AUTHORS ON EDITORS

It would not be entirely correct to say that, for some decades now, my “day job” has been as an editor. To say “day job” means that it’s significantly less important than my chosen vocation, writer, and is only there to pay the bills while I toil in secret on the Great American Novel. What’s inaccurate about that, for me, is that I love being an editor. In fact, my own attempts at writing have largely fallen away, and not because I was somehow driven out of the business, or anything like that. I spend most of my time as an editor and what frustrates me at the end of a week or month—or year—isn’t that I’ve spent too much time editing and not enough time writing, but that I’ve spent too much time on petty life distractions and not enough time editing and writing.

This week, I’d like to share a few thoughts I’ve collected from various sources on the subject of we, the editors. To start, someone who didn’t quite hold us in the esteem we might hope for:

By “editor” I suppose you mean proofreader. Among these I have known limpid creatures of limitless tact and tenderness who would discuss with me a semicolon as if it were a point of honor—which, indeed, a point of art often is. But I have also come across a few pompous avuncular brutes who would attempt to “make suggestions” which I countered with a thunderous “stet!”

That was Vladimir Nabokov, but what the hell did he know? Don’t we all think Toni Morrison was way, way smarter?

The good ones make all the difference. It is like a priest or a psychiatrist; if you get the wrong one, then you are better off alone. But there are editors so rare and so important that they are worth searching for, and you always know when you have one.

Good editors are really the third eye. Cool. Dispassionate. They don’t love you or your work; for me that is what is valuable—not compliments. Sometimes it’s uncanny; the editor puts his or her finger on exactly the place the writer knows is weak but just couldn’t do any better at the time. Or perhaps the writer thought it might fly, but wasn’t sure. Good editors identify that place and sometimes make suggestions. Some suggestions are not useful because you can’t explain everything to an editor about what you are trying to do. I couldn’t possibly explain all of those things to an editor, because what I do has to work on so many levels. But within the relationship if there is some trust, some willingness to listen, remarkable things can happen. 

And leave it to Hunter S. Thompson to distill this whole thing to a single sentence:

There are fewer good editors than good writers.

This whole thing is nothing new, of course, as we see way back in 1725 in Samuel Johnson’s preface to Alexander Pope’s Shakespeare:

In perusing a corrupted piece, he must have before him all possibilities of meaning, with all possibilities of expression. Such must be his comprehension of thought, and such his copiousness of language. Out of many readings possible, he must be able to select that which bests suits with the state, opinions, and modes of language prevailing in every age, and with his author’s particular cast of thought, and turn of expression. Such must be his knowledge, and such his taste. Conjectural criticism demands more than humanity possesses, and he that exercises it with most praise has very frequent need of indulgence. Let us now be told no more of the dull duty of an editor. 

This duty, by the way, is not just often but as some of us, including Karl Ove Knausgaard, believe is best done away of prying eyes, and with no recognition outside a small inner circle:

The work of the literary editor is conducted in a kind of shadow, cast by the name of the author. A few editors have stepped out of that shadow, becoming perhaps more infamous than famous, for the labels “editor” and “famous” seem like a contradiction in terms, essentially incompatible.

John Cheever, as might well be expected, had a more idiosyncratic view of us:

My definition of a good editor is a man I think charming, who sends me large checks, praises my work, my physical beauty, and my sexual prowess, and who has a stranglehold on the publisher and the bank.

Feels like Cheever was describing an agent there, but who am I to argue?

In the end, I try to live by this last quote, from Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., which for me, distills what it is I actually do:

Listen, there were creative writing teachers long before there were creative writing courses, and they were called and continue to be called editors.

For me—and for all the editors it’s been my privilege to work with—working with an author is an immense honor, and never one to be in any way diminished as a “day job.” I love that what I do all day, what pays my mortgage, can be simply stated as reading fantasy, science fiction, and horror novels (and other books) and helping authors make them better. That’s a job worth doing.

—Philip Athans

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WHAT DO OUR READERS NEED TO KNOW ABOUT US?

When I first started writing—seriously writing—and started getting published, the internet was still a mostly hidden thing used by scientists and a few first adopter types. There wasn’t yet anything like what we now know as “social media.” In those distant days of yore, it was possible for people to be, generally speaking, anonymous—including authors, and including authors who wrote under their real names and did the modicum of promotion that might be required of them.

A few authors went out, mostly on purpose, to try to be famous beyond their work, like Truman Capote or Jackie Collins. A few achieved a sort of mythological or cult status, whether they liked it or not, like J.D. Salinger or Hunter S. Thompson. Some, like Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, wore their political affiliations and ideas out front for all to see. Others let their work, and their work alone, convey any messages they might have hoped to get across. In the science fiction and fantasy universe there were authors who were fixtures at conventions, and others who tended to shy away from public appearances. And in all these cases, it was left up to the individual author to decide how public they wanted to be, how political they wanted to be, how reclusive they wanted to be, etc.—at least it seemed to.

The fact that writing is an almost exclusively solitary pursuit, it does seem to attract more introverts than extroverts. In my experience working with literally hundeds of authors, I find the vast majority would rather write than talk about their writing, and very few are comfortable talking about themselves. I think most of us are content with what Priscilla Long described in “On Writing: An  Abecedarian”: “Writing allows you to discover what you are thinking and feeling, what you believe, what you remember. By writing you can elegize or rhapsodize or argue with yourself or with another.” Another, but not necessarily everyone.

But now it’s 2022, the Era of Social Media, and it’s assumed that every author needs a platform. And more and more it seems we have to create lists of defining characteristics to attach to ourselves so potential readers can filter out authors who might fall into some subset of people they don’t want to hear from. Granted, if it’s revealed that Author X has a new children’s book just coming out and is under indictment for child abuse, well, that’s a real issue we need to contend with. But I’m not talking about authors accused of actual felony crimes. We may all agree that Author Y is perfectly swell—but we get to that author’s work only after we’ve had a chance to get to know Author Y in some way that was impossible thirty years ago.

Where does that leave the majority introvert authors out there? The ones who just don’t want to figure out how to muster 5000 Twitter followers, or can’t for the life of us understand why we need to post photos of ourslves on InstaGram?

In a 1976 Paris Review interview with John Cheever, Annette Grant wrote:

Cheever has a reputation for being a difficult interviewee. He does not pay attention to reviews, never rereads his books or stories once published, and is often vague about their details. He dislikes talking about his work (especially into “one of those machines”) because he prefers not to look where he has been, but where he’s going.

But now, are we all being forced to not only read reviews but actively solicit reveiews? Even pay for reviews? Do we have to talk about our work? Or worse: ourselves? And do that into a version of “those machines” Cheever couldn’t guess at in 1976, where a quote, in context or otherwise, can be promulgated instantly across the entire world and ignored completely, made into the news story de jour, or anywhere inbetween, via an anonymous network that more and more consists not of people but bots that spread that context-free “information” based on keyword algorithms, and… yikes.

Don’t get me wrong, now, this is not some kind of anti-“cancel culture” screed from an old man who longs for the old days of legalized inequality, or whatever. No way do I defend people like Harvey Weinstein or Bill Cosby, both convicted in courts of law of signficant felony crimes. I’m also not suffering over the fact that someone might not like something I wrote. In “Your Feelings Are No Excuse,” Margaret Atwood wrote:

You can’t exist as a writer for very long without learning that something you write is going to upset someone, sometime, somewhere. Whether you end up with a bullet in your neck will depend on many factors—there are lots of bullets, and some necks are thicker than others—but let us pause to remember that the most important meaning of freedom of expression  is not that you can say anything you like without any consequences whatsoever but that the bullet should not be your government’s, and it should not be fired into your neck for an expression of political views that don’t coincide with theirs.

That said, I’d always rather get a bullet in my neck for something I wrote than for who someone thinks I am. I’m writing this blog right now. I tweet, etc. I’m not a reculse at all, but I worry that we’re not reading great books written by people who don’t want to blog or tweet or speak at conferences or do anything other than write, because publishers won’t touch someone unwilling to take on the lion’s share of social media promotion.

For the record, this is not a new issue. Going back to 1972, again to the Paris Review, we find Eudora Welty confronting the same issue:

A writer’s whole feeling, the force of his whole life, can go into a story—but what he’s worked for is to get an objective piece down on paper. That should be read instead of some account of his life, with that understanding—here is something which now exists and was made by the hands of this person. Read it for what it is. It doesn’t even matter too much whose hands they were. Well, of course, it does—I was just exaggerating to prove my point. But your private life should be kept private. My own I don’t think would particularly interest anybody, for that matter. But I’d guard it; I feel strongly about that. They’d have a hard time trying to find something about me. I think I’d better burn everything up. It’s best to burn letters, but at least I’ve never kept diaries or journals.

So then not a new problem, just one I think the social media, and shoot first, ask questions later (if at all) nature of public discourse in America in 2022, has made worse. Now we don’t just have to write great books, we have to be great celebrities. And even some “celebrity writers” didn’t necessarily set out to be that. Even Hunter S. Thompson said, “I was never trying, necessarily, to be an outlaw. It was just the place in which I found myself.”

Can someone write the Great American Novel and not be forced onto a stage they can never feel comfortable on? Can we be public authors and private people?

Before I end with the requisite list of social media links to me, I’ll give the final word to Sylvia Plath:

Winning or losing an argument, receiving an acceptance or rejection, is no proof of the validity or value of personal identity. One may be wrong, mistaken, or a poor craftsman, or just ignorant—but this is no indication of the true worth of one’s total human identity: past, present & future!

The Unabridged Journals, 1956

—Philip Athans

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

The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction!

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PLEASE STOP SHITTING ON GENRE FICTION

Imagine my surprise when I read “Beyond the Plot: Craft Tricks of Great Commercial Thrillers” by Cassidy Lucas at, of all places, Crime Reads. Short reviews of a few “acceptable” genre novels follow this nonsense:

Deconstructing the craft of literary fiction in order to create our own is the standard approach to “learning” to write and the foundation of the MFA workshop. Aspiring or current writers of commercial or mass-market fiction, on the other hand, have a less clear-cut course of study. While the distinction between literary and commercial fiction could certainly warrant its own essay, and has certainly been the subject of standalone debate, I’ll propose, for purposes of this piece, that aside from the obvious role of corporate marketing decisions,  commercial  novels are defined by reader experience. For me, it’s the sense, when I reach the end of a novel, that its parts were bigger than its sum. This is not a lesser experience than finishing a literary novel; but merely different in that my peak enjoyment derives from an irrepressible desire to find out what happens next, i.e., from my investment in plot.The apex of my pleasure generally occurs while I’m actually reading the book, and fades steadily after I’ve finished the last sentence. By contrast, the pleasures of “literary” fiction are often a slower, longer-lasting burn and borne from a medley of craft component in addition to plot: character, atmosphere, lyricism, psychological nuance, etc. While great literary novels can certainly be plot-heavy page-turners, I’d venture that generally, their authors attention to other elements of craft is more evenly dispersed than that of the commercial novelist whose efforts skew heavily toward storyline.

Where then, can aspiring writers of commercial fiction—specifically, commercial  thrillers,  like the ones I’ve focused on writing in recent years—turn to develop and hone their craft?

Well, here are a few places:

Books for Fantasy Authors X: Writing the Breakout Novel in which I recommend agent Donald Maass’s exceptional book for all genres.

Books for Fantasy Authors XXIII: On Writing Horror, which is an excellent collection of essays on the subject of writing horror fiction.

Books for Fantasy Authors XXVI: Story Trumps Structure, a popular writing guide by Steven James

Then there’s Making Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern, and I’ll throw in a few more, which I have not (yet) read, but look like good places to start:

Mastering Suspense, Structure, and Plot: How to Write Gripping Stories That Keep Readers on the Edge of Their Seatsby Jane K. Cleland, and Suspense Thriller: How to Write Chase, Spy, Legal, Medical, Psychological, Political & Techno-Thrillers by Paul Tomlinson…

…and there are more. Lots more.

Okay, maybe there isn’t a class at Whatever Ivy League University, but I bet in those same universities they’re reading the plot-driven science fiction novel 1984 by George Orwell, which is the most important novel of the twentieth century. And maybe The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, Dune, and Frankenstein, too. Or plot-driven cheapass fantasy works like Beowulf, The Iliad and The Odyssey, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and other trashy bullshit like that, which you’ll never remember after you’ve finished reading.

Enough already with the casual dismissal of any novel that contains a story.

I just can’t anymore, and so I won’t anymore.

—Philip Athans

Follow me on Twitter @PhilAthans

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As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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

 
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PIXAR’S 22 RULES OF STORYTELLING

I bet you’ve seen these before—at least a few of them quoted here over the years. The list is all over the internet. I found it at iO9. But this week I’d like to share all twenty-two of what Pixar storyboard artist Emma Coats shared, via Twitter in 2011, with a few remarks from yours truly.

#1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.

I couldn’t agree more. I’m going to expand that out of the story, too. I think, as readers, we admire authors for their efforts more than their successes. It should come as no surprise that stories work best when the people in them, like the people writing them, are imperfect souls doing the best they can.

#2: You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be very different.

This one I’ll push back on—at least a little. In some parts of the publishing business, especially in YA, though maybe not even there, you can run into agents and editors with a bit more of a marketing bent than I think is actually necessary in the lower-stakes world of publishing. But in almost all cases, a novel can go places movie studios fear to tread. Think of how the poor sheltered minds of TV viewers where shattered into a million flaming shards when HBO stuck to George R.R. Martin’s novel—at least to begin with? Then think back to how many times you’ve said some version of, “The book was better.” I’m looking at you, American Psycho

#3: Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about till you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.

I’m a firm believer that all novels, however seemingly “frivolous,” are about something and having some sense of that up front is a good thing. I also continuously preach that we should always give ourselves the freedom to have a better idea.

#4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

I’ve never really tried this exercise but I could see how this could really work in terms of crystallizing, in our own heads, what story we’re actually telling. It feels compatible with my own thoughts on story structure as well: keep it focused.

#5: Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.

Another piece of advice that’s definitely more valuable to the screenwriter than the novelist, who begins and ends with unlimited time and budget. Still, I’ve read over-long, bloated novels, too, so think about this one.

#6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?

This reminds me of the whole Lester Dent thing: shovel more grief onto the hero… Yes!

#7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.

I have had an ending in mind for every novel I’ve ever started writing, and almost never for a short story. This one, I think, is optional. If you’ve written a great novel having not known how it was going to turn out when you started, you have proven that this might be helpful, sure, especially if you have to pitch it before writing it, but not essential advice.

#8: Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.

Agreed! I’m a firm believer in getting your writing out there and moving on to the next project. Write, submit, repeat.

#9: When you’re stuck, make a list of what wouldn’t happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.

This is a terrific exercise—try it!

#10: Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.

Here I’m honestly not sure if she meant pull apart the stories that you wrote, or stories you like by other authors, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt to try both!

#11: Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.

In other words, no one care about your great idea. True!

#12: Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th—get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.

I like this idea. I even like the magic number five. Let’s all try this!

#13: Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.

A character here and there can be passive/malleable if something interesting comes out of that. Not every character is the hero or the villain of the story. Maybe this is the character that drives the protagonist crazy, waiting for them to do something about the problem, until finally they have to take on the problem themselves, and thus a hero is born. Yeah?

#14: Why must you tell this story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.

If you can’t answer that in, literally, one sentence, don’t start writing. Though, as with the question of theme above, you may find that 10,000, 50,000, or even 100,000 words in, you change your mind.

#15: If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.

Good advice for approaching a hero/protagonist, I guess, but honestly I think we all have to dig deeper than that. Otherwise, thrillers would only be written by serial killers. In some cases, the question should be: What’s the last thing that would occur to me in this situation?

#16: What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.

Oh, my goodness, yes. The moment anyone (hero or villain) will be fine either way, there’s no story there at all.

#17: No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on—it’ll come back around to be useful later.

No one starts out great at anything. Write, and write again. Your pile of failures is the foundation upon which a writing career is built.

#18: You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best and fussing. Story is testing, not refining.

Does she mean, Make this up as you go along? Because that’s what everyone else who has attempted, is attempting, or will attempt the near-impossible task of writing fiction has been doing, is doing, and always will be doing?

#19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

Absolutely. Or, as Lester Dent said: “The hero extricates himself using  his own skill, training or brawn.” I could not agree more.

#20: Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How would you rearrange them into what you dolike?

The same exercise could work with a novel, but might be more “doable’ with a short story. Certainly worth a try, no?

#21: You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write “cool.” What would make you act that way?

See my response to #15 above.

#22: What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

This is the hardest bit for me because it is good advice, but acting on it is difficult to say the least. Sometimes—I might even go so far as to say all of the time—we find the essence of the story, and figure out how to tell it, as we go along. This last one will require a bit more thought…

—Philip Athans

Follow me on Twitter @PhilAthans

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Friend me on GoodReads

Find me at PublishersMarketplace

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

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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

 
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BACK, BACKWARD, AND BACKWARDS

These three words sometimes kinda mean the same things, and sometimes kinda mean different things, but as an editor, I see them used more or less interchangeably almost all of the time. That’s a lot of kindas and most of the timeses there, so let’s see if we can get to the truth of when to use back, when backward makes more sense, and whether or not backwards is even a word.

The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage (Third Edition), Edited by R.W. Burchfield, says:

backward(s) 1 In most adverbial uses backward and backwards are interchangeable, but usage varies subtly from region to region. It is broadly true to say that in North America backward seems to be somewhat more usual than backwards, and in Britain the other way round.

2 As an adjective the only form used is backward

This says to me that, if you’re an American, it must always be backward in any case, otherwise you might be accused of counterrevolutionary thinking. At least, so says Oxford. So then what of a primary source from our side of the pond? A Dictionary of Modern American Usage by Bryan A. Garner lumps them together with other directional words:

Words ending in -ward may be either adjectives or adverbs, whereas words ending in -wards, common in BrE [British English], may be adverbs only.

Two exceptions in AmE are the adverbs afterwards and backwards, which are almost universally used in preference to afterward and backward. It’s anomalous that most people say forward but backwards.

So then so much for the US vs. UK part of that. Who to believe?

I’ve had -ward drummed into me so thoroughly that I have to side with Fowler on this one, and US English copy edits from me will tend to show that. Grammarist sort of backs me up:

Backward means the opposite way, behind, in reverse, away from the front. Backward may also mean shy, not socially adept, or regressing instead of progressing. While technically backwards is interchangeable with backward, the overwhelmingly preferred spelling in the United States is backward, whether it is used as an adjective or an adverb.

Backwards also means the opposite way, behind, in reverse, away from the front. Backwards may also mean shy, not socially adept, or regressing instead of progressing. In British English, the use of either backward or backwards is technically correct, however the overwhelming preference is to use backward when in need of an adjective andbackwards when in need of an adverb.

One last source, from my handy Apple dictionary app…

In US English, the adverb form is sometimes spelled backwards ( the ladder fell backwards), but the adjective is almost always backward ( a backward glance). Directional words using the suffix -ward tend to have no s ending in US English, although backwards is more common than afterwardstowards, or forwards. The s ending often (but not always) appears in the phrases backwards and forwards and bending over backwards. In British English, the spelling backwards is more common than backward.

…seems to edge onto a side with Garner, so now it’s back to tied at 2-2. The fact that there are a lot of qualifications in all this: tends to be, sometimes spelled, and so on, falls short of the hard and fast rule we might be looking for.

Let’s try a few examples:

Bronwyn walked backwards three steps.

Because backwards modified the verb walked, so is an adverb. Unless you’re me and that s makes you bristle, in which case Bronwyn walked backward three steps, is still fine—or, for this copy editor, at least, still preferred for God Fearing Americans.

Galen and Bronwyn couldn’t countenance the orcs’ backward custom of selling their own children into slavery.

Because in this case, backward modifies a noun: custom, so is an adjective. Easy enough.

But then how do we account for the word back? When does that make more sense than backward(s)? Setting aside the noun forms of back (describing the part of a body, for instance) and the obvious verbs: Galen was backed up against the wall, here’s what my dictionary app says:

adverb toward the rear; in the opposite direction from the one that one is facing or traveling: she moved back a pace | she walked away without looking back• expressing movement of the body into a reclining position: he leaned back in his chair | sit back and relax• at a distance away: I thought you were miles back | the officer pushed the crowd back• (back ofNorth American informal behind: he knew that other people were back of himexpressing a return to an earlier or normal condition: she put the book back on the shelf | drive to Montreal and back | I went back to sleep | he was given his job back• at a place previously left or mentioned: the folks back home are counting on him• fashionable again: sideburns are backin or into the past: he made his fortune back in 1955in return: they wrote back to me.

Got it. Though I will maintain to my dying breath that sideburns, like selling your own children into slavery, are and will always be backward, consider:

Bronwyn jumped back to avoid the spear thrust.

This is where I see a lot of backward/back confusion:

Bronwyn jumped backwards to avoid the spear thrust.

Though backwards is the previously determined correct adjective form, let me at least fall back on the idiom to make a case for Bronwyn jumping back instead of backwards. It just sounds right, doesn’t it? In this case, what’s being described is the same as the dictionary app’s example of the adverbial back.

And you know what? Even with all the rules quoted above, in the end, if it doesn’t sound right, but is technically correct, will your readers know the difference and end up reading the technically correct form as a mistake?

Maybe—in fact, this sort of confusion of “correct grammar and usage” happens all the time in an ever-evolving and highly regional language like English.

So, hmm… I guess, good luck, but no matter what, keep your writing moving forward!

Or is it forwards?

—Philip Athans

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GET, OR KEEP, A LIFE

We talk a lot, us writers, about productivity—how much writing we got done, how much writing we meant to get done, how much writing we should have gotten done, how much writing we wished we could have gotten done. We impose deadlines on ourselves and either hit them or blow them. We hit or blow deadlines imposed on us by others. We suffer over our our word count, our daily output…

And we blame lots of things when we fall short—or perceive ourselves to have fallen short. I hope Margaret Atwood was kidding when, in “When? Where? How?” she wrote:

Ah yes. Writing. Life. When? Where? How? That’s the problem. You can have a life or you can do some writing, but not both at once, because although life may be the subject of writing, it is also the enemy.

I don’t accept that. I don’t think we have to have internal enemies.

Over the past year I’ve been working on both my physical and mental health, and thinking a lot about my own lack of productivity in the fiction department, which is to say very little to none over not the past few weeks, or in any way related to COVID, but literally years without more than a few short stories, an outline or two, and some scattered notes to show for it.

I’ve been busy with my “day job,” yes. COVID blew up everyone’s daily routine, for sure. But of course I could have—and for the sake of my own mental health—should have been writing all along.

I’d be willing to bet that most of you reading this are not in the position to be able to write full time. You’re still building a writing career, or just starting one. We need our “day jobs” to put roofs over our heads and food on our tables, and in the meantime we need to wedge some writing in there. That’s the first place we need to give ourselves a break and sometimes set writing aside to get our lives in order. And hell, if George Orwell can mix life and writing, so can Margaret Atwood, and so can I.

When we think of Orwell writing Nineteen Eighty-Four at Barnhill on Jura, we might summon the man with a perpetual cigarette, a tall figure stooped over his typewriter as if chained to it, utterly dedicated and driven, working against time, trying to ignore his failing lungs. But in those months, he was also rowing, fishing, digging, sawing, chopping, fixing his motorbike. In Wallington, long before he tended a fictional animal farm, he had kept a goat and hens. He had also worked a lathe, and with his wife, Eileen, run a grocery shop. He knew how to strip down a rifle and drill a platoon. He knew his turnips and runner beans. He would become an attentive father to a toddler. Half his life, the non-writing part, was in a world of solid things that resisted abstraction.

I like to think that this kind of practical engagement with the material world came from the same source that informed the empirical, clear-headed and factual quality of his prose. The physical tasks he set himself were both distractions from mental effort and full immersion in ordinary everyday matters—both in the whale and out of it—and so defied his own useful metaphor.

…wrote Ian McEwan in “George Orwell outside the whale.”

Okay, so then, the good news: I have started writing again, and I’ve climbed on top of my various health issues, gotten over and through some stuff, and am sitting here today only a few days away from being once again “caught up” on other projects and ready to get into that novel and all sorts of other great stuff. I’m healthier than I have been in years, and even got back into what for years now has been a distant memory: hobbies.

It is possible to turn stuff around, to jump out of ruts, to fix broken stuff in our lives. And sometimes that means a pause or a slowing in our writing output—or a restart and acceleration of our writing output. Whatever… But putting pressure on ourselves to write doesn’t help make writing the joy it should be.

Let’s write as much as we can, for sure. But let’s be decent with ourselves when it comes to the definition of “can.” I “can” finish a “novel” in two months. I’ve done it before and regretted not spending twice that long revising it. I’ve gone months without writing any fiction at all, and that made me even more depressed. Somewhere in the middle is where I’d like to be.

And here we get to the, I think, crazy idea that writing has to be hard. We have to suffer for it. We have to give up things—even big things like family, kids… our own health… In “Kafka the hypochondriac,” Will Rees laid out one author’s sad journey through “writing = suffering.”

By the time he was diagnosed with tuberculosis at the age of 34, Kafka had already spent two decades worrying about disease. He took his holidays at convalescent spas, while letters to friends and lovers often amounted to little more than catalogues of symptoms. Kafka attributed all this to what he frequently called his ‘hypochondria’, a condition that, he believed, consigned him to the monastic life of a writer.

Kafka had inherited the view, popular since the Romantic era, that a certain sickliness becomes a writer – an idea that can be traced back as far as Robert Burton, who explained in his compendious (and never-completed)  Anatomy of Melancholy  (1621) that ‘windy Hypochondriacal Melancholy’ was an ailment of students and scholars. ‘I am taciturn, unsociable, morose, selfish, a hypochondriac, and actually in poor health,’ Kafka wrote in 1913 to Carl Bauer, the father of his fiancée, Felice. What is more, he added, ‘I deplore none of this.’

Fuck that.

I can be healthy while I write, work, spend time with my family, watch a baseball game one day, try my luck at the slot machines last weekend (there wasn’t any—we lost $400, but had a ball doing it), and I can pay my bills, plan our first vacation in five years, have surgery and recover from it, radically change my diet for the better, lose 45 pounds and counting, and get out of the bunker mindset and start moving out of “crisis mode” and into a future still, even at my age, full of possibilities.

I don’t know… maybe its just that spring is in the air.

Write, yes, but don’t hurt yourself in the process.

—Philip Athans

Follow me on Twitter @PhilAthans

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

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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WHERE TO BEGIN?

I’ve written before on the subject of a story’s first line, or a novel’s first paragraph, and starting a story—pulp fiction style—with a “bang,” but there’s really no way to overstate both the importance of the first line or first paragraph of any piece of writing, fiction or non-fiction, and the infinite variety of approaches that makes every author and every piece of work unique.

Rather than repeat that, yes, the first sentence of a short story of first paragraph of a novel is, y’know… important, this time let’s look at a few other opinions that I’ve copied out into my ever-expanding Word file Random Writing Quotes and Examples.docx, starting with Joan Didion (from The Paris Review interview “The Art of Fiction No. 71”):

What’s so hard about that first sentence is that you’re stuck with it. Everything else is going to flow out of that sentence. And by the time you’ve laid down the first  two  sentences, your options are all gone.

Well, that sounds frightening. But then so does most of the writing advice out there, right? I try really hard not be one of those many voices that emphasize how hard this is, and how there’s no money in it, and the first advice to any aspiring author is that you should stop aspiring to be an author, so let’s see if we can get some wisdom out of that, and a smidge of positivity.

First of all, until the story or novel is actually printed and out there for sale you aren’t “stuck with” anything. You can rewrite that first sentence right up until the last moment. You can get a better idea at any time during the writing process, decide you need to start earlier in the story or later in the story or from a different point of view… There are all sorts of reasons you might revisit the first sentence (or paragraph), and if I have any rules at all, a big one is: Always give yourself the freedom to have a better idea. Even if that means going back and rewriting the first sentence or the first hundred sentences—or any other sentences. Your options are only gone once it’s published, and, as previously established, it belongs to the ages.

In “What Makes a Great Opening Line?” Allegra Hyde asked:

Is it possible for a sentence to be overly clear—too contextualized? Absolutely. We’ve all read sentences so freighted with detail that narrative momentum comes to a standstill. Just as the thrill  love at first sight  necessitates a degree of mystique, so does a compelling first sentence require certain gaps in information. Something has to remain unanswered, unexplained, unresolved—because therein lies the special chemistry between clarity and curiosity. We need to know enough to wonder more.

Here I stand united with Allegra Hyde.

In “How Not to Open a Short Story” I warned against too many ideas in a sentence—especially the first sentence. Believe it or not, you do not have to “set the scene” for your readers right up front. There is no requirement that they “know” anything other than a story has started. There is never a good reason for anything resembling an info dump, even in the form of a single sentence that exists only to tell your readers what is going to happen, where this is happening, or does anything other than showing something happening. The details—the whole rest of the story or novel—will cover the necessary remaining context. Let your first sentence live, let it play, let it inspire your readers to read on by being, in and of itself, alive.

Edith Wharton picks up from here in “How to Write a Vivid First Line.”

The arrest of attention by a vivid opening should be something more than a trick. It should mean that the narrator has so brooded on this subject that it has become his indeed, so made over and synthesized within him that, as a great draughtsman gives the essentials of a face or landscape in a half-a-dozen strokes, the narrator can “situate” his tale in an opening passage which shall be a clue to all the detail eliminated.

Note the word, “clue.” The first line is not a decision. It’s not, going back to my previous post again, a newspaper lead. The first sentence doesn’t have to tell the whole story, or really any of the story at all. It can set the story’s mood, sample the writing’s tone, establish the author’s voice, showcase the central conflict, introduce the story’s hero or villain, or… what else?

I’m actually asking.

The first sentence or paragraph can do a lot. It can do one, some, or all of the things I just listed, plus or minus whatever else we can think of later.

So what to do then, if you’re reading this after staring at a blank page with an equally blank look on your face? You came here for advice, right? You need me to tell you how to do this!

Easy…

Try stuff and if you find a sentence that resonates with you, that’s the one.

Do that over and over again for the rest of your life, and at some point you might feel you’re pretty good at it, then keep challenging yourself.

In other words, approach writing your first sentence the same way you should approach writing every other sentence, and that is as an ongoing experiment—which is what art is, an ongoing experiment in what it means to be human.

Don’t believe me? How about listening to John Cheever (also from The Paris Review):

Fiction  is  experimentation; when it ceases to be that, it ceases to be fiction. One never puts down a sentence without the feeling that it has never been put down before in such a way, and that perhaps even the substance of the sentence has never been felt. Every sentence is an innovation.

Good luck with that!

—Philip Athans

Follow me on Twitter @PhilAthans

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

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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CHARACTERS, CULTURES, AND GROUPS

I used to teach in-person then online courses, and one of the most popular was my worldbuilding course. Though it’s been a while since I’ve actually taught these courses, one of the exercises continues to stay lodged in my brain. This one serves a dual purpose, which is to add richness to both characters and the world they live in, and it can happen simultaneously. It goes to the nature of the culture of the world, the lifestyle of its people, and what grounds your characters in that world.

Starting with yourself, not your protagonist, the exercise asks a simple question:

What groups do you belong to?

Spend five minutes making a list. Go as fast as you can and do your best to open up that definition of “group.”

A group doesn’t have to have any formal initiation or membership process. In this case I mean group to be anything that separates you from people who aren’t…? This shouldn’t be a list of what makes you you, but a list of things that make you one of a community. Open your mind to groups beyond the big obvious things: I’m an American, I’m a citizen of the state of Washington… Students in my classes have come up with things like “Subaru driver,” and “Babylon 5 hater,” and “clown-phobic.” It’s those personal things—likes and dislikes, relationships and insecurities—that really start to tell us something personal, something deeper, about ourselves first, then about any character we create and by extension, the culture in which they live.

Really do this. Stop reading and come back in five minutes. Here’s an ad for one my books to fill the space…

Now that you have that list, read through it and circle the three that are most important to you. Then circle the three that are least important to you. What does this say about you?

That’s not a question I can answer, but this is the kind of thinking you want to do about your characters, human or otherwise, so make a similar list for each of your major characters and think about your world’s equivalent of “Subaru driver,” “Babylon 5 hater,” or “clown-phobic.”

Governments and religions tend to be the biggest, most obvious components to a culture, or can be shared by otherwise very different cultures in the same way that both Australia and India are democracies, but otherwise share very few cultural traits. The day to day lives of the average Australian and the average Indian share many human drives and reactions, but all of us can clearly detect a difference between them that goes beyond the color of someone’s skin.

Or an even closer example: The United States and France are both democracies with very similar governments, and both are majority Christian. So the question of governments and religions in your world would cover both with basically the same brush. So then what makes those two nations so different from each other, beyond both politics and religion? Language, definitely. Music, maybe. Food, sure… what else? This is what I hope you’ll focus on here, not what the law demands or what God expects, but what the average person does on an average day.

This will start to pull your worldbuilding out of the top-down aspects of who the king is and how he got there and who will be king when he dies, and into how you define the popular culture of a people: the way people in that world think, live, and interact with each other and outsiders on a day to day basis.

I have seen dozens of these lists and talked about them with students in detail and I can tell you for sure that I’ve seen it blow authors’ worldbuilding—and their characters—wide open.

—Philip Athans

Follow me on Twitter @PhilAthans

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THANK YOU, READERS

A few weeks ago I talked about how, once your novel is published, it “belongs to the ages,” and I’ve written before about my ambivalence toward critics and reviews, and the ways in which readers bring their own experiences and creativity into the act of reading, but I don’t think I’ve ever simply thanked readers in general, so I will now.

Thank you for reading novels.

If you’ve read any of mine, thanks. If you haven’t, but read novels by anyone else, thanks.

Through all the time I’ve been involved in the business—since 1986—publishing has been dying. It’s been seconds away from complete collapse. It was and still is a lumbering old dinosaur whose time has come and gone. Even really smart people, like Kurt Vonnegut, seemed to think so. Decades ago, he said, “There is no shortage of wonderful writers. What we lack is a dependable mass of readers.”

And yet here we are, in 2022, and though we have been beaten up a bit here and there, the publishing business is alive and well. People read every day. People buy books from various outlets in various formats. People talk about the books they liked (or didn’t like) on various social media platforms from GoodReads to Instagram.

And people are writing books, publishing them themselves or in various cooperative forms, and with giant publishers and everything in between. Hollywood is making movies and TV series based on novels.

Publishing is a venerable and honorable profession that supports thousands of Americans, and just because it’s not as lucrative as the enterprise software business—or video games—that doesn’t mean it’s dead, dying, or in any way mortally wounded.

And that’s because of readers.

If you read a novel in the past year you’re part of the solution, and I, like John Cheever, love you all:

All sorts of pleasant and intelligent people read the books and write thoughtful letters about them. I don’t know who they are, but they are marvelous and seem to live quite independently of the prejudices of advertising, journalism, and the cranky academic world… The room where I work has a window looking into a wood, and I like to think that these earnest, lovable, and mysterious readers are in there.

Thank you for reading, and in so doing, help me, and many like me, to make a living doing something we love. I think Chris Jackson said it nicely when he described being an editor:

The immense privilege of working as an editor is to be there at that point of connection between the writer and the reader, the moment when the author’s work of creation or co-creation with the editor enters its next act of co-creation, where the author’s consciousness mingles with the readers, another generative act of meaning-making, the miraculous work of our stories. 

Miraculous, yes. So, yeah, readers… thank you!

—Philip Athans

Follow me on Twitter @PhilAthans

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I WILL WRITE THAT NOVEL

I’ve written here before that we should remind ourselves that writing fiction—especially genre fiction—should be fun, that we should get in touch with a sense of play—and in recent weeks this has come back to me for a few different reasons.

Over the course of the past year I’ve been focusing more than I have in far too many years on my physical health, which hasn’t been terrible—I’m not dying of anything—but has not been good either. Having just recovered from an out patient surgery I thought I would bounce back from within a few days but that knocked me back for more like a couple weeks, and finally back to feeling as good as I’ve been feeling since dealing with the other stuff last year, it’s time for me to move on to some of the mental health issues, including what I guess I have to describe now as a period of (fiction) writer’s block that’s gone well into the “years” column. How many since I actually wrote a novel (published or not)? About… yeah, ten years.

Though I have gone back to some of my “literary” impulses and published a handful of poems and short stories, the novel work-in-progress has not progressed due to a lack of work. Now, with physical health well in hand, the next step is mental health, and I always feel better—I always have, anyway—when I’m writing, so the same way I got my physical health together since last April, mostly by dramatically changing my diet, I’m now determined to get my mental health together by writing, starting now, and with the goal of seeing as much mental progress in the next year as I’ve seen physical progress in the past year.

You may have noticed me working through some of this in recent posts, like the one about, y’know, starting to write by just, y’know, starting to write. This week, allow me to remind myself, out loud, that I like writing. Creating stories is fun. The genres I write in (the next will blend fantasy and horror) are fun.

I will continue writing poetry and “literary” short stories, because I love those, too, but when I was a kid I didn’t dream of being the next Dostoevsky. I dreamed of being the next Edgar Rice Burroughs. Then got a little older and thought maybe I could be the next Harlan Ellison, who said himself in a 1979 The Comics Journal interview:

The words along the way, Hemingway, and Mark Twain, Conrad, Dickens, Dostoevsky, Cervantes, all the right authors—but, and this is something that I said to  Time Magazine, I said, “You know, I will tell you that my germinal and seminal influences were Conrad and Dickens and Poe and Blackwood”—which they definitely were, I’m not lying about it—“but the truth of the matter is, the things that influenced me the most were comic books, pulp magazines, old-time movies, and old-time radio.” Those were the four boundaries of my world when I was a little boy and I had nothing else.

My inner child loves monsters and this fantasy-horror novel will have monsters. My inner disturbed punk rock post-adolescent loves dark antiheroes, so it will have that, too. My current middle aged semi-intellectual loves novels with something to say, so it will have something to say. But can all three of these things coexist in a single novel? Sara Gran told Crime Reads:

This is part of why YA is so popular, I think readers have really been missing adventure novels, by which I mean novels with some propulsiveness to them. You don’t have to lose anything in your story in order to bring these elements in. Just like with literary fiction–you don’t have to lose any of the beautiful language when you also focus on the plot.

Reading that again here, honestly, really excites me. I feel like I have to write this book now. I’m committed to having fun writing a dark, scary fantasy novel because I have fun writing in general and I have fun reading dark, scary fantasy novels. I want this back in my life because, as Elias Canetti said in  The Book Against DeathWith every hour spent alone, with every sentence that you draft, you win back a piece of your life.”

If “I love doing it,” isn’t motivation enough, well, maybe I need to talk to a doctor.

But in the meantime, you’ll find me writing!

—Philip Athans

Follow me on Twitter @PhilAthans

Link up with me on LinkedIn

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

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

And did I mention that I love monsters?

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