weird time.

Still, though all that and some other personal things have had a tendency to knock me back, workload and schedule-wise in the last couple months, I do still have a larger than average measure of control over my workday, so not spending enough time writing (or reading) is ultimately up to me to do something about.

This, then, gets into the tricky subject of process, by which I mean the process of sitting down (or standing up or walking…) and writing. How do we actually make words appear?

I’ve repeated the same joke over and over for years now: If you get a hundred authors in a room and ask them about their writing process you’ll get more than a hundred different answers.

I stand by that only very slightly hyperbolic statement. Authors don’t always approach every project in precisely the same way and for every author with some rigid process, a number of words or number of hours every day, and so on, there will be at least one author who writes a couple times a week, maybe, and sometimes a few hundred words and sometimes a few thousand. I once wrote 10,000 (rough) words of a novel in one day. That’s rare for me, but I’ve done it. I’ve written sometimes by hand sometimes on a computer. I’ve written novels out of order or from start to finish. I’ve “planned” and I’ve “pantsed” and using various combinations of both approaches. But I’ve also gone into deep, lasting fallow periods where I essentially stop writing at all. This has stretched on even for months at a time.

What do we do about stuff like that?

Well, first let’s assume there is no one thing that might be preventing you from writing, in exactly the same way that there is no one way to write. I said that having everybody home all day was a distraction. Can I fix that, short of sending my wife and kids out unguarded into the Plaguelands? I’ll admit to not normally keeping up with the Harvard Business Review, but the article “Perfectionism Will Slow You Down in a Crisis” by Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter somehow caught my eye. In it they write:

To combat distractibility, we need the mental agility to shift between focus and awareness. Focus is our ability to stay with single-pointed attention on the task at hand and effectively execute our priorities. Awareness is our ability to look at the bigger picture, the future, and the changes ahead. Awareness allows us to detect and assess environmental changes, to hold the meta-view of our organization, and to ultimately separate the signals from the noise. After assessing the big picture, focus is required to respond decisively, to deploy the necessary capabilities, and to execute with discipline.

So then if my family is “our organization” the HBR says I should look at them in the big picture while being able to stay focused, during work hours, on the task at hand (writing). That actually makes sense, though how exactly to do that eludes me, and, as far as I can tell, the authors of the article as well.

Maybe I just need to focus on what I love about the process of writing, and that’s the moments of discovery, the clever turn of phrase that appears seemingly unbidden as I type (or scribble), or the exciting new idea that throws my carefully crafted outline out the window. In the Paris Review article “Marlene Dumas’s Metamorphoses,” Larissa Pham points out:

There’s always a moment of transformation in the process of making. Suddenly, you understand what your novel is about or what a short story hinges on or what you’re trying to say in a poem. I love talking to people about that moment, the moment where they knew. It’s like when lightning strikes—another gesture beloved of the gods—and all the trees in a field jump out in stark relief, their leaves hot-white and glowing. But the trees weren’t created in that moment: they were there all along. There are objects in a dark room. A light bulb just allows us to see them.

I love that—I feel that when I’m writing. And that’s not the only time when I find the act of writing immensely pleasurable. It’s actually fun to do. I’ve written before on the sense of play in writing fiction but I’m not the only one. Kira Jane Buxton, author of Hollow Kingdominterviewed at writersdigest.com said:

My best writing advice is also the most simple—just have fun with it. Take the pressure off and allow yourself the freedom to stretch creatively. The external goals—agent, book deals—are all attainable, but what lovely landscape opens up artistically if they aren’t the core reason for your art? Write the thing that’s fizzing and bubbling inside you. Stay true to yourself and explore your passions (even personality-disordered horses!), and remember that you will always be the utmost authority on your writing.

Yes!

So then what does that process look like? It’s different for everybody, because we all take joy in different things at different times in different ways. If you’re finishing stuff—novels, short stories… whatever you’re moved to write—and you’re happy with the results, whatever process you’re using to get there works—at least for you. If, like me, you’re not happy with your current output and some of the processes you’ve tried aren’t yielding the same results, try something—anything—new.

Distractions will always be there. We’re not authorbots but humans alive in a chaotic world full of other humans. Things, both positive and negative, will intrude from time to time. If you need to attend to something in your life instead of writing for a while, that doesn’t make you a bad writer, or a bad person, it just makes you a person who is also a writer.

Now, if you’re sitting there in hour seven of some TV series, especially one you’ve seen already, and you’re thinking, Damn, what the hell am I doing? I should be writing! there is one simple process that efficiency experts would all agree on:

Turn the damn TV off, and start writing.

I know, right?

Something else I’ve said over and over again, to myself and others: No one ever said this was going to be easy.

 

—Philip Athans

 

Editing, ghostwriting, and coaching for writers at all stages of their careers.

Where Story Meets World™

 

 

 

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FAREWELL TO THE OBJECTIVIST “HERO”

If you’ve been following Fantasy Author’s Handbook for any length of time you know how reluctant I am to get into politics—something I avoid not just in my work but in my day-to-day life to the absolute best of my ability. As we all continue to try to pry some lessons out of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s clear that the endemic weaknesses in American politics, so-called “late capitalism” or unregulated capitalism, the health care industrial complex, “states rights,” and so on are failing us spectacularly. So I’m going to risk dipping a toe in the political waters to at least put a last nail in the coffin of some longstanding incorrect assumptions about me.

Whether or not you’ve read the Watercourse Trilogy, you might have heard that it’s loosely based on/inspired by The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. I won’t go back into that, but instead will refer you back to: “I’d Like to Thank my Parents, Ed Greenwood and Ayn Rand” for what I have to say about that. For the sake of clarity, though, if you have to add an -ist to me (which, like most people, I think, I’d prefer you didn’t in any case) I am much, much more a Socialist than an Objectivist, rather lots more a liberal than a conservative, but as long as the wildly off-the-charts far end of those spectrums are kept away from the actual mechanism of government I’m generally happy to live and let live, or as Harlan Ellison once told me: “I’m happy to let people go to hell through whichever door they choose.”

Of course the wildly off-the-charts far end of conservative/Libertarian “thinking” (which manifests, honestly, as a mental illness, but I’ll leave that to others to decide) has indeed taken hold of the mechanism of government. Still, I have been seeing some positive motion—and you really have to believe me that I do not “do politics” so a trend has to be pretty well along for me to notice—that the Libertarian (Objectivist) agenda, grafted onto the Republican agenda in the George W. Bush administration and fully flowering in the Trump disaster, is finally showing signs of collapse as their adherents age, and their kids don’t follow.

If you’re prepared to dismiss the New Republic as “fake news” or “liberal media elites,” go ahead and stop reading now—though I bet they have already. In The Last of the Ayn Rand Acolytes: This year’s Objectivist Conference revealed that her cult of hyper-capitalism has a major recruiting problem: All the young people want to be socialists!” Alexander Sammon wrote:

The romance of the movement has lost a good deal of its cachet in an unequal, austerity-battered America—particularly when it comes to pulling in the young recruits who were once the backbone of the Rand insurgency. All the kids these days are becoming socialists and communists. Only 45 percent of young Americans view capitalism positively, compared with 51 percent who profess a fondness for socialism. They want higher taxes, regulations, a Green New Deal. Their thousand-page tome of choice isn’t Atlas Shrugged; it’s Marx’s Capital (or perhaps Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century).

Good news, though I’d steer young people away from Marx. Changing a bad idea for a different bad idea is not progress.

You’ve probably already asked by now: What does this have to do with writing fantasy, science fiction, and horror? Well, you will see Objectivist concepts plugged into science fiction going back to the 1950s and through the 70s when it was all the rage with the “I’ve got mine, fuck you,” Mad Men generation (including, to some degree or another, my parents). In the rarest of birds, a negative review by me of another author’s book, I wrote on GoodReads of the utter disaster that was Star Trek: Dreadnought! by Diane Carey:

I’ve read a bunch of these Star Trek novels over the years and though they vary in quality they tend at least to be based in the Star Trek universe. Not so with this absolute horror of a book, which is based on such an upside down misrepresentation of the very heart of the Star Trek universe I just don’t understand how it was ever perpetrated. If you think Star Trek would be better if filtered through the baseless rantings of, say, Rand Paul, then this is the Fake Trek book for you. The rest of us will be left to wonder what the precise fuck just happened.

That might be the only Star Trek novel to feature long passages essentially lifted directly out of The Virtue of Selfishness, but trust me, that thinking is still out there, especially in science fiction, and has been for so long that non-Objectivist authors picked up on it and tried to offer a less senselessly bleak, sociologically suicidal vision of the future ages ago. In his classic City, Clifford D. Simak casts the objectivist “hero” as a dangerous mutant:

And the old laughter was back again, the laughter of a man who was sufficient to himself, who saw the whole fabric of the human community of effort as a vast, ironic joke. A man who walked alone and liked it. A man who saw the human race as something that was funny and probably just a little dangerous—but funnier than ever because it was dangerous. A man who felt no need of the brotherhood of man, who rejected that brotherhood as a thing as utterly provincial and pathetic as the twentieth century booster clubs.

Then a page later, the big goal of the future is revealed to be the least Randian of qualities: personal empathy.

The Juwain philosophy provides an ability to sense the viewpoint of another. It won’t necessarily make you agree with that viewpoint, but it does make you recognize it. You not only know what the other fellow is talking about, but how he feels about it. With Juwain’s philosophy you have to accept the validity of another man’s ideas and knowledge, not just the words he says, but the thought back of the words.

If you can read the Watercourse Trilogy and not see that Devorast is actually the villain, driving every normal, decent person who comes in contact with him insane with his inability to connect with anyone on a human level, well… I don’t know. But what we need right now, in the COVID-19 times, is exactly what we needed the day before anyone heard of this disease, and what we’ll continue to need once we’re through this and on to the next crisis, and that’s community, empathy, and compassion. There’s at least one major political party in the United States that, like Ayn Rand, sees these things as personal weaknesses that turn Great Men into sissies.

She was wrong, and so are they.

 

—Philip Athans

 

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THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A “PLOTLESS” NOVEL, DAMN IT

This week I’d like to channel some of my COVID-19 quarantine frustrations by quickly and angrily debunking a bit of literati bullshit that has always pissed me off. One of many ways in which people without imagination try to belittle people with imagination is by looking down their noses at genre fiction for a variety of reasons, the most absurd of which is a disdain for plot.

Plot, these nitwits would have us believe, is neither necessary nor desirable for a novel, and is instead a sign of weakness in the author and ignorance in the reader, which honestly makes me want to go on some kind of violent rampage. I’ve heard this over and over again but was triggered this past week when I read “How Pandemics Seep into Literature” by Elizabeth Outka at (of course) the Paris Review:

One’s reality doesn’t simply shift in a pandemic; it becomes radically uncertain—indeed, uncertainty is the reality. The unpredictability of the COVID-19 virus and all we don’t know about it means we have no idea where we are in the story or even what story we are in. Is this the first wave of something even deadlier to come? Have we reached the top of the curve? What’s the scope of the tragedy? Is the economy the real story? What do we think we know now that may prove fatally wrong? The narrative uncertainty causes many of us to turn to genre fiction and predictable movies (even if they are about disaster)—they allow us to pull down another story like a shade and sit in a place where we already know the ending. The modernist literature I spend my days teaching and studying typically grants the opposite, capturing the fragmentation and plotlessness of a postwar/postpandemic world.

Yeah.

No.

First of all, what we’re going through very much reads like a genre novel plot, and it’s the uncertainty of what happens next that drives a plot forward. Uncertainty doesn’t negate the concept of a plot, it strengthens it. Her argument is entirely upside down. And now I get to really blow your mind (or, at least, Elizabeth Outka’s) by revealing that what she refers to as “modernist literature” is not in any way “plotless.”

If it is fiction, it has a plot. There can not be one without the other.

Maybe we need to define our terms. Here’s the definition of plot (in the literacy sense), according to Google: “the main events of a play, novel, movie, or similar work, devised and presented by the writer as an interrelated sequence.” and here’s one from Literary Devices: “…the plot focuses attention on the important characters and their roles in the story. It motivates the characters to affect the story, and connects the events in an orderly manner.”

Reduced to its primal nature, plot is anything that happens in a story.

It’s that simple. If a couple guys get in a car to drive down Route 66, that’s the plot of the book. If they stop to pick up a hitchhiker, that’s a plot point. If two people sit on a park bench waiting for someone to show up, even if he never shows up, that’s the plot of the play. I could go on and on.

A case has been made for so-called plotless books, as in “In Praise of Plotless Books” by Clay Andres at Book Riot. The first example he gives is Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Times of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman:

This is the big one, the grandaddy of them all. Laurence Sterne was a clergyman who got tired of preaching the Bible (a book notorious for its use of narrative) and decided to write a book that was just some random dude sharing his opinions on random stuff. I don’t know how Sterne was able to channel his experience as a preacher into a bunch of opinionated ramblings that never go anywhere, but somehow he pulled it off.

Except that by the only shared definition of “plot” we have, The Life and Times of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman does indeed have a plot. Even Wikipedia found one in there somewhere:

Most of the action is concerned with domestic upsets or misunderstandings, which find humour in the opposing temperaments of Walter—splenetic, rational, and somewhat sarcastic—and Uncle Toby, who is gentle, uncomplicated, and a lover of his fellow man.

In between such events, Tristram as narrator finds himself discoursing at length on sexual practices, insults, the influence of one’s name, and noses, as well as explorations of obstetrics, siege warfare, and philosophy as he struggles to marshal his material and finish the story of his life.

Though Tristram is always present as narrator and commentator, the book contains little of his life, only the story of a trip through France and accounts of the four comical mishaps which shaped the course of his life from an early age.

That may not be an intricate plot, but things are actually happening between rambling soliloquies. If The Life and Times of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman has a plot, then every novel has a plot. If some authors don’t put a particular emphasis on plot, or try to subvert conventions in some way by making their plots make less sense, or whatever experiment they’re cooking up, fine. I’ve said before and will say again (right now) that I’m as much a fan of William S. Burroughs as I am a fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs. The latter may have worn his plots more on his sleeve than the former, but the plots were there just the same.

So, for God’s sake, stop with this “plotless novel” nonsense.

Just… stop.

 

—Philip Athans

Here’s a book with a whole chapter on plot…

Your self-study textbook!

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

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